Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

I've lived in Texas so much of my life that it's hard to get used to a little chill in the morning air on the last day of August, which reminded me of one of my favorite Dylan songs, Summer Days. The opening line, "Summer days, summer nights are gone," reminds me of a line in the book of Jeremiah. It's part of Jeremiah's warning that Jerusalem's days of fat living and celebration are coming to an end. They are living fat on borrowed time, oblivious that they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

I don't know that Dylan is actually quoting Jeremiah here, but the theme of the song is sure in line with the message of the prophet. Dylan's songs are shot full with biblical illusions. Whether this is a direct quote or not, Dylan mimics the biblical world, thinks like the Bible, especially the prophetic sections. So, at the end of Summer days, and with the Fall elections just ahead, I'm singing with Dylan, "I've got eight carburetors, boys I'm using them all . . . I'm short on gas, my motors beginning to stall."

(And, this song has one of my favorite all time Dylan lyrics, "Well, my back has been to the wall for so long, it seems like it's stuck. Why don't you break my heart one more time just for good luck.").

Summer days, summer nights are gone
Summer days and the summer nights are gone
I know a place where there's still somethin' going on

I got a house on a hill, I got hogs all out on in the mud
I got a house on a hill, I got hogs out lying in the mud
Got a long haired woman, she got royal Indian blood

Everybody get ready - lift up your glasses and sing
Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing
Well, I'm standin' on the table, I'm proposing a toast to the King

Well I'm drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say, "You're a worn out star"
My pockets are loaded and I'm spending every dime
How can you say you love someone else when you know it's me all the time?

Well, the fog's so thick you can't spy the land
The fog is so thick that you can't even spy the land
What good are you anyway, if you can't stand up to some old businessman?

Wedding bells ringin', the choir is beginning to sing
Yes, the wedding bells are ringing and the choir is beginning to sing
What looks good in the day, at night is another thing

She's looking into my eyes, she's holding my hand
She's looking into my eyes, she's holding my hand
She says, "You can't repeat the past." I say, "You can't? What do you mean, you can't? Of course you can."

Where do you come from? Where do you go?
Sorry that's nothin' you would need to know
Well, my back has been to the wall for so long, it seems like it's stuck
Why don't you break my heart one more time just for good luck

I got eight carburetors, boys I'm using 'em all
Well, I got eight carburetors and boys, I'm using 'em all
I'm short on gas, my motor's starting to stall

My dogs are barking, there must be someone around
My dogs are barking, there must be someone around
I got my hammer ringin', pretty baby, but the nails ain't goin' down

You got something to say, speak or hold your peace
Well, you got something to say, speak now or hold your peace
If it's information you want you can go get it from the police

Politician got on his jogging shoes
He must be running for office, got no time to lose
He been suckin' the blood out of the genius of generosity
You been rolling your eyes - you been teasing me

Standing by God's river, my soul is beginnin' to shake
Standing by God's river, my soul is beginnin' to shake
I'm countin' on you love, to give me a break

Well, I'm leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift
Yes, I'm leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift
Gonna break the roof in - set fire to the place as a parting gift

Summer days, summer nights are gone
Summer days, summer nights are gone
I know a place where there's still somethin' going on

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

State Fairs and Grace

I spent Monday afternoon and evening at the Minnesota State Fair. There is nothing like a State Fair. It is a parallel world that has no real point of contact with everyday suburban life. It is an exotic world of livestock, fried food, and bad wardrobes. I know this sounds like an elitist critique, but its offered in appreciation. Being at the State Fair makes me feel very much a part of the whole created order. It's a little like being an original human, seeing animals born, eating fried chocolate, viewing the dairy queen's face carved in a slab of butter.

Seriously, at the Minnesota State Fair they carve the faces of past and present fair royalty in big slabs of butter. They display them in a rotating, refrigerated case in the dairy exhibit building. They are there in all their yellow splendor next to the image of the young dairy queen in a full color picture. Now, I'm just assuming that butter is a very hard medium in which to work, since it was not always obvious that the person in the picture and the person in the butter slab were the same. I think butter must add 50 pounds. But I'm sure as butter sculpture goes, its pretty impressive.

I went to the Oregon State Fair as a kid. It was the first place I ever smoked a cigarette (don't tell my mom). I was there with the church youth group. How else are you going to learn to smoke? A girl in a halter top gave me my first taste of cancer. That's the thing you have to know about girls in halter tops. And at the state fair, that's pretty much all there is.

I've been reading Charles Taylor's book, A Secular Age, and there he talks about the careful equilibrium maintained in society in the late middle ages. There was ordinary life, which maintained a sense of human flourishing through a carefully ordered hierarchy that kept chaos at bay. Good magic keeping bad magic away. But routine has its limits, and over time crushes and drains the very power it is trying to protect. There has to be a reset button of sorts, a chance to let chaos have its day so that it can again be subsumed under a larger order. This happened in very deliberate ways in societal festivals. It's "as though the effort to maintain order against chaos could not but in the end weaken, tire, unless this order were replunged into the primal energies of chaos to emerge with renewed strength. Or something like that; it's hard to get entirely clear."

