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, May 29, 2007

One True Thing

This Sunday is graduation Sunday and because we're a church full of university students, I like to think carefully about what to say on this Sunday, knowing that many of these students will leave Seattle, to be scattered to the far corners of the earth. I want to choose these last words very carefully. It's my favorite Sunday of the year, because I consider it to have been an incredible privilege to have had a voice in the lives of students during their deeply formative years. So what should I say?

I've chosen a simple text that I think encompasses what are the most important truths for this time and place in history, even as they were important when Jesus spoke them so many years ago at that time and place. Here's what I'd like students to take with them as they go out:

1. The Kingdom of God is at hand - This is an important word because it's the word Jesus spoke about the most. More than heaven or hell, he spoke of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, and the reality of their nearness and presence, now among us because Christ is among us. Simply put, Jesus is casting a vision, inviting people to realize that a different way of living is now available because of the presence and work of Christ. This new way of living will replace greed with generosity. It will treat enemies with dignity and love. It will care for the poor and marginalized in society. It will bring safety, joy, and dignity to our sexuality and covenant relationships. It will work towards justice where they has been oppression. Christ is inviting people to join a movement that will fly in the face of most conventional wisdom, and in the process, become part of something both beautiful and challenging. We needn't wait for the rapture to begin living as citizens of the kingdom - we were told 2000 years ago that such a reign is already available, wherever Jesus is allowed to reign.

2. Repent - Jesus is saying that the transforming power, joy, beauty, and hope of God's kingdom will only become visible in our lives, or our lives together in community, to the extent that we repent. The word really means nothing more than 'change'. But it's significant because in all of our lives there are areas where we resist change. The temptation throughout the history of the church has been to define the kingdom reign in narrower terms than Jesus does. Thus do some groups make his reign about sexual purity, others about environmental sensitivity, others about justice, others about caring for the poor and marginalized. But ALL OF US have areas where we've resisted change, resisted repentance, resisted the reign of Christ. And we're the poorer for it. Perhaps we take Jesus' ethic seriously regarding sexual purity, but we've resisted any notion that loving our enemies is possible. Maybe we take caring for the poor seriously, but conveniently ignore our own unwillingness to reconcile with a parent who's hurt us. Wherever it is that we're resisting change - it's right there that the word of repentance becomes our word.

3. Believe the Gospel - Gospel simply means, 'good news' and the invitation that is ours is an invitation to believe the good news that Jesus reign will ultimately heal the world. Until then, wherever his reign takes root, things will get better: the marginalized of the world will be cared for; relationships will be reconciled; enemies will be treated differently; we will find increasing wholeness in our souls, our sexual covenant relationships, our capacity for creativity and joy. The gospel, in other words, is very good news. It's about more than getting us to heaven, though that's included. It's about transformation - which is why 'repentance' (change) becomes so vital.

I hope that graduates, along with all the rest of us, are continually open to repentance. Once we think we've arrived, or once we sequester off some area of our lives and say, "God doesn't care about this" (whether it's who I sleep with or what kind of car I drive), I move away from the good news of Christ's reign, into a smaller, more fearful world. The Kingdom is among us! Keep Changing! And embrace the good news completely because, though it will challenge us to the core, it really is, at the core - very good news indeed.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Remember - Learn - Choose

It's Memorial Day weekend, a time to pause and honor the incredible sacrifices made by men and women on behalf of our country in order that we might enjoy and maintain our freedoms. Contrary to some prevailing evangelical and political opinions, I would argue that it is the height of patriotism and spirituality to have healthy discourse around the subjects of non-violence, just war, the Christian role in the state, and then work at applying those principles to our present situation in the middle-east. Only informed convictions will withstand the rigor of opposition, and the very act of critically considering our positions, no matter where they might fall on the spectrum, will help us refine our understanding of what Christ calls us to as His followers.

Towards that end, perhaps spend a few minutes considering the historical 'just war doctrine' by which the church has critiqued military involvement historically. Many argued that WWII was clearly a just war, though certain American responses, such as the bombing of Dresden were questioned.

On the other hand, consider the position of Christian Pacifism, and understand that throughout history there have been those who take Jesus words about loving enemies literally, and who argue that these words apply to all Jesus' followers, arguing that we're to be clothed with Christ, not with the uniform of the state.

