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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, December 28, 2011

Guns, Freedom, and the cross of Christ

I own guns. Enough of them so that I cover my whole immediate family with the national average. Since neither my wife or daughters use my guns--only one has ever even held one--it is safe to say they are "my" guns.

I once stayed at a friend's house. As he was giving me a quick tour I noticed there was a gun in every room. Living out in the country as he does, the ones by the doors seemed useful, but a bedroom loft? What gives with all the guns, I asked?

Well, my gun room is being remodeled, so I store them in unused corners. OK, I muse...really? Yeah, plus I figure anyone who comes into this house will know how to use a gun safely, so, what's the damage? I stare in utter amazment at a well-used .260 Browning. You mean, it's loaded too? Of course, what's the sense of having a gun if it's empty? There's no round in the chambers though, so make sure you cock it.

I do understand that not everyone is comfortable staying in such accomodations. And I do appreciate the multitude of friends I have who do not worry too much about whether I am liberal or not, even though I hunt and have guns. To be honest, many of my non-gun-owning friends are curious about and appreciative of guns, much as they would be if I took up stamp collecting or butterflies. Most people who don't own guns see them as potential death instruments, and most people who own guns see them as guarantors of freedom. And that is why "gun control" will always divide the USA.

Regardless of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, having a gun to protect yourself seems to work for most people. Crimes against women are the first things to decrease the minute you let women carry a gun, or even let would-be assaulters think they carry a gun. (interestingly, everyone knows that to be so statistically verifiable as to be a truism.) So whether the USA, your home or office, or even your car is being threatened you have the freedom to defend yourself, and a gun is the surest way we have of making a statement about that protection without having to actually use it. So when someone tries to control guns, it is seen by many as trying to take away freedom. And what politician, especially these days, wants to be seen as taking away your freedom? No matter how reasonable the argument, you can't take away someone's freedom just because a congresswoman got shot by someone with a gun. Freedom is dangerous on many levels, not the least of which is that some people don't want you to be free.

But I don't own guns for my sense of freedom. I own guns to kill creatures I eat. Simple as that. My guns are used for hunting, and they are locked away whenever I am not hunting or practing with them. My sense of freedom does not come from me being able to own a gun...it comes from something more profound. My freedom comes from love, specifically a love from God that dies (irony of ironies) so that I can live. The cross is the story of that love.

Because I believe in freedom, I will never try to take away someone's freedom by taking away their symbol of it...but I will always challenge people to find freedom in something other than fear, other than arrogance, other than hatred...to find freedom in love, to find freedom in God.

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What makes work "work?"

As I sit here beginning to write there are four men in the church parking lot ouside my window "working." They work for a crane service and are all involved in the process of putting shingles, scaffolding, and whatnot on the roof of the church. They are working. So am I, but there are differences.

First, all four of them are getting paid (I assume) to do their work. No one pays me to write this blog...in fact, when I suggested it once, the people who were paying me to do other things asked, with no hint of irony, "Why they would do that?" I suggested that people have been known to make a living writing, but to them this is not "church development." You now know why I no longer work for them.

Secondly, they are cold...it is 29 degrees outside...69 here in the house. I can see their breath from my window.

Thirdly, here's what the four are doing right now. One guy is manouvering the crane from the cab; guy # 2 is standing there watching him from the parking lot; guy # 3 is watching guy # 2; guy # 4 is watching from the roof. When the load needs to be engaged or disengaged, guy #s 2 and 4 hook and unhook...I have yet to even see guy # 3 move. But if we asked them if they went to "work" today, I am sure even guy # 3 would say yes...even if he hasn't done anything. (It is also quite possible that guy # 3 makes more money than the other three guys because he is in "management" or maybe even owns the company.) I am typing...but what I am really doing is thinking.

I get paid, not to drive cranes, hook or unhook material to cranes, or even manage crane operations...I get paid to think. For people who posit a dichotomy between thinking and doing, this is hard to understand. Most of us understand that we get paid to "do" something. Therefore, if "doing" is the opposite of "thinking," than someone who is thinking is--by definition--"doing" nothing. So, when someone like me gets paid to think, in that mindset, I am getting paid to "do" nothing. (Because thinking is doing nothing.)

Jesus seems to have understood that thinking and doing are not opposites. Whether Jesus understood that one could get paid for thinking I will not surmise, but he did seem to grasp that if you cannot think right you probably will not do right. To paraphrase Spike Lee, in order to do the right thing you must be thinking along the right way...

This is why repentance is so important in the Christian tradition. Repentance is not changing from doing one thing to doing another--repentance is changing your thinking from one way to another way of thinking. So you "repent" not when you start "doing" something different, but when you start "thinking" that what you are doing is not God's preferred future for you, or the world, or your neighbor. And when you start thinking a diffrent way Jesus seems to assume you will start doing different things.

So "work" is not just about what you do...because guy # 3 still has not done much...but he might be thinking...and that's work too.

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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Money, Work and Jesus

At some point your work has to take into account money. No matter how much your work is your avocation, no matter how you have arrived at what my pastor Eric Elnes calls your "sweet spot" (the place where your desires for God meet God's desires for you), most of us work for money.

Now, "money" means a couple of different things. First, for rich people, it is a thing until itself. (That is how and why they are rich, at least in terms of money.) For others, and this is the greater number I am sure, money is an intermediary goal to something else. This is why I am not rich, at least in terms of money. For me, money has no value except what it can get me. I don't want money just to have money, I want money so I can go to restaurants, or movies, or pay for my kid's college, or fix a broken furnance. This--to me--is the biggest difference between rich and not-rich people--rich like money as money, not as what kind of sense of security or self or communal improvement it might provide.

Jesus seems to have understood this distinction I am trying to make. He chides some rich people about how a widow who makes an offering of "all she had" impresses God more than someone who just gives "off-the-top." However, if you need to pay a mortgage, someone who gives you a couple thousand "extra" makes it easier to pay the mortage than someone who gives you all $4 in his wallet. But in the "It's the thought that counts" way of thinking, the all is more impressive than the some.

So why do we work? If we work for money we may have missed what God seems to call us to do in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. From the stories we have of Jesus' adulthood, he never worked, and he certainly seems to never have been compensated for anything. So why did he work? (Doing whatever he did--healing, teaching, managing.) Because he "loved" it? There's not a lot of evidence to suggest that. Because he wanted money (or the things money could get him)? Not a lot of evidence for that either.

Why else would we work if not for the money? Why would we work if not for the satisfaction we receive from it? Perhaps we jump a few decades to after the death of Jesus. Paul, a guy who really believed Jesus had it right about our relationship with God and with our world, said we do things "for the common good." Maybe we work, not because we love money, not because we love ourselves, but because we love our world...we love our neighbor? Maybe the reason why you work has nothing to do with "you", and everything to do with "us?"

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jesus and work, part III (Money)

Most of us work because we need money. I remember a friend of mine who on quitting a job because of an idiot boss said to me, "You know, all I'll really miss is the money. Isn't that sad?" She was young, and hadn't yet started out on any quest for "vocation" (tomorrow's topic), so money was pretty much her only motivator to work. But even at the ripe old age of 23 she knew that was stupid.

If you only work for money it does not take long to NOT get out of bed in the morning. Money (and all that it buys or represents) is an insatiable goddess, and to follow her takes real dedication and shrewdness. Making money is never difficult--having work worth doing that you can get paid for? Priceless.

During a job transition someone will come into my office and say, "I want to find meaning in any new job I get." I usually nod in agreement. And the problem is??? "Well...I have bills to pay." From there we can go to work on how to best mesh our search for meaning with having enough for bills to pay.

It seems to me that is where God wants us to understand "work." Work is the way we express who we are in God's creation, and to find meaning, not just be a cog in a machine or a number on a roster. This is why "greed" has been a sin in the church for a long time. "Greed" replaces your search for who you are with money in the work equation. Greed, in other words, misdirects work away from you and into its results. So the "love" of money becomes the root of all evil, not money itself. Money is neutral, but the moment you make it a value, you slide away from working as who you are to working as being greedy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement interests me these days because you have people who are trying to right a balance somehow. They see the attainment and abuse of wealth as reason enough to sleep in a park. Jesus was a little more radical, he actually went and did a little damage to the operations of the wealth he thought was abusive, but the modern day protestors have hit on an important distinction. The seeking of wealth over and above being a part of God's creation destroys the communities we seek. (By the way, many wealthy know this, which is why they often seek shelter in communities of their own creation...it's nice to be rich.)

It is an American creed to be able to make as much money as you want...and that is fine...but it is not part of the Christian creed, and we should never forget the difference.

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jesus and work, Part II

Economists these days are noticing there are two basic types of work:
1) the kind that can be done anywhere and have no regression of quality
2) the kind that requires a physical presence.
I like to think of it in terms of my friends who are electrical engineers and those who are electricians. In planning and designing electrical systems, all you need is a computer, and that computer can be anywhere, anyplace, and even anytime. But if a wire breaks, you need someone to show up right here, right now.

Work,as understood throughout most of the Bible, consisted of the "physical presence" kind. Even the high-end managerial jobs of Peter and James, or Abraham all involved their presence in the boat or on the range. Abraham had no way to remote in the feeding and pasture schedules for the upcoming week. Peter had to be on the boat to tell the guys where to fish. Consequently, with this underlying assumption about work running throughout the Bible, the Christian Church has built up a rather convoluted understanding of work, and one that for many people is simply outdated in a wireless world.

