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, September 30, 2009

plans, providence, and the fork in the road

Are you wrestling with deciding on a major?  Are you at a vocational crossroads?  Have you been downsized?  Has a relationship turned sour?  Are you goals eluding you?  If you answered yes to any of these questions read on... I have a story for you:   

My son took a trip to Austria several years ago.  He was going to meet up with me because I was over there teaching in a wonderful Bible School.  This was the travel plan:  Plane/Train.  He was 19 and it was his first time out of the country.  Instead, here's what actually happened:  plane delay (24 hours), plane, train (but a 100 year storm that dropped trees on the tracks in Europe), back up the train to try another track; same problem on the second track; be told (in German, which you don't speak) to get off the train and wait for a bus instead; get on the bus; be told (in German) that buses don't cross boarders from one country to another so this is the end of the line; watch as everyone gets off the bus; get off the bus; call your dad (it's 11:45PM) and say, "I'm in a town in Germany, the name of which I can't pronounce.  What do I do?; wait while your dad calls a friend who lives in Salzburg.  When your dad spells the name of the town she says, "O, that's only 15 minutes from here, across the boarder in Germany - I'll be right there"; get picked up in a car by an Austrian woman; spend the night with her and her husband; catch train to destination, arriving 72 hours later than planned... 

"Later than planned".... "Other than planned" - These are the realities, not only of travel, but of life with Christ.  Read Acts 16 and you get this eery sense that Paul has no idea what he's doing or where he's going.  Look at verse 6: "forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia", and then verse 7: "the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them".   Paul had plans, strategies, goals.  But Proverbs 16:9 exposes God's little secret, because that's where He says (in my paraphrase)  "Go ahead and make your plans.  That's an important part of living.  But I have the trump card.  Love, God"   

As I read through this story, which reveals the interplay of Paul's plans and God's sovereign overruling, several truths jump out at me:  

1. God uses our desires.  As you read Acts 16, you discover the simple truth that, when Paul met Timothy, Paul wanted to Timothy to join him on the mission, so he invited him along.  Again note the simplicity of the statement:  Paul wanted this man to go with him.  We're suspicious of desire sometimes, secretly believing that if we enjoy something, there's no possibility that it will be God's will.  That's rubbish.  Of course, it's true that God has the freedom to call us into contexts that we'd never choose, and all of us will find the path of the cross in our lives.  But along the way, there are "good and perfect gifts".  I LOVE Seattle, because of the mountains, music, coffee, and rain.  That God has called me here gives me great joy, and this joy is important, because this same calling is filled with monumental challenges as well.  Don't despise desire.  Instead, express it to the Lord.  

2. God says no because there's something better.  Though we have both plans and desires, the reality is that God says no.  He said no to Paul preaching in Asia.  He said no to Bithynia.  He said YES to Macedonia.  Within this "NO" principle, I find something beautiful:  God doesn't punish Paul for trying to go to Asia or Bithynia, as if Paul should have been isolated in a cave somewhere, fasting and praying in order to find God's will.  In fact, the reality of the Christian life is that we find God's will, not by surfing the web or watching "The Office" but by getting off our butts and doing "whatever our hands find to do".  

 My own journey towards finding God's will was a little bit like my son's trip to Europe.  I was going to be an architect and so attended Cal Poly.  God spoke and I changed my major to music and attended Seattle Pacific University, thinking I was going to be a musician.  Then I taught a Bible study, loved it, and headed to seminary to become a teacher of the Bible.  Along the way, I accepted an interim pastor position on an island in Washington state, which turned into a six-year gig, where God shaped my heart to be a pastor, which I now am in Seattle.  

 Looking back, I could never have fabricated this script.  There have been desires granted, desires denied.  There have been doors opened, doors closed.  It's unfolded though, as the great adventure that the Christian life is supposed to be.  So if your plans aren't unfolding perfectly, can I encourage you in Jesus name:  You're in good company.  Abraham; Joseph; Moses; David; Jeremiah; Isaiah; Mary; Peter... need I continue?  You're in the company of great adventurers who learned to hold desire and plans with an open hand, allowing God to shape it all uniquely into the calling He had for each one.  May such be your story as well as you follow Him. 

