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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.

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

Image result for fourth of july

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.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Cool Cup of Water

It's a thirsty world out there. (and now that I know that "thirsty" is a common term these days for sexually aroused, it's even thirstier.) But I am talking about plain, old, parched and dry world. A world devoid of the freshness and life that water affords. We're thirsty.

I work with a lot of conservation organizations, and water is a constant theme for all of them. We cannot take water for granted. I, probably because of my upbringing, do take it for granted. Sadly.

I grew up on lakes. I was born in a hospital just a few blocks from the shores of Lake Superior. I always lived on a lake until I moved to college. From then on, I've always lived by a major body of water. Since I was 18 I have lived within a mile or two of: the Minnesota River, Lake Austin and the Colorado River, Lake Michigan, the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River. There's always been a large body of water around me for as long as I can remember.

I remember once when Chris and I were visiting Sante Fe, NM to help with some of their hunger ministries and projects. We go to talking about whether we could move to Santa Fe. As much as I love the city (and I really love it!), I told Chris I couldn't. When she asked why, I replied, "I need a consistent water table wherever I live." Truer words I never spoke. 14.21 inches of precipitation in Santa Fe is not enough. (In Blair, NE, where I currently live, we get 30.32 of rain, not including snow a year.) So I am addicted to my water.

But I do worry about it. Glaciers melting. More chemicals being used to provide us food, and those chemicals leech into the water. A town like Flint, MI has water, but its water system is so poisoned that the water is undrinkable. And then, of course, there is drought. Drought just moves its way across the globe, and seems to settle where people are already vulnerable. "Water, water everywhere," Coleridge wrote, "and nary a drop to drink."

There is a saying of Jesus of Nazareth that "whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones...none of these will lose their reward." (Matthew 10.42) I'm not sure what the reward is he's talking about, but the standard for receiving it seems pretty low. Share a cup of water. So maybe one of the ways to improve our world, to slake some of the thirst, is to share a cup of cold water? When was the last time you shared a cup of water with someone? When was the last time you shared a drink of any kind with someone? A thirsty world yearns for cool water. I hope you get a share a cup.

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