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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, July 22, 2013

Religious Progressives on God, Money, and Gay Marriage

(This essay looks at the findings of a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute on the attitudes of people in the USA on issues of religion, economics, and social issues. Please follow the link to read the report. Public Religion Research

The meta-narrative of "American Progress" has finally died. Almost no one under the age of 30, and less than half of those under age 50 believe that the USA is "getting better and better every day" as the  old progressive slogan has it. What's interesting, according to this research, is that it's only in terms of economics that the notion of progress has died. That is, most young people (and older generations too for that matter have a healthy percentage who also believe) will not be better of economically than their parents. In terms of money, if you're not already rich, most people believe you never will be. Economic progress--as an idea--is dead. According to this survey, most Americans believe that there is no correlation between whether you work hard or not to become wealthy. Hard work=wealth is a myth to most people.

What is curious to me is whether the younger generations, including my own, understand that to mean "wealth," or "just the basics?" For example, I do not believe that me working hard will make me a wealthy man. I do believe, however, that working will put food on my table and a roof over my head...but is food and a roof wealth? So, if you ask me will I be wealthier than my parents the answer is No. I don't believe I will be, but I also don't believe I am going to go hungry or homeless either. So remember, there are wide variations in how people understand the word "wealth." (In general, this is where I have a huge issue with the Brooking Institute that also sponsored this essay. It's basically an economically conservative understanding of words like wealth, money, and work, so that the goal always seems to be a banker from Wall Street who owns a home in the Hamptons. I live one mile from the wealthiest person in this country, and we aren't the Hamptons--heck, the road to his house has been under construction for so long, I think he has to take a helicopter to get to his driveway--now that's wealth!) So, if your understanding of wealth is having two homes, a couple million in the bank, and the leisure to do whatever you want know this: most people don't believe hard work will get you that. (What gets you that, at least according to most newspapers, is lying, cheating, and stealing...all the old-school ways.)

So if ideas of ECONOMIC progress are dead, does that mean all ideas of progress are dead? According to this survey, actually no. In fact, all other kinds of progress are alive and well and growing. Theological progress (non-literal view of scripture, adaptive view of tradition, etc.) is growing. And, if you include non-believers in God in the same generally category (sort of like how the Democratic Party operates when it schedules a prayer) fully 40% of Americans are progressive, and another 35% are moderate. That is, 3 out of 4 Americans do not believe any of the theological crap the religious right spews. So every time a Mark Driscoll talks about people going to hell, 75% of Americans go "Meh, he's full of shit." And what's even worse for the Mark Driscolls of the world is that the theologically conservatives are all in the higher age demographics. Unless theological conservatives start making more folks, their future is short.

(Now there is something interesting to note about theological progressives: it often does not include Black Americans. Black Americans are the most theologically conservative group we have in the USA. But as Robert Franklin argued for years, this is not too surprising. The church in the Black community has often been the conserving force both in the face of slavery, and then through reconstruction and segregation, and in the last 50 years of growing equality.This is THEOLOGICAL progressivism we are talking about, and if you think of all the black clergy who were disappointed in President Obama when he came out in support of gay marriage, you see what's going on here. Many Black clergy see gay marriage as theologically adaptive--that is progressive--and their theology does not permit than to adapt their religion because their religion is what has brought them here. So they disagree with President Obama on this issue, even if on other issues important to Black Americans they can still work with him.)

Social progressives are much harder to define, and the influence of the conservative questions on this category makes it so. In order to be a "pure" social progressive you would have to believe in the legality of both gay marriage and abortion. Since the two issues are not necessarily related (one is about creation and freedom, the other about death and freedom; and, as you can see, if the USA decides that freedom is its prime value, eventually under that value gays will be allowed to marry, and abortion will still be a "tragic option.") But even so with skewing of social to issues of gay marriage and abortion, social progressives are much younger and more numerous.

So, if you put all three of these issues together (economics, theology, and social issues) you get the 20-30 year-olds I meet all the time. Take my friend Elanor (not her real name). She is 24, works hard at her job as a secretary for a law firm, has a child out-of-wedlock (not a social issue the Brookings Institute wanted to include apparently), whose aunt is a lesbian. She does not dream of being wealthier than her parents. (Who are divorced--another social issue the Brookings folks ignored.) In fact, she tells me that she just wants to have a house someday for her son, but she's not sure how that's going to happen. Her aunt recently went to Iowa to get married, and Elanor read the scripture at the wedding. She figures God "cant' hate love."

