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...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Theology of Desire

This coming Sunday kicks off the 'Advent' season, a time of watching and waiting. 'O Come, Emmanuel - ransom captive Israel; bid Thou divisions cease; free Thine own from Satan's tyranny; disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death's dark shadows put to flight...'

Each of us could carry on with the list of things for which we're waiting... "Oh, and while you're at it, I've been a little lonely lately, and I'm sick of walking through the world feeling like nothing more than a unit of consumption for advertisers to exploit. Did I mention Darfur? Maybe you could fix that this week. And how about my longings for beauty, sexual satisfaction, good food, clean air and drinking water, and dignity for those who are on the margins among us? I'm waiting...!!"

What are we to do with our desires? It's a critical consideration for the advent season, and a subject I'll be considering this coming Sunday. Many evangelicals have a difficult time developing a solid theology of desire because we've been taught from the cradle that we're to 'deny ourselves'. Certainly this is true, and might manifest itself in taking the smaller piece of pie, or in keepings one's mouth shut when the temptation to verbally strike back arises. Often self denial goes further still, in following the clear call of God vocationally even though such obedience leads you down a path that contradicts your desires. Sometimes such self denial even leads to martyrdom.

But while there's a place for self-denial, Jesus never intended that it become a mantra. The problem with elevating self-denial to the default position in our lives is that such a posture has the effect of vilifying desire, so that we come to inherently distrust our longings. And this is a road, believe me, that we don't want to go down. It's strewn with casualties who failed to hold their sexuality, food, friendships, or any other number of wholesome blessings offered by God wisely, because they tried instead to kill their desires. But desires were never meant to be killed. Those who try to do so end up feeling dead inside, and often try to compensate for that sense of death on unhealthy ways.

On the other hand, it's not healthy to adopt 'indulgence' as the default position either. Those who live by their appetites, whether for food, sex, friendship, exercise, money, power, or any other thing that makes us feel more fully alive, we will, ironically, lose our sense of wholeness and our lives will eventually spin out of control in a downward spiral, at least in one or two areas of our lives. I might, for example, keep up the show in my vocation, but my personal life becomes a disaster, or my health suffers, because I have an addiction to sex, control, exercise, food, or something else mastering me, destroying me.

So the question is, "What do I do with desires?" The answer it seems, is found in the advent season, for this is the season of waiting. Israel in captivity, waited. It was the false prophets who told them that the satisfaction of their desires were available immediately, on demand. The real prophets said, "No...the darkness will get darker, the cold will turn to frost, before the light and warmth of the sun rises on you." Keep waiting. Your desires are good, and the longing for their fulfillment, and waiting will have the effect of your own ripening, maturing, wholeness. So wait... for sexual satisfaction, for your next meal, for your own transformation, and for the transformation of the cosmos." This doesn't mean passive disengagement, for there are different kinds of waiting, and some entail preparation, and working towards the fulfillment of desires (as happens when we work for peace on earth, or contribute to a refugee crisis in Bangladesh). But it's waiting nonetheless because our best efforts still won't produce the longed for results, which is why we cry out: O Come Emmanuel!

I don't do this waiting as well as I should. After all, I scream at my computer when it tells me that Outlook won't be available for two minutes because it didn't shut down properly (please Mac users... no lectures tonight). I buy my lettuce washed and chopped, my pizzas created and pre-frozen. It's Trader Joe's, high quality stuff and all. Still, waiting isn't in the cards much for busy, proactive westerners. But wait we must. Advent season is the reminder:

1. the days won't grow any longer until December 22nd no matter what you do.
2. the snow won't come any quicker by playing your flute
3. you won't lose 5 pounds today, not even on a grapefruit diet
4. even with daily Bible readings and praying, maturity and wholeness comes slowly
5. intimacy, health, wisdom, contentment, and so much more that is wholesome, isn't available on demand. We must take the steps required of us, yet still we'll wait.
6. even though we make changes in our personal lives, small or large, we won't fix global warming this year, or terrorist threats, or global poverty. This isn't a call for despair or disengagement, simply humble patience. We MUST WAIT!!

And so, it's waiting season. The advent calendar isn't just a timetable, a countdown to prime rib and presents. It's a reminder: "all things in their time." Don't kill your desires. Don't become addicted to them. Live into them and.....wait.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Stop Shopping!

I know that I'm told it's my patriotic duty to shop. I know that I'm told 'the terrorists win' if we don't keep the fuels of the economy burning. I know that people's livelihoods are ostensibly at stake if I don't get into the malls today and buy all things that, prior to today, I've lived without but which will undoubtedly make my life so much fuller and richer as soon as I purchase them.

