Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Allergies... the ugliness of 'sneezing man'

I'm in Bellingham for a couple of days, and it's the end of March. In my life, those two realities invariably spawn a third reality: allergies. Bellingham, one of my favortie places, is beautiful precisely because they've gone to great lengths to preserve wetlands and streams within the city. But those wetlands are home to plenty of Alder trees, and Alder pollen is the source of my allergies. For reasons known only to God, my body thinks Alder pollen is some sort of toxic enemy that needs to be expelled, and so every breath I take in this place, at this time of year, creates a panic reaction from my immune system. Histamines flood my nasal passages, and soon I'm sneezing and wheezing, even with Allegra running through my veins to tame the whole ugly scene.

When human bodies fire off alarms needlessly because of an overactive immune system, we call that an allergic reaction. It's a dysfunction, and though more annoying than dangerous, the victim is frankly not much fun to be around during a sneezing bout.

Can I suggest that the body of Christ is also not much fun to be around when it has an overactive immune system? Down through the ages, the church has identified numerous threats to her health: sex on Sundays, music with a beat, jazz, a fine merlot, speaking in tongues, not speaking in tongues, Harry Potter, post-modernism, frescos with nudity (what? you haven't heard of Daniel the Trouserer who, during the Victorian era, was hired by the Pope to graffiti various frescos in chapels by painting pants on the nudes!), Democrats, Republicans, red meat on Fridays, etc. etc. etc. With a ferocity known only to religious people, they've gone after the invaders, and expelled them, protecting the 'purity' of the body. But the sneezing that's ensued can only be called an ugly blight - who wants to be around a body in the midst of an allergy attack?

Meanwhile, though various parts of this glorious but troubled body are busy sneezing out the 'heretics', that same body is passively allowing other things to enter in and make a home. Consumerism, a low view of marriage and sexuality, loss of covenant relationships, neglect of the poor, and disregard for the environment all seem to find their way in to various parts of the body. The combination of an overactive and underactive immune system at the same time could be deadly - in fact, some think that it is.

There are at least two actions needed if our immune system is to recover:

1. We need to understand our main responsibility: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. If I start there and stay there, my immune system has little chance of getting too wacky.

2. We need to wrestle with the ethics of the gospel. Richard Hayes book would be helpful here, and I think this fall, it's time once again for an ethics class, so that we can focus on the real diseases, and ignore the pollen.

I can sneeze for a few hours, and then it starts to rain, and the pollen settles down. But these problems in the church aren't going to go away with intentional effort, concentrated prayer, and collective repentance and renewal. Who's ready to help fine tune the immune system of Christ's body? He's so unpleasant when he's sneezing all the time!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Exclusion and Embrace

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf wrote an imortant book several years ago entitled, "Exclusion and Embrace." The material there is more important now than when he wrote it, because globalism has had the untidy effect of spawning fundamentalists of every stripe. And no matter the stripe, each fundamentalist has the same goal of preserving their distinct way of looking at the world. And for each one, preservation is paramount because these world views that are being protected are at the bedrock of each group's identity. When Volf wrote the book, it was eastern Europe that was the hottest spot. Since then, fundamentalist tensions have grown up all around us. Paris is burning. Darfur genocide continues. Terrorist threats continue. Christians of the deepest fundamentalist stripe are living with fear and anger towards modernity, post-modernity, Islam, Socialism and more. They probably have the longest list of fears.

Volf addresses this by casting the vision found in Romans 15:7. And then, right at the beginning of the book, he reveals the crux: there is far too much dishonesty in the single-minded search for truth, and too much injustice in the uncompromising struggle for justice. In other words, in our zeal to protect truth, we often dehumanize the other - which contradicts the most fundamental truth of the gospel.

So the challenge is to root my identity, not in American culture, or modernity, or post-modernity, or Socialism, or Capitalism, or any other 'ism' or 'ity', because once I do I become the protector of something transient, something destined, someday, to evaporate anyway. I can and should care about my 'isms' and 'ity's', and give voice to the dangers that come from passively allowing human rights to be stolen by totalitarianism in any form. But when the day is done, I must also open myself up to people vastly different than me, realizing that my ultimate calling is to bear witness to the marvelous reality that division and enmity were destroyed on the cross. When I do this, I will be changed. I will be challenged. I will suffer loss. But I will gain far more. I think that's part of what Jesus was talking about when He said, "he who loses his life for my sake will find it."

