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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Fourth of July in the United States of America

One thing I notice, especially when the 4th of July holiday falls on a weekday, is that the rest of the world just thinks it's Tuesday. Maybe a few ex-patriates had some hotdogs on the beach in Belize, but most of the world seemed not to care that the United States celebrated a "birthday" of sorts yesterday. This makes me wonder why we celebrate it all? I mean, think of your own birthday.

Because of the date of my birthday, I rarely celebrate it. There are too many other things going on in December, and my birthday has often fallen through the cracks of people's schedules. I have had some memorable birthdays, like when I turned 19 or 30 or 46 (The Year of Bourbon), but I have had many birthdays where it is just a regular day. (I do like it that many of the bars and restaurants I frequent, have a special on my birthday. I especially like when the server says it must "suck to have a birthday today." Makes that free dessert taste all the better.)Image result for birthday cake

Image result for fourth of july

Imagine if no one stopped what they were doing to celebrate your birthday with you? Would you celebrate it anyhow, even if no one sent you a FaceBook felicitation, no one sent you a card? (I'm giving England a pass on not sending greetings these past few years.) I mean, if a birthday means nothing to anyone but you, what does a "birthday" mean?

But we celebrated the 4th of July and people seemed to make it relatively unscathed. The fireworks are curious to me as in a time of supposed economic downturn, there's a lot of money spent of them. Perhaps we're not as poor as we get on?? That leads me to my favorite experience of yesterday.

As we were walking back from our town's fireworks display, the people in front of us were talking excitedly about what they had seen and heard. The children talked about the many colors, and the tallest girl said she liked the red, white, and blue ones best. The younger boys loved the boom, and how they could feel it. Mom and Dad just laughed, and kept warning them to stay on the sidewalk. What made overhearing this so special was that they were all talking in Spanish.

And that's why we celebrate the 4th. We celebrate it not because others recognize it or that we even enjoy it, but rather because the USA is one place where you can celebrate political freedom no matter what your mother-tongue is.

I re-read My Antonia by Willa Cather the other day. One hundred years ago, on the very lands I am sitting on right now writing this, there was a huge amount of language diversity going on, but everyone was united in trying to survive. We know now that the Native Americans, a monument of one famous Native leader is a mile up the hill from me, were decimated to help others survive. We also know that a good deal of luck allowed people to survive where others did not. But we all want to survive. And we'll probably do anything within our grasp to try and make that happen. That's what we celebrate on the 4th, we survived another year. Technically, it's what any birthday is.

That's why Jesus of Nazareth is so interesting. (His culture didn't celebrate birthdays. No cake for Jesus.) His survival was all about giving away health, life, and love. He survived by dying. How can you celebrate that? It turns out that he discovered a way to survive that did not involve marking time by yearly celebrations, but rather by marking time with love to someone else. You see, for Jesus, what mattered was not how many years you lived, but rather how many years you loved. May the same be true for us all.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Cool Cup of Water

It's a thirsty world out there. (and now that I know that "thirsty" is a common term these days for sexually aroused, it's even thirstier.) But I am talking about plain, old, parched and dry world. A world devoid of the freshness and life that water affords. We're thirsty.

I work with a lot of conservation organizations, and water is a constant theme for all of them. We cannot take water for granted. I, probably because of my upbringing, do take it for granted. Sadly.

I grew up on lakes. I was born in a hospital just a few blocks from the shores of Lake Superior. I always lived on a lake until I moved to college. From then on, I've always lived by a major body of water. Since I was 18 I have lived within a mile or two of: the Minnesota River, Lake Austin and the Colorado River, Lake Michigan, the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River. There's always been a large body of water around me for as long as I can remember.

I remember once when Chris and I were visiting Sante Fe, NM to help with some of their hunger ministries and projects. We go to talking about whether we could move to Santa Fe. As much as I love the city (and I really love it!), I told Chris I couldn't. When she asked why, I replied, "I need a consistent water table wherever I live." Truer words I never spoke. 14.21 inches of precipitation in Santa Fe is not enough. (In Blair, NE, where I currently live, we get 30.32 of rain, not including snow a year.) So I am addicted to my water.

But I do worry about it. Glaciers melting. More chemicals being used to provide us food, and those chemicals leech into the water. A town like Flint, MI has water, but its water system is so poisoned that the water is undrinkable. And then, of course, there is drought. Drought just moves its way across the globe, and seems to settle where people are already vulnerable. "Water, water everywhere," Coleridge wrote, "and nary a drop to drink."

There is a saying of Jesus of Nazareth that "whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones...none of these will lose their reward." (Matthew 10.42) I'm not sure what the reward is he's talking about, but the standard for receiving it seems pretty low. Share a cup of water. So maybe one of the ways to improve our world, to slake some of the thirst, is to share a cup of cold water? When was the last time you shared a cup of water with someone? When was the last time you shared a drink of any kind with someone? A thirsty world yearns for cool water. I hope you get a share a cup.

