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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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Science, Religion, and Easter

I have spent the better part of my theological career dealing with "science." Ever since my days at seminary working for the Chicago Center for Science and Religion to recent work on conservation issues with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, I have found science, particularly as it relates to biology and ecology, to be very helpful in understanding the Bible. A recent book by a friend, William P. Brown, entitled "The Seven Pillars of Creation" got me to thinking about science and the Bible once again. And then Easter appeared on the calendar...

Easter is where the Christian religion and science often stop dating...it is the event in which both sides call off the romance, and decide to look for more compatible partners...Easter, you see, flies in the face of science. Easter proposes that the immutable law of death can be bypassed by the power of God...in other words, Jesus got up. Now, if the Christian religion would admit that Jesus wasn't really dead, or that some other shenanigan occurred back then, well, maybe science would go out for pizza one more time...but Christians tend not to relent on this issue. He was dead. He rose, and now he's not dead. And science shakes its head...

Basically, for those who believe in the resurrection of the dead, we go it alone...science, various other religions, and people of a more empirical bent, wish us bon voyage...(and sometimes good riddance!) What makes the Christian religion even more suspect is that not only did Jesus' resurrection controvert the law of science, but in the future that law will be broken for everyone who participates in God through Christ Jesus...that often becomes too much for the scientific mind to bear...So as Christians we walk this valley of the shadow of death, not because we understand death, but because we trust God to bring life again on the other side.

I know many scientists who are Christian, but that is precisely because at this point (Easter) they relinquish their science...and I know many scientists who are not Christian because they will not relinquish science...So Easter is an important day for both scientists and religious people because it tells us where we differ, and gives us a place to start our conversations...right in front of an empty tomb with the question being: "How--exactly--did it get that way?" Happy Easter!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health Care reform, theology and a little Latin

One of the first Latin words I learned was "Salve!" (It used for "hello," or "Hail", but it means "to your health or well-being" or something like that). Later I discovered that Christians used the word to talk about what God did in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the word we call "salvation." What I took from this lesson in linguistics is that our early Christian theologians had no trouble connecting health and well-being with eternal life and its gifts...in other words, Jesus Christ is all about good health...

So today the internet on this side of the world is all abuzz about "health care reform" as if something that has never happened before now will magically appear before our eyes...really? In the Gospel of Luke, one of the four stories about Jesus as the Son of God, all we get is health care reform. In fact, in Luke, Jesus IS health care reform...(there is one story in that gospel about a woman who "spent all she had" to try and get better, but all she got was sicker and poorer. And Jesus is the one who heals her.) Christians have been in the health care reform business for a couple of thousand years...it's nice to see the rest of you join us in this adventure...

Here's the thing about health care reform: it's not going to stop you from dying...it shouldn't stop you from living...As a Christian your goal, in the famous words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is to "come and die" in following Christ, and you can't really do that if you spend all your time going to medical facilities trying to avoid that...one of my colleagues always marveled that somehow people believe you have to get to heaven in good health...but in order to get there, you have to die...so what--exactly--is health good for?

Health care reform may cost some people some more money(but in irony of ironies no one seems to have as much of that as they want), and it may give some people access to a longer life who may not have had the opportunity. But it will never stop us from dying...and it will never stop us from loving our neighbor...and in my world-- the faster we learn those lessons about dying and loving...well, the healthier we all will be.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Long, Cold Winter

It has been a long, cold winter up here in the north...do not be deceived...this is the kind of winter that keeps my folks saying "That's why we moved to Florida!"

These kind of winters take a toll on everybody, whether we realize it or not...we may think we are doing "OK," or that we are coping and surviving, but in reality...we are just numb to anything more than the most basic of necessities or common of courtesies...we like to kid ourselves that we don't do anything rash (none of us move away, for example, as next year might be warmer), and we don't get "too crazy."

Unfortunately this past week got a little too crazy for one young couple, and he wound up brutally beating her and she died. There are so few things in this world that are certain, but certainly this is wrong on all accounts. No matter how troubled the relationship, we have to count on a husband and a wife not to kill each other. Right before I met with the family of the deceased woman for a prayer service, I met with another young couple who are getting married later this summer.

When I told them where I was headed after our meeting, both of them shook their heads in sympathy for the young woman. I looked at them for a moment, and told them I usually don't give marital advice...after 22 years of marriage all I know is to listen more than talk...but I did offer this advice...no matter how much you hate the other person, don't kill each other. They nodded, and realized that this gift of life isn't just an intricate game of playing "house" in your folks basement at the age of 10.

It is difficult enough to get out of a relationship which carries the promise of an unbreakable vow...even in the face of abuse and degradation...but there is never an excuse for violence...because if the cross of Jesus the Christ means anything it means that we should live without resorting to violence...that we still do...well, that's why I still have a job. But I would gladly retire if we could give up violence to ourselves, to each other, and even to our God.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Paying the Rent and the Missionary impulse

The mission of Prairie Table is to build communities of Authenticity and Integrity as "families" devoted to the love of God in Christ Jesus. As such, 85% of our resources go into this endeavor, everything from Holy Communion with LateNite worship to taking our Youth of the Augsburg Confession (YAC) on field trips to explore religious sites. (The other 15% of our income is given in benevolence to our ELCA denomination).

