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...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Family matters...

I'm up in Canada this week, teaching Genesis and pondering the role of the family in faith formation. When one considers the family issues in God's chosen family tree of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob's four wives and twelve sons, Jacob's son who slept with his daughter in law because he thought she was a prostitute, Jacob's sons who sold another son into slavery, one wonders where we get the notion that God only uses people who belong to what Americans call 'the nuclear family.'

As much as I love my wife and children, I realize that families such as my own are an increasing minority in this world, and I'm pondering what the implications of this fact are for church structures and ministries. Single parents, blended families, divorced individuals, single individuals living far from home, widows and widowers, couples without children... these words are descriptive of large percentage of people who call Bethany home. And of course, when we turn our eyes out into our neighborhood, we find more of the same. So I ponder:

Is there a danger of too much focus on the family? Is it possible to so emphasize family life within the structures of the church that we send the message that the real work of the church and life of the church flows through those who are married and have children, and thus neglect this very large part of our world who, at any given time, don't fit this category? I think the danger is real, though I'm not certain we're guilty of this overemphasis at BCC, as we try to build groups that are blended with couples, singles, older and younger. Further, our post college group is a mix of married and single people who are sharing their lives together.

We need to celebrate, bless, and serve our congregation whether they fit into traditional family models or not, recognizing that Jesus had a different paradigm in mind when thinking of family. He seemed to view the 'family of God's children' as a central, vital component to the definition of family life. If we take the same view, then whether our particular situation fits the Simpsons, Gimore Girls, or Friends, we can see that the real issue isn't our need to become a 'normal family', but rather our need to live well, rightly related to God, each other, and our world.

I wonder what you think? Does 'the church' overemphasize the nuclear family or not? How can she do a better job of giving everyone a place at the table, and a sense of the reality that we are all family because share a common love for Christ?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Page 2 - third paragraph

If you want to understand a little bit about the dilemma facing the evangelical movement, this article is an excellent place to begin. Though lengthy, it addresses the shifting landscape of evangelical politics. If you can only read a little bit, please read the 3rd paragraph of this page because if offers an encapsulated view of generational shift that has occurred. In short, there's been a broader consideration of ethical issues, so that economic, justice, health care, and environmental issues have been elevated from the basement to the main floor in the ethical mansion.

Behind this, there's been a bit of shift theologically. In brief, the shift has less to do, in my opinion with post modernity than with eschatology (the theology of end times matters). Rather than a fatalistic withdrawal from culture, as was so typical in the "Left Behind" fixation on dates and times of Jesus return, and the rapture, there's been a growing commitment to embody, NOW, in this present time, a measure of hope, justice, and all the rest Jesus spoke of in his own mission statement. This makes sense, since Jesus said that we'd do the same things He did, and since Paul explains that we're the visible expression of Christ's life.

So here we are, on the cusp of an important political season as Americans, and I might simply say that it's refreshing to see the conversation expand to include subjects of justice, mercy, and the environment among Jesus' followers. Couple this with the reality that the Republican primary candidates don't really fit the evangelical mold, and we have the makings for a very interesting election year.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I realize that if you live in North America, you're somewhere just after, or just before, the big Thanksgiving holiday. However, I was just meditating this morning on a passage in Romans 1 that addresses the critical link between gratitude and relationship, revelation, wholeness, calling, and so felt it worth sharing. Here are some observations from the text:

1. ingratitude is the headwaters of the stream that, if left unchecked will become a mighty river of destructive maladies, leading us to hurt ourselves, those we love, our enemies, and our earth. If I fail to acknowledge and thank God for the goodness that is all around me, I'm part of that ugly stream.

2. gratitude can and should range from the mundane (this coffee I had this morning, French Press, Trader Joe's organic fair trade, was remarkable, especially as the sky was growing light) to the profound (that Christ would love me in my ignorance, rebellion and sin, and that such love would find expression in the depths of suffering on the words!).

3. Our task oriented, driven natures, provide little time for gratitude. We consume without tasting, travel without seeing, converse without hearing, read our Bibles without pondering, worship without encountering, all because we're rushing to the next thing. Our Buddhist friends who invite us to learn how to be fully present in each moment are providing us a portal through which true gratitude can find expression. Only then will we escape the mighty river of destruction.

