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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.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Mary busy in a Martha world

In a story we have about Jesus, two sisters, Mary and Martha, have Jesus and his guests over for dinner. Martha is doing on the hosting, and Mary is sitting and listening to Jesus. Eventually, fed up with her sister's non-help, she asks Jesus to chide Mary and goad her into helping with all the dinner preparing and serving stuff. Jesus, instead, chides Martha for chiding Mary, and even says that Mary has "chosen the better part." (Check out the complete story here) What gives? Does Jesus disrespect Martha? How can he let Mary let down her sister? Does he think that the food and drink will magically appear (actually, that could be true, given his recent past with loaves and fishes...)

Jesus does seem a little cruel and clueless here, unless you are a sister. (In this case, brothers don't count. They would have never been expected to help out with the serving.) So readers who are sisters, what happens when something important is going to go on in the family? Who "takes" control? And, perhaps for this story--more importantly, what is their usual response if someone asks, "Do you need any help?"

Most people are pleased when an important person such as Jesus chooses to stay with them and avail himself of their hospitality. It makes you feel special. It makes you feel like you have a purpose. You are valued. And when others seek to help, usually we turn it away. We turn it away for a variety of reasons, but one is because we don't want to put anybody out. We want people to be happy, to be able to enjoy their time with Jesus under our roof, and we don't want to "impose" on our friends and family the stuff we can do.

It's not too hard to imagine that Mary, as the younger sister tried to help, and Martha shooed her away. And that was OK as long as it seemed like everything was going well, until she noticed a discrepancy. She was hustling about, and Mary was just sitting and listening. But, as any younger sister can tell you, that's all her older sister had left for her to do. So Mary, like younger sisters since time immemorial, took advantage of the situation, and actually chose to listen to Jesus. Now Martha gets frustrated and calls on Jesus to make things right. And he does.

But right in Jesus' mind is to be in the living room with everyone else, not in the kitchen all by yourself trying to do things to meet your expectations rather than the expectations of your guests. Relationships, Jesus points out to Martha, come from spending time with people, not from fulfilling social expectations. What Martha has missed is precisely what Mary chose to do.

And Mary is busy, but not in the way that Martha understands. Martha is all about outcomes, products, bottom lines, efficiency, and making sure things get done. And although that can be important it is NOT the better part of what makes a life. What makes a life is the process, the relationships, the sitting around and talking. THAT's the better part.

So the question this story poses to you and I is why am I busy? Am I busy doing the least important or most important parts of my life? I remember a friend of my on his pastoral internship who was late for a Church Council meeting because he had stopped to help a woman on the road change a flat tire. At first, he said, the council was mad that he was late, but upon hearing his story, they were not as angry. Why?

Could it be that the council saw that helping a woman on the side of the road is more important than starting a meeting at 7 pm? Could it be that Jesus suggests the same thing to us in is "martha-induced addictions?" Could it be that there are more important things than what Martha was doing? After all, the people are at the house because they want to talk with Jesus, not because they want Martha's lemon bars. And to miss that is to miss the most important part.

To my mind there's "Mary-busy" and there's "Martha-busy." There's no doubt we live in a Martha-based world these days, but that doesn't mean its the best, the healthiest, or the way things are supposed to be. Mary's story is good reminder that there is more to life than just getting things done--there's also a lot of living to be doing, and sometimes that living involves some sitting.

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

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sources of Busyness, or "busi-ness"

Here's what we should spend most of our lives doing
 Instead, we spend out time doing this

One answer (and there are probably many) is reflected in the phrase "time is money?" This idea, that somehow "time" is to be valued and graded, leads to the extreme "busi-ness" of our lives. All people in Western democratic cultures live under this curse and lie, although some of the cultures have a deep enough history to be able to combat this satanic idea. And it is satanic.(We'll get to that in a second.)

