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...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

How is Your Faith Sustained?

I'm in a Celtic Christianity discussion group and there's been an e-mail trail going for the past few days regarding the HOW of gaining faith. An individual is struggling with doubt about the whole package, and wonders what can be done to strengthen faith, and what the role of faith is in our pursuit of Christ. Here's my reponse:

Greetings to all from Seattle...

I'll just echo some of things already written here, but with a slightly different twist. First, it seems that, at least in our part of the country, there is a greater openness to faith now than was there 25 years ago. I think the crisis of modernity, and the deconstructing of certainty in the disciplines of science, literature, and history, have created a vacuum of certainty.

Into this vacuum a strange blend of openness and doubt, faith and skepticism, engagement and cynicism has rushed. The result is a culture that, at the same time, is both more willing to believe without 'objective evidence' AND less certain of the validity of ANY belief they ultimately hold. I find this to be a good yet scary place for the church. It's good in that people are more willing to 'check it out' and give Jesus a try because they don't so readily dismiss our unbelievable doctrines (and when you think about it - the resurrection is really a stretch; 3 days? Come on. Yet I do believe it!) At the same time that there's this openness to faith, there's also this pragmatic dismissal of any belief system that doesn't work, discarded like a pair of shoes that's worn out. For this reason the church (and we who serve it) had better work hard to enable its community to testify of the reality of Christ's life. If all we're preserving is a form or an institution, I really don't think it will survive this age of skepticism. Nor should it.

But the other difficulty, of course, is that our walk faith takes us through valleys of darkness. Those are the times that worry me most in this age. If my faith is purely pragmatic, then when the discipline, refining, and purifying processes of Christ begin to occur in my life, I'll suddenly get the itch for a new pair of shoes! Faith continues to press on saying 'this I believe' even when God seems absent. In those moments, I hang on to the moments when I saw clearly: a sunrise in the Cascade mountains, a demon leaving the body of a young women in response to prayer, a subjective sense of His presence in the silence, the wisdom and strength to sustain my marriage or ministry. The reminders are like the stones gathered from the Jordan river as 'stones of remembrance' so that when I see nothing, I can still, at least see the stones.

What sort of stones have YOU seen in your life? Are there moments when you saw, when you encountered the holy, when you knew that you knew? Maybe sharing them would help you - and the rest of us.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Simple Pleasures -

In Screwtape Letters, the devil writes this about God:

"He's a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. he makes no secret of it; at His right hand are 'pleasures for evermore'... He's vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. he has filled His world with pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least - sleeping, washing, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it's any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side."

Yes. But do we believe it? Or are we afraid of the incredible joys that are ours for the taking - afraid that we should be saving the world instead of enjoying. I understand the admonitions warning us all against complacency and idolatry. But it seems that, in some cases, these very admonitions have become the grounds for disengagement from real joy - from tasting anything, because to feel pleasure would necessitate an openness to pain as well. Fearful of the pain of feeling, we spiritualize disengagement from lots of things: creativity, our sexuality, our food, laughter, and much more.

Even the writing of these words has me wondering how people will respond - "is he advocating promiscuity and drunkenness?" I hope you know me better than that. I'm advocating living fully - by receiving both the pleasures and pains that each day brings, and tasting them fully.

I MUST write about politics again before the election - but right now I'm in search of some good coffee.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Bread/Strength/Freedom connection

Establish my footsteps in your Word,
And do not let any iniquity have dominion over me
Redeem me from the oppression of man,
That I may keep your precepts.
(Psalm 119:133-135)

I wonder how many of us have made some sort of truce with iniquity, granting it power over our lives. Spending? Sex? Eating? Not Eating?

I know the issues are complex, but I also believe that, as this Psalm indicates, there’s a direct connection between being established in the Word and gaining power over sin. If we’ll eat the Living Bread, we’ll find strength to endure and overcome. The Living Bread… not the Bible… but Christ Himself. Of course, He’s revealed through the Bible, and thus the prayer of the Psalmist… ‘establish my footsteps in your word’. Our staff and board will be reading, “Eat this Book” this fall for this very purpose. I’d recommend it to anyone.

My daily devotional book offers a prayer related to this verse: “Lord, order my steps in Your word. Don’t let any iniquity have dominion over me; let no sin rule over me. Shine Your face on me, Your servant. Lord, be Lord of all of me. I want You to be the Master, no my independence, my wrong actions and attachments, my wrong attitudes. None of these should master me.”

It’s a good prayer. Who, after all, has the energy to drag around a ball of chain all day long?