4. The litany of sins addressed here has often been preached and taught through a deeply distorted lens. With this distorted lens, sexual sins, particularly those of homosexuals, are elevated to a higher sin status than other sins. (no matter your view of homosexuality, all who take the scriptures seriously must agree that casual and promiscuous sex in any form, heterosexual or homosexual, is a departure from God's plan. Many think that Paul's concerns in Romans 1 are solely such promiscuous sexual liaisons, which were so typical of his day) But look! We're also told that ingratitude, because it places us in this destructive river, leads to other things too: greed, envy, strife, deceit, arrogance, gossip, and lack of mercy are just a few. WHY THEN, are these things so rarely addressed with the same scathing indictment as sexual sins?

5. Like the other recent entry, any discussion about the ethics of homosexuality in this blog entry misses the point. I've spoken on the subject and will try to get that mp3 posted here within a few days, so you can podcast it. But I kind of hope you don't, because for many evangelicals, that issue is the speck that's preventing us from dealing with the log. Instead of pondering sexual ethics... think about the extent to which greed (are we all tithing, all caring for the poor, all living w/in our means?), envy (are we all immune from advertising, impulse shopping, body image issues), strife (are our relationships consistently characterized by honesty, humility, forgiveness and truth telling? Is there no divorce among us?), gossip ("I heard someone gossiping just the other day, and they have a bad marriage... let's pray for them right now, poor things, and she with her weight issues and all...blah blah blah") are present in our midst, and yes, in our own lives and hearts. Jesus is writing in the dirt, inviting us ALL to repentance.

6. Viewing the text through this more holistic lens, rather than fixating on sexual ethics, perhaps we all can see our need for repentance. I know I can. But what's vital is that I not simply repent of my 'presenting problem', but that I cultivate a heart that is aware of God's glory all around me, and then become active in my expressions of gratitude.


Monday, October 22, 2007


Maybe you need a little cheering up today? This slide show (you'll need two minutes to view it) offers just the right medicine, and reminds us:

1. in a world of adversarial relationships, there are hints of grace
2. the animal kingdom offers us reminders of the value of play, it's more important than we think.
3. all creatures of our God and King indeed - how awesome it is when all creatures will be whole enough to play together

Friday, October 19, 2007

Enough... this kind of thing needs to stop

So there's a "Tent Meeting" of sorts being held in Lynnwood this weekend, characterized in an article found here as an "Anti-Gay" group. The challenge is that this group is indeed, anti-gay, with one of its primary spokesman declaring that homosexuals were, in part, responsible for the holocaust of the Jews in WWII (never mind the reality that homosexuals were herded, with Jews, gypsies, and others, into the gas chambers)! That such a conference occurs at all, that anyone would attend, is astonishing to me. Such groups gather with the express purpose of seeking to enact legislation that would forbid homosexuals basic human rights, which ironically, embodies the spirit of der fuhrer himself with astonishing parallels.

What's even more disturbing is that this is a 'christian' event (I can't bring myself to use a capital 'c'). What's even more astonishing is that several leaders of large churches from the greater Seattle area will be speaking at this conference. These 'evangelical' leaders distort not only the meaning of the word Christian, but do a great disservice to many of us who are trying to take the scriptures seriously, because their publicity leads the general populace to presume that a high view of scripture and denying other humans basic rights go hand in hand. This gives Jesus a bad name, causing many people to reject Christ, because the view they've received of Him is that He's a hater, as learned through these conferences.

The reality is that Jesus, whose ethic we seek to make visible through our lives and life together, has elevated loving God, and loving one's neighbor to elite status among all the ethical commandments, declaring in fact that the fulfillment of these two elements will result in the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. When the religious experts question Jesus regarding 'who' exactly their neighbor might be, Jesus tells a story about a man who these experts would view as a heretic, but who nonetheless went out of his way to love the outcast, the downtrodden, regardless of the victim's belief system (which interestingly is never revealed). "This guy gets it" Jesus says, while pointing out that those who parsed the text so finely also completely missed the point because they failed to care for a human in need.

I could share with you my views regarding homosexuality in this little diatribe, as I'm sure those on the left and the right want to know. But that misses the point here, because the point this weekend isn't what I think about the ethics of homosexuality. There's something greater at stake. I'm incensed that 'in the name of Jesus' people would pour out hatred, ridiculous accusations, and incite their listeners to persecution and the denial of basic human rights for any people created in God's image and loved by God. Such a rally is embarrassing, angering, and I for one, feel the need to go on record as declaring that no matter what the sexual ethic, or race, or gender, or religion, or political affiliation of my neighbor, my calling and commitment is to love and bless them in Jesus name. Anything less is a different gospel, and not good news at all.

