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, February 27, 2007

The Little Train - that can't always

When I was a child I received a little tract explaining to me the priorities regarding how to live the life of faith. Picture a train with an engine car, followed by a passenger car and a caboose. The engine: FACT. The passenger car: FAITH The caboose: FEELING. We learned very clearly that feelings are always last.

Perhaps the tract was written by someone who grew up in the great depression and fought in WWII. Many amongst that generation lived their lives wholly out of a sense of duty. After all, what kind of feelings would one feel when living through bread-lines, and dust bowls, Hitler and Pearl Harbor? I fully understand the need to get on with it, to just do what needs to be done. There are times when life comes at you and you don’t have the luxury of emoting – you need to just act. This is the mindset that brought us the primacy of words like duty and honor. They’re good words, important words, and the values they represent are in need of resurrection. Duty, based on the FACT of what needs to be done is enough. You can see both the glory of that kind of life, and the tension it creates between the generations in the well made movie, “The Queen.”

But let’s be careful not to sanctify that little train tract, elevating to the status of truth. Is FEELING really to be always at the end of train? Shall we recall David, upon learning of his wives kidnapping? Or Job with the loss of his family? How about Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Judah, Moses, Peter? I could go on, but you get the picture. In contrast to the train tract I saw as a child, the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that emotions are a primary mover rather than a caboose. It’s not always that way, but often.

Now this is where things get a little tricky, because it’s perhaps tempting to think that we’ve evolved beyond our stoic forbearers, having moved beyond ‘duty’ to ‘authenticity’. But I’m not sure we should call that progress. Eugene Peterson addresses this well when he writes about the difference between sentiment and compassion:

We live in an age that has replaced compassion with sentiment. Sentiment is a feeling disconnected from relationship. Sentiment is spilled compassion. It looks like concern; it could develop into compassion, but it never does. Sentiment is the patriotic catch in your throat as the flag goes by - a feeling that never gets connected with the patriotic honesty of paying your income tax. Sentiment is the tears that flow in a sad movie - tears that never get connected with visiting your dying friend. We feel sorry for people; we lament the pain and suffierng in the world. But having felt the internal motions of pity, wept a few requisite tears of sorry, and sent off ten dollars to a charitable appeal, we've exhausted our capacity for care.

To feel without ever allowing our emotions to gestate and give birth to sacrifice and duty creates what Peterson has called spilled compassion. I watch “Crash”, cry a little, and think I’m no longer racist. I feel anger or outrage over some issue, attend a fundraising concert about it, and think I’ve done my part. This is as deceptive and soul killing as a life lived without regard for the passion and emotions of one’s own soul.

So we’ve lived through seeing what happens when there’s action without emotion. This paradigm seems hollow. We shouldn’t have as a goal simply the ‘completion’ of a marriage. We should seek, as we promised we would, ‘to cherish’ the other. And in the rest of life as well, the men and women of scripture exemplify the key role emotions play in giving birth, not to spilled compassion and sentiment, but to strategic action and obedience.

I think that little train derailed about 20 years ago in our culture. But we’ve not yet found an adequate model to replace it. I’m thinking perhaps seeds and soils could be a metaphor for how revelation and experience lead to emotion, which leads to conviction, which leads to action (maybe we’ll call the action ‘fruit’). We could even develop it a little bit to show how sometimes emotions well up but never become real acts of obedience – and hence fail to bear fruit. What do you think?

In order for a church to be healthy she mustn't minimize beauty, emotion, and passion. But it's equally vital that her members, both individually and collectively, develop a bias for action, and having heard from God regarding what is the next thing to do, we simply need to get on with it, whether we feel like it or not. In such a church the arts, film, and beauty in worship will have a high priority - and so will disciplined actions and obedience.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Departed? Don't Bother

I watched the "The Departed" on a flight from Europe to the US recently, and can only say that, unlike other recent "Best Picture" award recipients, "The Departed" offers absolutely nothing of redeeming value in exchange for your two hours. I'm thinking of "The Lord of the Rings", "A Beautiful Mind" and "Crash" as three of the more recent winners having priceless truths to tell through their stories - truths about racism, compassion, the arresting power of beauty, how powerful the will to life is in some people, faith, courage, and the mixture of glory and tragedy that is humanity.

In contrast to this, "The Departed" offers a glimpse into the greed, foul language, drug use, and sexual obsessions of the mob in Boston. Thanks. I needed that?

