Chuck Berry at Thirty-Eight Thousand Miles an Hour

When I was eleven years old my dad took me to see the arrival of the Space Shuttle Enterprise as it landed in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama on its way to the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. It arrived on the back of a modified 747, and as I remember it these two technological marvels made a long sweeping turn over the gathering of spectators and then lined up for an impossibly-slow landing where they seemed to hover in mid-air.

I was utterly transfixed, marveling at the fact that a million pounds of steel could not only be mated to one another but that this strange contraption could manage to take-off and land safely. How did the wings on this 747 didn’t snap off under the stress?!

I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a PASTOR!

No, I’m joking; that’s still a paragraph or two away. I wanted to be an aerospace engineer.

So, I went to Space Camp, I purchased a telescope, and I even read Sky and Telescope Magazine on the regular. None of this however made me much better at math, a skill that is apparently required for engineers and one which my high school math teachers consistently demonstrated that I did not possess.

I eventually found a more appropriate, if somewhat less-lucrative intellectual pursuit in “liberal arts.” While NASA’s technical achievements continued to interest me, I gave up on the idea of ever working on them personally. And, overtime I grew more and more intrigued by the more philosophical aspects of humanity’s fascination with space, wondering for example: why are we putting men and women in a dangerous space vehicles in the first place? And, what would possess these astronauts to risk their lives in order to leave the earth for only a few days?

Is the pursuit of escape-velocity just a “sciencey” perspective on a far more metaphysical quest?

A few years before NASA launched its first Space Shuttle, it sent two unmanned probes billions of miles into the Solar System to orbit Jupiter and Saturn and send back pictures and data.[1]

These vehicles did more than send information back to earth however, they carried information from it – messages to be more exact. NASA placed two “Golden Records” on the Voyagers, actual LP’s coated with gold, carrying organic sounds such as that of a human heartbeat, along with classical and contemporary music.

Now, let’s stop right here for just a moment and consider the fact that the scientists and engineers, upon conceiving of the plan to send two spaceships into deep space, had the wherewithal to say, “hey if these things are gonna be traveling through the universe at 30,000 miles an hour then they’re gonna need some tunes!” How boss is that?!

So, NASA created the ultimate mix-tape, sending Beethoven, Blind Willie Johnson, and Chuck Berry (one white guy and two black guys, surprising choices given that it’s the late 1970’s) into space. But why? Why fly “Johnny B. Goode” into the deepest recesses of our galaxy? The answer is…

…“Extra Terrestrials!”

Yeah, just in case, a 100 million years or so in the future, one of the Voyagers might happen to encounter some aliens, the smartest people on our planted wanted to make sure these “ET’s” knew that it was us who invented Rock and Roll!

Well, maybe that was merely a hoped-for corollary to a more serious goal! Sending music on the Voyagers was an earnest and contemplative affair in reality. Annie Druyan was the creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Message Project, the organization that picked the sounds and music to include on the two golden records. She reflected on the inclusion of Beethoven:

“The first thing I found myself thinking of was a piece by Beethoven from Opus 130…when I first heard this piece of music I thought, Beethoven, how can I ever repay you? What can I ever do for you that would be commensurate with what you've just given me? And so, when my colleague said, ‘This message is going to last a thousand million years,’ I thought of this great, beautiful, sad piece of music, on which Beethoven had written in the margin the word ‘sehnsucht’, which is German for ‘longing.’"[2]

There was something about “longing” that communicated something essential about humanity. To Annie Druyan, human longing – the desire to encounter something beyond what we see and touch – was so central to our existence as humans that to her Opus 130 was saying, “this is who we are.”

We are creatures who long. And isn’t this part of what drives us to strap ourselves on top of rockets in the first place?

Humans have been singing for as long as we can remember. And songs have been used to express our longing for probably that same length of time. The Psalms are evidence of this. They are songs which describe – and occasionally claim to answer – the human yearning to discover that which is beyond the confines of our physical world. These songs describe how one particular nation discovered that “the beyond” actually speaks and that this speech could be captured in song.

These artists used music to not only chronicle their revolutionary spiritual experience, but to reimagine it, and share it with others. Their audience was of course one another, singing these songs in community, but they wrote them for us as well: fellow travelers who, though separated by thousands of years, are still wrestling with the very same questions they were.

This tiny nation reached out to the beyond, and discovered – to their sheer astonishment – that the beyond had first reached out to them. They were not finding something hidden, but according to their telling, a personal God who not only answers their longing for ultimate meaning but was the one who placed this desire in them to begin with. Despite the historical distance between us and them, their songs do seem a lot like ours. They are infused with love and loss, hope and frustration, ecstasy and despair. The Bible even has it’s own version of Elvis: King David!

While we put songs of our longing on space ships, the people that wrote the Bible put their longing into stories, prophesy, lament, dogmatic and apocalyptic letters, poetry, and music. And, even while believing that a personal God had revealed himself to them, they still wrote songs that were full of questions, confusion, distress, and at times even protest of God’s actions or his putative absence.

Psalm 121:1, “In my distress I cry to God” could be read as a prescription for prayer in times of sorrow, but it could just as easily be a description of the author’s present state, saying to Yahweh something along the lines of “Hey, do you see us down here?! Do you know what it’s like to be us?!”

The Psalms are irreverent, often moving between a bare expression their longing to rattling God’s cage with it. In our world of performative, shallow religious piety, the Psalms don’t waste time with Top-40 banalities. Instead, the gut-wrenching blues of Blind Willie Johnson – his “Dark Was the Night”, also traveling on the Voyagers – would be a more fitting accompaniment.

At times the Psalms don’t seem to ascend any farther than the human voices that carry them. And yet they maintain a deep conviction that they are not launched into the unknown in the same “what if?” fashion of the “Golden Records.” There is a sung assurance that a personal God is listening, and despite the recurrent bafflement that at times constitutes these prayers, they spring from the data of previous encounters.

These besotted poets do believe that they have met a God who, in explaining himself, would simultaneously be explaining the nature of their humanity and pointing them to a possible solution to their seemingly-unquenchable desire for transcendence.

The Voyagers were time capsules of longing, carrying the recorded sounds of our cosmic homesickness far into the future. When we read the Psalms, we are excavating a time capsule of sorts, containing ancient records of the spiritual experience of a pilgrim people – people like us who want to exceed the boundaries of our workaday experience. Like them, we long to know whether there is someone out there is one who knows us and thinks well of us, one who is inclined to fix the broken and disappointing parts of our lives.

It would be 2500 years after the Psalms were composed that mankind would finally begin to challenge the constraints of gravity, rocketing into lower earth orbit and later launching our songs into deep space – far beyond anything our Psalm-writing ancestors could have imagined. Yet, distance is relative in this case. Even if they were sung by a particularly-large community of the faithful, our ancestors’ Psalms might only travel a few hundred meters through the air and yet still find their way to a place far beyond the singers’ known world. And ours.

These melodies: equals parts cosmic longing and relational adoration, went “up” farther than the Voyagers will ever travel, making their way to the very ears of God.

They went “up” because God, the hearer in this case, had first come “down”, inviting them to sing their hopes – and their complaints – to him. He came “down”, singing a song of creation as it were, and a melody of love for a tiny desert tribe who themselves were surprised to find out that they would be the bearer of his larger love for the entire world, a love that could not ignore the plight of his beloved.