The Christian Church (most famously in Jean Calvin and his secular propagandist Max Weber--but all Christian traditions hold similar views of work) understands work as that which God gave us to take care of God's creation. That's all work is meant to do in the Bible. Anything else will just kill you. Because of this understanding of work (i.e., taking care of God's creation), it generally receives pretty positive responses throughout history. (I am willing to admit that the Adam and Eve story is a bit ambiguous about work, but the Christian tradition has long since smoothed the edges off that one!)

So, in that vein of thought, how does working at the call center for Iphone problems take care of God's creation? More to the point, especially for work done by those outside of the Christian tradition, how do we respect our God in the work we do? The usual response to such a question is to make it individual and personal. So helping a person with an Iphone problem is what God wants us to to...help people, and in this case, help them with their phone. But is that all work is about? Helping people?

Those of you who know me know I have no great love of work. In the movie "Some Come Running," Dean Martin, a gambler, says "My Dad gambled every day. He called it farming. I prefer to do mine indoors." That has always struck me as a reasonable position. Consequently, as a gambler, I have no great love of work.

But when I do work, do I work to help people? As a teacher, pastor, writer, I guess I suppose I want my students, parishioners, and readers to be helped...but is that why I write or talk or teach? No...for me, work is about trying to understand my world, to get at what God is trying to do, or how this story shows God's vision for us; or, even, how your problems can illuminate solutions to mine.

I think that is where Jesus was going with his understanding of work. Work is part of who we are, and how we discern who we are and what we do in the world. In some ways Jesus was working all the time, and in that regard, his death was not some "sacrifice" for our sins, but rather the culmination of a job well done.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Work and Jesus

One of the funniest things I've ever had happen in one of my classes was when I was making an argument that Jesus, looking from a purely pragmatic standpoint, really didn't do anything. I admitted he healed some folks, talked a lot, and made sure people got fed, but as far as we know he never really did anything. Did he cook? Build? (Some people assume Jesus was a carpenter because his Dad was one, but that's just an assumption. He could have also been a priest in the temple, as he seems to be in the Gospel of John, but that's just an assumption too.) But the gospels don't say Jesus did much of what we think of as "work."

Anyhow, one of my students (from Liberia, and this is not a trivial detail), went into some kind of stupor at the suggestion that Jesus didn't do anything. He was beyond flabergasted. I've had people look at me before as if I'm from another planet, but his look at me went intergalatic. I think, he said "You are crazy." (Which is probably also the truest thing a student has ever said of me.)

As you, loyal and gentle reader realize, I was playing off the idea of what constitutes "work" in our current society. "Work" has to have some kind of end-product, especially if remuneration requires billable hours. If there is nothing to show for, how is work done? So we strive to show our work (sort of like 7th grade math class) so that people know we "did" something. Since Jesus never wanted to show his work, and there is little record of him doing so, it is quite possible that he "did" nothing. That is my point.

And of course my Liberian student grew up in a world where you never had to show your work in order to prove you did something. Therefore, he could not understand in any appreciable way what I was hinting at, although he got the point better than some of my USA educated students. If "work" is defined only by what you produce that is verifiable or empirical or observable, then work can only kill you. But if "work" is defined in another way...well, you may just survive it. I think that's the work Jesus was trying to do.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Faith is a relationship, not a belief...

I love watching "Real Time with Bill Maher." I like it best when it shoots for comedy rather than serious interpretation of political and social issues, but even that can entertain me for a while...and every now and then they talk about religion.

This gets funny because usually there are no "religious experts" at the table talking, so basically when the talk turns to religion you have four people giving opinions about stuff they don't really think about...and sometimes when there is a religious expert on the show, such as the brilliant theologian and activist Cornel West, (Google him, he wrote my favorite book of American philosophy)it gets downright comical as the three others try to tell the religious expert what religion is. (Fortunately they, and West especially, are good sports!)

The problem most critics of religion, and in this case they include Christianity, and often make no distinctions amongst Christians (as if our 2000 years of internecine wars and battles have made us more alike than different), but critics of religion often replace "faith" with "thinking," and that is wrong. The opposite of "faith" is not "thinking," "science," or "reason"; the opposite of faith is lonliness or alienation. In Chrisitanity "faith" is about relationships, not about believing. You can believe anything you want and still have faith in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. And this is because your relationship to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit comes from faith, not from what you "believe."

The one trick to getting Christianity is to remember that God doesn't care what you "believe." God cares about your faith--that is, the relationship God establishes with you in creation, the relationship God continues with you in the Spirit, and the relationship God continually remakes with you in Jesus Christ.

So the comics and thinkers on "Real Time" make fun of Christians for what they "believe," but Christians believe all sorts of things, not much differently than anybody else...but attacking what Christians believe does nothing to attack what makes Christianity the most powerful religion in the history of the world: a Christian's faith (relationship) with God, and God's faith (relationship) with Christians. I am not a Christian because I wanted to love and respect gay people, or I wanted to be a faithful husband, or a good father, or someone who cares for creation...I could do any of that without being a Christian--Christianity has no monopoly on morals and ethics--I am a Christian because I have faith that there is a God who loves me, who cares about me, and who wants to see me thrive...just as God desires that for you, and, ...for all of us, even someone like Bill Maher.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Boring church

As a kid I never minded going to church (which was good because my mom and grandmother were both church secretaries, so it's not like it was optional), but I knew all (and I mean all) of my friends thought it was "boring." And I wandered through years of ministry, always working with youth at some point, I heard that statement a lot. Church is boring.

But look at what your general teenager thinks is boring: everything that doesn't immediately relate to them. Church, school, whatever has the potential to be boring because youth are not sure how it fits into their identity...and church suffers because it is never about the kid...church is never about any of us, young or old, church is always about God, and what God does in the world. At some level everyone should be frustrated with going to church. I don't care if you're 7 or 70, at some point if it's not boring, it's probably not about God, and therefore it's probably not church. Boredom in church simply means God's telling you again what you already know, even if you haven't acted upon that knowledge recently.

Christianity is a fairly simple religion: it's about your relationship to God (or for the more progressive amongst my readers--the great mystery), and if you don't care about that relationship it is bound to be boring to be in a place that does nothing but try to encourage that relationship. For years I thought my response to "Church is boring" was to try and make it "EXCITING!" But I was wrong...

The response to "Church is boring" is to ask why you are bored with your relationship to God? Why does hearing about God's love bore you? Why does listening to music that celebrates that love bore you? Why does hearing stories about the love of God bore you? Why does being told you are loved by God bore you?

So if you are at church and it is boring, ask why? Ask it of your pastors why they look so bored? Don't they love God anymore either? Ask it of the kids...the parents...the senior adults...In fact, go be bored by church and then ask yourself why love is not enough for you? I bet from then on you won't have time to be bored anymore.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hip-Hop, Jesus Christ, and the Church

A few weeks ago I went to my first ever hip-hop concert...I was the oldest guy in the room of about 600 or so...fortunately, the group Atmosphere (made up of at least two guys in the same decade as me)supplied enough energy for all of us, and I got caught up in the music. After 2 hours of solid rapping and bass bombing, interspersed with really great piano and guitar riffs, the lead singer "Slug" shouted us to us: "Thank you for tonight! Since this is a close to church as I'm ever going to get Let's do one more!" (Or something to that effect...by then my ears were fried.)

And yes, that concert was church not only for Slug, but for all of us...and it was a worthy celebration of young people searching for that beat which will become the cornerstone of their lives..."Church" is often were you find such things, and in that sense this concert was "Church." On the following Sunday morning I found myself in a small, Lutheran church next to the University of Nebraska-Omaha where I was almost the YOUNGEST person in the room...and after an hour of robust hymn singing and contemplative prayer, interspersed with a few readings from the Bible and some good thoughts about God, I had another experience of "Church."

Now the concert and the Sunday morning worship were different in many ways, but similar in one important way--both celebrated being alive, and for the people who are part of each event God gets included in that "alive-ness." But there is one big difference...

The folks who worshiped at the altar of Christianity understand that they worship God all the time, not just when they are at the altar or in the church building. Their hour is spent thanking God for all the blessings of the week, imploring God to be more active in their world, or generally learning to live on this crazy globe...so this hour is one hour to specifically celebrate the other 167 hours of the week. The folks at the Lutheran church didn't need that hour of "church" to find meaning, purpose, energy, inspiration, or love in their lives...they already had that thanks to the God they worshiped on that worning. (this is one of the reasons I detest long worship services...if you're truly Christian you're worshiping all the time anyhow, why waste a good Sunday morning??)

But I wonder about the folks at the hip-hop concert? Will they go back to something completely different as their lives as students or bank tellers or paint salesmen (a friend I went with)? How does the church of hip-hop go from week to week, year to year, cradle to grave? I have no doubt God cares and cherishes for the people at the concert as much as God cares and cherishes for the people at the Lutheran congregation I was with...

The Christian faith worships a God who not only incarnates into history, but also uses that very history to transcend time...Jesus Christ is the name of that story,and in that we are always "in church", always "at worship", always in the presence of God no matter where we are: hip-hop concerts, Sunday morning worship, and all the other venues and times of our lives.

