Monday, February 27, 2006

Sand Empires

Yesterday we went on a picnic with friends from the church. Their two children, Oliver and Mercet, abandoned all thoughts of eating their lunch in preference for the call of the beach. Off they went, running up and down the beach, gathering stuff and making up games. Shortly they became engaged in an elaborate engineering feat. The tide was at its low ebb and they "found" and "island" and decided to stake it out and make it their own empire. Back and forth they ran, gathering sticks to mark out the perimeter, even finding a stick with a flag to post in the center. They did this for over an hour, ultimate naming it the Empire of M & O.
Then, like children, they went off to other things, leaving the outlined empire abandoned. Soon we saw a couple dancing slowly to their own music in the confines of the empire. "Hey, they can't do that!" said Oliver. "It wasn't meant for dancing". And then other beach strollers came upon the "empire" and photographed it and wondered at it. All the while the tide began to rise, creeeping in on the secure island. I asked my friend's daughter if she thought the boundary sticks would survive the tide and be there when the tide went out again. "Oh no" she said, "They'll probably all float away and we'll have to start all over." And with that she went back to more pressing interests.
I could not help reflect on those kids as I downloaded the photos into my computer this morning, a grey and drizzly Monday after a long and energy-taxing Sunday. It's one of those Mondays when pastors wonder about all the energy they invest in the Sunday services and events. How much is like empire building in the sand? How much of it lasts the tides of change and crises? After a week of reflection on the emerging nature of the church at the National Pastors' Conference in San Diego, I think these are important things to consider in these days. The tides are rising, bringing certain change. I really want the church I serve and my ministry to be about that which lasts and endures, that which counts in God's eyes. Sometimes, when I think about all the "comittees" and "boards" I have and am serving on, I wonder how much of it is sand scratching?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

NPC after-thoughts

My first National Pastors' Conference is over. Great thoughts and observations will need to distill and settle over the next weeks and months. But there were some great quotes I'd like to share with you.
Ryan Bolger from Fuller Seminary "A person should not have to cross cultures to find God." "Some beleivers find the church toxic to spirituality." "Our task (as pastors) is to give people nothing to consume."
Doug Pagitt from Solomon's Porch "We are moving into an era of non-church-centric understanding of the kingdom of God, where the church (local organization) is not the sole proprietor of God's good things."
LeRon Shults from Bethel Seminary quoted G. K. Chesterton: "Why should I fear anything that cannot take God away from me? Why do I desire anything that cannot give me God?"
Scot McKnight from north Park University "20 million Christians are outside the church in North America now. By 2025 that number could be 70 million Christians outside the church. Young Christians find no central value in the local church. One key reason is the natural result of distributed spiritual formation. We have out-sourced spiritual formation to professionals, the para-church, camps, retreats, and the ever-growing media." "Evangelicals have no robust ecclesiology. The question those outside the church ask is: waht can you give me as a church member that I can't get as an attender? Why join?" "We don't believe in the church, but in the individual's salvation and voluntary association with other saved individuals."
Jesus came for me as an individual, to die for me, to forgive me, remove my personal guilt so I can go to heaven. It's not about "us" it's about "me."
These are just a few of the great thoughts/quotes I gathered. The overwhelming sense I picked up was a tsunami warning that the tides are changing. The response of pastors and churches is not a retrenched defense, but offensive theology on the integral importance of incarnational body life. Much of the criticisms I heard leveled at the local church i wholeheartedly agre with: irrelevance, self-centeredness, materialism, consumerism, racism, entertainment driven, blind and deaf to the crying needs of the world. It's time! It's time to embrace the criticisms and make structural changes and redirect our energies in kingdom ventures.
The gaping question of the whole gathering was the silence and absence of denominational leaders. I'd love to see denominational leaders present, observing, reflecting. The emerging church is hear. What is the role and response of denominations? Do they acknowledge, help, hinder or irgnore the emerging church? Hmmm.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I have always been a devoted attender of Covenant conferences. In fact, I have not attended other large, non-denominational conferences by choice. I like the Midwinter and the friends I know I'll reconnect with. But the staff here in California was not too keen on heading to Chicago in January so I went alone. But they did twist my arm to join them all in San Diego for the National Pastors' Conference. I hesistatingly said "OK" since it would be a good time for us to be together as a growing and forming staff. So this morning I got up at 5:00 am and picked up Dan, our worship leader and we drove to San Diego through LA rush hour (a real driving experience!)
What I experienced knocked my socks off with its intensity and power. Doug Pagitt, Scott McKnight, Dan Kimball, Tony Jones,Ryan Bolger, John Burke, and LeRon Shults led a session from 1-6pm on critical issues in the emerging church conversation. It was a turbocharged afternoon of theological discussion that kept me glued to the edge of my seat. Here is one of the most vitalizing conversations I've been involved with in years. Thank goodness for a staff that pushed me. Be sure to check out the web site of the national pastors conference in San Diego

