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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.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A funny thing happpened on the way to heaven...

God gave us congregations. I would prefer if we used the word "church" to mean whatever happens at the end of time when God gathers us all together, what we normally think of, in theological terms, as "heaven." Since I do not belive in heaven as a place, but rather as a sense of time when God binds creation in peace, "church" (that is, a "calling out") gathers all of creation together, including rocks (I love that Alfred North Whitehead quotation that says that everything moves, he called it concresence, even rocks, it's just that they move really, really slowly.) About the closest we come to using the term "church" the way I envision it is when we go to worship and say we really "did church" this morning. Too often we think of heaven and church as nouns rather than verbs, and that gets us into a lot of trouble...
So, although I believe no one in time has ever been to church for more than a few moments here and there, I also believe that folks have spent a lot of time congregating and in congregations. Congregations are the places and stuff we understand (even if we call them a "church," which as Calvin pointed out 500 years ago we really don't understand because "church" is part of God's mystery.) Congregations--well, we're beginning to get an idea of how those work...
In order to get us up to speed on this, we need to know one thing: up until about 50 years ago, very few people had spent any time trying to figure out congregations--but a lot of people spent time trying to figure out church. That switched around for some reason (my guesses: the pentecostal movement that disdains what most of Christian theology throughout the centuries called "the Church," and Martin Marty at the University of Chicago and his intellectual work on the "mandate to congregate.") Anyhow, over the last 50 years we've learned a lot about congregations, and are learning more every day. (Check out Church Innovations for some truly interesting research...and in full disclosure, yes, I help them out every now and then.) And the biggest learning?????? (Drum roll...I'll wait...)
Congregations tend to mimic how society works.
So, if you've been to a congregation over the past couple of years that seems like a well-run business, don't be shocked...the congregation was trying for that. If it seems like a poorly run business, don't be shocked...not everyone's good at business!
For example, why do congregations have budgets, and why are so many congregations stressing out about that these days? When did congregations first start having budgets? 100 years ago? How did congregations survive before then?
Here's another one: why do pastors often function as chief executive officers of congregations? The answer to each of these questions is the same: because that's what society prefers. (I'm not advocating some type of social darwinism here, it is purely a question of mimicry and a frightening lack of theological imagination...) One of the major impulses of the emergent church movement is trying to find congregations that can exist without succumbing to the dominant economic and managerial model that has placed so many congregations into a Babylonian captivity.
One of the main theological impulses of Prairie Table is to never fall into the business model of "Church." We'd rather fall into the "Love God, love your neighbor" model of congregations...and maybe find a way to heaven.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Gospel, part 2

So the other day I was helping perform a wedding with a Roman Catholic priest in a suburb of Minneapolis, MN. I was the preacher for the event, and he conducted the service. It has been my pleasure to be a part of a couple of these joint Roman Catholic-Lutheran weddings throughout my career, although for a long time our two traditions were not on the best of speaking terms. Anyhow, after the service, he joked that I would "make a good Catholic priest." (Granted, I would be-- a married-- Catholic priest, but I appreciated the compliment.) I told him, that a Trinitarian Lutheran was all I could aspire to, and he nodded in acceptance.
What I like about almost all of the Roman Catholic priests I've met throughout my career is that they show acceptance without judgement about my call, about my work as a priest--although not in the Roman tradition. That acceptance of me, of my work, my call, is "gospel" to me.
Last week I talked about "gospel" as freedom and life, and today the word also carries with it overtones of acceptance. To have gospel is to be accepted (even if not approved!)
Most of us have trouble living gospel lives because we can accept so little...Now, I'm not talking about accepting in a fatalistic way, in some kind of karma-induced coma, but rather accepting that some things are not going to change, some things are not going to go our way, and some things are not going to be pleasant for us to admit...Gospel is about accepting the worst and not falling into hopelessness or despair...
In this regard we follow Jesus of Nazareth who accepted his own death without succumbing to the despair that creeps in this petty pace from day to day (apologies to Shakespeare!) This acceptance of reality without succumbing to fear or despair is why Jesus of Nazareth is gospel for Christians. There is nothing more to attain to than that! Should you doubt your own abilities...(always a good idea by the way when it comes to defeating death)remember the gospel!
Remember that you are loved by God, remember that God gave life to you, remember that Jesus loves you, even knows your name...
Gospel is about accepting...accepting life, accepting God, even accepting ourselves...and how might we do that?
There are many ways, I suppose...but I was at a wedding...maybe that's a start?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Gospel, part 1

"Gospel" is a church word. To folks in the church it means a story of Jesus by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John...or maybe music out of the folk or Black church traditions. To folks outside the church it seems to mean "really true," as in that's the "gospel truth."
Interestingly to me, the folks who don't ever go to church, or at least not much, don't read their Bibles much, but use a phrase like "gospel" truth have a pretty good idea of what the word means. To my mind, Christians would be a lot better off talking about the gospel God brings rather than talking about morality or ethics or all the other stuff the seems to be what God is about for some folks. For me, God is all about the gospel...and that's the truth!
You see, gospel is God's way of showing love to me or to us, gospel is the freedom we have received from God to live out our lives in peace and justice. Now the gospel has some meat to its bones, namely, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but gospel is what God is about...freedom, life, peace...
A young lady came up to me the other day and shared her frustrations at being young, at being disrespected, and at being discounted and feeling devalued by everyone she knew. Yes, she knew it would be hard striking out on her own; yes, she knew she would have to make sacrifices, but did everyone have to be so mean about it? There is no rule, law, or ritual this young woman must follow in order to have God love her...she is loved, by God, she's just having trouble seeing it...hearing it...experiencing it. Is there gospel for her?
Another woman, a mother of a four-year old, was talking to me about her younger days...(she's 23, so I went with it out of respect, and for the fact that I didn't want to stab her with my fork), and how she never really wanted to be in school, never really wanted to stay at home, and now, with a child whom she loves, parents far away whom she never sees, she realizes how fast time flies. "I was in a real hurry to grow up," she tells me. Is there gospel for a 23 year-old, single mother who wants to slow down from a life in the fast-lane?
Do we just say, that's tough...it'll get better? Really? How does it get better?
The reality is that it doesn't get better...people are mean...life never slows down...but there is gospel, isn't there?
They are not trapped by others' meanness, they are not trapped in the swales of time, they are free to live...to keep trying...to keep being not mean like the rest of us...to keep focused on the things that slow us down...(like keeping up with a four-year old!) Because the gospel is a gift, one we do not earn, but receive without doing anything at all to earn it, we are not trapped...we are free...but is there ever anyone around to tell us that? There may be someone at a church, but by the time we get there it's too late...because we don't need to hear the gospel only in church as much as we need to hear it in the world...or least two young women do.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Day with the Kiwanis

I had a rather interesting invitation yesterday, as I was the guest speaker at the Kiwanis lunch. (They made a scholarship donation in my name--thank you for that Kiwanis.) As it is approaching Thanksgiving they asked if I could speak on thankfulness or something like that. As I got to thinking about thankfulness and stuff, it occurred to me that most of the "stuff" in my life, while appreciated, is not high on my thankfulness scale. For example, I love indoor plumbing, but am I thankful for it??? I appreciate my home, but am I thankful for it? I suppose, in a truly grateful lifestyle, one would be thankful for such things, as they are blessings from God. But in the end, I could only generate enough energy to be thankful for the many people who have been blessings in my life. My parents, my grandparents, my wife, my kids, teachers, colleagues, students, friends...it just goes on and on and on...
I don't know if such a thing is good or bad, but I did appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the people who have meant so much to me over the years. For those who have heard me preach, you've heard many stories about these people in my life...people are the only way I orient myself to God, to the world, and even to myself. I'm horrible about keeping in contact with people after I move away, and I wish I could be better, but I am not...there are so many people I can remember whom I no longer even know where they are or how they are doing...
I remember about ten years ago a retired guy, on explaining why he was able to do things, said, "everyone's always busy, that's never an excuse." At the time I thought he was talking about priorities: how are you going to prioritize what you are going to do? And that may be what he meant...but now I see it less as priorities and more as appreciation...what or who are you going to appreciate with your time available? So many people I've met over my life deserve appreciation by someone, and I pray they have it...
I'm thankful the Kiwanis invited me to be with them yesterday, it gave me a chance to appreciate again some important people in my life...and of all the blessings from God I have received over the years, it's the people I appreciate most. Thank you. Or, as we like to say around this time of year...Happy thanks-giving.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Can you "decide" to love?

