The political and theological left and right have become so tired of both shooting each other and being shot at, that there’s little stomach left for honest conversation about ethics, faith, and the relationship of faith to politics. So when you go over the river and through the woods to enjoy a family gathering at Grandma’s house this coming Thursday, what will you talk about? Here’s a little guide to help:
Here’s hoping you embrace your identity as exile so you can relax and live into the confidence of your citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. May you find beauty there, and hope, and may the light of your joy and gratitude radiate at your Thanksgiving table, wherever you are.
August 21st was one of those rare days where people cheered darkness. In Seattle, where the eclipse only reached 92% of total, it was still dark enough, cold enough, awesome enough, to elicit cheers. It was the same everywhere along the path of darkness forged by the moon – eruptions of joy as people embraced the darkness.
The rest of our lives, it’s a different story, especially if we’ve been taught to love Jesus. We’ve often learned that darkness is unequivocally bad. Every verse mentioning it says so, linking darkness with Satan, and all else worth avoiding in the world.
As a result, we’ve managed to find ways of banishing darkness. We’ve caste it out of the natural world by lighting up the night so that we don’t need to deal with it at all until we close our eyes for sleep (though our extension of light beyond what nature intended means we’re paying a price). We’ve cast it out of our faith too, by creating what one favorite author calls “the full solar version of Christianity”, a faith which intensely seeks to keep the lights on perpetually. “All good, all the time – that’s Jesus!” they say, with a big grin and powerful handshake. In its worst forms, it claims to “pray the darkness away” whether the darkness is cancer, infidelity, abuse, job loss, or a shocking accident that leaves a husband and father suddenly staring into a future of loneliness, his family having been killed in the car. All good all the time? Wishing it were so, yea even praying it, doesn’t make it so. Ugh.
Darkness is real. But don’t despair. God lives there too.
When Abraham doubted God, where did God send him? Out into the dark to count the stars. When Jacob was running for his life as a self perceived failure and dropped down to sleep in desert, God met him there in a dream, in the dark. Later God met him again in the dark for a wrestling match. The shepherds? The dark. Jesus birth? The dark. Jesus final triumph over evil that caused him to cry “it is finished” and graves to break open? The dark yet again. It turns out some good things happen in the dark after all. But there’s more.
The reality is that darkness has been with us since the beginning, before sin. “There was evening and there was morning, the first day…” From the beginning, it was our lot in life to deal with the darkness, about half the time actually – at least physically. Ecclesiastes tells me that the same’s true in the real of spirit and emotion, at least in this present age. “There’s a time for everything” is how the wise old preacher put it: birth and death, war and peace, seeking and losing, laughter and tears – a time for everything; including darkness.
The reason this looms large as an issue is because we live in a world were all manner of bad things happen, plunging us into the darkness of uncertainty. She walks out of the oncologists office with a 40% chance of living a year. He weeps at the graveside of his spouse, wondering what’s next for he and his three children. They weep as the ultrasound reveals an abnormality.
What are we supposed to do? Celebrate? Resort to hollow praise in hopes that if we sing loud enough all will be fixed? Claim our healing and prosperity? Nope. There is one thing only:
Don’t be afraid of the dark. Recognize that these seasons of uncertainty, loss, betrayal, and even death, go with the territory of the world in which we live. I sometimes thing that some of us Christians like the light so much that, ironically, we stick our heads in the sands to live in denial of the darkness all around us. But hear this: the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that, though the darkness is real – God meets us there, and walks with us there. Our fear of the dark has the affect of shuttering our lives, so that joy dries up, risk dries up, faith and hope dry up. Our single paradigm becomes avoiding the dark – hardly a decent way to live ever, but especially if you’re called to courageous faith, as all disciples are.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” writes about one grown woman who was terrified by the dark: her fear was the fault of everyone who taught her to fear the dark, convincing her that it is cdangerous – all of it, all the time, under every circumstance – that what she cannot see will almost certainly hurt her and that the best way to protect herself from such unseen maleficence si to stay inside after dark, with the doors locked and sleep with lights on.”
Not Abraham or Jacob, as they pondered infinity under the starry sky. Not Jonah in the darkness of a fish’s belly. Not Job in the darkness of mysterious and massive loss. Not Jesus in the Garden, or even on the cross when the whole world turned dark. Not Paul and Silas in the darkness of dungeon prison.
