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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, February 25, 2013

And the Oscar goes to...

 Once again, I did not take home an Oscar, the award given to those of the film industry's own favorites. Of course, I only pay for movies...I do not actually make them. Maybe someday I will...

But I watch the Academy Awards ceremony just about every year, and when the kids were younger we had quite the Oscar's party. (I once even made a red carpet down the stairs to our TV room, and the dog promptly tripped on it, and ripped it to shreds as she rolled down the stairs. When she got to the bottom she stared at me with the "Well, that's gonna get you removed from my will look.") But theologians don't have awards ceremonies (although there are awards, and they carry some prestigious honor and money with them. The Grawemeyer Award and the Templeton Prize come to mind.) My only claim to fame, and about as close as I am going to come to seeing one of those awards was looking at the Templeton Prize given to Ralph Wendell Burhoe, whom I was working for at one time in my life. There are three main reasons for this why theologians won't ever award themselves.

One: theologians holds grudges. As Ben Affleck noted as he won a Best Picture Oscar without even getting nominated for a Directing Award, in Hollywood "you can't hold grudges." Theologians hold grudges for centuries, and they are expected to last to eternity. We may never know why Pope Leo IX excommunicated Michael Cerularius in 1054, but it is safe to say that the last 960 years have not exactly been forgotten by those we know of as the "Orthodox Church." Theologians would never put down their condemnations long enough to cast a ballot for anyone but there own "homeboys." (And for some, the "boys" is literal, as there are still many theologians even today who wonder if women have the chops for theology.)

Second: theologians have no agreement on what makes a good theological argument. To take the idea I started above, there are people who think because a woman has written a book about God, scripture, or the Bible, that it probably isn't very good. I remember a student of mine once criticized Letty Russell's Church in the Round (a truly great book of theology and ecclesiology IMHO) by saying she was a "feminist," and he didn't like feminism. Really? Saying Letty Russell is feminist is like saying Ronald Reagan is Liberal, probably true, but so wrong. It's wrong not because she is not a feminist, but because it is not the point of what she is doing in that work; however, some people just do not trust women who write about God. Their loss, and a reason why we could never get an awards ceremony going. Everyone differs on what makes good theology, and even more so than art, sometimes just talking about God is not enough.

Lastly: awards are stupid. This is the big reason why theologians would never have an awards ceremony for themselves...no one would show up, and those that did, would obviously not be theologians, at least Christians ones. I mean, when the namesake of your faith spends his life critiquing that idea that favoring what you like over someone else's likes, it's tough to vote for preferences. Jesus died. On a cross. Killed by some of the most elite religious and political traditions of all time. What award do you give that? Lifetime Achievement? Best Production? Editing? (truth be told, we could hold an awards ceremony for that one.) In the Christian tradition there is no need for awards. When Jesus says, "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first," notice that everyone gets in...it's just a question of how long you wait in line. For a Christian the only reward is dying, and dying well if you will. Dying, not because you're supposed to, dying not because you have to, but dying because the love you have for everything cannot be contained in this human vessel.

I guess, if I had a choice, I'd want my award to be written by a playwright who never won one. I'd want my epitaph to include this line: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Smiling friends and fond memories are the only awards I ever need. It's good enough for me when I'm here, and it will be good enough for me when I am gone.

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

(By the way, the quotation is from William Shakespeare, who never once was given a Tony, Oscar, or Emmy for writing. But even without the awards still a surprisingly good poet.)



Monday, February 18, 2013

'Tis the Season of Ashes

Lent. 40 days of purpose.  Everybody's doing it these days! Join in the discipline and self-denial...you'll get to know Jesus better...you'll be healthier...you'll be a real Christian...trust me...I read it in a book. (Not the Bible incidentally, where all we get is Jesus in the desert for 40 days, and we get to pretend that we are like him when we give up chocolate for a bit.)

In my parish pastoring days I enjoyed Lent, but mostly because we got to have another worship service in the middle of the week. For me, pastoring was all about worship services, and the more I could squeeze into a week or day the better I liked my job. (Curiously, I was never a big fan of preaching, although I did that a lot too.) I like worship services for Christians because they tend to behave better during them than they do when they are left to their own devices to fill the hours of a day. Corporate prayer beats self-abuse (pick your addiction) any day.

During this season of Lent we always got introspective, which for the Lutherans in my tradition was not much of a stretch. (I mean, I come from a people where if you look at the tops of someone else's shoes when your head is down you are being "brash") So we'd metaphorically heap the ashes upon our heads, relish our inadequacies, and patiently count down the days until we could get back to our normal life. Real effect that Lent had upon us, yes?

