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...

Friday, July 31, 2009

Food vs. Food Inc.

We're in the midst of trying overhaul the health care system of our country, and debates are flying across cyberspace about taxation, socialized medicine, and the dangers of rationed health care. Did you know the roughly 60% of home foreclosures have their roots in a family health crisis? One major surgery can wipe out a lifetime of savings which, in a country where the primary means of independence in one's senior years comes from taking of yourself by saving for the future, is no small matter. These are just some of the reasons that the subject is important. Entrenched special interests are the reason this isn't easy.

What's missing from all of this though, is a discussion (careful, I'm about to sound like Ron Paul), of personal responsibility for the pursuit of health. This conversation might be offered in the public square, but never as more than a footnote. I want to scream, "This issue isn't a footnote. This is the centerpiece of the way forward!" I'm sitting here eating a fresh melon as I write this.

I began the morning with some great coffee and then did several sets of high intensity jump roping, along with some leg lifts. Last night my supper consisted of some beef that wasn't raised on antibiotics and hormones, zucchini and onions sauteed in olive oil, and a glass of whole milk. I slept for about eight hours. In short, I'm trying to exercise, eats tons of fruit and veggies, along with some fat and protein, and get enough sleep. I've cut out soft drinks and most grains, most of the time. I'm not a nutritionist, so don't take this and run with it without considering some evidence. I know too, that none of these habits are magic bullets in this fallen world. We could get sick in spite of our best efforts. But if anecdotal evidence is worth anything, I feel better with these new habits of eating exercise than I have in years. I'm increasingly convinced that stewardship of the body can help us be more creative, productive people during the years we're given here.

An abundance of sugary treats, along with meat raised on feed lots and filled with meds, are stressing our national insulin response and leading to diabetes and obesity, even in teens, and who knows what kind of problems due to the meat (these are the themes of "Food Inc."). We sit on our butts and watch TV rather than playing games. And in the midst of this, we're trying to make health care more accessible. More accessible is nice, but less needed is even better, and that will only come about as a result of one of two things:

1. a change in government policies, whereby we give localized and organic agriculture a fair chance, start treating sugar like tobacco, and encourage, even mandate, exercise in schools, all the way through college. Since none of this will happen, we'll need, instead, to...

2. take responsibility for our own health. Buy organic. Eat more fruit and veggies, less fluffy grain stuff, cut out sugar. Exercise. Play games that require more than wrist dexterity. Get enough sleep.

If a nation did this, the movement of the people would change the market forces, and we'd have a breakout of health. This isn't just a national policy issue. I feel strongly that this is stewardship issue because the reality is that we're not disembodied spirits. As whole people, we have spirits and bodies, and the two aren't divided; they're interwoven.

Our new life in Christ is expressed that resides deep within, in our spirits, is expressed in our bodies, as we serve in food banks, throw a party for our neighbors, play ultimate frisbee with our kids, work long hours and come home to love our families, create, teach, serve, clean, or do whatever else it is that we do in Jesus name.

You'll do it better if you're healthy. So, perhaps the next time we open our Bibles to feed on the word, we should think about what we're putting in our bodies too. When we ponder where we're to go today, we ought to think about the spirituality of taking our bicycle or walking rather than just hoping in the car. These little decisions are important for the kingdom, and we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore them.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What next???

There's more to be said on the subject of homosexuality and covenant relationships. Much more. But these printed words are leaving me, like Lisa wrote in her late night response last night, weary.

I'm weary because I feel as if I'm failing at conveying grace and truth interwoven.

I'm weary because I suspect that lots of readers are looking for code words and phrases to see if I've "gone soft" or, if they're on the other side, to see if I'll finally get it right. This saddens me, and reminds me of the guys in Mark 3 waiting to see if Jesus would heal the man with the withered hand, so that they might accuse him. That made Jesus angry, and it makes me angry too.

Don't get me wrong. The forum last Wednesday and the online discussion has been great. It's all progress in the dialogue. But the next steps, it seems to me, need to occur in more face to face settings, where we can hear the whole person, not just the words. Next steps are important though, and I hope our conversations can continue, because what's happening here is we're learning to listen and be heard, learning to wrestle with alternative interpretations we've perhaps not considered before, learning to pray and love, learning to approach one another in our mutual brokenness rather then in on some false moral high ground, yet doing so without collapsing all convictions.

This is the community of faith. It has been all along. The same kinds of discussions have occurred around countless issues, beginning with discussions early on about whether those who had denied Christ to save themselves during persecution should be admitted back to the church for fellowship. Then there were issues about which books would be in the Bible. After that, discussions about the deity and humanity of Christ ensued. Women. Anti-Semetism. Slavery. Racism. The discussions just keep on coming; divisive issues that make people feisty, afraid, and protective. There's a cloud of dust, and when it settles, we've moved forward. I pray that we can live in the dust with integrity, humility, and courage. We must. We must.

Thanks, to all of you who are willing to participate. We'll work on keeping the dialogue going as we move into the fall. In the meantime, I'll keep the dialogue going, but offline, as a pastor more than a theologian, dealing with the agony, ecstasy, joy, and pain that attends this issue for all who are seeking to love others unconditionally, and follow Christ.

I'm going to close this post by quoting from another blog to which I contribute, because the past two days the posts have, ironically, been about this same subject. Here's some of what Eric Allen wrote:

...Amongst friends, family and church members Dan and Laura felt alone. They are amongst the finest people in the world. Dan is an elder in the church and he serves and as a public defender in the world. Laura is an OBGYN nurse in the world and a servant in the church. My heart mourned for them. They couldn’t tell anyone. And most of all they feared the churches response. They thought that the church for whatever reason would remove Dan from his eldership and on top of that they felt that their family would reject, judge and shun them and their daughter. I tried to reassure them that this was not the case. But it was a hard sale. Let’s face it there is a lot of junk swirling around our churches regarding homosexuality.