Why? Because the light of the world is with us, even in the dark. “Even the darkness is light to you….” is how the Psalmist says it. This is why I say, “Welcome autumn – with your shorter colder days. Thank you for the chance to learn how to walk with you through the dark seasons.”
If you’d care to comment on how God has met you in the dark, I and perhaps other readers too, would be grateful.
“Every time the Christian church divided or separated, each group lost one half of the Gospel message…” Richard Rohr
I understand that the literalists will have a problem with Rohr’s statement, but the point is essentially accurate: Our divisions are mostly losses, not gains. Since Jesus made unity a climactic request in his final prayer, taking steps toward reconciliation, unity, and love for all people, is perhaps one of the most important things we can be doing. Here are some recent thoughts toward that end:
Here’s a manifesto on unity. I spoke it the week after Charlottesville in the church I lead. We’d set up the sermon series far ahead of time, having no idea that the racial divide of America, already a gaping wound that’s been festering for centuries, would become even deeper. In case you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, here are the talking points:
Some are so good at speaking the truth that they’ve become the doctrinal and moral police for the world, presumptuously claiming the moral high ground and judging all those “down there” who don’t see things precisely like them.
Others are so good at tolerance that they’ve stopped caring about the pursuit of truth, and are passively endorsing unfettered greed, individualism, and various forms of sexual debauchery, all in the name of unity. Such unity, though, is worthless in the end because salt will lose its saltiness, and when the time comes to shelter Jews during the holocaust, or take a stand against abortion, or sex with pixels, they’ll remain silent in their attempt to preserve unity.
Nope – too much tolerance or too much moral policing will steal our unity, one way or the other. It’s time for something different. Time for truth and love, interwoven so tightly that you can’t tell one from the other.
We live in perilous times, because our social isolation and disintegration of family have created a longing to belong. This is fertile soil for crazy tribes, including those wearing religious clothes of all faiths and denominations. Seeking to embody real community, real truth and real love for all people is a lot of work. But it’s our calling if we claim to follow Jesus.
They did it “according to the book”. With too many passengers and not enough seats, they asked for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight for a reward, and fly later. You know, by now, what happened on UAL flight 3411. Before it was over, a passenger was forcibly, violently dragged from the plane, getting bloodied in the process. This gave birth to a viral video of the scene, leading to a public relations nightmare and an over 6% decline in UAL stock as outrage over the event filled social media. In my own facebook feed I saw pics of cancelled UAL flight tickets, and declarations of breakup with “the friendly skies” (a breakup I made years ago because of my own encounter with “less than friendly” customer service – but I digress)
The point for the moment is simple. By contract and policy, the airline had every right to remove the man. The man’s refusal to leave led to a need to call security, and security did what security does: they resorted to force. That’s how the man ended up blooodied, being dragged down the aisle while a full flight of paying customers looked on, as seen here. The flight would, of course, end with a steward or stewardess thanking everyone for “flying the friendly skies”. Ugh.
I don’t write to do a post event analysis. Most of us have pondered why too many passengers were allowed to board; why they didn’t up the ante even more in hopes that eventually someone would volunteer; why the security people treated the guy with a level of force that would be the same as if he was a threat to other passengers? We can ask these questions, but have no way of knowing the answers.
Here’s what we do know: This doesn’t look like “friendly skies.” People who belong to a company whose mission statement and slogan elevate customer service as a central value need to be empowered to maintain that core value. Further, if they are empowered, they need to always, always, ask the simple question: “does this action make us look friendly?”
REI gets this. Nordstrom gets this. Starbucks gets this. Amazon gets this.
If your actions are contradictory to what you say you’re about, then you need to rethink your actions.
This is important for every Christ follower to ponder because the Apostle Paul says that it was God’s intent to “reveal his Son in me.” We come to discover God’s intent for humankind in this verse. In other words, our mission statement as Christ followers is to look like Jesus. You know: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, cross social divides, be people of peace, give dignity to those suffering on the margins, don’t cling to your own personal rights, bless and forgive generously – preemptively even. These are the means by which we fulfill our calling, the corollary statement is equally important: any action derived from our policy manual (the Bible) that misrepresents Jesus’ heart, needs to be reconsidered!
And this means a few elements of church history would have played out differently:
The church wouldn’t have fractured again and again and again over words and secondary doctrines, because Jesus’ heart was, above all other things, for Christians to live in peaceable unity. The east/west church schism, the multiple popes debacle, the protestant reformation, and the over twenty thousand denominations? Poof! They’re gone.
