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, April 27, 2006

Beauty is Truth - Truth is Beauty

Or so says the poetry of Keats. Isaiah said it differently. May you know all the nourishment and replenishment needed in order to BE a testimony of joy and hope, even in the midst of, especially in the midst of, all the insanity of our world. Receive Life! Be nurtured! Celebrate! Live in Hope!

Happy Spring...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Depressing Emergent Complexity

I studied a fair bit today in preparation for both Sunday’s teaching, and an upcoming seminar at which I’m speaking with one of our ministry directors from Bethany. After finishing my preparation for Sunday, I spent some time perusing Emergent Church blogs. There are thousands of them, without exaggeration! I was surfing through them for several reasons, but one of the large ones is that this morning I had the privilege of hearing David McCullough at a business breakfast. He stood before us, grey and wise, pouring out his heart like a prophet with his plea that we work on recovering that which has been lost: a sense of history; the love of reading; matters of honor and duty; good conversation at the supper table.

As I sought to translate his talk into my world of service and leadership in the church I wondered if we in the church don't have things we need to recover too. I started asking questions like this. What would happen if followers of Christ read their Bibles and responded to the things God was teaching them? What would happen if they met regularly to pray for one another and their neighbors, and they practiced hospitality, developing relationships within their neighborhoods? What would happen if they were so captivated by Christ that loyalty to Him and His ethic far outweighed any other loyalties, national, political, economic, or otherwise? My blog surfing was driven by a curiosity regarding whether these things are being addressed. Here's what I found:

Though simple, these practices are rare commodities in today’s spiritual marketplace. The emergent church hopes to offer a new way of doing church because the old ways don't work. Has the church of modernity failed? In many ways yes, though probably not to the extent that her young accusers say. But now I’m wondering, after 40 minutes in the emergent blogosphere, if the cure isn’t worse than the disease. One blog offered over 60 links! I became weary and confused just scrolling down the sidebar! After a few blogs, one gets the feeling that the emergent movement has it’s own celebrities, it’s own inner circle, it’s own language (emergent, orthopraxy, orthoparadoxy; missional; trans-missional; deconstructive; post-emergent; post-deconstructionist hermeneutic; blah blah blah). This is ironic, coming from a movement that was formed, in part, because the gospel had become inaccessible to common people.

Could it perhaps be simpler than this? Instead of a whole new movement… how about:

Love God – Read the Bible, Pray, listen for God’s voice and if you’re having trouble hearing, check with a friend and share together about what you’re learning or not learning.

Begin to Live out the Ethic of God’s Reign – when He’s in charge of the world fully, there will be an infusion of justice, beauty, environmental transformation, healing, hope, and celebration. Why wait? Let the reign begin today.

Love People – love your neighbors. Invite them over for dinner. Start a book club or something. And (this is important) young Christians; love and honor old Christians. Old Christians, pass on the torch of responsibility to new generations. We need each other. We need history. We need new ideas, forms, and ways of thinking. We need good conversations.

It’s discouraging to see a whole new subculture rising up offering the ‘new way’ to ‘do Christianity’ with the implication that we’re finally going to get it right. No – we won’t – no matter how emergent or post-modern we become. We’ll continue to be a on a journey of transformation. But if we’re humble enough to learn from each other along the way, and stay committed to a path the embodies the ‘simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ’, perhaps there will be a quieter, broader based, longer lasting revolution. That, it seems to me, is what’s needed.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Don't forget your memory card

I can’t remember many cloudless days in the Cascades. But today was one of them; not a cloud visible anywhere, in any direction. This morning, in preparation for the snowshoe outing with my wife, I’d been careful to make sure the digital camera had fresh batteries. When we reached the ridge, there were spectacular views in every direction, and I took out my camera to gain record of the scene, only to find that I’d failed to bring the memory card. Without the memory card, the 10x optical lens, and filtering capacities of my little digital, along with its video capabilities, are all worthless.

In the Old Testament, when God was shepherding his people through their wilderness journeys and battles, God is careful to call Israel towards a lifestyle of recollection. He states it both positively (remember) and negatively (don’t forget). He tells them to set up memorial stones for remembrance, and celebrations, and to tell each other the stories of provision, deliverance, and God’s faithfulness.

This is why journaling is so valuable. This is why eating together with others and sharing stories of God’s work is time well invested. This is why art, song, preaching, memorial stones, and pictures are important. Remembering is vital because today’s faith will only be as strong as our remembrance of God’s faithfulness yesterday.

