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...

Friday, June 27, 2008

A book I hope you'll like...

Well, it's finally happened. The book I wrote last summer, edited last fall, and signed off on in the winter, is IN STOCK at, and available in downloadable form very soon from "Conversant Life" a web community to which I belong as a contributor.

I must say that the writing was great fun, and the message I'm sharing through the book is deeply important. It's about things I speak of often at my church in Seattle; spiritual disciplines, kindgom living, creation theology, all rolled into the vast subject of creating a "Rule of Life", a more a less consistent set of practices that one seeks to build into life for the purpose of living more fully, and making Christ more profoundly visible.

I feel a little awkward with on the marketing side of things, but because I believe that the things I've written about in the book are so important, I'd be grateful if, after reading it, you might be willing to share a review on Amazon.

This summer, I'm starting work on another book, and again, am loving the writing piece. I hope you will find enjoyment in the reading piece.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Crossing Over

This is a posting about the need for the church (that’s me – and many of you) to catch God’s vision for us: We’re called to be reconcilers, peacemakers, celebrators, justice seekers, and being about these things means learning crossing over to the proverbial ‘other side of the tracks’ by entering into relationships with those who are different than us.

We need to begin though, not with the scriptures posted above, but with a consideration of the progressive nature of salvation, because in spite of the fact that most of us reading this blog already know the above scriptures, having read and heard them many times, the fact remains that the church in America is often terribly weak at testifying, (by virtue of it’s non-diverse character in particular local churches), of God’s power to break down dividing walls that separate people. “The most segregated hour in America” as we’ve often been told, is the worship hour on Sundays. So, saved though we may be, God's vision for us in not yet fulfilled. We need to learn how to cross over the barriers that divide us and create reconciled relationships. How do we do this?

Go back with me to God’s challenge, cast to His people on several occasions, to ‘cross over’ some barrier, entering into previously unknown space. There’s the occasion when Israel was standing in front of the Red Sea, awaiting certain death at the hands of an angry Egyptian army. God miraculously opens the Red Sea and says, “Cross Over!” That they did this is, indeed, an act of faith, but let’s be honest; it’s not an impressive one. What, after all, were their other options? Playing it safe and staying on the west side of tracks would have resulted in certain slaughter.

Fast forward two years. Now Israel is once again invited to “Cross Over”, this time the Jordan river being the body of water before them. The trouble, though, is that this time, the enemies aren’t behind them, but in front of them, on the far side of the very body of water God wants them to cross. I might also point out that this time, the body of water won’t open up for them until they step into it. Previously, at the Red Sea, the whole thing was wide open before they took a step.

So let’s see; Crossing One – enemies behind you, safety ahead. Crossing Two – enemies in front of you, safety in status quo. Are you surprised that Israel opted out of option two? I’m not. We don’t easily choose the unfamiliar or threatening, even if it’s the choice God wants us to make. Crossing Two, though, comes later. You came to Christ because it was the best, maybe even the only option, in a life that knew it’s need for a savior. It was good, true, hopeful.
But if it is to remain so, it will be important to keep crossing over, at each point where God creates new challenges. Sadly, the testimony of Israel in the book of Numbers is that they refused subsequent crossings, and so lost the chance to fulfill their calling.

What does all this have to do with church life in America today, and my church in particular? I have this strong sense that God is calling us to cross over the seas of education, wealth/poverty, and race that divide us. I also have a sense that these kinds of crossings are far more difficult to accomplish than, say, building a new facility, or accepting Jesus as my personal savior. This crossing will push me out of my comfort zone and into new relationships, changing my world forever.

As I’ll share on Sunday, an extensive study, found here, indicates that churches know they’re to be about addressing issues of division, racism, and social divides, working towards reconciliation. But it also indicates that we generally choose institutional, rather than relational solutions, hoping that a committee can be set up, a policy enacted, a subset of people within the community empowered, and that will take care of it. But that’s probably not the final solution. The final solution will involve a change of heart for every one of us in the church, so that we become engaged in real relationships with people different than us. This is challenging for many reasons:

1. our lives are full enough already
2. many of us find comfort in people who are just like us…it’s human nature
3. we’re sometimes afraid of what we don’t know or understand
4. there are generalizations that have caused us to pre-judge people different than us.
5. we don’t want to go there

In fact, going there is so rare that when someone actually does go there and becomes a spokesperson for leading others in the crossing, they’re clearly viewed as pioneers, just like Joshua and Caleb, the two men, out of about a million, who were willing to cross over. You can name them right? St. Francis (who we’ll see and consider this Sunday), Mother Teresa, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, Bono, Martin Luther King Jr. They all crossed over during their lives, from a small circle of relationships with those like them, to an expanded circle that gave testimony to the power of reconciliation. Some were praised for their actions; others lost their lives in pursuit of God's dream. That they shine so clearly as contra-mundum to status quo Christianity indicates the rarity with which we are crossing over.