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Not that everybody is always sitting around reading - and not that everyone who is sitting around reading is looking for these kinds of books...BUT there are some of you who have asked for a reading list. Since the nights are longer, many of us are going indoors. With el nino predicted for this winter, we might be looking at sketchy snow, which might mean even more reading time due to less skiing (or perhaps we'll just do some winter mountaineering instead!).

Anyway, here's a quick list of recommended books. Each of them has been a part of my life over the past year. Some I've read completely, others partially, some for the 1st time, others revisited:

Letters from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The Great Divorce, by CS Lewis (fiction)
The Space Trilogy, by CS Lewis (fiction) - It's good even if you don't like fiction.
Leap Over a Wall, by Eugene Peterson - Studies from the life of David
Why the Rest Hates the West - a study of the cultural differences that are contributing to tensions between Western Civilization and other parts of the world.
Resident Aliens -
Reclaiming America, by Richard Austin. This books is an examination of environmental issues in America; how our lifestyles and policies contribute to the problem, and what we could do to change things. Though his ideas are outside the mainstream, Austin presents a thoughtful offering.
Moral Vision of the New Testament, by Richard Hays. This author will be at Seattle Pacific in November. The study of ethics seems to be one of the most significant disciplines the church needs to address at the beginning of the 21st century, and Hays' book is at the forefront of this arena.
Eat this Book, by Eugene Peterson. This is an offering from Peterson about what it means to be absorb the Bible into the fabric of our lives.

So grab some good coffee... grind the beans yourself... make your French press coffee... light a fire... and read!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Audacity of Hope

The political landscape of America has always been shifting sand. Look at a red state/ blue state chart from 150 years ago and compare it to today; you’ll see what I mean. One of the more recent phenomenon in political mapping has been the union of Christian conservatives with the Republican party. There are many reasons for this, but primarily it seems that issues such as abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places are the litmus test issues for this block of voters.

I’m wondering if there’s a change on the horizon. I just finished reading Time’s book excerpt from, ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama. Here’s a democrat who is open, both about his faith and the role that faith must, of necessity play in the public arena. The difference for Obama is that his work with, and experience of the ‘historically black church’ offered a powerful apologetic for the issues of faith to be both rooted in something transcendent, and effective the public spheres of poverty, justice, racism, and war. What will happen when a democratic presidential candidate begins to openly profess the connection between faith and public policy? What will happen when such a discussion leads to debates across party lines that have theological overtones (for example: is pre-emptive war in keeping with the ethic of Christ? Is abortion wrong when the culture into which a child is born is unsupported with economic and educational assistance? I could list twenty more… but don’t have time)?

What Obama calls the ‘historically black church’ was appealing to one of my favorite theologians. In part, I think his perception of this same seamless theology, which spoke to all areas of life, was that to which he was drawn.

Interesting days are ahead, when candidates on both sides of the isle are appealing to the teachings of Jesus as the basis for their political convictions. This will demand that churches offer a voice in the midst of the discourse, critiquing the dialogue with sound theology and hermeneutics. Are you ready for that? Are we ready for that? What an exciting time to be alive!

Thursday, October 12, 2006


I've been pondering this reality that 'the Word became flesh' recently because it seems to me that the Word is still becoming flesh in so many ways, in so many lives, all around me each day. The Word is made visible in caring for the homeless, and in helping one's neighbor, and adopting a child, and cleaning up a salmon stream, and giving dignity to the elder, and caring for aging parents, and praying for world leaders, and spending time with children, and walking the streets of Seattle at night in order to be a safe person for those in need, and making beautiful art. So many seems.

We who are given gifts of teaching to share with God's people are, when we are at our worst, mere journalists. We dig into the text, pick it apart, look for profound meanings, and then look around our sphere of relationships to find stories from real life that illustrate what it is we're trying to say. I say we're at our worst in this posture because unless we're actually living it ourselves, it's far too easy to take the Word which has become flesh and reduce to mere word again.

It's because of this, that the teacher of Jesus' truth needs to be especially careful. The goal of this kind of teaching is entirely different than the teacher of, say, world history. To fill listeners with facts or ideas about Jesus is pointless. Real Bible teaching is more like teaching a musical instrument, because the goal is help the gathered community learn to actually play the music of Christ's reign. Mere mental assent won't cut it. And I don't know any worthwhile piano teacher who doesn't delight in playing, and who also carves out time to play... regularly. If that teacher is teaching all the time - and in between lessons is busy working on all the adminstration attending to the piano studio, then eventually the whole point gets lost.

That's why Paul said to young Timothy, who was called to teaching and leadership - be absorbed in these things, so that your progress might be evident to all. Paul exemplified this in his ministry. His teaching was biographical - and that's what made it live, made it powerful.

