Your Blog Steward

My photo
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.

Monday, April 29, 2013

To Everything there is a Season

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "On Earth as it is in Heaven." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between God, the earth, and humanity. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

Our revels now are ended. These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Prospero, The Tempest, IV.i.

“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate day from night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.’” Genesis 1.14

And right then and there: God made death. When God made the sun and moon for signs, seasons, days, and years, we received “time.” And time leads to death. On Day Four God introduced death into the created order. And for humanity, at least, this has been a problem ever since.

Most people don’t want to die. My greatest addiction (of which I have many, gentle reader) is to breathing. I would much rather live than die…Games of Thrones is only half-way through Season Three…I can’t go yet! I couldn’t imagine not knowing what’s going to happen to my favorite Lannister  Death, could you give me some more time?

The above quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest has always been my favorite understanding of death. Most scholars seem to think this is Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater, the “great globe itself” is the name of his playhouse, and that this is his “death” as it were, from his writing of plays. For me, it is just a beautiful way to describe the reality we all face in our mortality. "Our little life is rounded with a sleep." Beautiful.

Everything dissolves. How many homes are under centuries of dust, even though the proud homeowner exclaimed “This is the greatest house ever?” Even our globe, given enough seasons and days, will dissolve.  The biggest problem humans have with our mortality is that we do not appreciate time well. We let it slip away, like a bad 80’s rock ballad. We think of time like this:                                                                                   

But in reality time is this:

Death is the result of time, and Christianity has never shied away from admitting such. Christianity has always been able to look death, time, mortality straight in the eye and say, “God’s yes is stronger than your no.” That is, as much as death is the constant companion of our lives, Life is what living is all about.

As the season changes up here (FINALLY!!) we see life in all its springtime fecundity: birds mating, flowers blooming, children graduating… it’s all there to enjoy. And yes, we know our revels will end. We know our “time will come,” but we trust even more than we know.  And our trust resides not in the days and seasons themselves, but rather in the one who made them so.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Mother Earth; or, How I Learned to Love Weeds

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "On Earth as it is in Heaven." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between God, the earth, and humanity. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

"Then God said, 'Let the earth put forth vegetation...'" (Genesis 1.11)

In some parts of the world this is a flower 

 in my neighborhood it's a weed.

And, in the basics of cultural grammar, weeds are "bad." Flowers are "good." So even though we could have neighborhoods filled with the above yellow vegetation, with no effort, no chemicals, no pollution of any kind to get a carpet of yellow for a few weeks each Spring--we do not.

Instead we spend oodles amount of time, money, and energy to get rid of these "weeds" so that we can have non-native (to our ecosystem) grass that costs even more time, money, and energy to maintain. No small wonder that humanity has issues...we can't even live with the flowers we have without turning them into weeds.

There is a grand conspiracy against the dandelion. (For purposes of this essay, gentle reader, I have not googled the multitude of organizations, groups, and people who are working to change the dandelion's reputation here in the USA from weed to flower...but I am sure they exist, I just don't want to know that.) In 50 years I cannot remember any neighbor not wanting to "get rid of" the dandelion from his or her "yard." I suppose if it got bad enough, various civic and city "gardeners" would be enlisted to help "manage" your "weed infestation." I remember once in Bismarck getting a mailing from the city on how to "manage and mow weeds," including our little dandelion. Yes, they are prolific, invasive, but they are also quite tasty...

Over the course of my life I've eaten every part of the dandelion. Flowers, stems, leaves (you pay big money for "organic" spring mixture salad that is mostly dandelions)...and in college we made dandelion wine. (I know, gentle reader this does not shock you, however, the ratio was 1/4 cup of wine to 1 gallon of water...and even then you could only sip it. Many people refused our hospitality in those days, but we attributed it to their disdain of the dandelion rather than our inability to be decent vinters.) I've even eaten the roots of a dandelion because I read in a book you general, this experience led me to get two degrees in learning how to read books.

But vegetation is vegetation, what we make weeds has nothing to do with Genesis. Whether something is a weed or flower is our issue, not the issue of mother earth. The earth was asked to put forth vegetation, and I assume, in some laboratory that the earth uses to create new species, the dandelion seemed like a fine option for those of us in the sand prairie of of the Great Midwest. Alas, earth did not reckon with us and our inability to live in harmony with anything. (I find it interesting that the Natives to this part of my world couldn't go two weeks without battling some other tribe, but they all lived in peace with the dandelion. My neighbors? We can live pretty well amongst each other, at least not going to war too often, but wow do we hate the dandelion. I guess people have to live in harmony with some things and not with others?)

