Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New Bible reading

I don't know how you do it. I don't even know if you do it. But if you do it, you need to discern whether, for you, routine is a friend or an enemy, or a little bit of both. I'm talking, of course, about Bible reading.

Bible reading has fallen on hard times in America, and in American churches. Awash though we are in Bibles, and claim though we do to be Christians (at least on overwhelming majority of us), we are ignorant of the Bible.

It's time for we who know Christ to recover, or begin, the habit of encountering God through the scriptures, because it's by absorbing God's glory and responding to God's revelation that we're transformed, and thus able to increasingly fulfill the purpose for which we were created. Our purpose, of course, is to make the invisible God visible, by manifesting increasing doses of mercy, truth telling, humility, forgiveness, courage, justice, beauty and more in our world. God will express these things uniquely through each of us, but the means by which He will shape us is the same. We're shaped in response to revelation. Thus, if I'm ignoring God's revelation, I'm cutting myself off from the means of transformation. What's more, I'm choosing instead to be shaped by other forces, since the reality is that none of us are autonomous agents shaping ourselves.

For me, I need both routine in variety. I need routine in setting a time of day to receive from God through the Bible. For me this is morning, before the day is swallowed by activity. I can manage to squeeze other things into my life in the margins - exercise, eating, reading, even blogging. But if I miss the appointed time for reading, it's rare that I catch it later in the day. So I try to make it an appointment.

But I need variety in how I digest the Bible. I've been in a period of doing daily readings out of the Celtic Daily Prayer book, a marvelous little work that exposes one to Old and New testaments around a theme each day. But I'm missing the continuity of a larger story, and feeling the need to fortify myself in preparation for some summer teaching, so for the next little while, I'll be reading through I and II Kings, and Romans.

This morning, in I Kings 1, I was struck by the discord among God's children over who would be David's successor to the throne. God's people fighting over positions of power? You've never heard of that, have you? This story reminds me of how easily our own needs for security, or meaning, or power, or intimacy, or ________ (fill in the blank with your own story) can create in us a demanding posture, rather than a submissive one. "I will be king, God's will be dammed!" was the attitude of Adonijah.

Only he wouldn't say it that way, which is too bad, because had he done so it would have been much more honest, and easier to see the deception. Instead he hired priests to offer sacrifices, so as to 'bless and sanctify' his rebellion. It's always this mixture of our lust with God words, worship songs, offerings, and prayers that create the problem. The mixture confuses us. And the reason for this is because we can't really know the heart of Adonijah, at least not on the surface of things. He appears to be following God. So do many cult leaders. He offers 'killer' worship services (with all the sacrfices being offered, this is intended to be a pun). But beneath it all is rebellion born from insecurity.

I'm reminded this morning to open my hands, to quit grasping or clinging to power, authority, position, vocation, geography, or any other thing. It's much simpler to rest and let God run the show. But to do so, I need to trust that God will take care of me, a lesson I learn well by, of all things, reading the Bible regularly.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dude... where's my stuff?

Sure. You might find some points with which you disagree when you watch this (it takes 20 minutes to watch). But I hope you'll watch it with an open mind and consider the possibility that, in fact, the way we're living is unsustainable, and that as those charged to care for the earth, we who follow Christ should be at the forefront of both generous care for those most effected and marginalized by the the global consumer economy, and at the forefront of addressing the systemic changes that are needed to care for both the earth and one another.

That Bush has set a deadline of 2025 for 'halting the increase' of carbon emissions; that he's offered no specific, mandated way of doing so, and that he's making the entire goal voluntary, are revelatory of our president's failure to adequately address the realities of just how broken the system is. Most newspapers, conservative or liberal, have decried the proposal as lacking.

