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, April 29, 2009

Shopping for truth: The Fork in the consumer road

If you have a few minutes, check out this article in Orion Magazine, and compare it to this editorial in Fast Company. If you don't have time to read the articles, here's the summary:

Orion - We can, indeed must live differently than the "gospel of consumption" peddled so effectively by culture. We can scale back on our consumption, and thus scale back on our working hours as well, finding more time for creation, family, friends, and creativity. This is good for our souls, good for the environment, and good for our families.

Fast Company - We won't live differently, because there's always a new product just around the corner that will fuel a new wave of consumerism. Just look at the cell phone. First nobody needed one. Now we all need them. Just look at the i-phone. One high tech creative product creates an entire spin-off industry of i-phone apps. This, according to Fast Company is precisely what Orion calls the "good news" of consumerism: we'll always buy more stuff. And that, we're told, is good for everyone.

Well friends, which is it? And if it's the former, what should we do about it? I've written about this in a chapter on generosity in my book, but I'd like to ponder for a few minutes the contradictory nature of these two paradigms and ask:

1. are these two views of the world contradictory to the extent that they can't be synchronized?

2. if yes, what does that look like? If no, which view more closely embraces the gospel of Jesus?

These aren't hypothetical questions, for the dilemma of our current world is that if enough people start living simply, planting their own gardens, buying their clothes from 2nd hand shops, mending their shoes and cars instead of buying new ones, we're stuffed. And yet, if we continue to shop as we've shopped, live as we've lived, we'll continue to degrade the environment, continue to try and find the cheapest price for products, which means companies will continue to outsource production to places where environmental and labor laws are least constrained, which means....??

If Paul says this, then what should I buy, for I clearly can't apply this literally. And regarding what I buy, and when: Should I bend towards local shops, or warehouse sales? Should I eschew the latest product and keep my stuff 'til it breaks, or should, for the good of the economy, buy new stuff, better stuff? How does discipleship affect shopping?

Our GDP shrunk at annual rate of 6.1% last quarter. People are shopping less, driving less, ravaging the earth less, talking with friends more, AND unemployment is on the rise. Finding our voice as followers of Jesus in the midst of this is important, and challenging.
I welcome your thoughts

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gender Roles - are you kidding me?

Preface: I'm mindful that any discussion about gender roles is certain to evoke strong responses. This is because the issue has been saturated with wrong notions, resulting in an abusive patriarchy to which none of us should ever want to return. However, in our justifiable efforts to free ourselves from destructive notions, I wonder if we've tossed an important baby out with the bath water? I wonder if there can be a liberating way to view genders in the marriage relationship, a way that leads us to Christ, liberates us with a sense of calling, and guides us to something that's neither reprissive and regressive, nor simply politically correct. Bear with me. Read. Give me your thoughts. Unlike most posts, I'll try to offer response, at least for a few days. Here we go:

It's wedding season for pastors. Very soon, many of our staff will begin investing their weekends in blessing couples who will declare their intent to love each other, "'til death do us part". We might tweek the language to sound more recent than the 17th century, but if we take the covenant of marriage to mean anything serious at all, we'll help couples communicate that they're making a commitment to see things through. In saying this, they're rolling some statistical dice, because of course the reality is that sustaining marriages, especially sustaining them in a way that engenders long term and real love, is not only a challenging task, but increasingly rare. America, a recent book on marriage declares, experiences "more turbulence in family lives, more changes of partners and parents, than any other nation."

The author of the book goes on to declare that the reason for this has to do with our two conflicting values. On the one hand we view marriage as a sacrament, a covenant to be made with God. On the other hand, one of our highest cultural values is, as the author puts it, "individuals that emphasizes self-expression." So here we are, trying to become what the Bible calls one-flesh, while, at the same time, trying hard to maintain our autonomous pursuits of self-fulfillment. I understand that we all need boundaries, that we all need a sense of self if we're to be whole people.

But Jesus taught that we find our truest sense of self, ironically, by "losing our lives". This doesn't mean being a doormat by any means. There are numberous examples of Jesus, perhaps the most 'self-actualized' human to ever live, saying no to the demands of people because he was marching to a different agenda, that of His Father.

We too are invited to the liberating sound of a drum that offers a different rhythm than prevailing culture and this might be seen nowhere more clearly than in marriage. We discover, both from the starting point of marriage in Genesis and Paul's unpacking of those words, that marriage is a place where Christ's relationship with the church can be explained and exemplified. There's Christ, the groom, loving the Church, the bride. Christ's love: sacrificial, purifying, initiatory, healing, life-giving. The church's response to that love: receptive, open, trusting.

It might be dangerous to simply throw these concepts out there and let tham hang without a book's worth of qualifiers, but I'll run the risk, limiting my comments to clarifying what I don't mean and what I do mean.

What these texts DO NOT mean:
a) that these roles somehow preclude women from taking up callings outside the home, vocationally or otherwise.
b) that these roles bleed into church life in some way. As I'll need to write soon (as a result of writing this), I believe the scriptures indicate that ALL of us are the bride of Christ, and as such all of us are invited to serve one another, taking up the roles God might give us in the community of faith, whatever those roles might be, realizing that this verse and the general tone of New Testament teaching indicates that no role is closed to either gender in the church.
c) that these roles indicate some sort of authoritarian, despotic power play in marriage, where women are called to mindlessly and dangerously submit to the whims of the husband. Such an abusive interpretation of this passage has led to endless heartache through the centuries.
d) that these roles limit initiation to males, and responsiveness to all. Consider Paul's adomonition regarding sexuality in I Corinthians 7, which (radically for it's day) grants women the same sexual rights as men, implying that both genders have initiatory rights. This isn't about machoism, big trucks, and domestic violence. It's not about creating the women of Pleasantville. I get sick even thinking about how often the Bible's been misued to go down that ugly road.

