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...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Not location, location...covenants, covenants.

Noticing that the last post evolved into an abortion/death penalty discussion, I thought it would be 'fun' to both defend and challenge what is perceived as an inconsistency on the part of those people who believe, both in preserving life in the womb, and in the death penalty. When we read our Bibles, we can't simply claim promises or apply precepts willy/nilly. Heck, if we did, we'd be killing disobedient children, forbidding women to worship during their monthly period, and cutting off our hands, among other things.

No, instead of wooden literal application, we need to wrestle with the question of whether any particular text has precepts and promises that we are to live by/under today, or whether particular promises/commands are limited in their scope of application to a particular people group. For example, Deuteronomy 28 promises wealth, fertility, and victory in battle to all those who obey God. Can we claim this promise as our own?

I don't think so, because this is a promise given to the nation of Israel in the context of their life as a theocracy, where God is King and the law is found in Exodus and Leviticus. Since neither America or any other nation is a theocracy in this moment, we can't rightly claim the promises given to a theocratic nation, nor are we bound by its laws. This doesn't mean there's nothing of value in those laws. Many of them, in principle at least, were later reiterated by Jesus with an even fuller application than that which was initially observed by the Jews. But to claim promises or be bound by Old Testament law would mean that the covenant of Moses belongs to us today; I don't think that's true, and if it were true you would need to apply it wholly and literally in every situation. Any takers?

OK, so we've looked at what is called the "Mosaic" covenant and I've explained why I don't think it applies directly to us, but is rather a place from which we gleam principles. What about the covenant with Noah? It's offered to us in Genesis 9 and includes in it, among other things, the eating of meat, the reality that animals will forever be afraid of people, the promise that God will never again destroy the earth by a flood, and... get ready for it: the notion that a person who kills a human should be punished by being put to death. There it is, right there in God's covenant with Noah, based on the notion that human life is so precious that the punishment for forfeiture of life should be 'forfeiture of life'.

You can go ahead and argue about whether it makes sense; you can discuss the problems of conviction of innocents; you can talk about the myriad of problems that arise in trying to apply this justly and consistently. But what you can't do is say that God never favored the death penalty. He did - and He did it in the covenant made with Noah, a covenant which we're told is still in place today, for all people on the earth. This isn't some esoteric precept offered to an ancient theocracy - this is a precept given at the end of the flood, ostensibly to preserve the dignity of humans, and curb violence.

Whether I agree with our particular application of the death penalty in the United States isn't the point of this entry. (I don't) But when people say that it's hypocrisy to be 'pro-life' and 'pro-death penalty', they need to think through their covenants: which ones apply to today and which ones don't? The charge of hypocrisy seems to be rooted in a cursory reading of the Bible that doesn't consider thoughtfully enough which covenants apply to us directly and which don't.

Perhaps most significantly, we need to ask if the ethic of Jesus, particularly the ethic of loving one's enemies and laying down one's life as a means of disarming violence, doesn't trump all other covenants. The author to the Hebrews hints that it does.

But even this leaves us in a quandary, for Paul would later declared that the government is granted the sword precisely for the purpose of curbing evil. There's a time for the state, apparently, to challenge oppression and violence through the use of weapons. Of course, this leads to a whole different subject, a 'can of worms' so to speak, and it's late, so I'll leave things right where they are, except to say that the one precept that seems to be in almost every covenant, from Abraham to Jesus, is the call to care for the poor. Paul and James, unarguably proponents of the covenant under which we live today, both claim that caring for the poor is the ONE THING that gives evidence to the reality of our faith. That's why health care is such a vital issue, where radical changes are needed.

PS - Mr. Obama gave a remarkable speech tonight in my opinion. Perhaps most encouraging was his capacity to find ground for consensus building on various divisive positions, ground we so desperately need to find once again as a nation. There are so very many issues at stake in this election that I pray none of us will become single issue candidates, but rather that we will listen carefully, dialog openly, and choose wisely.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

As the party conventions begin here in the USA, it's time to open the gates to a little bit of political dialogue (I hope) in order to get all of us thinking and praying about how our faith convictions apply to our civic responsibilities.

This election year, more than any since the days of Jimmy Carter, people of faith are divided and undecided regarding their vote. The marriage between Republicans and Evangelicals has been annulled. There are many reasons for this, including some large theological shifts in the emerging church (which I’ll hope to address later), and a sense of betrayal on the part many who feel that the promises of limited government and ‘compassionate conservatism’ turned out to be hollow words, as expansive executive powers, spiraling national debt, curtailing of health care benefits to children, and unilateral military actions became the voice that drowned out campaign promises.

