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, June 29, 2006

Ziklag - a place for our time

The best times for me to have any extended reading or study moments is when I travel to teach, and this week I’ve been two hours north of Toronto, teaching 350 college students, who will, beginning Saturday, constitute the staff of a marvelous sports camp. As I’m writing the sun is setting through my cabin window, a cabin which looks out on a large lake. When it gets dark the loons will come out and serenade, and the stars will be infinitely visible tonight because it’s dark and clear.

I’m reading a book by Eugene Peterson while here, and one chapter is particularly apropos because of what’s going on in the church where I pastor. The chapter is about David’s life at Ziklag, and there are two main points to see in the chapter:

  1. David and his followers, though they are the people of God, aren’t squeaky clean. David’s little ‘church’ is described as ‘everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented. (I Samuel 22:2). There it is: the people who constitute the church!
  2. Ziklag becomes for David a place of compromise (you’ll need to read about it on your own) and I think Peterson does a marvelous job of critiquing the critics. He complains that the moralists call this David’s time of failure because he compromised with the world, and he criticizes the secularists who claims that this is David’s time of brilliance because he compromises with the world.

Peterson says (in my words) – stop condemning or commending – it is what it is, and you don't know the whole story. Look for Christ in the midst of it and in the midst of the people there and get on with it. In his own words, he writes: “Ziklag, for me, is the premier biblical location for realizing that when we get serious about the Christian life we eventually end up in a place and among people decidedly uncongenial to what we had expected. That place and people is often called a church. It’s hard to get over the disappointment that God, having made an exception in my case, doesn’t call only nice people to repentance.”

These are valuable insights, because it’s incredibly easy for people never to connect or to lose connection because of condemning or commending the actions of people in the church, which is a way of condemning or commending the church. Peterson suggests that we look for Christ, and says that if we really look – we’ll find him among the rag-tag bunch that constitutes the community of God’s chosen. He says it this way: “I see Christ – for Christ plays in ten-thousand places/ lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ to the Father, through the feature of men’s faces.”

And, of all the strange places – you’ll find Him in Ziklag, or Muskoka Woods, or Seattle – at Stone and 80th.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Kingdom and the King - Let there be Reign

In response to Sunday’s Sermon, two people have posted comments and I’d like to take a moment to respond:

Comment 1: Referring to your sermon today: why can't there be a "kingdom" without a "king"? You said this was a "great deception." Can you explain the deception. Why must there be a "king" (God) in order for their to be more peace, more forgiveness, more generosity (etc, the "kingdom") in this world?

Comment 2 (edited for length): Does discussion of God, and God's universal ways, really have to include king and kingdom terms? Is it potentially distracting and destructive to continue to focus on these particular notion? …judgment that would put others below us (in real or imagined terms) is never warranted. As such, any obsession w/ our current state of struggle, to overcome toward our own ends, is shortsighted and foolhardy.

The point of the kingdom of God isn’t to put a person or people group in power over another, but rather to allow the reign of Christ, beginning in a human heart, to radiate out into the lives of other as a blessing, and then into the culture, as we serve and bless others in the strength and name of our Servant King, who is Christ. I would argue that we do need Someone to reign over us for at least two reasons:
  1. at the purely humanitarian level, history shows us that without a ruling authority humanity will generally choose paths that are self destructive. It seems to be in the heart of man, in spite of the best intentions to the contrary, to be destructive. While it can be argued that power is the greatest corrupter of all, in the absence of power, an even more destructive anarchy comes into play, as has been seen in every power vacuum in every culture throughout history. To think that, in the absence of a ruler, people will simply decide to get along with one another is baseless, wishful thinking. The Bible speaks of the evil of the human heart, and says that this is at the core of all of our problems. Government’s rule (and hence the role of leadership) is, ideally, to keep these appetites in check. And since governments are also corruptible, it's a best to have a system of checks and balances among those in power (a point of alarm perhaps, in our present climate)