.... I want to incorporate compassion with our morality, which in the end might change everything but that’s what compassion does . . . it changes things. If you’ve been around the church at all then you know that non-judgmental compassion is delicate work. Few do it well. To see something wrong with someone and still have compassion for them is an art. Jesus and a few saints throughout history are about the only ones to do this with success. I am suggesting that in general that we have floundered in our response to sin...

...It was suggested by various members of the group that the Bible ‘clearly’ states that homosexuality is wrong. Being a student of the Bible I wanted to know just how ‘clearly’ homosexuality was spoken of in the Bible. I came away with an almost skinless skeleton. The truth is; you can read for a long way in both directions and not run into it. And when you do, you run into a bunch of contextual issues that makes it difficult and painstaking to apply to today. I suspected that their “clearlies” were driven from our cultural nausea rather than Biblical thoroughness. Because it just wasn’t there. It’s only mentioned five times in all of Scripture. Although despite the lack of discussion of homosexuality in particular I still contend that the book affirms heterosexuality. And I am clearly not arguing any differently. I am pleading that we re-evaluate the way we think and talk about this topic. Let’s get rid of the overstatements because we all know that it is more complicated than that. Let’s face it this world is broken and complicated and we are the privileged ones who get to put up with it....

I don’t want to ignore it and push it under the rug. I don’t want to secretly make fun of it and be scared of it when encountered. I want to confront it with truthfulness and goodness as God himself has intended sin to be confronted throughout all of human history. I want to confront it as modeled by the words and mantra of the homeless Messiah from Galilee . . . the true God dressed in our skin.

and it goes on from there, Eric's piece does, with good and challenging thoughts. I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I didn't. You can read the whole piece here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Romans 1

Here's another question:

How do both parties respond to homosexuality as mentioned towards the end of Romans 1?

In my last response to this morning's post, I alluded to the reality that people can read the same Bible and come to dramatically different conclusions. I was thinking of President Lincoln's second inaugural address when I mentioned that. Regarding the deep divide in America during the civil war, Lincoln said:

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh."

Lincoln understood, and so do I, that people read the same Bible and come to dramatically different conclusions, even while praying to the same God. What are we to make of this? As I stated in a previous post, hermeneutics isn't a "hard" science, with easily testable hypotheses. We get into trouble when we think that, through the exercise of our intellect alone, we can arrive, regarding every single passage of scripture, at a bombproof interpretation.

This breadth of interpretation is seen nowhere more clearly, perhaps, than in the first chapter of Romans, especially towards the latter half of the chapter. Men are burning with lust towards men, and women are burning with lust towards women. It's clear that this kind of behavior (there are others as well, no doubt far more convicting for most of us, which is why we tend to skip them and focus on same sex issues), is evidence that God's voice has been rejected. That's the point of the passage; the kinds of behaviors described are a thermometer of one's relationship with God.

I'm sitting in the woods as I write this, so have access to none of my resource books on ethics, etc. Perhaps its better that way. I can simply generalize. I'll begin by articulating the standard evangelical party line. It goes something like this:

"There it is, right there in Romans 1 - gays hate God. They're out there burning in their lust for one another, and Paul has just declared, unequivocally, that they're behaving this way because they hate God. Don't tell me that you can love God and be gay. That's not what MY Bible says."

This kind of thinking violates nearly every hermeneutic principle I set out a couple of days ago. This is the kind of teaching that leads to hatred instead of love and objectification instead of relationship. Using the scriptures to incite fear and hatred can only be described as heresy.

A significant contextual question must always be, "what would these words have meant to the original hearers?" I can promise you one thing; of all the possibilities available for speculation about that subject, the one thing that would never have entered the mind or heart of Paul was that he was condemning people living committed same sex unions. Here's why:

1. men with men, women with women, was the common phrasing for homosexual promiscuity, such as was common throughout the upper echelons of the Roman Empire. Did know that Julius Ceasar was known as, "Every woman's man" and "Every man's woman". Senators and interns back in the Roman hey day make the Governor of South Carolina look like a saint. I could write more with resources at hand, but in the forest, you'll have to trust me. When the original hearers absorbed those words, they most likely thought of the homosexual equivalent of our Mardi Gras festival. Yes, that is in fact, a sign of depravity. Any times sexuality objectifies another, using them for gratification without living in the reality of a comensurate commitment, it's depravity, gay or straight.

2. Paul wasn't condemning committed homosexual covenant relationships because they didn't exist, and of course, nobody condemns or forbids things that aren't even a possibility.

These two problems with the standard evangelical party line as it relates to Romans 1 are why I went to great lengths in a previous post to explain why I don't think someone who has same sex desires is inherently living in sin, any more than someone who has heterosexual leanings towards promiscuity and objectifying the opposite sex. Paul is going to great pains to show, in this particular instance, that the problem is the promiscuous behavior, not our longings.

So that's how I read these texts, at least that's how I read them when I'm in woods with nothing but a Bible in my hands. I know people will read them differently, people who love and pray to the same God. There are two kinds of good dialogue that can come from this.

The first is intellectual. Challenge my hermeneutic. Let others challenge yours. That's important. It's how our convictions are refined.

The second is more personal. I'm wondering how this dialogue sets with people, gay or straight, believing or not. If you're going to share something personal though, I hope it will be rooted in following the entire thread of the past few days.

thanks for your engagement in this discussion...

An answer, I hope in Truth and Grace

A few more things...