 Note:  a podcast of this develops these themes more fully and is available here.   

Friday, September 25, 2009

Buy or Rent: Eschatology simplified...

A few years ago I spend some time in Colorado with my son, trying to climb Long's Peak (and throwing up instead), and then climbing other lesser peaks, and doing a little rock climbing.  It was intended to be a sort of "vision quest" thing, a time of bonding between father and son and, while some good things happened along those lines, one of the more memorable elements of the trip was our relationship with our rental car.  

We'd rented a Subaru because, after all, this was Colorado.  I anticipated needing four wheel drive because the point of any sort of vision quest type of trip with a son is to conquer stuff (in our case, rock), and most rock worth conquering isn't found in close proximity to paved roads.  

Sure enough, after getting kicked with altitude sickness on Long's Peak, we headed to the west side of the Continental Divide, and from there, to the back roads in search of trailheads for peaks that held the promise of being spectacular, but in a 12,000' sort of way rather than 14.  

As for the drive in, I'll just say it this way; getting there was half the fun.  "Road" was a stretch of definition as we pushed deeper and deeper into the mountains.  At one point I was certain that I was driving up a dried up creek bed and must have missed a turn somewhere.  The boulders we were driving over were so big we felt, at times, like we were riding a bucking horse, and when the car came back to earth, we'd hear a big thud, as rock met underbelly of Subaru.  "No problem" I said to my son, smiling, "it's a rental".  

And there you have it.  "It's a rental" means that, since it's not ours, the problems that come to the car through abuse aren't ours either.  It's "ours for now" to do with as we please, but of course, it's only temporary.  Our real car is back in Seattle, it's underbelly safe from abuse because at this moment, "the rental" is our reality.  

This is Eschatology 101, because eschatology is nothing more than a fancy word to describe what a person believes about the end of time, and though there are many nuances, when you boil them down, the fundamental question is this:  "Do you own or rent?"  

If you rent, it means that your relationship with this earth is temporary.  God has given us this earth in the same way the Hertz people gave me a Subaru:  "drive it hard because it's not yours to keep anyway."  This is, at its worst, the theology of those who believe that the earth is just some sort of staging ground for the grander reality of heaven, which comes later.  Here's a quote that pretty much encapsulates this view.  

On the one hand, I can hardly blame the guy for believing that it's all going to burn.  After all, his church is in the center of the San Fernando Valley, and if the earth is destined for destruction, humanity's done a great job helping God towards that end in this valley.  Once a paradise of agricultural diversity, it's now an environmental disaster, testimony to our addiction to materialism and fossil fuels, two consumptions of which all of us in the west are guilty to varying degrees.  But MacArthur's views are rooted, not in the tragedies of his valley, but in a mis-representation of the Scripture.  

Yes, Peter says it will all be burned up with fire, but so will my house, and my car, both of which I own.  The fact that they're subject to decay doesn't negate my call to stewardship.  Can you imagine not cleaning your toilet ever, and telling your guests that the reason you've chosen this path of neglect is because "it's all going to burn anyway"?  

Instead, maybe we should recognize a couple of things:  

1. How it's going to burn, and how much of it's going to burn is hardly the point, because the promise of the Bible is that "a new heaven and new earth" are in store for us" and one gets the feeling that these newbies will need to be stewarded just like the present one.  So let's the drop the "it's all going to burn" paradigm that makes us act like Subaru renters, and become owners instead, "joint heirs" as Jesus said, who will"inherit the earth" as Jesus said.  

2. We're called to represent now, in little ways, the future which is yet to come.  As such, we'd do well to care for all living things, and for the earth itself, which is presently moaning, not because it's going to burn up, but because we're behaving like Orcs.  

So let's look at our eschatology this way:  forget whether it's burning today, tomorrow, or never.  The truth of the matter is this: as heirs with Christ, we OWN the earth; we don't rent.  As owners, we have both the privilege and responsibility to steward creation, invite justice, celebrate hospitality with good feasts, and just basically enjoy the hope of the future; right here; right now.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

sex, and the city, and shame, and more...

