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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.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Looking East, Heading West...

I have wanted to write this blog for the past 5 years. Just over 5 years ago, I began this blog in a little office in Beulah, North Dakota. I was recently assigned to be the interim pastor there, and I wanted a place to reflect on theology from the edges of the prairie within which Beulah resided. I wanted to write one blog a week, 52 a year was my goal. Today, for the FIRST TIME in 2012, I have met that goal.

I had a chance a couple of years ago to make 52, but I had left my computer in Bismarck, and got stranded in Fargo over New Year's Eve for three days by a blizzard, and by the time I got back to write, the new year was upon me...and I only wrote 51. Last year, moving to Omaha, and all the craziness of life, I never even came close. But this year? Yes! The goal has been met, and I am proud of myself, and even more proud of you for reading along with me over the years (or days, if you are a newer reader.)

So what has 2012 wrought into the world of missional church theology? I want to highlight three things: 1) Convergence Christianity (and Darkwood Brew); 2) Re-treading the social gospel; 3) a push towards ever-more "realistic theology." 2012 was a good year to be a Christian.

Convergence Christianity and Darkwood Brew

Advocated by people such as Eric Elnes and Brian McLaren, Convergence Christianity seeks to discover how God is bringing people together these days. Dr. Elnes uses the Darkwood Brew ministry to consistently show how Christians who just years (or weeks) ago would have little to do with each other actually have a common ground for their faith in God.  There is a "giving up" and an "embracing" aspect to Convergence that is vital for people to get together. For example, around the issues of gay rights, some Christians have "given up" an previous belief about the sinfulness of gays and lesbians, while gays and lesbians have to "embrace" those who previously condemned them. No one person gives up everything in their faith, and no one embraces everyone who comes their way, but this excluding and embracing (to borrow from Miroslav Volf) is central to Convergence.

I find this metaphor of Convergence powerful as a way to talk about what Christians traditionally call the "Incarnation." I advocate for a radical incarnation (Missional Church in Context), and Convergence gets at that idea. God converges upon humanity in Christ Jesus, not obliterating our humanity, but rather deepening or strengthening our humanness while making us divine. I see a lot of similarity with the Eastern tradition of theosis, and even more with an Augustinian understanding of God's love. If you have only one hour a week to devote to your God relationship (faith), Darkwood Brew may be the best thing going...

SoGo Media

When I left the cozy confines of Hyde Park, Chicago in 1991, I thought I had also left behind the social gospel Christian tradition which was so central to the founding of the University of Chicago Divinity School. I was wrong. Social Gospel craze is catching fire these days, primarily from those who come from traditions that for years were the greatest opponents of the social gospel movement. I am sure Gladden, Rauschenbusch, and for me--Shailer Matthews, would find it ironic, if not a sign of God's humor that a former employee of Billy Graham started a Youtube TV station called SoGo. When Chris Alexander, hosting Darkwood Brew, asked Steve Knight (former employee of Billy Graham), the curator of this new venture what "SoGo" stood for, and he said "Social Gospel, " I almost died. (This would be akin to Bill O"Reilly naming his new book after Rachel Maddow.) This Youtube TV stuff is a great way to expand your table of conversation partners. 

The Social Gospel movement stresses the importance of "doing justice" as a way of being Christian in the world. Not every Christian thinks this is THE most important aspect of Christianity, but that someone is putting new tread on these tires is a sign of its continuing relevance. In a world where children are shot at school, millions more die of treatable diseases because rich people will not share, and where hunger is a daily occurrence for many kids, the social gospel still has something to say.

Realistic Theology

I learned this phrase from Michael Welker, and have always found it a way to get at the kind of theology I find most impressive. It's "realistic" not as some sort of default, or consolation prize, but rather because it searches for reality within its context. This is not to say that we have no "eternal" truths to our faith or to our God, but rather that reality limits us to what we can know, or say about God. But we can say, and know, our relationship with God is real, and we can even describe, illustrate, visualize, and participate in the reality of that relationship. Convergence, for example, is realistic, not because it is "real," but rather because it takes seriously the limitations we have these days--lack of civil discourse on social issues, for example--and within those limitations explores who God is, how God does, and where and when Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit work.

My hope is that we see a lot more of this "realistic theology." After all, that's what this table is for...conversations. And most surprisingly, 5 years in, and we're just hitting our stride.

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hurry! Rush! Don't Delay! Last Chance! Christmas is almost here

Christmas is almost here. I was out on the town the last couple of days doing some buying of gifts. For me, I think and plan Christmas gifts to the people I am buying for, and when I leave the house I don't need to shop...I buy what I planned. Boring, but effective.     

Everyone wants my money...and a few of the retailers want to help make my Christmas spending have meaning and value. I was working with a clerk trying to find the best option for the gift I wanted to give my wife. Let us just say, the woman deserved her lunch break after dealing with me for a half-hour. We tried on various styles and colors, her opinion was asked for and received, and as we reached a satisfactory conclusion to our business, she said. "I wish I had more customers like you. You can tell you really care about this person. Most people come here and buy what they like, and don't care about who gets it. You are a good husband. Thank you."

Well--what do you do with that? I replied with a nod and a thank you, and signed my receipt, and then she said. "Oh, you get to pick a box." As she showed me some of the gift boxes available, I asked her what she wanted for a Christmas gift from her significant other. (That she is not married had been ascertained LONG before this moment.) "I want a vanity."

I got to admit I did not see that coming. You see, she impressed me as a capable, beautiful, and intelligent young woman. She had this hair color that almost made it look silver under the lights, and with her pale makeup and red lipstick she had this cosmopolitan air about her that belied our Omaha location. The brown, calf-high boots, with the mustard colored sweater slipping off her shoulder so she had to keep inching it back up made for a rather risky color scheme, but her composure, her smile, and her ability to laugh off my jokes (and you, gentle reader, know that is hard to do as the jokes are often not good) made me think she could run the store by the end of her shift. So to dream of a piece of furniture, albeit one she would obviously use, just took me by surprise.

She was wrapping the gift in this box, and I asked her what kind of vanity? We have a lot of blonde wood in our house. "Scandinavian. " I asked? No, she said, that mid-century blonde wood that was so popular. "I'd like it so somehow fit in with that." We talked about my grandmother's old vanity, and did she want some kind of antique? Finally, as she placed my gift in a bag, I said, I hope you have someone who spends time looking for your vanity. She smiled so demurely that I am sure that she is the picture Wikipedia uses for the word "demure," and she said, "I hope he loves me." So do I.

Of course, whether my young clerk gets her vanity or not, the love of her partner is not dependent upon that. But every now and then it is nice to know that the ones who claim to love you actually do loving things towards you. It's not a requirement, but it is nice to receive every now and then. Christmas is God acting in our favor because God loves us. If--some year--Christmas doesn't come, God doesn't show up here on earth--well, that's an apocalypse not even the Mayans would have missed. Merry Christmas!!

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


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Today is the last day of my 5th decade on this great globe. I have friends who were not even born until I was married. I have people in my life that I talk to regularly for whom someone like Richard Nixon is a newsreel highlight, rather than someone who once caused me to miss a day of school. Heck, a lot of people weren't around when Ronald Reagan was President!

Since I get retrospective on a pretty regular basis here on this blog, there is not a lot for me to say about what was, or is, or even could be. There is still a lot of a craziness going around these days...another school shooting. I mean, growing up in Minnesota on the fringes of Minneapolis, I remember kids who were going hunting after school would bring their guns to school and have the principal lock them in this little closet. Times have changed in 50 years.

I guess as I look back on the biggest changes, using the broadest brush, this computer I am using is the biggest change. I remember my college roommate coming back from writing his BA thesis on a word processor and claiming he will never use a typewriter again. (He now is the CEO of a computer software firm. God has a way of working in our favor every now and then.) But who would have thought how this machine could connect us in ways that I never imagined, and am still wondering how it will be when I finally close this blog down in another couple decades or so?

As a teenager I got up every morning and read the newspaper, had coffee, toast and cheese, and went off to school. I haven't read a newspaper in 10 years. (The computer has not been able to replicate coffee as well.) I read news every morning. I look at pictures of friends and their kids, and I check the lines on upcoming football games, all without walking more than 15 feet from my bed. And...since nowadays I work from home, I have a six-foot commute to my office, and I can still get messages, reports, and writings to people. I still brush my teeth...some things will never change, I guess.

But mostly I remember so many people who have made my life wonderful. Many are still with me, and many have gone...and every year, sadly, more leave as time marches on and waits for none. I do believe God creates worlds into which people are then created. We are defined by our relationships, but even more so we are our relationships. You can no more "take out" my fatherhood than you can "take out" my heart. Each of those is needed if I want to breathe. Everything I say or do is colored by the air I breathe, and the people who are part of me. If you are reading this you are one of those people.

Every day--as Newtown, CT reminds us--should be a day to give thanks for the beauty, the wonder, and the friends of our lives. There is no reason to believe in anything, even God, if such things are not why you get up each and every day, each and every year, each and every decade. One of the most enduring images I have of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, dying on his cross, breathing his last, and telling his best friend to be a son to his mother, and telling his mother to be a mom to his best friend. What a great way to use some of your last minutes...create a new family from your death.

