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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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hugs and Forgiveness

Can you hug somebody you don't trust? Can you hug somebody you don't love? These are the questions I have after reading Miroslav Volf's Exclusion & Embrace. It is  challenging work still, 16 years after publication, and it causes me to wonder if the world will ever change. After all, this is what we seek.

But what we often get is this:

Weird, yes?

I have been around long enough to hold that evil is intractable. But don't we have to allow the desire to want forgiveness to be hanging in the air? I am not worried about actually being forgiven these days, I fear we may not WANT to forgive anyone these days...Our hearts have become so hardened that we can no longer even imagine a world where forgiveness is possible...

I am talking about more than just humility at your prospects. To say that "I don't know," or "Don't ask me," or "What can I do about it?" is not forgiveness. Forgiveness is the one thing anyone can do...and of course, that means we rarely do it.

Our Christian tradition doesn't always help in this area (although the irony of that statement is overwhelming).  Many people use the forgiveness they have received from God through Jesus Christ as some sort of chit that frees them from the responsibility of forgiving anyone or anything, including their own selves! Just because God forgives you doesn't mean you are not freed to forgive others?

This is not really a plea for us all to get along! I am not interested in that, especially if it means that we have to dumb down who we are or hide our differences and our disagreements. I want us to be different...

But where I want us all to be the same is in our desire to want to embrace everybody (even if we can't or won't). I wouldn't mind seeing a little regret that we can't embrace somebody who disagrees with us instead of arrogant pride that we won or petulant moping that we lost. I wouldn't mind if we wistfully waved from across the courtroom at our opponents, not trying to soften them up for an appeal, but rather at the tragic state of affairs that brought us to the courtroom in the first place.

The cross of Christ is about forgiveness not because we do it, but because we cannot and do not do it...The forgiveness is a gift, something we have received in spite of our best intentions...the cross frees us in its stark glory to see that the embraces we seek are encompassed by the largest embrace: God's love for all of us.

Doesn't this hug sort of make our reluctance to hug others seem a bit whiny?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pink Sunglasses, Karaoke, and Memphis

It had been a long time since I was last in Memphis. I was there this time to be a participant in an Emergence Christianity event that celebrated the life and legacy of Phyllis Tickle, and her chronicling of the "movement." But it's what happened the night before the event that got me thinking...

It all started with a BBQ dinner in honor of Ms. Tickle on Thursday night. Since I knew nobody really, I sat down with a beer and joined in a conversation. They were from the Church of the Nazarene. OK...God 1, Scott 0. You see, the Nazarenes are one of the Christian traditions that  are tee-totalers...I had a beer, and I felt guilty (it should be noted that this is not the first time I have had alcohol with a Nazarene around, as a friend of mine from Grad School was a Nazarene), and although we made a few jokes about it, one beer for one pound of ribs is not an ideal ratio.

So, I got a text from the producer of Darkwood Brew that he and his wife were having a cocktail at another bar (he is a vegetarian, and BBQ dinners are not this thing), and I should join them. a Knob Creek on the rocks later, I was heading towards my hotel at a little before 10 pm. Responsibility? Thy name is Scott!

Because I am cheap, I usually stay at the sketchiest motels I can find, and downtown Memphis is no exception. In the basement of my hotel was a bar with the sign "Hot Jazz, Cool Blues." So Responsibility left town...

Now, as a good basement bar, I am sure there was an emergency exit. There were no windows, and I was expecting to hear some great music. As I squeezed into the bar to order a drink, I asked a woman sitting there is she knew if a band was playing tonight...she did not, and the bartender arrived, and so it begins...

She was much younger looking than the crowd gathered around, and she had short, dark curly hair, a mega-watt smile, and these huge pink sunglasses perched on her head. I mean big. Like the size of dinner plates. Sitting there like ears. She turned her smile on, stared at me with some dark eyes, and asked "What?"

