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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.

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.