Watch the film. Let me know what you think. If twenty of you locals leave comments indicating a desire to view this as a community, I'll buy the DVD and we can watch it together. Maybe our wilderness ministry can help me host it. Maybe we can start addressing some of these things not only as individual families, but as churches.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Doubt: the play - Doubt: the reason

My wife and I were privileged to see the current running through Taproot Theater, a local group here in Seattle. The play is Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, a provocative parable having to do with how we 'know'. Both the script and acting are remarkable, so that the theme of 'doubt' becomes the viewer's experience, as they're transported alternately, between alternating perceptions of reality with respect to a certain situation.

Then, having watched the play, I hope you'll ponder the basis upon which we believe anything, whether it be the guilt of an alleged criminal, the veracity of an airplane's safety, or the remarkable claim that Jesus was God and rose from the dead. It seems that in every case the issue is the same: We believe based on a blend of trustworthy revelation and faith. This, it seems is true for all kinds of believing, and is true for all people. No person believes only on the basis of verifiable revelation, because to do so would lead to too much paralysis. For example, you don't really KNOW, by verifiable revelation, that your brakes won't fail on your car tonight. You've lots of evidence to the contrary, but you don't KNOW. There's an element of faith in it.

At the other end of the spectrum, if someone boldly proclaims that tomorrow's stock market will lose 500 points, the reality is that to believe the claim would require almost pure faith, and no revelation (I know there are exceptions, related to overseas markets, but work with me here). You really need more revelation, otherwise your faith is foolish.

Between the skepticism of demanding pure revelation, and the naivety of exercising pure faith, the vast majority of people navigate their way with a combination of the two. This combination varies, both from person to person (Thomas wants more revelation than John) and situation to situation. We trust what our spouse says, more than the salesperson, and so require less 'faith' because we consider the evidence to be of high value. We trust the law of aerodynamics, perhaps more than the claims of authorship for Genesis, because the former is testable, repeatable, the latter not. Thus, with respect to the latter, I'll need either more sources of revelation, or more faith.

What the play has me pondering is this: Is my unique process of getting to 'belief' the same for all matters? As I ponder this, I think I realize that I'm always looking for 'enough' revelation to make the leap of faith, but that I'm willing to make a longer leap for some things rather than others. The play seems to posit that perhaps if we want to believe something, we'll be willing to take a huge leap, whereas if we're not attracted to a truth, we'll avoid the leap, even if it's only an inch. Thus, it seems, we might - all of us, be accused of creating our own reality, or to put it another way, of making god in our own image. What's intriguing though, is the discovery that this danger of shape shifting reality to fit my predispositions isn't the sole territory of either left or right, scientist or pastor, skeptic or faith healer. We all bring bias to the table - finding it, naming it, and pushing back against it becomes the tricky part.

That a play would send my mind down this road means I was more than entertained, though that would have been enough. I was challenged to think through my reasons for believing, an exercise that is always a good thing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I was hungry and you fed me...

This simple word of Jesus may just become the defining challenge of the next decade. Throughout the world, front page news during the past week has been addressing the growing global food shortage. It's a problem that has been created by the perfect storm of erratic climate changes and drought, rising energy prices, and the growing prosperity of the working class in both India and China. This growing middle class is aspiring, of course, to live like Americans. After all, when we harvested cheap labor overseas, we did so with the promise that their increased prosperity would result in increased purchasing power.

This has resulted in nearly two billion people seeking to eat higher up on the food chain, so that lands previously given over to grains for human consumption are now directly or indirectly being used for the raising of animal protein. Add to this a further removal of grain acres, now given over to the raising of ethanol, and you can see that there's just not as much rice as there once was. All this has let to basic agricultural commodities rising in price between 40 and 300 percent over the past year.

Even a small rise in prices has the effect of pushing countless families over the edge, into starvation. According to several sources, the roots the problem go deeper than just the issues articulated above. There are more fundamental systemic issues that need to be addressed:

1. industrial farming, for all it's promises offered at the inauguration of the Green Revolution back in 1975, has failed to deliver on it's promises to end world hunger. Though production has risen temporarily, the rise has been based on an addiction to a petroleum based agricultural economy, unsustainable over the long haul.

