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, January 31, 2008


The endless snow in the mountains is great for skiing if you can get there. But the avalanche realities on the interstate this week are keeping the masses away from the over six feet of new snow that is falling this week.

The avalanche. It's a big part of our heritage here in the Pacific Northwest, inundated as we are by abundant mountain snows, the product of all that Pacific Ocean moisture finding its way inland. As the snow falls on certain slopes, its mass grows, looking harmless, beautiful even. But the moment will come when there's enough snow mass for gravity to win the day. When that happens the snow, all of it that has been building up silently and harmlessly, gives way. BOOM! An entire slope disappears. I was called in to help with a search once for a woman buried by an avalanche. One minute she's standing next to her boyfriend, admiring the beauty of the Cascades and talking about how glad she was to have moved out west. The next minute she's gone, buried in an avalanche so deeply that her body wasn't found for several days. I stayed behind as chaplain for the young man whose girlfriend just died. On the way out we hiked in single file, one by one across a precarious slope so that a rescue team might be readily available should it happen again. When it was my turn, the whole mountain gave way again. I was saved only because I was standing directly below a small stand of trees and rock that split the avalanche in two directions, burying the trail both in front of, and behind me. So yes... I'm a little intimidated by avalanches.

This week though, I've been reminded that what I call the 'law of the avalanche' runs through more than just mountain passes. The Law Of The Avalanche (let's call that LOTA) simply means that in many areas of life there is a big gap between action and consequence. Snow builds up to a point of unsustainability and then gives way all at once.

The same thing happens with auto maintenance, as I realized this week when my car had a 'valve spring' break. This happened at an inconvenient time (as if any time for the breaking of a valve spring could be convenient), and the mechanic said, "has this baby been burning a bit of oil?" I nodded.

"A bit" I said. He chastened me and said that if a compression test had been run on the valves this could have been avoided. That's an example of LOTA in action. The nastiness was building up and there were tiny warning signs, not to mention the pleas for regular maintenance, much of which went unheeded because there appeared to be no immediate threat. Then, driving over the tiniest little hill up north by the Canadian border...BOOM followed by CLICK CLICK CLICK COUGH (add sulfer smell), quickly followed by a lecture from the mechanic.

By that night, LOTA had kicked in yet again, this time attacking my body. When I rose from the supper table, my back cried out in pain, and I was reduced to immobilized mush, lying on the floor with my feet up, reading a book that is periodically a favorite of mine called, "Back Care Basics". I look at pictures of proper ways to sit, stretches and exercises that should be part of a regular routine but which I regularly ignore because there's no pain. The book though, tells me that these bad habits will accumulate unnoticed, weakening the fundamental structure of the spine until... BOOM followed by PAIN PAIN PAIN, quickly followed by a lecture from the book: "don't wait until a pain crisis to care for your back."

As a lay in the 'healing position', I set the book down and pondered where else in my life I'd been rolling the dice with LOTA. Neglecting habits of the spirit can have serious consequences too and LOTA plays that field well. It's eminently easy to blow off prayer, Bible reading, silence, solitude, because so much else is pressing in. But a build up begins to occur there too - what is it this time? Bitterness? Lust? Self-Pity? Anger? We try not to let any of it show, but we're creating some massive instability (called hypocrisy), which will eventually give way, exposing the reality of our neglect. It happened to the nation of Israel (read Jeremiah). It happened to the religious leaders of Jesus' day as their neglect of relationship and love for God was revealed when they crucified there very One of whom their scriptures spoke when they read and taught each Sabbath. And it can happen to me - maybe even you.

I'm writing this with an ice pack strapped to my back, debating whether or not I can venture out the door today and make my way to appointments with our family one car down. LOTA's been visiting me this week. But truth be told, I feel as if I've gotten off cheaply. I'd rather learn my listen with lumbar stresses, and broken valves than a massive avalanche of flesh crushing my spiritual life. So when I'm done with this post, I'll lie down once again in healing position, this time with Bible in hand, and repent of neglecting to keep the slopes of my heart clean over the past busy weeks. My spirit feels better already.