And yet I'm not buying anything today, except perhaps food. I'm trying to make a statement that there is an alternative view to the patriotic shopping and the paranoia of what will happen to the world if we don't buy things we don't need. Our addiction to things has a pretty dark underbelly:

1. our things pollute the earth, both in the production, their use, and their demise. If you still the earth is doing fine while we pump carbon into the air, you're living in a dreamland. One person writes, on the Buy Nothing Day website: Driving hybrid cars and limiting industrial emissions is great‚ but they are band–aid solutions if we don’t address the core problem: we have to consume less. This is the message of Buy Nothing Day

2. while we max credit cards to buy things we don't need, the majority of the world lives in abject poverty. Wouldn't it be more fun, and more meaningful, to invest our wealth in alleviating poverty, both locally and globally. In fact, why not go crazy, and contribute to a water project in Africa this Christmas instead of buying stuff. The growing gap between the rich and the poor is, according to Jimmy Carter and many others, the largest problem on earth. And of course, let's not forget that caring for the poor was the one thing that the apostle held dear as a practical expression of the gospel.

3. the economic model upon which we all depend is, if the truth be told, unsustainable. If you must buy something, maybe invest in a book like Deep Economy, and ponder how we can, both individually, nationally, and locally, change our ways, and what you can do to contribute to that.

4. it's a pity that our shopping habits, and the retailers frenzy to be 'first' now has shops opening at midnight. You're pie not yet digested, you propel yourself into the mall to save $50 on your new flat screen. Wouldn't it be nicer if everyone got enough sleep?

I don't want to sound self-righteous. I'm going to the movies today to watch a prince escape cartoon land, and live out his adventures in New York City. Consumption isn't a zero sum, all or nothing game. It's also not invitation to guilt or stoicism. Rather, it's worth considering, as Chesterton writes, that thrift is joyful, creative, better for the environment, and leads to opportunities to live generously. This is what he says: "Thrift is the really romantic thing; economy is more romantic than extravagance...thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste...if a man could undertake to make use of all the things in his dustbin, he would be a broader genius than Shakespeare." --Such living is of course, closer to the spirit of the Jesus whose coming we're intending to celebrate!

Is there anyone else planning a less consumerist Christmas?

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Rest for the weary...

Back from California, where I visited my mom who is 88. She’s had a great deal of suffering in her life, but loves Jesus in a way that is simple, beautiful, and inviting. Having lived her life with a devotion to serving others, it’s now her turn to be served, as world shrinks due to limited mobility and strength. We shared many good moments last week, but the most powerful for me came when my wife had gone out Saturday afternoon to grab some In and Out burgers for the three of us (classic California burgers). While away, mom had gone into the kitchen to get some things. She was gone far longer than she needed to be, so I went to see if all was well. She’d taken something to the trash, and was standing outside, just staring at the trash can.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“I don’t want you to leave” she said, sighing. And I didn’t want to leave either (and I wouldn’t until the next morning because we missed our flight – another story for another time).

I’m thinking of that passage in II Corinthians that speaks of the outer person getting weak, while the inner person becomes strong. Somehow, in the midst of mom’s outward aging, her love of family, friends, Jesus, is increasingly visible. It was always there, but there’s so much more to life isn’t there? Appointments, obligations, TV shows, work, pleasure, parties, cleaning, repairing, bills to pay, not to mention our phobias and sins, and efforts we display at hiding our sins. Little by little, though, all that fades away. For mom, her love for Christ shines through more clearly than ever as the trivialities evaporate.

It was a hard week. The missed flight meant Sunday morning was a 4AM wake up call, and arrival back in Seattle with just enough time to be driven from the airport back to church as the worship songs were ending, and there was need for preaching - from plane to pulpit without a break. By 9 last night I was fully spent.

Today was full too, with e-mails to catch up, several meetings, and wrestling with both structural issues in the church and personal issues in my heart. Through the whirlwind, I’d find myself stopping at various times, remembering that mom’s journey, her diminished responsibilities, and move from care giver to receiver, is the destiny of all flesh. What will shine through me when all the trinkets are gone? I hope and pray it’s the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.

Monday night, I made my way to the writing cabin because I have a talk at a conference next week, and I needed the time without distractions in order to finalize some things for it, and begin preparations for advent sermons and January. The writing cabin though, has been through a storm, and sizable tree is laying on the roof, the tree having been shorn in two pieces by the roof’s ridge line. I go peek into the attic to see if there’s been serious damage. Six inches of a branch is sticking through the shingles, having pierced the tar paper. I wonder if this is like a tire with a nail in it? I’ll find out in the morning.

For now it is dark, and 33 degrees, and raining. After studying, but before going to bed, I light some candles and sit to listen to Sufan Stevens version of Holy Holy Holy (available on his Christmas Album). I ponder the week that is now behind me, and the week that is ahead, as this most beautiful version of this most beautiful hymn echoes the words that I believe mom most certainly believes after a life of love, and loss, and countless joys, and now her own sunset of contemplation: “there is none beside Thee – perfect in power, in love and purity.” The music, the downed tree, the candles, the rain on the roof, the recollections of time spent with mom in Fresno – it’s a holy moment as all elements converge, inviting me to Jesus, who is intensely present in this wounded cabin.