Monday, February 20, 2006

Snow Dusting

Sunday morning was cold in Santa Barbara. Not cold like much of the USA, not locked into below zero weather and double digit inches of snow. It was brisk and bright. A storm came through in the early morning hours, cleansing the air. But I could see my breath as I walked across the parking lot at 7:00 am to unlock the church and get the coffee on. I go through a set routine on Sunday mornings to "claim my space" for worship. I turn on lights, and unlock doors and check for anything being out of place. But I was not prepared for the sight that greeted me as I looked up into the hills behind the church...snow! The hills pictured above are about 3,400 feet above sea level, just enough to hold snow for a couple of hours.
It was the talk of the church yesterday. Old timers told me how it comes once or twice a year overnight, and is gone and melted by noon. On some unique years there is actually a measurable amount, and some folks from town drive up into the hills with their pickups and shovel it in the the pickup beds and drive back down into Santa Barbara to make snow-men or have snowball fights in their front yards. Members asked me if I, a longtime Minnesotan, missed the snow. And I had to say "yes". My eyes kept lingering on that covering, that dusting that snow brings.
All day long I had recurrent good memories of blanketing snowfalls that softened all the harsh edges of the city and muffled all the sounds. I recalled late night cross country skiing with a good friend at -10 degrees, and working up a sweat as we glided in the bright moonlight. I recalled how the world turned to stark black and white in a snowstorm in contrast to the deep greens of summer and golden hues of fall.
But, I was also glad I did not have to shovel the stuff, get stuck in a drift, or bundle up with several layers yesterday. A sweater did fine. And the view was delightful... from a distance. I guess yesterday forced me to realize that I am coming to terms with my new place, my new neighborhood. While I now call this place "home", I am such a newby still. I am so ignorant of the ways and nuances of California. When I think I am getting it, then I realize how far I have to go. I was just "getting" what it meant to be a Minnesotan (a midwesterner) after 52 years. It will take a while longer here in this new and mystical place. But it was still nice to have the dusting!

Saturday, February 18, 2006


It was an odd sight. We were walking in the late afternoon along the beach when I saw a seal just sitting on the beach, alone. The tide was out and he (or she) was sitting there looking out to sea, when a pickup truck with a hydraulic rear lift-gate drove up. A guy got out, lowered the gate, on which sat a large cage. He then grabbed this long pole with a net and slowly and carefully approached the seal from its backside and captured the it. The seal was not a bit happy. It made some distressed sounds, new to my midwestern ears, as he dragged it a couple of yards to the cage. What was going on? It looked fairly cruel and brutal? What wrong was the seal doing on an ocaen beach? Was this a no-seal beach or something? Had the seal violated some sort of Santa Barabara beach-code? He (or she) wasn't harming anyone.
So I approached the guy and asked "What's going on? What are you doing?" He told me he was with the marine center and was on a routine patrol to pick up sick or injured seals. He asked me to help load the seal into the cage (which the seal did not like at all!). Then he told me that the seal's behavior and lethargy indicated something was wrong, probably sick. And if left alone, he (or she) would be prey to other animals and would die. He was taking it to a marine hospital where the seal would be examined, treated and released back into the ocean where it was supposed to live and thrive.
So his capturing net was not all that bad or cruel, but rather life-giving. That picture I snapped has made me think about Jesus the Good Shepherd of lost sheep (read: seals) who seeks us out and "captures us"; sometimes(or often) against our wills, to bring us back to safety.
Sometimes he captures me when I get lost in my churchy routines and pastoral roles with a song or poem or fleeting sight on the street of a homeless person. He captures my heart from its desire for seductive and sedentary comfort and treats me with his life-giving word and releases me back into the ocean where I am meant to thrive.
But I still hate being captured because I don't like nets around me. I don't like not being in control. I don't like having my movements and options constricted and confined. But if I'm not captured by Jesus, I will die on the beach at the hands of predators. So, capture me again Jesus!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Covenant Olympian

