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...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Inviting in... or going out? YES

Yesterday, in our worship service, I challenged our community to consider inviting people to our Easter service. We distributed little prayer cards on which people could write the names of those they'd like to invite to our Easter service. On this particular Sunday, our goal is to declare the good news that, since Jesus is risen from the dead, it doesn't need to be 'business as usual' in this tired, broken world. Jesus began a new kingdom, a kingdom that's not yet here in any substantial way, though it is here, as citizens of His reign embody hope in so many countless ways around the world. The invitation to step into that kingdom, and be reconciled to that King, is what the Christian life is all about. We'll also inaugurate an initiative on that Sunday to raise money for digging wells in Africa, serving some of the world's neediest in His name. Why wouldn't we want others to know, and enter in?

On the other hand, asking people to enter in to this new kingdom is only part of the story, for the reality is that, unless we're living in this kingdom ourselves, we've nothing to offer other than an idea. That's why there are many who say that it is far better to go out into the world and serve, than to invite people to attend a worship service. It is only out there, in the world, that we're able to show our world who Jesus is, or so the argument goes. I'd respond by saying that indeed, out there is where it's critical to show the world who Jesus is. That's why Christ followers serve the homeless, work with New Horizons, work with Operation Night Watch, tutor students at Bagley Elementary School, work in Pregnancy Centers, are involved in schools, both through Young Life, coaching, and PTA, are involved in the Greater Aurora Involved Neighbors (GAIN) work of addressing the social problems that plague our neighborhood, are involved on university campuses, and are involved in the business world of downtown, to name but a few.

Inviting people to attend a worship service can never be a substitute for involvement in service, and if people weren't already involved in serving, it would be wrong to hide behind the fortress and simply invite people in. But, in light of ways people are involved in serving in the community, it seems appropriate to complement that involvement with invitations, at least once in a while, to come and see, hear, experience, a community of people declaring the hope that is found in Christ and explaining what that means for everyday living.

What do you think? Inviting in? Going out? Both?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Altared States

I've lived in the same house now in Seattle for about 14 1/2 years. The backyard, bald as an eagle when we arrived, is now a little forest, a place we go to chat, watch hummingbirds, and listen to creation (and landing airplanes). The bedrooms shelter our kids still, but only when they're visiting. Each room is ripe with memories, but empty. The climbing wall in the upstairs office is still in use, though mostly for a few pull-ups, and less for climbing.

There are two places in the house that have become favorite places. One is our bedroom, where my wife and I share our nights and early mornings. Slowly, there's been a dawning realization that we're growing old together on this futon, bought new in 1985 from a woman who made them by hand in Friday Harbor, on the island where we lived. We've lived a lot there in that bedroom... loved a lot, fought a little, prayed some, laughed, dreamed, negotiated, cajoled, even served one another. It's been good.

The other place, though, is special in a different way. Shortly after we moved in, a little "dead space" at the top of the stairs to our bedroom became a tiny sanctuary. I bought a cross and set it on a styrofoam box, covered with a tiny cloth. There's a meditation pillow. I can sit there and read my Bible, read my little Celtic prayer book, a gift given by friends. I pray. I breathe deeply. I pour my heart out to God, whether in joy or sorrow, praise or lament, self-doubt or profound assurance. It reminds me a little bit of the "healing house" concept floated by Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings.

I've grown to love this little spot more and more over the years. The "stuff" of life, things like mail which qualifies as neither junk nor valued, old sermon notes, myriads of books, dark chocolate from Trader Joe's, running shoes, and more, seem to migrate to the top of the stairs. If it's stuff I'm supposed to deal with, sometimes it takes up occupancy in the shelter space. This bothers me, and I usually try to deal with it quickly. I do this because this space, which I must walk past every time I go up or down the stairs, is a reminder to me, by it's very existence, of the centrality of God. It's a reminder that God is present, a reminder to be still and listen for His voice, a reminder that God is inviting me to something bigger than my fears, my lusts, my self-doubt and inadequacies, my hopes and ambitions, my deep sense (felt often) of dependency on God. This space reminds me, at some deep level, of all that.