As each of us pray, ponder, and share together regarding the vitally important subject of how our faith intersects with both our politics and our nationalism, we should be wary of presumptions that any party is wholly ‘consistent’ or wholly ‘Christian’. For now, let’s consider the consistency piece for a moment:

I’ve always found it intriguing that my friends on the right are so deeply opposed to ‘government intrusion’ and ‘government control’. They want their private rights as individuals to, among other things, buy assault rifles and drive cars that get 4 miles to the gallon. They resist government intrusion at the corporate level as well, preferring to self-govern business practices, including everything from waste disposal to whether the CEO can make 800 times the wage of the entry level worker or not, and whether that entry level worker should be given a living wage and access to health care since one visit to emergency room can cost more than 2 months salary for him/her. ‘Hands off’ is the cry. ‘Let the market forces determine what’s right.’

But then, in a stunning reversal of philosophy, this same party moves into the most private corners of people’s lives, regulating who can marry and what woman can do with the fetus in their womb. “The judgment of the people is not be trusted” they say as they push for legislation in these matters. “Abortion is a moral issue” they say as they try to find judges to move the supreme court in a pro-life direction (ironically, this comes from the party who often accuses their friends to the left of using the judicial branch to change laws rather than uphold them). The same party that calls for economic libertarianism, is quick to appeal to the need for government control in these personal matters because ‘the moral fiber of the nation is at stake.’

Yes. I tend to agree with my friends on the right that the moral fiber of the nation is at stake, and that the judgment of the people is not to be trusted – but not just in these personal matters. Isn’t the moral fiber of the nation also at stake if 47 million Americans are at risk of losing all their assets with a single health care crisis (and that’s just the number of uninsured – the fact is that those of us who have insurance are increasingly at risk as well due to eroding benefits and escalating costs)? This too is a moral issue. Is the fact that people in service industries, (people upon which most of us reading this depend for access to daily necessities) are being squeezed out of the range of ‘living wage’ due to both inflation, economic downturns, and corporate greed, not a moral issue? Are our dependence on foreign oil, easy access to assault rifles, corporate environmental degradation, and the irresponsible business practices of the banking industry and big oil not moral issues too?

The same critique exists, of course, for my friends on the left, who so clearly call for regulations and laws to protect ‘the common good’ from the evils of unregulated corporate greed, but who are suddenly libertarians in all matters at home. “What I do with my body is nobody’s business but my own” etc. etc.

Why would either party call for liberty in one area of life (private or public) and government control in another, claiming that humanity isn’t to be trusted? The right legislates ‘morality’ and lets the economy and environment run on the good will of the people. The left legislates the economy and environment and calls for libertarianism in the private lives of people. Of course, I’m generalizing here and the conversation is actually more complex than this, but still, these are the tendencies. Who’s correct?

If we go back to the founding fathers, we discover an inherent mistrust in humans with power, rooted, I believe, in a basic understanding of our nature as fallen creatures. Thus were the three branches of government designed to provide a mutuality of checks and balances. What was unforeseen at the time was the rise of global corporations to places of prominence even greater than the government. I wonder how our founding fathers would have reacted to companies whose annual income exceeds that most countries? I have a feeling they would have put cautions in place to prevent the abuse of power there, just as in the other branches of government. And of course, as a country becomes increasingly pluralistic, its ‘private’ values also must come under increasing scrutiny. Do immigrants from strong patriarchal cultures have the ‘private’ right to keep their daughters home from school, preventing them from learning to read? If I’m to have liberty at home, can I have two wives, or six, or ten? Can I beat my children if they’re disobedient? Here too, it seems that some protocol and basic values need to be articulated as a means of saying, “We the people… believe….”

So you tell me – what’s to be legislated and what’s to be left alone? How you answer that question will, no doubt become a huge determinant in how you vote this fall. But please don’t tell me that either party is consistent in applying their principles, because they’re not. That’s why I’m independent.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pedaling with Jesus

At first, I saw God as my Observer, my Judge—keeping track of things I did to know whether I merited heaven or hell. He was out there—sort of like a President. I recognized His picture but I did not know Him.

Later on, when I met Christ, life became a bike ride. It was a tandem bike, and Christ was in the back helping me pedal. I do not know just when He suggested we change places, but life has not been the same since. Christ makes life exciting.

When I had the control, I knew the way. It was rather boring, but predictable. It was the shortest distance between two points. When He led, He knew delightful long cuts—up mountains and through rocky places—and at breakneck speeds. It was all I could do to hang on! Even though it looked like madness, He said “Pedal!” I worried and was anxious and asked, “Where are you taking me?” He laughed and did not answer, and I started to trust.

