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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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Welcome 8th Grade Confirmation Students!

Google has made memorizing things pretty irrelevant. Actually remembering what you know? That too is mostly moot with a handy Google search bar or a Wiki link. So why memorize anything?

IT'S MOSTLY SO YOU CAN BE WHO YOU WANT TO BE AND WHO GOD CREATED YOU TO BE. (In other words, it's about your identity.) Who am I? Why has God placed me here?

So things we memorize are never forgotten, but rather as we memorize things we add to our identity, who we are. The things we memorize our markers from our history, snippets of who we were, where we were, and even what our goal and dreams could be. We may not ever reach our goal, we may always have a something else we still want to do, but in the words of Robert Browning, "else what's a heaven for?"

Here's some things I've memorized over the years. (They are not exact, I'd have to google them to make sure I got them exactly right, but I think I remember most of it...)

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me. Martin Luther, The Small Catechism 

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Consider us this way, servants of Christ...stewards of God's mysteries... Paul, 1 Corinthians

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Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me/The carriage held but just ourselves, and immortality. Emily Dickinson

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Dr. Samuel Johnson

It seems like while you were searching for the meaning of life, you neglected to live. Voltaire, Candide

Tell your god to get ready for blood...Al Swearengen, Deadwood

All of these quotations are parts of my history, and make up ways that I see the world. They are reminders to me of what I believe, how I think, how to behave, and how to follow God as a disciple of Jesus. I have a lot more, and a lot more goes into my life...but the goal of memorization is not to summarize your life, but rather to remind you where your life has been.

May your table be full and your conversations be true!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Racism and Sexism in the 21st Century

If you would have asked me on December 31, 1999, if the United States of America would be dealing with racism and sexism in the next 20 years, I would have said, "yes." But, but saying "yes," I meant that we would be dealing with it by becoming more equitable in our relationships between the sexes and races. I would not have meant, "sure, we're going back to the old ways of ignoring and disrespecting women, closing our borders to immigrants, and beating and killing of Black Americans." However, as I sit here today, I wonder if it was better in 1999? It seems like we're getting worse...but I'm taking hope from some things these last few days.

A sign of hope # 1: There's more people protesting against white supremacy movements than supporting them

I've noticed the sizes of the groups in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend, and the people on the side of truth, freedom, and justice were much larger than the racists, bigots, and idiots calling themselves the "alt-right." That's a good sign. Although there are racist people with a lot of power, the fact that more people are willing to stand up for others who have traditionally been abused, killed, ignored, and oppressed, rather than those who are doing the killing, abusing, and oppressing, is a sign of hope.

Sign of hope # 2: Many people I know regret their vote in the 2016 presidential election.

I live in a county where the current President received over 60% of the vote. And many of the people I live around, now realize that who we have as President of the United States of America does matter if we want to be called "united" in any sense of the word. It's fair to say that for most of us, over the past 30 years, who we had as President did not really matter. The trajectory of our lives was set by our economic, not our political agendas, and most Presidents kept those trajectories on an upward scale, at least for some people. The rest of us just assume, at some point, the economy will work in our favor. (But that's another post.) The current regime has shown us in stark contrast that the Presidency is a political, NOT NOT NOT an economic position. He's disgraced us not because he failed us economically, but because he fails politically time and time again. As much as we may not trust or like politicians, if we're going to be "united," we need them.

Sign of hope # 3: People are coming back to church.

As a pastor in a very middle-of-the-road congregation, one that values the historic Christian tradition, and embodies the political "middleness" of the country, people  are coming to church again. After 30 years, I've given up trying to figure out why people come to church or not. Attending worship, or being involved in a congregation's activities, is a spiritual practice, and everyone has different practices, and different emphasis of those practices on their faith journeys. People come, people go, that's faith. People coming around this time are asking, "How can I make a difference? How can I help stop the hate? What can I do with my life that I would be proud to share with my grandchildren?" (This from people who aren't even parents yet!)

That's a huge sign of hope. People turning to God, to Jesus Christ, to the power of the Holy Spirit to seek guidance and wisdom on how their lives may have meaning. I trust God will walk with them in this discernment. I trust Jesus Christ will break their chains of bondage so they may be free to explore their power and variety of the human experiences. I trust the Holy Spirit will provide them energy to succeed, and comfort when they fail. That's what a congregation is, a "demonstration plot" of God's kingdom where all of life is encompassed and embraced. Where love wins.

I'm not happy days, but I do see signs of hope every now and then. What signs of hope do you see?

My your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A (very limited) Interfaith primer

Because of some personal connections I have with Christian leaders of interfaith religious experiences (dialogue no longer seems to be enough these days, so I am using the word "experiences" to get the the sharing of ministries, stories, and lives that goes much broader than dialogues), I have taken an interest in the lives of my Jewish and Muslim relatives these days. I do not pretend to be an expert in this area of theology as I've read a few books and had a few conversations with Jewish and Muslim people, but I would like to offer some ideas on how to be a Christian when living with Jewish and Muslim neighbors. (And I know there is more to interfaith experiences than these three faith traditions, but this Tri-Faith is what I am part of these days.)

First, know that your history as a Christian matters to them, even if it really doesn't matter to you. In Europe, where my Christian tradition originated, Jews, Christians, and Muslims never really got along. And my own personal tradition (Lutheranism) was one of the worst. Martin Luther's hatred and anti-Semitism is particularly atrocious, and let us not forget that Germany, populated by many Lutherans, once tried to eradicate the entire Jewish tradition. Interfaith experiences are not a strong point in my tradition, and it is known and remembered by those whose traditions suffered under mine.