The challenge for all of us is threefold:

1. Thoughtfully and prayerfully consider these historical positions and develop our convictions
2. Apply those convictions to present global conflicts, and prayerfully consider how God wants us to live out that response.
3. Practice respect and honor towards those whose view is different than our own, recognizing that, no matter what our positions, all of us are created in the image of God and worthy of love!


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Same Team --

This summer we'll be doing a mid-week series at Bethany called "Meet the P.R.E.S.S." - It's acronym for five topics around which we will dialog: Personhood - Racism - Environment - Social Divisions - Sexuality. In each case the idea will be to caste the vision of what is supposed to be true for those who are in Christ - then to consider the realities in that realm - and finally have a panel based conversation with an eye towards taking steps to move closer to God's ethic.

The Racism topic is occupying me this days, in part because I'm reading a book loaned to me by a new friend for whom this subject is very important. It's called Reconciliation Blues, and I'd recommend it for any white person seeking to understand what it's like to grow up as an evangelical AND a minority. It, along with conversations with a few people, is helping shed light on this issue, and though I'm slow to understand, some of the clouds are certainly beginning to part.

Yesterday my friend and I had a discussion about this and I said, "why is it that sports teams, at least on the court, don't seem to have any of the race issues that plague the church?" He pointed out that, for those two hours, everyone has the same uniform and the same objectives. Thus the distinctions of privilege and oppression are set aside as the only thing that matters becomes getting the ball through the hoop, or across the goal line, or the runner home.

It seems that this too is the calling of the church, and yet somehow we miss it. The church, like a team, is also called to 'put on' new clothing by virtue of her calling. Of course, nobody disputes this, but perhaps the reality is that we're not quite wearing the same uniform yet. We've reduced our notions of Christian maturity to being nice people who don't commit adultery, get drunk, or cheat on their taxes. But perhaps the clothing of Christ is more profound then that; perhaps it includes working towards reconciliation with those who are different than us; perhaps it includes letting go of our previous ambitions towards upwards mobility, instead favoring a pursuit of a world that looks as it will when Jesus reigns - a world where everyone has enough, and children are no longer being sold into slavery or co-opted into tribal wars - a world where those with means are utterly devoted to the empowerment of those on the margins, that they might have enough to live with hope and dignity.

A commitment to this kind of world brings previous strangers together because this kind of world is neither white nor black, but the creation of a whole new thing. Rather than white evangelicals saying, "of course we're not racist - anyone is perfectly free to come be a part of our white world", there would be a commitment, on both sides of the racial divide, to the creation of something completely new, something that draws on the rich heritages of all parties to create a foretaste of Christ reign. After all, the picture we use all the time to describe the future is that of nations streaming together, joining hands in peace because they are collectively submitting to the reign of a new King.

It's this commitment to making Christ's reign visible that becomes, to use the sports analogy, our common cause. If the commitment is high enough, we'll set aside our differences, no longer caring who carries the ball, as long as we're moving forward, as long as mercy, justice, reconciliation, and peace, are moving out from our life together into our hurting world. That's a team worth playing for - a uniform worth wearing.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Morning Doxology

Over the years, my neighbors and I have planted lots of trees on the block, and because the windows are open in our attic bedroom these spring days, the first sounds that wake us in the morning are the many birds that have found homes, or resting places at least, in the trees. Far better than any alarm clock, the birds are an invitation. Thomas Merton explains this better than I when he writes:

"The first chirps of the waking day birds mark the "point vierge" [the virgin point] of the dawn under a sky as yet without real light, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes. They begin to speak to Him, not
with fluent song, but with an awakening question that is their dawn
state, their state at the "point vierge." Their condition asks if it
is time for them to "be." He answers "Yes." Then, they one by one
wake up, and become birds. They manifest themselves as birds,
beginning to sing. Presently they will be fully themselves, and will
even fly.

Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do
not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do
not know it: we are off "one to his farm and another to his
merchandise." Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves
cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. "Wisdom," cries
the dawn deacon, but we do not attend."
Paradise is all around and we do not understand. Jesus said it this way: "they have eyes but they don't see - they have ears but they don't hear." Senseless is what we become when we stop listening to the rhythm of creation, stop seeing the fresh growth on the fir or cedar, stop hearing the sounds of the songbird, stop giving thanks for it all. The doxology of the spring calls us out into the world, both to celebrate and serve it. It's a doxology of light, hope, celebration. Are we listening to the invitation; really listening?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Falwell - taking faith out of the closet

The passing of Jerry Falwell has resulted in a great deal of ink spilled both demonizing and eulogizing him. Both his style and content were such that this isn't too surprising. But it seems important to step back from these comments about his bombastic style, and often ridiculous declarations (remember the Teletubbies?), and instead consider the seismic shift he brought to the political landscape among people of faith.

A split had occurred in the American religious landscape over the course of several decades either side of the 20th century. When the smoke and dust had settled from the ecclesiastical storm, there were two main expressions of faith in Christ marking American Christianity. Mainline denominations were to become the bastions of progressive social causes, while their more conservative counterparts, often believing in a view of history's end which foresaw the eventual destruction of all social, economic and political systems, stressed the need for personal renewal, 'getting right with God', and 'accepting Jesus as your personal savior'. A split thus occurred, whereby those interested in social reform had little concern for personal piety or salvation, and vice versa.

Falwell changed all that with his founding of the Moral Majority. It was this group that, ironically, brought faith, 'out of the closet', claiming that Jesus did care after all about the social mores of a culture, especially when such mores were considered destructive or threatening to a culture's stability. Thus did Falwell work hard in order to preserve 'family values', 'traditional marriage', and much more. This movement helped elect Ronald Reagan. It was under Reagan's reign that, with the help of a Polish Pope and a progressive Soviet Premier, the grip of totalitarianism was toppled in Eastern Europe and Russia. I was sitting with a student from Moldova just last week in Colorado who wouldn't be in Colorado, were it not for that strange sequence of events in history, which led to her freedom. When the conservative Christians took their faith out of the closet, it shook the world. We're still feeling the effects.

That I don't agree with Falwell's interpretation of Jesus' politics is both a huge and insignificant matter at the same time. It's huge because Jesus cares about a lot more than sexual purity, and a lot less about nation building than Falwell seemed to teach. Contrary to Falwell's narrow interpretation of things, Jesus is interested in whether marginalized people are granted dignity, whether the rich are oppressing the poor, and whether we're willing to make the character of Jesus visible by working hard at loving our neighbors, and even our enemies, and even by caring for the environment. That Falwell's narrow view of what Jesus cared about became such a large part of American Christianity has had the effect of misrepresenting Christ. As a result, what many people have been rejecting over these past decades has not been Jesus, but a petty, sad, caricature. All of us who are call ourselves evangelicals are, in my opinion, the poorer for this caricature having become such a part of our fabric.

But that I don't agree with his interpretations is, at a different level, not that important. I find it most disheartening to meet followers of Jesus who, whether from the left or the right, articulate their belief systems, but fail wrestle with what it means to live those beliefs out in the marketplace, the voting booth, and the shopping mall. Falwell played a major role in bringing the faith of millions of people out of their private spiritual closets and into the public arena, so that now, increasingly Christians are linking their political and economic choices with their spiritual convictions. And that, I believe, is a good thing.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

One way to love your neighbor

Tomorrow evening some of us will be gathering at the elementary school across the street from the church to help them celebrate some of the progress they're making on their school grounds, and I'll be able to participate by talking a bit about what a joy it is to have this school as our neighbor.

Everyone has different views of church building projects and expansion, and I know that we're swimming upstream against all emergent church trends by building a new sanctuary. But the irony is that our building project has brought our two communities together, with the result that we're working jointly for the good of the Green Lake neighborhood where we both reside, and seeking to help each other reach our goals through mutually beneficial partnerships. You can read about our partnership with Bagley on their website here, if you scroll down towards the bottom of the page.

I find this whole thing encouraging for at least two reasons:

1. We're actually trying to love our neighbor and work for the good of city in which we live. These are both practices the Bible encourages, and our involvement with our neighbors in this project has led to wonderful opportunities to do the very thing we say we're about: share life. We've gained opportunities to tutor young people, help support families at Christmas, and I'm certain that in the future we'll be sharing the use of our facilities with our friends from Bagley when they have events that their school can't quite accommodate in their own buildings.