May your tables be hydrated, and your conversations be true.

Monday, June 19, 2017

487 years of the Augsburg Confession

This coming Sunday, June 25, 2017, marks the 487th Anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The Augsburg Confession is a document presented by the Lutheran Princes to show their allegiance to the Christian faith, and therefore, similarly, their allegiance to the Emperor. Written by a Lutheran theologian, Philip Melanchthon, it has been called the "most important document" of the Reformation. Lutherans have spent 487 years trying to convince people they are Christian...our success is mixed.

Philip Melanchthon

There is a problem from the get-go with the Augsburg Confession: it is a theological document created for political purposes. As such, various traditions and people have received it differently over the last four centuries. Charles V himself rejected the document, and part of the next 130 of wars in Europe can be drawn back to this day in June. Others, like Christian III of Denmark, would take their country into Lutheranism through this confession of faith. This is the reason you see way more Lutherans of Danish descent than Spanish, by the way.

Although theology and politics has always mixed in the world, this Confession stands out for its clarity. The great confessions which have followed it, and some are still being done today, all seek the same force and power Melanchthon was able to give the Lutheran princes in his work on the Confessio Augustana (in many Lutheran circles we still refer to it in Latin because we are just that pretentious. It's in our theological veins.)

The Augsburg Confession is not designed to replace the Bible, but rather to explain how Lutherans understand the God-Human relationship (we call this "faith.") So although the Bible is our primary reference to why we believe what we believe, and act the way we do, the Augsburg Confession goes to show how flexible we are in our interpretations of the Bible. That is, the Augsburg Confession confesses what we believe to be true to our faith.

The document was written as a defense because some people believed we did not love, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and by extension, the Church. But those folks back then loved God and the Church, and we do as well today. But--and this is a big deal for us Lutherans--we still maintain a critical attitude towards our faith. In other words, we admit we might not have all the answers, (although humility is not a strong point of ours either, but we are willing to admit God is all-powerful, and that makes all our confessions temporary.) Our critical attitudes mean that we put every belief, statement, text, or image to as many tests as possible so that we can ascertain its truth for our faith. This critical nature drives many other Christians nuts.

We just don't "believe" because we're told to believe. We believe because we've tested, and come to believe. We don't accept it just because we're supposed to accept. We test until we can begin to accept it may be possible to accept. We are a difficult lot, and we have many things we wish to test and talk about. And there are also many, many things we agree on with other Christians. And that is why Melanchthon wrote the Augsburg Confession. He, for one, was convinced that our agreements far outweighed our differences. After 487 years, the jury is still out...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

I walk in the garden straight to...

The first funeral of a close family member I experienced happened in January of 1987 with the death of my maternal grandfather. He was a huge influence in my life, and I remember that funeral vividly. This past week (Saturday, April 29, 2017) I went to the exact same funeral. Different person, same funeral.

The woman we buried last week was 93 when she died, but she had the exact same hymns, exact same scripture readings, the exact same song sung by a soloist (different singer, however...). Amazing. 30 years later, I am transported to a large Lutheran congregation in Duluth, MN all the while sitting in the balcony of my congregation here in Blair, NE (My colleague often does the funerals in our congregation. I am for "emergency use only" in this regard.) 

So, I got to thinking about that...

This woman would have been 63 when my grandfather died. No doubt, she would have been one of the women serving lunch. She would have respected and mourned my grandfather (everybody else did, why not her?) And she might have even said, "That was a nice funeral" for him. And 30 years later she got the exact same funeral.

And the women (and a few men now too) who served the lunch respected and mourned her passing. They said it was a "nice" funeral. And perhaps a few of them, if they could be honest, would hope that they too won't have to worry about their death for another 30 years or more? 

But did nothing change in 30 years? I mean, it's the same Bible, and there are limited options for "traditional" funeral passages, but no changes? Really??? Music didn't change? (And why do Lutheran congregations sing In the Garden, anyhow? I mean, the song is almost anti-Lutheran theology.) But perhaps there's a reason, and even more so, perhaps these scriptures will be read and these songs be sung at some funeral 30 years from now.


Because for most of us our piety is formed around events like funerals and weddings. (I've done so many weddings with the same music and scriptures and even poems and rituals that I couldn't even begin to count them all.) And this is just what it is for pietists out on the prairie. At a funeral, you get some Swedish soul music (O Støre God), a tour through the garden with Jesus, and the promise of God to make a room for you in the afterlife, preferably heaven. Top if off with What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and you are good to go. Wherever.

