Your Blog Steward

My Photo
Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am a pastor, teacher, educator, who likes to read and talk and live theology. I am actively searching for ways to live missionally and participate in the life and being of the Triune God. I look forward to conversations which challenge and engage the ideas I present, and although I think they are pretty good...everything can be improved (well,...except maybe heaven.) I have an MDiv from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and a PhD in Systematic Theology from Luther Seminary, St.Paul, MN. Hook me up on email or leave a comment. I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, October 20, 2014

I like new things

It took me a while to realize that I liked new things. In college, for example, my friends often joked that I never read a book published after 1800. (Which is not true as Soren Kierkegaard's Present Age is the first book of philosophy I ever read, and that was published in 1832. So there!)

I still use a Blackberry.(Think about that for a minute. Did you even know they were still in business?) I drive my cars until there is at least 200,000 miles on them. I have sweaters older than my children. And worn-out and well-used is my favorite patina on furniture. 

I remember a line from one of John Gardner's stories that went something like the heavier something is, the more real it is, the more you can trust it. It's not a hard and fast rule, but in general I hate plastic things. (Plastic dishes and cutlery are an abomination. There is simply no reason to destroy the planet to have your food be delivered on plastic. Paper, yes? Plastic, no.) So I like heavy. old things.

The other day I discovered the wireless mouse I use for this computer is nine years old. I've had three computers but only mouse. (That Microsoft makes a good mouse I guess.) I know the young kids nowadays use the touch-screen and the IPaddy and the Siri-thingy phone, but not me. Just an old PC laptop with a mouse that pretends to be an Energizer bunny.

Suffice it to say I love old things...which is why it is weird to realize I like new things.

All my old stuff--at one time--was new.

I'm off to work with a new group of people. I like that. I like meeting new people. I get to work in a new system. I like trying to figure out systems. I get a new office chair. I get a new set of keys. I get a new commute. (This one has pheasants along the way. Although my old commute once had a turkey in the middle of the road.) I like all that newness.

Over the years as I've read about Jesus of Nazareth, I've often wondered if he was an old soul in a new environment or a new soul in an old environment? Was he telling people something new or something old? In the words of one of my former seminary colleagues, "How new is new?"

I disdain labels. But I wonder about the ideas which propel our actions. I often wonder if they are new or old? I wonder if my idea is something that's already been tried and done, or, if, the idea is rather novel and as yet untested?

Maybe that is why Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross? Not to complete something old, but rather to test something new? Maybe he died to free us from the old stuff so we can entertain the new? Maybe he died to reveal that death (the oldest story of all) is but the beginning of life (the newest story of all)? Maybe we like new, not because it is new but because it reminds us of how powerful the old is?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The end of the beginning is the beginning of the end

Because time is experienced both as a cycle ( seasons, birth-childhood-adulthood-death) and as a line (2014, 2015, 2016 ad infinitum) we often get confused whether we should be happy about something or sad. For example, take my 49th birthday--please, take it away. On the one hand, I should be happy I got to 49, and all the wonderful things (like seeing my children mature into adults) that came along the way. That is getting to see my 49 years as a cycle, and getting to enjoy the benefits that 49 years of living brings.

But--on the other hand--I was getting old. There were some things I could no longer do as well, and some not at all. Choices I made earlier effected my days, and led me down one path or another, and the die was cast. When viewed this way, my 49th birthday is seen as a line, and those "glory days" of my youth are long since past. (Here's Springsteen's "Glory Days" because I know you've got it stuck in your mind now. I'll wait while you listen.)




Did you notice how young the Boss and the E Street Band looked? Is that time as a circle or a line?

So I am finishing up my ministry with one congregation and getting ready to go to work with another. So I start over asking the same questions I asked last year. but to a whole new group of different people, and I expect I will get different answers. So it will be the same, but different. It makes you wonder if anything can truly be different? Truly be so unique as to change the world?

