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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, June 26, 2013

Where is the Love? Spiritual, but not Religious

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "Prophetically Incorrect." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between us and our neighbors in political and cultural ways through our faith. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

"Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over into Beersheba..."
                                                                                                            Amos 5.5

If we knew that Bethel and Gilgal were important sanctuaries to seek God, the verse this week from Amos is a head-scratcher. God wants us to seek God, but not go to the big-box congregations that are famous in Bethel and Gilgal. So where are we to seek God? If God wants us to seek our the Divine, but not go to the famous worship centers of our time, where do we go to seek God?

Now, when Amos answers that question, his response is "the gate." His gate would be akin to our coffee shops, our grocery stores, our post offices, our law-courts, anywhere where public discourse happens.

Have you heard the phrase "Spiritual, but not religious?" That is, people are seeking spiritual experiences, but not necessarily having those experiences of the Divine, the spiritual, etc., within the confines of religious parameters. In other words, people want to seek God, but not in the sanctuaries of our current religious institutions. (check out this video for more information on this term)

In other words, we want God, but not necessarily this: . (That's the Vatican, the supreme symbol of religious institutionalism.)

I feel that way a lot. I have been on leave from religious institutions for a couple of years now. It has been great! My spiritual journey has taken me to new and innovative ways to experience God like Darkwood Brew , deepening spiritual reading of the Bible through Dwelling in the Word , and just taking time to plant an organic garden. My spirit has gained some great depth, but I have not been too tied to religious institutions.

But where is the love? Where is the love of God, the love of the neighbor, even the love of myself? (go ahead, sing the song with the Black Eyed Peas.) At their best, religious institutions try to get at this love, usually by doing something like this 

Notice in that event, started by God, a person set aside to serve is offering the love of God in a cup of wine to anyone who comes. How is that love? The only answer to that is because God promised to be there in that event, wherever, whenever it happens. ("Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them." Jesus of Nazareth) Institutions are ONLY important in ways that they offer time and space for people to participate in, with, under, and against the love of God

Amos knew that it seems. Jesus did too. Jesus knew that the most precious  thing about you, gentle reader, is your soul, your spirit. If religiosity gets in the way of your spirit, get rid of your religion. If God is hindered by your religious institution, don't let the institution stand. We might still need institutions (Hegel might be right!), but we definitely need the love. It's God's love that motivates our spirits, I hope that love also motivates our institutions too.

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

Monday, June 17, 2013

People of Good Will

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "Prophetically Incorrect." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between us and our neighbors in political and cultural ways through our faith. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

"Then the LORD said, 'See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I (the LORD) will never again pass them by...I (the LORD) will rise against the house of Jeroboam'" Amos 7. 8-9

What does it mean to be a person of "good will?" Are you one of those people who wishes for others goodness? Do you wish blessings and peace on strangers? If so, good job of following Jesus (see the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10)...for those of you who may not, why not?

So, as we consider the LORD's plumb line  this week, it is helpful to remember one thing: The LORD--not us people--uses the plumb line. That is, the plumb line exists for the LORD to measure righteousness and justice. The plumb line is how the LORD keeps relationships straight.

The big question then is WHAT is the plumb line the LORD uses? Christianity has answered that question for years by saying "Jesus." But Christians have meant a lot of different things by that word "Jesus." Broadly speaking (and we are painting with the big brushes here, no little details) there are three uses of "Jesus" as the plumb line of God.

For some Christians Jesus is the plumb line as we try to live and do our lives as we follow his example. So, whatever things Jesus did is the stuff we should try and do in our lives today. If Jesus fed people, we feed people. If Jesus prayed, we pray. If Jesus drank wine, we should drink wine (OK, to be fair, that doesn't always make the list, but it should!) Jesus becomes some kind of iconic moral, spiritual, and religious exemplar, and how we follow that example (plumb line) is how God measures humanity. (Note: for some people, following Jesus is so important, that you don't even have to know you are following Jesus to be measured by God...if you are doing the kinds of things Jesus did, that's OK by God, and you don't even have to know you are following Jesus in this.)

