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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, December 23, 2013

Why You Can't Make a Religion by Following Jesus

If you read enough literature in blogs and books and whatnot, you'd think one could be a Christian by "following Jesus." Whether they are "red-letter Christians" (this refers to the way Bibles are sometimes printed where the words of Jesus are in red, and the rest of the words are printed in black), or whether you are post-evangelical, post-liberal, and want to get in the touch with the Spirit, or find your way back to some kind of authentic first-century faith that Jesus and his original followers embodied. That is the kind of Christianity being touted by some folks these days. Much as I love Jesus, such calls to follow his example or commands are not enough for me to base my religion upon...I need more from my religion.

As Bonhoeffer noted following Jesus and his example will only get you dead. He once wrote, "When Christ calls a man (sic), he bids him (sic) come and die." As far as I can tell, you don't need to follow Jesus in order to die...you can follow just about anything if that's all you want to do. 
If all Christianity is about is following the words and example of Jesus, we would be a pretty sick lot. Basically all we're doing is running around looking for somebody to kill us.

Now, I understand many Christians would consider it an honor to die because of following the words and example of Jesus, and maybe even I too would consider it that way. Contrary to folks who whine about the "war on Christmas," I haven't been denied much because of my faith over the years. So I don't know how martyrdom would go for me...Bonhoeffer was impressive in it that's for sure. Check out this biography.

But I don't want a religion that delivers me into death, but a religion that delivers me from death. And I can't follow Jesus into that. The deliverance from death is a gift from God, not a reward for a life well-lived. Even a life lived following the example of Jesus. You can't get eternal life because you're a nice person or you followed all the rules, or you exemplified what Jesus calls us to do...if we receive eternal life it is only because of the love of God for us, not because of our love for God. (For this argument I do not care how you define "eternal life." Whether it's now or later or really later, the point is the same: we receive it because we are loved, not because we are well-behaved.)

So, if following Jesus doesn't make for a religion, what does? Even after all these years, I don't know the answer to that one. It involves trust that God keeps promises, it involves hope that Jesus showed us how to be human, and it involves patiently waiting for the Spirit of God...at least I'm pretty sure about that these days. It's funny but over the last 2000 years, the Church has come up with a way to live in that trust, hope, and waiting...they call it Advent.  

Most of the time these days we think of Advent as an obstacle to celebrating Christmas...but maybe, just maybe, "advent" is the whole point of the Christian religion? You think there's pressure on you to deliver at Christmas? Imagine God...

Following Jesus and his commands are better than many options, I will give you that. But if that's all the Christian religion is, it really doesn't do much for me, because my questions don't involve HOW to live life, but WHY to live life? I do believe Jesus is the key to answering that "Why" question...Lord, help my unbelief!

Merry Christmas.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Suspension of Disbelief

One of our most dominant ideas was given wonderful voice three hundred years ago by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The phrase was published in 1817, and it points to the most important character trait a participant in the arts must possess. Here is is Coleridge talking about his Lyrical Ballads (1798)

...it was agreed that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so far as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constituted poetic faith. (Biographia Literia, chap. XIV, 1815 my emphasis)

The WILLING suspension of disbelief. And that is why teenage girls love vampires like this  and adults love movies that remind them of their childhood like this
 We willingly suspend our disbelief for art. As Eric Elnes told me, on viewing "The Desolation of Smaug," he said, "I almost felt like he was a real dragon."

You know, if dragons were real...and all that.

What Coleridge noted about his poetry, is that in order to appreciate it or understand it, you have to suspend your disbelief, the part of your mind and soul that says, "There is no such thing as vampires...or dragons." So teenage girls conveniently forget that vampires do not exist, and adults happily reminisce about their childhood and the Hobbits and dragons that made it so fun. So that's how art works, especially anything coming out of Hollywood.