It seemed like I was catching up with God here, and I asked the obvious question: "Do you turn the disco ball on later, is that why you need the glasses?" She laughed and began to do a version of the Hustle, and after a few seconds every guy at the bar was watching her...because, well, you know....

After some dancing, she asked if I wanted a drink. Now, wouldn't you know, but right behind her was one of the big promotional bottles of Knob Creek (filled with colored water), that companies give out bars. It was clear to me that I was back on God's preferred team. "Do you have any Knob Creek," I asked, pointing to the bottle, which is about 3 feet high. She looked back at me, flashed that smile, and said, "That's mine for after work, but I have a little bottle on the top shelf." I hate to mention this--gentle reader--but I went for the short joke, and I am not proud of this, as she could not have been more than 5-2. "Do you need a boost?"

Again with smile, and a "Maybe later, but not for this." As she brought my Creek, on the rocks with a lime wedge (I always like to drink my bourbon with lime for some reason, I haven't had enough therapy in my life to figure that one out.) I gave her some money, and she brought back my change. I stuffed a five in her tip jar. AND SHE FROWNED.

I was crushed. I mean, granted Knob Creek is about $10 a shot, but I thought 50% was a good tip. I felt like I had let down this wonderful young lady and her pink sunglasses. I was genuinely sad (but also being genuinely cheap, I was not going to give her more.) I looked at her with my saddest, doleful eyes, and said, "Not enough?" She smiled, not the flashy smile, but a genuine smile of respect, and said, "It's fine, I was just hoping for a phone number." Now it is my turn to laugh. I told her I'd have one of my daughters call her, and they could hook up, but there was no way on God's green earth our relationship would ever NOT have a bar between us. "I just need a bartender tonight."

Turns out there was no band on Thursday night, but rather, karaoke was on the docket. Well, one drink, listen to a few bad singers, and off to bed...Responsibility joined me again. So the DJ was getting set up, and a few songs were playing, and I was asked to dance. No. I was asked again by another woman. No. I was asked by a third, and I realized I may be in over my head. I asked the lady, why are you all asking me to dance? (People were dancing, there was 3 ladies celebrating birthdays, and those groups were all over the place.) She smiled at me, apologized, and said she thought that was why I was here. When I looked at her like she had stepped off a space ship, she patted my shoulder, swung her arm around the room, and said, "After all, you are the only white guy here." As I looked around, I saw she was right. (I am always thankful that God sends prostitutes into my life to remind me of the painfully obvious--and if you've heard other stories of mine in other bars in other towns--this does seem to happen with surprising regularity.)

By now the place was packed, I was sitting in the center of the room, sipping Knob Creek, and sharing my table with the drink of the guy in the table next to me (were were separated by the back of his chair), and the first singer came up. He gathered the three birthday girls in a line and sang It's Thin Line Between Love and Hate by the Persuaders. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, and this guy was spot-on. The birthday women were ecstatic, and the dancing was off the charts. At this point I realized I might need to tap into my bartender's Knob Creek in a bit...we were going to be here for awhile.

I heard a few songs, including a Junior Wells number to a grandmother celebrating her 89th Birthday, who was once in school with him, and her favorite singer. It was nicely done, and the guy singing it sounded just like Jr. Wells. Then, a young woman came to the stage. Now, most the evening had been dedicated to us old folks. Apparently, the caravan was changing overnight...She began to sing If This Isn't Love and I thought there was an earthquake. Tables and chairs were crashing, people were rushing up to the stage, and the dancing went crazy. She sang the song twice. And it just got better and better each time. By now I have texted my youngest daughter, a huge JHud fan (and also on LA time, so I knew she was up), and finished my Knob Creek. I made my way back up to the bar, but the bartender was too busy for banter, and the pink sunglasses were now resting on her tip jar. She gave me my exact drink without asking, pushing a Budweiser towards me as well. I gave her the quizzical look, and she said (over the noise it was more like lip reading)..."on me." I dropped another $5 in her jar, and said, "For new glasses...something a little more flashy." I got that million-dollar smile one more time.

