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...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tough Times in Europe

In Europe

While most of you who read this are fighting the snow and cold – this little ski town where I teach is facing what locals are calling the warmest winter in 300 years. There’s not even a hint of snow, and I'm sure the warmth here is a crisis similar to the cold there.

But there's a bigger crisis looming over all of this continent. Many Europeans are wrestling with the increasing economic divide between the developed and developing countries. The vast $$ distance between the two, coupled with increasing instability in many parts of the middle-east is creating an immigration crisis here that is perhaps larger and more volatile than our own. I say more volatile because most of the developing countries, wrestling with poverty and high unemployment, also have strong Islamic ties of some sort. Thus the swing to the right in Europe is seen by some as religious bigotry rather than just a matter of economics, further fueling the already tense relationships between Europeans natives and Muslim immigrants. And it's creating huge tensions, both within and among the various European countries. Union hardly seems an accurate word right now.

What kind of hopeful solution is there to immigration problems if the fundamental problems of economic inequities remain unmet? And with the divergent agendas of G8 leaders, multi-national corporations, and the often corrupt leaders of developing nations, no plan has yet been cast that will bring the needed changes to all three of these parties. And all three, like legs of a stool, need to change their vision at very fundmental levels if they’re to work together for the economic good of all.

I’ve traveled over here many times, but never has it seemed this bleak. It’s as if almost every person with whom I speak sees dark clouds of change gathering on the horizon and yet feels powerless to do anything about it. Perhaps they’re right. And though they sense they can’t stop the impending storm, they are determined to build shelters of hope, large enough for all who are looking for a different kingdom than the warring kingdoms of this world. Such is the heart of many of these Christians I meet in Europe, as summarized by an Austrian I spoke with today: “We can’t fix this large problems. Perhaps nobody can. But we can love our neighbors. We can practice hospitality. We can live generously. We can pray. We can help small economic development projects. Rather than despairing, we’ll do what we can in Jesus name.”

These are good words and vital for each of us. Find a calling – step into it. Find a need – meet it. Someone once said that all that is needed for evil to reign is for good men to do nothing. If we close our eyes to the evils around us, and withdraw into our small worlds of self-interest and consumption, we become, by our passivity, part of the problem. Though I’m discouraged by the news on the European front, I’m heartened by the faithful who are seeking to embody hope in the midst of dark days. O Come – Emmanuel.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

How we meet Jesus - or don't

I worshipped yesterday in a Catholic cathedral in Europe. The only part of the worship I understood were the Latin phrases imploring our Lord to have mercy on us. But I must say that in spite of the language barrier, it was an incredible, powerful, worship experience. I’ve been in the these cathedrals before many times during the week, but was visiting my friends who live in Salzburg this past Saturday, and then needed to take the train to where I’m teaching this week beginning Sunday night.

After breakfast Sunday morning my friends asked me if I wanted to go to the central section of Salzburg and just walk around for a little while before catching the train. Because I love this city, and because it’s rumored by locals to be the warmest autumn in 300 years and was a clear, sunny morning, I eagerly agreed. We wandered through the town square, which is presently an advent market, opened a week early and made our way to the church building and stood in the back for a few moments during worship. The building was full in every way – full of people (mostly elderly) – full of incredible sounds, as one heard the vocal cries for Christ’s mercy, sung in Latin (and the only parts I understood) – full of smells as incense and smoke filled the air, caressing the senses – and full of visuals, from the images of our Lord, to the light filtering through the stained glass, to people standing, kneeling, praying. We didn't stay long - but it was a powerful experience, awakening my heart to Christ in ways somehow lost in the previous 24 hours of airports, planes, and trains.

I asked my friend why there are so few young people and he had no answers. My own thoughts are that though the experience was powerful and deeply engaging for my own heart, the power came because I already have a context into which I can place everything that’s happening, along with a deep desire to worship Jesus and meet him there. Perhaps when those things are already present, these kind of places can be incredibly powerful, even with the language barrier.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and planned restoration of all things is either not known, or understood, or believed, or compelling enough of a story to invite real relationship and response. When Jesus as a reality and His kingdom as a hope is missing from one’s heart, worship would be, at best, an aesthetic experience, at worst a boring scam.

