Pastoral Musings from Rain City

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Never what you expected...

The convergence of studying Acts 3 and moving my mom into assisted living in Fresno this week has been a powerful reminder that life usually unfolds in ways that are different than our expectations. In Acts 3, the lame guy just wants a hand-out, but Peter has much more in mind; not a hand-out, but healing; not just walking, but worshiping; not just an encounter with Peter, but an encounter with Christ.

So this week, all I've wanted to do is move furniture, sell stuff on craigslist, buy other stuff for mom's new situation, and get on with life. Instead, God breaks through and reminds me, time and again, of His faithfulness in my life, and how He's been writing a story on my heart for such a long time. For example:

1. last night, in going through one of the many boxes that are filled with papers in need of sorting, I found a letter from me to mom, February 1976. It was the letter where I told her I thought God might be calling me to leave architecture school in preparation for a calling in ministry. "As much as I love creating, and designing, and buildings, I can't imagine spending my life investing in these things when I could be investing in people's lives more directly through ministry". There it was, in my own hand, and I mark the moment: "thanks for the reminder God, that you were clearly speaking back then - help me to keep listening."

2. sorting through a bookshelf, I found the biography of Henrietta Mears, the woman who began Forest Home. I speak at Forest Home, and every time I do, I'm reminded that I'm standing in the same place where Billy Graham preached to college students, and found his calling as an evangelist. As I paged through the story of her life, I saw a picture of her standing on the very stage where I preach, and another picture of her with Billy Graham, and I am reminded of how 'great a cloud of witnesses' has gone before, and what an awesome, amazing, privilege it is for me to stand where these giants have stood. I'm reminded that the torch is in my hands, in our hands at this moment in history. I pray to be found faithful.

3. I find my mom's Bible, and her parent's Bible, and eventually even a giant 'family Bible' from about the 1870, and I realize that I've been adopted into a powerful heritage of faith - generations of people who walked with God, as farmers and carpenters, working in the oil fields and the peach trees, teachers and bakers. I found gratitude to have 'found my way' to such a family.

There's much more happening that's less profound: details that are giving me headaches, backaches, and weariness. But in the midst of it all, reminders of how God's hand has been on my life make me grateful, humbled, and intent to keep the faith, however haltingly, for another generation, because someday my great grandchildren might find my Bible, see my picture, and be challenged to press on.

This isn't what I expected by being here this week - but it's what I've got, and I'm glad.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Pondering Pillars

If you were at Bethany Community Church today, you heard me speak about the four pillars of the church, the four things to which we must commit above all else. We're called to commit to:

1. receiving teaching
2. pursuing fellowship with other Christians
3. meeting Christ in Communion
4. prayer

Here are some questions, for both a virtual discussion, and for Bethany small groups. Feel free to comment because your observations help determine how best to structure our life together in order to assure access to these critical pillars of church life.

1. Which pillar is most challenging for you? Why?
2. Which comes most naturally? Why?
3. What can be done to facilitate these important practices in our life together?

Like food for soil, these elements provide a context for our transformation, health, and fruitfulness. They're surprisingly simple, but church history reveals that we continually struggle with building these elements into our lives, and our life together. I hope and pray that 2009 will result in a greater grounding in each of these disciplines, both for individuals and for churches.

I'm off to Fresno to help my 89 year old mom in a major transition. I'll appreciate your prayers for strength and wisdom through the week, and I'll fly home next Saturday.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Perhaps - embracing the risk factor

There's a little word, which I find unnerving, that shows up regularly in the Bible. It's the word "perhaps" and its presence, if we ponder if for a moment or two, offers a critique of some values we hold dear in our western culture. The word shows up when Caleb seeks to conquer the hill country of the promised land as an old man. He asks Joshua for permission to enter Bible, noting that "perhaps" God will grant him victory. Jonathan, the son of Saul, took on twenty of the enemy because he sensed God was in it, and that "perhaps" the Lord would work victory of them.