There's an issue floating around in the Christian single sub-culture, sometimes near the surface, sometimes deeply subterranean.  The issue is the vast disconnect that appears between practice and profession when it comes to our sexual ethics.  A recent survey indicated that over 90% of engaged young people who professed to know Christ and follow His teachings agree that sexual intimacy is to be confined to the bounds of covenant relationship, i.e.: marriage.  In spite of this clear sense of conviction, however, roughly 2 out of 3 reported that they'd violated this principle, and roughly 1 out of 2 reported that they're presently violating this ethic, as they sleep with their fiance.  

The sample from this survey was arguably too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, but it does represent a reality we ought to address:  when it comes to sexuality, there's a chasm between what we say we believe, and what we actually do.  What factors contribute to this chasm?  

1. Our culture's attitude towards sexuality.  Whether it's Seattle's "Stranger", reruns of "Sex in the City", advertisements for beer, cars, deodorant, or the text of a recent hip-hop song, let's not kid ourselves into believing that we're immune from the sexualized nature of it all.  We're trying to hold our sexuality according to God's redemptive plan, but God's ethic requires some serious swimming against the overwhelming tide of our culture.  At every turn the message to "touch me", "taste me", "do me" is present, either directly or subliminally, declaring through it's presence that our sexuality is an appetite, like food - and we all know what to do when we're hungry.  

I'll note before moving on, that this isn't some sort of 21st century phenomena.  1st century Rome shared these values, as have countless cultures scattered across time and geography through the ages.  To think differently than the prevailing culture is, of course, one of our primary challenges, and primary means of transformation.  So, it helps to be aware of the ocean in which we're swimming.  

2. Shame - The Christian community elevates virginity as a virtue.  This, of course, is appropriate, because this is what Scripture teaches.  However, there's something inherent in how we talk about virginity that makes its maintenance tantamount to the free climb of a rock face:  fall once, and you die.  Thus have many shared, in the confidentiality of pastoral work, or with friends or counselors, that "it's over.  In a moment of weakness I took off my purity ring, and then, well you know what happened."  Dejected, and feeling a sense of shame never intended by Christ, he or she decides that, since they've already lost it, there's no point in battling.  Purity is now unattainable.  Why bother?  Of course, most wouldn't say it that way, but that's the way it actually plays out.  

I suppose there are 30 more reasons for the battle, but I got a late start today, so I'm going to limit my comments to these two, offering some thoughts about how we might best navigate the waters of our sexuality, in light of these realities.  

1.  The culture piece is gigantic, but of course, we knew that from Romans 12.  If there's a current pulling me in one direction, and it's not the direction I want to go, I need to find a way to travel against the current.  The answer isn't withdrawal from culture, because there are other factors at work besides culture (just ask the monks who wrote this poetry).  Instead of trying to be a fish out of water (which is what it would be like to try and be a non-sexual being in a sexual world), I simply need to flood myself with right thinking, which will help me understand my identity, sexuality, and calling, from God's perspective.  

You might try this, or this, or this, to get you started.  The reality is that if I read the Stranger and watch Friends or Sex in the City, more than I read my Bible or listen to my pastor's podcasts, I'm failing to swim upstream.  Thus I shouldn't be surprised when I land downstream, my boat having been dashed to bits by the rocky realities of sex without covenant, realities that exist for certain, but which aren't addressed by "Friends" or in "The Stranger" 

2.  It's this shame thing that really enrages me, because it comes from the damned accuser, AND it comes from the church.  We need to talk about the incredible restorative power of God's grace and the reality that His mercies are new every morning, that yesterday's failures are gone, gone, gone.  We need to speak of the reality that all of us are fallen, and thus stop throwing rocks and begin blessing and healing.  

There is o so much more to say about this important subject, because I know that people are living with confusion, shame, guilt, and anger - having been abused, or hardened, disillusioned, and shamed.  Let's start the dialogue.  

What else contributes to our sexual struggles and confusion?  

What other things have people found helpful?  

If you stay respectful, you can stay anonymous... and thanks for responding.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Let the sun shine

There's a great article in today's NYT about solar energy. It's about a company in the Silicon Valley that decided to expand it's product line by producing products related to solar energy. They're succeeding wildly. They've built 14 solar panel factories and are churning out products as fast as they can make them.