So, I understand that people don't always have to trust me once they discover I am a Lutheran Christian. (I should note, for those wondering, that it isn't "Lutheranism" per se that caused Luther to rail against the Jews, or created Nazi Germany; it was fear and perversion that led to their actions, and a complete repudiation of Lutheranism's understanding of God's pervasive love and grace. That it happened to Luther is proof that Christianity is not about getting it right once, but rather Christianity is a day to day living in the scope of God's grace.) So I have to patiently witness my faithfulness and neighborliness every time in interfaith experiences, primarily because so many in my tradition before me have not done so.

Secondly, and this will be my last point for this post, is that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are related, even if some Christians do not think so. There is no doubt that there are a bunch of Christians who do no consider our Jewish and Muslim neighbors to be part of our family of God. But, that's how families are--there's always some who don't like the cousins. It has always helped me to know that Jesus was Jewish, and didn't really see that as a problem. Although Islam does not consider Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, nor that he died, they do not deny his existence.

Every religion has more to it than just what one person knows and believes. It is true for Christianity, and even though I am the one writing this, I have to admit there are many Christians who do not agree with me on this topic. If it's true for my religion, I assume it's true for the others as well. Perhaps that's why it's so important to realize we are all related: disagreements do not have to lead to war. There may always be some who want to make the tri-faith picnic a last supper, but they are related to us, even if they do not want to be. Our God family is bigger than any one of us.

As a Christian you don't have to like, know, or even live with our Jewish and Muslim relatives, but it is just silly to believe we are not related. You may never show up to a tri-faith family reunion, but there is a place for you if you ever do.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Faith in an Age of Disbelief

As with the late George Michael, you "gotta have faith." But "faith" is not the same as believing something. Those are two different experiences, and many people these days seemed to have confused the two. And even worse, would rather believe than have faith. Belief is trivial. Faith is everything.

A person can believe any manner of silly things. You could believe Donald Trump is a good president. You could believe the earth is flat. You could believe white people have it tougher than black people. So what? Just because you believe them does not make them true or even useful. For example, most people who steer boats don't drive as if the earth is flat. So believing the earth is flat is not even a useable belief.

Belief is just trying to make yourself feel better about stuff you know nothing about. You have no idea what makes a "president," so you believe Trump is one. You don't want to understand how science works so you believe it is not true, and belief satisfies your laziness. You feel some disparagement, and assume someone is to blame, so you choose the person of color, or a sexual minority as the reason for your failure, rather than try to investigate why something didn't go your way. Scapegoating depends wholly upon belief to succeed.

Faith is a completely different thing than belief. In fact, it is not a "thing," at all. Faith is a relationship established between participants depending upon trust and love. We can even use an inanimate participant to show what I mean. I have "faith" in gravity. I don't believe it. I have faith in it. What that means, to have "faith" in gravity, is that when something drops I trust gravity will work, and whatever dropped will fall. And I love the consistency of gravity. It always works, and Hollywood wouldn't have had to develop CGI if it didn't. You could have a participant, say a helium- filled balloon, be designed to counteract gravity. But the very existence of the helium-filled balloon is proof that you trust gravity will work. In general, I trust gravity will work. I also assume, although I have no evidence for this assumption, that gravity trusts me. So gravity and I have a "faith" relationship, not a "belief" relationship. It doesn't matter what I believe about gravity, I just trust that when my pen rolls off my desk, gravity will work.

That's why faith is so much more important than anything you choose to believe. It has to do with how you live, not how you think you live. Or believe. Beliefs are ephemeral, mystical, and in most cases childish. Belief has one use only: to push us into ever greater awareness of our dependence upon faith. Those who "believed" we could fly, have strengthened our faith in gravity. Those who believed we could conquer disease have emboldened us to to trust in vaccines. Belief is the realm of poets and mathematicians, faith is where the rest of us slog in our day-to-day lives.

All that I've said about the relationship between faith and belief, also applies to faith and disbelief. You may not believe in gravity, but I don't see you jumping off buildings. Most of us live our everyday lives just fine with gravity. (And on an added note for the scientists, most of us live just fine with Newtonian physics, as much as we might believe Einstein was correct.) Disbelief, therefore, does not mean that you do not nor cannot have faith. In reality, you probably have more faith because you trust some participant in reality more than any beliefs. And the trust and love you have with that participant is what frees you to believe or disbelieve something.

This is why Christians have "faith" in Jesus Christ as the Son of God rather than "believing" it. (It is one of the great tragedies of English language that "fides" in Latin cannot be translated into a verb in English. That's why Christians say the "believe" all the time, even though "fides" means faith. The great Marine Corps slogan semper fi means always "faithful" not always "believing." Interestingly,  when the Reformers suggested a slogan about this concept of trust in God, they used sola fide, faith alone, rather than belief alone. Faith is the preferred Christian understanding of one's relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. One of my predecessors use to call it the "regal relationship." {Joseph Sittler}) Believing is the ultimate transitory nature of reality. Faith is the everlasting value of trust and love in reality.

So go ahead, believe or disbelieve anything and everything you want or don't want. As the Apostle Paul noted years ago, what's valuable, or as he thought, salvific, was "faith." Not belief. "For by grace you have been saved by faith..." (Ephesians 2.8) No belief necessary. You just gotta have faith.

May your table be full and your conversations be true.

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

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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.