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I live in an old world

I live in an old world, and I am old school, and because I am stubborn and well-off enough, I don't often have to change my ways...

For example, I like books...so I will never get an e-reader. But what if books become obsolete? I don't know...maybe I'll start watching TV.

I gave up watching TV in January. Now, I only watch sporting events, and shows that my daughters want me to watch with them. I average about six hours a week--although if Discovery Channel puts on a marathon "Dual Surivial" I will watch them all...love me some Cody and Dave! In March my daughter and I timed how much we watched our new 52 inch screen TV, and for the whole month we used it for 8 hours. I think I am becoming a luddite.

But, as you know, I have a computer, and have had one ever since 1987. I have used so many computers over the years that when I tell my younger friends about them they think I am lying...(anyone else remember dot matrix printers?)I am not opposed to "technology" as such, but I am opposed to anything that does not encourage conversation and/or human interaction. (I don't talk about conection much, because I am not sure connection is what humans are after...interaction seems to best fit my understanding of community and individual autononmy, and how most of us desire to work out that relationship)

So technology--such as computers--works better for me because it encourages interaction with humanity, and TV--most of the time--is way too passive. Now the congregations I live amongst and teach about are much more comfotable with TV than computers...why? Do we have an active God (most of the time) or a passive God? What does God actually do in your world?

One of my favorite (and funniest) experiences teaching was when I was arguing that Jesus did "nothing" during his ministry. He sat around and talked, he ate meals, prayed, and occasionally healed somebody, but to most of us in the industrial western world he did "nothing." One of my students, an African immigrant, went ballastic. He argued for a good 10 minutes on all the stuff Jesus did. He was flabbergasted that I would sugest Jesus did nothing...after his 10 minute scolding of my mistake...one of my other students, an adminstrative pastor of a large Christian congregation, said, "well, I wouldn't hire him (Jesus). He doesn't have much experience in work." To which my African student replied..."that's the problem with American congregations--they would rather work than live with Jesus."

That's so old world...so old school.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years later...

Today is the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks by terrorists on the USA and its cultural icons and people...everywhere I look or people I talk to have this on their mind...and this is good...but the question then becomes "How have I changed since 9-11-2001?" What is different about me since then?

I guess, in general, I've become even more liberal than I was then. At some level all the world revolves around trust, and 9-11 proved that you can't trust some people...but I already knew that then, and I still know it...but what are you going to do? You either have to give up on trust and go about verifying everything; or, you trust, but now you realize the stakes in doing so..trust can kill you.

I mean, think of Jesus of Nazareth. One way (and not the only way, mind you) to read about his death is that he trusted people to love God more than anything. As he challenged people to trust in God, people did or did not as they were able, and Jesus lived with whatever consequences that trust brought about for him. So, if someone could trust him to heal a daughter or a disease, he allowed that; if someone could not trust him to behave, especially during a public festival, he lived with those consequences too. In the end, he trusted a Pilate or a Caiphais to do the "right" thing, and he wound up dying because of it...but what was he to do? Give up on trusting people just because he might die? He didn't seem to go down that road...he-apparently--would rather die than not trust someone, even someone who threatened to kill him and then did.

So after 9-11 I pretty much vowed to keep trusting people, even ones who want to kill me. And, I suppose, someday that will kill me. Of course, I don't live in New York City, or work in the Pentagon, or travel to the Middle East--and I can imagine their "trust" issues are much deeper than mine, and I can imagine that my views seem foolish and pollyannish to some, if not many. But I am not convinced anything other than even more trusting is going to work...our problems in life are usually never that we love, but rather that we never love enough. And those that do...are often betrayed by others' inability or refusal to love.

You see about a year ago I got a new friend. And of all the things I remember about her over the past year, I will remember most her face when she told me how her love had been betrayed. My heart literally broke for her, and I doubt I will ever forget her look of fear, confusion, frustration, and anger that such an event creates. I imagine 9-11 is like that for many people...and I hope never to forget that as well.

9-11 betrayed a sacred trust we humans have to each other, and that it was on such a massive and grand scale of destruction and death it is doubtful that the trust will ever be rebuilt in my lifetime...events like this take generations to repair...

But like my new friend, I taught my children over the past 10 years to keep trusting even if the evidence is not there to warrant such trust...and now, 10 years later, those kids are out of the house my wife and I built for them...and unlike their mom and me, they live in worlds where trust often comes at a premium price...but their God-- my God! has promised to love them, trust them forever...what more can we do when we have received such sacred trust? We trust more, I guess.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Health care and healthy living

I went to an event last evening on why our health care in this country is not working. Let us be clear about what is not working...that's the problem, isn't it? Everybody has complaints about the "system" but nobody knows what the problem is. Doctors believe it is too much regulation and bureacracy (probably right), patients believe it is too much waiting around and inattention and certainly bureacracy...and the people who provide the products fear of losing money when the patents run out...

Last night's speaker believes that eliminating government from the health care equation will solve most of the problems...and as a theologian I think he is not going to be happy if he gets his way...because the problem with health care in the USA is not "government," the problem is money. There is a reason the Christian church has in its canon the line "the love of money is the root of all evil." When there are problems with health care in this country it is because people (patients, doctors, bureaucrats, etc.) love money more than health.

What I heard from the speaker last night was not how to fix "health care" but how to "finance" health care equitably (which is surely a good thing if health care is about money). But-and this is key--the Christian church has a bit of ambiguity in this area. There are tens of stories of Jesus of Nazareth providing health care, but there is no story about him getting paid for it. Whether his patients were rich or poor, not once do we have Jesus getting a check for his work...although a dinner and bed was probably thrown into the deal. If we were to draw conclusions about health care using Jesus of Nazareth as our guide we would be left with two:
1) it takes God to heal
2) it's free
Now, most health care folks would agree with #1 because they've seen that in action. The mystery of life amazes, and whether one posits a creator or not, it is amazing the even a simple paper cut heals on its own...

It's #2 (as usual) that is harder to pass...For some reason we believe health care should cost money like buying a chair or a socket wrench...My goal is to die before I have to use our health care system...and it is not because I do not "like" our health care system--but rather I wish to live as long as possible in whatever health I have. I can't eat foods I used to be able to eat, I cannot move as fast as I once did (which was never very fast anyhow), I ache more, and I need more rest. But healthy living at 50 is not the same as it was when I was 20. Health changes, just like everything else...

As a pastor I have seen lives extended and nurtured by health care, including my own children and wife, my own family and countless friends...and there is huge cost involved and I am blessed to be able to celebrate their lives...but we have another line in our scripture too: "What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose your soul?" Healthy living isn't always possible and for many they never had a chance...but I will say this whatever health they have, whatever living they have is as valuable as anything the health care system fixes, repairs, or palliates...healthy living isn't defined by your body in the Christian church-it's defined by your faith in God, your neighbor, and yourself...and that's why Jesus could heal for free...it was never about the money--it was always about God.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Welcome from Omaha

As a species, I believe humanity is the most adaptable creature God has made, and to prove a point, I am going to adapt to Omaha, NE as my new home for the next chapter of my life. Here are some things I believe will be different from my time in Bismarck, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, and any other place I've lived over the years.

New Heights of HUMIDITY (I did not say "humility", as some things never change!) Even though Chicago and Minneapolis could be humid, Omaha seems to relish in high humidity...this may slow me doooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooown aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa biiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Myb nt.

People. This will be new after 8 years in North Dakota. The greater Omaha area has almost exactly twice as any people as the entire state of North Dakota, keeping North Dakota still as the smallest city I have ever lived in. Fortunately, I like people, and now there are so many more choices....I am excited for all this new folks stuff.

Traffic. This comes with the people, but if I ever had to wait through 2 left turn lights in Bismarck I ran it...now, this is a regular occurrence in Omaha...the Camaro is sad.

Churches. My God (literally) there are a boatload of Christian churches in this town. God is very popular down here it seems. I hope this doesn't translate into a lot of work for me...working will ruin my retirement.

But God's continual looking out for me doesn't change no matter where I live. The freedom to live in Christ perdures thoughout time and space, and I trust in the Holy Spirit to get me through...as I sit in my air-conditioned car, watching all these people make left turns in front of me going to church...welcome to Omaha.

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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

For Sale: A Christian Lifestyle

The Crystal Catheral (home to Robert Schuller and the "Hour of Power" ministries) is going to be purchased soon, possibly by the Roman Catholic Church for the mere price of 52 million dollars and change. In my 20 years of ministry I haven't even come close to spending 2 million dollars for ministry, so the number is a bit off-putting for me. But I can say I am not surprised.

The Crystal Cathedral exemplies a type of ministry that no longer gets at what it means to be "Christian" in "America" anymore. Aynthing the CC and its ministries are about is part of an America that no longer exists. As Gibson Winter noted fifty(50!!!!) years ago, the suburban captivity of the Church probably cannot last. Mainly, as he noted, because the suburban American lifestyle cannot last. The Church that puts all its ministry eggs into the suburban basket is going to find itself in trouble, and the Crystal Cathedral and its problems are just the largest example of a change that has been happening over the past decade or so in suburban ministries across the country.