He is absolutely describing the state fair. It's a replunging of life into the primal energies of chaos, in this case girls with halter tops and cigarettes, dangerous guys with slicked back hair, fried food on a stick, and men in shorts and black socks. Equilibrium restored.

I went to the fair mainly to hear Brandi Carlile who played a free concert that night. (Unbelievable performance. Her cover of Folsom Prison Blues was a religious experience). To get a good seat, I sat through the semifinals of the State Fair talent show. Actually, I stood, because evidently Minnesotans take their talent shows very seriously. Beside the usual singers belting out country tunes to a background track, there were the kinds of acts you only see in parallel universes.

There were the two young ladies who fumbled through a synchronized tumbling act--a really tough thing to pull off only a day after the closing of the Olympics. The real thing is too fresh on our minds. There was an amazing young violinist, 14 years old, who stood on that very informal stage, just paces from fresh manure in any direction, in a full length pink, um, not sure the right description. It looked like kind of a crepe paper explosion. Under lights in a concert hall it would probably look elegant, but here it was, well, a whole buncha lotta pink.

You haven't lived until you've heard a stooped 70+ year old woman in a sequined gown play The Battle Hymn of the Republic on the mirimbas. She followed a group of testostorone driven young men roughly covering the great Aerosmith song Dream On. They followed three very well nourished young women in camoflaged miniskirts singing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.

Seriously, I love events like this. It felt so real, so human, so filled with grace. People stood and applauded the Battle Hymn of the Republic on the mirimbas, and you could tell this was the event of this woman's life. Grace comes out of stuff like this. I was proud to be a Minnesotan.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

God the Spirit, 3

I took my German language exam today. I'm pretty sure I'll have the chance to take it again, which is not a good thing. All those Hogan's Heroes episodes wasted.

But there was some benefit to it. I was asked to translate an article by Jurgen Moltmann. I took a class on Trinity and Mission last Fall, and the Moltmann readings were my favorite. I love the way that he begins theology, our understandings of God, in the Garden of Gethsemane. We understand God as Father, Son and Spirit best in relation to the suffering of Jesus.

But I also like how much Moltmann stresses the importance of eschatology for our understandings of God, church, and world. Now, by eschatology, I don't mean Tim LaHaye or speculation about end of the world events. I mean more just the tension between the already and the not yet. The Kingdom of God has come near, but is not fully present. The resurrection is the event where God's future breaks into our world, guarantees for us participation in God's ultimate purposes.

Moltmann points to Paul's understanding of the role of the Spirit in raising Jesus from the dead. The Spirit is an agent of God's future, bringing the fruit of resurrection to every aspect of life. A new creation.

In the passage I translated today, Moltmann encourages his readers to think of the gifts of the Spirit not so much as supernatural phenomena, but as gifts from God's future. They belong to the day of God's peace, his new family, his ultimate victory over death. (He either said that, or that Paul McCartney is dead. I'm not real clear sometime with the German).

I like this notion. God has established a day in the death and resurrection of Jesus. There's nothing that anyone can do about it. It is established and it has made its apperance in our history. By God's grace, and through God's Spirit, we are invited to belong to that day, and to serve its interests in the power of the Spirit.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

I walked out of church today and found a flyer on my car that warned of the last days (not placed there by someone from the church I attend). Nuclear bombs, health epidemics, dogs and cats sleeping together (I added that last one, a tribute to Bill Murray in Ghost Busters. Go ahead, fact check me). You know, the usual stuff. Stuff focused on the end of all things. We're all history.

Now I like apocalyptic imagery as much as the next guy. Seriously. It says, in essence, that what what peeks out at the edges of life cannot be reconciled to anything. It just doesn't make any damned sense. And it doesn't. But there's an alternative coming. Not a day that's just the logical outcome of this one, but a new day bringing an alternative history that will bring resolution.

In some churches, we sing this song, Days of Elijah, where the Lord is coming riding on a cloud. We sing it joyfully thinking its all glory and bliss. But prophets like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Dylan know different. It might be our salvation, but its in the form of a hard rain.

So, this Sunday's Dylan song to live with, in honor of the warning fixed to my windshield, is A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin',
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world,
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin',
Heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin',
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin',
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Missional Transformation, 2

I spent years in congregational ministry thinking of the church as a series of problems to be solved. I didn't consciously decide to approach ministry that way. I think its the way we approach most things in life. We are constantly isolating things, measuring them for deficiency, diagnosing the deficiency, and coming up with plans to fix things. It's a very satisfying way to think about maintaining control over our environment.

And in many ways, a problem solving mindset makes the world a better place. I want my mechanic to be able to adequately diagnose the brake problems on my car, and to be able with some certainty to know that the fix will keep me from driving off of a cliff. And for that matter, I think good ministry requires a certain amount of strategic wisdom, an ability to intuit the effects of certain actions and initiatives.


