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, August 28, 2007

Regarding the Mother

Time Magazine's cover story this week is about Mother Teresa, whose private correspondences have been published in a book entitled, "Mother Teresa: Come be My Light." The book provides ample evidence that the heart of this great woman wrestled with a profound sense of God's absence during the vast majority of her days serving among the poorest of the poor. All the while, she was also an articulate spokeswoman for the joy that is to be found in serving each and every person, especially those living on the margins, as if they were Christ Himself.

The contradiction has created a weight of evidence for both the faith and the skeptical. The former point to her perseverance in faith and service as evidence of both the reality and depth of her relationship with God. The latter paint her perseverance as comical. Christopher Hitchens, author of "God is Not Great" wrote that "she was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself."

It seems that there is still a third lens through which to consider the great life, a lens that considers her story by weighing it in the light of scripture. Here are the realities:

1. There is rich blessing in caring for the poor. This is the teaching of the Bible in many places. So one must perhaps wonder what form this 'blessing' takes, if the fruit of her ministry, at least as it effects her heart, was that she lived with a nearly continual sense of God's absence. The reality of 'blessing' must be balanced with a second consideration.

2. Those who folly God fully are not exempt from deep anguish. Indeed, the vast weight of Biblical testimony confirms this, whether one looks at Abraham, David, Job, or Jesus Himself. I find it hysterical that Hitchins would site Mother T's sense of God's absence as a proof that God doesn't exist - for consistency in his argument would then demand that those who do sense God presence are living proof that God does exist. Our skeptical friend, however, chooses his evidence very selectively, and thus loses credibility quickly. But I digress...

3. Her writings highlight what I consider to be a critical distinction between much that is in Catholic theology/church history, and the convictions that are inherent in my theology, which is well articulated in the this Torchbearer doctrinal position. Because I believe this to be truth, I needn't wait for any sense of 'feeling God's presence' to confirm the reality of God's presence. This is a reality for which I give thanks, by faith, each day - thanking God in advance that as we make ourselves available to Him, He will express a life through us which testifies to the reality of God's character. Mercy, justice, wisdom, strength, joy - all not our own, but flowing out from His life, are available. Ours is simply, by faith - to give thanks.

It would seem a terrible burden to bear if I need to pray for God's presence, or for His mercy, grace, peace, joy. The reality is that it's already given, and that it is mine to simply say thank you. I'll even go a step further and say that this simple act of giving thanks may not change the outward sense of God's presence our absence, but that it nonetheless changes everything. It's what enabled the same Paul who spoke of despairing even of life, also speak of overwhelmingly conquering in all things. Contradictory? Not at all - there will no doubt be moments of darkness. But they don't mean God is absent, and more than the clouds in the above picture mean the summit has disappeared. I still give thanks - still move forward - still believe.

I'm afraid that those who speak of the dark night of the soul are sometimes waiting for a God to show up who is already there - and that's sad, because it can create great guilt or questioning, or waiting - when what he intends is the simple faith that believes in His presence... and gives thanks... and gets on with it.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Grow Old

I’m just about to head back into the city, the writing-hiking-biking life of the past 10 days having come to an end. On a hike this past Wednesday afternoon I met Jim and Ed (left to right). They were hiking out as I was hiking in, and I asked them a question, which led to a good long conversation on the trail. Jim arrived in the northwest “courtesy of the US government, during WWII” he said, and went on to add, “When I got off the plane it was raining, the rain washed off the dust of Texas. I said to myself, ‘I’m finished with that Texas dust’ and settled up here.”

These two guys have each put in over 3700 miles over the past 10 years as part of an Alpine Walking Club. Jim’s 81 and Ed’s 83. What I appreciated about these two men was that, in talking with them and looking at their eyes, their countenance, it was clear to me that they were healthy; not just physically, though I hope that I’m hiking 370 miles a year when I’m 83. They were healthy at a more holistic level. I don’t know what it takes to be like them: so interested in other people, so physically active, so well read, and so upbeat and optimistic, into one’s 80’s as these two are. But I suspect it entails being that when you’re 50, or 40, or 30, and never letting go of it. That seems to be these best way.

And so we parted ways, and I pondered and prayed, in the midst of the stunning beauty that is the trail to Lake Ann. “Life is indeed short. God, I pray that you will shape me so that I can, as the Psalmist says, ‘number my days’. I want to make the most of every day left, using gifts, facing the issues that are hindering me from serving You more fully, being more honestly engaged in relationships with family, friends, staff at work, neighbors. Shape me Lord, so that the days that remain are increasing days that are wholly Yours to express through Me whatever you desire!”

