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

Advent and Chernobyl

Chernobyl is the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. It’s an incredibly dangerous area because of the remaining radiation. No one should be living there but hundreds do. These aren’t squatters, but people who have returned to their ancestral home - illegally.

In here TED Talk “Why Stay at Chernobyl?”, Holly Morris says, “like many of you, I have moved maybe 20, 25 times in my life. Home is a transient concept. I have a deeper connection to my laptop than any bit of soil. So it's hard for us to understand, but home is the entire cosmos of the rural babushka, and [their] connection to the land is palpable.

These “babushka’s”, or grandmothers she interviewed say things like:

"If you leave, you die.

"Those who left are worse off now. They are dying of sadness."

These statements sound like confirmation bias but they are true! These women have lived on some of the most radioactive land on the planet and yet many have outlived their counterparts who were relocated three decades ago for safety reasons.

Again Holly Morris, “How could this be? Could it be that those ties to ancestral soil, the soft variables reflected in their aphorisms, actually affect longevity?…The power of motherland, so fundamental to that part of the world seems palliative…Home and community are forces that rival even radiation.”

In Advent we celebrate the Incarnation, that Jesus the eternally existent Son of God, became fully human with and for us. He PLACED himself in a particular time, religious & cultural moment, geography, and people, and in so doing, rooted and submitted himself to every strength and weakness of that place - our world of sin and decay.

Often everyday life just carries us along, we’re busy, we have our tasks and routines our jobs and bills, and then we get up again the next morning or the next year and do it all over again. We often don’t take the time to ask, “what am I really doing this for? Do these routines matter? Why am I here, in this place? As a church, why does God have us here?

Ordinary life just moves along. But, in the Christian Year Ordinary Time moves into Advent where the church is called to cultivate a posture of reflection. The fact that this season comes at the busiest time of the year makes this especially difficult, but during this time we are meant to ask some of the questions above and to re-locate ourselves for the coming year.

For those Russian grandmothers and their families, their rootedness in a specific place trumped virtually all other concerns. While we may look at their decision to live in an exclusion zone as not only foolhardy but unsavory and boring, they could never be accused of living life accidentally. Their purpose was to hold space in their ancestral lands for generations to come when perhaps the radiation would abate and Chernobyl might once again be a thriving city.

Advent tells us that God’s redeeming love made present in the person of Christ effects us spiritually, physically, and culturally; it takes root in the places we actually live. This season I invite you to ask “how?”

Houseless Friends NOT on the Streets

Intown meets in a neighborhood of high-end condos and Section-8 housing, near centers of the arts culture and people sleeping on sidewalks. The Safeway one block away serves not only as a grocery store but as an unofficial community space for people on the margins: people selling Street Roots, drug users on the hunt for their next score, panhandlers who need a few bucks for food, and those who need to borrow a phone from a friend who has minutes left on their monthly plan.

Many of these individuals make the rounds to churches on Sunday mornings looking for a warm seat or cup of coffee, and often for help with various challenges that come with living on the streets. Because of our location, Intown is a common stop but it is difficult to build a real relationship with someone that you only see once or twice a month on a Sunday and it wasn’t until I was able to move my office downtown that the ministry worlds of Sunday morning and the rest of the week coalesced. I started seeing people multiple times during the week without even trying and if I didn’t happen to bump into them on the sidewalk, I could usually just hop over to Safeway and check in with a few of them without the time constraints and competing relational demands of a Sunday worship service.

I got to know Dain about a year ago because he was sleeping on the steps of a shuttered church building across the street from where Intown meets. He’s a preacher’s kid and an ex-con who has lived mostly outside in Portland for the last number of years. I found him to be tremendously kind and when he wasn’t drunk or high, he possessed obvious intelligence as well as a longing for real human connection.

He started coming to Sunday services and even though I would often give him whatever cash was in my wallet he frequently declined. He wanted relationship with me, and with the people of Intown, apart from any tangible benefit that these relationships might provide. It was difficult to keep from tearing up when he sauntered down for communion each Sunday.

At some point he started to introduce me to his friends on the street as his pastor and through him I met Michelle who now does the same.

Michelle hasn’t been sober for about 8 years, and then only for a season. Alcohol has ravaged her body and she looks older than she is but she greets me with an endearing smile and a warm hug, and asks me how I’m doing. She then introduces me to whoever she happens to be with on that day, normally Randy, who is perfectly amiable 90% of the time but has an anger problem and when it’s not held in check it’s Michelle who suffers. He’s hurt her repeatedly, but it’s safer to live on the streets with a partner who’s prone to violence than it is to live alone, so she puts up with it day after day.