Prairie Table Ministries began because we knew the suburban lifestyle Christianity exemplified by the Crystal Cathedral wasn't working for us...based on programs, hierarchies of power, and a focus on self-help religion rather than incarnational Christianity was exactly the kinds of ministries we were not connecting to...so we started Prairie Table. We wanted to be about God, and have people we know journey with us...we wanted to be authentic, and not find ourselves compromised in faith in order to support a building or program...we wanted the love of God to influence how we behaved and believed, and we sought out ways to search scripture and ourselves for clues to that love...

It's precisely because of ministries like Prairie Table that the Crystal Cathedral no longer can sustain its ministries...but I read Gibson Winter 30 years ago, went to Chicago and studied under his students, and I've always believed he was right...so--unlike the folks at the Crystal Cathedral--I've had 30 years to get ready for its sale. And Prairie Table works--not because it's based on a Christian lifestyle---but because it trusts in God, and God alone.

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

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Sunday Morning Comin' Down

For most of my adult life Sunday mornings have been the most hectic days of the week...and I realize that is in stark contrast to many people, and certainly the people of TV and advertising for whom Sunday mornings are idyllic brunches, coffee, and a leisurely read newspaper. Not so for pastors...we're more like pro football players for whom Sunday mornings are preparations, final touches, reviews of plans before a game (worship service in pastors' cases) begins.

But I have just two Sundays left in Bismarck, and today a nice fog has rolled in...which means cooler weather which means Fall is coming which means hunting season in almost here. But this Sunday has a certain relaxedness to it even though I leave for church in a few minutes...Almost everything I own that I care about can fit into my new Camaro...I thought I would need a truck, but it turns out I don't...I don't care about enough stuff to fill a truck (and--yes--I have room in the car for my wife...geesh!!)

I cannot believe how much I've seen and learned about our God from the people up here in North Dakota...it has been a true blessing to meet people like Jay, Jean, Laura, and Laine who put me up eight years ago. People like Laurie, Tom, Erin, Beth, Monroe, Mark, Duane, Chris, Trisha, Tim, and all the others who made working so fun. People like Bruce L, Bob, Ron, and Bruce K, Jen, Josie, Amber, and Claire who kept me sane while the world spun out of control...countless parishioners and folks who made their lives available to me in hospitals, congregations, bars, restaurants, gas stations, stores, and wherever so I could see God at work in the world. All the folks like Jerry and Marla, Bob and Nancy, Steve and Max, Gary--even John, Jim, Marci, Evelyn, Ron and Darlene, Bob and Joanne, Marv and Lois, Bev, Con and Gen, the sisters and their families, Shirley and Mike, Jerry and Char, Dick and Marilyn who supported me in prayer and money over the years. Amazing to see God in action through them.

There are way too many people to name them all, and I am sure some will be forgotten, and I hope many can be remembered. Well...it's almost time for church...although we've been doing thatever since I landed in this town...thanks to everyone.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Freedom from the cross...for the world

Continuing my never-ending saga of transition from Bismarck to Omaha, I had an interesting conversation with one of my movers (the folks who move our stuff). Turns out he lives in Omaha...turns out he grew up in Omaha...turns out it's too hot for him in Omaha, so he wants to move to Colorado or something to go fishing...turns out he gave me the history of Omaha in the 20 minutes we wandered around going through stuff to be moved.

Now this is not your official Omaha history. This is the history that comes from living within its circle for 35 years. History that comes with a son, history that comes from parents, history that comes from hard work, sweat, and the determination to do things right.

And this kind of history needs a cross of Christ to make sense...it's not going to be all the glitz and glamour, the wealth and stuff you hear about from the Chamber of Commerce...no--this history is built on the backs of folks taking things step-by-step with suffering and toil as your companion for most of the years.

So isn't it good to know there's a God who not only understands suffering and loss, but in the resurrection of Jesus gives the world a way to see that death is not the end of a relationship with God? From the cross we receive a freedom to live...in, with, under, and for the world (and even against it sometimes.)

My opinion of Omaha didn't change much because I assumed such stories were there...I just didn't think I'd received confirmation of those assumptions while I was still in Bismarck.

The driver saw the booze we have sitting out (it can't be packed) and must be consumed by folks in Bismarck (strange but I have lots of volunteers for that project???), and he said, I want to go to your wife's church. He knows where it is... he said, and I said he and his son could always sit with me. After all, it's almost my first time there too.

I meant the church, I said...because we've both been to the cross a few times. Yeah, he nodded, that's for sure.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On beginning again...

You would think at my age I wouldn't be starting all over again.

At least this was somewhat my choice, as Chris and I contemplated our future a couple of years ago, and realized starting over wouldn't be the worst thing...I feel badly for those my age who have to start over because their job has been downsized, or they have lost a life partner, or some other unforseen accident of life.

So it's on to meeting new people, and as leaders of communities this is easier for people like me and Chris than it is for others who find themselves plopped into the middle of a new city, a new world--and wonder who to trust or turn to?

I really wish I was better at staying in contact with people whom I've known over the years. My track record is not good for most I know. I don't know what it is...I get so caught up in living right now that I forget about my past (until I remember something for a sermon!). I am always pushing towards a future...and I guess I'm starting to realize there isn't as much future as there used to be when I was younger.

In theology we used to note the difference between those for whom the future was important to their understanding of God, and those for whom God is now became the dominant force. I am a theologian--and person as well--for whom the future has always been vitally important. Not because I didn't like today or care about today, but exactly the opposite.

Because I am having so much fun right now, because I enjoy my life a lot (even though the past eight months have not been my most fun separated from my wife), I can't wait to see what's going to happen next!! There is still so much I want to see--San Sebastian and Ireland--another Broadway play--Christmas Eve worship at St. John the Divine--I'd like to try and meet the Pope (don't ask...but suffice it to say that we probably don't agree)--I want to see my kids continue to travel these roads of life--I love hearing about my former youth group kids being parents, about former interns who are leading with the composure and skill I saw in their younger days--about students who are doing great things for God's church--all this makes me very happy.

So why not start over again? Some friends never get this, as that is not their goal in life--some are jealous that I get a reboot every seven to nine years--but most know that as my friend you are always part of my life. I remember you all, and I pray for you all, even if you haven't talked to me in decades. Because the unity we share in God is eternal--and we might not be together, but we are united in God's love-and that's why I can start over--because that love grounds me no matter where I am or who is with me--that love is all I need...well, that--and a great partner, wonderful friends, and a fast car.

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

Monday, August 1, 2011

Only two weeks left...

Two weeks from now I will be driving the Camaro down the road to be re-united with my wife of 23 years. We have lived apart for the past eight months...and I have not enjoyed it much.

We are one of those couples that rarely spend much time apart. Her friends are my friends and vice versa...except when I am traveling (and I do a lot of that) we are together. We often have lunch together...we work out together...we sleep together...(although she usually goes to bed about 3 am, and I get up at 5 am, so that is not very impressive.) I was legitimately curious how I would handle these last eight months of us being apart. I knew I could survive, but could I survive well????

As this blog may be read by younger folks, let us just say, in the words of Sam Cooke, "there were times I thought I wouldn't last for long...," but I am still here. God sent me some excellent people over the past 8 months to help me through, and some of them I owe my very life to no doubt. Long-time friends called and checked up on me, parishioners encouraged and supported me, new friends pulled me out of new troubles, and all the way down the line to today...where in two weeks this separation will be over.

I know many people (like our service men and women) find themselves separated from their lovers as well...and unlike me, there is way less certainty that they will be re-united. I don't know how they do it. It is a testament to God's spirit that we survive the alienation, the separation, the loss, the destruction of relationships that nurture us and help us grow. I think that's what the Psalmist meant when she sang we are created a "little lower than angels." Sometimes, there's just too much pain to live in heaven.

If you have loved ones somewhere away from you...I know how heavy the heart can weigh...and if you have a loved one near...I know how free the heart can play...

Paul wrote centuries ago that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord...not even, I discovered over the past 8 months, "separation." Thank God, he was right.

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


PS: Thoughts from the Prairie Table will continue on as a blog of theological discernment for me...just on the southern edge of the prairie rather than the northern edge where I am now in Bismarck. I look forward to starting over in Omaha, and seeing what God has in store for me. To finish Sam's line, "because now I know I can carry on...it's been a long time coming...but change is gonna come."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Having a party

The other day as I pulled up into my usual parking area at my regular hangout, one of the newer cooks was taking a cigarette break. As I got out of my car he nodded towards it, "Nice," he said. I nodded thanks and asked him his name (after all, it seems like a good idea to be on a first name basis with the guy who will cook most of your food)? He told me, and then asked if I was the owner of his new place of employment? No, I said. "Oh," he mused,"you just like to party." I laughed and we walked in together as new friends.

I do like to party. Now, I am not of the celebrity party status, but there is nothing better than a good old fashioned party, and I believe congregations should be known as party houses as much as anything. Parties that are available to everyone and free are about the greatest witness to the love of God I know.

When did church lose its identity as a party place? Why are we so serious about stuff all the time? Why don't we relax at church, unwind, have a few beers or whatever and share in life? Why isn't that known as church? We've lost a lot of our understanding of a God who is life when we refuse to let life into our churches and congregations.

