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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, 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.