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...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Blood Diamond - Redemption for those who endure

I've watched movies with violence before, but last night, sitting through some of the early scenes in Blood Diamond was nearly too much for me: lots of blood spilled, and scenes of children being taught to kill, during which I could feel the anger, shock, and grief coursing through my body. But I endured, and need to say that I'm glad I did. It's one of the best movies of the year.

There are two stories for people of faith to consider. The first is the story of Leonardo's redemption. I don't mean his redemption as an actor (though I must say that he's made a remarkable recovery since that sinking ship of a film called "Titanic"). Rather, I mean the character's redemption within the story. It's a powerful and beautiful picture of how someone's heart of stone can become a heart of flesh, and the role that emotion, beauty, and confrontation all play in turning the heart. In particular, that little village, mid-film, where children were being cared for so wonderfully, seemed to be a picture to me of our calling as Christians: we're to be in the midst of creating bastions of safety and beauty in the midst of an unsafe and ugly world. (Leonardo's real life response to the orphans who were extras in the film is touching too)

The other story, of course, is how our collective choices as consumers effect the lives of families in the farthest corners of the world - often for the worse rather than the better. Do I think about the coffee I drink, the car I drive, and the food I eat, as having anything to do with my faith? I assure you that these things matter because they make a statement: either we're reinforcing and supporting power structures of this world that degrade, pollute, and oppress, or we're contradicting them (even if only in a small way).

Still another story is the harsh reality of children soldiers, documented here.

Finally, there's the matter of whether Christians should watch movies with violence and swearing. Somehow, I think the violence of the Bible was intended to shock us as much as violence in films like this shock us, but we've become immune to the power of the Bible's stories through re-telling and wrong telling. Thus, it seems to me, movies like this one can sometimes shake us out of complacency quite effectively and bring principles from the scripture to life in practical, relevant ways. Those are my thoughts anyway, but I would say with Paul that when it comes to watching movies like this, 'each one must be convinced in his/her own heart.'


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Foundation Dedication

We gathered outside on the newly poured foundation for the sanctuary that's part of our facilities expansion. It was an historic moment for this little community of believers and I think that as we looked around there was a realization that these days are the days which have been entrusted to us: not yesterday, so there's no need to hold on to it; and not tomorrow, so there's no need to fear it. But these days, this time, is our time to carry the torch handed us by others, seeking to live faithfully as a testimony of hope in a world of incredible upheaval. When I was studying in seminary over 20 years ago, I couldn't have imagined the issues that would be shifting our world and undermining the foundations of security we've built our lives upon. But global terror, tribal wars, environmental degradation, deep divisions among people of faith over economic, political, and social issues, and the increasing gap, both locally and globally, between the rich and the poor are all real crises. And yet, the anxiety and fear that flows our from these crises make this a time of genuine opportunity to serve and care for others. As I shared Sunday, it's our desire to be a place of hope, serving and blessing our city in Jesus name. After praying and receiving communion on this new foundation, hundreds of prayers were written on the cement. Here are a few.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Feeling Poor after Taxes?

Taxes paid - pain felt. Let's put our poverty in a global perspective. We might need to put off buying a new i-pod which we need because we've more songs than the Nano can accommodate, or because the battery's not lasting long enough to jog the lake any more (I'm getting way too personal).

So, feeling a little impoverished, like the $3 a gallon is forcing me to ride my bike more, feeling like going to the movies is a big deal, I check out this little web site, (you need to look at this if you're to appreciate the point of this post) which I think I've shared before, and type in my salary.

It's the end of self pity, and the invitation to re-evaluation: of how I use my money and my time, of the resources I consume, and of whether my life, and our life as both a community of faith, and a nation is offering hopeful, sustainable solutions to the problems that plague the vast billions living in abject poverty.

I was led to the site as part of my preparation for my sermon on Sunday. If you'll be there, or know someone who will, maybe encourage them to check this out before showing up. And what's more, I'm interested in your reactions when you watch the little graphic which reveals where you stand in relation to the rest of the world. Please share your comments regarding how this makes you feel and what you might do in response. Thanks

Friday, April 20, 2007

Framing the Abortion Debate - broader and deeper

I’ll have a little piece in the Seattle Times on Saturday morning, but wanted to elaborate a bit for those who are interested. Here are a few basic propositions that I think must govern the dialog on this subject.

