This morning I spoke for approximately thirty minutes to Virgina de Leon, a religion reporter with the Spokesman Review, Spokane’s local newspaper.   Virginia asked lots of questions about my background and about the upcoming Emergent Mainline Dialogue, which will take place on the campus of Whitworth University: 

http://www.whitworth.edu/FaithCenter/Calendar/EmergentChurch2007.htm.

Unfortunately, once again, I struggled to articulate what the EMERGENT congregation may tangibly resemble in our local context.   I know that I’d like LATAH VALLEY PRESBYTERIAN to be conversant with emerging generations–people in their twenties and early thirties.   I’d like our newly forming church to mutually engage persons of lower incomes and different ethnicities.   I’d like our community to be authentically open to curious questions and challenging diatribes.   As the organizing pastor I’d like to see all of this, not to even mention the depth, creativity and vulnerability of the worship experience…   And yet, when someone like Virginia asks me to point to something out there in the world, I stammer.  

Certainly, the EMERGENT movement has a formitable array of descriptions and those who are very much gifted with words and images.   The recent book, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, is literal proof of that.   But, visually, when the newspaper wants to send out a photographer, what footage can epitomize the nuances of epistomology and missiology which are at stake.  

I kept telling Virginia that the Emergent Church looks like dialogue, like a conversation between persons and people groups that Christians often don’t want to hear or to see at the table.   I kept telling the astute journalist, who had been trained at a Jesuit institution, that it’s about how we know things…  that the truth of the Christian faith cannot be summed up in a bumpersticker or a T-shirt slogan…  that simply confessing certain tenets of belief, in  cerebral and cognitive ways, isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he told stories (parables).

Consider the story of the victimized traveler on the road to Jericho.  You may know it as the story of the Good Samaritan, and have heard it interpreted as a cogent tale of moral behavior at its best.   But Luke 10:30–37 overflows with the potential of dialogue.   Historically, the Samaritan had been excluded from the conversation with the priest and the Levite.   As a result of the northern kingdom’s capitulation to the Assyrias in the 7th century BC, the people of Samaria developed the reputation of being heretical and syncretistic.   So, in the story, Jesus depicts the renegade and the mavarick, ostracized outcast as the ONLY one to help the wounded man on the road… Hmm…

So, I suppose that’s the  best thing that I can point to.   In verse 37, in fact, Jesus wraps up the story in Luke 10 by saying, “Go, and do likewise.”  

In other words, go and do the uncomfortable dialogue.   Do the harrowing discussion in which we each share what we believe, and in which we practice the humility of not always claiming to have the whole truth.   Do the talking and the listening that we do when we’re not selling a product to a religious customer.   Do the face to face encounter which doesn’t have to tow the line of the institutional church, or even bear the weight of our dogged traditionalism.

Yes, Virginia, there is an EMERGENT CHURCH…   And, to catch a brief glimpse of it, we have pay attention.

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2 Kings 22:3—13

Mark 13:1—2

Corinthians 5:1—5 

·        A sand castle in the ocean surf. 

·        A frontier school house on the wind-swept prairie. 

·        A pile of bricks where the factory used to be. 

·        A dorm room after mid-term exams.  

There’s something very impressive about the ruins—the ruins of almost anything.    A creative masterpiece.  A sacred landmark.  A thriving economic center.   A great nation.  A great temple.  A great church.   There’s something very impressive—very tragic and very hopeful—about the scattered pieces of these things.   And all this debris does not even begin to describe the impressiveness of our ruined relationships.    

  

A Nez Perce friend of mine took me on a tour of his sacred land, and the Henry Spalding museum.   The artifacts, under glass, inside the museum told a great story about the missionaries and their struggles to communicate the gospel.  But then my friend took me outside to an area behind the museum dumpster.  There was an old tree, growing there, and embedded in the knot of that tree were some rusted shackles.   My friend placed his hands in those shackles and said, “This is how they converted us…”   And I think I learned more from that ruined tree than I had from that opulent building.

