Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A couple of book reviews about books about hell

Our local denominational pastor cluster decided to read a book and discuss it together. Somebody suggested reading Love Wins, Rob Bell's recent book about hell and eternity. Somebody else suggested we read Francis Chan's Erasing Hell, which was written as a response to Bell, too; the idea being it would be interesting to get both points of view before having the discussion. And so we did.

Quickly. . .

Rob Bell asks good questions. He asks the questions many Christians are afraid to ask. He challenges long-held beliefs, but in a gentle, winsome, inviting way. He invites people into the discussion in a friendly, folksy way. And he makes you think.

He also tends to shy away from direct answers, which leaves some people feeling irritated. Bell pushes the conversation in certain directions that lead to certain conclusions, but he never flat out says "here's the answer." He leaves it up to the reader to decide.

Still, he challenges the traditional understanding of hell and eternity, making the case that it is both untenable and unbiblical, the idea that the God we worship would torture people in hell for all of eternity simply because they never found Christ in the short time they had on earth. And yes, he does deal with the biblical texts, this isn't just Bell opining on his personal opinions. If you want to listen and stretch, you might find yourself agreeing with much of what he says.

Then again, there's this.

Francis Chan supports a much more traditional understanding of hell. While not agreeing with Dante's vision of flaming dungeons and devils with pitchforks, Chan peruses scripture and sees truth in the common doctrine of hell as eternal, conscious punishment for those who don't receive Christ in this lifetime. He responds to Bell and other non-traditionalists, dismantling their arguments against hell. And he makes it quite personal, as he wrestles with his own seeming lack of passion to share Christ while believing so many are destined for eternal torment.

So here's my take: Reading Bell is fascinating and interesting, in that it requires some thinking to understand where he's heading; it's new territory, which at least keeps things intriguing. And, unless one simply reads Love Wins in order to attack Bell, it does force the reader to rethink their own beliefs on both the scriptural texts and the nature of the God we worship. On the other hand, Bell doesn't deal so well with the larger corpus of theological understandings of hell. He makes it clear that nobody could ever talk of God's glory and hell in the same sentence, when, in fact, our Reformed brothers and sisters do that very thing. A fact which Bell seems to ignore or forget.

On the other hand, reading Chan is like retaking a class in Bible College 101. He simply rehashes the common understandings of the texts and seems incredulous that anybody might interpret them differently. For a subject so important, the book reads like "Hell for Dummies," a quick overview that never really wrestles with possible alternate understandings or readings.

I realized while reading these books that it became a nice example of my last book review, Clark Pinnock's The Scripture Principle. Because in the end, while it appears these two are arguing scripture, it's really a hermeneutical argument. Bell is beginning big picture, trying to understand God and then read scripture in light of who God is. Chan is beginning in the minutia of individual verses and working outward to try to understand what God must be like. Both views have some validity; without saying I agree with the outcome, I will say I appreciated Bell's approach more.

In the end, there are better books on the subject, although these two might be the most accessible. If you've never given much thought to the theology of hell, and would like a quick introduction, these books would be a good place to start. If you really want to be challenged to think through the subject, there are many books that are much more comprehensive.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An initial thought on a violent week

You're right, it's not guns. And it's not violence in our movies and television shows. And it's not violent video games and violent music. And it's not the breakup of the family. And it's not a particular mental condition. And it's not about the death of religion in America. And it's not about the inherent alienation so prevalent in teen culture. And it's not the way electronics have supplanted real relationships. And it's not the urbanization of society. And it's not all the chemicals we've been pumping into the environment. And it's not the dehumanizing work of advertising. And it's not an American tendency toward retribution and violence in response to perceived insult. So let's not talk about any of those things.

Instead, it is:

guns AND violence in our movies and television shows AND violent video games AND violent music AND the breakup of the family AND our inability to deal with mental illnesses AND the disappearance of religion in America AND the inherent alienation so prevalent in teen culture AND the way electronics have supplanted real relationships AND the urbanization of society AND all the chemicals we've been pumping into the environment AND the dehumanizing work of advertising AND the American tendency toward violence in response to perceived insult.

So let's talk about ALL of those things together, because they are all part of the problem, and they all need to be addressed if we want to find a solution.

(feel free to add your own items to the list, if you think it's helpful).

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Book Review: The Scripture Principle

Over the years, I've come to recognize that most disputes about theology, doctrine, and practice stem not from misunderstanding the Bible itself. So often when we debate and discuss doctrinal issues we spend our time pitting verse against verse, or debating original intent, or attempting to work through translation issues.

In reality, as I've come to realize, it's not the Bible that's the problem, and it's not even our understanding (or lack thereof) of the biblical text. Disagreement comes at a much more fundamental level - how we read the text in the first place.

It's a question of hermeneutic - how do we approach scripture? What assumptions do we bring? Through what lenses are we reading the texts? I find that, more and more, when I debate theology or practice I first have to have a discussion along the lines of "but how do you approach the text in the first place?" Otherwise we spend all our time throwing verses at each other, when in reality we're not even understanding those verses the same way.

In The Scripture Principle, Clark Pinnock attempts to lay out a coherent hermeneutic, a healthy, appropriate way of understanding and reading the biblical texts. And I found it extremely helpful.

For too long, the debate has been between fundamentalists and liberals, inerrantists and critics. For the last 100 years, these two camps have attempted to claim the high ground in reading and understanding the biblical texts. The liberal, critic-minded approach has been to claim human reason, insight, logic, and intelligence over the scripture. The Bible is a human collection of fables and legends, worth reading and studying if only to get a better understanding of the human experience, but anything divine or supernatural is automatically thrown out. The conservative, inerrantist approach has been to claim a complete Divine authorship, as if God penned the Bible as the One Perfect expression of all Truth. Any mention of supposed contradiction, any possibility of error, any challenge to historicity or scientific explanation is tantamount to heresy and proof of evil intent.

The problem, according to Pinnock, is that both approach the Bible from the same position - both become academic discussions and debates about the text, both attempt to push the Bible into human constructs, both seek to control the Bible. In neither case is the Bible given the authority it both claims and deserves for itself. "The Bible is not so interested in our academically proving as in our holistically seeing the truth, in our believing the gospel and actually obeying God."

In The Scripture Principle, Pinnock challenges both sides of the discussion, attempting to find a healthy middle ground. Ultimately, says Pinnock, the only proper response to the Bible is to submit to it, as it stands as God's revelation over us.

Two issues stood out as key for me in reading this book. First, Pinnock frames the Scripture Principle in terms of the Incarnation. Jesus was fully God present on earth. Jesus is the way to the Father. Jesus is the One in whom salvation is found. Jesus was divinity incarnate, able to lead the way to glory. Jesus revealed God's plan, Jesus spoke truth to all who would listen, Jesus performed miracles and so laid claim to the full authority of God. At the same time, Jesus was fully human. Jesus got tired. When he was cut, Jesus bled. Jesus could become irritated. Jesus had human skin that would scar when damaged. Jesus used all manner of stories and teaching methods. Jesus told fables. Jesus was very much "of the earth." God could have come in all Divine Glory and smacked us a good one. Instead, God chose to come in frail human form. We don't have to like it or even make sense of it, but it's what God did, so we can only accept it.

So, too, should we see scripture, according to Pinnock. Held within its pages is truth, is the revelation of God's plan; held within is the power to lead seekers to salvation, the power to give sight to the blind. The Bible speaks truth to all who will listen, the Bible claims the authority of God. And yet, the Bible was penned by humans. Humans who wrote out of anger, and love, and despair, and doubt, and joy. The Bible uses all manner of methods including stories and fables and arguments; the Bible is full of 'untruths' (think of Job's friends). The Bible reveals a progressive awareness of God's work, leading from the dim awareness of Abraham up through the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus. The Bible was written by specific men and women in specific cultures in specific locations at specific times in history. The Bible is full of seeming contradictions (the warlike OT God vs. the peace-making of Jesus; Paul commanding women to be silent, and then explaining how they should present themselves when speaking in public). This is the Bible we have. We don't have to like it, and we probably spend too much time trying to make sense of it, but it's how God has given it to us, so we can only accept it.

Secondly, Pinnock is clear about the role of the Spirit in wrestling with the text. Our understanding of the text is borne out of the wrestling between the Inspired Word and our human attempt at reading it. The Biblical world and our own worlds collide, and in that place, the Spirit continues to bring life and meaning. Sometimes that meaning is the same as the original writing; sometimes the Spirit brings new meaning to light. This is seen in the NT writings, as the authors mined the OT texts and found much there that was new in the light of Christ. It was true when Martin Luther, wrestling with Paul's teachings in Romans, suddenly understand the doctrine of grace in a new and clearer light. It may even be true of us today as we find teachings that apply to 21st century society that were unknown to men and women in the 1st century. But all of this comes, according to Pinnock, under two conditions. It comes when readers submit themselves to the texts, giving the texts the place of authority that we too often claim for ourselves, and it comes when the Spirit is alive and active in the reader. Thus, Pinnock would argue, we would never expect non-Christian critics to grasp the greater truths found within the pages of Scripture, as these are only truly revealed by the Spirit to Christ's followers.

