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...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Help me with my sermon...

I'm beginning a series on the church this weekend, and am convinced that the word "church" is one of those words that evokes a huge range of emotions and responses. For example, if you look at the title release of Joni Mitchell's great new CD, the words for shine are very clear: if you're to be thoughtful and love beauty, there's no place for you in the church (see third verse of lyrics). Clearly, she doesn't have a high view of the church. What about others? So, if you have a minute, you could help me with the sermon introduction if you post a response to one of these questions:

1. In a free word association, when I say "church", what's the first word that comes to mind?
2. what kind of adjectives have you heard describing the church among people who attend?
3. how about among people who don't attend?

Again, if you have a minute, I'd be grateful for a response to one of these three, or perhaps a positive or negative experience you've known regarding church life. Thanks.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Living the Story...

Maybe you heard Sunday's sermon. I mentioned some college student that taught knitting in Africa for the purposes of economic development. You can read them on msnbc, here. When Moses asks God how God is going to use him to deliver the people from slavery, God asks Moses a question right back: "What is that in your hand?" It turns out that Moses had a walking stick, a staff. And as the story unfolds in Exodus three, we see that this stick is the very thing God uses to enable Moses to do a job bigger than his human capacity.

"What's in your hand?" Artistic ability? Oceans of compassion? A love of the elderly, or children? A knack for making money? Ability to crochet hats? Whatever it is, God can certainly use, as we make ourselves available and step into His story. The challenge though, as I shared on Sunday, is that we're not able to pick and choose, joining God's story with our creativity, but keeping our financial, sexual, relational choices for ourselves. So the work of peeling our hands off of that which we're fearful of relinquishing begins, and if we let God take us there... well I'm certain quite a story will unfold.

Thus ends the stewardship series... next week: GRACE ANATOMY: The meaning and calling of church.

Friday, September 21, 2007

the end of the summer...

We look at life and cannot
untangle its eternal song:
rings and knots of joy and grief
all laced and interlocking
from the Ramayana

Have you ever taken the Meyers-Briggs test? It is supposed to help you understand yourself better by giving you four labels One of the labels determines whether you’re an introvert or extrovert. I’m always right on the line between the two, as if I could slip comfortably into either one, or as if neither of them fit well so that when I’m with people I want out, and when I’m not, I want in. Which is it? The former, thankfully, as perhaps demonstrated by this, a typical week.

SUNDAY: preaching and people, people, people. I love meeting new people, love hearing stories, love connecting people to each other. This Sunday was especially powerful as our community had many who were mourning the loss of a dear friend. But whatever the Sunday, it’s a people day.

MONDAY: people – staff meeting – some pastoral appointments, and e-mail connections with others – all of it is about people. By Monday evening this week, I come home tired, ready for solitude, which is great because that’s typically what Tuesday holds for me.

TUESDAY: reading, prayer, study, sermon preparation, some e-mails, preparation for board meeting – followed by an evening board meeting until about 9. Not many people today, except for the evening meeting… I light a candle on my home office desk, and study. Sometimes it comes easily, and sometimes mining things from the Bible feels like looking for gold in Elliot Bay. But either way, the time passes too quickly, as is also true on the people intensive days.

WEDNESDAY: appointments most of the day, followed by some study time in the afternoon, followed by a parent meeting for parents of high school kids in the evening. Lots of enjoyable interaction with people.

THURSDAY: theology at 8AM followed by meetings until 11. At 11:15 I teach our new interns at church regarding the vision of Bethany and our core values as a staff. This is followed by lunch w/ the interns, where we share our answers to the question: “How has your family of origin shaped your faith” (well, the interns share – we run out of time before staff members can share).

CABIN: I drive to the cabin on Thursday afternoon because my book is due to the publisher very soon and I’ve a busy weekend coming up in 9 days w/ a funeral etc. So I’m planning to write all day Friday and Saturday; editing, writing, formatting, until basically finished. I stop to shop and buy food, and then arrive at the cabin, alone. It’s good to be alone at the end of a people intensive week.

7PM – as dusk turns to darkness, I’ve finished eating, while listening to Lake Wobegon on my ipod, a marvelous story about the funeral of an English teacher who died. It’s poignant because tonight is the end of summer, the summer I’m calling the summer of death: Ed; Betsy; Scott; and then just yesterday, Barb - my god… it’s been painful to bear so much loss, and tonight I’m reminded of it, even through my favorite storyteller as he tells the story of an English teacher’s funeral. “How did he know that I needed to hear that?” I ask myself as I listen, mindful that people sometimes say ask the very same thing about me when I preach.

