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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.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Mental Illness and the Gospel

Today, June 10, 2018, we had as our reading from the life of Jesus in the story of him saying, "Can Satan cast out Satan?" And everyone, especially his family, worried that he was so "out of character." (Literally: lost his mind.) And I told a story about when I  with our SUV almost ran over Anthony Bourdain in Hollywood a few years ago. Anthony Bourdain succumbed to suicide a couple of days ago.

My sermon came to the reality that there is little we can do about mental illness other than to offer ourselves, literally give ourselves away, so that those in the throes of mental illness' power have time to survive another day. It made many people grateful for the power of Jesus to subdue "the devil" (which I use as a metaphor for the negative energy the mental illness brings upon people.) But it also led a few of us into a sense of hopelessness, especially those who want to help those suffering from mental illness. There's not a lot you can do when "Satan" has someone in their power. And what you can do, stay by them, walk with them, love them seems so inadequate.

Mental illness is the one place these days where the gospel is our only salvation. All the people God has sent to bring medicine and knowledge, compassion and care to those suffering from mental illness cannot "subdue" it. They can mollify its effects, re-direct its energy, and even mask some of its pain, but the illness always lurks in the background, and those suffering are never sure when it will strike again. Only something completely from the outside, only something that doesn't play by the rules, only someone who is willing to die so others may live can defeat-- subdue mental illness. And in Christianity that someone is Jesus the Christ of God.

As the Son of God, Jesus does not play by the rules of Satan. He is completely outside of the person suffering; he can die, so someone else can live. But as the Son of Humanity he is completely at ease knowing the destructive power of Satan and negative energy. But he does not succumb, but not because he is God, but because he becomes so human. He lets Satan have free reign over his failures, his regrets, and his blasphemies. He clings to the Holy Spirit, and lets Satan have all the rest of him. And in doing so--he subdues Satan.And his promise is such that he does so for you as well.

Satan thinks he has won because he got Jesus dead. But Jesus knows that is not a win when you are dealing with a God of eternal love. And Jesus gives everything to Satan because he trusts God will give everything to him. And in the end, Jesus got it right, and he conquered because he was weaker rather than stronger.

Mental illness makes bold the Gospel because it is so rife with images of weakness and strength. And always remember when it comes to Jesus and the Gospel weakness is the point, not the problem.

May your tables be full and your conversation be true.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Helping Your Neighbor is a good thing...

...it's just not exclusively a Christian thing. You might say that God created us (or, mechanistically, we're made that way) to help each other. You don't need to believe in God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit in order to help someone out. That much is pretty clear, I believe.

So, if you're a Christian, why do you help other people? Is it only because you're made like the rest of us? Or, does your faith in God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit make a difference in why you help people? You can see where I am going with this. If you're helping people, and your faith doesn't make a difference in that helping, why do you practice a faith? If you have a faith, but aren't helping people, how does your faith actually make you LESS human? That is, all humans seem to want to help, but your faith encourages you not to help? So, you're actually denying that portion of your createdness? That seems weird.

So, for this let us assume that we help people, or want to help people, and that we want our faith to make a difference in our "helping." Since everyone helps faith cannot serve as your reason TO help. In other words, it does nothing for your faith to say, "I help because I am a Christian." Clearly, if others without faith are helping, faith cannot be a motivator for helping.

You might say that "faith" in whatever or whomever is required to help. But if it is just faith or "believing in something a lot," then again, your specific Christian faith is irrelevant to your helping. You'd just need some kind of faith in that scenario, and it wouldn't have to be Christian. This, by the way, is the most popular understanding of faith these days. Faith might have a reason to exist, but whatever particularities your faith carries is a matter of taste and opinion.

So the way to ask the question this week after Easter is: does the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, make any difference in whether you help people or not? Although most of us would wish to say to "Yes," to that question, it's almost impossible for us to know if it is or not. If people help without believing in those events, how can one who believes in those events say they impact their helping? As the great Schleiermacher pointed out long ago, you really can't.

If your Christian faith cannot determined why you help other, perhaps it can help guide HOW you help others? Probably not though because helping people is giving them what they need, and so how you help is often determined by the other. Of course, Christians have tried this road too, and this is why you see so many "meals for homeless" that include a Bible study or some kind of Christian teaching. A hungry person needs food, and no matter how you decorate that food delivery, you still gave them food, which was the point of helping.

So if your Christian faith has no bearing on WHY you help or HOW you help, perhaps it can influence Who, or When, or Where you help? These are questions your Christian faith can begin to make a difference in helping. Who you help? Well, that might depend on your faith. If like the prophets or Jesus you are going to help those God has a predilection for, the widow, the orphan, and the poor, you could say your faith a direct influence on your helping then. However, no matter who you help the person is a person in need, the kind of person you help is often the second question.So although answering the "who" question gets us closer to having our faith influence our helping, it doesn't get us all the way there. When and Where questions follow in the same way.