2. The Green Revolution consolidated land holdings in the hands of a few farmers or companies, withholding economic aid to small family farmers. This has resulted in a loss of efficiency as single crops now dominate large swaths of the landscape, depleting the soil, and demaning ever increasing chemical assistance to maintain levels of production.

3. Food now travels great distances for consumption as well. This has the effect, in poor countries, of favoring the growth of expensive export crops, creating shortages of basic nutrients in the home country. Countless examples of this are offered in Reclaiming America, by Richard Austin, out of print now I believe, but available if you try hard (and in our church library).

Austin says it well: "Our food donations may keep some starving people alive, but our policies do not help them to provide for themselves. We may show mercy at times of crisis, but we aboid the truth of why people starve."

What is needed is a deep economic policy shift, as spoken of here. Perhaps we need to be honest enough to confess that a purely unrestricted free market economy might fall short of garnering support because the policy changes that are needed will necessarily lead the wealthy of the world to embrace some measures of expense, inconvenience and sacrifice. And yet, the crossroads at which we stand is not economic only. It is moral. And if Jesus has anything to say about it, it is spiritual as well. What's needed:

1) an assessment of our lifestyles...
2) a discussion among Christians about the systemic roots of global hunger
3) commitment to concrete changes - both individual and collective

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hello Dali... and where do you belong?

I'm sitting in the airport, getting ready to board the flight to Great Falls so that I can teach I Corinthians this week in a Bible School there. Meanwhile, the Dali Lama will continue his teaching/preaching tour of Seattle, finding record turnouts everywhere he goes.

What I find intriguing is the response I've receive, via e-mail, from various members of the Christian community. To my right is an e-mail vilifying the Dali, warning me sand mandalas are thinly veiled disguises for labyrinths, which are thinly veiled disguises for eastern monism, which is a thinly veiled disguise for Satan himself. Ergo: sand art = Satan. To my left are friends praising the Dali Lama's teaching as "precisely the right word for our time." If you want to know what he said in Seattle yesterday, you can find that here.

What do I think of what he said?

1. Anyone who tries to argue with kindness and compassion, or be antagonistic towards someone's call to move beyond a simple loving of our friends to a more mature kind of love, that which reaches out to strangers and even enemies, seems to be sticking their head in a doctrinal bucket of sand. These things are the very stuff to which Christ calls us, the stuff of the kingdom, the stuff of the sermon on the mount. Why do we need to trash talk those who share God's heart for a better world? Isn't this a good starting point for dialog instead?

2. Anyone who equates the Dali Lama's messages with Christianity, making his message and the message of Jesus synonymous, is missing THE single point which distinguishes Christianity from all other world views - namely, the centrality and necessity of Christ. His incarnation, teachings, death on the cross, and resurrection are, in the Christian story, the fulcrum of history. These events open the way for the very things of which the Dali Lama is speaking.

I'll have lots of encounters in my lifetime with people who are passionate about the ethic of Christ, but not passionate about Christ. I think what concerns me about my friends to my right is their insistence that they get "Jesus" right before they'll be acknowledged as anything other than a tool of Satan. I don't think this is how Jesus himself would have approached the matter. But I'm concerned too, with my friends on the left. Jesus was also very clear that His identity and our belief in, and acceptance of that identity, were essential elements because God's vision isn't simply for humanity to embody an ethic. That was tried in the past, has been tried thousands of times in various civilizations, always with the same result: collapse. Instead, God's vision is for people to live in experiential union with their creator, so that the power, wisdom, mercy, kindness and compassion of God would be seen. That doesn't happen through warm speeches alone, though they can be a starting point. Jesus said, "apart from me you can do nothing" which was His way of saying that it takes more than sand and romantic notions, more in fact, than church services and mission programs, more than social action and high ethics - it takes a Person (Jesus) living inside of a person. That union is the core - Jesus' version of the lotus flower, out from which will blossom the reign of God, bringing beauty to our world in big and small ways. It was, in fact, this claim coming from his own mouth, that got Him killed. We don't like people making grand claims about their centrality... even, it seems, if it's true.

