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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, October 28, 2013

Listening in a Visual Age

Image is everything.  Andre Agassi

Listening....
     Hearing...
          Watching...
               Seeing...
                    Understanding...

Listening to Troy Bronsink and Eric Elnes (on Darkwood Brew) talk the other night, I was caught up a bit. They were talking about "listening," and how important that is to the creative endeavor. What they seemed to mean by listening was not actually using your ears to process sound, but rather that "listening" is the part of the creative process where you reflect upon your recent creativity. "Listening" is as good a metaphor as anything for that.

But we live in a visual age. Rather than our ears, old-school theologians such as myself resonate with ears much more than eyes--God is the Word, not the picture--our world demands visual experiences. Our obsession with how things look is so commonplace that we no longer even notice we are obsessed with it. We just assume every song needs a video and every voice needs a pretty mouth and shiny teeth. It's the way we live...

Basically, we don't listen to something unless we FIRST see something we like. (For those visually impaired I have no idea what they do here, but I do wonder how they "see?" I suppose I should find out...) Listening is always a secondary, or responsive activity, for what we have first seen. Although, if you've lived long enough you know appearances can be deceiving, we still tend to listen only AFTER we've seen.

It's for this reason that I never went into music as a calling. By the time I was getting into music it switched into more about what you saw than what you heard. (I write this one day after the death of Lou Reed, who although famous for eschewing the mainstream music world, his "image" was not trivial to his music.) As much as I adore the music of Michael Jackson (I grew up with him) and find the music of Madonna intriguing, unless you look the look, the music doesn't get much of a chance these days. Of course, now, we are subjected to this:  as music. Tell me who "listens" to that. But I understand a lot of people watch it.

Although I love to look at pretty things, and I think I have a pretty decent appreciation of beauty, I have to admit I more captivated by "seeing" rather than "listening" these days. If I can't see something, I'm never going to hear it. Simple as that.

This is why following Jesus is so difficult. I've never seen him. I've only heard him. Although I once thought I saw Jesus, it has been a long time since then, and the memory and image fades with each passing season...I do wonder what Jesus looked like? Did he have an image? Did he have a style? I know he had words.

I want to listen to his words, but the listening has all been drained from me...I can longer listen to that whom I cannot see...I've had too many years of TV and movies, music videos, virtual tours, and digital images to make listening anything other than a visual experience. When I was a teenager I could sit in my room, play "Slowhand" over and over again with my eyes closed wondering what was happening. Now I can barely make it through an introductory riff without being bored.

I think I want to listen, but without anything to see how do I know? What's funny about all this, of course, is that Jesus knew we are going to get confused. The entire Gospel of John is a story about what I've just written. Here's a line that gives me hope, that even though I do not see, cannot listen, and very probably do not understand, there is something to hope for..."If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." We get to "continue." Whatever that means.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Creativity is the Holy Spirit

Creativity does not seem to be a human generated power. Ask any artist, any creative programmer or athlete as to where their creativity comes from, and they start to sound a lot like a theologian...

Creativity is the secular word for what Christians call the Holy Spirit. I don't care what definition you come up with for creativity, but I guarantee you some Christian theologian over the past 2000 years has used that exact same definition for the Holy Spirit. In the Christian tradition we hold that the Holy Spirit creates, so to use the word creativity is to imply the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Now, it is true some people try to push God out of the definition of "creativity." But those people often have an antiquated and shallow definition of God. (Basically, if your definition of God isn't similar as to how you'd define "electricity," you have an antiquated and shallow definition of God. Think on that for a bit...if you can begin to see how electricity relates to God, you can then begin to see why there are still Christians around today who aren't historical relics of "old-timey" religion.) Most artists that I am in relationship with understand their creativity arises from someplace, some time, some force-field outside of their strict "consciousness." ( I am using that word very loosely, but I don't want this to be a 25,000 word post.)

Since for Christians the Holy Spirit is the creative process, you can see how important creativity is for the life of the Christian community. Without creativity, you do not have God, and with out God you do not have anything to bind your community together. In essence, without creativity you cannot have a congregation. That's why art and music are so important in the history of Christianity. They are the very activities of God that bind the community together. 

Take, for example, the metamorphosis of Christian worship music in many Christian communities in the USA. What's the biggest change? Worship added drums. What happened, from a theological standpoint, was that creativity has reached a critical mass-point in terms of music. Rhythm was no longer ancillary to the creative process of God. And music sought a way to add rhythm to worship. We call that a "drum kit." 

What started this change, however, was not a need to be "relevant." or "cool." We were not bored. We were not "reaching the young people" and all the other bullshit we tossed out whenever we wanted to add drums to our worship. What started this change was the creative power of God to call people together. (And it wasn't like drums weren't ever used in Christian worship, just go to Africa, where they use them all the time and have for 2000 years.)