Finally, even prior to remembering, there is the important matter of seeing things to remember. What’s God been doing lately? Probably nothing, if your view of His activity is limited to extraordinary interventions, breaking into everyday life with either literal or metaphorical trumpets. Usually, the voice of God is more subtle, and we need to learn to turn the eyes and ears of hearts towards His more subtle revelations. It probably won’t happen much if I’m running from event to event, never pondering, never praying, never noticing. To Elijah, God appeared in powerful manifestations, but when He needed Him the most, it was the still small voice that showed up. Nothing’s changed really – the still small voice of a kind word when I was at the bottom of discouragement, or an outrageous sunrise when I was weighed down listening to the news on NPR, or a very good word in the Word, or a song by U2, or a very good conversation. Remember those moments – perhaps celebrate them – record them. You’ll need them later.

My memory card is a collection of journals, a couple passports, lots of pictures, and yes, even this silly little blog. What’s yours?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sex, and Lies the church tells about it...

This summer our pastoral staff will be leading a mid-week forum, where we'll be addressing subjects that (so I'm told) people don't talk about openly. What subjects? Sex, Politics, Religion, and Art (Art? - yes, some people never talk about art) It will run for nine weeks with an introductory week, followed by two weeks per subject. In preparing for the sex subject, I'm reading L. Winner's book, 'Real Sex' (more accurately - re-purusing it). Winner does a great job of developing a sexual ethic rooted in the larger ethics of historic Christianity. But she does an even better job of challenging and exposing the cheap and shallow ways that the church has sought to maintain the chastity of her flock. Here are three myths, used by the church to help youth keep their pants on. Though they have kernels of truth in them, when they're absolutized and offered as part of the rationale for developing one's sexual ethic, those for whom these 'truths' aren't true, have no reason to move off their present ground of behavior.

Myth #1 - Sex outside of marriage makes you feel guilty. Any pastor who has had more than three conversations with people about this subject knows this is not an absolute statement. Depending on one's moral framework, sex may or may not have a deep, intrinisic symbolism of emotional and mystical union. For some, it's nothing more than a romp in the hay. While that surely changes with time, the rationale that one should avoid sex in order to avoid guilt feelings will fail to persuade because it often fails to be true.

She has two other myths addressed in her book. I'd add these:

Myth #4 - Accountability is all you need to maintain purity. This also isn't true, unless by accountability you mean someone handcuffed to your wrist twenty-four hours a day, who also has access to your mind. Accountability relationships that offer nothing more than a weekly check-in can lead to either dishonesty or shame or disengagement as easily as they lead to purity. We need to be careful about pushing this pill as a panecea, for when it fails, hope dies for many sincere young men.

Myth #5 - Sexual Purity gets easier once you're married. I heard that when I was in high school and college, and couldn't wait for the day when these things would no longer be a problem. The reality check is that even in the best of marriages, with couples working at their sexual communication, children, health issues, stresses, varying energy and emotional levels, and a host of other nuances too numerous to name, all conspire to make one's sexuality an ongoing issue. Again, there are exceptions. But this seems, for the experience of most, to be the norm.

So, having busted these myths, the question remains, "What then IS the basis for a good sexual ethic?" The answers will come this summer... about the middle of July. See you then. If enough people ask on this blog, I'll make sure that pod-casts and notes are avialable. Interested? Your thoughts?


Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday ...a run in the garden

I wake up to a storm, wind battering the rain against the windows of our attic bedroom. It's Good Friday, and my day-off, so I'm planning to go for a run. The lake by our house that is standard fare? No. Not today. Not on Good Friday. I long to run in a garden. My version of garden is Discovery Park, so I dress, finish my coffee, and am quickly on my way.

There's a path through this wooded park that's perfect for running: a few hills, deep forests, open vistas overlooking Elliot Bay and out west to the Olympic Mountains. Soon I'm running, listening to Sigur Ros, my newest favorite band. Their music invites transcendence and contemplation, and its for contemplation more than cardio that I am running today.

The forest floor is exploding with florescence, and green that signifies life assaults my senses. It's bursting from the ground; it's painting the trees with moss; it's oozing from the trees in the form of a new season of leaves. New life - freshness - hope. These are the things that this forest, at this time of year, on this kind of day, speak to me. Yes, there's a storm. The rain drips from the trees, and the wind whips the new greenery into a fresh dance. The juxtaposition of storm and life take me back to the garden where Jesus prayed. Drops of blood and cries of agonizing longing blend with submission - a willingness to endure the ultimate sacrifice so that life; my life and yours - and all the life that is this grand cosmos, might someday be restored.