Thanks Lord, for cheap avalanches - wake up calls inviting me to care for the things entrusted to me. Cars and backs yes, but more significant things as well - relationships with family, co-workers, friends, You. I pray you'll grant me the wisdom to pay attention to the preventative maintenance needed in these arenas, as well as the arena of my heart, so I'll be better able to fulfill the calling you've given me to bless and serve. In your great name I pray... Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2008

10 (oops, make that 7) things I hate...

It's not easy being a Christ follower these days because, as I've said before, the name "Jesus" and most of the other God words used to declare loyalty to Christianity are used to justify everything from greed to hatred. If that were all there was to it, I'd throw it all away and never look back, but Jesus Himself, the redemptive story of history, the remarkably captivating ethic of God's kingdom, along with all those Christ followers embodying humility, love, simplicity, and generosity are all too compelling - intellectually, emotionally, historically, philosophically, and more.

Still, there are plenty of frustrations for those walking this road. I remember watching 10 Things I Hate about You while my kids were in High School. A young actor, Heath Ledger, played the boyfriend. He would go on to play a groundbreaking role in Brokeback mountain. Never mind what you think of the ethics of homosexuality; in the real world, real people wrestle with longings that don't fit into tidy categories, and I'd argue that this film brought the conversation of a painful subject into the public arena. That there's a church group standing outside Ledger's funeral shouting hateful slogans because of his role in this film sickens me. Once again, "Christians" are adding fuel to already inflamed misconception that all Christians hate gay people, and would rather shout at them than know them, love them, learn to be friends with them, listen to their story.

This started me thinking (and I try not to on Fridays) about the things that happen 'in the name of Jesus' that bother me most. To honor Mr. Ledger, I'm naming it: 10 THINGS I HATE. Christians do these thing... so do those who don't believe - all of us are no doubt guilty in different times and ways. I hate:

1. our propensity to put someone in a box and then presume that they are all that the label on the box implies. Stereotyping has the effect of turning people into object.
2. shouting slogans at people rather than learning to listen to them. This has happened to me when I tell people I'm pro-life. I remember some women from NARAL screaming at me, calling me a Nazi, when all I wanted to do was have a dialog with the goal of mutual understanding. Of course that's what happening at Ledger's funeral and it angers me.
3. that racism and sexism and colonialism have been such large blind spots in the church for so many generations... only now are we beginning to understand, and still we have so far to go.
4. that 'forms' in Christianity are elevated to a status of greater importance than they deserve - big church/small church emergent/traditional this music/that music read prayers/spontaneous prayers jeans/papal robes. Let's go ahead and tell each other what we like, but please - let's call these things what they are: matters of taste.
5. that we live in a noisy world of both obligatory activity and loud diversion, so that the silence so nurturing to the soul is hard to find - impossible actually without a great deal of intentionality.
6. that people who reject Christianity often do so because of the pathetic caricature they see.
7. that, in spite of the vast resource wealth of our planet, so many die each day of treatable diseases, or die because they don't have access to clean drinking water - and that this has been an increasingly severe problem in the industrial age, and that we're so slow to make collective progress.

OK... this is getting to depressing, and I don't like to whine, so I'll leave it at seven.

On the bright side though, whenever I start thinking like this, it only increases my intention to emobdy both the individual and collective power of Christ's transforming power - working towards the building of community and the embodiment of Christ's life . Where this happens, there will progress (sometimes painfully slow) towards healing, justice, love, beauty, and celebration. May the rantings of extremists and recognition of the apathy of our own hearts impassion and strengthen our resolve rather than becoming soil for the choking seeds of further cynicism.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Does Jesus care?

