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.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Looking East, Heading West...

I have wanted to write this blog for the past 5 years. Just over 5 years ago, I began this blog in a little office in Beulah, North Dakota. I was recently assigned to be the interim pastor there, and I wanted a place to reflect on theology from the edges of the prairie within which Beulah resided. I wanted to write one blog a week, 52 a year was my goal. Today, for the FIRST TIME in 2012, I have met that goal.

I had a chance a couple of years ago to make 52, but I had left my computer in Bismarck, and got stranded in Fargo over New Year's Eve for three days by a blizzard, and by the time I got back to write, the new year was upon me...and I only wrote 51. Last year, moving to Omaha, and all the craziness of life, I never even came close. But this year? Yes! The goal has been met, and I am proud of myself, and even more proud of you for reading along with me over the years (or days, if you are a newer reader.)

So what has 2012 wrought into the world of missional church theology? I want to highlight three things: 1) Convergence Christianity (and Darkwood Brew); 2) Re-treading the social gospel; 3) a push towards ever-more "realistic theology." 2012 was a good year to be a Christian.

Convergence Christianity and Darkwood Brew

Advocated by people such as Eric Elnes and Brian McLaren, Convergence Christianity seeks to discover how God is bringing people together these days. Dr. Elnes uses the Darkwood Brew ministry to consistently show how Christians who just years (or weeks) ago would have little to do with each other actually have a common ground for their faith in God.  There is a "giving up" and an "embracing" aspect to Convergence that is vital for people to get together. For example, around the issues of gay rights, some Christians have "given up" an previous belief about the sinfulness of gays and lesbians, while gays and lesbians have to "embrace" those who previously condemned them. No one person gives up everything in their faith, and no one embraces everyone who comes their way, but this excluding and embracing (to borrow from Miroslav Volf) is central to Convergence.

I find this metaphor of Convergence powerful as a way to talk about what Christians traditionally call the "Incarnation." I advocate for a radical incarnation (Missional Church in Context), and Convergence gets at that idea. God converges upon humanity in Christ Jesus, not obliterating our humanity, but rather deepening or strengthening our humanness while making us divine. I see a lot of similarity with the Eastern tradition of theosis, and even more with an Augustinian understanding of God's love. If you have only one hour a week to devote to your God relationship (faith), Darkwood Brew may be the best thing going...

SoGo Media

When I left the cozy confines of Hyde Park, Chicago in 1991, I thought I had also left behind the social gospel Christian tradition which was so central to the founding of the University of Chicago Divinity School. I was wrong. Social Gospel craze is catching fire these days, primarily from those who come from traditions that for years were the greatest opponents of the social gospel movement. I am sure Gladden, Rauschenbusch, and for me--Shailer Matthews, would find it ironic, if not a sign of God's humor that a former employee of Billy Graham started a Youtube TV station called SoGo. When Chris Alexander, hosting Darkwood Brew, asked Steve Knight (former employee of Billy Graham), the curator of this new venture what "SoGo" stood for, and he said "Social Gospel, " I almost died. (This would be akin to Bill O"Reilly naming his new book after Rachel Maddow.) This Youtube TV stuff is a great way to expand your table of conversation partners. 

The Social Gospel movement stresses the importance of "doing justice" as a way of being Christian in the world. Not every Christian thinks this is THE most important aspect of Christianity, but that someone is putting new tread on these tires is a sign of its continuing relevance. In a world where children are shot at school, millions more die of treatable diseases because rich people will not share, and where hunger is a daily occurrence for many kids, the social gospel still has something to say.

Realistic Theology

I learned this phrase from Michael Welker, and have always found it a way to get at the kind of theology I find most impressive. It's "realistic" not as some sort of default, or consolation prize, but rather because it searches for reality within its context. This is not to say that we have no "eternal" truths to our faith or to our God, but rather that reality limits us to what we can know, or say about God. But we can say, and know, our relationship with God is real, and we can even describe, illustrate, visualize, and participate in the reality of that relationship. Convergence, for example, is realistic, not because it is "real," but rather because it takes seriously the limitations we have these days--lack of civil discourse on social issues, for example--and within those limitations explores who God is, how God does, and where and when Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit work.

