Friday, September 28, 2007

Kingdom of God I

Hello, Portland!

Nature has flipped a switch. Now it really is fall. From dry to damp (OK, wet!). From warm to cool. From blue to gray, brown to green. All within a 24-hour period. That's how quickly seasons change here. Now we get to adjust to seeing our everyday world in an entirely new way. It's an annual ritual. I love Portland!

OK. Kingdom of God. Christ followers today talk surprisingly little about the kingdom of God. Maybe shockingly little. Why? Many reasons, I think. First, we don't do well with royalty here in America. We figure we were all done with that back in 1781 when we at last managed to sufficiently bloody the nose of George III of England so that he finally bowed to our colonial insurgency.

Second, "kingdom" offends egalitarian sensibilities today. Some of us figure that if there's a kingdom an even-handed God ought to also have a queendom. So we weasel on the words and either drop the "g" to get "kindom of God", or else we adopt the entirely new word "dominion" instead.

Not sure either of those do anything but further obscure things. Talk about door-slammers! Just imagine saying to somebody you know or work with, "Hey, let's have coffee (or a beer) so I can tell you all about the kindom of God or the dominion of God!" They'll probably conclude that you're either dyslexic or a fundamentalist Canadian. Once they recover from their bewilderment enough to speak, the first excuse they can think of will probably erupt. Maybe something like, "Sorry, but no. I have to help my dog with his homework--right now!"

Kingdom of God. I like to abbreviate it KoG in my notes, jottings and Bible margins. Yeah, I do write in my Bible--all over the margins. In pencil; no highliters, please! Where did this KoG thing come from anyway?

It has deep Old Testament roots. Yahweh (the "name" we give to the God of Israel whom those folks would only refer to by the letters YHWH or as "The Lord") is regularly worshiped as king of the universe, king of creation, ruler of all. So far, so good. Almost.

Then Jesus took that ball of kingship and ran 99 yards with it. It was absolutely a hallmark of his teaching and preaching along with great aphorisms and the engaging illustrations we know as parables. KoG was a high-stakes, risky move. Why? 'Cause people had some genuinely first-hand bad experience with kings. Kings nearly always came with armies. That's how they got power and retained it. And often that's how kings exercised power: armies. Great if you're in the in-crowd, absolutely deadly if you aren't. Besides, kings levied taxes. And more often than not, kings had abysmally immoral lives.

So for Jesus to run around proclaiming the KoG more steadfastly than anyone in history ought to stop us cold in our intellectual tracks. KoG? Are you kidding, or what? What is that? What's it look like, taste like, feel like? Why should I not fear it but long for it? Why on earth should KoG be good news? Why would it possibly be the best news one could ever hear? Why? For God's sake, why?

Maybe it's like fall here: seeing our world in an entirely new way.

Next time: KoG II--Y not?


Pastor Roger

Sunday, September 23, 2007

2 many churches?

Happy Autumn! (you, too, Suzanne!)

A season has turned again. The sun is at a lower angle giving that goregous autumn light here in the Pacific Northwest. Maple leaves are looking very tired after a very dry summer. Early signs of color are creeping into the changing light. Perhaps it's a time to consider things in a different light.

Doug was across the street doing yard work for our neighbor. He asked if I had a church yet and told me about a vacant one in SE Portland. Sunday we drove by it. It looks nice. Right up and down the road from three others that are active but don't look as nice.

Starting a church? Why, when there are so many (it seems) churches around? Out here in East County 'burbs it seems there are little churches every few blocks. Now and then there's also a BIG one. Some big ones even look like industrial parks--because they ARE in industrial parks. Others look like the forlorn and forgotten little neighborhood groceries that once prevailed in these neighborhoods 60 or more years ago.

Some former churches don't even look like that. One nearby little Lutheran church where my wife and I went for childbirth classes after first moving here in 1978 has been a Buddhist temple for some years now. Same with another Lutheran church we joined soon after, the church where our daughter was baptized: Buddhist temple. The original buidling of our home church (the congregation quickly outgrew the building and sold it) has been a porn shop for the past couple of decades. Ouch!