I know that we can pray anywhere. We should. I know that God isn't contained in buildings, let alone 20 square feet at the top of stairs. Still, I know too that it's a blessing indeed to have a place, a space, that exists for nothing else other than to meet with Christ. If the relationship with this invisible one is to be real, it requires intentionality. Somehow, the devotion of space invites that intentionality. Of course it's true that Christ is the source of sustainance for us, but it's also true that meeting Christ doesn't happen accidentally; it happens because we seek Him. The altar space is my ever present spatial invitation, and I'm glad it's there.

Does anyone else have a shelter, or ideas about how to facilitate meeting Christ regularly?

Monday, March 23, 2009

A measured response to Neo-Calvinism

Time magazine has informed us of ten trends to watch in the coming year, and one of them is the resurgence of Calvinism, embodied in the works of author's like John Piper, and numerous young pastors in America. One friend ponders the reasons for it's resurgence here. While I agree with his assessment of why the movement is strong and growing, I'm not at all certain it's a good thing.

Brent says in his post that "Calvinism is about certainty" In a world of post-modern cynicism, and the despair that comes with feeling ideological rootless, it's not surprising that the pendulum would swing, and that there would be a rise in the popularity of 'solid answers'. But what does the fact that a movement is growing really prove? (I'll point out that Islam is also growing rapidly in America). Perhaps it only proves that we like certitude, and the light speed cultural changes of the 21st century only serve to increase our hunger for answers we can believe in; live for; die for.

There's a great deal that's commendable in this because I do believe that we're made for a life of faith, a life where there are truths in which we believe utterly, truths to which we're willing to commit our very lives. Lacking such truths, we'll forever run around in a field of inquiry, never landing solidly enough to jump into God's calling for us. Suddenly, at the beginning of a new millennium, along comes a movement that tells us exactly how things are, and we find ourselves ripe for solid answers. "You had me at hello..." we say, realizing that we're finally home.

It's dangerous though, to offer people MORE certainty than the Bible itself offers, and this is one of the problems I have with the new Calvinism. Go ahead and declare the apostles creed as those truths agreed upon by the early church after much debate, prayer, and finally, declaration. Tell me it's true. Show me it's true. Invite me to believe it's true. I'll stand with you, knowing that I'm standing on solid footing because each of those declarations is easily defensible for anyone who believes the Bible to be our final authority source.

Neo-Calvinism doesn't end with declaring high certitude about the core beliefs found in the Apostle's creed, though. It goes on to tell me, systematically, about my depravity, the depth of it, how it means that I'm dead, and how, because I'm dead, I can't choose God, and that because I can't choose God, God needs to choose me, and isn't it cool that God chose me! Me! ME!! (and implied... 'so sorry about you', but don't question God's love or justice because the fact that He chooses any of us shows what a cool God He is...etc. etc.)

I won't debate those declarations because there are many places in the Bible where God does, in fact, declare that He chooses us. But I will suggest that this is only half the story. While Jesus offered some words that clearly indicated the Father's choosing and calling and sovereignty, He also said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink". If not anyone can come and drink, this seems like a bogus offer. Why would John the Baptist even make an offer like this if change wasn't a real possibility? Or consider the examples of Moses' and Joshua's invitations in the Old Testament to "choose life". What? Was there some fine print somewhere that I missed which read, "offer not available to the non-elect"?

The tired old argument between Calvinists and Arminiests about the nature of free-will and God's sovereignty is a classic example of how dangerous, in some settings, certitude is. The reality is that we're treading on the ground of mystery when we try to ascertain the interplay of man's choice and God's activity. Probably both are true, in ways that can't be harmonized adequately this side of eternity. There's some MYSTERY here, and when we fail to leave the mystery as mystery, offering instead a systematized answer, we do damage to the scriptures, and the systems we create run the grave of risk of distorting the character of God, as is evidenced by the doctrine of a limited atonement, which is a logical consequence of Calvinism, yet not in keeping with God's character in the Bible.

But now, suddenly, at the beginning of the 21st century, after 2000 years of failing to dissect the argument well enough to settle it, a few men have come along and figured it out for us. The answers, missing for literally millenia, are now here. "Thank you! Thank you! I can sleep now at night knowing the mystery is solved."