We're good here in the west at reducing Christianity to a set of concepts. We learn them, defend them, and affirm them verbally. Meanwhile, when we're at our worst, we continue to ignore the environment, and our neighbors, and the AIDS crisis, and the crisis in our own circles of intimacy. The Word became flesh - but we who teach are in danger of making it mere words again, and this, my friend, is the worst possible thing!

Monday, October 09, 2006

The glory thread... on the ridge

The Link is fixed. Try pictures

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The threads of our lives.

We’re weaving a story, all of us, and much of how that picture appears will be the result of the choices we make, the threads we return to time and again to weave into our tapestry. Paul speaks in Colossians 1 of three threads: suffering, glory, and labor. Each of these 3 threads have a long and rich history as primary colors in the economy of God.

But why stop there? Each of us has habits to which we return regularly, and these habits are shaping us powerfully. Are you eating trash on a regular basis or seven servings of fruits and vegetables per day? Are you exercising or sitting around watching TV? Are you serving others or disengaging? Are you meeting Christ in the Bible, or fellowship, or creation, on a regular basis?

I have a little sheet at my desk that reminds me of five or six threads that I need to be consistently weaving into my fabric. Taken together, these things address emotion, mind, body, spirit, relationships. I find it helpful to name those threads and seek to stay at the loom, and continue to draw from those threads regularly, because without that intentionality, I tend to pick up anything within reach. The result of that kind of living, for me anyway, is that my tapestry becomes jumbled, random, ill defined. And worse, I become exhausted.

We need to work hard at keeping the tapestry vision before us. We’ll surely fail, all of us, sometimes for moments, and sometimes for months. But hopefully we’ll always have a benchmark to which we may return. What are kinds of threads are you weaving:

  1. to open your spirit to God’s revelation?
  2. to open your heart to relationships?
  3. to open your body to cleansing, strength, rest?
  4. to open your life to courage, beauty, celebration?

Paul doesn’t appeal to weaving, but he’s really saying the same thing here. And here. Transformation doesn’t happen accidentally!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Eccumenicity – and the color Green

I’m sitting in the midst of the woods as I write, and writing is difficult because I can’t take my eyes of the color green. Perhaps colors green would be more accurate: here the green of the vine maple leaves, there the green of the blue-spruce, or hemlock, or fir, or sword fern, or cedar. Here the green lit by the sun, there the green muted by the shade. . Here the moss on the tree, there the groundcover. Count, if you can, how many shades of green are there; or don’t count. Either way, you know there are hundreds of shades, just among the trees alone, never mind the ground cover.

Rich Mullins sings of how God has provided ‘the color green’ to fill these fields with praise. The stunning, lavish diversity of it all reminds of God’s intention for the global church. I’m impressed by malleability of the gospel. Go to Nepal and see the prayer flags strung in the courtyard of the church building, with men and women sitting on ground opposite sides of the sanctuary. Try South America, with the unabashedly open expressions of emotion that are so characteristic of Latin American peoples. Let’s visit a home Bible study in England where you’ll find people sipping merlot as they consider the implications of Isaiah and God’s kingdom claims on their lives. Few Christians drink wine in Nepal. In England or France it’s almost a given. In Germany? Beer. In Seattle? Coffee. In Southern California? - I’m still trying to figure that out.

High Church. Low Church. Rock Music. Chant. Taize. Smoke machines. Incense. Prayer flags. Prayer beads. Hey – if the Spirit is in it, it’s all the colors green – all tree.

Ecology, it seems, has some important lessons to teach us about church life. Fir trees belong in the soggy Northwest, and Palm trees in the California desert because the convergence of climate and soil have created a culture hospitable to certain trees, but not others. Likewise, the soil of culture (social mores and taboos, economic matters, and even physical geography) become nutrients for some forms of church, but are utterly hostile to others. It’s this capacity of the church to take shape in diverse environments that is one of the reasons for its global appeal. You don’t need to learn Hebrew, build a building with certain size windows, and sing songs at certain times of the day. Instead, the church morphs to fit the culture. Yet, when Christ is still in the midst, it remains the church; just a different shade of green.

Of course this malleability has it’s own danger. If we’re not careful to ‘guard the good news’, the culture forms that contain it may so torture and mutate the message that the gospel gets lost entirely. We need to work hard at preserving the essence which is this.

When the church fails to understand this, her mission endeavors impose the same shade of green everywhere. Such activity is better called colonialism than mission, for God’s intention has always been the redeeming of various cultures, rather than their destruction. So let’s stop insisting that our color green is the greenest of them all – the diversity is a testimony to the incredible beauty and freedom that Christ’s body has, and I’d argue that a body that is beautiful, creative, adaptable, and free, is healthy.