I woke up one day thirty years ago intent on finding a girlfriend. What I found instead was something much more interesting...You see, some of the girls just struck me the wrong way. I couldn't explain it, I couldn't think about it, "it" (whatever that is for a 15 year old boy) just wasn't there for some of the girls I talked to that day. But for some "it" was there, and "it" wasn't the girls I thought I would like. No matter how atractive I found them, how sparkiling their personality, I just couldn't bring myself to ask them out...and that night I got to thinking: can I "decide" to love someone?
Now I want to answer that question with a big YES! I want to say that I can decide to love someone, I want to say that I can apply rational principles, common sense, enlightened self-interest, history and tradition, and everything else that goes into a decision in order to love someone. The world works better if I answer yes to that question. If I answer yes than I can think about controlling love, maniplating love, following the rules of love, and even playing the game of love...because love is something "I" can decide for. I decide who to give flowers to, who to invite for dinner, who to listen to Van Morrison with and share a nice bottle of Pinot Noir. The power of our world rests on the illusion that we can answer "Yes" to the question of deciding who to love....
Unfortunately, experience led me in a different direction. In short, I have to answer "No" to the question of deciding who to love. This is not good. This means love is out of my control. This means I have little say in who receives my emotions, my money, and my love. This means all the stuff that we think we have "to do" for love is really just emotional kickback to a powerful surge outside of us. I don't know why looking at my newborn daughters I felt differently than looking at other babies. I don't know why my heart aches when my wife walks into a room. (Sinatra called it some enchanted evening, but he was drinking...) I don't know why, and I don't really have a lot of control over it (I can control my responses, but that's not what I'm talking about.) I don't know why I love the people I do, but I do, and the list is long, and growing longer every day. God has blessed me by putting people in my life that I love (and some I've even learned to love...like my brother!), and the choices I have about them are pretty slim.
For those wondering, this does include Jesus...but in my tradition we have saying that I "cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. but instead the Holy Spirit has called me," and that probably means you can't decide to love Jesus either. The Holy Spirit will call you, and the love will come, but it's probably not your decision...sorry...because I know you want the responsibility...but we can't have it as that's not how God's love works. It's free, and it's not our decision.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An African-American President

Barack Obama ended his acceptance speech for the presidency of the United States of America this evening with the benediction that "God Bless America!" To be fair, Obama is such a confident orator (if I had his skills I could have been a preacher) that he probably didn't use the exclamation point...for him it was just a period.
But here it is, the point at which we as Americans get to see how well we do at living out our diversity. I don't really worry too much about that from Obama, as he is probably pretty use to it, but some of us do not have a lot of practice. I wonder if we will use race as the reason for why we do not trust Obama on a decision of his? I wonder if we will use race to critique his style, his family, or his demeanor? One thing I have learned from my African and Asian students over the years is that race is part of a person, but it is not everything of a person...as President-Elect Obama has shown in his drive for the Presidency of the USA, where change and ideas, not race, are his calling cards.
In some ways the USA gets to catch up with the Christian understanding of equality in front of Jesus Christ. Christians have as our calling to live free, without prejudice or bias, for all people who are freed in the cross of Christ. (At one time the Apostle Paul said there is no "male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek.") Of course, the irony of ironies is that for some the USA is a "Christian nation," but they have never lived out that part of their Christianity which celebrates the freedom at the expense of self-protection. (One of the often unspoken fears about diversity is the apparent threat its makes to our self-security. Diversity does not threaten anyone's self, but it appears that way to some.)
So, with President-Elect Obama we get to live out a world where the freedom we have in Christ becomes the blessing we share with others. It is possible, although I'm not 100% convinced, that P-E Obama understands how God "blesses" America. If he's like me, he guesses that the blessing comes when Americans bless the world...not attack it, denigrate it, disrespect it, or trivialize it...but when we become a positive force for the life God has given the world in Jesus Christ. When we surrender so that others may live, others may receive blessing, when we carry a cross so that our lives show a greater world than we have ever imagined...well, then maybe God "blesses" America...and just maybe our faith is not in vain.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Voting and the Christian Faith

So tomorrow we vote...and it is the United States of America thing to do...but would Jesus vote? I'm not sure, as there really wasn't any chance for him to vote, and he certainly didn't live in a world that valued his opinions and rights just because he was part of the Roman Empire. So we vote, but should we--as Christians--vote? (As Citizens we should, and I will, and I hope all citizens of the USA do.) As Christians of the USA we vote, and as such we vote for those people who most reflect our values and opinions, and if our Christianity is important to us, then not too surprisingly we tend to vote for people who reflect our Christian values and opinions, no matter what they are. Since Christians are all over the value and opinion map, you can pretty much find a Christian who supports and espouses your view of Christianity...except maybe for the Mennonites, but then again, they are most likely to be the Christians that don't find voting particularly salutary.
The process of voting seems to be slightly non-Christian. I mean, voting has winners and losers. Christianity has firsts and lasts, but that's not the same as winners and losers. For example, when Christ says "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last" all of them, first and last and last first are included in the kingdom of God. There are in essence, no losers, just a question of who gets to eat first. Winners and losers exist in a world where some eat, and some don't, and that just doesn't seem to match up well with the stuff Jesus talked about for all of us. Voting, in and of itself, doesn't seem particularly Christian.
So on Wednesday there will be winners and losers. In our race for President one will get to keep avoiding his job as a Senator, and the other will go back to the Senate (as a loser). There will be people wearing shirts saying "Don't Blame Me! I wanted Ron Paul." (You could actually put anyone on that shirt, as my daughter did in 2004 when she made one that spoke for Hillary Clinton. Which, surprisingly, would be appropos this year as well.)
In a world where we vote because we're citizens rather than disciples of Christ is there anything to offer? It seems to me we can offer our communities an opportunity to steward God's mysteries rather than our personal values and opinions. As a leader of a Christian community, I assume most people don't hold the same values and opinions I do when it comes to things like citizenship. But when it comes to things like disicpleship, well, then we tend to be on the same page. We pray for the Spirit to help us discern, we look for the power of the cross to free us from despair, and we trust in the mercy of God for a gracious world. No real voting there, as when it comes to God, it's not a vote...it's an election, done by God, not by us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dangerous: Freedom!