  2. at a more ‘spiritual level’, if the goal isn’t just to avoid evil, but to actively do good through works of service, justice, mercy, compassion, celebration, and reconciliation, it seems that such works are only sustainable in the human heart that is occupied by the One who alone is capable of doing such works, namely Christ. I know that many evils have been carried out in the name of Christ. I also know that a great deal of good is done apart from His name. But the Bible indicates that what is ultimately needed is the transformation of human hearts so that the heart, filled with the very life of Christ, begins to express, in a way unique to that person and heart, the actual spirit and life of Jesus! Such lives are not simply avoiding evil – but are shining as lights of hope, and are doing so in a way that is sustainable over a lifetime; like Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, or the woman who moved to Hong Kong and worked with heroin addicts, or … your life and mine, submitted to the One who alone can guide and empower us to live the life for which we’re made!
The deception of the king without the kingdom is this: If we love peace but not the peacemaker, justice but not the just one, reconciliation, but not the source of all reconciliation, we will settle for the gifts without the giver. In Revelation, an offer of the gifts without the Giver is made by false leaders, and it appears that most of world are takers. But again, the peace won't last – we need the source, again because it is the source who alone is capable of producing the gifts in a sustained and abundant manner, as He transforms the human heart in which He reigns.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Kingdom without the King ....

It's a great question: Why can't there be a kingdom without the King? Why do we need God in order for there to be more justice and righteousness on the earth? I'd like to start a dialogue on this subject, and have some thoughts, but will need to wait for a day or two. I'm off to Toronto tomorrow morning to talk about.... 'the kingdom of God'.

I'll write more later this week if I have online access. If not...I'm back in Seattle Saturday, and will post then. But let's ask the question straight off: How can any kingdom exist without a king? Do you remember that great line from "Lord of the Ring"? "Gondor needs no king!"

So I hope I'll be able to write more later... about the kingdom and the king.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Hinges of My Mind

Today I'm heading to lunch with a co-worker and friend, and as we walk into the Chinese restaurant, there's a magazine whose cover is open sitting on the table just inside the door where people wait, by the gold Buddha statue. I turn the page shut, and see the cover: AARP (American Association of Retired Persons for you who aren't even close to this stage of life yet). I shudder. They keep sending me stuff in the mail. Why are they harrasing me? I still climb, still ride my bike to picnics, still run the lake.

Of course, I climb about three times a year, and when I run the lake I need to stretch like a Yoga Master afterwards if I'm to avoid the after-pain that stems from shortened hamstrings and falling arches. My ears ring after concerts... for a long time. Maybe they never stop. Today I moved a scone from Angie's office to my own, took a bite from it, and promptly walked to her office to get the rest of it, forgetting that I'd just taken it from her.

I'm getting old. And the one thing I'm hoping for, more than anything else, isn't to keep climbing... it's to keep learning, keep growing, keep nurturing relationships and being open to new ones. This is living - and I'm far from ready to settle into a routine that simply seeks to preserve my relational and ideological assetts - instead I want to keep investing them in the marketplace of people and ideas - open to changing and being an instrument of change, for I really believe that the two go together.

Here's a great quote for all of us... especially we who are growing older:
I'm not nearly as afraid of dying as I am of the hinges inside my mind and soul rusting closed. I am desperate to keep them open, because I think that if they close, that's one's first death, the loss of hope, curiosity, and possibility, the spiritual death. After that, it seems to me, the second one is just a formality. I wanted to oil the hinges, force the doors to stay open.

Taken from Running to the Mountain.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Porn and Plato - two sides of a coin

The scorn of porn, it seems to me, is exactly the opposite of Plato's problem. Plato was a dualist who believed in the supremacy of spirit over matter. Mutations of his teachings have led to a disdain for all things material and in Gnosticism, this disdain extended to the human body and sexuality, and later Victorian and Puritan obesessions to protect the citizenry from all things sexual. Thus did "Daniel the Trouserer" set about to paint clothes on the naked figures in Italian frescoes. Thus did the Victorians make certain that furniture legs were covered so as to prevent lustful thoughts. The sad results of this imbalanced teaching is that the church exalts sexual sin to some higher plane, making it worse than greed, or deceit, or anger, or pride.

