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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.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rest in Peace Joe Cocker

Wow. I love Joe Cocker. I hope the music he sings now is as powerful as the music he left us. Here's link to the announcement of his death.

OK. Let's get something out of the way from the get-go: Joe Cocker was a singer. He took tunes others had written and made famous, and he made them famous again with his rendition. I mean, "Little Help From My Friends" didn't exactly keep the Beatles from rock-stardom, and the song made Cocker famous.

I remember as a kid staying up to watch the Midnight Special, and whenever Cocker appeared to be utterly amazed that this guy had a career in music. I mean, it was like you took the guy at your local bar who only sings when he's smashed and gave him a microphone. But man, did his songs rock...

Here's my favorite Cocker song: Leave your hat on. (Plus you get Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger. Never say I can't please an audience.) I do a kareoke version of his "Unchain My Heart" because it's just so fun. 

I guess this is just the first of many deaths I can expect over the next 10 years or so. Eventually, Clapton, Stewart, Morrison, Young, Henley, and even Dylan. Maybe the women will last longer? (You go, Chrissy Hynde!) Nobody lives forever, but I've been listening to Joe Cocker for 40 years, and it is weird, if nothing else, to think of him as dead. But he is...

In 48 hours I will be preaching to 400 people about a birth, about a baby whose death and resurrection changed the world. What changed was that forgiveness now becomes the centerpiece of life, rather than just an afterthought or decoration. Being able to forgive is the whole reason for learning to live. Joe Cocker provided a lot of music for me to think about in learning to forgive. May he rest in peace.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Twas the night before Christmas

and all through the house it was quiet. We live in a small house these days, and we keep the Christmas lights around the windows on all the time. So on Christmas Eve, with the tree lit up as well, our entire house is bathed in the glow of Christmas lights. We love our lights.       I'd say nowadays that Christmas lights are the most important decoration for me. Nothing beats a Christmas tree, but I wonder if I don't like those because they have the lights?
Christmas is all about the light. Jesus is the light of the world, and this makes some sense that the season is all about light, and lights. What intrigues me is how monochromatic "Jesus is the light of the world" is versus the various colors of the world. Jesus is often portrayed as a single flame of a candle, or as a white light, as if purity was his prime component. I see Jesus in many colors, and not just racial colors, but colors of life, colors of light.
Christmas is a time to remember that Jesus came for all of creation, not just humanity. The older I get the more I get frustrated with Jesus and his contemporary followers who are so fixated on Jesus as the light almost exclusively for humanity. As if the rest of creation needs no light.
You have heard me time and time again say that a Christian congregation that doesn't support the environment at or near the same level as it supports people has an interesting take of Jesus' salvation of the world.It only seems to be "world" if it has people in it. The polluted lakes and rivers of the world would beg to differ...Congregations need to find ways to help all of creation, not just the ones who walk and talk.
There is nothing better than a walk down a snow covered trail, just to see how many shades of white there are. Or, to come up on a field of powdery blue columbine with tan elk moving through. That color speaks of salvation too.
I hope you have a colorful Christmas. And an even more colorful life.
May your tables be full and your conversations be true.                                                                                                             

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's My Birthday...yay?

As we roll to the end of another calendar year, we come to my birthday. I guess I remember a few of them...but not really. I do remember I once had my birthday on the same day that my class had its Christmas party. (There was a time when public school classes had Christmas parties. Truly, for a kid, one of the great reasons to break down the wall of separation between church and state.) My favorite birthday gift was when my wife surprised me with a 12-string Alvarez guitar. That was cool. But those aren't a lot of memories for 50 plus years on the planet.

Because Jesus and I share the same birthday week it seems rather arrogant to insist on the importance of my natal star. Plus, I grew up in Minnesota. It was always dark, cold, and winter. Most of the time I'm so depressed on my birthday that I couldn't wish celebrating another hour, much less a year. Here's my favorite birthday song: In the Bleak Midwinter. And you think you have it bad. Thanks, James.

So what do you use your birthdays for? Are they for looking back? Or do you look to the future? Are they just an excuse to go out to dinner? A chance to get a present or take a trip? An opportunity to serve somewhere in your neighborhood? Without a doubt my favorite birthday was a few years ago when I celebrated with the folks of Prairie Table back in Bismarck. There were a lot of good friends there that night, we had a buffet, and people tried to outdo each other bringing me bottles of bourbon. Some of the friends of that night are no longer with us, but I remember that birthday best of all.

