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, January 30, 2007

A Forced Walk - and the need for Seeing

It’s a beautiful place. Located on the shores of lake Bodensee. My window looks southward to a small field, beyond which lies the massive lake whose name defines the region. On the far side of the lake lie the shores of Switzerland, and beyond them, the Alps loom, larger and clearer at sunset than at any other time of day.

It had snowed here over the weekend, but today being in the 50s, the snow is completely gone. It’s as if a woolen blanket has been peeled off the landscape to reveal life in all it fecundity underneath. Having run through the blanketed farmlands yesterday, I determine that today, my break from studies and teaching shall be brisk walk instead. This isn’t some noble quest, some slowing down so as to ‘see’. Rather, it’s a hip that has seen enough punishment from running on pavement and sitting on planes and trains. It has said, “enough” and I can hear it’s threatening voice, whether sitting or standing: “run and you’ll pay dearly”.

“OK. I’ll walk” I say, humbled by being 51, and pondering how I can feel both grateful for such good health and frail at the same time. So I set out to walk, northward, past the small church. Less than a hundred meters from this church there’s the house pictured above which, to my mind, functions as the demarcation between rural and urban. There are no suburbs here. One is in the city. One walks a hundred meters. One is in the country. It’s that simple, that sequential, like moving through Lewis’ wardrobe and quickly entering another land.

On this day, the farmland is brilliant green, and a stream runs noisily along the roadside, the product of the heavy melt today. Some pruned back trees, along with hops, even some grapes, mark the landscape of this rich soil. There are couples walking, hand in hand and we pass each other with customary greetings. Tracks divide the land, and soon I see a train passing through. The sound of it produces a descending pitch and I remember that Einstein explained this once, but I don’t remember what he said. Are the waves settling, as ripples do in a pond, or is there something else at play?

It’s quiet. I look at the tiny one room cabins that are dotted along the land near the train tracks. These, I’m told, are places where city people to ‘farm’ tiny plots of land, family gardens. Each little cabin is clean and uniquely decorated to express beauty. I ponder once again the theology of beauty, as I wonder why it is that the beautiful captures us, draws our attention. I wonder if this little garden cabin is a part of the ‘beauty of the Lord’ spoken of in the Bible, or just a little cabin. I wonder the same about the dignified old man who is walking the other way.

I pass another couple on the road and think of my wife, wishing her hand was here in mine. I give thanks and pray for her. I turn a corner and follow the train tracks back. Walking gives me the chance to correct my gait so that my hip doesn’t hurt so much. I’m now off the road, and in the middle of the forest. I stop. I’ve turned and am heading south now, so I can see the Alps rising up in the far distance. It’s a naked forest. Were it summer there would be no view, but just now, the trees reveal more than they hide, invite more than they conceal.

I turn another corner, and soon am once again on the outskirts of the city. Here’s the school. Now the houses, with the bakery on the left and apothecary on the right. Children are playing in the street. I turn once again, past the mid-city cemetery, and am quickly back at the school.

Walking. What I thought was a sentence turned out to be a gift. What I thought would confine me, turned out, in fact, to liberate me. I’d run this route several times in previous years, but never had I seen. Perhaps I need to walk more – and see more.

I wonder what else I run through in life: Bible reading? Conversations? Meetings? “Let’s see, can I get this meeting down to a 7 minute mile? Excellent! Maybe next month, 6.5.” I’m getting suspicious that such efficiency is in danger of blinding all of us to things that really matter. Maybe we need to walk a bit more – to soak into a passage of text – to really taste our coffee – and hear what’s being said by listening for body language, or what’s not being said. Yes, I think I’ll walk again this week. I’ll choose it even if my hip grants permission – because sometimes seeing what’s needed.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Epiphany - better late than never

OK, I know this is supposed to be celebrated earlier in January, but I'm just now starting a reading of Matthew in my devotions. I'm somewhat amazed by several points in the story of the magi, but for now I'll just ask you to ponder this: How is it that these guys from 'the east' have the foresight to seek out Messiah? Where did they acquire Scriptures? Could they really get the promise of a Messiah from this passage? What role did their astronomy/astrology play in the revelation that eventually led them to Christ? What stirred their minds and hearts, so that when they saw the child the 'bowed to the ground and worshipped Him"?

