Pastoral Musings from Rain City

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

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Europe 08 - keep visiting, new pictures as they arrive

08 Europe
My camera melted down and I recently acquired a new one, so I'm thrilled that the fog which normally hides everything around the Bodensee area at this time of year is missing, giving me a chance for a lovely walk after worship this morning, and some pictures both early and late in the day. I'll post pictures here throughout my trip, so if you'd like to see what's happening, you can visit back to this same post.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

imperialism or greener grass?

When I finally land at the Zurich airport, I've been awake and traveling for about 20 hours. I still have a train and a ferry, before being picked up by friends and then some social time at supper, and getting ready for preaching on Sunday. In short, I need coffee.

The thought of drinking "European Coffee", with it's head of crema elegantly served in a ceramic cup, is one of the great joys of being in Europe for me, and I've been looking forward to this coffee since I woke this morning. New to the Zurich airport, and having a short layover, I thought it best to get my train ticket first and then my coffee. I was glad I did because the line was long and by the time I acquired my ticket, I had only a few minutes before I needed to board the train. There was one coffee shop though, immeidately across from the ticket counter: Starbucks!

There they all are, drinking sipping the stuff I can get by walking up the hill from my house in Seattle; from paper cups no less! It was similar in Amsterdam, where the longest line for breakfast wasn't at the bakery serving quiche or belgian waffles, but the McDonalds. I ponder who is to blame for this exportation of sub-par 'franchise' eating and dining, but of course, it's a bad question. I have lots of European friends who love Starbucks coffee more than their own European cafes, which I find astonishing.

Surely there are many in the world who love the familiar. But I think much of Starbuck's appeal to Europeans is precisely that it's American, in the same way that my love of European coffee is that it's not American, for there are many of us on this globe who love the grass on the other side of the fence, being convinced that it's greener grass than our own. I go to Europe and eat Milka chocolate bars and eat schnitzel, but the gifts I carry for friends consist of chunky peanut butter, starbucks beans, and chocolate chips, things craved by Europeans that we take for granted in the States.

What then? I need to stop comparing and simply start enjoying. Maybe then I'll drink the coffee I need, even if it's from the empire.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

FOCA: more than just four letters

Yes: this is a long post. Yes: it requires careful reading. Yes: it's one of the more important posts... even more important than buying a toaster and getting a free bank! (see below). Please read - pray - respond:

Now that the election is over, it might be easy to slip into a state of either passive bliss, or passive despair, depending on your point of view. Both would be wrong because, as I've stated often, the calling of the church is to vote prayerfully, and work hard for the good of the culture where we live.

Towards that end, I urge you to consider the potential impending train wreck that might occur, should the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), actually become law in the coming year. Our President elect has already declared that he will sign this bill into law if it passes.

Perhaps you know me will enough to know that I'm hesitant to point you to the petition site where you can sign on and urge Obama to reject this legislation. My hesitancy comes from the fact that sites like these are nearly always propagandized in a way that preaches to their choir of believers but offers nothing substantively persuasive that would speak to the unconvinced.

I'll point you there anyway, but first ask that you carefully read this article from left leaning "Slate", written by staunchly pro-Obama, Melinda Henniberger. She points out the very real threat to the future of Catholic Hospitals in America that awaits, should this legislation pass. Remember, this isn't Dobsonesque fear strategy- this is SLATE magazine.

If you don't have time to read the whole article, I'll simply offer this quote from it (but please, take the time to read the whole thing at some point... it's important to remain informed on this, and many other issues). Ms. Henneberger writes:

as I think I have made clear——I have high hopes for President Obama, I was so looking forward to dancing at this party. Yet, although abortion was not a major issue in the race, the pro-life argument that he was the candidate most likely to decrease the need for—and number of—abortions did make it easier for many Catholics to cast their votes for him. I think we should hold him to that commitment now.

At the very moment when Obama and his party have won the trust of so many Catholics who favor at least some limits on abortion, I hope he does not prove them wrong. I hope he does not make a fool out of that nice Doug Kmiec, who led the pro-life charge on his behalf. I hope he does not spit on the rest of us—though I don't take him for the spitting sort—on his way in the door. I hope that his appointment of Ellen Moran, formerly of EMILY's List, as his communications director is followed by the appointment of some equally good Democrats who hold pro-life views. By supporting and signing the current version of FOCA, Obama would reignite the culture war he so deftly sidestepped throughout this campaign. This is a fight he just doesn't need at a moment when there is no shortage of other crises to manage.