My hope is that we see a lot more of this "realistic theology." After all, that's what this table is for...conversations. And most surprisingly, 5 years in, and we're just hitting our stride.

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hurry! Rush! Don't Delay! Last Chance! Christmas is almost here

Christmas is almost here. I was out on the town the last couple of days doing some buying of gifts. For me, I think and plan Christmas gifts to the people I am buying for, and when I leave the house I don't need to shop...I buy what I planned. Boring, but effective.     

Everyone wants my money...and a few of the retailers want to help make my Christmas spending have meaning and value. I was working with a clerk trying to find the best option for the gift I wanted to give my wife. Let us just say, the woman deserved her lunch break after dealing with me for a half-hour. We tried on various styles and colors, her opinion was asked for and received, and as we reached a satisfactory conclusion to our business, she said. "I wish I had more customers like you. You can tell you really care about this person. Most people come here and buy what they like, and don't care about who gets it. You are a good husband. Thank you."

Well--what do you do with that? I replied with a nod and a thank you, and signed my receipt, and then she said. "Oh, you get to pick a box." As she showed me some of the gift boxes available, I asked her what she wanted for a Christmas gift from her significant other. (That she is not married had been ascertained LONG before this moment.) "I want a vanity."

I got to admit I did not see that coming. You see, she impressed me as a capable, beautiful, and intelligent young woman. She had this hair color that almost made it look silver under the lights, and with her pale makeup and red lipstick she had this cosmopolitan air about her that belied our Omaha location. The brown, calf-high boots, with the mustard colored sweater slipping off her shoulder so she had to keep inching it back up made for a rather risky color scheme, but her composure, her smile, and her ability to laugh off my jokes (and you, gentle reader, know that is hard to do as the jokes are often not good) made me think she could run the store by the end of her shift. So to dream of a piece of furniture, albeit one she would obviously use, just took me by surprise.

She was wrapping the gift in this box, and I asked her what kind of vanity? We have a lot of blonde wood in our house. "Scandinavian. " I asked? No, she said, that mid-century blonde wood that was so popular. "I'd like it so somehow fit in with that." We talked about my grandmother's old vanity, and did she want some kind of antique? Finally, as she placed my gift in a bag, I said, I hope you have someone who spends time looking for your vanity. She smiled so demurely that I am sure that she is the picture Wikipedia uses for the word "demure," and she said, "I hope he loves me." So do I.

Of course, whether my young clerk gets her vanity or not, the love of her partner is not dependent upon that. But every now and then it is nice to know that the ones who claim to love you actually do loving things towards you. It's not a requirement, but it is nice to receive every now and then. Christmas is God acting in our favor because God loves us. If--some year--Christmas doesn't come, God doesn't show up here on earth--well, that's an apocalypse not even the Mayans would have missed. Merry Christmas!!

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


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Today is the last day of my 5th decade on this great globe. I have friends who were not even born until I was married. I have people in my life that I talk to regularly for whom someone like Richard Nixon is a newsreel highlight, rather than someone who once caused me to miss a day of school. Heck, a lot of people weren't around when Ronald Reagan was President!

Since I get retrospective on a pretty regular basis here on this blog, there is not a lot for me to say about what was, or is, or even could be. There is still a lot of a craziness going around these days...another school shooting. I mean, growing up in Minnesota on the fringes of Minneapolis, I remember kids who were going hunting after school would bring their guns to school and have the principal lock them in this little closet. Times have changed in 50 years.

I guess as I look back on the biggest changes, using the broadest brush, this computer I am using is the biggest change. I remember my college roommate coming back from writing his BA thesis on a word processor and claiming he will never use a typewriter again. (He now is the CEO of a computer software firm. God has a way of working in our favor every now and then.) But who would have thought how this machine could connect us in ways that I never imagined, and am still wondering how it will be when I finally close this blog down in another couple decades or so?

As a teenager I got up every morning and read the newspaper, had coffee, toast and cheese, and went off to school. I haven't read a newspaper in 10 years. (The computer has not been able to replicate coffee as well.) I read news every morning. I look at pictures of friends and their kids, and I check the lines on upcoming football games, all without walking more than 15 feet from my bed. And...since nowadays I work from home, I have a six-foot commute to my office, and I can still get messages, reports, and writings to people. I still brush my teeth...some things will never change, I guess.