I suppose we can't know all the answers to these questions, but I do think the very presence of the story should create in us a sense of humility. The ones who 'get it', all through the gospels, are usually not the educated textual experts. Instead they come from commerce, or the red light district, or in this case, some culture whose practices evangelicals would no doubt disdain, labeling it as, at best 'syncrotistic' or worse, 'a cult'. Don't misunderstand. The primacy of Jesus is at stake, and I'm not saying that all roads lead to Christ and that as long as one is sincere...blah blah blah. Rather, I'm saying that God's love for humanity is so vast that He will go to great lengths to reveal Himself and point people to Christ by many means, including the stars of the heavens, sunrises, sexual intimacy, the Bible, great literature, Verdi's Requim set against the backdrop of images from Darfur. Further, the ways Christ will be worshipped will differ wildly from culture to culture - so who are we to think that our way is the only way, or the best way? At times, with our addictions to wealth and entertainment, to indulging our sexual appetites and bodily pleasures, I wonder if we get it at all. But then I remember that when you strip away the veil of cultural trappings, we're all the same - broken people, needy and looking for a Savior. Flashes of light serve only to show the vastness of darkness in our hearts, enflaming the longing to 'follow the star' and 'worship the Source'. And the Source, if it's true and life giving, will always be Jesus.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Law and Spirit - Discussion Questions for Today's Sermon - I Samuel 21-22

1. What does David do right in this story? What is wrong? What is neither right or wrong?

2. Is running from Saul 'right' or does it show a lack of faith? How about David's lying, as he says he's on the king's business? If you were hiding people, would you lie to protect them?

3. How do we make decisions in these ethical matters? And how do we treat each other when we disagree?

Though these questions are used for discussion groups who listen to the sermon (available Tuesday at, feel free to post answers to any of these questions here as well. We'd all benefit from the discussion.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Asia - Refugess- and lessons for the church

This piece comes from a team presently serving in Cambodia/Vietnam, of which one of our church members is a part. It’s an assessment of the weakness of North American churches, and I’m interested in your comments – the team leader writes:

The short-term team of nine arrived intact from Seattle, and the next day we found ourselves being led by Dr. Kek Galabru of Licadho (A Human Rights Organization) out to a relocation camp called “Andong Village” which was a few kilometers beyond the airport. A year and half before, almost 8000 homeless people from all over Cambodia were living in simple structures on a few acres along the riverside in Phnom Penh until one day the government swept them all up, bulldozed their thatch and plastic homes, and shipped them to the outskirts of Phnom Penh (beautification of the riverside for tourism purposes). Relief Organizations provided plastic tarps, wood, and basic staples. UNICEF provided some clean water. Today, the clean water is gone and the people are drinking pond water. The Relief organizations have come and gone. Finding work 15 kilometers away in the city is prohibitive. We walked circumspectly down the trail into the tree-less village, avoiding cow paddies, human waste, and half burned garbage. As the heat cranked up, so did the various smells that accompanied so many people living on about three acres of land. IDPs, they call them: Internally Displaced People. Refugees and aliens in their own country, not knowing if this make-shift camp will be their permanent home or if there will be a better place in the future. They are looking for a better place. The government keeps making promises of a better place.

Chapter eleven of Hebrews is often said to contain the “Heroes of the Faith.” If you take a close look at them, they were all quite messed up in one sense or another, and one might wonder in what way should we make them role models? Gideon’s cowardice, Abraham’s lying, Noah’s drunkenness, Samson’s appetite for forbidden women, Jephthah’s illegitimacy, Moses’ lack of God confidence, Rahab’s career, David’s lust, lies, and murder, etc— these were some raw characters. But heroes they were, in that according to Hebrews 11:13; “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. They admitted they were aliens and strangers on the earth, longing for a better country—a heavenly one.”