The petition? As I said, I don't like these sites because they can be, often justifiably, charged with sensationalism. Still, if you believe the protection of life in the womb is as at least as important as the protection of Iraqi civilians, or granting the poor and marginalized access to health services, then signing here ought to be seriously considered. Do you agree?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Friday, November 21, 2008

numbering days, lifting turkeys

So teach us to number our days, that we may present to you a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

It's Friday, and I'm nearly to my day-off destination, a place I go sometimes to breathe fir, pray, and write. Sometimes good things happen there, like meeting God in very tangible ways as the beauty of the forest, or the silence, or the prayer pierces me and I know, with Julian of Norwich that all's well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Encounter, though, doesn't need silence and fir to pierce our clueless armor and wake us up to the bigger picture. For example...

I pull into the Safeway parking lot, halfway to the writing cabin, because I have some banking to do and my bank lives in a grocery store rather than having it's own place to call home. Having finished my busywork, I place three apples in a basket and proceed to the checkout line. The shortest one still has a person with many items to be processed, so I sigh, and stand with my apples. As I approach the credit card 'swiping machine', a voice from behind says,

"Excuse me, could you hand me one of those?" A elegant, well dressed, woman of definitely old age points to one of those dividing bars, so vital to the prevention of any one of us ever buying something for another person. I place it on the conveyor belt, and for some reason, as she says thank you, our eyes meet. When they do, lots of things begin to happen in my soul.

I don't know if it's because my cousin died of a heart attack this week at 56, or because my wife is down at the funeral, caring for my own definitely old mom, or if it was the conversation this morning between my wife and I about other family members in California who are on the far end of aging. I don't know. But I begin to feel, in that moment, profoundly, the brevity of life, and the importance of living each day well.

I saw that she had those classic little oranges in her cart, the kind that come in a box and are easy to peel. "3.99" she said, her smiling even brighter; "cheapest price in town". I know. I've checked." I suddenly need a box, and so step behind her and do an impulse buy to help the sagging economy.

"I love these" I say, mindful that guests will be in our house soon and these will all be eaten.

"Turkey's cheap too" the checker says, hoping I'll keep buying.

Then my new elderly friend says, "they're too big. I can't lift them into the oven any longer." She can still drive, walk, shop, smile, tell jokes, check prices. But she can't lift a turkey into her oven. Is she having thanksgiving alone? Is there no strong grandson to lift the turkey? My curiosity grows, but I've paid and I walk away.

"My God; life is short" I say to myself as I walk to the car, pondering how strange it is that we squander our days, often allowing lust, or bitterness, or boredom to prevail, as if we own endless units of them, kind of a Bill Gates of chronology. But we don't. Soon we can't lift our turkey. By then, we'll have known great joys and laughter, great losses and sufferings; all of will. Trying to live in such a way that we are insulated from the latter is like trying to live on brownies and chips - we can't do it, so we may as well not even try.

More important than how much suffering or joy is the deeper question: Have we lived well? For we who follow Christ, that question is not about how many notches I've carved into some evangelistic salvation belt, for even the great Paul would tell us that this matters little. What does matter though is whether or not God has found some freedom to express His heart through us - so that generosity and justice, peace and celebration, forgiveness and mercy, are spilled into the world through us.

Such things will only happen, not by us trying hard to create 'spillable' moments, but by developing the right kinds of habits to slowly but inexorably become more like Jesus. As that happens, our walking, sleeping, eating, working, and yes, even checking out of our groceries, might testify of God's character in some small or large way. That is a life well lived.

Many who read this blog are far younger then me, so perhaps none of this resonates. But I'm increasingly mindful that I only have days: 'x' number of them. I pray that I'll use mine well, because someday, sooner than I'd like, my turkey will be too heavy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Holy Spirit - moving from head to heart

The church I pastor in Seattle is filled with college graduates, PHD's, college and post-graduate students, and various experts of medical, literary, artistic, and technological ilk. I love these people, love this church, and think that it is truly in the stream of God's activity because the hearts of people are so open to stepping into our broken world to serve, and so willing to consider to love God with their minds as well as their feet.