And so I pray that we who carry His name will pause a moment and be certain that we're building on the right foundation, remembering that the right foundation, the sign of maturity, is our capacity to show demonstrable love to all people, serving and blessing each one in Jesus name. I cry out with Van Morrison when I see this kind of garbage happening, "When will we ever learn to live in God?"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Plastic Theology or Practical Stewardship

Maybe there are still three or four of you out there who think Al Gore is nuts, that global warming is some mythical plot by the Trilateral Commission to move us towards a one world government and usher in the reign of the anti-Christ. Maybe, in other words, you think the entire environmental movement is a colossal waste of time because the earth is going to be burned with intense heat someday anyway, so why bother preserving it now. "Maybe", some of you are thinking, "the intense heat with which the world will burn is caused by global warming, in which case the faithful thing to do in order to hasten the end times is to drive your hummer two blocks to rent a video, and fill your shopping cart at the grocery store with as many petroleum based packages as possible, along with foods that have been produced through petrol based fertilizers, the soil of which has been tilled, hydrated, and harvested by petrol based machines. Then finally, when you get to the checkout stand and the hospitality clerk says "paper or plastic", you smile and say, "Why plastic of course! Jesus is coming soon."

That way you can contribute to the 100 BILLION plastic bags Americans consume each year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to produce, and which have a hard time biodegrading themselves bag into the earth, thus contributing to toxic landfills scattered around the country. Oh, and I get to keep my country dependent on foreign oil as a bonus, something even the staunchest conservative recoils at. Try to think about 100 BILLION - Jesus was walking in this earth about 1 billion minutes ago. 100 BILLION?? That would be:

100 BILLION choices of convenience over environmental responsibility
100 BILLION choices to further entrench our nation in its addiction to oil
100 BILLION opportunities to do a small thing to care for both the earth and our country, and to begin to behave with an environmental conscience like most of the rest of the world - opportunities which we collectively have failed to take because a tiny increase in convenience is more important.

For those of us do believe that environmental stewardship is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus, the indictment is perhaps even more scathing. After all, what could be easier than bringing your own bag with you when you shop? And yet even this one small event eludes many of us, myself included (though the reading of this NY Times article might have finally brought enough conviction my way).

I read Deep Economy. I take the bus downtown 95% of the time. I quote Wendell Barry a lot. I talk a good game. And yet I leave my reusable bag at home or in the car when I go in to buy some bulk oatmeal. Old habits die hard. I share this as a reminder to myself that, if I'm not willing to do the little things, how will I ever rise to the occasion when the big thing is asked of me. And of course, it applies to all matters of stewardship, not just baggies. The difference between talking about Christianity and actually living it is a vital distinction in this information age, where it's cool to be informed and to discuss things - but monumentally difficult to make even the smallest changes. Maybe the place to begin is with our buying habits. Maybe, for some of us, the cost of discipleship includes carrying our own grocery bags. Is that too much to ask?

Monday, October 15, 2007

"In Essentials Unity, In Non- Essentials liberty"

...but what ARE the non-essentials? This was the question that came up this past weekend as I taught the Bethany Foundations class at our church, a class devoted to the history, mission, vision, and beliefs of the church I pastor. There's that famous quote hanging above the door as you enter the sanctuary which reads: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity." The origin of the quote is actually the subject of some debate as seen here. But more important than the quote's origin, is the question of its meaning and application in particular situations.

It's easy to declare some elements as essentials: our common commitment to the authority of Scripture as the basis for life, our commitment to the person and work of Christ, and a few other 'apostles creed' based doctrines.

But the question that comes up is in other matters. If our church, which has a heavy disposition towards adult baptism is approached by someone from the Reformed tradition who wants their child baptized, understands that such baptism isn't an impartation of salvation, and defends their view with a careful, though different hermeneutic than mine, what should the conclusion be?

I'm thinking that for many such matters the issue is this: Is our umbrella large enough to encompass convictions that are derived from careful, though different, Bible interpretation? Of course, it must be, at least at some level. The pacifist and the Christian soldier worship together at Bethany. So does the one who thinks women can teach and lead in the church and the one who doesn't. In these two examples, both sides of the issue are carefully studied in their views, and I'd suggest that both sides need each other, and that to divide over such matters creates a fractured, caricatured body of Christ. Can the same tolerance be granted over differing views of divorce, sexual orientation, eternal security or lack thereof, etc. etc. If so why? If not why not?

The question is this: In living out the essentials unity, non-essential liberty piece, what's the criteria for determining essentials? And finally, perhaps most important, how do we practice charity among those with whom we disagree on essentials? This is vital because if we fail here, we fail utterly, in that we begin to embody the arrogance and hatred that completely misrepresents Christ.

