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

Monday, 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.