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...

Sunday, December 31, 2006

the year in pictures - 06 review

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Year End... Do you review or look ahead?

It's tempting, on a clear blue Saturday, to throw some snow shoes in the car and run out of town for a day in the snow. But I've been skiing quite a bit with the family this past week, and so today has become a much needed work day. It's enough to sit at the table and watch the trees, sparse in their winter nudity, as I plow through some paperwork and get ready for the new year.

As the year comes to a close, I'm wondering about the differences between people who tend to look back over the past year, and the people who tend to look forward. I know that the categories can't be absolute, and that it's a vast generalization to say that someone does either to the exclusion of the other. But it is true that people are generally either forward looking or retrospective.

I look back mostly by going through my pictures from the past year. A 16th birthday party; a climb in Colorado; a groundbreaking ceremony at the church I pastor; some time spent in a mountain cabin with family; visiting friends in Europe (including a crazy hike in the Alps, in 60 degree weather there, while it was snowing in Seattle!).

But mostly, I look forward. And I try to do so with an eye towards the various roles I have:

Teacher - I'll be teaching through the life of David this winter, and am pondering a series on sexuality, followed by one on either prayer or ??? In addition, I'm scheduled to write a book this year, and have already begun working on it. Towards that end I want to continue to devote large chunks of time to reading, writing, and study.

Shepherd - the largest amount of my shepherding time, in a church of Bethany's size, is deovted presently to staff and the church council (or elders if you're from that school of naming). I've not always done well in this arena. But I'm trying to be more proactive in these arenas, and am making prayer for this team of leaders, and for special needs in our congregation, a higher priority. I'm touched by the reminder the Pope John Paul would listen to anyone who visited him and write down their prayer requests in book, which he then took to prayer each morning. May I learn to pray with such consistency and devotion.

Leader - Of course, with a new building project, there are many challenges and changes in our little flock in Seattle. We'll be working on space allocation matters, shepherding our community through the many changes that come with occupying a new facility, and facing the challenges of stewarding our resources with incredible care and devotion during this critical stage of our growth.

Family - I'd like to be one who is consistently investing in my marriage and my children. My style for doing that generally includes taking one of the kids with me on teaching trips, and making certain that my wife and I have time together that is private, away from the demands that draw down our energies and make honest communication difficult.

Personal Development - I remain committed to the Aidan Way as a template for practiciing spiritual disciplines, hopeful that I'll continue to grow in these things. In addition, I've a couple of mountains on a 'to do list' for this summer, knowing that these kinds of goals get my butt out of bed in the mornings for either swimming or running or some other activity that might enable me to keep my lungs filled with air.

The point of sharing this stuff isn't to bore you with the particular details but to simply point out that all of us have various roles in life, and that there is perhaps some value in being intentional about what we do with those various roles. As the Psalmist says, the days are short! I'd like to live them in a way that might allow Christ to be seen. It's a stewardship issue really - what are we doing with what we've got?

How do you steward what God's given you?

Happy New Year

Friday, December 22, 2006


As I'm driving north on the interstate this morning, there's a remarkable show unfolding just northeast of me. One can look around western washington on any given winter's day see a beauty that can only be described as 'sparse'. It's the beauty of slumber in a way, the beauty of everything having fallen asleep, as if it's waiting for the kiss of some prince to awaken her from a curse. And frankly, the view can be, when you're tired of gray skies, and trees, and fields, and mountains, and even moods... well it can be a little gray.

Many of us, though, adapt quickly, and soon we don't even notice that everything, from sky to earth is roughly the same color, or lack of color. We adapt to the gray world so that it becomes normal, and we get on with our lives; our shopping, buying, selling, loving, hating, fighting, sleeping, and consuming.

Then it sneaks up on us - a morning like this one. The snow fell low last night and the sky blew clear, so that as I'm looking at the mountains ahead of me to the northeast, they're dazzling - dazzling white, against a backdrop of blue. The trees have been suddenly clothed in white and are glistening. The sky has been healed. And the light of the sun behind me becomes a spotlight on the whole show as if to say to any of us who happen to be looking: "Hey there! Look at this. One breath from God and the dullness is blown away like so much chaff in a breeze! Instead beauty, and hope, and celebration. Can you see it?"

