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, May 28, 2008

Truth... please

I was doing some reading last night along the themes of environmentalism when I came across this piece, written by a Christian, about the number 350. That's the parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere that the scientific community has general consensus on as most hospitable to climate stability. We're presently at 387 and rising, and according to the article we're rising faster now than ever before.

The article links with a fundamentalist response to environmentalism which calls into question the basic facts of science, building the case that to reduce carbon output would exacerbate poverty issues in developing countries. The only way such a case can be made is by alternatively calling upon, and dismissing science, depending on whether particular findings fit their desired conclusions. This is bad science, bad theology, bad living.

And it's everywhere. This morning's Seattle Times offers two book reviews that highlight the degree to which our culture is saturated with misinformation. First, Scott McClellan, former press Secretary for President Bush, spells out the deception, half-truths, and misinformation that was delivered to America leading up to the Iraq war. Then, in the sports section, Steve Kelly's article reviews a book about the death of Pat Tilman, and NFL star who left footbal to fight against the Taliban. His death, the result of 'friendly fire' from his own unit, was misrepresented to Pat's family, portrayed as a hero's blazing exit in the midst of intense combat with the enemy. This lie heaped even more grief and loss on a situation already mired in grief and loss.

I'm just wondering this hard is it to tell the truth? Jesus says that it's the truth that sets people free, and it seems that the high road, the way of integrity, is the way of seeking to know what is true, what is right, what is real, and pursuing it with vigor.

Of course, truth exposes. The word truth, by itself, sounds appealing. But truth never stands by itself. There's always a dose of something else, or several somethings, that must be swallowed with truth: confession, shame, humility, courage, confrontation, forgiveness, and pain. But these elements, like good medicine, lead us into spacious places where progress, transformation, liberation, healing, reconciliation, release, celebration, and justice can occur.

And yet, we lie instead. Why is this? Do we really prefer the blue pill? Would we rather simply not know, and continue living in fabricated realities, sitting in front of the TV, oogling over who the next American Idol will be? What about speaking the truth? Are we willing to have the hard conversation...with child, spouse, friend? What makes 'the hard conversation' something to be avoided?

I hope that we who follow Christ can be, before we're anything else, people willing to walk into whatever territory truth takes us. This will no doubt mean sitting at times with people and confessing, confronting, reconciling, forgiving, and hammering things out until, together, we move a step closer - in our marriages, friendships, and churches, to making the invisible God visible.

I'd like the truth please...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bread and Wine...virtually?

Having recently joined 'spacebook' or 'myface' (I can't remember which one), I've been intrigued by the level of virtual relationships traveling through the bandwidths of e-space, as we poke each other, write on each other's walls, and declare lots of things about ourselves, from 'status' to tastes in film and wine, to where we're going this weekend. Throw in text-messaging, and I begin to realize that I need never leave home - relationships can be virtually sustained in the warmth and safety of my attic.

I'll not moralize on the the merits of virtual relationships because there are surely good things to be gained by our staying in touch, just as these tools have already demonstrated their potential for abuse. However, I do ponder the effects this virtual world is having on our relationships in the real world. The easy access to people who are remote from us can surely lead to a dampening of our enthusiasm for being present with the real people who are right there in the room. I've watched students at a school where I teach leave the classroom during a break between lectures and pour outside, cell phones in hand, to either IM or call people who, however special they may be, aren't there, in that room, in the flesh.

Has the time invested in staying connected electronically infringed on our capacity to invest in real people who are in physical proximity to us, people like our neighbors and co-workers? If so, I'd suggest that we need to re-calibrate our time investment so that we're able to be present 'in the flesh' with these important people because, as Henri Nouwen once said, our primary calling is to be 'bread and wine' to the people in our lives, our friends, neighbors, family, even our enemies. This means actually talking to our neighbors face to face, taking them cookies once in a while, knowing their vacation plans and stopping to chat long enough at six AM when one is out running to discover that one of them is going to run the Boston Marathon next year. These tiny conversations, these movements in the real world, are important in and of themselves, and important because they provide the relational basis to bless and serve in times of need.

