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...

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Advent Conspiracy, I found you too late

It was only after Christmas was over that I had the time to cruise the web a bit, and in doing so was led to the Advent Conspiracy web site, devoted to finding alternative ways of celebrating Christmas that challenge the status quo of trying to buy more stuff this year than last for 'the good of the economy'. A few months ago, I recommended reading Bill McKibben's book, "Deep Economy" as a means of challenging the notion that unrestricted economic growth among the developed world is our only assurance of financial well being and security moving forward. The thesis of this 'conventional wisdom' approach to things is wrong at many levels, but we'll begin by noting both the environmental cost and the fairy tale notion that this unlimited growth curve is feasible.

Environmentally, it's becoming clearer and clearer that the mounds of stuff we consume, and the tankers of petroleum we use to haul it all over creation is taking its toll on our resilient planet. Even if you dismiss the notion of global warming as fairy tale science for some reason, you still need to face the fact that the growing appetites for oil in India and China are already making it more challenging here to proceed with the status quo levels of consumption. But even if it were possible to proceed for a while, the limited supply of petroleum (who cares if the limit is 20, 30 or 100 years? Stewardship demands that we deal with reality of the finite nature of this resource) should make it clear that we can't proceed on this same road forever. Are there healthier alternatives? I think so.

And then there's the matter of economics. Now that housing prices are falling and the free and easy access to unlimited credit is drying up, we come to discover the dirty little secret that a huge amount of the consumer spending that's been fueling economic growth in America has come because people have been spending the equity in their houses. I'm no economist, but I'm skeptical that this might not be a sustainable pattern either, and to perhaps the time is ripe to consider some alternative, simpler ways of living and finding meaning in our lives.

This is why I appreciated discovering the Advent Conspiracy. Here was an invitation to consider alternatives, live into them, and discover that the alternatives to our prevailing models of consumption can actually be more peaceful, meaningful, redemptive, and joy filled, than what conventional wisdom offers. Next year I'm in, and I hope that our church will be in too!

Finally, if you'll check the links on the side-bar, I've added a few for your interest. Living Water International is a project I've taken some interest in because it's such a crime that so many millions in our world are living lives of illiteracy, disease, poverty, and high incidence of child mortality simply because something as mundane as drinking water is unavailable. There's also a link to the Aidan Way, because in the interest of sustainable faith, our church will be spending some energy in the coming year focusing collectively on the spiritual disciplines and the development of a rule of life. I hope and pray that you'll find the material there encouraging.
I pray that 2008 will find each of us diligent in our pursuit of Christ, so that the adventure, joy, hope, and love that He desires to express through us will find it's way into our hearts, and then out again in the unique expressions of service and generosity, simplicity and humility, that are each of us and each of our communities. Thanks so much for joining me in the journey over the past year. If you'll continue to read, I'll continue to write in 2008 - as long as I have strength and time.

Happy New Year

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Ridiculous Value of Showing Up

I'm not sure how the tradition started. We moved into our existing home in January of 1996 though, and by that December, had come to know our neighbors a little bit. My daughters were 11 and 5 when we moved here, and as it would turn out, our neighbor had three daughters and the people across the street had two, all of them within this similar age range. Our first Christmas in our new home, we invited a couple of families from the church over to Christmas carol up and down our block. The neighbor girls joined in as well, and what we began 11 years ago has now become a neighborhood tradition. Even though the girls (see picture) are grown, everyone still gathers to carol. The same families who joined us the first time join us still. I don't pay attention to life details enough to know whether we've ever skipped year, but I'd guess it's been a tradition from which we've not wavered for a single year.

By now, the neighbors have come to expect it. Last year it was pouring rain on Christmas eve, but one of our neighbors was battling cancer and we didn't know if we'd have another year to sing to her, so we braved the rain to sing that one house. She saw, heard, smiled, cried. We hugged her. She was in our prayers throughout the year, and as she and her husband walked through that valley which was punctuated by some battles, questions, pain, and as well by the solidifying of precious memories and the nurturing of intimacy, until finally this summer she was gone.