Let me put it another way. There are a variety of ways this vocation of displaying Christ and the church can play out. He stays at home, she works. Vice-versa. Both work. He handles money. She handles money. He studies theology and she bakes potatoes. He bakes potatoes and she studies theology. Both bake potatoes and neither study theology. It's important to understand that the vocation of displaying Christ and the church is environmental before it's anything else. You can read it wrong, jump into stereoptypical roles, and completely miss the point. I've seen it happen - often. This is the reason, I believe, that we've run from the topic completely, afriad to even have the conversation.

To clarify the concept using positive statement....

What these texts DO mean:
a) that couples are invited to accept the vocation of displaying Christ andthe church by being mindful of that calling as they build their life together.
b) that such mindfulness will mean wrestling with the ways in which initiatory, self emptying love can be offered by husbands, and trusting receptivity by wives.
c) that such a calling won't have easy answers, clear lines, or legalistic nagging as part of the living it. Where any of these tendencies are present, a principle intended to liberate becomes ugly very soon.

Yes, you read that right: the principle is intended to liberate - it does so because it calls husbands to a kind of love we're incapable of expressing without the strength of Christ. It calls wives to a level of trust and receptivity that leads them to lean of Christ for sustenance when they have no resources of their own. And this, I believe, is the point. When I'm called to an enormous undertaking I can do one of two things:

1. decide that it's impossible, and so scale back on the undertaking to enable its fulfillment with the limited resources I have.

2. accept the undertaking and raise capital, looking for resources other than my own to enable me to get the work done.

Unfortunately, I fear that in marriage we've opted for #1 far more often than #2 - how's that working for us? Just look around. I don't want to return to 1950. I'm just asking that we wrestle with the concepts of Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5, and work on taking up the vocation of displaying Christ and the church in our marriages.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Monkeying around with the church

In his hot new book "The Monkey and the Fish" Dave Gibbons, "offers a 'third-culture' way to being the church." This is supposed to enable church leaders to live out their mission in "bold and revolutionary ways." It's supposed to be encouraging, inspiring, and challenging. So why, after reading it, was I none of these? I'll offer three thoughts, and would welcome your insights as well. Before proceeding though, I'll note that my critique of Gibbons work is not directed solely Gibbons. His book encompasses an entire genre, (also seen here, and here) that bothers me. When I ask myself what, precisely, it is that irritates, here are some of the things that come to mind:

1. These books are built on a straw man. We're told that young people are fleeing from established churches, told that churches built on 'old models' (attractional models, for the missionally minded) are dying, unsustainable dinosaurs. And then, because of the obviously inevitable demise of anything which had it's origin before 1990, we're offered solutions. We can make a difference, can be relevent, can reach the unreachable. We just need to do things differently.

The solution is vital if the assumptions about the death of the church are true. Further, there are statistics to indicate that more people ARE fleeing the church, so it appears that the assumption might be legitimate. Always though, when I read this, I want to stand up and aks, "What about us? What about University Prespbytarian Church (also in Seattle)? What about ... and then I could easily name dozens of churches around the country that were founded n the first half of the 20th century and yet are thriving.

These thriving churches should, if we take their presence seriously, lead to an entirely different line of questioning. Rather than shaking the dust off our metaphorical converse sneekers as we distance ourselves from our cold hearted elders, perhaps we should be asking questions about what can be done to renew, sustain, and enliven existing faith communities. The reality is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of churches that have buildings, pastors, staffs, busses, and even (if I can be allowed the use of what would be a swear word in emergent circles) "programs", that are being used by God to change lives, heal sick neighborhoods, raise up a new generation of leaders, and change the world.

2. Esoteric Language is annoying. Look at this subtitle: "Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church". Is this supposed to invite me to read the book? I realize that I sound as if I'm nit-picking, but I sometimes feel as if new words are needed only because we've abandoned much needed old words, and rather than working hard to recover their meaning we invent new ones. For example, I presume that when Jesus says, "abide in me and you will bear much fruit", he means that a byproduct of people living their lives in initmacy with Jesus is that other lives will be changed. Of course, if other lives are changed, they'll want to be part of this great new movement, and so we'll need to have structures in place enabling us to serve those who are new to the faith, and new to the faith community. But fruit will come from abiding. Abiding. Now there's an old word. What does it mean? Unpacking that seems far more important for the health of the church than creating a new term like "liquid leadership" because no matter how "liquid" I am, or how "third place" I am, if I'm not abiding, I'm stuffed.

3. All options aren't equal. In several places, Dave makes it clear that he's not trying to denegrate the old models, but proceeds to offer numerous stories of new works, such as a church meeting in a dance club in Bangkok, as indicative of where the future is headed. Again and again, the implication of the book is that established churches need to change dramatically, or die. This might, as a stand alone statement, be true enough. But when Dave goes on and offers endless examples, not of renewal, but of brand new works, the implication is that old works won't change, and so join the liquid third wave of newness.

Please don't misread me. I'm thrilled with the countless new works unfolding across the globe, believing that God is in many of them. I also have a sneaking suspicion that, if you were to take a telscopic view of the whole church across the globe, and if the one's who were in touch with God's voice and filled with God's spirit could shine as bright lights, there'd be bright lights among the new AND the old, along with dead bulbs in both camps. Newness is overatted. The real issue is whether or not God's glory resides in a work.