We evangelicals work hard to overcome some of these problems by making Jesus and his teachings incredibly relevant, digestible, and practical. But often in the process we’ve stolen any sense of mystery or transcendence or even beauty from the worship experience. Such robbery is shameful at many levels. What’s needed isn’t a dumbing down of worship, but an interpretation of the experiences and symbols for the uninitiated, coupled with sound teaching of the grand stories of the Bible and what they can mean for us today.

What do you think? Has the pendulum swung too far from mystery and beauty because of our addiction for practicality and relevance? What’s the best way to strike the balance? What does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth? I’m hoping you’ll respond – we need some dialogue on this blog!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Jesus trumped by Jay-Z

Last December my son and I enjoyed a short time in Budapest. In the wake of totalitarianism, it seems that these Hungarians have recovered the celebration of advent with a vengeance. There are huge advent markets in several places in town. The most centrally located one, placed in the geographical equivalent of Westlake Mall, offers a live nativity re-enactment of the whole story, from annunciation to the wise-men, all day, every day, on the hour. It’s complete with livestock, trumpets heralding Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and live camels with Wise-men traveling right through the center of the market in their search for the boy king.

I had to smile as I watched one of the wise man pause on his journey in order to peruse a market stand selling CD’s. Here’s this wise-man, distracted from his pursuit of Jesus because the latest Jay-Z offering has hit the stores! How ironic that pursuing the King of Kings should be displaced by the trivial.

I hadn’t thought of that moment until just this morning, when the picture of the distracted wise man came up on my screen saver. And then I thought of my morning routine. I like to rise, read the Scripture and devotional of the day from my Celtic Daily Prayer guide, and then spend some time in silence.

This morning? The alarm goes off. I’d switched the radio to AM 950 some days earlier to hear a Sonic score. This morning, still on Sports radio, I hear that Hugh Millan will be breaking down the details of the Seahawks disastrous loss to the 49ers. I’m curious if Hugh agrees with me that Jeremy Stevens is at the center of all that ails us. Without a good tight-end on offense, you loss effectiveness on the short passes, and I know that I can catch better than Stevens, even though I’m 50 years old. I listen for the breakdown.

I get up and scan the Times, learning about Microsoft’s new release called Vista. And what is Wi-I anyway? Then the comics. Then the editorials. Then a smoothy. Then a little bit from yesterday’s Pacific Magazine about the climber who rescued a man on Everest. I really need to get back in shape for climbing. Then some push-ups. Then breakfast. Oops. Time for my first appointment, and out the door I go – having been distracted in more ways that I can count, from my pursuit of Christ.

When the wise man appeared on my screen saver, and I remembered the irony of his distractions that December morning, I heard a voice: “That’s you Richard. Filled with desire to seek Christ – but all too often, easily distracted.”

It’s both ironic and strangely challenging that the advent season is so busy. The whirlwind of concerts, parties, cards, shopping, family events, and entertainment options can so fill our lives that Christ is more easily crowded out in December than any other time of the year. But the season is really about learning to seek Christ, focusing all our hopes on Him. Of course, we say that’s where our hopes resides. But on our way to the manger, there are hundreds of voices calling us elsewhere: stay in bed and listen to sports radio – get up early and go skiing – buy those gifts – sign those cards – go to that concert - ponder new skiis.

It’s important to remember that our real vote is with our feet. If we’re continually distracted by the glitter of advent opportunities, none of them inherently harmful, we may never make it to the manger. And it’s the One in the manger that, above all else, we desparately need.

Oh Lord Christ;

Grant that during this coming advent season we would pursue You with our whole hearts. Enable us to carve space in our lives for worship, silence, reading of Your words. So speak to our hearts that we are able to identify the trivial distractions that seduce us away from the manger. And give us the grace to turn away from them, fixing our gaze on your light as the hope of our hearts.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Theology meets: EVERYTHING

Pastoral ministry is bizarre. In contrast to the majority of specialized vocations in our culture, pastoral work, addressing whole people, whole community, and cosmic forces, seems to be the place where physiology, psychology, history, philosophy, art, economics, politics, theology, leadership, nutrition, and nearly every other discipline converge. Thus the pastor finds himself in the position of needing to discern across these vast realms, seeking to understand what is needed.

Addictive behavior is a great example of this. Is addiction purely psychological? The weight of science indicates that there's a strong physiological component as well. Is there a spiritual component too? Nutritional?