“…none beside Thee” indeed. I believe it, and yet am so easily seduced away from that One who alone will be with me through all my days. I pray a prayer of gratitude for mom’s simple faith; not a perfect faith by any means, but simple, and more significantly, a faithful faith, still held after the loss of children and spouse. “Perfect in power, love, purity” – this is our God. May we rest in His will, His work, His very life.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The New Atheism is a leap of faith

There's a great article in the New York Times about the rise of atheism's popularity. The article offers a thoughtful response which in essence says that all world views are faith based. Whether you're a scientist or a pastor, an atheist, believer, or agnostic, all begin their journey with certain presuppositions. At some point, based on how they digest their data, leaps of faith are taken and a 'belief system' is in place. The author of the article rightly points out that advocates for the new atheism say, regarding the unanswered questions that remain in the worldview (such as evidence that altruistic behavior is inherently compatible with natural selection and 'survival of the fittest'), "we'll find the evidence soon."

Of course, such a statement is, if nothing else, a bold leap of faith, rivaling the Christian who says "the secret things belong to God" as a way of declaring that all will become clear when we see Christ face to face. Faith leaps are everywhere - even among the atheists.

The question isn't: "Will I live by faith or by evidence?" The reality is that all of us blend the two in establishing our worldview. The question is: "What evidence is most compelling in inviting a leap of faith." This question is approached in different ways by different people, but my own sense of things leads me this:

The Bible's view of reality, it's unfolding story of redemption, it's explanation of both the beauty and tragedy of this world, corresponds to reality better than any other options out there.

Unpacking that statement would require a whole book, but for now, I'll just toss it out there. And IF it's true, than history is headed in the direction of a universe filled with justice, beauty, intimacy, reconciliation, hope, and deep gladness and joy. My own movement towards this direction if philosophical. If you want the scientists move in this direction, you can find it here.

But wherever we land, know that we've landed by an interplay of a faith response to the evidence that is all around us. May all of us have the courage to swallow the red pill and look at things as honestly as possible.

We'll have a seminar about the new atheism at our church this coming February. Hope you can make it!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Running on Faure -

I love this time of year. I'm not certain why it is so, but the interplay of light and darkness, the glorious riot of color amidst leaves and sky, the wind in my face, the rain, it all plays so well for me, inviting me to worship.

It happened yet again this afternoon as I delayed my morning run in order to catch the sunset. I had my i-pod on shuffle, just taking what the electrons served up and as I turned towards the southwest, and the sunset, Gabriel Faure's 'Requiem' began. The juxtaposition of physical and musical beauty with the power of the words (Grant them Eternal Rest of Lord, and May Perpetual Light Shine on them) was overwhelming. Recently, this very Requiem was played as a benefit concert for Darfur victims, and I thought of the...there is no word to describe it... the powerful, poignant interplay between beauty and tragedy that is all around us every day. I prayed for those victims, and other victims I know, in Kenya, India, Syria, Bolivia, Iraq, Seattle. And I thought, especially of the 2nd line: "May Perpetual Light Shine on them". Yes Lord, perpetual light. May they encounter the light of Christ.

But then God reminds me of my studies today, in preparation for Sunday. That pesky text in Matthew 5 which tells me that I, along with the whole church of saints, AM the light of the world. It's as if God was saying, "Don't just pray... BE LIGHT." I'd rather jog and listen to music, thank you very much. Certainly there's a place for jogging, and music, and prayer. But lest any think that the previous post was some sort of call to dualistic piety or disengagement from service, know that God tells us again and again that the fruit of real relationship with Him is real relationship with suffering, condemned, and hurting of the world. And so I continue to pray that God will teach us how to cross lines and enter into service and compassion for those who are in the midst of horrors. Once I left the lake I walked home. The music changed, but the words of the Requiem continued to ring in my ears, and I decided that I needed to write them down as a prayer:

Grant Rest O Lord to those in the midst of unspeakable Horrors Let them see your Light You've called me - called your church - to BE the light that they might see the light Here we are - send us - next door or around the world. Forgive us for hiding behind pietist pretense -
let your light shine through us as we hear your voice and follow you.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Post Modern Evangelical Dilemma

There's a good article here, pointed to me by a friend, which addresses the church's historical tendencies to hold evangelism (defined here as calling people to repentance and faith in Christ in order to gain salvation from judgment) and social action (being the presence of Jesus by feeding the poor, clothing the naked etc.) in tension. The author expresses how the church has tended to correct itself from imbalances towards one or the other, usually by becoming imbalanced through an overemphasis of that which had previously been neglected. Thus has the church gone from being about social action, to evangelism, to social action to.... ?

