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, June 29, 2009

Beat the front page

I tried to watch the news a little bit this weekend, but it was challenging to find any real news. Though cities in Iraq are seeing upticks in violence, and North Korea is making rumblings about the launching test rockets in the direction of Hawaii, all I could find on the airwaves were speculations about Michael Jackson's death, and intrigue over the notion that a plain spoken governor from South Caroline could score with an Argentinian lover. It's as if, starving for vegetables and protein, we're offered nothing but the intellectual equivalent of cotton candy.

This is the diet, of course, because the reality is that most people want cotton candy for supper, and that's the real problem. That we idolize sports stars is bad enough, though they at least have their very own stations and commentators obsessing over their drug charges, affairs, contract disputes, whinings, and even occasionally, their on field performance. But musicians and movie stars, especially those few whose talents or quirks put them in the rarified stratosphere of global fame, these few become the centerpiece of our national attention whenever their life takes a turn or comes to a close.

That we are so intrigued with the lives of high profile people says something about our culture; I'm just not sure what it is. Why might we know more about the drugs in MJ's body than the implications of a potentially seismic shift in how health care is run in our country? Why is hard for high school seniors from either coast to find Chicago on a map, yet easy to name all the Jonas brothers and what they like to eat for breakfast?

I have a few theories about the trivialization of culture:

1. Our lives are too boring, and thus we're drawn to excitment beyond ourselves. The industrial age has created hoards of people who hate their jobs. To the extent that my own life lacks thrill, perhaps the extraordinary lives of others become a form a sustenance. Michael Jackson was certainly "extra-ordinary" in the truest sense of the word.

2. Vicarious living is easier.

3. Voyeurism is fun.

4. Entertainment figures provide comfortable diversion from challenging realities, and since comfort is more pleasant than challenge, the news of entertainers is preferrable to the news of economic and political challenges.

5. Being culturally literate is important.

These elements, in combination, seem to be the soil in which is fascinations and obsessions with pop icons grows, even as our engagement with more important matters diminishes. What needs to happen to shift the paradigm? Can it be shifted? Should it?

Please don't misread me. Michael Jackson, like Mozart, was a brilliant, creative, tortured artist, who shifted the culture of his day dramatically. The world should mourn his loss. But to elevate his death, and obsession with the details of his death to the level of front page and first story for days on end seems, in a world where 30 thousand children die each day of treatable diseases, misguided.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Health Care - a revelation of ideology vs morality

It's a long story, a side-track really, so I won't lead you too far down this rabbit trail, which is really more of a confession about my exercise habits. About a year ago, I discovered something called "cross fit", which is mostly about an exercise philosophy that says, "mix it up - don't just jog around the lake every day. Lift some weights. Do some squats. Play tennis. Climb. Jump rope. And importantly, don't just jog, sprint. In fact, sprint up hills!"

"Yes", I say to myself, "jogging is from Satan. After all, look at how sore I am after running around the lake, three times a week, year after year. I'm finished with this nonsense! Instead I'll do what the cross fit people say to do: some lifting here, some sprinting there, an occasional climb."

Well, one year later I'm here to tell you that the easy part was giving up jogging. I mastered that in the first week. That's right; no more mind numbing repetitive exercises for me. Instead I'll be...well, here's the confession part: I'll be either sleeping, or watching TV, or being sedentary in some other way; anything but getting out and doing these short bursts of intensive exercise that are supposed to be so good for you. Actually getting my butt out the door to do these other health giving things is, in fact, much harder than the simple act of declaring that such things are good for me.

The problem, you see, isn't in what I say I believe. The problem is that what I actually believe is revealed, not by what I say, but by what I do. What I say I believe, when the day is done, doesn't matter at all. The coffee shop discussions about justice, poverty, simple living, worship, church life, and sexual ethics might all serve the purpose of helping us clarify where we ought to be going. But unless we go there, the ideology we say a believe becomes an anesthetic, numbing my soul to our own lack of moral fiber.

It wouldn't be so bad if this were only a personal problem. Instead, the evidence is that this is THE problem that prevents so much that is good from ever taking root in our lives, our families, our nations. We confuse our own rhetoric with reality, declaring to ourselves and others that because we have good intentions, we're good.