No matter where or when you help someone, they have a when and a where that determines your helping more so than your own Christian faith. So, we are left after all this with the rather unsettling understanding that our faith seems to have absolutely NO influence or bearing on our helping people. It seems like it should be a influence, but it really is not. So what is faith good for in terms of helping people, others?

For me, faith encourages me to persevere and to keep going until there is no more helping left to do. In other words, faith doesn't influence me to start helping, it allows me to keep helping. You may have heard Jesus of Nazareth once said, "the poor will always be with you." It seems like such a defeatist thing to say. But what he seems to be getting at is that there will always be a need and opportunity to help. But the question is whether you will have the energy to help all the time? Faith is the energy that influences your helping out when you no longer have the human desire or need to help.

From my experience this is why people tend to get  more "conservative" as they age. We no longer have the energy we once had to keep helping all the time, so we pick and choose our helping, and that's the definition of "conserve." But people of strong faith in a God for whom death and failure are not the worst things, they keep helping no matter how old they get. They way they help might change because of age, but they are still helping. In fact, in my experience, once people retire they can help even more, especially those convinced of the temporariness of suffering under the power of a gracious God.

So faith is not about why you help, or how or when or where or who, but rather faith encourages you to keep helping. To not succumb to the inhumane-ness (not being human) of not helping, but rather to keep helping even when the rest of your body, your mind, and your community tells you you don't have to do that anymore. The death and resurrection is nothing else if it is not a testament to God who wants to keep helping even though death wants to win. The resurrection is God sticking with us so we can continue to stick with others and help.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Jesus was NOT an immigrant

I saw a lot of social media about Easter yesterday. Most were friends and their families celebrating a day of food and fun, and for those in the upper Midwest, snow-shoveling. Every now and then some posts brought up the reason for the day--the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. The He is risen, he is risen indeed part of the day.

But remember the upside down is right side up these days, and a few of the resistance noted the irony of a bunch of white, racist, Christian nationalists celebrating an "immigrant who was killed by the empire." The irony is not lost upon me, and yes Jesus was killed the empire and the religious authorities (which you would think would give Christian nationalists a pause, but they don't actually think about the things they claim to think about.) But Jesus was NOT an immigrant.

I hate to break this to my friends of the resistance to our current regime of stupidity, because I really do want us to resist the stupid of the world, but you do a great dis-service to Jesus and his mission in the world, at least as we have it in the Bible. I do not pretend that what we know of Jesus could be entirely make-believe, but we do have four stories about him, and in none of those four stories is he an immigrant. In fact, in one of them, he may not even be the country preacher, rural religious savant bringing about a revolution to the city folk that so many Christians, especially the politically motivated ones, want him to be.

Take this line from the story of Jesus according to some writer named "John." He tells the story this way:
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him (John the Baptizer), "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize you with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing." (John 1.24-28)

Usually this text is interpreted to talk about how John sees himself not as the messiah, or even any very important prophet. Rather, he is just pointing that his baptizing is a precursor to someone really powerful, who becomes, by the end of John's story, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. Here's the interesting line from John in this text: "Among you stands one whom you do not know" and in John's mind, at least, he will be the Messiah. The Gospel of John assures us of John's trustworthiness, so why might we assume John did NOT get this point right too? In other words, one of the people standing with these questioners is Jesus of Nazareth. And the people questioning John are a bunch of Pharisees or their scribes. Jesus of Nazareth is standing with a bunch of folks who come from Jerusalem, sent by Pharisees to question John.

And John says, one of you, whom you do not know, is going to be the messiah. If John got this piece of historical accuracy right, in all probability, Jesus, at one point in his life, was a Pharisee and connected to the religious authority and elite of Jerusalem. He was definitely not a country preacher who learned his Torah at night in a woodshop in Nazareth. But regardless of whether you believe Jesus started out as a Pharisee or some kind of religious elite, he was not an immigrant.

He was born in Judea. He died in Judea. It is true that one of the stories about Jesus has him as a refugee early in his life, but all four stories have him dying in Jerusalem, and those that tell about his birth have him born near there too. Here's some other interesting questions that the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John presents to me, and why I overwhelmingly believe Jesus was a Pharisee before he was baptized by John the Baptizer, at least in that story, although I tend to believe if Jesus was real than he was probably a Pharisee living in Jerusalem. (That just seems to be how God works. See Moses.)