So I don't worry about getting older. I figure God's going to take all my friends, family, colleagues, and do great things with them whether I am here or not. And I am just glad to be included in the party, just glad to be remembered that once I was here.

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Do I Know? (Whitney Houston and our Epistemological Crisis)

Credo ut intellegam        St. Anselm of Canterbury

"I believe in order to understand." This is the basic order of things for the early Christians. Probably also for Jesus. Believing takes precedence before understanding or even knowing.
 Most of us, born after Rene Descartes  take the opposite view of St. Anselm. We often say something like, "I understand in order to believe." Here's a test to see if you are more of a Anselmian or a Cartesian type thinker:
You have told your 12 year-old child you are going to buy her shoes, and she can spend only $25. She agrees. (You can see by this statement that clearly this is a false story, but go with it.) She comes back and says, "Mom, these are the shoes I want, and they are only $22." What's the next thing you would do?

Well, if you are Anselm, since this is your daughter, she has met the rules of the arrangement, and you do not yet know how your daughter will turn out, or who your daughter really is, you believe in her in order to discover the answers to these questions. You probably give her the money, no further questions asked.

If you are more inclined to Cartesian patterns of thought, you might ask: Have you done enough research? Is this really the best deal? Have you understood enough to make the best decision? I want you to learn how to be strong, to not be vulnerable to the tricks of advertisers, or the allure of your peers. I want you to understand what this means! Depending upon how far you wish to travel down this road, you may or may not give her the money right away. (Being a good Cartesian, however, you will give her the money at some point because she has met the criteria of the bargain. You just want her to be sure she wants "those" shoes.)

For us these days, believing is so hard to do. (As a funny aside, Journey's Don't Stop Believin'" just came on Pandora as I wrote the above paragraph.) The smart folks of the world will give us lots of reasons why believing is so hard these days, but it can come from anywhere: fear, lack of authentic authority, mass communication, or the demands of rational-choice theory (my favorite). But note this: believing was as hard for Anselm as it is for us. The difference for Anselm is that until he believed something he knew he never really understood all of it. He might have understood a lot of it, even the most important parts, but he never imagined he grasped all of whatever he was trying to understand.

We often replace that kind of total grasping with hurried attempts at understanding without even bothering to believe. We fall into the "Cartesian anxiety" (a great phrase from philosopher Richard Bernstein) if we cannot find a place in which to make all our understanding seem to make sense. We MUST have foundations upon which to build the thoughts we have buzzing around us. Else, how will we know?

Neither Anselm nor DesCartes would have us bail-out into some kind of pie-eyed "faith." They would encourage us to stand amidst the confusion, the maelstrom of conflicting accounts, the noise of hatred and fear, and to listen. Listen to what you are not hearing right now. What are you missing? What do I believe? Who do I believe? What do I know? What do I not know?

You see, Anselm and DesCartes knew that answers were few and far between in this world...it was the questions that mattered. Surprisingly, they both learned this questioning for the same guy...Jesus of Nazareth. The one guy in history, aside from perhaps  the Greek Socrates, who asked more questions than anybody. And he was the Son of God. Go figure.

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

 The woman in this picture is Dorothy Day. A leading social activist in her day, there is a movement to get her canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. I hope she makes it.

Although I have a a sort of fascination with the canonization of  people into saints (Remember, the difference between a saint and an angel is that a saint--at one time--had a body. Angels never had one.). Last week people all across Facebook were posting memes of Saint Nicholas, and I love remembering that kind of stuff, even with the "ho,ho, homousios" jokes. (There's a real Wikipedia search for you!)

Last night on Darkwood Brew we had a guest who reminded me a lot of a Protestant Dorothy Day. Her name is Donnna Schaper, and she is a pastor at the famous Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Known as a contemplative activist, she does a lot in helping people, and more so helping people of faith learn to live in ways that share God's love and mercy with all people. Like Dorothy Day, Rev. Schaper does her faith in an active way.

Look at those pictures of Day above. This is not a saint who worries about what she looks like. She is in working clothes, a bandana around her head, hands and face that show she is not afraid to get down and dirty with the people of the world. She did not change the world by writing laws, changing policies, or sitting in a office, or sitting in a sanctuary. She was out in the streets, putting in real time, effort, and sweat into making people's lives better. Making our world a little more like how God wants it to be. She was an activist.

Although I have some of the sympathies of a Dorothy Day or a Donna Schaper, I learned early on that my sweet spot was not in the kind of activism lived out by people like them. My sweet spot was somewhere else...and after all these years I am not sure where. It does seem like I have tried them all. What I do is teach. But I wonder where I will teach next? I done all the usual spots for teachers of theology--classrooms, pulpits, lecture halls--but none of them completely satisfy me.

When I had the Prairie Table ministry up in Bismarck, ND, I taught a group of teenagers (aged 13-15) in my living room once a month. There was something fascinating about that set-up for teaching the Christian faith. I think what I liked most was seeing youth, in an environment they could trust, explore who they are as children of God, and trying to make a difference.

And that's probably where I have the most sympathy with great people of the faith like a Dorothy Day. I imagine all she did, she did because God had called her to be the person to make a difference in someone's life. So she did as best as she knew how. And now, years later, we are thinking that kind of work is worthy of sainthood. But I wonder if she ever did? I bet not. I bet she thought she was doing it because it was right, it was just, it was what God would want. And when you do that, well, that's what all saints do.

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Brady Quinn, Chiefs' Quarterback, and paying attention


“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,” Quinn told reporters after the game.  “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently.  When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?
“We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.  Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.” Brady Quinn, qb of the Kansas City Chiefs, on the suicide of his teammate Jevon Belcher, who murdered his girlfriend.                                                  
Nicely said Mr. Quinn. Jevon Belcher, a professional football player, who drives a Bentley, kills his girlfriend who is also the mother of his child, and then goes and kills himself in front of his coach. And his quarterback (in the Chiefs's case, one of his quarterbacks) wonders if he actually had paid attention to his teammate. From the sounds of the quote above, the answer it would seem is No.

I wonder if life is about paying attention? Paying attention not only to the people we have face-to-face contact with, but also those friends we only connect with on-line. (You have to remember I am OLD. I have almost no friends online that I do not also know face-to-face. I understand there are a lot of folks who have friends they have ONLY met online. I am not one of those folks.) Regardless, we still have to pay attention. Whether it's a "like" on an Instagram photo, or a cup of coffee after a tough day at work, it's always about the relationships.

You have heard me say over the years that the best line ever written for TV--and I mean EVER-- comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In preparation for an upcoming battle, Buffy asks why does it always have to be so bloody. Her frenemy Spike, a vampire with a soul, answers "It's always about the blood." Not even Jesus uttered words more profound.

Blood stands for everything: life, relationships, love, power, all the stuff that keeps us going. Blood is what keeps us all together. It's always about the blood.

Unfortunately, for Brady Quinn and the Kansas City Chiefs, and all of us in some way, we had a stark reminder of just how bloody the world is. Paying more attention to the people in our lives may never stop the tragedies, but it is something we all might wish to do in the midst of a world where tragedy is just a parking lot away. Who do you wish to pay a little more attention to these days?

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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Open Communion, open communion, open God

(ed.'s note: This series is written in response to a recent article in "The Christian Century" on communion practices within Christian congregations.)


This wonderful essay by Charles Hefling has got me thinking about what "communion" is these days in most Christian congregations. To his brief, yet to my mind accurate, understanding of where local congregational practices of communion are these days and how they got there, I would add this observation: the younger you are the more you desire communion. What I mean is this.



When I visit "emergence" congregations, or congregations for which "convergence" is a prime value, I get a lot more young people in my experience. I also get communion more frequently. Conversely, when I visit congregations in more mainline or evangelical traditions I get more older people in my experience. And communion less frequently. (I always ask about communion policy prior to worship, as I practice weekly communion...high church Swedish background.) Funny, but it is almost as if one could say that the more frequently you offer communion, the younger the average age of your congregation is. (And yes, friends who practice weekly Eucharist but have a congregation with an aging population, this is not a hard and fast rule. But you knew that...)

Hefling makes a good distinction between a congregation that practices "Open Communion" and a congregation that practices "Open Table." Open communion is the practice most in the Christian tradition are familiar with, in that communion is open to all baptized believers (except in those traditions that practice "closed" communion--only members of that tradition may receive communion). Open communions hold that regardless of which Christian tradition you are from or in which you currently reside you are welcome to receive communion. Open Table practices offer communion to anyone, even those who may not be baptized. These congregations also, de facto, offer it to people who may not believe, but as the Apostle Paul points out to the folks in Corinth, to participate in such an activity points to your own condemnation as a hypocrite. Why would you do something you do not believe in?

I like the essay as a way to get at the most popular ways to practice communion: closed communion, open communion, and open table. What I liked best about the essay, however, was his hinting that a congregations' communion practice has more to do with God's grace than whatever the congregation wishes to offer. In other words, communion is a sacrament before it is a congregational practice. That kind of thinking is few and far between these days.