By the time most of you read this the US stock market will be in the midst of a terrible free fall. Though the markets don't open for an hour, this article in the NY Times, explains that the tremendous declines in markets globally, both Monday and Tuesday, have created a pent up demand for selling. What will this mean for you and I? I don't know, but the global crisis, this time, is a result of the American economic crisis, and the American crisis has at least two addictions at the root:

1. Oil - Up 74% in the past year, this single commodity drives the US economy, affecting the price of everything we buy, from construction materials, to toys, to the food we buy. And though its not an absolute truism, it's generally true that the farther something comes from home, the more energy it has consumed to get to you. Read the labels on your clothes, manufactured in places with cheap labor. They're not as cheap as they once were because getting them here costs more - same with food - and of course the cost of driving a car - and heating oil. All those dollars spent on the basics of transportation and keeping the house warm are dollars not spent elsewhere. Thus the wealth, globally, continues to flow to those with oil or better fiscal habits than us, many countries of which are now using their wealth to diversify.

2. Credit - Buy a house with no money down, turn around and sell it in a year. Make loads of money! That's so 2002! Our efforts to keep the economic machine well oiled created an unsustainable addiction to credit, which created an unrealistic inflation of house prices. It now appears that its time to pay the piper, and many can't, leading to record foreclosures.

Does Jesus care about any of this? Well that's a question for a book rather a blog, but the answer is yes, only louder; something like this: Y-E-S!! For centuries the developed world has harvested the natural resource wealth and cheap labor wealth of the powerless across the globe. Slavery, colonialism, and more recently the economic globalism that keeps 'our best interests' in mind, have contributed to the oppression, suffering, and deaths of untold numbers. Of course, one can't read the prophets of the Old Testament, the words of the Jesus, or the words of Paul without realizing that this reaping bounty and enjoying luxury at the cost of other's well being is unacceptable to God. And the odds are that all of us who are reading this have blood on our hands.

I wonder if we who are the church should constitute a different economic model, one based on simplicity, interdependency, and deeply intentional care for both the poor and the earth as the foundations for our economic practices. "The Amish" you say? No (though we could learn a great deal more from them than we could criticize); more yeasty, more interwoven with the larger culture. How about co-housing, and health clinics for the army of uninsured and underinsured? How about living closer to work, using public transportation, and buying more locally? How about real commitments to a change in how we do energy here in America? The list could grow...and the crisis grows. And maybe the crisis will be the only way we'll change at all.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