Today I am sitting in an office in a church in a town in a state that I'd never even heard of that night six years ago. (OK, I'd heard of Nebraska.) How weird to try and piece a life from that party to this desk...? Live is an amazing, wonderful mystery, and each year I am extremely grateful that I got to be a part of it. I wonder if Jesus ever thought about stuff like this? What was he grateful for in his life? I am extremely grateful  for the friends of I had then, and all the new ones I have met since. That's what birthdays are to me these days: remembering my friends. May your year be blessed as mine was.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Listening into free speech

Do you hear what I hear? A famous Christmas carol, and one that is especially important these days. Take a listen. Sorry about that...but Carrie Underwood!

One of the great spiritual practices is "listening." Actually asking people what you have heard in the conversation? This practice is the cornerstone of "discernment," which is the way in which Christians come to decisions. We listen for, to, with, and sometimes against God. In this listening--praying--we come to understand who God calls us to be, and what God calls us to do.

These days what are you hearing? Are you hearing pain and frustration? Are you hearing anger and despair? Are you hearing impatience and arrogance? Have you asked anybody what they have heard from you? What are you saying these days? 

Listening someone into free speech is a way that we have conversations about issues and events in our lives that matter. And we center these conversations not on what we say, but rather how we have heard. How have you heard what someone else has said? Have you asked if you've heard it correctly? Have you tried to hear it correctly?

This is why I do not listen to talk shows on radio or watch TV opinion shows about news. They are not interested in listening. Apparently there is no money in actually listening to someone else, and trying to help them explain what they are experiencing. The money must be somewhere else.

It's interesting but Jesus often listened people into free speech. Most famously, he once asked a guy who had been an invalid for 38 years sitting next to a supposed "healing" pool if he wanted to be made well? The man did not disparage Jesus for his obtuseness, nor did he despair of his healing; rather, he simply explained why he could not be healed. Both Jesus and the man knew he wanted to be well, but did the man understand why he wasn't well? That was the question. And the man knew the answer, and Jesus healed him.

Jesus actually listened to the man, and the man felt free to express the true nature of his incapacity. He wasn't able to be well because he was immoral, or poor, or didn't have the right skin color. He was unable to be well because he didn't have any friends. And he knew that. So Jesus became his friend, and the man was healed. That's what it means to listen someone into free speech. To be able to be a part of their lives enough in order to make a difference.

So what are you hearing these days? How are you listening to people in your lives? Happy Advent!

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Lovely Gift

Chris and I have all seven volumes of this Bible:
They make a lovely gift.

I have always enjoyed thinking of and giving gifts. Back when all our friends were getting married, Chris would get exasperated with me as I searched for a gift that said "Them!" (And no, not the Van Morrison band, although here's a song from Them you might enjoy.)

Finding a lovely gift is knowing a bit about the person for whom the gift is intended. For example, I once played in a Poker League. The 52 card deck of Hooters girls in bikinis was the perfect gift. (And no, you can Google your own pictures for that one.) Once, when Chris and I were just starting our household, my Mom gave us a box of cleaning and paper products designed to last us for months. That was a lovely gift. A gift says "I understand you and care about you."

A wonderful, and densely argued book,  Being Promised, makes a lot out of God giving gifts to us because God knows us. And that is why we have the baby Jesus, the ultimate gift. God knows us.

And what does God know? God knows we are scared sometimes that we won't have enough money. God knows we get angry when things are outside of our control. God know that we get frustrated when people won't listen to us. God knows we get so happy sometimes all we can do is cry. God knows that we sing because we want to be free. God knows that friends make even the worst day better. And God knows this because Jesus knows this.

We live in the sure and certain hope (not knowledge or fact) that God will not forget us, nor will God forget how we live. We have only a little baby and a manger to go on for that hope...will it be enough? It is enough for God, but is it enough for you?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

If I could...

If I could...if...if...if...

Such a little word, but nothing places the gap between our realities and our dreams more than "if." Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's not. Listen to this rather famous song . Marvin Gaye. He--along with Sam Cooke--are the two artists I most wished I could have seen live. (Maybe Marley.)