What was it about these swarthy characters’ faith that caused the writer of Hebrew to overlook their sin and character faults in order that they might be classified as heroes?

Might it be that they took extreme risks with their own lives for their faith? That they under went some serious suffering for their faith? Or was it that they their identity wasn’t shaped by a culture gone awry. They knew who they were; resident aliens on a life-long journey with a mind-set that kept them unsettled, restless, and looking not to settle down into this life, but looking beyond it to something better. They had no idea where they were going but they were trusting God to get them there. Their journey was full of pitfalls and setbacks, and was also marked by sacrifice, risk, and looking past their intrinsic need for comfort and security.

Like foreigners looking quite out of place, male, female, old, young, short, tall, thin, stout, and some balding, we walked down the first alley of the shanty town basted in sun screen and bug repellant, wearing caps or bush hats. We were met by young mothers with babies. Some of the mothers had that thousand-yard stare look to them, and most could no longer provide breast milk for their nursing children. One young mother’s feet were crippled by polio, and another young mother had a heart defect and had trouble breathing. Their small babies were suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, and diarrhea. Many were widows or women are had been divorced. The mothers begged for milk and medicine. Dr. Galabru, a Cambodian woman in her sixties was on her cell phone constantly trying to get clean water and some milk delivered. The Cambodian doctor she brought along was busy the whole time. That day I held my share of tiny babies, but I couldn’t help wondering, what will I catch, Lice, Tuberculosis? None of these babies wore diapers, either. I was taking a risk but ashamed for thinking about myself in the midst of their suffering. What is real faith without risk? I think of again of Hebrews 11, then John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostles, the Disciples and the early church up until the time of Constantine.

Some may wonder why the church in the Northern Hemisphere is declining while great growth is being experienced in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Could one of the reasons for this decline be that risk is no longer associated with our faith, and that personal piety has replaced mission?

Personal piety instead of mission – what do you think? Is that why the North American Church is weak? Are there other reasons? Why is the church in the developing world growing so rapidly while the church in the developed world is largely declining and languishing? What lessons are we to learn from this reality?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Do Christians make bad friends?

I'm hopeful that we can start a little conversation around this topic. In the wake of yesterday's sermon, I received this thoughtful e-mail, and received permission to post it for our collective consideration. Here's what someone offered:

First, I found tonight’s sermon very interesting and thought provocative. Second, I do not regularly attend your church, so I do not know the content of previous and future sermons. Third, I can only comment using my previous experiences and do not intend to accuse Christians as a whole. That being said, my friends and I have had a question about friendship and the church for the longest time. In my opinion, Christians make the worst friends. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy the level of friendship of which you spoke tonight, but only with non-Christians. I have found most Christians with whom I have associated incapable of anything close to that type of friendship. One portion of the sermon that I believe was absent was the “how.” You did mention a need to not be envious of other’s achievements and to sacrifice your desires and goals for those of your friends, but how do you gain the ability to do so? The simple answer is to pray and ask God for the strength. However, this answer deprives the inquirer of a true answer. I believe the answer, and the area in which the Christians with whom I have associated have failed, is acceptance. Non-Christians accept each others faults and are capable of loving each other regardless of individual flaws. Acceptance does not mean ignoring another friend when he or she strays from that which is moral and right. As a loving friend, it is one’s obligation to call the other out and guide the individual back to the appropriate course of action. However, Christians not only call the other out, but judge as well. Groups of Christians tend to be more prone to forming clicks, speaking poorly of others behind their backs, and entertaining disputes over petty differences. I believe the difference is that non-Christians are more aware of their flaws and are allowed to be flawed. However, I do not know the answer so I will finally ask the question; Why are Christians such bad friends?

True or False in your experience? Why? And what of the question, "How" can we become the kind of people capable of such friendships?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sermon Questions

This might need to become a different blog at some point, but a few people have asked me for questions related to the Sunday teaching series. This coming Sunday we'll cover I Samuel 18-20.

