upper room daily devotions

Monday, November 27, 2006

what is the role of the small urban church?

It seems like every time I turn around I hear how the"emerging" or "emergent church" is the magic bullet that will save institutionalized Christianity. Just a few years ago all of the literature produced for churches was on church growth. Now the trend is toward smaller, more experiential, and ritual based communities. Through all of these conversations, I have become increasingly interested in the potential role for small churches in the urban environment. While there clearly is a place for the large, growth-oriented church, and while there is a newly developing place for the emerging church movement, I believe that there is a resurgence of interest in the small church in urban neighborhoods, especially if the small church can find a way to embody a message of justice.

I currently serve a small church that seems to function in between the Alban Institute's categories of "family" and "pastoral" size churches. With a membership of 112 and around 70 in worship each week, Woodland Park United Methodist Church is bucking many of the trends established by small urban churches. Data indicate that churches need at least 80 people in worship each week to be able to afford a full-time pastor. Data also show that small urban churches are in decline. The church I serve doesn't follow either of these trends - at least not yet. WPUMC is an active, vibrant church that is intentional in providing for families and its dedication to justice and radical hospitality. Unlike some churches that focus on social justice to the exclusion of spiritual and family needs, WPUMC has a deep desire to provide for people who have never been to church or who are returning after a long absence so that they will find a place to ask questions of faith, find healing, and provide for the spiritual needs of the whole family. Those who are coming and staying at WPUMC want a small church where the whole family is known, where their gifts are wanted and needed, and where they can find a community with a level of intimacy not found in other organizations in our society.

For years I have noticed that small churches live with a stigma of "not being successful." However, I think that in urban contexts in which so many of us are transplanted from other regions of the country (even the world), where we work in large corporations, where our children attend large schools, and where everything we do is on a large scale, the small church can provide a sense of family and belonging that other organizations cannot provide. Additionally, small churches that retain the liturgy of their traditions extend to people returning to church a feeling of the familiar that is often desired by them. I also think that small churches that maintain "traditional" architecture have an additional gift for their communities. I know the popularity of warehouse churches and coffee shop churches and the resurgence of house churches, but even so some people desire traditional architecture for their churches. There is something powerful about set apart space that we call sacred and establish for the worship of God. There is something familiar and understandable about entering a different world on Sunday (or whenever we worship) that acts as though God's kin-dom has already come.

Small churches that maintain liturgy and architecture and that also embrace a message of inclusion and justice can be a new locus of spiritual life in our urban centers. WPUMC is striving to be one of these places. We have many of the struggles of small churches (money, leadership, diversity), but thus far we have been able to provide a place for people to come and experience tradition re-interpreted, allow the time and space for people to ask fundamental questions of being and faith, provide a home where all people can belong, and maintain programs and strucutres that encourage the entire congregation to pursue justice.

This is just the first of several ramblings on the power and place of the small urban church. In future blogs, I will cover the function of liturgy, the importance of justice, the power of asking questions, and the value of children. One of the drawbacks of the emerging church is the narrowness of its scope. I certainly applaud the movement on many accounts, but it doesn't provide the necessary familiarity for multiple generations to meet together in worship and prayer. It is still the traditional church that does this, and I believe that there is something incalculably important about having 9 month olds and 90 year olds in the same worship.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

on the blue bayou...part 3 "laquinta is not spanish for hi-speed internet"

Well, I didn't get to post every day during my trip as I had hoped to do. On Wednesday we worked all day at Sager Brown and headed to New Orleans for the evening. We checked into a LaQuinta Inn, where I was supposed to have hi-speed internet, but it wouldn't work (thus, LaQuinta is not Spanish for hi-speed internet!). For the rest of the trip I didn't have access to log in and jot down images and reflections. Here is the rest of my week in a nutshell.

On Thursday we headed to the East Bank Recovery Center of the United Methodist Church, which is located at Kenner United Methodist Church. We met up with another volunteer from New York (not a United Methodist), received our instructions for the day, and headed to a work site. Our instructions: remove metal windows, take out ceilings, and remove insulation. We worked all day on these projects, ending around 3:30 PM in the afternoon.