Are there any solar powered homes on your street? I didn't think so. So who's buying this stuff? The location of the factories tells all: Five are in Germany; Four are in China; there are one each in Spain, India, Italy, even Abu Dhabi has one. How many factories are there in America? None. Yes, we've got employment problems, but there'd be no reason to manufacture solar panels in a country that doesn't take the possibilities of solar energy seriously. When I travel in Germany I notice that they have "solar farms", and that lots of houses have solar panels strategically placed to absorbe the sun's energy. This is because the government has mandated that utility companies need to buy back extra energy produced by these panels, thus reducing the time it takes for the investment in solar to pay for itself, and providing the utility with extra energy so that they don't need to build new generators. And with 50,000 new jobs in alternative energy in Germany, they're proving that this isn't some 'green fanatic' scheme, spun by wild eyed radicals. Seems like a win for everybody right?

Not in America, apparently. Here, utility companies are free to raise rates based on increasing demand, so that they can acquire capital to build new plants, while citizens are free to invest in solar energy that will pay for itself in 20 to 30 years. Of course, only the richest few are able to do that, with the result that the solar production is exploding in Europe and Asia, and basically dead on arrival in the USA. The paltry subsidies we pay consumers to install solar basically pays for the panels to be shipped from China.

Jobs and Energy are two of the areas where our country needs to wake up and be willing to make some big changes. But the political rhetoric of the summer has me increasingly concerned that there may not be enough political will to change, at least not yet. The day will come when oil isn't available due to politics, or geography and then we'll start talking. But by then the infrastructure will be in place, already well established in Germany, China, and much of the world, and we'll come as buyers rather than sellers. In a nation already burdened by ridiculous trade deficits, I fear that 20 years from now, every sunny day will be a reminder of what could have been.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In praise of secular universities...

So you, or someone you know, is off to a secular university this fall. You're worried, because this was a decision made due to financial realities, or pragmatically, because the desired major wasn't available at an affordable Christian University. This new setting has you on edge. There are cigarettes (both the manufactured kind and the funny ones) everywhere, and swearing, and guys and girls sleeping on the same floor of the dorms, or even worse, in the same rooms.

And that's just the student life stuff. Just wait until you're sitting in the classroom hearing about evolution, and reading Atlas Shrugged or James Joyce. Sure, "Christian Math" and "Secular Math" are pretty much the same thing, but that's where the similarities between Christian and secular universities end. Suddenly you find yourself in the midst of fierce democrats, environmentalists, feminists, anarchists, and God only knows what other kind of people that are making this world so "dark and depressing". What will happen in this post-modern, pluralistic soup to which you or your loved one has been sentenced? Will faith survive?

I ask it again, more slowly, because it's a very important question: Will - faith - survive?

Surprisingly, I'll be bold enough to suggest that the answer has nothing to do with whether the institution in question is Christian or Secular, for the reality is faith is awakened and strenghened, or decimated and destroyed on BOTH secular and Christian university campuses every year. So I'd suggest that the question isn't whether your faith will survive secular university, but whether your faith will survive university at all, because the reality is that faith hangs in the balance during university years, no matter where the student is attending. And the answer is good news. You can do more than survive; your faith can thrive, grow, and find new life, wisdom and creativity, no matter where you're attending! As one who attended a California State University, and a Christian University, I think the principles and practices that will contribute to a thriving faith are pretty much the same at both "Secular U" and "Jesus U" - what are these principles???

You need real fellowship - When I was at Secular U, real fellowship was easier to find, because at Jesus U, there was this sense that "everyone's a Christian" (even though it wasn't true) and so most of us seemed to take our faith for granted, rather than cherishing our fellows believers as precious allies. I'd suggest then, that no matter where the student attends, he/she should make the pursuit of genuine fellowship a priority. "You become like those with whom you hang out" is a Biblical principle, so find some people with a burning passion to love and serve God and walk with them, run them, play ultimate frisbee with them, pray with them, eat with them. It might be harder to do on at Jesus U, but it can be done there too. Just don't confuse fellowship with using God words and going to chapel.