There was something deeply special about 20 or so of us convening outside his house this Christmas eve and raising our voices in song, heralding the coming of the One who will fully and finally conquer death someday. His relatives came out first. They were expecting us, as if we'd become a regular part of their Christmas eve tradition. And then, just at the end of the first song, my neighbor came out too, tears in his eyes. We hugged, cried together, and shared a moment that can only be described at joy and sorrow intermingled so thoroughly that the tears were indistinguishable as to their source. Joy? Because we both know that to live among people who care for each other is a gift indeed in our increasingly isolated and alienated culture. Our street is filled with people for whom we have fond affection. What a gift! Sorrow? Of course. She's no longer with us, and there are perhaps few things in life more difficult than experiencing the first Christmas without your closest companion.

Year after year we sing. I'm sometimes quite tired from leading two Christmas eve services, but still we sing. I don't claim to be the best in the world at loving my neighbors, for more reasons than I've the time or the courage to articulate. But this little exercise in caroling has taught me the value of simply showing up and being present in people's lives. The caroling. The block party. Occasional conversations when we both happen to finish a run. Little hellos and updates on the kids. All these seemingly insignificant events add up to relationship, to being a neighbor, to loving one's neighbor. It's actually much easier than I'd imagine. All it requires is a little presence...but consistently.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Let's Just Celebrate

My whole family is downstairs. Three great kids who aren't kids anymore. A mother-in-law whose husband died in June. A wife who's been by my side for 28 years, through 10 moves, 5 cities, the starting of a non-profit, endless weeks of travel during the 90's, and more recently, the sense that 'change is in the air' as our children mature and move into their own spheres more and more fully.

If you've not noticed, there's a side of me that can sometimes be terribly introspective, dark even. But I can only go down that hole so far before I'm reminded that, though all questions will never be answered, all injustices never made right, all relationships perfected, there are about a million things waiting for me to cherish and enjoy, right now, right here, if I'll just stop analyzing things and instead simply taste life for what it is. Then I find:

1. the beauty of sunshine this morning while running after a conspicuous absence of it over the past weeks for me, both here and in Europe.

2. the ducks at the lake

3. special Christmas coffee my son acquired from a favorite haunt of his, French pressed this morning into a glorious cup of Sumatra.

4. Christmas carols

5. cookies baking

6. cookie dough

7. good health

8. everyone having fun downstairs preparing gifts - doors closed, typewriter clicking, laughter

9. a house in which to live, the walls of which have now accumulated more memories than I'll ever be able to recall, most of them overwhelmingly positive and joy filled.

10. candles

11. ornaments hanging from a tree that testify to our family story, and God's faithful provision, sustaining mercy, and great gifts given us along the way.

12. the knowledge that tonight, friends will gather here for a tradition of singing carols, both in the house and in the neighborhood

13. the gift of Christ - freer, gladder, more generous and patient, than I'll ever fully know

...the list could go on, but I supposed I'll just stop and say that I hope God will open our eyes to the gifts that are all around us so that we simply stop for a day or two and enjoy them with gratitude.

Merry Christmas

Friday, December 21, 2007

The sweet stench of success

This is a long, but important post... brew a cup and join me.

The travels are over. The gifts are purchased. The sermon is prepared (never actually fully prepared until spoken; perhaps better to say it’s “prepared”). I’ve spent this day on the road north because there’s a water heater in need of replacement, and some missions trip contacts to make. So now, I’m sitting in the writing cabin, grateful for the chance to do just that, because life has been full enough without writing over the past few weeks!

I’ve just one more story to share from Europe, another Christmas story of sorts, and one that has affected me profoundly. We have dear friends who own a farm high in the Austrian Alps, and every year I visit them. This year, my wife being with me, visiting the animals in the barn was a high priority, much higher in fact, than other years. In fact, we exited the car and, much to my disappointment, moved from the 25(f) outside air into the balmy 35(f) air of the barn! While walking towards the barn, I must confess that cookies and coffee sounded far more appealing than visiting the barn. My disappointment turned to disgust when, after some time in the barn, I noticed the smell of uric acid and ammonia. Actually, noticed is an understatement. I became overwhelmed by it, and left the barn, choosing the freezing winds over the strong offending odors.

Standing out in the cold, I pondered why the animals weren’t offended. Did they have no frame of reference to realize what they were missing, to know that a fine potpourri of cloves, cinnamon, and pine oils would revive their lagging spirits like nothing else? I’m a big fan of aromas in case you didn’t know, and so I played with this little mystery for a few moments when suddenly it hit my like a ton of bricks, as I noticed the Christmas lights on the far side of the valley: Jesus was born amidst these smells.

