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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, May 29, 2012

Who is my brother? Who is my sister?

As my wife is fond of noting, as progressives it seems like we have more in common with other progressives in Judaism and Islam than we do with some Christians. Why is that?

I suppose it is somewhat natural for any of us Christians who carry around a qualifier like "Progressive." (and it is not the only one, there are many others.) When I am with others who share progressive ideas (legalization of gay marriage, economic justice for the poor, equality of womens' rights, etc.) I do not need also share other beliefs as well--such as my theological ones. However, when I am with "Christians" I can share a lot of agreement as well (Jesus as the Christ, the power of baptism, the sanctity of the Bible, etc.) without sharing my progressive beliefs. This schizophrenia which results from part of me agreeing here, another part there, another in this place, another in that, troubles me. I want to be more wholistic, but how can I be?

You see, to be human is to disagree. My religious heritage tells me we were probably not made that way, but the evidence I experience day-to-day tells me "disagreement" is the norm. I wish it were not so. I wish I could share my beliefs with everybody, but notice what happens then...my beliefs become the norm, the universal, and I become-- de facto--God. So how can I be united in such a situation as this?

How can I claim solidarity with my progressive brothers while at the same time claim full-communion with my Christian sisters? Is it up to me? How do I hold all these people together--who I know disagree with at least part of me--in my life? Do I forsake one group for the other? Do I try to appease everybody in silence? (In other words, everything is like the lunchroom in my junior high school?)

I don't suppose there is any definitive answer to how I can unite my schizophrenic beliefs, and I see no reason to abandon any of them either. It's not like Christians have convinced me that gays shouldn't be married; or, my non-Christian friends have convinced me that the Bible isn't all that important. I still believe both, even as my friends on each side shake their heads in pity.

One of the interesting things about the story of Jesus is that apparently there were people who were not impressed with him. Others didn't understand him, still others thought him crazy. Maybe that's what it means to be human? Maybe if you're going to have friends all across the Christian spectrum, all across the political spectrum, all across all spectrums, maybe some folks along the way will find you nuts. And that's ok...because the only other thing seems to be to give up, either on yourself or on somebody else, and that doesn't seem too wise either. Who's my brother? Who's my sister? Probably everybody.

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

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Renewing the Protestant Principle

Theologically, my great-grandfather, Paul Tillich, developed an idea he called the "Protestant Principle." (When I say "great-grandfather," I mean this: my teacher--Patrick Keifert, learned from his teacher Langdon Gilkey who learned from his teacher Paul Tillich...it's just a little theological geneology.)

The idea of the Protestant Principle is that no temporal, historical manifestation of God can claim absoluteness. In the God-Human relationship, God is always able to be more (and is more in this sense) than anything humans can comprise. So something that seems eternal--the Church, for example, is shown to be something that comes and goes depending upon the time and place. Even the Bible, for example, is subject to the Protestant Principle. (This is where fundamentalists would disagree with me, but to my mind they have confused the formal--scripture--with the material, faith.)

So why do I want to renew this Protestant Principle? (And note, I don't care what you call it, but I learned it this way, and I am old...) I think it would help clarify a few issues these days if we took seriously at what we can know and not know about our relationship with God. Here are a couple of examples:

1) Congregations without a lot of people in them does not mean God has abandoned that congregation. There is no direct correlation between what God does and how many people it takes for God to get something done. Just because a congregation has less and less people does not mean it is "dying." It may mean it is re-tooling, or re-locating, or even re-distributing? But the activity of God through humanity (what we call "Congregations") does not depend upon any numerical status. It only took one Hebrew boy to convince his nation that the Philistines were not invincible.

2) Men don't always have to make the decisions. Bill Maher remarked recently that places where only men make decisions (college football programs, the Middle East, and the Roman Catholic Church) seem to have a horrible track record these days. Since he was on "The View" when he said this, no doubt he was over-stating the positive effects women can have in such situations; however, there is no absolute reason why women should not be allowed to make decisions anywhere at anytime about anything, even places like football locker rooms, palaces of the sultanate in Egypt, or the halls of the Vatican.

We must continue to pray that the power of God will cut through all our pretensions, all our shenanigans, all our schemes to control God, our neighbors, and even our own selves. If we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and power; and, as Jesus the Christ adds, likewise our neighbors as ourselves we need to remember the Protestant Principle. We need to remember that God always is more than us. If it weren't true, then why was Jesus the Dead One resurrected? (Unless you know some human that can pull off resurrection?) How do we learn to love what we cannot until we learn that we are loved, "loved beyond our wildest imaginations?" (Eric Elnes)

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Change is gonna' come

"but I know, change is gonna' come, yes it is." Sam Cooke

Having spent the last 8 months out of the daily rhythm of parish life, I have been able to spend some time looking at the forest, and not getting so caught up in one tree. (That is always the danger of parish ministry.) Change has come.

