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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.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday, Ambulances, and the Cross

Happy Easter! (This is short for: Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead, is the Christ of God. You can see why it got shortened.)

My morning started out with one of my neighbors calling 911, as around 4:45 am we were treated to sirens and flashing lights scaring all the rabbits out of our yards. (I am not kidding here, four different rabbits bolted when the sirens and lights went flashing by...and no, they did not leave me any Dove chocolate.) So, as I am praying for my neighbors, it got me thinking about that first Easter morning...

First, it was not "easter." That is, when the day began no one seemed to know that there would be anything special to the day. It started out normal enough, but then the tomb of Jesus was found empty...sort of like this   We have no Jesus here today, and things changed for everybody...including me. I mean, if the tomb wasn't empty what are the chances I am sitting here writing about Jesus of Nazareth this morning?

I know people want to ignore or bypass the resurrection because it is rather difficult to imagine, much less believe. Also, wrong-headed satisfaction theology, famously espoused by the English cleric St. Anselm  has forced many a decent Christian to downplay the resurrection in favor of more palatable Christian stories about Jesus. Lots of religions have a "Christmas" (a god who incarnates from eternity into history), only one has an easter.

And Easter only makes sense if the tomb is empty (which is why most people who are not fond of the Christian faith believe Jesus' body was moved, even stolen by his first friends.) But the tomb needs to be empty PRECISELY to make the body of Jesus important in Christianity. Bodies are important in Christianity, and we know this because Jesus took his with him in his resurrection. And because bodies are important to the resurrection life, they become equally important in this life.

And, if bodies are important in this life, how are you doing in taking care of your body; or, more importantly, the body of your neighbor? Christians feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and wash feet of the needy because bodies are important IN THIS LIFE. God made bodies, "begot" Jesus' and his body, and the resurrection is all about the body--specifically, a lack thereof. If you want to be a good Christian, you got to care for bodies...souls? Maybe. But bodies definitely.

By focusing on bodies your soul aspires to humanity's greatest good: being human, which includes our calling from God. As humans, we are invited to care for bodies, like animals (are you feeding the rabbits of your neighborhood, or even the birds?) We care for bodies of those who are sick. (hospitals) We nurture the bodies of those who are growing. (schools) And we provide for all bodies to celebrate the blessings of life, and to mourn the days of sorrow. (worship)

And we get all this because God took Jesus' body in the resurrection. If all God had wanted was Jesus' soul, Mary and the other women would have had a body to bathe. But, as Will Willimon notes, "Jesus got up." The Christian faith lives and dies on the empty tomb, and it is not because God had to "forgive " our humanity, but rather because God desired to free our bodies. What God forgives in this freedom is our blasphemy in trying to be God, rather than our humility in accepting our humanity. And God does that freeing by telling you that your body, all bodies, are important, valuable, and intricate in the plan and design of the world. This Easter take care of some"body," not just some"one." Happy Easter!

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Spring Break, God's mission, and college students (Or, what do you call a pile of wood chips?)

Last year as I was wandering through the University of Nebraska-Omaha (I live next door to the southern portion of the campus), it occurred to me that I should help out the campus ministry in some way. Through a rather roundabout search via the internet and phone, I was finally hooked up with some students of the Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry (ELCA). Every Tuesday I am in town, I wander up the hill to have Bible study with the Lutherans, and I have had a good time getting to know the young adults who read with me.

Over the past 7 months I have appreciated their intelligence, curiosity, their willingness to engage in conversation, and to actually care about each other. It has been good for this old soul to hear the questions again in new contexts and situations. The "old" part comes into play at this point because they recently asked if I wished to join them (along with students from the University of Nebraska-Kearney, and the University of Nebraska Lincoln) on their Alternate Spring Break Trip. The trip, last week in San Antonio and Austin, TX, would be a chance to serve God's mission in that part of the world. It would be warmer than Omaha, but I would also have to sleep on a floor.

There was a time when I could sleep on a floor, and function pretty well afterwards. I m sure those days are well behind me, sort of like my Cosby sweaters from 1991.  (Yes, at one time that was high fashion...of course the internet hadn't been invented yet. Al Gore was still a Senator.) So sleeping on the floor almost outweighed the sun, and a chance to see what that part of the world was up to in the 25 years since I had went to UT-Austin. I went.