I. Life in the womb is worth protecting because it is life and as such, is precious in God’s eyes. The Bible is offers many scriptures to indicate that we’re talking about more than just tissue here. And this life, since it is a small, frail, vulnerable life, needs our voice to protect it because it can’t protect itself. The political left has largely danced around this untidy reality, along with the untidy realities that abortion carries with it, at the very least, the risk of grave psychological and physical consequences. Again, the left conveniently avoids these realities in all their rhetoric.

II. Life outside the womb is equally precious, a fact that the religious right seems to ignore. You see, the statistical reality is that most babies which were at some point under consideration for abortion are born into situations that are stacked against them. Whether the issue is extreme poverty, addiction, promiscuity, or spousal abuse, the fact is that unwanted children who are brought into the world deserve the same protection, care, and compassion from the religious right once they are born as they received in the womb. To move from a somewhat intrusive politic which mandates birth, to a completely libertarian, Darwinian, ‘you’re now on your own’, ‘survival of the fittest’, policy once the child is born seems absurd.

III. The life of the mother is as precious as the life of the child. I’ve been a pastor long enough to hear the agonizing stories of women who have wrestled with the issue of abortion. Never yet have I spoken with one who took the issue lightly. When Troy Newman of Operation Rescue said this in response to the Supreme Court’s Ruling: “…We can do more than just put hurdles in front of women seeking abortions; we can put roadblocks in front of them”, I wanted to scream. His language precludes relationships, enflames rhetoric, and moves us further away from any constructive dialogue about the real issues. I just can’t see Jesus talking like that to an entire gender.

IV. The real conversation should view abortion as the symptom of a larger set of cultural pathologies, and both left and right, all of us really, find ourselves complicit with these diseases. Our greed and consumerism is driving people to overwork and overspend, which is leading to stresses in the home and the loss of civic community (people are still Bowling Alone). When this isolation is blended with a recreational sexual ethic, the loss of covenant commitments, and an over sexualized culture, it’s not hard to understand how abortion comes into play. Throw in a culture of fear and violence as seen in our propensity to silence and censure those who disagree with us, and we can see how the problem grows. Unless there’s a conversation centered around these root issues I fear that court mandates of any perceived magnitude (and this recent ruling was small indeed) will be nothing more than an escape valve to avoid the harder conversations. But once these harder conversations begin, I pray that we’ll work together all of us, to envision a different kind of country – a country where the highest good is the common good, and where care for one another and a strong ethic that ties sexual expressions to committed relationships will grow in the soil of healthy families and strong communities. Working together towards such common goals would perhaps open up room for more civil dialog on the particulars of how to protect the dignity and life of both the mother and the infant, and new solutions would no doubt emerge.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Soil of Peace

The convergence of three things has me pondering over my coffee this morning. Sitting on the breakfast table is this week's Time magazine, whose cover story addresses the issue of what's appropriate and inappropriate language for people who hold public positions to use, an issue at the forefront because of Don Imus' comments recently. Next to that sits the Seattle Times, whose front section is devoted almost entirely to the tragic killings yesterday at a university campus in Virginia. Meanwhile, my music brings up, randomly, the song by Rich Mullins, entitled Peace.

Hate language, killings, and an invitation to peace. Plenty of ink has already been spilled on behalf of Imus. More ink will flow in the coming days in response to the Virginia Tech killings. My questions regarding these two events have to do less with the events themselves and their causes (though that would be a topic worthy of discussion) than with the response that's been poured out.