I’m far from an expert on how to help someone out of the throes of homelessness and addiction and it often feels like the only role that I and the church play is to simply be present with people like Dain and Michelle and to tell them so often that we love them that when they finally are willing to make a change we are there.

Recently we’ve had some really great news with both of these friends. With some help from some Intowners, Dain was able to get the documentation he needed in order to get a job. He’s now working in a part-time capacity and has a room at a sober living facility. He’s going to meetings everyday at 6:30 a.m. for his addiction. The only downside with this is that his room isn’t close to The Old Church and so we don’t get to see him too often.

With Michelle it took pneumonia to get her off the streets long enough that she didn’t want to go back. After a brief hospitalization were able to help her get into an inpatient rehab facility for a broken ankle that had kept her immobile for over a month. The next step is to find a bed for her in a long-term sober living facility. And she’s willing to go!

Because she’s been drinking for so long Michelle seems reasonably coherent even when she’s inebriated. But when I spoke with her yesterday I realized how much of Michelle that I had been missing. There’s no better way to describe it than to just say that she seemed “alive” for the first time since I’ve known her. She was upbeat, funny, and when I asked her what it had been like not to be drinking everyday she said, “oh Brian, it’s great, I’ve been sober over a month and I don’t want to start again.”

I truly hope that she can stay in this moment and that life really can become life for her again.

In all honesty, I feel like I’ve had little substantive influence in these two encouraging stories. I think I’ve just had a “front row seat” to what God is doing in their lives. Other people at Intown, as well as people from other churches have had as much or more of a role in assisting Dain and Michelle.

But, the point of pastoral ministry isn’t really to solve people’s problems but just to be present with them in them, and hope that some comment, gesture, or even just physical proximity will allow you to witness the magic happening.

A Letter to a Friend in Rehab, pt. 1

Dear Friend, 

Your husband caught me up on what’s going on in your life and I asked him if I could write you a letter of encouragement, or two. ;)

You may not be aware, but I have been sober for just about a year. So, I am somewhat familiar with the journey you’re now beginning. Though I cut back substantially in 2017, drinking smaller amounts and less often, moderation just wasn’t for me. Whatever enjoyment I used to take from beer was gone and the whole thing was just too much work.

Weirdly, moderation felt as if I was not-drinking so that I could continue to drink.  

For me, the delivery system was beer. I live what is probably the craft brew mecca of the entire world, and a drinking problem is really easy to hide here in Portland under the guise of being a craft-beer “enthusiast.”

There’s beer everywhere. Barbershops offer a free beer with a haircut. There are multiple taps at the laundromat, really - I’m not joking! Companies give their employees free beer on Friday afternoons and apartments come with growler fill stations. Alcohol is even expected at church, and I’m not talking about at communion but bombers of IPA at church meetings.

This last part was what hooked me. Knowing that copious amounts of beer and wine will be consumed at each and every meeting, the anticipation of potential conflict is greatly minimized. So, even though I lived here for a number of years before alcohol started taxing my life in obvious ways I think that if I had taken the time to stop and reflect I could have realized that alcohol was not a benign substance and that I was heading down a destructive path.

In the early days of my tenure at Intown there was a LOT of conflict and I dealt with it by isolating and drinking. And once that became habituated the thought of stopping was very aversive and strongly resisted. I couldn’t imagine living in a place like Portland and NOT drinking. Wouldn’t that be like living in Italy and avoiding carbs and red wine?!

So, instead of listening to the voice inside my head that occasionally said, “this isn’t going anywhere good”, or listening to my wife who suspected a problem earlier than I did, I used the fear of never being able to drink again to avoid trying to stop drinking at all. 

After five or six years here however, the evidence started to mount and I started to believe - at least in my rational brain - that my time as a drinker was limited. Beer was narrowing my ambition and foreclosing on my happiness and I knew that I didn’t want that to still be true 5 years later. But an addicted brain can often only see today and it leverages now well-trained neural pathways to do its bidding. So, I kept trudging along even when it was clear to me that my “craft beer hobby” was compromising my parenting, my professional life, and worst of all - my marriage.

Maybe you’ve felt that too, and it helped you take the extraordinarily-courageous step of going to rehab. So, what will life be like when you return home and what can you expect in your marriage? Since I only get to see you guys in person every few years I’m not really qualified to make too many predictions. But I do know this, given the fact that your drinking progressed to the point where you felt that you needed a few months in rehab to start your recovery process, you’re going to be returning to some big wounds in your marriage that may take a long time to heal.