Crossing Over requires several things:

1. an acknowledgement that I can do better (this is called repentance and will require humility)
2. a collective confession for our collective failure to cross over into one another’s lives
3. an openness to moving outside of our comfort zone as God leads us (and He will!)

Are you willing to walk this road? Am I? What we do to help each other, so that the church becomes the embodiment of hope, a picture of the beauty of justice and reconciliation.

Please share your thoughts… forward this to others so that they can share their thoughts as well. Our collective dialogue and prayer will be an important step in crossing over.
Thanks in advance, for your responses.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fixing Lars

"Lars and the Real Girl" is a great movie. Dysfunctional guy buys sex-doll and relates to her as if she's real, but over time finds himself longing for something more alive than latex can provide; it might not sound very compelling, but it somehow is. Casting, acting, script, and direction all combine to create a film so well executed that I was completely drawn in.

"Lars", though, isn't really about Lars very much at all, and certainly not about latex lady. The main theme seems to be centered around the question, "How do we support, help, and empower those with mental illness to move towards healing?" That, of course, is a big question, answered by both the "Lars" film, and another recent film ("Reign Over Me"), in the same way: friendship and acceptance.

In both movies the theme seems to be that healing will happen, in its time, if the right conditions are provided for such. The right conditions, we learn, are: support, unconditional acceptance, love, and relationship. It was beautiful to see the community gather around "Lars" and play along, welcoming the doll into their small town as a genuine member of their community. Indeed, scene after scene illustrated the healing capacities a community can have when, together, they love those in their midst who are in need.

It's all very good and touching. But as much as I loved the movie, when it was over I found myself saying, "Really? Does it really work to simply play along with people's delusions until they come to sense reality? Is that really how this is supposed to play out? Are we supposed to let those who are stuck in fantasy world's remain stuck until, on their own, they see the destructive nature of it?"

I think of Nathan the prophet confronting David with his sin of adultery and subsequent cover up. Far from sharing a few beers and pretending that all is well, Nathan points his bony finger at David and accuses him. Paul does the same thing with Peter. Jesus does the same thing with his disciples...more than once.

No, I don't think that the road to healing always includes jabbing a finger into someone's chest and poking hard until they see the truth. But I don't think it always includes playing along with fantasies either. My problem resides in knowing when 'accept' and 'play along' and when to confront; when to speak and when to be silent. Surely love demands both responses, depending on the circumstance, but knowing which response is appropriate requires more than love; it requires wisdom.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Fib Faith - Journal Entry

I'm continuing to wrestle with what appears to me to be a big polarization centered around the answer to the question: "What is the gospel?" Speaking broadly, it appears to me that the emergent and postmodernist views align with notions of social transformation, and vastly downplay the personal need for spiritual renewal and salvation from sins power and penalty. The modernist approaches are answering the question more like Billy Graham (and, I might add, the apostle Paul in Acts): "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved", with the notion inherent in that declaration that humanity is cut off from God and in need of a reconciled relationship with God more than anything else.

Feeling refreshed, and glad to be back in the city, I'm increasingly convinced of the need for an integrated view of both salvation and eschatology that integrates these two seemingly disparate views. We need what I'm going to call a Fibonacci faith. Perhaps you've heard of the Fibonacci numbers? They're everywhere in nature (as seen in the picture above). I love the spiral nature of it all, beginning in the interior and working it's way outward. Thus should salvation do the same thing... begin with a transformation of the inner person, and work its way out so that we, having become recipients of blessings, are empowered to give, serve and bless the world.

I think this book proposal I'm working on will have this as a major tenet. Furthere, I'm very much looking forward to seeing how this works for us at the church. Wow... when I read the previous entry I posted I realize that I'm already feeling refreshed, and looking forward to doing many things. REST IS VALUABLE!!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Study Leave and the Need to be Steady

The leadership of the church where I've been a pastor for the past 13+ years has graciously granted me a study leave this summer, which means that, while I'll continue to preach on Sundays this summer, most weeks I'll be relieved of administrative and pastoral responsibilities, free to focus on study, prayer, long range planning, vision casting for the future of our church, and the development of one or two book proposals. I'm trying to keep a journal throughout this time, and will occasionally be posting an entry from my journal. Today I offer my entry from yesterday's journal, and as always, I welcome your comments.