I forgot my boring life and entered into the adventure. And when I would say, “I am scared,” He would lean back and touch my hand. He took me to people who gave me gifts of healing, acceptance, joy and peace for our journey. He said, “Give the gifts away.” So I did to people we met. And I found that in giving I received, and our burden was light.

I did not trust Him at first to control my life. I thought He would wreck it. But He knows how to make bikes bend to take sharp corners, jump to clear high rocks, fly to shorten scary passages.

I am learning to be quiet and pedal in the strangest places. I am beginning to enjoy the view and the cool breeze on my face. And when I am sure I just cannot do any more—He just smiles and says, “Pedal!”

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Flowers Have Spoken

summer backpacking

click the picture for a slide show of this week's journey

I just returned from a backpacking trip in the North Cascades with my daughter, who just returned from working on a farm in Austria this summer. If you've ever wondered why we who live here endure the rain (if 'endure' is the proper word), some of us will answer, "because of the mountains", and then proceed to post a few of our pics from our latest outing. Such is the case for me.

The flowers were the most significant part of this journey for me. They were stunning. Lavish colors, excessive shapes, generous scents, joyful countenance; each one was a testimony to Jesus' words in Matthew six about the lilies. "More splendor than Solomon in all His glory", as Jesus once said. Yes, it surely does seem that God loves beauty.

But most powerful of all was time spent pondering the reality that these same flowers will all be gone in a matter of days. They won't be museum pieces, but these works of living art will decay and become the stuff, the matter, of a different generation. Here today...gone tomorrow. Blink: you're young and beautiful. Blink: you're in the middle of life and the sun is heading west. Blink: it's time to go.

"So teach us to number our days, that we may present to you a heart of Wisdom"

"Man's days are like the grass..."

We walked in silence through the flora festival. The sun is heading west in my life already, as my youngest heads off to college in a few short weeks. What am I doing with my days, my time, my gifts? Like the flowers, we're born for beauty, born to bless, born to serve in outlandish and creative ways. Like the flowers, our days are numbered.

I came back from this little backpacking trip with a renewed commitment to stewardship and service, to living each day as fully and joyfully as possible, knowing that soon I'll need to blink again. Enjoy the pictures... we certainly enjoyed the hike.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

guest blogger: Bible Reading in the trenches

I'm happy to share the testimony of a friend who wishes to remain anonymous. Here's her testimony of how she's doing reading through the Bible in a year. Feel free to share your own stories about reading the Bible - struggles, victories, questions. Thanks

I finally listened to Richard’s admonition that we practice spiritual disciplines: I decided to dust off my Bible and work on creating a consistent habit of reading it. I’m embarrassed to admit that there are vast portions of scripture that I have never read even though I became a Christ follower long ago. And I have never been a regular reader of The Word. For years I have been a “second stringer”, content to sit back and let others feed me instead of pursuing spiritual food myself. But I am ready to stop living a life of faith vicariously through those around me. So, here I go.

I am reading through the entire Bible this year. I attempted it once before, using a schedule that starts in Genesis and ends in Revelation. I think I made it to Leviticus before I bogged down, got hopelessly behind and gave up. This time I found an online calendar that has me reading from both the Old and New Testaments plus Psalms and Proverbs at each sitting, which I find much more appealing. Amazingly, it’s August and I’m still at it!

It hasn’t always been pretty. As a matter of fact today I had to catch up for the last ten days. The worst lapse had me fourteen days behind. One friend asked me why I didn’t just skip the parts I missed and pick up at the current calendar date. Why would I go back and painstakingly read every missed day? I told her that I am determined to read every word of the Bible this year. Maybe I’m a little OCD but, actually, I don’t want to miss any of the stories! My goal of course is to make scripture reading an essential part of every day that I would no more miss than I would go without brushing my teeth. Or eating.

Even with my less than perfect record this year, as I open up my Bible, I am getting to know God in new ways, falling deeper in love with him as I see his character in the many and varied stories I have read. Not everything is clear to me and sometimes I am bewildered by what I read. Or in awe, or encouraged, or challenged. God is so much bigger to me than he ever has been. And I am changed. Just through the reading.

On my next journey through the Bible – and, yes, I think I will make this a yearly discipline – I will try to keep a journal, jotting down the verses that most speak to me that day or thoughts or prayers about what I’ve read. As Richard reminded us in his sermon last Sunday (available online here), we need to do more than just read and study the Bible. We need to digest it.

I usually begin my reading by praying that God will speak to me through the words I am about to read, that he will use it to transform me. That is my prayer for all of us.

