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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. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. 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 12, 2018

Some thoughts on worship

15 years or so ago a woman, about my age, came into my office seeking advice about her life. I'd married her to a man a few years earlier, but that relationship had ended soon after the honeymoon. As it turned out, most of her adult relationships went that way. So, knowing this, I asked why she wanted to see me?

As the tears flowed, it turns out, all her relationships began to go to shit when she was 6 years old, and she was told she was not a good enough daughter to come to this church by her mother's friends. Apparently, the women who sat around her family in Sunday worship would pick on this girl pretty much every Sunday in her memory. Not other kids, grown women. This girl wasn't abused by a bad father or uncle, but by her mom's friends who for some reason thought they were "helping." They weren't.

One day, visiting a congregation to hear a friend preach I sat behind two ladies who spent the entire time during the sermon commenting on other ladies in the church. During the offering I tapped them on the shoulder and asked, "I'm just visiting here, how much do you charge for worship?" They told me, "Oh, church is free." I nodded, and said, "Then, how much for the gossip?" My friend went to find a better congregation a few months later.

My wife is a preacher, and she had just started at her new congregation, and I hadn't been introduced to the folks of this congregation yet as the new pastor's husband. So I sat in worship, and during the sermon of her colleague, I listened to a brother and sister literally use the F-word to each other arguing about who "had" to take care of "mom" this week. As we left worship, I mentioned to them that brothers and sisters don't have to like each other, but their mom has the third commandment. They may want to think about that.

I figure I have been to over 6000 worship services during my life. And many of them I am not in the congregation, but rather leading from the front, often from the pulpit. But I am generally scared to worship out in the "nave." (That's where the congregation sits in the room.) Scary shit happens out there.

I only have one piece of advice for people who dare to go to worship. Don't be an idiot. Don't try to parent the children who aren't yours. Don't try to use worship to solve your issues, but rather use the time to solve you. Listen to the people around you. Prayer is a time to hear God, you may want to listen?

I assume most people come to worship to participate in the life and being of God. We want to figure out how we can be part of a God's preferred future for the world. We want to make a difference. And worship can--and does--do that. But sometimes some of us forget, and we treat worship like any other hour of the day or week. It's probably not the end of the world if that happens every now and then, but worship can be  much more..I hope it is for you.

May your table be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Relationships, faith, and Everything in between

I'm fascinated by all the relationships I am in or have been a part of in my life so far. "Cast my memory back there, Lord; sometime I'm overcome thinking about..." (Van Morrison) I mean, how many people do we get to know in one lifetime?

I suppose everyone has a different number; and real extroverted people might strive for 1,000,000; and a true introverted person might want 6. I don't know, but no matter what number, we're all in this together one way or another.

And there's so many different kinds of relationships. There's intimate relationships; there's business relationships; there's family relationships; there's casual or intentional; there's good one and bad ones. So many different, different kinds.

Have you ever had one of those experiences that are a "6 Degrees of Separation" type thing? I remember once my wife and I checked into a hotel room in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and when we first got to the room, the phone was ringing. My wife picked up the phone, nodded yes a few times, and then hung up the receiver. "We have to go back to the front desk," she said, "they want to give us another room."

On arriving at the front desk, they did indeed give us another room, for free, and for up to three days if we wanted it. (We were only traveling through.) This hotel gave pastors a free room for up to three days, and they wanted Chris and I to use it. We did, and as I was getting the key from the front desk clerk, I asked how they knew I was a pastor? I never register as a pastor; nor, do I dress in khaki.
Image result for pastor cartoons
The clerk looked and me and said I looked familiar when he was checking me in, but it wasn't until we were on our way up to our room that he remembered how he knew me. I had done his cousin's wedding at our church the previous summer, and that's how he knew I was a pastor. Small world...