She isn't "progressive" in any way that progressives in 1914 would have understood. But I think Jesus of Nazareth may have understood her. Jesus seemed to have this way of being able to sort through all the opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to get to the core identity of a person. Jesus seemed to know that what makes someone a "progressive" is not what they believe about God, money, or gay marriage. What makes a person progressive is how far they will go to create, trust, and love whomever or whatever God puts in their way. You see, you can never see progress while you are in it, you only see it when you look back...and the only thing behind each and every one of us is the people we've met along the way. So, do you look back in love or look back in anger? 

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

Monday, July 15, 2013

Did You Know I was Ordained?

Most of the images you can find of me on Google show me with my hair pulled back. You can't see it, but I have long hair. I used to have really long hair. (There is a sermon I delivered in March 2012 at Countryside Church Omaha, NE, where you can see it goes all the way to my waist. Nowadays I wear it just past my shoulder.) As a child of the 70s, I've pretty much always had long hair once my mom stopped caring. When I went to seminary to train to be a pastor, I cut it short right before I entered, but then I met my wife. She likes long hair. I've haven't cut it much since. Here's a recent picture.  The only thing I find weird about the picture is that I am drinking coffee at a party...that is not my usual beverage of choice.

What happens is that I do not spend a lot of time these days hanging out with people who go to church much, if at all. (The woman in the picture is an exception, she is a church organist.) Because of that, along with my longish hair, people are often surprised to find that I am a Christian, even more so to discover that I am a Christian leader, and downright in denial when I tell them one of my primary calls is to teach Christian leadership. As one new friend said when he discovered this, "the thought that you're teaching pastors is kind of strange." Oh well.

I admit I do not fit the usual stereotype of pastors, especially if the image comes from 1955 or something. Today, however, there are male pastors who have much more hair than me, and much less, pastors of both sexes who sport tattoos, and we all seem to ride Harleys these days. The stereotype of a pastor fades more and more into the background of Americana, an ardent revivalist who stamps out the devil in a tent is still about the only decent bias we pastors can find these days. When you think of the word "pastor", what image comes to your mind?

I say this because according to a recent poll reported in the Huffington Post clergy con't always contribute much to society. There is something you need to know about clergy to make sense of that survey: many clergy don't care if they contribute to the well-being of society. Not all clergy are called to make the world a "better" place. Some are called to provide comfort: think of all the clergy who sit by people's bedsides in the last moments of life, do they make society "better?" I don't think so, what they do is make us a better society because they are sitting there with the dying while we are out gallivanting around thinking we can evade death. Society doesn't get "better" because of their vigil, but humanity is shown a better way in it.

The process in my tradition is to call a leader "ordained," if the whole church is behind it. This does not mean you cannot be a leader if you are not ordained, but it does mean that you haven't gone through a process where the "whole church" can vet your leadership. For example, as an ordained person I can enact a Christian ritual such a baptism or the Eucharist because the '"whole church" has said I can do that. If I were not ordained, I wouldn't be able to do that (and since I don't do those things anymore, not much would change in my day-to-day existence.) But this blog is not in the same category as those Christian rituals. I could still write this blog even if I wasn't ordained. The main reason, of course, is that the "whole church" doesn't care whether I blog or not. They care if I try to do rituals.

But I ask you as a reader, do you care whether I am ordained or not? Do these words make more sense or carry more power because I can perform Christian rituals? I wonder...(this is a real question for me, and I'd welcome your thoughts in the comment below)

When the Christian Church was the only "universal" thing going, we had quite a monopoly on what made a Christian or not, and even more of a stronghold on who qualified to speak and write for us or not. Today, there are a ton of universal institutions (think McDonald's as one obvious one) that show how fragile the connections are among us humans in the universe. Google, the sponsor of this blogsite, doesn't seem to care if I'm ordained or not. My bishop might. Would God?

