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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, May 31, 2009

In Seattle no rain, just Beauty

I just spent 8 days in Seattle, WA. It never rained...it was only cloudy for a couple of hours total...We spent four glorious days on Useless Bay on Whidbey Island (thank you to Catherine and her friends)...three days wandering around downtown Seattle at the Northwest Folklife Festival (there were more people there than we have in our State!)...no rain...just beauty.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the rain of our lives that we ignore the beauty...rain itself is beautiful...but sometimes it's just rain...We've all heard some version of "stop and smell the roses" on our busy journeys of life...but they are busy...they are journeys...and travel requires some vigilance, and good weather always helps...no rain, just beauty.

At Prairie Table Ministries our tables along the way of someone's spiritual journey are a respite from the bad weather, the storms, the rain, the incessant heat that overpowers our desire, and saps our energy and strength...we try and pause for the beauty...a lyric of music, a wisp of scripture, a smile, a handshake, a listening ear...the beauty of the handiwork of God.

Many of us at PTM have been involved in congregations and church work for most of our lives...the other half...not so much...But a good conversation hears grace from one voice and promise from the other...no rain, just beauty...

If only we could we would always live in the garden...clean, fresh, open, and embracing...the garden wet with rain...promising beauty.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Table Along the Way

Wow! PTM was invited to a meeting last month in which we were encouraged to be part of a new "Mission Table." This Mission Table is part of a new way to bring missional outreach into our area of the world. I couldn't say no.

So we are sitting there trying to think of biblical and theological metaphors for using table ministry...wait for it... wait..............................there you go. After I'd referred them back to all the blogs on this site, I started to rattle off a few other things I haven't gotten around to writing yet. One of the folks stopped me, and said..."Listen, Scott, we just heard about this "table thing" five minutes ago. You've had two years!" So I went and got a coffee...

Actually I have been using table imagery for ministry pretty much ever since I started. In our tradition we have two sacraments (baptism and communion), and I always gravitated more to the communion side for its sociological and relational aspects. Communion clearly involves other people than you and God, baptism is not necessarily that way...Anyway, for whatever reason, communion has always been central to my ministry and theology...(it is no coincidence that I wrote on the Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas for my dissertation...his major work is called "Being and Communion.") Since I have been so captivated by communion, I have thought about tables and how God uses them for us for a long time. Way more than 2 years!

One of my favorite metaphors was taught to me by my teacher Patrick Keifert. (If you have never met this guy, you really should. He's brilliant.) Anyhow, he suggested once that a metaphor for congregations could be a "table along the way." That is, congregations could be a resting point or theological guidepost for people on a spiritual journey. You wouldn't stay at this congregation for your whole journey with God, but the congregation would provide a place for you at a certain stage in your journey. Prairie Table is very much a "table along the way."

At PTM we do not expect everyone to be part of our conversations and ministries forever. We are built to have short-term relationships. (There is a core of us who are addicted to conversation and God, but we realize most have the sense to get out and do ministry.) So you might only be with PTM for a year or so...maybe less, maybe only 2 or 3 weeks...but that's OK. You might be a member of another congregation...that's OK, we don't have membership, so there is no conflict of interest...You might be searching for an established congregation...(we don't really work for those folks...some people just need a bit more structure)...But if you need a place to discern where you are in your journey with God, we are there for you. You need some communion with others who are struggling with their faith...we're here...You need some people who will pray with you, celebrate with you, mourn with you in a time of crisis...we are here...At PTM we are just a table along the way...Your way...God's table...and our blessing to be part of that journey.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A New Focus for Prairie Congregations

Pretty much any book or article you read these days about Christian congregations begins with how things have changed over the years...and how congregations have either adapted or not. The ones that have adapted or are in the process are very excited about their future...those that have not...well, not so much "happy" about the future...
Such a situation leads one to believe that you have to change in order to have a happy future...and, since many congregations and their people do not wish to change (surprisingly, for many this is a theological virtue), well, you get the picture...

**A note on the theological virtue of staying the course past irrelevancy into the grave: A man whose job it was to teach people to program computers told me he liked his church to stay the same all the time because he needed something in his life that never changed. God, he decided, was the immovable first mover, therefore, no change! I believe there are many people who believe God does not change--which by the way is not Biblical in any form. In the Bible, God keeps promises, and some people interpret that to mean God doesn't change...God changes all the time, that's how God is able to never break a promise...Anyhow, since many people believe God doesn't change, to risk change in your faith life, or to accept change in your local congregation is tantamount to denying God, and most people don't want to risk that...Hence, for reasons of salvation, most people don't like to change their religious practices...this is why the church is always a conserving institution.

So what is a congregation out here on the prairie to do? Since we want the best for our kids we get them out of the small towns we are in as soon as possible...we would like them to come back...but, we understand there are more options to life in places with more than 300 people. So we just keep going through the same old, same old, believing there is no use in complaining because no one would listen to us anyhow...Like lighthouses made irrelevant by GPS technology, the congregations of the prairie will suffer a similar fate...except for one difference...God is not done with the prairie...