  

There’s something very impressive about the ruins.  And, I’m wondering this morning if it’s our job to fix them, or perhaps if it’s our place to engage in some form of triage.   I’m wondering about what status quo, established, apparently rock-solid arrangements are actually destined for decay and brokenness, and how we might spend our time and energy given that some of our best institutions are bound to fall. 

  

Think about what it must have like for King Josiah.   In 621 BCE (in between the northern kingdom’s fall to Assyria and Judea’s fall to Babylon), the young ruler of Judea is busy overseeing the temple renovation project.   2 Kings 22:6 says that vast sums of money had been allocated for the carpenters, the builders and the masons.   But none of that construction compares to a book that Hilkiah the high priest discovers amid the rubble.   This book, probably a fragment of Deuteronomy, is so impressive to King Josiah that he tears his clothes as a public act of repentance. 

In the same way, centuries later, the apostle Paul is more impressed with shipwrecks and imprisonments than he is with safe travel and free passage.   Paul’s fascination, he claims, is with “a house not made with hands.”    

Moreover, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus of Nazareth will look at the grandeur of the temple and make this audacious claim: 

 “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”   

The ruins, you see, are very impressive—much more impressive than the political power of the institution itself.   And when we pay attention to the context of Jesus’ words, it’s intriguing that he made this remark while the temple had been going strong.   Why?  Why denigrate the most powerful symbol of Jewish religious identity?

It would almost be like someone coming into the chapel here at Whitworth and saying something like, Do you see that Weyeheimer Center?—it’s as good as dust!   It would be almost like going to Life Center or Real Life Ministries in Idaho and saying, You’re dead.   Why do that?   Why should we consider the ephemeral, fleeting quality of our best institutions in the same way that Jesus imagines the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem?  

  

Well, one reason may be to create space—to create space in which we can imagine things otherwise.   And essentially that’s why I’m here with you this morning—to remind you of the space that God will provide you as you imagine his kingdom on earth and to remind you of what Karl Barth says in The Word of God and the Word of Man:

When we seek God, let us not be bewildered by the negative appearances of disintegration in   ourselves and in the world (p. 295).  

Pastor McGonigal has asked me to talk about why Jesus matters to me, and I can only venture a response to that question by highlighting the ruins of why I thought he once mattered to me.

For example, from a young age, my father had been trained as an automobile mechanic.   For over forty years he diagnosed car problems and fixed them.   That’s what he did and that’s how he provided resources for our family.  Consequently, my initial image of Jesus had been as a kind of MECHANIC OF MORALITY.   Whatever I did, whatever anyone else did wrong—Jesus could fix it.  He could fix anything…   But somewhere along my teenager years, I learned about my Dad’s nightmares, his alcoholism, and my old image of Jesus collapsed in a heap.   Here’s the story behind those ruins.

  Long before Bob Pyle could fix cars, he had been a 12 year-old helper at the family service station where his father worked.  As a child, my Dad had the messy job of wiping out the pit, the dark, cavernous hole in the garage, over which they would drive broken down cars and work on them from below.  So, picture him:  this kid in gray overalls, taking his gasoline-soaked rag and rubbing down the walls of this grease stained pit.   That’s what he was doing, when suddenly there came a spark from someone’s cigarette nearby, and from the pit there flamed this enormous tongue of fire.    Then, as the story goes, my grandfather jumped into the flames, rescued his son, but later died because of the severe burns that he suffered.   Bob survived to wipe down more pits and to eventually fix more cars.  He could fix almost anything, but he could never fix what happened.  

He could never fix what happened.  And neither could Jesus!

  You see, in the ruins of that burned out family business, that tormented boy became my father.  And with that legacy, he did the best that he could do.   When I was twelve and falling in puppy love with the girl across the street, he taught me not to fall for anyone.   When I was seventeen, and graduating high school, he gave me the sex talk, which consisted of three words, Use a condom.   This bit of counsel, of course, led me down a catastrophic path, in which my poor decision-making and my binge drinking collided.   I came home from Penn State feeling shattered like broken bottle.  Nothing could be fixed.  But then, like the young Josiah of 2 Kings 22, I went to “inquire of the Lord for me and for the people…” in a church building that would burn to the ground only a few years later.  I went to inquire concerning the words of the book with another human being who wore a torn pair of jeans.  This pastor didn’t do or say anything impressive.  He basically reiterated many of the stories and images of Jesus that I had been taught in Sunday School.   But somehow, in the ruins of that day, it mattered.  Jesus mattered, and matters still.   