"The Queen" reminded us of the psyche of a generation raised on duty rather than feelings, and offered a glimpse into Tony Blair's wisdom in bridging those generational gaps.

And though I've not seen them all, it seems that the rest of the candidates also had redeeming things to say. But "The Departed"? It leaves me with nothing. And maybe that's the point. But I'm usually hoping for a little more than 'nothing' or 'disgust' when watching a movie. Can someone help me understand the appeal?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Out of the Mouths of Children...

We met last night in our sanctuary for an evening prayer. It was the start of the Lenten season, that time of preparation and contemplation of Christ's sacrifice on our behalf. There were some times for spontaneous prayer sprinkled throughout the read prayers, silence, and song. And it was during those less structured times that something very unusual happened...

Sitting in the 2nd row of a room filled with 140 people, was a single mom with her two small children. Children, we're often told, aren't really able to be in these kinds of times, these kinds of places. This is serious prayer, real work, for grown-ups. We don't say that, but never once in all my years of ministry have children shown up for a prayer meeting. And never once, in the absence of them, has anyone ever said, "Hey - where are the 4 year olds?" We just don't expect them to pray.

So imagine my surprise last night when, during our first time of prayer, these two young girls began their offerings of praise. "Thank you Jesus for loving us" was the first offering. Her voice was small, yet bold; innocent, yet astute. "Help marriages to last forever." "Let the sick people become well." "Let every person here tonight know that you love them."

We broke into small groups for a time of praying for our church. I'd asked the congregation to pray for the leadership of our community as we navigate the challenges of growth and seek to faithfully steward the resources entrusted to us. My wife was in the group with the small children. The first prayer in that group was from one of the little girls: "I pray for the leadership of this church."

Jesus had something to say about all this, and what he basically said was that we grown-ups have a propensity for getting it all wrong. Perhaps, in many areas of life, we could stand to learn from the children. They aren't troubled by complex questions about sovereignty and free-will, they just ask God to step into history and fix things that are broken. They aren't paralyzed by the nuances of blame, boundaries, and addictions that lead to divorce; they just pray that 'marriages will last forever.'

It was a good prayer meeting last night for a lot of reasons. But what stood out to me at the end of the evening were the powerful prayers of two little girls whose simplicity and purity of faith humbled us all, and caused us to long for that kind of faith in our own hearts and minds. Yes, we need to grow up - but never forget: a mature faith is the faith of a child - and many of us have quite a bit to unlearn.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lent - An Invitation to 40 days of prayer and reading

If you'd like to join the Bethany Community in a guided time of prayer for the next 40 days, throughout the Lent season, you can visit this blog daily. You'll find a scripture reading, a devotional meditation, and on most days, a prayer.

Blessings to you throughout the Lenten Season. The season, intended to focus our hearts on the sacrifice of Christ, and our own willingness to share in that sacrifice, can be rich and profoundly life changing if we'll but seek Christ - and enter in some small chosen way in His emptying.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Doing the Deed...

...been away from the blog for a few days. I apologize. It's been a busy week, and weekend, with a staff retreat all day Saturday, and students in town from Canada for some seminar teaching. But I've been thinking a lot about vision for ministry over the past few days, and while I'll be writing more later, I'd like to focus on something that I think is vital for us to consider: the need to act!

Perhaps you're aware of the present dialogue in Seattle about what to with our waterfront transportation problems. The details are here if you're interested, but the details aren't the point right now. Rather, it's to note that Seattle is a culture that has a hard time making decisions and sticking with them. I think the same difficulty often seeps into the life of churches.

There are a number of reasons why this happens. We might blame leadership for being weak and indecisive. We might blame the people for being divisive, rather than rallying around a leader and vision. But Eugene Peterson points out a flaw in our culture that is larger than either of these other two problems. Here's what he writes:

We live in an age that has replaced compassion with sentiment. Sentiment is a feeling disconnected from relationship. Sentiment is spilled compassion. It looks like concern; it could develop into compassion, but it never does. Sentiment is the patriotic catch in your throat as the flag goes by - a feeling that never gets connected with the patriotic honesty of paying your income tax. Sentiment is the tears that flow in a sad movie - tears that never get connected with visiting your dying friend. We feel sorry for people; we lament the pain and suffierng in the world. But having felt the internal motions of pity, wept a few requisite tears of sorry, and sent off ten dollars to a charitable appeal, we've exhausted our capacity for care.

