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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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Leadership: Art or Craft?

Jesus of Nazareth once said, "Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." (Luke 12.51, NRSV) Those are probably the most true words he ever spoke...at least if we are looking at the empirical evidence we have from his followers over the past 2000 years...there are divisions of Christians everywhere, and very little peace. I guess when you speak as many words as he did you have to be right sometimes?

But--Christian division aside--(and this is not a big deal for me as I figure God will get it all sorted out at the end) what the verse does pose is a question of leadership. (As I teach leadership within Luther Seminary's Congregational Mission and Leadership program...check it out...Luthersem.edu...I ponder leadership questions a lot). The question is: how do you lead amidst division rather than peace? In other words, how do you lead in conflict, or as my colleagues at Church Innovations like to say: when congregations fight?

People who believe leadership is a craft, that is, leadership is something that can be learned and practiced, leading amidst conflict is an important skill-set to master. But here is the thing...conflict poses winners and losers, and leadership in a congregational setting that seeks to mete out merits and punishments based on who wins and who loses is bound to make most of the other words Jesus said (the ones I didn't quote) even more troubling to believe. If you can learn to "manage" conflict (and "manage" and all its cognates I wish could never be spoken of when it comes to Christian leadership) somehow you can minimalize loss and damage, and maximize opportunity...and this seems about as unChristian as any leadership style could emulate.

Since we probably cannot learn to lead during conflict, it has to be something innate, or an "art" as it is called aesthetically, we now run into a bit of a problem describing all the different ways people lead in conflict, and trying to find anything we can learn from their experiences...they all are so idiosynchratic and personal or even genetic perhaps that what chance does the poor pastor have if she isn't of this cloth? If leadership is art, and you are leading outside the borders of your usual canvas...uh oh...

Well this is where the words of Jesus I quoted above can be the gospel...because you see maybe we were never meant to live without conflict? Maybe in the grand scheme of what God calls us to do or who God calls us to be we are meant to struggle a lot...either in one way because people divide against us, or in the other as we divide against them? Maybe the chimera is peace?

Leadership is never about bringing peace--regardless of whether you think of it as an art or a craft--leadership is about surviving division, and about acknowledging the God of the cross that makes the survival possible.

May your conversations be true and your tables be full. Peace.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sometimes It's tough to be Christian

Did you know there is a chapel in the Pentagon building that has worship five days a week, and allows Muslims to use it as well? Do you remember that on September 11, 2001, the Pentagon, as well as the World Trade Center was bombed by terrorists? If the Pentagon is OK with Muslims worshiping in the very BUILDING that was bombed, why should folks in New York City be concerned if a mosque is built a few blocks away from "ground zero?"

I understand that the furor over this building of a mosque near where many people lost their lives uncessarily to the hate of terrorists is mostly emotional, and generated by those with political agendas...however, as a theologian I can say this with some certainly--there will never be healing for anyone in this event until a mosque (or something like it) is allowed to be part of the conversation...until we realize in our hearts--not just our heads--that people who take their religion to an extreme in order to terrorize others cannot take away our faith in God--there can never be healing...never.

Martin Luther once noted that each of us have an "inner" and an "outer" Christian faith. And what happens to our "outer" faith (the faith we have on display for ourselves and each other, like how we worship, pray, serve our neighbors, deal with tragedy, celebrate moments...) does not affect our "inner" faith (the faith given to us by God). And here is why: nobody can take away what God has given you...that is, the inner faith you have received comes from God, and no one, not even your own doubts or fears, can take that away from you...only God can...and that IS something to worry about...

So if something challenges your "outer" faith, it is simply that: a challenge...but it cannot take away from you what God has given you...so relax...your faith is in the hands of God...and even if God is a God of law and punishment (and the evidence is still not in on that completely...), until God tells you your inner faith is gone you are good. It is never easy to forgive someone...but that is precisely why it is so tough to be a Christian. Anybody can try to be good and follow the rules, but to forgive? Well, in our tradition that takes God. Specifically a God from the cross in the resurrected power of the Spirit...and if we are willing to put our God near a cross, we can probably allow a mosque near ground zero.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summertime Wrap-up

A lot has happened at Prairie Table over the past few months, and with so many people traveling and being away, it is a wonder we ever stay connected at all...Here's some of the conversations that have happened around the table, and we look forward to another year of gathering together!