Every now and then a well-intentioned person will tell me a church has to be "run like a business." Why? Why can't a church be run like a party? Why does a church have to have a budget or balanced books or marketing schemes? Why can't a church just have some attendants, some cooks, some stewards, a few musicians and storytellers and call it a day?

Parties raise money (ask any organization that does banquets as fundraisers or any high school graduate), so I am not thinking we lose much if we shift our congregational identity to a party house from a boring house of serious folk.

Now, of course, if you are a regular participant in the life of a local congregation you already think of your place as a party house. You have dinners, potlucks, coffee and cookies after worship, all kinds of celebrations...but the people I meet--like my cook--don't think of it that way. Why not?

Why do people think of church as boring, serious, and staid when the people in it generally have fun (or try to have fun?) Other than the booze (and up here at least all parties have booze it seems...there is something interesting about that for another blog) why don't parties at your local church generate the same raves as a band at your local bar? Why isn't worshiping God as exciting as listening to music in a dark room. (We don't allow smoking indoors here anymore, so, there are no "smoke-filled blues clubs" up here.) How come when Christians celebrate the God of Christ Jesus whose death and resurrection in the power of the Spirit brings freedom and life to all who encounter it, people think we are boring? Or, at least, that we don't know how to "party?"

We have a real image problem folks...because no one ever chastised Jesus for being "too serious." In fact, they thought he partied too much...

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

Monday, July 25, 2011

Near the end

Within three weeks I will no longer be a permanent resident of Bismarck, ND. It is strange to reflect on the past eight years that I have been up here. In some ways it seems so long ago, but yet; in other ways, it was almost yesterday. tempus fugit.

I've met so many people up here I've since lost count...and I'm still meeting more every day. Just the other day a person I've come to know only over the past couple of months when hearing I am leaving for Omaha said, "But I just got to meet you!" A gentle man, and one I will probably remember for a long time.

I started out here living in the basement of one of my parishioners (don't feel bad, it was a really big, well decorated basement with my own big screen TV!) I got a nice house--recently sold it to a nice young couple--and now I'm living out of the Camaro for a few days. Time circles famously...

So what will I remember from these past 8 years? The wind for sure. The patience of most of the people...it's almost legendary in some cases. The laughter, and the way so many people worked positive ministry with me. God has shown me some of the best people I have EVER met up here in North Dakota...I have been blessed.

Our dog Minnie died last winter, and with Maddy graduated I am left alone up here to tidy up some loose before I rejoin Chris in Omaha. And the blog will continue...my table's just moving about 600 miles south on the prairie...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Religious prejudice in the USA

Because I am a known Christian (one of the characteristics of being a pastor), I get to experience religious "prejudice" every now and then. What I mean by "prejudice" is that people pre-judge me based on what they think they know about my religion. Some people, for example, think anyone who believes in God is an idiot. When they find out I am a Christian they therefore think I am an idiot--based solely on the fact that I believe in God, not whether they think I am an actual idiot or not. (Although I probably am an idiot, I prefer to think of myself as a "fool.")

So these people then hold me to certain beliefs I don't have because they know other Christians (sometimes only characterizations of Christians) that hold those beliefs. A classic case is "free will." I don't believe humans have free will, and if we do, we always choose wrong anyhow, so what's the sense in calling it "free?" I do not mind being lumped in with all the Christians of the world, past and present, there is as much good as bad to it, and I do believe in God's love for the world through the power of the Holy Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. I can't choose my relatives! But I don't necessarily believe everything my relatives believe.

Sometimes the prejudice (pre-judging) works the other way too. Sometimes people believe things about me positively without looking at me. So people assume I am honest, trustworthy, patient, faithful, and all other kinds of noble stuff when I am never that...Most of the time I don't know what I am doing, and what I am doing I do because it seems fun or interesting, but I am not trying to behave my way into heaven.

One of my favorite professors years ago once said he was no more prejudiced, biased, racist, or sexist than anyone, and that we all are those things at some level. I think that's still true...so I try to keep my prejudging to a minimum, and try not to worry too much about my failures in being the "perfect" Christian in someone else's mind...I'll try to love God, and I'll look for my neighbor to be better, richer, stronger, and healthier than me...that's just the kind of Christian I am.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence and being Exceptional

Well, it's the Fourth of July and time for my annual blog on politics--theologically considered. (This is different from what politicians do who give us theology-politically considered.)

So the United States of America is "exceptional." And I suppose from some historical perspective that is true, as there is a lot that is from the USA that is rather exceptional. But how much difference does it make for our freedom today? On the one hand, you are still guaranteed freedoms in this country you can get in few places. To gather with people for religious reasons, to write and speak publicly, and to be able to participate in government with only limited restrictions. And granted, in most cases, these freedoms exist only in ideas; although, if you look at the trajectory of the leader of this "exceptionalism" stuff, one Ms. Sarah Palin, you can see that she did not start out very high on the political tree. She grew and morphed her way to the characterization of politician that she is now, but she was never the wealthiest or the smartest person in the room...but she believes so now-- "Exceptionalism" at its best.

But most people want to say the USA is exceptional for more than just being the breeding grounds for people like Sarah Palin, and that is where things get interesting. Because in order to do that you have to argue that the USA is not like any other empire has, is, or ever will be...and that argument gets tougher and tougher to make each day. We have a horrible war in our past, slavery and segregation, dimissal of women and their rights over their bodies, rapacious greed of land and natural resources (remember the buffalo?), and the list could go on...And there is also no doubt that we have exceptional people still making lemonade from our collective lemons (look at the buffalo--if you've ever seen one alive in its native ecosystem know that 100 years nobody thought you would! Somebody did something right somewhare.) And it's precisely the exceptional people that make the USA "exceptional."

This is rather akin to what Jesus of Nazareth used to say about his Jewish faith. Even though "salvation comes from the Jews" (exceptionalism par excellence), Jesus understood that is was only individual men and women (and as it turned out mostly women) who would bear that burden. When salvation happens it doesn't come from some Jewish "center of faith", but rather from the love and grace of a Jewish man or a Jewish woman...and, since Jesus of Nazareth's resurrection, from the love and grace of a Christian man or woman.

You have heard me argue on this blog for the past three years about the importance of community--and in a world where the individual stomps on the community, I will always issue that clarion call of collective living together in God's world. However, we must remember the pendulum will swing the other way, and the tromping of individual gifts and talents for the security of the community can never be tolerated, else what was the cross of JESUS for?

It is a balance, and that is why one day out of 365 I give thanks to God for being individual and being exceptional (warts and all)--just like you are, gentle reader. Happy Independence Day!

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fast cars and faster times

One of the more unique things about aging is that time seems to speed by exponentially. I have heard 22 years olds recently exclaim to me that time seems to "fly by" when what they are considering seems to me to be just seconds ago...

St. Augustine famously noted that he knew what time was except when someone asked him to explain it, and Western philosophy has been on an eternal search it seems to somehow explain "time and eternity." My answer to this problem of time, and especially of its speeding up the older we get? I bought a fast car.

My reasoning is such...the faster I drive between two points means I save some "time." This time is therefore spent doing other things than driving between two points (and since I do a lot of driving this is quite a "time-saver.")Slow cars=less time to do other things: fast cars=just plain fun!!

Because as even these 22 year olds know, time is the ultimate chimera. It only has value if you are living the life you love or the life you were called to live by God. A five minute life in the care of God seems much more interesting to me than an 85 year old life lived amidst the confusion of this world...(I am not advocating a shorter or a longer life, but rather that every life--short AND long--should be measured by its God relationship in the world)

So time literally rolls along and takes us with it...like the mighty Missouri that is ravaging homes and banks along my town, time has few cares for those who ride it. You can use fast cars, vacuum cleaners, microwave food to save all the time you want...but it's how the saved time is used that matters to the world...and it would seem, to God. It's not the length of time of Jesus' life that matters, but rather how he used that time to show us how to be human and not try to be God that brings his time to us.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I heard there was a secret chord...

Somewhere deep in the recesses of my soul lies a "God spark." I am not sure what it is, not even sure if it's important, but over the years when it has appeared to my consciousness I have heeded its illuminations.

I don't get these crazy, "END OF THE WORLD IS COMING!" type illuminations; rather, mine are more mundane. "Oh, that is what my wife meant!" Or, "maybe this is what is bothering my daughter?" Sometimes I get a vision of a person, someone I know, and within minutes, if not hours, they are calling me...sometimes after years of non-contact.

When I take the Myers-Briggs personality test they call me "Intuitive." My doctoral advisor, also of the intuitive bent, once remarked that "Scott, no one ever accuses us of actually seeing trees in the forest." True that.

I first realized this eschatology (a deep, Pannenbergian theological joke there) back when I was a kid. When playing sports it was like the whole field or diamond was laid out on graph paper, and I knew where each person was going to be. I played defensive tackle for a awhile in Jr. High football, and I was the slowest runner on the team...but I made a lot of tackles. My coach once asked me how I ever made a tackle since I was so slow? "I know where he's going," I said. My coach benched me for being a wiseass...but it was true...since I knew where he was going, I just got there before he did and made the tackle.

As a professional theologian, and coming out a a tradition where such Spirit-driven ideas like "God spark" are received skeptically--Luther once said of a group of Spiritualists they had swallowed the Holy Spirit "feathers and all"--I never use these divine illuminations in my theological work. My ministry, yes; but theology, no.