One of my favorite lines in the Bible comes from the Apostle Paul's second letter to the people in the town of Corinth. He writes, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new." (2 Cor. 5.17) I like it, although on a technical level, I've never really seen any of us Christians live as if it were true. We pay lip serice to such an idea of newness and freedom, "metaphysical compliments to God" as my advisor says, but do we really believe "everything" has become "new?"
We certainly don't believe "everything" is new in Christ. "Some things," maybe; "many things," possibly, but EVERY-thing? No way. Something stayed the same. And the battle lines are drawn...(They can be drawn anywhere, but in our tradition currently we're drawing the lines on heterosexuality...we argue that God disapproved of homosexuality before Jesus Christ and after Jesus Christ...so Paul's wrong, everything isn't new. Our accepted sexual orientation is still the same...Paul should have known better.) By the way, it's stuff like this that keeps me from believing in anyone who says the Bible is inerrant...because if it were, either Paul's wrong here or the current persecution of homosexuals based on the revealed presence of Christ in the world is woefully sinful. Your choice, but it seems to me you can't have both...but I digress.
Secondly, we often fudge on what we mean by "new." Oftentimes "new" really means "refreshed," or "slightly modified," or "tweaked," or "not re-inventing the wheel." One of the famous Lutheran Biblical scholars always asked his students, "How new is "new?" Is it completely different, a la Monty Python's "something completely different," or is it similar, but improved?
These are legitimate concerns that you have to deal with if you believe Jesus Christ came into the world to make creation, (that's everything), new. Now, if you don't...well, then you probably have your own existential questions to deal with, but for us Christians this is the stuff that keeps us up at night. Because you see, we always have to ask ourselves, "did Jesus die for this?" Did Jesus Christ die so that the rich can do whatever they want, and the poor have to accept it? Did Jesus Christ die so that we can hate people we already don't understand and currently fear? Did Jesus Christ die so that ignorance can replace compassion, and cluelessness can be an excuse? Every situation from the most mundane to the most important presses us to that question!
I am not professing any answers here...the freedom we have as new creations of Jesus Christ precludes me from binding your conscience or your body to my way of newness. In actuality, I'm as guilty as anyone of abusing this freedom, of plotting to bind a conscience or two, but...If you're free...you're free.
This freedom comes at cost...there are no bailouts here (if my God behaved like the US Government I think I'd have to be an atheist!)...trusting in God, trusting in the new creations God has made in Jesus Christ, provides the greatest freedom humanity can ever know or experience...both beautiful...and dangerous.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Do Not Despair!

As much fun and energy I have experienced in Christian congregations over the past years, there is still a twinge of disappointment in them for most Christians. It has to do with heaven--maybe--in that we always think or expect that the local congregation should be the most heaven-like place in town. That somehow that "foretaste of the feast to come" should make the local congregation more honest, energetic, loving, hopeful, and helpful in the community and in the world. Of course, it turns out that Christian congregations are just one more "estate" in the community, and as such it is filled with the same failed hopes, unfulfilled dreams, back-biting, and sloth that characterizes so much more of our world. And when the congegation does that...well, some get disappointed...
I wonder if this hasn't always been true of the Christian faith? That somehow we are the religion of failed hopes and expectations ever since Jesus of Nazareth wound up on a cross rather than the White House lawn. I guess we have always wanted more from God than God promises to deliver, but still, that leads to disappointment...Are we better off for it? Perhaps. Maybe we can truly live out suffering because we come from suffering? Maybe failure is the key to our future?
When a parishioner runs up to me--all excited for a new venture or program or a ministry that could be offered--I too am hopeful at the prospect...but in a while...the world goes back to black, as the song goes.
I don't think the despair is intentional on anyone's part,but it just comes about as we get captured by a glimpse of the beauty, love, and hope that God gives us, and often we want to share...or need to be shared with (at least for a while). God is tricky this way. We don't get the whole picture, just a lifting up of the corner of the veil...and if we try for more....WHAM! The majesty of God cannot be broached. So, with just a hint, a glimpse, a whisper, a flash brilliance, we plan and dream, minister and work, love, laugh, and cry. Always expecting this time to be different. This time it will all come true...
Now, for many, this type of pollyannish thinking and living seems such a waste...and I suppose it is...but so what? We've seen a better world, a better way to relate, a better life to live, and just because we can't get it now doesn't mean we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater...I love how Garrison Keillor ends his weekly radio show, not because it's corny (it is), but because it's important to "keep in touch." How else, but with our family and friends, do we deal with the disappointment that today in a few short hours is just yesterday? So do not despair at failure, but rather use it to connect with the rest of us.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What's a Congregation for?

In my book (a Ph.D. disseration I never published), I argue that there is an intrinsic relationship between the life and being of the Triune God and the life and being of humanity. The metaphor I chose to use (the Divine Congregation and the Human Congregation) tries to get at something I believe is essential to Christian faith and life.
For me, it is impossible to distinguish between the "one" and the "Three" in the doctrine of God (we call that the Holy Trinity), and between a person and a community united in faith in God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit (we call those congregations). So, for example, when the Spirit leads Jesus out into the desert after he is baptized by John, and Jesus prays to the Father...if Peter walks by at 100 yards what does he see? Does he see three "beings" of some kind having a conversation; or, does he see Jesus talking to himself; or, does he just see a big cloud of unknowing?
Just as the One God, Three persons unity of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is a mystery, so too the human congregation and the people who populate it is/are a mystery. That is, when a person in a congregation receives grace through some event (say the reception of the eucharist--holy communion) does everybody in the congregation receive it too? If not, how can we explain the unity we have in God, as if God is somehow divisible in human ways? But if we say we all receive grace, how come some folks don't seem to acknowledge or live in that grace? So maybe we are not united in God? This is the kind of stuff that drives me to keep Knob Creek nearby!
Since this kind of questioning seems to "get" us nowhere, practioners of Christianity have looked for other ways to talk about the community bonded in Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Spirit of God. (Many professional theologians have also jumped ship here as well, prefering to explore questions of epistemology rather than ontology as a way to get deeper into the ways of God. I'll never forget my doctoral adviser's first question to me: "Do you want to write theology, or just write about how to do theology?") This leads practioners to find the meaning and purpose of congregations under disguise as sects, as alternative communities, as economic engines, as corporate marketers, or just about any other type of community we have...
But is there something unique about a Christian congregation that makes it different from every other type of community? Before you rush to an answer, consider some of these things:
First, if you say a congregation worships God, in the this case the Christian triune God, what about other communities that worship God as well, such as nursing homes, hospitals, some civic clubs, and what not...how then are Christian congregations different using that criterion?
Secondly, if you say a Christian congregation is unique because God calls it, your doctrine of creation is somewhat lacking. For Christians, God calls every person and community into life and being, and a congregation is no different...
Thirdly, (and lastly for our purposes only) the public that makes up a Christian congregation is the same public that makes up a town or a city; and therefore, the people cannot be unique because their very uniqueness (the joining to a particular community) is something they share with everyone! (And if you share something with everyone, how "unique" is that?)
It seems to me that if a congregation exists, it lives and moves and has its being in the righteousness/faith/relationship (those three are all synonymous for me these days) from which it springs forth--namely, God's gracious promise to love everlasting--and the congregation shares that righteousness/faith/relationship with others to create communities of justice, peace, and hope. A Christian congregation then gives away the relationship that created it, and it dies to itself, to each other-- in a trust of a life in God that never ends.