As it turned out God would answer the longing of the Psalms in person. In a denouement that was at once entirely-consonant with the preceding narrative (properly understood) and impossibly avant-garde, God’s son enters into the story already-in-progress as its main character! Jesus came as God’s incarnate “song”, becoming the answer to the questions that the Psalms which preceded him raised. Growing up in a Jewish household he would have been intimately familiar with the tension in these songs between magnificent joy and utter desolation, but unlike other Jewish children he would not only sing of these polarities but grow up to become their resolution.

His death would give meaning to the sadness of death: God sees, and feels, and even joins us in dying, while his resurrection would justify the obstinate joy that says “keep singing” for death will not have the last word.

While the songs onboard Voyagers 1 and 2 will outlast all of humanity and will be speeding through the universe even as our sun becomes a red giant and presumably consumes the earth, but if Jesus is to be believed, his song will echo into eternity and thus there is a reason to believe that our songs of longing are not in vain.

[1] The original mission only included Saturn and Jupiter but was later expanded to include Uranus and Neptune.

[2] I discovered this quote in Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West.

The Beach for Misfit Toys

The Prenti / Prentisses / Prentiss' just got back from a week in SoCal. We hiked in Joshua Tree, we Disney-ed (just one day thankfully!), and then headed to Venice Beach where the air is warm, the sun is bright, and the people are weird.

Venice is actually one of my favorite places in the world and one of the few places outside of Portland that I would gladly call home. Despite recent gentrification, similar to what we're seeing here in Portland, there's still a healthy dose of strangeness.

Alongside L.A. scenesters and tech-bros "slumming it" in a $4000/month loft, you'll encounter aging meatheads lifting weights barefoot at "Muscle Beach", women wearing roller skates with 70's-style tube socks, skateboarders with lots of scars but few jobs between them, and the formerly-transient who have found something like home among others who've decided that if you're gonna be sleeping outside it might as well be at the beach!

I wouldn't want to live anywhere that doesn't have a place for people like this. People like me. Anywhere that being strange is something to be fixed.

The Prentiss family has been "Keeping Portland Weird" for ten years now, and though it's changed a lot in that time it's still a place where weird people move to knowing that Portland has a place for them. Even if you aren't strange in a stereotypical way if you're part of Intown, part of a church – you're weird!

Being a Christian in Portland is weird. Yet, here in this famously-liberal city I've never experienced contempt or rejection. Quite the opposite, when people find out I'm a pastor they are invariably curious and engaging; it's like they've discovered a unicorn!

Strange people move to places like Portland because it's safe. I don't mean safe in terms of crime statistics but in terms of community. In large urban centers you can always find your people; even if you were something of a freak in your hometown Portland will "take you in." In fact, what IS weird in Portland is exclusion, it's rejecting people because they don't fit mainstream society's idea of "normal."

Cities like Portland, places like Venice Beach, are life-giving places because they don't demand conformity but instead have a "come as you are" attitude. The beautiful thing about this for a church in these kinds of places is that we get to add to the welcome. We get to be a new family for people who may have been rejected by theirs and a place for a city of misfits to meet the one at the center of our community who himself was a religious misfit.

Lots of our neighbors moved here to leave behind communities of rejection and we get the truly holy privilege of stewarding their stories in the presence of God.

Hey What's In All Those Money Bags?

I grew up going to church and as I remember it the time of offering on Sunday morning was the only way that the church I attended got money. And by “got money", I mean the way it received the money that it needed to exist – to pay the pastor, the youth director, the music leader, and the rent and insurance, to pay for ministry events and coffee, and all the other things that go into being a church. So, we’d pass around a plate – the church I went to had these kind of awesome half-plate half-bowl things that were silver and, as I remember it, ensconced in velvet. Or velour. Or something like that. Anyway, all the money for the church passed through those awesome plates on Sunday morning. 

But times have changed and so the Sunday offering may now seem, at best – a bit quaint, or, at worst – weird or silly. We use bags rather than plates at Intown, but the reason the offering might seem strange is because most of the money that funds the church's ministry doesn’t come to the church through these bags. In fact, about 75% of the money that comes into the church comes through online giving – and by way of a plug, you can give once or set up regular giving through this link. You can also give via text anytime by dialing 503-766-5673 and following the prompts. 

But back to these bags. We still pass them around, and they often move through the rows pretty quickly, passed hand-to-hand without slowing down because people are already giving through some other method. And that’s great because it helps the church leaders budget more accurately. But, and you had to know a but was coming: having money come out of our bank account online can lead to a sort of thoughtlessness concerning our giving. Maybe we think about it once (hopefully at least once a year!) and then it just sort of runs in the background.

So, this Sunday, when the bag comes down your row, even if you don’t take out your wallet or checkbook when it comes by, take the time to remember that you DO make sacrifices for this church: through your online giving you enable the church to continue its ministry. Also, observe the people who collect the offering. They come up the aisles and then one of them takes the bags and places them in front of the communion table. This is because what is in those bags, or what is represented by those bags, is given to God in recognition of what he has given us in the bread and the wine – his son Jesus. God gives us the broken body and spilled blood of his son and as an act of gratitude we give back to God. Finally, during the offering, notice the person that hands the bag to you and think about the community of Intowners who love God and love each other, regularly giving all kinds of resources to sustain the work of our church. 

The time of offering isn't just a pragmatic part of the service, it's a time to reflect and to respond to grace. As such, it's a vital act of worship.   

(Guest post from Scott Bowman who is an elder at Intown and all around nice guy.)

Remember that Teacher Who Gave Homework Over Summer?

When I was a kid, the last thing I wanted to start the summer with was a homework assignment! Even though I would have nearly three months to read three books the mere thought that I had homework over the summer was thoroughly demoralizing! 

Well, guess what. I'm 'bout to lay some summer homework on ya! But, don't worry; it's for your own good! ;-)

Maybe it's because I grew up in the South where we never had four seasons (we only had two: DADGUM-I'M-ABOUT-TO-DIE-HOT and mildly chilly) I've never planned my year according to seasons but semesters. So, three times a year I think about the next four months and ask "what I would like to see happen?" during that time period in my personal life, my family, and in my job.

And, this morning I crossed off one of the goals I wrote down in May: Learn to Surf

Writing down these goals is obviously easier than accomplishing them and sometimes I believe that I can do in four months what is more reasonable to think about tackling in four years. Still, it's so helpful to wake up each morning and have a goal-oriented filter to do triage on all the urgencies that pounce on me during morning coffee.

I don't want the "urgent" to constantly squeeze out the "important", nor allow one area of life dominate the others, but this takes a plan. 

As you can tell from the goal above, even though I'm a pastor this plan isn't just a bunch of spiritual stuff! In reality, all of life is spiritual, so surfing counts as working on my devotional life! Now before you go thinking your pastor is a pagan with no real sacred ambition, I'm about to lay the "Summer Homework" on you – and it involves some Bible reading!

We're beginning a study of the "Psalms of Ascent" tomorrow morning.* This grouping of Psalms: from 120-134, are thought to be songs that were sung as Jewish pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem three times a year for special celebrations.