We like fir, pine, cedar, cloves, and ginger, and citrus fruits breaking open, and all the other smells that have come to be Christmas for us, but all of those are Disneyland fairytales. If we’re to be real about it, we’d bring the smell of the barnyard into the house; decaying fecal matter, piss, animal hair, rotting hay and fresh hay. That’s what Christmas smelled like the first time. What happened?

Sometimes I think our ‘re-creation’ of proper Christmas aromas parallel our ‘re-creation’ of proper Christian ‘success’. Jesus was born into poverty and never really did find a place to lay his head. He didn’t complain about it; it’s just the way it was. But I don’t see any homeless people today on the covers of magazines, sacred or secular, marked out as world changers. Our vision of success certainly includes material well being – just ask Joel Osteen, best-selling Christian author and pastor of a church that occupies what was previously the Astrodome in Houston. I’m don't think that material well being is inherently problematic, but I’m awfully certain it isn’t a criterion for success.

Jesus began with 12 followers. His popularity grew until multitudes were chasing him like deadheads. Undaunted, he preached about eating flesh and drinking blood until nearly everyone went away and in the end, when he could have used a few friends, even the 12 founding members abandoned Him. Is this the kind of person you’d put in charge of developing leaders or speaking at motivational seminars? His resume would assure Him of never even getting an interview. Yet today, we’re somehow convinced that following Jesus makes us super effective leaders, by which of course we mean having the capacity to cast vision, catalyze workers, and move events and people so that vision becomes reality. You think? The leader hanging on a cross whose best man is cursing his name as he trembles in fear before a teenage door maid isn’t the best poster child of leadership success in my world.

Jesus was humble, broken, deeply human, and always crossing boundaries that our evil world has erected to keep reconciliation and healing at bay. But are humility, brokenness and familiarity with the frailties of our humanity goals of today’s upwardly spiritually mobile? We might give lip service to it, but when I get out of the city and sit in my writing cabin, I wonder: What does real success smell like? Big crowds? Book contracts? Flashy speaking ability? Wealth and health? These are the spiritual potpourri of our day and when these things become our definitions of success we’ve failed.

The reality is this: Success has an offending stench! It is the stench of brokenness, vulnerability, dependency, confession, and humility. Successful people are crying sometimes, because they’re under deep conviction over their sins, or their heart is breaking with a desperate desire to see God do something in the life of another, or even because the last thing in the world they want to do is exactly the thing God is asking of them (not exactly following one’s passion would you say?) Successful people are crossing boundaries, and when they do, it means that the well dressed are eating with those in rags, the well sheltered are sleeping with homeless, the rich and poor have touched hearts, and even gay and straight people are listening to each other as if they’re all people loved by God. Of course, those who live that way often pay a price. For some it will even mean the spilling of blood. And that also stinks… and that also is success. Read the Sermon on the Mount one more time and you’ll see just what I mean.

I want to be careful here because I run the risk in an essay like this one of being thoroughly misperceived. “Richard hates the institutional church. He’s having 2nd thoughts about church buildings.” Oh, well yes, I’ve had 3rd, 4th, 5th, 45th thoughts about church buildings in my lifetime, but I’m convinced that they need to exist on a case by case basis. But let’s be honest. Wealth, numerical growth, and building projects, are kind of like potpourri. There’s really nothing wrong with potpourri. Most of us prefer it to raw bathroom smells, which is why it’s sitting there on the back of millions of American toilets this very night, easing our inhaling.

The danger enters into our lives though when we come to the point where, like me, we’re so in love with cedar and cinnamon that we have a hard time enduring bad smells, or worse, begin to avoid them entirely. Today for example, I was trying to fix a broken pipe, and I ended pulling a toothbrush matted in old stinky hair out of a broken pipe, along with about a cup and a half of hair. The smell was so bad I nearly threw up. What if I’m the same way when it comes to spiritual aromas? What if I’m so easily offended by rejection that I twist my words and smooth out the rough edges, kind of changing the stench of success into a lovely clove scent so as to avoid rejection? What if I do that?

Well, we simply can’t allow ourselves to go down that road. We need to encourage one another to pursue the real gospel and real success, being neither discouraged by the absence of, nor addicted to the presence of cinnamon. I want to go on record as saying that the cedar and cloves (and coffee, and skiing, and candles, and fresh salmon) I love inhaling, revealed in our lovely, affluent, educated cultures, is the blessing of potpourri – not the stench of success. Success can come in the midst of potpourri, but not without the smells of brokenness, trials, loss, crosses also present. Stay there – at the manger. Don’t just look. Inhale! Let the ammonia burn your inner nostrils, maybe until you want to throw up. And then remember, this is where the greatest success in history happened.