...the first part of June we had our annual Western North Dakota Synod Assembly out in Dickinson, and we had some great conversations about the future of the Church in our part of the world. As good Christians, convinced of the truth of the witness of our Lutheran tradition that grace precedes everything, we discovered that our communities of faith are often the last places standing where people can gather together to have meaningful conversations...Homes, cafes, and bars can also "solve all the problems of the world," but a Christian congregation leads in actually solving the problem rather than just talking about it.

...in July we heard stories from our ecumenical partners the Presbyterians, the Moravians, others about how Church is going in their part of the world. Many congregations struggle with doing God's work rather than just "keeping the doors open," and many leaders and pastors are frustrated that people will not nor cannot change...but there is a determination on the part of many to see the Church through this malaise of modernity that is the Church in America these days, and to pray and work for a missional life in the being of God in the world.

...In August we talked with Katie Narum Miyamoto about the Church in Japan, and how different it is to be a minority as a Christian rather than a majority as we are here in the USA. We continue to appreciate people such as Katie for keeping us aware of so many of the wonderous things God's love does in places where we do not often get to go...what a blessing to see God at work.

...And now we come to today, and into the future...and we wonder what it will bring for Prairie Table? We celebrated our second anniversary this past June, and it is amazing that we have been able to keep going for even that long...Sometimes you have to wonder what God is doing--especially when I am often the one in charge!?!?!?! As always, I give thanks for the many people who gather to converse around the tables of PTM. What a joy to hear the stories, to laugh, to cry, and pray over the grace God showers us with each and every day...

...I am thinking of a tag line for my posts--sort of an homage to Garrison Keillor I suppose--but how do you like this? May your conversations be true, and your tables be full...peace.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Big Tent Christianity" and Prairie Table

(This blog is part of the "Big Tent Christianity" event to be held in Raleigh, NC next month. Please see bigtentchristianity.com for more information. ed.)



I am very supportive of the energy surrounding this event to bring about new ideas and ways of being and becoming the church. Such a desire to bring together Christians from battling each other to battling the evils of destruction and disintegration is always to be commended, and I am glad to be even a small whisper of a much larger conversation. One of the charges we are asked to blog about for this event is "What does it (big tent Christianity) look like in your context?" and I want to take that question up this week. I want to answer, in a beginning sort of way, what "big tent Christianity" looks like up here in North Dakota through the fellowship of people at Prairie Table.



Prairie Table and the "big tent" metaphor have one attribute we share, and a major one that we do not share...I will begin with our commonality. Both the "big tent" metaphor and Prairie Table agree that whatever the church is to be or become it will be moveable. That is, Church is not a permanent thing. Church has no stone walls, no buildings, no programs, no committees, no budgets, no anything that is usually associated with "church" these days. Places may have those kinds of things, and they may be ministry centers, social services agencies, ritual re-enactors, or whatnot, but they are not Church...maybe they are playing at "church," but they are not Church.



Because the metaphor of a tent is provisional, temporary, portable, and moveable, there must be an assumption of "big tent" Christianity that the Church is provisional, temporary, portable, and moveable too...and we at Prairie Table really agree with that. (See "A Table Along the Way," May 19, 2009) Prairie Table is a way of being Christian community that is provisional, temporary, portable, and moveable...and this is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because our relationships with each other and with God through Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit go with us wherever we go. Right now, we gather in Bismarck, ND...but who is to say we will be there tomorrow, or next week, or even next year? As God calls us, not only into ministry around us, but also into the great globe itself, we take the relationships we have nurtured around the table with us, and set up our "tents" or "tables" wherever we happen to be. God loves us in our provisionality, our temporariness, our portability, and our movement...but we do not. And this brings us to the curse.

We love to be "settled." We all seek one tap root some where, some place, some time...and the transitory nature of a "tent" or a "table," while exhilarating for a time, cannot last...so we seek refuge, comfort, and solace from the institutions of our lives...making "church" one of the biggest. It is interesting that the "big tent" conference draws from the revival heritage of Christianity in this country...and revivals are not designed to last, they are not designed to be permanent structures of church...and at Prairie Table we work from that same transitory nature of church. We use the "table" metaphor, not because we do not like tents, but because we focus on "how" God builds relationships with us, not "where" God builds relationships with us...And how, is around the table, the place where Jesus broke bread and his body so that we could fellowship with God...