Nope. Not really. It's the wrong way to go, not because Calvinism is popular or unpopular, but because it's presumptuous. Our neo-Calvinist friends may think they have found, in John Calvin and his system, the perfect interpretation of all the mysteries of scripture, but many good people don't agree, and among those good people there are plenty with the good fruit of Christ's life present. Calvin's system, while offering allegedly solid ground, implies a degree of certitude that, when the cat's out of the bag and people begin to have questions of their own, will leave them feeling a little misled. Far better to say this, because there are, in truth, many areas where we're all still learning.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AIG meets the minor prophets

It was a strange moment this morning. I'm studying the minor prophets in preparation for an upcoming series in our church. As I'm taking a break, I turn on the television and see the CEO of AIG, the company that, having received 180 billion in government assistance, turned around and paid out bonuses of around 160 million to some of it's employees. The CEO is answering questions before a senate sub-committee about all this, and one of the senators requests that the CEO reveal the names of those receiving the bonuses. The CEO says he would, on condition that their privacy remain assured. The senator says he can't promise that. The CEO then reads excerpts from some letters he's received (or other employees have received). They're death threats, such as, "I will find you. I will find your children. I will strangle all of you with piano wire." "If I find out where you live, I will kill you." "Prepare to lose your house in a fire."

What made the moment so strange was that I was in the midst of studying God's judgment, and I found myself thinking, as I read of God's plan to judge Israel and other nations, "this is going to be hard to teach." People already dislike what they consider to be the 'Old Testament' God, because they view him to be harsh and judgmental, almost the antithesis of the gracious 'New Testament' God. How can I communicate that judgment and love are tied together, and that a God who stands by endlessly and let's evil grow uncontested, whether in my own human heart, or a family, or a company, or a nation, is not such a great God?

As I'm listening to these letters though, I realize that our post-modern notions and sentiments of a 'judgment free God' aren't really thought through very well. While not in manner vindicating the hateful, vindictive nature of the threatening letters, there's a reality behind them worth pondering: If pressed, all of us want justice to reign on this earth. We want the KKK to disappear. We were glad the Holocaust ended. We're sickened by Darfur. We don't stand idly by if child molestors are roaming the streets. And when a company is imploding, our sense of justice is offended when their employees make millions in bonuses.

But if we want justice, why are we bothered by the notion that God is a judge? I think it might have something to do with the reality that our own sense of judgment and justice is often selective, conveniently failing to see or address the flaws are clearly present in our own lives and the toll they might be taking on others. We're offended at the bonus takers, but not so easily offended by our own enjoyment of wealth that might have been extracted at the cost of someone's well being in the developing world. We're offended at the molestor, but not at our own secret lusts. We're offended at the murderer, but not at our own temper.

So it is, that when we ponder the reality that God, as a just judge, will deal with all corruption, we find the notion harsh. We want God to deal with some corruption; the other guy's corruption to be specific. Ours is, well, not so bad. It's just part of our nature, you see, and what with all the stress we've been under, maybe God should cut us a little slack.

The problem, though, is that selective justice tortures the very meaning of the word justice, perhaps beyond the breaking point. No, if it's justice we want, honesty demands that we want it for ourselves as well, not just for AIG execs. This brings me back to the prophets who offer good news: You want justice? God will bring justice! Everything that isn't rooted in the love, mercy, and character of God's perfect heart will ultimately be rooted out of our lives, and out of the universe. That's the faithfulness of God in action, as painful and offensive as it might sound. But in the end, it means that the new creation, the new world, will be a place of perfection, a place lacking all greed, lust, self-pity, hatred, and pride....even mine. Maybe judgment isn't such a bad thing after all.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spilling Hope: H2o & the Resurrection

In a few weeks many around the world will gather to celebrate Easter, recalling and testifying to our belief that history changed forever because Jesus tomb was found to be empty in a Sunday morning, and later that day the one who had died on a cross appeared to His followers, declaring that the healing of our broken world had begun.