...But many, many relationships. And that's the point of Christian faith. Faith is the "regal relationship" (Joseph Sittler) that we have with God, and through our relationship with God we are in relationship with all the rest of the universe. I love keeping track of relationships in this world, and I'm excited to see what relationships there might be in the next. I am grateful for my faith.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Love, not justice

As a kid I ran to the convenience store comic book rack always looking for the next issue of my favorite comic. The comic was from Marvel and called “Daredevil.” My brother’s taste in comics was based on the art and color, so we had a lot of “Thor,” The Hulk,” and “Spiderman” comics too. But for me, I was fascinated by the back story of Daredevil, and I liked the red suit.Image result for marvel daredevil

Daredevil is a blind man who is a lawyer by day, and fights crime—actually he seeks “justice” by night. Although, like most kids I suppose, I read comic books for all the wrong reasons, and over the years I’ve realized that I have internalized some of that Daredevil ethic into my own life. Daredevil always started with idea that law, and the systems we have around those laws, would provide justice. But, of course, those systems are manipulated by criminals, or those seeking to do harm, and therefore justice is often denied. At that point, since the law has been rendered powerless, you become a masked crime-fighter and wreck all sorts of havoc on those for whom the law does not punish for their criminal and abusive behavior. It was standard vigilantism with a patina of “we tried to play by the rules but that didn’t work.”

What I learned as I started reading other books, and most of those didn’t have pictures, is that systems, and the laws around those systems, are often manipulated by one side or the other for their own advantage. The poor system is just trying to maintain some sense of order, but people keep going around it, or ignoring it, or gerrymandering its boundaries so that it no longer provides any sense of confidence that the center of the system can hold. It’s like we are standing in mid-air trying to go in all directions at once. It’s a very disconcerting place to be.

This is what led me to religion, and specifically Jesus of Nazareth on the cross, and how God responds to such events. What do you do when you’ve been betrayed? When the very systems you thought would protect you instead crucify you? What do you do when the ideas, thoughts, people, even yourself that you thought you could always count on, no longer can be counted upon to help? What do you do?

You just love.  There is nothing else in that situation. That’s the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Daredevil. When the system failed Jesus he did not become some super-hero trying to bring about justice. He accepted his failure to receive justice in the system, and continued to love, even those who betrayed him. As Daredevil discovers it is not easy to accept failure within a system of justice, and even harder to love. It’s easier to put on a mask and start lashing out in pain, in frustration, and a sense of “fairness.” Image result for jesus on a cross

But that’s not what Jesus did. He loved. He died…but he loved. And I’ve always wondered if love, not justice, is what made the difference?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Standing, kneeling, and the act of worship

It's pretty clear to me by now that people who follow sports for a living have no idea what standing or kneeling in regards to worship (the media calls it "respect") means. Apparently, whether a professional athlete (or any athlete) stands or kneels during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" shows a proper amount of respect according to some. Since this whole conversation seems like a new way to be racist to me, (let's be fair, the whole reason why an athlete once knelt was because of racism, and those who didn't like his kneeling were clearly driven by racism) it's interesting that it settled on "kneeling."

"Kneeling" is something theologians know a little bit about. So let's talk about kneeling as a way to worship, and then, perhaps we can see kneeling as a way to protest. (If you're not a fan of protests, your stay in the United States of America, especially in the age of social media, is going to be quite frustrating.)

Without a doubt, the Christian faith has asked its people to kneel before God. It's part of our scripture, it's part of our history, it's part of our everyday, regular worship of God. Interestingly, those who tend not to kneel in Christian worship tend to be Protestants, or "protesters." We kneel because we are in awe of God's majesty and power. We acknowledge we are mortal, sinful, and powerless in the face of sin, death, and the devil. Our kneeling is a request to God in Jesus Christ, who himself knelt before God, in the power of the Holy Spirit to relieve us of our suffering, and to forgive us. That's what kneeling is about. (I should add that one does not have to kneel in order to make that request, but kneeling is an action that symbolizes our powerlessness.) That's why we Christians kneel.

That's not why athletes kneel during the overly militarized, nationalistic propaganda that is sports. They kneel because everybody else stands. They are protesting. Although who's to say what's actually being protested now, it started as a protest against police brutality against Black people. Although the kneeling may look the same, there is a huge difference between a person kneeling at an altar and a person kneeling before a football game. Where you kneel often defines why you kneel.