Here’s the good news though, I’ve known your husband for over 30 years and he’s resilient and he’s loyal. He’ll be there when you get out, and with a lot of work, patience, and grace your marriage can actually be a whole lot better than it was before - perhaps something far more beautiful than it ever would have been without this season of struggle!

“Struggle” will almost certainly be a familiar word in the coming weeks and months. But, life itself is a struggle, now you’re just going to be present for it. You will have to feel things you haven’t felt in a long time and minimizing these feelings with a glass of wine before dinner will seem like the most rational thought you’ve ever had. Sometimes these thoughts may be totally-overwhelming and if you allow yourself to start projecting this struggle onto everyday of the rest of your life then your sobriety probably won’t last too long.

That is why if I were starting out on my journey of sobriety today I would want to hear over and over and over from trusted friends that it does get better, and it does get easier.

I gotta get to work so I’ll have to tease out that last thought in a future letter. But, I won’t leave you hanging too long; I will write you again soon - I promise!

Until then, be brave! I’m proud of you.

Strategic Realignment - An Update

In August I returned from sabbatical to the news that the church was barely able to pay our bills that month. This news was not a complete surprise - we had started 2018 with a healthy reserve but with a planned monthly deficit we knew that we would be using part of our reserve each month.

Since it may seem odd or unwise for a church to run a negative budget it bears repeating that we have done this intentionally because of generous outside funding from friends of the church who committed to assist us as we recalibrated after significant institutional changes over the last few years. These people believed in our ministry enough to help us make the changes that we felt necessary to continue doing ministry in our city.

However, after our denominational transition our internal funding recovered more slowly than we anticipated and so this August we found ourselves needing to align our operational budget more closely with expected regular giving.

Since we had already reduced our spending to what could be called “bare necessities” the only way we saw to do so while maintaining our core ministry was for me to transition into a part-time role. Since Intown has had a full-time pastor for the entirety of its existence and with me being in place her for nearly ten years we knew that this was going to be a big transition with a lot of ambiguity.

Ambiguity can be a recipe for anxiety so we committed to communicate regularly with the congregation through large-group meetings and emails. It has been a number of weeks since our last meeting so…

What’s the latest?

  • In August it looked like we would not have enough cash on hand to pay our staff the following month. So, we decided that after paying Matt and Jillianne and meeting other non-discretionary expenses that I would be paid out of whatever was leftover. However, given this news the Intown congregation - including a number of relatively new people - gave above and beyond and we were able to meet all of our financial obligations in September.

  • And in October, as unlikely as it once seemed we were able to pay all our bills with internal giving.

  • Since then we’ve received about $35,000 in outside gifts which gives us some options that we didn’t have back in August.

Now for a few observations:

  • One of the practical financial challenges is that even though our attendance has returned to what it was prior to our transition to the RCA, our giving-per-attendee has not. We don’t believe this is because people are less willing to give but less able. Our congregation is generally younger, less “churched”, and a significant portion is still connecting with our community. And yet, over the last few months this congregation has seen the need and responded with abundance! What a joy it is to pastor people like this.

  • There are people who don’t directly benefit from the ministry of Intown Church who are writing substantial checks to underwrite our mission and saying, “what you are doing there is important and we want to help!” Incredible!

  • Pastors often worry that large gifts will demotivate internal-giving but I think that it’s just as likely to do the opposite - that Intowners might continue giving sacrificially BECAUSE they know that complete strangers are willing to sacrificially care for them!

  • $35,000 does change the timeline and open up new possibilities but it doesn’t change the underlying fundamentals. We still have to address our monthly deficit by an increase in internal giving, a reduction of my hours/salary, or a combination of both.

  • We are monitoring the financial variables and believe that we are stable through January without a significant structural change but that wisdom would lead us to prepare for doing ministry a bit differently in the new year.

  • There will be more forthcoming about this, but it at this point it means that I’m continuing to look for part-time work that could replace my potential loss of salary. However, having seen our reserves grow over the last few months I can do so more strategically instead of with excessive urgency. We also have some time to carefully plan for multiple contingencies while cultivating new internal and external giving.

Elder Does Not Mean Old, What Then Does it Mean?