After the day was over, some of us drove down to the Ninth Ward to look around. The contrast was immediate and stark. Homes still lay on their sides. Spray painted messages noted the number of animals left behind. In the area in which we drove around, we saw absolutely no signs of life. On almost every block was a yellow sign asking if anyone had seen the levees be brought down (alluding to a purposeful break in them). It was a sobering side trip.

We went back to our LaQuinta, showered, and readied ourselves for a Thanksgiving Dinner at Arnauds - from rags to riches in one hour...weird.

On Friday our team broke into two smaller groups. One returned to the same house from Thursday. The other team - my team - headed to Lakeview to another house. Our instructions: gut whatever we could. The owners' son met us there. His was a fascinating tale of faith and strength, much like the tales of many people we met in New Orleans. (At dinner the previous night, we learned of one of the restaurant workers who lived in a non-flooded portion of the town. He had, however, lost electricity, and when he petitioned for the power to be turned back on, the city demanded that all of his outlets be moved up the wall before returning electricity. He had to move. Why, we were asked, couldn't the city return power and check back in a few months to make sure the work had been done?) We spent the day removing sheet rock, layers of plywood, and hauling debris. It was hard work; for us it ended at the end of the day. For the owners' son, the work will continue for a long time. Because the owners are older, the son commented that they were just trying to stop the growth of mold and then would be waiting to see if they could be bought out. His parents would not return to live there.

After work some of us headed to the Garden District. Life has returned mostly to normal up there. Many houses are being repaired after wind damage and an uncharacteristically large number of homes are for sale, but mostly businesses are open and life is abundant. We ate at a local pub, something not possible in the neighborhoods where we'd spent our days.

Driving around New Orleans is a surreal experience. It's a weird juxtaposition of normalcy and the ridiculous interwoven with one another. Many houses still have the famous Xes from recovery crews moving through after the storm/flood. Others, sometimes right next door, are completely rebuilt/restored/removed. Many neighborhoods are a tangle of damaged homes, trailors in front, and people trying to get their lives back into a normal routine. It's an odd experience to drive down a boulevard lined with houses with Xes on them and watch a jogger come by. One curious thing happened twice as I was driving around. I stopped on Friday to ask directions to a place to grab my crew some lunch. I happened to be in a very affluent area at the time. The couple gave directions and said, "Be careful." I found it an odd statement. But later, when we were leaving our work site, the owners' son thanked us and said the same thing. "Be careful." It seems that life continues to be difficult and a little dangerous in New Orleans.

I was very impressed by all of the people from New Orleans whom I was privileged to meet. They are strong people...survivors. All knew someone who had died in the storm. All wanted to stay. All thanked us for coming down and doing our little part.

Today is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday in Christendom. I am left with two images about God's Kingdom. The first is the destruction of New Orleans - typified in the desolation of the Ninth Ward (although even here portions are coming back to life). The other image is of the residents who give to one another and who offered us thanks, and the folks who have chosen to spend their lives down in Louisiana helping their neighbors. We met many long-term volunteers at Sager Brown and in New Orleans. One woman is being sponsored by her church, her annual conference, and another annual conference so that she can spend one year doing recovery work in New Orleans. She is from North Carolina. The first image reminds me that the world is far form seeing the justice, mercy, and compassion of God's Kingdom - or Kin-dom. The world is hurting, people are wounded, and corruption is rampant. The other image reminds me that some people, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, live as though God's Kingdom - or Kin-dom - has already come. And, in so doing, they are ushering it in.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

on the blue bayou...my trip to louisiana, part 2

Today I went along with a member of my church as we drove a large truck and trailer of water, bleach, and other sundries to a distribution and recovery site in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Camp Hope, on the shores of the Mississippi River, has taken over an elementary school, which is no longer able to educate kids - kids, by the way, who are no longer in the area. Only about 1/3 of the 66k residents have returned to Violet and the rest of St. Bernard Parish. The school is home to several organizations, working side by side to return the parish back to some sense of normalcy. Habitat for Humanity has a hub there. With them serving as an umbrella organization for several smaller work groups, about 3,000 homes have been gutted and repaired. AmeriCorps has its local headquarters here, with AmeriCorps volunteers gutting and demolishing homes, prioritized so that older adults (65 and older) and disabled people get attention first. Camp Hope offers laundry services, meals, water, and showers to returning residents as they work to bring back their lost homes. Today was both a fun day and a very sobering one. I met incredible people from all over the US along with people from Spain, Canada, and some from right there in St. Bernard Parish. People have flown to the area to give everything from a couple of days to several months of their lives to breathe life back into a devasted area.