Still, like every tool, it has its limitations. You know the old saying that if all you have in your toolkit is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Its the same way with problem solving. Its corollary in organizational life is strategic planning. I've worked for the past seven years in a strategic planning environment. The only way to get your piece of the budget was to write a compelling five year plan that demonstrated your long term budget requirements as essential to the institution's mission. I did enough five year plans to know this: they're horrible predictors. They prove our overall lack of ability to gauge cause and effect in a complex environment.

It wasn't long ago that ads in a church publication I read featured "purpose driven church looking for a purpose driven minister." Those ads have dried up, largely, I think, because congregations are massively complex cultures that resist the logic of strategic planning, which begins with a mission statement and ends with a list of strategic goals. Yet, in my experience, this is often the only leadership tool respected by both church leaders and members. Everything has become a nail.

The problems here are various and run in many directions. I simply want to make one distinction at this point. Trust and formation as a leadership strategy for transformation beats the stuffing out of direction and control.

I am with church leaders all the time who are dealing with death anxiety. Their congregation is declining. They've tried everything in their bag of tricks and nothing has helped. In many ways, they've never done church better. The preaching is good. The worship is dynamic. The facilities are great. The programs well run. And the decline is steady. They're doing everything they've known to do better than they've ever done it before, and nothing changes. And everyone is anxious.

Our response typically in these situation is direction and control. Let's set a clear direction and and steer the ship. It seems strong. And members cry out for it. (Though this is usually a noose they tie for their leaders. We want leadership! As long as it's what makes me happy). We think the next plan will be better, bolder, more decisive, than the last one. Or we fire the leaders, hoping that the next bunch will be stronger.

Put in spiritual terms, this is a strategy of human mastery, and typically doesn't produce much transformation, or in organizational theory terms, it doesn't produce a learning organization, one that can adapt to new circumstances in dynamic ways.

The spiritual response to anxiety is not measures of control, but measures of trust. Strong, transformative leadership responds to anxiety with patterns of trust and formation. How are we learning to trust God for our future? How is this forming us in new ways for our new situation? How will we become different? This is a bigger question than, what new strategies can we try to address our old set of problems.

This requires real strength in leadership. It requires patience. It requires the capacity to project the confidence of faith that goes with the answer, "we don't know yet." It requires less speaking and more listening. It requires all those things that leave enough room for the Spirit of God to work. And sometimes that looks like weak leadership to people who have to solve problems to feel like they're accomplishing anything. I like to remind people that nowhere does it say that the fruit of the Spirit is urgency.

Most churches are encountering at some level the anxiety that comes with the need for adaptive, cultural change. This environment is too unstable for cause and effect, direction and control measures to be the only ones in a leader's toolkit. Trust and formation. Trust and formation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Missional Transformation

Do you remember those pictures that used to be the thing in the mall? You would look at them for a long time, kind of cross-eyed and suddenly a whole new image would emerge. All at once, the picture would just come bursting off of the page. I assume that the picture was not transubstantiated, that the details in the picture remained the same. But with a different focus you couldn't make out the old picture any more, only the new one.

Missional transformation bears something of that same dynamic. Missional transformation is not primarily a program or new set of initiatives in congregational life. It's the development of a new imagination so that everything is part of a surprising new picture.

Put another way, missional transformation is deep, cultural change. When we talk about a congregation as a culture, we are discussing issues of identity. And when we talk about issues of cultural identity, we are talking about narratives--the stories that authorize our practices.

This perspective on change requires more than a pulpit or a classroom. You can't simply teach yourself into this kind of change. Learning to tell a new story requires new experiences, reflection, and articulation.

In my experience, congregations expect very little in terms of what their members experience. Primarily, we expect them to experience Sunday morning worship. Other experiences are options, like leather seats on a car. It's nice if you practice spiritual disciplines, participate in the world with the poor, or share your faith with others, but its really kind of up to you.

We ask members even less intentionally to reflect or articulate what they think God is up to in the midst of their experiences. This is not only true at a personal level, but congregations do surprising little corporate reflection, or discernment, concerning what God is up to in their midst.

One final point for this post. Transformation tends to come in relation to adaptive challenges, those pesky anomalies we can't quite solve, those instances or chronic problems in congregational life that keep us off balance. These are the things we tend to avoid as church leaders. But they are often the kinds of challenges that force us to focus our eyes differently and see every detail in new perspective.

Thomas Kuhn maintains that the big shifts in scientific paradigms did not come as the logical result of a series of experiments. Rather, they came by imagining a new structure altogether based on a problem for which the old structure could not account. The same kind of thing is often true for churches who are seeking change. It often comes, not as a result of a carefully mapped out strategy complete with mission and vision statements, but around sometimes surprising and perplexing events that call for a new account of things.