The sanctioning of Slavery in Jesus name? The anti-semitic edict declared by the church, forcing all Jews to leave Spain (and leave their wealth behind, by the way) in the late 15th century? The horrific genocide in Rwanda, even as this country was being touted as a Christian missionary success story? All these things change dramatically if Christians stay committed to the vision and mission of their calling, which is to look like Jesus.
I’ve lived long enough to remember specific times when I had the doctrinal moral high ground, but my posture of pride, anger, and a cynical tongue, discredited my doctrine.
So the next time you win a political argument by calling the other person stupid, remember that you’ve lost.
The next time you’re debating same sex marriage, whatever your position on the matter, if your anger toward the other person means you stop listening, stop loving, stop treating them as image bearers even though you disagree, you’ve lost, even if you won.
The next time your reading of the Bible leads to behaviors of racism, or xenophobia, or leads you to withdraw from a group of people in either fear or disgust, I don’t care what the letter of the text you’re reading leads you to believe, you’re reading it wrong.
I say this with confidence, not only because of the clarity of our calling to look like Jesus, but because we’re also told, in numerous places in the Bible, that Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s character. So instead of microscopically proof texting your way to arrogant, violent, fear based, or isolationist behavior, how about becoming obsessed with the character of Jesus instead?
You’ll likely find a gentler voice, throw a party for your neighbors, celebrate beauty more often, and choose peace, patience, and joy more consistently. Yes, there’s a manual. But more important, there’s a mission statement, a vision: making the real Christ visible on a day to day basis. As we walk towards Good Friday and pondering the sacrifice of Christ, I’d suggest that is a mission worth pursuing.
O Lord Christ;
You’ve shown us the way, but we confess that too often we’ve coopted your name and used it to create a thin religious veneer over hate, violence, greed, and fear – all the while quoting the Bible to justify it. Have mercy on us Lord. Grant that we might see your heart with greater clarity, and have the courage to to allow your life to find fuller expression in each of us during this Holy week, and beyond.
It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington. I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music. I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me. I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty. It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately. Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane. By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots. We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.
I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined. I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer. “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed. “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything. We belong there.” I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor. Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child. It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state. The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday. When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here. Home.
Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves. My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place, a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!
The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings. But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given. Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others. It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness. “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss. I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.
When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear. The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons. I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me. Wow! And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7. Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence: the gifts will come, are likely here already. Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude. They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.
Yes it’s a broken world. Yes there are clouds on the horizon. Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good. Christ is still here. And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.
I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership. The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected. He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world. “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.
It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself. I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”. I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world. Well connected? I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures. I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.
I left class that day wanting to quit. I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job. When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:
Well connected? He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.
Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.” Isaiah 53:2
Agressive and ambitious? There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on. In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life: “What is the will of the Father?” When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds. When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone. When it led to the cross, he went there.
Wealthy? “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.
There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected. It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.
This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.
The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters. I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on. My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).
Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle. Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t. Some could be models, they’re so striking. Then there are the rest of us. Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.
Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26
For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.
There’s a fun little mystery in the Bible. Way back in Genesis, ten brothers are starving and decide to travel down to Egypt because there’s grain for sale there. Little do they know that the man from whom they’ll be buying grain is their little brother, hated as the favored one and sold by them into slavery, over two decades earlier. They show up and he’s changed of course, and speaks a different language now, so they don’t recognize him. They buy grain, but before heading home, the little brother sneaks all the money back into their sacks so that on the way home they discover that they had the grain, but didn’t pay for it. To say there were dismayed would be an understatement, because from the very beginning of time, we’ve all known that “you get what you pay for” and that “there’s no free lunch”. There are a million other ways we get the message too: from demanding parents who shame us when we fail, to performance reviews that populate our employment files with warnings. The best things in life are earned.
This little story of free bread, though, tells us that there’s a different set of rules in God’s economy. God is showing us that the things we need most fundamentally in our lives are not bought, ever. They can only be received as gifts. That’s why later a form of bread will show up on the desert floor when a nation is wandering through it on their way to their new home. Centuries after that, Isaiah will speak of bread that is only available “without cost”, and then Jesus will declare that he is giving us his flesh as “the bread, for the life of the world”.
Give, give, give, means that there can be only one response. Receive, receive, receive. We can’t earn the gift that is Christ. We’ll never be able to repay or reciprocate. We can only receive, like little children. My granddaughter, who just turned one, will be with us this Christmas and I promise you that she’ll have no problem receiving gifts without any guilt. There’ll be no, “Rats! Grandpa gave me some overalls and I’ve nothing for him.” There’ll be a pattern to her Christmas day: receive, enjoy, repeat.