The differences between downtown New Orleans and the areas just outside of it are incredible. While the French Quarter and the central business district still have work to be done, electricity is dependable, water is potable (and reliable), and the sewage system works. Tourists may not be as thick along the sidewalks as in past years, but they roam the streets buying wares from vendors and acting as good patrons to local musicians. But move away from this semi-restored area and you find trucks tossed upside down, houses moved off of their foundations, plugged sewage lines, boarded business fronts, and abandoned neighborhoods. Healing has yet to come full force into the region. It's easy to believe that life has returned to normal down there because uber-businesses and hotel, hardware, and restaurant chains with great capital have been able to rebuild, but life is far from normal. Much of the area near Lake Pontchartrain and in lower lying areas near the Mississippi River look like they did just over a year ago, except the water has receded. Big X's still mark the houses indicating the rescue group, the date, and how many dead were found inside. It is a stark reminder that those without financial means are once again left to fend for themselves in a world of abundance. In one way I hope the yellow water mark that runs along the sound barriers beside the freeways is left there. It marks more than the eight feet of water that has since been forced back into the sea. It marks the ongoing reality of injustice and the struggle to find home that so many around the world face every day.

I want to thank fellow United Methodist John from Ohio for giving me a tour of Camp Hope. I also want to thank all of the volunteers there - Habitat folks, AmeriCorps workers (getting things done!), and all at Camp Hope. Your work may seem thankless and endless, but it is important. Your 300,000 work hours have made a tremendous difference in people's lives. I want to thank UMCOR's Sager Brown Depot for sending the supplies that they can to help folks out as they struggle to rebuilt.

Here is one thing that I learned today that needs to change: After asking where all of the debris goes after houses are gutted, I was told that the federal government, through FEMA, pays for 100% of the removal. Trucks come by, pick up the debris, cart it out of town and dump it. Makeshift landfills are being made all of the time. However, this will end as of December 31, 2006 when FEMA will pay 90% of the debris removal. While this may look generous on paper, it's the same as telling me that I can have 10% off of a 20 million dollar mansion. When you don't have it, you don't have it. Neither St. Bernard Parish nor the people who live there can pay for debris removal. As a result, AmeriCorps plans to cease its gutting work at the end of the year and work on construction. This means, in essence, that gutting will no longer happen after the end of this year. This needs to change. If we can fund two wars and a bridge to nowhere, we can fund 100% of the debris removal. It's preposterous to think otherwise.

Well, after this little rant, I need to head off to vespers. A group of Texas that is also staying at the Sager Brown Depot is leading us in worship this evening. I look forward to what they have to offer as we prepare to end the day and begin our evening...

Monday, November 20, 2006

on the blue bayou...my trip to louisiana, part 1

UMCOR. Be There. Be Hope. This is the slogan for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Seven members of my church and I have come to the shores of the Bayou Teche to the Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, Louisiana for a few days to work at UMCOR's Depot. United Methodists across the nation send items to be distributed to people around the world who have experienced a disaster in their lives. We arrived here last night after a day in New Orleans, and we began our work in earnest this morning.

Going on a mission trip is always a dicey deal. Will you get along with one another? Will the trip enhance people's connection to the ministries that our dollars support? Will our presence actually be helpful or not? Youth mission trips are quite different from adults trips; this is a group of only adults. It's my hope that they will find positive responses to the questions above and begin to reflect upon this one: "If we begin with the premise that the world and all that is in it belongs to God, how am I to be while on this earth?" It's my hope that we can move beyond the normal fears and anxieties that accompany any trip taken to a new place with people who are not family and delve into deeper questions of our connection to the world and to one another.

The United Methodist Church has its set of problems. It can be just as disingenuous and hypocritical as any other organization, but UMCOR is the heart of goodness in our denomination. Through the work of UMCOR, we find a commonality in purpose of making God's world a better place for all people regardless of nationality, ethnicity, race, class, or belief system. I think the UMC "does" Christianity much better than talk about it. I wish more younger people - even those younger than me - would discover UMCOR and its work. It's a great thing. It's in 88 countries doing everything from delivering necessary items for basic needs to teaching people how to farm in a sustainable way.