And I am glad I did. I got to meet some truly incredible people, and I saw my faith uplifted and improved by working with (well, gentle reader, "working with" is a euphemism for "watching people work," which to this day still fascinates me) such caring, smart, and fun young adults. Not only some of the folks from Omaha, but the other two Universities as well, provided me a week of participating in God's mission in the world. This is us in downtown San Antonio (thanks to Rae who took the picture, and isn't in the group photo --and the guy hiding in the back behind Josh of Omaha  is Pastor Adam of Lincoln...and I could do a whole year's worth of blogs on this incredible minister of the gospel, and what he does.) Photo

As these trips often go (17 hours in a van together will do this), a thread of jokes emerges from such intimate and intense cohabitation and cooperation. A joke told at the beginning of the trip is told for days as a way to make new connections with new people, and provide them all with a a shared vocabulary. Many of our jokes revolved around this verse from the Bible:
"So Joshua made flint knives, and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath-haaraloth." (Joshua 5.3)

 You can see why this is so humorous to college students...no? Ah, perhaps the Hebrew confuses you? The place of this mass circumcision is called "The Hill of Foreskins." (Gibeath-haaraloth)...Pastor Adam teaches a Hebrew Bible course at Lincoln, and he has taught his students this verse, and its importance to males in being a Jew of upstanding character. And the Lincoln students were quite willing to share this knowledge with those of us from Kearney and Omaha. Surprising to no one, college students found many opportunities to make jokes about such a hill all throughout the trip. (I did not tell them that Austin is in the "Hill Country" of Texas, as that seemed like a sure invitation to degradation...)

Anyhow in the midst of one of a series of intense and fruitful group processing events, a lull in conversation about our work in trimming bushes and readying gardens for planting, found people making some jokes about wood, trimming, and Joshua 5.3. At first, such jokes may seem crass and tasteless (and some were), but the point of such a joke-thread is how it builds community. As the stories and jokes are told, we bind ourselves to each other together in community, we hear each other, and we remember and hold ourselves accountable to our place in God's world. This kind of sharing is what I call "heaven." To have these kind of relationships is why Jesus died...and we tell his story of the resurrection so that our relationships with each other, even as short-term and temporary as a week-long mission trip, have value right here and right now. Jesus makes us his people not so we can be apart, but so we can be together. Laughing, working, helping, caring, and sharing in the fecundity of God's wonderful grace. A mission trip like this is a one-week intensive to a life of living in God's grace.

So, what do you call a pile of woodchips? Simple: a hill of foreskins...trust me, at 11:30 at night, after 4 days with no sleep, too much sun, and too much food...that's about the funniest joke you'll ever hear...of course, maybe it's one of those you have to be there for--and because some young folks invited this old fool to drive, I was blessed enough to be there.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Did you hear the one...?

Religious jokes are legion. I once did an entire sermon were I only told jokes about people who died and went to heaven. (Truth be told, I have a sermon that is 22 minutes long that is just an elaborate joke. My usual sermons are just jokes...) I love to laugh, and jokes are a good way to get me to laugh. My other preferred way to laugh is to watch politicians try to think...let's just say it's not usually a strong point.

I wonder if Jesus told a lot of jokes, was he a laughing kind of guy? Now, many people hope Jesus was a jokester, especially if they also believe their actions will lead them to hell, and that somehow Jesus can help them get out of it. But I am talking about a guy who has a sense of humor. I am talking about this guy:

 Is this how you think of Jesus?

I only mention this because, as you may have heard, the Roman Catholics elected a new pontiff. (And no, I did not win my bet, goodbye 20 euros.) Christianity gets all serious about stuff like this, even non-Roman Catholics, as if by being excited about this somehow the world is a better place...please. The election of the pope combines both religion and politics, which means you should never talk about it at cocktail parties. Ever.

The election of the pope has as much to do with my spiritual and religious journey with God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit as the joke about the dyslexic atheist who refused to believe in "dog." Funny, but hardly anything to do with faith. You see, faith is a relationship-word, it is not a thing-word. You can "have faith," in God but you have relationship, you don't have anything you can hold or touch, or even show to someone. Faith, as Joseph Sittler once said, is the "regal relationship" between God and humanity.

