Your Blog Steward

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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.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Some Personal Thoughts and Reflections on Prairie Table (or: What's a Blog For?)

When people first talked about Prairie Table (it had no name then), I heard stuff like this:

"What kind of church is it going to be?"
"What kind of people are you hoping to get?"
"How far away will it be from my church?" (Usually only asked by other pastors)
"Are you going to go knocking on doors to get people?"

And I got tired...very tired, and had no interest in doing a new mission start in Bismarck.

But some people wanted to see a mission here, the ELCA was willing to give it a nice chunk of change to get started, and people seemed tolerant, if not exactly excited to have a new mission in a place where not much had changed in 20 years for the Lutheran church. So we gave it a go...but we had some rules...and this is where it got interesting.

First Rule: No attractional ministry allowed! We would do nothing on a corporate level to try and attract people to the congregation. The congregation would grow only as people encouraged and invited others into the community. No ads, no publicity, no nothing that said "Come be like us!" We would reach out to people in need, but never try to attract others to us...

Second Rule: Everything is free, and no fundraisers will be allowed. Needless to say, Prairie Table is a month-to-month adventure in trying to stay solvent, but I've been able to be paid for the past couple of years, so, something works as people donate to a way of living with God rather than a place where God does "business." And thanks to all the folks (over 100 different contributors over the years) who have believed in the people of God here at Prairie Table.

Third Rule: Unless people are talking and listening we don't really have church. Everything we do is designed to get people talking about what God may or may not be doing in the world.

As I think about it, these might not be "rules" as much as they are reminders of how God creates, redeems, and sustains us in this life. We are attracted to God, God does not attract us (as St. Augustine said so nicely, "our hearts are restless Lord until they rest in you.")...God is free, Jesus frees us, and the Spirit empowers us to live freely...and talking and listening, well as Terry said once a while ago, "everybody likes to talk," and we could all stand to listen a little more.

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

You can't believe in Jesus as the Son of God just because you want to

One of the cornerstone Bible verses from my tradition is from the Gospel of John where Jesus of Nazareth says, "...you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (8.32) And a lot of people struggle with that...for example:

A young man came to me the other day and wondered what I do (as a missionary whose "church" is primarily on-line, I often wonder what I do too, so I don't begrudge the question), and how can I help people "believe in Jesus?" Now that question can take a couple of angles: First, does a person wonder who Jesus was, what kind of stuff did he do and say, and it is a question of knowledge. So, to "know" the truth in this sense is to pick up some facts and details about the life of a guy who lived and died a couple of thousand years ago? Or, secondly, and this is where the young man was heading, is "believing" more of an existential thing, where one's life and future after death (we call that salvation in our world) are on the line? In this case there is nothing I can do but pray...nothing I can say, teach, exemplify, witness to, or even participate in will EVER make a difference for somebody to know Jesus in this way...this is completely a gift of the Holy Spirit, and to my mind anyone who argues differently believes more in the power of people than the power of God...and as a theologian I always default to God (it's sort of the job).

This is a good thing, however, as the pressure is off me and onto God to free people to "believe in Jesus." I can witness to the freedom I have in Jesus as the Christ of God, participate with others in this freedom, and even teach about it...but I cannot give it...that is for God and God only. And here's what makes this even more difficult...any person who might want it (i.e., to believe in Jesus) cannot just take it...cannot just wake up and grab it like a late-nite burrito at Taco Bell...since it is a gift from God, no matter how much you want it, you have to wait for it to be given...

I do believe God gives this belief (we call it "faith") all the time, however, we receive it ONLY when we are ready...and some may be ready at 4 or 40 or two breaths before they die...doesn't matter...because once you are free, you are free...you have received (or you "know" in this sense)--the truth. May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, October 11, 2010

In, with, under, and against

Congregations are interesting pieces of social culture...on the one had they are products of the culture and community in which they reside...but a huge part of that identity is to be loyal to God (rather than the surrounding culture) so that a great many Christian congregations actually flow AGAINST the culture from which it is constituted. (In truth, many Christian congregations believe they are constituted by God, not by their surrounding culture, and for that reason they are often "called" to be against their culture.) And this is what makes congregations so interesting.

The culture's story, such as it is in the USA these days, is often in flux, and even more so one can choose one's dominant cultural story with relative ease. It might be more accurate these days to talk of "cultures" in the USA rather than one, single, dominant, cultural story that tries to encompass everything. (This is one of the unique pieces of being the USA. For years the dominant cultural story assumed it included everybody, and therefore everybody was part of the dominant culture...of course, as people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gloria Stenheim, and others pointed out 40 years ago, the dominant culture was rather exclusive, and did not include everybody...but now that things have gotten topsy-turvy, trying to actually include everybody leads to no one dominant cultural story, and even less cultural coinherence.)

And if there are multiple cultural stories that make up the USA, it stands to reason there are multiple Christian congregations that both arise from one cultural story, and even can be opposed to another cultural story, within the same traditions, histories, and families. Because you can have--for example--families in which various members vote Democrat and others in the family vote Republican--you can have congregations in which some would lean one way, and others would lean the opposite--and in every case it would be possible to find in each congregation people who vote against the dominant story...as I said, congregations are interesting.

No matter what cultural story dominates a congregation, the healthiest congregations I have experienced understand that God's story drives the congregation and its people. In this way, God is in, with, under, and against a congregation as they are God's bread in a hungry world. Because when someone is dying from lonliness, or suffering from depression, or addicting themselves from fear or ennui, God feeds them with the life-giving food of Christian community. Even the worst Christian community can feed somebody...and on their good days...they probably do. May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network

One of my pastor friends was chided by one of his parishioners who said to me, "He has to get off the computer and get out and meet the people." Now, this parishioner is almost 80 years old, and what he missed about the computer was--of course--that my colleague was meeting people...just not the ones at the corner cafe, but the people who use the computer. The computer, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and others, is now a social network. Who knew?

It is a different social network to be sure from the corner cafe and Starbucks that were all the rage just a few years ago, but people are meeting me all the same on Facebook. The other night as Chris and I were relaxing in front of a fire and watching the North Dakota day turn to night it was great, and you cannot put a premium on that type of intimate, face-to-face relationship. But not all my relationships have to be that way...and the Facebook ones, as public and "un-intimate"as they are, are just different...but they are still valuable, and they still have importance even if others do not think so...

I believe God is about relationships no matter how they happen or where they occur. We are created in and for relationship, and as I have written before the solitary human is no human at all...Whether you call the relationships you are in marriages, families, colleagues, small groups, churches, bowling leagues, drama troupes, facebook pages, or choirs...we are made to live and be together...

Think of the resurrection of Jesus--not as God's forgiveness of human sin--but rather as God re-making God by incorporating Jesus, now as the Christ, into the life and being of all that God is...this is what Prairie Table means by being stewards of the "mysteries of God." We will never be sure of all of who and what God is, but we take care of that mystery wherever we find it...at home, at work, at the cafe, or even at the computer...and just as deepest relationships survive multiple locales, we must remember that Jesus Christ survives them too...may your tables be full, and your conversations be true.