But while the teachings of Plato have created an imbalance in the church, the pendelum has swung to other side in the culture at large. Being a culture largely defined by a purely material world view, the body and sexuality are reduced to merely physical matters. Throw in the internet, and the easy access to pornography is creating an epidemic of sorts among the male population (though women aren't excluded from this addiction).

So where does one go to find freedom from the addictions of porn, and yet the capacity to enjoy beauty, the glories of the human body and feel comfortable with one's sexuality? I would argue that there is only one place to go: Christ. He is the God who became Flesh - and His spirit, living within us, will enable us to live in the 'zone of life' between platonic dualism, and materialistic indulgence. In speaking with some authorities at a Christian University recently about the issue of pornography, I suggested the possibility that a vibrant prayer life, consistent Bible reading, and a thorough involvment in God's agenda for one's life seen to create an atmosphere that makes victory possible. Victory isn't defined as hatred of the body or sexuality, but that posture of body and heart that is willing to wrestle with the tension of self-control and enjoyment of all life has to offer, recognizing that God's bodily gifts (food, sex, sleep, beauty, coffee, exercise) can become destructive task masters if allowed unrestricted indulgence.

Bible reading - Prayer - and involvement in God's agenda for the day. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Real Issue: Response to Revelation

Jesus talks quite a bit about the surprises that are in the future, when the sorting takes place between sheep and goats. He tells us that not everyone who calls Him “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. He also tells the religious elite that they will be surprised because there will so many Gentiles gathered there ‘from the east and west’, while some of the people to whom he was speaking, who prided themselves on their religious stature, had so missed the point and so rejected truth that they wouldn’t be there at all.
I’ve been pondering this as I prepare for teaching this Sunday on Luke 7. In applying the principle taught by our Lord in its broadest sense, it seems that Jesus is saying that our response to revelation will be more significant than whether or not we have heard or spoken the particular name of Jesus. Romans 1 is very clear on this matter. This isn’t talking about some mushy universalism whereby all people who are sincere go to heaven, because there is sincere rejection of Christ, both by some who know and some who don’t know his name. But it is saying that the real crux of the matter in life is what I do with the light I’m given – and even more, how it changes the way I live.

The same doctrine is articulated by CS Lewis. The following is a quote from CS Lewis’, "The Last Battle," from the chapter "Further up and Further in."

"Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."
Whether articulated by Christ, or Lewis, this teaching is both liberating and sobering: It’s liberating in the sense that I can go forth into the world knowing that God is already revealing and people are already responding. It’s sobering because it changes the field of play from the mind to the arena of daily living and relationships. It is there, in the bedroom, and boardroom, and playfield, and minefield, that my faith will be revealed.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Ingredients for good decisions

As many of you know, our Bethany Community is in the midst of making our final decision regarding whether to break ground on a new facility. Big decisions like this are always opportune, because, as I shared yesterday from Joshua 13 and 14, the raw data is never an adequate basis for decision making. We need to hear from God.

Anytime I say or write the phrase, "hear from God", I get nervous. The present meltdown in Iraq is happening because both sides claim to have 'heard from God'. The World Cup has been censored in Somalia because the Muslim rebels, having killed thousands to take power, claim to have heard from God. Witch hunts were carried out at the hands of those who have heard from God.

So I know that 'hearing from God' is dangerous. But so is sex - so is money - so are automobiles. The danger of abuse doesn't negate the reality: We need to hear from God regarding many things in our lives. So then, the question becomes, "How can I know that it's God talking?"