So, what I'd like you to do first is to write down a handful of goals for the summer. You can use the categories I listed above or choose your own. Don't overthink it and don't shoot for the moon, just come up with a few specific goals that would help you move towards becoming more of the person that God designed you to be. Then, pick a day each week where you can carve out a few minutes to read through the Psalm from the previous Sunday a few times in a row. This won't take that long; they're all very short. Next, just see what happens: maybe you you choose to take a few more minutes to meditate upon or pray through the Psalm, or you might want to share an observation on our Facebook page, or perhaps you keep a journal of reflections and thus have a record of how your plan in part one goes throughout the summer. 

And, let's just see what God does okay? I'll bring it back up again; I don't want to be too overly prescriptive right out of the blocks. 

* This post was first published as an email on Saturday night, June, 16th.

The Father, Son, and Who?

Tomorrow we're looking at Acts 2 where Luke describes what many consider to be the beginning of the church. But, what is it about this moment that is different from Jesus gathering his disciples together and giving them the "Great Commission"? Why is THAT not the beginning of the church?

Well, this moment is different not just in circumstance or setting, but in the renewed presence of the Holy Spirit. It's not that the Holy Spirit has been absent from the world just waiting for this moment to make a grand entrance and begin his work. Even as far back as Genesis 1 we read that "the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep."

The Holy Spirit has been part of the story all along, but here Luke (the author of Acts) highlights some of the strange phenomena: fire, wind, foreign tongues in order to billboard for us that something new – and exceedingly potent – is taking place.

I'm taking a bit different direction in the sermon tomorrow that doesn't burrow as deeply into some of the themes common to a Pentecost sermon so I wanted to make sure that we recognized that which Pentecost signifies: the somewhat bizarre establishment and commissioning of the church to carry on Jesus' mission in light of his departure. 

The Holy Spirit (or just Holy Spirit, without the the, because as one of my seminary prof's was fond of reminding us – we're referencing a person not a thing) tends to be the overlooked, if not mostly forgotten member of the Godhead. But, Holy Spirit is equal in glory and power and divinity to the Father and Son so our spiritual mothers and fathers decided to set aside a Sunday to remind us that we are a community because God's Spirit descended upon those early disciples in miraculous ways. 

This community, this church learned and prayed together, they opened their homes, they shared their possessions, they broke the bread of grace and offered it to one another, and their community grew with people not of their choosing and not always of their tribe.

This nascent church was commissioned you see not simply with a message to tell but with a common life and communal practices that were just as much part of the message as anything which could be verbalized. 

God's Spirit commissioned them yes, into the far reaches of the known world, but he first made them into something new. It's one thing to carry a message; any person with a good memory can do that. It's another thing entirely to embody that message, one that demands an ongoing work of self-displacement as a means of validating its truthfulness! That, that requires the Spirit of God. And, that's what Pentecost says is present even now for all of us to take hold of. 

Songs to Sing Uphill

Tomorrow’s sermon is a transitional one: a bridge between two series. 

For the last five weeks we’ve been bouncing around in the New Testament using the lens of “It’s Still Easter” as our guide to try and uncover the ways in which the resurrection of Jesus is meant to be directive and relevant to our everyday lives rather than merely a special event on the church calendar. 

Tomorrow, we'll still be teasing out that idea but also leaning into our summer series on the Psalms of Ascent. These were songs that Israelites would sing at least three times a year on their pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for special celebrations. The journey was often "up" from a geographic or spatial sense, but always "up" in a metaphorical one. 

Christianity hasn’t typically prioritized these kinds pilgrimages (unless you count the commute to church every Sunday morning) and perhaps we’re poorer because of it. Imagine how vivid the cost of discipleship would seem to us if three times a year we had to make a days-long journey to an out of town worship service. And, we had to make these pilgrimages with our extended family, along with a bunch of strangers, who were traveling for the same reason. 

Oh, one more thing: no radio, no books on tape, no screens whatsoever! 

Maybe, after a few hours you might start up a song and invite others to sing along in order to pass the time. Okay, probably not, but stay with me here, because that IS in fact what ancient Jewish pilgrims did. But, they didn’t sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”; they sang songs of prayer that oriented them toward Jerusalem and toward the God who “waited” on them there. 

We know this because we have 15 Psalms in our Bible that are considered “Songs of Ascent” which were sung in a sort of traveling worship service. 

Tomorrow we’re looking at Psalm 95, which isn’t part of this grouping, but I think will help to set the stage for the Psalms/Songs of Ascent by discussing the nature of worship itself. Then, next Sunday we’ll have a one-week intermission for Pentecost Sunday, and then on June 16th we’ll start our summer series: "Uphill Songs" with Psalm 120. 

So, feel free to read Psalm 95 for tomorrow and maybe make the 15 Psalms of Ascent your companion for the summer. Below you’ll find ways that you can serve and be involved at Intown in the coming weeks.

How Was Your Thursday?

You know, because we've been talking on Sunday mornings about "Resurrection on a Thursday." So, have you been paying attention? maybe just a little more frequently? 

Was there anything that happened last week that made you say "wow"? Where you saw something like new life breaking through in an unexpected way? 

I'm not talking about full-blown medical miracles here; if you did see someone rise from the grave last Thursday then please please please let me know! What I'm hoping for is a bit more modest: that we'll begin to notice the myriad "small" ways that God is already at work around us in ways that don't necessarily move the needle on the miracle meter.

Not really those times where you believe God rescued you from some imminent harm, but those times where:

  • You felt God speaking, maybe whispering, "life" into the dead or dying places in your spirit.

  • You found some inkling of hope in a situation or relationship that felt hopeless.

  • You sensed God in the smile or the tender touch of some other human in a moment where you felt alone.

I do pray that God's kindness is intruding into your life in radical and obvious ways, but sometimes the effects of resurrection aren't those things we're likely to announce on social media or tell our grandkids about, but the countless tiny moments where we see signs of life instead of – not necessarily DEATH per se – but stagnation, stasis, inertia, boredom, flatness, and disorientation.

The kinds of things in other words, that don't happen on Easter Sunday but on a Thursday, or a Wednesday, or a...well, you get the idea. The point of the "It's Still Easter" sermon series isn't necessarily to jump start resurrection in your life but merely to trigger our awareness of the ways in which God is already creating new life and we just haven't taken the time to notice.

Tomorrow, we're looking at the story of "Lazarus and His Sisters", one of the truly BIG examples of resurrection. But, I believe that it's in these extraordinary examples of rising where we can learn to notice the more ordinary ones.

Orthodoxy is Easy, Or Resurrection on a Thursday

Easter starts rather than ends on Easter. In fact, tomorrow is the “Third Sunday of Easter” implying that what we celebrate on the first Easter Sunday is meant to be consequential in the weeks that follow. 

We don’t finish our Easter service and roll the stone back over the tomb to make it ready for next year, but what happened in that tomb – we believe, an unparalleled miracle – is meant to bleed into our daily lives throughout the year. 

So, we're taking time each Sunday during Easter to reflect upon the resurrection in a way that matters on a Thursday. 

You see, orthodoxy is easy.

Believing that something has happened, such as Jesus rising from the dead, while perhaps intellectually difficult, doesn’t demand or cost us much of anything. We can show up on Easter Sunday with a firm conviction that Christianity’s most astounding claim actually happened and yet go to work the next morning without that truth demanding anything of us or really altering the trajectory of our lives. 

