Your Blog Steward

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Drinking--the piano, not me...

Read a fun blog the other day about a mother of young children who was giving up her daily 5:00 pm glass of wine during this season of Lent. Apparently, she regularly has this glass of vino during the day to give her something to do "for herself,"or to "make her feel like an adult." She wonders as her children get older if she will cease to have this need to "take a break" from her daily routine?

Aside from the obvious alcoholic issues (more about that in a bit), I wanted to comment to her something like: As your children grow older you do not want to drink wine any more...you don't want to drink it any less either!

I do remember when the kids were young, and I stayed at home with them a few days a week. (My wife and I did tag-team parenting.) When she would come home on the days I was with the kids I would practically run out into the driveway to meet her--often with a beer or some Jack Daniels for both of us (as you know, working is no picnic either.) Time passed, and my children grew older, and my liver survived.

But alcoholism as a disease is a huge issue, and especially for young adults in that 17-21 year old time frame which is extemely difficult to manage without alcohol. I believe it should be legal for people to drink at age 12, and I see so many benefits to that it would take 100 blogs to list them all. Wine is never the problem...the problems are always covered up by wine. Even a person who gets drunk on one glass of wine or beer or whatever, should take that seriously, and drink only when the community can provide support to keep you healthy and whole. (in other words, don't drink alone, and never drive!) Our society has lost all sense of reality on this question. Kids don't drink because they like the taste of beer, they drink because adults haven't given them anything else to do! Kids don't drink because they want to die and get into car accidents, they drink because we refuse to let them grow up and be adults! And don't get me started on the drugs, which as my daughter once told me, if you're going to break the law, why not smoke it?

Lower the drinking age, show children how to drink responsibly, and we would probably have safer roads. And healthier children.

But back to the young mother...she was giving up wine, not because of her alcoholic tendencies, but rather, to use that "adult time" in her day to focus on God. Now that, is a good idea. The challenge will be if she can use her 5 pm wine to focus on God. And, since the Christian God is not opposed to wine, she has a shot...but she got the point. It's never the relationship with wine that is the problem, it's the other relationships of our lives that wine can make problematic. Just as God isn't only for adults, neither should wine, from the making and cultivating of one of God's greatest treasures to the drinking, be only for adults. If not drinking wine can bring us closer to God, imagine how much closer we could get if we did something God actually likes us to do?

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

Friday, February 24, 2012

Staying focused

At some point I came to realize that all of us have ADD (attention deficit disorder), and there are a few people who learn to overcome it. Those people who can singularly put their mind and efforts onto one issue or into one train of thought and follow it to the end are the ones who are special...the rest of us probably need the drugs!

What makes this interesting for me is that religious leaders often have this singular focus. In my conversations with religious leaders, those with the most creative, energetic, and Spiritual ministries often have that single focus. And, since I don't meet many of these types of leaders, I'm going to guess that the rest of us lack that focus at some level...

Maybe we are in positions that do no let us focus on one thing, or calls to ministry that are about spreading ourselves into many areas a little bit, rather than one area a lot. Other pastors, for example, often say they wish they could have my job, writing and thinking and talking about Christianity, Jesus, the mission of God, congregations, and how to discern the Holy Spirit in community...they think it sounds fun compared to their jobs of meetings, and visits, and the regular parish schedule that does not allow time for the stuff I do. Of course, I tell them I envy them--they are not under pressure to stay focused on one thing and one thing only--and I am not sure God made me to have such focus. (I will leave out the obvious fact that it is true one is never happy with one's lot in life no matter how much focus you have or not.)

I guess I am in search of a Christianity that does not require you to stay focused on God all the time, or even a majority of the time. I am looking for a Christianity that allows me to be in relationship with God that can accept my focus when I get it my life in focus...which, of course, is never. So I wouldn't have much of a relationship with God if I got what I wanted. So I got something else instead...

Because I can't focus on God, God has focused on me. Jesus, as the Son of God, is the laser of God that drills into and illumines me so I can see--every now and then when I can focus--on the love God surrounds me with every day. A love from friends who send a text or Facebook message--one even called me on the phone (old school) the other day! A love from a great wife, children who tolerate me, and strangers who give the long-haired, sandal-wearing hippie a wry smile in line at the grocery store. The more I try to focus on God the fuzzier my relationship with God gets, but the more I let God focus on me? Well, that's when I see best. Strange.

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

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I am not a Christian, I guess...

I was told the other day by a friend that-according to some politician-I had a "phony theology" in all probability. And for the first time in a long time, I actually generated interest in politics for more than jokes. Then, as I was about to research such a thing, I saw the red cardinal that has taken up residence in our backyard, and the moment passed...I am back to no longer caring about politics and/or politicians...it was close!

But I probably do have a "phony theology" at some level. I call myself a Christian, but the one who defines that religion for me (Jesus of Nazareth) died before he could become one...so that is a little phony. I mean, to claim to follow a guy who died before he had a chance to do the stuff you claim he did is a bit phony for my conscience.

What interested me about the slur, however, was the use of the word "theology." I didn't know politicians knew that word, especially politically conservative ones. Theology, as the word has come to be used, means some kind of systematic, organized understanding of religious symbols. And the reason why I ignore politicians is that they seem to have no grasp of that. Politicians use religious symbols to access power (in a democracy that's usually votes), but they never actually try to organize them. So to discover one politician gave a shout out to theology is rather notable. But theology is how you organize the religious symbols and values of your life...phoniness just isn't an option.