But what, ultimately, is the point of this celebration? As NT Wright offers in this book, "A good many Easter hymns start by assuming that the point of Easter is that it proves the existence of life after death and encourages us to hope for it." But Wright goes on to declare the deficiency of this view, precisely because the hope for renewal and restoration is delayed - yes, restoration will happen...someday, somewhere. But not now, not here. In the meantime, until the rescue happens, the best we can do is wait, and teach others to also wait.

Really? Is that the best we can do? Is that even what we're called to do? Paul indicates, in his extensive declaration about the resurrection found here, that because He is risen, we are to "be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, know that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."

What is this work of the Lord? Jesus made it quiet clear here, and here. James also spoke of it here. The resurrection of Jesus was, after all, the beginning of a new world order, a world where there's justice, peace, hope, mercy, celebration, deliverance - all because of new King, and a new Life available to indwell any who open themselves up to Christ's life and reign. Those who do will follow Him in embodying hope... making hope visible in concrete acts of service and mercy.

That's why I'm so excited about the Easter service we're planning at the church I pastor. Rather that simply declaring that Christ is risen, our intent is to give our community and opportunity to embody the hope and new reign of the risen Jesus. We'll do this by beginning a 50 focus that will culminate in an offering to provide wells, and water, for people in Africa who presently have no access to clean water. We'll do this through Living Water International. Our 50 days will include water education projects, prayer for specific places in Africa where wells will be either drilled or repaired, concerts, community outreach (to educate Seattle about the issues), and a challenge to simplify lifestyles, giving the savings realized through simplification to the Spilling Hope project. This is important as this article reminds us:

UNESCO said half a billion people in Africa lack access to adequate sanitation, and that 5,000 children die daily from diarrhea, a disease that can be prevented with clean water. The agency said the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day is roughly the same as the number without access to safe drinking water.

"In America, diarrhea is bad takeout," said John Sauer of Water Advocates, a U.S.-based nonprofit group. "In Chad, it's the difference between life and death." (Associated Press)

Spilling Hope - it's our calling, because Jesus said that if anyone is thirsty they should come to him and drink. His promise was that if we drink from Him, we'll not only have our thirst quenched, we'll become rivers... of living water... spilling hope into the world.

Pray for us. Pray with us. We're wanting to raise $100,000 through these efforts. This time of economic uncertainty is, for we who follow Christ, most definitely NOT a time for fear. Rather this time, above all times, is the time to let hope spill out into our broken world, because people are thirsty, literally, for life. This is Easter. This is the gospel.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Interdependency...and weak links

I skied today. It was a different kind of skiing, the first time out for some used gear I purchased while teaching in Austria this past December. Maybe you've heard of randonee skiing? Your skis can function as cross country skis, with a free heel and some skins attached, so that you can ski uphill. Once you've summited, you're able to lock down the back heel, peel the skins off, and ski down the same way you do with regular alpine skis. Today it looked like this: One hour and fifteen to the top - an apple and a few pictures, and then ten minutes to the bottom! The fun is literally indescribable, because of course you're skiing 'out of bounds' (a big thrill to a conformist like me), and so have access to untracked powder, of which there was plenty, and abundant solitude, even on a perfect day like today.

On the way home, I stopped to have my gear checked out by the experts in hopes that tomorrow I might try something a little more taxing, something that would actually challenge the gear. For five bucks I received a tune up of the skis, and a professional assessment of their limitations. They looked them over and explained the entire set up to me, the interplay of boots, skis, and bindings. They tried to sell me a much bigger package, but I realized that (never mind the money... this is just hypothetical theory) if I purchased new skis and bindings my boots would suddenly be the weakest link. You see, in the present moment, all three pieces of my gear are perfectly matched for what I might call, "blue square" skiing. In other words, I can get up to the top of anything with this equipment, but coming down I'll need to make broad lines, travessing across faces rather than screaming down the fall line (known as black diamonds). When skiing in bounds, I often prefer the fall line and the screaming, but my set up comes from Austria, where randonee often means this: ski up to a hut. Eat some schnitzel and schnaps, and then ski down the gentle, groomed face of the ski area. It's a good life by any measure. But this particular trinity of skis, boots, and bindings is desigend for just that: the good life; not screaming.

