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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, December 29, 2009

Money and Churches

I have lost count over the years how many people say some variation of this line to me: "My church always seems to talk about money. I don't like that." This issue seems to have been around since Jesus told the "rich, young ruler" to "sell all he had," and he didn't want to, so he left. This time of year, as most congregations finally have enough money to pay bills, is a good time to review the basics of money management for congregations.

First, learn to add. According to Bob Sullivan of the "Red Tape Chronicles" (one of my favorite blogs, see redtape.msnbc.com) only one in 15 Americans knows how to add well enough to pay the check at a restaurant. Time and time gain I hear congregations imploring people to give 10% (traditionally a tithe for Christians), and offering absolutely nothing to help people know what 10% is. Hence, most congregants don't (literally "can't) give 10%, and the vicious cycle continues. If Sullivan's information is correct (and it comes from our US Dept. of Education), most congregations would improve their stewardship immensely if they did nothing else but offer math classes and financial help to people. I'm guessing some of those 14 who can't do math would actually give 10% if they knew how much that was.

Second, talk about what money "is," not what money does. Nowadays it is very popular to rail against "consumerism" in Christian churches. So I will go to a congregation that implores me to abandon consumerism, but then in asking for money shows me what money can do. How is that not consumerism? Showing me what my money does (feeding the hungry, housing the poor, contributing to "intangiable spiritual benefits") is no different than the millions of advertisements and commercials I see each day of my life. To rail against consumerism and then use consumerism's most potant weapon (advertising) is the height of hypocrisy in my book, and people should abandon congregations for that move. (Admittedly, there are many Christians congregations that are fully aware and embracing of their consumeristic tendencies, and they will advertise away...)

Talking about what money "is" gets to the heart of what Jesus seems to be doing with money in his world. It is, at best, a symbol of power, but whose power? The one who makes the money or the one who makes possible the making of money? Congregations which talk about money in a way that lifts up what God does in the world in order to make money possible seem to be getting at the heart of the matter.

Prairie Table Ministries gets by on the generous donations of many people and other congregations. We thank the ELCA and the Department of Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission for a major funding grant; Faith Lutheran Church, Bismarck, ND for money to help pay insurance, Western North Dakota Synod of the ELCA for adminstrative support, Legacy (formerly First) United Methodist Church, Bismarck, ND for space to gather, and for the countless people who offer time and energy to our community. Like most, I suppose, we don't have as much money as we want, but we seem to have all we need...didn't Jesus say that? Happy New Year, may wealth and prosperity...sorry...may God's vision be your guide.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Incarnation

I've always liked that Bethlehem means "house of bread" in Hebrew. (Learning that almost made my years of Hebrew wothwhile...and that includes passing out during a final exam once!) There's something about having the Christ child born in a town named for "bread" that is wildly comforting out here on the prairie.

And, as you know, we make a big deal about tables, and out here in the prairie there is no table more important than a kitchen table. Out here, if there is a dining room table, we bring the cookware out on it, and make it a kitchen table...we love kitchen tables that much. At the kitchen table, of course, you get all the dinner preparations. And this time of year is famous for its dinners...

And this little baby in a manger is born into a world that likes dinner. Unlike gods, we humans have to eat (and, as Homer constantly reminds us in his stories, we are "slaves to the belly.") And God, in this case, arrives into our world as the food we eat. Partaking precisely in the gracious love of a God willing to live and be as one of us, we participate in the reality of God's eternity. This comes about, as we on the prairie are fond of saying, not because we participate in eternity, but because we eat the bread; that is, the body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And this time of year we take that metaphor all the back to the beginning of our Lord and Savior's days on this planet, back to his birth in a manger (the table of cattle), back to the "house of bread," Bethlehem. Christ-mass (another meal term) celebrates a God who holds nothing back...a God who longs for human hope, human possibility to live and eat in the kingdom, not only here in history, but in eternity as well. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Caramel Apples and the Christ-Child in a Manger

I love the taste of caramel apples. I cannot stand to eat them. I remember as a child losing a tooth in a caramel apple once, getting all sticky from them, sometimes dropping the caramel, even having the apple fall off the stick. About 30 years ago I swore off caramel apples...but I still like the taste.

I was reminded of this as someone gave me a caramel apple-flavored candy recently. I REALLY like that taste combination! I had a shot of "caramel apple," a home-made North Dakota concoction that tasted just like a caramel apple...you couldn't even taste the Everclear...I like the taste even then...But they are so hard to eat in their traditional caramel-dipped, apple-on-a-stick form...too bad.

I wonder if this isn't how we feel about God sometimes? We like God and everything, but God is just so hard to understand and handle, so hard to appreciate, that we don't even bother with God for most things. We like it when people take our God and make it palatable by giving us sentimental "bookstores" that pander to the taste without the effort or work to understand the "peace," "joy," "hope," or "love" that are stenciled on porcelained figurines. Just like I like the caramel apple taste, but won't eat the caramel apple, a lot of people seem to like God, but won't try to take God in all of God's power and shame on the cross...