Ultimately, Pinnock is clear that none of this discussion is worthwhile if it allows us to keep scripture at a distance. "God speaks through the Bible, not to make us scholars and scientists, but to put us in a right relationship with God and to give us such a religious understanding of the world and history that we can grasp everything better."

Both the liberal and conservative will find themselves challenged in the pages of The Scripture Principle; both, I believe, would be drawn to a healthier respect for each other, and for the Bible itself, if they wrestled with Pinnock's suggestions. It's actually a fairly healthy representation of the Evangelical Covenant Church's position on scripture; we claim the Bible as the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct, while not trying to pigeon-hole it into a specific doctrine of inerrancy or inspiration.

I should say this - The Scripture Principle is not an easy read; this is seminary-level stuff, but it certainly is worth the time and effort put into it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Every month I get together with a group of pastors for lunch. It's a denominational thing - these are men and women who pastor Covenant Churches in the South Puget Sound area.

It's a good group of men and women. We gather around the table and share a meal, we listen to and pray for each other. We share the struggles and the joys of our lives, professional and personal. We laugh and sometimes we cry.

I see many of these same men and women at other denominational activities, and I'm always happy when I do, because I consider them friends. I have shared much of my life with these people, and they have cared for me. Many of them have shared the deep places of their journey, and allowed me to care for them. It is a true collegial relationship, based on love, respect, mutual care, and a healthy sense of our primary mission - to serve Christ's church.

Every month I get together with a different group of pastors for lunch. It's a smaller group - only about 5 of us, usually. It's the pastors who serve churches in our local community, the Key Peninsula (and we let one Gig Harbor guy in since he's a nice guy). We gather around the table and share a meal, we listen to and pray for each other. We share the struggles and joys of our lives, professional and personal. We laugh and sometimes we cry.

I see these men around town on occasion, at community events or at the grocery store, and I'm always happy when I do, because I consider them my friends. I have shared much of my life with these people, and they have cared for me.

Earlier this week, this local group of pastors headed overseas (well, across the channel) to Anderson Island and spent about 48 hours praying and playing, reading and thinking, laughing and eating, walking and staring out the window at the beauty of Puget Sound in the fall. We shared our favorite Psalms, we prayed for ourselves, our churches, our community. We each prepared a meal for the group. We worshiped and we told lame jokes. We played silly games and we talked about intricate theological disputes. We ended around the Lord's Table, one group of Jesus followers united in our purpose and position.

I realize I am blessed, and I am fortunate. In too many places (I've been in some of them) churches and their pastors are territorial and competitive, angry and bitter, judgmental and argumentative. Too many pastor refuse to fellowship with other pastors who don't hold to their particular understanding of inerrancy. Too many pastors spend their time building their own little kingdoms. One pastor told me recently that she would never dare share her personal struggles with her cluster group; if she did, the gossip and politicking would be relentless, destroying her work and calling in that community.

It is, then, such a beautiful thing to gather with fellow men and women who serve the gospel, and to experience true humility, true love for Christ and his church, true commitment to the mission above petty disputes, true hunger to share in the work of ministry together, true willingness to be open and honest, to ask for help, to share struggles, to admit temptation and defeat.

It's as if the Kingdom of God has come to earth, and as Jesus prayed, his followers are of one mind and heart. I get to live it out in the here and now, and for that, I am grateful.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A couple of book reviews about books about church leadership

Over the last few weeks I've finished two different books related to church leadership.

The first was Simple Church, which we read as a group project for the Lakebay Church board.

Based on an extensive research project, Simple Church argues that churches are weighted down by complexity, busy-ness, and too many ministries and programs; at the same time, they lack clear vision, focus, and direction. The most important task of the church - building disciples - is lost in the chaos of events and programs and structure.

Simple Church calls churches to refocus, to reclaim their vision, to find their one true calling, and to reorganize around that task. Beyond simply sharing the facts deduced from their research (which are impressive and comprehensive enough to prove their point), the authors describe how to begin to reclaim a simplicity of style and structure, in order that churches would become more effective at living out the gospel.

There were parts of the book I found aggravating - too much statistical information interrupting the flow, attempts at light-heartedness that seemed forced, illustrations that didn't exactly track with the central point - but the overall premise is worth reading and understanding. Rainer and Geiger make clear that Simple Church isn't a program to adopt, but a philosophy to guide and direct whatever program a church decided to pursue.

It is also an easy read, not requiring a college degree to understand, and sincerely lacking in seminary-level words, which the Lakebay board very much appreciated.

The other book, which I mostly read while relaxing in my hammock during the last sunny days of Fall, was How Your Church Family Works by Peter Steinke.

HYCFW is a slightly older book (first published in '93), but I found it one of the most useful ministry-related books I've read. Steinke takes Family Systems Theory and applies it to church. His premise is that we too often fail to see the forest for the trees - when looking at churches, we look at individuals and how they behave, but we forget to look at the whole, at the overarching system. But Family Systems Theory tells us we are all interconnected, and the organism is much more than the sum of its part, for better or for worse.

Specifically, Steinke writes about the process anxiety plays in the system - the things that make us anxious, and how that anxiety plays out across the group. Because, quite often systems will behave in predictable, if somewhat unexpected ways. Or to put that another way, people respond in systems differently than you would expect them to as individuals. Sometimes the nicest, kindest, gentlest folks react in surprising ways when the system is infected with anxiety.

This book is filled with theory and research, but also with case studies and stories to flesh out the concepts. It deals with the direct conflict that often happens between people in systems, but also spends considerable time working through the triangles we create to ease our anxiety. Finally, it gives helpful ideas and tools that can be implemented to manage anxiety, whether we seek to ease it or use it to spur healthy decision-making.

HYCFW is both diagnostic and prescriptive; it gives language to the issues that happen all around us; it also gives us tools to move ahead into health and vitality. It isn't a program or study for the whole church to digest and implement, but it does give healthy language to understand the reality that is all around us, helping leaders name the issues that they face, and decide how to move ahead even in the midst of those issues.

Over the years I've read a number of books on church leadership; this one ranks up there with the most important of them. Many times I've found myself in confusing situations, wherein people were reacting in odd and unexpected ways. Steinke's work on anxiety and the different ways it pushes people has been very helpful. More importantly, it helps me understand better my own tendencies within systems - how I respond to anxiety, how my fears and doubts and natural patterns sometimes aren't the healthiest response.

As a side note . . . a friend of mine had loaned me his copy of HYCFW, and after I returned it I decided I needed my own. So it was sitting in my Amazon shopping cart, when, much to my joy and surprise, I was given a copy at last week's Navigate Conference in Minnesota. So thank you, Covenant Church, for also recognizing the importance of this book, and for passing it along to us pastors.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Trying something out

This is my first attempt at making a .gif.

And here's my second. With apologies to those with pacifist tendencies.

Monday, September 24, 2012


This was briefly touched on over on the facebooks, but to bring everybody else into the story. . .

One of my greatest joys over the last few years was playing in the Signature Brass Quintet, of which I am one of two original members. We've played some wonderful music, some fun venues, and I was enjoying the chance to hang out with the guys on a regular basis. It was a nice break from the normal routine of life in ministry, and it gave voice to a part of my that had disappeared after college. All in all, it was, and was still becoming, an important piece of my life.

Not any more.

Last week I got a phone call from one of the other players. Essentially, his message was:

a) we think this group can be great
b)but not with you, so
c) you're out, and we're looking for a new trumpet player.

I give Manny credit - he did his best to break the news with grace and dignity, but let's be honest - there's no way to say "we're all better than you so you're out" without it stinging just a bit.

I'm not naturally an angry person. But I admit it. This one hurt quite a bit.

And not just because they took away something so important to me, and not just because it was all a bit unfair, the way they all made this decision without even consulting me.

It's more because the musicality isn't the issue. That's the smokescreen that covers a much deeper problem. Namely, that one of the other players (who shall remain nameless) is a ninny.

Yep, I just said that. A ninny.

It really came down to this: that particular player pulled a stunt that was unethical and unfair, and then criticized the rest of us when we didn't respond like he thought we should. So I pointed out his unethical behavior. At which point he threw a hissy fit and emotionally blackmailed the other guys into kicking me out.

It's all so junior-high-playgroundesque.

So there's the grief piece, in losing something that was a huge part of my life, an activity that brought me great joy and satisfaction. And then there's the outrage piece, at the injustice of it all, of essentially being bullied by a grown man unable to deal with his own issues.*

Like I said, I'm not naturally an angry person. But it's been an angry week for me. It doesn't help that pastors aren't really supposed to get angry, and that we're all expected to be examples of peace and forgiveness. That we're not supposed to maintain vengeful thoughts in the deep recesses of our brains. But there they are. Yes, I know forgiveness will come with time, and no, I'm not going to act on those vengeful thoughts. But if it helps you to know that pastors sometimes get angry and dream about punching other people in the face, there you go.