52 things

I spent my birthday this week skiing on a very sunny cold day with my very sunny warm wife, and when it was all done, my heart was filled with incredible gratitude for the life I’ve been given, deeply aware that I deserve none of it. I won’t tell you how old I am, but I went home from the skiing and wrote down 52 things for which I’m thankful…
  1. Christ is more real to my daily life and a better friend now than when I was 20
  2. even though I’ve screwed up too many times to count,
  3. thus allowing me to be the recipient of unconditional love, no less real from this invisible Source than from anyone, or anywhere else.
  4. I'm thankful for a wife who still loves me
  5. And still makes me laugh
  6. And is still very attractive
  7. And skis, hikes, and bikes with me,
  8. And chases my dreams as passionately as her own
  9. And is a remarkable mother to our children.
  10. A daughter who teaches English and laughs at lexical/grammar jokes when nobody else does
  11. A son whose fierce love for all of us, and relentless pursuit of a meaningful life combine to give him a unique blend creativity, sensitivity, humor, and independence.
  12. A daughter whose love for all people, births smiles on other faces which are themselves contagious, so that the whole world is a little lighter for her being in it.
  13. A spacious faith that has room for finding God in many places, including
  14. film (try Once on for size)
  15. the outdoors (the snow at Baker is amazing this year… don’t miss it)
  16. Music (have you heard Jose Gonalez?)
  17. the Bible (here’s a current read…)
  18. a discovery in recent years that the gospel, the good news, is very good indeed, offering not only personal salvation, but cosmic transformation. This has given me the chance
  19. to be a part of God’s redemptive story by caring about things like poverty, AIDS, and the environment. What’s more it has invited me to
  20. the discovery of my call to simplicity and generosity and
  21. the development of a rule of life so that I can continue to wrestle with what it means to grow
  22. life outside the city, where I can write, pray, hike, ski, cook, sleep, and watch trees grow.
  23. the privilege of being involved in a church that is nearly one hundred years old
  24. but who has grown younger over the past decade due to the work of God
  25. who is raising up a generation of leaders to bring hope, justice, forgiveness, and all the rest that is Christ, to Seattle, and far places,
  26. and whose leadership has been incredible in their patience, and risk taking in the name of Christ.
  27. The faithfulness of God that has seen me through the traumas of losing my dad and sister at early ages, which resulted in the refinement, rather than destruction of my faith.
  28. the chance to live in a place with rain, clouds, concerts, a film festival, diversity of people and ideas and one good sports team,
  29. so that I can’t remember, for a long time now, ever being bored.
  30. Friends who are my age, so that we can compare aches, pains, physical therapy plans, and walk with each other through the unique seasons of seeing our kids off while our parents grow old,
  31. Friends who are younger, who challenge my thinking, help me understand the ways in which God is doing a new thing, introduce me to new music, books, and ideas, and even humor me by taking me skiing or climbing once in a while.
  32. The chances God has given me to teach lesewhere, that have allowed me to make friends in different parts of the world, and thus experience the globalness of God.
  33. chocolate, especially Milka bars, especially the Joghurt ones.
  34. Merlot
  35. French Films
  36. coffee, especially French press
  37. the gift of friends who’ve shaped me profoundly and left before me – dad, Scott Becker, Major Ian Thomas, and my sister are four who readily come to mind.
  38. the belief in a glad reunion with all of them someday, when wholeness will be the order of the day
  39. Greenlake
  40. Frederich Beuchner
  41. friends who are serving Christ around the world in desperate situations. They humble, inspire, challenge, and enliven my faith on a regular basis
  42. Steven Spielberg. He's still the one living person I'd most enjoy having over for dinner. Who else creates across such a diverse spectrum?
  43. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His Letters from Prison, and Ethics both challenged to find causes for gratitude every day.
  44. Ecclesiastes, my new favorite book of the Bible, still captivating me after its rediscovery one year ago.
  45. Pesto
  46. The Cinque Terra - memories of being there with my wife still haunt a good way.
  47. My friends who run a healing house in Augsburg. They challenge my thinking and have been foundational in a reawakening of my own practices of prayer
  48. the reality that I’m old enough now to really enjoy the students I teach. I’m not nervous as I once was. Who, after all, am I trying to impress? And why?
  49. the capacity to roam the North Cascades on foot even though I need to do a little Yoga when I’m finished.
  50. I still enjoy playing the piano
  51. I’m not deaf yet, even though I played the drums for 13 years in a row
  52. Memories… more than 52, which remind me that all’s well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
I know about suffering, loss, failure; know that many of the pleasures I've listed here are fleeting; know that we're destined for dust. I also know that I live in a world filled with oppression, disease, terror, war, and crumbling ideological underpinnings that are threatening our collective future. Can we live with these harsh realities AND be grateful for that which we've been given? I hope so... because the reality is that I'm grateful for each these joys, some simple, some profound, some temporal and fleeting, some eternal and solid.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

We get by with a little help from our friends

It was a bad day, on the heels of a bad night, on the heels of a bad day. It seemed that the bottom had dropped out of my one or two parts of my carefully constructed world, and what's worse, I couldn't do a blessed thing to fix matters - not today - maybe not ever, for matters that needn't fixing weren't entirely dependent on me.

I don't like being in a place where there's nothing I can do. It feels paralyzing, not just for those one or two areas of life where the bottom has dropped out, but for all of life. It was strange indeed that on this very low day, the lowest of lows in recent memory, I should be sitting in my office, staring blankly at my computer, when someone tells me that "A John McCullough is on line one for you."