But if you've heard the secret chord of which Leonard Cohen sings...well, I don't have to tell you how that goes do I? If you haven't heard it...well, that's why there's stories from the Bible, sermons from me, and songs from Leonard Cohen.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Flood of Biblical Proportions

They tell me the Missouri River hasn't been like this since the Garrison Dam was finished in 1952 (or was it 1953?). There is a lot of water. Which got me to thinking about Noah...

Now more than a few of you probably know the story of Noah. He was a man whom God entrusted to save creatures from the devastation of a flood God was going to send to end humanity as we know it. There are a few variations of this story, but the result from the Jewish tradition is that God sent a rainbow after the flood was over as a way to promise God's love to the survivors...and--ostensibly--not send another flood. There aren't many rainbows around here Kermit!

The flood and all the work that goes into battling water is now approaching its third week, and people are saying that it will be like this until August. Some people are wondering if the river will ever return to what it was a month ago. People are tired, and even now a few are wondering if some lifetyle changes are in order...there are a few who haven't left the flood zone, and probably will return the minute the National Guard lets them!

What to say about all this? How about something like the God that creates the river is the same God that redeems the people whose homes are washing away? How about that we live in a world where our relationship with God is not dependent upon the good and bad that happens (or even that we may or may not do), but rather is dependent upon the love we share with God, ourselves, and with each other? Jesus Christ is not a judge of good and evil--he is beyond good and evil--he is a judge of love, of character, or compassion, a judge of hope, a judge of peace, a judge of sharing...

Natural "disasters" are never about good and evil, right and wrong, or other such moral and ethical dichotomies--they are about love...which is why we help sandbag, move furniture and pictures to higher ground, and sell our trailers to friends in need at 25 cents on the dollar...there is the love even in a flood of biblical proportions.

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

Monday, May 30, 2011

If Love wins, now what? A Final Thought

For someone like me knowing (and knowing is more than just an intellectual assent) that God's love wins in the end provides the only reason to do the stuff God invites me to do in the world.

I mean, if it were up to me I would spend all my time driving around in fast cars, hanging out with friends examining the trivia of life, and constantly be in search of the next good time. I wouldn't help friends who are threatened by natural disasters, much less strangers...I wouldn't care that children in this world go hungry...I wouldn't be bothered that people who make money want to see people who don't put into jails and slavery...but God's love wins...

And that changes everything. For one, it means that I don't have to fear the future as much, and for me that means I can spend time taking care of this planet. (I believe one of the reason we abuse the planet is because we fear the future, and so we want to get all we can out of this planet while we can). I joined a conservation organization (the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation) when I realized God loves this planet too...

Because God's love wins out in the end I don't have to fear strangers, and I can trust my friends...because even should a stranger or a friend abuse that trust, God's love still makes the betrayal into something of value. So I can make some sandbags for folks I don't know...I can donate money to places of need...I can offer my home to those who need a bed...and should my body, should my money, should my home be taken advantage of--well, there is always God's love to carry me onto the next day.

It is true that I drive a fast car (a really fast one these days)...it is also true that I hang out with friends and examine the trivia of life...and my beautiful wife and I are always in search of a good time...but they are encompassed in the eternal reach of God's outstretched arms of love though Jesus the Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit...because to say God's love wins is to say God wins...the one in whom we live not only for ourselves but for each other.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, May 23, 2011

If Love Wins, now what? Part III

God's love wins through the power of the Spirit in the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ...now what? With worries about our future, and especially our future with the Divine power that moves in and through the universe, taken care of in a promise to be loved forever...now what? In a world where love peeks through, even amidst the darkest of personal or corporate tragedy, and where human capacity for love stretches to the ends of the earth...now what? Now that we have seen this love in action even through death on a cross...now what?

How about something like this?

Early in my ministry I was walking through the tunnels that connected the various buildings and parking ramps of the University of Minnesota hospital system. It was 1994, and my world was going well. I had a wonderful wife and two lovely, growing children, and I was really getting into the routine of being a parish pastor. I had friends that I could celebrate and share with, and as the song went a "future so bright I had to wear shades." And then I saw him...

Walking towards me down this tunnel was a very skinny man in a hospital gown flapping along with him. Even from a distance I could see he was very unkept, and his hair was sticking out all over the place. He was tugging a portable oxygen container behind him with the tubes connected to his nose, and his pace was very slow, almost as if he didn't want to move at all. Oh, and he was smoking.

When you are in a tunnel that is 10 feet wide and 8 feet tall you do not want to see somebody who has an open oxygen container smoking a cigarette. Something about an explosion in a confined space just seemed to not be the way I want to meet my maker. And it would put an end to my great life. So I stopped to talk to him.

I introduced myself as a pastor going to visit one of the patients, and asked him how he was doing? He introduced himself as Alan, and said "not good." Tell me about I said. Oh, and the smoke itches my nose.

"Sorry," he muttered in a weak voice, and stubbed it out on the greenish tile floor.

Why aren't you good Alan?

"Well, I have AIDS. They say I am going to die soon." At this point I felt bad for making him put out his cigarette, but now I found myself in a conversation with the first person I ever met who has this disease(or at least that I knew of, as not everybody was forthcoming with that information in those days). Over the next ten minutes or so he proceeeded to relate to me how everyone in his life had abandoned him over the past few years, family, friends, even his lover was gone, although he had died of AIDS just a couple of months prior.

Now it is common for me to pray with someone at the end of our time together, and often times I will hold their hand. But as I was thinking about offering to pray I had a thought? What if I get AIDS? Now, I didn't know much about the disease at the time except that if you got it, you were going to die, and looking at Alan it did not seem like the most dignified way to go. And--I didn't want to die. But standing there looking at this agonized human, completely alone, I remembered God loves me. And I remembered in the cross branded on my heart that even when I die God loves me, just like God loves everybody, just like God loves Alan. So, I reached out, grabbed his hand, and asked if I could pray?

He joined me at the Amen, and left his hand in mine. He stared me down before letting go. "Thank you," he said, "I've forgotten what it's like to be touched." He reached into the pocket of his gown for another cigarette and his lighter. As I was walking away I could smell him light it...and I was completely fine with that.

Good thing God's love wins, yes?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There's a lot to be said for being me--or, in your case, you

I read quite a few theology blogs over the course of a week. Most are from people such as me, your regular, everyday run-of-the-mill Church or religious leader who wants a place to write. We blog about important stuff, and sometimes I read pretty impressive thoughts and ideas. I hear the strains of the gospel amidst everything from the mundane to the sublime. And I read the stuff too by the well-known folks...and here is where it gets interesting.

According to "Blogger" about 47 people read "Thoughts from the Prairie Table" every week. I once had a post that 63 people read, but I'm not sure why that was one you all chose...(It is entitled "Kitchen Drama.") Since I figure I must know most of you, I use this as a way to be "me." That is, I don't say much that I wouldn't say to your face, or say what I want to be preached or taught by me. Every now and then a new person reads a blog (my favorite was a guy from New Zealand), but almost always I know him or her as well.

This colors my writing in these blogs because, short of swearing (which is the biggest difference between my speaking and my writing), I figure if you tolerate me in person, you'll probably tolerate me in print. Now, my writing may be obscure, difficult, and bad, but through the "comments" I can try to clarify a question or two...some posts are irredeemable (and we'll just not talk about those). But we're all pretty much friends here, and because you 47 are spread out over 40 years, you're all friends of mine...which is enough to make you friends with each other, even if you don't know anyone else but me. Right?

But when I read these more famous folks, well, their readers are legion, and there is no indication that there is a friendship between the author and the reader. So, there is a lot more contentious debate, vitriol, support, encouragement, and all the other stuff that strangers argue about on-line, and in the 3D world we all live in together.

Reading people's comments as stranger-to-stranger is difficult for me because I don't want to argue, but some people are just not correct...but how do you tell a stranger you cannot agree? It's only as friends that our conversations amidst our differences can make a difference. It's only when I'm me and you're you that our conversations hold forth the promised peace and righteousness of God for us all. Two strangers tossing platitudes back-and-forth on the internet is not life-changing for anyone.

Nietzsche--and you're really an long-time friend if you remember that Nietzsche is my favorite philosopher--once wrote that "it is not courage to have convictions--but to stand an attack upon your convictions!" Most of what I read on the internet shows a lot of courage (maybe, maybe not, as the anonyminity piece might be a huge variable to the Nietzsche quote), but for all the "courage" I would like to read more friends...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, May 16, 2011

If Love wins, now what? Part II

(During the upcoming month I will also be blogging for Darkwoodbrew a "renegade exploration of the Christian faith." You can find other great blogs and worship experiences at Darkwoodbrew.org. Please click over there to check it out.)

This week we look at how God's love wins for us. One big question we have to answer is the question of time and eternity. Time is like 2011, or tomorrow, or even a decade. Eternity is--well--forever. Usually we think of time as part of eternity, but it is not all of time (which is eternity.) Got it? Good.

One of the most memorable SNL skits is when Simon and Garfunkel have to spend eternity in an elevator listening to the Muzak versions of their songs. This is hell for them. In fact, most of the time we consider an eternity of what we hate/fear the most as our defintion of "hell." Hell in this sense is whatever we fear or hate to the point that if we had to do it forever and ever and ever would be the absolutely worst thing to imagine. So, if your biggest fear, as for many of the folks who wrote the Bible, is to be apart from God--then, "hell" is time forever apart from God.