Peterson is simply sayin that sentiment, when it is confused with compassion, leaves us feeling good about ourselves simply because we feel bad about the plight of the other. The problem, of course, is that the feeling bad never eventuates in any tangible action, let alone a real change in our own lifestyle.

This effects us as individuals, but it can plague and paralyze churches as well. We know we ought to do something, and somehow the knowing we ought to, and the pondering over what could be done, become our life, our satisfaction. This life is, however, a shabby substitute for actually doing the deed. Meanwhile the world gets hungrier, darker, drier, hotter. What's needed? We probably don't need to go watch "Crash" or "Constant Gardener" yet again. Maybe what's needed are less tears and more action. I mean, the day finally comes when talking, praying, weeping, must give way to action.

My own heart is stirring, confident that God is opening up clearer obligations for service for His churches in the coming days. May we have the compassion to get off the sofa and into the game.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Living in Ziklag

What a great story is found here in I Samuel 27 and 29. It’s this section where David, the famous one, the ‘man after God’s own heart’ runs to Israel’s enemies for safety. While there he tells the Philistine king that he’s spending his days fighting Israel’s allies. But the reality is just the opposite; David’s out fighting Israel’s enemies, and to make sure word doesn’t make it back to the king of the Philistines, he kills everyone he conquers – man, woman, and child.

Hmmm… what do you make of this? Because there’s no prophet confronting him, and because the earth doesn’t open up and swallow him, we’re left to ponder the meaning ourselves. Commentators are split right down the middle, in categories Eugene Peterson calls “moralizers” and “secularizers” in his book about David. The moralizers chasten David and point out that if David had simply continued to trust God, rather than taking things into his own hands, he wouldn’t have suffered such dire consequences. And those dire consequences?... er… hmm… surely something. Ah yes. God doesn’t let David build the church building that God never wanted built in the first place – that’s it. That’s the punishment. Nice try moralizers.

The secularizers have a different spin: David’s just doing what you need to do in order to get on in this world. After all, this isn’t heaven. If we don’t compromise a little bit, and play by the rules of the world, we’ll end up either dead or out in the cold. On the other hand, make a way for ourselves, and we can use the gains we’ve made for God’s glory. Sounds good? Sure. Buy some slaves. Take over some countries like India, or Congo, or Rwanda, or Bolivia, or the home of Native Americans, and as long as you do it, ‘in the name of God’ all’s well. Thus have crusades, degrading slavery, sexism, racism, materialism, and environmental degradation all been justified in the name of Christ down through the millennia. Is this the way to represent Christ? I don’t think so.

So what’s left between moralizing and secularizing? I think I’ll save the bulk of the answer for Sunday’s sermon, but in the meantime, let me just say that both the secularizing and moralizing visions for faith fall destructively short of God’s best. Which model, secularizing or moralizing do you see in your church (or the one I lead)? How about in your own life? What are your leanings?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sermon Questions...

Yesterday's topic was, "the role of beauty in peacemaking', drawing from the story in I Samuel 25 about Nabal, David, and Abigail. Here some questions for discussion. Feel free to post your thoughts.

1. What's the danger in elevating the role of beauty as a source of that which can arrest our journey towards sin?
2. As we looked at the text yesterday, we considered the 'spiritual' aspects of beauty, such as Abigail's humility, solidarity with her husband, and boldness in telling the truth to David. Yet the text says that this woman was 'beautiful', and the context demands consideration of her physical appearance. What role, if any, does physical beauty have in arresting sin? How does the church address this?
3. It seems that the evangelical church is often somewhat disabled in this realm, exalting precepts and minimizing the pursuit of beauty. What can be done to help change our priorities?

I welcome your input on any, or all of these questions. If you missed the sermon, you can get it here starting tomorrow.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sophie Scholl

Sophie Scholl is a well made, intimate look at the life of one member of "The White Rose", a resistance group in Germany that fought Hitler through the distribution of literature. Their goal was to challenge the prevailing propaganda and cast an alternative vision for Germany's future. Many paid with their lives. The film follows this one member, painting a picture of Sophie: her convictions regarding what is right, her willingness to pay the price for such conviction, and the cost and suffering associated with paying the price. But it's more than just a well written, and brilliantly acted story. There are several themes woven together, any one of which would create a worthy discussion over coffee with some friends.