With respect to Imus, I'm both encouraged and perplexed by the response. My encouragement stems from the fact that, finally, some corporate sponsors said, 'enough'. Whether their outrage was driven purely by market forces or by something higher, the fact is that public pressure has finally called someone to account for the degradation that had been dished up so callously for so long. My perplexity comes from the seemingly double standard that exists amongst public figures: if you rap, you can sprinkle n** and f** and b** so generously in your 'art' that if the words are censored, there's basically nothing left. The public reaction: you're a rock star - a multi-millionaire - you're immediately elevated to the status of 'cultural elite'. It's all yours, but only if the degradation is generic, and only if it's done in the name of art. Our presidential candidates who are Democrats have accepted millions in campaign donations from these 'artists' - and yet these candidate's voices were among the loudest calling for Imus' head. I understand that specific verbal abuse is worse than generic abuse, but I'd also suggest that what goes down in the name of 'art' (the rap hip/hop music so popular among suburban white teens) is creating a vast soil in which seeds of hate, prejudice, violence, and degradation will burst forth as inevitably as pumpkins in a pumpkin patch. The seeds have been sown - why are we surprised? I'm hoping that the shock and outrage extends beyond Imus - and that we'll decide: if artists are granted the freedom of speech to sow seeds of racism and violence, let's not be surprised when the fruit of such hatred begins to sprout. And maybe those candidates who decry Imus should rethink accepting all those dollars from 'artists' saying the very same things, not once, but through music which perpetually fills the airwaves and i-pods of America. If enough is enough, it should be enough on all counts.

And then there's the matter at Virginia Tech - it's too early to really know the profile of the person who did the shooting, but it seems important to ponder these observations:

1. We live in a culture where violence is often offered as solutions to problems - while this is seen many ways, it's seen most clearly in our tendency towards military solutions for problems (this isn't something new with the current president - Clinton, Bush I, Reagan - all had the same tendencies at times. The only one in recent history who didn't lean this way was Carter, and we all know what happened to him!)

2. Violence is a wildly popular form of entertainment in both the movies (have you seen the previews for the new Luke Wilson movie?), television (it won't be long until there's a CSI Bakersfield), and the video game industry.

3. Ours is a nation, in contrast to European culture, de-sensitized to violence. Europe, having spilled immense blood on it's own shores, has far less tolerance for violence in entertainment.

And here we are, surprised that someone's rage finds a violent means of expression. It's that soil thing again. We're creating a soil of violence. My shock and surprise isn't that this happened yesterday - rather, I'm surprised it doesn't happen more.

Meanwhile Rich Mullins sings about Peace. The thing we can do in the midst of the overwhelming presence of hate filled and violent soils is simple: we can sow the seeds of peace - we can do so by seeing each and every person we meet, including our enemies as those created in the image of God. We can do so by making a priority of reconciliation. We can do so by speaking out in defense of the least of these. We can do so by taking our own bitterness and rage to the cross, and there find not only forgiveness, but the capacity to forgive. The more we practice these profound habits, the richer will become the soil of peace and hope - and from that, a different crop will grow!

On this dark day... in these dark times - may we both know and BE His Peace!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A meltdown that's GOOD news.

I went to see The Alps yesterday at IMAX. For those of us who climb, it's a must see, and I suppose the same could be said for those who wonder why we climb. Of course, there was a significant section on global warming, because the Alps offer some of the most irrefutable evidence of this matter, not regarding the cause, but regarding the reality. There are many of us 'older' climbers who have seen glaciers receding visibly in our short decade or two of climbing. We who climb don't claim to know why it's happening, just that it is. And it saddens most of us.

But there's a different kind of meltdown happening among Christians, and I'm not sad about it at all. I'm talking about the meltdown of that shallow union between the Republican party and Religious Right (heretofore called, "RR" in this piece). The meltdown is exposed in Rolling Stone in an article that articulates the RR's disillusionment with both the present (we've been sent to the back of the bus after being courted in the primaries) and the future (none of the republican front runners are sympathetic to our causes, except perhaps the Mormon - but of course, he's a Mormon).

I'm glad the alliance has broken down because it created a caricatured, mis proportioned expression of what it means to follow Jesus. Our calling isn't to embody the narrow platform of stem-cell research, abortion, and a clear definition of marriage. Rather, we're called to embody the full spectrum of Christ's ethical reign. When we bow to the reign of our creator and embrace our calling to embody His reign, we'll care about lots of things: a) the structures and excessive energy use that contribute to the extinction of species b) the plight of the marginalized, whether their plight stems from war, economic oppression, abuse, or mental/spiritual health c) the sexual anarchy that separates sexual expression from covenant relationship d) the lifestyles that link consumption and wealth with meaning and happiness e) the loss of intimate relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and the environment, all of which contribute to the vast hollowness that defines our age. f) and so much more... We're called to care about these values, embody them in our communities of faith, and use our time and energy as God directs each of us, to step into the stream of activities that further these values.