June 17 – Tuesday

Spent most of the morning finishing up the reading of Narcissus and Goldmund. The book (about two men whose different paths embody the fruits of choosing either duty or indulgence), which I’ve now read twice, became more powerful to me this time for two reasons. First, I’m vitally aware of my own struggle between the flesh and the spirit, between the mind and the body, between the constraints of righteous living, and the excitement inherent in indulgence and autonomy. The pull of the latter is sometimes powerful for me (don't be surprised - the flesh and the spirit battle is real for everyone, as seen in Galatians 5), and has been all the more powerful in recent months, perhaps because I find myself increasingly drawn into what at times feels like a highly structured and institutionalized lifestyle, a lifestyle I’ve actively resisted most of my life. I often want to break free, not from my marriage and family (see monday's post), but from all my urban life and obligations, and move to this cabin where I sit right now, and simply write, teach, ski, do search and rescue, raise a few goats and chickens, know my neighbors, and somehow embody the kingdom of God in the midst of it – all the while imbibing life, enjoying taste, beauty, sound, sexuality, wood, flowers, birds, and the physicality of living in the mountains in contact with the earth. And yet, at the same time, I know that I’m called to live right where I am – in urban Seattle, serving, loving, teaching, living, celebrating, and working for the good of that city. And I want that too. It’s tension that I need to live with, and sense I've been granted the privilege of a little bit of both, perhaps I need to just relax and enjoy fully, wherever I am.

The second reason for intrigue with this book comes from reading about Hesse. Born in 1877 on the edge of the Black Forest, he was brought up in a missionary household, but had a religious crisis in 1892 which led to his fleeing from seminary! So much of his writing seems to embody his struggle with the faith, not in an outright rejecting fashion, but in a way that reveals his ambivalence, as he ponders whether integration of the two sides is possible, a pondering which is often mine as well. It seems to me that the tension between obligation and indulgence, between stability and wandering, feels like a choice between life and death. Still, I can’t escape the deep belief and hope that it’s possible to know both, but to know both within the measure and confines revealed by Jesus. His ways will challenge those who love stability to push out their borders and expand their boundaries. Those of us who love adventure and newness will be challenged, without giving up our love, to learn stability and responsibility. All of this is part of what it means to become a disciple.

I found similar ponderings in Nouwen’s book, “Sabbatical Journey” where he writes about seeing the opera “Carmen”:
“Carmen was sung by Denyce Graves. Her portrayal of the sensual, seductive, self-confident, fatalistic gypsy woman opened up in me the real tension between faith and fate, the obedient life and the ‘wild’ life, agape and eros, and Christianity and paganism.

In Carmen, Jose, the Spanish soldier in Seville who has to obey his military superiors and cannot let ‘love’ distract him, stands for many of us dutiful men and women who feel that life kills our vitality. Carmen’s irresistible energy enlarges Jose’s life but finally, destroying them both, represents us as people who want to break away from the constraints of normalcy but hesitate to pay the price.

Can the tension be resolved in an integrated life? Can the ‘wild person’ in us be tamed without the cost of losing our vitality and creativity? Many forms of meditation, Buddhist as well as Christian, strive for this integration. I do no believe that we have to repress our erotic energies in order to live ordered lives. Nor do I believe that we have to give up order and discipline in order to get in touch with the wild energies of existence. But it certainly requires concentrated effort to find our own unique ways to become whole people. The literature and art of the west show that few people have accomplished this wholeness.”

Lord, I long to live increasingly as a whole person, glorifying you through my body, soul, and spirit. Such living, I know, takes wisdom and revelation, openness to learning and humility, courage and discipline. I ask for these, that I might follow you more fully, to the end that you might be seen more clearly.

Monday, June 16, 2008

We really cannot stay...

There's a wonderful song by the band Iona about the fleeting nature of life. It rises with marvelous instrumentation, and the haunting voice ponders the sky, the shafts of light wafting through the fir, the staggering beauty and love that is all around us. Then she reminds us, more than once that, 'we really cannot stay.'

Truly. But we can at least drink it in better than we do. We can at least learn to be present with creation, with one another, with ourselves, with our creator. We can at least learn to let ourselves feel, and learn, and love deeply, and confess. We can do these things, and if we're to really live, we must.

The picture I've posted was one I took Friday night at my youngest daughter's graduation. The picture says so much to me because there she is, triumphant, celebratory, victorious. But there are her older brother and sister too, sharing the victory, even as they shared in the sacrifice, even as we did as parents. I looked at the picture when I arrived home after the graduation and realized that this is the way it is, nearly all the time: someone is being girded up by others. It's the way families work when they work best. It's certainly the way parenting and marriage work. It can be the way communities work too, if we'll allow the call to serve and bless to sink deeply into our souls and begin to do it - right now, right here, right away.