This evening, pondering the encounter at the ski shop, I realized that perfect interdependency is a requirement in order for the end result to reach the desired goal. This is, no doubt, the truth of it with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each play a significant role. Each depends on the other. Take the bindings away, or the Holy Spirit... and the whole operation falls apart. The Godhead is able to do what they do because each one plays their part perfectly.

I saw this in action today as boots, bindings, skis, all worked together enabling me to participate with them in what they're able to do. If any part had failed, my day is miserable, dangerous even. Of course, this too is the gospel. The interdependency of the Godhead is intended to enable us to participate with God in His redemptive purposes, making His life and hope visible in this world. For this to happen, we must be rightly connected to all three elements of the Godhead. When we're disconnected, even properly working equipment has no value. This is no small challenge to the church, as history indicates our trendy fixations with various elements of the trinity, rather than a triune devotion to all three. I fear that many are 'into Jesus' but afraid of the Holy Spirit, or find God the Father to be somehow distant, cruel even. Such selective appropriation of God's personhood is damaging in every way.

Did I mention the poles? Of course not, because that would destroy the silly trinitarian metaphor. What do the poles represent? Para-church ministries? Institutional Christanity? Christian Broadcasting? Blogs like this one? After all, poles make the journey more enjoyable, but they aren't really necessary for survival.

And just look at the people skiing who don't use their poles!

What do you think?

It's getting late...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

hello from the mountains

Monday, March 09, 2009


The writing cabin: 9:15 AM

I'm here to rest this week mostly, with a day of study thrown in for the coming Sunday. I rise at 7:30 this morning and begin "The Complete works of Flannery O'Conner" as I drink a pot of French press. There's snow falling outside, now vertical, now sideways, as the wind makes the trees dance. My wife is in bed watching the snow. The cabin is warm. Chickadees are running for cover outside, making the eaves of the writing cabin a safe place. She wachthes them too.

We've brought skiis just in case. Today, at least, it's enough to sit. Watch. Pray. Cherish the shelter of the cabin like a warm hug. Words aren't needed. Just rest. The only words that spill out of my mouth: "I think I'd be as happy sitting here watching it snow, as sitting on a beach in Hawaii."

"Happier" my wife says. She's right. Silence resumes as the snow falls.

I might write more later, but the beauty of this week is simple: no commitments!


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Fyodor speaks...

Watch a little 60 minutes, or read a little news these days and there's a good chance you'll become angry at someone, or some political party, or some bank CEO. The anger and fear that are coursing through our culture right now are dangerous at many levels. Give in to these fleeting emotions (and it is remarkably easy to do so these days), and they become the soil for bitterness, greed, and isolation. These emotions, and the actions that stem from them, end up spilling into the world with the result that we become part of the problem rather than part of the solution, losing our saltiness; hiding our lights.

That's why the words of Father Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov, are so timely. I offer them, italicized, with my own prayers after each word.

If the evil doings of men move you to indignation and overwhelming disrress, even to a desire for vengeance on the evildoers, shun above all things that feeling.

Grant, O Lord, that I might have eyes to see when my heart is moving toward the dark spaces of bitterness, anger, and judgment. And seeing these things, bring conviction, that I might be quick to turn from these poisons.

Fear not the great nor the mighty, but be wise and serene.

It's easy, O Lord, to feel as if we're victims, tossed about by the whims of those in power. Thank you for the truth that we are, in spite of the stormy seas and whims of men, safe with you. May we learn to dwell there with ever increasing steadfastness, and in so dwelling, know your peace and rest.

Love all men. Love everything. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears.