My break is just about over and I need to go prepare for evening devotions. The quiet of the area can be as overwhelming as the scope of the work that gets done here. The depot is quite a way from any town, much less a town of any real size. Backing onto a bayou and with nothing in sight, there are no shops, no bars, no movies, no distractions. It's a great challenge to sit under a tree and read a book, go to bed early, rise and work all day to make our shipments ready for use here in the US and around the world. Occasionally, a group may head into town for a work project, but work ends around 3:30 PM. So...back I go to prepare myself for devotions...

This photo accompanies several others in a photo gallery by Paul Jeffrey on UMCOR's website.

For more information about UMCOR, the website can be found here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

good religion, bad religion

This post is similar to the one that I wrote just a few days ago, but the weariness of the people around me has been unrelenting. It seems that every time that I answer the telephone the person on the other end is stressed, tired, hurting, and guilt-ridden. And most of these folks have some bad religion to thank for it all. I thought that I would write a few thoughts to remind myself - and anyone who stumbles across these ramblings - that good religion exists, and that it invites us into the fullness of life and the wholeness of being.

Bad religion is everywhere. It tells us to give until we're depleted, deny the needs of our own souls, and "do" until we're dead. Bad religion coerces and threatens in order to get its way. I know that I fall prey to it more often that I'd like to admit. Sometimes my heart feels heavy, my soul empty, and my mind too full. These are results of bad religion making itself at home in me. It sets up shop. It guilts, coerces, and uses.

Good religion has no place for such things. Good religion invites us into the fullness of life and the wholeness of being. It invites us into Being Itself. Good religion begins with Sabbath. Sabbath is time for God and the standard for justice. Sabbath should never be skipped - yes, I'm "shoulding" on you. Sabbath gives us a rule that demands that we (and all who work for us, people and animals alike) rest from work. In a society in which we work all of the time, I wonder at the changes that taking Sabbath seriously would bring. When we begin with Sabbath, we give ourselves one full day a week to rest at the breast of God, breathing in God's life (ruach). Good religion begins with this concept.

Good religion has no place for violence, threats, and coercion. It doesn't need any of these things because its purpose is different from the purpose of bad religion. Whereas bad religion desires to consume us, good religion desires our perfection in love. Good religion invites us into the quiet of sanctuary and the stillness of prayer. In good religion, we live and move inside of the Holy. From this place of completeness we move into the world as God's witnesses and stewards. You see, whereas bad religion sends us empty into a wounded world, good religion sends us radically connected to Life Itself into the world. It makes a huge difference if we're starting with a full gas tank or an empty one.

I wonder what the world would be like - what we would be like - if we believed in a God that loves us rather than despises us, encourages us rather than threatens us, invites us rather than coerces us. God demands that we offer all that we have and all that we are to God. This offering, though, isn't the death of ourselves, it is our beginning. In the ackowledgement that the world and all that is in it belongs to God, we orient ourselves toward right relationship with the rest of creation. We don't give up on ourselves and give out. We fill up with the connection of life and the radicality of God.

Good religion is an invitation to Life. Sometimes I want to kidnap those around me who won't be still and allow Sabbath. And while my inclination toward kidnapping may be honorable, I believe that it is also a felony. So I pray. I pray that all who are weary, hurting, stressed, and guilt-ridden will experience Life radicalized in God. For those who struggle, I pray that the persuasive power of the Creator and Liberator will buoy them in their hard times and give them strength. I pray that God's grace will shower down upon all who are bending under the weight of their hearts and the pressures of the world. And for those who souls are empty and depleted, I pray for the awesome wonder of the universe to pour into them, the light of the stars offering warmth in the cold corners of their beings. I pray that we all learn to dance with delight completely assured that God is our dance partner, gently leading us through the moves.

Monday, November 13, 2006

why isolation and church shouldn't go together...remembering our baptism

Church is a place where people come together to seek spiritual nurture and to offer themselves for the transformation of the world. If there is one thing that the church absolutely has to be it is a place of connection, care, and challenge. Yet time and again I witness the isolation of people in church and those who work in churches.