Vacation over… wedding rehearsal tonight.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The writing ‘life’

Sorry about the sparse entries for the past little bit. It’s a very busy season: 3 weddings in the next 4 weeks; The impending start of a new ministry year with all that entails, and a publishing deadline for a book I’m writing. It’s that last one that has occupied me most heavily this past week. I’ve been hiding away at a cabin, writing a third of a day, exercising another third (hiking, biking, about the go running up at the Mt. Baker ski area), and reading or watching movies the other third.

About the writing – I’m amazed at how easily it flows... sometimes. During those times I feel as if I’ve been writing for only a few minutes and I look at the clock and realize it’s been three hours. Other times, inspiration comes agonizingly slowly. I look at the clock it’s been fifteen minutes, but felt like three hours. “Inspiration” is a word I use pretty loosely in this context, because often I’ll go back and read what I was working on and think, who wrote that dribble? Sadly, it was me.

Largely though, I very much enjoy the discipline of writing as another means of giving shape to ideas and sharing them with others. I’m finding that I write better if I write more often, but that the writing needs, in my case, to be balanced with input: reading, movies, time in creation. Over the past week, while I’ve been in hiding, I’ve finished book six of Harry Potter (unbelievable!… I think there will be a twist in book seven whereby…wait… don’t want to give it away) Useless Beauty, a book about movies and Ecclesiastes, and the movie “Love Actually”. Richard Curtis, the writer/director of that movie was interviewed last week at the conference I attended, and I wanted to watch it. If you’ve not seen it, I’d recommend it as a shining example of both our longings to connect, and the barriers that prevent us from doing so. He’s a very interesting fellow, deeply committed to issues of justice and poverty (writer of another great movie: Girl in the Cafe, and terribly creative. His interview gave me a whole new appreciation for what are usually called, “chick flicks”.

It’s been a very good time away, as I’ve come to realize what a joy it is when all the pieces of my life are linked. The outdoor pursuits, the love of books and movies, and writing have all kind of melted together this week, each drawing on the other for various resources. Such seasons are a gift indeed! The sad part is that I’ve still a fair bit of work to do before completing the book, and there’s a publishers deadline looming in about 5 weeks! Off for a run… more later.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Smorgasbord or Mono Diet?

If you watch this little you-tube piece, you’ll see a creative little caricature of how the state of the church in our capitalist, consumerist culture has mutated to the point where we who comprise the various ‘members’ of Christ’s body have a myriad of choices at our disposal when deciding where to go to church. Of course, if we don’t like where we are, we’ll go somewhere else, somewhere that more closely resembles the desires of our unique personalities and souls.

What do you make of this? Here are some possible answers:

This sucks! It just proves how selfish we all are. Church, after all, isn’t about having our needs met, it’s about meeting other people’s needs and using our gifts.” That sounds good, but if your children are screaming every Sunday that they don’t want to go to Sunday School because the ‘rooms smell bad’ and you investigate, discovering that the trash cans have rotting fruit in them, and that there are funny stains on the carpet, I wonder if you’ll stay? I especially wonder if you’ll stay if you confront the issue and the people in charge just smile and say, “we’re a friendly church.” If you leave, are you just another consumer? I don’t think so. I think the reality is that we all have our limits, as well we should.

This is great! The ‘competition’ forces church leaders to take their calling seriously. Remember what happened when the church had a monopoly. That period in history was called the dark ages for a reason. I’m glad we live in a time and place where there are choices.” Yes, but if monopolies fed the weaknesses of church leaders, the multiplication of choices no doubt feeds the weaknesses of church attenders. After all, what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ reason for leaving a church? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that the reasons articulated by people aren’t always the real reasons – though they themselves might not even know the real reasons. But the bottom line is that the multiplication of choices, coupled with the culture of transience that is ours has resulted in a kind of cavalier attitude towards church life.

If it were a marriage (and I understand that it isn’t, but stick with me for a minute), it’s is if we’ve become a culture of partner swapping, whereby we abandon our spouse for the slightest flaw, jumping quickly to another until we find her mole, or extra three pounds of flesh, or piercing laugh at bad jokes. Such a culture of disposability sickens me in human relationships, and deeply saddens me when such a mindset bleeds into the church.

So what is it? Great? Sucking? My sense is that it is what it is. Mindful that I’m not the only person in town who is preaching perhaps makes me a better preacher. But it shouldn’t. Knowing that you can leave one community of faith in order to find one that better ‘meets your needs’ can make you a healthier Christian. And it might. Or it might just reinforce the prevailing ‘throw away’ disposability of our culture that is at the root of so much that is destructive. I just don’t know which it is. That’s why I need prayer, and friends who will tell me the truth, and a commitment that, whatever I do, I will learn how to be in committed relationships – even in a faith community.

Tomorrow: You must be Bourne Again!


Saturday, August 11, 2007

I don't get it...

I went to a conference for the past three days, listening to leaders from church, politics, and industry speak of principles regarding leadership: vision casting, conflict resolution, decision making, the vital role of honesty, character, and integrity, and much more. The conference offered inspiring music, creative drama, and video vignettes.