Ours is culture with depth of expertise in virtually every area. Meanwhile, here's the pastor - with a breadth of knowledge, not very deep, spanning the whole of culture. The problem with breadth is that there's a continual danger of shallow answers and inaccurate assessments. The problem with depth is that the specialist sees everything in terms of his/her discpline. As someone once said, 'to a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail'.

The church, it seems, needs to be a community bringing sound theological underpinnings to the application of all these disciplines. This is what makes pastoral ministry so challenging, and at the same time, so enjoyable. In the course of a week, a pastor might be addressing the physiological, psychological, and spiritual components of suicide, ADD, and addictive behavior. In addition, they'll face issues related to family dynamics and economics as they deal with issues of homelessness and bankruptcy.

We who are pastors do ourselves a dis-service when we refuse to listen to the specialists. We're equally irresponsible when we grant specialists absolute, priestly authority, refusing to bring theology to bear on a particular discipline. Ministry isn't meant to be about putting on a nice little show on Sundays, so that we can then get on with our lives. It's about equipping us to live out our professions faithfully and fruitfully, and to be a community where people are empowered to use their gifts in such a way that Christ's presence increases in the neighborhood. This requires both specialists...and pastors...and sound theology.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Learning from Ted Haggard

It's been over a week since the scandal of Ted Haggard shocked the evangelical world. I've read varied responses and part of me wants to waste no more time on the issue. But there is something important to be said, something best said by Shakespeare at the end of Romeo and Juliet: "All are punished. All are punished!" It doesn't matter if you're Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Mainline, or Fundamentalist - the name of Christ has once again been dragged through the deepest mud of hypocrisy and sordid sexual sin. Rather than point fingers, it seems that we who call ourselves Christians need to spend time repenting:

1. Forgive us Lord, for allowing ourselves to be seduced by political and ecclesiastical power. We've allowed our obssessions with legislation and political mistresses, or our boasting of institutional church growth to displace the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ, who alone can enable us to live the life to which we're called.
2. Forgive us Lord for failing to take seriously your admonition to confess our sins to one another. Thinking that we need to present an image of righteousness, we are quick to hide our own struggles. In reality, it's our process of transformation, from glory to glory, that needs to be seen, but will never be visible apart from confession.
3. Forgive us Lord for making confession unsafe. Perhaps had there been safety and grace earlier, folly and foolish choices never would have escalated into such ugliness. May each of your people have safe relationships where real confession can occur.
4. Forgive us Lord for forgetting that when we carry your name, people actually make decisions about who you are based on how we live. May this truth be seared into our hearts and change our thoughts, speech, and actions.
5. Forgive us Lord for creating public and private personas. Give us a vision and passion to be more seamless in our living, for such is the example you set for us.

Temporal success carries grave dangers with it in any realm, for the seeds of arrogance and autonomy, in all of us, find fertile soil in acolades. Perhaps that's why Paul said that his thorn in the flesh was a blessing... for when we are weak, then we are strong. Haggard is no doubt stronger now than he was a month ago, because when things are brought into the light they become light. It just seems that the key is to bring things into the light every day, rather than letting them fester and grow into ugly cancerous obsessions.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Hearing...and then doing

Here's the sermon link that goes with this picture. Indeed, it often seems that physical response, and visual expression do more to move truth from head to heart than a thousand sermons could ever do on their own. On the other hand, our experiences of nailing 'certificates of debt' to the cross this past Sunday would never have been meaningful at all if not for a thoughtful consideration of Paul's declarations, which can be found here.

Through all this, I'm reminded of the value of not just hearing - but responding. May our practice of both habits increase.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Rainy nights and street lights

I come home from my fourth worship service on Sunday. It's raining - hard. I'm tired. The rest of the family is watching 'home makeover' downstairs, but I don't know the plight of the family who's being helped, having arrived home too late to catch the plot. There's a better show upstairs anyway.

I sit on the sofa and stare out into the street light, watching the rain as it's captured by the light and falls to ground. There's something incredibly beautiful about it and I'm transfixed. Recollections come easily, of all the times I've sat right here over the past eleven years. This spot in the living has been the place of birthdays and graduations, music making and hospitality, Christmas mornings and laughter. It's been the space for some very good conversations - too many to number: After WTO Seattle, with friends for my 50th birthday, various groups and meetings. Tense moments, difficulties, misunderstandings, frustrations...these have somehow occured more often elsewhere in this house. But as I watch the rain, I realize that this space in our house has been more or less preserved. There's no television in this part of the house - just a piano, guitar, viola. As a result it's the place ofconversation and creativity - both life giving forces.