What's interesting about the Christian tradition is that Jesus Christ redeems the whole universe, including the dandelion. I don't know what the dandelions are about in redemption, but it does leave me to believe that redemption is not just about Jesus "saving me." Redemption is more about putting things in order, getting us to live in harmony with dandelions AND our neighbors,,,it is not one or the other it is BOTH. Until the dandelion is loved, what chance does my neighbor have? I mean, if we can't love vegetation that feeds us, intoxicates us, colors our world, and shows us what fecundity means, how can I learn to love my neighbor? Even were I to feed them, intoxicate them, color them, and celebrate with them...well, look what we do to the dandelion. It's just a weed. And when we say that? It seems like the judgement is against us, not the dandelion.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, April 15, 2013

"Wildness" is not Chaotic

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "On Earth as it is in Heaven." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between God, the earth, and humanity. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

Yesterday's guest. Rev. Meighan Pritchard on Darkwood Brew reminded me that when it comes to nature, "wildness" is different than "chaos." This is a truth all natural scientists, conservationists, and people who pay attention to nature all know, but I wonder sometimes if that message gets lost these days in the onslaught of messages that come our way? Do we fear wildness because it seems so out of control, it seems to have no purpose?

Growing up in the woods of central and northern Minnesota gave me with a confidence to be "in the wild" that hasn't left me in spite of the fact that I live almost all my days within 20 feet of pavement at all times.  I've slept on the hard ground, warmed by fading embers of jack pines logs with wolves howling at the moon nearby. That I managed a few hours sleep in that situation has as much to do with how tired I was, as well as the fact that my friends were more worried than me, and they kept watch. God creates "wildness" from chaos. That's a key belief of mine.

As a kid, my grandparents' house bordered some wild county land just north of Duluth, MN. The land had grouse, squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, and bears, and I saw them all. During raspberry season it was a constant battle between my grandfather and the bears of who could get up earlier to get to the berries. Grandpa loved raspberry jam, and I got to see the sun rise many mornings while on "bear patrol." But even more formative for me was reading a book I "borrowed" from one of his friends: A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. I can't imagine anyone loving God's creation more than the man who wrote this book.  I remember sitting out in the backyard and being enthralled by the tales of this guy who saw way more in his woods than I did in mine.

I recently bought my own copy of that book, and reading it flooded me with memories long since tucked away in the dark recesses of my mind. In the past 40 years since I first read it, I have met many people influenced by Leopold and his ideas. My favorite conservation organization, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation uses a quotation from Leopold to introduce their section on hunting, wilderness, and wildlife ethics. What I learned from him--way back when--was that wilderness had a system. It was not chaotic. (I love that people now try to make chaos its own system, but I will leave that discussion to the post-moderns, and confine my understanding of chaos to that which has no system. Old-fashioned perhaps, but for purposes of this essay, just fine.)

I don't understand all the science that goes into an ecosystem, but I do see some of the relationships that go into what I call "the wild." That's what creation, what the first "seven" days of the creation story in the Bible, are all about: the relationships God creates for the fecundity of life. The Bible is pretty clear that the most important thing one has is "life." And life is nothing more than the relationships we have that energize, redeem, and sustain us.

My "life" only makes sense in relation to the people I've known, only makes sense within the air I breathe, or the land I walk. Even the little cardinal who sits right outside my window and chatters from his branch that he is awake and ready to go--though  it is only 5:09 am--influences who I am. We don't tell the creation stories because we want to assert that God has power, we tell those stories so that we can believe we have a purpose, we have meaning in a world of seemingly endless relationships.

What Leopold knew, my grandpa knew, and maybe even my new cardinal friend knows, is that we are not placed here without a system, without a web of relationships that free us to live and be in  the world. We are all part of the divine purpose of God (Christians call that "love."). The world is not chaotic, but it is wild--and I wouldn't want it any other way.