I want people to have a relationship with God. I want people to be able to live and understand their purpose in life, and why living has value for them and for others. I want us to take our place in life seriously...but with humor, with laughter, and with some jokes. Over the past year that I have spent  time dealing with people outside of my religious tradition, and I have met quite a few who believed in hell, and it scared them. I feel sad for them that they had that false version of Christianity brainwashed into them so that they couldn't let the gentle humor of God pave their relationship to and with God. There is no hell that burns people for eternity. Sorry, but that is a lie people use to control others, it is not the God of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Easter's coming, and that is the biggest joke of all in our Christian faith, because God has tricked death into believing it has the final say. Death, once it has spoken for Jesus' life, believes it has "won the game." The resurrection is God pulling the rug out from under Death. God says, life wins, my life in Jesus, in the world, in you, that is the future, not death. The cosmic joke God creates on Easter places all the papal voting, all the money, all the stuff we do in some perspective...life is to be lived, even after we die. Get it?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Wealth, Money, and Why I Don't Care

On my way to church yesterday I checked my odometer, and 1.2 miles from my house I passed the home of Warren Buffet. You may have heard of him...if not, click here. Mr. Buffet is famous for being rich (worth 46 billion dollars according to Wikipedia.) Since our media is so bored with everything, they follow him around as if whatever he does is so interesting...(the first time I saw Mr. Buffet in public we were sitting across from each other at a 5 Guys burgers. where he asked his daughter to pay, as he said, "I don't have any cash." I can't make up that kind of humor.)    Did you know that the 6 heirs of the Walmart fortune have more wealth than the bottom 33 million people in our country? Does that seem strange to you? It seems strange to me too, but I don't really know what do think about that statistic? Is it bad? Is it good? Does it matter? Who cares? I mean basically that statistic tells me that there are really rich people in the world compared to others, but so what?

Now don't get me wrong. I am not a rich person in terms of money. (My taxable income for 2012 was $4700, or a little less than $400 a month. I assume I am one of those 33 million trying to keep up with the Walton family. See this interesting video) On the other hand, I never have to miss a meal because I don't have money. I simply do not care about wealth and money. I live off the grace and generosity of family and friends. Thank you.

But the main reason I try not to make much money is because it bores me. I get bored immediately when a conversation turns to wealth and money. (I am so allergic to such conversations that even when we have to talk about it, I don't.) I just don't care. I don't care who has money or not. I don't care if you want more or want less. I don't care.

I don't like rich people better than poor people (although I once played Max in The Sound of Music who has this wonderful line. "I like rich people. I like how I live when I'm with rich people.") I assume, gentle reader, as someone who is interested in Jesus of Nazareth that you too, are not prone to liking people solely on the basis of their wealth. It remains to be seen if Jesus actually liked wealthy people himself. He had some friends that seemed to be wealthy (Peter, his chief disciple, for example), but he didn't find that wealth something to brag about.

I remember a great conversation I had when I first got to Bismarck. My new friend, on hearing I was going to be his pastor said, "I could never do your job." I asked why not? He said, "I know what you get paid, and I want to make more money than that." Why? He looked at me as if I was the stupidest person he's ever met..."So I can be free to do what I want." hmmmm......

I fear most people who obsess about wealth and money do so for that reason--freedom to do what you want, to not have people tell you what to do, to "be your own woman!" I suppose there are other reasons why people want money and wealth, and, of course, some people just have it. (One of my favorite quotations from the late Malcolm Forbes was on how he earned his first million dollars, "I did it the old-fashioned way, my father died.") I don't care if you have money or not, or even if you want money or not--but I will say this: if you are seeking money to secure your freedom, you may be looking in the wrong place.

Freedom (even to do "whatever you want") cannot be purchased--it can only be given or taken. If you have it, how do you share it? If you don't,...well that's why there's revolutions. And for Christians, who've had freedom given to them by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, how does that make a difference in your life? Your wealth? Your money? It seems to me that if you want the freedom to do "what I want" the most dangerous thing to do would be to hoard money. Because if those who don't have money also think that's how they get their freedom, well, then you're just one tea party away from losing it all. Money, wealth, freedom, and maybe even your life.

May your tables be full and you conversations be true.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Will Christians Ever Get Together?

Someone asked me the other day, as we were reflecting on the current papal transition in Roman Catholicism, whether Christians will ever again all be together? Interesting question, and one that I have thought of... a lot. I want to talk about this in an autobiographical way.