In history it has happened once, and that once is so clouded and scarred over with the tissue of human ambiguity that no one is exactly sure of the details. But once a man died and rose the Christ of God. Once upon a time "God died" (Martin Luther) and the cycles and timelines of life were changed. No longer was death the final chapter in a person's life, but rather it now extended into life everlasting. No longer were the days filled with stultifying boredom and sameness, but now each breath was charged with hope and possibility. Our experience of time no longer defined the experience of living.

The other day at lunch my server had this tatoo: dum spiro  spero. (She had it in English, "While I breathe, I hope." And to her credit she knew the Latin too. There's something cool about having a waitress who knows Cicero.)  I think that's what God wants us to know about time...that life is measured in the living not the dying. It;s measured in the hoping not the fretting. In the breathing...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

God is the Subject of the Sentence

Over the years I have developed a rather simple way to know if I am interested in reading about what you have to say about God, the Bible, Church, worship, faith, religion, and stuff like that. I look for sentences that have God as the subject,

To remind us of our grammar, here is an example: God is love. (God is the subject of that sentence.) Many people who write about religion these days are fond of making God the object of that sentence: Love is God. I am not interested much in what "love" is, but I am interested in who God "is." So for me, if you can make God the subject of your sentences, you have a much better chance of me reading your stuff or listening to you speak.

Of course. it is hard to write and speak about God, and that's why I assume so few people do it. I mean, how do you talk about "God" in any way that is meaningful or useful or even entertaining? (This is the main reason I cannot stand to listen to Christian pop radio and praise music. They tell me nothing about God, but only about people who like to worship God. And apparently, people who like to worship have trouble doing so, but they really, really, really want God to love them anyhow. Good for them.)

Many of my friends who write about religion for a living and profession are not immune from putting God as the object of sentences rather than the subject. Glance at any page of religion on a website, and you will find much about what people have to do to get their act together to be better Christians, but very little about what God is doing these days. And naturally, when someone does get around to talking about what God is doing, God is smiting some "enemy" or perceived ill in the world. If we used the writers of Christian religion on the internet as an itinerary of God's day it would be something like: listen to people whine but love them anyway, and destroy my enemies (preferably before lunch, if you can squeeze it in O Might Preserver of all things I like!)

I'm still waiting for the Christian theologian who has the guts to write like Etta James sang. There's nothing wrong with writing about people, but it's not theology. Theology is writing about God. And to do that God has to be the subject of sentence every now and then. God changes lives. God lives with us, tabernacles with us, and opens our hearts to love. Jesus of Nazareth died and was resurrected to free us from the traps we place ourselves in almost every moment of our lives. The Spirit of God seeks to move us into ever-widening circles of grace. God does amazing things.

And people? It seems we have a couple of options--we can laugh or we can cry. Here's Etta James.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Coming to Grips with failure...

As you may imagine, there are all kinds of different types of pastor "jobs." Approaching my 24th year of pastoring, I seem to have found my calling in this gig. (Using the "better late than never" approach, although to be fair, most ministers work well into their 70s, so I still have another 25 years to go.) What I seem to be good at is transitioning congregations from one pastor to another, what we call in our tradition, "interim ministry."

To be fair, all ministry is interim ministry, as we are in the time between the resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection, both communally and uniquely. Wolfhart Pannenberg, who died just a few weeks ago, would call this "proleptic eschatology." Since we're in this interim time, anyone who ministers would be--technically--interim; however, what I do is interim-interim ministry.

Pastors leave congregations for many reasons. They have worn out their welcome. They have run out of ways to motivate and encourage their parishioners. They are unethical, and their congregations no longer trust them. The congregation can be unethical, and the pastor no longer wants to be part of such a community. There are lots of reasons why pastors leave congregations.