And it's the "wherever" that has changed the most in the last 30 years. At my grandfather's funeral there was a lot of talk about "heaven." At the one I was at Saturday there was none. Other than the songs the word never made the service. It's not that my colleague or the people at the funeral don't believe in "heaven." They all do I am sure. What they are not sure is where it is; or, for many of them I suspect, if it's even a place at all?

I mean, other than a few die-hard fundementalists and even fewer artists, no body really believes heaven is a "place" anymore. Where is it? It's tough to believe in a place when you're on the third rock from a medium sized star, someplace among galaxies and galaxies of such rocks. You could pick one, call it heaven, I suppose, but that's so arbitrary as to be worse than not picking one. So every time people hear the word "heaven" it has no meaning to them. And they move on...

For most of us these days, the word "heaven" functions like the quality of a relationship. It's similar to the difference between "loving" something and "liking" something. You love something, and that something is often more important than something you like. Heaven is a way of describing your relationship with God that is more important than other relationships. When we die we want to be surrounded by family and friends, and for believers, God too. That's heaven. At the bedside. And it ends when you do.

Heaven has meaning for people because it describes a quality of their relationship with God. A relationship that transcends time and space, a relationship that is eternal. Heaven is not a place where my grandfather or this wonderful lady "went to" when they died. Heaven is a way of being loved by God that does not stop just because you die. Heaven is God's eternal love for you. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Permit me to quote a piece of the scripture read during the funeral: Jesus says,
"Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many chambers..." (John 14. 1-2) God's house is God's heart, and living in one of the chambers is living in the heart of God. For 2000 years the Christians have called that "heaven." It was true 30 years ago, it was true last week, and it'll be true 30 years from now as well. Even if we don't use the word.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, April 24, 2017

It's been a long year...

About a year I stopped doing this blog on a regular basis. There was so much going on in my psycho-spiritual world that I could no longer be sure that anything I wrote about here would make sense; much less hint at what's under the veil of the chalice we seek. So I stopped it.

Of course, as a practioner of the public presentation of theology, I still have outlets for my ideas and I am able to unload so much of what takes up residence in the rooms of my mind. I am always glad if something I write helps brighten a day or open up a forgotten avenue of thought; but, if I am being honest, I write this blog for me. (I'm just glad it's still free.)

When I was in the fourth grade our class made a movie.We wrote it, acted in it, directed, built sets and costumes, and just about everything else that goes into a movie. I remember it as being quite fun, and we had a woman in my class who was just the right mixture of "bossy," and "sweet" to make sure it was completed. That was 1972. 45 years ago. That's what school was back then, working together to make a movie. We couldn't have passed a test. We didn't learn appropriate behavior or speech. We just tried to make a move so we could get to summer vacation...or the weekend.

I think a lot about my 4th grade year, and I wonder how important it was to who I am today? For one thing, I don't care about tests in schools. That's got to be about the stupidest idea of all time. All the time I wasted in my life taking tests...mind-boggling. We didn't have a lot of tests back in 4th grade, but we did have these individualized learner's packets where you read a laminated sheet of information, answered a worksheet about it (I guess those were "tests"), and then took the next information card and did the same thing. (I was blessed with eidetic memory at the time, and such a game was simply that. A game. Not much learning involved.)

Most of what I remember in the 4th grade was all the "stuff" we did like making a "Milk house" out of wood and milk cartons that we used a a reading room; making movies, dioramas, taking German (we had "interest groups" on Wednesday afternoons), a class election where the boys kept voting for the boy candidate and the girls kept voting for the girl candidate, and finally after 20 votes, the boy candidate cast his vote for the girl. Of course, she cast her vote for him, so we had a 22nd ballot. A friend and I were able to vote for the girl, and the teacher let us go to lunch. I lost my teeth in the 4th grade. I heard the Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey," which is still my all-time favorite song.

But I have realized over the years, that my experience of anything, much less something as grand as a "year" cannot be universalized for all people. Even with the people I shared the experience. Everyone experiences things differently at some level. I guess that's what makes that year so important to me. It's when I learned that we can all connect together, but some we connect on a different level than with others. I mean, I don't even know when the last time I talked to anybody I went to 4th grade with? Probably 1976 when I moved away. It's been over 40 years since I've ever seen or talked with anybody who did that year with me in school. Who knows how the others fared? Certainly not me.

I'm not sure how I will remember 2016 and the first part of 2017. I'm in a new place, meeting new people (that is hardly news, it's my job), and still wondering what's God doing? But something seemed to change in this past year...and I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's just age? Maybe there is a "new reality" coming at us? Maybe anger and frustration have finally found a way to revolt? Maybe people are just too tired to care? All I know, is that it's been a long year.

May your tables be full and your conversation be true.