What do you think?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Let's talk about this...

A friend just pointed me to this story, about the beating of a high school cheerleader by her peers. Abducted, locked in a house that was guarded by two boys, a young woman was beaten for 35 minutes. She lost consciousness momentarily but when she awoke, her peers continued to pummel her. She's lost sight and hearing on her left side, and it remains to be seen if she will recover fully. After the beating, she was forced into a car, driven elsewhere, and then forced out as the perpetrators sped away.

Read the story, but I'm not sure you should watch the video. It's too much for me. Even more disturbing, the original site on which I viewed this had google ads related to the topic, and the ads were all targeted to teenage girls, about dieting and looking great. What do you think....

1) Myspace and the trash talking that goes on there is doing to people?
2) about the strange juxtaposition of a story about cheerleader jealousy and ads for dieting?
3) about the lack of conscience that would lead the perpetrators to ask whether what they'd done would mean they wouldn't be able to go to the beach for spring break?
4) events like this say about what we value as a culture?
5) what values are most important to build into ministries among high school and college students

When I read this stuff, my heart is sickened, not only by the deeds, but worse, by our collective growing insensitivity to such deeds. We're a nation that's not only desperately sick, but is also blind to our illness. Our collective capacity to deflect blame, as articulated so powerfully in Jack Johnson's song, only makes things worse. God help us...

I welcome your thoughts.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

So weird...

So tonight, here in Colorado where I'm teaching, I tell the story of how Jacob, in Genesis, is terrified of his family with his brother. This, of course, is understandable, because the last time he was with his brother, Esau held himself back from killing Jacob for no other reason than to spare his dying father the grief of Jacob's death. But now, with dad dead, Jacob's worried. Genesis 32 reveals all kinds of strange plans that that Jacob concocts in order to preserve himself.

But, to make a long story short, dear Jacob, alone on the wrong side of the river, wrestles with God, and the result of this is that he's wounded. In his wounded condition though, he strangely finds the courage to face his brother honestly, something that wasn't even on the radar screen until the wound. I personally think that Jacob, with two good legs, always had the "run away" card in his back pocket when he pondered the prospect of encounter his crazed brother.

But now, with the wound, with running away being unavailable as an option, Jacob behaves like a man of courage, and the story (at least that chapter of Jacob's story) has a happy ending. But the courage came from Jacob coming to the end of it, and there, at end of strength and plans, he finds the courage to do the right thing.

I've been struggling with a sticky back this past week, in rebellion because of stress, because of too much sitting, because of...who knows? But I've been hobbling around, all the time thinking that yoga (corpse pose? are you kidding me... who named that) and other strange 'restorative' poses would make me feel better. Instead: disaster! Muscle spasms, painful wakings in the night when I try to turn over, and other disasters, all clear signs that rest, massage, and behaving like a corpse was, strangely enough, killing me.

Well today, when looking at the corpse on youtube, I discovered 'crossfit' in the related videos section. I read their magazine, and their theory, and decided: "I've nothing to lose." So I painfully sat up off the chair. Starting carefully, I did 100 jumping jacks, and the 25 burpees, and then 25 squats, and then I jumped up and down the stairs 25 times, and then I did 10 push ups and waited to die. Instead, I found some other crossfit exercise, whose name I can't remember, and did it. I heard this sound from deep in my spine, felt this rearrangement, and when I got up off the floor, I was pain free! Fatigued a bit, and terribly out of breath, since I am staying at 9000' this week, but my back felt better than any massage, rest, or corpse pose had been able to achieve.