1. Why does John put Jesus cleansing the temple at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry rather than near the end?
For me, the answer to that question is because Jesus is in the earliest stages of his rebellion against the religious system that is slavishly devoted to the wrong thing. That is, not God, but rather religion itself. You tend to only know if your religion is going off the tracks if you are a devotee of your religion and through your ardent zeal try to bring it back to its roots and to God. And if that's the case, there has to be a "straw that breaks the camel's back," and in John's story, the temple and its day-to-day operations is that straw. That's the kind of action from which there is no going back. When Jesus overthrows the moneychangers, his days of being a Pharisee are over. For good.

2. Who is Nicodemus?
Usually the answer is he is some kind of "closet" believer who has to sneak over to see Jesus by night so that no one can see him. Possibly. It certainly makes for good Hollywood drama that way. But what about this? What if Nicodemus visits Jesus by night because he's busy during the day? In other words, what if Nicodemus has a day job? Or, here's another one: what if Nicodemus and Jesus were friends back when Jesus was a Pharisee, and he just came over for a late-night drink and some conversation with his friend? Who is still his friend, even if they now have some religious disagreements? Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you don't understand these things?" (John 3.10) Have you never kidded or chastised one of your friends when they don't seem to understand you? Haven't you ever said to someone, "how do you not know this?" And chances are the person you said it to you know pretty well. That's what makes it so incredulous to you. They should know it, and you know them and know they should know it, but they don't.

(This is the last one, I could go on forever.)

My point is to remind us that we have to be careful when we let our political ideologies define the story of Jesus. As Albert Schweitzer pointed out, we're going to do it, but let's at least be aware of our assumptions. And that's the biggest problem right now: we're not talking about our assumptions. We're talking about the results of our assumptions, and a lot of people are being led astray by those results because they sound innocent enough. But those results harbor assumptions of fear, resentment, hatred, and jealousy. The very things Jesus of Nazareth, whether a Pharisee or not, found to go against a life in God.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Footwashing is Killing Congregations (especially in Nebraska)

As with many Christians across the globe yesterday I celebrated Maundy Thursday. The day has a deep liturgical tradition in Christianity, and it begins the great Three-Day worship ending with the Easter Vigil on Saturday. (Good Friday is the third worship.) But even though I celebrated Maundy Thursday, I did not participate or even a view a footwashing ceremony. That would be stupid.

The ceremony--it is not a ritual, as I have never seen everyone in a congregation participate in the ritual, usually just a few are involved in some kind of ceremonial sideshow--involves someone wrapping a towel around their waist, splashing some water on a person or two's feet, and wiping them dry. A moment of dramatic silence follows, and then we are on to the offering. Did you like our show?

As easy as it is to make fun of footwashing, we should note that for many people in the world, shoes are not an option. Footwashing is in deed for many still an act of service and hospitality. And in places where shoes are only for the wealthy, footwashing might still carry the theological and religious freight of a new commandment. (The word "Maundy" means commandment.)

But that ain't so in our world...everyone wears shoes. And socks too. I wear Birkenstocks (and yes this may be a plug, but they are the only sandals I wear) about 10 months out of the year. I don't wear them if there's  a lot of rain or snow. But I do wear them if the temperature is 0 degrees. My feet sweat at all temperatures. But even as often as I wear sandals, and as dirty as my feet might get, to have someone else wash my feet is not an act of service. It would be an act of slavery.

Footwashing goes against the very grain of having freedom in the first place. It's why it was problematic for the disciples when Jesus did it to them, and it's even more problematic for us today. It's denying the freedom we have been given to wash our own feet. In a world that assumes freedom (even if all people aren't free), footwashing becomes an act of slavery. And slavery, just to remind everyone, is bad. So why would you want to ceremonialize an act of slavery? Just because Jesus did? He died on a cross too, but we don't have people going up on crosses just to show how painful that love can be?

Consequently, footwashing in our culture looks fake (it is, but not because it's sacrilege not to wear socks and shoes, but because it denies us the freedom we were granted on the cross 2000 years ago.) In order for footwashing to have any kind of valid reason we must assume we were not freed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But why would we assume that? What's the point of assuming we're not free? Something might trap us from exercising our freedom, but it is probably not our feet.

If you really want to commemorate the service to others Jesus mandates in the new commandment to love each other, stage a play between a mortgage banker and a single mom trying to get a house. At least there we don't have to pretend Jesus didn't free us, in fact, we have to hope he did; or, what chance does the mom have?