Amy Sannes, who attends Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton (when she's home) is part of the American Women's Speed Skating team in Torino Olympics. Amy graduated from Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis and then went on to pursue her speekskating dreams. Amy has been faithfully working full-time on speedskating for many years, living with team-mates in Park City, Utah to reach her goal of Olympic comptetion. This year she placed 17th in the 500 meter race, the second highest US woman in the world! Go check her results on Google "Amy Sannes Results" . Go Amy!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Life Pilings

In our community we have a wharf. I've never had access to a wharf on a regular basis before. It's really cool. You can drive out on it. There are three or four parking areas on it. There is a marine musem, four restaurants, and a bunch of trinket shops, all on the wharf. It's the place we go to get my new ultimate food: lobster tacos!! The wharf is made out of thick wood planks and rumbles when cars drive around.
Last week we were walking on the beach and walked under the wharf. And for the first time I took a long look at the pilings. Wow! There is this tangled, yet strategic arrangement of long poles driven deep into the sand and at different angles to support the wharf. They have endured some powerful storms, waves, and the regular tides. Walking under the wharf and seeing the pilings makes me all the more confident in the strength of the wharf.
The piling pictures came to mind this morning as I read two divergent articles in the paper: on the ongoing Islamic rage at the Danish cartoons and the huntin debacle with the Vice President in Texas. What do those incidents say about pilings, and support systems? It seems to me, a real novice, that when you scratch militant Islam you get rage and anger real fast. Those are pilings that frighten me and repel me. I am not drawn to hate and violence. Then there is the Vice President who, when scratched gets secretive. It took over 24 hours for it to be made public that he shot someone! Yikes! How long could you keep quiet the fact that you, a normal citizen, shot someone? 15 minutes? Different pilings.
I hope my personal pilings and the pilings supporting the church are different. That when scratched we respond with neither rage nor secretiveness, but with transparency and love. I hope that beneath my life are pillars of joy and hope, truth and beauty, honor and respect.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Vajra: passionate music

Last night I went to a bar. That in itself is a weird thing. I don't go to bars. But two of Montecito Covenant's young men were playing in a group that was featured for a 10 pm show. Again, that's a little late for me to be traipsing out into the evening. Normally I'm settling into a good book and slowing down. But they rehearse at the youth room of the church and they invited me. Then one of the moms sent me an email invitation. So I headed to downtown Santa Barbara at 10 pm and paid a $3.00 cover fee to go upstairs, where I found the church chairman, the drummer's father, the lead singer's parents, and about 6 or 7 other church members.
I cannot describe the music of this emerging group called "Vajra". The lead singer also plays jazz trumpet. The drummer, seasons each song with different percussion, sensitively setting tempo, taking off and stepping completely out. The lead guitarist is a tightly wound and intense musician who loves playing in the upper range. And the bassist...oh my! This guy really plays a bass. He takes off on solos, pulling out extraordinary sounds, getting even a "funky" sound I remember from the 70's.
But they are not so much talented individuals; they are dialed into each other, loving each other in the making of intense and passionate music. When they play, even a guy like me knows they care about their music from the inside. They are just letting it out together.
Before I knew it, I was near the end of the show and the leader said, "The next number we'd like to dedicate to 'pastor DJ' who lets us practice at the church." All our church members looked at me with amusement at my involvement. Then they took off playing with energy and passion. I could not stand still as they played. My foot tapped and my head moved. Their music was contagious. They were fun and serious at the same time. They loved the crowd and invited them up front to dance.
As I drove home through the fog, I felt alive and energized. I wondered if I could preach with that same passion? I wondered if worship could be driven by that same power from within? I wondered why too often in the church we accept the bland and mediocre.
Now I do not want to see worship devolve into a "show" and full of performance. Vajra will be coming out with some CD's in the near future. If you are looking for some sacred passion, check out Knut Reirsrud & Iver Kleive's "Bla Koral." These are two Norwegian friends; one a pipe organist and the other an electric (and accoustic) guitarist. And they play hymns, Norwegian hymns, with nothing less than passion.
Settle for nothing less.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

How Serious Is the Fire?