As I turned back towards my table, I could not even see it. There were so many people dancing, moving, drinking, laughing, flirting, propositioning, and what-not that I was tempted to just leave, but as I made my way back to where I thought my table might be, I found my chair leaning up against the table, being saved. The guy behind me, with Stetson hat, silk suit, and a long cashmere scarf, smiled, and said, "I saved it for you son, as you looked like you were having a good time." I said thanks, sat down, and had another drink.

Towards the end of the hour, it's now about 1 am, I got up, and offered the chair to the guy in the hat. "You can use this chair for your wife or a beautiful woman." He laughed, nudged the lady next to him, and said, "Well, the beautiful woman already has a chair, I guess I'll leave it for my wife." We shook hands, I made my way to the door, and soon I was walking in Memphis.

There's way too many cultural and social subtexts for me to process in this evening, and I'm a theologian anyhow. But isn't it funny how God works? I start out an evening with a Nazarene feeling guilty about a beer, and end the evening feeling proud that a bartender will serve me Knob Creek, laugh at my jokes, and not embarrass me in order to get a tip. You really can't ask more from God on a night like that. I have been alone in many cities and towns across this country...but not really. I go with God's Spirit, but also with family and friends and readers like you, who remind me that no matter how crazy it gets, how weird it seems, the point of life is to make music and color the world. Memphis is a perfect city for that.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Emergence Christianity 2013 (EC13)--Ontology in Memphis

This is a review of a weekend with people who were interested enough  in "Emergence Christianity" to gather for a couple of days in Memphis, TN to listen to Phyllis Tickle review her history of "Emergence." (It is the title of her most recent book (Emergence Christianity: What it is, Where it is Going, and Why it Matters, 2012). Memphis in January is always a bit dicey, but God apparently approves of Ms. Tickle, and the weather was a balmy 75 and only rained as we were leaving. It is good to be one of God's chosen.

I did not know what to expect from this event, but I went as a representative from Darkwood Brew, and I was looking forward to meeting some of the folks we've had on that program. I got a chance to do that when I hooked up with one of our partners, Cameron Trimble of The Center for Progressive Renewal which is always great. We (Scott Greissel, the Producer) handed out some T-shirts, some coasters, a few DVDs, and a lot of good will. I did wish Eric and Chris (the host and co-host of Darkwood Brew) were with as the amount of people I met who had seen the show was incredible, and they would have probably sparked even more interest by their presence. Phyllis Tickle spent the better part of 10 minutes holding up DWB in one of her presentations, and we were well-received.

I have mixed feelings about "emergence," and especially as it relates to Christianity, and even more so "new" expressions of Christianity. Because, well, emergence is not new. It has been used as a Christian metaphor for centuries, and I am sure that even Pseudo-Dionysius could be translated with the word "emerge" every now and then. About the first book I read for my doctoral work was Johannes Baptist Metz's The Emergent Church, and while I understand that "emergence" is different than what Metz argues for in his work, I was a bit skeptical of the term.

The history that Tickle presented showed that there is enough multiplicity and diversity to the term to make it useful, but as one person remarked on the Facebook page for the event, "...there really is no substance to the terms. They signify nothing. Discuss." And it's precisely in that quotation that I see the biggest problem for "Emergence Christianity." It has a faulty ontology.
Creeping Fog

Most people (of the emergents, but a lot of Christians who are not emergent too) try to put something (a substance) behind their metaphors. There is no "something" there. Although we experience matter in our physical universe, it is not the component of our reality--relationships are. Because relationships constitute reality, what we experience is the impact of the relationships outside of us working with the relationships inside of us. (whatever "us" may be, and I am not writing that book.) So to search for "substance" behind a word like "emergence" is to miss the point of emergence. What emergence is turns out to be a constellation of relationships that encircle a group of people trying to explore God. God's own self might be emergence in this sense, as it seems arguable that God is in search of relationships which expand and explore God's life and being. (This would be one way to understand Creation and Redemption, for example.)