Perhaps our weakness though, at least some of the time (and of course, I'm generalizing, probably talking more about my own weakness than my community) is our tendency to miss the heart piece. But the Apostle's Creed won't allow my to bypass the heart because the creed is articulated in a trinitarian way: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. This final week of teaching, we'll be consider the far ranging implications of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church
the communion of saints
the forgiveness of sins
the resurrection of the body
and life everlasting. Amen

All of these elements stem from our life "in the Spirit" and the reality is that the New Testament has a great deal to say about what it means to "walk in the Spirit" and "be filled with Spirit". Here are some questions to guide your thinking as consider the far ranging implications of the Holy Spirit when we gather this coming Sunday:

1. It seems that all churches struggle with finding the proper place for the Holy Spirit in their life together. The Spirit is sometimes granted supremacy, as if Jesus were an afterthought, and is other times treated like the little brother of the trinity who has two, much older siblings. Why do we struggle to find this right place?

2. What has your experience with the Holy Spirit been? Can you identify ways in which the Spirit has been clearly helpful in your life?

3. You'll learn on Sunday that I believe all Christian HAVE the Spirit, but not all Christians are FILLED with the Spirit. Have you ever sought to be filled with the Holy Spirit? What did that look like?

I'll close by pointing you to this web-site, which tells the story of DL Moody, a man for whom I have the deepest respect and who shares his testimony of being filled with Holy Spirit. Don't be put off by the retro looking website or the language - some of the best stuff is hidden in the plainest packages! Moody basically said that he'd served God for years without being filled with the Holy Spirit, but that when he was finally filled with the Holy Spirit, it made all the difference. Yes - that's the deal for me too. I've not always remained filled with the Holy Spirit, because, as I'll share next week, I'm a firm believer that if I'm holding on to some sins, or refusing to go into places God wants to take my heart, the Holy Spirit is sort of bound up, unable to express life through me. But when that Spirit is free... indeed it does make all the difference. Moody said that he wouldn't trade this being filled with the Spirit for all the money in the world. Neither would I.

If this isn't something you're confident you've known in your life, I'm hoping to have some material available this Sunday to help you pray through this matter. We'll be talking about other things too, as we ponder what it means to live, with all who have gone before us down through centuries, as a people committed not only to declaring, but to living, the Apostle's Creed.


Thanksgiving...or Festivus?

"...there was famine in all the lands..." (Genesis 41:54)

I know all the talk about the cup being half full or half empty, depending on one's perspective. I know that we've much for which to be thankful if we'll but open our eyes and see. "There's still plenty of turkey and all", and "look at the starving children on the other side of the world". These are the things we tell ourselves this year as we gather around tables laden with feast to celebrate and express gratitude for God's provision.

But this year, more than many, is a year when "giving thanks" might feel a little strained, a little forced, as if we hope that by saying it often enough, or loud enough, we'll actually begin to feel grateful. After all, thousands have lost their homes in fires just in the past week. Before that their were floods in the south. Draped across the entire country there's been an epidemic of foreclosures so that thousands who at around their own table last year are somewhere else this year; jobless, homeless, and afraid. Let's throw in the impending implosion of the auto industry, and the realization that two wars and mountains of debt will make it difficult for any incoming president to fulfill promises made in the heady days of campaign speeches and one might begin to wonder if this might be a good to skip thanksgiving, or at least downgrade it from "turkey" and "thanksgiving" to "tofu" and "airing of grievances" - more like Festivus than anything else.

Ah, but this is precisely where we go wrong. We thank that gratitude is all about remembering the good things God has done for us and giving thanks. Surely this is a piece of gratitude and thanksgiving. If we limit our thanksgiving to recalling the gifts that God has given us, we will miss most of the story, because most of the story is about how transforms us right in the midst of challenges in this fallen world. "And there was a famine..." is what Genesis says, and only then are the wheels set in motion for God's chosen family to begin their process of profound transformation.

Up to this point, the family chosen to represent God's heart had instead been a tragic display of pride, jealousy, hatred, lust, greed, fear, deceit, self-righteousness, rape, polygamy, and murder. But when the famine came, a whole story began to unfold that would eventuate in the confessing of sins, the forgiveness of grievances, the healing of a family, and the establishment of a nation from which would eventually come the Light of the World. And it all began with a famine. Without it, the brothers might have died in the tragic prisons of selfishness which had held them for so long.

The famine's begun for many in our own land; right here; right now. The reality is that we only come to know Jesus as the bread of life because we've known hunger. Whether we hunger for meaning, freedom, intimacy, freedom from fear, or something else, when we find the one who can satisfy the hunger, our gratitude becomes a natural wellspring of praise. The same thing is true again and again. We know Christ as light because we've walked in darkness; know Him as life because we've been in the realm of death; know Him as father because we've stood by the grave of our own dad. However it works for you, I hope you can see that real thanksgiving is always born out of the transformation which comes from crisis.