Yes I can. There's something awakened in my soul, something which had fallen asleep the same way the landscape had. But more significantly, I became aware of the truce I'd made with grayness. How quickly I'd stopped noticing that the world had become dull!

It's just like us isn't it? We're assaulted one night by Darfur and we can't even eat our supper after watching the evening news because our senses have been so ravaged. But by third night? "Pass the bread please" we say, as the news of rape and pillage rolls off our backs. There are two tragedies in our age. The first is that the world is gray with disease, famine, murder, power struggles that victimize the poorest of the world, pollution that is killing our planet, we're being enslaved to corporations and reduced to units of consumption and production, and so much more. The life is being sucked out of us. We're becoming increasingly colorless.

But the second tragedy is perhaps far worse. We've made a truce with grayness, so that, increasingly, it seems that the things that should make us weep don't penetrate our hardened souls. When this happens, 30000 a die dying of treatable diseases becomes normal. War and the carnage contained in it? The price of freedom. Even more personally: Dinner - TV - sleep - wake - shower - breakfast - commute - work - commute again and on the way home we find ourselves wondering what we'll watch tonight. It wouldn't be so tragic if we knew it was tragic. It's the truce we make with it that's the real pity.

The role of the Holy Spirit, we're told, is to bring conviction of sin. This can happen in many ways, but perhpas the best way it happens it when we see - really see - the colors of the world. When we see peace, and beauty, when we experience good conversation, when we make love and rest in the arms of the one with whom we life and cry - these moments of color will serve to show us just how much of a truce we've made with gray.

Thank God for snowcapped peaks, reflecting sun off their crystals, with a backdrope of azure. If we look long enough, we can see the landscape an invitation to pick the pallet and begin to color the rest of our world too.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Gift that Keeps Giving

In just a few days we’ll tear into some cool presents. We’ll rejoice in dvd’s we didn’t even know we wanted, and perfumes that we’re not sure we like. We’ll get sweaters and watches and candles and bottles of wine, and maybe a gift certificate to IKEA or REI or the OLIVE GARDEN so that we can customize our gift, acquiring exactly what we we think will make our life fuller and richer.

But here’s the reality. Within days, food gifts will be gone. Within months, perfumes will be consumed. Within a year, maybe two, the clothes will either be out of style or forgotten. Toys will break. Even the things we buy with our gift certificates have a good chance of ending up in a garage sale.

Of course, the reality isn’t as bleak as all that. Every year, it seems, there’s something that sticks. A book that becomes a favorite; a game that we keep playing; something for the kitchen. I even have a sweater that’s from about 10 Christmases ago. But most gifts? They float away like water in a winter storm.

If we take the bigger picture, however, we realize that the greatest gift of all keeps on giving, and will keep on giving for all eternity. When Christ came, he gave gifts of healing, hope, forgiveness, even life out from death. And now that He’s lived, died, rose, and ascended – He’s in a position to give even more. He told his followers that after He left the earth they’d continue to give, and that, by virtue of their presence in every corner of the globe, they’d be able to give more gifts, and greater gifts than the original Giver was capable of while walking on earth.

That’s what I love about Christmas. Jesus is still giving. He’s curing and caring for lepers in India. He’s freeing women from sexual slavery in Africa. He’s giving dignity to a man dying of AIDS in Seattle. He’s offering shelter to the homeless. He’s laughing with a prisoner as he sits with her over lunch and hears her story, shares her tears. He’s running a hospital in Nepal, caring for the frostbitten limbs of Tibetan Buddhist refugees. He’s working to reconcile warring tribes in Uganda, and Palestines and Jews in Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus is still giving in a million quiet ways. He is the ONE gift that will never die.

What are you doing in His name? Who are you serving and blessing? Because that, after all, is the whole point isn’t it?

Blessed Advent

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

building on brokenness

The houses that 'came down' today seem to be an apt metaphor for so much of life. We carefully construct our houses of cards, building our lives on carefully crafted assumptions about tomorrow. "We'll go here. We'll do this." And perhaps we shall. But there are times, as well, when things come crashing down because of what we didn't anticipate: illness, unemployment, family crisis, the children, divorce, the loss of a friend or loved one.