May your tables me full and your conversations be true.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Night and Day

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "On Earth as it is in Heaven." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between God, the earth, and humanity. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

"God called the light Day, and the Darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day." (Genesis 1.5)

So, if I'm hearing this right, light has a name: Day. Darkness too--Night. And because the next sentence follows so closely, we assume evening and morning are "middle names" and voila--we have time. While I am not a Hebrew scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I know enough to know that it is much more complicated than that. But I'm just a poor theologian, with a little bit of Hebrew, a little bit of Latin, and a little bit of Greek...just like Shakespeare was no Ben Jonson, I am no Moses. But I am intrigued by verse 5 here.

Why does God name "light" and "darkness?" What about those two states of being, those two ways of living, urges God to give them names? We're four verses into the Bible and God's already naming stuff. Was God worried that some other creator, maybe Marduk in the next galaxy over, was going to claim them with some funky names, and God was like No! These are mine! Stay away! I named them!

As a story, it's always risky to infer deep philosophical or religious truths from a grandmother trying to explain to her granddaughter why we call it "night?" But still, we have these two names...And do we treat Night and Day like proper nouns, or do we just brush them off as generic descriptions of astral luminosity? What if Day and Night want to be treated with the respect due proper nouns as realities that have their own names?

What if Ms. Day desires to be in relationship with you for more than just providing you with a chance to make some money or do yardwork? What if Mr. Night wishes you to honor and respect him for more than a chance to view the universe or free vampyres to roam? What if Night and Day are not demarcations of time, but rather realities that demand we pay attention to them?

Maybe spending a Day fishing is not wasted, even if your boss finds its unproductive?
Maybe using the Night to make love is what Night likes best? Or, as Jimmy Witherspoon used to say, make love "in the wee hours of the morning," where Night and Day seem to pass each other in a shadowy fog, and both are appreciated for their offerings?                  

What if we actually paid attention to what Night brings to us? What Day brings to us? What if we lived with the gifts we receive from Night and Day, not as expectations of drudgery, but rather as benefices of grace?

It seems to me that if we are to talk intelligently about God, humanity, and the environment we should spend some time listening first. What sounds does the Day bring that Night does not? How is the world we see different when presented by Night rather than Day? Are we biased toward one or the other, perhaps because we are too focused on the wrong things? Maybe what we really fear is light and darkness, and we blame Day and Night for their complicity?

All I know is that when I sit in my backyard during the reign of Day it is different when under Night's watch. During the Night, my backyard seems almost magical, almost like a place anyone would want to be...unless--of course, you're afraid of the dark, and the creatures who aren't. Then, I suppose, my backyard is terrifying...but that is hardly Night's fault.

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

Who writes your sermon?

Once I was a preacher. Over the first 20 years of my ministry I preached a lot of sermons in a lot of pulpits in a lot of places. I've preached in front of 12 people, 1000 people, in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, living rooms, and bars. I have quite a collection of sermons in folders and on disks. (Truth be told, I stopped writing outlines for my sermons about 2009. I still created outlines, but I committed them to memory, and pretty much preached with just a Bible in my hand.)

As I look back on those outlines from 1989 or 1998 or 2003 or even 2009, some of the actual sermons I can remember...most I cannot. And if that's true for me, the one who created and delivered the sermons, I cannot imagine what my hearers remember? If I can recall one out of 20, what is their rate? 1 from 100? 1 from 500? 

As I sit here and read through these outlines, I wonder how I created them, or who actually wrote them? Why did I think THAT was a good idea? What had I heard or seen that led me to believe THIS is the issue at hand? These outlines are wonderful snapshots of a mind at prayer, but they only capture a moment or two of much larger forces at work. I suppose we all have these times when our pasts intrude upon our present thoughts, but who writes your sermons?

By that I mean who really creates what your say and do? In Christianity we have a wonderful verse of scripture from Paul that reads, "I don't understand my own actions, because I do not do the thing I want, but the very thing I hate." (Romans 7.15) Tell me about it brother. Have you ever had that happen to you? Why do we do things we know are bad for us, things that we don't respect? Why are we so self-destructive at times?

It is true that we are wildly creative and beneficial to ourselves as well. Sometimes we don't do the things we hate, but rather we do what we love. But here's the thing that's funny about this situation. What I mostly "hate" is helping my neighbor. I know I should help them, I know the world is a better place when we do, but I really don't want to do that kind of stuff. As a product of my generation I believe in things like "winning," success, competition for scarce resources, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, taking responsibility for your own manifest destiny. These self-interested notions are the ones I want. To be honest, I would rather be working somewhere, making some money, dealing with the problems of creating sermons that I won't remember in 20 years...that's what I'd "want" to be doing.