In fact, in churches where orthodoxy is a, if not the principle value – churches that really really really "believe all the Bible teaches" and adhere to the most sophisticated and elaborate confessions of faith – are often communities that are intolerant of dissent and where members feel unsafe. The neighborhoods these churches inhabit aren’t typically any better off for them being located there. 

Intown is a church that is intentionally in relationship with a denomination rooted in the historic Christian faith and which has an identifiable confession that it, and therefore we, adhere to. This isn’t a burden to bear but an exercise of joyful alignment and submission.  But, at the same time, believing the right stuff is one of the easier parts of being a church.

What sometimes feels impossibly hard is to believe, feel, and act – all at the same time – in accordance with the call of God (IOW, to be a church marked by orthodoxy, orthopathos, and orthopraxy.) and in a way that the Easter Resurrection matters on a Thursday. 

Our hope is that in believing that Jesus rose again that we would also long for and act towards bringing new life into the midst of: dying relationships and marriages, decaying bodies and instances of mental disorder, disintegrating urban fabric due to systemic injustice and inequality, as well as in those places of deadness in our individual spiritual lives.

Tomorrow we’re looking at the very strange episode at the tail end of the Gospel of Mark where two women go to the tomb where Jesus was buried and find it empty. We're told that they’re scared to death, and then, nothing happens! Mark doesn’t tell us what happens next.

Is this an invitation perhaps to imagine what should happen next? To ask, “resurrection? so what?” in their situation and then in ours.

An Easter Prayer of the People

Prayers of the People – Easter Sunday April 21, 2019

Richard White

Dear Jesus, Matthew tells us that, early Sunday morning, when the women came to the tomb where your body lay, there was an earthquake and the angel the Father sent rolled the stone away and then sat on it (28:2). There is little question in our minds why the guards shook for fear, but we wonder if the angel was tired or if angels have a sense of humor. One sitting on the stone, two others in the tomb folding the burial shroud like so much laundry. A comic end to what one author has called a “tragedy beyond Sophocles or Shakespeare” (Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew).

To the women the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, 

“. . . He has risen, just as He said

Quickly now, go tell his disciples

That Jesus Christ is no longer dead”

So the songwriter replays the scene. And, as we join in the singing we are wishing we could have been there in that garden just before daybreak to be witnesses, but we were not. Though angels could not resist the opportunity for some theatrics, laughing behind their hands at the divine joke played on Satan, barely containing their urge to laugh out loud, to sing and shout and dance, the stunned women had to be admonished “Do not be afraid.” The empty tomb, even for them, was not enough, they needed an encounter with their risen Lord or they could not, would not believe you were alive. And we are no different.

Mary Magdalene, did not run with with the others to tell your disciples, but stooped in to see for herself only to be told by two holy messengers sitting one at the head and the other at the foot of the stone cold slab that it makes little sense to search for the living in a graveyard.

And still, until she bumped into her Master and heard you speak her name, she could not break through the confusion and the fog to grasp the truth of the matter. That you were alive.

Sitting here this morning are some who, like Mary Magdalene, have a dark past where little ever went according to plan, where things generally ended badly; where relationships were fleeting. Ones whose hope died two days ago and peer with confusion into the empty tomb because nothing ever turns out right.

Lord Jesus, please meet them here today in the twilight of their confusion and speak their name so they might run and tell the truth to any who will listen that you are alive and not all stories end badly.

Peter and John, came shortly after. One who tried but failed to fulfill his vow of faithfulness and one who stayed nearby to the end, closest friends, leaning on each other, racing to see for themselves whether the women’s nonsense was true. Both had their own unrelieved anxieties, unable to believe the women because the one who could not forgive himself had denied you and the other stood at the foot of the cross and heard you say, “It is finished” and so he could not believe otherwise. Their vision had died with you on the cross.

But you met them at their favorite fishing spot in Galilee and there they learned how hard love can be and how deep. Though you had already forgiven them, you replaced their anxieties with your vision.

This morning, seated here are some who cannot forgive themselves; some who have experienced the death of a vision. Ones who need you to meet them in a quiet place where you can privately confront them with their anxieties, where you can give them a vision for their future, and your promise for the strength to endure the ordeals that are to come. We pray this morning that in the quietness of this hour they will find forgiveness and a renewed vision.

In our midst are ones for whom the Bible is a dark and mysterious thing, perhaps, even though they have heard it and read it from their youth. There are here those like the ones on the Emmaus Road who could not rejoice in the resurrection because they could not understand it. Please walk with them on their way. Open their minds to what you have done, to what you are doing, to what you will do so much that when we break bread this morning the realization of the resurrection will break in on them and they will know that it was you they met on the way here today.

Some here are like Thomas, wanting what others have experienced. Longing for an encounter with the risen Lord. Left out. On the periphery. Wanting to believe, but demanding something more substantial. Please, dear Jesus, step through the locked doors of their minds and overwhelm their desire for more and greater evidence by your tangible presence. 

Each one of us here, in one way or another, need help believing the unbelievable. Laughing angels sitting cross-legged on tombstones or folding laundry are not enough. Even though the tomb is empty we still need you to lift our confusion, to give encouragement, to offer opportunity, to open our minds, to soften our hearts, to confront our doubts. We need this encounter because our faith is weak.

And are not alone. This morning we pray for every woman and man who tamp down their doubts so they can preach or teach, for every physician praying for little resurrections, for every missionary enduring persecution, for every social worker seeking resources for the homeless and mentally ill, for every person whose vision has died, for every sinner who believes they are beyond redemption, for every child who is afraid of the dark, and for every person who has yet to hear of the good news that the tomb is empty we ask for a holy encounter.

Most of all we pray for ourselves. That we might share the joke the angels shared with the women and the disciples and the others that first Sunday morning. We pray that today our encounter with you in this place will end in laughter and hooping and hollering: 

“Joy to the world, He has risen, hallelujah

He's risen, hallelujah

He's risen, hallelujah

Hallelujah.”  

God's Self-Portrait

"Art is so often better at theology than theology is.” ― Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

This has been my experience too. Films, songs, and literature have done so much to enrich my spirituality and sense of God, often correcting and re-enchanting my theological categories.

As a poet, Wyman stares at wonder. And he then tries to describe his experience in the holy and liminal spaces of our world in words that have the capacity to take us there with him. While I wouldn't necessarily describe him as a "Christian writer" – perhaps calling him a writer of "Christian persuasion" would be more accurate – he constantly talks about God as a being a who is both distant and difficult to pin down with human language and yet one who is intimately aware of and involved in the day to day life of his creatures. 

Some may find Wyman raising more questions than he seeks to provide answers to, and for those of us steeped in the rationalistic Christianity of the modern West this may be troubling. But, I find his poetic bewilderment about God to be the most endearing quality of his writing – and I don't even like poetry! Wyman's sustained quest to find God in the beauty and sadness of life (he has an incurable form of cancer btw) is often so much more instructiver even when compared with some of the overly-confident didactic statements about God that I memorized in seminary. 

So, I recommend his writing to you, but that's not the point of this note. I rediscovered the quote above earlier this week and included it in our "reflection quotes" for tomorrow. This isn't altogether strange or worthy of comment except that I'm preaching again on Paul's letter to the Colossians, a notoriously heady book. 

In the New Testament, the four Gospels are thought of as primarily narrative in content while Pauline letters are primarily instructive and pedagogical. But, I'm not so convinced of this taxonomy. While Paul doesn't tell the story of Jesus in the same way that the Gospel writers do, he's not writing systematic theology either.