" Consider Jesus, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross..." Gardens like this, on days like this, are hints of something better that awaits us all. Perhaps the 'joy set before Him' was more clearly seen by our Lord in the garden than in the Jerusalem, where the commerce and religious/political systems conspired to deal fear and death instead of freedom and beuaty. We don't know... but perhaps.

The path turns, and I'm headed uphill and out towards the bank. The wind has stopped for the time being. The i- pod takes me to Glosoli, from the Takk album. I've just viewed the video, and was captivated by it's raw beauty and invitation to both journey and faith. I'm running towards the bank, and stop to overlook the water. The clouds have parted enough to offer fresh snow on the Olympics. I pause and contemplate our Lord's leap of faith - into the darkness of the cross, a faith rooted in His confidence towards the Father. A faith in the 'joy set before Him'. I look out over the water and back towards the city where I live and thank God for the joy that is set before us all - the confidence, in spite of the evidence, in a future vastly different than this present world offers. "Thank you for the cross Lord Jesus. Enable our little flock to so live in you that I become a clearer expression of your life, so that the world can see hope, forgiveness, real love, generosity, peace, and wisdom. Pour out your spirit."

I pray with my arms outstretched - with a sense of longing for Jesus to answer this prayer and pour out His spirit, bringing restoration and hope to many. The music falls silent, as if scripted. And the wind begins again, dancing with the trees, and singing through the branches. A sign? I wouldn't be that bold. But on this day, in this moment, with these longings for Christ to reign, it is enough. I turn my face to the wind and say 'thank you' before continuing my run, back into the trees, back to the garden, and finally back to the city I am privileged to call home. It is a very Good Friday indeed.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

John 19:14-15

And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” So they cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Ceasar.”

No king but Ceasar? That’s a scary thing to say at any time in history. The King is the final word, the final authority, the final arbiter of truth, the true source of protection, and the one to whom we swear highest loyalty and allegiance. And here, in an effort to rid themselves of a Messiah whose persona, ethic, lifestyle, and vision for God’s reign was offensive, the scholars and religious elite of the day come out with this: “We have no King but Ceasar.”

In the infancy of the church however, the new community of faith got it. Most of the martyrs in the early years of the church shed their blood because of their refusal to utter the simple phrase, “Ceasar is Lord.” No, there is a higher authority than Ceasar, a higher calling and loyalty than the state can ever ask of us. Jesus had said, under the inquisitive light of Pilate’s questions, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

We should be wrestling with our dual citizenship, because Jesus told us to. And while the early church did this well, later on, the marriage of Church and State led to a different model, offering the illusion that loyalty to the state was loyalty to Christ and His Kingdom. But it was a mirage. Rome was not the Kingdom. Germany was not the Kingdom. The People’s Republic is not the Kingdom. The British empire was not the Kingdom. And the government, ‘of, for, and by the people’ is not the kingdom either, no matter which party is in power.

We need to be careful that we’re aligned with the early church and Jesus, both of which kept their vision of a distinction between the state and Christ’s reign. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves in the crowd, shouting with so many, “We have no King but Ceasar.” Few words in history have been more damning, dangerous, and misleading.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

John 18:7-11

“Therefore He again asked them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ And they said, ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am He, so if you seek Me, let these go their way…Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear…So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?’”

It’s a good question to ask, nearly every day. Am I willing to drink the cup the Father has ordained for me? The Bible and the history of God’s people seems, at one level, to be simply a tale of two cups. There’s the cup of our own choice, driven by our lusts, fears, pride, anger, idolatry, hatred, and pain. And then there is the cup of God’s choosing for our lives. The Father’s cup always has elements in it that we wouldn’t choose of our own free will, always little flavors that run counter to our raw desires and personalities. But that’s a good thing of course, because it’s those raw desires, tainted as they are by sin, that need to die. And it seems that the cup of the Father’s Will is just the ticket to poison those destructive desires and flavors, so that REAL LIFE can be found.

The cup God’s will wasn’t a pleasant cup for Jesus, but after having it out with God just moments earlier, Jesus conclusions were settled; there would be but one will that night: the will of the Father. Am I wrestling with God, drinking the cup of His will, or have I surrendered to the poisons of my own dark choices? This week, Christ’s example shines clear: wrestle – pray – and move into the night determined to carry out the will of the Father.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Matthew 26:31

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, “I will strike down the shepherd and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.”  But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.  