Isaiah 55:10-11 – For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;

So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Tomorrow, it's back to Seattle....home at last. But this morning, I went for a little run up Mill Creek Canyon because the camp was serving an outdoor breakfast at "Inspiration Point". The air was "cool" this morning as I ran down the path, along the stream, but I noticed then when the path ended, opening up into a field of river rock, the temperature rose by probably 1o degrees. I stopped, knelt down and felt the rocks, and realized that they, through the miracle of science, God's design (and pure mystery for music majors), have this amazing capacity to store heat and continue to radiate it long after the sun's gone down. This, of course, is the theory behind the "Russian Stove", built to pour out heat long after the fire ends....a real efficiency miracle.

This seems, as I prepare to teach on Sunday, an apt illustration of what kind of posture is necessary for us to radiate the warmth of Christ to our world. Some of us don't radiate warmth often enough because we neglect even showing up. We're like stones forever in the shade; we have heat bearing capacity, but we're not warmth on our own, needing His life as we do to radiate heat. Others of us show up, pulling the Bible out as we eat our Cheerios, reading a bit, and then closing it. But when we get up to go to work, we immediately forget what we've received. In the parable of the seed and the sower told by Jesus, this would be like the one who hears the word but immediately forgets. We're stones, touched by the sun, but quickly retreating into the shade.

It's the one who meditates, ponders, internalizes the living Word, spoken by the Holy Spirit to his/her heart that is like a rock basking in the sun. This is why Psalm 119 speaks of hiding the Word in our hearts, and Psalm 1 speaks of meditating on the Word day and night, and Deuteronomy 6 speaks of talking about the Word when you rise up and when you lie down. It's this kind of openness, pondering, reflection, that causes the Word to sink into us like the sun's heat into river rock.

When this happens, radiating heat isn't really something we try to do...rather it becomes a part of who we are.

River Rock:
Radiating Reality
Right where we live

Rock on...

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Reminders from Bible Camp

I'm in the final week of conference speaking for the summer, down here at Forest Home, a Bible Camp in Southern California with a rich history and legacy as the place where people encounter Christ. My wife Donna came down at the end of last week, stayed with me through the weekend (including our first ever encounter with a large rattlesnake while hiking), and then returned to Seattle yesterday. This camp was the place where, as a Jr. High girl, Donna received Christ. What a joy it was to walk with her to the campfire circle and stand together with her at that significant spot. Later she would tear up with happy family memories and remembrance of her roots as all the campers sang, "How Great Thou Art", the song which is so deeply rooted in Forest Home's history.

For myself, it's both a joy and humbling privilege to stand in the space where Billy Graham stood back in the 50's and declare Christ to the many couples who have come here because this is a place where Christ is declared. God did some profound things in the lives of people last week, and I hope you'll pray with me that He continues to work this week, expecting that His faithfulness and fruitfulness will prevail as we who lead make ourselves available to Him.

Bible Camp is like any camp. There's a zip line, swimming pool, lake, craft house, climbing wall etc. The difference is that instead just KIDS going to camp, and focusing on soccer, or math, or horses, the entire family goes to camp, and focuses on Jesus. There's about 11 hours of direct interaction with the Bible, as campers receive teaching from the word and then break into small groups to apply the truths.

Because of the profound changes I see, I'm sitting here pondering why more people in the world aren't willing to relieve themselves of cooking, cleaning, shopping, internet and cell phone access, all the rest of it for one week in order to, as a family, go deeper with Christ? The truth of the matter is that I can think of no better way for a family (or a couple, and yes there were single adults there too) to invest one week each year. It's a way of calibrating, checking our spiritual compass, assuring ourselves that, indeed, we're walking in God's story rather than our own. People from last week made huge decisions as a result of being here: quitting 2nd jobs to choose intimacy over income; releasing bitterness; renouncing destructive patterns -- all because they showed up and listened for God's voice.

As a result of this, I'm reminded once again of just how important it is to make time in our lives to meet Christ. Yes, the week per year is excellent, and I'd recommend it for anyone. But whether or not you do the week, please, please: CARPE DEIM - seize the day. Make a little time for meeting God in His Word each day, a little time for listening, pondering, understanding. This principle of showing up is enormous.

LET'S HELP EACH OTHER!! Do any of you have resources that you've found meaningful for help in daily Bible reading? You'll find a little bit about both the challenges and fundamental principles of how to read the Bible in my book, "o2". But there are countless other resources out there. What's been helpful for you? Please share both the challenges you face and the resources you've found helpful, because as I've been reminded this week, good things happen when we show up and allow God to speak to us.