As I shared last Wednesday evening, the conversation about this subject took place between people who agree that the Bible, not cultural trends, is our source of authority. Thus my answer to these questions will be rooted, I hope, in what I believe that the Holy Spirit is saying to the church through the Bible.

One more thing. Psalm 48:13 says that "This God is our God for ever and ever. He shall be our guide forevermore." Because God has made us free, we needn't agree with Psalm 48. We can say, "No thank you. I'll choose to find my guidance from... " and then we can fill in the blank with whatever seems to work for us. At the outset, I think it's important to share with you why I've chosen to say, "God is my guide."

My choice is rooted in the observation that God's precepts and principles have proven themselves, to me at least, to a be a life enhancing playing field. There are limits; fences. Our lives are circumscribed by God's truths as he invites us to live here (generosity for example) and not here (greed). We don't do it perfectly of course, which is why we need Christ. But though we fail, my own life story has led me to believe, after all these years, that God's playing field is, indeed, the place where life can best be lived. I'll hasten to add that playing on God's field most assuredly will lead to a life of self-denial and suffering at various points, for the reality is that I'm inexorably drawn to some of the values on the wrong side of the fence. In a fallen world, all my dreams won't come true. But I'll best be able to find my way by participating in a community that sees God's YES and God's NO as equally life enhancing and preserving.

Here are the questions:

How do you believe God views the union of two people of the same gender? Do you believe it is sinful even if monogamous, loving, and committed?

How can we as a church deny the experience of gay and lesbian Christians that feel called by the Holy Spirit to a covenant relationship? What does the church have to lose or gain by blessing same gender unions?

Let's begin by asking the question: "What does the church have to gain or lose by blessing same gender unions?" because I think everything else will flow from that.

What's at stake, and this isn't just an opinion, but a reality, is the hermeneutic principle that "historical orthodoxy" isn't to be lightly overturned. As I shared already, this doesn't mean that theologians of any particular moment in history shouldn't challenge existing interpretations, for if there were no challenge, many horrific attitudes and actions of the church would still be happening today. On the other hand, there's a real risk in our post-modern era to view the entire past as mistaken and approach theology today as if it's a blank slate, bringing all our 21st century biases to the table when trying to interpret the Bible. This is a huge mistake!

So, at the outset we need to realize that if the church were to bless same sex unions, it would overturn the overwhelming testimony of how the church has understood marriage. The article referenced in the previous article seems fairly accurate and, while not without problems, it is clear that, from Genesis to Jesus, to Paul, to the early church fathers, and then throughout the various arms of the church that have come about because of schisms, marriage has not had a provision for same sex unions within it.

This observation leads me to the another hermeneutic principle that is important for our discussion, namely the issue of looking for movement (such as we saw with dietary regulations). One can find movement on many important social issues, issues on which the church has ultimately moved. Woman were treated differently by Jesus than would have been considered normative in the Old Testament, and Paul made further movement still, acknowledging a female apostle, and declaring that "when a woman prophesies (a declaration carrying the very authority of God), she's to have her head covered". Similar movement is made on the issue of slavery.

However, when it comes to marriage, this movement is simply not there. God declares a reference point regarding what marriage is supposed to be in Genesis 2. Jesus refers back to the same reference point. So does Paul. This lack of movement is, in my world, a hugely important consideration. Like the flame and cloud that guided Israel, we need to be willing to move when God moves. But when that same cloud is stationary, we need to be stationary. The testimony of scripture doesn't indicate that humanity has held to God's reference point well at all.

This is the crux issue, much more than our respective interpretations of Biblical texts about homosexuality, or anything about the nature vs. nurture debate. To bless gay unions would require climbing too hermeneutic walls that simply seem too high: God's lack of movement on the issue, coupled with the church's lack of movement.

What this means:

The church must decide how seriously it takes marriage. Everything written above seems to confine sexual intimacy to two people in a marriage covenant. Surely such a playing field will lead to suffering for all of us. Straight singles need to wait until they're married. Married people need to release their demand for sexual intimacy at various points, due to health issues, weariness, travel, emotional hurdles, and more. Holding our sexuality in this way is an enormous challenge, but the fact that it's challenging isn't evidence that we've got the ethic wrong. I'll note, as I have before, that our collective failure here as heterosexuals is far more dangerous to society than how the smaller homosexual community holds their sexuality. It's an issue for all of us, but for society the impact of departure from God's reference point will be felt more by the departure of the 95% than the 5%.

The church must get over it's homophobia. If the conversation is out of the closet, then we can offer our friends a place at the table, a place in the pew, a place to pray, listen for God's voice, and know, albeit imperfectly, a sense of family and intimacy in this broken world. Some, I believe (because I've seen it), will come to experience a transformation enabling them to marry. Others won't. That's God's prerogative. But all will experience the embrace of a loving God.

I'll close simply by suggesting that, as Lauren Winner writes in her marvelous book, our sexuality isn't a private matter after all. In her book calling all Christians to either chastity or marriage, she observes that this ethic, far from intended to isolate is intended to drive us towards a greater sense of community. Further, she observes that our departures from this (which she believes to be God's ethic) has communitarian and cultural consequences. I agree. That's why the discussion about how all of us are to hold our sexuality is an important one.

Whew! I fear getting shot at from both sides on this one... but if you could know how much I wrestle with articulating this with truth and grace, perhaps you'll use blanks?

Monday, July 27, 2009

the foundation to answer the questions... part 1

Context: Last Wednesday, four people from our church represented the debate between Tony and Peggy Campolo over the issue of whether the church should sanction same sex unions. I argued (and believe) Tony's position, which calls gays (see previous post for important definition) in Christ to celibacy and challenges the church to create hospitality, intimacy, support and family for them, while two gay friends argued (and believe) Peggy's position, which favors such unions.