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. What did Jonathan’s friendship cost him?
  2. Did Jonathan know that David was anointed to be king when made the covenant of friendship?
  3. Jonathan ends up ‘going down’ with his father. Talk about this a little bit. Why didn’t he run away with David?
  4. Why did David weep more at his parting with his friend than Jonathan did?
  5. Talk about friendship in our culture. What are the challenges to entering in the David/Jonathan paradigm? Is such a paradigm even intended to be normal?
The actual sermon will be available, starting on Tuesday, here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


I can't say it any better than that which is already written by Eugene Peterson:

Lacking confirmation by the word of a friend, our most promising beginnings fizzle. Lacking confirmation in the presence of a friend, our bravest ventures unravel. It's not unusual for any of us to begin something wonderful, and it's not unusual for any of us to do things that are quite good. But it is unusual to continue and to persevere. The difficulties aren't for the most part external but internal - finding the energy and vision to keep the effort going. Being good and doing good are seldom adequately rewarded: more often they get us into trouble. The world, the flesh, and the devil are in fierce opposition to the Christian way and wreck many lives that start off beautifully.

Friendship cerainly has the element of truth telling in it, and the element of correction, and that word 'accountability' must also find it's way into the scheme. But above all else, it seems to me, friendship is about believing in the other, even when the other can't believe in themselves. And while Peterson captures this in his essay on David and Jonathan, it's Dar Williams who says it best in song.

We all need people in our lives who have the faith for us, when we just don't have it for ourselves. Most of us already know a great deal about where we fall short (though certainly we need friends who will speak truth when we don't want to hear it. Nathan the prophet played that role in David's life). But when it comes to finding friends who believe in us, who nurture our calling, encourage us, and help us find our voice - I fear that many are starving. Perhaps that's why the Celtic saints would say that a person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Come in from the Cold

I shot this picutre earlier this winter. It seems to capture the essence of the words from this song by Joni Mitchell. Joni's one of us boomers who's still got it. She continues to articulate longings for meaning and intimacy, continues to ask the question, continues to give voice to the search. I love that she does it with such grace and artistry. The essence of the song seems to be that, looking back on life, whether dancing in Jr. High or protesting the Vietnam war, or becoming suspicious of fame as an adult, Joni's life has been about wanting to 'come in from the cold'.

Indeed. It's a cold world: cold relationships, cold and calculating decisions, cold-war, cold corporate culture... and all we ever wanted was a place of warmth and safety. Might we find it through a world progressing towards justice? How about in intimate relationships on the home front? I love the way she looks back and see this longing to escape the cold in everything she's done.

It's way too easy (dishonestly simplistic really) to say, "Jesus is the warmth this cold world needs", because the reality is that his followers suffer deeply and face alienation and coldness just like the rest of the world. Perhaps the difference though, isn't that we have immunity from cold - but rather that we see ourselves as part of story that will eventually result in a vast melting of all that destroys and paralyzes, and separates. Perhaps Jesus' warmth will be a flame that will bring hope, even in the coldness of our own hearts.

This has been my experience. The presence of Jesus hasn't granted me a magical ticket to bliss, neither in my marriage, nor any other realm. Rather, in the midst of our cold world, there is a flame burning, a source, to which I return regularly for hope. I'm telling you, as crazy as it's sounds, it's real. Maybe we can't escape the cold completely. But there's a flame around which many are gathering each day. They're finding not only warmth for their own hearts, but the capacity to share the Source, as hospitals, and AIDS ministries, and refugee camps, and economic development, and addiction treatments, and so much more happen - ushering in the thaw that is 'all we ever wanted.'

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Is it in you?

My daughter offers a marvelous little post, with tales of our family ski outing (Dec. 28th, on her blog, found here) about the reality that people are wired differently. Some ski. Some read Dante. Some listen to 2Pac.

