Your Blog Steward

My photo
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.

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.

Why?

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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Does any Congregation matter in the ELCA?

Recently, I came across a teaser for a documentary film coming out entitled “Do Black Churches matter in the ELCA?” I love that question for many reasons. Here are some reasons I consider this an important question for the ELCA today.

Reason # 1
It assumes not one, but two collective nouns, and a provocative, identity-based adjective. Questions that have so many variables are always the most interesting for moving conversation forward. Take, for example, the object of the sentence “ELCA.”

What is the ELCA? It is a collection of individuals, gathered in various ways, who adhere to the precepts and principles of a particular constitution and attendant ways of being Christian. And what’s most exciting about this particular group of Christians is they have never settled on the question of individual vs. group mentality. In other words, it’s not the Marines. Individuals can flat-out disagree on any topic, and both of them can still be “ELCA.” The ELCA does have some theological touchstones that many give a passing nod to every now and then, but by and large, the ELCA is made up of people who believe they are the ELCA, even if no one else believes they are.

So to ask, as the movie does, do Black Churches matter to the “ELCA” has 3.9 million answers. (That’s roughly how many people self-identify as ELCA.) Granted, the answer will probably be somewhat quantifiable, but there is no “one answer” the ELCA could offer to the question. That’s why the question is so important: the answer is irrelevant, because we already know what it’s going to be. There will be some “yeses” and “noes” on each end of the Bell Curve, and all the rest somewhere in the middle.  But that’s if you take the “ELCA” as a collective noun.

If taken from an individual perspective, the question has even more power. Now, all 3.9 million folks have to answer for themselves whether Black churches matter? It’s tougher to be in the middle when you’re the middle, as well as both ends of the Bell Curve. And to throw an interesting twist to this question, although there are Black members of the ELCA, the congregations have historically been constructions of White culture. This leads us to that wonderfully provocative adjective…

Reason # 2
Who knows what a “Black” Church is? What does it mean to be a “Black” Church? We might think Richard Allen and the African Methodist-Episcopal Church is a Black church, but would a Church that has a few Black Americans amongst a majority of White Americans be a “Black” Church? What makes a “Black” Church black? This is especially difficult to answer in a Christian tradition like the ELCA dominated by White, Euro-centric culture.[1]

For example, I went to seminary on the south side of Chicago in the 1980s. I went to a lot of Black congregations, some of them were in the ELCA or one of its predecessors.  But looking back on those experiences, what made them “Black” was either the leader was a Black American or they were populated by “more than a few” Black Americans; otherwise, my memory is that those congregations were just like any others. They did the same stuff, had the same posters, and sang the same songs. But again, that’s why the question in the film is so important. I’m willing to bet that if you think you know what “Black” Church means, you probably don’t.  And you should probably watch the film.

Reason #3
The Church historian Martin Marty once remarked that all Christian traditions in the USA are “de-facto Congregationalists.” For one thing, it’s built into the IRS tax-code all Christian congregations adhere to in their formation[2] For another thing, almost all Americans value “freedom.” That means you are free to join or free to leave any congregation without adverse recrimination. Neither a White European like Jean Calvin or a Black African like St. Augustine understood congregations that way. There were huge recriminations for not leaving or not joining. But in the good ol’ USA…

The word “Church” forces us to come to grips with God.  What is God doing with “Church?” Does “Church” matter to God? Does “Black” matter to God? Does the “ELCA” matter to God?  It has to matter if only because it does not matter; and it has to not matter only because it does. God has made us each beloved children, regardless of identity. But built into each identity is a corporeal existence that subsists in communion.  Each of us are created to participate in the life and being of the Triune God, both together and alone (or, both alone and together, if you’d rather.)

I am looking forward to this documentary not because I am Black (I am not); nor, because I am of the ELCA (I do self-identify that way.) I am looking forward to this because I want to know what God is up to in this film-maker’s corner of the world. Because that corner is my world too, whether I ever go there or not.




[1] I do not delineate in this essay men from women in creating the dominant Christian tradition in the ELCA. Both men and women are very responsible for its culture. No White male has ever asked my wife is she wished to be “First Lady” of the congregation, but women ask her that all the time. There is a definite need for a feminist critique of the ELCA, and I would love to see a film about that as well.
[2] Interestingly,ecclesiologist Daniel Anderson, often suggests that if he were starting a new congregation he would not seek tax-exempt status. This would allow the new congregation to actually franchise new congregations down the road, and perhaps they would not be “Congregationalist” in their polity and structure?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

#decolonizelutheran

A group of newer, often younger, folks from my tradition are advocating a new way of being "Lutheran" that does not depend upon the colonizing cultural influences of the past. The colonizing theological influences are OK, but the folks who share and press for a "de-colonized" Lutheranism are much more concerned about the social mores. They will succeed in the end. How can they not? Culture, when faced with theology, always loses.

The problem is, however, that one can never divorce oneself from culture, and therefore you never actually experience the victory your theology vindicates. All you experience is suffering. But theology always wins. We just never see it. This was Luther's great insight into the question of theology and culture (which is, of course, anachronistic to Luther's culture, but that's the point of his theology.) Theology (and in the case of Luther this is God's Word, Jesus Christ) conquers all cultural relativizing precisely because Christian theology is non-cultural. (Never make the mistake of equating "non"-cultural with "counter"-cultural, that is the failure of all Christians who think God cares about their politics. In essence God cares about no politics because Love is not a political energy. All cultures are relativized by theology.)

I'll never forget when I first came across this line by Martin Luther "Seventh, the holy Christian people are eternally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross." (On the Councils and the Church, 1539) I was blown away by that insight into what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ as the way of God. Think about this line with me. Christians are possessed by the "sacred cross." (Think of your favorite movie about demon possession, and replace it with Jesus Christ on the cross.) And this possession we experience is not bound by history and the vicissitudes of time, but rather is an "eternal" possession that leads to our being recognized by God as lovers of Jesus Christ and the way through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amazing.

In short, what it means, is that God recognizes you as a child of God as you suffer from possessing the cross you have been given in life; and, as that cross is sacred, that is blessed by the power of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit (that's how things become "sacred" to a Christian), that cross, that suffering becomes your very salvation. Unfortunately, the predominant experience is suffering, but that suffering is literally a sign of your salvation. And culture has been relativized by theology once again.

But, Black Americans get shot in the back by white police officers. Women get raped by men. Elderly get abused by the youth. Trans folks get fired from jobs. The suffering, the salvation, has real consequences. People die. People cry. People live. People give. And culture gloats on its merry way to obsolescence because the people who died, who suffered, who cried, who gave everything were defined by their theology, not their culture.

It's the ones who don't die, who survive, who tell the most heart-breaking of stories. It's like they have been taken to the cliffs of Mount Nebo, and rudely left there to sift through the ashes of their pain. Mount Nebo may be a good metaphor for what I am talking about. The view may have been gorgeous, but we'll never know because the only one who saw that view didn't make it down the mount alive.

So it goes for anyone who tries to de-colonize Lutheranism or de-colonize anything for that matter...you may glimpse the promised land, but your chances of making it back down to share with the rest us is pretty much nil. But, I'm guessing, if like Moses you went through all that suffering to just to get there, you'd probably be OK with that.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.