You need to serve - I liked Secular U because my Christian friends and I were on a mission to share the reality of Christ with those in our dorm who didn't know Jesus. We'd meet to pray for them, we'd build relationships with them by playing basketball together or going to the beach. I played in the marching band and went to the parties after the game, not to get drunk, but because these people were my genuine friends. Some of them came to Christ. There's nothing grander than embracing the mission to be the presence of Jesus on a campus. Again, it's a bit harder to do when everyone assumes that Jesus already lives on the campus because He's the subject of classes, and the topic of chapel. But behind the veil, Christian campuses are filled with young lives who are tortured with doubt and ambivalence about their faith. You can purpose to be a light there too by befriending and building relationships with students, become a safe person for those with questions, doubt, disorders, and failures to share their struggles, all with the goal of helping people see the liberty that's available in Christ.

THINK - I loved that Secular U challenged me at times to think about why I really believed this stuff at all. The challenges made my faith stronger, not weaker, because by forcing me to think about the reasons for my convictions I realized that my faith was, in fact, my own, not just an inheritance from my parents. At Jesus U, I found that people turned their minds off more quickly, accepting propositions offered by their teachers as "gospel truth". I mean no disrespect when I say that sometimes, this had tragic consequences, leaving students with either hollow, untested answers that they'd learned to parrot for tests, or a faith so deconstructed by post-modern uncertainty, that they became overwhelmed with doubt and simply walked away, choosing the bar on Saturday nights as their place of worship, or escape from worship. All of this could be avoided if we'd be willing to engage with both the secular and Christian professors, welcoming new challenges to our thinking, while continually returning to Christ and the Bible as the source of our convictions.

I loved both experiences. Secular U shaped my faith, strengthened it, and brought me out of my shell. Jesus U allowed me to discover my gifts and calling and refined those things.

So you, or someone you love is headed off to Secular U? No worries; at least no more worries than if you're off to Jesus U. Both places need the light that you have to offer. Go for it... and have a great year!!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

late summer pics... outdoors and a 90 year old mom

late summer 2009

I'll let the whole thing speak for itself

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wildness...and the mark of Cain

I'm presently finishing a marvelous little book about John Muir. I spent last weekend in Yosemite with family, and my son, who rode his bike from Seattle to Fresno, via San Francisco and Yosemite, had stayed in the same motel that John Muir stayed in, with Teddy Roosevelt. So conservation and the wilderness has been on my mind a great deal lately.

Muir would write, "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilized people, are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is necessity; and that mountain parks are useful not only as fountains of timer, but as fountains of life."

If Muir viewed urbanized people of the late 18th century as nerve shaken and over civilized, I wonder what he'd think of our lives today, where for many, the only encounter with fresh air is those few steps between door and car, and any sense of wildness has been fully exorcised from our lives, leaving us with a sort of sanitized techno-living, whereby we eat unhealthy foods, and embrace unhealthy sedentary lifestyles that include far more sitting, stressing, and staring at screens than God ever intended?

I'm of the opinion (and it's only an opinion, so I don't make a big deal of it in the church I lead) that these choices aren't morally neutral, but are far, far, from what God intended. One can go back and see the original plan in Genesis. When the plan went wrong, Cain become the line that represents people trying hard to live in a way that insulates them from any sense of dependence on, or awareness of the creator. How did he do this? God told Cain that his destiny was to be a wanderer on the earth, but instead of wandering, we read that Cain settled down and made a city. Then came tools and agriculture, all of which served to make our lives "easier" (at least in the short term), and all of which served to insulate us from encounter the beauty and terror of wildness. Thus was humanity tamed; thus did our wildness die, thus did our encounters with God move away from the revelation that comes through nature, depending instead, increasingly, on the book.

The problem was that we view God's injunction on Cain to be a wanderer as a curse, rather than God's provision to reinstate in Cain a sense of dependency on God. Because of this paradigm, we've come to view nature as the adversary, and our ability to settle and insulate ourselves from nature as a victory. This, I believe, is tantamount to calling 'good evil' and calling 'evil good'!