He's writing doxological and pastoral letters to help local churches connect their lives in practical ways to the stories they've heard about Jesus. 

While Colossians might be more stylized than say Mark's Gospel, and certainly there is a great deal of theological reflection in the letter, none of it is meant to be pondered without being lived. In fact, it wouldn't make any sense if you tried.

We're reflecting upon Colossians again tomorrow to try and better understand the resurrection, which to Paul is not simply an event that happened, and far more than a theological reality to defend, but something closer to divine art – God's self-portrait if you will – whereby he steps into our reality to invite us into his.

I hope you can join us! 

The Second Sunday of Easter, or Low-Attendance Sunday

The Sunday following Easter is known in the trade as "National Assistant Pastor’s Day" because pastors who are fortunate enough to have assistants normally pawn off the preaching duties off to them that Sunday. As they do the Sunday closest to Christmas.  

You see, the hours during Holy Week can be long for lead pastors, and generally, while Easter Sunday is often the most well-attended service of the year and so he or she is expected to deliver the message, the Sunday after Easter is generally not well-attended and it becomes the day for lead pastors – and parishioners – to take a bit of a breather. 

This downtime after Easter isn't necessarily something to lament, just something that is. In fact, even the unintentional rhythms of life can be holy and alive with God’s glory! So, this isn't a roundabout way of saying that because I don't have an assistant pastor and don't get a break then neither do you so see you tomorrow! 

No. I think it's wonderful to have certain Sundays that are thought of as the "big events" of the year and in a city like Portland the fact that some of those who showed up last Sunday might not come back until next Easter is not something to be merely-tolerated but embraced. Perhaps we should consider whether we’re the ones being tolerated and be grateful that in a post-Christian context someone who doesn’t normally attend church and who is perhaps suspicious of the church’s diminished but continuing role in civic life would still choose to show up and share Easter Sunday with us.

In my view this is an extraordinary privilege and I’m delighted to open the doors to someone whether Intown is their home, they’re traveling and just passing through, or they come every once in a while.

But, for those of us for whom Easter is a special but not a completely irregular day in the rhythms of our life, I do think it's important to ask concerning Easter – so what? How does what we celebrated last Sunday inform our daily lives the other 364 days of the year? 

This is a far bigger question than can be determined by whether you choose to show up for church tomorrow, or the following week and if you need a break, take one. But, if at the center of Christianity is something as incredible – meaning not only spectacular but in-credible, or difficult to believe – then doesn’t it seem necessary at some level to embed ourselves as deeply as possible into a community that believes that this incredible event is true? How can we be expected to believe something like Jesus’ resurrection, which implies our own, without hearing it rehearsed every Sunday (or at least most of them!) And, surely to begin to consider how to embody and practice a belief in a resurrected Jesus we need the plausibility structure of a relational community that is also attempting to figure this out.

For the next two weeks (this was written on Saturday the 27th) we're going to be talking about resurrection-the-rest-of-the-year and I do hope you can join us. But, I also hope that over time each of us can jettison the whole concept of “church attendance” and instead figure out what it is that we want out of life – particularly our spiritual life – and how the rhythms of Intown as our primary community would inspire rather than demand our regular participation. Joining your spiritual family for worship on Sunday mornings should be as little about compulsion as possible – seriously, no one is checking role at Intown! – but something you value because you want to continue discovering what it means to be holistically and foundationally Christian.

What Kind of Love is This? Getting Ready for Good Friday and Easter

I’m writing this on Maundy Thursday, the celebration of Jesus' last meal with his disciples where he – the Rabbi, the Teacher, the Lord – washed their feet. The disciples were rightfully confused. 

Not only does Jesus bend down and touch their dirty feet, they recline together as friends, they drink wine and eat bread together, and John is described as laying "upon the breast of Jesus" depicting two males comfortable with physical closeness.

The scene is intimate, embodied, and incarnational. And it is in this context that Jesus gives his "new" commandment that they are to love one another as he has loved them. 

The message of God's love has an intellectual component to be sure, but it gets to us through our bodies, our senses, our hunger, our sickness and wellness, our suffering and joy, our living and dying; God's love took shape in a body and walked around ancient Palestine. Mercy came upon those early Christians through physical instruments like water, wine, bread, and in the gathering of many bodies into one body to worship.  

Still today we meet Jesus as we make ourselves present in those places where his love takes up residence in our physical world, in liminal spaces where Jesus is experienced in a way that, while different from how those first disciples must have experienced him, is still real enough that every Sunday we repeat "this is my body, eat this in remembrance of me."

Jesus' command to "love one another" isn't just spoken but it is incarnated. It is given around a table where feet are washed and food is passed down one to the other. Real love, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday love, always has "hands and feet" and utilizes not only words but physical touch, money, and time.

To give this kind of love we must first receive it, and so I invite you to join us tonight at 6:30 at Grace Bible on 12th and Clay night as we remember Jesus' real, physical, embodied love for each of us as he gave his life on a cross. 

Criminy! Millions of People in this City and Look Who I Rear End!

That's the thought bubble above a whale driving a tiny car who has just rear-ended Captain Ahab in one of my favorite The Far Side cartoons. In the cartoon Ahab isn't directly identified; it was enough for Gary Larson to draw an older gentleman with a peg-leg wearing a black coat stepping out of his smashed car holding a spear. 

Ninety-nine percent of everyone would know immediately that this was "Moby Schtick." 

Even if few of us have read Moby Dick we know the general concept and that Captain Ahab's quest is one of literature's greatest narrations of the destructiveness of wrath. Ahab gives himself fully over to rage and it consumes him. 

Hopefully our experience of rage, anger, and wrath are more attenuated or at least kept private, but for me it's uncomfortable to realize how easy it is for me to empathize with his attachment to rage. And, there are too many books, songs, and films about this cluster of emotions to not conclude that they are universally-understood and experienced.

So, let's talk about it. If you haven't guessed by now the "Deadly Sin" we will be talking about tomorrow is wrath (with a nod to anger, bitterness, and rage). Captain Ahab will be joining us in the sermon, along with Captain Kirk, Ricardo Montalban, and Ron Swanson.

 
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Christianity is About Addition Not Subtraction

I rarely miss an episode of Shields and Brooks on PBS Newshour. I learn something each and every week and these two commentators are exemplars of constructive political discourse.

A few weeks ago Mark Shields was reflecting on the recent political fiasco in Virginia and though I’m not sure exactly what the relevance of the following comment was to Virginia politics it struck me as a profound reflection on the dangers of doing theology as an exercise of boundary preservation.

Shields was unusually lucid during this part of the show and his well-known vocal tics seemed to vanish for a few moments. He first quoted the late Mo Udall, “when the Democrats form a firing squad they first form a circle”, and then offered this commentary:

“Politics is about addition and not subtraction. It’s about a party that welcomes people to its ranks, warmly embraces newcomers, accepts converts happily, and finds common ground. A losing party is one that spends time, energy, and effort hunting down heretics, and banishing them to outer darkness because they don’t subscribe totally to the received wisdom.”

He is not proposing of course that Democrats jettison all their ideological identity and become a party with a big front door and nothing distinctive on the inside of the house. But, I took him to mean that a political party focused on purification — “hunting down heretics” as it were — is a party in decline, a “party about subtraction.”

