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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, September 29, 2010

A Story for the Ages

I run into a lot of people who know a little bit about the Bible...and in most cases they have little use for it, or for the Christian Church that purports to be about it...and I also run into a few people who know little or nothing about the Bible, and--irony of ironies--these people are often very faithful Christians...(all of which goes to show you that you don't need to know how to read in order to be a Christian...in fact, that may be a detriment!)

Christianity as a religion does not really need a Bible, but it does need a story--and the most popular Christian story is something like this: God made a perfect world, humans screwed it up, God re-made it by sending Jesus to die for humans who screw it up, and now humans should try harder not to screw it up again...at this point some Christians add "if you do a good job you can go some place nice named heaven." As a religion goes that story works, but of course, it is not from the Bible.

The story of the Bible is a whole different one than the popular Christian one (no matter how much money or energy some folks put into making it the same), and the story of the Bible is a story for the ages. Because you see the Bible, as the promise of God about the freedon given in Jesus Christ through the mutual consolations and conversations of people in the Spirit, has no quick "summary-like" statements because it always addresses the reader (hearer) where they are in life and the world. And since we are often different, the Bible speaks different things in order to keep God's promise to us...because for the Bible it's the God who promises that makes the story, not the story that makes the god...and for those of us who trust in God that makes all the difference in the world. May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Strange Workings of Baptism

A few years ago I found myself in Phoneix, AZ in February with other theologians and pastors from across the country. We had some free time one afternoon, and I wanted to avail myself of the heated pool at the hotel...all my friends declined to join me as the air temp was only 62 degrees. My friends from places like AZ, CA, GA, and TX all thought I was nuts for even considering it...but when you're from North Dakota, you have a partly sunny day, a heated pool, and any temp above 32, you call it a beach day! So, in this huge, heated pool, complete with little islands of trees and flowers scattered throughout the pool, I swam.

But I did not swim alone...because on the other side of the pool I could see another man paddling about from island to island as I was...finally, after about thirty minutes, and countless sarcastic comments from my friends walking by...I ran into the other guy at the island in the very middle of the pool. I said hi, he said, hi...and I commented on the nice pool. Yeah, he said, I like it too. I told him where I come from this is a summer day, and I couldn't imagine why more people aren't swimming...he asked where I was from...I told him "Bismarck, North Dakota." Where are you from, I asked? He looked at me and said, "Valley City." (Valley City, North Dakota is 140 miles east of Bismarck.) And his former neighbor in Valley City was now my neighbor in Bismarck...I kid you not.

Have you ever had one of those weird encounters where you meet someone you know, or you share something in common with someone, in the least likely of places? Isn't that strange how that happens?

In Christianity we hold that we are related to all Christians through baptism, so, in some ways it isn't strange to meet a brother or a sister in Christ just about anywhere...but unless we live that relationship, trust those people we meet, or risk reaching out to the stranger, we will just pass like "two ships in the night..."Christ has connected us to way more people than we realize or than we utilize in our lives...but that water of baptism--like the warm water in the pool in AZ--brings together people in ways we often cannot imagine. May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Question for the week: Do you have a "chance" encounter story you can share?

Monday, September 20, 2010

I think its about forgiveness...

...even if you don't love me anymore. (Don Henley)

If I had to take one line about what is Christianity from a recent song, poem, novel, or writing, I would take that one from Don Henley. He has captured as well as anyone--including people like Peter, Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and even me (well, you know?) what God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has accomplished in redeeming humanity and all of creation for life.

Central to the notion of who God is is forgiveness...we often fail at love, peace, patience, etc., and forgiveness is the power that propels us through those failures so that life can be lived...Henley hit upon this (albeit in a love song), and without this desire to forgive--Christianity--and God's own self--cease to exist.

BUT, the forgiveness is not dependent upon love. And this is where Henley is brilliant, and so different, from most of us. Most of us believe we have to love somebody or something before we can forgive. Henley points out this is is not so. For example, God does not have to love us in order to forgive us, but because God forgives us we can be loved by God. So when two brothers are fighting it is not LOVE that establishes their relationship, but their forgiveness that satisfies their love.

If Henley is correct (and the Bible seems to suggest he is) if you want to have a better day you will have to forgive somebody...somebody you probably do not love. The cross of Jesus reminds us of one thing: it is the forgiveness, not the love, that makes all the difference in the world.

Question for the week: what one line of recent composition seems to best sum up the Christian faith, or God in Christ Jesus in the power of the Spirit, for you?
May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Monday, September 13, 2010

What's up with music in worship?