I was a minister for a congregation in Oregon for eleven years. The most transformative events in my eleven years were three deaths that occurred in the congregation. None of those would have made it into a strategic plan for congregational change. They were transformative because of how death and grief had been dealt with (in this case not dealt with) in the congregation's recent history. They afforded us the opportunity for reflection and articulation, and in so doing gave us capacity to authorize a new narrative.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Meet my Son

This is Josh, a constant source of joy, in some of his long hair, bushy beard pics. Finally, youth are wearing their hair the way respectable youth in my day did! He is my teacher concerning righteousness these days. By God's grace, he is mine to love, and I am thankful for such a gift.

Dylan on a Sunday

Dylan can sing the world into view, a world of hard facts and cold comforts. But none of that today. A little Dylan tenderness is in order. It's not his greatest love song, but "Mama, you've been on my mind" is no slouch.

When you wake up in the mornin', baby, look inside your mirror.
You know I won't be next to you, you know I won't be near.
I'd just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Limit Experiences and Being Human

I watched the Olympic women's marathon tonight. It is such a compelling event. And tonight's race had so many amazing scenes. The 38 year old Romanian breaking away from the leaders and cruising through the tape. The Kenyan and Chinese women sprinting at the end of 26 miles, passing each other back and forth for the silver medal. The British woman finishing through leg pain, pain from an injury that kept her from training leading up to the games.

The thing about the marathon is its extremity. It requires everything you have, physically, mentally, emotionally. Finishers are spent. Faces drained of focus, yet full of unguarded emotion. I was touched by how the stadium full of fans went crazy as each new runner entered to finish. They recognize the accomplishment regardless of what place a runner achieves.

I've run one marathon. Better put, it ran me. One of my prized possessions is the finisher's t-shirt I have from the Seattle marathon. I registered early, which the entry form assured me guaranteed me a finisher's t-shirt upon completion of the race.

I ran well for the first 17 miles, ahead of my target pace. But I developed stomach problems and spent extended times in less than ideal circumstances losing the contents of my stomach. I ran the last 7 miles or so dehydrated. I got charlie horses in my quads. I would run until my legs would seize, then walk until they relaxed. It was the longest hour of my life.

When I approached the finish, a few friends and people I didn't even know cheered for me. When I crossed the line I dissolved in emotion. I had no way to check them. I can't describe how I felt. I wasn't elated. I wasn't relieved. I was just at the end of me and I couldn't hold back the tears.

When I went beneath the football stadium of the University of Washington to collect my t-shirt, I was told that they had run out. Run out?! How could they have run out! I registered early. They promised me a t-shirt would be waiting for me if I registered early. Who had my t-shirt? Surely this was a mistake! Through tears I explained to the poor race volunteer that I had registered early. That they had promised me a t-shirt. I finished and they promised! I couldn't hold back the tears. I was sobbing, Now, I knew it was ridiculous to be crying over a t-shirt. I knew it as it was happening, but injustice had found me at the end of my rope, and I was undone.

A woman watching this pathetic scene came up behind me and wrapped a mylar blanket around me and hugged me. She just held me while I sobbed. The poor worker behind the t-shirt stand didn't know what to do. My friends acted like they had no idea who I was. (They sent my t-shirt in the mail a few weeks later).

Don't get me wrong, I have no idea what its like to run so fast for so long. But I know something of the feeling of a limit experience, something I recognized in the women finishers tonight.

There are limit experiences all along the continuum of life. Some are moments of accomplishment, like finishing a marathon. Some are related to enduring a round of chemo or giving birth to a child. But whenever they occur, they measure for us in meaningful ways what it means to be human. And these measurements often combine pain with glory.

I've been in animated conversations this week with colleagues about what it means to be human, or better, what it means to have real doings with God. I'm discovering that I have a higher view of humans than I thought. Don't get me wrong, humans are a damned mess. I have seen ruin and know fault lines run deep through my own heart. But I have seen lives rise majestically from the ashes of poor beginnings. I have seen beauty. And it is good.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

God the Spirit, 2

I read the NY Times online every morning. It's become something of a spiritual discipline for me--a lectio divina with a text other than the Bible. It's my way of keeping a God-world horizon in view, of not getting absorbed by my own little world. I admit, it's not always easy to be mindful of God as I read. It's certainly not a practice that yields easily some sense of God's movement or agency in the world. It's tough some days to read the Times and confess that the reign of God has come near.

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about Mark 1:15 these days. I am using it as a little paradigm for gospel speech. I see four movements, or lenses there: the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near, repent, believe the good news. The last phrase always grabs me. Believe the good news. It's especially intriguing in the Gospel of Mark where no one seems to get Jesus' identity correct. Even the announcement of the good news in 1:15 is prefaced with the report of John being shut up in Herod's prison. It can be tough to believe that the kingdom of God has come near.

That's why I like Welker's assertion (see previous post) that the Spirit provides a focus on God’s work even in an overwhelming and confusing world. The power of this statement is enhanced by Welker's own diagnosis of how disorienting modern societies can be.