Of course, artists have gone the other way trying to "get real," and to not let you suspend your disbelief. Picasso's Guerinica, for example, is trying to show the horrors of war without letting you suspend your disbelief it's just a weird picture about a cow-horse. Artists who seek to show the reality of something, work on not letting us suspend our disbelief. Usually, those artists want us to believe the horrors and happiness they show.

Now that you've got that basic idea of willingly suspending your disbelief, in other words, you're willing to say vampires exist while you're watching True Blood, even though you know they do not exist in the world your are watching it from, say, Steubenville, OH; let's take a look at this book


How does one "suspend disbelief" in a book that seems to be about belief, and even more so, how can we suspend it "willingly?" Here is part of the Bible, where Mary is talking to the angel Gabriel

The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  (Luke 1. 30-34)

Talk about needing Coleridge! Look at all the disbelief you have to spend to hear this conversation.

Disbelief # 1: Angels exist...and they talk...in Aramaic. (Granted, if you have to believe angels exist and talk, their facility in languages is not too much more of a stretch.)
Disbelief # 2: Kings are born to peasants. We all know how kings are made, and you kind of have to be born into it. Being a king is not a Horatio Alger "Hey Mom! Look! I'm a King" kind of story. Kings are princes who come from queens...Mary is not a queen.
Disbelief # 3: Virgins can have children. (Note, even Mary has this disbelief. After all, she is the one who tells us she is a virgin, and what Gabriel just said has a "little problem.")

There are three pretty big things to disbelieve, and here is were the most important part of Coleridge's observation comes into play: are you WILLING to suspend disbelief? That is, do you want to believe the story as its told, or do you want to disbelieve it? Your choice. But it's not the story's fault if you choose to believe or not. This is what Coleridge pointed out. The story is the story, and you can suspend your disbelief or not, but it's you as the interpreter or reader that is making the choice about the believability of the story, not the story itself. So whether you believe virgins can have children or angels can talk Aramaic has nothing to do with the Bible, and everything to do with you.

And here's the interesting thing about Christianity--you don't have believe the Bible's stories are true to believe Jesus is the Son of God. Yes, that story is in the Bible, but what Christianity asks you to believe is that Jesus IS the Son of God, not the story about Jesus as the Son of God.

So whether you believe that story between Gabriel and Mary or not does not matter to your relationship with God. What God asks you to believe is that the child Mary has in that story IS the Son of God; and, if angels and virgin births help you believe that, fine. If not, so be it. What evidence do you use that Jesus is the Son of God? Some people don't use stories at all to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. (Also, if you choose to disbelieve that Jesus is the Son of God, that is always your prerogative, but again that is your will, not the Bible's. The Bible is just trying to help out those who want to believe.)

Want to know what's funniest about all of this? Some Christians, including this guy, don't believe that you can will yourself to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Listen to what Luther says 

I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. (Small Catechism, The Creed, Third Article.)

For Luther, you cannot will yourself to believe Jesus is the Son of God. Presumably, then, you cannot will yourself to disbelieve it, although it is certainly possible that you might be able to disbelieve something you cannot will yourself to believe in...I mean, that just makes sense right? Since I cannot will myself to believe Jesus is the Son of God it is easy to disbelieve he is the Son of God.

What Luther noted is that it is the "willing", not the "disbelieving" that makes all the difference for Christians. Christians and atheists can pretty much believe and disbelieve the same things about the Bible, the stories of Jesus, and even Christian history. Where they disagree is on the "willing."

For Christians like Luther (and he is in the minority of Christians on this to be sure), the issue is always about the will, not belief. And what's funny is where Luther learned that lesson...he read a story about a woman, a virgin nonetheless, who was willing to let God, not her belief, conceive her a son...and what Luther got from that story is not to disbelieve in God, but rather to disbelieve in his disbelief.

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




Thursday, December 12, 2013

Some Help on the Prairie

In January of 2014 I will be at this event. Multiple Area Parishes: Framing Our Unique Ministry.