We learned about churches that are mobilizing their congregations to address the AIDS crisis in Africa, contribute the UN's Millenium Development goals, meet local needs in urban settings, and cast vision so that local churches such as the one I pastor become, in a real and vital way, the hope of the future. We were encouraged, refreshed, challenged, and inspired.

What mystifies me is that the conference was sponsored and developed by the Willow Creek Association. The mystery is that there are a host of people out there who view the Willow Creek Community as this vast departure from the true gospel. This sample article represents some of their arguments. The criticism seems to come from both the emergent movement (big churches are too institutional and thus impersonal) and the theologically conservative (mega churches are theologically weak, reducing the gospel to a redemption centered message). Other just don't like them because their church is too big.

It's true that "Seeker" churches are often weak in matters of discipleship and spiritual formation. But it seems that such criticisms often result in a dismissive posture towards all that could be learned. Thus is it possible to sit in our high towers and with clean hands, critique a movement that is at the forefront of bringing health care, clean water, AIDS intervention, salvation, dignity, hope, and all the rest that Christ brings, to millions around the world.

The criticisms are, to be blunt, quite irritating. Yes, I'll go elsewhere to study ethics, and gain my theological nuances from other sources and mentors. I read Barth, Bonhoeffer, NT Wright - it's all good. But of course there's a danger there too... does all the reading eventuate in the mobilization of people who are actually embodying Christ? ... or is it just reading? I'm so grateful for the example of Willow Creek because there out there, on the front lines, doing the deed and equipping others to do the same. I'll stick with Paul, stop judging the motives of others and say this: if a work results in the increase of Christ, I'll both learn from it and rejoice in it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


I'm wrapping us this series on the 'breathing' disciplines of the Christian life and spent today studying Genesis 12, along with other passages that deal with the theme of the Christian life as a journey. This past week has reminded me that our lives, whether we like it or not, are a wild and unpredictable ride. Major Thomas' (see previous post) journey included the establishment of Bible Schools around the world, 92 years of life, and the privilege of seeing abundant fruit. My other friend who died last week in a tragic drowning accident was only 50. She spent her life caring for marginalized children, and was cut down in her prime. As the book of Hebrews reminds us, none of us knows what our own journey holds, or when it will end.

And as the book of Numbers reminds us, fear of change and the unknown may cause us to stagnate, choosing comfort, safety, and the illusory pursuit of 'security'. Bad things happen, so why risk... honesty, forgiveness, generosity, service, travel. I pray that we'll have courage to press on, to press through, and in the chaos and wild ride that is the Christian life, that we'll, all of us, be listening closely for the voice of the Shepherd, who alone can provide the wisdom, strength, comfort, and all other manner of bread for the journey.

It's 3AM - time to leave the comfort of the tent, and enter the biting wind, starry beauty, and frozen terrain in pursuit of the summit. Let's go...

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

Then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

Go to the limits of your longing.

Embody Me.

Flare up like flame

And make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose Me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

from Rilke's Book of Hours

Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Major Blessing

This past week,Major Ian Thomas, founder of Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship of which I am a part, joined the Lord he loved so much and proclaimed so faithfully. The story of this ministry's roots and acquisition of the original building which still serves as Capernwray Hall Bible School in England, can be found here.

I became affiliated with Torchbearers in the late 80's and hope to remain involved in the ministry until I die, because this ministry is committed to the simple truth that Christ is the only one who can live the Christian life, and that by virtue of His presence within us, we can live with the expectation that God will express His life through us in ways unimaginable within the confines of our own egos and limited frameworks. Only here, in this conscious state of dependency, can we fully enter into the adventure God has for us. In a 21st century that can only be described as theological confusion and ambiguity, Major Thomas' commitment to the 'simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ' was refreshingly simple, and remains the only foundation upon which fruitful ministry can be built.

I've had the privilege of spending time with Major Thomas and his lovely wife nearly every year for the past 15 or so, when I traveled to Estes Park to teach at the Bible School there. The times of fellowship were always blessing, whether talking about the role of prayer in WWII (he gave me literature and Churchill tapes to listen to), or my leadership challenges in a growing church, or the new works God was doing in Torchbearers, I never left a time with him without him praying for me. His commitment to, and love for Christ was evident not just in his preaching but, for we who had the privilege of sitting with him, in his life as well. Today there are more than 25 Bible Schools around the world committed to declaring the same simple truth which has been the foundation of this ministry for 60 years - Christ is our life.

What gift this man was to the body of Christ - what a precious example and encouragement to me personally - and what a joy to know that the work God began in Him will continue on through those he loved and served around the globe.

I pray that we who carry the torch of Christ's life for this generation and time will remain unswerving in our commitment to living out from the one Source who, alone, is able to make the life of God visible on this earth: Christ Himself.