For God’s sake, all of us could stand to become children again vis a vis our relationship with God and Christ: receive; enjoy; repeat.
That requires a radical reorientation from the performance world that is often the rest of our lives, and the way to get there is to recognize that, though we’ve likely earned a bit in our lives through the sweat of our brow, the best gifts that we’ve received are the free ones. We’ve been forgiven, I hope, by a parent, spouse, or friend. We had a flat tire, and someone stopped to help. We were lonely, and a friend dropped by, unannounced. These little reminders put me in the frame of mind to see that the things I need most – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, hope, the capacity to forgive and serve… all these things can’t be bought, can’t even be created through some sort of psychological ‘cross fit’ self improvement program. These things stem from eating the bread of life, and can only be received freely, as the gift it is.
During the days between now and Christmas, I want to share some reflections with you about the many gifts that are part of the One Gift that is Christ. I’m reflecting on these gifts because, more than ever, I see the deep divisions and violence in our world. We who claim to follow Christ are at grave risk of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution if we aren’t careful to maintain what Paul calls the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”. When he writes about maintaining that, he articulates that it’s eminently easy to be “led astray”. It’s passive language because the reality is that there are strong currents that will simply carry us along unless we’re diligent to recognize the danger of the direction and swim against it.
I’m increasingly convinced that the recognition of dangerous cultural rip-tides isn’t achieved by being a cultural expert. Rather, what’s needed at a foundational level is a commitment to intimacy with Christ, for he alone is the fullness of wisdom. So what better way to prepare for the discernment that all of us will need in the coming year than by considering together the riches of the gift that is Christ. Unwrapping the glories of Christ is a bit like unwrapping a present that has another present inside, and then yet another, on and on, as we discover different facets of the gift that is Christ. Each day I’ll hope to offer a short post about a facet of the gift that is Christ and why each gift matters in 2016. I hope you’ll join me, and find encouragement in the practical value of Christ, today more than ever!
Gift #1 – Christmas means God sees and hears us.
There’s a marvelous little passage in Exodus 3:7 which declares that God heard the cry of the sons of Israel and saw that they were being oppressed, so he “has come down to deliver them”. This was neither the first nor last time God “came down” in response to the suffering of this fallen world because it’s in God’s character to “see and hear” the suffering of humanity.
We may wonder if God is listening these days. When I see the tragedies in Aleppo, the suffering of immigrants around the world, and the rise in fascist and racist ideologies, we wonder if God’s listening at all. We wonder too, in the children’s oncology ward. Who is this God who sees and hears, and why is God not intervening, God’s so good and so powerful?
It’s a fair question, and the answer is found in the name Immanuel, which means “God with Us”. What makes the “good news” good isn’t that we’re offered escapist immunity from the affects of living in a fallen world. Rather, it’s that God has promised to walk with us in the midst of everything – the suffering and the joys, and the sickness and the healing, the living and the dying. We’ve been told that life will run the gamut of experiences, that there’s “a time for everything”.
That God has been “with me” is one of the greatest gifts I’ve enjoyed in my life. It’s meant that when I lost my dad, I’d eventually come to discover that I wasn’t as alone as I thought. It meant that when I changed majors and loaded my 68 Ford Mustang to drive north to Seattle, though I’d never been north of Sacramento in my life, and knew not a single person in my new city, God was with me. It meant that while riding a midnight train from Northern India to New Delhi, a train on which I found myself because of a riot in the city where I was teaching, I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone in my berth when I was alone, and I wasn’t alone when I woke in the middle of the night to see six Indian faces staring at me.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not faced the depths of living in this fallen world in anywhere near the same degree as many others. I’ve tasted enough of it, though, to know that the companionship of Christ is, at one level, all I need in this life. And I’ve known those who’ve walked much deeper, darker valleys than mine. They too, have shared with me that this companionship has been a source of healing, sustenance, peace, and eventually for most, joy.
“God with us” begins with God seeing our suffering and hearing our cry. This is the first gift. God knows. God cares. Rejoice. Immanuel. God IS with us.
Sometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story. Here’s mine, explaining why
Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.
I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now. Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family. He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony. And music in our house? “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana. Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.
The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. God only knows why, but dad loved that piece. He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter. Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music. At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both. My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums. I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums. He was perfect on the rhythm test.” I smiled. Mom frowned. Dad said yes. By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist. I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things: Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!
Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop. My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small. Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen. There were certain pieces: “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen. What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.
Then dad died during the World Series of 1973. Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it. Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?” He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened. There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.” I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe. The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.
A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school. Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often. Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful. During Messiah, though, I never brought a book. Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song. Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible. That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore. Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it. With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture. The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.
SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 – It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more. To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic. Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood. I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone. I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it. Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends. I’ll go.
It’s a matinee, the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more. Walkers. Wheelchairs. I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges. I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.
The play itself is masterfully delivered. It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy. God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation. If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling! I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings. But there’s more…
I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)
Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words. He’s known rejection, loss, shame. These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations. Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force. I was rejected, but so was Christ! Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path. I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker. I see a child with a disability. And the words are there, as people rush by: “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you. Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.
That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again. Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors). Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.
Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball. Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God. Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1. But O the One! Hallelujah!
If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.
This week I’m living in the forest, in the San Bernadino mountains of California as I speak at a family conference. As I write, the morning sun is bathing the deck and Sugar Pines, along with a form of Cedar, some oak, and Manzanita, live together as an ecosystem, offering life giving space to squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, bear, and countless other life forms.
Scientists are discovering that humans are also profound beneficiaries of the forest. “Forsest Bathing”, which simply means to walk in a forest and pay attention to your surroundings while doing so, has been shown now, in numerous studies, to have profound health benefits. Lower pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rates are just some of the proven benefits. There are some who believe that prescriptions like this will be seen in the not too distant future.
Though the benefits have been easy to see, it’s been more difficult for scientists to understand and quantify the reason behind these benefits. Is there something in the scent, the Eco-system, the earth itself? Is it simply the contrast provided from the concrete jungle in which many of us find ourselves that makes the forest a healing place? These questions remain, but what’s known in the moment is that a “walk in the woods” isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.
Because of numerous experiences in my own life, I wonder if the power of the forest isn’t spiritual, and therefore unquantifiable with the measuring instruments of science. I say this because my past is filled with countless “forest encounters” with God:
1960’s – As a child I would lie in the middle of a circle of redwoods on the California coast, outside grandma’s house, and look up. The trees would all appear to be converging at a single point in the sky, and the punctuation of variegated greens set against a backdrop of sky blue did something to me. This was peace. Yes that’s it – peace.
1976 – It’s winter. I’m in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Unbeknownst to be, the worst two years of my life are about to come to and end, as a new journey, new calling, and new priorities are born. The death of my dad two years prior had sent me into a state of depression and isolation. I was in the mountains for a winter ski retreat, and when the speaker said “knowing God should be the primary pursuit of every one of you in the room” I knew he was talking directly to me. He’d been reading from Jeremiah 9 in the Bible and when his talk was finished I went out in the freezing air and prayed, in the midst of crunching snow under a million stars. I told God that I didn’t know what it meant, but that I wanted to make knowing God the main goal of my life, just as the speaker had invited me to do. This would lead to a change of major, a change of states, and an entirely different trajectory for my life.
1990 – My wife and young family move to a forested acre in the North Cascade mountains of Washington to begin a retreat center. It is there that I begin identifying with the verses about Jesus going “into the mountains alone to pray”. After a busy time of serving guests, I would depart for the high country, hiking up to some ridge, often alone, to pray, read, reflect, restore. These mountains were made for restoration, or so it seemed to me. Beauty seemed to pour through the atmosphere when I was in them. Glaciers and rocks spoke of timelessness, and I’d be reminded that I’m just here visiting, for a short time, that God’s work has been here long before me and will be long after. I’m reminded that God is the rock, a metaphor offering stability in a tenuous world. The vast distances, from the stars of space, and the surrounding peaks, reminded me that I’m small and that, in the grandness of eternity, so our my problems. The beauty of ever changing colors, the scent of the air, the form of trees, the reflections of mountain lakes… All of it together spoke “shalom”, a visible representation of peace for me. I’d come down the mountain restored, having seen something, having prayed, and having received.
And so it’s gone, year after year, until now, when I have my coffee with God in the mornings, in the midst of forest, wether misty or dry, chilled or heated, breathing in not just the words of the text, as I seek to meet Christ, but the air of the forest, which speaks of eternity and passing moments; vast strength and human fragility; and the breath of peace, offered freely to all who will receive. Things happen in the forest because of who the forest is.