10 years ago when I talked about mission, and about congregations forging and fostering relationships with their communities and the people within them I had few listeners. Now, that's all we--and everybody else--talks about. The language has changed, attitudes are slowly coming around, and behaviors will be after that. It's good to see, but I wonder how much people will change? Especially those whose already seems engaged and working?

By the time I was done with Prairie Table Ministries in North Dakota all we owned was a camera, some donated Bibles, and a rolling cabinet. I carried everything I needed for a week's worth of ministry in two green recycleable bags you get from grocery stores. We had communionware that we borrowed from our synod, and a couple of table crosses people had given us. We met in the basement of another church in town--and had we stayed--we would have moved into other venues as well, but not churches. PTM was a pretty itinerant ministry, and it worked well for people who didn't need buildings, programs, offices, and Robert's Rules of Order. For those whom that kind of stuff is church--well, they never understood what we did. As one of my pastor friends remarked so honestly to me, "Scott, I can't even pretend to understand what you do for church."

Every established church I go to these days seems to be suffering from a lack of energy and power. Oh, I see a few people engaged in whatever God has the congregation doing, but mostly not. Announcement after announcement is encouraging people to do the same things, but with different labels, and if the fervency of the type size or the stridency of the implorer's voice is any indication, it's not going well. But this is the change that comes. What did we expect to happen if we no longer focus on raising money or maintaining buildings as the locus of God's mission in any given area? Did we expect staff to grow even if we are saying they are no longer needed? Did we really expect people to continue to give to us, when we have persented them with so many options of giving to others? Have we actually received what we've been preaching for the past 20 years? What if the decline of the local congregation is a sign of our success, rather than a sign of our failure? What if the kids we taught to think about others, to love God by loving strangers, to reach out into new communities to help "in mission" are leaving local congregations because they learned those lessons so well?

Over the past couple of years I have--through Facebook--been brought into contact with some of my most favorite young adults over the past 20 years of ministry. Obviously, they are not so young anymore. But they are doing the things we did together--helping those in greater need than themselves, reaching out to others, especially strangers and those not like themselves, and taking care of God's creation. But they are not going to church. (though there seems to be a few exceptions.) So those congregations that no longer have the energy and power are not "dying," but rather are now sharing exactly what preachers like me have been harping on for 20 years. Change came. Who knew?

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

Monday, May 7, 2012

Admitting Defeat, accepting suffering--this is the Christian way

Last night as I was watching DarkwoodBrew (this is an internet worship service on Sundays at 5 pm check out the link on the right), I was reminded of an important point: We have no idea what Jesus means, and we would be well to admit that defeat, and accept whatever suffering it entails.

In reading the Bible at DarkwwodBrew, this line came up "Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we don''t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?'" (John 14.5) This is one of the lines that make Thomas my favorite disciple (his story of going to bring Christianity to India and the Far East is even better, and don't get me started on his "doubt.") Look at what he's saying in this story: 1) Jesus, although you may know what you're doing, we don't, so why do you keep asking us if we do? 2) Since we don't know what you're doing, it's kind of tough for us to help plan the day. A little clarity would go a long way towards helping here. (Jesus demurs.) 3) Even though we don't know, can't help, or really do much but wander around with you, we will stick with you. (And the disciples do, although they are a bit confused about how to proceed after Jesus is crucified. Eventually, though, they figure out a plan.)

This is precisely why this story interests me so much. We often hear proclamations from Christian leaders that they KNOW what is going to happen, or they have SEEN the future, or God has DELIVERED unto them some special knowledge. Yet, one of the first followers of Jesus, the founder of Christianity for everyone east of Jerusalem (at least according to myth) flat-out admits he has no clue, and neither do the others. What's the difference?

Thomas knew he was going to lose...the false prophets of today admit no such reality. Christianity is for losers, people who suffer, and people who are not going to win. If you are rich, powerful, and strong, or if you aspire to those things you can be much, but you can't be a Christian. Or, at least, a Christian like St. Thomas. Because what makes Thomas different from so many Christian leaders is not that he was humble (many are), it was not because he was so honest (many are), but because he knew, somewhere in the dark recesses of his heart, that this following of Jesus was not going to end well. Thomas was able to admit defeat, able to accept his suffering because he believed in God, and what God was doing through his friend Jesus.

For those of you out there looking for Christian leaders to follow you would do well to remember Thomas and the example he leaves us. Look for a leader who can admit defeat, who can accept suffering, and in spite of all that still believe in God. It's no great trick to believe in God when you have a $1,000,000. Try believing in God when your children don't have any food to eat. That's when you know you've met a person of faith.

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

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What happened to drinking?