Nowhere is this more visible at this moment, than in the present health care discussion occurring in congress. We all agree that it's deplorable that our nation spends more per capita on health care than any nation in the developed world, but ranks lower in life expectancy, and higher in infant mortality than most of the nations on the chart. It's sickening that this is the only developed nation in the world where people lose their life savings, retirement income, and homes for a single surgery. Did you know that 18,000 people die each year in our country of treatable diseases?

David Brooks, my favorite conservative journalist, exposes the shame and posturing on both side of the political aisle that will, I'm afraid, ultimately create an emasculated bill, failing to deal with the real issues of cost controls. A bi-partisan proposal that begins by taxing health benefits has been pronounced 'dead on arrival' by those with the power to kill it, even though it has bi-partisan support and will serve to create a real alternative without driving America further into the cave of bankruptcy. You can, and should, read about it here.

Instead, all alternative plans on the table face the challenge of either being too expensive, or too narrowly focused, to be effective in fixing the problem. The Wyden/Bennett plan taxes health care benefits because, and this may come as a surprise to some senators, FIXING HEALTH CARE WILL BE EXPENSIVE. That this fundamental reality is lost on some politicians, as well as millions of Americans, is astonishing to me. In Europe and Canada, people are taxed at much higher levels, and nationalized health care keeps costs (and negatively, some would say, availability) under control, but grants access to 'basic health care' for all people. It's a solution - but it costs taxpayers money, rather than resorting to the treasury's printing presses again.

Unfortunately, nobody wants to pay. So the collective leadership are presently talking a good game, declaring their ideals for affordable health care. But early on in the discussion it's clear that what is meant is this: let's find a way to gain all the benefits of muscle mass without that sweaty nasty thing called excerise. Let's find a way to eat sugar coated 'fried muckos' for breakfast, while lowering our cholestoral and blood sugar. Preaching good health while they dine on moral doughnuts, our leaders are marching the health care initiative to an early grave.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

thirsting for coffee with God

"If any man is thirsty, let Him come to me and drink..." Of course, it's a bit of a rhetorical statement, offered as it was at a time whenon demand faucets and indoor plumbing hadn't yet been invented, and offered in a place that regular saw temperatures above 100, (or 30 if you're Canadian). Of course they're thirsty. The words of Jesus aren't really words about thirst; the thirst part is presupposed.

The real heart of the statement is that when you're thirsty, you're to come and drink of Jesus. Now, I love metaphor as much as most people (save some geeky poet friends), but there are times when Jesus' words frustrate me no end. He talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. What's that supposed to mean? When His mom comes looking for Him, he turns to the crowd and says, "Who is my mother?" as if He's forgotten what she looks like. And now this: "if you're thirsty, come and drink of me." Unlike some of the most popular parables, Jesus never took the disciples aside in the back room and explained this thirst metaphor. He just hung it out there for us to embrace and practice without offering a stitch of explanation.

While this frustrates me, it's also true that these open ended statements are part of what makes the Bible live for every generation. Because everything's not spelled out, we need to wrestle with it, pray about it, talk about it, contextualize it, and hold our answers with enough boldness to explain why believe them, and enough humility to discard them when more light shines on our convictions and shows us we need to shift. So, realizing that we don't have the privilege of Jesus sidebar interpretation, here's how this living word has been speaking to me lately:

First of all, I reiterate that the issue isn't whether or not I'm thirsty; thanks be to God I am, and most of the time. I thirst for intimacy in my marriage, meaning in my work, healing of my soul, authentic relationships with my adult children. I thirst to be informed by truth and grace as I fulfill my responsibilities of a shepherd. I thirst for sanity in world, peace, justice, beauty, hope.

If those were the limits of my thirsts then learning to drink from Jesus would be simple because these are good thirsts and a good drink will quench a good thirst. My problem, though, is that interwoven with those few noble thirsts are lots of other things, uglier things. I thirst to be adored, to be left alone, to be comfortable, to be so wealthy and secure that I need never depend on anyone again, least of all God. I thirst for relational autonomy way too often. I thirst for the stimulation of the city, and the beauty of the mountains. I thirst to expand my sphere of influence, and to move to the middle of nowhere, where I can fish, cook, climb, and be the master of my own universe.