For other Christians Jesus measures us by how well we believe in what he did in his death and resurrection for our salvation. For these Christians, what matters about Jesus as the plumb line of God is how we believe in the death of Jesus as a way to set the world right, and how we believe in his resurrection to bring justice to the world. What he actually did when he was alive, although helpful and holy, is not how the LORD uses Jesus to measure us. It is Jesus' death, his resurrection from the grave, that the LORD uses for measuring.

The third popular use of Jesus is to say that the LORD only uses Jesus to measure Christians. That is, whatever Jesus is, does, whatever he did or hopes to do only applies to those who believe in God through Jesus. Jesus as the LORD's plumb line only affects those who want to measure their lives by Jesus. (Notice, this is good, because if you want to be measured by Jesus, you tend to also want to do whatever you have to to have that measurement work in your favor. Too bad for others, but for you? Good news!)

The only problem with those three uses of Jesus as the plumb line of God is that, at least according to Amos, they are all wrong. If we grant Jesus is the plumb line of God that Amos is talking about (and that is risky at best to assume that, but most Christians do...) Jesus is what God uses to measure relationships. That is God, uses the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth to plumb line the world. However Jesus measures it, well, that's what the LORD is going to use...

So how does Jesus measure the world? Well, he dies with no money, no possessions, a new family taking shape in the shadow of his cross, and his friends all running away and waiting to see. He plumb lines the world on a cross that is not his last resting spot. He plumb lines the world with an empty tomb, with a hope and promise of something we cannot taste or see.

To be honest, gentle reader, I do not find it too interesting how you use Jesus to measure your life. I really don't care which of the three options above you use, or even if you have another one you use. What interests me is that LORD uses Jesus as a plumb line. God measures God's being in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Because you see, Jesus was just a guy...just a person...who showed all of us humans what it means to be human. Because as strange as it is, we humans never get being human right...we always try to be God rather than being human.

Jesus, as far as we know, never tried to be God, he was satisfied being human. So, are you? Are you satisfied in being human? If so, then you probably have no trouble with good will and blessings towards others...that's about as human as we can get.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Dwelling in the Word: Little (houses)Conversations on the Prairie

I am at a Dwelling in the Word festival sponsored by Church Innovations Institute  What a great time!

We are sharing a lot of our experiences in Dwelling in the Word (Dwelling in the Word is a spiritual practice that Church Innovations has used to great effect over the past 25 years. They have a developed a Spirit-led, Christ-centered, God-encompassed patience over the years to listen strangers into the freedom of the gospel. Check them out on the link above.) Anyhow, we have folks from South Africa, the USA, Native Americans, India, England, Germany, Belgium, Norway, and probably more as I haven't had a chance to meet everybody. Everyone is jumping up to share a new insight or introduce a new friend. Great times!

I've been using Dwelling in the Word as a spiritual practice of my own for years, and we used it for our worship at Prairie Table Ministries in Bismarck, ND. I never realized just how much impact this way of being a congregation or a community can have on lives.Yeah, it may be good for me, but congregations learning how to deal with the after-effects of apartheid? Never occurred to me that God's Spirit might have something to say to them too. Talk about God being great!

But my own ignorance and limitations do not limit how exciting it is to be here.I am brought close to tears at hearing the stories people share about how talking together, sharing leadership, and trusting in the promise of God to transform despair into hope. For example, one lady from Norway shared how she learned to trust her people to be the people of God, and that led to her working on improving Christian-Islam relationships in Oslo.These are truly impressive leaders.

But here's what's funny: all of these leaders would say, "It's not me." Leader after leader has expressed how God did all the heavy lifting in the Dwelling sessions, and how the leader "just" listened and prayed. I wonder if we don't need to re-think what a leader is? I wonder if we need to see that leadership is not about having the answers, but about being patient enough to listen for God to speak and act through, in with, under, and maybe even against people?

Maybe leaders in the Christian world are not this  but rather this

 What if Christian leadership is not about leading people into to battle, but rather leading them into life? What if Christian leadership is not about sitting on a horse surrounded by an army, but rather sitting on the floor surrounded by the lame? A lot of what passes for Christian leadership these days is bullshit. It's misguided because it uses standards not set up by God in Christ in the power of the Spirit, but rather standards set up by the Marine Corps (like Robert's Rules of Order--the most un-Christian document ever!)