1. Why are words and ideas more threatening to the empire than guns? What does this mean for the church today? At what points should the church be resisting the empire today?

2. What can be learned from the poignant moment when Sophie parts from her parents? What does the parents response say about their priorities? What do we wish for our own children: safety, prosperity, integrity, courage? What kind of home will create children who are committed to making a difference in the world?

3. Sophie's poetic heart is critical to her capacity to maintain her clear vision for a better world. What, today, is the role of beauty and vision in our own lives? What is our vision for the world? What are we doing to move towards it, or to resist the forces that threaten it?

I could go on. But I'd suggest you meet with some friends, rent the DVD, and watch. Save an hour or two at the end for discussion!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why the Bible is tricky

There it is, sitting in Matthew 4, the 6th verse. Satan is asking Jesus to jump off a cliff, and he's quoting the Bible to prove that Jesus has nothing to worry about. "It is written" he says, and then he quotes from the Psalms, that passage about how Angels will prevent God's chosen one from hurting even a toe.

And then Jesus says, "On the other hand, it is written..." and then He quotes the Bible also, to prove that jumping off a cliff would be an inappropriate appropriation of God's power.

"It is written"...."On the other hand, it is also written." This is the problem right here. It's why there are age old arguments about the deity/humanity of Christ, or whether divorce is permissable, or whether it's appropriate for believers to fight in wars, or whether we humans have free choice or are so totally depraved that, apart from God's irresistable grace, we'll refuse His offers of grace every time.

What makes matters even trickier still is that it is Satan who is using the Bible to his own ends. Therefore it's obvious isn't it? Everyone who interprets the Bible the wrong way is a tool in the hands of Satan. This has, over the centuries, served to make dialogue over conflicting interpretive matters unlikely. After all, do you want to sit down and have coffee with Satan?

Of course we think we know the truth. There aren't many people out there among prosperity theologians, or liberation theolgians, or feminist theologians, or fundamentalist theologians, or any other stripe of theologian, that are certain they've got it all wrong, but are simply out the take boatloads of people down with them.

So what's a pastor to do? There are two errors to be avoided.

First, we need to avoid the cynical despair of post-modernism, which often concludes that making any truth claims at all is impossible because of this crisis of knowing. Of course, there are huge difficulties with this, including the paralysis that comes to each life intent on living this with any consistency. The reality is that we believe Jesus knew truth, even that He was the emodiment of truth. And so his way of interpreting the Bible trumps Satan's way. We believe this. And because of this, we will wrestle with his words, pray over his words, wrestle amongst ourselves with his words. We'll do this because we believe that, though we might not interpret it absolutely right, there is truth. And so we're on a journey - studying, praying, believing, and acting on what we believe. We won't be paralyzed into inaction by the multitude of truth claims.

Second, we need to avoid the rigid dogma which refuses consideration of any countering positions. To presume that our truth claims, as they stand in this moment, are perfect, is to declare our ignorance of history. The church has been wrong on anit-semitism, wrong on slavery, wrong on salvation by works, wrong on _________ - you fill in the blank. Isn't it a bit arrogant to presume that we're now the ones who see it perfectly, especially since Paul indicates that we'll look through a glass darkly until that day when we look at Jesus face. So, although we'll study, wrestly, pray, believe, and act on our beliefs, we'll also be best served by remaining humble and teachable, because the reality is that I can be the one quoting Jesus interpretation of the Bible one second, and Satan's the next.

May each of us who open the Bible seek to find God's heart and mind. May we have the grace to believe and act, and the humility to remain teachable and correctable. This will be the path that leads upward, causing more of Christ's life to be seen in us and among us.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Drink Responsibly...

Thinking about having a cup of coffee? Maybe you're avoiding coffee because you've been misinformed about it's value. Maybe you're drinking, but lacking the understanding of how it came to you, and the impact you're having on the developing world. Here are some links to help you consider your coffee, or your coffee avoidance, habits in a new light:

Here's where to go to learn about why it's important to drink Fair Trade, or some equivalent thereof. It's good to be informed about how coffee comes to us, and what we can to do to help those who enable us to enjoy this glorious beverage.

Here's where to go
to learn about the reality of coffee's many health benefits. Lose weight, avoid Type II Diabetes, excercise with less pain, improve short term memory.