Truth be told, if 90%, or even 60% of Portlanders awoke some Sunday and went to church, the buildings could not begin to hold all of us. Not even close. But doing church and being church ain't about buildings. Never was. So that can't be the measure. Church is about the people. People gather, and people scatter. Then they gather again. Different groups of people are different sizes. They can gather in all kinds of spaces. The groups can be like tent campers that occupy a space only briefly. Or they can be like heavy industry that digs into property for the long haul. Question is, what's the mission?

Marva Dawn and Richard Lischer call the church an "alternative contrast society." Alternative to what? A contrast how? Those aren't rhetorical questions but embarkation points of a life-changing journey. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is nothing if not a vision of God's alternative contrast society. Most people who heard that straight from Jesus said it was the best news they'd ever heard. If that's so, the question is not whether there are too many churches, too few or just right. Question is whether there is enough kingdom of God. Can't ever be enough good news. Can't ever be enough of the best news. Right?

Kingdom of God... Waddizzat?!?!?!?

Next time: KOG, the alternative contrast society

Pastor Roger

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Starting a Church?

Hello Portland!

"So, are we starting a church, or what?" Starting a church... Would you mind if we did? Would you care? Would anyone? Why would we want to?
Lots of questions to think about. We can go back to the Great Commission of Matt. 28:19, and it conjures up all kinds of images. It could be the Fuller Brush man who during my childhood came around to every farm home in the community about every two months, selling (of course!) brushes and home cleaning products. His counterpart, the long-gone Watkins salesman, surely saved my life countless times. Without that yellow can of Watkins salve and Mom's home-made bandages torn from old long underwear, I don't know how I'd have recovered from all my childhood burns, cuts and puncture wounds.

But does the Great Commission make door-to-door salesmen/women of us? Maybe, maybe not. How about neighbors who help neighbors? How about supporting families in transition times of birth and death, graduation and marriage, illness and unemployment, war and peace, loss of a home or warming a new one? Is there a place to either be the Samaritan who stops on the road or be the one receiving the aid that the Samaritan offers? We think so, both in lean times and in times of plenty, in old neighborhoods and new ones.

The can of Watkins salve seems more like an appropriate metaphor for the Great Commission than the pomp, circumstance and costly materials of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. At least it does to us. We think there are still wounds in the world and still a need for healing. We think the Great Commission calls for uncommon love. We think it calls for common folk, common ground and uncommon love. We think it calls for Koine Community.

Next time: Enough churches already?


Pastor Roger

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11 Special


It's an anniversary day. Six years ago I parked my motorcycle at Troutdale Airport preparing to begin a routine work day. A man from another company at the airport whom I'd never met approached from his car in the next parking lot. "Have you had the TV on this morning?" he asked. "No," I replied. "I always read the paper." "Might want to do that," he advised. "World Trade Center's been attacked. We're at war."

Inside, a couple of early arrivals had the radio on. Both towers in flames. The first one collapsed. A few minutes later, the second. What did this mean? Work started at 7:30 AM, PDT. Workers slowly went about their tasks. About 9 AM as I walked through the shop I noticed it. They all looked "dazed and confused." It only took me a few minutes to decide and I immediately cleared it with the General Manager. I went around to each employee. "At 10 o'clock break I'll have a prayer time in my office. Everyone is welcome." I didn't know if anybody would show up. Turns out the whole company did, even front office staff. Phones weren't ringing much anyway. We met for prayer and sharing of concerns for the next seven work days. It was the right thing to do.

But how to feel about all of it? Confused and conflicted seemed to be pretty standard. Over the next weeks and months "Proud To Be An American" signs and bumper stickers sprouted everywhere. The phrase never quite did it for me. If "pride goeth before a fall", should pride be what I felt? If pride wasn't it, what did I feel, what should I feel? It took six months to sort it out, but it was something deeper than pride. As a veteran and loyal citizen I felt something way deeper than pride.