Invariably someone or some family in the congregation would show up in my office on Ash Wednesday and declare that they were going to "take Lent seriously this year." Most of the time by Easter they'd have left the church, and were too ashamed to look at me in the grocery store for their failure to measure up to...

You see, that's the thing--you can't finish that sentence. What--exactly--are humans supposed to measure up to? God? Seems a far stretch when we can't even be nice to our neighbor. Are we supposed to measure up to some "human-made" standard like being nice to the environment or helping poor people or something? What do we measure up to in the season of Lent?

For me, it's measuring up to the ashes the priest inscribes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. All I have to measure up to is death--my death, your death, our death. There are no prizes for lives well-lived. There are no punishments for lives that don't meet some made-up moral standard. (And all moral standards are made up, even the good ones.)

The question then becomes for Lent, not how am I going to live better; but, rather, how am I going to live on my way to death? Like the ash that blows away, how am I going to treat the ones I love? The ones I hate? As I am blowing away into the great beyond how are my relationships being lived? As my pastor asks each week, "Where have you received love? Where have you given love?"

What has always impressed me about Jesus of Nazareth is that on his way to death, he always stopped, healed some people, patched up some arguments, made a new community or two. Those things never stopped him from dying, it didn't stop him from the death on the cross. Ash is the perfect symbol for Lent, not because it's messy, but because it's all that's left when the wood dies...it is the last relationship left for that stick or leaf...there's just dust and God.

And in the end, that's as true for the palm branch as it is for you and me.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A New Pope Already? What are the chances?

Ok. Ok. Many of you know that I am not Roman Catholic, but how many of you know I did 25% of my doctoral work on Roman Catholicism, and particularly Karl Rahner? I regularly use a book by Miroslav Volf that deals with Joseph Ratzinger's theology (who became Benedict XVI.) I pay little attention to our Roman brothers and sisters in Christ because, well, they can't seem to figure out what to do with priests who abuse(d) children? For me, that is a problem...

But now that Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation (it's been almost 600 years since someone did that, which in papal history is quite recent) is when the fun begins. I love this process of picking a new pope, and especially love it in the age of social media. This is going to be fun. I'm brushing up on my Latin, a little Italian (a lot of good papal gossip sites are written in Italian), and preparing for days of TV waiting for white smoke (or is it black, I'll have to brush up on the rules again?)

I must admit, I am a bit disappointed that my previous favorite for pope Carlos Cardinal Martini has died recently, and is no longer eligible for the position. (Rome has elected a lot of different types of folks for the 260 some popes they have had, but none has been deceased.) So I need a new favorite, and fortunately, the European bookmakers have already been hard at work. To see where we stand check this site. Now, there is a lot of money to be wasted here...you can bet on Bono becoming the next pope...and communion might look like this.  Tell me you don't want that at the oblation?

There is strong odds for an actual Roman Catholic from the US, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, but given our country's inability to play well with others, it tends to play against his elevation to the office. Whereas, you can get pretty good odds for Marc Cardinal Ouellet, a French Canadian whom is busy these days redefining Roman Catholic worship. Thoughts were popular back when Benedict XVI was elevated that a pope would come from the Southern hemisphere--obviously a German did not cover that bet. It could happen again, and Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria is always a popular choice (and 7/2? Seriously? I could make more money burying it.)
 I am going to go with Archbishop of Milan Angelo Cardinal Scola. I love the 13/2 odds, I love that he is a social conservative who wrote on Van Balthasar, and he taught political theology. He is a scholar, and is Italian. That last piece is intriguing to me.

One of the things I see happening in God's church these days is groups becoming more and more ethnic. This is not in repudiation (although perhaps in some cases), but rather in dealing with the huge amount of diversity in religious traditions. I mean, if half of the Christians in the world are Roman, what does the elevation of the Pope mean to the other half? Who are these people? What does it mean to me? I can't imagine what it means to all the 20 year-olds at Creighton University who buy their condoms and birth control where I get my shampoo? We seem to be gravitating towards tribalism and ethnicity as a way to make our religious distinctions have some visceral appeal. (What I mean by this, is that we use our heritage and traditions as a way to get tangible evidence that our God is real.) Since Roman is from Rome which is in Italy, I'm going with the Italian, and a half-baked theory of tribalism...but let's be real, I've lost lots of money on much more flimsier theories.