This should be a good time to gather people who are involved in multiple parishes with one set of leadership for each and all of them. (For those of you who only have one congregation to think about, imagine multiple congregational meetings, events, and worship services each month. You can see why they use the word "unique.") People in these parishes, both leaders and laity, often have to ascertain many different thoughts, opinions, emotions, and feelings with each and every move. It is not easy...

But how great the reward! Imagine being able to see people work together on common ministries for the common good. It's like heaven, but on earth! People work together even if their own interest in ot being served...self-sacrifice, the one thing no one does anymore. I am Looking forward to my time with the folks in the Southwest Minnesota Synod. Nothing like a good conversation on a good winter's day on the prairie...

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And we wonder how heaven is here on earth? Well, if it is, it's because God is here, and wherever God is, is pretty much heaven. When Christians claim Jesus is God's son, they are saying that God is here on earth. And you might NOT believe that...

How can God be around here? Not more than an hour ago a woman came into my office claiming her boyfriend of 6 years has started beating her. True or false, the fact that such a scenario is not impossible seems to indicate we may not be on heaven quite yet. But, an hour before that, a woman came to our pantry in need of a coat (it's a whopping 20 degrees today), and our clothes pantry person was here, and was able to get this woman a coat so she wouldn't freeze at the bus stop. For her, heaven might just have been our basement pantry...who's to say?

The preacher in the book of Hebrews says we should "practice hospitality, lest we entertain angels unawares." Practice...keep trying...don't stop...live as if angels are wandering around in need of help...this is without a doubt a recipe for poverty. Hence, the reason why we are encouraged to practice hospitality.

I suppose there are worse things to practice this time of year. I mean, if the shepherds hadn't practiced hospitality...it would have been a quiet night in Bethlehem for the new family.  (art by George W. Truett.)

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On the Death of a World-Famous 95 year old

Today I am burying a 95 year-old woman. She was born on the same day, she died on the same day, and she was buried on the same day as this guy,  Nelson Mandela. Her funeral was a little more low-key than his. While the world celebrated a man who is the iconic image of racial equality for just about everybody on the planet, save for those who see Martin Luther King, Jr in the same way. My woman had a daughter, a few grandchildren, and a sister-in-law at her funeral. We didn't need to rent a soccer stadium for her service.

The world rightly celebrates Nelson Mandela, and even I am amazed what affect he had on me. I remember my roommate and I in college listening to Biko by Peter Gabriel and wondering how someone like Mandela would ever survive? How would apartheid ever be conquered and destroyed? Well, there was Mandela...and over the past thirty years we found a man who provided a vision of a better world.

My woman? She was a cook for a local elementary school, and spent the last 30 years of her life in "retirement" being a mom, grandmother, wife, friend, and trying to help out where she could. All the hundreds of kids she kept fed over the years, most my age or older, might never remember her. She is not going to have her image embossed upon a screen for millions to see and remember; she is not going to be written about and studied for generations as Mandela will be; she is not going to get a President of even a PTA, or of anything for that matter, to use her as an inspiration, much less the President of the United States. She rests quietly in the cold tundra of the Nebraska prairie...miles away from Mandela, and galaxies away from "Mandela," the global icon of justice and peace.

But I believe God is more proud of my woman than of Mandela. 27 years of prison aside, Mandela must have had something in him that made him "Mandela." And that something is what most of us, my woman included, do not have. And that something, in the case of Mandela, is impressive...in other cases not so much. But most of us just go our lives without that something, without the need to "change the world," or even really "change our own lives." Most of us don't want to change anything...and so we don't.

We might re-arrange some stuff every now and then...and maybe an accident or disease causes us to act or behave differently...but we don't have the something a Mandela had that burns with a flame until reality is lit by it. And so most of us slog through our everyday reality frustrated and content, happy and sad, saint and sinner, tired and energetic just getting on with being the cooks, bus drivers, waitresses, spouses, parents, children, friends, co-workers that we are. And then we die.