Monday, August 11, 2008

At a Gathering of Mission Developers

In our tradition, the kind of ministry I do is called "mission development." For a long time this was synonmous with "church planting," but there is a difference these days. You see, the "missional" church movement, as I understand it, is all about living out the mission of God, which is, this side of the eschaton, what we call congregating, or congregations. "Church planting," was more about growing churches, or placing our denominational presence into an arena of the world. So, to do mission development is to discern and practice the mission of God for the sake of the world, whatever that "world" may be.
"Mission development," then, is not limited to planting new congregations in arenas where there are currently no ELCA congregations, no ethnic or language specific ministries, nor is it limited to "church growth." Rather, mission development explores God's mission for the sake of the world in creative and engaging ways. It could be starting a clinic or a hospital, a virtual, web-presence, and communities of authenticity and faith, maybe a school, or a senior-adult ministry. However God seeks to love people, the mission development arm of our tradition could seek to be the "hands" of that movement. (I should note that theoretically this is possible, at least, and I hope this is being done...and what I've seen here suggests it is.) I would be disappointed if "mission development" only meant planting new congregations, like the ones of ours that are languishing all across the country. I would hope we could have the most expansive view of mission possible, and that our prayers, energy, and money go not to those places trying to replicate a model or program, but rather seek to live out the mission of God in a particular neighborhood of the world. (For some reason my tradition still separates global from domestic mission, and that seems like such a limited view of God's world.)
I'd love to see Prairie Table Ministries focus on two things: preaching the gospel so as to foster and nourish authentic community; and two, tending God's mission to love the world with justice. People who get nourished at Prairie Table should, in this scenario, be able to preach the gospel, and in the words of St. Francis, if necessary "use words." (Preaching therefore, is how you live--not only what you say.) And tending to God's mission is about having our preaching (how we are living together in authentic community) be accessible to God and God's people to be a positive impact upon the world...for example...
The other night we were talking about "good and evil." Now, if we take our conversations "into the streets" of Bismarck, I would hope we would live out the results of our conversations...doing good, resisting evil, in this case, and steward the kind of world God desires. Now this may not have worked out in the same way for all fifty people who were there that night; nor, have all of them been presented the same opportunity...but God has provided an opportunity (or will) that frees us to love good, and resist evil. For myself it came out in dealing with a car accident my oldest daughter had recently. I could succumb to the system of insurance companies and banks, and treat people as account numbers and policy holders; or, I could hold to the identity of my daughter, and call her by her name. Those are the kinds of choices that face fathers of teenage daughters, and I'm no different in that regard than any other. But what kind of world does God desire...?
Does God want a world we people can be interchanged with the policies and notes held against them? Does it matter to God if anyone knows your name? Does it matter to God if you die with a nice car? A paid-off loan? Adequate insurance? There is no doubt it matters to our society, and there is little doubt that it matters to a lot of people...but does it matter to God? And how you answer that question is what leads you to do good and resist evil. (And I also assume some people say "Yes" and some people say "No;" and therefore, the responses to doing good and resisting evil vary.) Hopefully, truthful conversations within authentic community can provide some way of discerning through this type of questioning. (And I know, to you theologians out there, that there is no explicit Christological or even theological hermeneutic here, but remember the conversations happen at the foot of the cross...as well as the actual living we fathers, daughters, bankers, and insurance agents do.)
So in the case of Prairie Table, mission development is about stewarding people to live in the freedom God has granted to live as "servants of Christ." To be Christ-like to the bankers, the insurance adjusters, the fathers, and daughters of our lives...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tending the Garden

Voltaire (an influential French novelist of the 18th Century) ended his work Candide by having him tend his garden. This comes after a novel full of adventure, and Candide trying to save and help the world. For those who have gardens, the tendency is always to retreat to such a place of quiet, solitude, and maybe even predictability. It is a blessing to have a garden, or any retreat place in one's life.
As I was reading about the garden of Eden in scripture the other day, it occurred to me that according to that story at least, we no longer live in a garden. Where do we live then? The world? A neighborhood? A house? Are we all--as with Adam and Eve-- banished to toil and labor? I remember a teacher of mine who remarked that God made work just to kill us...is that so?
I know we live in a world that values work, primarily because that is how we afford to live. Rare are the people who can live without working, and even those who could most seemingly pull it off, often are some of our hardest workers. Strange world we live in...
What is the difference between tending a backyard garden and working from 7 am-3 pm in the coal mines and power plants of Beulah, ND? I suppose the pressure is less...the tomatoes prefer regular watering, but what are they going to do if you forget? Die? What about work, if you forget there, who dies? Maybe it's not so much about the pressure as it is a different kind of time? Gardens work on the sun and moon time, the warm and cold time, the wet and dry times of our lives. The mines, well, as 24/7 operations, every hour is the same, and in its sameness lies its productivity...gardens are just the opposite.
Gardens need the diversity, the ebb and flow, the cycles of time that come from the creative energy of God. I suppose at some level so do the mines, but that's harder to see in the mechanized world of a power plant...
Maybe that's why gardens are so important to folks...the time is a different kind of time, and that kind of time "garden time" let's call it, is important for us. That time allows us to connect with ourselves, our world, our neighborhood, maybe even God. That kind of time that is...what? Heaven? (I see worship as that kind of time, and it works from the ebb and flow of life rather than the mechanized rituals of modernity.) Gardens can be just about anywhere, if they work on a different time, but place is important too, I guess. (I've lived in so many places and traveled so much, though, that I'm not a big "place" person.) And not everybody has a garden...and that's problematic to me, especially if it means that they cannot take time to live time differently...because (and here's the kicker for this blog) I don't have a garden, but I long for one, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why...maybe that is what the story of Eden is all about: how to live time differently when you're no longer tending the Garden?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sin/Grace versus Law/Gospel

Caveat Emptor! Theology is the topic!
So, I hear a lot of sin/grace preaching these days, and after forty years of it, I'm still not convinced. Sin/Grace preaching basically says that we sin, (usually in observable ways by others), but God's grace "saves" us in one way or another. This is certainly one way to read the Bible but it is only ONE way, and to my mind not the best way at all. This way of understanding the Christian life seems to make too big a deal of human capacity to appease, please, assuage, or manipulate God for me. At some level the "sin" has to be turned over, acknowledged, repented of in order for God's grace to take action, and this seems a little too optimistic of the human condition for me to believe. Basically, if humans have the power to repent, then they have the power not to sin, and since they sin, well, they must not have the power...and that's too negative of the human condition...
I grew up understanding my tradition (and although I always heard it as THE ONE WAY to read scripture and Christian life, I've since learned there are others...) to be about God's law and God's gospel. The law is that of God that cannot be abrogated, annulled, or ignored. But God's promise (to love humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) also cannot be denied, and this promise always trumps God's law. This seems to be a more realistic way to read the Divine and Human relationship, as it puts the human capacity to change on the back burner, and instead focuses on the human capacity to live under the promise in the realm of God's law. How might this matter....? Consider this story.
A young woman, age 22, wakes up on Sunday morning to watch a guy get dressed. She can't really remember his last name, but he was poilite, and nice, and sometimes that's enough...As she watches him leave for his softball game, or maybe football, (she really wasn't listening to what he said), she decides to head over to her local Christian congregation for some church. Now, if she gets to a sin/grace type of place, she's going to hear that her choices over the past 24 hourse were not exactly what God had intended for her, in fact, it is her heart as well as her behavior that needs some adjusting, and God's grace will take care of that. (At this point, in the sin/grace story, depending upon whether she landed in a liberal or conservative place, the grace either will be there for the taking, or she will have to repent to get the grace.) She hears one thing that gives her hope, but also depresses her...if there' going to be any change for next Saturday night, that change is up to her. And so it goes...
Now, if she lands in a place where the Christian life is viewed in a law/gospel context, she will hear the same sort of things, but in a different key. God's creation and law are designed for us to flourish and live, and her choices over the past 24 hours did not always align with that design. However, those choices cannot erase the promise of God she has received, so the promise continues to exert pressure on her to live as a child of God. What she hears here is that change or not, God's promise is still for her, and how her life lives out comes from God's urging for us to flourish. Will she change by next Saturday? And so it goes...
The sin/grace dichotomy of Christianity has a long and distinguished history, and it would take many more words to do justice to beauty of the tradition in someone like Aquinas or Calvin. I'm not writing to say that Law/Gospel is right, and all others are wrong...those debates don't interest me much...But I am writing to say that sin/grace on one hand seems too easy (just turn to God), and on the other hand too hard (don't make God angry); whereas Law/Gospel just seems too hard...Live, as if the promise of God's love for you will never die..