A sacrament, to those Christians who stand in the more classical vein of Christianity, that is, you--my gentle readers, is God's subjectivity upon human objectivity. God is the subjective mover and humanity is the objective recipient in a sacrament. God gives, we receive. In a true sacrament, human activity means very little to the effect of the sacrament. What matters in a sacrament is what God does, not what humans do or do not do. (You cannot, for example, swipe a credit card and get God's grace--Closeout sale! Nor, does it mean that you have to have rid yourself of all sin in order to receive it--you guilty dog!) Hefling does a good job of trying to make sense of a congregation's communion practice in light seeing the bread and wine as sacramentum of God.

Regardless of our congregation's policy, this is the question for us who receive communion: what are we expecting from God in this bread and wine? Can we live with the grace we receive? Can we actually stand under a God who would give up body and blood so that we may live, so that we may have life, and have it abundantly? That's a sacrament, that's communion.

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


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Honey, did you remember to turn off the lights?


Read an interesting article about infidelity and marriage the other day (see this link) which was not written by a theologian in title, although in this case, we may want to grant her a temporary permit. She wrote "Monogamy is not a sexual dilemma, but a dilemma of integrity." Exactly.

After a couple hundred years of scientific testing, it's pretty clear that humans, like most primates, are not wired for monogamy. Sexual desires come and go over the years, over the days even, and the "one to one" ideal is not biologically sustainable. But--and this is key--relationships are not only about biology. Marriage is more than just making children, that's why there is a commandment against adultery. Marriage is a question of who, and also, whose you are.

So when Gen. Petraeus exchanges his monogamous relationship with his wife for a sexual relationship with another woman, we learn more about his integrity than we do about biology. We learn more about what he values and believes as a person of prestige and power than sexual attraction of certain types of men to certain types of women. When someone stays faithful in a monogamous relationship we see them as trying to be more than their biological parts...this person is striving to fulfill some kind of need or desire to be more than the sum of his or her parts. And those for whom monogamy does not mean much, well, that is who they are. A man who dates a married woman only to find she is having sex with yet another man? You didn't see that coming? Really?

For this reason (marriage is about integrity, not sex) I am in full support of gay marriage. If you are gay, what better way to express your integrity to be more than your sexuality, than to show yourself as a faithful marriage partner over the years? It's like the old joke: "Do you believe in same sex marriage?" And the other answers, "Of course I do, I've been having the same sex for 25 years of marriage" The power of the joke resides not in the sex, but in the 25 years. To deny somebody that 25 year opportunity is to force them to live a lie; or, worse, to live without being able to experience the joy of integrity that marriage can bring.

In a weird way, to deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to marry because your abhor their sexuality only forces them to have the sexuality you abhor. In essence, you are actually creating the very thing you say you do not like. For me, gay marriage is not about "religious liberty," "sanctity," or pro-creation. Gay marriage is about freeing people to live with integrity. To strive to be "just a little lower than angels," as the Psalmist says all of humans are and do.

Because humanity is more than biology (that's the basic premise of all theology), if these words were to be read 200 years from now, people might wonder why I wasted a morning writing about something so obvious. (Go back and read John Locke and see how obvious he seems at times. It's not that he isn't still brilliant, it's just that stuff has moved on in the last 300 years, and we take much for what he fought for granted.) I think it's safe to say, that if marriage is only about biology, we should probably not be too surprised at infidelity; but if it is about anything else, like integrity, we might try giving everyone a chance at attaining its benefits.

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

No Winners in this War

 This is an icon of St. Augustine. Benjamin Warfield, a Professor of Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary over 100 years ago, once quipped that the Reformation was a battle between Augustine's doctrine of the Church versus his doctrine of Grace. It is a perennial battle, I fear, and one that still rises up these days.

Notice the church building on Augustine's lap. He was a Bishop, world-renowned in his time for his preaching and his sagacity, especially concerning day-to-day ministry in his church and relating it to his world, and to God. A great scholar and teacher, he sat on his cathedra (the chair from which a Bishop preaches, hence, the name "cathedral" for a building which houses that chair), and left a deep mark on all of Christianity. To sum up way too simply (and you can see why I never got a degree in history), Augustine understood grace as God's energy to give freely to the world, through the redemptive activity of Jesus Christ, all the life it needs. This grace is the most powerful energy in the world, delivered to us through the activity of the Holy Spirit, so that all of creation can fulfill its destiny.

The Church, then, is God's chosen instrument of the Holy Spirit to deliver such goods. In the Reformation, then, and according to Warfield's insight, one side emphasized the authority of the Church to bring life to creation; the other side, emphasized the freedom of the energy to bring life, and the Church--although important--could never "box in" the energy (grace) of the Spirit. Just so you know...neither side won.

You see that battle blasting about us everywhere these days. The "Spiritual, but not Religious" people speak about the power of God's grace to be everywhere, to be free, and to be available, if we would just work hard at getting it. Congregations boom from pulpits that God has chosen the church for a reason, and it is sacrilegious to deny that power. Grace! Church! Church! Grace! The Reformation battles are hardly done.

Augustine was alive about 350 years after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and resurrected, and his writings reflect the tenor of his times, as prescient as they are of ours. It is safe to assume, I believe, that this battle between Grace and the Church is built-in to the Christian tradition. To use a Biblical metaphor, even Peter had to find a way to live with Paul. That, of course, is my hope for all of us these days (and in this case, I include everyone, those who are not Christian, those who are, those who are marginalized within Christianity and society)--I hope we can learn to live together, in spite of our differences. It will be hard as those who have will probably have to share even more; and those who have little will probably have to set their sights more realistically. Those who shout "Church!" will learn to see that for some a boxed-in Grace is no grace at all; and conversely, those who shout "Grace!" will learn to see that for some a unrepentant Church carries no Grace either. We've made it this far together...the differences will always remain, but remember this--there was at least one person--besides Jesus--who thought both sides were true.

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post-Election Blues

On my Facebook page I had as many of my friends "Like" Mitt Romney for President as I had "Like" Barack Obama for President of the United States. (Don't go too crazy, as my sample is small, and I only accept as FB friends those I've had actual conversations with, so the number is quite small.) But, as it turns out, this is pretty much the case everywhere. Our country, like my FB friends, has differences of opinion, especially when it comes to politics.

My guess is the major difference stems mostly from our incessant need to equate politics with economics. You see, I have FB friends who are rich, poor, very rich, very poor (although not poor enough that they don't have internet capabilities), I have friends who think they are poor although they are rich, I have friends who think they are rich although they are poor, I have friends who like to share their wealth, others for whom that is not a high priority. No matter how they think about their wealth or how they handle it, I "Like" them all, regardless of which Presidential candidate they like.

But I think we have gone a little too far in regarding every single issue from an economic perspective. I cannot tell you how many times I saw great ministry ideas ignored or dismissed because we "couldn't afford it." OF COURSE NOT! It's ministry, it's not a luxury item for the house. Truth be told, no ministry can be afforded, and if you ever have that conversation in a congregation about "affordable ministry" you can pretty well be sure you are talking to Satan. I know many good and honest people in congregations who are just trying to be "fiscally responsible," but when you're trying to end someone's poverty how fiscally responsible is that?

So whether politics (affordable health care? Really? Who are we trying to deceive here?) or ministry ("I'm just trying to be a good steward!"), we have subsumed so much of their potential under the crushing and debilitating conversation of its fiscal value. We're going to get nowhere in politics if we continue to believe that rich people are trying to take advantage of poor people, and poor people are trying to mooch off the rich. Same is true in ministry...your faith will never reach the nirvana to which you have been destined if you believe the journey is constricted by available funding.

Reportedly, Jesus of Nazareth once said, "You cannot serve God and wealth." (Matthew 6.24, see here for more information) From my experience in this past election, it might be his only words we should take literally. I understand no one wants to be poor. I understand poverty brings with it a whole host of social ills. But what if it is not the worse thing in the world? What if being poor is actually the point? Wir sind bettlar, hoc est verum are the words Martin Luther said at his death. We're beggars, this is true.

May your tables be full and your conversations be real.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hearing a picture




I am reading a wonderful book entitled Picasso's War by Russell Martin. It is about how Picasso came to create his masterpiece Guernica, and what went into that work of art. Picasso was a Spaniard who lived in Paris for most of his life. Throughout the book the author interviews various people who state some version of  this theory:
        "Spanish people are people who look, who trust and love the visual. They are a people of the eye."

As someone who is most definitely NOT a person of the eye, I am fascinated by those who, like Picasso (or Spaniards in general, if you prefer the stereotype), are visual people. My brother is an artist, and he sees things I would never see. I see a picture like Guernica, and I don't even know where to begin. Even now, after 30 years of looking at that painting I still don't get it.

I am a person of the ear. For me, I listen for distinctions. When I read (which I take as a form of listening, and someone, say, Picasso, takes as a form of seeing) I hear inflections, tones, whispers, shouts, all the stuff that goes into "voice." As a musician, my sense of hearing goes to harmonies, upbeats, and contrapuntal themes. (By the way, just because I listen doesn't mean I've heard you...just ask my wife or kids.) I suppose we all have our preferences for how we process the world. Maybe you use your eyes, your ears, your sense of touch or smell?