Elder is a word with a rich history in the Bible. In the Old Testament an elder served in civic governance, liturgical leadership, and in advisory capacities to religious leaders like Moses. In the New Testament there are two words that are generally translated as “elder”: presbuteros from which we get our word “presbyter”, and episcopos which denotes the role of an “overseer” of God’s people. Though the term does have a connotation of wisdom acquired through age and life experience, there is no specific age qualification for being an elder given in Scripture. At Intown, we’ve had elders in their early 30’s, which oddly enough would be considered kind of old in New Testament times because people didn’t live nearly as long as they do today.

But, having gotten the age discrimination out of the way, what does qualify one to be an elder? In many churches we would immediately begin by eliminating half of the adult population because women are frequently disqualified from serving in this role. Not at Intown, and not in the RCA. (Click here for more on that.) Though we do not currently have any women elders (actually we only have one elder period!) we certainly hope that multiple women will be nominated.

Having set aside age and gender, how should you go about deciding who to nominate to this office? Well, I would submit that there are both biblical and Intown-specific guidelines.

Biblical: There are two lists in the New Testament that outline the kind of character that a person should possess before being elected. You can read those lists here and here. Broadly speaking, s/he should be above reproach, temperate, prudent (having self-control), hospitable, not addicted to wine (or other substances), not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money, having one’s home in order (personal life is not characterized by chaos), a commitment to marital fidelity, respectable (enjoying a good reputation with those in AND outside the church), free from an over-eagerness or inordinate desire for power or position.

Local: Paul certainly didn’t mean these lists to be exhaustive and he would likely have written the list a little differently if he were writing to a church other than Ephesus. So, it’s certainly proper for Intown to have a secondary list of characteristics and aptitudes that we would hope would be present in all of our leaders.

An elder should love not only the larger church wherever it exists but have a particular love for Intown Church. They should be enthusiastic about our local mission and we shouldn’t be surprised that they show up regularly for Intown events and bring others because they are excited to connect more people to our community. And, we are looking for people who take initiative in the spiritual lives of others and pursue opportunities to lead people toward Jesus.

In other words, elders are leaders, leaders who cultivate trust and actively serve others in the name of Christ. While a person may need a formalized role to truly flourish as a leader, and a person can and should grow in leadership capacity while in office, we shouldn’t expect the office to create a leader. Nominees should already have some evidence of leadership capacity and we should be able to discern the presence of ministerial fruit in their lives - remembering of course that fruit of this kind comes in all shapes and sizes. Maybe this could be determined by asking “does this person serve our community in tangible ways?” Additionally, because this person is expected to serve a term of three years with the likelihood that s/he would serve additional terms, I encourage you to nominate persons who lives are reasonably settled in the Portland area and thus could be expected to be at Intown for the foreseeable future.

That’s probably enough to consider for now, but please be thinking and praying about persons who you feel might exhibit these qualifications and characteristics so that you can be prepared to nominate on Sunday the 11th.

We Let Scott Bowman be an Elder and Here's What Happened

Hi Friends,

On November 11th, the Intown Consistory (the pastor, elders, and deacons) will be asking you to nominate people to help lead the church as elders and deacons. We need more people who are called to care for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of our community.

Last Sunday, I shared with you what it means to me to be an elder at Intown, and Brian asked me to write up what I said so that we could share it more broadly.

As an elder at Intown, I get to serve on the Consistory to plan how to lead the congregation to work out the mission of Intown, serving both the church body and the city. I also get to talk to you, the people in the Intown community, at important times in your lives – when you want to join our church, when you’re struggling, when you’re joyful and want to share it. I get to hear your stories of wondrous beauty and devastating pain, and I get to see how God works in the midst of all of it.

Being an elder is frustrating and uplifting, tiring and so, so lovely and I could write pages and pages about it. I could write about the many beautiful ways that you folks have come alongside the leadership in the church to do the work that God sets in front of us. I could write about how much God has blessed me and my family with this church and its messy, amazing people. I could give so many examples of times when I’ve been tired and frustrated, and you have come to me with smiles and such lovingkindness that every feeling but sheer joy has gone away.

Thank you for letting me be an elder for you and this church. Thank you for letting me continue in this work. It will be a great pleasure for me to see others experience the joy of serving this lovely little church.

Your friend and elder and brother in Christ,

Scott

For Those Interested in Such Things

Here is a breakdown of our spending in a few handy images. These aren’t meant to convey everything Intowners might need or want to know about our budget and spending but are meant to be a snapshot that will provide some data points that we’ve referred to in our congregational meetings and previous emails. These charts are pretty self-explanatory but if you have questions please let me know at brian@intownchurch.com. Note: “mission” is our financial support of the Carlson’s in China, The Janssens’s in Taiwan, and the Penkoff’s in Cameroon.

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