But then along comes Christmas, and we domesticate God once again, this time trapped in a baby, bawling in a manger, with a mother asking why didn't anyone bring us a crib? Christmas loses itself in the cheap commercialization of "Reason for the Season" signs, and huge stars and Christmas trees perched high atop businesses who just want to "witness." It's just candy, just a liqueur posing as the real thing...and it has no more to do with God than the chemically-contrived tastes mimicing apples dipped in caramel have to do with the real thing.

Just before I sat done to write this I resolved to make a caramel apple this Christmas...I will even make my own caramel (it's not too hard, I've done it before...I even add some cayenne pepper to it for a little "zing.") My hope is as well that I can do the same for God...and take in all that God is, no matter how much the struggle, so that the taste remains with me forever. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Family and Friends sharing plan

This is the time of year to eat sweets. We host two open houses a year: one in June, one in December. People like to bring food to share (we are Prairie TABLE, after all), and our Summer solstice party gets a lot of salads, and a couple of pans of bars. The Winter solstice party, on the other hand, brings out the cookies, candies, fudge, cakes, pies, and you-name-it concoctions of traditional ethnic Christmas recipes. (My hunting friends also bring along a sausage or two...) I love both of them, but I find it curious that when our days are short (we are getting about 8 hours of sunlight a day this time of year) we eat sugar, and when our days are long (we get about 16 hours of sunlight in June) we eat salad. As I said...curious...

Although we love to celebrate the joy of Christmas, it can be a melancholy time for many, especially those who have lost loved ones, or those for whom someone will not be around, possibly for the first time. It's been seven years since Chris and I and the girls have celebrated Christmas with any of our family...and we haven't been with Chris' family for probably twenty years. (Not that we haven't been well-taken care of by an adopted family or two, so don't feel sad for us, we have it made...all the benefits and no in-laws!) But we see all the marketing and publicity for family this time of year, and it really doesn't do too much for us.

Family for us isn't as much a question of blood these days as it is a question of sharing. We receive so many warm wishes and thoughts, so many gracious offers and invitations, that we are overwhelmed most of the time. I suspect this is a little different than what Jesus had to go through on those first years of his life...I suspect he was part of a large and intricate set of family relationships that shared out of blood and out of necessity. But when his life was over, at his cross were his mother and one of his friends...all the shining stars, holy nights, shepherds watching, angels caroling, and cattle lowing were all gone...there were no magi, gifts, or silent nights...I can imagine for Mary that first Christmas must have seemed so long ago that day...

But her Son didn't leave her bereft...he turned to his friend, and gave him his mother to be his mother, and he turned to his mother, and gave her his friend as her son...talk about a Christmas gift...on that day the man fulfilled what the little baby promised...we are all in this together as children of God.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Food, Thanksgiving, and Detroit, Michigan

Did you know the city of Detroit has no grocery store chains or big-box stores that sell groceries? ZERO! (see the on-line magazine Guernica, August 2009 for details of a new use for a city.) Detroit has about 300,000 people, and they are no more closer to a grocery store than the folks in a town like Dar Es Salaam. In other words, if you live in Detroit, you might as well be in a third world country. (But a country that would have a world champion professional hockey team, as well as three other professional sports teams, and be the home to one of the largest employers in the world--GM.) But you wouldn't have a grocery store nearby.

When you think of places that don't have food for thanksgiving, do you think of Detroit, Michigan, USA? When you think of places that don't have enough quality food (like fresh meats and vegetables) are you thinking of the neighborhoods around the Joe Lewis arena? I know I don't. I remember when we lived on the south side of Chicago, and we would drive 10 miles one way to get to a grocery store. (We had local coops and such, but gas was cheaper than milk in those days, and money was scarce.) But at least we had a grocery store. I'm not sure I can wrap my mind around something like this. Detroit? No grocery stores? Really?

Food is important, and at Prairie Table, as our name implies, food is what gathers us. The celestial food of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but such a food only makes sense if the food that nourishes our bodies is part of the equation. Jesus of Nazareth spent a lot of his time feeding people, and of the stories we have about him the food ones are some of the most memorable. Once, for example, he fed 5000 men, plus the women and children, when all he and his friends had to share was five loaves of bread and a couple of dried fish. We're not sure how everyone "was satisfied" as the story goes, but I'm willing to bet it involved someone sharing something somewhere somehow. Maybe that's why we give thanks to God this time of year, not because we have stuff, but because God shared with us the food and drink of life: God's own son. And that's true even for the folks in Detroit, although with no grocery stores nearby, I wouldn't blame them if such a gift is tough to receive.