After trout/spinach/mushrooms/a baguette toasted w/ cheese, and a French wine which is the gift of friends…eaten outside while listening to the story and enjoying the forest, I go inside. I light candles in the north facing window and sit as dusk turns to darkness. There’s music from Africa, and then from Finding Neverland, and then from a favorite harpist, followed by Chris Rice, Joni Mitchell, a singer I met at a conference taught, and then Joni Mitchell. I just sit and listen until I can’t see anything out the window anymore. The fireplace is lit, and the fire creates light that dances on the logs. My heart is full. Staring out the window, lots of things happen:

I ponder the reality that I’m part of a vast globe throbbing with life, and that all that is now alive will someday be no more – and the pondering is both sobering and uplifting, both beautiful and terrible. I’m grateful that finally, at 51, I’m comfortable with the paradox of it all.

I become melancholic, in a good way; because it’s been a hard summer, because my mom is 88, because I’m adopted and want to know my real roots, because this little cabin in this little part of the world is so beautiful, because I’ve encountered so much suffering this summer, this week, because I love my wife and kids, and friends, so much – because I’m so grateful to be alive in this moment – and for other reasons too.

I pray – Thank you God for all of it – the beauty, the friendships, the joy and the sorrow, the loss and the intimacy, the candles in the window, the fir trees, stretching northward towards Canada, the change of seasons, the gift of life.

I become restored - falling into an early and contented sleep.

Yes. I like being alone as much as I like being with people, and am more grateful than I can possibly express that I’m living out a time in life when I’m able to fully enter into both solitude and community. Tomorrow, stay in my chair and write all day long. Tonight though… worship – prayer – gratitude.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Happiness, people, and stuff

Richard Layard's book, Happiness, offers compelling and overwhelming evidence from a variety of sources to indicate that, beyond a certain threshold, instead of adding a sense of satisfaction and well-being, wealth has exactly the opposite effect. Feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety begin to increase when we have too much stuff. The writer of the Proverbs wisely asked for 'just enough' and it's my estimation that most of us reading this blog are beyond 'just enough'.

At the same time, I don't think the point is to vilify wealth, but rather to learn how to value the right things; relationships, community, simple pleasures, enough time to connect with neighbors and be creative - in our culture, if we have these things we're rich indeed, because we already have clean water, education, and access to enough food and shelter to make us comfortable. But the reality is that we've forsaken the pursuit of relational wealth in favor of increased material wealth at a time when many, though not all of us, already have enough. The result of this: increased isolation and social pathologies, and even a diminished sense of national physical health (America ranks 27th in the world in health care/ general health, behind all of Europe).

But just crying 'simplify' isn't a true solution. How, in a city where a house close to work costs over a half-million dollars, are people to find 'enough'? I fear that young people just starting in their careers are either destined to the pursuit of vocational choices made solely by their fiscal rewards, or that they will be destined to jump on the destructive treadmill that is the present American dream - working long hours, commuting long distances, and lacking either time or energy for civic involvement and intimacy during the few free hours that remain.

Perhaps what's needed is a move away from the isolationism and individualism that is the prevailing ethos of the west, and a move instead towards more communitarian values. This could show up in co-housing, food co-ops, community gardens, and...??? and yet I'm not convinced that these changes will ever be made unless required because of political, economic, or environmental necessity. Why is this? I'm wondering what holds us back from simplifying and sharing resources if we know that happiness is diminishing even as our wealth increases?

Any thoughts?

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Sunday, September 16, 2007


Sitting here on a rainy Sunday afternoon, while most of the family has left to see Harry Potter in 3-d. I'm not that big an HP fan, and the Seahawks are in the midst of a close game - plus I've two more worship services this evening, so I'm at home alone with the Hawks and my thoughts. What thoughts?

1. I'm thinking that, in spite of myself, just by showing up with people week after week, I've been a part of a community of faith now for nearly twelve years. This Sunday, more than any that's gone before, I'm filled with gratitude for that privilege. This morning we grieved as a community (see previous post: Becker), even while many of us shared stories of fond memories for this dear friend, along with gratitude that his suffering is now ended and he is whole. Before, between, and after these services, there were hugs, conversations, remembrances, all of which were precious to me - but precious because they were interactions forged out from the years. I've always viewed myself as comfortable with flitting, like a hummingbird, around the world, teaching and sharing with people, and being fully present with them in the moment. And I still enjoy that - even this past Friday, Donna and I were hiking and came upon 5 lovely women with whom we shared great conversation, which resulted in an invitation to Prague (see picture). I love meeting new people. But there's something incredible, profound, sustaining, about being deeply rooted in a community of relationships - through thick and thin, through births and deaths, through marriages and cancer, through life changes and changes in the church as it grows and faces challenges - what a treasure to be in community in continuity!