Your flock has scattered often Lord
Driven apart by our fabricated Christs
Whose voices conflict and conspire
To fracture your body

And yet your flock has endured,
Held together through the darkness.
Nero, Hitler, Amin, Mao, Stalin
None could vanquish You,
Great Shepherd of the Sheep

Scattered and fractured
Yet woven from one cloth
Somehow, Your voice
Still sings hope
Still invites joy
Still heals

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Isiah 53

He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face. He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried. (53:3,4)

Perhaps you can imagine this hypothetical situation: You’re hiking in the Himalayas and because you didn’t prepare properly, living a life of wanton indulgence prior to your trip, you haven’t the stamina or health to carry your own load. In fact, the load you’re carrying is killing you . Actually your own bad choices, made over years, are killing you. But whatever the source, you can’t continue.

Suddenly someone, already looking haggard and weary from the incredible load he’s carrying, intervenes and adds your load to his already substantial burden. Of course, the weight of it all makes him the antithesis of glowing health. In his present condition, he’d not be invited to any parties. Passersby on the trail look with disdain, they in their Gortex parkas, carrying nothing at all; he in his smelly wool, rain soaked pullover, slipping and sliding, bruised and battered, for the load he’s carrying. He’s mocked, marked, and ignored. No book tours will await him at the end of this trek. Those are reserved for the climbers, whose load is limited to an i-pod and personal water. The real hero's destiny is isolation.

While all analogies pale as we contemplate the cross (this one perhaps more than most), the truth of the matter is plain. Humanity treated Christ with disdain because he was afflicted, stricken, ‘rejected by God’. But he was all of those things because he had taken upon himself all our sickness, sorrow, and rebellion, bearing in his own body all the weight of our burdensome sins.

All of us, like sheep, have gone astray. Yes Lord, I’ve gone astray, turning away from pastures of life towards deserts of destruction, choosing indulgence over obedience, isolation over love, flattery over honesty. Too far and too often, I’ve gone astray. I’ve looked for life among death dealers.

But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. You carried my guilt to the cross. You were marred by my guilt; stricken by my sin; rejected because of my rebellion.

“Who has believed the message?” Isaiah asks in the same chapter. I’ll tell you who: The ones who get it are the ones who know that they walk at all on the path of life because another has carried the burden which would have destroyed them. And He’s still walking, still offering to unload the crap that I have picked up along the way.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Holy Week... and what it means for this blog

As we move towards Holy Week, I'm moving in a swirling vortex of longings to draw near to Christ, the need for personal silence in the wake of a difficult week pastorally.

There's an incredible film festival occuring this weekend, and I'd encourage anyone within driving distance of Seattle to come to at least part of it. As a mosque explodes today in Iraq, the issues of how we should live out our faith vis a vis issues of war and peace, economic development and oppression, pollution and consumption, is the issue whose time has come. A private faith is no longer an option, for public declarations have been made for too long lately, in the name of Christ, so that Christ's name has come to be associated with hate, war, greed, and consumption, rightly or wrongly. However it happened, it's time to change that, and thank God there are folks on the front lines of art moving us in this direction.

For the next week, up to and through Easter, I'm planning on simply writing my thoughts derived from the practice of Lectio Divina, an ancient means of contemplating scripture. I'll be meditating on passages related to Holy Week, and my entries will be more like a prayer journal. I'll return to other stuff later... but right, the convergence zone of personal issues, family issues, pastoral issues, and global issues, has created a need to spend more time just sitting at the feet of Jesus and less time editorializing. So here we go. Starting tomorrow - Lectio Divina journal entries from Isaiah 53. Hope you'll stay with me through this time of preparation for Christ's resurrection.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

About Church Buildings

We’re in the final stages of permitting and funding considerations prior to groundbreaking on a new sanctuary for our little flock in Seattle. I say little because we’re 800-1000 attenders on any given Sunday in a city of maybe one million people.
As we get to this critical stage, I’ve been thinking and praying about church buildings (a subject about which I’m not normally given to think and pray). Here are some random thought about church buildings:

Thought #1: Church buildings have the effect of making the local body of Christ visible. This, I would argue, is a good thing (unless our calling to also scatter into world missionally is completely ignored). The church scattered has value, but so does the church gathered. It’s of very little value to talk about the ‘universal church’ and the ‘mystical body of Christ’ if that universalism and mysticism isn’t eventually expressed in visible locality. Just as a spirit and soul without a body renders a person unknowable, so is ‘church’ unknowable if she only exists in the universal and mystical sense, but not in the gathered community. For this reason, church buildings have, wherever the church has taken root, been a localizing force, a gathering place to make the invisible visible.