But what this Festival has witnessed to me is how many great Christian leaders there are out in the world, trying to make a difference, and not being too bothered by whether they look foolish or not.

And that not being bothered comes from a deep place, gentle reader. A deep trust in a God who keeps promises. A deep trust in a God who loves the world, and all the creatures in it. A deep trust that the Spirit is the best conduit for meaningful, hopeful, and loving relationships. Soon we will gather for dinner...and soon we will have conversations. Sounds like a good day to be on the prairie.

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

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Returning to the Place I grew up (home)

What is "home?" Is it the place you grew up? Is it where you feel safe? Is "home" defined by people, or by a location? Can you have many homes? Or, is it just one? Is a "house" the same as a "home?" I mean, we have
* home pages
*home bases
*home away from home
*home fields
*home "boys" (which, curiously, also often includes "girls")
I am sure there are some I have missed...feel free to add in comments below

But, "home" carries with a definition that most of us can't describe...but we know "home" when we see it, or experience it, or feel it.

I think that is why "home" is such a powerful metaphor. I haven't lived in Minneapolis for 11 years, but still coming back into the southern suburbs yesterday felt like home. Maybe it's familiar? Maybe it's comfortable?

    I have a suspicion that home is more important now that immigration is a reality for so many people. Immigration used to be only for those going from one country to another, but now it is people going from one city, one place to another. I remember in Bismarck, being at a Golden Corral (it's one of those buffet restaurants where all the food tastes the same), and the manager, in a nice Southern accent welcomed us. You're not from North Dakota, I asked? No, he said, I moved here from Atlanta, and this is so exciting to have a job!

The first winter came, and Golden Corral had a new manager. From Pick City, a little town just north of Bismarck. It takes more than a job to make a place a home. It takes more than people to make a place a home. Early in our life together, Chris and I lived six blocks from Wrigley field in Chicago. We were surrounded by people all the time, but we never thought we were "home."

Curiously, when our youngest turned 16, and we wanted to take her on a trip anywhere she wanted to go, she chose Chicago, because although she hadn't lived there for 15 years, it was home. Really? You were one when you left? Is home the place you were born? Maybe...

So I am back in the verdant greenness that is Minnesota in the Springtime. This is where I learned to ride a bike, kiss a girl, and graduate from school. This is where my brother lives. This is where some of my longest tenured friends live (although I rarely talk to them anymore...I'm too busy...too ignorant--see my last post.) I am sitting 100 yards away from the first sanctuary I ever preached in, where I learned Luther's Catechism, where I taught pre-schoolers about Abraham and Sarah, and teenagers about God's Spirit.

Right now I am sitting 100 yards away from the home of my best friend's mom whom I did the funeral for a few years ago...a family we used to have dinner with until divorce broke them up 12 years ago...this is all part of "home."

But when I am not here, this is not the place I think of when people ask me, "where is home?" My answer is always the same, wherever Chris is. 26 years ago I married her, and although I have yet to take her on a honeymoon, or even be in the same state with her for our anniversaries (to be honest, I had to do the math right now--I am a horrible spouse...maybe someday I'll buy her a gift?) But she is home to me in a way that my own mother, my own children are not.  Whatever is home for you, I hope you have a little bit of it this summer. Summer seems like a good time to "go home." Wherever, whatever that is.

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

Monday, June 10, 2013

We'll get together then, on a golden autumn day

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "Prophetically Incorrect." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between us and our neighbors in political and cultural ways through our faith. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

"But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream." Amos 5.24

Amos climaxes his argument here in chapter 5. The point of having God is not so that you can do religious things, but rather so you can treat your neighbor, yourself, your entire world with justice. In other words, without God, you're never going to be righteous.

Immediately, whenever you say something like that, an argumentative type says, "What about an atheist who works in a soup kitchen? What about a non-Jew (or Christian) who takes care of her grandparents? Isn't she righteous? Aren't they doing justice?" Sure. BUT--the whole reason for believing in, with, and under God is for justice. So, not only should atheists, non Jews/Christians be doing justice, but so should Christians and Jews. 

And now the argument goes, "Wait! Aren't we suppose to worship God? Isn't that the whole reason for believing in God?" Not according to Amos. I suppose worship and justice are the two arms of our relationship with God, but for Amos, the justice arm is the more important one. ( For this reason, I assume, congregations that are somewhat justice-averse don't spend six weeks reading Amos.)