That answer, I believe, is found some of the principles articulated in Psalm 25. It's here that we see several important things:

1. the one who fears the Lord is the one who will be instructed by God in the way he/she should choose. Fear in this context means acknowledging the reality of God in the universe and in our lives. Those who fear the Lord recognize that He intervenes in history, that the universe isn't a closed system of cause and effect, that nations are in God's hands, as are our individual lives. Recognizing these realities somehow fosters humility, and this humility becomes the soil in which God's voice is heard and his will discerned. That's why, when one hears the arrogance of fundamentalists (of all stripes), and the will to power exercised in God's name, one knows that God isn't the real operative force behind the movement, no matter what is being shouted. Where God's will is - the spirit of Jesus reigns. Such a spirit will not carry a sword, will not kill, will not oppress.

2. to the extent that our eyes are turned toward the Lord, the promise is that he will be a source of protection from us. It's important to understand that this protection isn't physical or material. There are no promises offered that God's will enables us to remain in a place of prosperity, health, or freedom. Rather, the protection offered has to do with God's promise that those who look to Him, will continue, increasingly, to manifest His character - come what may. We are protected, in other words, from a meltdown of the spirit.

If these promises are true, then it's vital to cultivate the fear of the Lord, and to develop the habits and disciplines that enable us to turn our hearts toward Christ continually.

Big decisions, then, become times in our lives to assess the posture of our heart and our spiritual practices, because these things are vital if we are to hear the voice of our Lord and move into the future He has for us.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Of Goalies and Leaders: fewer, yet more

Maybe you're a World Cup fan. I am. I love soccer (football in the global sense of the word) because no matter where in the world you go, soccer is there. It's a simple game, so kids in Nepal play it in an open field with a rolled up ball of duct tape, while upper class private school children in England join in the same game on a perfectly groomed pitch. The globalism and egalitarianism of it is what makes the sport great. Poor countries can walk away with the cup, and do, as often as the rich.

Maybe you're a Stanley Cup fan. I'm that too. I love watching hockey because skating is an art form I never learned. I watch with awe as the blade, puck, and stick conspire to create the artistry of the game. And this year, it's Canada vs. USA, which adds to the friendly border rivalry.

What soccer and hockey share in common is the position of goalie. There's no more important position. For example, Edmonton Oilers lost their goalie to a tragic knee injury with six minutes left in game 1 of the Stanley Cup. Since then, they've been outscored 6 to 0.

Being a goalie and being a leader seem similar many ways. The goalie is the last line of defense, and as such that means he's called upon when things are desperate. Every line of defense has failed and now the only thing standing between the goal and the enemy offender is you. You don't know when you'll be called upon to be at peak form and make the save. In fact, for probably 95% of the game, the goalie is watching. But it's that other 5% or 2% or 1% that's so critical - that's when all your skills, all your training, all your wisdom come to the forefront and you either do or don't do. The goalie is called upon rarely, but take him out of the action and (as the results from the Edmonton Oilers proves) disaster unfolds.

Leadership is similar. When things are functioning at their peak, there are people in front of the leader, mobilized and trained to make decisions, implement activities, react to crises. But things aren't always functioning at their peak because of the realities of change, and sickness, and maturity, and personal issues, and dysfunction, and all the rest that comes from being fallen people living in a fallen world. And when things break down, leadership is needed. And it is in those moments that we either do or don't do - that we rise to the occasion or flounder - that we make a save or lose a goal. Making decisions and taking action is a leadership responsibility

In soccer, goalies encounter the ball less than any other player on the field - but their encounters are more significant, because when they fail, the failure is a collapse that could cost the cup. Who wants to be a goalie? Who wants to be a leader?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Dangerous Species: The Theologically Educated

It's that time of year - graduation. This means a batch of people will be exiting the hundreds of seminaries in America with new letters behind their names: M-Div; ThM; D- Min etc. etc. I speak as one who also has two degrees (Music and Theology): Beware the dangers of theological education. I just finished reading through the book of Luke this morning, in preparation for teaching a summer series about encounters with Christ.