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bacon Cheeseburgers and the Cross

I came across a great quotation this week "Every rabbi, according to the Talmud, should be able to argue that a bacon cheeseburger should be kosher." (Shai Cherry, Torah Through Time, 2007. He admits he updated the quotation from ben Sanhedrin.) And this is where my thoughts this week are curiouser and curiouser...
As I talk with people about faith these days, (or religion or the Bible or conservative Christians or liberal Christians--whatever the entry into the conversation) there resides an assumption that we are going to somehow "arrive" somewhere. That is, that God has a plan, the plan has a destination, and we're all part of that plan. I guess that's OK as it is, but why the destination? What if the plan is a plan of eternity (which doesn't end, at least according to some meanings of "eternity")?
What happens is that we often posit a disconnect between where we are and where we hope to be, and in that supply the connection in ways that make sense to us. Now, at one level this is the only way the disconnect can even be noticed--because it's working against or with things that "make sense" to us. However, does the connecting together of the "disconnect" involve something that needs to "make sense" as well? I'd argue that it does not.
So, if I may borrow from my last post's discussion (in order to reply somewhat to a very perceptive comment), the gathering of people stands as truth, even if it only ostensibly meets the needs of the people gathered. And the people, not able to comprehend the mystery which is God, gather out of their needs so that God may use them as God desires. Of course, what we observe is the gathering, and any deeper truth that resides in that gathering remains a mystery enveloped by God's own mystery. That deeper truth (whatever it may or may not be) does not have to be obvious to the people gathered...they're just gathered...
Which gets us back to our bacon cheeseburger. As Freud once noted, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" when it comes to interpretation. Regardless of what the bacon cheeseburger means, or whether we can eat it or not, depending upon our adherence to kosher or our cardiologist's advice, what sits on the plate is a bacon cheesebuger. The same thing seems to be true of our experience and understanding of God, especially the God of Jesus Christ on the cross. We can debate its meaning and purpose for our lives, it can become a stumbling block to our faith, or the very power of God--regardless...what stands in our history is the cross...
Perhaps Christians can learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters, and be prepared, not to argue for the "kosherness" of a bacon cheeseburger, but for the love of the God of the cross for us...just a thought...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Truth and the Prairie

Perhaps no word or idea captivates me as much as "truth." In my day-to-day life up here on the prairie we all sort of take truth for granted. Since we're not philosophers of the city (remember our whole state has less people than many cities in this country...I used to say when I first arrived up here that "North Dakota is the smallest city I've ever lived in.") we are philosphers of the land, and our ideas about truth tend to emanate from there...
So, we're far removed from thinkers who live in Paris, Princeton, or travel regularly to New York City or London for dinner and a show...Our ideas of truth tend to be mundane as in ("If we don't get some rain, the barley will be in tough shape," says one famer. "That's true," says the other.)
Truth often resides in that which we cannot avoid, that which we cannot control, that which we can do little about except suffer its consequences or celebrate its fecundity. Now, that defintion of truth flies in the face of our current considerations of "truth," expecially from the culturally critical folks on the right and the left who either a)posit truth in some ideal form; or b) wed truth to cultural and linguistic assumptions. There's nothing "ideal" about a drought or a prairie fire, nor do we find them important because we name them such--rather they "are," in the simplest sense possible. (We're all probably still closet Kantians, as the 19th century hasn't really made it up here yet! Although there are a few Romantics running around.)
So ministry up here sort of does an end-run around the questions of truth (What Cornel West called the "American Evasion of Philosophy"--and as he notes we are good at that) Whatever emerges from prairie table's ministry will no doubt be in the same boat. We will put relationships ahead of power, money, and prestige (we'll even put them ahead of truth); we'll be plodding, slow to change, and prickly conservative (although we're so slow to change that our conservatism can be seen as liberal sometimes--for example, most of us up here still belive in individual human rights, but not over and above the needs of the community--find that lived out somewhere near an ocean coastline!)
Prairie Table makes no bones about what it is and isn't. We're not a full-service church that offers education for children, entertainment for youth, or religious diversion for adults. Rather, we're just people who want to get together and talk about our lives, and what God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit may or may not be doing in them, and how we can love our neighbors. That might not seem like a lot when there are so many troubles and people in trouble in the world, but right now it's the only truth we have.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Flooded Prairie

I've been in a few of the congregations that have been flooded out in the "Midwest" as the media calls it...(we folks up here know that as the southern prairie, as we tend to be defined by the land we live on rather than the cities that dominate our "national culture.")...and that is the point here--we live ON the land, as if we are renting it or borrowing it, but we certainly don't own it other than the fences we put around our 40 acres and goats...(Black Angus, whatever...)
As my prayers go out to the people in Iowa, I'm reminded how all this talk of prayer, liturgy, the Bible, and stuff has an effect on how I live...
You see, the result of prayer is not more prayer, the result of liturgy is not more liturgy, the result of reading the Bible is not more reading of the Bible...the "results" (such as they are, and I use the term loosely, so don't get too worked up about the phrase) bear fruit (a better theological metaphor, yes?) in the love I reside IN. Yes, I live ON land, and reside IN love...
If my love for God, my neighbor, or even myself does not increase, get activated, "bear fruit" in some way, then the prayers, liturgy, etc. not been as efficacious as they had hoped...
I imagine that within the next few months I will find my way down to a congregation or two in that part of of the prairie to help out somehow...
Here, as you no doubt have noticed, is where we run into a bit of a problem however. In order to "bear fruit" we often use prayer, liturgy, reading the Bible as talismans to bless our fruitfulness. (in other words, we become supertitious rather than religious...this is dangerous.) So, for example, if I want to be helpful to the folks in Iowa, I use the practices of my faith to help navigate the course...but notice it's what "I" want...(even something postive like this) rather than what God wants...(I hope--at least some of the time--God and I are in congruence!) Rather, the point of prayer, liturgy, etc., is for me to discern what God wants...
Here's a story about that...as a young boy I was out on opening fishing day on Mille Lacs lake in Minnesota. Sunday came around, and most of my fishing camp went to a local church for worship...when I asked why they responded "So God will help us catch more fish." Really? The whole point of surrending to the God of the Universe is so that you get more fish than you already have? Is the point of liturgy to help us win? Win what? Better view from six feet under? So, I have come to realize that I will probably help out in Iowa not because I want to (it's looking like as I discern this stuff that it will cut into my pheasant hunting this Fall...), but because God is inviting me to help out...I'm OK with that...but to be honest, I never saw it coming...(I've never really thought about this kind of stuff before, but I hope this means my faith is growing!) So, why do I pray? Why do I worship? Why do I read scripture? If the last few weeks are any indication, it looks like I do these things so that I can discover what I'm supposed to do...and maybe discover who I really am...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

We "is" the Church!