Alcoholics of the world unite! We are now officially in the drunk-zone. The metamorphose is complete.
There is more Bud Light sold these days than Budweiser.

Here's why I find this fact significant:
1) People no longer drink for taste. (It is debatable if they ever have, but if you've ever had a Bud Light it is pretty clear that no one drinks it because they like the taste.)

Annheuser-Busch (the company that sells Budweiser and Bud Light) believes 40% of young people have only had light beers; that is, they've never even had a Budwesier. They've only had Bud Light (or one of its light beer competitors)

Here's why I find this belief significant:
1) Young people drink to get drunk, and perhaps only exclusively for that reason. For most youth, it's either Bud Light, shots, or water. For young drinkers, if you are going to drink it is to get drunk, and if you are not going to get drunk, then you don't drink at all. Social drinking is dead for this generation. One beer, one cocktail, one glass of wine (and not all at once) is unheard of it seems for young drinkers these days. (I am willing to be wrong on this assertion, and to be honest, I kind of hope I am.)

This is a problem for Christian congregations. Christian congregations that practice the Eucharist (Holy Communion, Lord's Supper, Sacrament of the Altar, whatever you call it) with wine are going against the trend. What I mean is this: we don't drink wine (blood of Christ) to get drunk. And because we don't drink to get drunk most young people will not understand the important connection Communion makes between God and humanity.

Wine, as a human-processed product, is about connecting us with the God who not only gives us grapes, but gives us the talent to turn those grapes into wine. (This is the main reason why I don't like juice as a substitute for wine in Holy Communion. Any animal can eat a crushed grape, but only humans can put it in a bottle and wait until it is wine. Remember: Holy Communion is about the God-HUMAN relationship, not the God-Ungulate or the God- Bird relationship or some such thing.)

If alcohol is primarily used only to abuse it, how does a local congregation claim that wine has a power to restore, heal, forgive, and mold people into what God has created for them? I think this is the main reason why congregations that have wine in communion also tend not to have young people in their congregation. Young people don't understand why you would drink wine not to get drunk? Congregational leaders who provide a compelling answer to that question will see more young people at the altar. Most young people at the bars I meet don't dislike their local congregations, they just do not understand them; of course, by then, they're often half-way through a third pitcher of Bud Light.

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Some Thoughts on Christian-Muslim Talks

Although I do not write much about dialogues with other religions, or even other branches of Christianity, I am familiar with most everything religious, and even an expert in some things. I found out, however, at this Christian-Muslim roundtable this past Sunday, that I have a lot to learn...

There were about 70 people at this roundtable ( we were organized into groups of seven or so), and every table had a couple of flavors of Christianity and a Muslim. It turns out that most of the Muslims were of the Sunni tradition, and one of the women at my table was raised a Methodist and married into Islam 25 years ago. The conversations revolved around religious practices, as the doctrine of Love God and love your neighbor was assumed to be enough to go on for purposes of this event. (As one Methodist remarked, however, for some Christians that is not enough...and Muslims too I am told.)

Muslims pray five prayers a day--and some pray 3 times to fufill that ritual, and others pray 5 times a day to fufill this requirement. But notice how different that is from Christians. Christians pray, but it is hardly a requirement. In fact, I can think of three or four famous Christian theologians off the top of my head who remarked (in print!) their dis-ease with praying, and sometimes they even forgot to pray. But for Islam not only is prayer a defining characteristic, but it is THE defining characteristic. For those of us Christians the question I ask is this: what ritual defines Christianity?

Baptism could be one...but it usually only happens once in a lifetime, and for some people such as myself, it happened so early in my life I can't even remember it. Communion would be one, but some Christians practice communion so infrequently that it is hardly a life-sustaining ritual, much less a defining one. We could use prayer, but other than family members, religious leaders, and maybe people in your small group, do you know anybody else who prays? I mean, if you are a Christian and a Muslim lives on one side of your house and another Christian lives on the other, which one do you think you'll have a better chance of interrupting their prayer when you go over to borrow an egg?

I am led to believe that Christianity is more of a belief system than a ritual system. What I mean by that is that Christianity is about what your core ideas, values, and beliefs are in and about the world, God, yourself, and your neighbor rather than a set of practices about how to be Christian. That explains, as you can see, the huge variety of Christianities out there, and the relative cohesiveness of Islam. In fact, the woman at my table who converted to Islam said that was a main reason why she converted. There were too many choices in Christianity-- too many chances, she noted, at getting it wrong.

I agreed with her, there are in Christianity way too many chances to get life wrong...but here's the thing--every religion, every belief, every idea has the chance to be wrong...the question is: which one has the chance to be right? Or, more importantly, to enable forgiveness to try again when you get it wrong? The mark of a good religion is not if it gets you where you want to go if you succeed; but rather, if you gets you there even when you fail.

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