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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, 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.

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 

Image result for martin luther

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

Image result for emily dickinson
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.