Dave offers some marvelous insight in the book, addressing issues of the different ways Eastern and Western cultures look at the world. He also offers some marvelous challenges regarding our collective calling to be intentional about crossing cultural chasms in Jesus name, perhaps providing some of the best language to define the meaning of yet another new term: "missional".

But for all that, I found that in the end, I won't do much differently as a pastor for having read this book. This scares me on the one hand, because I read so much material that either implies, or states directly, that we leaders need new words, new structures, new priorities, if we're to stay alive. On the other hand, it frustrates me, because I think to myself: "another 'new key' to church", and that means people will read the book and try to start church meetings in dance clubs when (and I think even Dave would say this), that isn't the point at all.

We need to continually assess the forms our ministries take, I'll grant that. And it's important to read not only the scriptures, but the culture, as we're called to build bridges between the two. But our calling is no different today than it was when Paul wrote Corinthians. We, the church, are the visible expression of Christ's life on earth. In order to clearly be that, we who lead need to point people to Christ, teach people how to draw upon the resource of His life and follow Him, and then expect fruit to come, because that's what happens when Jesus is seen today, or yesterday, or 1900 years ago. It's actually pretty simple.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thirsty - and Running Dry

This Saturday evening, as part of the Spilling Hope project at Bethany Community Church, we'll be sponsoring a showing of the film, "Running Dry", followed by a panel discussion about the global water crisis. I was at Fred Meyer one afternoon recently and was thoroughly seduced by a demo model of a surround sound system for our living room, reduced to $150 for the whole system. I hesitated to buy it because it looked to complex for me to assemble on my own, deciding instead to go home and talk it over with my wife after previewing "Running Dry".

The film was the death blow to the sound system. There was no way to justify buying it after seeing what a substantial difference $150 could make for people on the very edge of survival. Running Dry surveys the water problem via a global tour of the continents, showing how the unique geophysical and political challenges of each region contribute to this global crisis. Unlike energy, there are no alternative sources for water other than... well, water. It's a finite resource, increasingly facing challenges due to climate change and pollution. Throw in the reality that some countries can confine water within their boundaries by diverting the flow away from their neighbors (who are often their enemies) and you have a recipe for disaster.

It doesn't take much investment, though, for real answers. The change from our collective lattes can save lives, and build foundations for health, which of course if the precursor to education, economic development, and ultimately, hope. And that's just with latte change. Throw in a few bucks diverted from surround sound, or whatever, and you can really start to see something happen.

It's easy, for many of us, to write a check. It's harder to seek a deeper understanding of the problem - but understanding leads to empathy, and empathy leads to real transformation, not just 'over there' but in our own stewarding of the precious resources entrusted to us as the wealthy of this world. We have an opportunity, a responsibility, to make a difference. It begins with seeing the problem. If you can... check out "running dry", along with a panel discussion of water and development experts who will answer questions. Discover the challenges and opportunities that are ours at this amazing moment in history.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Occasionally I find a book that's hard to put down. This happened a week ago, when "The Age of the Unthinkable" became my companion on flights to and from Montana, along with the late nights in the cabin where I was staying in Rockies. It's written by Joshua Ramo, a former journalist who splits his time between China and America. It's this split that gives him a unique capacity to explain the broadly different ways of looking at the world that exist between East and West.

The subtitle is, "Why the new world disorder constantly surprises us and what we can do about it." Covering subjects as wide as Gertraud Stein's life in Paris, Cubist art, the Vietnam war, intelligence gathering methods of Israel, military strategies of Hezbolah, and the invention of Wii, the primary thesis of the book is that we need to spend more time looking at the context of our world and problems if we're going to find ways forward on the myriad of problematic fronts we face, because the old way of looking at the world (as static, where nation states fights for territory is the greatest threat) is wholly inadeqaute and inaccurate. We live in a world where a terror act on 9-11 costling less than one million dollars, has resulted in security measures costing one million dollars an hour. It's a David/Goliath kind of thing, and it's everywhere - how did Wii slay the x-box giant? How do terrorist cells turn back nation states from acheiving their goals? How do we live in such a world in a manner whereby we're not only able to survive, but able to be forces of hope and creativity?

The answers, accoriding to Ramos, are found in learning to examine and absorb the ever shifting context of our worlds (economic worlds, political worlds, vocational worlds, environmental worlds, faith worlds), because addressing contextual issues is often where solutions to our deepest problems resides.

His thesis is hopeful. Observing the dangers that a few dozen hedge fund traders or a few terrorists can do, he quickly adds: "it is also possible that each of us, any of us, can unleash powerful and permanent change. Some of this change will be simple. We can each start to live more resiliently: saving more, eating better, driving smarter, educating our children to be global and competitive, volunteering, reaching out to neighbors and new friends." And then, significantly, he adds that, living in an uncertain world is the reality of this age, and there will be moments when we're afraid. "At the times we're most scared", he adds, "we'll need to replace the habit of striking back with new efforts to connect to the world instead of alienating it and isolating ourselves." Connecting means taking the time to understand those who think differently than us, seeking, as St. Francis prayed, "to understand more than to be understood."

The book makes little mention of faith, no mention of prayer or Bible reading, or Jesus. Why do pastor's read such books? Why did the apostle Paul read Greek poetry? Our calling is bring the truths of our faith to bear on our world, and we do this by seeking to understand BOTH our faith and our world. Either without the other falls short!