Please don't get me wrong. The book is good, important, central, to our faith. There are declarations therein which could never be uncovered through the general revelation that comes from the wild, and those revelations are the foundation of our faith. However, there are revelations as well, that come from creation that are more subjective, changing us in powerful ways and opening us up to transcendence and eternity through, as Psalm 19, Romans 1, and Romans 10 all say, "what has been created". To insulate ourselves from this kind of encounter, focusing solely on the book, must be damaging in some way, just as to focus only on nature at the expense of the book would be damaging. The real answer is: YES... nature and book.

So here we are, with intellectualized faith and industrial agriculture, both of which seem to be weakening us, like some sort of Kryptonite for the soul. The problems with intellectualized faith have been cataloged in many places. An example of the problems with industrialized agriculture can be seen here. We're paying for this insulation from the wild, in other words, in our spirits, souls, and even our bodies.

I'm not advocating that we become Luddites. But I am suggesting several shifts in our thinking are needed:

1. away from 'only the book' to 'the book and nature'. I offer this because this is exactly what the book suggests, in all the passages I listed above, and more. Those who, like David, are shaped by living in the wilderness, seem to see facets of God's character that appear inaccessible if one's life is lived indoors. This means...

2. we need to time and courage to 'get out'. Start small, with a walk in the park if that's all the time or capacity you have right now. But start. Expose yourself to what God wants to teach you about His character through creation. If you're an old hand at this already, then push yourself a bit further. Try a night of solitude in the mountains. Don't take your i-pod... just go.

3. away from industrialized agriculture, towards localized and organic foods - because we need to change the entire way food gets distributed on the earth. We need to this for the sake of health, and the environment, and the global hunger situation. We can begin by affirming those farms who are producing local organic goods, because these use far less petroleum, both for production and distribution. Also, by buying these, I'm not buying a techno-fruit, produced through genetic manipulation. There's a great deal to learn about this subject, and if you're interested, you should consider this movement as a starting place. If we do this, we'll also move away from Omega 6 oils in our bodies, towards Omega 3's. The article referenced above will explain these important oils and the effect they have on our health.

4. away from sedentary living, towards incorporating movement. We're not made to sit on our butts all day.

5. away from whatever it is we're doing, towards some sort of Sabbath practice. To be both/and people, city and creation, book and general revelation, solitude and community, we're going to need to find time, for cooking, walking, getting outside. God has given us this time. It's called "Sabbath"

I thought as I got older I'd stay inside more. That will probably happen later, but for now, the opposite it true. I'm more barefoot, more organic, more candles, more full night's sleep, more sitting outside to read and study. By resisting Cain's path, I'm finding something that helps connect me with God, my family, and my own body.

How can we help each other recognize the dangers of "Cain's Lifestyle", pointing each other, instead, to health and life?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The missing cross...

It's easy to be critical of the church, especially retrospectively. Like Monday morning quarterbacks, we can all look back through the centuries and see the folly of crusades, colonization, slavery, and the unholy marriage of political power and wealth with the name of Jesus. These failures are, ostensibly, the reasons offered by millions for their rejection of Christ and, especially, of the church.

Maybe, but I suspect otherwise. I believe what's going on among most who reject the invitation to step into God's story is largely the same thing going on among those who claim to be in the thick of God's story - we are, all of us, recoiling at the cross.

Of course, the church claims to embrace the cross. We sing songs about it; we wear it around our neck as jewelry; it figures prominently in our architecture; and most significantly, we teach it's centrality. The problem, though, is that in teaching it's centrality we tend to teach the reality that Jesus died FOR us, and so our responsibility is to receive this free gift so that we can be pardoned for our failures and be made right with God.

To declare that this is the heart of the gospel would be like saying that cutting down trees and making bats is the central theme of baseball. Talk about missing the point! The reality is this: Christ walked the path of the cross and then triumphed over the grave. Our journey with Christ begins by acknowledging our need for this gift and receiving it, but this is just the beginning, like receiving our bat and glove. The point is wholly other. The point is that we're now empowered with the same capacity to walk the road of our own cross, laying down our lives in literal and/or spiritual ways for three reasons:

#1 - because Jesus tells us that this is our calling

#2 - because this is where our credibility and life imparting power lies

#3 - because we believe that there's more to life than THIS life.