In both cases, these men had a clear sense from God regarding both the next step they were take and the desired outcome. What they didn't know, however, was whether they would succeed. In both cases, failure would have meant death. In both cases success would have been a clear testimony of the power of God because strength would be manifest in the midst of situations where weakness was so clearly evident. But weakness means we're outnumbered. Weakness means we might fail. Weakness means that, unless God comes through, we're stuffed.

We don't like being in that kind of space. We don't like the word "perhaps". We don't like risks nearly as much as we like safety and control. Maybe that's OK, the preference for safety and control over risk. What's not OK is to choose safety as the predominant paradigm for our decision making, because the reality is that God is always pushing us out of our safety zone, into a zone of dependency. He's pushing us out of our safety zone financially, as he challenges us to live generously and trust him with our provision. He's pushing us out relationally, whether that means calling us to reach out to strangers, break down social barriers, or risk entering an unfamiliar culture where we're vulnerable and not in control. Like a mother eagle, he's pushing us out of our nests so that we'll learn the ways of faith. Soon we come to understand that the ways of faith can't be learned without the word "perhaps".

In a world where much in which we've trusted is presently collapsing (things like banks, the auto industry, the global economy, vocational assurance) it's tempting for us to make safety and assurance an even larger value than before, pushing faith and risk to the periphery. Such a posture reveals that we've misunderstood our real source of security all along, for the global economy, banks, vocations, and home equity were never our real sources of security. We might have thought they were. They weren't. God is the only rock, Jehovah Jirah is the only provider. He'll either sustain us, or He won't. But the prerogative, protection, and provision, come from Him. And if that's true, we've little to fear, even if the mirages collapse. This, of course, is easier to say than to actually live.

I intend to live 2009 on the basis of obedience to God's vision and calling, rather than on the assumption that God wants me to be safe. A little poem that helps me remember this comes from a WWII soldier named Studdard Kennedy, who fought often on the front lines. Writing home to his 10 year old son he said:

"The first prayer I want my son to learn to say for me is not, "God, keep my Daddy safe", but "God, make Daddy brave, and if he has hard things to do, make him strong to do them". Son, life and death don't matter, but right and wrong do. Daddy dead is Daddy still. But Daddy dishonored before God is something to awful for words. I suppose you'd like to put in something about safety too and Mother would like it too. Well, put it in afterwards, always afterwards. For it really doesn't matter as much as doing what is right."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So great a cloud of witnesses...

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses....

We should remember William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 19th century. There was Joseph Cinque, the slave on the Amistad whose trial became part of the momentum in the abolitionist movement, the author Harriet Beecher Stowe whose novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin", attacked the evils of slavery, Frederick Douglas who as slave, author, statesman, and reformer, laid groundwork for a different future. Of course, Abraham Lincoln, whose blend of courage, humility not only paved the way for countless leaders from subsequent generations, but whose wisdom in navigating the waters of a cultural divide and civil war led to the Emancipation Proclamation. Let's not forget Ghandi, whose principles of non-violence laid the foundation for Martin Luther King Jr's leadership, resistance and dream. Rosa Parks refused the back of the bus. John Perkins rebuilt. There was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, introduced by John F. Kennedy, and ulitmately passed through the hard work of Lyndon Johnson.

Time would fail us all if we tried to mention the other millions, on both sides of the Atlantic who contributed; Quakers, Wilberforce, the underground railroad... it just goes on and on with names that will never be known.

These are they who have gone before us, the witnesses who testified through word and deed that all people have dignity, that all people have capacity for greatness, that all people should be treated with dignity and granted opportunity. These ideals, I'll add, weren't created in a vacuum. They were ideals born out from a world view that believes in a God who loves all the nations, all people, every individual - and that government should be structured to assure such dignity and access for all.

let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us...

We're entangled, all of us are: entangled in the fruits of choosing greed over prudence and generosity, entangled in the fruits of linking sexuality with recreation rather than intimacy, entangled in the the fruits of violence, fear, arrogance. But this is our time to set aside our sin... to take up the mantle of responsibility, allowing the torch of hope that is symbolized in this day to burn with increasing clarity in the weeks and months ahead.

let us run with endurance, the race that is set before us...