I love the picture for another reason too: these are my children. I tossed leaves at them, threw them in air, taught them how to climb rocks and rappel off of them, taught them to love music, traveled with them to Colorado, and Canada, and California, and Austria, and Hungary, on various adventures, prayed with them, read with them, cried with them, argued with them - played my part in their formation. And now this: the three of them together in joy. It was a culminating moment.

But we really cannot stay can we? No, we must go on - each of them to find their voice, their calling, their adventure, while my wife and I find ours. We cannot stay. But we CAN be there, in the moment, drinking it in deeply, and giving thanks to God for all the gifts of life, love, and companionship captured in that one poignant moment. Being there, and living it, is enough.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Learning to memorium

If you were to ever look at my profile on facebook, you'd see that I have only three TV shows that I watch: The Simpsons, The Office, and Meet the Press. For the past 10 years, I'd developed a typical Sunday morning routine which consisted of waking up, brewing a French Press carafe of good coffee, and watching "Meet the Press" at the early hour of 6AM. But yesterday Tim Russert, the show's moderator, died of a sudden coronary failure at the young age of 58. I'll surely watch the show tomorrow morning, but it will be like going to a funeral, as journalists and politicians remember Tim's life.

Tim helped me think about both sides of political issues better than anyone. Guests from both the left and right were challenged on the show to defend their positions, and this interchange with everyone from Hillary to Orin Hatch, Madeline Albright to Condelizza Rice, was followed by about 30 minutes of dialog amongst journalists. By the end of the hour, I always felt like I'd been given the opportunity to consider both the merits and liabilities of whatever issue, politician, or candidate was in the spotlight that morning.

A steady diet of this kind of 'critical thinking' helped me learn how to look at both sides of every issue more thoroughly, weighing merits and carefully considering axioms. Meet the Press has not only helped keep me informed about political issues; the show, and Tim Russert in particular, made me a better pastor, a better theologian.

But Tim was also, more than any other public figure I know, a real person, whose love of family and values shined through his work. He spoke often about his relationship with his father and wrote a book about that relationship. Having grown up in a blue collar family where his dad worked long hours so that his kids could go to college, Tim passed on the same ethic of integrity and sacrifice, not only to his own son in a way that was far more effective, at least for millions of blue or purple Americans, than Dobson could ever hope to be.

I'll still be getting up at 6 on Sundays, but I don't know if I'll be able to continue to watch Meet the Press without feeling like a friend is missing in the room.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Danger: Dualism Doubly Destructive

In preparation for the James series I'm teaching this summer here at Bethany, I've been reminded of the powerful distinctions between dualistic and monistic world views. I outlined these distinctions in the introductory section of yesterday's sermon, which you can download here. You can also learn a bit about dualism here.

It's interesting to note that if dualism is a sword, the dangers can be found on either edge of the blade. To the extent that the church has adopted dualistic thinking it has tended to emphasize the spiritual realm at the expense of the physical and natural world. When this kind of dualism saturated cultures, there was no need for exploration of the natural world, and so the sciences fell on hard times, as did art and architecture, as did sexuality and food, and drink. The censure of these revelations and gifts impoverished the church for centuries during the period called the dark ages.

But if one's dualism becomes anti-spiritual, emphasizing the natural realm as supreme over the spirit, a different set of maladies occur; our obsession with the physical reduces people to objects, sex to recreation, beauty to youth, and all men and women to units of production and consumption. This can be seen in various forms throughout the world, and wherever it is in play, the results are ugly. The deformities vary though, depending on the culture - pure atheism becomes so utilitarian as to abolish any notions of personal freedom, while the secular materialism of the west, enjoying the vestiges of a theistic world-view, expresses itself in wanton indulgence. But in both cases, the results are the same, as the soul is stripped bare, beaten down, and eventually silenced, all in the name of freedom.

The middle path; both/and; call it what you want - but whatever you call it, be certain that you are cultivating the importance and reality of both realms, so that you become a person who is able to both taste, and express the life God through physical and spiritual senses. Such a saint is hard to find, but it is through precisely such a life that the reality of Christ will be seen most clearly.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Visitor is wearing layers

I saw "The Visitor" last night in one of my favorite Seattle theaters. Well crafted and understated, the film climaxed at the very end with the screen going dark and when it did, n, obody moved. The space within the walls was enveloped in complete silence as we collective paused to allow the weight of what we'd just seen settle in. Only slowly, when the credit music began, did people rise from their seats and leave. If you'd like to see a film that will touch both your heart and your mind, "The Visitor" will take you there.