What a mess of thirsts! And herein lies the hope of Jesus words, the point for me at which they begin to make sense. It's encouraging that Jesus doesn't moralize about my thirsts, casting judgement on my desires. I can already hear some of you accusing me of heresy here, but don't light the fire yet. For too many centuries, the church has wrongly assessed that our problems stem from our desires. But I can't find Jesus running around ranting about our desires anywhere in the gospels, even the non-canonical ones!

Instead, His invitation is related to what we do when the pangs of any thirst are born in our hearts, never mind whether the thirst comes from our wounded, rebellious soul, or our deepest longings for the world God created. In both cases the admonition is the same: if you're thirsty, come to Jesus. This is profoundly liberating for me because I'm learning to link my relationship with Jesus with all my thirsts, not just my healthy ones, but the unhealthy ones too.

It's also counterintuitive. The gnawing unhealthy thirsts tell me that they won't be satisfied with anything less than an unhealthy beverage, the soul equivilant of a monster slurpee when what I really need is fresh squeezed OJ. Of course, this is where faith comes in. This is where I'm learning to interact with Jesus and find some measure of satisfaction in Him, both when I'm thirsting for healthy intimacy, and when I'm lusting for pleasure or escape. Somehow, the turning to Christ in the midst of my unhealthy thirsts has the effect of changing my appetites; not instantly, and not entirely, but subtly and slowly. Thanks be to God, I'm slowly losing my appetite for soul slurpees.

The methodology Jesus had mind for "drinking of Him" remains a mystery because I don't think He had a methodology in mind. He wants us to wrestle with this stuff. For me, a born and bred Baptist, it's taken nearly half a century to discover that this "drinking of Christ" works best for my sould when I pray daily prayers from a book like this one, which is a decidedly non-Baptist practice. "Coffee with God" is what I call it, and it's become increasingly important to my mornings, not in a legalistic way, but in some sort of better way. It entails brewing a pot of French Press and then sitting (outside or in, depending on seasons) with Jesus as I pray the daily prayers, drawn from the Psalms, and pour out my heart. I do this because of all my thirsts, and for this reason, I'm learning to thank God for this holy and unholy juxtaposition of desires because together they lead me to the water of Christ I'd never have found if I weren't thirsty.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Tash Talking: Musings on Universalism

This summer our church is doing a series called "Theological Cliffs" whereby we delve into some of the more controversial doctrines of famous theologians like CS Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weill, and others. The Lewis controversy resides in his doctrine of salvation, specifically the question of "What must a person do to be saved?" In particular, Lewis' position is provocative to evangelicals because of some veiled hints in "The Great Divorce" that everyone might be saved, and because of the following quote from "The Last Battle" in his "Chronicles of Narnia" series.

In this story, a soldier goes through something analagous to the doorway of death. The soldier has served a god named Tash all his life, and he comes upon the great Lion named Aslan, who represents Christ...

"in a naorrow place between two rocks there came to me a great lion. the speed of him like an ostrich, and the size of him was an elepnat's; his har was like pure gold and the brightness of his eyes, like god that is liquid in the furnace. In beauty he surpassed anything that was in the world, even as the rose in bloom surpasses the dust in the desert. Then I fell at his feet and though, surely this is the hour of death, for the lion (who is worhty of all honor) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the lion and die than to be kind of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, "Son, thou are welcome." But I said, "Alas, Lord I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash." He answered, "Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me." Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, "Lord is it ture, as the Ape said, the thous and Tash are one?" The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, "It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services that thous hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is note vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man do a cruelty in my name, than though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed accepted. Dost Thou understand child?" I said, "Lord Thous knowest how much I understand." But I also said (for the truth constrained me), "Yes I have been seeking Tash all my days."

"Beloved" said the Glorous One, "unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly, for all find what they truly seek."