To the monuments of guilt, anxiety, false security and fear that you and I build, and which we occasionally renovate even now, the carpenter from Nazareth says this,

 Do you see these large buildings?  Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down. Amen.  

santana.jpg

On the Supernatural  album, produced by legendary guitarist, Santana, there’s a haunting song whose lyrics go like so:

“Hey now… all you sinners

Put your lights on,Put your lights on

Hey now… all you loversPut your lights on

Put your lights onHey now… all you killers

Put your lights on

Put your lights on

Hey now… all you children

Leave your lights on… you better

Leave your lights on

Because there’s a monster living under my bed

Whispering in my ear…”  

Put Your Lights On  features the musical group Everlast on vocals, but what cannot be missed is the way in which everybody sings this song.  Don’t misunderstand.  Tastes in music vary from person to person and from culture to culture.   Nonetheless, the basic theme of light and darkness may truly resonate with every living, breathing, insomniac soul. 

 Here’s some quick, but profound, biblical hits to get us in the groove.  Psalm 139:11,12 says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”   In the same vain, Isaiah 45:7 describes God declaring this:  “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”   Jumping to the New Testament, we hear the poetry of John 1:5, which imagines the birth of Jesus as “The light (which) shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Finally, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, the apostle Paul exhorts, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 

In considering these and other verses from the Bible, it is a wonder why people were so dismayed to learn about Mother Teresa’s comments about darkness.  Born in what is now the Republic of Macedonia, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu became a Roman Catholic nun and the founder of an order, known as the Missionaries of Charity.   In 1979, Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the orphans of Calcutta, India.  And yet, in a posthumously released book, Mother Teresa:  Come Be My Light, we read an exchange of letters in which the saintly leader agonizes in the night.  She pleas with her mentor, Rev. Lawrence Pichacy, in August of 1959, “Tell me, Father, why is there so much pain and darkness in my soul?”  Three months prior to receiving her worldwide recognition, she confides to Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, “As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”   Vulnerable words like these, of course, are awkward for us to hear and many media pundits have simply managed them by suggesting that Mother Teresa may not have even believed in God.    This, however, is far from the case.

As the texts quoted earlier invite us to ponder, darkness and light are part and parcel of the Christian experience in the world.  Trusting in the love of God is not a sunny walk in the park.  On some days it may seem like that, but as we grow in faith, the night inevitably arrives.  Centuries before Mother Teresa ventured into her own abyss, Juan de Yepes y Alvarez coined the phrase, “The dark night of the soul.”   The man who became known as Saint John of the Cross wrote about some scary, unnerving moments, but none of them beyond the reach of God. 

In our time and our place, some folks may assume that an experience of darkness is a sign of moral weakness, or doctrinal heresy.  On the contrary, Everlast and Santana may have nailed something that popular Christianity has failed to comprehend:

 “There’s a darkness deep in my soul.

I still got a purpose to serve

So let your light shine,

Into my home

God don’t let me lose my nerve…”    

Jeremiah 23:23—29 

John 6:52—71  

Our footsteps fell upon the frozen creek with confidence.  We were walking home from school, and temperatures had dropped below 32 degrees Fahrenheit for many weeks.   But this particular afternoon the sun broke through the clouds and things began to thaw.   Anyway, we were making the trek home on the hard surface of the snow-caked water, like we always had during the winter, and suddenly my friends and I heard this strange sound beneath our feet.   It was like the sound of a clap of thunder only the vibration from that subterranean noise gave us no doubt.   Suddenly, the frozen horizontal slate which had seemed so secure tilted vertically, like the Titanic, and there was nothing we could do.  Brace yourself. 

A few months ago, our family redeemed some coupons at the Silverwood amusement park.   We went swimming.  We ate pizza.  We pointed our toes and arched our shoulders, sliding down these long, steep slides.   And to dry off, we turned our attention to the roller coasters.   At Silverwood, there are a variety of roller coasters, but as I’ve told my wife many times, my preference is for the kind that have been constructed out of wood. 