But the deconstruction is always only the precursor to the construction. That's a message that runs consistently throughout the Bible. After loss, recovery. After mourning, rejoicing. "Come let us return to the Lord. He has torn us, but He will heal us." Am I willing to turn to the God who tears, are who allows tearing, because of the faith and hope that healing will also come? This must be our hope. What will be built in the wake of loss? Our God would say - something better. The challenge, for so many of us, is to believe that, and to have the faith and courage to move toward that 'better' when the pain of being broken or torn is still real.

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Construction Begins...

If you'd like to see the houses being torn down where we'll be doing our building project, check it out at this spot

I'll write more later, but for now, this is a link that will show you a live feed. It's pretty nuts to watch houses fall down in only 5 minutes!

Monday, December 11, 2006

The tree and the candle - or nothing at all?

It appears that I spoke too hastily regarding the plight of Europe as she seeks to preserve her Christian cultural icons. I heralded the relative calm over here in North America, as it seemed we'd made more of truce with pluralism by building a wall of separation between church and state. But the recent matter of Christmas trees at our local airport, having become worldwide news, has me needing to step back.

The good rabbi is distraught now that the trees have been removed, because his intention was not to strip the symbols of Christmas, but expand the display to include Judaism. This comes back to the fundamental question of how to deal with pluralism. Having added the symbols of Judaism, what will become of the sentiments of Buddhists and Hindus? Why shouldn't they appeal for equal access to public displays? And what's the best way for people who aren't represented to deal with this? Is the threat of a lawsuit how God wants His chosen people to fight this?

In the light of such feuds, it's easy to see why the cynicism of postmodernity is finding fertil soil these days. These struggles aren't about truth - they're about power, about vying for space at the cultural tables of the world. When one files a lawsuit so that his worldview can gain a place at the table, and the other side responds with an outpouring of indignation and hatred, the outsiders suspicions are confirmed: God is nowhere to be found in the midst of these cultural wars. Thus, the very notion of truth becomes suspect, and the agnostic, or seeker, or nihilist, or skeptic, is given yet more fuel for his/her fire, confirming the suspicions that 'truth' is nothing more than a social construct, and that people are killing each other over humanly fabricated 'religions' and 'ideologies'. In such a setting, the world John Lennon imagines is rather appealing, though a little bit of thought shows his view to also be unsatisfying.

Rather than despair, however, the Christian needs to recall that the way Jesus truth claims were confirmed had nothing to do with culture wars, violence, revenge, or political power. His way of ascent was downward, through non-violent resistance of power, which took him all the way to the cross. Gandhi behaved similarly. So do Martin Luther King. So have others. But how many are willing to pay such a price? We're called, not to passive withdrawal, nor violent engagement - but rather to the way of the cross. Let's dialogue about what this means in terms of our reaction to the loss of trees - or the addition of menorahs, and what it means for the larger issues of pluralism. I welcome your comments.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Sound of Hope

I remember being high in the Cascade mountains once towards the end of October. I was staying in a marvelous little tower, perched atop a glorious ridge, that once functioned as a fire lookout, but now has become a shelter for hikers. While my friend lit his cigar to celebrate our arrival, I was awestruck by the sound of Canadian geese flying through the clouds below us, just as the sun was setting, painting the sky riotous colors. We could hear them, but not see them. Yet the sound was enough for us to know that they were flying north. These were GEESE - flying NORTH - at the beginning of WINTER. I'm no naturalist, but it just seemed odd, and the very oddness of it served to heighten my senses.

I was reminded of that when I read Obama's speech, given in an evangelical church in Orange county, California this past weekend. Yes, you read that correctly. Like the geese, the whole scene assaults the senses. A DEMOCRAT - speaking to EVANGELICALS - in ORANGE COUNTY. What's next? Perhaps St. Helens will begin to spontaneously rebuild itself, or maybe the Mariners will land a talented pitcher in the offseason. If Obama can speak to evangelicals anything can happen.

This should, no matter what side of the isle you sit on, bring you hope. I applaud Rick Warren for having the guts to stand against the avalanche of opposing voices and invite the man to speak. I applaud him, as well, for not moving an inch on the courage of his own conviction regarding matters with which he differs from the senator. Because of Rick's humility, and the wide platform God has given him to speak, I believe that he will lead the way in dismantling the wall that has unfairly held Christians hostage to one political party. "Are you left wing or right wing?" Warren is asked. His answer? "I'm for the whole bird."