You see, I was raised in a liberal Lutheran Church. The pastor who confirmed me was a Swedish guy, divorced, who re-married a woman who had once been a nun. Suffice to say, sexual morality was never a topic from the pulpit--that, and his best friend was our Bishop who had an openly gay child. That being said, as an academic for most of my early life and career, I never devoted much time to churchly things. I went to a few youth group events (canoeing in the Boundary Waters was my favorite), helped my dad teach confirmation classes at church while I was in college, and once even helped organize a national Lutheran Youth Gathering. But I went to worship only on Sundays (except Lent and Advent, when we had Wednesday night worships), and I always scheduled Sundays around the Minnesota Vikings, not church.
        

In college, where many people of my day experienced suffering for the first time as adults, I tried the Christian thing for a bit. And then I stopped it all. My first class was the "Bible as Literature," which fulfilled the religious requirement of my school. I never took another class on Christianity again until my second graduate school. (More on that later.) We had daily chapel, and I went quite a bit--unless the conversations were too scintillating--and usually because we had great music, and I loved the pageantry our chaplain had. (As a good Swede, he wore clogs and sandals with socks sticking out under his cassock and alb.)

I fell in love with stories of all kinds and of how to think. And really, over the last 30 years those are still the most valuable interests I have. So I read lots of stories, read lots of people who thought, and made a little career of it. Here's the thing: many stories have allusions to Christianity, and if you're going to understand even a little bit of the story, you should know some Christianity. (Think Leo Tolstoy.) And here's another thing: many of the best thinkers throughout human history have been Christian, and if you want to understand them, even a little bit, you should know some Christianity. (Think St. Augustine.)

So I spent a good six years meeting many people, some who were Christian, some who were not. I read a lot of books about Christianity in order to understand thinkers (I read more books about Christianity trying to understand Nietszsche than I did books by Nietzsche.) My friends now included openly gay people, atheists, Native American spiritualists, fundamentalist evangelical preachers-to-be, Spiritual but not Religious (This was 1981...but we were all trained in the 70s), and even a few mainline Lutherans. Then I met a Catholic.

Now I had grown up as a child surrounded by many St. Paul, MN area Catholics. They were exotic, interesting, and their services went on forever, usually in Latin. (Of course, once I went to college and learned Latin, they switched to English.) But this woman's family introduced me to a side of Catholicism I only had heard about in movies, or whispers in back alleys, as people sold their gold crucifixes for a dime bag. To be honest, when I encountered it for the first time as an adult I was shocked. Here's what shocked me the most: my friend could never be a priest...because she was a woman.

In 1985 it was INCONCEIVABLE to me that someone could be denied a calling based solely on her gender. She was a person of great faith, exactly the kind of person I would want to tell my sins to (admittedly, to her, they would have a certain deja vu quality), exactly the kind of person I would like to hear ruminate on the wonder and excitement of God's world. But this could never be because in her tradition, those roles of ordination could only be had by men. (Yes, I understand there are "alternate" ways of doing those things in her tradition, but I think we all know there is no such thing as "separate but equal.") I saw absolutely no reason why "just" because she was a woman she could not be an ordained priest. And even more shocking was how comfortable she and her parents were with this! I literally felt like I had stepped back into a story by James Joyce with all the self-loathing, hatred, and anger, and none of the poetic fluency to cover over the sexism. I've heard she has a good life, and made a lot for herself and her kids, her husband, and probably her friends too. She is that kind of woman. She could have done that for her church as well, but they wouldn't let her.

In answer to the question: will Christians ever get together? Probably not as long as I am called a Christian. Unless, those Christian traditions that exclude leaders only on the basis of gender and/or sexual orientation change to include them, I will never join those traditions. (Catholic or Protestant.) I believe in the God-giftedness of people regardless of their gender and/or sexual orientation more than I believe in Christian unity. And any tradition that denies that giftedness will never be united with me.

Of course, when I am gone things may change. But the thought that my wife could not be an ordained leader in a church just because she is a woman is the STUPIDEST thought ever introduced to Christianity. To compromise on that is to compromise on my God, who loves and gifts all people to better communities, and there is no distinction, "Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians. 3.28) Paul is not talking here of something that is going to happen, but rather something that has happened. I choose to live in religious communities that understand that because this has happened in Christ Jesus women may lead Christianity just as men may. That is my choice. But where is your line in the sand?

What does God mean for you in the community in which you practice religion? Are there any non-negotiables in your faith? With Christians? With other faiths? What would it take for you to be united with another tradition?

I understand sexism may not be an issue for you, or really maybe for many people, but I suspect we all have an "issue." Because of those issues, the chances of Christians ever getting together is pretty slim. Unless, of course, through God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit--we already are.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.