If you enjoy books that challenge your paradigm and offer a telescoping sweep of our world, then this is a must read.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

grace wins...

Here's a scrap of paper found near the body of dead child in Ravesnbruck concentration camp in Germany, the site where over 90,000 women and children during WWII:

"O Lord, remember not only men and women of good will, but ill will. But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us, remember the fruits we have brought thanks to this suffering; our comradship, our loyalty, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen. Amen. Amen."

The words remind me of another. God give me the grace to follow, emulating love of enemy in order that grace might triumph for, as one author has written, 'colossal evil is unprepared for an encounter with colossal grace.' May the colossal grace of Christ infuse our hearts, our marriages, our friendships, our workplaces, our relationships with our children, our neighbors, and yes, even our enemies. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The sun is winning. This afternoon the thick clouds aren't thick enough to mask the heat of the sun and this heat is thawing this little valley. As I write, the icicles from my roof are beginning to run free, and I'm hearing snow slough off the roof. The sidewalks, having been cleared occasionally during this past storm, and already dry. Winter is dying. Yes, the ground is still covered with nearly a foot of what's become a dying slushy, but the trees are free again, and soon all will be free.

My heart has melted too, overcoming the deep freeze of indifference and despondency that sometimes grips me. I hope I learn from these kinds of moments; I think I do. This time around, as I gain a grip on hope once again, pack my bags, and turn my heart towards my calling back in Seattle, I take away at least three lessons from the dark night of the soul.

1. the same Bible that pushed me in, led me out. I know my convictions about most parts of the Bible, and hold them firmly, with courage and humility. But there are some parts that still mystify me because they're veiled enough, and obtuse enough, that one can read six scholars and get six different views. In my weariness of this past week, I found myself weary of the certitude scholars proclaim about things which can't be 'certainly' known. The date Joel was written is open for debate, as is the dating of many events he sees in the future. And though there's precious little evidence to grant certitude, everyone seems to have it. This bothers me; bothered me enough this past week that I was upset, both with the obtuseness of scripture and the arrogance of people who claim to get it.

Still, I read. This morning, I read Psalm 106, and this passage leaves very little room for guesswork, either in it's historical interpretation or personal application. "They quickly forgot His works" - Yes, that's me. God does amazing things as our church gathers to celebrate the resurrection. Lives are changed. Challenges accepted. Hearts healed. But 48 hours later, all I can see is that God should have spilled out the historical context of Joel better so that arrogant scholars wouldn't pretend to know stuff when they're really just guessing. I'm a fool! Like Israel, I easily forgot all the things God did, allowing His obvious work in the big things to be covered with the ice of my cynicism regarding a small epistemological issue.

2. Still reading the Bible, "they craved intensely" in the wilderness. I'm reminded this morning, that my appetites for technology, for comfort, for carrot juice, for good coffee, are just appetites. Let them control my contentment level when they're denied, and I'm setting myself up for a life of grumblings, always waiting to live fully because I think fullness depends on satisfied appetites. I fell into that this week, and the Bible reminded me this morning of that danger.

3. Romans 1:12 speaks of the mystery that two people can both feel as if they receive more than they give, as they find themselves encouraged, each by the other's faith. I know this happens on missions trips, when I feel that friends in Nepal or Central America, or Europe give me so much more than I give them. But a memorable moment was mine last night when I read the comments from my previous post this morning. I was deeply touched by all of them, but particularly the last one - touched, encouraged, and convicted. Yes Michael - one is enough. Thanks so much for melting my heart with your encouraging words.

Nothing's changed really; pirates still steal ship, not just because they're pirates, but because they're trapped in poverty. Children still die. Scholars still pontificate with confidence about things they really don't know. But for me, I'm back in the sunshine, and the deep freeze of discouragement where I'd been stuck for a few days is nearly thawed completely. I'm grateful.

One of my take aways from this: I need to keep reading my Bible. The fact that my Psalms reading pattern brought me to 106 this morning was deeply encouraging. I needed to hear it.
I pray and hope that I'll continue to show up... looking for God in creation, His word, and fellowship, because revelation is like sunlight - life giving, thawing, healing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


After a marvelous Easter celebration, I've no doubt that God is at work in the world and in His church. We saw people meet Christ, and saw hundreds step into God's story in order to bring hope to the world. I'm grateful for this, and confident that God will continue to work among us. At the same time...

This week my musings range towards the darker side of things. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's that winter is hanging on here in Montana and the "how long O Lord" of winter has me thinking about bigger issues about which humanity and creation cry out, "How long O Lord?" Maybe it's because I'm tired. Maybe it's because I've been doing a lot of research and reading lately about global hunger, poverty, and the impending water crisis. But whatever the reason, I'm wondering, "How long O Lord?" quite a bit this week. This is what I asked God in my prayer diary...

How long will you wait to act in this world and bring an end to the disease and hunger, the war and poverty, the senseless violence and suffering? I feel as if I'm supposed to just jump in and do my part, throw one starfish back into the ocean, and I can do that, will do that. But come on God, the endless plagues, famines, wars, and oppressions must be wearying to your soul, not to mention your reputation as a good and loving God. Why not act? Why not set up your rule? Why not put an end to the madness? How long O Lord?

I've a second complaint, also in the form of a prayer request. It seems that we, your people, are prone to having our worlds shrink when we say yes to following you. It doesn't happen that way all the time, but it happens that way all too often. Why is it that we, your people, know each other, but not our neighbors? Why do we fight about little slivers of doctrine, trying to dissect the interplay of man's free will and your sovereign power, but sort of gloss over the main things, the things that are intended to propel us into the world as people of hope and celebration, mercy and generosity? Why is this God? Why do you put up with that? Why do you put up with us? Can you teach us to see the main thing, to fixate on the main thing, to teach each other the main thing, to live the main thing?