The receptionist couldn't know that this was the former pastor of the church where I'm presently the pastor, my predecessor who served faithfully for 37 years; couldn't know that, of all the people in the world I would have wanted to speak with on that day, he would be in the top three because he would be unique in the world to speak into the situations in my life where things were tense. He only called because he'd sent me an e-mail - the same one - three consecutive times, and still wasn't convinced that it had gone through, so he called the church to find out.

But he called, and there we were, our voices and hearts connected, transcending years (we spoke last, I believe in '01) and miles, to share our hearts with one another. I told him of the bottom dropping out matters. He laughed, quoted some scripture, and said some words that overflowed with a depth of wisdom and compassion, seasoned with grace and humor, so that by the time we were finished speaking, my heart was light. My God, literally, what a pastor!

But timely words aren't the prerogative of pastors only. They're a possibility with all of us, and the truth of the matter is we may never know the power of a particular phone call or thank you note, an encouraging word, or affirmation. I'm reminded of the exhortation in the Bible to keep casting our bread on the water. Keep sharing, encouraging, loving, sowing seeds of hope as we can. God knows that this will be how lives are buoyed in stormy waters. We get by with a little help from our let's get on with encouraging words!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Digest Amazing Grace

Don't just watch it. Watch it and learn a little history so that you know that there was a time when someone, on the basis of Christian conviction, stood against the overwhelming tide of a Christian nation in order to bring the social implications of the gospel to bear on society. Here was a person who understood the gospel's implications on:

1. the slave trade - that the dignity of each human is more valuable than the economic advantages of a few, gained by oppression.

2. the rush to war - that the lives of soldiers are vital enough, valuable enough, that all means of diplomacy should be fully exhausted before attempting war.

3. politics - that Christ and His kingdom reign, which invites justice for all, and the end of oppression for all people, must be a vision which spills out beyond the walls of our private lives and into the world we live, through art, literature, politic, music, education, health care reform, and more.

4. patience - because the real emancipation came 22 years after the first introduction of the issue in the House of Parliment. Between start and finish there were setbacks, opposition, discouragement, challenge. But William and others "ran with patience" the race that was set before them. So should we.

Each of the four elements above have very real application in the present, and so it seems to me that this a movie for our day. There's a scene in a worship service, where the pastor begins to speak about the necessity to end the slave trade and people walk out. "Give us salve for our spirits. Tell us we're forgiven. Keep it on a spiritual plane. But don't speak to us about the implications of the gospel on our pocketbooks, or our energy consumption, or the dangers of nationalism." Such mindsets among the faithful too often keep the salt and light of the gospel from becoming visible.

But Wilberforce kept going, holding forth the torch of truth in the midst of hostility. It's an encouraging example to me.

Wilberforce said: "I have two concerns: The suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of society"

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Of Primary Concern

Well sports fans, it’s that time in history once again; time to determine who will land in the Oval office and navigate the waters of international chaos, energy and environmental crisis, economic uncertainty, and increasingly challenging access to health care for millions of Americans. So we’ll be voting and watching over these next few months to see where this is all heading. The most cynical among us, as well as some extreme conspiracy theorists, won’t even bother to vote, believing that elections are determined solely by the interests of multi-national corporations and "their will be done, in India as it is in London, as it is in New York.”

So what’s a pastor to do at this time of year? To endorse a particular candidate is to risk being charged with being too political. I’m sensitive to that, although I’d note that there have been times in history when churches were silent out of deference to the state’s wishes and nasty things happened, like six-million Jews being executed. Precious few church leaders were willing to be explicit in their naming of Hitler’s dangers and crimes. And there are other issues too, where the church has been silent. Slavery? Colonialism? ...? I hope and pray that I’ll be explicit in naming names and crimes when the time is called for.

Until such time, I do think it’s important for pastors to communicate what they perceive to be the important issues for this time in history, and to encourage people to use the voice they’ve been given, casting their vote for the most appropriate candidate. After all, Jeremiah 29 encourages us to work and pray for the well being of the place where we live, wherever that place happens to be. At times those concerns are intensely local (as in our particular concerns with the well being of the neighborhood near our church) and at times they are national, such as when there’s an election and we’re considering issues and leadership that will affect all Americans and perhaps even the whole world.