However, we ran out of time to answer the all the questions that ensued, so I'm going to spend some time answering some questions that encapsulate much of what seemed to be left hanging. Because the week is full, I'm going to cast a couple of questions out there that are similar and offer one fuller answer to cover them both. Here are the questions:

How do you believe God views the union of two people of the same gender? Do you believe it is sinful even if monogamous, loving, and committed?

How can we as a church deny the experience of gay and lesbian Christians that feel called by the Holy Spirit to a covenant relationship? What does the church have to lose or gain by blessing same gender unions?

The answers to these questions flow from a prior question, one that wasn't asked on Wednesday night, but which pastors must ask each and every day. That question is: "what is your source of authority, your basis from which you derive your ethic?"

Of course, the simple answer would be "from the Bible of course!" and we might say it with a boldness and certainty that will silence all dissenters, as we deftly appeal to Leviticus, and then Exodus, and the Romans, and then I Corinthians, as a means of declaring: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." You can discover here, why this notion is riddled with problems, but the short answer is that none of us simply read the Bible and apply its precepts in a wooden and literal way. If we did, we'd advocate the execution of all employees who work on Sunday (or perhaps Saturday, depending on your interpretation of the Sabbath - but of course, we don't interpret, we just read and obey). "All right then employees who work on the Sabbath, line up for execution."

Yes, that's both silly and sarcastic. But it's intended to demonstrate that we who declare that the Bible is God's "breathed word" to humanity and as such is our final authority on all matters of faith must still do the hard work of interpretation and application in order to live according to God's heart and revelation in this time and place. There's a "science" to this, called hermeneutics, and pastors/ theologians apply hermeneutic principles to the text to understand both what the text means and how to apply it.

The trouble of course, is that hermeneutics isn't quite as exact a science as, say, the addition and subtraction of whole numbers. There's a wide divergence of rules out there, and while I'll not get into the entire landscape, I'll tell you a few of the ones I use in order to work through ethical issues:

1. I always need to try and discover what the author's intent was when this was delivered to its intended audience. "Who wrote this book of the Bible? When? Why? What were people facing that caused this to be written? Who was the audience?" This is why we go to lengths to work out the context of any given passage. This context will naturally lead another question....

2. Are there precepts and principles that are applied uniquely to the original hearer's time and place? This is a lengthy and challenging discussion, but for now I'll simply say that there are times when I'll come to discover that a principle applied to only a certain time and place, such as when violators of the sabbath were to be executed. They might fine you if you try and open your shop on Sunday in some tiny Austrian village, but they won't kill you! Some precepts don't last. There are other times when it's clear that the precept or principle applies down to this day, such as the covenant made with Noah which, among others things, declares that government is better than anarchy.

3. Is there movement on an issue? This is a fascinating discussion (at least, for Bible geeks like me) because it turns out that there IS movement on a number of issues. Dietary laws were declared here, and then they changed here, and then they changed again here, and then they changed again here, and then they changed again here. The upshot of this is that I'm not about to preach on vegetarianism any time soon using Genesis 1:29 since that is "soooo yesterday." There's movement too on some other issues, which I'll cover tomorrow, even as I address the central question of this conversation, namely whether or not there's movement on the issue of homosexuality.

4. What has the church said? When interpretations get challenging, as they do, it's important to remember that we're presently holding the torch for one short leg of a long race that has been faithfully run by millions before us, some of whom paid for the preservation of truth with their blood. For this reason, "historical orthodoxy" matters a great deal to me. You probably realize that I'm not at all implying that there's never a time to stand up to "mother church". Indeed, a quick survey of church history's landscape indicates that we got it wrong a lot of the time. I'd suggest, though, that just as there's a real danger in blindly following an ignorant church as it sanctions slavery, and crusades, and the notion that the sun rotates around the earth, there's an equal (and in our age, perhaps greater) danger of dismissing 2000 years of church ethics because of something Freud said, or because some new study has come along. Yes, there are times to overturn, and those who resist any movement at all imply that the bride of Christ is already perfect, a notion unsupported by scripture. However, changing an ethical stance shouldn't be done lightly, and I happen to be under the conviction that in most cases, it shouldn't be done alone either. So there you have it; some principles to guide the answers to the questions. Unfortunately it's 10:30 and I need to do some other e-mails and reading before sleep wins out, so the next post will bring these principles to bear on the Scriptures that I use to answer the two questions.

Friday, July 24, 2009

How to talk about homosexuality....

"I'm gay, OK?"

Well, no, not me. But those are words I hear; maybe because I'm a pastor, maybe because my ministry is urban, maybe because I work with young adults around the world. That opening line usually leads to ensuing conversations, hearing someone's story of their struggle with sexuality. Because of my position as a pastor though, the conversation isn't limited to sexual struggles; it's about sexuality and faith, and how the two are integrated, or whether they can be integrated.

Before you stone me, or label me as a heretic for even having this conversation, I hope you'll read a little further because I'm convinced that part of the reason this has become such an inflammatory issue is because the word "gay", or "homosexual" doesn't have an agreed upon definition. For example...

When I say, "I'm heterosexual" for example, you presume that to mean that I, a male, am sexually attracted to women, not men. Yes, that's right. However, you most likely don't make any other assumptions. You don't presume that I'm addicted to pornography, or have multiple partners, or sleep around. You don't presume that promiscuity is my favorite form of recreation. Your assumption is, rightly, limited to the reality that I'm attracted to members of the opposite sex.