We've plenty of institutions doing things in your name. We've lots of words, denominations, camps, schools, para-church organizations, web sites, blogs (yes, I know). But your real life, it seems to me, is like 1/2 tsp. in these gallons of activity. Maybe you should evaporate the rest of it so that the world can see you more clearly. I pray that you'll do this distilling work, pray that you'll enable we who desire to love you, and love our neighbors, to be fortified, purified, so that we might live out our calling more fully.

I know, I'm the pastor. I'm supposed to inspire. The reality for me, though, is that I sometimes hold joy and confidence in one hand, and struggle in the other. This is one of those times. I can't help thinking that sharing my own journey, my own struggles, my own wrestlings, is appropriate sometimes. God can take it when we're frustrated, and maybe it's right for the larger community to see these musings, not just the happy ones. Just read the Psalms and you'll find that out. So there it is... right from my journal on this snowy day in Montana.


Your thoughts?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I think it's true... He really IS risen...

If you attend(ed) Easter services at the church I pastor, you know that the focus of the teaching was on the implications of the resurrection, rather than providing evidence for the resurrection. For those interested in the evidence side of things, I taught a series this past fall in which addressed this. The podcast can be found here. In this teaching, I offer the following thoughts about the resurrection:

the reality of the resurrection and ascension

it’s tempting to try and remain in some neutral posture about a real resurrection but there are two problems: 1) both Jesus’ disciples and Paul’s teaching make this an impossibility (see I Corinthians 15:3 – ‘first importance’ – Without the resurrection, all we have is teachings and ideals – what we DON’T HAVE is any meaningful hope for the future, or source of power for personal or societal transformation 2) our neutrality doesn’t exist – we either believe or don’t believe. Consider John 20:24,25: Thomas does not believe – and he moves from unbelief to belief. The neutral ground is a myth because the issue isn’t DO YOU KNOW (as in, "I know I'm wearing clothes)… the issue is DO YOU BELIEVE…(as in, I believe, though I don't have first hand evidence, that there was an earthquake in Italy, or that people walked on the moon, or that the Holocaust happened)

those who do believe are not living in a fantasy world – belief is deeply rooted in careful thought, and the weighing of evidence – (NB: this evidence hangs together collectively)

a) the evidence of an empty tomb – if Jesus weren’t raised from the dead, eventually some of his followers would have gathered the bones together and done with them what other followers of other ‘so called Messiahs’ had done – they would have made a shrine of the bones and Jesus’ tomb would have become a holy site – that it didn’t weighs heavily as evidence of a resurrection

b) the evidence of personal sightings – the empty tomb by itself would not be enough evidence, because there were grave robbers – but the testimony of the disciple’s encounters with Jesus and Paul’s declaration in I Cor. 15gives credence to the resurrection story

c) the expectation of the disciples – it would be possible to explain the resurrection by declaring that the disciples had so desperately wanted a resurrection to happen that they began to believe it actually happened. But the biggest problem with this is that the disciples didn’t expect Jesus to rise from the dead, because the notion of a resurrection was a new teaching and while Jesus hinted at it, they clearly didn’t yet understand it at the point of Jesus' crucifixion. That’s why Peter would say, “I’m going fishing”

d) the written testimony of witnesses including women – if you wanted to build a case to prove the resurrection and you were making up some stories to declare it, the last thing you’d do is include women as the first people to view Jesus, because back in the day, their testimony wouldn’t be accepted as credible evidence anywhere in the Roman empire

e) Roman soldiers were held accountable for killing their victims – a drugged and beaten Messiah who really didn’t die would not have provided convincing evidence to the disciples of the entire new doctrine of the resurrection -

The recurring phrase, ‘we are witnesses’ would have been supremely easy to dismiss with any compelling evidence to the contrary. Instead, at the cost of their lives, the original witnesses gave birth to a new kind of hope, a hope born out an empty tomb. This is what the church believes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Finding the "Good" in Good Friday

This is the day when we ponder Christ's suffering and death; the day when the cross is draped in black. They day when all the candles are snuffed out and darkness reigns. It's the day of pondering Christ's death, His suffering, His crying out (the 'seven last words'), His reproach. With a narrative like this, one would think that the point is to fully enter in to the suffering of Jesus, empathizing, and responding with a kind of sorrow filled gratitude... He did that FOR ME?

While such sorrow-gratitude has a measure of appropriateness to it, that kind of response would hardly merit this day being called "Good Friday". Black Friday, Dark Friday, Death Friday, perhaps; but not Good Friday. What are we to make of this?

1. It's "good" because this is where Christ became "propitiation". That's nothing more than a fancy word indicating that the breach of relationship between God and humanity was healed through Christ's death on the cross. A careful reading of I John 2 reveals the reality that God's not mad anymore... at anyone. Christ's death absorbed the wrath of God. Sure, you can argue about whether God should have wrath, just like you could argue about whether the sky should be blue, or whether water should be the sustaining liquid for the world rather than the milk of cows. But you're not running the universe, and neither am I, so declaring that we don't like the way God has set it up doesn't ultimate change things. What does change things, if the Bible is true, is Christ's death. It means that no longer is anyone judged on the basis of their own righteousness (or lack thereof), unless, by rejecting God's gift, they demand to be judged on their own merit instead of Christ's. That's always an option, but not one I'd choose.