Also, there are people who are almost forced, because of circumstances, to favor one sense or the other. Ray Charles, for example, being blind from a young age, depended a lot on his sense of hearing. There is no one sense that needs to be the "one" you process life through, but maybe we all have one that we actually do?

For example, until I got my Blackberry I never owned a camera. I never page through picture books. I read comic books and graphic novels for the plot. (That drives my brother nuts. I could read a comic book in 10 minutes, he would take three days.) I love to look at beautiful things, I love good smells, and a fine linen shirt is a precious thing. Taste? Well, you don't get to be my size being picky, but I prefer a malty beer or a sharp bourbon with the best of them. But all of that I can take or leave...but bad music I do not tolerate--or actually listen to--thank God for SiriusXM radio!

One of the interesting stories about Jesus comes in the 9th chapter of Mark, where he talks about not letting a "member" of your body lead you astray. That is, don't worry about getting everything into heaven, even one eye is enough for God. I think Jesus is on to something important here. If, as the Spaniards in Martin's book suggest, we live through one of our senses, we see that as a gift of God. If God has blessed you with eyes to see or ears to hear, then look and listen! Use those senses to make sense of our world. (and if circumstances cause you to favor one or the other, do not lament what you don't have, but celebrate what you do!)

What sense do you primarily process life through? How do you know what to trust, what to value, what to focus on as you go from day-to-day? I still like Picasso, and I will never pretend to see what he saw...but I will cherish all that he left me to look at as I listen for the voice of God.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.



Monday, October 29, 2012

The Divine Congregation (and yours)

This is an icon of the 3 strangers whom Abraham grants rest and refreshment at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). Painted in the 15th Century by Andrei Rublev, it is a classic, and one of the most important icons ever painted. For many people it is an icon of the Triune God. I first remember coming across this icon back in the late 1980s in Chicago, but it was in graduate school where the icon grabbed my attention. I was fascinated with the Orthodox understanding of the Trinity. As a Westerner, the Trinity (that is, how we understand the One God as three Persons) was a bit opaque to me. Rublev showed me another way...

What Rublev shows me in this icon is that God is OK, almost relaxed, with being three persons. Rational, linear thought, scriptural hints, historical defenses and apologies, and even a painting or two do not deny God's reality--whatever that may be. (God is a mystery, after all, and we are just playing in the sandbox.) So I wrote my book, The Ecclesiology of God: The Role of the Divine Congregation on the Human Congregation (UMI: 2001). For me, God is the Divine Congregation.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the Divine Congregation, but I spend all my time living in human ones. For me, congregation is a suitable metaphor for family, for work, and for play. Especially in our democratic society, congregating in groups, no matter how conceived or construed, seems an apt metaphor. Some communities may strain under the congregational metaphor (think of a prison, for example), but a lot of the communities we are a part of can be seen and understood under the metaphor "congregation." So what makes for a congregation? Well, if Rublev's icon can serve as a way to help us see how God lives as a congregation, maybe the icon can help us see how our human congregations can live together?

First, you have to have a table. Central to any congregation is a place to gather and share together that which gives you meaning for your day, hope for tomorrow, and a sense of peace. We are not Prairie "Table" without a reason...A table on the way during your journey is a place to congregate.

Secondly, you have to realize there are other persons in your congregation, and we all defer to each other. That is, no one person is more important than another. We are in this together, and you cannot have a congregation without all of us around the table. The tilting heads of the persons in Rublev show all you need to know as to how we should behave as persons of a congregation. We should be humble, show deference, and listen to our partners in this journey. We must learn to surrender our egos so that God's work amongst all of us (not just ME) can be accomplished in our congregation.

Lastly, we must be outside to be a congregation. What I mean by that is we should be in our world, neighborhood, context, whatever, and we should be available for anyone who wanders our way to become part of our congregation. Our table is in the middle of the busiest street in our town. That oak tree that Rublev put into his icon is very important to me. These people are not in a house, they are in a yard, maybe even a park, and they are congregating amdist all the busy-ness (is that business?) that often gets in the way of being a congregation. How much do we put business or busy-ness ahead of just being together with people? How often do we forget to listen, to really hear what someone is saying, because we have "business to attend to?"

There is probably plenty more that you could add to your communities and congregations by using Rublev's icon. What do you see there that could add meaning to your congregations? Your families? Your peers? Your co-workers? I invite you to take some time this week to reflect on this icon, and to wonder how God is part of the communities that make you, well, you?

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


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Eternal Life and Life Everlasting

I have never much preferred the term "eternal life." Obviously, there is huge tradition and scriptural witness behind the term, but for me it has always held some difficult philosophical--and by this term I do NOT also mean theological--nuances. For me, the phrase "life everlasting" is much more meaningful, and carries with it an important theological distinction that the phrase "eternal life" often glosses over. As always, it's the little distinctions that make all the difference.

Since the phrase "eternal life" has the word eternal in it, we tend to get caught up in something that may not be true. Namely, that you exist before you are born. Is that the case? Do you (however you want to define that term) exist before you are created, or even before you are born? It is true you may exist in the mind of God before you are created or born, but do you really exist before you are created or born? In the same way that a "dragon" can exist in our minds but not be created, so too we could exist in God's mind without being created. The word "eternal" can lead us into believing that we exist before god creates us.

Since "eternity" has no beginning or end, we often think there is some kind of "circle of life" that just keeps going round and round and we are part of it. Such an idea--philosophically--does not do enough justice to death. Death is not part of a cycle, but the end of it all. Dead is dead. Life stops, it is not just waiting around to be re-"something" (created, imagined, lived, etc.). It's over, and done. Eternity for God is one thing, but it is not something we humans have. We have mortality. We have an end. We have death.

That's why I prefer the phrase "life everlasting." It leads us to take seriously when our life begins, as well as its end. That is, death does not stop life. Death is not part of life, although it is part of living, and as such life triumphs over death because life lasts forever. Although the distinction may seem slight, it is all important to me. In using the phrase "life everlasting" I am trying to get to show that life cannot be halted by death, and that death is really against life. In this way, death is not a part of life, but is a power against life, but because "life" is everlasting, death is not. Life wins, to paraphrase Rob Bell.

But how do you think about death? As this is my 50th year, I realize that I have less rather than more left on my life-span. So is my impending death part of a cycle or is it the end of Scott? If it is the end of Scott, then eternal life doesn't do much for me. I like Scott. I like the people who make Scott "Scott." I like the things Scott does (you know, fast cars, bourbon, and obsessing about the Minnesota Vikings, that kind of stuff). I don't want death to transition me into the next phase of eternity, I want life to beat the crap out of death, and win so that Scott can go on living somehow, as Scott, but probably different. I think that's what resurrection is all about. It's not about continuing on on some cycle of life, but rather, in getting to live because death cannot enthrall you anymore. Life wins. Life in God--you see, is everlasting.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Presidential politics

I was reading a favorite blog the other day ("Missional Shift" by Steve Knight) where some pretty good theologians were asked to comment on what was the "chief political concern of the Bible?" The answers were varied, given the ranging theological interests represented, but many came down on some version of working for God's kingdom, or justice or righteousness, especially for those on the edges of power and respect. All well and well, and nothing too surprising to me as far as I could see. Everyone seemed to have taken the question seriously, responded appropriately out of their tradition, and gave short, succinct answers. The first comment about the post, however, noted that the answer, at least according to his reading of all the theologians presented, was how God must be against abortion. That's the theological version of what I call "presidential politics."

Presidential politics, unlike normal everyday, run-of-the-mill politics is always, Always, ALWAYS reduced to a soundbyte that has little to do with the questions being asked or the answers being given. Just as the commentator on the blog had reduced the greatest of God's vision to one subject, so too these days, we tend to reduce whatever the Presidential candidates say or do to whatever little thing we think is memorable or sentimental enough to capture attention. I have often spoken about my generations' distaste for presidential politics because we came of age during the Nixon administration. You can not imagine what it was like to go to junior high civics classes and watch the President have to resign. No teacher was prepared to help teenage minds comprehend that. So we gave up. As I have talked over the years to people who were in junior high learning about government for the first time by watching Nixon we all respond the same way: they're (Presidents) all the same, they'll all say whatever they want and do whatever they do. Presidents don't matter. Find me anyone born into this country between 1961 and 1965 who doesn't believe that...and he or she will be the first person of those years I've met who believes Presidents matter. (I understand there are other issues, and the sample matter is small and peculiar--but I want you to know where I am coming from here.)

What's interesting to me is that presidential politics differs greatly from Jesus' "politics" (such as it is, and in this case it is something like "kingdom of God.") Jesus, regardless of how you think he falls politically, never made things easy. He was good for soundbytes, but always to confuse and obfuscate, never to sentimentalize or make simple. Even his "simple" parables are so complex they boggle the mind. For example, how is "mustard" the greatest shrub when it's a weed to be burned? Following the politics of Jesus is never easy, always hard, and probably not reducible to a blog post. And for me, Jesus Christ matters way more than any President...I'll take difficult and confusing any time over sentimental claptrap and social-issue fearmongering.