My son Luke shot this picture traveling down to spend Christmas with us. A car engulfed by fire along the road. This driver was definitely having a very bad day. But notice, the passenger door is open, meaning the driver and passenger have escaped. This is no little fire. It will destroy the car. And if the occupants did not get out, they would die. This is a fire that cannot be ignored or denied. It will take over and destroy the car.
I am finishing a book by Ron Luce on Youth Ministry, "Battle Cry for a Generation" that begins with the a story of a car on fire. Only this time there is a passenger trapped inside and the person telling the story does not give a moment's thought about what he had to do. He had to get the passenger out of the car...now! Or he would die.
Luce goes on to illustrate that it is with that sense of urgency that we need to conduct ourselves in ministry today. The car on fire is our culture, and it is consuming our youth. They are dying, literally and spiritually under the heat of consumerism, sexualization, pressures to succeed, and media saturation. It's not safe in the car anymore. The air is noxious, if not lethal in long exposure. I heard today from a colleague and unbelievable statistic, that at a major Fortune 500 company, way over 60% of its computer time is tracked to porn! Are you kidding? That can't be! That's impossible! That can't be! But she assured me that she heard it from a reliable source. That's a car on fire!
I am in the middle of being deeply disturbed reading George Barna's newest book "Revolution". Along with reading Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis", Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz" , Reggie McNeal's "This Present Future", and Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" I'm smelling smoke, and it's coming from the church and it's not a barbeque. Something is really wrong. Business as usual is not getting the job done. Keeping customers happy is not building the kingdom. The doors are open and people are bailing out.
Who's getting this? I'm not sure our larger church leadership is. It's certainly not reflected in the conversations and offerings at large gatherings. I do think Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt are some of the voices, along with the authors above, who are speaking to the problem, but do they ever get hammered by many in the church.
I don't want to bail out, but put out the fire and get back on the road.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Getting Perspective

After spending more than a week at the Midwinter Conference in Chicago, I'm finally home. Chicago was warmer than normal for late January early February. But toward the end of the week the gray-metal skies descended and by Friday everthing drizzled. About 1,000 pastors and leaders were gathered together in the cavernous space of the Hyatt Hotel, surveying crowds for old friends; being introduced to new friends, singing familiar songs and learning new ones. Leaders exhorted us from podiums and sometimes talked to us in the hallways. We ate meals together in the restaurants and consumed expensive coffee between meals and meetings. We stayed up late laughing, listening to each other's journeys, praying for each other and sometimes crying with each other.
But too long in a hotel, too long eating in restaurants, too long breathing filtered air, too long in unfamiliar territory makes me a bit disoriented. My bearings get scrambled and I begin to go places I shouldn't go; like complaining and criticizing denominational politics, second guessing leadership changes, speculating about the success or failures of other pastors. I had to get home. I was getting negative.
The ride home was great. I was tucked into seat 41A on a United 757. That's the seat at the very back of the plane on the window. Behind me was the galley and restroom. My seatmate was a single-mom coming back from a family crisis in Rochester NY. As the monster lifted off and headed through the thick clouds, the sky grew brigher and brighter till we emerged into the brilliant morning sun. We flew at about 35,000 feet over the midwest. I saw fields and grazing lands, mountains and roads. Three hours later we landed in LAX and I scrambled onto a short-hop commuter plane to Santa Barbara, that flew straight west along the coast. Soon I began to recognize landmarks: Ventura, beaches, oil rigs, and the hills of Santa Barbara. I saw the cemetery and traced a line up to where the church and parsonage should be. This was where I belonged. This was the pastoral landscape I was called to serve.
Then today we drove up into the hills with a friend of ours visiting us from Michigan, to show her the sights. The photo above is looking west from La Cumbra Peak (about 3,900 ft above sea level). From the heights I see exactly where I belong. It's kind of weird how tied I am to physical surroundings. I need spatial some reminders to get my scrambled bearing back into alignment. It happened everywhere I ahve served: Minneapolis, Muskegon, Lafayette. I always knew when I was home, and where I belonged.
May God give you a view from the heights to remind you of your neighborhood and where you belong to serve him.

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