Modern societies are distinguished from earlier ones by what Drukheim, Parsons and others refer to as "functional differentiation." By this they mean that in modern societies there are "subregions" like economy, law, education, family, and even religion that function fairly independently of the other subregions. This is due, ironically, by a drive to function in their area on behalf of the entire society. As Welker describes, "They increase their competence and efficiency by rendering their basic operations and their forms of understanding more precise, by limiting their extension in many respects, by loosening or even doing away with the interconnections among themselves, and above all by giving up the notion of an overarching...order" (30).

Modern societies, as a result, do not have a common account by which its members make sense of their experience. Experience is fragmented, isolated, and individuals feel powerless or impotent in making an impact in a polcentric world. There is little left that can be termed "common" sense. The power of mass media in a world like this is its ability to give "plausibility and sensual immediacy" to a world that is otherwise "inconprehensible and remains uncomprehended" (31). But this mass mediated reality is a thin account of life, often more distracting than orienting.

In the midst of this fragmented world that no longer yields an orienting perspective, the Spirit works to make God's rule recognizable. The Spirit provides an orientation related to Jesus' presence in the world in the midst of our confusion and babble about life. The Spirit provides a witness to Christ in the world, a way of talking about God's presence through the testimony of our experience with God in the world. These testimonies are not total accounts of what God is doing, but modest fragments, that nevetheless point to the One whose power is perfect in weakness.

I love this notion. I wish I had owned this perspective earlier, to reflect on my experience of God the Spirit. I wish I had more wisdom about all of this. But it seems to me that mission cannot occur apart from this kind of work of the Spirit, this kind of orienting work. Unless God's Spirit makes clear Gods work in the world, we will be left to name for God only those things that seem impressive to us. And I'm pretty sure that's not the way to go.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Book #1, The Land, Walter Brueggemann

I had just made my first visit to a big denominational bookstore in North Dallas, where I bought a copy of The Land. I was an associate minister for a church in Arlington, Texas, and in my office there was this big comfy chair--big enough that I could curl up my entire 6'3" frame into it. I don't remember moving out of the chair the entire day after I opened the pages to my first Brueggemann book (though I'm sure I did). I do remember reading the entire book in one day. I do remember being thankful that I had a job that allowed me to read words like these. I do remember tears filling my eyes over several passages in the book. I do remember being thrilled that theology could sound so poetic, and yet be so rooted in the world and in the biblical text. I have hungrily read Walter Brueggemann from that day forward.

It's not so much the content of The Land that hooked me (though I loved the vision of the book). It was the way he read Scripture, and, in turn, wrote about that. They were of the same dynamic cloth, the text he interpreted and his interpretation. For Brueggemann, the text is a thickly textured rhetorical reality. It has a world of its own which escapes the reductions of both fundamentalists and liberals. The world of the text is not simply affirmation. The text is a combustive mix of testimony, dispute, and new orientation. And the text is about power, a social document that attends to claims and counterclaims in relation to the ultimate reference for power--God. And in the midst of this rhetorical world, God is holy, unmanageable, dangerous, liberating, and merciful.

The highlight of my professional career was being on the same program as Walter Brueggemann. It was a preaching conference on the Psalms (Brueggemann is an Old Testament professor). I had the assignment of preaching on Psalm 46 during the opening worship of the seminar. Brueggemann made the first of his two presentations immediately following the worship service. Talk about an intimidating assignment.

A few years later, I hosted a song writing workshop at Abilene Christian Univeristy and invited Michael Card to be our main presenter. Card had recommended to the songwriters that they read good theology and he highly recommended the work of Brueggemann. At a break, I was drawn into a conversation with Card and a conference attendee, a friend of mine, who had been there when I preached in Brueggemann's presence. My friend was explaining to Card the situation, leading to Brueggemann's opening remarks, which were, "I guess I'm here to tell you..." Before my friend could complete the sentence, Card finished the line, "that if you do it like Mark just did it, you're doing it right."

I was stunned. How did Card know the line? He had ordered, it seems, Brueggemann's presentations on cd from the conference and had listened to them over and over again. They were on his ipod! He looked at me and said, "you're that Mark! I've heard that line over and over again and thought, I don't know who that Mark is, but he has to be on cloud nine." And I was. And it was so cool that in this one little moment, my world had overlapped with both Walter Brueggemann's and Michael Card's.

I was Brueggemann's taxi for the conference. We stayed in the same hotel and drove back and forth together. I sat by him as we served on a Q&A panel. He would lean in my direction every now and then to whisper a comment or ask a question (I knew the audience better than he did). I sat by him at lunch, planning the book that would come out of the conference. He was very gracious. Answered my star-struck questions. Inquired about my own work and interests. He has written over 80 books. Ridiculous. He told me he writes fast. Duh. He doesn't dwell too long over a book because a text is immediately an artifact. And both the author and text have a life of their own. They develop distance from each other. There is no last word on a subject. Just write the book and move on to the next one. It was an amazing few days.