It's about time. When Christians begin to vote their conscience, and allow that conscience to be sensitized to the entire spectrum of Christ's ethic, we will see that the choices aren't quite as easy as just looking for the elephant in the room, or even the donkey: Environment and sexuality; Life in the womb, and poverty and justice issues once the baby is born; Protection of our borders and protection of our personal liberties; Critique of Palestinian violence and Israeli violence. When the ethic of Jesus begins to encompass all these issues, it's more difficult to vote blindly - either way. That's why Warren also invited a Republican senator to speak.

When the church begins to stand outside of loyalty to any one party and critique both sides of the isle, it will be a good day for the church and for the broader. As I read Obama's speech, I could hear the sound of geese flying north. Something's stirring!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Until this past Sunday, the last time I was in Innsbruck for any length of time was in 1972 when, as a high school student I was part of musical touring group that visited the city. But because friends had moved there a few years ago, I had occasion to visit them this past Sunday. In the evening I made my way to the small church my friends attend. I stood in the back during the end of the sermon, and tried to sound out the German words on the screen as they sang together.

I wasn’t looking forward to the time after the service at all because I’ve been in these situations where, not only do you not know anyone, but you also don’t know the language. It’s uncomfortable for me when I literally can’t communicate, and my preference would have been to sneak out quickly. However, my friends are deeply involved in this community and so needed to stay after and pray with some people.

Imagine my surprise when a man came up to me with a big smile on his face and said, “Richard!” I smiled and agreed with him that this was my name. He then went on to ask if I remembered him. I told him I was sorry to say that I didn’t. He told me his name and then said, “I was a Bible School student of yours in 1993. We played some volleyball together – in Canada. You taught Genesis.” I hear these kinds of things every so often, and am humbled that people remember me at all. But what came next was very encouraging. He said, “I remember the lessons you gave on…” and then he proceeded to offer a detailed recollection of the teachings and how it had changed his life.

Is it odd that this man, now well into his 30’s should come up to me in the middle of a city where I feel I’m a complete stranger and offer this word? I don’t think so. You see, I’d just finished a week of teaching in a place several villages and hours to the east of Innsbruck and, as is sometimes the case, was questioning whether my teaching had been effective. There are so many with greater intellect than me, or greater enthusiasm, or greater humor, or greater charisma. What am I doing teaching? And at the same time, I continue to have a desire to teach. Why do I love it so much?

These were things I’d been thinking about as the train made its way west from Schladming to Innsbruck. In God’s providence, I received just the word that I needed as an encouragement to keep teaching. The seeds we sow in our lives, whether words of encouragement, kind notes of affirmation, words of teaching, acts of service, donations of time or money, hospitality, the help of those who can’t help themselves – all these things will come to fruition in due time. Some fruit we’ll see, because it will sprout in our own homes or neighborhoods. Others will take the soil of their hearts and move to Innsbruck, and we won’t see the fruit, perhaps ever – unless, that is, we happen to find ourselves in need of encouragement on a clear and cold night at the end of tiring week when we’re questioning our calling. Then perhaps, seeds cast years earlier may sprout right in front of us, reminding us of a law written into the universe, especially vs 7-10. And I do believe that the seeds of encouragement he sowed in my heart will help keep me on the track God has for me.

Don’t stop sowing. Give. Teach. Love. Celebrate. Serve. Forgive. Heal…in His name. It’s where life is to be found – even when we’re not looking.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Why travel...

Here I sit, at the end of another week of teaching, pondering the rich gift that I have of being in the world of cross cultural ministry a few times a year. As the day comes to a close here, I ponder what it is about that aspect of my calling, this ministry in other cultures, that makes me feel so rich. There are many things, but I'll try to keep the list short. When teaching and sharing Christ's life across cultural boundaries, I feel wealthy because:

1. I am shaken from my daily world, and invited into a world much larger, a world of multiple perspectives on everything from politics, to women in ministry, from worship ("Americans use videos in worship? a video cafe even? unhead of!") to entetertainment, hospitality to recreation.

2. The unfamiliarity of it all attunes my senses to things I don't otherwise notice. For instance, I think I notice children more when travelling than I do in my own city. Or this because children in my own city are kept away somewhere out of sight, at a day care center in the shopping mall for instance? Maybe it's a little of both. I notice the smell of food, people's clothing, prevailing color schemes, architecture. It's like being a child again. And what's even better, I notice more when I come home too.