I wonder what this means for the life of faith? Many believe, based on the doctrine of predestination, that it's either in you or it isn't. Either you have the capacity to follow God or you don't. They have scripture to prove it too. While defenders of this doctrine are, no doubt, sincere, I believe their conclusions are misguided on several accounts:

First, and most significantly, all invitations and offers of choice in the Bible must, of necessity, be seen as nothing more than sham. "Choose this day who you will serve..." "If any man is thirsty..." "Let us be diligent to enter that rest..." I could go on for a page or two with these kinds of invitations, while there's only the tiniest smattering of text about a fatalistic, predestined choice handed down from God. Of course, even a few verses must be accounted for and wrestled with. I'll try to speak to that in another entry. But for now, let me note that it seems silly to negate the avalanche of choices in the Bible by saying, "of course, we all know that there wasn't a real choice being offered because nobody has free will. These verses are just there to...." And I say, "Just there to what? mock? deceive?" If that's the way God plays, then no thank you.

Second, the unintended effect of predestination is an exaltation of particular cultural expressions of the gospel. We might say we're inviting people to Christ, but often what we're really doing is inviting people to OUR way of meeting Christ, and if people don't get it, won't get it, can't get it, we just dismiss it with a simple, "I guess they weren't destined." This is tragic. To insist that one seek God through our particular means, and express worship in our particular way is not only sadly colonial, but unscriptural. What do we say about God's continual confounding of Jewish parochialism, as he blesses Gentiles, and calls to his side those who are the enemies to Jewish political freedom?

I would argue that 'it's in you' It's in all of us. The capacity to know God and follow Him is part of our who we are. Unlike skiing or reading Dante, loving God is available to all, because God has created longings in all of us which, if followed, will lead to His feet. But the WAY in which that worship is expressed, and the way God is found? That varies wildly, according to both culture and personality.

Is everyone invited to the table? Indeed! Will we all wear the same clothes, read the same books, think the same thoughts, praise God the same way? I'm suspicious that there are a few surprises awaiting us. Don't misunderstand please. Christ is THE door. But how is that door opened? I would suggest that it's opened in wildly diverse manners, by diverse people who all share one thing in common. They've chosen to open the door.

Monday, January 08, 2007

building metaphors...

We're in the midst of expanding the facilities here at Bethany, and so when I look out my window, I see a bunch of grown up boys pushing dirt around a big hole in the ground. It's my childhood Tonka Truck dreams come true!

What I find interesting though is that, of the one or two thousand people who will eventually use this new building, only perhaps three people really understand what's going on right as this hole takes shape, as this dirt gets moved, as gravel arrives in dump trucks. The rest of us have this immense faith in the workers, the checks and balances of the permitting and inspection system, and the competance of those few in the congregation who do know. We trust that all this digging is needful.

Peter didn't have the same confidence in Christ. When Christ spoke of the necessity of the cross, Peter pulled Him aside and gave Him a swift rebuke. Surely such messy digging isn't needed! Surely there's a way this can be accomplished without all the rigors and sufferings of which you speak. Jesus observed that, in fact, there's no way to avoid this messiness.

Apparently Peter learned the lesson well because he passes the same thing on to the next generation. The foundation work, the digging around, the exposure of toxic substances, are all needed work if the our lives are to become places of blessing and safety, and dwelling places of God's life, as is our calling.

What is this foundation work? In my own case, it's included deep exposure of my motivations for being in ministry, and my resistance to my call. It's also included the discovery that I'm far better at initiating than maintaining, which has come with the realization that I have far to go as I seek to grow in this area. Thus when God calls me to maintain something, whether it's the windows on my house (in order that they might not leak on those rare days when it rains), or relationships, my wrestling with such responsibilities is 'foundation work'. The soil continues to be broken up. Things continue to be exposed.

Of course the analogy breaks down, because Christ's building process isn't as linear as a physical project. The temple and the foundation are being built at the same time. We're doing ministry, even as our foundations are being exposed in their weakness. This is an important truth because without it, it's tempting to disengage from service, waiting until the foundation is done.