That's my story.

But last week I also sat with a friend who told me they had just signed the papers to officially end their marriage, and it was freeing but it was also the most painful day of their life. And then I sat with another friend whose marriage has gone frigid and dark and is probably over. And then another friend erupted in a message to me, sharing the pain of all the ways Christians have betrayed and hurt them over the decades. And I'm hurting for our church, as we've lost six more families over the last few weeks.

And this morning I learned that Heidi slipped away into eternity in the night, and I can only imagine Joe's grief. They fought for so long, and even a week ago thought they might defeat this ugly thing called cancer, but then it hit with a vengeance and there was nothing to be done. We rejoice, knowing that Heidi is now in the arms of God, that her life was redeemed long ago by Jesus, and that at the resurrection she and Joe will see each other once again. But today, it seems, is a day of grief.

I asked Karina this morning, "when does all this pain stop?" and she replied (much too quickly, I think) "it never does." And that's the truth. There are many wonderful, glorious, delightful moments in life. But the pain is always there, just the same.

Which is why I'm thankful to know and be known by a God who promises justice for wrongs done, who promises healing for broken hearts, who promises love to those cast aside, who promises resurrection from the power of death. The knowledge that all is well, and that all manner of things shall be well, is life-giving power, and not just a pithy proverb. The promise that all shall be brought under his rule, a rule marked by love, justice, and righteousness, is just the news we need to hang onto. We can grieve our losses, we can speak out the wounds we receive, and we can lay it all in the hands of One who has known injustice and loss. And there, we can rest.

Not that I'm there yet, mind you. I still feel like punching that guy in the teeth. But God's working on me there.

But this has been running around in my head today, especially once we got the news about Heidi. Listen prayerfully, and let God speak to you through it.

*One of my patented maxims is "The number one thing that gets me into trouble is expecting adults to behave like adults." Feel free to quote me on that one.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Turn down the volume - I'm getting feedback

Long ago, on a warm summer morning, I was in the midst of preparing for our Sunday worship gathering. This was fairly early into my time at this particular church, so I was still getting to know everybody and coming to understand the particular culture of the church.

A few minutes before the service began, I was cornered by one of the church matriarchs. This is what she told me: "Every Sunday I get up and pray that God won't let you destroy my worship by playing those bongo drums. They're horrible, and they distract us all from worship. You need to stop."

The back story: a month or two prior, we'd been working on a new song, but the rhythm wouldn't gel. The church didn't have a drummer, so it was difficult to lay down a rhythm and get everybody to feel it. To solve the problem, I went down to the local music store and bought a small pair of bongo drums, and used them to help the worship team finally get the beat of this song. And just about everybody seemed to like it.

Except this one particular person. And she didn't just 'not like' those bongos, she detested them and everything they stood for. (as a side note, here's a helpful suggestion: don't criticize people 10 minutes before the worship service starts. That's a guaranteed way to ruin the day for everybody). Later that afternoon I was telling this story to a friend, and in one of my few truly prophetic insights, said "I think she's going to try to get me fired." (She did try. She didn't succeed, but she made my life miserable.)

It's well established that any time you put yourself in the public eye, you invite feedback. Pastors, authors, musicians, celebrities all know - the moment you take on a public persona, you open the door for people to decide they don't like you, and to decide they need to let you know how much they don't like you.

Throw in the fact that pastors deal with such intensely personal issues - religion, belief, soul-work, music preferences, family histories ("we've always sat in that pew!") and it quickly becomes obvious: criticism and flack just go with the territory.

I mean, Jesus had his critics and detractors, right? So why should it be any different for those who attempt/claim to speak for Jesus?

Many of you know I write a bi-monthly column in our local monthly paper. Which puts me even more into the public arena. And I get a lot of positive feedback. I meet people around town who say "Do you write those columns? I really like them!" I've had some wonderful conversations with people who were taken by an article and wanted to talk about it further. Writing that column has been a blessing and a positive experience.

But. . .the first ever article I wrote for the KP News resulted in at least one irate phone call the morning after it was published. I wrote another article calling for civility in political discussion; one woman misunderstood my point and emailed the paper a missive declaring her anger at the way I slandered our president (I hadn't; I was quoting somebody else who had). A recent article musing on the lack of ethnic diversity in our community led to two response letters taking me to task (although, to be honest, one was from a friend of mine who was just having some fun with me).

But now I think we've reached the pinnacle. My article in the August edition has resulted in an angry, dismissive letter to the editor, declaring me a heretic, a neo-gnostic, and unfit for the pulpit in any Christian church. Apparently I'm out of step with orthodox Christianity, and guilty of challenging every doctrine from salvation to sin to creation. And the author of said letter wants the world to know about it.

It's always fun to see your name in print in that context.

I've had quite a few friends jump to my defense via facebook, but truthfully, I'm okay with it. For one, I think feedback is good for both me and the newspaper - it proves people are paying attention, and it probably drives more people to read more closely. Controversy sells, right?

For another, I'm following that classic advice, "consider the source." This particular gentleman wrote a different letter to the editor two years ago after Lakebay Community Church hosted a seminar discussing how Christians ought to relate to Muslims. Since our guest speaker wouldn't say the magic words, "all Muslims are going to hell for all of eternity because they are evil," we were denounced as teaching a false gospel of tolerance, of watering down the Bible, of being false teachers, and, if I remember correctly, I was labelled as unfit for pastoral ministry.

He's done it to many of my friends out here, he's done it to other churches, so I can't take it personally.

Years ago, I heard Jack Hayford give some advice that's always stuck with me. He said, "If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one who barks the loudest is probably the one you hit." If I speak of the grace of God showing up in unexpected ways, and somebody reacts so negatively to that, I can only feel sadness for all the ways they must miss out on experiencing the love of God.

But this isn't so much about this gentleman; if I were to judge him here, I'd be doing the same thing he did. This is really more about responding to criticism. Maybe I'm getting wiser, or maybe I'm becoming more jaded, but it just doesn't bother me all that much any more. Sometimes I listen to the criticism, wondering if maybe there is some truth in there, if there's a lesson to be learned for the next time around. But mostly I realize that there is only One whose feedback is necessary; at the end of it all, I stand before God and answer only to him. At times he's let me know when I've crossed a line, when I've been in the wrong. At other times, I've felt God's affirmation that I'm okay, even if people don't like my bongo playing, or my political opinion, or my distaste for bikini espresso stands. I try each day to please my God, and stand in his grace when I fail.

Still, should there be anybody here still confused about this most recent article and the response, let me state once and for all:

I believe salvation is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and nowhere else.

And I also believe God doesn't really mind the bongos.

And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Our most recent camping trip, in question format

We spent this last week camping in Eastern Washington at Sun Lakes/Dry Falls State Park. Temps between 60-90, lots of sun, a lake in which to swim and fish, mini-golf, spectacular geology, a snack stand with delicious ice cream shakes, lots of wildlife, and it was the perfect week. But a few questions remain. . .

- why is there always somebody in the campground who labors under the false impression that everybody else wants to listen to their choice in music?

- as a subset to the previous, why is their choice in music always either country or metal? Why is there never a camper blasting jazz or classical? Maybe that ought to be my new thing.

- why is boaters+camping always a recipe for obnoxious, drunken, loutish behavior?

- why do quail run more than fly? Don't they know how silly they look?

- why does the Air Force decide to run late-night low-level flight training directly over campgrounds full of tired campers?

-  why is the Washington State Parks system in such financial trouble? If anything should be funded, it's the parks that give us all such joy and recreation.

- why is it that a week of rest and relaxation can be destroyed by 15 minutes of rush hour traffic on I-5 through Federal Way?

- why don't park rangers get more recognition? Ranger Dennis was very kind and helpful to us after our children drained the battery on the Kia the last night there. (he was also very professional in dealing with the attempted rape by an axe-wielding, murderous-threat-spewing drunkard down the way our first night there (no - we weren't involved. Just hear all the screaming and shouting)).

- why do kids grow up so fast? And why do the good times pass so quickly? Between standing on the dock teaching the girls to cast their lines, jumping from the diving block into the deep, cool water, making s'mores over the evening campfire, and watching Clara spend an hour tracing the path of a beetle through the campsite, these were the good times.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Check this out

I've recently had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with an old friend - Liz was in the first youth group I ever youth pastored. Her dad was our associate pastor, so in a way was my boss. Then they left for Amarillo and I eventually left for Oregon and, since Facebook didn't exist yet, we lost touch. But a couple months ago we did reconnect on Facebook. Turns out she's all grown up now, married, with kids. And it also turns out she's a wonderful writer, a deep thinker, and a prolific blogger. You should go check out her blog. She says some good things. Tell her I said 'hi.'


