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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.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Polarities of Youth

Last weekend I was involved in a wedding, and due to an automotive mishap found myself traveling across the prairies of North Dakota with a 24 year old bridesmaid for 4 hours. As she attends a Bible college in California, we had ample opportunity to discuss theology and religion. The trip was delightful, and I met an young woman dedicated to finding meaning and truth through a version of Christianity, which while I do not share with her, she is at least attempting to make her life congruent between her beliefs and her actions.

What was interesting in our conversations was her focus on a person's relationship with God to a point where almost nothing else entered into the picture. That is, she has a view of humanity that is very liberal, very modern, and very much unlike my own. She believes in the autonomous, self-determining individual unfettered by any law outside of God's rule (this is the liberal stuff with Christian seasoning, but she would fit right into the 18th century). Because of this world-view, she loses perspective on how wide the world is we live in, and what all the relationships we have do to impact who we are and what we do. So whether she was talking about marriage, heaven, hell, or even her own experiences, everything was filtered into the autonomous indiviuality in which God reserves the final right to judge. Creation, for example, was not even part of her understanding of what God spends a lot of time doing--and this while we were driving through some of the most beautiful country in the world! Since, in this mindset, everything is reduced to human capability, the deer, birds, trees, water, and the wind itself are at best decorations for a life lived following God's law. But as created beings of God, the deer or even the wind, don't have much to do in her world.

Now at the wedding the next day I meet the boyfriend of the photographer who is a 26 year old guy who admits to me, as we are standing around waiting for pictures to be finished, that he doesn't like church much. When I ask why, it is because, he says, I am more focused on keeping nature and trees healthy than my soul. Great. Another liberal. He, of course, takes the "liberal" that is much more bandied about as if we know what we are talking about when we use the word than my new friend from the Bible college, but they are both liberal. In his case, the liberalism comes from an understanding of the interconnectedness of life, but this time at the expense of human aggrandizement...that is, we have to take our autonomous, self-determing beings, and understand how we are all part of this world...and when churches don't do that, well, he finds his time better spent with those who do...

But you see, for being a Christian like me, neither pole of these young persons' world works for me, because I understand that I am affected by my context more than I can self-determine my life. In other words, there are just some things I cannot do. Neither one of these young people believe that...and it is not a question of age...it is a question of how you believe God lives and moves in the world...if God is living and moving...well, then, of course there are things you cannot do, even good things like helping a neighbor or being nice...and if God's presence creates a certain amount of ambiguity, well, then, of course, you will do things that you could not have predicted.

No doubt when I was younger I too lived with the ardent zeal of my youthful chaperone and wedding conversationalist...but if I left them with anything it was-- I hope, not a belittlement of their beliefs, but rather an example of how to expand your horizons to all that God has made...which is, I guess, what church is for. Church reminds we are not alone, nor in charge...which--when you get to be my age--is a good thing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Truth and Meaning

A famous book sits on my shelf from a German philosopher entitled "Truth and Method." My teacher, Pat Keifert, teaches a course called "Truth and Meaning" these days...Whether method or meaning, truth still presides over the day...as the Gospel of John says it, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (8.32)

For many "truth" is a thing, a statistic, or a fact. That 2+2=4 is a "truth" for some people. For others it is a "truth" that the USA was designed by Christians of the 18th Century (and who happen, so it appears, to agree with Christians of the 21st Century--what luck!!!) However, for others "truth" is a bogey, a ghost, a pipe-dream, at best, and what we only can hope for is to have something "true" for me, and people like me...

"Truth" in the Gospel of John is nothing of the sort from the examples above. "Truth" is not a fact; nor, an hypothesis generated by wishful thinking. Nor is truth a dream or a ghost or phantasm of some kind...no, for the Gospel of John truth is a guy whom John calls "Jesus." And somehow, John argues in his story, if you know this guy you know the truth, and the truth then "makes you free." So, how to know this guy named Jesus? (This is the "meaning" part.)

You can read his story, and that is a start...but do you really know someone if you only read their story? Because I read a book about Thomas Jefferson does that mean I know Jefferson? Do I know him in the way John Adams or George Washington knew Thomas Jefferson? Not really, and so reading a story about Jesus is not knowing Jesus. In fact, in order to "know" someone in the way you know your parents or your spouse or your friends there is really only one way--you have to live with them, work with them, play with them, be with them, trust them, and hopefully they trust you. It is in the living where we perceive the knowing.