It's a race in which we'll feel like quitting; otherwise we'd have no need for endurance. It's a race in which each of us have a part to play - each day, as we rise from our sleep to serve and bless our world, to function as "artisans of hope", a phrase coined by an author I know. And from where to do we get our fortification for this race, for this hope, for the carrying of the torch as a means of honoring those who have gone before us?

...fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.

There He is - behind the breaking down of the dividing wall, the ending of slavery, the ushering in of reconciliation, the challenge to abuse of power, the call to justice - behind all of it, there He is: Jesus. The source. The life. The way. May we who claim Him as our life be found faithful, discerning, and a collective source of blessing for our world.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sermon Discussion - the main message

Date: January 18
Topic: Awakening our hearts to the main message
Text: Acts 2:1-41

Now that the holidays are over, I'm happy to re-introduce study materials to help in the digesting of Bethany's Sunday teaching, including questions that can be used for a small group.

This week we're considering the significance of both the events of the Acts 2 Pentecost and Peter's message given on the day the Holy Spirit came. The main point of these section is to show how Pentecost was the beginning of a new world order, and to challenge us to live within it.
The meaning of Pentecost: This was a Jewish festival that marked the reception of spiritual fruit from God (the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai) and physical fruit, once Israel had settled into the promised land (as people brought the first fruits of the harvest as an offering during this feast). On this particular Pentecost feast, we see new "first fruits" celebrated:
1. the first fruits of the resurrection, as seen in Jesus
2. the first fruits of the Holy Spirit, as seen in the wind, fire, and tongues of this chapter
3. the first fruits of God's reign, as Christ is declared to be the new king of a new kingdom.

Here's the cynic's response? "New world order? Really? I don't see a new world order - I still see wars, disease, famine, injustice, loneliness, and death. I see it everywhere. In fact, I may even believe that God is worse than irrelevant - maybe He's the cause of these problems. After all, look at the Crusades, political corruption in the church, and of course, the greed and sex scandals. I like it better this way: 'imagine there's no heaven... no religion's easy if you try'.

1. How do you respond to this cynics challenge?
2. What signs can you point to, today, that there is indeed a new world order, a different king?
3. How has this new kingdom changed your priorities? In particular, what areas of your life have been altered, and how?
4. The religious people of the 1st century basically missed the signs. How can we attune ourselves so as to better see the signs of God's reign in our world?

I welcome your thoughts on any of these questions... thanks in advance.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Slumdog Paradox

The book Acts (which I'm presently teaching at our church) is filled with moments where the tables are turned. It's best to understand a little background regarding Jewish conceptions of Messiah, and how their religious establishment thought. However, lacking that kind of background, simply reading through the book will reveal numerous times when the people are supposed to 'get it' don't, and those who aren't, do. The Holy Spirit is poured out, not in the temple, but in some obscure upper room. It's poured out, not on the religious establishment, but on some obscure devotees of a recently crucified, so called "messiah". Wisdom and power are poured out through the uneducated and impoverished. The weak are strong, and the strong are revealed to actually be, not only weak, but withered and fearful souls who have become such by virtue of their resistance to the good news.

It was in the midst of my studies that I took a break last week to see "Slumdog Millionaire", and discovered a beautiful illustration of this book called Acts. It's a film about a young man who grew up in the slums of Mumbai. Playing on India's version of "Who wants to be a Millionaire", as his correct answers and winnings mount, he's suspected of cheating. The presupposition is that, of course, people from his caste, people from poverty, people from the slums, are...

It's right here, when you answer that question, the movie becomes a commentary about the many "isms" that divide us, right here in the "enlightened" west: racism, classism, sexism come to mind, though there are many more. The caste system has certainly created it's own waves of poverty in India, but it would be wrong to, with a wave of our educated hands, caste judgement on the Indian culture and so free ourselves from the much needed look in the mirror. The reality is that all of us have expectations of others, based on gender, education, clothing, color of skin, and more. We pre-emptively close ourselves off from learning and friendship with some; we pre-emptively judge and categorize others as hopeless. In short, we build walls and function with all the wisdom of this world, and in so doing make choices by completely different criteria than God's, building relationsal walls instead of tearing them down.