2. At a time when there is so much animosity between church and state, it has been incredibly refreshing (for both sides I believe) to be able to join together and work on a common project as neighbors, learning that indeed, we share common concerns - about children having access to quality education - about families finding the support they need in the hard work of raising kids - about the well being of the neighborhood, whether economically, aesthetically, or otherwise.

It's good to love our neighbors with no strings attached - no agenda.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Thrill of the Chaste

Here's a good book for those interested in the subject of sexuality. I've read an interview with Dawn about the book, and would recommend it for anyone who's working through their sexual ethic, which apparently, is a lot of us.

It seems that our culture is trying hard to divorce our sexuality from relational commitments, reducing the sex act to something akin to a tennis match (Love/Love - Doubles Anyone?). But this is not quite possible, because it seems that there's a 'bonding hormone' released during the sex act that connects us emotionally to the one with whom we have sex. This is the subject of countless movies and books (The End of the Affair comes to mind) all of which reveal the folly of this model. Unfortunately, most TV sitcoms seem to offer this 'recreational ethic' as reality instead of fantasy. This, and many other dimensions of our lives as sexual beings is explored in this well constructed book. I'd recommend it for small group study material or book clubs.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Colorado Storms - instructive for me

Another Colorado thunder storm… you wake up in the morning to sunshine and shirt sleeves. But by 10 o’clock the clouds begin to form over the Rockies, just to the west of the school where I teach. They seem, throughout the morning, to grow in size, eventually melting together into one gigantic cloud mass. It’s still off in the distance, maybe 15 miles away, but you can see it means business.

Then it happens. About 3 in the afternoon you see the first flash of lightening, as you’re working at your desk. You count to 9 before you hear a distant roll of thunder. But you can see the storm moving – east – towards you. The next flash brings a count of 7 before thunder. Then there’s wind. Then it’s 3. Then there’s hail and a flash hits the peak, whose top is less than 100 meters from your window and POW!! There’s a loud crack and you can feel the electricity in the air, as the hail pelts the rooftop of your cabin.

Perhaps nowhere does the phrase ‘storm clouds gathering’ have more poignant meaning for me than in this room, on this mountain, in this grand state of Colorado. I ponder how easy it would be to ignore them and head out into the mountains, naively believing that the clouds will move west rather than east. But wishful thinking doesn’t make it so, and the signs that a storm is coming eventually come to fruition, as the lightning strikes all that is around you.

Yet this storm is tiny in comparison to the one that’s coming as the clouds around us convene: Our national debt rages recklessly out of control, as does our consumer debt and a commensurate rise in foreclosures. The gap between the rich and poor grows insanely large, fomenting discontent among the ‘have nots’. The environmental challenges of our consumerist ways threaten the ecosystem that God has provided as the source of our many blessings. Similar clouds are gathering in Europe, and let’s not even get started on the Middle-East.

What’s needed in a time of storm is a place of safety. Whether or storms are national or personal, economic or emotional, the promise is the same. God desires to be that place of safety. While we can’t know all mysteries related to ‘why’ things are as they are, we can know WHERE to find safety – not promises of immunity, but safety in the midst of storms – the opportunity to be a voice of love, hope, mercy, and celebration even in the darkest hour. Bonhoeffer lived it in the midst of Germany’s darkest days, along with handfuls of others who were voices of hope and courage.

As the storm clouds gather around us, I ask myself whether our little flock, and whether you and I, will be able to be voices of hope, and places of safety when storms unleash. Habakkuk said it thusly:

Though the fig tree should not blossom

And there be no fruit on the vines;

Though the yield of the olive should fail

And the fields produce no food,

Though the flock should be cut off from the fold

And there be no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will exalt in the Lord,

I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.

The Lord God is my strength

And He has made my feet like hids’ feet,

And makes me walk on my high places…

I hope you’re seeking shelter, through time in fellowship, prayer, enjoyment of creation, the cultivation of simplicity, and a genuine enjoyment of Christ – and seeking to be shelter for others too, in these exciting, stormy days.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Finding ways to get on

There's a lengthy article in the NY Times about one man's use of antidepressants. It's a story of depression, therapy, medication, and then the long arduous journey to get off the drugs. I found the article interesting at several levels and want to make clear that this man's story isn't intended to be a model on how best to use or stop using antidepressants. The story is just that; one man's story.