As a pastor in a church, one of the great privileges of my job is to hear people's stories. It is a sacred and holy experience to sit with someone and to listen to their dreams, their histories, their joys, and their struggles. On the days during which someone has honored me with their story I come home fully aware of the Divine that exists in the sharing of our lives.

During these moments of self disclosure we live into the fullness of our baptismal covenant. In the baptism liturgy we promise to love and support one another through all of our days. In the liturgy we remember the fierce faithfulness of God and we celebrate the many times that God delivered God's people from hardship. In our liturgy we vow to place Jesus at the center of our lives and to resist the evil and oppressive powers of this world. We bless water - symbolic of the powers of chaos and deliverance - and we mark our foreheads to seal the promises that we've made to one another and to God. This ritual initiates us into covenant life. It is our entry into radical connection with God, with one another, and with the church universal. When we open ourselves through the sharing of our stories - through the sharing of our lives - we make our baptismal vows real.

Why, then, do so many people who come to church remain isolated and wounded? Why, then, do so many people drift away from church worn out, tired, and weary? These are sad questions to ask. And I ask them not only of the laity but of the clergy. Too many of us do not feel the care we crave. We do not experience the nurture we seek. We do not find the connection that lies at the heart of authentic Christian community.

Today I feel the same isolation. Despite presiding over the holy and sacred ritual of baptism only yesterday, today I feel defeated, alone, and tired. I know that my feelings will soon pass, but I also know that too many people who sit in the pews in my small church have these feelings all too often. They are real describers of people's experiences. My heart weeps at the woundedness, and my soul longs for healing for my community, for the people I know (and don't know), and for my own sense of isolation on this day.

I wait for the day when Christians will believe in the power of our baptism and offer our woundedness to one another, trusting that care and nurture await us. People would find a deeper connection to God and to one another through the sharing of hurts and fears with each other. We might actually surprise ourselves if we dared to step into our baptismal covenant with trust in the promises that we've made.

Progressive Christianity struggles, in part, because many folks who identify as such tend to be individualistic and intellectual in approaching life (and faith). The problem, of course, is that our faith is communal and our God is a mystery. Sharing our lives together is part of what church invites us to do - even demands that we do. This is a challenge for many people. It takes time and trust; it requires us to extend ourselves in faith to one another. But I believe that we would all find something unexpectedly sacred if we would extend ourselves in this way, if we would open ourselves up to one another with faith in our baptismal vows. Through the sharing of our pain, I believe that we would find hidden strengths that would surprise and awe us.

If you, like me on this day, are tired to the bone...if you, like me on this day, wonder how things will figure themselves out...if you need something to act as a reminder that God is ever present, ever caring, and ever moving in our lives, remember the power of baptism - God delivers us from the evils, the sorrows, and the oppression of this world and the people who assemble (the church) has promised to offer needed strength and care during hard and painful times. Whether we're busy because we have young children, are sad because someone we loved has died, are weary of oppression and marginalization that never relents, or are struggling with the demons inside of our souls, we all need some care, connection, and strength from another from time to time. It's okay. That needed connection lies at the heart of our faith and is what holds us up when we know that otherwise we might drown. I know that I'll spend time this evening thanking God for my baptism and asking God for the strength that I did not feel today.

I hear too many church people express that they feel isolated while they sit in the gathered assembly. Somehow church has become broken. We need to fix it. And the only way to fit "it" is to open ourselves to one another. Remembering our baptism is a good place to start...

Saturday, November 11, 2006

a great article on evangelicalism

November 10, 2006
Mommy, What's an Evangelical?

by Daniel Engber, Slate

The Democrats managed to win big in Tuesday's election despite a strong showing from the Republicans' evangelical Christian base. Exit polls show that the evangelical turnout matched that from the 2004 election, when they helped George W. Bush win a second term. But those numbers haven't stopped Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson from declaring that the GOP has abandoned evangelicals. What exactly is an evangelical? (read more)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

progressive christians vote, too

I just want to remind folks that progressive Christians vote as well as Evangelicals. Today Anderson Cooper highlighted the defection of the Christian Right/the Evangelical vote from the Republican party as though that described all voting Christians, but there are all kinds of people who consider themselves Christian; Evangelicals are just one block of Christians. There are also progressive Christians with deep and abiding faith. I am one who gets tired of being lumped in with the Evangelical movement. "Christian" does not equal "Evangelical." I wish the media would learn this.

