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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.