1. What is Lewis saying? Is he really teaching universalism?

2. What are the implications of what he's saying when it comes to evangelism?

3. Can what he's saying be correlated to what Jesus said in John 14:6.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Focus: Priceless

There's a new book out about the stupefying of America and the basic thesis is that we're growing dumber because we're unwilling, or unable to pay attention and focus on one thing at a time. What do you think of this thesis? (excuse me a moment, my cell's ringing and it's important; not that you're not important, but you know, it's just polite to answer). Now, where was I? O yes, I was saying that there might be a connection between the cracks in our productivity infrastructure and our attention bearing capacity (a moment please, someone's tweeting and LOL, it's hysterically funny. I mean who eats oysters and pickels for breakfast anyway?).

Did you know that 2 out of 3 voting Americans can't name the three branches of the US government? (and speaking of branches, we're finally trimming that giant fir tree in the front yard. OMG, it's been growing out of control and after talking to some people in the know we decided that we could take it on ourselves, but I'm going to need to sharpen my chain saw...but I digress). Anyway, our failure to understand basic things is rooted (don't even get me started on the danger of roots making their way into our sewer pipes. It happened to our neighbor), says the author, in our failure to be able to focus on one thing at a time.

It's ironic that this new book is, at the time of this entry, ranked #22 on the best-seller list for books about pop-culture (it's presently linked on Amazon to the book people buy along with my book. Oh, you didn't know I wrote a book. Yes, well it came about, um, I'll need to tell you later, my phone's ringing), because this is the week that the Time Magazine cover story is about Twitter. (Just a minute, someone came into my office to talk about church planting and satellite campuses. It's entirely new terrain for our staff and we're investigating how it works) Oh, and so as I was saying, Time points out how we valuable twitter will be in our culture and I'm like, "really? I don't think so. I don't know that I want people tweeting during my sermons because how will I know if they're listening? Plus, who really cares?". So (just a second, my chat box is open from gmail), the question is this: Is there value in swimming upstream against the multi-tasking, intrusive tech (oops, a reminder came up that I've a lunch appointment in 15 minutes), culture that we've come to accept as normative?

How should we then live?

A. continue to multi-task but shut it all down at a certain time (say, 9PM or so) and read, meditate pray?
B. be more agressive in fighting back by unplugging in large swaths, allowing intrusions only at scheduled times?
C. leave things as they are?

I'd like your thoughts because...

Declining Math scores: 40 billion in lost competitive productivity
ADD: tragic loss of (wait a sec - the phone's ringing again)
Increasing mean age of project managers in America to nearly 60 years old: alarming
Loss of thoughtful discourse regarding literature and ideas: disconcerting (oops... IM on the phone about a rehearsel)

Focus: Priceless

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Apologetics from Tiananmen Square

This is the week that, 20 years ago, Chinese military opened fire in what has come to be called the Tiananmen Square massacre. There's a marvelous piece here, by the NYT's Nicolas Kristof. In addition, I have a personal story to tell...

It's December 23rd, 1993. I'm speaking to a group of international students at a ski retreat, and one of the breakout sessions I've been assigned is titled, "Science and the Bible". I come prepared to talk about geological discoveries that reinforce my belief that the Bible is largely history. You know the stuff - stories about Jericho's walls falling down, Noah's ark being found, and an explanation for what the Bible meant when it says that the sun stood still. I, the guy who's last science class was basic physics during my first year of college thirteen years earlier, was to explain to these PHD candidates in Biology, Nuclear Physics, Astronomy, and numerous other disciplines, why the evidence is overwhelming that they should believe the Bible based on these scientific discoveries.

In retrospect, the exercise was laughable, as these scientists weren't easily persuaded by what I had to say. For every point, they had a counterpoint. Back and forth we'd go, lobbing grenades of evidence at each other in order to reinforce our beliefs. Finally, when we'd seemingly exhausted ourselves, and the circle feel quiet, an older Chinese gentleman spoke. He'd been silent throughout the comical discussion, except to introduce himself at the beginning as a physicist.

"I am a physicist; and I am a Christian."

Someone asked, "What evidence do you have for your belief in the God of the Bible."