However, when you hear someone say, "I'm homosexual", I'm guessing that some of you don't bring that same limited definition to the table. You presume the person to be sexually active, presume promiscuity, presume all kinds of destructive sexual practices, presume that the "gay pride" lifestyle (whatever you think that is) is the lifestyle of the person speaking to you, simply because they said, "I'm gay."

What if "I'm gay" were limited, by definition to this: "I'm attracted to members of the same sex"? If that were true, then one could be gay and celibate. One could be gay and agree entirely with the Bible's admonition that sexual activity isn't recreation, that promiscuity isn't an option.
Could one even be "gay", according to this limited definition, and know Christ?

The overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that God has called us to sexual fidelity, to limit our expressions of sexual intimacy to our partner, with whom we've made a life long commitment.
Who is reading this who hasn't, at the very least, been tempted to depart from this? Heterosexuals are tempted to infidelity, promiscuity, fornication. They get aroused by people other than their partner. But of course, Jesus has reminded us, more than a few times, that temptation is different than sin. The reality that Jesus was tempted in all things, yet sinless, reminds us of this.

So there you have it. Someone is attracted to men instead of women, or vice versa. He/she, finds someone attractive. They're tempted. It's not a state of being that should result in pre-emptive, wholesale condemnation, any more than you should judge a man who, on seeing a woman, is tempted to turn her into an object for his use. I mean, temptation is temptation, gay or straight. There she is. Short skirt. Heels. Attractive. I wonder? .... oops. Back to reality. It happened. He was tempted. Just like Jesus. Is he condemned for that? If so, Jesus too is guilty.

So, the next time someone says, "I'm gay", please try to limit your understanding to this: "I'm attracted to people of the same sex". Otherwise, I'll expect that, when you hear this from them and pre-emptively judge them to be promiscuous, that you'll judge me the same way.

I know there are questions and comments about the capacity to change one's gender orientation. I'll note that I know people who have changed (not in the sense that they don't still struggle with same sex attraction from time to time, but in the sense that they're now married, with children, happily so), and believe change to be possible. I'll also note that I know people who tried desperately to change, through therapy, counseling, exorcism of demons, fasting, and more. Their failure to change resulted in despondancy and even temptation to suicide, because when you're assured that you can 'change' and then nothing happens in spite of your prayers and efforts, you wonder if God hates you, wonder if life's worth living. So we can neither absolutize the possibility of change, nor entirely negate it. A better paradigm is this: "God is calling all of us to an ongoing journey of transformation, born out of intimacy with Christ." Of this we can be certain.

We had a discussion on Wednesday evening at our church, using the debate between Tony Campolo and his wife as a context for bringing the topic of homosexuality and faith "out of the closet" so to speak. I won't get into the content of the debate right here. I'll only say that, more important than the content of the debate between two pastors and two gay friends, was the spirit of the debate - a spirit of mutual respect, dialogue, listening to each other, even as we disagree over the issue of gay-covenant relationships. I hope it was a dialogue embodying grace and truth.

Such a dialogue, I believe, can only happen, when the words, "I'm gay, OK" aren't weighed down with a boatload of presuppositions about that person's behavior, resulting in pre-emptive condemnation. Maybe, if we can take the statement at face value, and begin diaolgue and relationships, then the kind of transforming work God wants to do in all of us can continue.

NOTE: Next week, I'll be posting some questions that arose from our Wednesday evening discussion. Feel free to post, but with this post, and the few ensuing ones regarding this subject, I'm going to ask that you NOT post annonymously. I'll sweep the site and remove annonymous posts because if we're going to speak the truth, we should also have the courage to walk in the light. Pray with me that such a dialogue, even online, will help us all better understand the heart of God.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rainy Sabbath

A small respite between activities.

I need to breathe

Ethics Series, Weddings, Funerals, Sermons, Studies, Vision, Leadership, Counseling, Budget Season, e-mails, board meetings, writing projects - these are all good, but the cumulative effect is...

I need to breathe

I drive north in the afternoon traffic, beating rush hour by a breath. Death Cab, Cold Play, and some 60's stuff perform until north of Mt. Vernon. Then it's worship music, the kind hip Christians, and emergent Christians don't like. Though I know that the cool people get wry smiles when they hear music like this, I'm not cool. So Rich Mullins songs about peace, and some worship band I met from Phoenix singing about God's trustworthiness, with a little Sufjan thrown in, and some other stuff by artists I don't know - these all work for me, remind me that God is good, and that serving Him is meaningful.

I take a breath.

The words wash over me all the way to the writing cabin.

Dinner, made by my hands: grilled onions and mushrooms, spinach with garlic, beef, and a glass of milk.

Clouds gather.

I eat, pondering the fullness of the week - Zechariah, and the encounters of Sunday; last night's wonderful time in our summer ethics series (more later); a breakfast meeting today with old friends to prepare for a funeral this Saturday (his mother passed away); wedding preparations for Saturday night; the realization that life marches on, that the days are growing shorter. That it's good, very good, to be alive.

It's raining.

Bach displaces the worship music -- err, not really. A change of genre yes, but still worship.

"Welcome rain. Wash over me."

I'm breathing again.

Home tomorrow to begin a very full weekend.

"thank you God, for the gift of Sabbath"

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Some sins are worse...

There's a sort of "party line" when it comes to sin that says, "sin is sin. It doesn't matter what form it takes, it's rebellion, death, darkness." The party line will quote Galatians and note that if someones stumbles in one point of the law, their failure is total. They'll explain, as I did this past Sunday, that "you can be in a cathedral or a brothel and be in rebellion towards God" implying that all sin is the same.

Um... not really. Yes, all sin is rooted in our rejecting of intimacy with our creator, our desire to go it on our own. Yes, all sin is destructive. But even a cursory reading of gospels indicates that Jesus was patient with some who were living in sin, while he raged against others, seemingly showing now mercy.