Social Action and Justice issues are presently in the forefront which is, for many of us, a breath of fresh air compared to the embarrassing "Bibles before bread" priorities at the height of evangelical fervor. If we're not able to simply bless the world in Jesus name, with no strings attached, no commitments required of the recipients of the blessing, then we're a long way from the heart of Christ.

And yet.... I'm concerned that for some, the motive for elevating the compassion of Christ to its rightful place has come about because of post-modern uncertainty regarding the claims of Christ. It's as if the church is saying: "Gee whiz! We really don't have a clue whether or not Jesus is the only way to know God. All that stuff is too confusing for us. But one thing we do know: people are hungry, abused, mistreated. Let's invest in what we KNOW (feeding and sheltering people) rather than in what we DON'T KNOW (the true nature of salvation and the role Christ plays in that). And that line of thinking, I would argue, will lead us all out onto the thin ice of epistemological nihilism, where we'll fall through and drown in a sea of meaningless activity (read Ecclesiastes if you don't believe me).

I'd argue it's better to say: We BELIEVE that all who will know life to fullest will know it as such to the extent that they know, believe and are yielded to Christ, who died for them and rose to live in them. We don't claim to know how each person's use of language, or there own presuppositions that are determined by culture, interplay with the reality of that faith act. In other words, it's possible (probable... in fact, I'd bet my house on it) that people will be in heaven who didn't use the 'right language', who didn't appear in the club. And yet this reality shouldn't preclude our continual commitment to call people to 'the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ', for it is our from Him that real healing, hope, and life will come to all.

For those wrestling with the interplay of 'presence' and 'proclamation', and who are trying to figure where Jesus fits into all of it, I might recommend NT Wright's, "The Challenge of Jesus". A great read for our times. I'm of the conviction that, where the church gets it right, it does so because it's avoiding the temptation to make course corrections (which are invariable reactionary), and is instead, saturating herself in the Scriptures and Prayer and simply step out in obedience to the voice of Christ, who seems to have the balance thing down pretty well!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Ranting about the caricature

I find it annoying that the artists of our world pick on fundamentalists. For an illustration of this you can watch "Driving Lessons", a British movie about a young by raised by what the cover of the DVD calls an 'evangelical Christian'. This evangelical mother wears a plastic smile, is rude, manipulative, fearful, deceptive, and clearly cruel. So once again, pop culture presents the fringe fanaticism at the wacky edge of the evangelical movement as 'normative'. It is from her oppressive regime that the son must break free which, of course, is the main theme of this coming of age film. He finds an alternative reality in the wild adventures of a burnt out alcoholic actress who, we are led to believe, is the one who really understands life as it's meant to be lived: a mystery which you celebrate when you can, and escape from through binge drinking when you can't.

So here's my rant: I completely understand how easy these fringe elements are to pick on. I'm as frustrated with them as anyone (did you read the previous post a few days ago about the convention in Everett?). But because the arts community paints people of Christian faith almost universally with this fanatic, fringe brush, many in our world lump all people of faith into this category. It's why sometimes, when I travel, I don't want to tell people what I do until after I've had a good bit of conversation with them. I want them to know that Christians can enjoy poetry, be politically informed, care about environmental degradation, and read the NY Times. More than once, people have said, "you don't fit my notion of a pastor", which has sometimes led to conversations about where they got their notion of what a pastor is, of what a Christian is. That's when it comes out; the parody portrayed in mainstream media has become 'the norm' in people's minds. Books like the Poisonwood Bible, the Brothers K (one of my favorite books), well written books by authors I respect, paint pictures of the faithful that reinforce this sorry caricature. Film, literature, television, the vision of Christianity as boring, petty, controlling, is relentlessly reinforced.

That's like saying that all baseball players are Barry Bonds, all female pop-starts Britteny Spears. Jamie Moyer is more common than Barry Bonds. And Christians who pray, love their neighbor, care for the poor, and interact with their culture are... what do you think? Common? Rare? Love to hear your thoughts! And would love to learn of good film and literature providing an alternative view!

Whatever we think though, it seems that our calling should include word recovery, so that words like church, Christian, and believer can be recovered from the trash heap upon which they've been thrown.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

An easy way to give away rice...

Just answer the vocabulary question(s) on this web site and for every correct answer the sponsors will donate 10 grains of rice to world hunger solutions. Sounds insignificant? On day 1 - October 7, 830 grains were donated. But people have been spreading the word so that by October 15th we were at about 6.5 million, and by last Thursday, 537,163,380 grains. If you both drop a hundred or a thousand grains into the pot and tell three or four people... well, you know how it works!

While you're at it, read a little of a great interview with actor Don Cheadle here. If you don't hit the link on the day this is posted, you might need to do a search on the Seattle Times web site to get to the article. Enjoy!