Yes, Nouwen was right. Bread and Wine we must be. But these things, powerful as they are as elements of redemption, lose their potency when reduced to pixels on a screen.

What do you think the effects of the virtual world have been on real relationships?

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Moving" Production

I didn't bring a tissue to Taproot Theater's current play when attending last night, thinking that "comedy" meant escape from thought about meaningful issues. And while I laughed more than I do when watching The Office, the play took me into deep and vulnerable places in my heart, bringing me to tears several times.

The themes of aging parents, generational differences, and mobility are all front and center in my life right now. I just bought a ticket home to be with my mom for some days in June. She's 88 and very much alone. I left home, and by that I mean I moved 1000 miles away to Seattle, when mom was 56. She had a big network of support back then, and good health, and a daughter within a two hour drive. But the subsequent 32 years have changed things for her, and I'm living a long way away, pondering the interplay of family love, family responsibility, geography, professional opportunity, and escapism, that motivate us to stay close to family, or move far away.

Because this is the theme of the play, it was as if I was watching big chunks of my life played out in front of me on the stage - not precisely, but close enough that many times, when the elder's in the play spoke I found myself thinking, "that's my mom", or "that's my uncle", people for whom family ties, rather than professional opportunity, are the unshakable foundation and starting point for building a meaningful life.

One of the most significant moments in the play came at the end, when one of characters said something like this, speaking of what Tom Brokaw would call, "The Greatest Generation":

"They worked hard and sacrificed so that we could get good educations, and live better lives than them. But it was often that very education they gave us that opened our eyes to a larger world, gave is a different vision for living, and so distanced us from their values." I'm paraphrasing, but that's the essence of the line, and the essence of so many of our lives. Ambitious to make our mark on the world and weary of what we then perceived to be tiny, provincial concerns, we jetted away - Europe, private college in distant parts, India, Central America, Canada - globe trotting cosmopolitans, enlightened, urbane.

Now, as we grow older, we come to realize, whether we left it all behind because of calling or escape, or maybe a little bit of both, that we left something rich, something that we were perhaps too quick to judge. Some of us, if we could do it over, would still leave. But we wouldn't do so with the arrogance and insensitivity that we once had, because some of us have learned that the life we left behind wasn't worse, smaller, less - just different. And now, as gray begins to mark our own hairs, we've learned to love and celebrate the lives of those who went before us and lived so well, realizing that each generation shapes the world, and that we'd do well to learn from one another and actively bless one another.

If you're in the Seattle area, make a point of seeing this play. Enjoyable for all generations, it's filled with laughs, well crafted, and thought provoking material for these days of hyper-mobility and materialism. But bring a tissue, at least if you live far from home.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Getting along with my body....

As our staff is presently working through the book of Acts, I'm struck once again by the tremendous flexibility of the gospel and the church. It's supple enough to move out from Jerusalem and its original confines within Judaism to embrace Gentiles, morphing ethically on issues such as eating unclean meat, circumcision, and eating meat sacrificed to idols. In other, for the Gentiles, the gospel was able to become Gentile, loosed from the legal codes of Judaism.

Paul had a remarkable capacity to flex with the gospel, moving freely between predominantly Jewish and predominantly Gentile communities, effectively communicating with both because he'd learned to contextual the message.

"Contextualization" though, is two-edged sword. On the one hand, it's marvelous that the gospel is accommodating, allowing for all kinds of cultural expressions. As one reads through the history of the church, however, one finds that the gospel's flexibility means that the status quo of the church's 'leaders' is continually being challenged. When the leaders are challenged to change, or move on their position regarding something (for example, the issue of circumcision, or the issue of women in ministry, or the issue of what style of music constitutes worship, or sexual ethics, or financial ethics, or whether a church member who smokes and has several tatoos can serve on the church board), their response, whether willing or unwilling to embrace the change, will probably be met with some measure of resistance.

When the gatekeepers flow with the voices calling for change, allowing the new ways to take root, some will accuse them of abandoning the one true faith. On the other hand if they resist change, they'll be labeled as stiff necked, proud, self-righteous, legalistic, or some other similarly pejorative title. And the thing is, both the change averse, and the change addicted, have verses to accuse their opposer.