So I suppose we have another few weeks of reducing everything to the absurd. That's presidential politics. And probably not the kingdom of God.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wondering about "Hell"

This Friday, here in Omaha, I am helping to moderate to a discussion with film-maker Kevin Miller after the premier of his new film Hellbound? This is somewhat ironic, if not downright hilarious, that I, of all people, are trying to help people process a film about something I have never believed in, and probably never will.

I watched the film with my parents a few weeks ago. My parents, around 75 years old, myself, around 50, could never remember believing in hell. They remembered--vaguely--hearing a few sermons about hell back in their younger days, but that is more experience than I have with the concept. My parents didn't seem to believe much in hell, and consequently I grew up in a Christian religious tradition that did not preach about hell.

Obviously I knew about hell from TV and Hollywood growing up, but not from going to church. (And I went just about every week, and I still do--and if someone had preached about it, I would have heard it--I think.) As more and more of the Christian tradition opened up to me I realized that a lot of Christians had--and have-invested a lot of time and energy into hell. Way more than the Bible does. And, since I follow the God of the Bible, I don't put a lot of stock in hell either...just my way of being biblical.

In graduate school at the University of Texas (Hook 'em Horns!) I had a class in 17th Century British poetry. Since I had to write on Milton, I went back and studied a lot of the great literature on hell, focusing mostly on Dante and Milton. I discovered that most of what we know about hell comes from them rather than from the Bible. As much as I love Dante and Milton they don't take precedence over Jesus, or Moses or John for that matter. So I have never found a need to believe in hell...so I don't. (I admit the possibility exists, but I also admit unicorns and vampires may exist...so take that for what you will.)

Miller's film has people in it who believe in hell and believe that it exists. He gave them a lot of room to make the case that hell exists, and I think they are lying to themselves. I have never believed more in Sartre's mauvaise foi (bad faith caused by intentional self-delusion) than in listening to people try and convince me that hell exists. And the folks in the movie didn't convince me because they sounded more like medieval poets than bibilical scholars or theologians...they didn't convince me because they didn't offer any arguments about why God would need hell.

You see, people talk about God being mad at us at times (and in this I agree). God probably does get mad at us when we try to be God rather than human (sin). But that does not mean there has to be a hell just because God gets mad every now and then. There are other ways to respond to anger, and I am pretty sure God knows them. To posit a hell because WE are angry or WE need to have a place where bad people get judged...well, that's just not worth my time.

Now I realize a lot of people believe in hell, but I wonder what we would become if we gave up our belief in hell? What would change in the way we deal with people, our enemies, our fears, our confusions if we didn't have hell to bail us out? What might God be able to do with us if we didn't keep putting this idea of hell in God's way?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Vikings! Skol!

I am a big-time Scandanavian-American. All 4 of my grandparents were 1st generation Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish, and until my parents came along there was no mixing. My dad's parents were Finnish and Swedish, my mom's Norwegian and Swedish. I grew up in Minneapolis, MN, and I was born when the Minnesota Vikings became our first professional football team.

I grew up with a hodge-podge of Scandanavian traditions that had been part of the heritage of those in the "old country," and childhood memories of lutefisk, Midsommer, and O Store God are part of my life. I even went to a college (Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN) that was founded by Swedish immigrants, and one of the oldest Swedish-American institutions around. In fact, every year, the college holds a "Nobel Conference" which invites scientists from around the globe to convene about current issues, and is the only program outside of Sweden which the Nobel Prize committee authorizes. When I was at GAC, the King of Sweden visited, which, outside of a chance encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993 counts as my only international political experience. I even decorate my kitchen with Dala horses and kitschy tiles that say, Velkommen! I have the street cred for my Scandanavian-Americanness.

Did I mention I have long, blonde hair? I mean, like down to the middle of my back? You can't tell in my pictures because I usually pull it back, but put me in some clothes made out of dead animals, and give me a battle-axe, and your Hollywood stereotype would be fulfilled! Viking! Skol!

"Skol" is a toast word, like "Cheers!" It is also the theme song of the Minnesota Vikings football team. They played well yesterday, and they hadn't done that for a long time. I remember vividly the last time they played good football. I lived in another state, I still had a child in school, and Jared Allen made Tony Romo look silly. (To be honest, Tony Romo often doesn't need any help.) We beat the 49ers out of San Francisco yesterday, and we beat them pretty well. Here's why I am telling you all this...

Never count out a Viking--even one who only gets the name because they got drafted into the NFL. For that matter, always beware the underdog. (The Vikings not only won outright and covered the spread, but the continued the season-long NFL tradition of home dogs covering. This is a good year to bet the home team.) So much of our lives are spent trying to impress front-runners and other sycophants that we lose sight of what life is all about: living. (Or, in the case of the Vikings, playing football.) Underdogs, those who are "supposed to lose," who people often don't care enough about to even try to be part of their lives (think "47%"), are a great story, but they shouldn't be. All players, just like all people who live, should be accorded respect and value as one of God's children. Even if that child has had a bad day, week, or even a decade.

I am proud of my Viking heritage (and my football team), but I am even more proud of the many people who are, have been, and I hope will be part of my life. Because when all is said and done, we are all underdogs, hoc est verum. And that's worth a glass or two. Skol!

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Missional Review: Dog Days edition

As summer runs to a close for another year, the weeks have gone into full-bore "get ready for Winter" mode. How does time get faster, anyhow?

So my friend and colleague Mark Davis, he of Left Behond and Loving It fame, presented a wonderful lecture this week where he urged us Progressive, unsure-of-the-Bible-so-we-act-like-it's-not-important types to get into some kind of way of understanding this God we proclaim to believe in. To do so, he argued, you might have to read the Bible.

I especially loved his distinction between the wrath of Satan and the wrath of God. The wrath of Satan in Mark's world is what we call "our reality." When we neglect to offer aid or help to people in need, when there are things we could do to make the world better but we don't, when we can have a positive impact, but instead make a negative one...those kinds of things are the wrath of Satan. In other words, WE are satans to each other. And whether we treat each other negatively by actually doing something, or neglecting to do something, we are behaving satanically.

The wrath of God, such as it is, are those things we do not control, or have no chance yet of controlling. The weather, for example, can often be seen as an act of God's wrath. Does this mean God sends hurricanes to fishing villages to wipe them out? Nope. But there are going to be hurricanes, and people in the fishing villages have to learn how to live amongst them, and this is important--not add the wrath of Satan to the mix.

Have you ever noticed how there are feats of great mercy amidst natural disasters? Those are people who are adding the love of God to the disaster, not the wrath of Satan. When disasters of this type strike your area, do you add God's love or Satan's wrath to the mix?

And I made an annual trip to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. I having been going there since my junior year of High School, with a few years off here and there, but my oldest daughter--now 22--told Ralph Puke last year, that he is like a second father to her. He was appalled...but pleased that someone kept listening to his jokes. Like any other carnival or fair, this event is about the people. And the money...as a lot of people make their living on this quasi-costume play, street theatre, nerdfest. I mean, who needs a $1300 astrolabe when you can get a GPS for 69 bucks? And you don't need a Masters' degree in Mathematics to get it to work?

What I always wonder as I am wandering around there grazing and gazing, is how different this is from 16th Century England. (I let the historically "improbable" ninjas, transvestite pirates, and Jamaican jerk chicken wrap try not to influence me too much about this.) Beccause 16th Century Britain was a religious battleground. You don't see much of that in Shakopee...

But I think that shows the major shift Christianity accomplished in the past 500 years. It went from being a bone of contention to a lifestyle. Most people treat Christianity as a lifestyle, and for those Christians who want it to be about God, or the highest calling of humanity, or the stewardship of creation, they are bound to be disappointed. People don't care if you're Christian until you try to make them one...and then they get angry. If you don't care about making people Christian? Well, you're fun to look at, and interesting to talk to, but how can you help me on my spiritual journey?

Well...have you heard about the difference between the wrath of Satan versus the love of God?

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

Monday, September 3, 2012

Missional Week in Review, Roman Catholic edition

This past Friday, (August 31, 2012), Carlos Cardinal Maria Martini died at age 85. He is the last of my favorite Roman Catholic theologians of the previous generation to die. And the central figure in one of the strangest dreams I've ever had. May he rest in peace.

I have many theologians from the Roman Catholic tradition who have taught me much. Most famously, as with many others, St. Thomas Aquinas has a big influence on me. In some ways all Christians in the West are indebted to Aquinas, although many in my Lutheran tradition have spent much ink trying not to make it so. When you think about God as the last movement in a logical chain of events, or try to discover God from the fabric of reality, you owe a lot to Thomas Aquinas. If you've ever looked at a sunset, a baby, a mountain, a leaf, and thought: "Wow! There has to be a God!" you owe Thomas Aquinas for showing you how you got from that revelation to God.