Our good friend Tweed Meyer is a wonderful artist. She has an amazing ability to catch the energy and vibrancy of life around her; her paintings are a celebration of light and color. Yet upon inspection, what appears to be random splotches of color resolve into incredible detail - to look into her paintings is a voyage of discovery as all the little pieces slowly reveal a full picture of the captured moment. I have one of her paintings on my office wall, and we have a dozen or more adorning the walls of our home (most on loan). She finally has an online presence, so let me encourage you to go check her site out. Enjoy what's there, or, better yet, support local art and buy something.


I've begun watching Stargate Universe over on Netflix. It's good sci-fi fun with intrigue and romance and not a lot of aliens, although it's a little hard to see MacGyver (aka Col O'Neill) getting old and dumpy. The best part, though, has been discovering Flogging Molly, whose "The Worst Day Since Yesterday" was used as an intro and outtro on one episode. How did I not know about them?


Jesus said it plainly. “I gave you an example that you should do as I did to you.” He was looking for action, not a sermon outline.


"I’ve often marveled at how visceral these discussions can get. Older Christians can imply that if you add one praise song to the bulletin, you might as well just harvest their remaining healthy organs and send them out in the woods to die alone. Younger Christians can give you the impression that when Jesus ascended, he ordained the drum set as the primary vehicle of the Holy Spirit."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Because Ann Asked

I briefly referenced this over on my Facebook page, and my friend Ann asked me to elaborate. So I apologize for another fishing story. . .but she did ask, after all.

The day started ominously. Two signs portended disaster even before we were out the door. First, the wife turned to me and said "Now don't drown on me." (that's called a foreshadow). Second, we were out of whole bean coffee, and I had to use instant (the horror!). It was a fine espresso roast, so at least I wasn't stuck with cheap instant. But still. . .the day was off to a bad start.

In spite of the warnings, we headed off for a day of fishing on the Nisqually - Bob, Wes, and I. Early reports weren't favorable; the salmon weren't quite running yet. But it was a day of fishing, after all, and maybe we'd get lucky. Or so we thought.

Arriving at the parking area below the Union Pacific Nisqually River trestle, we found another fisherman who had the same story - the salmon weren't running yet. One or two had been seen heading up, but nothing more. Ah, well. Nothing to do but get our lines in the water and see if we can be the lucky ones. And I should mention that, this being our first trip to the Nisqually, this was as much an exploratory trip scouting the area out for the future, as much as it was an attempt to pull anything in.

So Bob and Wes pulled out their salmon rods and went to work. I decided to pull out my fly rod and go after some of the trout that most definitely were in there. We all fished off the parking area, but it was a little crowded with the three of us and one other guy parked right beneath the bridge. I headed downriver a bit, below the flood-control bulkhead, to try a promising spot.

Got out in the water - did I mention it was kind of high and fast? About waist-deep, dropped a fly in, and worked the river for 10 minutes. No luck. But I turned around and noticed a nice line along the bank behind me, that worked out into the main channel around a large snag. It looked right. So I threw the fly into that line, it floated down the bank, ran around the snag, and zing! Fish on. Between the fish and the current, it was a bit of a fight. So I began to reel in line while maintaining tension, trying to keep that fish on the hook.

Only, I took one stop downriver too many. The bottom dropped away and I found myself in up to my chest. And the current was pushing hard. So now I had a problem. The current was too strong for me to back up. To the right, the river only got deeper. To the left, it was flowing too fast. And ahead was the snag in the middle of the river. All that, and I had a fish on.

There was nothing to do but leap forward and make an attempt at a hefty branch hanging off the snag. Which is what I did; I was able to get me feet down, taking a firm grip on that branch, all while playing that fish. By this time my waders were filling with water, too. Not a good situation. And, of course, in my memory I kept hearing Karina's admonition to not drown. Everything was stacking up against me.

It took a lot of effort, but I was able to pull myself up onto that snag, and then work across a pile of logs in the rapids to the shore. At some point I realized this wasn't really an amusing situation - that fishermen drown every year, doing just this sort of thing. I was fortunate to get up on that log and extricate myself.

And all with only one hand, since the other was still playing that trout. Which I pulled in once I was safely on shore.

So I was cold and wet and tired and drained. But I knew there were fish in the river, so what to do but get back at it?  Only, this time I stayed firmly in the center of the gravel bar, and didn't get so close to the edge.

And sure enough, 15 minutes later I thought to myself, "If I was a fish I'd be sitting right past that concrete block in the middle of the river." Threw the line in, floated the fly down a ripple around said concrete block and bam! fish on.

All in all, it was a good day fishing. Caught a couple trout, didn't drown. Got to know the area better, so we'll be ready when the salmon come in. Got out of the office and hung out with good friends.

Oh, and Cabela's for lunch on the way home.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Our Day at the Fair

The Down Home Band playing at the 2012 Key Peninsula Fair. One notable item of note - that's my daughter Olivia sitting and playing to my left. This is the first time we've played a gig together.

Friday, July 06, 2012

A Brave Review

My, how the times have changed.

Back in the day, the standard animated movie plot went like this: Princess is put into mortal danger/state of suspended animation/the dungeon, is saved by the dashing, manly, heroic Prince; in the process they find love, get married, and live happily ever after.

In recent years, attempts have been made to show stronger female characters who don't necessarily find their total salvation in men (think Pocahontas, The Princess and the Frog, even The Little Mermaid), but most often, in the end, they still find themselves swooning into the secure arms of an emotionally healthy alpha male type who sweeps them away into a lifetime of bliss.

Pixar's newest release, Brave, will have none of that.

Brave tells the story of Merida, a Scottish princess who doesn't exactly want to be a Lady, marry a prince and fulfill royal tradition. Instead, she wants freedom to run through the woods, practice her archery, and let her hair down. Her unwillingness to conform leads to a series of rebellious acts that threaten the peace of the kingdom, and the lives of her mother and brothers. A backstory of her father's feud with a dangerous bear adds to both the humor and tension of the story. Throw in a mysterious witch, forest fairies, and the breathtaking Scottish scenery, and you have the makings of a brilliant fairy tale.

There is much to like about this movie. As the father of two daughters (one with the same curly red hair as Merida) , I appreciate healthy role models portraying women as capable of so much more than existing to make their husbands happy. This is a healthy alternative to the helpless maiden in the castle, sitting around waiting for a true manly man to rescue them. Merida is headstrong, but she knows who she is, and isn't willing to settle for everybody else's expectations. This is the daughter I would love to have - the girl who enjoys the woods, the girl at peace with herself and the world, the girl with her own skills, talents, and the vision to use them. I would be happy if my girls saw in Merida a role model to follow.

On the other hand, when flipping one cultural trope on its head, the makers of Brave fell right into another one. This movie falls into a long line of movies and television shows that prop women up at the expense of men. In Brave, whereas Merida is strong and resilient, and her Queen mother is wise and resourceful, every man is portrayed as an idiot. A buffoon. A mindless mass of muscle. A dimwit. A quivering coward. A drunk. Unable to control themselves without a woman cracking the whip. Yes, her father is kind and generous, and his love for his family is evident, but it's obvious that he's also incapable of leadership without his wife there to set him straight. We have in this movie a healthy message - women are capable of great things in and of themselves. Unfortunately, the reverse message is also there - men are stupid. Strong, but stupid.

And then there's this: there is, in the end, no prince for the princess. Nobody to win her eye even as she saves everybody else. Merida doesn't actually need love to make her complete. Should she find love on her terms, that's fine. But if she doesn't, she still has her horse and her archery and her beloved woodlands. While the marriage of the king and queen is shown in a positive light (although, again, it often seems more of a burden to the queen), any other reference to marriage and love is shown negatively. Just the thought of marriage drives Merida mad; she deserves her freedom, not the pain and misery of being attached to some buffoon of a man. So take that for what it's worth; the old story of "and they lived happily ever after" has been replaced with "and she lived happily ever after." Individualism is the highest good.

If you can get past all that, Brave is an exciting movie, with breath-taking visuals, a rich soundtrack heavy on Scottish themes (Enya, anyone?), some slapstick comedy to keep things light, and just enough terror to keep your heart thumping. The kids all seemed to love it, as did the adults sitting around us. I'd say it's a winner; it's just unfortunate that in the midst of all that beauty Pixar chose to continue the ongoing cultural attack on men. It's hard enough teaching your kids to respect you without the entertainment industry continually undermining you.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Andy Griffith (1926-2012)

Although the Andy Griffith show first aired before I was living on this earth, I still grew up with it. Somehow I missed most of the more popular shows of the day - the A-Team, Simon and Simon, Riptide, and the like. Instead, I was drawn to the simplicity of Andy, Barney, Gomer, Opie, Aunt Bea, Floyd the barber, and all the rest.