I know I don't have the temperment of a scientist. I'm not the kind of theologian who can dig out the minutia of an argument. But Brueggemann convinced me there is a prime place for the poet, those who experience theology as art and interpretation. He gave me a way to aspire within my own sense of calling. I am thankful.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

These are my Sunday words from Dylan for this week. They're from Ballad of a Thin Man, a song which really comes alive in the great movie about Dylan, I'm Not There. Because all of us have a thin man in our life. Don't we, Mr. Jones.

You raise up your head
And you ask, "Is this where it is?"
And somebody points to you and says
"It's his"
And you say, "What's mine?"
And somebody else says, "Where what is?"
And you say, "Oh my God
Am I here all alone?"

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

God the Spirit

One of the best books I've encountered thus far in my recent studies is God the Spirit, by Michael Welker. There is so much to say about this book that is important. Let me begin by just saying that Welker's study is a fairly comprehensive look at the person and work of the Spirit throughout all of Scripture. He calls his reading a realistic reading (which I will talk about in another post), and its yield is impressive.

Welker notes the dramatic growth of Pentecostal movements on the contemporary world Christianity scene. This phenomenon is to be welcomed, but also tested against the biblical testimony.

Much of what we associate with the work of the Spirit is often highly individual and internal (the Spirit led me or encouraged me), and/or the special or supranatural (tongues, healing, prophecy). Welker denies importance to none of these, but when the entire biblical witness is taken into account, these are not the things that rise to the top of the list.

Welker's work demonstrates the very public and communal nature of the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is always working to create a new public reality which brings deliverance and new solidarity to human communities.

I've taken some liberties with one of Welker's summaries toward the end of his book. These are the things typical of the Spirit of Christ.

The Spirit of Christ...
Brings help when individuals and communities feel powerless, captive, and trapped.
Gathers people to the emerging, public reign of God.
Acts to deliver from human distress and sin.
Restores community solidarity and the capacity for communal action.
Acts to preserve life in the midst of conflict.
Transforms and renews people and opens them to God’s creative purposes.
Makes it possible to recognize lying or deceiving spirits.
Provides a focus on God’s work even in an overwhelming and confusing world.

I like this list a lot. I want to spend some time looking at a few of these over the next few days. I want to start from the bottom. It's often the hardest part of the Christian faith, at least for me, to find evidence for the reign of God in the world. The victory of God is hidden in the cross of Jesus, and the evidence is not always obvious or apparent. Welker suggests that this is one of the tasks of the Spirit, to help us recognize the rule of God in an overwhelming and confusing world.

More on that in the next post.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Olympics and Christian Identity

I have so many vivd memories from the Olympics through the years. The '68 games in Mexico City were really the first I remember. The image of Tommie Smith and John Charles with their gloved fists raised during the national anthem, a sign of Black power and pride over against the red, white and blue, was a startling awakening to the fact that not all experienced God and country in the same way.

I also remember being crushed that Kip Keino (Kenya) crushed my idol, Jim Ryun in the 1,500 meters in 1968. Ryun was the world record holder. More, I knew he was a Christian, and a Christian of the right brand. I had read a biography on Ryun that featured a picture of him in the foyer of the Church of Christ in Lawrence, Kansas. Our identities were fused. How could he lose? When he fell in Munich in 1972, I was equally heartbroken.

That was the same Olympics that my other middle distance hero, Steve Prefontaine, came in fourth in the 5,000 meters. I lived in Portland, Oregon at the time, but had seen Pre run in Eugene on several occasions. There was nothing more electric. But at the Olympics, Lassie Viren beat my hometown hero, who fell across the finish line just outside the medals.

Few events have the ability to stir the emotion of belonging and collective identity like the Olympics. I watch sports and events I would otherwise have no concern about just to see if an American walks away with hardware.

I am somewhat troubled by this. It's the one place where I am most susceptible to a blind nationalism. And I'm pretty sure that runs counter to a Christian view of the world.

Take Kip Keino for instance. My broken little Olympics heart loathed him. He was the villain (give me a break, I was 8 years old) who had beat my Church of Christ hero, Ryun. Later in life, I learned much about Keino and his Christian commitments. Ryun, it turns out left Churches of Christ for some even more generic brand of the faith, and worse, became a Republican congressman. My post prized autograph now is my Keino signature, and he is one of the persons in the world with whom I would most like to have dinner.

The question is, for whom do we root and why? Put another way, to whom do we pledge allegiance and how does this influence the way we see the world?

I don't lose sleep over this. In terms of jingoism, this is a fairly benign sort. I am more concerned about the kinds of national interests that would lead to war, things based on a sort of score card on the world that revolves around the accident of where I happened to be born. I have a visceral reaction in church when someone prays for "our soldiers." As a Christian, who are "our soldiers?" I don't have a problem praying for soldiers, I just think we ought to pray for all of them.