Deeper Than Pride
More than mountains, oceans, rivers, the rain.
More than cities and highways, quiet plains.
More than the red, the white, the blue that is dyed
onto the banner that waves like the grain...
More than anthems played by marching bands,
or star spangled chords of memorial choirs
More than the skirl of the lone piper's drone
More than I feel when the flowers are dried--
those tears yet unshed for all who have died
Far more than we could ever ask of each other
yet what we unexpectedly do every day,
It's a feeling way deeper than pride.
America, good land of brave and the free
Conceived an ideal for the world--our Miss Liberty
bearing her torch night and day just off the Manhattan shore
Welcoming peoples and tongues, hopes, dreams and more,
families praying their children will know nevermore
the fears they have sought to finally flee.
It's more than we attain, achieve, or even claim to be,
ideal far higher than we dare strive!
It is a feeling way deeper than pride.
Freedom is won solely by laying it down, setting it free
by citizens, soldiers, teachers, parents-to-be,
Rescuers giving freely on our behalf the ultimate prize
of life...
God bless these things in us, O set them joyously free!
Rebuild in us compassion, a lust for justice, hunger for liberty,
Rebuild, rebuild!
Rebuild! Yes, rebuild, rebuild, rebuild!
"Rebuild and rebuild and rebuild," I cried,
rebuild in us that feeling
of a nation way deeper than pride!"
Have a blessed day of rebuilding,
Pastor Roger

Monday, September 10, 2007

Uncommon Love, Rplaceable Dollars

Hello Portland!

Uncommon love is not an either-or deal. Last night, as I have done for the past 19 Sunday nights, I again preached and led worship at Operation Nightwatch, a ministry to homeless, street people and folks carrying significant limitations in downtown Portland. They are a cross-section of humanity we often do not see or choose not to see. But if the gospel is not good news for all of us, it's not good news for any of us. Through their eyes I have begun learning just how good and how important that news is.

Shared the word from a tough passage from Luke 14:25-34. What?!?!?! I have to hate my family in order to love and follow Jesus? That's what the words on the page say. Shows us the importance of considering not just the flower but the whole garden in order to get a more accurate picture. It's like a pyramid. Try standing it up on its point. It falls over instantly. But put it on its base and it's as stable as can be. With the point in the right place, everything else is too. Uncommon love is like that. Stable. In the right place.

A friend and former co-worker, John Towns, was always a prime example to me of having the pyramid right-side-up. His love of God, family and neighbor were inseparable and manifest in everything he did. Grew up in a poor household in Alabama where his father worked and his mother took in laundry and sewing to help make ends meet. In one childhood photo John is standing next to an African-American woman. "That's my Mammie who raised me," John said, his voice clearly filled with love and admiration decades later for this woman who was a part of his family in one of the most segregated places in the USA. If John's family was poor, we can only guess how poor Mammie's family was. But there was love. Uncommon love.

John went off to war. Twice. A son served in Vietnam, a grandson in Iraq. And John served faithfully by his beloved wife's side as the war of Alzheimer's disease took her mind and their relationship away. John's love never faded, only grew. Daily he was there in her care facility talking to her, nursing her, loving her. And when at last her breathless body was laid to rest in Willamette National Cemetery, John continued. He'd place his little wooden stool on the steep hillside next to her grave carrying on the conversation as he tended to each blade of grass or memorial bouquet as lovingly as he had tended to her. He'd read the Bible to her. Uncommon love is not an either-or deal. The uncommon love of Christ enabled him to love Christ back and to love his family in the same way, the right way: uncommonly. Amazing how stable the pyramid is when it's right-side-up.


Replaceable dollars. We have the best dentist in the world, I think. His staff are equally outstanding. On a recent visit, Dr. T and my wife were talking about the cost of health care. Yes, he feels it too in trying to provide benefits for his staff. My wife remarked how much could be done if we were spending the dollars currently going to Iraq (dollars we don't really have since we are doing this war on our children's and grandchildren's credit cards) in a different way. The young hygienist, J, commented three times during the conversation, "Yes, but the dollars are replaceable." Kind of a roundabout way of saying, "The lives being lost in Iraq aren't replaceable, and that's what we should focus on." True enough. True enough.

But are the dollars really replaceable? And do the human needs currently going unmet simply vanish into thin air, as though these needs were never real in the first place? What future golden age do we think our current war dollars are buying us? And what human needs in the future will go unmet because future dollars are making interest payments on money we borrowed today or last year? How and where and at what level of society we spend the dollars and meet human need should always be open for discussion and improvement to do it the best way possible. But there is absolutely no such thing as saving money by not meeting human need. That's the most wasteful spending we are capable of. And we do it regularly. Where is the right-side-upness of this pyramid? And what's uncommon love got to do with it? Anything? Think about it...

Next time: So are we trying to start a church, or what?

Blessings and uncommon love be with you!