We need to wrestle with this, and learn to express truth with the blend of conviction and humility that enables us to stand firm, while continuing to listen. The "essentials, non-essentials" saying casts a good vision towards this end.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

And then there's great beauty...

The other side of Simone Weill's existential coin, is great beauty, and it's true that it's not only great suffering but great beauty which invites us faith, gratitude, and intimacy with our creator. Such is the reality this afternoon. Having spent the morning teaching a class, I came home, changes, and went for a run around the local lake. The air is clear and crisp. The trees a riot of color, and remind me of the 'best wine' in Jesus' story in John 2, where the very best is saved for last. In a month there are no leaves left... but for now, at the very end, the beauty is intoxicating. Couples are walking the lake hand in hand. Moms or Dads are with children. Frisbee. The final gasp of volleyball. Roller blades. Spandex. Coffee. Conversation. Hard core runners. Old man joggers like me. Something tells me it's all the lake. Beauty, fellowship, health, all that makes life good is there.

But today the lake is even better, because today the bald eagle is parked in a tree right along the jogging paths, stopping crowds and bending necks like superman. Once a big enough crowd has gathered, the eagle puts on a special little show, swooping just over our tilted heads along the path before rising higher and disappearing towards the soccer fields and tennis courts. EVERYONE has stopped to look. Some people had cameras, and I stop to look at one guy's reward, a close up, telephoto of a full spread eagle. Then we get on with our lives, jogging, tossing, talking. But for that moment, that single moment when we all saw, we were captured by the sheer beauty of the moment. Who can know what people do with that encounter. But some of us, I hope, get on with our lives, mindful of God's powerful creativity, God's love of beauty, God's lavish outpouring of glory on all that is created. Somehow, it leads me to worship and gratitude.

These are encounters are rich, uplifting, powerful and, for me at least, enough. I don't have suffering figured out. But I know this much, whether in suffering or beauty, I'm invited to intimacy with the One who created me. And that is stunning! I think I'd rather have a life with suffering in it, AND intimacy, than endless ease in isolation. The latter reminds me of CS Lewis' description of hell in "The Great Divorce"; but I digress. For now it's enough to come home from a great run, bite into a crisp fall apple, and say: "The beauty is there... if we'll take the time to look."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Pain - and another request for sermon help

Maybe you've waded through CS Lewis' "The Problem of Pain", or maybe you've seen the movie "Shadowlands" about his life, in which he reminds us that "pain is God's megaphone, seeking to get our attention." Or perhaps you're familiar with Simone Weil, and her classic statement about beauty and pain being the only two ways in which we encounter God (someone could please help me with the exact quote?).

I get it at the conceptual level, but at the level of reality, there are times when this whole, "pain will bring you closer to God" stuff is hard to embrace. I've been studying Hosea 6:1-3 today in preparation for preaching this coming Sunday. Put in the worst cynical light, a casual paraphrase of the sentiment found there might read something like this:

"Hey there everybody, it's time to return to God! Because we neglected Him, He threw a fit: destroyed our crops, killed our kids, leveled our land. Most of our families were broken up by war, and the great mass of us have been taken captive. But hey... He's a God of love, so let's come back to Him now and worship Him. After all, He was really mad, but that's behind Him now, and we're certain that He'll bring restoration, goodness, and mercy to us. I just can't wait to fall in love all over again with the One who takes credit for these disasters. I'm sure He has great things in mind for our future...." This skewed lens of bitterness needs to be dealt with if we're to get on in this fallen world and have an honest relationship with God.

So I'm preaching on this Hosea passage this coming Sunday. I need to address the reality that our idealistic and romanticized notions of love have somehow created an expectation that love and discipline, love and suffering, love and pain are mutually exclusive. I understand that mindset, because living in a fallen world, much is done in the name of discipline, pain, and suffering that is nothing more than destructive abuse. AND yet.... it's also true that where there is no discipline, it's a sign that there's no love. AND it's also true that down through the ages, countless millions have turned TO God in the midst of pain and suffering rather than away, finding the only sense of comfort and shelter possible, and able to function as people of joy and dignity precisely because they did not endlessly rail in bitterness against God. Geoffry Bull comes to mind as one of many millions. I've seen this many times in pastoral care situations. I don't know that suffering can always be categorized: "this is discipline..." "this on the other hand is simply the result of living in a fallen world." But I do believe that God CAN and DOES use suffering to draw people to Himself. and have some thoughts of my own on the valuable role of suffering, and God's character. Those are some preliminary thoughts of my own. If you have thoughts on the relationship between suffering one's relationship with God, I'd like to hear them. I really appreciated the input a couple of weeks ago, and any offered now would be helpful.