But I wonder how many of us believe in God so that we can be just or righteous with our neighbors, our families, our friends, and even our own selves? Have you ever heard this song by Harry Chapin? Cat's in the Cradle is one of those haunting songs that gets you to tears pretty fast.  Dads, moms, sons, daughters, we are all subject to to the pressing issue of time. We all get older. We all let things slip away, even things we love and cherish like our children or our parents. We replace all our important relationships with the things we want to do, or think we should do, or other people tell us to do, and then it gets too late to do anything at all.

Over the years I've met many people, and most have slipped away from me. I got too busy building a new life, focused on raising my kids, supporting my family. A lot of friends I can stay in touch with a bit through Facebook, but since they're my friends many of them post as infrequently as I do. So I have lost a lot of great relationships, a lot of justice, a lot of righteousness through my focus on me and my stuff.

I wonder if Amos knew stuff like that happens. A lot of scholars think Amos was some kind of priest, and did he know the anguish of the human heart that laments the lack of righteousness or justice in our world, even though our intentions are noble and good? I mean, just last night while I was talking to my daughter in Los Angeles, my brother in Minneapolis called, and I missed the chance to talk to him because I was talking to her. And time says YOU CAN'T HAVE IT ALL!! Bastard time. I want to talk to both my daughter AND my brother, but alas...

Maybe there is no definitive answer to this conundrum: maybe we live with the righteousness we are allowed by time and space? What I love about Amos is that he is convinced that being "religious" is not a substitute for being "righteous." And given the choice between the two, "righteous" is God's preferred option.

And Jesus of Nazareth also knew something of this which Amos speaks. Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan man, whom many Jews felt that as a Samaritan he did just not worship God the right way in the right place, but even though he had that "handicap," he still was able to be righteous (just) when the time came.  I wonder who the Samaritan ignored so he could help a Jew, his enemy? Did his wife say, "What are you spending our money on that heathen for?" Did his daughter say, "Dad, how come you missed my baseball game?" Did he have to tell his boss he was late for work because he was helping a Jew? This justice gig is fraught with peril. Somebody is not going to like you when you do it.
But, both Jesus and Amos seem to think God will still like you...and sometimes that's enough, but you and I both know, gentle reader, that sometimes it isn't. 

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Gustavus Adolphus College, A Nod to one of my schools

Last Fall, as I was leaving the University from a Bible study, a young man grabbed my arm. "You're the Lutheran pastor, right?" (I admit I am not THE Lutheran pastor, but at the University that's one of the things people recognize me for, along with long-haired hippie radical, and who is he?) Yes, I admitted.

"What do you have to do to be a pastor? I bet you have to go to a lot of school?" (Now, this is an interesting question. Let's take the school question first. To be a pastor, which I take means to be a leader in a local congregation, usually responsible for preaching and teaching God's Word, caring for God's mysteries, and being a part of God's mission in the world, does NOT--from God's perspective--require you to go to school. PEOPLE, who will pay you something to do those things, USUALLY require you to go to school. In other words, people usually don't want a leader who hasn't gone to school, even if God doesn't care. We'll get to the gentleman's first question in a bit.)

Yeah, in our tradition, I told him, pastors go to school. But being a pastor isn't what you do, it's who you are. (And this shows my hand. I do not believe being a pastor is "just a job," that anybody can do. I believe you have to be called into that job, and being a pastor is way different than any other job I've heard of in my 50 years. But in reality many jobs are like this. Being an accountant is way different than being a Professional athlete, and being a nurse is different than being a doctor. We live in a world where we can do many jobs, but we're probably only CALLED to one or two. That's what you have to BE--not DO--to be a pastor. You have to be called by God and by people who seek a leader.)

I asked him: what kind of stuff do you do that makes you think you want to be a pastor? (You see, even as young kid, a teenager even, people would say to me that if I ever got a church they would come. I went and served for 7 years 2 blocks from my high school. They did come. Even though I'd been gone for 15 years they remembered. Being a pastor is who pastors are. Granted, there are some things to learn, which is why many traditions and people like their pastors to have gone to school. It helps to be able to read, for example. But no matter how much schooling you have, you will not like the job if the calling is not who you are.)