Yes Lord. Zossima was right. Open my eyes to see your glory, resplendent as always, even in these trying times. The new blossoms arise from the earth, testimony of your sustenance and hints of greater beauty yet to come. The cat is at rest, oblivious to the strivings of humanity. The days grow longer. The sunlight and shadows on the firs testify that you continue to uphold the earth, that beauty still exists, that provision still comes from you, that all shall be well. Give me eyes to see what is so easily seen when I but look - the beauty of the earth. Thank you for tears of joy that come when your beauty, seen in your creation, pierces my heart. Amen

It's all a matter, it seems, of where we choose to fix our gaze. Ah yes, it's wise to read the news, prudent to take action. But we would do well to see the light and shadows, the cat, the blossom, the hints of life bursting forth, for these are the shoutings of our good God intended to bless and fortify our souls.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

lighting up the night

The hits just keep on coming! Where are you going to turn to find good news? 10 trillion dollars in wealth (or 'paper wealth' if you prefer, but let's not argue about it) have evaporated from the markets, injecting fear, isolation, job loss, and pessimism into cultures around the globe. Unemployment, over-leveraged banks, over leveraged-households: as the statistics keep pouring out, the sense of foreboding increases, and there's a collective weight in our global psyche as we wonder what will happen next. Economists can't agree on solutions, and CEO's who are supposed to be competent are, along with both Democratic and Republican politicians, revealing themselves to be both hopelessly incompetent and ignorant. These realities of course, fuel not only fear, but anger and cynicism. So when the insurance giant declared that it lost over 61 BILLION dollars in the 4th quarter, you could feel the collective, global moan on Monday (for some perspective, realize that the total revenue from all movie theaters in America in 2008 totalled 1.7 billion!). People are weary, confused, afraid.

Christ warned us there would, no doubt, be difficult days along the way. He warned us that, for some, these difficulties would be so overwhelming that fear would displace hope, and isolation/violence, would trump servanthood/community. Slipping into these destructive postures is easy - all we need to do is let the culture shape us. Of course, this is the very thing we're told, time and again in the Bible to avoid.

Jesus called those who follow Him, "the light of the world" and it is true that the single candle is increasingly visible in proportion to the presence of darkness. This is why now, more than ever, we who are the church (and even more so we who lead) must commit to "letting the light shine", because these days are as much days of opportunity as they are days of challenge. The bottom is dropping out; the institutions in which we've put our trust are collapsing. For many, it is only the reality of the storm that causes a search for shelter and God knows that the storm is here.

What kind of people light up the night?

1. Those who are rooted in God's revelation - We're told that God's Word is a lamp. That's why I'm grateful for the over 150 people who made their way through snow and rain, in business hours and the middle of the night, to read through the Bible, aloud in our church building, this past week. This is part of how we declare that we don't live by bread alone (or the market index) but by God's Word. The powerful imagery of the Light being declared in the middle of the darkness of 3AM is very powerful - this isn't just symbolism: this is our calling - to light up the darkness of our time by embodying the light of Christ's love and hope. If you stop by our church, take a look at the prayer journal where people wrote of their experiences reading the Bible. It's powerful.

2. Those who believe their identity. Jesus doesn't tell his followers to become light. He tells them that they are light, and because they are, they'd better start living as if they are. God knows there are plenty of reasons in each of our stories that might lead us to doubt that we're light - our failures, fears, prejudices, pride, and so much more, rise up to accuse us. But God sees us differently - sees our truest and deepest selves as complete, and is committed to working with us so that the light that is our life in Christ might shine. May we have the strength to believe we're complete and learn to say "thank you". This is why I was heartened to find 120 men from our church gathering in the mountains this past weekend to consider what role spiritual disciplines like prayer, serving, living out God's kingdom ethics, and resting might play in daily living. Habits formed around these categories ground is, giving us the faith and courage to believe that Christ is in us, with us, expressing life through us. Developing these habits is what this is all about.

3. Those who resist fear - Searching through the scriptures, we come to realize that those who missed fulfilling their destinies always had, behind their failures, a spirit of fear which caused them to disengage from naked trust and faith in God. Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of being different, fear of loss. Look through the Bible and you'll see fear displacing trust and faith over and over again. Into this we're told, numerous times, to 'fear not', precisely because we believe that God is in control and that, whether living our dying, our destiny of being light in the midst of darkness will be fulfilled.

Where fear is resisted, we'll be able to live honestly in the midst of deception, generously in the midst of hoarding and greed, and joyfully in the midst of anxiety. This is the calling to which we aspire in these remarkable days, so that wherever there is darkness, there will be light, "and the light will shine in the darkness and..." well, perhaps you know the rest.