The simple plot appears like a prism; held up against the light of our own experiences, it invites us to consider themes of aging, grief, intergenerational relationships, hospitality, racism, pluralism, overwork, and some of the forces that create that good disease I call "good Samaritanism".

My only complaint is that, in the credits, we're invited to a web site that invites activism and response surrounding the issue of immigration detention centers. This would be fine if we were being invited to call for study and dialog surrounding issues of immigration and deportation. Instead the activism invites us to join in working to end all deportations of illegal aliens.

No doubt written with leanings toward the left, Visitor does a marvelous job of personalizing and humanizing Islam and those of middle-eastern origin. But if the right is guilty of painting with a policy brush that vilifies and suspects aliens (leading to all the ugliness of profiling and racism), the left is just as guilty of making positive generalizations: "all illegal aliens are hard-working and pose no threat to national security." Both generalizations are equally troubling, in that they seek to bypass the need for case by case considerations, instead naively believing that some magic policy (born out of either romantic or dark generalizations from the left or right) will make decisions for us. Of all the issues addressed by the movie, this was the one lacking nuance. It felt more like propaganda. Unfortunately it was also a central theme.

None of this, however, overshadows the compelling value of "The Visitor". I hope you'll see it. And I welcome your thoughts about both the movie, and the immigration debate that is so important in our country.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Size doesn't matter...

Success is a seductive mistress. Her beauty, and the fact that she's the object of everyone's desire can lull you into thinking that, once you've captured her, your integrity, faithfulness, wisdom, and worth are impeccable, above questioning. After all, it's the successful people who get on airplanes and go places in order to tell other people how to do their jobs.

This might be well and good in some matters, but I'm suspicious that it might not be a good way of finding the best people to address 'church life'. I say this because success, especially a 'snapshot' of success (such as attendance statistics for Sunday morning worship, or the number of baptisms in the past year), isn't granted to leaders or communities solely on the basis of their faithfulness. A great example of this is Ahab the King of Israel.

You can find his story in I Kings 16-22. Outwardly, I could produce some snapshots that would indicate that this guy must be faithful and righteous. After all, he was at the forefront of two wars with the Arameans, a fierce and violent tribal people who sought to steal Israel's land, wives, children, and gold. But in both wars, Ahab's trips were overwhelmingly victorious.

In American culture, Ahab would be hailed as a bold, innovative leader, and he'd get a few book contracts and start the seminar circuit: "How to get rid of the evil when the odds are against you." It's the kind of seminar pastors seek out, because they want to be successful too, just like Ahab.

Here's the problem though. At the very beginning of Ahab's story, we read this: "Ahab...did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him." (I Kings 16:20). The Bible gives us a peek into Ahab's private places, and it's there we see his unhealthy marriage to a wicked woman, his faultering and fearing, his double-mindedness and idolatry, his lust and greed. Victorious though he was in battle, his unwillingness to obey God and do the hard things eventuated in Israel's defeat, and his ignoble death. And all this after his book tour and becoming a big time player on the seminar circuit!! He would probably have made appearances with Oprah and Larry King.

So why does God allow an evil king to win a victory or two, significant victories in fact? The key, I believe, is found in a phrase in I Kings 21:6. It's a phrase that occurs many times throughout the prophets: "...and you shall know that I am the Lord" God says that he'll provide victory as a teachable moment for Ahab, so that this weak and indecisive king might learn, once and for all, that the God on whose behalf he is ruling is worthy of trust, worship, and obedience. In other words, God uses people, even in their disobedience, in order that we might learn to trust in His faithfulness and depend on His mercy. The Bible is filled with examples of God using this strategy: "but we have this treasure in earthen vessels..." "consider your calling..." "kindness leads to repentance..." You get the picture.

Unfortunately, we don't really get the picture. We think that the guy who wins the war is wearing a white hat, and so we follow his example. But if God used the guy 'in spite' of his character, not because of it, we can end up following the methods and strategies of someone who will lead us off a cliff.

That's why, in matters of ministry, the very first thing one must consider is the state of the heart - those intangibles like prayer, humility, service, love, and a commitment to the word, are far more important than the size of one's congregation. It's a conundrum, that humble and faithful servants often serve in struggling places in obscurity, while ambitious folk chase the spotlight. One must be equally careful to avoid the conclusion that outward success is evil, because this too would be a foolish paradigm.

Instead, I'd suggest simply shifting the focus of the conversation away from outward expressions, because gives successful outward expressions to the very least of us. Instead, let's expand our horizons by seeking out people who can teach us to pray, digest the word, and serve the broken in this world, for these are the kinds of successes we most desperately need.