Since we are building communities and not buildings, we are able to be flexible in how we "pay the rent." We are currently blessed to have a great relationship with Legacy United Methodist Church, which allows us to use its space, as available, for our ministry communities. It is a great gift of hospitality that they offer us, and they do not seem to mind that they have Lutherans in their basement! (As Lutherans, we do believe that if we ever get to heaven, we will have the basement there too. We assume the penthouse and upper level suites are reserved for those more temperate in their theological opinions.)

At some point in every Christian congregation there comes an issue with how to maintain what we have (paying the rent) versus how to follow God's missionary impulse. At PTM, we hope to never focus more on paying the rent than in following God's mission in the world. (It is true, in some cases, that paying the rent on a building with no Christian facilities may be what God wants...that does not seem to be a problem, however, here in Bismarck, ND).

To this end we discerned last week to engage a partnership with another missionary and her ministry. This one is somewhat like ours, it's a school in Japan (Luther Gakuin), and the missionary is a young woman named Katie Narum Miyamoto. We are not sure where our partnership will lead, but we are looking forward to seeing how we can continue to reach out to the world where God has so freely given life and breath. We're pretty sure God is with us in Bismarck, and we're also pretty sure God is there in Japan...the question will be how we can be part of what God is up to, regardless of where we are. But then, again, isn't that the question for all of us?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Defining the Story of Jesus

We spent some time tonight at Prairie Table trying to get the six most important things about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God straight in our minds. Each of us had a few details different (after all, we only allowed ourselves six things...which six would you choose?) I know we are suppose to be a "Book of Faith" people, but it is faith, not "book" which is the operative term for us at PTM. No Book, not even the Bible, has ever saved anyone...the Word of God...yes, that, no doubt, has saved more than a few...

So we focused on the Word of God (Jesus Christ and his promises) for tonight. Many had the promise carried in a miracle or two, a parable, the Lord's Prayer, and even the story about Mary and Martha. There was lots to choose from and we did make many and various choices...But, all of us had the cross...all of us had the resurrection...what does that say?

We live by the power of the Spirit...and as such, the life of Jesus Christ makes sense when we can give a version that has power and meaning for us, corporately and individually. So, when you tell people about who Jesus is, what stories about him do you use? What things did he do that affects your faith...and finally, who your God is?

What a joy to have such people like the PTM folks, and Jesus, in my life.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dry Bones in Western North Dakota

My Bishop (Mark Narum of the Western North Dakota Synod of the ELCA www.wndsynod.org) gathered seven congregations together to work on mission here in the West. He called this gathering "Dry Bones."

Those of you who know your Bible, know that "dry bones" is a reference to the story of Ezekiel whom the Lord takes to a valley of dry, dead, dessicated human bones, and commands them to breathe. The story is a story of new life, of a God who brings life, and a God who keeps promises to people even after they are dead. For many of our congregations out here who are feeling parched and dry, this story is an apt metaphor for their relationship with God.

Of course, for this to be a promise of new life, the first life has to end, and that is tough for our congregations to do...who wants to be part of a congregation that is dying? Who wants to be part of a congregation that is dead? So there are only 7 of our of 195 congregations working this territory...most of the rest of us cannot admit our demise...

But this past week, as I gathered with leaders of these 7 congregations I asked if they had done any talking about their congregations in their communities or towns. Of those that had, the results of the conversations were, in the words of one lady, "jaw-dropping." What those congregations discovered is that most people in their community already KNEW the congregation was dead...that's why they are not part of it...In other words, the only people in a town or a community who do not know their congregation is dead are the people who are in that congregation. To those on the outside, those congregations are palpably dead. But at least these 7 congregations know this...what about the other 188?

My guess is that all the other communities and towns think those congregations are dead already. My work as a missionary here in Bismarck would indicate that...and not just Lutheran ones...I hear from a lot of people that congregations are dead...and why are they bothering to think they are alive? Now I know a lot of people in congregations can point to programs, worship services, busy calendars, and full slates of visitation...but those are ministries that are dead, just by virtue of being in dead places...(sort of like all the bodies in a cemetery are dead because the cemetery is for the dead)...

Congregations can be houses of self-delusion...that somehow we are alive because the bones in them are moving...but the story of Ezekiel's valley of dry bones is not about movement, it is about the breath and promise of God...and all the calendars and charity, all the meetings and budgets, all the sermons and songs mean nothing if there is no breath...which in Hebrew is the same word for Spirit. To me the surest sign of life in a congregation is not what it does, but how it breathes...how it lives in the life of the Spirit of Christ who frees us to breathe.