The 20th Century Church has been marked by an over-focus on doctrinal purity, and while this emphasis isn’t solely to blame for the decline of Christianity in western culture this instinct creates additional sustainability problems. While it’s true that there are simply fewer and fewer people in American/European contexts who have interest in any kind of religious faith, over the last decade we’ve seen a sizeable number of Christians “voting with their feet” and leaving the church often expressing their disenchantment with the church’s contentious nature, its overly-cognitive and belief-oriented orthodoxy, and purgative and preventative measures against LGBTQ and others lacking doctrinal bona-fides. These “dones” ostensibly want to follow Jesus but the institutional church is often seen as a hindrance to this.

Portland is a city awash in people who have left the church. Our city is also full of people who may have some interest in or curiosity about Jesus but rarely would they consider a local church to be an amenable place to explore these interests for the very same reasons as the “dones” give for leaving.

Intown’s vision in this context is to provide a “safe place for people to explore, find, and grow in faith”, to be a church about “addition not subtraction.” And this is not because we have jettisoned doctrinal commitments, but instead because we see in Jesus a God of radical embrace.

  • For newcomers this will mean that Intown will likely feel very different from what you expect church to feel like. Here you are not only allowed, but invited to belong before you believe. We know that when you visit on a Sunday morning you’ll be bringing all your idiosyncrasies with you - just like all the rest of us do. We hope that overtime you would feel more and more at home and that the “real you” would be the person who shows up rather than a projection of the person you think this community wants you to be. At the same time we hope that you’ll come to better understand who Jesus really is and in so doing want to connect your life to his.

  • For Intowners, whether members or regulars, our “being about addition” will in practice mean that our community will be continually-dynamic and that none of us should ever grow too comfortable with a particular season of our church’s life and say “that’s it.” With new people consistently coming in the front door our family dynamic will consistently change in the same way that a newborn changes a biological family’s dynamic. New people bring new needs, questions, and perspectives and if you are a part of Intown expecting it to be a community of confirmation-bias, please know that you too are welcome here, but you will experience discomfort…which probably means you’re exactly where you need to be.

I Can Sense the Trepidation as they Share a Bit of their Story

One of the most rewarding things I do as a pastor is meet with newcomers. To hear a new friend narrate the events and experiences that have led them to Intown is such a privilege - one I’ve had quite often in recent months. 

Every conversation is different, but a fairly common theme is disenchantment and sometimes hurt arising out of a previous church experience. They have come to Portland as a “done”, fully embracing a fresh start in a city that doesn’t presume any religious affiliation. Others may have come seeking separation from a particular expression of Christianity that they find narrow and constricting but overtime begin to realize that they’re not quite done with Jesus. 

I can sense the trepidation as they share a bit of their story and wait for my reaction to gauge whether it’s safe to share more, or will they once again experience love with conditions, the dreaded raised-eyebrow that makes one feel unwanted, or the rejection that can result from questioning the unquestionable in a particular community. 

This sort of thing can be SO painful and can make one feel like a spiritual refugee. But, here they are meeting with me - a Pastor…of a Church! 

To me this conversation is a sacred moment. It’s holy ground, as sure as it was for Moses standing before the Burning Bush. While these dear souls may have been hurt in Jesus’ name it wasn’t with his permission. In fact Jesus weeps with them and hurts with them and his spirit of love hasn’t departed from them; perhaps that’s why they’ve decided to give church one more chance. 

Intown is a place for last-ditch-effort people. We want to be a safe community not because that’s what “hip” or “woke” churches are doing to stay relevant (whatever that means) in a post-Christendom world but because the God of the Bible is a god of gracious welcome.

Intown seeks to be safe because Jesus was safe. So, thanks to all of you who help to make our church such a welcoming place where it’s safe to explore, to find, and to grow in faith.   

Dance Like No One's Looking

I just got back from a Father / Daughter dance with Abi, where people - DANCED! Dancing is something I don't do, or at least don't do well. 

But, instead of sitting with the sad dads who were clearly too uncoordinated to risk embarrassing their daughters by dancing, and so mostly sat around the edges, I embraced the awkwardness and went for it. 

Abi and I even competed for best daddy / daughter pair - we were ROBBED!

What a powerful juxtaposition this event provided the night before preaching on Body Image! Because I had no choice but to embrace the weird, to put my gangly dance moves on full display.

And, guess what. I survived. In fact - I had fun!

We are more than what we can or can't do with our bodies - on the dance-floor and otherwise. We are more than how we measure up to the ever-changing standards of beauty that our culture has deemed normative. But, we have to believe this with more than our minds, we have to "believe" it with our bodies by acting out what we want to be true. 

So, dance like no one's looking.  

We're gonna talk about this tomorrow. Not dancing, but an alternative basis for human identity and our embodied life where our body/self image comes from something deeper than our skin. 

Being Well In More Than Just Our Spiritual Lives

2018 was probably the best year of my adult life. Seriously.

Even with the financial challenges at Intown and encountering personal job insecurity for the first time in over a decade, I felt like I was well enough - emotionally, spiritually, and physically - to not only face these challenges but to believe that God was with me in them and to see them as opportunities to open a new and exciting chapter in my life and in the life of Intown. 

This personal wellness came as a result of some really hard work and, with the help of my wife Katie, some major decisions that I made over the last few years that I'd like to share with you tomorrow. I’ll hit on the major details tomorrow, but if you happen to be out of town don’t worry, more of it will be sprinkled into subsequent Sundays and blog posts.

It's easy for us humans to narrate our lives in such a way that we are the hero of our own stories, and this is not that. I do want to inspire and challenge you, but then get out of the way and allow God to take up residence in the places in your life where you desire change. 

These personal decisions and changes that I'm speaking of were necessary because of a LACK of personal wholeness and due to me NOT making healthy choices. So, try as I might I can't really heroize this story, and we're not doing this "Being Well"  series because that's what I happen to be "jazzed" about at the moment. Instead, we should have been talking about these things all along but for a long time I wasn't in a place where I believed that I had a credible voice and so I avoided talking about most of them with any real specificity. 

So, we're going to talk about physical health, our bodies, emotional resilience, addiction and recovery, vanity, and who knows, maybe even sex!

Tomorrow's service will feel a bit different than normal because the sermon portion of the liturgy will be more of a story than a sustained reflection on a Bible passage. But, I think it will provide a necessary narrative background that will enable us to look closely at biblical texts on this subject matter on future dates.

I think it will be worth it and I hope you'll join us. If you want a further preview (of sorts), click here for a relevant blog post.

Being Well

Every Sunday at Intown a bunch of bodies show up. Tall bodies, short bodies. Thin one, beefy ones, and sorta roundish ones. Old bodies and young bodies. Pregnant ones, sick ones, healthy, disabled ones.

This happens every single week, and yet we don’t talk about our bodies very much. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a church that did talk much about bodies or human embodiment - certainly not in a positive way.

This is curious because so much preaching in the American church is crafted in response to some supposedly dangerous cultural trend or vice that the preacher wants to keep at bay. Yet, while billions and billions of dollars are being spent each year to get us to change or even hate our bodies, the Christian church hasn’t offered a compelling alternative message.

The primary way that I’ve seen churches address these coercive messages is by adding to them, making people in the pews feel even WORSE about their bodies than they already do - especially women and young girls.