I spent a good deal of my doctoral work on Karl Rahner. To be honest, I wanted to do a three-part series on my comprehensive exams based on Orthodox, Roman, and Reformation theology, and I had John Zizioulas for orthodoxy, Martin Luther for reformation, and Rahner was the most palatable Roman Catholic I could find. (I toyed with using Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, but I found his philosophical reasoning too trapped in linguistic ambiguity to be of much use. This makes his theology seem rather disengaged from reality, and if you've heard of his stance on condoms in countries decimated by AIDS you know what I mean.) So Rahner became a friend. And a good one at that, although I will flat-out admit that reading 10 pages of Rahner took the same amount of time as reading 200 pages of Luther. But the guy could think about God, faith, Jesus Christ, and everything else in between...even today when I read Convergence Christianity I have titles of Rahner works dancing in my head...like "church of the little flock."

And then there was Martini. (It should be apparent by this name why I first read something by him.) I looked for Cardinal Bourbon, Cardinal Scotch, and Cardinal Beer, but I only found Martini. He was a scholar, but he was also a prelate, and this seemed impressive to me. His introduction to the New Jerome Bible Commentary still makes great sense as a way to read the Bible with a predetermined theological lens. His modertation, his clarity, his compassion for those not sure of their salvation must of made the Archdiocese of Milan, Italy a great place to be a Roman Catholic during his tenure. (Plus, it's MILAN!) And now the dream...

When I was in graduate school Pope John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. His time would be coming to an end (not for another 5 years, but still...), and people were beginning to handicap who the next pope would be. I read an article on MSNBC.com that listed about 8 potential candidates to the papacy. Martini was one. (Ironically, Martini himself would retire in 2002 from his Archbishopric due to his Parkinson's.) So that night I dreamt. I dreamed I was in a huge dining room, with a large oaken table that seated 20 people to a side. The room was lavish with red draperies, oaken trim, golden candelabras, and a huge roaring fire behind the person seated at the head of the table. As I entered the room, I was invited to sit and eat. I kept walking toward the other diner, gowned in a gold-trimmed chausable, and wearing a neatly clipped mitre, and I kept expecting to be told to stop. I never was. I was allowed to sit right next to my host. He never said a word. He smiled. It was Carlos Cardinal Maria Martini. As I sat down and reached for my napkin, he touched my hand, he poured me some wine...and I woke up.

As I got to my office that morning I related this story to my wonderful secretary Linda DeVries. I told her the dream, and also that if Martini is elected Pope that I should get some kind of canonical status too for that dream. Obviously, he was not elected Pope, but the dream is still alive, and it still has an impact...

You see, Prairie "Table" is all about eating together, about being together with people who are not like yourself. People who believe different things, people who act differently, people who vote differently...but all people eat. All people like to be smiled at...all people want to be respected. All people are children of God. Martini seemed to understand that...I wish I could have had a chance to meet him IRL.

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

Monday, August 27, 2012

So you want to get married?

My wife performed a wedding this weekend, and she and I went to both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding reception. After 24 hours of working my schedule around a wedding for whom I knew none of the people involved (don't worry, I have decent social skills, and I'm a Vikings fan so I can always act appropriately hopeful), I have to say I had a good time.

The venues for the meals were great (the clubhouse of TD Ameritrade Stadium, the Joslyn Castle), the food itself was tasty--and the NY Sirloin was a perfect medium rare), and the booze was complimentary. The wedding couple was charming, and most of the guest had seen "Wedding Crashers" so over-the-top dancing was a great source of entertainment. But still, as good as this was...is getting married worth it?

(Disclaimer: I have been married for 24 years to the same woman. Pray for her.)

In a world where we often don't live in the same places we were raised, a world where there are 7 billion people, where technology exists to continue the human race, what is the point of marriage? Clearly God doesn't care about it. I've performed about 400 weddings in my career, and if God has a preference, I certainly haven't seen any evidence for it...and the Christian tradition has never done more than rubber-stamp marriage to whatever society wishes. (This is why there will be gay marriage in this country no matter what some Christians say: Christianity has no stake in the institution of marriage--Christianity cares about relationships. And you do not need marriage to have a relationship, simple as that as to why we will have gay marriage eventually. It may take awhile for society to decide for gay marriage--it is a new proposal after all and takes some getting used to--, but once it does, Christianity will fall in line...guaranteed.)

So why get married? I would say it is to have a chance to learn what relationships are all about. Can you learn what relationships are all about without getting married? You bet! But I couldn't have...I needed a marriage to learn what it means to love in spite of not liking someone, to compromise on compromises because things change, to look into the eyes of someone who you know a bit and realize you don't know her all yet, and there is still something more to be loved. I needed a marriage to know that God exists, and that if a woman can love me (I am a traditional male in this sense), maybe God can too.

I don't know if I could have learned about sacrifice and suffering, love and caring, compassion, and commitment without being married, but I do know I learned and lived that stuff in marriage. I have had the great pleasure of meeting a tremendous number of people in my life...and only two have I ever wanted to marry...I am blessed to have so many great friends who have taught me so much about the world, how God loves it, and why we should care about it. I have no greater gift than their friendship, their trust, and their love...and I am even more blessed to have as one of those friends the woman I married. She is the greatest gift I ever got.

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

Monday, August 20, 2012

Missional Week in Review, August 13-19, 2012: The Darkwoood Brew Chronicles

We had some fun last night on Darkwood Brew, (darkwoodbrew.org) the internet program that combines ancient Christian practices with some "post-modern" ways of reading scripture and being the people of God in the world. Last evening, Brian McLaren and Eric Elnes talked about how they saw the Spirit of God converging into new patterns and shapes of Christian life together. Although I am at the studio where the show originates, I spent last evening on the live chat talking with the 35 people or so who were engaged in the conversation through that avenue. I want to highlight some things I found important in the conversation as to how we can follow the life and being of God in the world through Jesus the Christ and the Holy Spirit.

"Modernism is dead" and as Brian McLaren pointed out, if it is dead so are the two main theological responses to modernism: liberalism and fundamentalism. (He borrowed heavily from Nancey Murphy's work on this topic). This is important for us because if modernism is dead, then liberalism and fundamentalism as they have come to be ossified are no longer completely legitimate ways to deal with our religion. So convergence, as McLaren and Elnes talked about it, is not strictly a religious nor theological response of current Christians to God, but rather to the world. The example McLaren gave of people who were forced out of "evangelical" congregations because they would not condemn gays is not a response to God per se, as much as it is a response to a world where gays are no longer condemned. (Remember, I am talking about people for whom modernism is dead, not those who think it is alive and well. I am NOT suggesting no one condemns gays these days, but I am suggesting that those who do are not living in the world I see.) For me, the modern world is passe, and neither liberalism nor fundamentalism is a legitimate Christian response to God's activity in this world. It is pretty apparent God is working and doing great things with gay people, and some congregations would do well to notice and celebrate the work God is doing, not spending their time condemning the people with whom God is participating. Our world changes, and Convergence Christianity is a way of being Christian amidst those changes.

Institutions can be frustrating. On the chat, one of the recurring themes from the people who participated in the program was the frustration we have with institutions. Although, as you can imagine with a religious service on the internet, there were a majority who had given up on any form of institutionalized Christianity, there were many who were struggling with their faith and the institutions which incubated that faith. One of the things to remember (and I am borrowing here from John Zizioulas, the Orthodox theologian) is the importance of Christology and Pneumatology in our faith. That is, BOTH Jesus and the Holy Spirit are at work in our faith life, and the way we usually talk about their activities with us is to talk about Jesus as "instituting" our faith, and the Spirit as "constituting" our faith. This being the case, how does Jesus "institute" the institution? How does the Spirit "constitute" the institution? If institutions are frustrating, are they frustrating because they are not "instituted" in a Christ-like way; or, because they are not "constituted" by the Holy Spirit?

Both Elnes and McLaren are concerned with the constitution aspect of local congregations and the Church. Although congregations are instituted with Christ-like principles and values, their constitution of those values and principles are often ignored and down-right lacking. Notice what this means for Convergence Christianity: they are not claiming God is "not there" in local congregations which might disagree with them on an issue, say, gay marriage; rather, they claim God is not "constituted" in such a congregation as it is in congregations that support gay marriage. In other words, congregations are still instituted by Jesus Christ even if they are not all constituted in the same way by the Holy Spirit. This is the beauty of the Triune God.

Although neither McLaren nor Elnes spent time theologically on this idea, it is of vital importance if Christianity is to see how God is at work in the world. As Trinitarian Christians we believe in one God, and that belief stems from a God who will accomplish whatever God proposes to do...however, we believe God has some distinction in how God goes about those activities, and the various peoples of God are evidence that God doesn't necessarily want us all to do it the same way. (Of course, throughout Christian history this has been tough for us to swallow, because we want all Christians to be constituted the same way. But there is no theological necessity for us to believe that just because we all have the same institution {Jesus the Christ} that our constitutions {our lives in the Holy Spirit} must all be the same.) Convergence Christianity may provide a new way to understand the life and power of the Three-personed Godhead.

