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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Oscars, Charlie Sheen, and the power of images

Last night was the Oscars, the ceremony where the world's most creative image-makers and storytellers decide what images were "best." I watch some movies, even saw a few of the ones up for "Best Picture," but I did not see "King's Speech" which won the award. I was happy for that choice though. The story, which it seems to me is the same story in most of the movies nominated, is a bit trite: someone overcomes obstacles to achieve success. (This is Hollywood's favorite story.) But the image of the story this year seems compelling...Colin Firth struggling to speak clearly.

This morning I was treated to excerpts of an interview with Charlie Sheen. Same story as "King's Speech," whole different image...Charlie Sheen overcomes an obstacle (addicition to drugs and alcohol), but does not struggle to speak clearly...and while many of his major premises are debatable, the conclusions of his speech are rhetorically warranted. and crystal clear. But alas, his conclusions serve not to bring people together, but to separate them...which is the exact opposite of the King's speech...speaking clearly only has value if we are raised to our human highest as a collective...and that is always worth a "best!"

Jesus has the ability to tell stories and create images which raise humanity to its divinely-made stature. He might have struggled with clarity at times, frustated at his inability to convey what needed to be told...but in the end, on the cross, he presented an enduring image of love that has bound people together across cultures for centuries. No movie could be expected to do that...although we can talk after 2000 years if one survives...and certainly no celebrity can be expected to withstand the pressures of fame without a bit of delusion somewhere...

But I struggle between two images this evening: a King who stutters and brings people together and a celebrity who speaks so clearly as to divide humanity into camps of violence and anger...I love images, I love clarity of speech, and I love the passion evoked from them...but I don't like violence and I don't like anger...not because violence and anger killed Jesus of Nazareth, but because they stop me from being the person God created me to be...maybe we all should learn to stutter before we speak?

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

PS: I so wanted to make a "crystal(-meth) clear" joke...so I did! Sorry, Charlie.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Truth and Honesty in the Pulpit

(This blog comes on the reflection of Rachel Held Evan's recent blog "Dear Pastors-Tell us the Truth" rachelheldevans.com A blog I appreciate very much.)

To tell the "truth" from the pulpit or the be "honest?" That is the question.

Because "truth" and "honesty" from the pulpit are not the same thing. When Rev. Held Evans asked what we want our pastors to be "honest" about it is not the same thing as what we want our pastors to be "truthful" about. We crave honesty, but we abhor truth. This is what made Jack Nicholson's line in "A Few Good Men" so powerful as a line, and one that has inured itself into our pop-culture lexicon...we really cannot handle the truth. He was being totally honest (which we can handle)...but truth? Not-so-much.

The reason why there are preachers in the first place is because we do not want to hear the truth. So a pastor telling the "truth" is sort of just angling for trouble, because we already know we don't want to hear it. We don't want to hear about our vulnerability, our culpability, our prejudices, our hatreds, our fears, and all the stuff that keeps us up at night, and well-drugged when awake. And people who are veterans of sermon-hearing and sermon-giving also pretty well know that God didn't make us this way... So to preach the "truth" from the pulpit is the height of narcissism...because it changes absolutely nothing.

But perhaps even Rev. Held Evans knows this because her question was what do we want from pastors in terms of "honesty?" She did not use "truth," even though that was her phrase in the blog. Why not? I suspect because she knows "truth" can never be preached (only lived), and honesty is the only sermon worth preaching or hearing about. Honesty can happen even in the most contrived story possible...think Jonah and his honesty and not wanting to do God's bidding...honesty can happen when a preacher admits that her or his sermon might not be the final word on this topic or event...honesty can happen when the preacher tells the congregation they probably don't want to hear the "truth"..."Honesty" is always possible, which is why it can be used as a synonym for "righteousness" in a way that "truth" never can.

In Christianity when we talk about "righteousness" we have some inkling of "honesty" in the back of our minds...we honestly want to follow God, we honestly want to be part of God's divine plan, we honestly wish we were better...but we are righteous precisely because our honesty knows we haven't been "true," or accepted the "truth." We need the righteousness God creates for us in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit in order for the truth to be made known--that we are not able--it seems-- of being true, telling the truth, or living truthfully...and that requires a huge amount of honesty to admit, and even more honesty to live through.

Especially if you preach for a living.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Day in Detroit Lakes

I spent last weekend with some great leaders from northern Minnesota. Tucked up amidst some beautiful lakes and woods, the area held great promise for a day of conversation and planning for congregational vitalization.

Upon arrival I learned this group of leaders was struggling...not from a lack of effort or even from a crisis of faith--struggling because the changes that were taking place in their congregations they were not prepared to deal with, much less manage. These folks were not worried about their souls, or even the souls of their friends and fellow passengers of life, they were worried about what it means to be "church" these days.