2. It's "good" because dead people leaving their graves became a 'down payment' on a future world where all death, disease, destruction, war, pollution, greed, hatred, will be destroyed. We're invited to live now in the goodness and hope of the world that will someday come in fullness, and we're given the capacity to do so because of what happened on the cross. Death paved the way for life.

Good Friday marks the convergence of darkness and light, because the darkness of Jesus death marked the beginning of the brightness that IS, and SHALL BE the hope of Christ's Reign, a hope that will heal the world, a hope that could be inaugurated in no way other than by His death.

Good? Yes, like the goodness that comes when someone gives you BOTH their kidneys so that you can live; like the goodness that comes from realizing that someone covered your school debt, so now you're free to serve in the Peace Corp, or dig wells in India; like the goodness that comes from realizing that, through the death of a revolutionary, a regime of darkness has been toppled. It's good, certainly. But it's goodness at a cost. And we distort the gospel tragically if we fixate on either the goodness, ignoring the cost, or vice versa. That's why they call Good AND drape the cross in black.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Praying for Easter...

I'm excited about Easter Sunday this year, because we're inviting neighbors, and challenging our community to invite neighbors. It will be a time when I'll be declaring our belief that Jesus' triumph over the grave means that a new way of living began - a way that enables people to live sacrificially, generously, imparting hope to our broken world.

We'll be kicking off a 50 day challenge to live more simply and share the difference. Our collective involvement will, we pray, provide clean water for at least 15,000 people. If you're looking for something to do on Easter... join us. If you already have something to do, pray for us!

Here's our invitation:

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The "so what?" of the resurrection.

Yesterday I did what people do in Seattle in April. I got my hands down into the dirt and dug around a bit. I placed some shoots of fresh Geraniums into that dark, wet, rich, soil. I placed the pots on the steps where, strategically situated, they'll get the maximum amount of sunshine. And now we wait. But of course, we don't JUST wait. There's watering, soil care, fortifying the whole operation with nutrients, and more. All of this is helpful. Someday, blossoms will come. Someday, when we're celebrating graduations, when wearing shoes is the exception rather than the rule, when we're riding our bikes everywhere and eating on the patio every night, there will be bursts of color welcoming each guest who ascends the flower clad stairs to our front door. Someday... but not now.

And yet, though there aren't blossoms yet in any substantive way, there's a 'down payment' towards coming beauty. There's green in the pot. There's the visibility of hope. By this weekend it will once again be in the low 40's and raining. I may even break out the skis and do a little backcountry wandering on Friday or Saturday morning. But in the midst of winter's lasts gasp, these two little pots of Geraniums stand as perpetual reminders that a new season is coming. Hope wins!

This is the backdrop of my studies today as I prepare to teach about the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday. NT Wright, in his marvelous book about the resurrection, points out two deficient views of the resurrection in preparing to share a more accurate (and more life giving) third view.

First, he introduces the problematic view that says, "Even if Jesus did rise from the dead, so what? Very nice for him, but what's it got to do with anything else? Why should he be so specially favored? If God can pull off a stunt like that, why can't he intervene and do a lot more useful things like stopping genocide or earthquakes?" The response is that the resurrection was the beginning of an unfolding hope, not the final offering. It was the planting of the shoot. The full flowering comes later, in the return of Christ.

Second, he reminds us of the view which states the main point of Easter is to show that since Jesus rose from the dead and went to heaven, we'll get to do the same thing someday. This shifts the focus of our energies and hopes towards life after death, and in the process we lose our sense of what we're supposed to be doing right here, in the present. "Isn't it nice that we'll go to heaven when we die, escape this yucky, ugly world, and be with Jesus forever?" Implied in this is that the best thing we can do right now is get other people to believe in the resurrection so that they'll also be able to be with Jesus forever. This is a way of saying that between the planting of the shoot and coming flowers, there's nothing to do but wait. Any garderner knows this is patently untrue.

While it's true that we'll be with Jesus forever, and that life beyond this era, this time, will be matchless in beauty, complete in healing, and filled with joy beyond our wildest imagining because of the justice, beauty, and intimacy we'll find, it's also true that a fixation on the future misses the point.

Paul unpacks this for us in his incredible treatise on the resurrection of the body, found in I Corinthians 15. At the end of this chapter, which is all about our future hope, and the resurrection of our own bodies, just as Jesus body was raised, Paul says something remarkable. Rather than declaring that, since our hope is in the future, we'd best be leaving the present world behind as soon as possible and fixating, in our imaginations and in our real investments of time and energy, on the future world beyond death. Instead he says, "Therefore (in light of the reality of the resurrection)... be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord." (15:58)

Wow! Instead of just singing "when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be...", maybe we'd better add a few songs about embracing our calling to do NOW, in 2009, what Jesus did then, when He walked here. This after all, is the 'work of the Lord' - feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and oppressed. Bringing justice to the downtrodden, pouring Christ's life into situations that are thirsty for hope and in so doing declaring the Jesus lives, that a new way of doing business is at hand.

If Christ is alive, He's still at work, expressing the hope of God through His body. His body is, remarkably, the church, people who are gathered together, reconciled to God because they've chosen to say yes to God's offer of a new way of living - gladder, bolder, more joy-filled, more generous, more peaceful, more counter-cultural, than anything we could fabricate, even on our best days. We who take up the mantle of being His body can do nothing less than take up the mantle of living by His power, following His marching orders, and as a result, spilling hope into the world in profound and creative ways.