Slumdog reminds me of the way God does things. The whole army is shaking in their military issue boots, while the shepherd, whose mission is to deliver some bread to them, takes down the giant enemy with a slingshot. The impoverished teen becomes pregnant with the life of God. When Jacob marries two women, it's not the "hot" girl who is fertile; it's the other one, the one who (the story implies) rarely shares her bed with her husband because, yes, he's that shallow. She gives him, in the end, six sons!

Not many wise. Not many rich, etc. etc. I need to think about this, not only from the perspective of how I view others, but also how I view myself. I've taken myself, pre-emptively, out of relationships and contexts at various times because, frankly, I felt, "out of my league". People richer than me. Better looking than me. People with more letters after their name - Not wanting to feel small, I'd withdraw. This movie reminds me of the same thing that God says: Don't withdraw! You have gifts. Use them. Your life experiences have created a context for you to make a different. Live with integrity and let me carve a path for you.

You've heard of the French paradox. That makes for interesting dinner conversation (especially over escargot, a good merlot, and some fine dark chocolate). But the Slumdog paradox is more than interesting conversation - it's an illustration of the heart of the gospel, offering a life changing challenge to our isms and our withdrawal from God's story due to our own feelings of inadequacy. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Whose name is on the cup?

There are times when people who are in vocational ministry get weary of Jesus. Maybe I'm the only one, but I doubt it. He seems, at times, so hard to pin down, as everything from libertarianism to communism is carried out in His name. He seems to be the source of divisions in the world as people carrying His name have often carried a sword as well, leaving carnage in their wake. And He's a bit mystical, speaking in parables, paradox, and even contradiction, as tells his disciples to carry no sword here, and here to arm themselves. What's up?

It's tempting at times to skip Jesus altogether and simply focus on being about the things Jesus was about. He loved enemeis - let's love enemies. He hugged lepers - let's hug lepers. He feed hungry people - let's feed hungry people. If we go this route, not only will we have more tangible goals (after all, how do you measure, "being filled with all the fullness of God"?). Yes, let's be His hands and feet and skip all the doctrinal ambiguity, division, pondering and messiness that comes from talking about the life of Jesus and what it means to be filled with Him.

But then, along comes an article like this one, where a confirmed atheist declares that Africa needs Christianity. Here's part of what he says:

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But In the city (where we lived) we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

There you have it. We can tell ourselves that we don't need all the messiness of Christ, or even begin to believe that if we simply feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we're doing the work of God. But Jesus tells us that ministry is more than just giving a cup of cold water; it's giving a cup of cold water in Jesus name.

The article has two profound implications:

1 - The author speaks of how spacious, engaging, and enlivening followers of Christ are in Africa. I often ponder why I meet so many Christians in these North American parts for whom the opposite is true - they've become anxious, guilt-ridden, closed minded - so much so that I know people who are walking away from the faith because of neuroses of the faithful, afraid that it's contagious.

I can only conclude that a gospel (good news) that fails to change our persona, fails to open us up to the world, fails to impart joy, is not the gospel of Christ. We who lead had better make sure we're not inviting people to rituals, clubs, and systems, because the real deal entails an invitation to transformation by virtue of a person indwelling a person. I know it sounds mystical, but it's true - and it works, as evidenced by the article above. Put simply, if our lives are filled with fear, hate, and whining, we're probably following a different Jesus.

2 - I know many people who are open, spacious, and enlivening, but who are afraid to mention the name of Jesus. They're mantra is a destructive mutation of St. Francis' words: "Preach always - use words when necessary." This is tragically interpreted to mean that words aren't necessary at all, that the cup of cold water needn't have a name attached to it, or that the name doesn't matter - Humanitarian NGO is just as good is Risen Christ.

Kudos to Matthew Perry for having the courage to say what too many faithful are afraid to say: Christ makes all the difference. Do we believe that? Let's begin living it then, and making sure the name is on the next cup of cold water.