I know that in my own story, allowing myself to be shaped by Christians from around the world, whose own cultures and stories have made them very different than me, has been one of the greatest joys in my life. But it doesn't stop there. I've had great conversations with Muslims in Germany, Hindus in India, and atheists in Colorado. Each one brings perspective, critique, culture, story to the table. I'm not threatened by that. Instead, I find that if I'm willing to listen and learn, if I'm willing to embrace (as Volf says), I become more like Christ, not less.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Birthdays... and middle age giving

My wife and I are at that point in our lives when gift giving is, for both of us, somewhat challenging. If you've ever read the silly little book called, "The Five Love Languages", you'll know that gift giving is one way some people feel loved and affirmed. However, that doesn't seem to be the case in the Dahlstrom household, at least with the parents. I wouldn't say it's because we're living so simply, though we try to. Rather, it's because we have particular tastes, and when we want something, we'll probably just go buy it anyway - and we're also at a point where frivilous stuff that we'll neither use or enjoy is just not worth having around.

So for my wife's birthday , I gave a sewing machine to a woman in India who can use it to start her own business. And of course, my wife is of such a nature that she was delighted. She'd spent the previous weeks sewing costumes for my daughter's school play, and it was, for her, an appropriate way to bless someone else. Happy birthday to my wife, who lives so generously. Want to give such gifts yourself? Check this out.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Knowing and Being Known

I've been pondering Isaiah 49 yesterday and today, and somehow, in the process, came across this poem, written by someone from our church for a marvelous little online journal (I'll add the link to the sidebar later). In the context of my studies, it reminded me of how easily the wise and powerful missed their longed for Messiah, because time after time He failed to behave 'messianically' and was thus dismissed. "He's gone mad." "He is filled with demons." "He's spending time with the wrong people." We think we know how people are supposed to be. We think we know who's wearing the white hats. If we think we know, we get to belong to an elitist club. It's called Pharisees. Both Isaiah 49 and this great poetry offer us powerful windows into what is needed for real relationship with my neighbors, my family, my friends, my enemies:

1. It seems to begin with humility; with the knowledge that I don't know the other.
2. A willingness to learn, which implies, of course, a willingness to let the other into my world enough to change me.
3. A willingness to endure, because try as I might to come into a relationship without the baggage of expectations and walls, they will be there. The presence of these realities, coupled with just the reality that we're living in a fallen world, will conspire to create a situation where I'm tempted to self-reighteousness, or disengagement, or both at the same time.

There are more elements needed, but these three are enough to keep me going for quite a long time. I'm planning on showing a clip on Sunday from the film "Millions" that I hope will speak to this. How can anyone not love that movie?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

Are you looking for some thought provoking essay reading? I thought so. So pick up a copy of Wendell Berry’s “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community.” If you don’t know a bit about Wendell Berry, you can learn some background by looking at this.

Berry is a prophetic voice in our day, pleading for the recovery of authentic community. While his writing style is a bit pedantic for me at times, I appreciate his vision for a world where local industry, agriculture, and artisans carry the day. His premise is that multinational corporations have a difficult time caring for any particular locale. My own sense is that when something gets too big, nobody has real ownership – and so the corporation takes on a life of its own. This, in part, is what I think is meant by principalities and powers in Ephesians 6. The problems that our world faces are difficult to solve precisely because it is often the case that there is no single individual, or even single people group who is to blame. The blood is on everyone’s hands, and something has grown, taken on a life of its own, and become culturally entrenched in destructive ways.

Berry does a good job of stepping outside of our two party system, and critiquing the whole structure. For example, he writes, “The conventional public opposition of liberal and conservative is…perfectly useless. The conservatives promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. (They) more or less attack homosexuality, abortion, and pornography, and the liberals more or less defend them. Neither party will oppose sexual promiscuity. The liberals will not oppose it because they don’t wish to appear intolerant of ‘individual liberty’. The conservatives won’t oppose it because sexual discipline would reduce the profits of corporations, which in their advertisements and entertainments encourage sexual self-indulgence as a way of selling merchandise…. The public discussion of sexual issues has thus degenerated into a poor attempt to equivocate between private lusts and public emergencies.