But Prairie Table works a different angle than the "big tent" metaphor, and finally this difference makes all the difference in the world. You see, the "big tent" idea still wants to attract people inside, still wants to invite people into whatever Christianity is...that is, the metaphor still holds some kind of objectivist power image that whatever is in the tent is Christian and whatever is not in the tent is not...and Prairie Table fundementally disagrees with that idea. There is no tent big enough to hold the universe that God has made...and only if you want to use "big tent" as a substitute for heaven (and that carries a whole raft of philosophical and theological issues) could Prairie Table finally use the "big tent" metaphor...

You see, we don't invite people to the table...we bring the table out into the street...and that is a huge missional understanding of Church that goes in a far different direction than a "big tent" metaphor. We understand that God sends Jesus as the Christ and the Spirit into the world to incorporate us into the life and being of God...in our creation and finally in our redemption that comes from the cross of Jesus the Christ we are incorporated in the life and being of God-- brought to the table so to speak--wholly on the activity of God's grace coming to us, not we going to it. So that the table we set out in the street is but a shadow of the table God sets out for us in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ...we don't invite anyone to the table...we set it out so that any and everyone may eat and drink at the feast of our Lord. There is no "inside" or "outside" at the table (and since we use round tables there is no head or foot either)...everyone is at the table, everyone feasts on the grace of God...and it is God's battle with the forces of evil and destruction that we eat and drink to our salvation...not our battle that God stimulates us for with a shot of blood and a chip of body...Because God creates the world (we take that to mean universe) there is no place where God is not nor will not be...and a tent would at best be a protection from the elements, but it could never be a boundary to God's love and engagement with creation...the tables we set out have taken all the abuses and the abused the world can offer...but that is because they are God's tables, not ours. And there is no inside to which we gather, and no outside to which we exclude.

So we at Prairie Table will continue to work on bringing tables out into the world that God redeems in Christ. We will not get too concerned about the size of the tent...because you see...for us at Prairie Table, the only tent big enough would be one to cover the entire universe...and while we pray for the love and justice of the "Big Tent Christianity" conference to prevail, our belief is that we are only going to get there--one table at a time...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Polarities of Youth, part II

(please see last week's post for the introduction to this thought...ed.)

Whatever the term "postmodern" means, we believe it to mean something that "young" people are. As my experiences last week with a couple of young people showed, that is not always true. These two folks, engulfed in the contemporary world as much as any two youth, both displayed thoughts of mind that were much more "modern" than they maybe knew. If I could have told the young lady that the stuff she is talking about for Christianity is stuff that Jonathan Edwards would approve (but of course he would add his usual brilliant rhetoric and intellectual rigor. Edwards was a colonial preacher famous for many things, not the the least of which is the revival movement in Christianity some 300 years ago.) So she is hardly "post-modern" in her thinking, as much as other aspects of her life (driving, talking to me, and answering the phone all within thirty seconds) are very post modern.

Same is true for the young man who would rather protect trees than sit in church...this idea goes way back to the Romanticists and Transcendentalists of this country (in fact, this young man actually claimed that he was "probably a Transcendentalist." I could only agree) some 200 years ago. The polarities these two youths exhibited have been around for a long time, and in this sense are hardly new, much less "post-modern."

So when the old guy like me brings up the thoughts that Christianity is not how people feel about,or even comprehend, God; nor, is the object of worship a one-way street of obedience... but rather, that Christianity is a complex web of relationships that weave so tightly together as to be reality itself, and which constant struggles for freedom and power push the edges of the weave to ever and greater lengths...well, let us say that is a little too far past modernity for them to wholeheartedly agree...

But here is the thing: watching the marriage of the two people, both with previous families, children, and spouses in their memories, they participated in an ever growing expansion of life and relationship encompassed only by the grace of God...and then..witnessing the birth of new relationships (we call them "in-laws"), seeing joy and celebration authentically lived...these two young people knew that life was more than anyone...18th Century preacher, 19th Century philosopher...even their own selves could have imagined. And in that, they lived what Christianity has been saying all along: in Jesus Christ, all things are created new. (And how "post modern" is that? Well, we've been saying that...for 2000 years!)