So although the folks are excited to try new ways of being Christian in the world these days, they are working with an ontology that is not the way most of us see and experience reality. I was even treated to a very meaningful speech on "family" in which the person tried to describe family, but ultimately gave up and just called it the people you value in your life...which is good for what it is, but my brother does have a different relationship to me than my neighbor (both of whom I value), and we usually call one family and one not...and I am physically related to my children in a way that I am not related to my wife. (My kids and I share DNA, for example.) So this is a tricky thing to try and describe why Christianity needs to be different in the coming millennium, and I appreciated all that I heard. I believe Christianity DOES HAVE TO BE different, but it is different because of who God is, how God is, and what God does. Until we come to grips with the ontological reality of God as relationships, most of our difference will just be putting the deck chairs on the other side of the deck of the Titanic. We'll just get a different view of a sinking ship.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Christianity: It's a Question of Identity

Who are you? Does any answer to that question ever get at "you?" If we are going to ever answer it, we might need some guidelines. For example, are you the sum of the things you did and do; or, are you your ideas, thoughts, and aspirations, some of which you have never done. (My dad always wanted to be a cowboy...he was an accountant and now he's a golfer. So, was he ever a cowboy?) What relationships count in who you are? One of my earliest mentors said of Dr. Samuel Johnson (the 18th Century British intellectual who wrote the first English dictionary) that he "was more my father than my own father is." How can that be?

Well, since I turned 50, we are going to be spending a good deal of time this year trying to answer that question. A least once a month I hope to address the issue of my identity from some angle. I have touched on that previously of course, most of you know that I cherish my Swedish heritage...I love blue and yellow.  Many of you also know that part of my identity is based on taking my Swedish ancestry, translating to my birthplace, and getting my love for this color scheme. That's all part of my identity, and in both cases were somewhat not chosen by me. I mean, I didn't pick my great-grandparents, and although I could have chosen other football teams, when you grow up on the other side of a city from one, you tend to get influenced at an early age.

There are some parts of my identity that I have consciously chosen. For example, I prefer to drink this.                       There were other choices, and I didn't even start with that one (I drank this one for the first 15 years.) So there are lots of questions that go into our identities.

For us here at Prairie Table, however, our "Christian" identity is of paramount importance. And the first question is: did I choose it for myself, or was it chosen for me? Am I a Christian because I chose it, much like I chose my favorite bourbon; or, am I a Christian because it was "just in the genes," or just in the water," much like  how I got my Swedish ancestry? How you answer that question makes all the difference in the world.

Now, before you get too excited to answer, remember, that for 1800 years Christians believed that our Christian identity was "given" to us. God gave it to you, or not, and the most you could do was learn to suffer in silence that you weren't a Christian. Christian identity was like my Swedish ancestry: it was given to you.

Over the last 200 years or so, a change has occurred that has allowed people to make choices about things. Some people have argued that you can decide to be a Christian, can actually choose to have that part of your identity. So just like I get to choose which bourbon I drink, you can choose what religion you want to be part of your identity (or, increasingly, if you even want religion as part of your identity.)

But there is one more thing to consider here: what is the "identity" of God? If you say that we choose God through Christianity for our identity, does that mean that God chooses you? If you say that "God chooses me" you are pretty much saying that God wants you to be part of God's identity. Think about that for a second....thinking.....thinking...thinking (this is "thoughts" from the Prairie Table, remember?)

The reason why Christians held for centuries that God chooses our Christian identity for us is because they believed God loved us so much that God wanted us to be part of God's identity. To be a Christian is a rather trivial piece of your and my identity, but it is rather crucial to God. At Prairie Table our Christian identity is important not because it means so much to us...but rather because it means so much to God.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.