What’s missing for ethics formation is that entity that stands between public and private interests: community, which Berry defines as a group of people committed to a shared ethic, who support each other, work for the well being of the whole group, and pass values from generation to generation through stories, songs, and example. Wow… this sounds like what a church is supposed to be. But if we’re not careful, the consumerist values of our culture will undermine authentic community in churches – as communities of faith become little more than shopping places for personal spiritual fortification. Such a vision for church life may play well in the markets of American culture, but I have a feeling that it’s some distance from what Jesus has in mind for His body!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Messiah and Rent: The Anti-Idols

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the extra DVD material about the making of the musical Rent, but I’d recommend that you watch it sometime. I love the musical, love the music, and found the story of how it all came about to be just as remarkable as the musical itself. If you’ve no time to watch, maybe check out the web site about its origins. It rivals the remarkable story of how Handel’s Messiah came to be.

The thoughts about the writing of these two musicals were on my mind today as I finished up writing my sermon, which is on idolatry this week. What’s the connection? The warnings in the Bible against idolatry are really warnings against having too many lovers – and any number more than one is too many. We’re called to live our lives with complete and unreserved devotion to one cause: The Love of God and out from that, the Love of People. There’s to be no holding back – all our endeavors are to be about this purpose, so that our recreation, our sexuality, our free time, and our financial choices are made because of our love for God and others. Jonathan Larson held nothing back in the making of Rent – it was a destiny for him. Handel held nothing back in the making of Messiah. They were different people, from different eras; but both demonstrated the power that comes from single minded devotion.

Our lives can have diverse interests, justice, art, sport, music– that’s not the point. The point is that everything we do derives from, and moves back towards a single purpose. “We learn to love – our live in fear” - the words are invitation to put away all our petty pockets of self preservation and really be spent, joyfully, in the service of the One who alone can fill our lives with meaning. Come on – let’s simplify: No day but today.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Minding the Fire

I didn’t actually enter the room I’m staying in here in Montana until late Sunday night because the students I’m teaching had a performance at a church in Great Falls that evening and I chose to stay and watch them, and then go to Dairy Queen after it was over for something to eat (are you kidding me? The last time I went to Dairy Queen for snacks after an event was when I played Babe Ruth Baseball, shortly before Nixon was re-elected.) Anyway, it was about 10 degrees up here in the Rockies that night, clear and deeply cold, and my room hadn’t been heated all weekend. Sadly, when I turned the heat on nothing happened. I couldn’t find the breaker box, so was preparing for a 30 degree sleep when I noticed an old Ben Franklin wood stove in the corner of the living room.

I fired it up and soon it was moaning and crackling, and churning out heat. Within twenty minutes I was able to take my coat and ski hat off and then fell asleep. But I drifted off with the fear that the fire might go out and I would wake up dead – killed off by hypothermia and a hidden breaker box. I woke at 2:30 AM to a chilled room and a silent stove. I’d used all the kindling to light the first fire, so was dependent now on scraps of newspaper, selective blowing, and prayer to ignite the warm logs and remaining embers into a real fire. It appeared hopeless after several tries, and so I put my hat and jacket back on and crawled under the blanket. While I shivered and wondered what my core temperature would be if I woke in the morning, the stove began to crackle, then moan, then spit out heat. I stuffed it full of wood, and didn’t wake until it was 7:15 and 73 degrees.

Minding the fire is important work in these parts (at least until the breaker box was found). It requires vigilance. And of course, the fire of Holy Spirit requires no less of a vigilance, as we’re admonished in Ephesians to ‘be being kept full’ of the Holy Spirit. It happens by making space for relationship with Christ, happens by pouring out our heart in confession and praise, happens by turning control over to God and yielding to His ways when He speaks to us (which implies, of course, that we’re taking the time to listen). The fire can be roaring today, but only by vigilance is it kept alive. The scriptures speak of hearts growing cold, of love going cold. The solution isn’t a warmer cloak of distraction; but rather becoming vigilant about keeping the fire going.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Real World Postmodern Skepticism

Yesterday I drove up to Alpental Ski area to catch a few hours of skiing in the afternoon before a planned evening outing with my son. The backcountry at the top of "chair 2" is home to some of the most spectacular scenary and challenging skiing anywhere I've been (Canada, Colorado, Austria). So you can imagine my disappoint when I disembarked from "Chair 1" only to find a rope strung across the trail to Chair 2, with a "Closed" sign hung on it. I skied back down and as I rode up again, asked my lift mates what was up with "Chair 2". "The cable came off the pulley earlier this morning - they needed to use the snow cat to get everyone down."

My next trip up, I asked different lift mates the same question and was told, "A pulley cracked. They're replacing it - should be up and running soon."

