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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. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. 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, 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.