But mostly I remember so many people who have made my life wonderful. Many are still with me, and many have gone...and every year, sadly, more leave as time marches on and waits for none. I do believe God creates worlds into which people are then created. We are defined by our relationships, but even more so we are our relationships. You can no more "take out" my fatherhood than you can "take out" my heart. Each of those is needed if I want to breathe. Everything I say or do is colored by the air I breathe, and the people who are part of me. If you are reading this you are one of those people.

Every day--as Newtown, CT reminds us--should be a day to give thanks for the beauty, the wonder, and the friends of our lives. There is no reason to believe in anything, even God, if such things are not why you get up each and every day, each and every year, each and every decade. One of the most enduring images I have of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, dying on his cross, breathing his last, and telling his best friend to be a son to his mother, and telling his mother to be a mom to his best friend. What a great way to use some of your last minutes...create a new family from your death.

So I don't worry about getting older. I figure God's going to take all my friends, family, colleagues, and do great things with them whether I am here or not. And I am just glad to be included in the party, just glad to be remembered that once I was here.

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Do I Know? (Whitney Houston and our Epistemological Crisis)

Credo ut intellegam        St. Anselm of Canterbury

"I believe in order to understand." This is the basic order of things for the early Christians. Probably also for Jesus. Believing takes precedence before understanding or even knowing.
 Most of us, born after Rene Descartes  take the opposite view of St. Anselm. We often say something like, "I understand in order to believe." Here's a test to see if you are more of a Anselmian or a Cartesian type thinker:
You have told your 12 year-old child you are going to buy her shoes, and she can spend only $25. She agrees. (You can see by this statement that clearly this is a false story, but go with it.) She comes back and says, "Mom, these are the shoes I want, and they are only $22." What's the next thing you would do?

Well, if you are Anselm, since this is your daughter, she has met the rules of the arrangement, and you do not yet know how your daughter will turn out, or who your daughter really is, you believe in her in order to discover the answers to these questions. You probably give her the money, no further questions asked.

If you are more inclined to Cartesian patterns of thought, you might ask: Have you done enough research? Is this really the best deal? Have you understood enough to make the best decision? I want you to learn how to be strong, to not be vulnerable to the tricks of advertisers, or the allure of your peers. I want you to understand what this means! Depending upon how far you wish to travel down this road, you may or may not give her the money right away. (Being a good Cartesian, however, you will give her the money at some point because she has met the criteria of the bargain. You just want her to be sure she wants "those" shoes.)

For us these days, believing is so hard to do. (As a funny aside, Journey's Don't Stop Believin'" just came on Pandora as I wrote the above paragraph.) The smart folks of the world will give us lots of reasons why believing is so hard these days, but it can come from anywhere: fear, lack of authentic authority, mass communication, or the demands of rational-choice theory (my favorite). But note this: believing was as hard for Anselm as it is for us. The difference for Anselm is that until he believed something he knew he never really understood all of it. He might have understood a lot of it, even the most important parts, but he never imagined he grasped all of whatever he was trying to understand.

We often replace that kind of total grasping with hurried attempts at understanding without even bothering to believe. We fall into the "Cartesian anxiety" (a great phrase from philosopher Richard Bernstein) if we cannot find a place in which to make all our understanding seem to make sense. We MUST have foundations upon which to build the thoughts we have buzzing around us. Else, how will we know?

Neither Anselm nor DesCartes would have us bail-out into some kind of pie-eyed "faith." They would encourage us to stand amidst the confusion, the maelstrom of conflicting accounts, the noise of hatred and fear, and to listen. Listen to what you are not hearing right now. What are you missing? What do I believe? Who do I believe? What do I know? What do I not know?

You see, Anselm and DesCartes knew that answers were few and far between in this world...it was the questions that mattered. Surprisingly, they both learned this questioning for the same guy...Jesus of Nazareth. The one guy in history, aside from perhaps  the Greek Socrates, who asked more questions than anybody. And he was the Son of God. Go figure.