Monday, January 05, 2009

What will you do?

If you were around at Bethany Community Church this past Sunday, you heard this sermon.

If you heard this sermon, you heard me ask three questions:

#1 - What spiritual habits (Bible Reading, Prayer, Solitude, Silence, Sabbath Rest, Confession of sin, prayer for filling with Holy Spirit) are you intending to address in the coming months?

#2 - What is the single area needing stewardship (time, money, sexuality, relationships with family, other relationships, involvement in serving) are you intending to revive, or focus on strengthening, in the coming months?

#3 - What are your plans for crossing over cultural barriers in order to serve and bless those different than you?

If you'll answer some or all of these questions, it will help our ministry team in providing resources for your growth in the coming year. Thanks in advance for taking a few minutes to contribute, and please feel free to contribute even if you don't attend Bethany.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bye - Curious

I wanted to take a few moments and offer a dual post before heading into a very full remainder of the weekend.

Bye - Because of the early death of my dad, my mom's 89th year has given me a baptism into the realities of aging and, more significantly, the entire cauldron of emotions that are aroused in the process. My wife and I, along with all three of my adult children, surprised my mom by flying to San Francisco on Tuesday, and then renting a car and driving south to Fresno, arriving about 10:30 to surprise my mom for New Year's. I walked into her apartment in her retirement center and she was asleep on the edge of her chair, her head bent over as she breathed deeply. She woke with a start and once she saw us, broke into a broad grin. Something about the whole scene, the combination of frailty and joy, vulnerability and gratitude, combined to create a moment, the first of several over the past several days, where I needed to force myself to hold back tears.

We spent lots of time looking at pictures, both of our own children when they were young, me when I was a baby, and my mom when she was a beauty, newly married and skating on the ponds of Evergreen Colorado, where her new husband was stationed in WWII. I'd fight back tears again when I visited her sister, who was stricken with encephalitis several years ago and has never been the same since. She's not able to communicate much at all, and looked quite tired when we visited in the early evening of new year's day. But when my wife said, "Your sister's here to see you", though she said nothing, you could see her eyes light up. I watched them, sitting together, and though back to the many years when these two women were the exemplers of strength in my life. My mom in caring for a husband who was stricken with pneumonia each winter; my aunt in supporting her husband as he shepherded a growing church in Fresno for 25 years. When he called us together to join hands and pray, I fought back the tears yet again.

We were down in Fresno because my mom is needing to make a move to assisted living and I wanted to be there when the news was delivered. She resisted but, resigned to reality of it, looked at me on the day we were leaving and said, "aging is no fun at all" as she hugged me and told me how much she loved me. One more time, I managed to hold back the tears as I told her how much I loved her too.

We left on Friday and it was then, when I walked out the door as mom, sitting in her chair smiling and thanking us for coming, said good bye, that the tears finally won the fight. I knew that as soon as we left, she'd start thinking about the reality of her upcoming move. I knew that she'd be sad. I wanted to stay; wanted to comfort her; wanted her to be young again... but none of that is reality. I said "bye mom", as I have thousands of times over my half a century of living, and walked out the door. Never was that phrase more poignant. The family walked straight ahead to the car. I turned left, walked behind an adjacent building and cried my eyes out for thirty seconds before putting on sunglasses, getting in the car, and driving to San Francisco. Those tears where the release of three days, maybe three years, maybe thirty years of emotion; much more than I'll ever share here. But they were good tears, and somehow, in her aging and vulnerability, I'm learning a great deal about myself, my soul, the realities of how brief life is, and what it means to live in this fallen world.

Curious - There are way too many compelling movies in the theater right now and for a family that's presently on a tight budget, I hope you'll help me out by telling me what you've seen, what's a must see in the theater, what can wait until video, and what can wait forever. Here are the movies that interest me:

Revolutionary Road

Slumdog Millionaire

Benjamin Button


The Reader

Gran Torino

Seven Pounds

How can so many good looking movies be available at the same time? Please help me, and others, invest wisely, by sharing your reviews and investigations.

Happy New Years...and thanks for graciously reading a 'dual post'