So perhaps this is the year when we'll give thanks, less for what's happening in this present moment (though God knows that there's still plenty of reasons for gratitude if we take even a cursory look around us), and more for what God will do as we collectively walk through these 'very interesting days', as I recently heard them described. I hope and pray that on the far side of these crisis, we who claim to follow Christ will be shaped, liberated, and transformed, so that our lives will overflow with the purity, generosity and joy that is the heart of Jesus.

Happy Thanksgiving! God is at work! May you have the eyes to see His hand in this glorious, beautiful, fallen world.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

aching, beautiful, angering, excellent...

Are you looking for something do some rainy afternoon this winter, when it's too warm to ski (or too expensive), and good movie options are slim? Why don't you check out Blankets from the library and curl up with the hot beverage of your choice for a thought provoking read.

I read it Friday, literally picking it up and not being able to put it down until I finished. It drew me in both as art and literature, with beautiful character development and searing 'coming of age' joys and tragedies. In the end, if you're looking for a feel good story of faith's triumph, this might not be the best choice. But if you're looking for honest reflection, you'll not be disappointed here.

. It's a sweeping tail of love, faith, pain, and finding one's way in life by author Craig Thompson. I won't give anything way, but when you're finished reading it, you might want to consider the following questions:

1) When someone's encounter with Christianity wildly misses the mark and they reject the "Jesus" of their judgmental, legalistic world, are they rejecting Christ?

2) Though we say that Jesus came in the flesh, and that we're opposed to the kind of dualism that elevates the spirit and denigrates the physical world, the reality is that we're often guilty of dualism, still today, as people of faith. Agree or disagree? What examples do you find of our dualism, or (hopefully) our integration?

3) The search for love and intimacy is always present, yet it seems that we have ambivalence about intimacy, both desiring it and being afraid of it. Why is this? What role does our faith play in either contributing to, or overcoming this ambivalence?

It was a while ago... $$

...June of 2007 in fact, that I recommended reading Bill McKibben's book, "Deep Economy". The material seems more important now than it was then because it posits a different model for economic stability.

Our present model demands continued growth, which at this point means that Americans, in order to keep each other employed, need to buy things they don't really need (stuff) with money they don't really have (on credit cards). But suddenly, in this economic downturn, people are starting to save their money, shop carefully, and limit their purchases. That this savings is rooted in a fear of the future is problematic for a number of reasons. But that we've moved away from profligate spending towards saving ought to be a good thing - and yet the leaders of the free world are gathering today, collectively concerned that people won't be buying enough landfill this holiday season.

McKibben posits that shifting towards localized and regional economies is the solution. He addresses the possibilities of such a shift in various industries, including agriculture and energy. Of course, such shifts aren't intended to be total, or isolationist, but rather are intended to encourage a scale of production and consumption that is more humane. A byproduct though, and McKibben is not alone in believing this, is that economies are more resilient. McKibben spends the first 103 pages defending the fact that we've got a problem. Of course, back when he wrote it, in the heady days of the early 21st century, those were important pages. Now, you can skip that part if you'd like and start reading on P104.

Of course, this is entirely contrary to everything the government is presently positing as 'the way out'. In addition, any steps that you or I might take towards scalability and localized shopping will be more costly in the immediate, not less. I won't go down the road of talking about Adam Smith and challenging the notion that if we all act in our own self-interest all will be well, other than to note that maybe, if I take the long view, it IS in my self-interest to shop locally, getting my salmon from the dock rather than the warehouse store, even if it costs me a few more bucks in the immediate present.

You might wonder why I'm even talking about this - after all, I'm a pastor, not an economist. True, but my hero (Jesus) talked more about money than heaven, hell, or homosexuality (forgetting, by the way, to mention the latter directly at all). It seemed that His interest was in getting us to both live simply AND fearlessly with respect to our own provision and economic well being. I believe we need a different model in order to get there, and that the model might need to come, not from the dems or reps, or the EU, but from somewhere else, perhaps Acts 2, or Matthew 6, or I Timothy 6, or...?

How are you reacting to the economic crisis? How is it affecting you? What does the Bible have to say about all this?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sermon Discussion - judgment

Sermon Date - November 16th -
Text - various
Topic - Christ's coming to judge the living and dead

The notion of God as the judge is, in our culture, one of the most difficult declarations for people to accept. Our culture likes tolerance better than judgment, or at least that's what we like to think. Other cultures around the world, though, find the mercy of God more offensive than the justice of God, feeling that His mercy is a sign of weakness.