So when you see those memes on Facebook about kneeling, don't pay attention to the kneeler, pay attention to the context of picture. Image result for mlk kneeling

Check out this picture above: why are they kneeling? Protest? Certainly. Prayer? Certainly. (Especially if you know who's in the picture.) What makes the kneeling a protest and a prayer is the context. This is not what athletes are doing before a football game; nor, is it what millions of Christians are doing during confession. It might share some similarities with each, but it is its own unique form of kneeling.

The question we must ask of ourselves is not so much why others kneel, but why you do not? Or, if you do kneel, why are you kneeling? I find it interesting that a professional athlete can take an act of worship, encourage a demagogue to volatility, and lead a country to a state of confusion about "kneeling." There is nothing confusing about kneeling: you kneel because you are powerless to change by yourself, and it doesn't matter if you are a Black American protesting racism or a Christian protesting sin; in each case, you need someone to change something, or you're never going to be able to get up until change is promised. If you could do the change yourself, you'd have never knelt in the first place. Kneeling is always about power, and those who have it stand. Those who don't? They kneel.

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

We are a divided country...this is not news.

America has for most of its existence as a country been divided. Perhaps not from 1917-1945, but a lot had to be ignored (segregation of people of color, for example) in order to believe we were more united than we actually were. In fact, I would argue, people have always been divided, and on the rare occasions when we are united it is quite powerful. But rare. Very rare.

Just use my job, for example. It is quite common for people to come into my office to complain about how God seems to be ignoring them. They use as evidence this, that, or the other thing, and we pray for a sense of God's presence in their lives, and if possible, some type of resolution. Then the next person comes in to my office with a complaint, and their evidence is the exact reverse of the person before them. So we pray again for God's presence, and some type of resolution. Now I realize, as the second person walks away, that I have just prayed to God and asked for two completely antithetical responses from God. In other words, if God answers positively to Person 1, Person 2 will see this as God not listening again; and were God to answer Person 2, Person 1 would believe God no longer listens. Happens all the time.

And it has been happening for the 30 years I've been in ministry. That we are divided in not new. Why do you think we have "United" in our country's official name? Because we are; or, because we WANT to be? It's precisely because we are not united, that we strive for unity. 150 years ago we went to war for this unity. We all know we don't agree, that's why we never talk about important stuff. Silence is how we "agree to disagree."

I preach about racism and white privilege quite a lot, and each week about 5 people talk to me about it. And they all agree with me. I preach to about 400 people. What do you think about the other 395? Do they agree with me or not? I have to assume most do not agree with me. So why talk to me about it? It's pretty clear I'm not going to change my mind too much, and they're probably not either. (Especially if they think silence is the best way to agree to disagree.) That's why I always push the envelope in areas I don't hear anything about--I want to see how far people will go in their silence. (Pretty far, by the way, until they leave.)

As the recent kerfuffle with the National Football League and the police brutality/racism controversy showed, not even the flag or the national anthem can unite this country anymore. Those symbols as symbols of unity are on their last legs. (I just used a dead metaphor "legs" to talk about dying metaphors, "flags" and "eagles." We all know symbols don't have "legs." Just as we are learning that stars and stripes, red, white, and blue, and feathers and beaks are not "united.")

So what can unite this country? We've already used slavery, World domination by a foreign country has been done. Phantasms of fear is losing ground. As a preacher, I have only one unity I can preach: water is thicker than blood.

The waters of baptism that signal for Christianity the unity of all creation into God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth by the power of the Holy Spirit is all the unity I know. I do not expect us all to be unified as Christians, but rather unified in the forgiveness of God. That might be Christian for me, but for you? Well, there are other options, but I don't have much experience with them. So I'll talk about the unity I know.

The unity I know is a God who loves the world and all creatures in it. A God who cherishes the universe, and all the energy through which it swirls. I know a God that offers forgiveness rather than revenge. A God who offers presence rather than despair. A God who offers love rather than hate. It might be too much to hope we would be unified around such a God, but in a nation as divided as ours is there a better option that uniting around a God who loves us all?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.