Your Blog Steward

My photo
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, March 31, 2009

Gospel before the Law and sandbagging

In our never-ending quest to add to the theological knowledge of our readers, we present Karl Barth. (Admittedly, not a theologian I use a lot, but as he may have been the single most important theologian in the first half of the 20th Century, he should at least have a mention in one blog!) Anyhow, Barth is credited with switching the order of law and gospel to "gospel" and law, and for better or for worse we live in that legacy.
What this means for you and I is that God speaks a word of grace before God's law, and if you think about it, that makes sense. Creation itself is a gift (i.e., grace), and only after creation "is" can the law be offered. It just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to make a law, and then make something that has to follow that law. So, we see where Barth was coming from on this idea....
But, and this is a pretty big "But," what if the laws were first? For example, what if gravity came before dinosaurs? (By the way, this is why Barth was not a big fan of natural theology, it could get in the way of hearing God's Word of grace.) That is, what if a law--say "To love your neighbor" comes before the neighbors who do the loving? Here's where Barth was smarter than us...
Barth saw a phrase like "To love your neighbor" as a gracious word, not a law word. We don't have to love our neighbors...it is not a law...we get to love our neighbors...it is grace. It is a gift to be able to love our neighbors...
Up here in Prairie Table land we have had a lot of opportunity recently to love our neighbors. The flooding (Bismarck was the place that used dynamite to blow up an "ice dam" on the Missouri river...great way to make national news...and Fargo keeps getting more and more snow on an already flooded river basin...) But people band together, love their neighbors, and help out as they can. We don't help out because we have to, but because we want to...that's grace, not law.
For example, a few of our senior adult couples, most of whom cannot shovel or sandbag much anymore, have opened their homes to extended relatives so they can have a place to stay. Some have put off a vacation, others, just gave them the keys to the house...again, not because we have to, but because we want to...
There is never a convenient time to have a natural disaster, but there is also never a more convenient time to show how much grace you have...and how little the law constricts your heart...The grace of God in Jesus Christ is all about outstretched arms and bleeding hearts...we call that love. We call that the gospel.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The "Bound Conscience"

The great sociologist Robert Bellah once wrote of Roger Williams, the Baptist churchman and founder of the state of Rhode Island that he was "a moral genius but he was a sociological catastrophe." When it comes to Christianity in this country, what Bellah said of Williams could be said of many. There's an old Baptist saying that you "Preach it down to two,and build your church from there." What Williams and that saying reflect is the idea that our freedom of religion can be so idiosyncratic as to be untenable for community. That is, we'd rather be right than in a community that does not completely agree with us. Although that's good for morality, as Bellah notes, when it comes to community that idea is a "catastrophe."
Such a conversation has come up in my Lutheran tradition as we debate how to be a community even though we disagree morally--and ethically I suppose, but that conversation has little debate. As a group we are trying out the idea of a "bound conscience," and this is truly American, somewhat Lutheran, and even possibly Christian. What the idea of a "bound conscience" is trying to suggest is that people have such fervently held beliefs that no amount of argument or conversation is going to change their mind. They would rather die.
In response to this some Lutherans (the ELCA) are trying to see if we can still be a community even though our "consciences" are "bound" to different ideals about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, our Confessions, our Liturgy, our Heritage, and our way of living in the world. For those who believe it is precisely those things we have to agree on in order to be a community of faith, then this "bound conscience" idea is just silly. But what would it say of a community that had differing ways to read scripture and its confessions, differing ways to understand how the Triune God incarnates into reality, differing ways for worship and history to be lived out? It is a bold venture, and this branch of Christianity may break on the sheer novelty of the idea...but that remains to be seen.
The "bound" part of the "conscience" equation may need a bit of history in order to be intelligble. Martin Luther was famous in his time for advocating a free will in bondage. Now, of course, if you're in bondage it is tough to be free, but Luther argued precisely that free will was a great gift of God bound by human sin. In others, as I like to say, as a Lutheran I believe that I have free will and free choice, however, I am always going to choose wrong. The most important word there is "always." That is, any choice that I make is bound to be wrong (sorry for the pun), because I--not God--am making it. When I make a choice, it is free, but it is "bound" to sin. The reason it's bound to sin is because I made it, not God...(by the way, this is why most people are not followers of Luther. Most people believe they can make free choices that God will like. Luther had no such delusion.)
Now here's where Prairie Table comes into the picture. By inviting our people to have conversations about their faith we discover our "bound consciences." (That is, stuff we believe fervently.). Now, we may not have the political and economic power to change laws, to advocate for one cause or another, but we do live together in spite of our differences. Unlike Williams we might not be "moral geniuses," but we pray we aren't a "sociological catastrophe" either.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I love my mother, but...