His answer was simple. "I was in Tiananmun square on June 4, 1989. I have seen how men behave when they believe there is no god. It is for this reason I believe, and nothing anyone can say will ever persuade be to go back to my unbelief."

This was an important moment for me. Seeds were planted in those few sentences, that would take root in the soil of my soul, and eventually germinate into an understanding of the interplay of faith and reason that looks as post-modern as modern - and as modern as post-modernity.

The reality is that none of us believe the things we do in a vacuum. We believe (that's faith) for reasons (that's evidence). There's never enough evidence to quench our need for faith. There's never enough faith to quench silence all the questions of the evidence side. We believe "because", and this point we fill in the blank with any number of things. But I'll tell you this - it will never be adequate to fill in the reason and evidence side of this equation with archeology and history, physics and astronomy, because these sciences are nothing more than thesis scientist believe because of their own blend of evidence and faith.

No, the "evidence" side of the equation, I began to discover on that snowy night in '93, is best filled, not with science theory about the rocks of Jericho, but with first hand experience - things like seeing Christians love their enemies, or negatively, seeing those who deny the existence of God mow down women and young people for daring to express their views. The "evidence" in other words, even for this physicist, wasn't found in the stars, it was found in the actions of humans.

Jesus talked about this too. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples...."

Dostoyevsky said something too. (see top quote of this)

I hope we're listening and, as a result of what we hear, intent on letting our light shine.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Leno, O'Brian, and Christ - O My.

Jay Leno is out, and Conan O'Brien is in. The question that remains is whether or not Conan can recapture some of the flagging market share in the precious 18-49 year old demographic. Under Leno's leadership, the tonight show realized a 35% drop in that group. While some of this is attributable to the dramatic changes in media delivery (young adults are turning off the their TVs, tuning into the internet instead for 'on demand' access to shows, and to cable, as seen in the soaring Daily Show.

This endeavor is a risk for NBC, and instructive for we who are called to share Christ. That NBC is monitoring their effectiveness and responding to the changes demands of their audience is good capitalism. When churches do the same thing, however, the word "good" should be used very carefully; so should the word "bad", for the reality is that could be either, good or bad... or both.

The real danger, in fact, resides in a monochrome assessment of whether "market analysis" has value. Those who say, "responding to the market is good" run the grave of risk of continually altering the message to entice hearers, or retain hearers. Of course, Paul warns Timothy that such an approach becomes the soil out from which heresy grows. Lowering the bar, twisting the clear ethical mandates of the gospel, or in any way 'widening the road' is an ever present danger. When our paradigm is rooted in a continual assessment of market share, the danger becomes our inevitable mode of operation. Ironically, these accommodations ultimately render the gospel powerless, and hence irrelevant.

This is part of the reason that theological liberal churches often struggle to find vibrancy and health. I'll hasten to add that this is also a clear and present danger in the entire "emergent church" culture. Embracing the tendencies to shrink back from the ethical mandates of the gospel doesn't capture market share; it simply makes you nothing more than a classroom (only lacking qualified teachers), or a bar (only lacking alcohol), or a concert venue (only lacking good sound systems are creative artists). Responding the market isn't inherently good.

Then is "market response" inherently bad? Wrong again. It's not holy, or pure, or mature, to callously disregard the response of people to your message; its' just poor communication. If I'm sharing Christ and nobody is listening, it might be that everyone's heart is in a state of utter rebellion, and that God's spirit isn't at work anywhere, among anyone with whom I speak. Or it might be that I'm using language they don't understand, or answering question they're not asking. It might be that I'm confusing the wine of the faith with the wineskin, insisting on neckties, or choir robes, or the King James Version of the Bible. Such posture reminds me of Jesus' assessment of religion found here. Paul indicated the one of the assets of the gospel is its profound malleability. It's wine skin can shape shift, so that it looks profoundly different in Nepal than it does in Seattle, in Atlanta, than it does in Beijing. Because of this, Paul was a student of culture, and used the cultural material of the day to frame his declaration of God's timeless truth; the good news; the gospel of Christ. Failure to follow his example isn't holy; it's irresponsible.