The issue I have with footwashing ceremonies is not because they are stupid or even counter-cultural. Christian congregations do a lot of things that are stupid and counter-cultural, and they are important and valuable to God's mission for world. The issue I have is that in order for the ceremony to make sense I have to set aside the very freedom of the new commandment I was given in order to pretend to do the new commandment. That is play-acting. It is not worship. And people know this, instinctively in most cases, because a secular version of freedom is indoctrinated into all of us.

If you want to help your people don't force them to believe the freedom they were given was not given to them by Jesus so that they can show you how they serve. Rather, help them see the freedom they were given, and how that freedom translates into serving others. And it's not by washing feet. That doesn't serve anybody in a culture dominated by socks and shoes. The new commandment is way more than washing body parts, but it is sad that so many people only saw that version of the commandment ceremonialized last night. And, if they believe Christianity is about something as trivial as that, why would they return?

And over the last 60 years many of them have not returned, because it turns out that footwashing is just one of many things congregations have been play-acting with instead of worshiping God and celebrating the gift of freedom from sin and freedom to serve. People leave congregations not because they do strange things but because they do trivial things. Footwashing, as an act of love, is about as trivial as you can get. And that trviality is killing us.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hypocrisy; Or, How to Live as you Think or Believe

Hypocrisy is part and parcel of the religious life. To my knowledge, every religion eschews hypocrisy, although every critic of religion accuses religion of hypocrisy. That is, according to the critics, religious people are hypocritical of their own hypocrisy...which in a double-negative sort-of-way makes some sense.

But what is "hypocrisy?" Basically, hypocrisy is an incongruity between how one thinks, feels, believes, and how one acts or behaves. "Putting on a good face" is a hypocritical activity. You don't really feel good, but you pretend to for some reason or another. In religious terms, saying you believe in God or love or forgiveness, but never living or behaving as if God matters to you, or never loving or forgiving anyone or anything is hypocritical. Jesus was a fervent opponent of hypocrisy.

So hypocrisy is bad. OK. But why do we do it? Although there are many answers to such a question, as a theologian it comes down to a couple of things: 1) we haven't thought enough about what we actually believe so that we do not know how hypocritically we behave. Fortunately, we have many critics of religion who are willing to help us think about what we might actually believe. So there is that.

2) We don't actually trust enough in the God we believe to change our behavior. In fact, when we do have those levels of trust that change our behavior, there are often a plethora of critics who assert that we are "crazy," or "religious fanatics." But for most of us, a little hypocrisy is a lot easier on the pocketbook and our life expectancy. Christian Liberation theologians have long advocated that God has a "preferential option for the poor." But do we actually behave as if that is true? Does God really love poor people more than others? If we really believed that was true, and we wanted to be on God's side, wouldn't we all strive to be poor? That we are not is just evidence of our hypocrisy.

One of the great hypocrisies Lutherans are responsible for, although Christians in general were not shown in a good light either, is the rise of National Socialism and Adolph Hitler in the first third of the 20th Century. Although many Lutheran theologians at the time claimed to be following the Lutheran theological tradition (more on that in an upcoming post) they wound up betraying that theological tradition by behaving in very quietistic and evil-enabling ways. In other words, they were hypocrites.

As far as Christians go, Lutherans have one of the most obvious ways of avoiding charges of hypocrisy. Since our theological tradition claims that works of love and righteousness are not directly connected to our belief in God and God's love, our behavior does not need to be justified theologically. We can own up to our failures in behavior because we believe that our behaviors, even our best ones, do not condition God's love for us. In other words, you could murder somebody and we believe that God may still love that person. I once saw a very Lutheran sign on a vending machine-- "You're lucky God loves you, no one else does." In our theological tradition the worst-behaved person is still loved by God, and that belief can eliminate a lot of need for hypocrisy.

If you can say whatever needs to be said or do whatever needs to be done because you believe that your words or behaviors do not condition God's love for you, you can do a lot of things other people cannot do because they are afraid of God. You can forgive somebody, for example. So if you believe in forgiveness, and in the process of living you are harmed, you can actually behave in a forgiving way towards your enemy. You don't have to pretend in order to have God not judge you, you can actually behave as the situation calls for because your behavior does not affect God's love for you. You may still be judged by God, but you won't be a hypocrite to the rest of us.

Hypocrisy is revealed when the incongruity of thought and behavior rises to the surface. Jesus of Nazareth once said that one is judged by their fruit. And that is true. But one is not loved by their fruit, and that's the difference between being a hypocrite and being a witness to your faith. When you live with an understanding that God loves you, and that behaviors can be judged good or bad and not affect that love, you are on the way to eliminating hypocrisy in your life. Because in this case what you think or believe does make a difference in how you behave, but not because you think or believe properly, but rather because you trust that what you think or believe is actually true.

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