To change or not to change, that is the question. Well, not really. The real question is - will some particular change enable Christ to be seen more clearly in this particular cultural context or not? If I make an absence of tatoos, for example, a criteria for a person's capacity to be a channel of Christ's life, I place a burden on people that God doesn't place on them. Sure, you can find some obscure Levitical text that's allegedly about tatoos, but big deal. Unless you're going to insist on applying the whole Levitical law today (and if you are, get ready to kill your children the next time they talk back to you), your insistence on clear skin is based on your cultural comfort zone more than it's drawn from the Bible.

On the other hand, when a church begins to affirm promiscuity as a lifestyle, it's pretty easy to turn to Jesus' teachings about marriage, one flesh, and the avoidance of fornication, and realize that promiscuity, casual hook-ups, and one night stands have no place among God's people.

But those are the easy ones. What about those instances where good people can make a case for either side of an issue, and do so from the Bible? Well, that's where we need grace, continued dialog, ongoing prayer, and a commitment to the unity of the body. After all, we're trying to make the invisible God visible in our families and churches, and doing this requires, before, after, and in the midst of all else, demonstrable love for one another. Sometimes the arguments about who's right and who's wrong become so loud that all our friends outside the church see when they look at at us is a body at war with itself, which is one of the reasons this book cites for the large departure of 19-35 year olds from the church. While there's much I don't know about what it means to be the church, of this I'm sure: a body at war with itself can never be anything but a gross misrepresentation of Jesus.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bike to work day? Maybe more...

The Long Emergency is a book about the end of cheap oil. It was published way back in 2005 when gas was cheap; you know - like, $55 a barrel. It's fascinating to read the Rolling Stone review of the book, an article that's now about 3 years old, because the opening paragraphs of the review chasten America for being in hard-core denial about the slow, yet inevitable drying up of this resource. In the subsequent three years, our thrist for oil has only increased as a nation. Throw in the rest of the world, and the increase has become exponential. People in the know are now talking about $200 a barrel.

What does this mean? It's important for us to realize that oil is used for more than just fuel for cars. Food, technology, medicine, military, education... name an industry that doesn't have utter dependence on cheap oil built into its infrastructure. Even 'alternative energy' elements such as wind, solar, or nuclear power, are all dependent on oil for the their manufacture and production. The statistics presently rolling in all point in the same direction - we've passed the peak production of oil, so that major indicators foresee a diminishing supply, year on year, for the foreseeable future.

Demand, on the other hand, continues to rise. Some of this is because India and China have grown wealthy through industrialization. Some of this, though, is because our heads are stuck, deeply stuck, in the proverbial sand (or perhaps oil tar). We're talking about building bigger bridges across Lake Washington here in Seattle. And Los Angeles? Well, don't even get me started. We're boasting about cars that get 30 miles to the gallon. We're thinking about the future as if agriculture, transportation and everything else will require, at best, 'a little bit of conservation', as if "Bike to Work Day" will addres the issue. It reminds me a bit of the church's tendency to forget about the 2nd coming of Christ, operating forever on the principle that tomorrow will be the same as today.

We need to, at the very least, consider the possibility that the oil keg, the beverage of choice at the industrialized world's party, is over half empty, and draining quickly. If this view is even a possibility, then we need to think about what it might mean for our world, because Jeremiah 29 invites God's people to work for the blessing of the world in which they live. What attitudes should we nurture in a world running out of cheap energy?

Here are some thoughts:

1. We should pre-emptively abandon our addiction to individualism and mobility, two things which we who live in the west claim as nearly divine rights. A commitment to the common good should infect the way we make transportation decisions. It seems that such a commitment should be led by Christians, but our addictions to personal freedom and mobility are just as great as surrounding culture. Maybe we need to change things up a bit.

2. We should learn to conserve, becoming educated about the energy that goes into our food production and transport, so that we can make more informed choices,buying locally more often for the good of all.