Please share you thoughts... and of course: Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Good to be home...

Here are the last of the pictures that I'll be posting from our trip to Europe. Donna and I arrived home last night and went straight away to our daughter's winter Christmas Cocnert (thanks Mr James... for an awesome concert), and today I'm back working, preparing for Sunday and Christmas Eve, and working on our the prayer team that will be a new ministry of our church. I'm deeply grateful for the joys of traveling and sharing time with my very best friend, for the many good friends God has given us in Europe, for the chance to learn from my friends and there, and most important, for the privilege of shepherding one of greatest congregations anywhere. The more I travel, teach, and listen to the stories of others, the more grateful I am for God's faithfulness to Bethany, and for the opportunities that He's given us of displaying Christ's life in the midst of our broken world.

A state sponsored Christmas? What do you think?

You might be interested in knowing that HR 847 passed last week with flying colors. It would be worth your time to read through the text of this bill, and ponder the implications. Should the state 'officially endorse' Christmas? If so, why does the state also go to great lengths to ban any public displays of Christmas? Fort Collins, CO, has created a "Holiday Display Task Force", a sort of Ebeneezer squad whose job it is to make certain no public properties are tainted with religious displays, not even colored lights. One school in Wisconsin has changed the words of Silent Night to read: "Cold in the Night - Cold in the Night - I wish I were happy and warm - safe with my family, out of the storm - blah blah blah."

How many questions can I ask? Though there are dozens, a few come off the top of my head, and I welcome your response:

1. Is it actually possible to be a purely secularist state, with no public acknowledgment of the cultural role that faith plays in the lives of so many? If so, is it desirable?

2. Is it appropriate to pass this kind of bill as a way of honoring and supporting Christians, while not offering similar kudos to Judaism? How about Buddhism? Islam?

3. Are those who live in a pluralist society doomed to some sort of bland, faith free zone, in all public sectors? This is a real fear in Austria, where church bells and Advent markets still play an enormous cultural role in the December lives of Austrians, whether such cultural rooting has led to genuine faith on behalf of individuals or not.

4. A quick journey further to the east, in Romania and Russia, reveals that the decades of official atheism has left a cultural that is ethically bankrupt, as bribery, graft, embezzlement, and corruption occur at the highest levels in business. Yes, I know about Enron, and the present loan crises. But the difference is that here in our culture there is outrage, while too often our friends further east have not yet grasped a vision for how things could be different. I'd argue that the vision for ethical behavior which has permeated our own culture has been faith based. Like the bells in Austria, public accounting practices, the rule of law, due process, and the balance of powers have their deepest roots in the faith, tainted and myopic as it was (and still is in some ways) of our fathers. Don't tell me you can't legislate morality. Every law is a legislation of morality. The bigger question is, where do these laws come from? Judeo/Christian heritage? Natural law? Common Sense?

Our political season has been filled with candidates trying to be careful when parsing the role their faith will play in politics. Too much and you're a theocracy; too little and you're a rootless secularist.

Thoughts? - and however you respond: "Peace on Earth - And Happy Holidays!"

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Stop Asking, Start listening!

Did you hear the one about the governor of Georgia? He said, "We've come together for one reason only: to pray up a storm" He's asked his state to pray for rain in order to put an end to the water shortage that's unfolding there. He's even trying to suspend the endangered species act so that he can divert waterflow that otherwise would have headed to Florida in order to preserve the mussels that are endangered there. After all, a million-gallon mountain of artificial snow is surely more important than an entire species of crustacean, right?

Maybe not. Maybe, rather than simply praying for rain, the good governor should consider the possibility that his state is wasting water on vain and superficial projects at a time when droughts are on the rise and conservation is appropriate. It reminds me a bit of Joshua, who was praying after his army suffered a defeat at Ai. God's response to his pious prayers is a bit surprising: So the LORD said to Joshua, "Rise up! Why is it that you have fallen on your face?

In other words, God has this funny way of stripping our piety away from us and revealing our true agendas. Perhaps instead of continuing to ask God to simply bless us in our endeavors, we need to spend a bit of time allowing ourselves to be reshaped by His ethics. This certainly applies to our relational ethics, but let's not stop there. How about our environmental and economic ethics. I've been immensely impressed during my travels in Europe by things like solar energy farms (entire fields with solar panels collecting and distributing energy), wind farms, and commitments to allowing people who establish a solar collection capability in their homes to sell their excess back to the grid, thus encouraging conservation. All this from 'post Christian' Europe, while America continues to resist making the sacrifices and movement towards simplicity and alternatives, which would eventually enable us to be part of global solutions.