So what are the important issues for us? I hope that we’ll elect a candidate who will:

  1. Recognize the growing gap between the rich and the poor and address it through economic checks and balances that will give more people a chance. I find it intriguing that our founding fathers were committed to checks and balances in the realms of government, but somehow felt that everyone operating in their economic self interest would float the boat of well being for all. This sort of economic Darwinism clearly isn’t working. Who will work to hold corporations accountable for policies that further injustice and oppression?
  2. Call people to sacrifice rather than consumption. Why? Because our lifestyles as Americans have us drowning in a sea of debt. Because of #1 above. Because of #5 below. And finally, because our materialism has been the de-facto means of defining our lives, so that we are increasingly a nation that is materially obese, but starving in our spirits and souls.
  3. Tell the truth – about how we will treat prisoners of war, about why we’re involved in military operations, or if we leave Iraq, why we’re getting out – about the many complexities of the illegal immigration issues – about the national debt and the weakening dollar – about the rapidly diminishing supply of oil globally and what we’ll do to energize ourselves differently, and the sacrifices that will be needed to take us there – about the real threats to both our liberties and our safety that have come about because of terrorist threats and how our leadership will balance those threats.
  4. Restore our status on the international stage as a country that uses its power and status to bless the world. This will require someone with commitments to, and skills in international diplomacy, as well us understanding the role of the sword in keeping peace, a fine balance indeed.
  5. Understand the holistic nature of the environmental crisis and be committed to action in all areas. Farming practices and erosion of topsoil, public transportation options in urban centers, the creation of micro-local economies, and heavy incentives for the real development and implementation of alternative energy sources are all important aspects of environmental responsibility.

The list could continue on, but I wanted to limit it to my top five. I’m hoping that you’ll add your own priorities to the list by leaving a comment. What are your primary concerns?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Earth: Caring and Sharing

There's an interesting New York Times article here about the disparity between the consumption habits of the developing world and those of the developed world. Perhaps you'd find it hard to believe, but the reality is that Western Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia consume more of the earths resources per capita by a factor of 32, compared to the consumption habits of the developing world.

When we look at rioting in Kenya, or attacks on oil rigs in Nigeria, it's perhaps a bit easy to become self-righteous, assuming that the anger stems from some sort of flaw in systems or governments, some sort of corruption. Maybe. But maybe it's a least partly true that places like these have grown weary of us consuming 32 times more than they do. Can't we help them rise up a bit to attain to lifestyles that result in access to clean water, education, basic medical care, and healthy food? And if it's incumbent on the developed world to simplify things a bit in order that this might happen, can't we cut back a little - living a little bit greener and simpler?

This seems to me to be a faith issue because as Adam's offspring we're invited to fulfill the charge given him to tend the land and care for it. Draining the oceans of fish, clearing the forests of trees, harvesting species to extinction, and supporting systems that uphold the vast inequities globally of lifestyle don't seem to be the best ways of fulfilling the charge given Adam. To the contrary, these realities indicate the extent to which the fall has tainted our ability to rule the earth well.

The path forward must begin with resource stewardship. You can consider this matter personally if you'd like by assessing your own carbon footprint here. My own conviction is that Christians ought to be at the forefront of these kinds of policy matters and discussions, but the reality is that too often the church ignores these matters. The reasons are sometimes theological (rooted in a dualism that renders all things physical meaningless) and sometimes political (as the church weds herself to political parties that seek to sustain and uphold the factor of 32 as some sort of divine right of Americans). But please, let's get beyond these things and begin to creatively consider how best to simplify our lives. Perhaps we'll find that buying more locally, cooking more real food, walking or biking more, and turning a few lights out will result in not only a smaller footprint, but a more joy filled lifestyle.

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