Setting aside the discussion about our propensity to pick and choose which parts of God to believe in based on which parts we find appealing, there are some careful considerations to make about God as the judge:

1. Judgment is about moving the story of God's redemptive plan forward by curbing, containing, or destroying evil. The goal is seen in Ephesians 1:10-11 where we learn that history is moving to Christ's life filling all things. This will require the subduing of all that refuses to be filled, and this subduing is judgment. We say we don't like judgment, but we really do, when understood in this light. We like it when 'cancer' is subdued so that it doesn't spread. Most people were happy when the holocaust ended. We like it when child molesters are contained so that they can no longer inflict their damage on young lives. So, before we get too bothered by the notion of God as a judge, perhaps we'd better consider the reality that we really do look forward to the containment of death, evil, and suffering. Such containment is judgment. Perhaps the best being in the universe to orchestrate that containment is God!

2. Judgment is therefore motivated by both love and justice - Containment of evil is an act of love and justice for the whole of creation, eventuating in blessing and fullness of life for all who are willing to receive it.

In enlightened days like these, it's politically correct, perhaps even spiritually correct to avoid any discussion about judgment, to believe that all roads lead to the pot of spiritual gold at the end of rainbow. But this is not only a contradiction to the Bible, it's a contradiction to the real world, where evil things happen at the hands of people. So here are some things to ponder:

1. Are we resistant to the idea of God as the judge? Why or why not?

2. Is judgment similar to discipline?

3. Share a time when discipline are judgment served a redemptive purpose in your life.

4. What are the dangers of the doctrine of judgment and how can we avoid them?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Image and Text - a marriage of necessity

Beginning Thursday night, Bethany Community Church, in conjunction with Gage Academy in Seattle, will be hosting art seminar. I'll be opening the discussion tomorrow night with a session the relationship of image and text among people of faith. The seminar continues on Friday with a presentation by Dr. Read Schuchardt, of Wheaton college, as he addresses the relationship of form to content, the objectivity of beauty, and the expropriation of the sacred.

The relationship between art and the church has been strained at some points in history, beautiful and symbiotic in others. In our time and place, the relationship is strained for several reasons:

1. Modernity has been obsessed with the text in a way that has crowded out the role of beauty and image. This will be the focus of our discussion tomorrow night, but for now, I'll note that one of the encouraging signs of our time is the resurgence of image as a means of authentic communication. The church must wrestle with how to encourage and affirm creative expressions that are subjective, non-linear, and able to communicate to a different part of the soul.

2. Art in the church has often been limited to utilitarian expressions. In other words, a manger scene is a worthy subject, but not a still life. The church must wrestle with the value of images that aren't directly linked to Bible stories, asking herself if God is able to speak through other forms?

3. There's often been a sense that, when it comes to the church, creative expressions are necessarily second class. I remember auditioning once for the Opera orchestra in Fresno while in high school. I played timpani and one of the jury members hearing me said, in a phone interview prior to the audition, "this isn't some church thing we're doing here - this is the real deal." I'll never forget his juxtaposition of 'church' and 'real', as if to say that expressions of creativity in the church have a different quality standard than elsewhere. Would you rather have a poorly created painting of Mary and Joseph, or a high quality impressionist landscape?

4. The church is still wrestling with dualism. We say Jesus came in human flesh. We say the body isn't inherently evil. We say that the hierarchy between invisible and visible is false, that God is in it all. But I'm not certain we believe it. An entire conversation needs to follow this simple observation, but that will be up to you, at least for now.

Thoughts on the church and art, dualism, the relationship between image and text?
7:00 PM tomorrow at Bethany

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thin Places... Thin Times

In Celtic Christianity, the concept of "thin places" is described as those places in the our world where the dividing line between the visible and invisible realm is so thin that the two begin to bleed into each other for those with eyes to see, making the common become sacred, and the sacred become common. You can read a bit about thin places here if you're interested.

If there can be 'thin times' as well as 'thin places' then I would suggest that November is, of all months, the thinnest. It is, for me, that time of year when the sacred bleeds into the common, and when the invisible becomes so immediately present as to almost become visible. I'm not certain why it's this way for me; perhaps it's the convergence of darkness, rain, beautiful leaves, and the season of relative calm between the intensity of September/October, when everything begins in a ministry season, and December, when the usual suspects of Christmas/Advent activities conspire to crowd out contemplative moments.