A pastor once joked to me that he really liked the church, except for the people...Over the years ministry can be a bit wearing on the soul, I guess...
There is little doubt that Chrisianity--as a religion--believes in community...even more it believes that people are created communally as well...Think of the story of the creation of Eve in the Bible...Adam is not complete until Eve arrives...(which is also a souce of many jokes...except the one about men not asking for directions...that's a genetic thing)...You cannot do Christianity alone, it must be lived communally.
At this point, I'm wondering what the relationship is between 2 persons in community? Does it change when a third person is added? (C.S.Pierce, a rather under appreciated philosopher in my book, had this concept of "thirdness," which I've always found somewhat helpful in thinking about these kinds of questions.) What are the rules and roles for persons within community, and how should they be defined?
Unfortunately, most congregations (a religious form of "community") tend to define their roles and rules by something OTHER than the Bible or Christian faith. For example,many congregations hold meetings run by Robert's Rules of Order, which definitely seems to run counter to the thought of someone like Isaiah, or, even, John Calvin, the French reformer who is defined by "order." There are some questions of Christian faith that are not able to be voted upon, so beware of the congregation run by rules of order rather than faith...
The rules of Christianity spring from God, whether formally like the 10 Commandments, or through mercy and forgiveness, such as an informal loving of your neighbor. Now whether your image of God is a law-giver (do this or die!) or of a loving parent (I love you, but don't do that again!), or even of a benevolent care-giver (That's all right, I love you!) who you are and how you behave stems from your relationship with God. That's as it should be...
So when people tell me that I'm not a good Christian because I believe sexual miniorities should have full rights and privileges in congregations, I am not worried (and at this point in my life not even angry, rather, I look forward to talking about it)... I say my belief comes from a reading of scripture, and an understanding of God as a thrice-diversified being, who seeks the inclusion of all the cosmos into God's own life...The rule comes from my reading of scripture, from my living in the faith for these past forty-five years...I do understand that not everyone has the same image of God that I do, and for some, their image of God does not let them believe as I do about such things...But the point is NOT to deny the church because we don't agree...
Rather, we affirm the church because we do not aree...Living in Christ is not about agreement, but about living together in spite of our differences...We "is" the Church, because "we" is me in relation to everyone else...

Friday, June 13, 2008

What is prayer?

Prayer seems to be something Christians do a lot of, and there are about as many ways to pray as there are Christians...but what actually is it? A theologian once said of Adam and Eve that whoever they were, they were the "first humanoids who prayed." (It was Robert Jenson, for those curious.) So let's take that as solid evidence that prayer is important not only to God, but to the entire human condition...in other words, we're probably built to pray...(I know, I know,...the Darwinists among us--myself included--struggle to make sense of phrases like "built to pray"...but truth is truth.)
So if we pray because that is what humans do, or are least created to be capable of doing prayer, it seems to me we should spend some time thinking about what it is, as well as what we do. (The books on prayer are legion--in fact, I'd be willing to bet that almost the first books made of any language are some kind of prayer book--even for those languages that don't have the concept of God--take that under consideration you Wittgensteinians!) Prayer is constitutive of the human condition for most Christians...therefore, it's as optional as drinking water, resting, or having sex...
So...do we pray as if God owes us something? Do we pray as if God forgot something (The great joke Tony Campolo tells of praying for Sister Bertha in the hospital, and God responding "That's where she is...I was wondering why I hadn't heard from her recently!") Do we pray because we are on the last string of the rope, and all other options are exhausted? What do we pray for? Why do we pray for it?
If the emergent church stuff speaks anything, it speaks a way of praying that is decidedly NOT about asking God for anything (even guidance), but rather praying as listening to see if God's about. Mother Teresa in an interview once was asked what she does when she prays. She responded, "I listen." The interviewer then asked, "Then what does God do?" "He listens too," she said. I love that story, as too often prayer is seen as an activity of doing rather than receiving, of trying to make something happen or be resolved rather than listening for the presence of God. To do in prayer is to listen, not to talk...
I've given up trying to say things during prayers...rather, I'm trying to encourage people to listen...just in case, at that very moment, God is speaking. If nothing else, it seems like good manners.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Liturgy and the Bible

This week I'm pondering a thought I read from the late Jaroslav Pelikan who noted that liturgy is trying to make contemporary the sacred text (that is, the Bible.) I like this for a couple of reasons...
First, I love to worship...I'm pretty sure that worship is how I got connected to my faith in Christ, and I know it's how I stay connected these days. Even when I'm up leading a liturgy (liturgy is the ingredients that make up worship), I still experience the mystery of God. I mean, it's hard to explain, but when you've heard a bunch of folks singing "This Little Light of Mine" with passion, it's tough not to get a teary eye or two. I love stopping myself in the middle of the Lord's Prayer to hear 100 people saying "trespasses," (because-- really, who uses that word anymore??). Worship and liturgy is fun for me...
Secondly, how is the Bible making sense for us these days? I mean, in our culture, for example, what does the word "divorce" mean? I challenge you to use "divorce" in a context other than marriage--tough to do; yet, it is a perfectly acceptable English word for break-up of ANY relationship. As when Kevin Garnett was "divorced" from the Timberwolves...(see, I told you it sounds stupid! Everyone knows he was traded!) So I'm going on the assumption that the Bible doesn't make too much sense for us anymore. (I'm watching Russell Crowe's "Master and Commander," and there's a subplot that one of the officers of the ship is cursing the entire crew with bad luck. Just like Jonah says one of the mates. They spend the rest of the time with this story telling us about Jonah--even going so far to have Crowe be handed a Bible opened to the book of Jonah after the officer has drowned himself. I love that kind of stuff in movies.)...Maybe liturgy can help make sense of the Bible--although story seems to be the preferred mode in the Bible itself.
Lastly, I'm looking forward to getting back into worship full bore. It's been about five years since I last was able to focus fully on worship in my life, and that's enough time to re-charge. Prairie Table is beginning to futz around with some worship stuff in one of our groups. If you're interested to see what we can come up with...we'll make sure people know when and where. See you around.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Worship and the Church

Sorry for the delay on this week's post...these Monday holidays will probably get me every time...

For many Christians worship is church. The Orthodox understand that the eucharist (holy communion) literally creates the church here on earth, as a foretaste of heaven to come. But even the most radical Free churchers (those who hold to little more than a shared faith system without the rituals, polities, and procedures of most) see worship as integral to church. So it seems silly to try and start a community, especially a church, without centering it on worship. But this is precisely the road Prairie Table is trying to take. What if you started with a community that eventually got around to worshiping?