So, even those of us who gather our bodies for worship on Sunday are just as captive to the torturous ideals of the fashion and fitness industry as everyone else who lives on planet earth and has a TV or smartphone.

While it’s true that men can be far more obsessed about their bodies and appearance than common stereotypes would suggest - impossibly muscled, hairless titans now being the norm not only for superheroes but sitcom dads - this burden of being astonishingly beautiful has historically fallen hardest on women.

So, each Sunday we drag our body-dysphoria along with us into the pew and there we encounter either a disembodied spirituality that tells us our bodies don’t really matter to God, or we receive oblique and sometimes direct messaging that our bodies - here females are by far the more frequent target - should be covered and hidden lest someone catch a glimpse of our more shameful and sexual parts.

The first of these stems largely from the astounding endurance of the ghoulish heresy of Gnosticism with which Christianity has been fornicating with since the 2nd Century. This dualistic theology, which divides and makes competitors of our bodies and souls is not necessarily taught in any systematic way, but is mostly inferred from years of hearing preaching and teaching that gives prominence to “spiritual formation” and the “spiritual disciplines” and focuses relentlessly on what we are to believe instead of what we are to do and be.

The second problem, though not as widespread, is far more sinister. There are very large pockets of the western church, particularly American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism where the body - especially those of women and girls - is actively shamed as it is described in lurid ways as a, if not the cause of the corruption of men and boys. Girls hear, or simply absorb often-conflicting exhortations such as: “cover your bodies carefully and extensively”, “keep up your appearance for the sake of finding and then pleasing a spouse”, “avoid looking too sexy - especially at church - because boys are visually stimulated”, “you are less of a person if you lose your virginity”, “don’t be too assertive around men.”

Hopefully there’s a good portion of our church for whom this sort of “biblical” teaching is completely foreign - GOOD. But, Intown serves as a sort of refugee facility for those of us who have been harmed, or at least exhausted by churches who teach this sort of thing and continue to promote instead of undermine the scapegoating of women that has been commonplace since that whole episode with the fruit:

“And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”

So, how should we navigate between the impossible-body fetishism of Hollywood and Madison Avenue on one hand, and the purity culture with its mixed messaging and cartoonishly-overprescribed gender roles on the other?

Well, I want to refrain from suggesting here that we can conquer this multi-layered issue by simply replacing bad thinking with better think. This dualistic approach which privileges cognition and belief over embodiment is itself part of the problem.

Yet, we can at least begin by stating that God loves our bodies. He crafted us, and there is something about relationship with him that required a physical, embodied existence. After all, we just celebrated Advent where we proclaim that God became incarnate - he occupied and thus blessed and made holy our physicality. And, soon at Easter we will celebrate his bodily death and resurrection.

We are more than spirits inhabiting meatspace.*

God gave us bodies to make us, well - US, and we wouldn’t be us if our brains could be kept alive in a laboratory. In fact, though it’s nearly impossible, I’ve been trying in this post to avoid talking about our bodies with externalizing language like “they” or “them” as our bodies exist to simply carry “us”, i.e. our brains and souls around from place to place.

Our concept of self must include our body as an irreducible aspect of what makes us Us, and what makes us human. And, to go one step further, any concept of genuine life-affirming spirituality must not only exist in our heads but take up residence in our gut, and in our hands, in our feet, in our diets, in our sleeping, etc. We must in other words go beyond simply believing the statement that “God loves our bodies” and begin to LIVE as integrated creatures this new year, pursuing a spirituality that is radically-embedded in the physical world and that cannot be practiced in any other way than in our bodies.

That’s what I’d like to explore in our upcoming sermon serious “Being Well.”

We’re going to start this this Sunday so I hope you can be with us. And, keep checking back on this blog because there’s a lot to talk about - and practice, that won’t make it into 20-minute sermons.

*see Neal Stephenson.

An Advent Prayer


An Advent Prayer by Dr. Richard White

From Sunday, Dec. 9th, 2018

One songwriter has written,

Lord, You seem so far away

A million miles or more, it feels today

And though I haven't lost my faith

I must confess right now

That it's hard for me to pray (Richard Mullins)

Father, this morning this is my song, I am empty – and don’t know how to pray. I am so weary of the violence, the poverty, the degradation of the environment, the physical, emotional, and spiritual attacks. We all are. 

The Psalmist wrote:

In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;

In the night my hand was stretched out without weariness

My soul refused to be comforted

When I remember God then I am disturbed

When I sigh then my spirit grows faint

You have held my eyelids open;

I am so troubled I cannot speak. (Psalm 77:2-4)

We are seeking you, but are so troubled with cannot sleep, we cannot speak. So, we turn to the Bible, the songwriters and the prophets searching not only for answers, but searching for those whose prayers are we can make our prayers, whose words we can use to push back the thick darkness of the soul.

Father, the events of this week alone – in our fair city, in our nation, across the globe leave our spirits groaning. We haven’t the strength, the knowledge, the skill, to change the world in which we live. You have made us salt and light to preserve and save from destruction, but the corruption is so deep and darkness is so thick and we feel so helpless to effect meaningful change.

We are dismayed and incensed that our political leaders continue to squander precious opportunities to speak peace into chaos, choosing instead to vilify others, to misuse their power, degrade their office, to sow seeds of violence whose produce is visited on those who are innocent. And who then congratulate themselves believing they are righteous in their own eyes. 

Eliphaz the Temanite was correct when counseled Job, saying “According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it” (Job 4:8)

But, like Adam’s sin, the consequences of the sins of national and world leaders, or corporations and industries, frequently fall on those who are innocent, the powerless, the children, those with diminished capacity, the sick, the poor, the minorities, and the sojourners among us.

We struggle with our own responsibility – shall we take the unhoused into our own homes? Shall we stand as shields at the doors of the synagogues and black churches? Shall we sell all our possessions and give to the poor? Divest in our insurance policies and retirement funds that are underwritten by amoral, immoral, and frequently unethical industry and commerce? How radical shall we be?

We ask, and ask, and plead with you for an answer knowing that we want you to go easy, we want you to say, “its alright, your doing fine.” We don’t want you to challenge us to radical Christian life. We don’t want you to say “take up your cross and follow me.” We don’t want to divest ourselves of ourselves. So we struggle on days like this and we don’t know how to pray.

In the words of one gospel song, “We are standing at the crossroads of confusion, deciding which way to travel.”

Again we turn to the Psalmist who wrote,

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High

Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress

My God in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:1-2)

We are deciding to trust you even when the way forward is not clear. And we are not only concerned with large national and global issues of violence and destruction. We are also concerned with the small things of daily life: 

  • How shall we raise our children so they will love and trust you for a lifetime, in good days and bad, in joy and in sorrow, in health and in sickness?

  • How shall we talk to our neighbors about their spiritual lives? How shall we help them take one step closer to you?

  • How shall we pay bills this month?

  • My health is failing, what must I do, how will I make it through?

  • How will I get through this day, this hour, this moment without out falling apart?

Again, the songwriter echoing Psalm 77 has written:

I don't know what to say

And I don't know where to start

But as You give the grace

With all that's in my heart I will sing…I will praise

Strengthen our resolve to, sing your praises in the face of all that is going wrong, in the face of our daily worries, in the face of our uncertain future. 