You see, for me that's the big question. Does God care if I'm ordained or not? Does God care if I write about Jesus, the Holy Spirit, about God's own self because I am ordained or  IN SPITE OF  my ordination? Those of you who have been reading my stuff over the past 6 years know I try to end every blog by writing about Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. Let me tell you why.

He's the only one I'm trying to impress. This guy means everything to me.  I can't explain why. I do know that as a human being, his story more than any other person's story has impressed me as to what humanity is capable of doing. We don't have a lot of details about his life, and the traditions based on his life can sometimes be quite baffling; but from what I know, he was the only true human who ever lived. Whatever it means to be human he figured it out, and even God was impressed with that. So I write these blogs wondering if anything I wrote would make sense to Jesus (at least what we know of Jesus.)

I don't know what Jesus would think about what makes a Christian leader, whether one needs ordination to speak for the "whole church," (although we know THE CHURCH thinks it does), but I do know this: if Jesus was ordained, it was never recorded. That is, the person that I believe most speaks the truth about our relationship with God, most speaks the truth about our humanity, was not ordained, and if he was, no one thought to write it down. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

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

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Feeling Good About My Country

Yesterday I celebrated the "Fourth of July" which isn't necessarily a one-day thing here in the USA. So, even though I was a day early for an authentic July 4th experience, I've had enough BBQ ribs, baseball, and fireworks to think I've appreciated the event. Go me!

My day started at a Promotion ceremony of a friend to the rank of Colonel in the United States Army. Never having been inside a building on a military base before, I was the ultimate stranger to this event. I met some truly good people, and by the time I had left, I felt good about my tax dollars going to support these folk. I have to figure that everything I saw, touched, tasted, and listened to was pretty much paid for by tax dollars. I've never heard of an Army base holding a bake sale for new chairs in the foyer. Sometimes, when I encounter the poverty of people on a face-to-face basis, I get frustrated that so much of our taxes pay for leather chairs and mahogany walls for the military...but not yesterday. It all seemed worth it.

I learned a lot, of course, from these military folk, just as I have from all the other military folk I know. But what I learned from this crew is that there is a lot of education going on in our military. Besides graduating from West Point, the new Colonel has three Master's degrees and a Doctorate. (I though I was going to die by degree!) Oh, and he's in his mid forties with two pre-teens. The guy's incredible, and if any deserves to be recognized by our military for excellence and dedication, Colonel Lindenmeyer would be tops on my list.

 So as I sat in the ballroom of the USSC during this ceremony, I was very impressed with the Brigadier General who delivered an address, and pinned the bars onto the new Colonel's dress uniform. I learned, for example, that only 6% of officers on the United States Military reach the rank of Colonel. How many get to be Brigadier General? (I checked Wikipedia, we've only had 209 FOUR-Star Generals since George Washington, or less than one a year on average.) I was in some rare company yesterday. As the new Colonel was one of the General's top staff at USSC, the General did a marvelous job of making everyone, from his staff, to the family members, to visitors like me feel right at home. I felt remarkably secure in a place I am sure most of our "enemies" have on a list somewhere...

The day ended with fireworks.  I was thinking I was going to be bored with another year of fireworks (they all seem the same to me these days), but as Ray Charles' America the Beautiful  rang throughout the ballpark (I was at an Omaha StormChasers AAA baseball game) I was surprisingly moved to some vestige of patriotism or something.

You know, sometimes people like me get accused of "hating America" because we hold our country and its ideals of freedom, independence, and opportunity to a high standard. I don't want to see people lose their freedom or their independence just so others can exercise a freedom to abuse the land or rake in extreme profits (think of our country's treatment of Native Americans, if you want an example.) Without a doubt, FREEDOM is my most important value, as I not only believe it is the heart and soul of the United States of America, but also of my Christian tradition. On the importance of freedom, in my mind at least, neither Jesus nor Jefferson disagreed. They both wanted it for everyone.

What I experienced yesterday, both at the USSC and the ballpark was people trying celebrate that freedom.  And, of course, historically speaking, we mostly failed. The land we were on, the clothes we were wearing, the fossil fuels we were burning through did not come without our oppression. And I think most of us knew that, even if we couldn't articulate it at the time. (Thank you Budweiser.) We all know we don't deserve the promotions, the fireworks, the buffet-tables of BBQ that make this day so festive. Deep down in our souls we wrestle with our worthiness not only today, but everyday.