I am currently taking classes with several international students. I don't have a problem with them rooting for their own, nationally speaking. It's how we're conditioned to see the world and its not evil by defintion. My South African friend, Janni, was very pleased when Trevor Immelman won the Master's golf tourney this year. And I was happy for him. However, Janni's rooting for Immelman caused me to see him differently and took some of the edge off of my Tiger-mania (USA! USA! USA!). I'm learning to be more of a citizen of the world, and I think that makes me a better Christian.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Johnny Cash, Outlaw, Sufferer, and the Gospel

Rick Rubin is one of my heroes these days. He's a record producer who makes everyone sound great. I'm enjoying Jakob Dylan's solo cd these days, a Rubin product. Though I haven't heard it (really, I haven't), he also did the new Neil Diamond cd that debuted at #1 (I did see Neil Diamond at Starbuck's in Malibu a few weeks ago. So, there's that).

To me, however, Rubin's most amazing achievement was with Johnny Cash, late in Cash's life. Rubin produced the American Songbook series. There were some Cash originals in the mix (e.g., Unchained, The Man Comes Around), but most were covers, and some were spectacular. He covered acts as diverse as U2 (One), Depeche Mode (Personal Jesus), Soundgarden (Rusty Cage), Tom Petty (Won't Back Down), and Nine Inch Nails (Hurt). Cash's version of Hurt is unbelievably gripping.

I'm of the opinion that the American collection is Cash's best work. I like the early Cash (Walk the Line, Still Miss Someone, Ring of Fire) and the later Cash. The middle years, I can do without. And part of it, I think, is due to the conflicting images Cash tried to hold together. He cultivated both his image as an outlaw and a saint. He sang Folsom Prison Blues and Rock of Ages, trying to be simulataneously sinner and saint. As a result, in my opinion, he couldn't find his voice.

I'm currently studying at a Lutheran seminary. I know the way that a particular reading of justification by faith has produced a strong theological tradition that emphasizes humans as simultaneously sinners and saints. At one level, this is undeniable, and there are healthy gains that come from regonizing both.

This is a tough tension, however, around which to sustain an identity. The outlaw image tends to prevail. Romans 7 typically kicks Romans 8's rear, experientially speaking. Moreover, guilt and shame are not the only human issues addressed by the cross. Which brings me back to Cash.

Rubin has written about the first time he ever saw Johnny Cash. Cash had to be carried down a set of stairs into the recording studio. He was crippled and nearly blind. Rubin thought he had made a mistake to throw his lot in with Cash. Until they handed Cash a guitar and he started singing. Those who have listened to the America cd's know that his voice is not the same. It's not as strong. It's a little ragged at times. But it is nonetheless powerful. It carries forward all the years and experiences of his life. You can hear both the pain and the hope.

Over the later years of his life, pain was Cash's constant companion. And his song choices dealt less and less with the theme of the outlaw, and more with the image of the sufferer. As a result, Hurt and When the Man Comes Around sit comfortably together on the same CD. They are of a piece. And they carry deep pathos. You don't doubt that Cash is singing about something real.

When Christians tries to engage in public speech, often we want to talk about guilt (it would be an improvement to talk about shame). It's a tough conversation, one in which we're classifying sinners and saints (even if we don't intend to). Even if we have good news about all of that, its a tough convesation to get off the ground.

The gospel of a crucified God, however, has great resonance with suffering, and suffering cuts across every human life in ways that demand an account of God's presence in the world. Part of Cash's appeal in his later work was due undoubtedly to Rubin's genius as a producer. But part of it has to do with his move away from outlaw/saint to sufferer/saint. I think we might learn a thing from Johnny Cash.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 6

My friend, Jerry Wolfe, asked after my last M&E post to talk about how congregations who see worship and mission as separate things might go about bridging that gap. Great question. And one we ususally get wrong. We tend to think of change as a process of information and application. If we have all the right info, we will make all the necessary adjustments. Alas, this is a noose many church leaders have tied for themselves.

I want to talk about congregational culture change in future posts. (So, Jerry, hang on, I'll get there). In this post I want to grab some conceptual ground concerning worship and mission. This sounds like teaching, and it is. Teaching is important. But typically it won't in and of itself produce big change.

The biblical image I want to use to bring mission and worship together is the priesthood of believers. Believers, taken together, constitute a priesthood. It might be true that we function individually in priestly sort of ways. But when the Bible uses the phrase priesthood of believers it has the entire community in view.

The people of God have a priestly vocation in the world. And what does a priest do? A priest stands in between, in this case in between God and the world. The people of God represent God to the world, and the world to God. We don't worship primarily for our own sake. Like Jesus, our service is for the sake of others. We worship to learn better how to love God and neighbor.

Seen this way, worship maintains a public horizon. That is, its primary orientation is the relationship between God and the world. Our worship horizons tend to be much smaller. We evaluate worship on whether or not it met my needs or whether or not I enjoyed it, was personally challenged, inspired, etc.

This is a private horizon. The focus of the worship is the interior of the individual. It doesn't take much of an audit of our worship language and practices to see that the interior of the individual is typically what we're putting our focus on in worship.