Apparently a world-wide study was done recently that asked people to answer the above question. "I love my mother, but..." and it turns out there are some interesting differences in how people answer. Some people, usually us folks in the industrialized Western world answer that question in some form of "But she's so difficult." Others, mostly from the Pacific rim and other cultures tend to answer in some form of "But I can never repay her for all she has done." I'm not so interested in which culture answers what, but I am interested in the two major variety of responses.
The responses that indicate a love for a mother, but that somehow the mother is "difficult" to love is truly interesting for its complete self-centeredness. As if the person loving is doing OK, and it would be a better relationship if the other (in this case the mother) was better. In other words, any problems with my relationship with my mom is mostly my mother's fault.
The other response is precisely the opposite. That is, the mother is clearly worthy of love, and I am not able to love as she needs. In other words, any problems with my relationship with my mother is my fault, not my mother's. So which answer best describes your relationship with your mother? Or, as this is a blog on theology, how about God?
How would you answer this question: I love God, but...?

You can answer this just about anyway you want, and I suppose there are no right or wrong answers. You can use the comment section of this post to share your thoughts on the answers to this question.

For me, the answer to that question is rather simplistic....I love God, but I'm not sure why God loves me...

What you got?

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Day with the Youths (Yutes)

On Saturday the guys and I tried to catch up a bit on our church stuff by watching some movies about cathedrals and buildings and such...technical difficulties ensued, but we had a good time (well, I did, but teenagers at 9am on a Saturday is never a sure thing to gauge) You know, it took anywhere from 50-80-100 years or more to build some of those massive European cathedrals. (I shudder to think how long it took to make a pyramid!) Basically the first people who donated money to those buildings never got to see it completed...could you imagine that today? Yes, we'd like you to donate $1 million dollars for a cathedral, but you'll never actually get to sit in it, unless, you live a really, really, long time...
Of course, Prairie Table does not have a building (although we wouldn' be opposed to something permanent, just for the convenience of it all...ah, the slippery slope of convenience....next thing you know we'll be angling for comfort!), and the architecture of the internet is way beyond anything I could design...so with Prairie Table's mission you can get going right away (and for free...well, whatever your web-service costs...)
The mission of Prairie Table is to develop people in their faith formation so they can minister in God's world. The main formation is getting people to share and talk about their faith...which for some people is darn hard to do...Our weekly conversations around the table are just primers for the rest of the week, as we meet people, and offer the promise of love in God through Jesus Christ...
The youths, lounging around on the coaches watching "Luther" with Joseph Fiennes, probably missed that aspect of our time together, but they are young, and they will be afforded great opportunities to share God's love, with or without the cathedrals of our lives...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Crazy World We Live In

Last night I stayed up to watch "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." It was his first show as the host, and although I am not a fan of Mr. Fallon, I got through the Robert DeNiro interview, the Justin Timberlake musical impressions (quite funny actually) just to hear Van Morrison do a number of his newest art work "Astral Weeks." (It's actually an"old" Van Morrison album that he's re-created, which is just another of the oddities of his brilliant musical gift.)
So the next day begins, after a short nap, and I go to work...but I do not work like most folks do with a time clock, a manager, a job to do so that something gets done,...I work on telling the truth...(I know, it sounds easy, and our mothers reminded us before we ever left for kindergarten to tell the truth...but really, how much do you believe that you see and hear?) I mean, what are we supposed to make of this stimulus package and all these bailouts? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it matter? People are losing confidence, they're getting scared of tomorrow, they're feeling as if life's out of control (and no amount of home equity is going to rein in the chaos)...so what do we do with things like the "stimulus?" A "stimulus" is supposed to rouse people to energy and activity, and all ours has succeeded in doing is rousing us to crawl into a corner, curl up in a ball, and weep...
So how do you tell the truth these days? Everyone wants to be comfortable, have a home, some people to talk to and trust, some food, maybe something to while away the hours until death...but we're all going to die anyhow, why not in a depression? I mean, if God is true, if what the Christians have said for centuries is true, then what does the economic trouble really matter? Of course, if the relationship is not true, if God truly does not care for us, then, we'd best get busy...but I do believe God has plan for me, a relationship with me that goes beyond my comfort, goes beyond my economic security, and provides me with a courage to trust others in the same way...So, yeah, I have way less money than I did 3 years ago, yes, my house isn't an ATM anymore, that's all true...but it's also true that I'm still here...and that seems to matter somehow too...
That's why it's important during times of "depression" that we get out of the house and get together with people. Dart Leagues, coffee hours, Prairie Table worship or Bible Study, something that speaks to the deepest truth of our lives...we are in this together...You, God, your neighbor, your enemy...all of us are part of the grand fabric woven into time and space....one of my favorite Van Morrison lyrics goes something like this "It's just you and I in nature, with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, standing, standing in the garden, wet with rain." It is true that it may be raining, but it is also true that you are not alone...and for me, that's the only thing that keeps me standing.