The early church gave validity to Christ's claims because it was the Christ followers who, in the time of the plague, were willing to open their homes and provide hospitality to the dying, often at cost of their own lives. Wherever the faith presents itself as powerful and real, it does so because there are real and tangible acts of relinquishing rights (to life, our happiness, or being first, or secure, or powerful, or vindicated) on the part of Christ's followers. Of course, the sad testimony of the church is that, too often, we've appropriated Christ's death FOR us, while overtly or covertly avoiding our own calling to die WITH Him. Thus does the church's lust for power, wealth, and prestige, mar the church's testimony, creating a caricature of Christ.

Yes, Christ died for us. But He beat death in order that we might be freed from the fear of death, in order that we might have the entire world opened up before us as we listen for the voice of our Guide and follow Him wherever He might take us. We know this, though, that the path that will impart life to others will only be seen to the extent that we say YES to the Guide who calls us to lay down our own agenda, instinct for survival, or lust for pleasure or power, choosing instead our own CROSS because we believe that life goes on, and on, forever.

As I begin the fall routine, I pray that I'll be willing to walk the path of the cross.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

"E" - the estrogen factor of American Christianity

I'm intrigued by a study David Murrow did (found here, archives of the Winter 2008 issue) that examined a possible hypothesis regarding the vast percentage difference between the genders when it comes to church attendance. It's about 60/40 in our church, and this is common. This imbalance is unique to Christianity, as Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus all display a remarkable gender balance in their faith practices.

One could speculate about the 'why' of this, and such speculations abound, including hypotheses that address the patriarchal bent of other religions ("of course men are in... they carry all the power cards!"), or their cultural mandate ("it's just that everyone's in, unlike our secular society"), but Murrow's hypothesis is the one I find most intriguing.

He asked both Christians and Non-Christians to answer the question: "Which set of values better characterizes Jesus Christ and his true followers?" They chose between:

Set #1
Proving Oneself
Results Objects

Set #2
Loving Cooperation
Personal Expression

95% of those surveyed said list #2 represents the values of Christ. In reality, the lists aren't the values of Christ and/or someone else, but the lists of masculine and feminine values from John Gray's book, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus". You can debate the merits of this book. You can decry the generalizations and stereotypes. What you can't do is ignore the reality that men don't get involved in faith communities as consistently as women.

The thesis of the surveyor is that American Christianity has been feminized. That's one theory. But those who go down that right tend to simply move the ethos of the church from one imbalanced list to the another. This doesn't seem adequate.

Instead, I'd suggest that men are staying away for a few simple reasons:

1. Men are bored by church. It might be because the sermon's boring, or it might be because there's no compelling vision or venue for involvement. When Christ called his disciples he didn't call them to sit in endless meeting, but to go out and change the world. The school of faith that Jesus ran took place in markets, on walking trails, at sea. Yes, there was teaching, but the teaching was only important to the extent that there was a real thing happening. I'm bored by reading books about the technicalities of mountaineering - unless I'm about to go climbing. Our need to provide a balance of teaching and activity is vital, and addressed here.

2. There's no "vision quest" anymore. My 23 year old son just phoned me from Yosemite Valley in California. He got there by riding his bicycle over 1000 miles, from Seattle, down the Oregon Coast, down the California coast, to San Francisco, and then east to the Sierra Nevada mountains, and into Yosemite. I can tell, just by phone, that he's profoundly changed by doing this. In a sanitized world where even play sets are injury proof, we run the risk of boring our sons to death with Bible stories, Bible ethics, Bible characters, and oh so mellow music, when what might be needed is a week at sea, or a 1000 mile bike trip, or a month in Central America or Africa or... ? You tell me.

3. There's just not enough vision. I don't want to overgeneralize, so I'll say it this way: There are millions of men, and many women as well, who need a mountain to climb; who need a vision that will engage their whole selves; who need to shoot for the moon and the stars when they wake up each day. These people (of both gender) are the ones the church runs the risk of losing if we don't help people see that 'church life' isn't about sitting quietly and singing sweet songs - it's about being spun out (see previous post) of comfort zone, and using our gifts to make the invisible God visible in tangible ways. Doing that will require character qualities from BOTH lists, and both genders.

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Why is there a shortage of men in church?