He's patient, for example, with sexual sin, as he reaches out to the woman in John 4 who's living with her lover after several failed marriages. Let's not forget the woman caught in adultery in John 8, or the woman busting into Simon's party.

He also seems patient with shady tax dealings, though in His case the shady figure with whom he's dealing isn't a tax evader, but an IRS agent. Violence? His own disciples want to reign down fire on the people who don't like Jesus, and one of cuts a guy's ear off when Jesus is being arrested in the garden. They'd make good radio preachers, and even in this Jesus shows remarkable restraint, as he does with the false confidence of those same disciples later on. Through of this, Jesus shows patience and compassion.

On the other hand, in Mark 7:6-7, Jesus shows no mercy and compassion when he exposes the thing that He hates most of all: hypocrisy. He quotes Isaiah, as he says that the religious leaders are the worst sinners of all because their actions on the outside don't correspond to who they really are. They're acting a part, playing the role of holiness while on stage, in front of people. the word hypocrite comes from the Greek word meaning, "actor", and it becomes clear through Jesus ministry that this sin is the worst sin of all.

The reason this sin is exposed by Jesus as the worst sin is because this is the sin that will prevent people from experiencing transformation. What happens when hypocrisy becomes ingrained in us? We make a pact with duplicity. We invariably place ourselves on the moral high ground, seeing the failures and shortcomings of others with 20/20 vision, while being blind to our own garbage. Do this long enough, and you begin to actually believe that you are the part that you're playing on stage - the holy one. This play acting disgusts Jesus.

Of course, anyone can play act, but it becomes increasingly easy to do so, the longer you hang out with church people, and the higher you climb in Christian social circles. In fact, it even seems that there's a subtle wicked synergy that can happen when Christians are together. We're sorely tempted to put on our show in a similar way that I'd never consider going to a Sounder Soccer game without wearing my Sounder shirt. It's as if, subtly, our collective gatherings become the stage for a religious play, and our real selves get left at the door. Maybe I'm being too harsh, but even if this only happens a little bit, that little bit is hypocrisy, the one thing God hates most of all.

A friend of mine recently wrote, "Jesus did not die for Christians, nor for Atheists, nor for Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims. Jesus died exclusively for sinners." We nod in hearty agreement. We shout "Amen". But unless I actually stop performing, and come to Jesus, not as a religious hero, but as a sinner, I can't come to Jesus at all.

The good news in this is that I'm suddenly freed from performing. No longer needing to put on my religious clothing for the religious game, I can be honest to God - with my failures, my doubts, my weariness, and the darkness of my heart.

The bad news is that, if everyone else is wearing their game shirt, I'm going to feel a little awkward with my plain old clothing. But the fraternity of the awkward is, strangely enough, where Jesus delights to hang out. He calls it, "outside the camp", where the designer labels of Christian performance aren't seen.

What does this mean for church life? For worship services? For your own walk with God? I'm very interested in your thoughts.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Growing Old with God

I call my mom tonight, both to say hello, and to talk to her about her upcoming party in September. You see, she's turning 90, which means that she grew up in the great depression, married in the midst of the war, and raised my sister and I in the midst of Kennedy's assassination, Vietnam, and Watergate. She lost her first child at birth, and in the process nearly lost her life, leaving her without the capacity to bear children. It was because of this that my sister and I were adopted into the Dahlstrom family and heritage. Her husband's multiple childhood bouts with pneumonia would lead him to an early death, and my adopted sister would die at the age of 43, leaving only my mom and I for the past 14 years.

All of this is the backdrop for what happened when we talked tonight. In preparation for her party, I said, "do you have any favorite Bible verses mom?" She left the phone for moment and returned with her Bible.

"Yes, let's see" she said, as she opened her Bible and began recounting her favorite verses. "Of course, there's Matthew 6:21" she said, and Hebrews 1:1-3. II Timothy 3:16 is about the Bible being sufficient and breathed by God. James 4:10-11 reminds me to be humble. II Peter 3:18 reminds me to keep growing in Christ. Of course, there's Colossians 2:6-9 as well." Then there was a pause before she said, "But my favorite is Isaiah 26:3: 'Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee'. Of course, that's my favorite verse, if I could only pick one."

By this time tears are streaming down my face; tears born of gratitude and compassion for this woman who raised me. Don't mistake this for hollow sentimentalism. I remember a lot more than family devotions growing up. I remember baseball games and blowouts, celebrations and family meltdowns, uproarious laughter and seething silence. There's no mirage of perfection in the rear view mirror. What there is, though, is a sense that I was chosen into a family where both parents allowed, at least in some measure, the reality of God to bleed into their daily living. They read their Bibles. They gave money away. They served their neighbors. They attended church and took my sister and I as well.

You don't know, as a kid, if the whole thing is a pretentious show, a cultural trapping, an environment for business connections, or the real deal. But mom's endured the death of her first child, the death of her husband, and the death of her oldest adoptive child. At 75 and still working for the city, she bought a four door car so that she could drive to the rest home in order to pick up the "old people" and take them to church. Now, nearing 90, she's pretty much confined to her room.

But when I ask her if she has a favorite Bible verse, and she can rattle off half a dozen of them as she thumbs through her well worn Bible, I know that this wasn't a show for her. This was the real deal.

Sometimes I grow weary of emergent cynicism, and post-modern arrogant deconstructions. Though I understand that every piece of this fallen world (every person, every family, every nation, every church, every spouse, every parent, every neighbor) will reveal scar tissue if we look closely enough, I also know there's a lot of grace and unspectacular obedience to Jesus floating around out there that's somehow being missed. But the world views born of this one dimensional fixation on doubt and failure depress me.