Now, let me be clear. It is not wrong for there to be focus in worship on the interior of the individual. The problem comes when this becomes our exclusive focus and when we see it as an end in itself. Our focus on the individual should always be with an eye toward creating a community who exists for the sake of God's world.

Worship with a public horizon represents the concerns of the world before God. I've had the practice for awhile now of reading the NY Times with a certain prayerfulness. Over against the trouble of our world clearly revealed in a newspaper, I am often struck with how glib and easy our congregational praise can be. It seems sometimes a little like turning up the volume on the car radio to drown out the pinging of the engine. We don't worship to avoid the world, but to learn to engage the world with a different kind of power.

Worship with a public horizon honors the stranger. This is not because we want to convert the stranger, though we would certainly celebrate this. (There is a difference between public and evangelistic). The "other" is necessary for something to be public. Accounting for and welcoming the other as an irreducible other (not just a target for congregational growth) allows us to participate in the Trinitarian life of God. We learn to be persons in the image of God as we learn to welcome the stranger.

Though we're often impressed with our friendliness as a congregation, we don't really do a good job of welcoming strangers. Friendliness and publicness are not the same thing.

I recently visited a church that worships in the round. They sit on sofas, rummage sale sofas. Now, it's hard enough to get me to share a sofa with my wife. I'm not about to sit on a sofa with someone I do not know, especially a sofa for which we have no history. I found the only folding chair in the building, which made me immediately conspicuous as one who might not belong.

The high point of the service, according to the woman who explained what we were doing, was the Lord's Supper. This was the moment where it all comes together for them, a time when they celebrate being together as a community. She pointed out the presence of small tables all over the building that had bread and wine. She invited us all to go to a table, a kind of serve yourself affair, and enjoy being together. When we moved to tables, I found myself immediately outside several circles of intimacy. The church has collectively and literally turned its back on me. That's all I could see.

Now I admit, I'm an introvert. I'm not the kind of person who will push his way into a group of persons already familiar with each other. This seemed like their table, something other than the table of the Lord.

In contrast, I think about a church I've visited where the table is also explained as the high point of their service. There, the woman who presided invited us all to the table, "those who come each week, and those who have not been for a long time; those who have much faith, and those who hope for more..." I knew I was being invited to the table. And when I moved forward in this company of strangers I felt the welcome of God. My participation with God did not depend on my prior relatioship with these people. Yet, here I was in relationship with them. Moving to the table with them. And there I was welcomed and fed.

We often confuse friendliness, intimacy, and spontaneity as welcome. But these things are often the very things that exclude the stranger and keep us from fulfilling our priestly vocation. And when our worship retreats into the horizon of the private, of the individual, into a culture of intimacy, worship loses its capacity for mission.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

I ran this morning for about 85 minutes in Como park. Water, trees, golf course, light rain. Perfect. It's put me in a Dylan mood. These are my words to live by today from the great song, "Spirit on the Water."

You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time

Great thing about Dylan. He gives you words to dwell in no matter what the day brings.

Which reminds me, I had a dog named Dylan. Great dog. He was stolen. Dang. I'll find other words for that tomorrow.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Book, #2, Echoes of Scripture in Paul, Richard Hays

I often heard in my early days in ministry education, "you can't read texts like Paul does. You'd flunk this class if you read texts the way that he does." My profs were referring to Paul's creative, sometimes allegorical, readings of Old Testament texts. Because Paul was inspired, he could get away with those kinds of non-historical readings. But for us mere exegetical mortals, these kinds of readings were out of bounds.

Richard Hays convinced me otherwise. Hays' genius is his way of exposing all of the echoes and allusions that lie within and around texts. He reads Scripture intra-textually, noticing all of the ways that biblical authors appropriate prior texts. The text, in Hays' hands, is a thick environment, brimming with emergent meanings.

When it comes to Paul's reading of Scripture, Hays demonstrates that Paul is a very careful reader of Old Testament texts. His use of them, however, is not methodologically determined as much as it is theologically determined. He reads texts with a certain understanding of what God is up to in Jesus Christ. He reads texts with an ecclesio-centric hermeneutic, seeing the revelation of a new human family as the harbinger of a new age. He reads texts eschatologically, convinced that Jesus has inaugurated a new age, an age that allows for a privileged perspective on what God has been up to all along. Christians are those "upon whom the end of the ages has fallen."

These theological commitments produce a consistent interpretation of the text, even though Paul's method varies from occasion to occasion. And this theological perspective encourages, even requires, imagination and creativity. More, it requires a habitation, a deep dwelling with texts, that allows them to come alive in light of the inbreaking of a new and determinative age.

This book changed the way I read Scripture. That's huge. And in turn, it changed how I thought about preaching and ministry. That's huge. The biggest gain along these lines came from my commitment to let Scripture speak, as often as possible, in the present tense. The Bible isn't simply a historical record that we visit like we would a museum. It is a living voice, speaking in a very direct way to those of us upon whom the end of the ages has fallen.