Thought #2: More ministry space is a good thing. I completely understand the line of thinking which declares that the church’s job is to be out in the world, serving the world and functioning as agents of hope, healing and restoration, in many contexts and relationships. But this calling doesn’t negate the possibility and reality of the church community gathering together in space to offer services to the world (such as shelter, day-care, practical teaching in job skills, a gather place for community building, a safe place for youth to encounter each other and face the weighty issues of life together, a place for university students to ask questions, wrestle with matters of faith, and know they will be honored and loved, a place for the arts to find support and expression, and so much more.) All of these matters require space somewhere. If God is giving us opportunities to do these things, and blessing these kinds of endeavors to the point where our walls are crowding people out, then adding space makes sense.

Thought #3: Churches that are growing aren’t inherently evil. Our global economic system, it seems, is premised on the assumptions that continual growth in the GDP is necessary in order to sustain the machinery of civilization. Critics point out flaws in the system and the assumptions of the system, positing that such a model is unsustainable and unjust. You can agree or disagree. But please don’t connect the dots between the capitalist model of growth and church growth. Churches are, over time, supposed to grow (or so Jesus and the testimony of the early church implied). We want lives to be changed and people to be forgiven, healed, equipped, and mobilized to take their gifts into the world, serving and giving generously in Jesus name. May the tribe of those who do so increase greatly… until He returns! Oh but be careful – if that tribe does increase, they’ll want to be with others who have met, or are seeking Christ, and they’ll need to sit somewhere, and be taught somewhere, and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ somewhere. The most vocal critics of church buildings still continue to gather in them. The exception are those who meet in homes, but most who do are forced to either close their doors to newcomers, or change their theology and meet in space bigger than a house.

Thought #4: Space Matters. Here we are, saying that the Platonic division between spirit and matter is heresy, and celebrating art and expressions of beauty. Doesn't this same line of thinking lead us to the vital matter of giving care to the place where the visible church convenes? Our gathering place says a great deal about whether we really believe that beauty and care for creation is part of our calling. Proper care for the architecture and space of the church buildings, interior and exterior, is a critical piece of our testimony, for it is the piece that everyone sees, whether they know Christ or not. What does our facility say about God's character, His beauty, His holiness, His love of creativity, and His love for us? Every space makes a statement - invites or repels; offends or blesses; celebrates beauty or diminishes it. You can't ignore this reality (which is why I almost became an architect).

Thought #5: Church buildings are dangerous. They are dangerous because they become confused with real life the same way body displaces spirit as the source of meaning. Such displacement ends up masking our internal bankruptcies, under the guise of external glories. There's a line in a Switchfoot sing about the women who would rather 'fix her make-up, than fix what's going on.' And so it can be, and has been throughout history - programs and facilities displace relationships, truth telling, and the power of sacrament, forgiving, celebrating, serving, and simply being present 'in Jesus name'. When those things get displaced by externals, we've missed the point.

There are more thoughts about how buildings themselves testify of something important in the same way that your body and clothing testifies about, but isn't really, you. But I'm out of time for now. I welcome your thoughts!


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Getting Hotter?

It’s pretty difficult to read this week’s issue of Time, and not be convinced that global warming is both real, and progressing at a faster rate than was earlier projected. Perhaps one of the most alarming statistics is the fact that we Americans, who make up 5% of the world’s population, and contributing 25% of the CO2 emissions that are, according to the vast majority of scientists, responsible for the warming trends.

And so, I’m wondering how ‘the church’, both globally and my own local one, should respond? Should we care? Should we care enough to live differently? Or is it enough to say that the end is near, the time is short, and so we need to continue to focus on getting people saved?

This issue is a great example of how Jeremiah 29 applies to real life. We need to work for the well being of the civilization in which we find ourselves, for in it’s well being is our well being. So I would argue that because this is an important issue for humanity, it’s an important issue for all of us, including Christians. To ignore matters of such import is to reduce the good news of the gospel to some sort of privatized ‘born again’ experience, and to shrink salvation from it’s full orbed transforming power (spirit, soul, body, culture, cosmos) to ‘spirit only’, or perhaps spirit/soul/body. Salvation is thus cheapened, and a window of opportunity for us is bear witness to Christ’s holistic care for creation is thus lost. After all, the final future is one where every atom is shot through with the glory of Christ.

There are plenty of things one can do individually to help stem the tide of environmental degradation, and as Jeremiah says, work for the well being of the place in which you live, for in it’s well being is your well being. Why wouldn’t we drive smaller cars, ride our bikes, take the bus? Such small steps are a way of taking up the mantle given to us by God in the garden to ‘care for the earth and keep it’. Check out this link if your interested in doing even more.