Now, many who read this blog are vested in worshiping communities. They have loaded their careers up front to make worship their understanding of church, and to step outside that would leave them feeling abandoned, not only in terms of their skills and talents, but by God's own life and being. So, this approach is not for everyone, and I should confess that I too feel at a loss to contradict almost everything I ever learned in seminary, and most of my ministry career. I pretty much know what we can't do, but what CAN do?????? Mystery upon mystery

Prairie Table is not about proving their is a new way to worship God, but rather a new way to be together as God's children. For example, Prairie Table does not require that one adhere to one way to look at the cross or the other...the cross means what it means as God has invited all of us to carry ours, and to trust in Jesus as he bore his...but we all have to center our lives in Christ's cross and resurrection...Too often congregations use worship as the way to define who we are, rather than to see that worship defines who we believe God is (this is why congregations have to work hard to avoid sexist language for God, unless they believe God is sexist...) At Prairie Table we believe God is primarily about making, re-creating, and sustaining authentic community with God, with each other, and with our own selves. Therefore, any worship we do should reflect that somehow. Even better, it should witness and participate in that community...now that's worship.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Awaiting the Festival of Homiletics

Here at Luther Seminary, St.Paul, MN I am waiting for a festival of preaching to begin in a few hours over in Minneapolis, MN. I was thinking about preaching the other day, not only because it is my job, nor because I'm at this festival, but rather because a friend sent me an essay which he wrote on Cormac McCarthy, and the movie done recently from one of his novels, "No Country for Old Men."
His premise, and one argued well, is that our American culture is flawed in its relentless pursuit of "mammon." Since "mammon" is a theological term, we have here a theological argument. In short, do we seek wealth (the usual synonym for mammon) at the expense of everything else? At some level this seems true...consider...
*Health Care...people are checked out of hospitals, not on the basis of wellness, but on the affordibility of care...
*Energy...alternative energy sources are often not considered on the basis of cost and profitability...rather than environmental protection. (Even now my beloved Rocky Mountain Elk are losing out to energy companies and their need to drill for oil rather than build windmills or solar towers...a tower may ruin a landscape view, but it has much less destruction of the land in the short and long run.)
I have no desire to run out a longer list, but it does seem that mammon is the primary motive and reason for many of our decisions these days....
So our Christian heritage runs against this stream...In Scripture it seems that Jesus never considered the cost of anything to be a motive to act or not act. In fact, if the story of the temple tax is to be believed, he is downright dismissive of money and its effects. So how does the Church respond to this? There is a lot of money in churches, and a lot more to be made.
But here's the thing...Christianity can never be about the money...it can be about faith, people, love, hope, or anything but money...You know in scripture we're reminded that the "love" of money (mammon, wealth, etc.) is the root of all evil. It's the idolatry, not the money, that's the problem...
So that's what we're about...where's your focus? Where's your power come from? As Christians, we hold that God died, and somehow that cross has to be your energy, your faith, your love. That's tough sometimes because who wants to die...? But without it, who wants to live? I wonder if that preaches?

Monday, May 12, 2008

What do we mean by "emerging" church?

In some ways this question is reminiscent of an Oxford Philosophy don of the mid-Twentieth century, but I'm finding it has some traction as a real question these days..."Emerging" seems to imply a process, a movement of some kind. Notice though that the movement (and surely movement is a pun, if not the most applicable description of everything that is the "emergent church") seems to be toward something, namely church. Emerging, like any good gerund, describes a kind of church...But what if you don't know what church is? Does "Emerging" give any clues to that?
Here we have something, at least if "emerging" is truly descriptive of church...What we have is a church that has as its key characteristic not an ethnicity (e.g., the Greek church); nor a theological tradition (e.g., the Methodist church); nor, even a theological motive (e.g., the Four-Square Gospel church); and not even, contrary to many hopes and dreams, a community value (e.g., Community church). Rather, the characteristic these groups adhere to is growing, emerging, processing...which brings to mind some interesting theological questions.
First, we can dispense with "emerging" as a synonym for "innovative." Congregations that do "emerging" things (candlelight services with coffee, for example) are not emergent congregations, bur rather innovative traditional ones.
To be "emerging" seems to imply that--at some level--everything you are today, everything you are doing today--will be different, gone, and maybe even forgotten tomorrow. The "emerging" congregation is the zenith of the temporal church. There's nothing built into the idea of "emerging" that speaks to eternity other than continuous "emerging." (Perhaps this is what Friedrich Nietzsche was hinting at--in a completely different context--with the idea of eternal recurrence?) Of course, if such a notion is true in an eternal sense, then the church has always been "emerging," and all those who have sought to stop the process at some point are going against the very nature of God.
Because-- and here is the kicker, that both the "emerging" church and "traditional" church have to deal with: at some level there is a deep and intricate relationship between the church and the life and being of God. The "emerging" church argues God is continually in process (and Alfred North Whitehead cheers!), while the traditional church argues God does not change much, if at all. Scripture seems pretty clear that God desires church this side of the eschaton (the last day of time as we know it--your theology lesson for the day!) We cannot dispense with church, no matter how much we want to, but what kind do we have? For this, we can thank the "emerging" church leaders and people for bringing to light an important discussion: does God change or not?
All other questions seem pretty tame compared to that one.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Prayer and "Openness to the Mystery"

It should come as no great shock, if you peruse these blogs, that "mystery"is the dominant metaphor I use for God...I've had experiences of God that defy rational explanation...I have heard God come from the most unlikely of people...like Geoffrey Rush's character in "Shakespeare in Love," I don't know how it works out, "It's a mystery."

So with that backdrop my reading this past week has gone into the deepest realms of the mysterious, if not the most difficult...First, I'm trying to read Cormac McCarthy, and he requires time and concentration...lots of it for me...Then I was reading some John D. Caputo (another Google possibility for the intellectually curious). He wrote in "Radical Hermeneutics" (Indiana University Press, 1987, p. 275)"To respect others is to come under their spell, to feel their influence, it is more like entering a field of energy than meeting up with another empirical object."

Although it was not his topic, such a phrase seems like a pretty good definition of prayer.
Like respecting others prayer is...coming under the spell, feeling God's influence...when you respect somebody else you allow them to influence parts of your life...you do things as they do...and prayer is doing things as God does. So how you understand God is how you live under God's influence. If you respect God as love ( a popular option), then God's love should influence you somehow...But notice that God is not some person telling you how to love; rather, God is the energy that frees you to love. God doesn't do the loving for you, but God frees you so that you can love your neighbor (just in case you didn't really want to!)...But if you respect God, the loving will come because you are in the energy field of God (who is love, right?)...

As much as respect is important for prayer, it becomes even more so when we talk about authentic community of any kind...and respect cannot be earned, it can only be given...(I know this flies in the face of most of our common thought, but think about someone like Hilary Clinton. Many people respect her, many do not...but notice she has only done what she has done...so why do some respect her and some do not? It's because whatever she does is not related to whether we respect her or not...even of you think it it, it isn't...we respect her or we do not because we are free to respect her or not...all our other ideas are just rationalizations of why we do or don't respect her, or somebody else, she's just a popular example these days)...so if a community has respect given to its people, the community will thrive, if not...........well, most of us know what happens then...