But I digress. My point here is simply that we need to make certain in our praying that we're not simply asking God to bless our own personal agendas, but rather that we're taking time to listen as well, so that we might hear from God and adjust our lives according to His story.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

a manger, a chapel, and faithfully gathering

Tomorrow we'll have our last "Children's Sunday" in our existing sanctuary as, God willing, we move into our new facility in February. But before the move, very small children wearing halos will be brought to the front of the church in the morning services to sing, "Away in a Manger". Those who sing on that day will be the last in a long string of those who sang the very same words, with the very same halos, on the very same stage.

Having occupied this chapel every Christmas since 1970 means that there are countless children who sang, halo clad, about the "little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay." Whether singing, crying, picking their nose, or making faces at their aunt who came especially to hear her nephew sing, they showed up, participating in what has become a rich tradition at Bethany. People who today are firemen, software developers, lawyers, real-estate developers, and nurses all wore the halo, sang the song. Some of the original halo-clad have watched their own children do the same.

The words of that song speak of God's provision to Mary, Joseph, and their new baby, of a shelter for birth, a place of safety which, though humble, was just right for the tumultuous times that characterized that night, in that Roman occupied province so long ago. While Herod raged in paranoia and the zealots plotted overthrow, the true hope of the world was ‘asleep on the hay' in an obscure cave outside Bethlehem.

Similarly, we have lived through both crises and innovations a plenty during the past four decades: Vietnam, Watergate, Iran hostages, earthquakes, software and some crazy ideas from a guy named Bill Gates, cell-phones, $4.00 cups of coffee, punk-rock, the grunge scene, a mysterious new disease called AIDS. Bridges have sunk. People dressed like turtles destroyed downtown to make a point. Towers have fallen. Presidents have made brash claims and failed to live up to them. Real-estate prices have climbed faster than condos. We've moved from a backwater fishing and logging community to a premier economic power, ‘the place to be' as they say in all the magazines. As our city's power and prominence grows, it's tempting to feel that church life is less significant, a sort of ‘country' tradition that will inevitably drown in the sea of political prestige, global trade, and cash consumption that is Seattle.

But through all the transformations, every year without fail, some little children would gather wearing halos and sing under the cross about a manger, a shelter in the midst of storms. The song is metaphor for what this chapel has been for thousands and thousands of people; a place of safety in a scary world; a place where the real substance and hope for the future is being formed – not in tall towers and board rooms among the opulent lifestyles of the powerful, but in a little chapel with stained glass windows that talk about Jesus as the Bread of Life, and Light of the World.

I came into this chapel once in '78 or '79 while in college. Pastor John, my predecessor, got up to preach and share about his recent trip to India. He was so moved that he began to weep, as he read, prayed, read, exhorted, and read some more. It was, and still is, the best sermon I ever heard. 16 years later I would sit in Delhi India, through a strange series of ‘coincidences', eating breakfast with the man who hosted pastor John while he was in India. That man told me that morning that God wanted me to be the pastor of Bethany, a word from the Lord which would be fulfilled nearly two years later.

And so now, I often come into this space when there's nobody present and ponder: "What has God done here? How has this space been shelter? How has the real work of changing the world gone on in these humble wooden pews, with funny blue cushions?" No one will ever know the answer, not really, not fully. But we can know this: the world has been changed because people have gathered faithfully, week after week, through good preaching and bad, good music and bad, democratic and republican administrations, plenty and want, to bear witness to the reality of the hope to be found in Christ. That's what it means to be a church, a shelter, a manger.

Merry Christmas Chapel — thanks for being so hospitable to Jesus' body.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tastes from the trip...

Here are some pictures of what we've been seeing and doing in Europe. I'll write a little more later, but for now, I hope you'll enjoy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Advent Hospitality -

I spoke here in Austria on Sunday evening from Luke 1, regarding the annunciation, and Mary's embracing of her 'impossible mission'. Pondering the virgin birth, in the wake of a wonderful week of visiting friends in Europe led to a consideration of Mary's womb as a place of hospitality for Christ. "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word" was how Mary responded to the angel's announcement.