My third trip up I heard: "They lost power up there and the backup generator isn't working."

Fourth trip: "One of the lift towers broke and is leaning. It's closed for the season."

By the fifth trip, I'd stopped asking, and stopped believing the unsolicited answers I was given. I was disengaged, having lost all hope of really finding out. It's not that I didn't believe there was a truth; only that I doubted anyone's ability to fully know it and accurately declare it to me. The same skepticism is understandable in other realms, such as religion, where there are more interpretations of what God expects of us, and who he or she is, and what will happen to us after our last breath, than explanations for all the broken chair lifts in the world. So, having heard conflicting truth claims under the banner of Christianity alone, it's not uncommon for people to disengage, skeptical that anyone really knows.

In such a world, when it comes to truth claims about meaning, the greatest validation will come from those who are living meaningful lives. If my life pursuits are related to self-serving, consumeristic, protectionist activities, I don't have a very compelling invitation to Christianity - even if my arguments for the resurrection are watertight. That's why how I live is actually more important than my capacity to defend truth propositions. If I live well; generously, lovingly, joyfully, truthfully - then my life becomes a compelling invitation, even if I can't defend my faith. Conversely though, I can defend it with fierce logic, to the last jot and tittle, but if my life simply reinforces the values of surrounding culture, I not invalidate my truth claims and make the gospel ugly.

Truth? Most people are weighing our lives based on HOW we're living - so let's get on with it: Love deeply. Pracitce Hospitalithy. Live Generously. Or to put it another way, do what the Lord requires of you.


PS - I leave for Montana on Sunday, and hope to have internet access. If not, expect a spat of entries next weekend!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

East meets West... almost, but not quite

Ecclesiastes says that there is a time for everything. This includes the time to embrace, and the time to refrain from embracing and applies to both people and ideologies. In our ridiculously fast paced world of unlimited economic expansion and it’s attendant busyness, anyone with eyes to see is beginning to question the system. What’s so great about being able to buy a car that gets 7 miles to the gallon, drive it a half mile to pick up a prepackaged dinner and a dvd to watch on the big screen TV? The results of this scenario, replicated with variations in millions of households across America are not pleasant: obesity, boredom, loss of intimacy, fiscal irresponsibility, heart disease, environmental degradation and its attendant cancers. And I have a feeling that's just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg.

As a result, there’s been a popular movement to embrace the mechanisms and worldviews of the east as a means of coping and transcending this mire. Predictably, evangelicals have reacted by vilifying the forms espoused by the east. This is a huge mistake, especially when it comes to the matter of meditation. To meditate is to focus; to shut oneself away from the myriad of distractions, and sit quietly, providing space for God to do both healing and transforming work. It’s hard to argue with the practice from a purely physiological standpoint.

But of course, we aren't just bodies, and so one must also be discriminatory. What does meditation do to our spirits? This is where we must part with our friends from the east, because we believe that there is real evil in the world, and so can't embrace the monism of the east which invites meditation for the purpose of erasing all distinction between subject and object. Evil and good are both realities in our fallen world. The object of meditation in eastern religions is to break through the illusion of distinction, so that we come to see the oneness of all things. But God and Satan are not the same thing. And even within my own being there is a war going on between good and evil. So my goal in meditation is not about breaking through the illusioin of distinction - but rather to see clearly - to see reality because my seeing has been informed by Christ. This seeing will see oneness in its proper proportion; all of humanity is love by God share the capacity to display His love, mercy, hope, justice, peace, and generosity. We come to see this union more clearly through our meditation. But there is more. Disciplined meditation, focused on Christ as the object, has the effect of enabling us to see distinction as well. This is important, because maturity and wisdom have to do with our capacity to discern between good and evil - a capacity, might I add, that seems in desparately short supply these days on both sides of the politcal aisle and both shores of the Atlantic. Where there shall we find the wisdom we need? Part of the answer lies in the discipline of meditation. That's why if you drop in on my prayer shelf, you'll find a place for meditating, and if you see me there I might look like I'm practicing some New Age or Buddhist ritual. But I'm not. I'm meditating on Christ. But more tomorrow on what this means.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Crash Wins... but where are the answers?

This theme of connection and intimacy keeps cropping up in my life. Sunday night, while I was sitting at the Compline service in Seattle, the cast and directors of Crash were celebrating their underdog victory at the Oscars. Apparently it is the season of the question, for Crash, and every other movie nominated for best picture, were all movies that brought the important questions of our time to the table: racism, intolerance, and homosexuality, along with loss of intimacy (see previous entry). All of these are addressed, caressed, and exposed, in these artistic, brilliantly produced films.