This is why Mom's answer to the simple request for a favorite Bible verse was a breath of fresh air. "Thank God" I found myself thinking, "that there are still reminders in this world that people have whethered immense storms and come through, not perfectly, but with enough wholeness that, as their 90th birthday approaches, their love for Jesus Christ shines through with greater clarity than ever."

Monday, July 13, 2009

What do these stones mean to you?

In a few hours Donna and I will return to Seattle, but before heading to the airport I wanted to write a bit about our time in Washington DC. I was out east to do a wedding, but it's hard to spend time in this city without digesting our American heritage and history. Moving from monument to monument, taking in not only the words carved in stone, but observing the families and generations absorbing our national history, reminded me of several truths:

1. There's value in memorial stones. I watch a mom explain to her young son how her grandfather fought in WWII. The marvelous memorial for this war, recently added to our national treasures, offers etchings of various scenes from both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of conflict. These brass works of art tell the story, from the attack on Pearl Harbor, to the landing at Normandy, from the building of planes to the medical and pastoral responsibilities of support teams. Better than words, these etchings provide talking points so that, just as in the day of Joshua, when children ask "what do these stones mean?", parents can offer a ready answer and pass the story down from one generation to another.

I was struck with the importance of story, and reminded that I'm not only part of national story, but part of a long story of God's working in history. In the same way that our nation has done a marvelous job of keeping the story alive and passing it on through stones, we too need to find ways of sharing the story in which we find ourselves, so that children, youth, and adults, can see the grand working of God in history and respond to the invitation to take up the mantle of serving for their generation. These monuments ignited a question in me: How do we, as followers of Christ, create memorial stones? How do we share the story?

2. Words matter. I took dozens of pictures of stones into which the words of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and others were carved. (See some of these words and other pictures here) I'm reminded that, while it is through story that we share the "what" of our history, it is through words that we share the "why". The ideals of our nation are memorialized in stone, and it's vital that, as citizens of this land, we become steeped deeply in these ideals, for they ought to govern our values and priorities; they ought to become the basis for our actions. Likewise, as people of faith, it's not enough to share the stories of God's workings in history, and how God has used people. It's vital that we share the words, the "heart of God", the "ideals of God", for without these critical doctrines, the stories float, without mooring, through our souls. At best, they can only offer shallow inspiration; at worst, the stories of God without the heart of God can become the basis for perpetrating horrific crimes on humanity, as is often seen through fundamentalists like Rev. Phelps.

3. Our nation is honest. Perhaps what was most heartening about my visit to DC was the fact that our nation displays not only our high ideals and glorious triumphs, but our failures, our lapses in judgment, and our ethical dilemmas. One museum dispalys not only tokens of heroism and sacrifice, but also the tragedies and ambiguities of Vietnam, and a letter to president Reagan from a soldier refusing a medal of honor because of atrocities committed in Central America at the hands of America. The American Indian museum is open and honest about the great struggles our Native Americans have endured at the hands of our government. That our country openly displays not only our strength, but our weakness, is part of what makes me deeply proud of my country, for it is in humility and honesty that a ruler will be exalted!

4. Cynicism isn't helpful. It's easy for me to become cynical about our American government, and the reasons for that ease could fill a book. I've been reminded this weekend, though, that our collective calling will never lead us upward towards our national potential unless we deeply ponder the ideals of liberty, freedom, accountability, generosity, and hope, on which our country was founded. It's easy to throw stones. It's much harder to offer solutions. But solutions begin with the vision upon which we were founded. And both as the people of God, and the people of America, this is our time - the torch is in our hands.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The shore or the river...

This morning's reading from the "Divine Hours" (my guide for morning prayer) speaks of God's advocacy of behalf of the poor needy. My initial reaction is to say, "Really? Advocacy? Has God been to Sudan lately? Or Palestine? Has he seen the tents under the viaduct in Seattle, or on the outskirts of Fresno?"

I continue down this path of skepticism and challenge to God's declared truth until I think to myself, "I'd better stop thinking this way, or else I'm going to start doubting everything" as if I'm in a raft, headed towards a waterfall. I desperately paddle for the shore by looking for some way of harmonizing declarations like these with my experience. "Ah, the poor" I say to myself; "they're poor because..." and then I complete the sentence with any number of assessments I've heard down through the years about poverty: things about laziness, and corruption, unbelief, and deficient political systems. I'll throw in a praise chorus or two about how God blesses those who love Him and suddenly realize that I'm no longer being swept towards the edge, but am paddling safe in a theological eddy.

Comfortably resting at the ideological shore, no longer doubting God's word, I catch my breath. As I recover from the scare, I realize that, while there's safety on the shore, this is a place that's bothering me. It's bothering me because, when I'm honest, I realize that the answers that got me here are lies and generalizations. I look back to the river and see that there are hundreds of rafts heading towards the waterfall and plunging over. They're filled with people living in tent cities, or refugee camps, or dumps outside Manila and Delhi.

Slowly, it dawns on me that I'm not alone on the shore. I'm there with millions of others who, like me, have answered the hard questions with insufficient answers, answers that are ultimately justifications for the unconscionable gap between the rich and poor of this world. Those on the shore can find a treatment for every ailment and even for things that aren't, from erectile dysfunction to undersized breasts. Those stuck on the river can't afford aspirin or shoes, and have no access to clean water.

My answers plague me as insufficient, and so I cry out to God: "Why aren't you doing something?"
"Because you're my body" replies the Voice, "and you're sitting on the shore."

Appalled at the rightness of His answer, I protest: "Look at the risk! If I jump in..."