But last night was a classic November thin night - It's a very ordinary night, rare in fact, because of it's ordinariness: there are no interruptions, no meetings, no heavy tasks on the domestic schedule. Instead, my wife and I watch a little bit of the news, marveling that we live in a country where, for all our political bickering, there is always a genuinely smooth transfer of power. We cook a meal together, eat by candlelight and become reacquainted after many days apart during the previous two weeks. Lingering at the table, we enjoy a glass of wine or cup of tea respectively. I tell her of a young woman in our congregation who's been diagnosed with leukemia, and start to cry, grieving this intrusion of suffering into her young life. Why this disease, for this girl, at this age? As we ponder and speak of others that we know and love, problems we might have thought we had evaporate, and we're aware of both the brevity of life and the profound privileges that are ours. This creates an unspoken desire to live our days fully, freely sharing and enjoying what we've been given. It's dark, quiet, holy.

After dishes and a strange postmodern movie, we sit together outside, talking and looking at the moon, veiled by clouds, but visible still. It's nearly silent in this big city. There's peace in the sky, peace in our marriage, peace in our hearts. Like the moon behind the veil, the light deeply present without overwhelming, I'm aware of just how thin the veil is. Later, in bed, I would fall asleep listening to quiet music, the last song being, "Be my Everything", a simple prayer asking God to fill every crevasse of life, so that the veil between sacred and secular, visible and invisible, common and holy, disappears entirely, making all moments holy.

Correction of a GRAVE error

In the third service on Sunday morning I misspoke, confusing some details regarding how Jesus legs were treated by the Roman soldiers on the cross. You'll not find the error in the downloadable sermon, because it was only spoken in the 11:15 service. Having departed from my notes, I confused the facts (strangely, because I knew the facts already) and was thankfully corrected by several in the congregation after the service. Oh the danger of moving too afar afield from one's preparations! For those who were there, thanks for your corrections and your grace.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Mr. Potato-god

When I finished seminary, I was working as a carpet cleaner in Los Angeles, traveling throughout the city in a van and pumping steamed water into stained fabric. This trade allowed me conversation with a large cross section of humanity, and the many conversations I had about God during those days were, in retrospect, a profoundly valuable part of my theological education. It was because of these rug cleaning gigs that I got the chance to learn what people really thought about God.

It turns out that most people had lots of respect for "God". It also became quickly clear that for most, the god they respected was of their own making. Picking and choosing from the gamut of values and character qualities, they built their own unique notions of deity, resulting in endless 'designer gods', created in the same way I used to turn a potato into a character using my "Mr. Potato head" toy box, choosing this nose, those eyes, that mouth until...Presto! I've made a creature unlike any other.

The history of religion shows us that the biggest danger of all isn't walking away from the truth entirely; that would be blatant, obvious, bringing our desire for autonomy into the open. Much worse is to keep fiddling with all the genuine character qualities of God, pasting some on our designer god, while being careful to leave others in the box. When I do this I build a god that's just like me, a god that reinforces my basest natures, while providing enough idealism to convince me that I've the coolest, truest god on the block. Church history is rife with these distortions, but rather than breaking open textbooks, we can simply go to the Bible, where Jesus told the religious experts that the searched the scriptures because they thought it was there life could be found. The scriptures pointed to Christ, but those same experts were unwilling to come to Him that they might have life, preferring their designer idol to the real God. You can read about it here.

I'm of the opinion that it's not the real God that's been fought over and defended in the enormously destructive culture wars and denominational divisions during these past decades. Instead we've been busy hurting each other because of our defense of "Mr Potato-gods" - and mine is better, stronger, truer, than yours. The greatest tragedy of all is that every little group, it seems, has only a few pieces in their box, and could never find the true God without coming together with the other boys and girls to see what parts there have to offer.

I'm hoping there's a place where we can come together and throw all our pieces on the floor so that we can work together to build a testimony of the real Jesus. The right has some things to offer; some of their pieces are forgeries, and other pieces have gone missing from their box, so much so that the poor children don't even miss them. The left faces the same problem. Established and emergent churches face the same dilemma. Pray with me that we'll have the courage and humility to do this - each of us in our own circles, so that Jesus can have His way with us, and His real character can be seen.