I look forward to hearing more from people about Convergence Christianity, as it seems to provide not only an accurate way to describe the journey of faith for some people,myself included; but, also begins to highlight the ways in which God is a work in our world today. And that is the single most important thing any theologian can seek. May your tables me full, and your conversations be true.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Missional Week in Review, August 6-12, 2012: Church Buildings

My parents live in a retirement community in Florida. It's big, it's pretty infamous (books have been written about it), and 90% of the people living there are over 55. Most are retired, although I have met quite a few people over the years who still work. But the place is hardly a beehive of industry. Anyhow, my mom was telling me the other day about all the congregations in the community that are in building programs. The list included 16 that she knew of...the town has 50,000 full-time residents, and they have 16 different building programs for religious communities going on at the same time??? Color me impressed...or, actually, color me "What else is new?"

My parents generation built church buildings. My Dad can rattle off capital campaigns for church buildings that he has been a part of that is as long as his arm...I know every time I have been involved in one, we have looked to my parents' generation for leadership. Those folks sure know how to build buildings.

I think about that because I have never heard of people who write blogs writing about their experiences with building buildings. I am sure a few have, but I can't recall anything...usually we write about God, church-stuff (not the building unless it is backdrop for a story), or Jesus, or politics, or culture, or anything...yet, one of the greatest Christian legacies is its buildings. Even those European cathedrals that now house artistic events or are historical monuments, are still a testament to God's people in a particular time and place.

But in our Lutheran tradition we distinguish between "community" and "building" when talking about Church. And I think most people do these days as well...if the stuff I read about is half of what is going on there is a lot of Church happening without buildings. One of my friends shared a great part of his life in a comment on the July 16 post (read below), and that kind of stuff happens all the time.

I remember one time walking into a 1/2 completed sanctuary we were building with the Treasurer of the Building program. Harry and I looked at the immensity of its space, its towering rafters, its mammoth entrance doors, and he looked at me and smiled. What, I said? Well, he mused, if this church thing doesn't work out, at least we'll have a great place to store hay.

Sanctuary=Barn, sanctuary=barn, and nowadays, barn=sanctuary, barn=sanctuary.

The mission shift (I love that phrase by Steve Knight) comes about because a great many young people do not have to worry about where to worship--their grandparents took care of that. And when the now 20 and 30-years old get aged enough to move down to Florida, apparently, there will be church buildings waiting for them there too.

I've spent my entire theological and pastoral career dealing with the residual effects of my parents' generation's understanding of Christianity. I have battled an inability to have spiritual direction, an overt formality imposed upon community, and their insistent intractability toward change...and I have done it all in their buildings.

If you have a building where you worship, one of the most missional things you can do these days is give thanks that someone once was there to build it for you. Now, granted, you have to maintain it, update it (I will do a whole blog someday on how to retro 19th Century buildings for Internet ministry), and--most importantly--cherish its builders, no matter how far in the past they are. Because just like us and our wi-fis and blogs and microphones and movie screens, those folks were trying to be with God too.

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

Monday, August 6, 2012

Missional Week in Review, July 31-August 5, 2021

As the hot days of summer continue to pelt this edge of the prairie, we look back at another week in God's work out here in Omaha....

Had a great conversation last night with Steve Knight about the "Missional Shift." He blogs for Patheos (patheos.com) on their Progressive channel. He is a smart guy, and is working hard to see that people all over the progressive spectrum (whatever that might mean) have a place to stay connected and share ideas with each other. He is starting a YouTube TV network this Fall (he said that YouTube posts 72 hours of video a MINUTE! Think abou that, it is mathematically impossible to watch everything on YouTube at that rate no matter how long you live.) He does a lot, and he does it well.

There were three things he mentioned last night that are important to our understanding of how the Missional Church is making a difference. First, he began where we all begin, and that is understanding that God is already there. The idea that bringing "God" to a "god-less" area is just wrong. There is no such thing as a "god-less" area. A limited appreciation of God's creative power leads people to speak of god-lessness when it comes to places, and the missional church wants to see that God creates. (Btw, this does not mean there is not "god-less" acts, but sin is a will-ful negation of God's creativity, not a place God hasn't "got around to yet." Which means, ironically, that those Christians who assumed God was not someplace--say China in the 15th Century--where the ones who were sinning, not the Chinese who lived there not worshiping in a Christian manner. To ignore or negate God's creative power--even in a place where there are no Christians yet--is worse than not worshiping in a Christian manner. Chew on that for a bit. In other words, it's better to believe in God even when you don't know exactly what is going on, than to deny God because you are sure it is wrong.)

Secondly, he mentioned that missional shift works at making God, not the Church, the center of mission. This is huge. Mission is who God is, and the Church participates in the life and being of God when it is missional. This shift, as Steve calls his blog, not only frees us up to live joyfully (he called it taking off the pressure), but also to follow where God is leading.

Lastly, he noted the power of prayer and discernment. My newest quest is to free the word "discernment" from its captivity as a internal, personalized, way to discover "yourself." I want to see us understand discernment as a communal process, grounded in prayer and discussion of scripture, in a way that God's activity in the world "seems good to us" to quote the book of Acts.  As the Christian Church shifts into this missional mode, discernment of place, time, resources, and God's prerogatives will be a central activity for the Church. To not engage in such discernment is to cut off the head before the body has a chance to mature.  As Jesus once said, learn what it means to distinguish between mercy and sacrifice. To learn that is to discern the mission of God.

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

Monday, July 30, 2012

Missional Week in Review, July 23-30, 2012

Well, it's been a rather hectic week here in Omaha...what did I hear and see over the weekend?

Had a rather interesting conversation with the Rev. Bruce Van Blair about the woman whom Jesus meets at a well. On Darkwood Brew last evening Rev. Van Blair and myself were talking about this story: in the middle of a dusty day Jesus meets a woman who engages him in conversation. This conversation takes place in Samaria, an area just northwest of Israel in the day, and reveals a lot about what Jesus seems to be about. Of course, it is a story, and one that has huge theological implications for us these days. According to Rev. Van Blair (and I think he is spot-on here), Jesus believes his call in life is to do the work of his father, and this work, at least according to this story, is to bring together all the people of the world.

There is much in this story that we did not get to talk about, but what we did talk about was pretty interesting...that is, God is not about separating people into various groups or factions--people do that, and what God does is to try and bring us all together. Again. (Presumably, we start out together, and work to distinguish ourselves.) Difference--however, does not seem to mean that we cannot all be part of God's plan...so to eradicate difference and distinction is not the point of our life together. The point rather seems to be how we can get together even if people choose to live differently that we do.

We have inherited from our Enlightment forebearers some kind of idea like "tolerance." And, as a political ideal, for people of relative homogeneity, tolerance works well for most people. (Some people, it seems, have trouble with this, but at least the "wars" have been battles in media and pulpits rather than about bombs and guns.) What we have discovered, especially since 9/11, is that "tolerance" is not enough when that homogeneity doesn't exist.

What I mean is this: there is not enough difference between your average Democrat or Republican to go to war over. There is relative homogeneity. (Do you really think it matters who is elected President? I mean, some money might shift around, and some people might be better off with one or another elected, but I'm still going to have to mow my grass, and love my children no matter who sits in the oval office.) I can "tolerate" anyone as President because most of my life doesn't radically change. But, now, as the world has shown itself to be more vast than we ever imagined...well, there are some real differences, real changes would have ot be made, and "tolerance" is not enough.

We have to learn to live with each other, to curb some desires, behaviors, and beliefs so that we can keep ourselves from killing each other. I think the role of women in society is a classic case where this will play itself out. As the USA, we do business with countries that do not believe women are capable of handling tough and difficult decisions in the public arena. Sarah Palin's competency aside, would you rather live in world where she cannot even pretend to be a legitimate politician? Would you feel better if you lived in a world where only certain men, born into a certain class and wealth, could make decisions for all of us? Yet, we have to live and work with countries where this is true. Women--just because they are women--are not allowed a voice in the public debate about anything, not even things related to women. Is this right? Should we care? Should we tolerate it? We tolerate it enough to make a few business deals, but the cracks of toleration are beginning to show through...

We need something else, and Jesus seems to suggest in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well there is something else. The Spirit of God. Only when we understand and live with the Spirit of God in all of us, will we begin to live together in the peace and prosperity for which we long. In other words, we talk, engage, and live with each other not because we "tolerate" their choices, but rather because we cherish their Spirit. (Which is really God's Spirit in them.) And we see--a little bit maybe--what God is all about for us. And maybe women get to take off their burquas, and maybe other women don't wear their underwear in public, and maybe men respect women no matter what they wear...regardless it happens not because we tolerate difference, but rather because we cherish those who are different.

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

Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's a Mystery to Me

30 years ago a college classmate was writing his senior thesis on the topic of Televangelism preachers, the Moral Majority, and the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. He asked me, as one of his classmates, if I would proofread his essay. I did...but I told him he'd owe me a beer when it was over. Being a tee-totaler, he gave me a six-pack of Diet Coke. He died recently, but I still think about his essay when I read just about anything about Christianity on the internet. Simply put: I JUST DON'T GET IT.