Progressive Christians are committed and deeply faithful. We follow the teachings of Jesus and believe in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And, our faith leads us to reject the death penalty and war, and it leads us to believe in protecting the poor, providing a way out of poverty for those who are born there, supporting stem cell research, and including LGBT people in the full life of our society and churches (including the blessing of unions and extending the same rights as straight couples). Our faith tells us that war is incompatible with Christian teaching and that we must do all that we can to avoid war, resorting to it only as a last option. We find no conflict between our faith and the science of evolution (or the science that informs us about global climate change). The Bible that we read and study firmly and boldly states that God is against poverty. The Torah and the Prophets were clear and unequivocal in their condemnation of God's people when they turned their backs on the poor. Progressive Christians are Christians; our lives have been radically transformed by the birth, life, ministry and teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We follow the healing Nazarene. We praise our Maker. And we are sustained by the Holy Spirit.

This rant arises out of my need to say once again that progressive Christians are here. We read. We think. We worship. We care. And...we vote.

the game is on...what will the dems do?

The election is over and the Democrats appear to have taken both the House of Representatives and the Senate along with the majority of governorships. Pundits last night and all day today have been remarking that this is a referendum on the president and on the war in Iraq. While I agree that both of these issues weighed heavily in the election, I believe that people voted out of their disgust at the overwhelming hypocrisy of the Republican Party. That leaves the following question: Will the Democrats be able to refrain from the same hypocrisy? While I voted along Democrat lines, I am not sure that they will.

The game is now on for the Democrats to set before the American people an agenda that is positive in nature for the entire nation. It is my hope, even if it is not my firm belief, that they will update our minimum wage, make strides in slowing the global climate change, move us toward sustainable energy and energy independence, and find some way for us to wade through the muck of Iraq. It is also my hope that they implement the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission and provide the necessary funding to safeguard our ports. In order for any of these goals to be accomplished, they will have to roll back the tax cut on the richest of us. Issues like health care costs and a just penal code should be addressed but not right away so that other more acute problems can be made manageable.

While none of these things is in and of itself a Christian or a progressive Christian issue, progressive Christians are - least this progressive Christian is - interested in being good stewards of the earth, offering fair wages for hard work (justice), making us as safe as possible without demonizing others, and providing for the weakest among us (the poor and the ill). We may find ourselves at odds on things like Gay marriage (personally I think that marriage is an issue for religious institutions and unions the province of the state), there is a healthy agenda before us on which we can make incredible strides. Most important of all, however, is the challenge before the Democrats to stay away from the lure of corruption. They need to heed the caution issued last night by the voters of this nation. We cannot stomach relentless corruption. Do not fall into the pockets of corporations and your own greed. Look at your agenda. Stick to your agenda.

Curious in the vote from last night was the evangelical defection. A full 1/3 (some sources report 1/4) of the evangelical vote went to the Democrats. This might be attributed to the social conservative stance of many of the Democratic candidates, but I believe it was a vote against the corruption rampant in the Republican party. The game is on, Democrats. What will you do? How will you lead? Conservatives and progressives alike are watching.

Friday, November 03, 2006

i take the bible seriously, therefore i cannot read it literally - my testimony

Tonight I shared Shabbos dinner with friends. As is always the case when I spend time with them, conversation makes its way to Christianity and to perceptions of Christianity. Throughout the evening we talked about the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that is currently in Seattle and Christian misappropriation of the scrolls. The resignation of the Rev. Ted Haggard from his church and from his leadershop role within the National Association of Evangelicals also came up. When things like this happen, I find myself having to explain that Christianity is not a monolithic institution and that the Evangelical Right and progressive Christianity share very little in common except a profession of faith in a God as revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Here is where most of our commonality ends. And it is here that progressive Christians need to learn to proclaim who we are and not only what we we aren't.