Give us the resolve of the prophet Habbakuk, who saw the coming destruction of the nation of Israel, who said, “I heard and my inward parts trembled” and “decay enters my bones, and in my place I tremble because I must wait quietly for the day of distress” But who also said,

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

And there be no fruit on the vines,

Though the yield of the olive should fail

And the fields produce no food,

Though the flock should be cut off from the fold

And there be no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the God of my salvation

The Lord God is my strength,

And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet

And makes me walk on my high places  (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

And Habbakuk’s prayer will be our prayer…still we will praise you,

In the name of our Hope, Jesus Christ,

Amen.

A Letter to a Friend in Rehab, pt. 2

One of the things that kept me from seeking sobriety was the thought that everyday in the future would be a struggle to not drink. Who would willingly choose this when it’s so easy to just keep drinking? And, as you think about the prospect of returning home maybe you’re having similar thoughts - if everyday is really hard how is it possible to stay sober?

There are some people who talk about their addiction as if it’s knocking on their door everyday and if they let up for a moment then they’re toast. But, many more say that the temptation to drink or use does diminish over time and I’ve never met someone who stopped drinking for any reason and regrets it.

Personally, I don’t think about drinking all that much anymore. Not-drinking isn’t a “white knuckle” experience for me. While there are times where I walk by one of the dozen or so pubs in my neighborhood on a sunny day and think how fun it would be to sit on one of those glorious patios with a good book and an IPA this thought doesn’t really get much traction.

What I am able to realize in these moments is that I don’t really want to sit and have ONE beer in the sun, or even two, but many. Having one or two and being done might be possible for a while, but that number would eventually rise and it would soon be difficult to enjoy a warm summer day and a book WITHOUT sitting on a sunny patio with a beer(s).

In the early days of sobriety I tried to remind myself that this kind of nostalgia was nothing more than my drug-pusher of a brain telling me that weddings, beaches, movies, sporting events, holidays, travel, vacations, date nights, hosting parties - just about every happy and pleasurable event - needed to be paired with alcohol in order for them to retain their joy.

This is a pretty ingenious strategy if you think about it. I’m not sure exactly what the evolutionary advantage is for our brains to have developed this way, but if it gets accustomed to getting stimulated from a particular substance, to ensure that it keeps getting it regularly, it coopts our memories from previous times where alcohol was present and “it” tells “us” that the reason that the sunset was so pretty on vacation wasn’t because sunsets on vacation are intrinsically-pretty but because we had a cold beer in our hand while we were watching it.

It’s important to be honest about the fact that at least in the early stages of drinking, a cold beer makes a LOT of things better. Alcohol does trigger a strong neurological response that can heighten pleasurable experiences and comfort us in terrible ones. So, there’s a real chemical reason that that sunset, or the idea of sunsets in general seem far more beautiful and memorable because we were “buzzed” while watching it.

Overtime however the alcohol induced endorphin rush is experienced alongside a growing list of adverse physical, relational, emotional, and yes spiritual realities which begins to numb and eventually nullify any of the intrinsic goodness and beauty in “sunset” moments. When you’re preoccupied with getting or keeping a buzz you can’t really be present for them or the people you happen to be with.

The sad thing is that at least some of the people sitting on the sunny patios I mentioned earlier aren’t there because they’re happy and alcohol adds pleasure to their lives; they’re drinking in the middle of a workday because they’re stuck. Some of them don’t fully recognize it yet, but others do, and what began as a lovely little vignette - people drinking beer in the sun - will mean a night of regret, shame, anger, emotional volatility, twelve-hundred calories they don’t need, and one more lost morning.

What’s really cool about our brains is that as we encounter these moments of envy and choosing NOT to drink can actually rewire our mental pathways. That’s incredible! In the same way that alcohol made neural connections between drinking and so many otherwise-pleasurable events, not-drinking can starve these connections and overtime our brain can “relearn” how to produce dopamine for pleasurable experiences even when they don’t involve alcohol. (This is my layman’s understanding anyway.)

So, there is reason to HOPE!

I’m just a fellow traveler, but here are a few practical things that I’ve learned that will maybe offer you some encouragement in the days to come:

- You’ve had the AUDACITY to say “I need help” and you have willingly started a very challenging and scary journey. Never forget, YOU decided to take control over your life and that was a very courageous decision.

- Saying “I need help” is at the same time an admission of weakness and a statement of tremendous personal strength. It’s an admission of weakness in that we are saying that we don’t fully possess all the resources that we need for life in and of ourselves. We need other humans in our lives. At the same time, “I need help” is also a very brave statement because we spend a lot of our lives trying to “say” exactly the opposite - that we have life worked out and aren’t dependent on anyone else. It takes strength to say something that pushes against so many of our cultural assumptions and is hostile to our personal narrative of achievement. These words are hard, but they’re essential to any life of flourishing even if we’re not “addicts” or “alcoholics.” 

- Labels like these can conceal and reveal the truth. Maybe you’re not ready to call yourself an “addict” or “alcoholic” and that’s fine if those words aren’t helpful to you. They’re slippery terms and when we say we are “AN ADDICT” it can over-define our problem as an essential part of our identity. It’s not. We’re whole persons who struggle, and though I fully recognize that I was “ADDICTED” I just haven’t found it all that helpful to attach the label “ADDICT” to myself anymore than I would want to label myself a “LAZY-ASS” if I had a problem with procrastination!! Your drinking problem is a part of you - a real part, but it’s only a part.

- Making this distinction may help you to believe that your recent experience doesn’t have to be your reality for the rest of your life. Sure, people struggle for years, and some people relapse after 10 years of sobriety, but your struggle now doesn’t have to co-opt your life forever. You can move forward into recovery - or whatever YOU want to call it in such a way that while alcohol will certainly come knocking again, you can develop the tools and self-worth to say “nah. I don’t need you any longer.” There was a time where you didn’t drink, or didn’t drink problematically, so I don’t think it’s insane to think that you can build a happy life without alcohol being physically-present nor a constant battle. 

- I don’t know if you’ve identified yet the issue or cluster of issues that created the vacuum that alcohol was happy to fill, but often we drink to numb/avoid/forget our emotional difficulties and thus we diminish our experience of both normal AND negative feelings. When we stop drinking the return of these emotions can be like taking earplugs out at a rock concert. It’s just too much stimulation and we can revert to drinking in order to avoid having these feelings. I drank to numb feelings of anxiety, self-reproach, and the frantic brain that comes with OCD so I had very little experience sitting in and moving through these feelings without chemical assistance. Now some of these negative emotions related to something more clinical going on that I needed professional and medical help with, but I also realized that when alcohol was always nearby I never had to sit very long with any negative feeling - even those that are just a normal part of everyday life like boredom. Sometimes I drank because I was bored! But, it’s unrealistic to think we can go through life without boredom unless we are “checking out” in some way so I learned to say “this is a feeling, I don’t like it, but it will pass and I will be okay.” (I’m sure there is some classic male emotional ineptitude going on here which you may not have to deal with, but I find feelings confusing. See this for context.) My therapist was able to help me learn how to differentiate between feelings that are just “part of life” and those that I needed some other assistance with and without which I probably wouldn’t last too long in sobriety.

This is super-long but it sounds like you have a lot of time on your hands so I won’t apologize! But, I do have to get to work. Please respond and let me know how things are going and I promise that you will be in my prayers. You got this!

Brian