What saddens me in the article is that RR members have decided that in the wake of their disillusionment, perhaps a 'two year fast' from politics is the answer. My hope is that the disillusionment will become, not a basis for disengagement, but rather a cause for rethinking just what it is that Christ wants us to be about. Perhaps this meltdown will eventuate in a more balanced expression of what Christ is about, and that would be a meltdown that would warm my heart.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Women in Ministry... and fidelity to the Bible

I had an interesting lunch meeting yesterday with a professor from Seattle Pacific University, centered around the topic of Women in Ministry. Ordained in a denomination that doesn't allow women in leadership, this man shared his story with me of transformation FROM a patriarchal view of the subject, to an egalitarian view.

I think what bothers me most in this realm is that the patriarchal proponents declare themselves to be upholding the faithfulness of the text, charging that anyone who allows women to teach or lead in the church is 'accommodating' the winds of culture and departing from fidelity to the text.

But here are some facts to consider:
1. the first two centuries of the church are nothing less than a testimony of women increasingly involved in leadership within the community. Their leadership is quite limited at the time the scriptures were written because the Roman empire was a culture of subjugation of women, and they thus lacked even the basic educational background that would have enabled them to lead. But as they came to Christ, they began to participate in the life of church, became educated, and those gifted as leaders took up that mantle.
2. It was only after Constantine mandated the faith as the state religion that its expressions became wed to the prevailing power structures of Rome which were, of course, patriarchal. This structure has held sway over most (but not all) of the church, ever since.
3. A careful reading of the text, to gather historical context, leads one to the conclusion that Paul is addressing specific issues for a specific time and place in the questionable texts of I Corinthians 14, and I Timothy 2. That this is true is evident because Paul enjoins absolute silence, for example, in I Cor. 14, while in I Cor. 11 he says that women who prophecy in church should have their heads covered. It must be obvious that the 14 passage isn't an absolute precept, because if it is, Paul violates the very same precept in his own teaching.

Here's an important bottom line for people to wrestle with: There are lots of us who believe woman can be called and gifted for leadership, and we teach this, not out of a desire to accommodate culture, but out of a desire to be faithful to the Bible. Careful study of text leads one heavily towards this conclusion, as demonstrated in this book. I don't mind people disagreeing with the conclusion. What bothers me is the charge that those of us who don't embrace patriarchal structures for the church are on some slippery slope towards a fateful abyss which will rob men of their masculinity and the Bible of it's authority.

My response to such charges - Study harder. Treat Paul's texts regarding women the same way you do the rest of the Bible: consider the cultural context as part of your hermeneutic, and consider anecdotes within the broader scope of scripture (such as Junias the female apostle in Romans 16) which contradict patriarchal readings of the broader text. Careful study, not cultural accommodation, is the basis for seeing that women should be called to use their gifts, whether serving or leading, just as men. This, it seems to me, is what being faithful to the text looks like.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Whose Story? His-story

Today's sermon offered the question of which story we'll enter as each of us moves to live out the rest of our days. Though there are shades of distinction, and though the stories are at times indistinguishable, the reality is that there are, broadly, two stories available to all of us.

The first is that story which places man at the center and says that our hope for a better future lies in some human based source (education, economic theory, political or military power, improvement of, or destruction of technology, etc. etc.)

The second story dares to suggest that the world is under a spell which can only be broken by a prince, or perhaps a king. It goes on to say that, indeed the spell IS broken, and that now we can live out our days involved in a story of transformation: our own transformation as we deal with those issues in our lives that tend towards our destruction, and social transformation, as we collectively participate in communities that purpose to live under the reing of the King who has broken the curse by his death, and his conquering of death. It sounds like an outlandish fairy tale... and would be exactly both of those things were it not for the truth of it. The people who live in this story embody hope, and set about the business of blessing others and standing for the ethic of the new king - an ethic which calls for love towards enemies, and generosity to the needy, and deliverance of captives, and recovery... and so much more that is hopeful.

We can parrot the words of Christianity, and yet continue to live in the wrong story. I pray that today I'll listen to the risen Christ long enough to hear him, as he invites me to move more fully onto the page of His-story.

