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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.

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


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 threw 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 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.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


This sermon from Christmas Eve of 2016 goes to what I consider the heart of the Christianity: sharing. There are many metaphors that bring to mind the love God has for us: mercy, justice, peace, hope, and countless others. But I have always been struck by "sharing."

For one thing, it seems to be something we all have to learn. How many parents have told a child at one time or another, "Remember to share?" It's not necessarily a "natural" thing. Learning to share is learning to live in the love of God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. We share because God first shared with us.

The second thing is that sharing binds us together as community. Because of my inclinations and training, "community" has always had a high priority for me, even if I would never actually join a community that would have me as a member. (Thank you, Groucho Marx.) The act of sharing immediately brings you into the presence of another person, and from there community begins.

Christianity is a religion of sharing, not of buying and selling, not of winning or losing, but about taking what you have been given and giving it to somebody else for no cost, at no benefit to you. In fact, if you're going to use Jesus of Nazareth as your prime example of sharing, know this: he shared until he was dead. If you follow in his footsteps of sharing you'll probably die before your time. But, for a Christian, that's not the worst thing that could ever happen...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Post-Election Requiem

If you didn't realize it before the election, I hope you realize it now: the United States is a racist, homophobic, misogynistic country, and there's no use pretending anymore that it is not. We're still a great country, but the veil has been lifted. I've known this for a long time, and I always appreciated the veneer of civility that we would use to try and make our virulent hatreds a little less controlling. But the law cannot change the hearts of people. The Apostle Paul knew it, Martin Luther knew it, and now we know it. Law can keep us civil, but it cannot erase sin.

There are a lot of people, of course, that want law to erase sin. Their cause is admirable, as law has been about the only thing in the last 4000 years that has kept us civil. And the more civil we got, the more we stretched the law and its limits in hopes of erasing sin. But the law cannot do that, and sin always wins against the law. Even if it takes a long time...sin wins that battle eventually.

And if you've tried to make sense how the fraud Trump became President-Elect, you realize it's a lot like trying to put a square peg in a round hole--it just doesn't fit know matter what angle you try. That's how sin works. It ignores the rule of law, so that law is powerless to defend ITSELF against sin. What sin attacks is law, and sin always finds a way to work that law cannot go. And sin wins.

Image result for pantocrator  In the Christian tradition we hold that only one thing defeats sin, death, and the devil, and that is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Or, in a catchier, post-election slogan, what we call the Word of God. The love of God, unlike the law, does not play by regular rules. The love of God is based on God's love for every single person, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and all the rest; the love of God is for every man, woman, trans, no matter how young or old; the love of God is for every person, regardless of the color of your skin. The love of God is for all people, no exceptions. Only that love has the power to defeat sin.

I want to live in that love, don't you? Don't you want to live with people you can trust? Don't you want to work with people who care? Don't you want to be celebrating with people who know joy? Wouldn't you want to grieve with people who know despair?

To live in that love, it seems to me, means we have to start loving those everyone tells us not to love. Otherwise, how will you be able to trust them? We might start celebrating with those whom we don't know, or else how will you know their joy? We need to grieve with those who weep, or we fail to know their despair. And, here's the funny thing about that love, it will allow people to trust, celebrate, and despair with you  as well.
Image result for rublev icon

The fraud Trump cannot take away that love from you. He can kill you for it, but a lot of people have died for that love. But know this, because God's love cannot be defeated by sin, death, or the devil, every time we die for it, love wins. I am sad that people will have to die for God's love to win, and I have arrived at the conclusion that I may very well be one of them. So be it. If God's love is good enough for me in this world, God's love will be good enough for me in the next.

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

Here for the Oppressed

This year marks the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the office of Pastor. It seems rather strange to think it’s been that long, and recently the time has seemed to go by even faster. I suppose, as my daughter once noted, “we’ll just move to Florida and die.” Anything’s possible.

Here’s what I’ve seen change in the 25 years since I’ve been ordained, in no particular order of importance; nor, really, without judgement or critique. I am part of all these changes obviously (no matter how slight the impact upon me personally), and some fit me better than others…

…worship has really changed. I started one of the first alternative church bands of the ELCA back in 1990, and every week we got visitors saying they wanted to go back to their congregations and try it. When I started I never saw a drum set in a church, now I can’t find a church without one. Worship has a wide variety of music, prayers, spiritual practices, and venues and times and we’re all over the place. If you’re in an area with a lot of ELCA congregations, you could probably go to worship seven days a week. (I mean, 10 years ago I started a congregation where worship was on Thursday night, and we didn’t have any music at all! The drums stayed silent.)Image result for drum kit

…leadership has changed. My colleagues, for one thing, are a lot younger than me, but as the Call Committee can attest, there aren’t as many of them. The ELCA currently has only 6 pastors for every 10 calls, and many congregations go years waiting for one. This has asked many people to take on the role of leadership, of learning and training to pastor people, and I for one, think this makes us a stronger church. I used to say at one congregation I served that I wanted to be known as they “guy they let preach once in a while,” when asked what I did there.

…competition has increased. What I mean by this is that when I first go ordained there wasn’t a lot you could do on Sundays besides church. Texas still had “Blue laws” when I was in graduate school (1986), and you either went to church or had your neighbors asking why didn’t you? Now, there is a lot to do besides church, and many of the benefits of church are now offered by others. When I was starting out, the only way to help out Haiti in a hurricane was through a religious charity. Now there are non-profits dedicated ONLY to that work. Habitat for Humanity used to be about building homes, not about donating lumber or money for supplies. Everywhere the church once was the “only game in town,” is now an metropolis filled with people who want to help. Image result for elca world hunger

This year has tried the souls of many. Many are still in fear that who they are is a crime. Women, people of color, sexual minorities, workers without a safety net all have reason to fear based on the rhetoric that echoed throughout our land. But we are here for the oppressed. God loves those the world loves the least. As Jesus Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.3) That hasn’t changed.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.