And Jesus, at least according to Paul in the book of Philippians, doesn't want it this way. Listen to what Jesus does in the famous "Christ Hymn" of Philippians 2:
First, "he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited," that is, Jesus did not want to take advantage of his being God, so he "emptied himself." He gave up being God for being "born in human likeness...and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross." So, Jesus, although he is God (and presumably immortal), he takes on dying. Now listen to what happens.

God, instead of getting angry with Jesus for going on and dying (and therefore NOT being a very good god--what's the point of being God if you're going to die?), but God "exalted him" (raised him up) and gave him the name "above every name." God's love, we argue, raises Jesus from the dead, and brings Jesus back to God. God's love is God's "Yes" to the negation that is the death on the cross suffered by Jesus. As we "confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" we too have death answered for us. Death has no power over Jesus, and in our confession no power over us, so that even though we die we live forever in eternity with God and Jesus as our Lord. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, and our confession of it, we die in time, but we live forever in eternity. (Other Bible writers say we are to "believe" in Jesus...so choose the one--confess or believe--that you undertand best.)

Now, because of what Jesus did, and God's response to it, you and I don't have to worry about eternity (we live forever, even when we die.) We are free. What you do on earth has nothing to do with what Jesus did for eternity. Some people worry about this, because they think that what we do here on earth doesn't matter. They are wrong. What we do on earth here is part of eternity, so, be careful how you act on earth because it might be how you act forever. But it might not...

Because now that you can do whatever you want in time because eternity is taken care of, what are you going to do? Are you going to act in rapacious, self-centered, greedy ways? Or, are you going to live in hope, peace, and cooperation? Now that you don't have to worry about eternity, how are you going to live today? Or, as Paul says at the end of the Christ hymn, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, because God is at work in you." Paul understands it's scary to be living these days, but he also understands that Jesus got eternity handled, and for Paul that means God's love wins, and we had absolutely nothing to do with it--yet, in our confession and believing Jesus is Lord that eternal love is our gift. Amazing, but true,

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, May 9, 2011

If Love wins, now what?

(During the upcoming month I will also be blogging for Darkwoodbrew a "renegade exploration of the Christian faith." You can find other great blogs and worship experiences at Darkwoodbrew.org. Please click over there to check it out.)


This series by the folks at Countryside Community Church, Omaha, NE, and part of their Darkwoodbrew exploration of Christian faith, comes about because one Rob Bell, a serious and important Christian leader (Google him), has got himself into some hot water for suggesting that God's love is the most important thing in the world. And although most Christian do not doubt this--he seems to suggest that maybe, if love wins, no one will go to hell. A few Christians (alright, probably most) do not believe that. So Pastor Bell finds himself in the midst of a maelstorm of discontent for daring to believe "love wins."

What I want to do over the next four weeks is develop an extended argument that takes seriously the title of this series "If love wins, now what?" I propose to break out my thoughts this way.
May 9: look at the word "if" and what that says about God and humanity
May 16: look at God's love, and why it wins
May 23: look at what we are freed to do because God's love wins
May 30: Why love is not what wins, but God who is love is the ultimate
If we can accomplish a bit each week, I hope we can begin to see how important God's love is, and what we do as people who "live and move and have our being" in that love of God. I don't know how renegade it will be, but I hope it proves fruitful for your faith journey.

I think it is imperative to realize what we are talking about with this word "love." Here is a key verse from the Bible:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love."
1 John 4.7-8

For the writer of this verse, this love is proven in Jesus as God's only son sent into the world so we might live. But here is a thing I find interesting about these verses.

God is love, but "love" is not God. In other words, we worship God not love. What amuses me at weddings sometimes is how the couple thinks the ceremony is about "love." Their relationship may be loving, they may even be in love with each other, but the point of the marriage, the relationship between the couple--is not "love," but rather God. They are together because they are part of God's world and God's understanding of how life is meant to be shared and lived with others, and it is God--not love--that creates the relationship.

So "if" love wins, it is only because God wins. And this is what makes hell such a problematic belief--the doctrine of hell basically asserts there is something more powerful than God. That is, something is stronger than God's desire to love, and when God's love encounters that force (usually rendered as some form of human recalcitrance), God's love loses. For the writer of 1 John and for myself, there is nothing more powerful than God's desire to love, and not even human stubbornness can overcome this desire. (If human stubbornness could defeat God's desire, that would make humanity more powerful than God, and therefore, why would we need God? People who believe in hell basically are disobeying the first commandment to put God above all things. They place the human will to disobey above God's desire to love.)

If you believe God is all-powerful, and you believe God is love, well, you are left with the conclusion that "love (that is God's love) wins." I know that people will say that God is love, but that God chooses--because of free will--to let people go to hell. That might be true, but that makes God a god of "free-will," and that's not what John said God is about. God is about love, not free-will. Free will is just another way to put human capacity in front of God's desire to love. Therefore, once again, it would not be God's love that wins, but rather the human capacity to choose (free will) that wins.

If God's love wins then we are under God's love, and we have to surrender much, including our ideas about hell, our own free will, and there is even more--but I won't make you any more depressed--because remember this: God made humanity just a little under angels, and there is nothing better in the whole universe than to be in the love of God, because, as John mentioned, that puts you in the love of neighbors, and that means, no matter how bad it gets...you're never alone.

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

Monday, May 2, 2011

On the Death of a terrorist...

They tell me the greatest terrorist is dead, and I am relieved. I must admit, even as the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I never thought about him much. I don't even think about terrorism much...although every now and then in an airport I am reminded of its presence in our world...but even if terrorism never occurs to me, I am relieved that this chapter of USA history is over, and now the healing has begun.

People often ask me how I can be relieved at the death (in all probablity more like murder) of someone? Well, it depends on how you think about that death...if you think about it in terms of a person, a human struggling to control life even to the point of killing people...well, even his death carries ramifications. But what about the protection of those who will not die because he is no longer facilitating death? What about the lives saved because a terrorist can no longer kill? What about the places no longer under terrorism--at least from this source? Should we not rejoice that more won't die because of this one who was an instrument of death?

Coming on the heels of Good Friday, where the death of our "terrorist" of the day was crucified, there were no doubt people who rejoiced because Jesus of Nazareth would no longer be able to spread his poison to the people. Death is death, whether an itinerant Jewish prophet or a radical political terrorist. But Easter is easter...

And the itinerant Jewish prophet did not stay dead--not because he was so special--but because God didn't want him dead--God wanted him alive, and resurrected him from death to the right hand of God to be alive forever. And it is at his name that life is for all of us...and as for the dead terrorist, I am not sure he knows more now than he did a few days ago...but I am sure that those of us who are still around are to keep living...otherwise, what's the point of being alive?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Doubt and Christian faith

A young man rushed up to me the other night during my dinner and asked to see me outside. Putting down my fork, I looked at my friends who all nodded assent. (I would love to say this is uncommon in my life, but it happens quite a bit...and my friends are very accommodating.) So as I gathered with him under the portico of the diner's door, he looked at me and said "I am going to die."

Now, such a statement is true for all of us (sorry to break the bad news!)He seemed to think, however, that his was a lot more imminent than mine. (I have a deal with God--until the Minnesota Vikings win a Super Bowl I cannot die. It is my deal for immortality.)I asked how he knew his death was coming on so soon? "I don't think I believe Jesus rose from the dead!" When you don't "think" that you "believe" you are in some serious linguistic trouble. So you doubt your relationship with God, I asked?

Oh no, he said, I am just not sure Jesus rose...hey, does this mean I don't believe in God now too? (I love this stuff.)

How are the two beliefs related? I mean, do you only believe in God because Jesus rose from the dead?

I...I...I...don't know, he replied back. I guess not, when I think about it. (Which goes to show we should always think about the things we think about. It makes us sound smarter at least.)

Exactly. Most people's belief in God--I guess- doesn't really hinge upon Jesus' resurrection, even if there are a whole bunch of preachers and folks who want us to believe that. So it seems to me that the resurrection of Jesus has to be about something other than your belief in God. Do you believe in the resurrection because you don't want to die?

By now the young man was sitting on the bench with the evening's drizzle falling on his sweater. Yeah...that's why I thought I believed it.

But, now you realize you're going to die anyway? I paused a bit. Good thing you still believe in God.

He looked up at me, and those creases of doubt were morphing into a smile of comprehension. (This is a teacher's greatest moment--hands down.)Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, he said to no one in particular. So the resurrection keeps my life going with God?

Yeah, I sighed. Pretty nice of God, huh?

He stared out into the parking lot for a few seconds. Why would God do that, he mused, as he contemplated the Easter rain?

Careful, I said, keep asking questions like that, and pretty soon you'll be a Christian. How about we go back to dinner?

As he led me into the restaurant I went back to my friends. Who was that, Bruce asked? I don't know, I said, I can't remember his name.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

When I Survey that wondrous cross

My college roommate once remarked that he couldn't think of Jesus on the cross without coming to tears at such incredible suffering. The fate of Jesus, suffocating on the cross as he did, is indeed a gruesome way to die. And if you add to that death its importance in the relationship drama between God and humanity...well, you have a passion that is almost too much to bear.