Yesterday I spent some time worshiping with a community here in Omaha, NE that used a jazz quartet for its worship music leaders. It was fun, and good...and I'm wondering why I don't see more of that? In other words, why is music a) so important to worship; and b) not adequately done (specially in places where it is considered important?) Here are some worship music experiences I remember...

in 1991 hearing a young man perform "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" as the prelude to his grandmother's funeral (she was 94, and would have been in her sixties when Dylan wrote that song...I had trouble believing she was a fan.)

in 1993 joining a band for worship in Lockport, IL where the oldest member was 17, and trading guitar riffs and bass runs during the offertory music (young or newer musicians are my exception to the "adequate" rule...in their case I advocate full-bore experimentation!)

in 1995 learning a wonderful new liturgy on the organ from a gifted musician (Frank Stoldt), and being able to hear for the first time people actually enjoying praise to God

in 1999 having a congregation learn music in order to experience liturgy without words and notes having to be available to participate (this should be the goal of all worship...why is it a requirement to be able to read in order to worship in so many congregations? If you are a worship leader ask yourself this question: if someone can't read, could they get something out of this worship?)

in 2003 being exposed to another gifted leader (Craig Schweitzer) who is able to bring musical subtlety into worship (Craig is being ordained as a pastor in a few days, and I wish him godspeed)

in 2008 having the current musicians sing and play songs they like (hence our Prairie Table months of Eagles and Beatles tunes last year), and what a diference that makes in learning how to share passions...

There has been-- in my almost 20 years of ministry now-- a lot of good music, some great, some absolutely sublime...and some...well, not-so-much. To all the musicians, leaders, planners, and congregations who have made worship a key part of my life, I thank you, and pray for your continued ministry...as a famous church musician often noted soli Deo gloria!

And what are some of your memories of music and worship in your life?

Monday, September 6, 2010

From Personality to Community

It's been awhile since I reached into my books for a blog topic, but I am haunted (again) by a phrase from Cornel West in his book The American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), in which describing the mind of culture in this country he wrote of this "hotel civilization" (a phrase he borrowed from Henry James,) as it "has yielded an indigenous mode of thought that subordinates...community to personality..." In other words, because we live in the USA it's more about "me" than it is about "us."

My two years of working with people through Prairie Table Ministries has shown me the numbing truth of West's perception...our way of THINKING, not just how we act or behave, is dominated by our subordination of community to our own personalities. I have had people tell me, with no sense of irony or shame, these things:
* I don't get what you do, but it doesn't bother me that you do it
* We don't agree on this issue so I guess we cannot be friends anymore
* I tried that once, but it didn't work for me so I gave it up
* You folks can do that, but I am not a joiner
Every single one of those statements presuppoes the dominance of personality (of the individual, as I take West to mean) over and above anything the community may have to offer. Now most communities, such as Prairie Table Ministries, will survive such mind-sets--however, the mind-set of the personality (individual) over-and-above community distorts what "community" is... that is, the community is seen wrongly not because the person has seen it, but rather because the person cannot put aside the "personality dominance" in order to see the community accurately.

Take, for example, the line that someone said to me about not agreeing, so we cannot be friends...that understanding completely misunderstands "community" which, by definition in the Christian faith, is a group of people who do not agree! It does not take long at a Bible study at Prairie Table to realize we do not all agree, yet, somehow, we are all in this together...and we wouldn't be together at all if we needed agreement on everything...(to be fair, at PTM we do all agree Jesus is the Christ, but I bet there are a few differing ways to explain that too!)...Your friends are not necessarily the ones who agree with you, but rather are in community with you, even if you disagree...

The sign of a friend is not that we share convictions, but rather we challenge convictions our friends have...And in this way community is built in spite of the personalities (individuals) involved. For too long we have replaced agreement in personality with the cross of Jesus as the definition of human community (that is, the Church). The cross of Jesus as the Christ of God in the power of the Holy Spirit challenges each and every one of us to live a life of obdience to a God beyond our understanding and control...and we will not agree on how to do that simply because we are all created a little bit differently...but even so...we are all in this venture we call "life" together. A summary for Prairie Table comes from something the Apostle Paul wrote 1950 years ago, "Consider us...stewards of God's mysteries..." We may never understand why we are all in this together, (it is a mystery) but to refuse community because we do not agree, or understand it , or see it, or whatever is to miss the point of why God put us (not me) here in the first place.

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