The idea (and who knows who put it forth first, although I'll blame railroad and industrial magnates of the 19th Century just for fun) is that time is the ultimate commodity to be bought, sold, and traded, so that the world can exist. There's a certain sense where this is quite an egalitarian idea: we all get the same amount of time. Hence, however valuable you make your time worth, is up to you. Seems like it should be good. However, there are people whose time is more valuable than others? Why? (There's lots of reasons for that too, and let's just say that Karl Marx's book wasn't entitled Das Kapital for nothing. Capital resources has more to do with your wealth than time. As Malcom Forbes once said when asked how he made his first million dollars, "I did it the old-fashioned way. My dad died.")

Now that we've had a good 500 years or so of this satanic idea, it's pretty much accepted as they way things are. (By the way, I'm using the phrase satanic to mean adversarial to God's intentions. This is sort of a Biblical way of using the word, a way to described something that was never intended to help us live out our created lives as children of God, but rather it was created or discovered, and leads us away from the intentions of God for us. God desires us to be at peace, not busy.)

So we work, and time becomes our commodity. The lower you are on the socio-economic scale, the lower we value your time. For example, no one really respects waitresses. Waiting tables is seen as either a started job for people, or something to do when there is nothing else left to do. Most waitresses in the country are like this
 They fit all the lowest socio-economic demographics we have in this country: female, elderly or young, lowest rungs of education (unless they are going to school), and lowest amount of capital resources. And they get--BY LAW--$2.12 and hour. I mean, we so devalue the time of waitresses that we made it a rule that no matter how much food costs, they can NEVER make more than $2.12 and hour, unless they find a boss who wants to pay them more. If we ever get to a time where a cheeseburger costs $200, the owner of the diner will still LEGALLY only have to pay the waitress $2.12 and hour. You now see why the "time is money" slogan is so satanic. It goes against everything we hold valuable in the world.

What gives value in the world? (And people who answer "money" are probably not reading this. If you are, congrats.) Our loves, our hopes, our creativity? I remember once sitting next to a dad at one of my daughter's soccer games when they were about 5. This guy was so frustrated with watching 5-year old girls run around trying to kick a ball. After one enormously entertaining scrum where a young lady actually picked up the ball and carried it to the other team's goal (she was confusing soccer with football), the dad stormed away saying, "I could be making $75 an hour right now instead of this shit!" True. But would you be a better father?

We get busy because we put such an economic premium on our time. We know we have to be with the kids, and the parents, and the friends, and the spouses and partners, and the work, and the world, and even ourselves...who has time for all that? Answer: no one.

And that's where this wonderful line Jesus offers us comes into play. My yoke is "easy." Easy, as far as yokes go, means it fits well, it works with you and your intentions, not against you. In other words, the yoke is NOT satanic. Jesus offers us a nugget of reality amidst the insane busi-ness of our lives--time is not money, and don't kid yourself that it is.

There's lots of reasons for why we are busy, but not the least of which is how we value time. What's an hour worth to you? How many hours of your life would you give to love something or someone? Would you give up your time so that somebody else might be free? Would you give up your time so that somebody else could live? In the Christian tradition, the guy we follow, did exactly that. That's why we follow him.

29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11.29-30

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

What is art these days?

No one should ever expect to make a living creating art. It can happen, but it shouldn't be an expectation. If you've ever tried a product that come from an "artistic" business, you know it's pretty lame. A Hollywood movie, a major network TV reality show, an album by a singer, all that stuff looks like art, but in reality a Mariah Carey song or another Survivor show or a group of superheroes saving the world is not art. Entertainment, surely, but art? No.

You see, the definition of art that I am taking here is one that pushes the boundaries of our corporate life together, not something that once again supports and identifies the corporations who are pushing our "lives." So, if you're at the boundary pushing us out of our comfort zones, pushing us away from the stuff we love and cherish, pushing us out of the security we've built for ourselves, why should we pay you for that? Why should you expect to make a living from making my life uncomfortable? Why do "artists" need to eat if all they're going to do is show me the nihilism that comes from eating? Starve artists!