O Lord Christ -

You've watched us try to scare each other into voting for God's man, as if one party had all the pieces in place and was committed to using them. You've graciously stuck with us, and we watched history this week, and pray that your mighty and merciful hand would be upon our new leader. You've faithfully brought us closer to your heart by breaking down walls of racism, even while we remain far from you in so many ways. I pray that we, your church, would have the humility and courage to come together in prayer, dialogue, prayer, and service, trusting that as we do so, we'll all become exposed to the missing pieces that might better represent your heart. To do this will require grace and love that none of us, on our own have. So we ask for your indwelling and the stirring of your spirit, to take us down this path. We'll thank you for it, and give you the glory, even as we pray that your glory would find expression through our lives, homes, and communities of faith in these amazing days. In your great name I pray...


Thursday, November 06, 2008


I'm grateful for several things this very rainy morning before heading off to teach:

1. We've witnessed history this week. No matter your view, red or blue, of how best to solve our nations problems and move forward, the election of an African-American to the highest office in the land is, as Thomas Freidman wrote in the New York Times, a milestone of still unperceived proportions. I pray that the reconciliation and tearing down of walls that is marked through this achievement will be move us forward in our ongoing national healing.

2. As I teach this week, I remain profoundly grateful for the Bible and the joy God has given me in both diving into it, and sharing discoveries I learn there. I'm teaching this week at the school where I first taught students 19 years ago, and I realize that the joy of sharing Christ through His Word has never diminished.

3. I hope you'll share my joy and forgive a little boast, as the book I wrote was listed by Publisher's Weekly this week as one of the best books of 2008 in the 'religious books' category. If you'll scroll down on this link a bit you'll find it there. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing process, but don't feel at all qualified to assess the quality of my own work, so it's been another highlight of my week to have PW affirm the work. It gives me encouragement to write again.

These are amazing days friends. We all need the fortification of our faith in Christ to be the presence of hope in a world where it appears that there's darkness at every turn. May His life energize, direct, and bless us as we follow Him.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sermon Discussion: on the third day...

Jesus rose again from the dead. - I Corinthians 15:3-8 / 20-28

The topic is more timely than we might first think, because a healthy view of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead helps us escape some of the prevailing destructive world views that course through the veins of history. Which ones?

1) the notion that we will eventually evolve to a state of collective perfection. This is a difficult view to own with much conviction if one looks at history for the reality is that, while we've evolved in some area (consider the 109 year old African American woman who voted last night - she is testimony to how far our country has come), there are countless areas where darkness continues to grow. Children continue to die of treatable diseases. Should I mention Darfur? Rwanda? Congo? The Middle-East? Cancer? Environmental degradation? How long until we reach the state where, through our own powers of education and value structures, we achieve perfect justice? Apart from Christ, never, that's when, because the reality of human evil is rooted deeply in our individual and collective humanity.

2) the last sentence in point one is the seedbed for a 2nd, equally grievous error: our disengagement from this world as we passively wait for a future rescue by Jesus. Such a faith is not only stripped of all power and relevance for most of the world, it's also rooted in a grave misunderstanding of what Jesus had to say about his kingdom. Nevertheless, being certain that we're not "left-behind" and trying hard to get our neighbors in the lifeboat too remains a high priority for many who claim the name of Christ.

In contrast to both of these views, the early church declared, not a future kingdom of God someday when Jesus returns, but a kingdom present in seed form, so that visible outposts of justice, hope, peace, and generosity could be here on the earth right now because Christ's resurrected body is here on the earth right now. And yet, mysteriously, though He's here, it's equally true that He is yet to come, and that only when He comes in fullness will the reign of Christ be full and complete. On that day, all enemies will be conquered, and all the universe shot through with the glory of God. This "now" and "not yet" mystery is at the core of the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ. It roots us in a deep commitment to the present while equally calling us to a confident hope in Christ final triumph. Learning to live in this space is deeply connected to my belief in the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus, as we'll see this Sunday.

1. If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, is your belief rooted more in the right side, or left side of your brain (right = subjective, emotive) (left = scientific, objective)

2. Would Christianity have any value if Jesus didn't rise from the dead? Why or why not?

3. How do you relate Jesus' resurrection to your thoughts at funerals? How does this resurrection affect your politics?

Yes we must...

The votes have been cast. Two stirring speeches were given, both striking in their humility and call for unity. American democracy was on a world stage last night and we collectively demonstrated that the ideals of giving everyone a voice are still alive and well, perhaps more visibly demonstrated this year than any other.

But now that it's over, millions of believers are waking up either elated or exasperated, overjoyed or angry, delighted or despairing. I know this because this is a time of seismic political shifts among people of faith, with fractures growing along geographical, generational, theological, and economic lines, depending on your particular situation. I know this because in this first election since the rise of the blogosphere, inflammatory pixels have been hurled, believer at believer, with such intensity that outsiders would think the left and right worship different Gods.