The other page? The answer always seems to be a chapter away... the next economic program, the next war to end all wars, the next presidential candidate, the next strategy to save glaciers, destroy terrorism, and defeat genocide. And yet, when we turn the page, answers remain elusive. Thank God there's a different story - a story rooted in transformation. I'm hoping that a year from now, I'll be more firmly planted in that story than ever. If I am... I'll be offering hospitality, loving neighbors, serving the poor, being freed from my own issues, and declaring the good news that because the King beat death - the curse has been broken!

Blessed Easter

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

“Wholeness” or “Totalisms”

One of my favorite authors is Richard Cartwright Austin. He’s a favorite because there are three roles that have defined his life: pastor – author – environmentalist. Since these are right up near the top in my own life and calling as well, I’ve read his 4 books series on environmentalism (available in our own Bethany library by the way). In book 2, he spends some time developing Erik Erikson’s distinction between wholeness and totalism. It’s an important distinction, especially for we who lead. Inviting people to wholeness means that we’re inviting people to continual growth and transformation. Whole people have boundaries, yes; but they’re also paradoxically permeable. They’re open to transformation and change. Whole people have a general sense that interactions with the other (other person, other ideas, other culture, other religion, other environment) have something to offer in our ongoing maturing process. There’s also a generally strong enough sense of self that the whole person also feels they have something to give. It’s a trusting way of living that hearkens back to infancy and early childhood, or would if one was blessed with parents who nurtured and imparted this sense of trust and wholeness. Maybe that’s part of what Jesus meant when he spoke of being ‘born again’ – after all, he said elsewhere that what’s needed is the faith of child.

In contrast to this, those who never received a sense of wholeness, who never learned to trust, become vulnerable to those who offer totalisms. To quote Richard: “When a sense of personhood is based on totalisms, identification with a race, a group, or an idea is complete, yet it is anxious." In such a state, every answer is black and white – every person is clearly in or out, and the leader is teaching people to know with certain who’s who so that they can assure themselves of being ‘in’. Richard goes on to point out that those who have grown up in the midst of either personal family, or collective social crisis, are far more vulnerable to ‘totalisms’ as they provide a sense of security and belonging unavailable to anyone who considers him/herself still in the process of growth.

Church leaders are especially in danger of creating a culture of totalisms, rather than inviting people to wholeness, but a quick survey of Jesus’ life reveals that the thing he most forcefully opposed during his days was the ‘totalism’ of the Pharisees. They’d stopped learning, stopped growing, and had become nothing more than defenders of turf. I’d suggest that anyone who wants to really follow Jesus needs to make peace with this reality: I’ll never be finished growing and learning. This is liberating because it offers the perspective that what God is asking of me, above all else, is discerning responsiveness to revelation – not anxious cloistering, away from all potential pollutants.

In closing, I’ll just point out that any flag, any symbol, any church logo, can quickly become a dangerous ‘totalism’ if its leaders aren’t vigilant in their commitment to wholeness.

I wonder what you think… what are the dangers of Erikson’s invitation to ‘wholeness’? What do you this is true about it? What should we who lead be doing to avoid ‘totalisms’ while still declaring truth?

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Danger of Holy Week Liturgy

Yesterday I shared that if all that happens during Holy Week is that we ponder the death of Christ and feel bad about how much He suffered for us, beating ourselves up a bit for the pain we caused Him, we will miss the point completely. Rather, our calling is to enter into solidarity with Christ, not by sympathy or sentiment, but by each of us actually living out the way of the cross in our own daily lives. This is the problem I often have with liturgy: While it can function as a vivid sensory reminder of our solidarity with Christ, inviting us to enter into the way of the cross with Him, too often the ritual becomes a substitute for my own experiential identification with Christ. I read about the seven last words of Christ, or watch Mel Gibson’s movie, or I walk a ‘stations of the cross’ experience set up somewhere in Seattle. Thus having ‘felt His pain’, I delude myself into thinking that I’ve done something of value. The value, however, doesn’t occur until I am pouring my own life out for others in service, laying down my rights, laying down my life, bearing with other’s weaknesses, and stepping into the suffering and pain of the world, then we’ve missed the point. It’s all about union with Christ, as seen here and here.