Notice her lack of complaints about the timing of this. After all, she was engaged, and telling her betrothed about this little event was certain to be no picnic. Maybe God could have waited?...or chosen someone already married? Why begin this whole 'God becoming flesh' thing with a whiff of potential scandal. Neighbors would talk. Mary, though, not only believed that, sans sex, she was to be pregnant, she welcomed the announcement and sang a hymn of praise. Who does that?

I've found part of the answer through the hospitality shown me in the past week. My wife and I have stayed with friends in Germany who, in every case, treated us as if we were kings and queens. They seemed, somehow, truly delighted that we were descending on them, jet lagged, for a night or two. There was, without exception, artfully decorated tables, good wine, seemingly endless food, and wonderful conversation, as candles shrunk while we sat together with old friends and spoke of our lives; our children, our marriages, our walks with God, our respective countries, and so much more. I never cease to be amazed at how people find the space to be so hospitable. And that, it seems, is the point.

Hospitality is about making space; making space for conversation, for meals, for people to sleep (including a chocolate santa and bottled water in our delightfully prepared bedroom). And of course, we can take this principle and apply it to our life with Christ because, "He stands at the door and knocks".... As I ponder what it means to offer hospitality to Christ, several things come to mind, made clear to me by the example of my European friends:

1. Hospitality takes time - It's easy to provide some space for people to come and go, which is far too often the kind of 'hospitality' I'm guilty of providing in my very busy life. So full am I of appointments, obligations, deadlines, activities, and so called opportunities, that I've been guilty at times of saying to my guests: "here's the bed - here's the food - see ya!" My friends over here remind me by example that hospitality can't be microwaved - it takes time: time for listening, time for preparing a space, time for sharing food, and laughter, and life, and listening for the heart. Thank God Mary had nine months plus about 33 years to offer. How much time do I offer to Jesus in prayer, worship, fellowship? Am I learning that just to be with Him is life enough?

2. Hospitality isn't always convenient - Our friends in Augsburg experienced the unfortunate intersection of work obligations with our visit. Still, we walked to the Advent market, came back to their house and, after they'd put their son to bed, stayed up late conversing. Though we encouraged them to get sleep they said, "we can always sleep, but we can't always be together." I was deeply touched by this, and am now pondering how often I limit my hospitality towards Christ to times when it's convenient.

3. Hospitality comes in hidden forms - Lest you think that Jesus' invitation to hospitality is too mystical, too elusive, He reminds us in Matthew 25 that we practice hospitality towards Christ when we practice hospitality at all - and especially when we practice hospitality with those who are living on the margins. It would be a pity if I limited my notion of hospitality to some sore of 'quiet time', though it might certainly include that. But it must also include care for others, for real people. And that's often where the rub comes. Hospitality towards Jesus? Certainly! Just don't ask my to make space in my full life for another relationship - I'm full already. Yet, if I've no space for new relationships, no space for the poor, no space for justice, I've no space for Jesus.

We were blessed beyond measure by the hospitality of friends, and I was reminded once again of what it means to show real hospitality. Initially, as I pondered this, I was thinking in two categories: showing hospitality to people, and showing hospitality to Christ. Though I might be overstating the case just bit, I think I'm discovering that what I thought were two categories are actually one and the same.

Blessings to you... as you make room for Jesus this advent season.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

and yet... the challenge

I'm sitting at the window of the room where I'm staying this week in Austria. It's snowing and I'm resisting the urge to head outside and ski for two reasons: #1 THE SABBATH'S NOT A DAY FOR SKIING! (kidding) #2 The lines are too long on the weekends. I'll go Thursday afternoon and most of Friday, as I finish my lectures at about 11AM that day. It's about 50 meters from my room to the gondola, so travel time won't be a problem.

Today though, I spent the morning at the local worship service because I'm friends with the pastor's son and I thought he'd be at the service. When the service ended, the pastor invited Donna and me to have coffee with the congregation, and then showed us a remarkable art panel displayed in their sanctuary that came from Reformation times. There were four panels. The outside panels were paintings of Peter (with the keys to the church) and Paul (with the sword, which is the world of God) in their hands. The inner two panels were two marvelous paintings; the first was of the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness (a story from Numbers whereby the rebellious Jews needed to look at a brass serpent elevated on a pole in order for a plague to be broken). The second was of Jesus being lifted up, in fulfillment of the the words linking these two stories, offered by Jesus in John 3.