The Church as a Forest
The Church, at its best, functions the same way. We pastors think that the our teaching and preaching is the most important thing in the world, but the reality is that people are often persuaded more by the collective presence of Christ and the atmosphere that creates. Maybe at their best, preaching and environment work together, but at the very least, I’ve encountered many people over the decades whose front door to faith sounded similar to these words…
“No Richard, it wasn’t your teaching that convinced me. It was the community. I’ve never seen authentic relationships where people both accepted each other and pushed each other to grow and change. I wanted to be part of that”
“It was the beauty of the people Richard. When I saw that woman in her 60’s caring for her mother and singing songs of worship with her, it stirred something in me.”
“These people who make up the church – they’re building friendships with prisoners, making meals for the homeless, caring for vulnerable children. They give me hope, and I want in…”
On top of this, there’s often the beauty of gathered worship, the beauty of sacred space, the beauty of confession and vulnerability, and the beauty of restored lives.
So without answers, I simply ponder: Is the church an ecosystem, like a forest, which is life giving when it’s properly fed, and rooted, and located in the appropriate place? I’d like to think so.
However, when the church is place of shelter for misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political fanaticism, arrogance, favoritism of the strong and wealthy, or any other number of ugly things, it’s no longer a healing forest. It becomes a place of death, a prison of sorts. Using the letters C-H-U-R-C-H and singing a bit of Hillsong doesn’t make a church the collective expression of Christ. Only real discipleship does that, and the acid test of true discipleship is simple – am I on a path of embodying more of the humility, service, unconditional love, courageous care for the marginalized, and infinite forgiving grace of Christ? Or am I just singing some songs in a building while still closing my hand to poor, calling people who disagree with me idiots, getting angry with every latest political shot fired, all while pursuing my own personal well being above all else?
Forest, prison, or place of death – how do people experience life in the church?
For the church to be a place filled with the kind of life that God has in mind, some things need to be true for us that are also true for the forest:
1. We need to be an ecosystem. Christ’s vision for the church is that each person within it shares their unique contributions to for the well being of the community. Paul the apostle unpacks this vision and explains that when it works properly, when people experience various aspects of Christ’s beauty and love through various encounters within the community, they will sense the reality of Christ’s presence. This is paramount, because our desire is that people be given the freedom to choose or reject Christ himself, not the kind of caricatures of Christ that misrepresent him by portraying hate rather than love, law rather than grace, performance rather than receiving freely from a posture of brokenness. So we seek, increasingly as a church, to represent the heart of Christ with greater clarity.
2. We need a vision for beauty. My greatest moments of shalom (profound peace) have happened in either the beauty of the wilderness or the gathered community in worship. In the latter cases, it has been the gathered body of Christ, the church, declaring something of God’s character, through worship (Yes…singing matters more than we realize), or acts of service, or prayers of praise or confession, or simply through the power of Christ’s presence so evident in the gathering.
3. We need to believe that, in spite of our imperfections, God will be revealed through our life together. Let’s say that we, as a community, have a passion for mercy, Justice, and love (as I write about here in this book). Let’s see we long for the fruit of the spirit to prevail, in our lives, and our life together. To the extent that these things are true, we’re properly calibrated, heading in the right direction. We can rest, knowing we’re becoming a life giving forest. Of course, there’ll be the need for continual repentance and re-calibration along the way, because we’re not yet the healing, life giving force that we’re fully capable of becoming. But we’re getting there, and that’s enough for us to confidently believe God will use us. (“Abide in me, and you’ll bear much fruit”) is how Jesus said it.
All of this is looks very different than a community arguing about esoteric doctrines and implying that those who don’t believe exactly as our church does are lost and condemned. There are different kinds of forests. Catholics belong to forests. So do Pentecostals, and Baptists, and Presbyterians. No. None of us will agree with everything in every forest. But that’s no reason to start a forest fire. As Paul said, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed. In this I will rejoice.”
When Both Books Speak:
Just two nights ago, I was privileged to serve community to the gathered body of Christ at a family camp. We met in a lovely forest, around a campfire, praying with various people and listening and folks shared what God had been saying to them through the week. Then we finished our time together by singing “How Great Thou Art” an old hymn that includes a verse about walking through the forest and hearing the voice of God speak through the the beauty of creation. We finished singing, as the forest’s movement from light to darkness came to completion, ending with infinite stars hanging in the sky, and silence, save the crickets carrying on. Life. Beauty. Breath. Healing.
YES. Not only receiving all this, but being all this for one another and our world – this is our calling.