It is a complete mystery to me why people write, say, and think about the things they do in relation to the Christian faith. I have had almost none of the experiences that seem seminal to all of the bloggers, writers, editors, speakers, and publishers of what passes for Christian religion on the internet. (Now, I realize there is almost everything on the internet, but I am taklking about popular stuff like the Huffington Post, Patheos, Fox News, NBC News, Salon, and even Religious News Service.) For me, 99% of the time they might as well be writing about another religion, because what they all seemed to have experienced as Christianity-- I just missed out on, I guess.

Which brings me back to that thesis. Although I owned a TV, had voted in the election, and even heard of the Moral Majority (I actually met Jerry Falwell in 1981), I didn't experience Christianity that way, and never thought of that stuff as much more than a fad. I still don't. I am still firmly convinced--and convinced even moreso every time I hear or read from Frank Schaeffer--that the Evengelical, literalist, fudementalist Christianity developed in this country about 120 years ago will be little more than a footnote to the entire history of Christianity. I mean, I read a lot of blogs, a lot of books, and talk to a lot of people these days about Christianity...but I don't believe that type of Christianity will last. God will last. The people of God will last. Maybe a few things will last...but probably not as much more than historical curiosities.

If you ask my I think this popular type of Christianity won't be around it's because it doesn't seem to be about what the God who made heaven and earth, the God who loved enough to raise Jesus from the dead, the God who cares enough to send an Advocate. The Triune God I confess just seems so far removed from what I hear, read, and see these days. (If they even care to consider God at all. Progressives are the worst at this. They can write lines and lines of text without considering what God might or might not wish. Drives me nuts, because I know many of them, and they are good people. But as good as they are as motivators, community-builders, and people who make this world a better place, they are not good theologians. Of course, they are too busy making a real difference in the world to worry about it. That's why they have me. I do the worrying.)

I wasn't raised in evangelical, fundemental Christianity. I was raised in the "classic Christian" tradition (I heard Joseph Sittler use that phrase in an interview, and it makes much more sense than "mainstream," especially for those of us who were politically and socially liberal, and theologically trained to the point of nausea. You don't have to be liberal to be a classic Christian, but you do have to be theologically trained.) So, people who come from different places of Christianity talk about their experiences in worship as youth, as young adults in congregations, and now as writers in blogs, and I have no idea what they are talking about. It simply was not anything I experienced.

You see, what I remember from worship is power of a God who seems to be about loving us in spite of our best intentions to not make that possible. (I am fully aware that I might have missed what others heard as condemnation. Or, as one of my friends told me the day we were confirmed--"Scott, you see things the rest of don't. Maybe we shouldn't sleep through church.") I am not saying my experience was definitive, nor necessarily unique (my wife, for example, seems to have had my kind of experiences, and she was raised 1400 miles from me.) I am saying, however, that I do not understand so much of what I read about Christianity these days. There is another way to be Christian than what I see and hear these days...and much of what I read and hear these days about Christianity is a flat-out mystery to me.

But maybe that's the point...maybe when Paul says we are "stewards of God's mysteries" what he's talking about is not some "things" we don't understand, but rather, that we are taking care of (stewarding) the people who God has made. The people who are--in the end--mysteries of God.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Gun Deaths...another time

I have to admit it seems like I blog a lot of gun deaths...and that can't be good for our souls. But first my disclaimer: I own guns. I have lived in the "gun culture" all my life. Guns are the most dangerous things I own...except for my Bibles.

The people I know who defend their "right" to own a gun defend it for one of two reasons: One, because it is a "right." (No blogger I have read over the past few days about the tragedy in Aurora, CO because of a very fast and deadly gun has dealt enough with this issue. That is, until the USA decides to rescind the 2nd Amendment we have to deal with the legacy of a group of guys who thought that having a few muskets around would make for a better country. It may have. And it may be that having some citizens around with very fast and deadly guns makes for a better country...unless it does not. But we have over 300 million people in this country--Norway has about 5 million as a comparison, about the size of one of our medium states like Minnesota--that are covered by the 2nd Amendment--whatever it means. And freedom isn't free if you take away even the most extreme options. Some people are comfortable with taking those away, apparently our current politicians are not. But in either case, if you are going to convince my family and friends about gun-control, you have to convince them that they don't have that right--as an American citizen--to that gun.) Secondly, we tend to believe the gun makes us more honest. (and no blogger has dealt with this.)

You see, all gun owners I've ever known...from my grandfather to my best friends to me all know one reality: in order for something to live, something else has to die. If you cannot believe that--even at its most extreme--you'll have a tough time understanding why people own guns. This idea, of course, has led to escalating violence throughout the course of human history. Although there have been a few Camelot-like eras, most of human history has been demarcated by violence. How, for example, did the Roman Empire fall? Did they just turn over the keys to the city? Was there an orientation for the new leaders? How did the Constitution become written? Violence is one option in a world where death is coming for you. (And it is coming, medical technology aside, does anything really think they will live forever?)

So in that world of impending death, my family and friends buy insurance and they buy guns...just in case they can put death at bay for a little while. (Of course we can't, but we don't tell the insurance agents or gun sellers that their products are a waste of money...we are too enculturated for that.) So, if you wish to talk about this to those of us in the gun culture, what are you going to offer in place of our self-delusional self protection that we have?   What other response can you offer to violence other than more violence?

Here is where our Christian faith needs to take over. To realize there is another response to violence besides more violence...but here's the thing: you have to die yourself for that option. You can see why that option is not so popular, and we even have Jesus who showed us how it could be done...and even more importantly, promised us that violence will end.

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

Monday, July 23, 2012

Week in Review, July 16-23, 2012

(editor's note: each Monday morning, I will review some of the ways I saw God in action over the past week. Although I live in Omaha, NE, I travel across the country, and get a chance to see how God moves around on a pretty regular basis. I can't tell if this will be helpful to anyone but me.)

One of the highlights of the week is INGLORIOUS PASTERS, a weekly podcast that is just gettting started. Myself, along with Teaching Elder Mark Davis of Heartland Presbyterian Church, Clive IA, are starting up a new ministry on the internet. IP--with its direct borrowing from Quentin Tarantino's movie Inglorious Basterds--is a podcast about current theology, historical theology, and biblical theology. In short, it's about theology. I have to say, Mark is truly one of the greatest gifts to my life. We've known each other for about 8 years now, and I continue to learn from him every time we talk or I read some of his stuff. The guy thinks about things, and he thinks well and from a theological point-of-view. He and I just about agree on everything, and where we differ is some of the most interesting places of conversation. He almost always believes in the best of everyone else, and the worst about himself...I am not burdened with such modesty. You can catch samples of our work on our Facebook page--and as we get the hang of it-- we hope to branch out in distribution.

This past week we recorded some conversations on "Predestination: It Could be Worse." As a Lutheran I have had exactly zero conversations about that topic over the years, as we are not too big on that framing of the concept. (We tend to use "election" or "vocation" as ways to get to talk about God's initial, or prevenient, grace.) But I did learn that I love Psalm 8 a lot. Probably for the "bulwark."

My second favorite part of the week came in finding a YouTube video of the Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler ("The Debonair Giant"). Recorded over 30 years ago, his insights were refreshing to hear, as so much of what he said then we try to say now, and so much more inelegantly. I never had a class from him (he was retired fully when I came along), but we did take in a few lectures on the Pentateuch together. (He was auditing, I think.)  The world he lived in no longer exists, and the style and type of theology he knew (he calls himself a "classic Christian" which is a term nowadays we couldn't even begin to wrap our minds around) no longer is in vogue...but what he knew? Well, truth never goes out of style, even if it is hidden.

Lastly, I saw some mission in action. You can't do anything with youth these days without some type of "servant event." Getting kids and young adults out into the world to serve is practically a requirement for youth events these days. So I saw some kids tie-dye some shirts. In and of itself, nothing too spectacular, however, they were tie-dyed for other kids. In other words, somebody created something and gave it away. This is God in action.

You see, if I send a group of kids to go paint your house, there isn't too much I am asking of the kids. They are basically free labor for a project to be done. Although there may be a bit of creativity in how one paints a house, the colors, the style, everything about it is determined by everyone BUT the kids. They are just the people who paint. You can see why "mission-fatigue" sets in...it's not really mission, it's free labor and people get tired from labor. Painting a house may be missional, but it is not because you paint, but because you share in the life of someone else while you are painting. To end a project with a half-painted house and a new friend is way more missional that to end a project with a fully painted house and not even knowing the home-owners name. Habitat for Humanity is NOT mission--it's labor, and even Karl Marx would know that.

Anyhow, I am sitting in worship and some kids come up with a story about how they went and met the kids through the Boys and Girls Club. After a day they left, went and made the kids they had met a tie-dyed tshirt, and come back for another day of work and play. That's mission. The shirts were made by the kids for the kids because of the kids. That's how God works. Those shirts were gifts. God's mission--contrary to popular belief--isn't just about getting things done, God's mission is getting to know the strangers name.

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