Prayer is the same way...if we are open to the mystery, then, we are open to respecting the Mystery...which is after all, not an object to be manipulated, but a presence to be lived in...Now, a God who conquers death, who gives that victory to regular ordinary folks like you and me...I don't know about you, but for me that's enough to at least listen every now and then...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Christ, The Spirit, and Authentic Community

A long time ago when I was researching for my doctoral work, I came across some interesting work by an Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas. (I throw this out only for those who might want a Google topic). What I learned from him is to see the fluidity in which God works across all our human boundaries and distinctions. It seems to be no problem for God to be Jesus Christ the Spirit, and all the while still creating the world in its beauty and glory...Of course, for us, we need to make some distinctions, so we like to say the Spirit OF Christ, as if the Spirit comes after Jesus...or, we note how the Spirit leads Jesus...or, Jesus commends his Spirit...there's all kinds of tricky ways...
We got to talking about authentic community the other night, and I was reminded of how God sort of swims in that same realm of conversation. Authentic community means--at some level--that there is no priority (logically or theologically) with one person or another in community...Authentic community has at its heart a total equality of personhood...just as God has a total equality of personhood with the Father Creator, the Son, and the Spirit. It may be true that I am a trained theologian in a group; someone else may be a computer programmer; another a nurse; another a woodworker...but in any authentic community those skills would only make the group stronger, not be a source or division of power or labor. (Having just written that I'm reminded of my favorite quote from Karl Marx that in a truly communistic venture he'd be able to read Greek tragedy at night)...There will no doubt be divisions, but they must be seen as divisions which arise from something arbitrary or, if necessary, necessary only for the well-being of the community. (We still need a bookkeeper!)
Zizioulas taught me a basic division of labor within God: The Son becomes history...the Spirit liberates the Son from the bondage of history. (For those of you versed in theological language, you see the obvious reason why a Lutheran resonates with that statement.) When Jesus is around he is in history...just like me and you. Does God know what it's like to be angry? Yes,because Jesus did. Does God know what it means to laugh until you cry? Sure, just as Jesus did. But Jesus does not stay trapped to our history, and it's this freedom that comes about by the work of the Spirit...so we have a future, as authentic community, because the Spirit gives it to Jesus and he has promised it to us...
Somedays we don't know what's going on...somedays we just seem to be treading water...somedays we get excited...some days, we don't. But it will not always be like this, and that is what makes our lives in God so challenging...so fun.
Authentic community is being in the world with each other...just long enough, we hope, to make good friends along the way.

Monday, March 10, 2008

On Rabbit Ears and Dinner Guests

Someone noticed what looks like "rabbit ears" over my head in the picture at the left. At first, we thought about cropping those out, but I wanted to write a blog about that photo...so we kept it in. The "ears" are part of the poster that announces the centennial of Edvard Grieg's death, the Norwegian composer, and the upcoming events commemorating his work and music. In and of itself this is not so much, except that the picture was taken outside of Grieghallen in Bergen, Norway...
You see, if this internet stuff is really going to catch on, then places like Bergen, Norway and Bismarck, ND, USA have some kind of relationship, even if it's not how we usually think of relationships. If you think of Prairie Table as a real table that has real people around it...well, that's what we do in Bismarck (usually at a bar)...But there's another way in which the "table" is the globe itself, the great world upon which we walk. In that way, the folks in Bergen, the folks in Bismarck, you reading this wherever you are...we're all at the prairie table. This is what makes the internet such a difficult "place" to be...time means very little (you can read this whenever you want, and we'd still be in "conversation" even if I was asleep when you wrote it)...place, of couse, is irrelevant...and the Christian Church has always assumed those preogatives to be of God, not humanity. Time and Eternity...Historicity and Omnipresence...this was how you know the difference between the divine and the human. The internet seems to challenge those ideas...

Second topic this month: dinner guests...Who to invite to dinner, or, more problematically, who not to invite for dinner? Who do you invite to dinner? Have you ever wondered why people invited Jesus to dinner? You know, many of the more strict Pharisees thought Jesus shouldn't eat dinner with the kinds of folks he ate dinner with...but why did they invite him to dinner? When you invite someone to dinner..why? For me, it's usually to catch up with friendships...so was Jesus a friend to the folks?...Sometimes I invite people to dinner to get to know them...this seems to be the most logical reason people invited Jesus to dinner...I suppose the question for us is: would we invite Jesus to dinner? Comment away!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Prairie Table and Religion

In some ways religion and morality go hand-in-hand. Although that has been true for many people over the centuries, for many people it has not been enough. Even more troubling is that certain religions get labeled with certain types of morality--and then the battles really begin. For example, one could view the "religion" of Jesus of Nazareth as a battle between his view of Judaism and the Pharisees' or the Saducees' view of Judaism. Each view carried its own morality, Jesus' seemingly to be caught in the phrase of knowing that God asks for "mercy, not sacrifice."
Prairie Table, as much as it may be religious, carries its own morality too. A morality that understands God wishes to create, sustain, and recycle rather than to destroy, abuse, or waste. The morality of Prairie Table comes from putting relationships ahead of success, statistics, profitability (although as a non-profit organization, that's not a huge concern), and relationships breed their own kind of accountability--one that "accountants" might not be able to calculate. Basically, the morality of Prairie Table arises from the idea that life is more fun "when we do it all together."
Now, this is not the type of "morality" that makes it into the worlds of mass media, or the conventional Christian bookstore. Morality in those places often is a set of rules or ways to behave that follow ideas a bit different than the Jesus of the gospels. The morality of Prairie Table Ministries has three pieces: first, God makes and re-makes life for the sustaining of all creation, including non-human species; secondly, from Christ we receive the power to respect the well-being of someone other than yourself is more important than you; lastly, the Holy Spirit frees us so it's more fun when we do it all together. This is the kind of morality that I like...the kind of morality that puts people ahead of ideas and rules, the kind of morality that trusts in mercy, not the laws of sacrifice. It is--finally--I argue, the morality of the cross of Jesus Christ. So the question for the month: what relationship does morality have to your faith in Christ Jesus?

(PS: A lot of people are wondering if PT will have a "real" site in Bismarck soon. I hope so. If all goes well there whould be something by June 1. Prairie Table Ministries is a non-profit organization under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Contributions are tax-deductible and can be sent to the Western North Dakota Synod, attn: Prairie Table Ministries, 1614 Capitol Way, PO Box 370,Bismarck, ND 58502)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Table Work

One of the reasons I like the prairie "table" idea, (although I also like prairie "fire" and prairie "hearth," but those seem a bit nebulous sometimes), is because "table" is always about relationships when it comes to God. You can try to put things like "success," "accomplishment," "effectiveness," and "accountability" into your ministry or faith journey, but you always seem to be swimming upstream that way...

Now I know that the New Testament writings, and some of the historical books of the Old Testament are not opposed to such ecclesiastical measurements. Numbers seem to matter in the Book of Acts. Accomplishment is celebrated throughout the Book of Judges. Accountability seems like a big deal in the Apocalypse of John. But why is it when you try to organize ministry or a faith journey around things like "accomplishment" it becomes such a frustrating venture? On the other hand, praying at the bedside of a dying friend carries enough energy to bring you out of the abyss?

The prairie "table" idea speaks to this a bit...

Ministry, like eating, has to be done all the time. I remember when learning Greek how Homer had this phrase about being a "slave to the belly," and it seemed like he wrote it at least once on every page. Every time Odesseyus wanted to do something, he first had to have a meal. Stuff just keep repeating itself, and you're never done with "Eating" any more than you are ever done with "ministry," or with your "faith...."

We gather at table all the time because there is no end in sight for these journeys. The purpose of the table is not to be there "once for all," but to be there for life everlasting. Most days we find ourselves wondering where tomorrow may lead, and the table around which we gather with friends and brothers and sisters in Christ, is the bread for the journey. The table is meant to be temporary, moveable, and available to every one, regardless of stature in the world. What the table accomplishes is nothing other than a reminder that we are all in this together... forever.

Please feel free to leave an e-mail, if you'd like to be included in upcoming announcements about this new venture here in Bismarck, ND