And unlike the patriotism of military accolades and exploding fireworks, the suffering of the Christian faith speaks to this feeling of unworthiness in another way. Our faith holds that God whispers our name. As Christians we believe that the God who made it all, the God who keeps it all going, knows each and every one of our names. And that promise, that God will never forget us, is what gets us through after all the fireworks fade away and the food is swept up into the dustbin of history. It's not as splashy as what I saw yesterday, but it not only makes me feel good about my country, but the promise makes me feel good about myself and my God. Happy Fourth of July!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Jesus and Amos walk into a bar...

the next guy ducks under it.

"I (the LORD GOD) will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit." Amos. 9.14

As we conclude our series on the prophet Amos, it might be good to note how I think Jesus relates to what Amos says, and what God does in the intervening years.

First off, as Amos ends his prophecy on a hopeful note, there are a few people who think Amos could not have written such positive claptrap. Other than showing an appalling lack of imagination as a scholar, whether Amos wrote the last few lines of his book or not is a bit irrelevant after all these years. I mean, most people don't even know that Amos wrote a book in the Bible, so to wonder about whether he really wrote a verse we have or not is a bit esoteric. I have no problem believing Amos wrote the last few verses because I assume Amos believes in God. And really, if you are going to believe in God, why not believe in a God who provides a hopeful promise for your future?

Over the course of the last six weeks, careful readers such as you gentle folk, will note that I always end my reflections on how Jesus relates to whatever topic we are talking about in the post. (This is actually true for all of my posts, not just those on the Hebrew Scriptures...this blog is always about Jesus, the crucified one and his benefits.) But today I want to talk about a more general aspect of the relationship between Jesus and our Jewish brothers and sisters, in this case exemplified by Amos. (I figure Jesus is one of the better Christians in history, and Amos one of the better Jews, so it seems like a legitimate comparison.)

It is a mistake for Christians to believe that Jesus and his message about God surpasses whatever Amos and his message about God is. Whatever Jesus' message about God, it has to be in congruence with Amos' message about God. Why? Because we assume they are talking about the same God! That is, if God is God,    as both Amos and Jesus assume, and they have accurately revealed God's message, how can they not be congruent? The only way we might argue they are not congruent if is one of the two (Amos or Jesus) got the message wrong. But if they both got the message correct, then there should be some congruence among the two, unless God changed...but no one believe God has changed significantly much since the Big Bang.

Secondly, Jesus is not love and Amos is wrath; or Jesus is only gospel and Amos is only law. Again, each may have an emphasis on how they hear and see God responding to the world, but as the above quotation from Amos shows, his God is not only a God of wrath and destruction, but also a God of gardens and wine! And Jesus very much believes in a God of judgement. Story after story he tells about people whom God judges, perhaps harshly, but certainly with negative consequences for those who do not trust in God's love. You should not tell a story about dividing people between sheep and wolves if you do not want people to believe in a God of judgement.                                     

It seems to me that both Amos and Jesus reveal to us something major about God's love. Amos reminds us that this love of God is not just for those who can afford it. God's love is for all of us, and in the Spirit of that love, we are all responsible for it. God's love has a huge cost for us, in that we cannot use the love as an excuse to let others suffer; nor, can we use the love as an excuse to do nothing. God's love is a gift, and we cherish and use that love in our own lives each and every moment we breathe.

And Jesus' message about that love is how powerful it is. This gracious love propels life itself for each and every living creature: every rock, every bush, every tree, every sparrow, every aphid, every person. This loves knows no limits. And every time we try to put a limit on this love, we fail that love. Every time we say, she isn't good enough for that love; or, he doesn't deserve that love, we fail that love in its power to transform lives. It's such a powerful message, that Jesus even died and rose for its power, so that we can be freed to love in spite of our unwillingness to trust such love.

I don't know if there is a bar in heaven. I use to say I wanted to go bowling with Shakespeare, but a bar is OK too. I certainly don't know if Amos and Jesus talk in heaven. But I imagine, if they do share a brew or two these days, they still marvel at how much love there is in the world, in spite of so many's neglect of that love. Because as both of them showed, it only takes one to reveal the truth about such a power as the love of God.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.