You probably all know what I'm talking about. There was, and is, a lot of noise and chaos on television. Lots of excitement and duplicitous characters. To watch Andy Griffith was always like leaving all that behind, and returning home to sit for a spell. Joining Andy and Barney on the front porch, singing a simple tune, waiting for Aunt Bea to come out and announce her hot apple pie.

At the risk of baring too much personal information, in the late 90s I was fired from my youth pastor position, and went about four months unemployed before finding new work in Oregon. I spent most of that time either working at finding new work (you know, stuff like sending our resumes, going to interviews, working contacts and the rest), or doing the occasional substitute teaching job that came along. It was a depressing time, a time of grief and fear and doubt. And the one constant during that time was watching the Andy Griffith show, every morning at 10 a.m. (well, unless I was called to be a sub that day, but you know what I mean). And for that 1/2 hour, the world was a good place, problems were manageable, people were predictable, and you know that good things were coming.

What always stood out the most to me about Sheriff Andy Taylor was his unflappableness. You know what I mean. Barney is bouncing off the walls spouting gibberish about the current crisis, bullets are flying through the windows, hardened criminals are on the loose, Thelma Lou is upset about their cancelled dinner plans. . .and Andy would just sit there, waiting for it all to calm down. And then he'd go out and deal with the problem in his own way. Almost always without threat or violence or force. Just his wit and folksy wisdom.

Somewhere in the recesses of my soul, I've come to understand that perfection must be sitting on Andy's porch, sipping lemonade, watching the world go by.

And the best part of it is this, from Mark Evenier: The best thing I can tell you about Andy Griffith, who has just died at the age of 86, is that I never saw or heard any reason to think he was not like the characters he played on TV. I never saw that.

 Truly, he was one of a kind. Sadly, that world is passing with him - a world if innocence, of friends just sitting and talking, of fathers who love their sons (for that matter, of fathers who seem to have a clue), of hanging out at the fishing hole, of having time for the stranger who comes along.

So thanks, Andy, for your sense of humor, your love of the craft, and for being a good guy in a cutthroat world.

For the moment, I think I'm going to go fishing.

Friday, June 29, 2012

It's Not All Bad

It's been a tough couple of weeks, hasn't it? Between fires in Colorado, storms in Florida, a fall-like gloom blanketing Washington, the political turmoil of the last days. . .there's a lot of chaos, fear, and anger out there. In addition, our little church has multiple people fighting cancer and other illnesses, and a good friend lost his father to cancer two days ago. It's been a season of grief, tension, hope, doubt, and wondering.

In the midst of it all, I keep reminding myself it's not all bad. On Saturday we celebrated the graduation of a friend, rejoicing in her accomplishment, and the plans she has for her future. On Sunday I had the privilege of baptizing three of our people, and reaffirming the baptism of a fourth. Baptisms are always a high point of the ministerial life, but this time around was made all the more special by the fact that two of those four were my own daughters - certainly a highlight of my life as a pastor and a dad. Then we had a chance to celebrate the youngest's birthday (and my dad's birthday, as well) later that afternoon, and the house was filled with family and friends and lots of little kids and good food and cupcakes. It was celebration in the fullness of that word - joy and laughter and love and hope and gladness.

And on Wednesday, the one sunny day in the midst of a gloomy early summer, we had the chance to go up to Mt. Rainier for the day. It's been a few years for me and the family, and it was good to get back. Lunch in the Paradise Inn, experiencing the new visitor center, hiking up a bit into the snow, taking a short nap out in the high alpine sunshine, rubbing shoulders with people from all over the world, stopping alongside the Nisqually River to enjoy the view, standing in awe of the snowy expanse of Rainier, pausing in Ashford to get some ice cream. It was the perfect day.

And it was a good reminder to me that there are more important things than Supreme Court decisions, and that good can still be found when we take the time to look for it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Living History

It started simply enough. I was a senior in college, living and studying in Southern California; I remember walking into the student lounge and meeting a friend. He asked, "You seen this yet? Some guy got beat up by the cops, and somebody got it on tape." And so we sat and watched the replay of Rodney King's beating, over and over again.

As a side note, you have to remember that video cameras were still somewhat rare in 1991. Since cell phones had yet to be invented, (well, other than Zack Morris' super-jumbo cellular telephone)

people weren't walking around with iPhones in their pocket, ready in case anything worth commemorating happened. (side side note: what's up with people using their iPads as video cameras? Really? Are we going to go down that road?)

So there was the obvious interest in what seemed an unfair beating at the hands of L.A.'s finest, but there was also the fascination of real-life police drama playing out on the TV - not something created in a studio for entertainment, nothing scripted (reality TV was still a couple years away - oh, what an innocent time that was). Real life, captured in all its grittiness.

Then the debates and rumors. King was high on PCP. There were pieces of the video cut out, pieces that showed King violently attacking the police. There had been a long car chase prior to the video. And a hundred other rumors and explanations used to vilify or justify King or the police, depending on who you wanted to see as the hero and who you wanted to see as the victim.

The trial carried on in the background of my second senior year in college, exploding into the L.A. riots, which broke out the week before graduation.

One moment, I was preparing for finals and rehearsing for choir tour; the next, I was in my apartment, watching the city just-down-the-road explode into a war zone. We watched the tape come in of Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck at Florence and Normandy. A few hours later I walked outside to find burning paper floating down from the sky. The city was on fire, and her ashes were falling around us.

It was surreal. It was all happening right down the road, and yet, to a student safely ensconced in the confines of a college campus, it was still far away. Still, I had to call mom to assure her that we were all safe.

The next week we graduated, and left for our 3-week choir and orchestra tour, driving up through California, Oregon, Washington, and into British Columbia. Every night it was the same thing; we'd head home with our host families, and spend the next hour describing what it was like to attend college a mere 25 miles from the fear, the crime, and the chaos the rest of the world was witnessing via CBS News.

Over the next years I would find myself in Los Angeles; I would drive through that intersection at Florence and Normandy; I would stand and pray in the burned-out parking lots where once had stood markets and mini-malls. One night Dave and I got lost in a dark neighborhood as we went looking for a place to eat after a day at Long Beach. We passed scorched shops and large groups of young men who looked too much like those guys on TV who were looting and shooting. We were scared.

Yet, eight years later I took a group of high schoolers into that area, and most of them couldn't even remember those terrible days. Time passed. I moved away. The city rebuilt itself, mostly. And now it's 20 years after those riots, and Rodney King has passed on from this troubled world. I hope he found some peace in his life; from some of the reports I've read, he did, although the wounds from that beating haunted him the rest of his life. I can't speak much for L.A., since I've been away now for 15 years.

As to our world. . .I'm hopeful and encouraged, because I think today's young people, for the most part, have left much of the scourge of racism behind. And we have an African-American president. Not that we've arrived, by any means, but there is definite progress.

On the other hand, the L.A. riots were about economic disparity as much as racism. The easy explanation was the white vs. black narrative. But much deeper than that was the simmering rage of a class systemically pushed down and away by those with economic and political power. And on that end, our country is divided as much as ever. In fact, we have a growing number of unemployed and underemployed. How many million are still jobless, desperate for work, losing their homes because a few billionaires played fast and loose with our money? And how many of those billionaires were ever held accountable? None, I think.

For now, the minions are distracted by the NBA finals and Kim Kardashian. But you push people down long enough, build up enough resentment, and all it takes is a random person pulled over for speeding down a dark highway to open the floodgates for all that rage and anger. Once the riots began, it was too late for the "Can't we all just get along?" question.

Those are the questions we should be asking now - how do we create a world in which everybody gets their fair shake, where they don't have to fight for their scraps at the table, where they are treated with dignity and respect, and given opportunities to provide for their needs. In that word, it will be much, much easier for all of us to get along.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Women that Rock My World: Two Book Reviews

Neither Anne Rice nor Sara Miles would be obvious choices to represent Christianity in American Culture. Rice is the renowned author of vampire novels and an erotic romance trilogy; Miles is a feminist lesbian former war-correspondent and chef. Both have walked difficult roads, far outside of, and often strongly critical of, the Church in America. And yet both experienced a conversion in their lives, not unlike Paul on the road to Damascus. While running from God, both were met by God and began new journeys as Christ-followers.

Miles told the story of her conversion in her previous book, Eat this Bread (read my review here). Out of that encounter came a passion to serve the people of her inner-city San Francisco neighborhood. She began a food ministry which has since grown to a city-wide endeavor. In Jesus Freak, Miles tells of the ongoing work of that ministry, and of her life, to feed the hungry, love the broken, heal the sick, provide for the destitute, offer friendship to the desperately lonely; to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the sharp brokenness of people's lives. This is a ministry to the immigrant, to the schizophrenic, to the addict, and to those who work amongst them. In beautiful prose, with humor and candor, Miles introduces us to the people of her world, tying them into the larger vision of the Kingdom of God. The parables of Jesus come to life in her community, and by revealing them to us, Miles challenges the rest of us to be about the work of God in our own world. This is raw, gritty stuff; often uncomfortable and painful, but it is the real stuff of life, and a prophetic message to the Church in America today.