Pastor Roger

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Uncommon love 2.

Hello, Portland!

Love. Love as I lay there on the cot bleeding. I bled a whole pint before we stopped it. It was intentional and done at the Red Cross Donor Center in N. Portland. Kinda like God's uncommon love, but we'll get back to that.

A few years ago Andy Rooney was a hot item on CBS' "60 Minutes". His weekly sarcastic commentary was sometimes ironic, sometimes humorous. Often it was caustic and designed to provoke a reaction something like, "It's their fault. I knew it, I just knew it!" One week he was having a fit about tolerance. Rooney read off a whole litany of behaviors he found objectionable but felt he was being expected to tolerate by an army of tolerance do-gooders. Some sympathetic soul obtained the transcript of the broadcast. In the form of forwarded e-mails, Rooney's tirade circumnavigated cyberworld three times a second for the next couple of years. Dennis, an aviation industry colleague and outspoken Christian, forwarded it to me one day at work.

The bad taste in my mouth developed instantly. I wrote back that I understood that Jesus had instructed us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to not stand in judgment so as not to suffer the same. Conversely, Jesus had not instructed us to "tolerate" a bloody thing. I asked Dennis not to send me any more e-mails that weren't directly work-related. Never understood how he had the time for that at work anyway.

I guess that was the day that I finally began to seriously consider the meaning and application of Jesus' words. What does it mean to love? What does it mean to not stand in judgment? Not quite as simple as the oft-quoted bromide "hate the sin, love the sinner". Too easily words like Rooney's run away with us. Far too easy to enumerate other people's sins so emotionally that we end up hating after all, feeling justified and Divinely sanctioned as we do so. It is possible to hate an entire class or race of people without ever actually knowing a single one of them. And always it seems, the sins we hate (while claiming to love their owners) are, in the words of that insightful Episcopal priest and professor, Barbara Brown Taylor, "behaviors that are conveniently not our own." Yeah, how convenient! This is precisely the death trap Jesus warned against and offered a way out of. The way out is uncommon love.

Pondering Ronney's words and how they were being used like spears blindly thrown, I reflected on some painful and very diffcult family history. Parenting has never been an easy job, but I think it has gotten much harder. So many more forces at work today shaping and clawing at our children's minds and values and lives. As Mary Pipher observes, parents used to work to prepare their children to enter the culture. Now the job seems to be protecting children from it. That task can be positively overwhelming.

When those challenges broke into our family, my wife and I chose to stand and fight as best we could. Not for the sake of fighting, mind you, but for the sake of doing what was right. It wasn't pretty. Matter of fact, it was often pretty ugly. Love didn't have any of the warm fuzzies of a romantic comedy. At times it felt more like cutting off a hand. But love compelled us to do the
loving thing. That meant not accepting the unacceptable. It meant not tolerating the intolerable. It meant, as best we could, not continually re-defining right and wrong until the words became meaningless. Love did not allow us to simply say, "Oh, well!" Love didn't allow us to quit. Love required us to keep going even when we could not see the end, which was most of the time. It was love we could only learn through OJT.

Tolerance can be quite passive. Love requires action. Tolerance can be a noun. Love, as a noun, is meaningless unless it has first become a verb. Love has to be done, or it can never be felt. And love has to be given away in order to be had. That's the only way it has life. It's not always about warm fuzzies, romantic infatuatation. In fact, it rarely is, if ever. As often as 1 Corinthians 13 is used at wedding ceremonies, I wonder how often it is read and understood appropriately.

Uncommon love. That's what Jesus had in mind because he was talking about the love of the Father as well as the only effective kind of love in this world. Perhaps that's what Jesus had in mind when he told his followers they were the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). Salt is useful and necessary but only if it tastes like something (Luke 14:34): salt. Not sugar, not artifical flavoring. Likewise, not vinegar or battery acid. Salt. Salt can only do its job when used properly, when put into or onto something, not when it is accumulated and stored.

At the Red Cross I was giving away the very stuff of life flowing in my veins. It only hurt a little and only for a little while. Who would receive it? I had no idea, but my blood could only give and sustain life if I gave it away. My body could then make more. I thanked God for the privilege and prayed for the recipient. I asked that they be given a measure of uncommon love.

Next time: Replaceable dollars.


Pastor Roger