And does God find those of us, less "Mandela-like" any less worthy? According to our tradition: no. In fact, Jesus of Nazareth offers that when it comes to God, "The first will be last, and the last will be first." So, imagine that Mandela and my cook both get to the pearly gates at the same time. I have no trouble imagining my cook patiently waiting for Mandela to go through...but I also have no trouble imaging Mandela, his smile radiating in heaven as here on earth, holding the gate open to allow my cook to enter in before him.

Because what made Mandela great is what sustained my cook for their 95 years, and that is this: neither one of them ever thought of themselves as "first." And God smiles on them both. Requiescat in Pace.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Cold December Flies Away

Today our temperature in Omaha reached 48 degrees. No snow. Downright balmy for a kid born in Duluth, MN. (I remember as a kid waking up in August hoping the rivers up north hadn't frozen that night so we could go fishing. August. Freezing. You don't understand the North Woods if those two words never get in the same sentence.)

So what's to fly away? (You can listen to a harpsichord version here. ) Bringing the classic folk tunes to your study or your Ipad.

Well the garden in the song is a garden, but it is also the human, the human community, and all that God has made for us. And the best parts of us often go into "hibernation," get cold, get frosty, and even a little dark. In the grace of the baby in the manger, the Son of God, the celebration of his birth (Christmas) sends those darker, colder, frostier parts away into the new warmth and love of Spring (Easter). So "cold" December flies away, and those parts of our lives that have been frosted over by despair, jealousy, fear, envy, greed, and pride(to name a few of those darker powers) can bloom in the ever increasing sunlight of our days. 

My wife often mentions that Christmas means the days are getting longer again. Soon those glorious long days of June will be causing me to wonder what time it is when it seems like we've had sun since yesterday?

But I still like December. (I am born in this month.) I don't want it to "fly away" necessarily. But it does fly away, but I wish it could stay around a bit longer too. I like the darkness (not the cold.) I like the more relaxed and calm evenings when I don't have to run around running errands or chasing pavement. (I've even been known to have a little bourbon on a calm evening when the darkness sets into the night.)

The Church has noted this ambivalence we have with December by giving us Advent. This is a time of waiting, a time of wondering, a time of holding the darker parts of lives in contrast to the radiant warmth of God's love in the baby Jesus. We get 24 days of Advent this year, and I hope you enjoy them for what they are...because there's a lot to do in these 24 days, and they will fly away. So will the cold. So will the despair. So will all the frostiness of our season. The birth of the Christ sends them all packing with his message of love, and the gift of freedom in his death and resurrection. Happy Advent.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thanksgiving at Prairie Table

Probably no holiday more captures the essence of how I see Prairie Table than Thanksgiving. In my dreams, this is what I envision
 Look at that table! What's not to like? Good, sturdy, mission-style design, a turkey (my favorite protein), and too many side dishes to note. Wow!

Somewhere on that table is God too...because here's what Thanksgiving looks like in the Christian tradition
 The biggest difference? Where's the food? In Christian understandings of thanksgiving, the food is secondary to the presence of God amidst the people of God. At its best, Prairie Table has the food, the people, and Jesus Christ.

Of course, our consumer-crazy society has decided to make Thanksgiving just another shopping day. As greed is completely corrosive and pervasive, this was only inevitable. As my grandfather used to say, "never underestimate the power of greed." (Grandpa was a salesman.) My other grandpa used to tell me--long before Emeril Lagasse made is famous--that "bacon makes everything better." (He worked for Amour meats.)

So this Thanksgiving I hope there are people around your table. I hope there is food. And I trust the presence of God will be there. Somewhere amongst all the laughing, the stories, the cranberries, the turkey, the ham, the Packers and the Lions, the looking forward to Christmas, I hope your Thanksgiving is blessed. After all, that is why we live at the table of our Lord.

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