My sorrow is that this profound calling would be stolen from the church by putting all the eggs of hope in the future. Instead, the reality is that there's work to be done now - soil to be worked, both literally and in human hearts; beauty to impart, in gardens, art, healing, intimacy, hospitality, well digging, shelter offering, economic development, counseling, praying, teaching, loving, forgiving, sewing, mending, cooking, and so much more: imparting hope is our calling....because He lives.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The "S" - what is Sanctification?

In this verse, we read that we're to pursue "sanctification", and we're told that without it, we won't see Christ. But what is sanctification? Several wrong answers prevail in our culture. Since the word means holiness, it's possible that our immediate notion of the word will have to do with some list of behaviors, conspicuously unaddressed in scripture, that are to be avoided. "Holy people don't...." and then you can fill in the blank with a list of things that must be avoided. I'm not sure what's "on your list today" but down through the ages, nearly everything has been an impediment to some Christian's notion of holiness, from watching TV, to playing games on Sundays, from drinking beer, to listening to rock music. I'll pause here and say that I wonder if there are things on our list today that will be seen as equally ridiculous two decades, or even two years from now. If so, we need to uncover them, and bring them into the light, because just as movie attendance has nothing to do with Sanctification, so also does ____________ have nothing to do with it. There's a host of ethical issues that probably need to be laid out on the table and discussed right here, but it's not the main point of the post.

What then, IS sanctification? The word has do with setting oneself apart, devoting oneself to the purpose for which you were created. That purpose, of course, is to display the very life of God, for it was God's original intent that we bear his image in our daily living, so that God's character could be seen through humanity. Of course, our capacity to do that has been severely compromised by virtue of the sin.

Those who know Christ, however, have at their disposal the resources of His very life, living within them. As His life infuses our souls, personalities, and bodies, the promise of the scriptures is that people will see, in increasing measure, what God had intended that people see: His character, uniquely expressed through those given over to Christ (sanctified, set apart for His purpose).

Yes. But HOW? Effectively moving into the life for which we're set apart requires several things:

1. we must come to the experiential realization that the Christian life (not the legalistic, hypocritical, self-righteous, judgmental, isolationist behaviors that often pass for "Christianity", but the real thing - the very life of God expressed visibly) cannot be lived in the strength of our own best efforts. This is one of the grand narratives of the Bible. "You Abraham, 99 years old and surgically wounded, will impregnate your 89 year old wife and she'll have a baby. Do you think you can pull that off without my intervention?" And so it goes; all through the Bible, Old Testament and New, we see God calling people to accomplish feats and live lives that are beyond their capacity, whether that means winning a battle when vastly outnumbered or loving one's enemies. We're not made for such feats, at least not on our own. The sooner we realize that we're called to a life we can't live, the better off we'll be. Tragically, many choose instead to lower the bar, or pretend to live the life by wearing a veil of righteousness that hides chronic failure. Either of these are worthless. The truest thing Paul ever said was that he couldn't live the life to which he was called, and this created great struggle for him.

2. Though I can't live the life to which I'm called, Christ can live it, and He lives in me. Paul would explain this to the Philippians when he told them that he could do all things. He made it clear that the energizing source of these 'all things' was Christ. If I can manage to wake up each day and realize both my inability and God's ability, then I can offer myself to Christ, inviting Him to express His life through Him, and consciously give Him the freedom to have His way with my day. Not my will, His. Not my strength, His. Not my joy, His. Not my wisdom, His. You get the picture. For me, the practical sense of this is a relinquishing of my expectations and agendas for the day, giving these elements to God. When I do this (and I'm deplorably inconsistent at it), it leads to a third reality...

3. I can live with a confident expectation that Christ will bear fruit through my life, through my availability. Of course, Jesus Himself taught this, and this is the theme that Paul would later develop into his doctrine of 'sanctification'. I simply offer myself to Christ, and then relax in the confidence that, whether visible or invisible, global or local, dramatic and plain, Christ will bring forth fruit because when He finds an available life He will express Himself through it.

This is a modified form of the Keswick teaching of sanctification. I say 'modified' because it's surely true that the Keswick teachings too often lead to the errors of passivity. There arises a sense that, "sense I can't do anything, so I won't do anything." Then these misguided people lay on their beds (literally or metaphorically) and wonder why God isn't changing them. This is not what is meant by "I can't do anything". The Bible teaches that our actions, whether cooking a meal, studying for a class, making a decision, loving one's neighbor, or anything else, must be empowered, by giving Christ permission to express Himself through us in our endeavors. Then fruit comes. Otherwise it doesn't. So we're not called to do nothing. We're called to do things with the concious expectation that he will fill our doing with His life.

The other danger in the Keswick teaching is that some misunderstand it to mean some sort of instantaneous perfectionism. I don't think so. Paul taught this, and made it clear at the end of his life that he'd still not arrived. We're on a journey, learning to let Christ express his life through us, and when we do, a great adventure awaits us. Until we do, all we have are a set of rules we're trying to follow, or an enterprise that we're trying to pull off, in the strength of our own humanity. That's not adventure - that's frustration.

This understanding and practice of "sanctification" remains at the core of what I believe to the foundational mindset for me if I'm to grow and be fruitful, to enter into the life for which I'm created. I find the practice of looking to Christ and yielding to Him, though difficult at various times, delightfully freeing when I actually do it. I sleep better. I'm happier. I'm more centered and less nervous. I'm enjoying the ride.