A few years ago when Mel Gibson came out with his movie "The Passion of Christ" we saw in graphic detail what Jesus may have experienced. From the earliest recorders of Jesus story we have some words (traditionally seven phrases) that Jesus uttered from the cross. All of them were some version of prayer or hope that the world would be a better place. 2000 years after his death I wonder how much better it is?

Do we love God more now than then?
Are we respectful and nicer to our neighbors and strangers than they were then?
Do we care about our parents and friends more than they did then?
Is now a more tolerant and loving time than it was then?
Are we more patient with people now than they were then?
Would we still put Jesus up on the cross if we got the chance?

The cross, like our baptism, is a daily reminder of the struggle life is. It has never been easy to live, never been a carefree happy time like the TV commercials seem to make life out to be...We have needed a cross eternally, and at least since Jesus' death, we have one...and here is the interesting thing about that cross. It is now empty...just like the tomb where his dead body lay. Maybe, just maybe, we too have an empty cross and tomb in our future?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Holiest of Weeks

When you're a mission developer, as opposed to a residential pastor in an established congregation, religious holidays are often weeks of less work, not more. This makes sense in one way, because as a mission developer I spend most of my time with people who are not Christian, or at least people not encumbered with Christian religious traditions, so any religious "holy-day" is for them--at best--a secular holiday.

As a mission developer no one asks me what kind of palms we have on Palm Sunday, what the worship "plan" is for Good Friday, or even who is going to be the volunteer to get their feet washed this year on Maundy Thursday. Rather, people are just going about their week, and they know they have some kind of family obligation on Sunday, but they hope it won't take too long because "I have so much to do before Monday." So for many of the people I deal with, Easter is a time to be with family for awhile before the regular pace of life creeps back in. The kids, of course, will find this a time of chocolate at grandma's house...but other than...not much to this holy week stuff.

Now, back when I was a residential pastor in an established congregation, this holy week stuff was crazy fun. Worship on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Big celebrations on Easter Sunday were being rehearsed and fine-tuned. We had special Bible studies, fasts from food, and times of prayer and spiritual direction. It seems like we saved up all our religiosity for the entire year to be spent on this one week. (One Monday after Easter, I actually admitted myself into a ministry mental health clinic...after I spent 24 hours immobilized from stress.)

The stress of Holy Week is way less as a mission developer, but I wonder...
if there is something to the idea that love is our mandate
if there is something to washing the feet of another in a world of shoes
if there is something in the purple that stands for the royalty of Christ
if there is something in the barrenness of an altar that is now a tomb
if there is something in the old, rugged cross
if we miss out on hearing "Father, forgive them, they don't have a clue."
if bury ourselves if we forget the darkness of Friday is God's promise to live
if we never hear of a God whose love is so deep, so wide, so free...
What might we have lost?

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

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Day of Beauty

Today was the first nice day of 2011 up here on the prairie. We had lots of sunshine and the temp almost reached 70 degrees. It is the kind of day that begs to have you come out and play. And the people of Bismarck responded. Even the prairie dogs my daughter and I kicked up at Double Ditch seemed grateful that the long December was over.

But a day this beautiful has one drawback: like pro athletes and pretty girls-it never hears the truth. Days like today bask in their warmth and sunshine, the soft breeze whispered sweet nothings all day, and everybody just sort of let it ride. Why not? There aren't that many days like this-why remind us it's still early April? Why be a downer on a beautiful day? Enjoy it and let the good days roll.

So we do. We ignore the forecast for snow on Friday. The inevitable hail that is just around the corner. Even the really hot and humid days of August can be brushed aside by such a beautiful day like today. Beauty can do that-distract you from the ordinariness of everything.

I know that is why I like beautiful things and beautiful people. I remember Dostoyevsky had the Father of the Karamozov brothers remark that he tried to find the beautiful in every woman he meets. I have always taken that to try and find the beautiful- a metaphor for God's creative power- in everything and everyone I encounter. There is no such thing as an ugly flower, an ugly tree, or an ugly woman in my world. It's all beautiful...which makes a day like today seem like a little bit of heaven.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Teams vs. Stars

If you are like me, and have only a casual interest in college basketball until the time for the NCAA Basketball Tournament (March Madness), it is quite fun to pick which teams will win versus which stars will shine. Let me explain my theory: There are two types of successful college basketball teams (this only applies to college hoops), and each do pretty well in the tourney. The first kind of team is dominated by top-flight talent, usually very young, and usually destined for the NBA pro game. A great player, say Dwayne Wade or Carmelo Anthony and even a Jonny Flynn (all right, maybe a stretch, but he's a beloved Timberwolf!), can take a mediocre program and make it great. The other kind of team plays together for a few years, has a coach who trusts players, and most of the folks won't ever play in the NBA. For years Duke University epitomized this type of team, but now there are a lot of good, young coaches and players playing for teams like Butler and Virginia Commonwealth University who can compete in one game showdowns.

As I looked at the games, and scanned headlines about the teams, I did pretty well this year, all things considered. I have UConn because they have the superstar, a kid named Kemba Walker. I went with North Carolina rather than Kentucky--I backed the wrong superstar...should have taken UK's. I had the other Richmond, VA team (literally Richmond), but I'm counting it as a win that VCU (also in Richmond) made it. I mean, who thought the city of Richmond, VA would have the most teams in the final 16? I almost picked Butler, but I underestimated their coach...I will not make that mistake again. Good coaching means way more in college basketball than in almost any other sport. Anyhow...it's pretty easy to predict who's going to win in college basketball: you just take great stars and even greater teams. For the record, great stars tend to be champions...look for UConn to win it all.

Which brings me to the Bible, and specifically Moses. According to the Bible the most famous Jewish leader ever died, and no one knows where he is buried..."to this day." Moses was a great star, he won the championship of his day--defeating Pharoah and his army, with a lot of help from Yahweh and other friends. But in the end the Bible is always about the team. Whether Jewish or Christian, as important as individuals may be, what they do for the rest of us is more important than anything they do for themselves. I mean, Jesus the Christ, perhaps the most famous human who ever lived, did little for himself other than die...but look what that did for us? His resurrection made us all brothers and sisters, it made us...a team.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Hallelujah

It seems like I have been praying for the safe return of soldiers forever. I think from the minute I was ordained in 1991 our country went to war, and we have been in a state of battle pretty much ever since...I have no problems praying for soldiers and for peace...but I wish it would end...

Every now and then I pray for some young person who has ended their life by their own hand. Always a sad time to see families and friends of suicide victims who not only mourn their loss, but mourn their failure to help or be part of a better solution...even if there never was a choice in the ending...a broken heart doesn't always see clearly.

My prayers are for the aging, especially those who experience their world at pace so fast and so out-of-control that they wonder in fear at things they were able in former times to conquer and survive...how disconcerting it can be to sit and watch a lifetime of effort and achievement be mutated and changed without so much as a nod to its provenance and history...

At times I pray for those in relationships that cannot bear the fruit of dreams held tightly against a heaving chest...how can a man or a woman or a family or a congregation measure up to the dreams of youngsters clutching teddy bears and awaiting the dawn? Who can compete against not only the perfect, but the icon of a world in which we do not live?

I always pray for death...not that it comes...but that we see it for what it is: a rest stop on a journey given by God to each of us to live, and live forever in Jesus Christ...that death--the death of a life well lived to that point--is a gift itself...not because we die nobly or in the arms of God, but rather because in dying we see sorrow for what it really is...the connective hallelujah of our lives together on earth.

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

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Poor" Rob Bell, Hell, and "universalism"

The title of this post is beyond ironic...Rob Bell is no more in need of a defense of an idea like God's love "wins," than God needs me to help with traffic...and universalism is a made up heresy that weak-faith Christians developed years ago to make things easier on themselves...and hell? Well, I do believe in hell I guess--it's just that I am not sure anyone is there, except maybe the Caretaker.

I find Christians that have faith only because they fear hell to be a bit weak...
I find Christians who believe and construct "either/ors" in order to stay believing to be weak..
I find Christians who can't handle--even as only an intellectual construct--the idea that God might love everything God creates to be silly...

So, for me, Rob Bell can go on believing God's love wins out in the end, even if it's not perfect from our end...make another Nooma series brother!
I fully tolerate the idea and possibility that I might be wrong, and God might have a special "place" in hell for me...I am not going to stop believing in God's undying love for the stuff God makes just because I might wind up in hell...cowardice is the worst sin in my mind...
The way I understand some Chrsitians and their need to have a place like hell for those who are not believers: I think those Christians have a healthy doctrine of sin and a non-existent doctrine of creation...(which is a big problem because the Christian story starts with creation, not sin...they are in essence going against the very narrative of Christianity by believing in sin before creation.)
BUT ENOUGH!

Ponder instead this Lent the love of a God on a cross...a God whose outstretched arms embrace the very people crucifying him...stretching to embrace a world that antagonizes him...a world which "hates" him (at least according to John)...Isn't this why we believe in God? We believe because we want to measure up to the high standard of humanity to which God made us...we believe because we want to enjoy and steward a world God made of beauty, truth, and justice...we believe not so others can be ignored or degraded, but rather in our belief be strengethened, encouraged, and even believe themselves...sin is out there friends...but so is love...and which one do you want to win?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.