 I know, I know.  Reinforced steel, or whatever metal they engineer for roller coasters, is supposed to make for a smoother ride.  But, on a roller coaster, I don’t want a smooth ride.   What I want is rickety ricochet.   I want that bone-jarring collision, that freakish free-falling friction, that goose-bumpy, base-of-the-spine, tingling sensation.  I want all that adrenalin pumping through my veins, and then I want a heavy dose of Advil.    Brace yourself. 

This morning, like a plunge into icy water and like an especially daring ride at the amusement park, I’d like to suggest to you the wild and untamed beauty that is the word of God in the world.  You see, we may come to worship today, assuming that God always speaks in comforting whispers or in flattering phrases.  But from the prophet Jeremiah we learn otherwise.  Jeremiah 23:29 describes the true word of God as being like fire and like a hammer that breaks rock in pieces.  Ouch!  That doesn’t sound too pleasant, does it?  But, on this World Communion Sunday, I think it’s appropriate for us to consider what Karl Barth called, the perplexity that is God’s word.     

 And, you see, if we try to balance that comparison by turning to Jesus in the New Testament, John’s Gospel doesn’t seem to cooperate.   In John 6:60, for example, the text says that many of the disciples who heard Jesus referred to his teaching as “difficult,” and in verse 66, they turn back and no longer go about with him. I tell you for someone like me, whose trying to start a new congregation, this kind of material won’t sell.  It’s a lot better, for example, to lead with John 3:16—“for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”  It’s a lot more marketable to mention what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28, which reads like this:  “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…”   Those are the kind of words that help people to ease into the church experience like a soft pillow.   Or maybe those are the kind of words that are very often manipulated and taken out of context.    

And context, of course, is crucial.   So, let me ask you—what’s the context at Post Falls Community Church?

 Soren Kierkegaard once told the story of a patient who has escaped from an asylum.   The authorities eventually discover the missing person and call out the search parties to find him.   The man, of course, understands that he is wanted and changes his clothes and appearance, and before they come upon him on the street, he resolves to say something that he knows is true.  You see, the idea is that if he says something that’s obviously true, the authorities will not suspect him.   Well, eventually they catch up to their patient, and they ask him where he’s from.  And he responds with the truest remark that he knows:  “The world is round.”   Upon saying this, however, the authorities grab the man and take him back to the asylum.    You see, statements like “The world is round” may be true, but uttered out of context they strike us as irrelevant and even crazy.  

What is our context?   And what would be the context in which God’s word might truly change us inside and out? 

In another story about a patient who has escaped from a psychiatric institution, Walker Percy describes a young woman named Allison.  Allison has made it, via a catering service vehicle, all the way to the park in the middle of a busy metropolitan area.   To appear normal her first goal is to simply sit upon a bench and to think.   Yet, before sitting down she’s approached by bright and obviously affluent woman with a satchel bag of pamphlets.   Allison is intrigued.  Maybe this pretty lady with the pamphlets does know her.    “Hello!” says the perky woman to the escaped mental patient.  “Are you lost?”  And before Allison could answer, the woman continues, “Are you lonely?  Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”   These and other words leave Allison absolutely breathless.   She takes the woman’s pamphlet, and unlike all the other pedestrians in the park that day, she begins to read it…  But, of course, everything she reads (and hears from the woman) is entirely out of context. 

What is our context? 