It's never done. There's always more with which to deal - more exposure - more digging. But thanks be to God - He will move heaven and earth to shape us into people of blessing. And when the digging exposes our vulnerability, we can give thanks that the needed work is being done.

Friday, January 05, 2007

New Name

We’ve worked hard in our western culture to diminish name calling. Hate crime legislation, the excision of derogatory terms from the public sector, and the swift punishment of the same in schools have all helped. But for all this, there’s still a giant not yet slain: that’s the names we call ourselves.

All of us have a script handed us by parents, genetics, good or tragic events, and choices. The great challenge we often face appears when we’re invited to step into a different story, because in this new story we’re given a new name, a new role. No matter what our past script has been, we who follow Christ called are now called ‘beloved’ ‘sons and daughters’ ‘kings and queens’. If you’ve seen or read the “Chronicles of Narnia”, you’ll know there’s a sense in which we’re all Edmund. Not only are we unworthy of reigning – we know we’re unworthy. In our knowing, the danger is that we’d reject the throne, reject our calling, reject our new name.

The result? Many are still carrying the same old garbage at 50 or 70 that they were carrying at 20 – they never received their new name. And so the same materialism, or lust, or self-hatred rattles around in the soul. It’s too bad, because it doesn’t need to be this way. “If the son shall make you free… you shall be free indeed.”

It’s a law of the universe, written thoroughly into the fabric of the universe. If I reject the name offered me by God, I will be enslaved to the name offered me by everything else. May we have the courage to believe our new name, and walk in the reality of it in 2007.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Power of Story

When it comes to passing on the faith from one generation to another, it seems that there's no tool more powerful than a story. When the period of history known as the enlightenment unfolded, it seemed that western civilization became enthrolled with articulating knowledge in the form of systems as a means both of increasing understanding and finding solutions to problems.

Systems certainly have their place. It's knowledge articulated systematically that has given us the computers, the internet, safer buildings, modern medicine and the capacity to travel from Seattle to Dallas in three hours. There are few who would want to return to medieval times, and we have systems thinking to thank for a large part of our present creature comforts.

And yet systems have their limitations. We reach those limitations very quickly when we come to our understanding of God. Theology really is nothing more than the systematic discourse about the character and nature of God. Theology has developed over the past three centuries largely along the lines of 'systems' thinking, so that, until very recently, one studied a particular aspect of God's work thoroughly before moving on to another aspect. Thus the topics of theology include "Bibliology" (the study of the Bible), and Hamartiology (the study of sin), and Anthropology (the study of man), and Soteriology (the study of salvation), etc.

Eugene Peterson points out the inherent danger of such thinking in this book. Here he writes, "Somewhere along the way, most of us pick up bad habits of extracting from the Bible what we pretentiously call, 'spiritual principles' or 'moral guidelines' or 'theological truths' and then corseting ourselves in them in order to force a godly shape on our lives. That's a mighty uncomfortable way to go about improving our condition."

Indeed. It's uncomfortable because it seeks to impose law when the gospel is largely about inviting us into a story. We're invited, not to embody and defend a moral code, but to step into a story that has been unfolding since the beginning of time, and take up our role in the grand narrative of restoration that God is writing each day. We're invited to realize that the story is unfolding all around us, in politics, creation, marriage, raising children, creating art, working for justice, mourning the slaughter of the innocents that we see in the news, or know of first hand, and so much more. The story goes back into deep history, continues up to the present, and will culminate in the universe being filled with glory.

Stepping into a story is far more inviting than arguing about the nuances of systematic theology. That's what made Tolkien so exciting; Frodo stepped into a story. And it's why I'm excited about spending time teaching/preaching through the life of David beginning this Sunday. The story of David is the story of God and man - every man, and every woman finds themselves identifying with the story.

From childhood, our hearts have longed for stories. God isn't just telling old tales though. He's writing new ones, and inviting us to take a part.