(On an aside, this is one of the great differences between a denominational congregation and a non-denominational congregation. In non-denominational congregations the pressure on a pastor to continue doing ministry or continuing to abet unhealthy behaviors is very strong. If something no longer works in that relationship, the pastor and congregation must come to some kind of agreement in order to survive. While that might lead to new and greater ways of being a Christian community, it often devolves into the pastor succumbing to the pressure of sin. At least that's what we get from the press. I mean, Jesus only worked his ministry for three years, and there is no indication that anything more than that is beneficial to the community. Nor, for that matter, for Jesus.)

What I like to do is come into those congregations that have a leadership vacancy, and give them a new way to see their future. Even congregations that are healthy and flourishing can use new images of leaders. (And what images that can be! I have yet to follow a pastor--male or female--that has hair longer than me.) Congregations are pretty convinced they know what they need, but that only happens because they have not thought about what they need.

Congregations tend to repeat the same patterns over and over again. (This is the great failure of denominational congregations, and why some pastors go into non-denominational ones. You can easily get stuck in a rut if you never think about the things you think about.) The ministry of transition that I seem to be called to is one that allows congregations to think about what they do, and if they want to continue on in the same way; or, if they want to make changes. Some congregations actually know they want to change, and that's another good reason to have a transitional minister.

What is interesting to me is that these transitions are often approached as failure. They aren't, of course, but because we think all relationships should be eternal--including the pastor/congregation relationship--to bring in someone like me to a congregation seems to admit failure. But this is the kind of failure we want in life.

We want the kind of failure that doesn't kill us, but instead teaches us, or makes us stronger as Nietzsche might say. We want the failure that allows us to process our identity, to assess our resources, and to pray into our future with God. We are OK with the kind of failure that the cross of Jesus Christ represents.

Because from his cross  we understand, we live, and trust in our identity, in the power of suffering to resource our lives, and to live into the future for which God has called each and every one of us. The cross of Jesus Christ is a failure--no one, not even Jesus, wants to die--but his cross is not the final word. Neither are our failures. Neither are our deaths...there is always resurrection. There is always God.

That's why I'm called to interim ministry...I like to tell people who feel as if they failed, that God might not think so.

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Boss, Violence, and why Jesus matters

The Boss turns 65 today. That's pretty funny when you think about it.  Happy Birthday Mr. Springsteen. Here's my favorite song of his.

But in more important news, our country has pretty much abandoned any coherent discussion about violence. We rightly get disturbed if women or children have violence inflicted upon them by professional football players, but we are more than willing to accept violence inflicted upon "terrorists" by the United Nations. Clearly we accept violence as a solution to problems. We just pick and choose which problems we can solve by violence. Unruly children? No. Unruly terror cells? Yes. Wives and husbands who cannot communicate? No. Countries that cannot communicate? Yes. Corporately we are way more willing to accept violence as a solution than in our personal, individual lives.

This is what makes Jesus of Nazareth so important when it comes to the issue of violence. He knew it existed, and he also seems to have guessed that he was going to meet a violent end. But he did not respond to violence with violence. He responded with love. And this "love" is different than just mere acceptance of victimhood...he actually tried to make the violent accusers better, maybe so they wouldn't have to use violence? Instead of bombing "terrorists" who do violent things (like beheading journalists), what have we done to help them stop being violent? What if it takes 20 years to curb someone from resorting to violence? Could we last 20 years in order to help them?

I am a violent person. I like football because it doesn't shy away violence. I like Game of Thrones because it understands violence. I like Bruce Springsteen's music for the violent way in which he and his band drive a song. (Alternatively, there is a beauty to a pro football sideline catch; or a joke by Tyrion Lannister, or a ballad by Springsteen. There is way more complexity to sport and art than just winning or losing or liking or disliking something.) But violence is always a symptom, never a solution. That's why Jesus often eschewed violence, he was looking for solutions...

What he found, ironically amidst the most violent of deaths, was love. A love for his fellow criminals, his mom, his friends (at least the few still lingering nearby), a love even for this accusers. He was hoping that by showing love he could stop the cycle of violence that was his demise. Apparently, 2000 years later, he still hopes...and so do I.

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