Questions? Comments? What do you think?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

S.A.G.E. pt. 1

This will need to be a short post, but I wanted to get this down in writing in order to commit more to it in the the coming days. The convergence of several events have me thinking about the forces that have shaped me, and what it is that contributes to my theology and perspective. While here in Colorado, teaching at a Bible School, I'm aware of how powerfully I've been shaped by Sanctification theology of the Torchbearer Missionary Fellowship. If you're ever interested in reading a book that describes the life of this community, I'd suggest you look here. The life transforming truth that we are called to enter the "rest of faith" by daily relinquishing our own agenda and living in the confidence that Christ is expressing His life through us, has been key. This understanding of growth has given me access to confidence, joy, and purpose that had remained inaccessible to me throughout the faith of my childhood. I will forever be grateful for this central truth, so centrally shared among the Torchbearer family around the world, and so critical, I believe, to their ongoing fruitfulness in ministry.

And, I'm equally grateful for the slowly dawning shift over the years from my strict dispensational theology, to what is commonly called Graduated Eschatology. This latter understanding has been shaped primarily through the writings of NT Wright, a teacher and author who has spoken in Seattle. The notion that the kingdom of God, though not yet here in it's fullness, is nevertheless here in it's seminal forms, completely changed my outlook. No longer simply waiting for the reign of God to come with Christ's return, we have the privilege of presently living as people who embody that reign by painting the colors of hope on the canvass of our hurting world, in the name of the King who shall one day reign fully.

Santifcation And Graduate Eschatology. I'm increasingly convinced that holding these two elements together is necessary for both individual Christians and the church to walk in the callings God has for us. But, like dieting, theology seems trendy. Back in the day, high carbs and low fat were deemed the way to go. Now carbs are the devil, and it's all about the right fats, at least in some circles. What happened? The real value or non-value of foods didn't change - we just changed the way we viewed them. But we tend to react, throwing out one thing as we embrace another, as we move from a rice and celery diet to bacon, eggs, and steak.

I'm convinced the same thing happens theologically, and that's why I don't know many GE folks who hold to the old school notions of santification, interior holiness, and our moment by moment need for Christ. But maybe we need some brown rice AND a little more protein? Maybe we need to be less reactionary and more willing to embrace what nourishes us... body AND spirit.

I'd like to unpack each of these pieces more thoroughly next week, but for now just note the importance of never sacrificing interior holiness for exterior kingdom work, OR vice versa. The only way any of it seems to work for me is by being both/and

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The sense of the gospel

It's snowing where I'm writing, at 8500' in a chalet in the Rockies. I'm watching it come down and land on the Pines and Firs that are just on the other side my window. The wind that been howling relentlessly since I arrived Sunday night has finally stopped. I'm drinking a fresh pot of coffee, even though it's 3:30 in the afternoon, something I never do at home. There's a roaring fire in the massive stone fireplace, whose reflection I can see in the window. I can smell the coffee, the cold, the smoke from the burning wood. This is marvelous.

Snow, fire, coffee, trees.... "O taste and see that the Lord is good."

One of the dangers that attends being a Christian is that we run the risk of developing an unhealthy suspicion of the senses, of beauty, of the raw joy that comes from physical sight, and taste, and touch. Different versions of dualism down through the ages bled into the church so that many began to teach that the invisible realm was somehow more important, or more holy, than the physical world. The Stoic influence led to the denial of the senses, and all sorts of ascetic practices arose, many of which have proved harmful, both the to individuals practicing them, and to the testimony of Christ, as believers grew to be characterized as nothing more than a big group of naysayers who despise good food, good architecture, beauty, and sex.

There are many things to say of this, but on this snowy day, I offer two thoughts:

1. Our senses are a gift from God, and things which bring them pleasure are gifts from God as well. God wants us to enjoy our sexuality. The beginning of His reign will be kicked off with a fabulous banquet, including the best wine. One can't read the creation Psalms without realizing that those in the know have their eyes wide open with delight, cherishing the beauty, power, and abundance of creation. The conclusion is that, in the right context (food when we're hungry - sex when we're married - beauty whenever and wherever we see it), we should allow the pleasure that God's gifts give us to be fully enjoyed. Taste! Touch! Feel! See! Listen! Enjoy!

Where we fail to jump in and engage the senses, we run the risk of making the primary goal of our faith that of deprivation, seeing danger around every turn, and reframing our notions of success in our faith life as the degree to which we avoided pleasure. This is not only ugly, but as seen in Col. 2 above, is worthless, and often backfires. Relax, our senses are gifts from God

2. If there's a danger of negating our senses, there's of course, the other danger. There are times and places where it's important to hold our appetites in check because the gifts of our sense are intended to invite us to God, who is inviting us to a full life of service, generosity, and blessing. If I fail to pursue God's invitation to such a life, all I have left are my senses, and a survey of the eating disorders, body image issues, and the emotional and physical carnage that comes from the misuse of sexuality all lead me to believe that the senses make a good friend but a cruel master. Learning when to say yes to opportunities for sense indulgence, and when to say no is a matter of ethics, and a much larger discussion. Too much no is the very Gnosticism that I've warned against. Too much yes and the seeds of destruction mentioned above blossom into full blown fruit.

One last thought - I think our senses play a sustaining role in our lives that we shouldn't underestimate. Bonheoffer found beauty in the smallest hints of creation, even while in prison. A tiny piece of chocolate can give us joy if we have learned to say no at other times, and this joy can restore us, giving us strength to serve and bless. If we go through life failing to see, taste, touch, I believe it will be reflected in barenness of soul, leaving us with less to give to others.

It's still snowing. I think I'll pour another cup, sit by the fire and watch for a minute or two before returning to work.