We learned this morning that during the counter-reformation, all of Austria was mandated to either become Catholic or leave the country (an edict from the Hapsburgs). Thus did this panel fall into the hands of Catholic church for a centuries. Interestingly, on the back side of the panel, there's a quote from Romans 3:27-28, articulating that man is saved by faith alone. Interestingly, the word "alone" had been etched out while in the hands of the Catholic church!

You can't get church history classes this real anywhere in the USA! Yet for all this, there were only about 50 people in the church this morning, with perhaps an average age of 65. "What is to happen to the church in 30 years?" I asked a friend over coffee after the service. "Martin Luther said, 'The church is in need of continual reformation. If we don't change the way we communicate truth, we won't make it.'"

Yes, it's a very good word, and perhaps a way to expand and qualify my previous post. Modernity. Post-Modernity. What are they? Though they are world-views, the very term 'world view' is so loaded as to make comprehension a challenge when engaging this important topic. So, perhaps it's helpful to think of them as languages. This morning, I listened to a sermon in German and since I don't know German, the odds are high that I wouldn't ever become a regular attender. It has nothing to do with whether the pastor is Orthodox or Heretical. The issue is simply that I don't speak his language, so we can't get very far together.

However, after the service, he approached me and gave me one of the finest church history lessons I've ever had, all because he was willing to both learn and speak my language. The same kind of adjustments must be made, not only for linguistic chasms, but for cultural chasms and world view chasms. Jesus showed the way in Philippians 2, where we learn that he was willing to learn the language of humanity by taking on human form... God with us... and thus making God accessible.

Why are moderns and post-moderns afraid to do that with each other? Instead of viewing these two ways of looking at the world as different languages, we vilify them, each to the other. As a result the church is splitting down generational lines, but it's really a world view split. Until we stop attaching moral value to these two world views and see them instead as languages, the split will remain. But once we begin to see that it's just a different language - perhaps we'll be willing, for the good of Christ's body, to become bi-lingual.

For example, last night, Pink was in concert at the base of the ski hill here. I think I'll use her lyrics to open my sermon tonight because there's a good chance that someone who was standing in the parking lot last night with a Schladminger in hand (that's the local beer) will be in the service tonight. This is what it means to be incarnational. The church in Europe and North America had better learn how to do this across generational lines, if our testimony is to be that the dividing wall is indeed broken down.

Does this help clarify what I mean when I say that modern or post-modern misses the point?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

not the point

Having returned from a conference in San Diego last week where I spent time talking with people around the subjects of post-modernity and the emerging church, I've become increasingly convinced of two things:

1) the words "Post-Modern", "Emergent", and "Missional" are quite trendy, and because people want to be these things, the words are used increasingly by people who don't really understand them, thus deflating the value of these words and rendering them increasingly meaningless.

2) because they're trendy, people are making vast generalizations and prophecies regarding the death of modernity, and the death of the institutional church, as if these two things are some sort evils in need of banishment so that the 'real' or 'pure' world view(s) might be ushered in. There's so much wrong with that line of thinking that I don't have time to address it right now because it's too late at night and I'm too tired. But it reminds me of Jesus response to the Samaritan woman's question about which mountain people should worship on... 'this mountain' or 'that mountain.' Jesus answer? "It doesn't matter, as long as you're actually worshipping." Apparently you can be spot on or miss the point, on either mountain. Can we carry the analogy out say that you can miss the point in a post-modern or modern church...or hit the target in either too? Emergent or traditional? Cathedral or living room? High Church or Hip Hop?

We're still looking for the silver bullet - thinking that moving out of the building will make us a better church. Maybe. But probably not, because the church, or the mountain, or the particular world view that is the contextual construct in which I do church life are all nothing more than wineskins in which the wine of the gospel is held and from which it is poured out to bless the world. Too many conversations are still about the wineskin. When the day is done though, they're still just skins... the important thing isn't the skin. but what's in it.

Do I...

1. Do justice?
2. Love mercy?
3. Walk humbly with God?

It is enough. Of course, we need the conversations about modernity and post-modernity, because without them there are generational divides in the church that fracture it and weaken it. But let's recognize that modernity and post modernity aren't two world views competing for king of the evangelical hill. They're two ways of looking at the world, both of which have value and dangers inherent in them. But you can live out the three elements above from either world view... thanks be to God. The gospel is way more generous and flexible than the wineskin cheerleaders and advocates on either side of the isle!