He told me a couple of stories about conversations he has with his pastor, and one with his parents. God seems to be whispering to me, he said. "Well," I said, "it seems like you've done just about everything you need in order to be pastor. Now, we just have have to find out what kind of pastor you're going to be."

"How do I do that," he asked?

Simple, I said, go to school and figure it out. He laughed. "It always comes back to that," he quipped "it always comes back to that." I suppose he's right. But I was blessed to go to a school that had this building in the center of its campus . That's a chapel. Here's how I remember it  For people God has called to be pastors, walking past a chapel every day is not too difficult. But what if God has called you to some other job? What does walking by a chapel do to accountants, nurses, day-laborers, plumbers, retail clerks, lawyers, and First Basemen, whatever your job is?

All of us have a sweet spot called by God, and I guess a few of us go to school to figure that out, or how to use that call. What does God call you to be? How do you do that?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, June 3, 2013

An order of Love, with a side of kindness

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "Prophetically Incorrect." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between us and our neighbors in political and cultural ways through our faith. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

" You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities."
                                                                                                              Amos 3,2

Oh boy. OOOOOOOOOH boy. OOOOOOOOOOOOH bOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOy! It's getting a bit uncomfortable now.

You ever wondered if there is a thing called "justice?" People talk about it all the time. Justice has motivated countless youth to wander the globe in search of it, often forsaking even the basics of personal hygiene. Everybody talks about "justice," but I wonder if it even exists?

IN-justice, well that seems to exist. I mean, even just a casual perusal of a newspage can show you pictures, video, and for those old-schoolers--text, about the injustices we have going on these days. But does "justice" exist? We should treat each other nicer, we could be more moderate in our expenditures, we may need to slow down a bit--but we won't. We abandon the "should-a, could-a, would-as" and move straight to injustice. (I remember talking to Wallace Alston, a Presbyterian theologian and pastor, on the Lutheran view of original sin and original blessing. I told him, "In my tradition, we may have been created without sin, but we're going to do it anyhow, so why worry about it?" "That's why I love Lutherans," he said.)

Basically, then, I am at the point of believing that IN-justice is the normal course of events. That is, God is going to punish us for our iniquities--get over it. Amos, as well as every other prophet all the way to Frank Schaeffer is right in pointing out God's displeasure with the normal course of events we call a "day." We can talk all we want to about people who are trying, and wanting to make a difference, but I've been marching for peace since I was 10, and if change is going to come, apparently, it will take longer than 40 years. So, when Amos says God will punish us for our iniquities, I can see where Amos is coming from...

But I can't. Because as much as I think IN-justice is the norm, it's been that way for a long time now, and God hasn't done anything much about it since--at least mythically--the Flood. And maybe that's the point. Maybe we're created to "serve" IN-justice? That is, not that we help and accessorsize IN-justice, but we serve it be bringing justice to the IN-justice? That bringing of justice in unjust situations might be exactly what God created us for in the first place. We are the ones God blesses with generosity, patience, faithfulness, and hope. Maybe we serve IN-justice those dishes? Maybe the point of our lives is not for us to acquiesce to IN-justice, or resign ourselves to the sway of IN-justice, but rather we serve it with gifts of freedom, equality, love, and care?

For those then who follow Jesus as the Christ of God, this serving of IN-justice with the gifts of the Spirit leads down some scary roads. Oftentimes, such serving leads us into homes that look like this

Not to the type of place where we usually think of "justice." If we take this Jesus-guy seriously, serving IN-justice with the gifts the Spirit of God has given us will get us dead. Seriously dead. But here's the irony as Amos points out: you are going to be dead either way. Either God will get you, or IN-justice will suck the life out of you. But you will be dead.

Now, I am not suggesting that there is only one way to battle IN-justice. Some battle it by funding forces that oppose IN-justice. Some battle by rolling up the sleeves and digging in or cleaning it out. Bruce Springsteen famously said, "I'm a musician. I sing about it." (Here's a little ballad Mr. Springsteen wrote a few years ago about IN-justice. Hometown) We all have different ways of battling IN-justice. We probably won't win. But, for a God who died on a cross, not winning may not be the worst thing...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.