Once I heard John Cobb say that he couldn't read the Bible literally because he took it seriously. That statement rung true for me in a profound way. As a progressive Christian, I take the Bible extremely seriously. In it I find stories of discovery, of wounded and searching people, of people trying to make sense of a world out of control, and of people's hopes and dreams. In it I find my ancestors' understanding of God, their world, and their life circumstances. In it I find themes that inform my life and my understanding of how the world ought to be and the realization that we are far from God's dream for us. In it I find the history and foundation of my faith. I don't find historical accuracy, news articles, or perfect people. I don't find a list of how-to's; it's not an instruction book. One of the greatest gifts of the Bible is found in the deeply flawed nature of my ancestors. They were doubters, murderers, adulterers, liars, cheaters, and connivers. They were also survivors, dreamers, builders, and revolutionaries. They were just like you and me and everyone alive today. A mixture of good and evil, greatness and disappointment brewed in them every day.

The Bible has a lot to say about the state of brokenness of the world and it presents a wonderful vision for a "new heaven and a new earth," the place in which God's dream for creation has become manifest among us, within us, and through us. This vision understands the goodness of creation, the importance of the Exodus, the harsh cultural and religious criticisms of the prophets, the Israelites' desperate need for home, the importance of extending radical hospitality to the stranger, the profound need for forgiveness, the power and witness of Jesus, corporate sin, the gift of healing (salvation), and the unfinished business that has been laid at our feet as disciples of Jesus. Such a vision takes the Bible very seriously. And because of this serious reading, I cannot read it literally as though there was ever one Bible, in English nonetheless, and that that Bible was written by God's finger. No. The Bible is the receptacle of many dreams and the preserver of many ills. It is my history; it has been handed down generation after generation and it has finally made it to me. It is my time to hold on to God's vision of a new heaven and a new earth, to believe as Isaiah did that we can be repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in (see Isaiah 58:6-12). It's time to end the poverty that breaks God's heart.

Progressive Christianity has a wonderful opportunity to deconstruct the assumptions about Christianity held by many Christians and non-Christians alike. Progressive Christians need to speak up about our serious reading of the Bible and how it determines our ethics, offers us hope, cautions us, and sets before us a vision of justice and compassion for God's good creation. We need to be relentless in educating our friends and communities about our beliefs and our deep and abiding commitment to God revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Our hearts have been deeply affected by Jesus the Christ and we have been profoundly humbled by his example and life such that we dedicate our whole lives to him as our Way in the world. We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to sustain us and to inspire us each and every day to work for God's peaceable kin-dom. I believe that it is imperative for us to be relentless in our efforts to broaden our communities' perceptions of Christianity. We aren't all hypocritical, fear-based, and anti-intellectual. There are many of us who believe in evolution, the separation of Church and State, the work for a just and poverty-free world, and a nuanced and serious reading of our holy scriptures. We are neither superstitious nor are we atheists; we are serious followers of Jesus, and we believe in the powerful story of life overcoming the powers of death that conspire to rule this world.

I've been thinking about this since dinner. It saddens me when even my closest friends believe that I might want to convert them or condemn them. Christianity is not, in my opinion, the only pathway to the Divine; it is just the only way for me. God is bigger than my constructs, including my religion. I'm not drawn to Christianity because I'm afraid of some place called Hell. I'm a Christian because it is the framework that gives my life meaning and brings me closer to the Divine. I'm a Christian because I have found God most clearly revealed in and though the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I'm a Christian because the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer lead me through each day of my life. In the myths, fables, legends, and stories of my faith I find a pathway to Heaven - that is for me complete union with the Divine. Hell is the state of not living in union with the Divine. I can experience it right now, and in those moments and times in which I have lived falsely in the world, I have found it. Christianity is not the alternative to something bad; it is the entirety of my being. It's just that Christianity as I understand, experience, and live is a far cry from the Christianity on television, in our government, and in the minds of even my closest friends.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

the state's shrinking glaciers

Here is an article from the Seattle Times on the shrinking glaciers of our magnificent state.

State's shrinking glaciers: Going ... going ... gone?
By Warren Cornwall

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK — Like tiny doctors on the belly of a sleeping giant, three National Park Service workers trudged up the middle of the Nisqually Glacier, stepping over tiny creeks and peering down a dizzying chute where water from the melting glacier wormed into the 300-foot-thick slab of ice. (Read more)

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