The last time we had an election for a pope, God told me in a dream who it was going to be...I lost that bet. (See this story from last September on Missional Week: Roman Catholic Edition). I haven't had a dream, but I know God has one for us, and in these days of changing leadership and what it means to be the Church, that is the dream I want realized. God's love, embracing our difference, and not remembering our exclusion.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

This Makes Me Crazy

According to one Lutheran pastor (full disclosure: I am a Lutheran pastor too, but there are many kinds of Lutherans-don't ask.) "I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far..." (read the entire article here) Really? You can push Christian "freedom" too far? Praying with other faiths, the President, and the grieving families of Sandy Hook is pushing Christian freedom "too far?"

I can hardly blame any sane, empathetic person who on reading such a story would walk away from Lutheranism, and Christianity as well. If I didn't have a doctorate in Lutheran Christianity, a library with at least 50 books on Christian freedom, and a famous one by Martin Luther (namesake of Lutheranism) called "On the Freedom of the Christian," I would ponder leaving as well.



Let's talk about this "On the Freedom of a Christian" written by Luther. Look at what Wikipedia says about this pamphlet. Does it sound like Pastor Morris was exercising his freedom as a Christian? Why was he censured and asked to apologize? Oh yeah, he pushed freedom too far. It was too much for the folks at that service to know that Jesus Christ, his Spirit, and the redemptive power of God was at work before, during, and after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. He had to apologize for that??? What a crock of shit.

The sheer craziness of this story boggles the mind and wounds the heart. I am not writing to try and get into the good graces of Lutherans who do not agree with me on this...if your definition of freedom is such that you have limits to it, well, I pray your God has a sense of humor. There is a limit to Christian freedom according to Luther, you know...but it isn't praying with other faiths...it is the cross, it is death, it is resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth pushed the limits of freedom until he died, and even more amazing than that, he never seemed to circumscribe others' freedom in doing so. (This is why he is the Christ of God, by the way, for those of you who wondered what makes Jesus so "special.") His death is God's forgiveness of our sin to enclose our hearts and minds to the reality that God's world has no limits. As the Apostle Paul wrote in the book of Galatians "For freedom Christ has set us free." (5.1)

I am sad that Pastor Morris had to apologize for exercising his Christian freedom in offering a benediction to a tragic event in the lives of all of us...I pray there comes a time when such an apology is not needed.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What a married, gay couple taught me about my marriage

On Sunday, I asked Rev. Dr. Scott Jones, one of our guests on Darkwood Brew, what gays could teach us heterosexuals about marriage? (Check it out here, about 1:25:40 into the clip) I loved his response.


I am not willing to admit that heterosexuals have understood everything there is to know about marriage. In fact, given our human propensity to lie to ourselves, we probably even haven't scratched the surface. For this reason alone, apart from the obvious equal rights argument, we should allow gays to marry. With over half of  marriages ending in divorce, and so many enduring in painful ways, why not let gays and lesbians try to show us hetero-married folks what a marriage might be?

Dr. Jones' answer was quite instructive for me. First, I wonder what "stereotypical roles" Chris and I have fell into over the course of our marriage? We could never afford her not working, and so we have always been both employed, until recently in my "semi-retirement." (Which, curiously, seems to be moving farther AWAY from retirement with each passing day.) We have spent the better part of 25 years consistently challenging and pushing the envelopes of marriage since the day we said "I do." In fact, the person who read scripture at our wedding greeted me at the reception with "You'll do for her first husband." I am still trying to get it right so she can get on with it!

Secondly, Dr. Jones noted that "everything is up for negotiation." I love that. I remember having a conversation about 10 years ago with a group of guys who were in the 70s. The tennis players Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi had recently been married, and they wondered how that would work out? How could she watch the kids? Go grocery shopping? I pointed out to them that Steffi Graf was worth about $100 million at the time, and her new husband wasn't that poor either...they could probably hire an nanny or two, and order their groceries online. It would probably work out if they negotiated well.

That's the thing about marriage--in a world where women are no longer the property of men, negotiation of rules and roles of marriage is a necessity. I noticed that a lot of couples whom I married over the years had already begun this process even in the marriage planning, especially if she earned more than him. (Money has a way of equaling the sexes in spite of stereotypes.) So whether you are negotiating who's paying what bill, who's to whose in-laws for Christmas, or the best way to change a light bulb, marriage nowadays is a constant conversation, and if it's not, it's probably in trouble. (And I realize there are lots of way to be in conversation as a couple, and some even involve talking...a gentle reminder for my Nordic-based readers.)

I fully support gay marriage because it is just for those gays whom God calls to the office, but also because-- just maybe--my own marriage will become the better for it.

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