3. We should discover ways to find joys in simpler things, because it's conceivable that someday soon, simpler things such as good conversation by candlelight, laughter, friendship, walks, campfires, and enjoying creation, may be the only options available anyway.

So yes... ride your bike to work on May 16th. But maybe think about how you'll live differently on Monday as well.

Peace and Grace...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

This Old World...

There are certainly seasons in my life when I am so in love with all that beauty of this world that my heart aches with the thought that I'd ever need to leave. Such moments unfold in the midst of good honest conversations by candlelight, or when topping out a hard climb, or sitting in the backyard during a quiet sunrise with the birds singing their own doxology, or when doubled over with laughter while with friends or family.

But it's also true that there are days when I know exactly what Paul means when he says, "to be with Christ is better". Today is one of those days, as wave upon wave of suffering and loss of have pummeled my soul in the past few days. The cyclone hit, leaving untold thousands dead, and multiples of that number displaced in a nation whose leaders couldn't possibly care less about their own people and are hoarding relief supplies while the suffering and disease grow by the hour. Then there was an earthquake in China. In the midst of this I heard from friends, a young married couple. The husband received more bad news about a blood disease, and things look even more challenging. Another good friend died of brain cancer, and I just returned from the doing the funeral.

My God. I'm tired of the intrusion of disease and death, of suffering and loss, of doubt and betrayal, of violence and darkness. Maranatha means "Come quickly Lord Jesus!" and the invitation is a real one. How I long for the day when all this will be behind us, and only that which has its origin in Christ will remain. That's something worth waiting for; living for; dying for. The funeral from which I just returned was that of man who lived in such a way that this hope oozed out of his very being, contagiously, like a good virus. God, make me that kind of person - fill me with that kind of hope. And as long as I'm asking for things, "maranatha..."

Friday, May 09, 2008

Spiritual Consumerism... nothing new

Maybe you already know the story of Rehoboam, Solomon's son, and Jeroboam, Rehoboam's adversary. The whole story, found in I Kings 12, has to do with who will be heir to the throne. The bottom line is that Rehoboam is given the southern kingdom, and Jeroboam the north, thus beginning the era of a divided Israel. This is arguably the birth of denominationalism, competition among God's people for territory, and the era of the personality cult.

Though J has the bulk of the land, R has the temple, and since worship in the temple is mandated, J is worried that all the people of his territory will inevitably switch loyalties as they travel south to worship in Jerusalem. So Jeroboam has a novel idead: He..."made two golden calves and he said to (his people): 'it is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.' He set these idols up in the northern country, thus creating the first move towards consumerizing worship. "Make it convenient and they will come."

Don't we do the same thing today? "Make it entertaining, relevant, kid-friendly, reinforcing of our already adhered to politics/theology, technologically savvy with the best web-presence... and they will come." We try to capture the 'market share' by being better, in the same way that Starbucks tries to beat Diva and Ladro. Thus do the hottest musicians, hippest preachers, and most user friendly worship formats gain market share while thus stuck in old ways shrivel and die.

There's so much to say about this that if I go into too much depth, I'll miss my snowshoeing window (it is, after all, Friday). But let me make some simple observations and then invite comment:

1. Jeroboam was truly motivated by a fear of losing market share. Any action taken that grows out from that fear, that motive, is destined to create weak saints and divide the church.

2. Fear of losing market share can also become an agressive attempt to 'take' market share, as invariably occurs in the subsequent territorial skirmishes between northern and southern kingdom. In the church business this is called, 'church splits' and 'sheep stealing'. It doesn't get any uglier.

3. On the other hand, the crux of the problem for Jeroboam seems to me to be his heart and motivation. I'm wondering, if the church I pastor were to start a satellite in order to help some people from our congregation become more missional in their own neighborhoods, and save the resources consumed by the commute, would we be consumerist or good stewards?

4. And what about our commitment to technology, or our desire to provide clean space for kids, or convenient worship times in a warm inviting space? Again, it seems that the issue is motivation. I can be motivated to build a name for myself, or motivated by a desire for people to encounter the living Christ through the testimony of His people and the power of His Word. It's possible, in fact, to be motivated by a little bit of both.