But, of course, people want to go into the industries (no artistic endeavors allowed) so that they can do "art-like" things. Acting in another solipsistic drama about a troubled marriage that leads to infidelity and a sudden denouement by the 45th minute is not art. It's the drama business, and as TNT network reminds us, "We know drama." (They make no claim about art.) Having a singer sing about "Not doing anything" makes for a fun video, but is not art. It's the music business. (Bruno Mars' Lazy Song)

Art has always been this way. I am sure even Michelangelo complained about the "business" side of painting a church. (What do you mean I can't use cerulean blue? Pshaw!) So if you want to act, or sing, or write a book, or paint a picture-- go ahead, join the business, but I am not convinced that it is art. And you see, I might be wrong.

The very stuff of TV, Hollywood, Soho galleries, and HarperCollins trades might all be art for all I know. But if the stuff that comes out of those places is art, well, I'd rather starve. I know I fall into a long line of people who have said that art is what no one pays attention to (I'm looking at you Van Gogh...Picasso, you can have a seat.) And you know what? At the age of 50, I'm OK with that. I don't need my "art" to entertain me while I am living, I need my art to help me make sense of why I am dying.

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

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Ministry Matters, but only if you minister

Someone I know of, but haven't ever met, recently had a bad day at the office, and he wrote about it here. I have had the same sinking feeling of hopelessness myself over the years, and can sympathize with his frustration and anger, and even the sense of letting Christ down by not being able to help people on the margins of society. For that he feels his ministry was of no avail...maybe it was, but he really didn't do much "ministry." What he did, at least so he records, is what any decent social worker or health care professional would have done. The stuff that "ministers" usually do he never even mentions in his article.

For example, ministers usually talk about God, and how God might look at or respond to a situation. That's an important part of ministry for many people, both ministers and non-ministers alike, and yet nowhere does he offer to the people "on the margins" a note of God's hope that their world will make sense at some time. (Maybe not now as we're escorting you out the door.) He never mentions prayer with the people, never brings up the power of sacraments to change lives, and doesn't discuss how joining communities of faith can often lead to deeper discernment and life-changing decisions. These are things of ministry, these are the things ministers do. You can't really say, as he does, that ministry doesn't matter if you never do ministry. You should at least try it before you lament its paucity.

I too once had a young alcoholic sit at my desk as I tried to find help for him. Treatment centers were full, closed, and too expensive for this man to try and manage his alcoholism this night. As we went to our little kitchen to rustle up a dinner for us, we passed our sanctuary. Have you ever been in one of these before, I asked? He said no, but he'd heard of them, and people talked a lot about how you could sleep in the one in downtown Minneapolis. (At the time, this was true, one of the congregations in Minneapolis allowed homeless people to sleep in its sanctuary in extreme cold weather--which in Minnesota is every day from November to May.)

So we went in, and passed the baptismal font at the entrance. Want to wash your hands and face, I asked? He did. We walked up to the chancel and altar rail, knelt down, and looked up at the cross and altar before us. We breathed. After a while he asked, what do I do now? I looked at him, do you have anything you want to say to God?


Go ahead. I'm not sure there's much food in the kitchen anyhow. And he began to talk to God about his hopes, his hatreds, his fears, and-in nudging- even a few of his good times. After about 10 minutes he stopped, and asked me, Do you want to say anything, I've been hoggin' all the time?

Yes. Thanks, was all I said.

We got up and went to the kitchen and to the cheesy tortillas and lemon bars. compliments of last night's youth dinner, he added a fifth of Jim Beam. We set a table, used our good china, and had a meal. I didn't stop his alcoholism, in fact, I probably encouraged it. But I did show him a different way of living, a different place of being in this world...that's what ministry is...and that's why it matters. Ministry can't save anyone, but it can show everyone that God cares. And even though Mr. Piatt felt inadequate that day, he did do that, and as he discovered-- sometimes that about all you can do.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.