"Yes, I know, but jumping in is what I do. Unless, that is, my body is in rebellion, refusing the respond to its own head. That kind of paralysis is personally disabling. What's worse though, is that, stuck on the shore, my body's refusal to be where I want it to be is killing millions."

We who are on the shore are singing. We're reading our Bibles. We're arguing about Calvinism and debating whether the future of the church is "house", "emergent", or "mega." But the arguments are happening on the shore while 30 thousand children a day drop over the edge of the falls.

Make no mistake; the river IS risky. Sometimes people in the river get killed. Standing for justice gets people tossed in jail sometimes or worse, branded as a heretic. That's why the shore is so heavily populated these days. There's campfires and kum-by-yah.

I don't know where I'm going with this metaphor (this is, after all a blog of "musings"). I suppose I'm trying to paint a picture that says, "Sure, we all need to moments on the shore to catch our breath and restore our strength. But I began by wondering why Jesus isn't helping the poor, and the answer, of course, is that He will, but only to the extent that His body, the church is listening to Him, and responding. This is Wes and Heather serving in Bolivia. This Walter. He's in Ghana. This is Spilling Hope, a water project for Africa.

Don't get too comfortable on the shore. Jesus wants his body in the river.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Shooting the moon

"We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assurdly, we shall all hang separately" Benjamin Franklin.

Our celebrations today are rooted in a the grand experiment of democracy that took root these two plus centuries ago. It was nothing less than a full blown rebellion against existing power structures, nothing less than treason. No matter whether the ideology underpinning the revolution was just or unjust; it was rebellion, cessation, and as such would, of course be challenged.

Though there is much for which we're grateful here in America, and many ideals at which we marvel, perhaps the most amazing attitude of our founding fathers was their commitment to shoot the moon, going for broke in pursuit of the profound vision that undergirded their cause. Treason, you see, can't be taken by baby steps; it's an all or nothing proposition.

That "shooting the moon" willingness to risk everything in pursuit only works when, running parallel to that spirit is a commitment to doing whatever needs to be done in order to reach the goal. This "whatever it takes" spirit has, more than once, seen America through challenging days: civil war, a great depression, a late entry into the 2nd world war that required all of our nation's collective ingenuity and diligence, and more. We demonstrated that same attitude when, only a few years after the first manned space launch, we declared that we would put a man on the moon in less than 10 years. And we did.

Today we'll gather with friends, eat big, and enjoy blowing things up. We'll celebrate because, woven into the fabric of our national origin, is a willingness to risk, and a commitment to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Let's celebrate those qualities in a big way, thanking God for the privileges that have accrued because of how they've been applied to the high ideals of democracy. As well, let's commit ourselves to the responsibilities that come with privilege: commit to generosity, justice for all, being a blessing.

We need, though, to do more than celebrate. We need to recover that same spirit. "Yes we can" our president says. I hope so. In the midst of crises too numerous to mention, it seems that the paradigm of our leaders has less to do with "Yes we can change the world" than, "Yes we can get re-elected, by giving money away, and refusing to call for the collective sacrifices needed to address the enormous challenges of our day." Thus it is that, with each passing day, massages made to energy and health legislation are shape shifting them towards irrelevance.

Boldness is our heritage. So is sacrifice. All the changes that are needed in order to address the pressing needs require these elements of our national DNA. And more than any legislation, it's this DNA that is in need of recovery as we celebrate today

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Focus on the Dysfunctional Family

I was talking with a friend yesterday and we were pondering the reasons why Christian marriages are statistically as strong or weak as marriages among people with no faith. I wonder if you any of you know whether research has been done in this arena that's available, either a commercial book or a thesis? If so, I'd be grateful to hear about the resources.

Lacking such resources, we were pondering that the Christian marriage has a lot going for it on the positive side, in that the believer's marriage is a vocation from God to display Christ and church, and it's a covenant, intended to permanent. They also have at their disposal the power the resources of revelation from the Scriptures, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally, they have this calling to live as people of grace, forgiving one another as they've been forgiven in Christ.

In light of these pluses, why would Christian marriages be as likely to fail as non-Christians? The only thing I can imagine is that these positives are either unappropriated by the Christians, or that there are some negatives in the Christian mindset/culture canceling out the positives. Here are some of the possible negatives I see in my pastoral world:

1. We're less grace filled than we ought to be. Depending on the denominational flavor, Christian communities can often be, of places, the place most terrifying to be authentic with struggle and failure. Since our message is that God transforms lives, there's a subtle pressure to always be displaying the upside of our transformation: "Yes... I was a failure, I previously struggled with addiction, lust, anger, greed -- but that done now because of Jesus" This can be a tempting declaration or persona, even if it's not true, because admitting one's failures can make one the subject of gossip.

2. If we're less grace filled than we ought to be, then in our lack of authenticity, we become more isolated, and our isolation cuts us off from the relational resources we need in order to sustain our marriages.

3. The misunderstanding of gender roles in marriage (I'll not tackle this today... too many meetings) leads to domestic violence in marriages, and woman's loss of authentic identity. Just as male headship has been abused, and unhealthy reaction to that abuse has also created a pendulum swing, so that our spiritual vocation as husband and wives is drowning in a sea of social confusion.

4. We don't actually appropriate the resources of God's truth and the Holy Spirit's empowerment that I listed as assets above. Lacking these resources, we only have the higher call, but less tools to get us there, resulting in more failures!

I could go on, but I'm running late this morning. I'm wondering if some of you might help me by offering your own thoughts and resources to the conversation. I'll contribute first by encouraging you to read this article in the NY Times, and this page offering a host of tools and practical advice for marriage improvement.