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

 The woman in this picture is Dorothy Day. A leading social activist in her day, there is a movement to get her canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. I hope she makes it.

Although I have a a sort of fascination with the canonization of  people into saints (Remember, the difference between a saint and an angel is that a saint--at one time--had a body. Angels never had one.). Last week people all across Facebook were posting memes of Saint Nicholas, and I love remembering that kind of stuff, even with the "ho,ho, homousios" jokes. (There's a real Wikipedia search for you!)

Last night on Darkwood Brew we had a guest who reminded me a lot of a Protestant Dorothy Day. Her name is Donnna Schaper, and she is a pastor at the famous Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Known as a contemplative activist, she does a lot in helping people, and more so helping people of faith learn to live in ways that share God's love and mercy with all people. Like Dorothy Day, Rev. Schaper does her faith in an active way.

Look at those pictures of Day above. This is not a saint who worries about what she looks like. She is in working clothes, a bandana around her head, hands and face that show she is not afraid to get down and dirty with the people of the world. She did not change the world by writing laws, changing policies, or sitting in a office, or sitting in a sanctuary. She was out in the streets, putting in real time, effort, and sweat into making people's lives better. Making our world a little more like how God wants it to be. She was an activist.

Although I have some of the sympathies of a Dorothy Day or a Donna Schaper, I learned early on that my sweet spot was not in the kind of activism lived out by people like them. My sweet spot was somewhere else...and after all these years I am not sure where. It does seem like I have tried them all. What I do is teach. But I wonder where I will teach next? I done all the usual spots for teachers of theology--classrooms, pulpits, lecture halls--but none of them completely satisfy me.

When I had the Prairie Table ministry up in Bismarck, ND, I taught a group of teenagers (aged 13-15) in my living room once a month. There was something fascinating about that set-up for teaching the Christian faith. I think what I liked most was seeing youth, in an environment they could trust, explore who they are as children of God, and trying to make a difference.

And that's probably where I have the most sympathy with great people of the faith like a Dorothy Day. I imagine all she did, she did because God had called her to be the person to make a difference in someone's life. So she did as best as she knew how. And now, years later, we are thinking that kind of work is worthy of sainthood. But I wonder if she ever did? I bet not. I bet she thought she was doing it because it was right, it was just, it was what God would want. And when you do that, well, that's what all saints do.

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Brady Quinn, Chiefs' Quarterback, and paying attention


“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,” Quinn told reporters after the game.  “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently.  When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?
“We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.  Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.” Brady Quinn, qb of the Kansas City Chiefs, on the suicide of his teammate Jevon Belcher, who murdered his girlfriend.                                                  
Nicely said Mr. Quinn. Jevon Belcher, a professional football player, who drives a Bentley, kills his girlfriend who is also the mother of his child, and then goes and kills himself in front of his coach. And his quarterback (in the Chiefs's case, one of his quarterbacks) wonders if he actually had paid attention to his teammate. From the sounds of the quote above, the answer it would seem is No.

I wonder if life is about paying attention? Paying attention not only to the people we have face-to-face contact with, but also those friends we only connect with on-line. (You have to remember I am OLD. I have almost no friends online that I do not also know face-to-face. I understand there are a lot of folks who have friends they have ONLY met online. I am not one of those folks.) Regardless, we still have to pay attention. Whether it's a "like" on an Instagram photo, or a cup of coffee after a tough day at work, it's always about the relationships.

You have heard me say over the years that the best line ever written for TV--and I mean EVER-- comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In preparation for an upcoming battle, Buffy asks why does it always have to be so bloody. Her frenemy Spike, a vampire with a soul, answers "It's always about the blood." Not even Jesus uttered words more profound.

Blood stands for everything: life, relationships, love, power, all the stuff that keeps us going. Blood is what keeps us all together. It's always about the blood.

Unfortunately, for Brady Quinn and the Kansas City Chiefs, and all of us in some way, we had a stark reminder of just how bloody the world is. Paying more attention to the people in our lives may never stop the tragedies, but it is something we all might wish to do in the midst of a world where tragedy is just a parking lot away. Who do you wish to pay a little more attention to these days?

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