Rice comes at it from a different angle; she is one who was raised in the church, but wandered away for many years. Only after decades of literary success and acclaim did she return to a faith she was convinced was dead. Whereas Miles came face-to-face with God in one completely unexpected moment, Rice came to a slowly dawning awareness that God had been pursuing her ever since she left. In her words, she was "Christ haunted." Drawn in by sacred images, by statues and paintings and the holiness of small South American sanctuaries, she felt her resistance fading, and finally stepped back into the embrace of God.

Both Miles and Rice offer the interesting perspective of newcomers, those looking at Christianity with fresh eyes. Both struggled (and continue to struggle) with the cultural and social trappings of the Church. Both describe the power of meeting Christ in the Lord's Supper, both speak of the impact of liturgy and art and language and song. Both have had difficulty bridging their progressive, liberal, left-leaning beliefs and ideologies with the conservate, fundamentalist, right-leaning American church. In fact, Rice would famously later 'quit the church in the name of Christ.' Miles, on the other hand, speaks regularly of her begrudging acceptance of the fact that, in the name of Christ, she willingly shares in the Kingdom of God with many who would cast her out, who disagree with fundamental issues of her life. In the words of one of the characters gracing the pages of Jesus Freak, "Since Jesus loves the knuckleheads who are running things I must try to, also, but I don't have to agree with them."

Rice reminds us of the beauty of God's presence in creation, in liturgy, in the soul's hunger for transcendence. Her descriptive passages of childhood memories of sanctuaries, flowering trees, and school gatherings remind us to open our own eyes to God's presence in the world around us. Miles reminds us of the image of God present in every human being, be they wealthy lawyer or tweaked-out crack-head. Her humor, and her obvious love for the outcasts and ragamuffins remind us to take people seriously - and not take ourselves so seriously. Both challenge the reader to take faith seriously; not as a hobby or accessory, but as the very thing that defines life.

Not that I don't find frustrations here, as well. Miles, in developing an earthy spirituality, grounded in the dust and grime of the Tenderloin, seems to miss out on the possibility of the supernatural showing up. Healing, to Miles, comes about when the soul is mended, when the heart is healed even if the sickness carries on. Comfort and hope are found in accepting the way life is and the way people are. Stories abound of people laughing in the face of death, or finding moments of grace in the midst of severe brokenness; on the other hand, the possibility that God might actually cure a disease seems missing. I agree that often-times the miraculous is hidden right there in the real stuff of life; sometimes, though, the miraculous blows us away and the lame do, in fact, walk again.

In Rice's case, the frustration comes in knowing the end of the story. Called Out ends so hopeful, with so much expectation; knowing that a decade later her frustrations overwhelmed that hope clouds the message. And yes, that frustration lies just as much with the Church as it does with Rice. We do lose sight of Christ in our debates over lesser things; we do focus too much on people's supposed sins, and don't care enough about their longings, their pains, their hopes and dreams. It's just sad that Rice felt the need to disassociate, giving up the possibility of engagement.

Near the end of Called Out, Rice writes, "The Lord Jesus Christ is where my focus belongs. And my commitment to Christ must remain unchanged." Near the end of Jesus Freak, Miles writes, "But Jesus is real, and so, praise God, are we." In the end, that's what is important in these two books. They are the autobiographical struggles of women trying to follow Jesus in the midst of a fractured world. Through fits and starts, failures and glorious successes, they continue on that journey. Through it all, they keep Jesus at center, and challenge the rest of us to do so. Neither is a sinless Saint, but both responded to the Call, and both are witnesses to the power of God's Spirit to change lives. They are, in many ways, examples of 21st century saints, following Christ in spite of long odds, and inviting us to do the same.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A few random things

In case you haven't seen it over on our facebook page, The Signature Brass Quintet is playing the national anthem at next Monday's Tacoma Rainiers baseball game. Game time is 1:35, so I assume we'll play around 1:30. However, we've been given permission to play in the concourse for 30 minutes or so before the game, entertaining the guests as they head to their seats.

In addition, we'll be playing at the Pacific Avenue Street Fair in Tacoma on Sunday, June 10, from 3-4 p.m. It's at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma.  We'll do a mixture of jazz and Sousa marches and show tunes and classical and other fun stuff, tailored to the festive atmosphere of the moment.

Finally, I've been asked once again to play the national anthem and Taps for the Day Island Yacht Club Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony at Fair Harbor Marina, this Monday at 10:00 a.m.


Speaking of good music, you need to go listen to this.

And this.

Although you only have a few more days, so hurry.


 In the 'just my opinion' department. . .last month I was reading some articles on the LA Times website when up popped the 'you've read your month's limit of free articles! To read more, you have to pay!' announcement. Shortly before that I had been poking around the Modesto Bee's website, and got the same announcement. Now comes the announcement that the Sacramento Bee is going to charge for access to their site. I'm curious to see how it all works out in the long run. As for me. . .I'll be avoiding those sites now.


Here's an interesting tidbit about life on the Key Peninsula. A few weeks ago a homeless woman made her way onto the peninsula; an African-American, she was pushing a shopping cart full of supplies, and carrying signs talking about love and peace and the like. This is not your typical homeless person out here. Our homeless live back in the woods and are relatively stable, unlike the transients who you find in larger urban areas. So this woman stood out a bit.

Which meant that, by the third day, everybody out here had noticed her and was talking about her. All you had to ask was "So have you seen the woman with the shopping cart?" and everybody had a story. Some had seen her all the way down by our church; others had seen her in Key Center; others had passed her in Wauna and Purdy. Last Saturday, Craig and I were talking about her as we headed back from leading the youth group on a day hike, and wouldn't you know it - there she was, up the hill from Purdy.

I know some people checked in with her, so she wasn't ignored. But it's more the nature of this place that within a few short days, everybody knew about her, everybody was talking about her, everybody had seen her. I love that about rural communities; one thing out-of-the-ordinary happens, and in a flash, everybody knows.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The worst job I ever had

In the great big scheme of things, I haven't had all that many jobs. Delivery boy, pool cleaner, dish washer, paperboy, youth pastor, choir director, copy editor, pastor. I can't exactly claim to have experience across a vast spectrum of employment practices. But there's one that counts as The Worst Job I Ever Had.

It wasn't the month I spent crouched in an empty hotel swimming pool, grinding the paint off with heavy machinery that left my arms aching. That was pretty bad, especially having to be covered head-to-toe and breathing through a thick mask, all during hot summer days. I went home feeling dead every night, but I didn't necessarily mind the heavy labor (as a side note, this was during the Oliver North trial - I remember taking lunch breaks at the hotel and catching bits and pieces of good ol' Ollie up there on the stand).

But that still couldn't compare to The Worst Job I Ever Had.

Which would have been the year I spent as a clerk in a Christian bookstore. I had taken the position to supplement my meager part-time youth pastor salary, and really, what could be better for a young man in ministry than working in a Christian bookstore?

It turned out, a lot of things would have been better.

I was listening to Susan Ashton on spotify last week, and for a moment it all came back. It reminded me of one night in particular; Brian and I were working, but no customers had stopped in all evening. Finally one teenage girl walked in, one who stopped by pretty regularly. She was a big fan of The Choir. Brian and I were a little tired of the sappy muzak we'd been playing all night, so, for her sake, we put in a Choir tape. She lit up with excitement that we'd play her favorite music. She even bought something that night.

A couple days later Brian and I were almost fired. Our customer had been back to the store the next day, and shared with the manager how pleased she had been with hearing The Choir in the store. She praised us highly. But The Choir wasn't on the approved play list. That list mostly included Southern Gospel, easy listening, and Sandy Patti. So, in spite of the fact that nobody was in the store that night, in spite of the fact that this customer was giving us a huge compliment, the manager almost fired us. But, to show his 'gentle' side, he let us off with a warning, that if we ever pulled 'a stunt' like that again, we'd be out the door.

There was so much wrong with that job. From the management treating employees poorly (one friend reached his 5-year anniversary working there. To thank him, they gave him a 10-cent an hour raise. His first raise, his only raise, in all the time he worked there), to the crap we had to sell in the name of Jesus (and when I say crap, I refer both to the shlocky and the heretical crap on our shelves), to the customers who would come in only to argue about stupid issues like the Inspired King James Version vs. all those satanic fake translations like the NIV, or whether or not Santa Claus was a demonic conspiracy to destroy the faith of children. Maybe the lowest point for me was witnessing a young mother using her 5-year-old son to shoplift tacky Christian jewelry. The kid was pocketing the jewelry even as she watched. Genius, really. If he got it out of there, good for them. If he was caught, she could reprimand him and apologize, explaining it away as youthful ignorance. Way to 'train up your child in the way they should go,' lady.