If God is not done with the prairie (and do we imagine God is sitting in a boardroom in heaven saying, who needs the prairie? Meadowlarks don't vote, and grass doesn't pay taxes. Let it sit!), then how can the congregations on the prairie be done? I think the green revolution has something to say here. What if the ministry of a prairie congregation was not directed to the people who lived throughout its region? (remember, in North Dakota, we have counties that have less than 3000 people! Take that you urbanites with your 5000 household apartment complexes.) What if the ministry was directed towards the land, not the people? What if congregations saw their primary ministry as stewardship of the land rather than an ad-hoc social fellowship or service agency? What would it mean for congregations to be responsible to how God wants to serve the prairie grass rather than the prairie people? This idea is pretty radical, but it has one outstanding feature to commend it...people would matter again.

In my experience with many prairie congregations the people matter only as much as they contribute to the survival and maintence of the congregation. What if they mattered as they contributed to the survival and maintenance of the land? Does God want large-scale hog farms? Is the world better if we drill for oil in the Bakken shale? These are legitimate and important questions that congregations that see their ministry primarily to the land would have to deal with. (And, as a theologian I have no preconceived answers to these types of questions, but they should be asked somewhere other than this blog!) People would matter as stewards of land rather than as caretakers of buildings...and maybe people would get energy and hope from sun and crops? I don't know...

Us congregations on the prairie need to re-think a lot of things, and perhaps the first thing we should ask is: why would God want us here? And...since we have more prairie than people, just maybe...the answer is there.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

We finally get to Love

The final prime value we mutually agreed upon for Prairie Table is "love." Now, no one word has received more attention, thought, and creativity than that word...ever. This blog can only add to the confusion if it tried...so we'll leave it undefined for now...But the interesting question is why would a group of people, who have only been living and working together for about nine months, discern that God calls forth "love" from this community? What is it about love that keeps Christians searching for it? (Even in a church basement with a bunch of strangers on a windy evening in April!)



I wonder if we search for love because we rarely experience it or, more frequently, are never sure we participate in it? I suppose this is a variation of Augustine's phrase "Our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in thee." There is a certain "restless-ness" to love that continually pushes and pulls on the soul-strings of our lives...the rhythm of our hearts beats like drums, with words of love flowing off our tongues (thank you Rod Stewart!)...but there's a fleetingness to love, an illusion of profundity that vanishes into broken promises, failed relationships, and frustrating ambiguity...



So we seek it out wherever and whenever we can...maybe like my 20-30 year old friends at bars and clubs searching for one whom love can shine on or through...maybe like my 40-50 years old friends searching for ever new ways for love to spring forth from long-time companions...or even my friends over 50 (I'm sure I have them, but all my senior friends seem so young!)...who search for love that will last 'til the end of time...



I have been blessed over my life to love many people and to have many people love me back...some relationships have been for only minutes...others a lifetime...and what astounds me still to this day is how there is always room for more love...our capacity to love (at least to this point in my life) seems limitless...just the other day I was thanking a friend (he's a long-distance runner) who spurred me on a few months ago to increase my exercise routine...he was shocked...why would you listen to me, he asked? I figured you weren't lying to me, and it turns out you were right...Now, that kind of love that looks out for a neighbor rarely makes headlines, plots of movies or vampire novels...but it is the love that weaves the fabric of our lives...it is the love that comes from a God who so loved the world...and even died...so that love does not.



No wonder we all agreed on "love." In the end, it's all we are...

Monday, May 4, 2009

Authenticity and Integrity

The second value of our community that we discerned together came about in a rather unique way. Our two tables, mutually cooperating and in friendly competition, came up with almost an unanimous selection: authenticity for one group, integrity for the other. They are, of course, two sides of the same coin. Whether you prefer to describe the value as "authenticity" or "integrity" probably has to do more about when you were in second grade than anything else. However, for Prairie Table, the value carries a lot of meaning...

Authenticity is more of an active verb, a word you can do something with and actually do. You can "authenticate" something (I'm reading Dan Brown's Angels and Demons again in preparation for the movie coming out soon. There's lots of authenticating going on there.) When you authenticate someone or something you are trying to establish its genuineness, its trustworthiness. Authenticity is the activity of being genuine and trustworthy. For those of you who have been in second grade in the last 30 years or so, you recongize this as THE most important value we have ever been taught. (I did 2nd grade in 1970!!) No matter who you were, you had to be genuine, had to be "true," had to be authentic. Not surprisingly then, authenticity becomes a prime value for the younger folks at Prairie Table.

However, at Prairie Table we also have a few folks that went to second grade even earlier in the 20th Century...now those teachers taught the same value, but they called it "integrity." Integrity is a characteristic, and as such it is a bit more passive and quiet about its trustworthiness and genuineness than authenticity, but it gets at the same thing: what makes someone honest? Genuine? Trustworthy?

In terms of God this becomes quite an interesting dichotomy...Jesus is "the real thing" (to borrow a 70s slogan of authenticity), while for others he is the embodiment of the way to God (that is, he has integrity, to borrow from the 1940s theology of Karl Barth)...and in each case Jesus is the trustworthy friend (integrity) or guide (authenticity) to life with God and God's creation...Now you can begin to see why this value is so important to us at Prairie Table...

It not only functions as a prime sociological value (we pretty much assume everyone is going to be honest in their sharing...except for my constant jokes...such as they are...), but authenticity and integrity are prime theological values we hold for God. So we worship God because we see God as the authentic one or as the one with integrity...but in each case God is the one who is trustworthy, genuine, "true" for all of us...and we hold to that value so that we too might receive the benefits of such a life...and note this: we don't receive the value because we hold to it, or even because we want it...we receive authenticity and integrity because it is given to us by a God who is authentic and the very body, crucified as it is, of integrity...