I am not saying that just because worship music uses drums it's better than other kinds of music. What I am saying is that the creative power of God is behind that music just as much as other music. And just like you can have stupid hymns like "Blessed Assurance" that do not use drums, you can have stupid songs like "Awesome God" that do use drums. We always want to judge God's creative power on its best day, and it may well be that 200 years from now, Chris Tomlin will be as important to people's piety as Charles Wesley. Who knows?

Talking about creativity is never outside of the parameters of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. I mean, what is that power of which we talk unless it is the power to create new realities, new worlds, new creations? I will give you a line from the Bible that is probably about 1950 years old. Paul, early in his ministry, probably within 20 years of the death of Jesus, wrote this famous line:
"So if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, everything old has passed away, see everything has become new." 2 Corinthians 5.17.

Paul might not have understood electricity, but he certainly understood God creates, and if there's any creativity going on it must be God, it must be Jesus, it must be the Holy Spirit. Creativity is the Holy Spirit in action in our world.

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

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Faith of a mustard seed

You only need faith the size of a mustard seed...which is to say "no such thing." I mean, here's a mustard seed  it's not very big.

The thing is, as Jesus knows when he tells us this, is that "faith" isn't a "thing." Faith is a relationship. In this way, you can't see it, touch it, feel it--but you can have it or not.

Faith is more like an idea than a steroid. When you "have" faith it's like having an idea. When you go to communion and receive faith, you don't receive something you can taste or touch. Rather, you receive a relationship God has with you that changes your life...renews you, to use theological language.

I mean, let's say I have an idea that the Minnesota Vikings will win the Super Bowl this year. Is it real? They may or may not win the Super Bowl, but I do have the idea. I do live as if it will be true...at least until they are mathematically eliminated...but I don't have anything I can show you, give you to hold, or stick in my pocket. It's just an idea...

This then is what we have when we have "faith" in God. you don't have anything you can give to someone else, or even something you can put in your pocket. What you have is a relationship that asks you live and be in that relationship. Look at this famous image Michelangelo painted about faith  See that? There's only air between them. (The hand on the right is supposed to God, and the one on the left is Adam. You can get the whole picture here.) There's nothing there to put in your pocket. Nothing to give except a desire, a hope, a promise, or what we in the theology business call "love." That reaching and striving that both God and humanity have for each other is a love that we call faith.

It's hard to talk about faith without resorting to make it some kind of steroid that improves our health, but that is not what the Bible says about faith. The reason you only need faith the size of a mustard seed is because faith has nothing to do with size, numbers, amount, or any of the standard ways of measuring things. Faith is love, faith is relationship, faith is desire, faith is hope, faith is promise...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A lot Can Happen in Three Weeks

My last blog was 19 days ago...since then I've:

--been to Minneapolis twice (880 mile round trip, once in the Camaro, once in the Subaru)
--led 7 Bible studies, preached three times
--taught 35 7-8th Grade youth confirmation 3 times
--mowed my grass
--watched the Vikings lose 2 games, and win 1
--gave my lunch money to a homeless man
--become even more addicted to the show "Fast 'N Loud"
--had three good meals, and untold number of bacon and tomato sandwiches
--seen my two daughters each celebrate a birthday (granted the youngest was via Facebook)

When you put that in a list, that seems like a lot. But it didn't seem too bad when I was doing it. Why is that?
Why can we be fine doing a lot things without seemingly to have any rhyme or reason to the things we do? What do you see when you look at that list? Do you see the Camaro?  Good choice.

Do you see Minneapolis?  A nice place to visit. (having lived there for 31 of my 50 years, I just like to visit these days.)

Maybe you thought of this:  You know who you are...

For me, when I look at that list, it's a bunch of faces and people. I remember my daughters; the colleague I had a meeting with, (Dr. Dan Anderson, a great missiologist); the woman whose face was the poster for what a jalapeno does to your tongue; my wife, Chris Alexander, who makes watching these guys so fun  (One of the greatest gifts I've received from my marriage is that I have someone to watch TV with, and my wife is the best at making fun of all the stupid stuff I watch. Like "Fast 'N Loud. Her specialty is Vikings football.) The people at worship, at Bible studies, the kids in my Confirmation group...that's what I see when I look at that list.

I think that's why it doesn't seem so bad or busy when I'm doing all that stuff. I do that stuff with people, and for people, and to help people...except the Vikings. That seems to me what God wants us to be about.

You know, as far as we know, Jesus never had a job. According to most stories, all he did was mooch meals off folks, talk a lot, pray a little, and every now and then heal someone. But he doesn't seem to ever have gotten paid anything. The man all Christians claim is the most important man in the history of the world just hung out with people, doing whatever he needed to do. My question is: for those of us who think He was so important, why don't we just hang out with our friends? If that's what you do--great. But if you don't do that--why--exactly--do you think He's important?

For me, he showed me what's important in all the things I do--it's the people I am with when I do them.

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