3. The gift of global friendships is, to my estimation, certainly one of God's greatest gifts and I feel privileged to enjoy it. A late afternoon coffee with a mother and daughter who are busy running a small Alpine farm and seeking to live faithfully as believers, a couple in Innsbruck making large life decisions, dear friends in Augsburg who love the outdoors, and are deeply involved in prayer ministries - in all these places conversation around the table lingers long after the food is gone - usually until the candles are gone too. We see each other only once - at best - twice a year. We must see each other deeply. And this is good.

4. Somehow there are moments - especially in this little village - when my heart nearly breaks because of the beauty. I'm running this week one late afternoon and the alpenglow lights the Dachstein Alps, bathing them in a color that escapes all words. They sit across the small river by which I'm running. There is an elderly woman walking by - hair pinned up, so dignified in her wool skirt and dark jacket. She stoops to feed the ducks and there's a smile on her face. She greets me with a smile and "Krist-ay" - the customary greeting here which has it's roots in Christ's name, as a young couple holding hands smiles, walking the other way. Who knows what each of them have faced? Who knows what any of us will face in the future. But for this moment, there's a sunset, a quiet walk, some ducks, and four people at peace. Click - it's a picture - of hope; a picture that, in the midst of radiation poisoning, and Iraqi madness, and so much more that is dark - there are still moments of light, hope, peace. Such moments occur everywhere - especially at GreenLake right by my house. But when they occur here - I absorb them.

None of this richness could exist without the best wife in the world - who understands such a calling and blesses it, as she holds so much together back home. And I think it wouldn't happen without being part of such a great congregation - a group that is so busy being community with one another that I can slip away once in awhile and serve in this - my other piece of calling.

I believe that taking my children with me on various trips to far corners of the world is the best contribution I've made to their education, and I'd encourage everyone to make the investment of experiencing other cultures a priority. When we do, our world expands, along with our capacity to contribute to it.

The Incredible Lightness of Being....secular

We complain quite a bit in the United States about the absence of God from public venues. And when one travels to Europe the void is, by comparison, substantial. While I've been here, the village church bells have greeted each morning, Catholic and Protestant bells both heralding the new day with great fanfare at 7AM. There's another fanfare at noon, and a final at the closing of the day at 6PM. The bells at the top and quarter of every hour all day, and even in the middle of the night, if you happened to be up because you're bothered by jet lag, or because you want to check the Seahawk score, the bells are ringing - more quietly, but still active at the top of each hour.

Then there are the crosses on the summit of mountains. A new cross has just been installed on the top of the Dachstein, and I'm told it was greeted with much fanfare, including the presence of the local pastor to bless the event. Don't forget the prayer days in school, religion and Bible classes for all children, and holy holidays. Whenever I hear statements, made by the religious right in the US, about secular Europe, it's hard not to start laughing.

Whenever I'm here I ponder the relative value of the respective models on both sides of the Atlantic. We think we have culture wars in America, but ours are child's play compared with what's unfolding in Europe. Because the symbols of the state are the symbols of Christ, there's no way for Muslims not to feel completely marginalized in Europe. Thus, the Christian symbols are challenged, sometimes violently, by those who reject them, resulting in heightened cultural/religious tensions. What's a European government to do? Take the crosses off the mountains? Take the bells out of the churches? Or should the symbols of Muhammed and the Buddha be added to mountaintop, along with daily calls to prayer, and Tibetan gongs ringing in the villages? Neither option will be acheived without intense grief, anger, perhaps even bloodshed (there's been some already).

And so, in light of the culture wars on this side of the pond, our secular state, in the present moment, seems quite appealing. When the state is careful to sanction no particular religion, the playing field, in theory at least, is levelled. Thus there's room at the table for Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, and Christian. All can drink from our cultural fountains because they stem from a river of neutrality. Are there liabilities to this secular state? Too many to name in this short space. And it's nice to wake up each morning to church bells.

On the other hand... in a shrinking world and global economy, it seems that any state that is deeply grounded in one particular religion is sure to face tensions and turmoils that would have been inconcivable even 50 years ago, when the world was much larger, cultures more monochromatic, and answers easier if only because the dialogues unfolded amongst people with a general cultural consensus. Those days are gone forever. In their place: pluralism - and I'm wondering what you think - is secularism a more workable model for times such as these?