But doing what I "want" never lasts for me. What I "want" rarely coincides with what is beneficial, helpful or good for me, much less everybody else. What I "want" is to work to have money, to have people depend upon me for something, to have responsibility to things I cannot control. What I want is what it seems like everybody on TV has.

But that's not what I spend my time doing these days. (Eventually all the people I owe money to will see the issue with this situation, but gentle reader you and I will not tell them yet.) I spend my time helping neighbors out with their ministries and projects, and that often turns out to be good times. Paul's line to the folks in Rome didn't include one crucial point about the things we do (but he does include it elsewhere): unless the things we do are within the orbit of God's grace what we do doesn't matter. And as that orbit encompasses the universe...there's lots of leeway. Since what we "want" is often diametrically opposed to what we hate, and what we "want" often leads to our own death and destruction, perhaps we should spend more time doing things we "hate?" Perhaps we should work against the self-interest we want, and help our neighbor even if we hate it? Perhaps when we write the sermons of our lives we should focus on what we hate, and do that as a way to live those sermons?

Every day we write the sermons of our lives...who writes your's?

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

Monday, April 1, 2013

Some"body" loves you

I remember the young man was sitting on the couch in my office, arms opened wide, head hanging down staring at the floor, and asking "can I just get someone to hold on to?" His wife had an affair with his boss, took their daughter, and moved in with the "new" man in her life. The guy in my office, her "old" man, I guess, was a tad depressed.'s constant toxin.

So here we are on the first day after Easter, an event that occurs mostly because of infidelity, and the world rolls on it merry way from day to day, oblivious of the desperation so many feel because they do not have "someone to hold on to." (I will not reference music lyrics, I will not...don't will not happen.)

Okay. You win. Here.

What is interesting, both for the young man in my office, and for the band The Choir, is that they are wrong. No one needs someone to hold on to. But EVERYBODY needs some"body" to hold on to. The abstract, overly platonized  pronoun "someone" misses the whole point of Easter. Some"body", on the other hand, gets at what Christianity is all about. God places people in our lives to touch, feel, taste, see, hear, and be present in ways that go beyond just a vague memory or a shadowy allusion. It's all about bodies...

Pop culture, of course, knows this much better than most Christian leaders. Vampires, zombies, Game of Thrones, Vikings, American Idol, Facebook, and whatnot all prefer bodies over idealized notions of love or even hatred. We want the visceral, we want the blood, and Christianity used to deliver that before it became a key source of greeting cards by Hallmark and figurines by Precious Moments (the two greatest anti-Christian forces in the world...not even the most radical atheist does as much damage to Christianity as a Hallmark card that uses "Footprints in the Sand" as an expression of deep faith.) So more people watch this
 than go to worship because at least GoT talks about stuff that is "real."

Over the years, my teen-aged charges have often used the word "real" to describe what they like about fantasy shows like Game of Thrones. For years I was baffled by such things (I mean, Khaleesi is the mother of dragons...and who doesn't want dragons?) as it was hardly "real." I discovered over the years that "real" was a substitute for things you could sense like blood, fear, love, and hope. It wasn't real because it existed, but rather because it got at something that was important. These same youth did not find that "real" stuff in Christian worship. And it wasn't a case of selling our Christian souls to Hallmark and Precious Moments, it was really as simple as replacing "somebody" with someone. When we lost our connection to the body, we lost our connection to reality. We also lost our connection to those seeking reality. As Spike tells Buffy, "It's always about the blood."

What that young man wanted on my couch that day was not some"one" but some"body." He wanted a body to hold, to be there on the couch with him, to squeeze his hand, to cry with him, and a body to be part of his world. Jesus of Nazareth knew this. He often touched those he healed, his presence, his body often transformed those he had dinner with, and his words often brought new ways of seeing and being a body of people together. Jesus knew that people wanted bodies, not souls, to journey with in life...he even suggested that if you want to save your "soul," learn to live with your body, and more importantly, with the bodies of the people around you. A hungry body doesn't get nutrition from a prayer, but a hungry soul devours the apple.

By the way, this focus on bodies over "ones" is why I end my posts this way:

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true. (a hungry soul doesn't need a table, but a hungry body does.)