  Annie Dillard writes that on Sunday morning, the ushers should issue life preservers, not bulletins.  Moreover, rather than the beatific, Easter bonnets, we should all be wearing crash helmets.   When it comes to God’s word—and the true encounter with it—that’s our context.  Jeremiah says it’s like fire or like a hammer that breaks rock.  Jesus teaches his followers about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, but he doesn’t mean to endorse cannibalism.  That’s not the context.    Brace yourselves, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Our context is somewhere in between John 6:58, in which “your ancestors ate and they died,” and verse 62:  “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”   Somewhere in between those two themes—one utterly grounded in the past and the other reaching for the future—we break through the ice.   Or we go for a ride on the roller coaster.  Choose whatever metaphor you want, but make sure it corresponds to a radical adventure, or to an earth-sharking drama.   God’s word is like that. But, you see, here’s the problem.  Too often in the life of the institutional church we lean too far into the past and try to say something true, like the world is round, and it is round, but so what?  Or too often in the life of the church we lean too far into the future and try to say something to someone without really listening.   Our context in Christ, however, is always in tension.  Like fire.  Like a hammer that breaks rock.   A group of prisoners during World War Two took it upon themselves to have communion.  Their Japanese guards asked them to stop, but without the bread or the wine, the captured soldiers made the motions of giving and receiving the body and blood of Christ.  And, mysteriously the captors worried.   Amen.

An Everlasting Sign

October 1, 2007

Isaiah 55:10—13

John 19:17—22 

I’m going to tell you a story about a sign.  It was just an ordinary sign, about two feet high and three feet wide, but when some anonymous person posted it on a tree, the sign had the effect of confusing people.  Let me show what the sign said, Do Not Read This Sign. Now what’s confusing about the message of that sign is that once you’ve read the words you realize that you’ve contradicted what they say.  Isn’t that confusing? Well, let me share with you the images of another sign… 

Jesus of Nazareth on the cross is an equally confusing and contradictory sign.  We might read the lines on his face.  We might trace the tears that stream down from his eyes.  We might parse the blood that oozes from his whiplashes…  But in the end, that sign of God being crucified is going to mock everything we say, everything we do and everything for which we hope… A few years ago, Sheryl and I went to Germany and in one of the hotels, there was this sauna room.  We were relaxing in there and right next to me is this sign with a rope attached to it.  The sign read, NOTENTLUFTUNGSKNOPF, and I thought maybe that meant more steam.  So I pulled the rope and a few minutes later the manager of the hotel comes running.  It turns out that I had pulled the Emergency cord. 

Misunderstanding or misreading a sign will do that to us every time.  Signs disrupt our plans and intrude upon our easy living.  In Isaiah 55:13, the prophet tells us about “an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”   And when we hear about that sign, we assume he intends to tell us what the sign says.  But he never actually does that.  In the gospel accounts, Jesus mentions the signs in the weather and how people gear their lives around those seasonal signs, but he marvels at the fact that people cannot read the signs of the times.   Finally, in the passage from John 19 that I just read, Pontius Pilate installs this placard over the head of the crucified Jesus.  It says, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”   Those were the words etched into the wood in three different languages.   And when the religious authorities read that inscription—wow!  They were upset, weren’t they? So, you see, signs may not be as directive or as helpful as we might like them to be.   But here’s the reason that I’m so grateful for signs in general and for the “everlasting sign” that Isaiah mentions in particular. The sign that God has given us in Jesus Christ gives us the freedom to fail.  Think about that.  You and I can read the sign or the signs that God sends our way, and we can fail to do what the sign says. 

Signs are invested with that freedom.   Signs are planted for that possibility.  And, of course, the inherent beauty of POSSIBILITY is that it’s possible for us to succeed or us to fail and nothing is automatic; so we have ADVENTURE! 

RISK! 

REAL HOPE! 

The other day, I drove around, putting up some of our Fall Festival signs and someone had the audacity to rip a few of them out of the ground.  And angrily I thought about all the other trashy signs along the road, signs for politicians, signs for free oil changes, signs for lost pets, signs for boy scout meetings, signs for the home show…  And I wondered how in the world Latah Valley was going to make it without signs…  That’s when I reconnected with Isaiah.  In chapter 55, Isaiah announces that “everlasting sign,” and perhaps it’s no accident that in chapter 56 he talks about welcoming foreigners and eunuchs into the community of God’s people.  In verse 3 he says,“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘the Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree…’”   And then, in verse 5, he follows that negative up with this positive statement:  “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” That’s the sign, you see, that can’t be thrown in the trash or ignored with all the other signs.  That sign will change the neighborhood.  And maybe, as we try to invite people into Latah Valley, as we risk failure, God will allow us to embody that very message through Jesus Christ, our Lord. 

Amen.