And here's where to go to learn how to brew the perfect cup! Please don't say you dislike coffee until you've tried it properly roasted and brewed. Trying the commonly prepared cup and then saying you don't like coffee is like watching Jesus Camp and then saying you don't like Jesus.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Teachers without Degrees

I’ve just returned from teaching my Thursday evening classes here in Germany, where I’m finishing up the book of Genesis. One man in my class is named Isaiah. He’s a pastor in rural Kenya, and has 59 people in his congregation. The realities of crime, poverty, AIDS, and crop failures are always present, in varying degrees. There’s another man here who works with university students in the far eastern territory of Russia, near the Chinese border. Others have ministries in Eastern Europe.

It’s the voices of these individuals that rebuke me. They don’t do so intentionally. They’re not even aware of the effect they’re having on me, but the effect is there nonetheless. As I’m preaching through the story of Joseph’s life this evening, I invited the students to ponder with me that the differential between Joseph receiving a vision from God (that he would be some sort of ruler) and the fulfillment of that vision, was nearly 30 years! In the meantime, instead of going to seminary, he was sold into slavery, framed for rape, and forgotten in the bowels of a prison due to the self-centeredness of a man he’d helped.

Yet through all this, he never forgot God, who was His ever present companion, His shelter, His source of strength, and the One for whom Joseph would continue to wait faithfully – until God’s purposes would be accomplished for him. Joseph's is a different kind of education than the one available for $20000 a year in the USA.

Yet the story of suffering, patient endurance, and overcoming trials isn’t just Joseph’s story. It’s the story in Kenya, and Russia, and Eastern Europe, China, and Southeast Asia today! So we who live in luxury had better open our eyes and ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches through likes of our ‘uneducated’ brothers and sisters in the developing world. Every time I come here, I end up repenting of my arrogance, my addictions to creature comforts, my quickness to turn from the hard deed, my complacency, and my eagerness for all that easy. These students from the developing world have a love for God, and a fire for His glory, and for justice. I pray that we will learn from those who have neither the time nor inclination to ponder what it means to be 'emergent', or 'relevant'. They have neither the education nor the luxury of arguing about whether there's meaning in the text, and whether positivism is a positive influence on hermeneutic. They're not wondering about how to start satellite churches where the superstar pastor is replicated on video so that the hard work of leadership development is bypassed and the personality cults so destructive to the western church remain intact. Instead, they're busy preaching Christ, buying women out of sexual slavery and then empowering them through education and training. They're putting wells in villages so there can be crops and less deaths from unclean water.

When I return to my room and read the most popular 'ministry' magazine available to pastors in America, I get this sickening feeling that we really don't get it. And so I pray for us - that we'll have the humility to learn from those who do get it, because as in the days of Jesus, the ones who 'get it' today are, to our western way of thinking, the unlikely ones. We're in grave danger of become entirely self-referential and overlooking those who have the most to say to us. Lacking the privileges of wealth, democracy, public health, or higher education, church leaders of the developing world are ministering Christ with a power rarely seen among we who are 'better off'. This, of course, causes me to wonder what 'better off' really means.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Science uncovers a meditation surprise

Psychology Professor Kenneth Pargament wondered if the nature of a mantra would affect the quality of the meditation experience. To test this he had two different groups of people meditate. The first group was given a spiritual 'mantra' to repeat over and over, such as "God is Love" while the second was given a meaningless mantra, such as "Grass is green." To his surprise, he found that those meditating with a spiritual mantra were able to keep their hands in a bucket of ice water twice as long as those using the secular mantra.

This discovery was disturbing to some in the scientific community who, while acknowledging that value of meditation in lowering blood pressure and offering other physical benefits, had insisted that the value of meditation was simply in the act of clearing one's mind - that any mantra would work as the content to focus the mind and prevent distraction.

But the finding of Pargament's study indicate that the content of meditation is a critical piece of meditation's effectiveness. Why do you think this is the case? Is meditation nothing more than a mental/physiological way of slowing breathing to lower blood pressure? Or is it possible that by invoking one's awareness of truths regarding God's character by meditating on truth's revealed in Scripture the meditator is grounding him/herself in the Source of Life, the same source which we're told will give life to our mortal bodies.

I always find it interesting when the scientific world runs into these kind of surprises.