The alarming thing I noticed is that the people who 'get it', who understand Jesus and determine to follow him, are largely uneducated. It's the educated people who have a hard time with Jesus, and it's the theologically educated who have the hardest time of all. I say this with humility, as one who understands the value of theological education. Having travelled the world, I've encountered the dangers of educational shortage firsthand. The Rwandan genocides are a case in point, though it could easily be argued that the problem there was bad theological education rather than a lack of it.

But as one reads through Luke, one finds that it's the educated who understand the scriptures well enough to know that resurrection is impossible, and that Jesus can't possibly be a prophet because he has healed a man on the Sabbath and allowed an unclean women to touch Him. And then you hear Jesus teaching, explaining to the Jewish religious elite how it will be the Gentiles who end up coming to the party because the religious people had better things to do, and how it was the heretic Samaritan who actually did the will of God by loving his neighbor because the well educated people had too many other agendas on their palm pilot to attend to the needs of a beaten down bystander.

Don't dismiss Jesus' criticism of the upper class too quickly. And don't condemn them too quickly either. I think it's simply important to recognize that education carries with it not a right to privilege, but a yoke of service. If I embrace that yoke, my education will becoming a blessing to me, day after day, and will enable me to become a blessing to others as well.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


It doesn't really matter if it's architecture, or interior design, or preaching, or music. There's something vitally powerful about 'rest'. There's that wall with no picture - that moment in preaching where one stops talking - and of course, those times in music where the music is the silence.

THE BEST example of the power of this silent space is found, for me, in the Sigur Ros piece entitled, Heysatan, from the Takk album. You're listening and a pause in the music comes. You wait for the music to resume - what will it be? One half measure later? A full measure? Two measures? You keep waiting. You wait so long that measures become meaningless. The pause is beyond pregnant. It's now delivered, and has become full blown silence, and you wonder when it will end, when we'll get back to the music. But the pause IS the music as much as the sound is the music.

And the rest is life as much as the activity is life. Can anyone contribute in the comment section as to why these moments of silence or space or rest are so powerful? And do you agree that we often resist such moments in our lives?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Word Recovery Project: Passion

I find it interesting that the word passion has taken on a meaning that has to do with that sense of deep joy and rootedness that comes when we're doing the things we're made to do. For example, you've no doubt heard people say... "I'm passionate about...(opera, climbing, social justice, missions, cooking, travel, etc.). What we mean when we say things like this is that this thing (say cooking) is an endeavor from which we derive great joy, so we invest time in it because it's energizing, and refreshing, and we feel deeply alive when we're doing it, like we're doing what we were created to do.

What I find interesting is how 'opposite' this is of the real meaning of passion. The original meaning is derived from French, and earlier from Latin passio, suffering, noun of action from perfect passive participle passus, suffered. The word, in other words, isn't about finding great joy, but about entering into great suffering. Of course, we use the word this way too when we speak of the 'passion of Christ'. But I promise you Jesus didn't embrace the cross the same way a chef embraces cooking.

I suppose a reason the word is used both ways is because both meanings are, at the core, related. Do you want to be a great chef? You'll suffer along the way. Do you want to climb a mountain. I promise you that you'll suffer physical, both in preparation, and in fulfillment of the vision. The same can be said for virtually any endeavor you love, from tennis to teaching the Bible. So passion has an element of suffering in it that we deny at our peril. And it's the loss of this aspect that is often behind the loss of continuity in marriages, employment, and so many other endeavors. When it gets hard, it's tempting to say, "I've lost the passion" and walk. The reality is that you might well be on the cusp of the deeper joy that only comes with endurance and the suffering endurance reuires.

On the other hand, Jesus' passion wasn't all about suffering. In Hebrews we learn that he 'endured the cross' for the joy set before him. His willingness to suffer was driven not by raw, dogged obedience, but by the hope of great joy that would come from the power of the cross and resurrection.

So I suppose the word passion needs both elements doesn't it - joy and suffering. This makes sense, because the deepest joys will always have a price attached to them: humility, brokenness, endurance, self-denial - all those nasty little elements that make life hard. Don't shrink back from them please... they're part of your passion.