Monday, October 08, 2007

It must be... October?

Here are some pictures from the wilderness retreat, see previous post, taken before the big storm blew in on Saturday. If you went and arrived late on Friday, these were the mountains we were all talking about! October 5th? Are you kidding?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Next steps..

If you've ever hiked in a "white out" you know that all reference points vanish, consumed by fog, leaving you with no reference point other than the boot path in the snow right in front of you. View? Gone. Perspective, sense of direction, proximity to the goal, all vanish. There's nothing other than taking the next step.

This was the case for a little group of us on Saturday afternoon near the Mt. Baker ski area, as early winter descended on us all, with fog, snow, 25 degrees, and 30 mile per hour gusts of winds. When white out conditions prevail, all the normal reasons for 'getting out' are gone. There's no view, no warmth, no perspective of proximity to the goal or progress. And yet, out we were, taking one step at a time, until suddenly, what we thought was a stand of small trees turned out to be the bathrooms at Artist Point, which was our destination for the afternoon.

I loved this hike because I've been in the midst of a busy season in life, a season where my days are often reduced to simply taking next steps. And yet, the next thing, followed by the next thing, and then the thing after that, and suddenly you're there! Of course, there is the little necessity of stopping along the way to make certain that the set of next steps are headed in the right direction; the route finding piece of the puzzle is critically important. It occurred in short stops along the way, checking the map and the turns we were making, along with the known reference points, to make certain we were on the right path. This route finding is equally important in real life; little time outs to check the map and make certain that we're heading the right direction. It feels more productive to keep going, but the stopping to check the route has value, all the more so when the big picture is hidden, when the beautiful and joyful elements that normally motivate us are missing. That's when, more than ever, we need to know that we're on the right path.

It's felt lately very much like this: take the next step... and then the next step... and then the next step. This too is a season, just as the clear days when the view, the sense of progress, the vitality and beauty of it all is enough to keep us going. We don't choose the weather - rather we learn to navigate wisely. This is our life.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Removing Veils - revealing leprosy

There's a fascinating little story in Exodus 4, where Moses asks God a question about how, if he agrees to lead Israel, people will know that God has sent him. The surprising answer from God comes when He tells Moses to put his hand in his coat. He does so, and when he pulls it out, it's leprous - diseased. Then he puts it back in his coat, and pulls it out again and it's whole - pure - baby soft. And then God says: "that they may believe that the Lord has appeared to you..." In other words: "Your credibility comes from people seeing your ongoing transformation from that which is diseased to that which is healthy and life giving."

Somewhere along the way, it became conventional wisdom to believe that our strength and credibility come from presenting ourselves as perfect. Thus do we go to great lengths to hide our weaknesses, even to the point where it becomes tragically ridiculous. Consider Bill Clinton's denial of his sexual misconduct, and the classic statement: "it depends on what you mean by the word 'is'". Or, consider the current adminstration's refusal to address their gross failures in the Iraq war (too many to mention, including blatant neglect of the rule of law w/ respect to torture, under-equipping of soldiers, mis-leading statements to the press, a general failure to understand the complexities of centuries old Islamic divisions between Sunnis and Shiites, and corruption among subcontractors). In spite of all this, things are "going according to plan." Such absurd declarations remove what vestiges of credibility remained. This kind of pride isn't the sole property of any single party.

And politicians aren't the only ones guilty of 'cover up'. We're told in II Corinthian 3 that Moses did the very same thing, wearing a veil to hide the fact that God's glory was 'fading away'. The man who was told that the progressive healing of the leprosy of sin in his life would be his credibility, became guilty of pretending he had no sin, by hiding behind a veil.

I think the point here is that we all need confession, and we all need to be less fearful of being authentic, open about our failures and weaknesses, struggles and doubts. When we brings our weaknesses out into the light, people are then able to see, over time, God's transforming work. But if we begin by presenting a posture of perfect health to others, we've nowhere to go but down, as our true selves come into the light. The story is told of a man who went to a one of the early church "desert fathers" to confess his sin, but was told by the ancient sage that he must first listen to the father's confession of his own sins, so that there would be a sense of mutuality and humility in the conversation. This is needed more than we realize, for it is only when others see us for who we really are, that they are able to see, support, and celebrate the journey of transformation that is intended to be the Christian life.

This being the case... why do we tend to hide our sins? How can the church create a more supportive environment, a safe place for confession and authenticity?