They knew what "church" used to mean, but they are not so sure about it anymore...one gentleman, on hearing that I am part of Prairie Table Ministries, wondered if we use all that "Boom-Boom" music in our worship? He didn't like it he said, but he does realize a lot of people do. When I told him we didn't use (or rarely use) music in our worship, he was nonplussed. Bach chorales or Michael W. Smith are not the keys to the gates of heaven...you don't need music to worship God. This was something he could not process...How is it worship without music, he asked? Well, I said, we talk a lot. A lot.

The LateNite worship at Prairie Table is not a Taize-style endeavor, nor do we sing new songs or old songs or any songs much any more...We talk instead. We offer thoughts and opinions on God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and all through words rather than lyrics. One of my colleagues at seminary once asked how do we "control" that? Well, control isn't a big thing for us. But we figure if a song like "How Great Thou Art" can convey somewhat interesting theological ideas, someone who perused the internet and found something meaningful there isn't too far off track...

But "church" these days has to get out of finding new ways to do old things...we have to jettison the old things and find new things...maybe done in old ways...but why do music in worship if no one wants to sing? Why do a sermon if no one wants to listen or no one wants to preach? Since when has singing and preaching been the best ways to worship God? In my tradition we have defined "church" around a phrase "Word and Sacrament." But that phrase is code for "some professional we deem trustworthy." I'm sure the professionals appreciate the honor, but I am not sure God requires it. And if the people in Detroit Lakes, MN are representative, such an idea might just be the death of "church." They know the professionals are few and far between out there, but there must still be a way to worship God, right? Right? Right?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Valentine's Day post-mortem

Another Valentine's Day passes, and another year goes by commemorating romantic love--the most trivial kind. As one of my friends said about Valentine's Day, "I hate it...everyone is so happy. Ick." There is something to that.

Chris and I were at a restaurant wanting to order our favorite burger and beer, when we were told they had only a "special" Valentine's Day menu available that night. Burgers, apparently, are not appropriate for this day of celebration? Perhaps the fried onions would have been too much in a post-dinner kiss? Who knows?

But as we left (we went to Five Guys Burgers for dinner instead) there were a whole bunch of guys there wondering what they had gotten themselves into this evening. Their dates were pointing out all the cool bric-a-brac and memorabilia that makes that restaurant somewhat fun, but all they could see were hefty prices, and almost no chance for their usual beverage of choice...and really, who wants to do Valentine's Day sober?

But we get so caught up in a trying to make romance a subsitute for caring and concern for another that we miss the whole point of "love." One of my younger friends, whose current boyfriend is quite comfortable talking about loving her, said to me that she thinks about this love a lot. I've decided, she said, that if I wouldn't jump out in front of a bus to save him, I probably don't love him. So we aren't lovers. I nodded. I said, You're right. Lovers don't do that...but friends do.

She was concerned. A friend jumps out in front of the bus...not a lover...what you use as a defintion of lover most of us use as a definition for a friend...So if you don't want to make him your friend--OK, but then he's probably your lover. (She tapped me here.)

What is the day we use to celebrate the friends in our lives? The people who mean most to us--and some of our friends can be lovers too (there is a song brewing here!) When Jesus was leaving his disicples for the last time, he called them friends, because there is no higher honor to give to a person...would that Hallmark and all the people obsessed with Valentine's Day have the same notion. One friend is more important than a 100 lovers.

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

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why is God so far away?

Because Christianity centers on a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit there is always the tendency for God to seem so far away...



If we had a religion where God is supposed to be far away, directing life--as it were--through a series of commands or jump-starting some physical process...it would not bother us that God seems so far away. Alas, we have borrowed this idea that God wants a relationship with us from our Jewish ancestors, and so we sit by the rivers of Babylon, dried tongues a'hanging, while our captors goad us into song...And we worry that God seems so far away.



But then I hear about Egypt, about people rising up against established tryanny, and although I know it will make my gas prices go up, I hear the cry of God for people to live, explore, dance, share, and grow in ways that could only be explained by the hand of God. (OK, maybe Twitter too!) Even though almost all of the people involved are not of the same faith as myself, I hold that the God I worship wants them to be a free as I am...I mean, God did not create freedom just for Christians, right? I want my peers in Tunisia, Egypt...even this morning I hear Jordan-- to be able to expand life into all the realms of God's glorious creation. The status quo is always for the greedy and the lazy...and I am not interested in that.



So just when I think God is far away, CNN shows me a young Egyptian protesting against the shackles of tryanny and ignorance...so I realize God is not so far away...it is just that I wasn't looking close enough. Because, let's face it--if God can protect and guide people to freedom in a place like Egypt, it doesn't seem too improbable that God might be watching and reading right along with me. And most days? That's close enough.



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