Millions of Christians are feeling that the country is headed, more than ever, in the wrong direction, while the rest are conviced that better days are finally ahead and the right man won. Many are angry at the other side, incredulous that Christians could vote as they did. But behind the sound bytes, blog attacks, and flashes of apocalyptic rhetoric, if one listens carefully, there's a humble Jewish man saying, "by this all men will know that your are my disciples, in that you have love for one another." This love has largely gone missing during the recent political season. Continuing to wallow in bitterness or gloat in triumphal pride are not acceptable options for people who follow Jesus. We must find a way to move towards the healing of relationships and unity of heart and purpose that is foundational to our calling. Yes, we must.

Recovery begins by realizing that the winner is neither Messiah nor Anti-Christ. Believing that any party is God's party leads to heights of elation or depths of despair unbecoming to those who claim that Christ is our true king, His reign our true hope, and embodying that reign our true ambition. The reality that Jesus stands outside the confines of our political structures was demonstrated during His short stay on earth, when He was no party's poster child, no ideology's champion. He came offering a different kingdom, whose ethics and calling stand apart from the warring systems of this world. This is where we must place our hope.

We must realize that our calling is to live, right now in the present, in accordance with the priorities and ethics of our eternal King, and His coming kingdom. This will mean offering bold critique and resistance at some moments, and enthusiastic support at others, for various positions and reforms offered by both the left and the right. As we seek to embody this Kingdom, the walls that have divided us will fall down, because we will care about life in the womb, and life on the streets; we'll care about justice and mercy; we'll care about loving our enemies and standing up for those who are unprotetcted. We'll become artisans of genuine hope, spilling the colors of beauty, reconciliation, celebration, serivice, justice, peace, and compassion on the canfass of our communities. This, I'm convinced, is not only our calling in Christ, it's what our world desperately needs in these immensely challenging days. We must lay our weapons down and commit to being the presence of Jesus in the world. Yes. We must.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

grace happens... the year of jubilee in action

Last night I participated in our church's annual meeting and then drove to the northern limit of the USA, finding a motel at edge of the border at about 11:30 PM, where I slept, showered, shaved, and from which I disappeared 6 hours after my arrival. I drove north, crossing the border in order to catch a float plane to one of the most beautiful locations for a Bible school on the planet.

Whilst waiting for the float plane and trying to drink myself awake with Tim Horton's coffee, I was perusing a Vancouver newspaper, but the endless stories of hockey, local murders, and Canadian politics were neutralizing my caffeine and I was drifting off, until one story caught my eye:

A Texas woman goes with her son to a foreclosure auction and as the bidding begins, she sits down next to a woman and asks, "bidding on this one? It should go cheap, don't you think?" The woman bursts into tears, as she explains that this is her house, and that coming to the auction was her way of saying good bye. She'd bought the house for 80k and then there had been some sort of family tragedy so that, even working two jobs, this woman couldn't make the payments, and had lost it. The mother stands up and quietly goes over to her son, who is bidding and says something. He stops bidding, and she picks it up where he's left off. In a few minutes this woman, the owner of a small business, and by no means wealthy, has purchased the house for 30 thousand dollars. She then walks back over to the other woman and says, "I'd like to give you your house back." Before the afternoon was over, the purchaser had used her line of credit to buy the house, deeded it back to the original owner, and worked out an arrangement with her whereby she would pay back the 30 thousand the woman had drawn from her line of credit.

On the day of the election, far too many people are convinced that an American culture shift, or political shift will make the difference. I'm the first to agree that shifts are needed - in how we view life in the womb, in how we view our role in the world, in how we care for the poor, and in much more. But more powerful, always, than any cultural shifts, will be the shifts that come into our world when people take up the mantle of Jesus' ministry in Luke 3 and go about the business of setting the captive free, proclaiming deliverance, and living out the year of jubilee in ways that are sometimes emotional, and sometimes (such as in this story) financial.

The funny thing is that I don't even know whether this woman is a Christian. But since I'm a firm believe all people carry within themselves some capacity to display God's image (albeit distorted and limited), I don't need to know. I can learn from her example and ask God how I'm blessing, serving, liberating - she bought a stranger's house and gave it back to her!

If you want your country to be great, don't worry to much about who's in power (more on that tomorrow). Just worry about whether you're living like Jesus, a life poured out in service to all who are in our world, for this path, and no other, is the path to greatness.