2. I'm also pondering this afternoon, as the Seahawks are trying hard to win while I type: Are other religions as honest in their scriptures? I'm not enough of a student of comparative religion to know. But over the past few days, as my own emotions have ranged from grief, to confusion, to anger, to rejoicing and celebrating fond remembrances, to praising God, and back to grief again, I'm asking the question: do other faiths have space for this the way Christianity and Judaism do? Consider Abraham's doubts, Jacob's wrestling with God, Job's faith and anger, Jeremiah's lamentations and despondency, David's Psalms, John the Baptist's question of Jesus: "Are you the One or should we wait for another?". The Bible is full of honest doubt and wrestling. I love that, and find that somehow, I'm more persuaded of the truth of it all precisely because of the honesty of it all. What's more, having been given permission to grieve and wrestle by those who've gone before, I have no problem laying it all out and being honest with God.

Friday was perfect - Donna and I had already planned a hike for that day - and we walked, read, laughed, cried, grieved, prayed, remembered our friend Scott, and spoke of this season of life that is at the same time filled with joy, challenge, beauty, loss, and anticipation.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


My friend, former associate pastor, and keen minded, large hearted companion in serving Christ, died yesterday. When a woman in our congregation had cancer, he shaved his head in solidarity. He could sing like Kermit the frog. When we were having a brain storming session in a staff meeting once, everyone kept shooting down ideas being offered, so I said, "Enough with the sarcasm - anybody who criticizes someone else's idea needs to put a dollar on the table." Someone spoke. Scott quietly reached into his pocket and laid down the dollar. We all burst out laughing.

Scott loved the church, without idolizing or romanticizing it. In fact, he was one of the church's most vocal critics, but always with an eye towards building and contributing to its health. His heart and mind was directed towards making sure that Jesus' followers ask the right questions. He read widely, and his thoughts, sermons and books by authors whose names I can barely pronounce have shaped me in significant ways.

But mostly, Scott loved the church by loving people - sitting with them in the grief; laughing with them in their pleasures; walking with them through their everyday lives with no agenda other than to be present. And so I mourn the loss of a close friend - but more - I'm filled with melancholy, joy, and grief as I remember that season of life when those few of us were thrown together to serve the great community that is Bethany Community Church. NE, RK, SB, RD, TT, CG -- six of us called to serve -- they were rich times, even as today is also filled with rich times. But SB's departure... has me looking back with gratitude on days that are forever gone.

Scott had cancer - and was in his mid-forties. What is this, that people are taken so soon? So many taken so soon...

Thanks Scott - for your life, your grace, your courage, your honesty, your friendship.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Journals, Blogs, and Heart Conditions

Back when "blog" was a typo, I journaled. Since taking up this little bit of writing as means of sharing my thoughts on matters, developing sermons further, and seeking to generate discussions on matters of faith, church, politics, etc., I'm journaling substantially less.

Lately though, I'm feeling the need to journal prayers because blogging is a little bit like public speaking: there's only so much you can write before it becomes an unhealthy dumping ground. And the very act of limiting disclosure creates an even greater necessity for a platform where one can be honest with God. The Psalmist calls this pouring out his heart. And the Psalmists, both David and others, did it well. The full range of doubt, fear, anger, praise, rest, trust, gratitude, awareness of beauty and ugliness, pain and healing, are all expressed, directly to God. I wonder: if David had known his work would be published, would he have been as open?

The danger with blogging instead of journaling, or keeping myspace instead of having people over for supper, is that these pixel and byte sized versions of ourselves can easily become confused with our real selves. But they never are.

My real self right now is profoundly moved by the early mornings, before the sun is up, because the air is invigorating and cold, and the hints of impending autumn genuinely create joy. But I'm also profoundly aware of my own struggles and doubts right now, mostly centered around feelings of inadequacy for my calling. I know the right answers; know that God's strength is made perfect in our weakness. And yet... I just feel weak, even though I'm truly excited about the church I pastor, and love the work I do. I'm also feeling mid-life anxieties because so many people I know have died or are in the midst of dying this summer. This is affecting me more deeply than I'd care to admit, because I'm finding myself desperately wanting to make each day count. Yet its precisely because of this that I have been biting off too much that seems 'important'. When I do this two things happen: 1) I feel so overwhelmed that I'm not certain what to actually do in the next moment. Long to do lists of big projects have a paralyzing effect on me sometimes, and 2) Relationships suffer. This bothers me, and I'm in the midst of talking with God about it. In addition, there's a board meeting next week, a big budget, our youngest finishing school this year, decisions to be made about a season pass for skiing, shopping for a birthday, concerns about people, family matters, a desire to play more music and play it better, two hikes I want to complete before snows come, and many other matters much closer to the heart. But this doesn't feel like the right place to pour out one's heart - so blog entries are kind of like coffee shop conversations you wouldn't mind a stranger overhearing; "I saw this movie - what do you think of the war in Iraq? - did you hear that boring sermon yesterday?"