The store was part of a chain that was ultimately owned by the same people who owned Radio Shack, so I don't think they cared about ministry, so long as they made a profit. But even there, they were idiots. Based out of Nashville, they perpetually sent us products that were hot-sellers in Nashville. But we were in Southern California, a long way physically and socially from Nashville. Customers would ask for Crystal Lewis, but they sent us Verne Tripp sings the Gospel Greats! We'd tell corporate that we had 20 requests for the Prayer Chain, only to be told "nope - people want Verne Tripp sings the Gospel Greats!" So we'd have 40 copies of Verne Tripp singing the Gospel Greats, all sitting unsold on the shelves, while turning away the customers who wanted Dakota Motor Company.

And then there was all the heretical stuff we had to sell - the health and wealth, the Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn and Charles Capps and the Rhema Word-of-Faith stuff. It killed me to ring that stuff up and send it off with customers, even while knowing it was preaching a false gospel that God despises. But it was a hot seller, and I was there to sell stuff for the company, so who was I to say anything?

But sometimes we'd put in a Susan Ashton tape, and for a moment, grace would fall. Something about her gentle voice, couple with her talent for meaningful lyrics, would speak to me, reminding me that there was more to Christianity than the commercial aspects I was witnessing. That there was hope beyond all this mess.

And eventually, the church where I worked decided to pay me enough that I could quit that job. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. Looking back, leaving that place might have saved my faith. I'm sure it's a coincidence, but they closed down, went out of business within the next year or two. And I can't say I was sad.

So there you go. No point to this story, really, other than to share the Worst Job I Ever Had. And to say that I know first-hand what it's like to get dumped on by supposed brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, it was in a Christian bookstore/coffeehouse a few years later that I met my wife, so I can't say they're all bad places. Just that one where I worked in the early 1990s in Upland, California.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: One.Life

Are you a young person, trying to make sense of where your life fits into the larger scheme of this world? Are you out of college, hoping your life will mean something, and not just disappear into the haze of meaningless that is our culture? Have you hit middle age, and find yourself feeling like "there must be more to life than this?"

If so, then Scot McKnight's One.Life is the book for you.

It is McKnight's intention that life is supposed to be more than the humdrum of mindless entertainment, empty pleasure, vacuous reality-show stories, accumulation of stuff, boredom, disappointment, silly fights with friends, and all those other things we fill our lives with. Instead, we are given one life to live, and called into a glorious adventure of love, service, compassion, meaning, and world-changing work.

However, that can only happen when people truly and fully give their lives over to Jesus, letting Jesus lead, following his dreams, surrendering everything to his lordship. In McKnight's words,

Christianity isn't enough. Religion isn't enough. Being accepted in a church isn't enough. Climbing the corporate ladder isn't enough. Solving intellectual problems isn't enough. Chasing the American dream isn't enough. Friends aren't enough. Science isn't enough. Food and drink aren't enough. Fame isn't enough. Nothing's enough. The only thing that is enough is Jesus, and the only way to get to Jesus is to follow him, and that means one thing: giving your One.Life to him and following his dream.

McKnight makes clear that he is redefining a common misunderstanding of Christianity; namely, that following Christ is about making a one-time decision, and then spending the rest of our lives trying to follow a bunch of rules. Instead, the author slowly builds up his central theme, which is that followers of Jesus follow Jesus, devoting their lives to the Kingdom vision of Jesus.

The earlier part of One.Life is spent sketching this vision of discipleship even as he defines what, exactly, the Kingdom Vision of Jesus is (think peace, compassion, justice, and wisdom). In the latter chapters of the book, McKnight addresses some of the specific issues and contexts with which people struggle - why is the Church important? What does the Kingdom have to do with sex? How do I follow Jesus in a 'secular' job? Finally, the last few chapters are given to exploring God's Kingdom in light of eternity, God's nature, and the work of Jesus at the cross.

One.Life is a powerful book that is also accessible, fairly easy to read yet full of profound insight. There is so much confusion in the world about what it means to be a Christian (and let's be honest: to many, 'Christian' is not a good word). McKnight has offered a positive, hopeful, meaningful vision for what life can and should be, a life that finds its meaning simply by following Christ through the ordinary moments as they come.

Thanks to Zondervan for offering One.Life as a free gift to Ministers in the Evangelical Covenant Church at our Midwinter Conference.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Journal of a fishing expedition

Six of us left Gig Harbor early morning Tuesday last, pumped up with coffee and dreams of giant steelhead lurking in an Alaskan river. Six of us rushed through SeaTac, still a block or two away from the gate when we heard "Last call for boarding Alaska Airlines Flight 61 - You should be on the plane by now!" Six of us ran to the gate, barely making it onto the flight.

Four hours later, we were on the ground in Yakutat, pop. 600 plus-or-minus depending on the season. And two hours after that, we were on the Situk River, fly rods in hand, licking our chops in anticipation of these legendary fish.

Here's how it's supposed to be: an epic run of steelhead every spring, with a guarantee of 20-30 caught per day. Thousands and thousands of fish running upriver to spawn; the chrome of the steelhead hens flashing by in pursuit of gravel beds far upriver.

How it did work out. Southeast Alaska saw record snowfall this winter. Where the ground is usually free of snow by late April, here we were in early May with 3-4 feet of snow still covering the earth. All that snow, mixed with rain, is melting into the river, keeping it at record heights for this time of year. And keeping it cold. Fish need a water temperature in the mid-40s. It was still in the mid-30s when we arrived. Hence. . .there were no fish in the river.

Well, that's an exaggeration. There was one fish in the river, at least.

First day, fishing in the river, no fish hooked, no fish caught.

Second day, floating the river, a couple fish hooked into. One landed.

Third day, floating the river, four hooked into, two landed.

Fourth day, we split up. One party floated, while one hiked upriver a ways. Floaters hooked one, landed none. (That's 12 hours of fishing, for one hooked.) Walkers hooked about four, landed two or three.

Fifth day, we all walked up. 8-10 fish were hooked. I think two were landed. At least we saw more flitting through the water. Oh, and we also saw a moose grazing by the river bank.

Afternoons, at the boat ramp, notes were exchanged with other anglers. Same story. Epically disappointing year. Mornings and evenings at the B&B, stories were shared with other groups. Same story. The worst year ever seen.

Oh, and this. It rained a lot. And hailed. And snowed. Ever sit in a boat in the middle of a river having hail come crashing down on you, all while you're trying to untangle the mess your line just made on that poor cast?

As for me. . .I hooked one fish all week. An hour before it was time to go home. Fought it momentarily, but then it got away. So that was my trip. Flying to Alaska and back, floating rivers through cold rain, falling through holes in the snow, waking too early and going to bed too late, freezing my fingers, all to briefly hook into one fish.

And almost drown, when the drift boat wedged up against a tree and almost flipped. But Erik saved us all, for which I am thankful.

Oh, and then all 6 enjoyed a nice dinner at the lodge before heading home. Enjoyed it too much, since we got to the airport late and barely made it on the plane. Leaving our luggage behind for another day.

Still, through it all - the rain and snow and hail and wind and cold and lack of sleep and lack of fish and smelly guys and greasy eggs for breakfast and trail food for lunch and travel difficulties. . .it was the best time I've had in a really, really, really long time.

Oh, and I should say something about the dozens of bald eagles lining the river bank, standing guard over the river as we floated past. They were beautiful.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gone Fishin'

I'm not sure the point of all this, but there's something in here.

11 months ago I was a little stressed out. Okay, a lot stressed out. And I needed a stress relief in life. So on somewhat of a whimsy, I posted a facebook update that said, "I think I need to take up fishing again."

Karen instantly replied and said "I've got a lot of old fishing gear sitting unused in the garage - I'll bring it by." And two days later, it was sitting in my garage.

After another month or so, I found a couple free days and headed up to Moneycreek Campground on the Skykomish River, where I sat and fished and read and journaled and prayed and fished and watched some trains and fished. It became an important moment in turning the corner last summer, figuring some things out and doing some necessary business with God.

And I found out Wes was getting into fishing too. So not much later I spent a lovely day on the Olympic Peninsula with Wes and his father-in-law, Bob, trying to track down some King Salmon. Didn't catch any, but it was nice.

But Mike knew I needed more. So late that summer he said the magic words: "want to learn how to fly fish?" And right then and there he gave me my first fly-fishing lesson.

Which led me to Blake and the Gig Harbor fly shop, and a basic fly-fishing setup. And a day on the lake at Cascades Camp catching small-mouth bass. And a couple days last fall fly-fishing for steelhead in Eastern Washington.

And a sunny day on the Stillaguamish last November. And a few days on the shore at Penrose Point over the winter. And a rainy day down at the Lakebay marina last month. And a sunny day out at Lake of the Woods last Sunday, where I began to teach the girls to fish.

And this coming week. I'm flying with some guys to Southeast Alaska for a little retreat time. With plenty of fly-fishing for steelhead. Yum.

