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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, 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.