Towards the end of the lengthy article though, there was a quote that I found quite insightful:

Ron Duman told me about one way that scientists try to test the effectiveness of a given antidepressant in the lab. Put a laboratory rat into a beaker of water and see how long it struggles to get out. When it stops, remove it from the beaker and treat it with the drug. Repeat the test. If it struggles for a significantly longer time than before, the drug is considered to have antidepressant potential. Is this ability to keep us going altogether good?...when does reliance on a drug keep us from seeking ways to resolve the causes of stress?

It seems that we're a culture without adequate margins, so that when people are under great stress our first line of defense is to offer a chemical adjustment enabling people to push on and perform. Certainly there's a place for medication. Certainly adjusting physiological chemical imbalances has been a great blessing to many. And yet...

1 - I wonder if we've tried the ancient paths adequately before turning to medication. What ancient paths? Exercise, time spent in creation, lectio-divina (the prayerful reading of scripture), a safe relationship where we can share our deepest self, time to linger in conversation, are a few.

2 - I wonder how much our 'performance' oriented world pushes us to medicate (and let's not kid ourselves - caffeine taken for hit it provides is medication too). What it we could all take a nap instead?

If you're battling or have battled depression, I'd be grateful for your own thoughts on the roles these various elements, including medication, play in healing.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Communication and the Bible

Think about a relationship with someone you know very well. Now, think about one of times when there was a colossal failure of communication. The other party said something to you and in the saying of it they had a certain intention. But because of your blood sugar, work frustrations, other relational stresses, and host of other factors, their words and body language were received by you as meaning something entirely different than what was intended. They were offering encouragement and you received it as condemnation. They had a question and you received it as an accusation. Has it happened to you?

Of course. The good news is that with a little deconstructing, clarifying, and rearticulating, the two of you can come closer to reality. It takes a little work, but it can happen. What’s far more difficult is finding clarity of what the author was trying to say when you’re reading a book – the Bible, for example. You’re trying to understand if all those slaughters in the Old Testament means God’s OK with war, or if instead the teachings of Jesus about turning the other cheek mean that war is simply not an option for the person of faith. Maybe you want to know what God thinks about homosexuality, or divorce, or capitalism (of the three, God seems least ambiguous about divorce). So you read, but the feedback loop seems closed. How do we come up with a sense of what God is saying? I’d suggest that, among other things, the following communication tools will help:

  1. Humility: I need to come to grips with the reality that I don’t always know what my wife is saying clearly and I’ve lived with her for 27 years. I bring my own script to the table and so I sometimes miss her point entirely. Only later, after clarifying comments, do I begin to understand. The same thing is true with the Bible. I need to live with the convictions that I have UNTIL I’m persuaded that I’ve missed something, that God was trying to tell us something other than I thought. This shifting has happened sometimes. Sometimes it’s gotten me into trouble with people who’ve been threatened by a theology that evolves. But I’m convinced that if the heart is looking for truth, our theology WILL evolve.
  2. Clarifying Voices: When I misunderstand someone and they know I’ve missed the point, they might look at me, cock their head say, “You just don’t get it do you!” Then they’ll say it again, “What I meant was…” and their clarifying statements will have provide the needed light. When we read the Bible, the clarifying voices are there too – you just need to look a little more closely to find them. I don’t have time to go into right here, but the clarifying voices that I find most helpful are: a) Other scripture passages, b) the cultural context of a passage, and c) Church history. None of these are ‘trump cards’ that alone bring a definitive clarifying interpretation. But all are important. Without them, singular passages from the Bible can be used in incredibly destructive ways.
  3. The Holy Spirit. This seems to be the most vital source of correction and clarification. If we read the Bible prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to show us what God is saying, I believe that prayer will be answered. Of course, two people pray such a prayer and still come to diametrically opposite conclusions in many, many areas. That’s why we need humility – but humility doesn’t mean that we stop living until we get it all figured out. It simply means that we understand that, until we see Christ face to face, we’re on a journey. So let’s give each other the grace to remain in fellowship and dialogue, because the voice of the other will help me see with greater clarity if I approach it with prayer, humility, and a commitment to truth.