I guess I'm just surprised how much change can come into a life because of one simple little facebook update. And the help of a few friends along the way.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More Thoughts on Dead Bunnies

I promise this will be shorter than the last. But one more thought has been gnawing at me since last week's screed against unhealthy marketing techniques employed by churches in their desire to get people in their doors.

Think about the language employed in that postcard - "Bunnies stay dead. Jesus didn't." Those are fighting words. Those are combative words. Those aren't hopeful words, but judgmental words. They point fingers at all those families out there who think Easter is about bunnies and candy and egg hunts, and they say "you're wrong! Easter is about Jesus!"

Now, don't freak out on me. I firmly, 100% believe that Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, late of the grave but now residing enthroned in heaven, awaiting the day of his return to earth. Bunnies and eggs and candy can be, and often are, a distraction from the more important message of Jesus.

But that's insider language. That's language we use when the Church gathers; we remind ourselves that our hope lies in the fact that "He is Risen!" And yes, the message of resurrection can and should enter into friendly conversations when the opportunity arises. This is not a message Christians should keep to themselves.

In other words, I believe when we are gathered, we can challenge each other to keep Jesus first and foremost. And when we're in the company of no-church-goers, if the opportunity presents itself, it can be appropriate to share our hope in the resurrection of Jesus.

But that's not what's going on here. "Bunnies stay dead. Jesus didn't" is just another way of saying "We're right and you're wrong!" This isn't an invitation to anything so much as a criticism of those families and their silly Easter bunny traditions. It's too easy to read this as "We know the truth about Jesus, but you only have your bunnies, so neener neener."

By criticizing the (mostly harmless) celebrations of the people in the community, the church is actually building walls, drawing lines in the sand, creating division where it ought to be building bridges.

I'm reminded of a quote by John Fischer, in his book What on Earth are we Doing?

"Non-Christians today think that many Christians are out to get them, not because they are lost and need to be found, not because they are lonely and need a friend, not because they are dying in their trespasses and sins and need to be saved, but because they are wrong and need to be either set straight or defeated."

There are a lot of families out there just struggling to get by. Families desperate for traditions and moments of togetherness. I know a couple of single moms who are working incredibly hard to build memories for their kids; often, those involve longstanding family traditions like coloring eggs and going on Easter egg hunts. Moments of joy are few and far between; Easter bunnies and Easter eggs are one of the rare moments of frivolity in their otherwise difficult lives.

And suddenly, in the mail one day, out of the blue, comes a postcard saying "You're doing it all wrong! You're a failure for playing with bunnies, when Jesus is the real reason for Easter!" Just what part of that is Good News?

I know, that "Jesus didn't" is supposed to be good news. But the best news, delivered in the wrong way, is still a bitter pill to swallow.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

When Youth Pastors Grow Up (?)

About 10 years ago, there was a youth pastor holed up in his office, trying to think of a creative way to get kids in the door so he could tell them about Jesus. This was a significant part of his job. Yes, actually telling kids about Jesus was important, but getting them in the door occupied most of his energy. Kids were busy with school and family and Halo, kids weren't interested in church, and the kids who were interested were mostly heading to the bigger church down the street, the church with the bigger budget and the cooler toys. So our youth pastor friend here was desperate to come up with a new way to get kids into the door of his church.

On good days, most youth pastors would say their primary goal in life was to introduce kids to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then to train them as followers of Christ. On more honest days, however. . .the unspoken truth was that their unspoken goal was just to get kids in the door. Yes, before you can tell kids about Jesus you need to meet them, so getting them in the door was a good goal. But in reality, one of the only measures of success that could be gauged was "how many kids are sitting in the seats?" Church members would look at the budget every year, and compare it to "how many kids are sitting in the seats?" Youth pastors would read books and go to conferences and the not-so-subtle message they heard was "effective youth ministries have lots of kids sitting in the seats." All the youth pastors in town would gather for lunch, and everybody knew who the superstars were, who the really important youth pastors were - the ones who had the most kids sitting in the seats. In fact, the really really important youth pastors didn't even come to the meetings, because they were so busy taking care of all those kids that were sitting in those seats.

And of course, they all knew that the way to get kids into those seats was to offer something really cool. Really radical. Really awesome. Really gross. Really relevant. Like a series called "Jesus and Sex and Dating." Or, more often, an event that was just awesome and super and gross. Like when the church across town held the Nickelodeon-style Slime Night, at which the youth pastor and his staff and some of the cool kids all got slimed, and it was gross and awesome and amazing, and all the kids in town were talking about how cool it was when the youth intern (the new hip one) had gotten slimed.

So our youth pastor, the one in our story, had to come up with something even more cool and gross and awesome than slime night. He didn't want to admit it, but he was in competition with all those other churches, so he had to out-cool, out-awesome, out-gross those others. He needed something more super-awesome than Slime Night.

So he sat there, with a couple of his volunteers, and the racked their brains, until an idea popped into his head.

"I know. . .let's have a toilet bowl night! That will be super-gross and funny. We can have toilet-themed games! Like, we could fill a (clean) toilet with Mountain Dew, and throw in some Tootsie Rolls, and make the kids get them out with their mouths - like bobbing for apples, only in a toilet!"

(note: this is an actual youth group event that has been tried in many youth ministries across America. I'm not making it up.)

And then his intern said "Yeah! We could even throw in some mustard, so it looks like diarrhea!" And they all laughed at that one for a good 5 minutes.

They spent the next hour coming up with slogans and toilet bowl relay races and toilet-paper games. The creative arts girl went to work putting together the graphic arts for the flyers. And they all went home that day, stoked at their creativity that was sure to bring in a big crowd to sit in those seats.

Now, the thing is, sometimes in youth ministry, this isn't all bad. Kids like gross and different and fun; they might invite their friends to toilet night, and they'd certainly talk about it for years to come. A steady diet of gross-out super radical youth ministry can be dangerous, but the occasional goofy game night can be a welcome moment of frivolity for stressed-out kids.

What I always wondered, though, was what would happen when all these youth pastors, whose primary giftings seemed to lie in creative ways to fill the seats, grew up and became senior pastors or church planters. There has often been, unfortunately, a correlation between a youth pastor's immaturity and their success, at least insofar as getting kids to sit in those seats. So what happens when that mentality of "immaturity + gross-out factor = more people in the seats" moves upward into the senior leadership in the church?

That question is now being answered. A few years ago a church in a Seattle suburb held a large promotional event, offering free tattoos during their morning worship service. This year's example was a church in South Carolina that mailed out thousands of mass-mail invitations to Easter worship; on the cover was a photograph of a dead rabbit on the road, obvious road-kill, surrounded by plastic Easter eggs.

Setting aside the fact that mass-mail invitations have been proven to be absolutely worthless in attracting people to church, these were sent out with the direct purpose of offending people. According to their pastor, "Are we willing to offend some to get the attention of other folks who have no regard for Jesus, the church, the gospel or Easter?  That's a risk a we're always willing to take."

Listen, the gospel is offensive enough without us adding layers and layers of trumped-up offense. As the Rev. Don Robinson once said, "If we're going to offend people, let's make sure they're offended for the right reasons." Proclaiming the lordship of Jesus? Okay. Mailing out postcards with dead bunnies to unsuspecting families? Not so much.

By the way, that whole 'competing with the church across town' idea was certainly at play here. Because another church in the same town set this sign up to attract people:

If there was one thing lacking in many of the youth pastors I used to know, it was the filter that said "Just because it gets people's attention, it's not necessarily a good idea." And the subsidiary filter that said "Just because it's my idea, it's not necessarily a good idea."

Unfortunately, it seems that, just because these youth pastors grew up and became senior pastors and church planters, they didn't leave behind the "be super-shocking and amazing to get people in the seats" mentality.

Not to rant about this too long. . .but just imagine for a moment you're a frazzled single mom, barely making it through a long day of getting kids up and out the door to school, heading off to work, picking up the kids from day care, running them to soccer practice, heading home for dinner, and then little Susie picks up the mail and finds this picture of a dead rabbit. Exactly what part of that makes you say "Oh yes, I want to go to that church! That looks like a place where I'll find the love, mercy, grace, hope, and friendship I so desperately need! That looks like a place of hope and grace!" Really. . .what non-church attender is going to come to your church because of this? The only people you're really going to attract is people who are already attending other churches, but getting a little bored with the same-old same-old. So you're not spreading the gospel, you're really just stealing sheep with the help of cheap marketing tactics.

And that's not how you build a healthy church.

Addendum 1: Over the last few years I've hung out with many youth pastors who seem to be doing much better at the disciple-making thing, avoiding much of the gimmick-based ministry of earlier days. So don't read this as any kind of judgment against today's youth ministers. The ones I know are pretty cool people.

Addendum 2: I just noticed that Eugene Cho posted a blog about this same subject a few days ago. As usual, he says it a lot better than I did.