In order to "know" Jesus you have to live with him, and since he's alive (that's the purpose of the resurrection) in the Spirit we actually CAN live with him. But do we? Do we consult Jesus about anything in our lives? (Usually we call this prayer, but I often just ask him, as if he's sitting in the chair across from my desk...but I am a theologian, and I am weird.) It's not a question of asking What Would Jesus Do?, one of the most insipid slogans of all time from popular Christianity, but rather, what will you do with the advice or encouragement Jesus brings to you?

To know the truth in this sense is to know--that is "live with"--Jesus of Nazareth in your life. To invite him to your dinner, your sleeping, your parties, your griefs, your slightly sketchy business deals, or even your grossly in flagrante delicto (While the "crime is a-blazin'") situations. Truth in Christianity is not a fact, or an idea, or a morality or even an ethic: truth is living with a person, who, has the power...and the desire...to make us free. What more is there to know?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Spirit vs. Structure, part II

What kind of a congregation do you have if questions of structure take a back seat to questions of identity? Yesterday, I met with Bob Sanderson, president of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, and he asked me about Prairie Table Ministries. It was a good conversation.

I reminded him first that what makes Prairie Table somewhat unique in the world of Christian congregations is that your identity as a Christian is the most important aspect of our groups. If you think of what makes a person a member of "X" congregation, most of the time questions of structure are used to delineate who is a member or not? Do they worship at a certain time and place in a certain way? Do they give money? Do they participate in the sacraments? These are all structural realities that assume an attendant faith. (That is, people who worship or give money or take sacraments actually believe in what they do--but it is the doing, not the believing, that qualifies membership.)

At Prairie Table, since we do not have membership, questions of structure do not delineate our congregations. Rather, it is the relationships you develop that provide whatever structure Prairie Table has, and therefore, those relationships become the reason why you participate in the ministries or not. For example, recently, a group of men have starting attending our "Soup and Bible" class on Wednesday afternoon. There are four of them, and as with everyone, they attend the class as time and providence permit...but just a couple of weeks ago there was just one guy there, and although he was not alone, he was the only one of this quartet there that day. As he left, he said to me, I'll have to call those guys and see what's up and why they weren't here. It is that kind of consideration of relationship that Prairie Table is looking for. People taking responsibility for their friends is all we are looking for out here...

Notice too--for those of you reading this who are pastors or leaders of congregations--the gentleman did not say "You Scott, as leader of this group, should take responsibility and call them, even though you may not know any one of their last names," but rather, he understood-even if instinctively-that these are his friends, and therefore, his responsibility. One of the most pervasive structures of Christian congregations is the "ordained" leader...and although important, at Prairie Table we believe "friends" are even moreso. And although friendship may seem an unique way to start a congregation, I am not wondering if it is the only way...as we all have a friend in Jesus.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Spirit vs. Structure

Readers of this blog with good memories will recall that I have dealt with today's topic before: spirit vs. structure when it comes to God and religion. Here is how I often encounter this question.

A person who goes to the congregation I used to serve runs into me at some event or place. They ask me what I am doing now, and I tell them...depending upon how much I perceive their interest to be...a bit about what we do at Prairie Table. Then they ask if we have a building or a flyer or how we organize stuff, and I tell them we don't do any of that...they then look at me kind of funny, nod their heads, and in good grace wish me well...before they can turn away I know, without a doubt, that even were they the greatest Christian in the world, Prairie Table Ministries would not work for them. You see, for some of the people I meet, God and religion needs "structure." At Prairie Table, we focus more on "spirit." And there is a huge chasm between structure-people and spirit-people, and even though my tradition tries to balance the two out as well as any religious tradition, at PTM we fall more and the "spirit" side of the gulf...and for Christians who stand on the other side we might as well be a different religion for as well as they comprehend us...(and to be fair, "spirit" folks don't do well with "structure" religion, but that is for another blog.)

Structure is how we know about religions...the buildings, the constitutions, the regularized patters of worship, leadership development, and all the other things that go into maintaining a structure are how many view religion. And that is fine, and for me this "old-school" (I was raised as a structure person) approach has many merits. But it is not what we do at Prairie Table Ministries...for us the"new-school" is to focus on the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and how that Spirit calls and guides us into the world, and into the mission God has for us in this time and place. So, structure, such as it is around Prairie Table is pretty minimal (It is not as if we do not have structure, we have some, but it is not what we focus on...just as the usual congregation, focused on structure, still tries to follow the Spirit.)

I believe it is legitimate to follow the Spirit over structure because no one has ever been saved by a structure (although I will admit is has helped guide people to better lives), and we always need to keep that in the forefront of our faith...all Christians are people of the Spirit, no matter how diverse (and sometimes polar opposite) their structures...And it is that unity we share in Christ Jesus that propels Prairie Table Ministries...blown by the breezes of the Spirit...into the many and various structures of the world.