That's why entries like this one today are very rare for me. These things, it seems to me, belong in a journal. I'm thinking of the story of Moses, when the children of Israel, having been delivered from Egypt, are complaining to Moses because they think they're about to die. (Exodus 14) He speaks boldly in front of Israel, but it's clear that when he's along with God he pours his heart out, which apparently included his own doubts Moses isn't being two people - he's simply being discreet about where he expresses certain things.

I'm not even certain why I'm writing this entry, other than a desire to share with you that this isn't the platform where I pour my heart out. I am different than movie and book reviews, ideas about the kingdom, politics and economics, hiking trails. I'll still blog because I think talking points on matters where faith intersects the rest of life are important, and because I want to share what I'm learning through various experiences in hopes that others might learn too. But I am not my blog.
What are your thoughts on the limits of self-disclosure in public settings?


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Another Great Movie

No weddings this weekend... so I watched a movie. I hope you'll watch Avenue Montaigne. It's a well put together French film about a time and place where several lives intersect, offering a glimpse into the lives of several people, and powerful commentaries on aging, love, loss, careers, and other things that matter a great deal.

When the pianist plays for the cancer patients... well, it's simply one of the best elements I've ever seen in film, but that could well be the bias of a piano player clouding the assessment. I often enjoy French films because they don't moralize. They don't say, "this person is good, and that person is bad." Instead they simply tell the story, and in the story you find beauty and ugliness, fear and courage, scattered throughout the characters. I wish more American films were made this way.

I'd love to read Ecclesiastes aloud with a few friends, and then watch this film -the things that matter.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Lives of Others

We had a young woman who happened to be visiting us in 1989 precisely when the wall came down in Berlin. She was from west Germany, but the demise of totalitarianism in the east was no less significant for her, and somehow my friendships forged with Germans over the years have made the subject of East Germany a more personal matter.

So it was that I looked forward to seeing "The Lives of Others" and finally was able to do so this past week when it came out on DVD. It was, for me, by far the best movie of the summer. Ironically, in a movie whose main text is presented as an expose of intrusive listening and the violation of privacy, the more powerful message of the movie was about seeing - in particular about the realities related to the subject of redemption. Why is it that some people can go along a certain track in their lives, a destructive track, and then suddenly see with great clarity - while others, party to the same data and revelations, never end up "seeing" and remain blind to their own oppressions, addictions, and destructive behaviors.

Of course, Jesus spoke of those who had eyes but could not see. What he never seems to explain adequately is the why of blindness. I know that he speaks of people's love of darkness rather than light - but that doesn't go deep enough. I know that he goes deeper and says, "because their deeds were evil" but even that doesn't really satisfy me. ALL of us do evil deeds - and yet some of us snap out of it - at least for a moment, perhaps for a lifetime. We step back and see what we're doing - see who we've become and recoil in horror. Or.... we never get it - remaining forever stuck in darkness.

I can't say much more without giving the movie away - but suffice it to say that it's about both listening and seeing - about when pragmatism must give way to authenticity, and the ethical dilemmas that surround us when we're making choices about how to behave in a world that is broken and fallen, even as we ourselves are broken and fallen.

I've been to East Germany - and had numerous conversations with people who grew up there. But I don't think this personal knowledge is the basis of appeal for me with this movie - it's the story - and all the questions it approaches without resorting to trite or preachy answers. I hope you'll watch it - and offer your answer to the question: Why do some see and others remain blind?


Monday, September 03, 2007

Trash Talking and Hermeneutics

This Saturday, the church I pastor will join with the Greater Aurora Involved Neighbors, to help clean up the neighborhood (8:30 at the church building for you locals). It’s just this kind of thing that is an example of what Jeremiah referred to when he encouraged those displaced by captivity to work for the well being of the city in which they lived, rather than simply disengaging and waiting for the end of captivity (or the rapture) to remove them from all unpleasantness. Such a posture of disengagement has the effect of declaring that we don’t care about the world around us, other than perhaps caring that souls be saved. And while the saving of souls is arguable a good thing, it’s possible for that care to take a form that says, “unless you come to my church – unless you believe like I do – then I don’t have time for you.”

This posture does immeasurable damage to the church, because it misrepresents the heart of Christ, who seemed to love all people regardless of their background or belief system, caring the well being even of the soldiers who had arrested him in the garden, not to mentions the socially marginalized. The reality is that our calling is to just love people; to care for their well being, and the well being of the space (city) they occupy. This includes picking up trash, painting over graffiti, getting to know our neighbors and working together to find ways to be a blessing. Out of such service comes relationships. But the important thing is that they be relationships without agenda – relationships that are willing to stand with, serve, celebrate with, and love – the other even if they don’t share our deepest held beliefs.

If you’re part of Bethany, I hope you’ll join us Saturday in serving and blessing the city in some small way.