To be "phony" something has to be a sham or counterfeit or even fraudulent. What would be "phony" would be using theology to try to make yourself into something you are not, such as using religious symbols to garner votes. What would be phony is how your hypocrisy puts a religious sheen over the way your organize your world. In this quest to combat phoniness I strive to make my theology intelligible and understandable to people. But I make no apologies for my system and organization.

So I will continue to think it's not acceptable to be rich when so many are poor; I will continue to believe that all people are equal, even if they do not think so or understand how they are equal; I will continue to believe that life is always about freedom, expanding choices, and letting people explore the caverns of the universe; I will continue to believe that life is about suffering and surrendering before it is about anything else...and this has nothing to do with being born in the USA. (apologies to Springsteen) It has everything to do with being a child of God in Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. It has everything to do with, as my pastors are found of saying, being loved beyond your wildest imagination.

That's theology. You can call me a Christian if you want...but it won't change the theology no matter what you call me.

May your table be full and your conversations be blessed.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Church is the end...until then it's just congregations and people

Church is over, and for me that is true almost from the beginning of when I first stepped into one 50 years ago. I never found church all that interesting as a kid. I liked the music and the ritual (I am a sucker for ritual apparently), and can even remember some things various preachers have said. But most of the time when I go to church-worship I am talking to my dad, or my wife, or my kids, or even the ladies on front of me. I am not a quiet worshiper.

As a pastor I pretty much try to keep things moving along when I lead church-worship. No lag time between elements, short, quick reflections upon scripture, music I like (with a propensity to choose pietistic American hymns from the 19th Century because I like the minor chords). Church-Worship more than 45 minutes in my book is a waste of time. There is little silence, no time for reflection, and just learning how to behave as a community. The noisier the better, the more chaotic the more spiritual.

I even started a worship service based on chaos and conversation. I noticed in the usual church-worship, other than than a few songs and a prayer or two, most of the time people were expected to sit still and listen--like 90% of the time. I think that's stupid most days. There are times to sit and listen to God, but I am of the school that Sunday morning is not the best time to do that (although I might be persuaded some day). When everybody's together there should be a party or at least a chance to corporately act TOGETHER rather than in separate individual bubbles of consolation and solace. So the worship I developed had lots of talking amongst people and lots of sharing together rather than time to dwell in your own shell of piety. We could tell when veteran church-worshipers would visit: they would sit in shock for 45 minutes, and the second we broke up to leave they would run out that door never to be seen again. If you'd had no prior worship experience we were fun, but if you were expecting "church" we were just confusing.

There still is a place for church in my theology, and most people call it "heaven." The Book of Revelation to me is church or what the end-goal of all life is about--God and God's people living together in prayer and praise. So, until then, we have some people and the congregations they form. God's blessings on that.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Turning around

At at meeting of some pretty great progressive Christian leaders the other day, I overheard one of them remark about a website named "Patheos." It gets a million hits or more a month. I visited the site again (I had been there before, even "liked" it on Facebook), but this time with an renewed interest. What do a million plus of us find so damn interesting on that site? (It was at this point where I realized I was once again sucked into the marketing machine that is Christian internet ministry these days. Oh well, live and learn.)

I was a part of a group that founded a community in Bismarck, North Dakota a few years back. We did little to advertise that we were meeting. The editor of the local paper did a nice feature on the ministry, and periodically she would seek me out for some quotations on a religious topic or two, but as far as I know--we never advertised or marketed a single ministry we ever did. At the end, as I moved on to follow Jesus into a new "market" I look back on that time as some of the best ministry I was ever able to be a part of. In large part because I never had to worry about whether people "visited" my site.

I mean, we could actually pray in worship...not just silence for our own personal agendas, but vocal corporate prayer in which the agonies and celebrations of lives could be shared. Some of the folks who had only been part of large, denominational congregations all their lives never knew how comforting and relieving such prayer can be. Imagine if you didn't have to hold onto all your secrets and suspicions about your life, but could actually voice them, have God and some of God's people hold and cherish them (or help you get rid of them!)? Truly amazing...

But I don't kid myself...this kind of ministry is not for everyone. (I just did my taxes...I lost %75 of my income over the 3 years of that ministry. The only real downside is that I cannot pay for my kids to attend college. I feel bad about that.) You have to be the kind of person that does not mind having friends; you have to be willing to talk to anyone, especially strangers and people you do not like; you have to be willing to have plans fail; and you have to be willing to ask for help. That kind of ministry worked for me.

It didn't take long for me to realize that such a ministry, solely and wholly committed to building and maintaining relationships, and not marketing and making sure people visisted us, was not going to last. It's almost as if the emotional and psychic energy of such a minstry has a built-in timer. Three years, and you have to give it a rest...

As I drove away from Bismarck that last time as a pastor in town I passed a congregation that had a large cross out in its yard. I smiled...at least after my three years I didn't die on one of those. But after three years of living and working with some of the most beautiful and wonderful people I have ever known I too knew that it was finished for me, and there was no turning around.