Remarkable. Everything says, 'rest' and yet when I got up and did something, it was the doing that was just what I needed. But I wasn't open to anything new until all the usual suspects (yoga, sleep, aspirin, ice, massage) had failed me. Only at the end of it, are we open to the answer that we really need. It's true throughout life... when I'm at the end of my strength, I'm open to Christ's. When I'm at the end of my options, I'm open to prayer. When I'm at the end of my resources, I'm open to help and fellowship from others. When I'm at the end of my human wisdom, I'm ready to listen to what God has to say. In reality... I'm already at the end - across the whole board. That's the point Jesus was trying to make when he said, "Apart from me you can't do anything" - the best you can give me is corpse pose bro'." Well, the sooner I realize that, the sooner I'm open to a better solution. Ironic that all this spiritual learning is coming from a secular exercise community called "crossfit". But hey, they probably won't do your back any harm either!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

On being a "Mourning Person"

Maybe you've seen those slick motivational posters that dot the landscape of corporate America. Pictures of climbers, runners, hang gliders, each with a single word in 60 point font, with a small typeface offering a definition right below it. The intention, of course, is for people who are walking from the fax machine to the water fountain to see this and be inspired towards creativity, or excellence, or productivity, or teamwork, with the end that everybody wins, especially the company.

It's all well and good, but recently I've been pondering why we haven't yet seen a product line mirroring the concept, but embodying the wisdom of Jesus as articulated in the sermon on the mount. The large words would be: Poverty - Hunger - Mourning - Persecution - Meekness. Under each one would be a specific promise of blessing. Of course, this will never happen because the wisdom of God isn't wisdom in this world; it's foolishness. It's not only foolish because these are things to be avoided in the general course of one's life. It's foolish because God's wisdom is so untidy, so defiant of systemization, so resistant to being reduced to a poster.

Of course, God invites us to make the pursuit of wisdom a chief aim in our life, because sound wisdom will no doubt become the fertile soil out from which a fruitful and well lived life is born. But God is also clear, in many places throughout the Bible regarding two things:

1. There's more than one kind of wisdom. There's the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. The wisdom of this world comes in numerous posters, numerous pursuits, ranging from disengaged cynicism, to an unabashed lust for power and privilege, and everything in between. But whatever the color, the consistent story running throughout the Bible is that this human wisdom is sinking sand, is unable to satisfy, is vapor, emptiness, not profitable.

2. The other kind of wisdom available to us is God's wisdom. But there are problems with God's wisdom. Because it flows out of a dynamic and ongoing relationship with creator of the world it can't be reduced to posters, or even nice little systems. There's a time for everything, we're told, and it's the wise person who knows what time it is: love or hate? peace or war? laughter or tears?

The other crazy thing about God's wisdom is that it leads to a robust life, but by no means are we promised that it will lead to comfortable, or even a long life. In fact, God is quite clear in declaring that wise living has every chance of leading to some pain and mourning. This is because the wisdom of God leads us to confession (which is painful) and solidarity with the suffering of this world (which is painful) and a humble acknowledgment that in certain circumstances, there's nothing we can so or do to help another person choose wisely (and this is painful too). Further, wisdom will ask of us obedience, and sacrifice, which will clearly push us out of our comfort zones and might cost us our lives.

But the history of the church, from the apostles, down through the Celtic saints, to St. Francis, the radical reformers, right up to Desmund Tutu and the present day, testifies that a life lived wisely is a life lived fully. Joy, hope, courage, sacrifice, purpose - these are our inheritance when we step into the story God is writing.

All of this, though, requires the red-pill, requires facing reality courageously and responding by walking further into the light. But sometimes that initial dose of truth can be a bit shocking, so different than the motivational posters and preaching with which we've become familiar. That's the danger in preaching through Ecclesiastes. It's like going on a de-tox diet. There'll be pain before healing, mourning before comfort. It's the way of so much in life... including God's wisdom.