5. But surely, the goal must be that we have relinquished our addiction to praise, power, position, pay, and any other destructive p's you'd care to add to the list. I'm reminded of the scene where Ben Kenobee (sp?) of Star Wars fames, stops fighting.

When we who are the church, and we who are it's leaders stop fighting? I don't just mean that we need to stop fighting each other. I mean that we need to stop fighting for our self-preservation, believing that 'he who seeks to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake, will find it." This, it seems to me, is MISSION CRITICAL ("all caps" = me speaking loudly). And yet it eludes us, primarily because we have allowed ourselves to be uncritically captured by the consumerist mindset.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

No Country for an Oscar...

After sitting through the Coen brother's big hit, I sat and stared for a moment at the empty screen before turning off the TV. I wanted to write a letter to the Academy saying, "You don't have to do this...", the now famous line from this Best Picture winner.

I'm looking for a shred of redemption, and found instead, nothing but greed, psychopathic and random violence, and a sense of despair and surrender on the part of the older generation of law enforcement, as they ponder the new wave of drug money and all the corollary crimes that go with it.

Acting? The script didn't ask for much of it. Music? None. Story? Forgive my bias, but it was neither hard to predict nor compelling. And so I'm left pondering the great appeal, left feeling as if some elitist cadre of experts sees something I failed to see. But if I were guessing....

I surmise that the reason for this film's appeal is precisely its lack of redemption, its random violence, its absence of justice. This is where post-modernity, in its purest forms, descends. Further, according the perceptions of many, the weight of history is pulling us inexorably downward into this pit of despair.

But for one who believes that God's law is written on the hearts of all people, and that there will forever be the possibility of redemption, reconciliation, and recovery, this film leaves me feeling hollow. Throw in the mediocre acting, predictable cinematography, and I return to my comment to the academy: "You don't have to do this..." So can you please help me understand why they did?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

born again, and again, and again, and...

No, this isn't a posting about eternal security, or camp conversions that are renewed every summer in the embers of the Thursday night fire, accompanied by singing. This is a response to the conversation in the previous post, "dude, where's my stuff?" I'm intrigued by how much chatter is created around ethical topics, and how little is created around topics related to heart care (see previous post on Bible reading).

I'm increasingly convinced that we modern Christ followers have a hard time seeing either the relationship or sequencing of interior and exterior matters related to transformation. Let me explain what I mean:

Relationship of interior and exterior: Sometimes it appears that there's a giant wall between sacred and secular, between spiritual disciplines and ethics, between heart formation and the way we live, between root and blossom. Some of us are intent on living out the faith and helping (or in our uglier moments, mandating) others in their ethical choices and priorities. Thus do we talk about materialism, earth stewardship, caring for the poor, justice issues, and sexual ethics. Others have priorities that are more centered on developing a rich interior life through the nurture of silence, solitude, prayer. But too often, these interior and exterior elements are seen as unrelated, and so it becomes possible to have a 'rich devotional life' but remain outwardly unchanged. Or the reverse can be true: deep commitment to ethics, while the soul grows barren.

It's vital that we see the symbiotic relationship of these two matters, because the truth is that each needs to the other if there's to be life. Devotional life, Bible reading, silence, and all the rest of our interior matters become nothing more than self indulgence if they don't lead to a change in the way we actually live. And any attempts to change the exterior without the needed interior fortification will result in glaring, gaping holes in our lives.

As a pastor committed to soul care, both for myself and others, I'm looking for an ecology of the heart that sees the interior and exterior as an ecosystem; symbiotic, interdependent. Like any ecosystem, life is unsustainable unless the parts are feeding each other to create the whole.

How about you? Are you more likely to focus on ethics, or soul care? Exterior or Interior? I'm trying to name my own tendencies so that, this spring, I can bring things back into balance, after a very busy winter. Hopefully the balance will lead to nutritious soil, the planting of the word, and the blossoming and bearing of fruit in my home, neighborhood, church, and beyond.