My fear is that we love the question, and that we are proud of ourselves for naming the question, and that we spend a great deal of time fondling the question, dialoguing over the question, dancing with the question, and embracing the question. But the answer? Now that's another story.

Take loss of intimacy for example. Crash addresses isolation, and our propensity to stereotype and bring our anger and hurt from one relationship into another relationship. Yes. We do that. And more... we disengage even from people we love in order to protect ourselves from further pain. We become survivalists, refusing to risk authenticiy and love because of potential pain that might be added to an already painful life. So, in our attempt to live on and preserve ourselves, something in us dies. I think Jesus mentioned this somewhere.

But death isn't a pleasant option either, so we medicate with substitutions for intimacy. Maybe it's mind numbing TV, or eating, or exercise, or meaningless sex. In so doing we settle for a shallow version of life and our fear, intolerance, stereotyping, and disengagement remain. And yet we pour a glass of wine and feel enlightened because we watched Crash and Brokeback Mountain.

We like to ask the question. But I think we don't like the answer - because the answer is Jesus. The reality is that in this fallen world EVERY relationship will be tainted to some extent, even with our spouses and closest friends. And when we feel betrayed, or hurt, or isolated by those we love, THE REAL QUESTION IS THIS: What do I do? To disengage and crawl into my shrunken world of addiction seem to be popular options. Perhaps we medicate by buying more stuff. But the question remains.

The scriptures indicate that the question will remain forever, until we are willing to take up our mantle, which is the ministry of reconcilliation. It begins with my own reconciliation with God, and moves our from there... reconciliation with my family, with my friends, my neighbors, my enemies. We will need to work hard at this. We'll need to put ourselves 'out there' in the vulnerable place. We'll get hurt. And when we do, we'll be tempted to hide behind some numbing escape. But if we'll go to our Shepherd with that pain, we'll find the strength to love, and serve, and enter in once again.

Enough preaching for a Monday evening... but I must say, these truths are deeply real to me right now, not only as a pastor, but as a person. Do I love the question more than the answer? Or am I willing to enter in to the hard work, and great adventure of reconciliation, honesty, and all the rest of it. I wish the answer would CRASH into me, but so far... it's quiet.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Crash into the Gospel

I spent last night watching “Crash” with 15 students from Canada and Germany who are in Seattle this week to learn about what it means to be a ‘witness’ to Christ’s life in an urban setting. The discussion that followed the movie was good, and watching the movie a 2nd time was, for me, a very powerful experience. It was unfolding while the music from “Rent” was wafting down from upstairs, and somehow the convergence of the two films spoke of the single powerful theme that characterizes our culture: We’re cut-off from intimacy. There are other themes, especially in Crash: pluralism, materialism, racism, and how expedient our integrity is when money is more important than relationships. But all of it, I’m convinced, is ultimately rooted in loss of intimacy.

What Crash does so marvelously is remind us that we’re all held captive in some way. Our captors wear many masks: fear, racism, greed, materialism, addiction, busyness. Each of these captivities wound us and create a propensity to label others, reducing complex and unique individuals who are made in the image of God, to inhuman categories: homeless, gay, Arab, etc. on the one hand, or corporate, wealthy, white-male, workaholic, conservative on the other. Either way, when the label becomes the person, we’ve become complicit in the problem of our time: we've furthered alienation and loss of intimacy.

This loss of intimacy is, for many of us, precisely where the gospel meets us. (that's powerful stuff - the part about recognizing no man according the flesh) Boris Kornfield a Russian Jew of met Christ in the 50's, spoke of finding more freedom in the captivity of the Gulag than he’d ever had ‘outside’ because his deepest longings had been met in Christ – he’d encountered a lover. And his story is told over and over again, through countless captivities down through the ages. It’s ironic that we, in our freedom, often have a hard time with God because of the suffering peoples in the world, while the suffering are the ones who often meet Christ, find healing and intimacy in His love and became agents of healing for others around them.

The plague of isolation is getting worse, with all its attendant fears and hatred. We need, like Kornfield, and encounter with Christ so that the deepest longings for intimacy in each of our hearts can be addressed. Then, out from that place, we receive an invitations to become reconcilers in a world of enemies, beacons of hope and courage in a tired, fearful world. That’s a calling worth my time and, I hope, yours.