The years have passed quickly under this streetlight, and many rains have fallen. I sit long enough to ponder - and give thanks for shelter from the storms - enjoyed in every way in this little space, in this little house, on this little street. With enough money, anyone can buy a house. But shelter? Shelter is harder. It doesn't come because one is rich or poor. It comes by other means - by grace. May Christ Himself become to each of us a source of shelter, and may we each find the wisdom to nurture that sense of shelther, fortifying it with the ingredients of grace and peace, as we guard the gifts entrusted to us.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

before mid-term elections

In his book, “Sabbath”, Wayne Muller writes, “There is a grand and lively debate flourishing throughout the land, lamenting the tragic decline in our morality and values. Where in our political life…have our traditionally held values of honesty, courage, and integrity gone? Where in our civic life are the fundamental qualities of respect, deliberation, and wisdom? Where, in our personal lives, are the codes of individual responsibility and accountability, civility and compassion?”

Of course, this weekend before mid-term elections, many of us have received ‘voter pamphlets’ in the mail that provide a ready answer. As bad as things are already, all thoughtful people of faith had better vote republican on Tuesday, because anything less than that is a vote for godlessness, late term abortion, oppressive taxation, fearful surrender to terrorism and every other ill that could possibly plague us. “Keep things the same and things will get better” seems to be the cry of the day.

Lest you think my sarcasm mark me as a democrat, let me hasten to point out that the minority party has offered no compelling vision to address the problems of the day. The best they have offered us is, “We’re not republican”. I’m sorry, but a vision of negation isn’t very compelling.

By all means vote – pray, deliberate alone or with friends – and vote. But understand that neither party can answer the questions Mueller asks, because both parties presume that such qualities can be nurtured in our current meta-vision which defines the good life as an ever increasing cycle of economic production and consumption. Such a model is flawed at so many levels one doesn’t know where to even begin. But quickly, let’s note:

  1. Economic indicators don’t measure the things of greatest value. The woman who is caring for her Alzheimer’s afflicted husband, changing his clothes, helping him bathe, and taking him for walks makes no contribution to the GDP. Nor does the person who signs so deaf people can attend our worship services. And what of the woman who cares for her children, loves her husband, and bakes fresh bread for the family, whether living in St. Louis or Bangladesh? Worthless by GDP standards. Unless money changes hand, nothing of value has happened. This is so deeply engrained into the fabric our global culture, that millions are trading the priceless values of nurture, intimacy, creation, and love for the transient promises of economic gain. It’s a shabby trade, rooted in a faulty means of assessing worth and we’re paying a global price.
  2. To increase consumption, we must increase discontentment. Thus the model is actually built on making people unhappy with their current state of things, which might be fair for those living on $2 a day, but is ridiculous for we of the developed world, awash as we are in stuff we don’t really need and still, for the most part, unhappy.
  3. The cycle of production and consumption creates another cycle: The cycle of weariness. In this cycle, we work increasingly long hours to buy things we don’t need, and drop into our beds at night exhausted, with no time for volunteering, or cooking with fresh ingredients, or having good conversation while the candles melt down, or making love, or walking slowly through the park to sense the turning of seasons, or read our Bibles and pray.

If you’ll pardon an analogy, it’s as if a couple is interviewing two different painters for the job of re-doing our house, in hopes that a new paint job will fix all the pathologies that plague them and their children. The parties are the painters, the parents the voters. Come now. Is new paint really the solution? I wonder if the meth-lab in the basement might not be an issue? Cosmetic solutions and discussions abound, but they’re all basically the same: how can we recover civility, safety, and tranquility, while maintaining our relentless pursuit of upward mobility and global economic domination?’ Call me when hell freezes over. You’ll certainly have your answer by then.

This needn't be as pessimistic as it sounds. In fact, far from it, this assessment simply points out the grave need for the church to articulate a 3rd way - a way based on entirely different assumptions. When we begin to step into this way, the light will, in increasing measure shine into the darkness. That's hope - and a vision worth living for. Happy Voting!!