I am not too much interested in crossing the chasm of "if." There are way too many variables to ever get a sense of why something happens and something else does not. I wish I could make a principle or come up with a system, but I can't. And I won't.

Because life is the space "if" creates. Somewhere, somehow our reality morphs into tomorrow, and if is replaced with "was." Consider this rather classic "if" scenario:

I'll gladly pay you Tuesday if you buy me a hamburger today.

Do you buy the hamburger? Depending upon how you respond to that if, your time until next Tuesday has something hanging over it. Or maybe, you just buy the hamburger and forget about it. That's fine too, even if you get paid on Tuesday.

Jesus Christ often lived within the time of "if." So many people had so many needs, so many people had so many requests, so many people had so many prayers, and "if" he would just...(whatever) their world would be all right.

In the end Jesus saw that the world of "if" can consume you. Literally eat you alive. So he ended it. He took away all the "ifs." He made an unconditional promise. No ifs, ands, or buts..I love you. My death is the sign of my love, my resurrection is me keeping the promise. And that promise, that love, is always yours, even "if" you don't love any more. How are "ifs" running your life these days? How is that promise closing the gap between your reality and your dreams? Here's another Mo-town song you might want to hum. Thank you Mr. Mayfield.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas from the Apostle Paul's perspective

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, and consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete; be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Philippians 2. 1-2

When the Apostle Paul talks about Christmas, he talks about it in terms of “joy.”  When Paul considers the wonder of Christ, the mystery of the Holy Spirit, and the awesome power of God, he hopes to receive joy. The gift of Christmas, the one the people of Philippi can deliver, is the gift of joy.

So joy is our Christmas expectation. But joy is such an elusive gift. It runs away when angry words replace understanding and compassion when the Christmas tree falls down. Joy escapes out the back door when sighs and exasperations come before smiles and good cheer. Joy also doesn’t bother to even come out if the fakeness and absent-minded cheeriness of the season becomes the only reason to celebrate the birth of Christ. There is no joy in fakery.

Joy blossoms in the wake of patience. Joy shines bright under the lights of love and peace. Joy becomes complete when people reach hand-in-hand across barriers that separate us. Joy rejoices in people for whom faith, hope, and love are the gifts of Christmas.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Philippians 2. 3-4

Paul puts an interesting twist on Christmas. He wants us to regard other people as better than us. Do you see a lot of people doing that these days? (Do you see ANYONE doing that these days?) Christmas is all about thinking other people are better than you.

We don’t do that very well. Why not? Why do most people think they are better than others? What can Christmas teach us about ourselves? What can we learn from a manger?

Let me put it this way: what did you do to get God to be born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago? Were you even around? I’m guessing most of us had little to do with that event. Yet—God gives the baby Jesus to us every day, every moment of our lives. And we do nothing to make it happen.

The hardest part of Christmas is learning to receive gifts, not give gifts. Anyone can give a gift…few know how to receive them. To receive a gift in humility as Paul suggests is the hardest part of being a human. Everything else is second place.                                           

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who—though he was in the form of God—did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Philippians 2. 5-8

I like how Paul understands Christmas from the perspective of Jesus; as if, Jesus, in the manger looks at his tiny hands and feet and says “Who saw this one coming?” He “found” himself in human form? Sort of like I looked in the mirror one day and found I was old. Well, this can’t be good…

Christmas is all about those unexpected discoveries. And Jesus, probably no more or less than Mary, Joseph, the angels, the donkey, and the cattle, got an unexpected discovery as well. He can die. But would he?
For Paul, the great gift of Christmas is not that Jesus is born, but rather that he accepts his birth and the death that is part and parcel of such a thing. This Christmas is about accepting the unacceptable, both for Jesus the Christ, and us the humans. Can we accept that we are accepted? Can we humans—finding ourselves in human form on a quite regular basis—accept that? It does mean accepting we will die…and maybe that’s the rub we have—and as Paul notes, Jesus didn’t.  

Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Phillipians 2. 9-11


Here’s what we’ve all been waiting for—Jesus Christ is Lord! (Wait. What? I wanted a Lexus.) The day has arrived where we celebrate that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. Even “under” the earth, wherever that is.
It’s tough to make Jesus part of the season. There’s so many other things to do. So many people to see. Gifts to share. Eggnog to drink. Cookies to eat. Maybe we can squeeze Jesus in right before dinner of Christmas Eve?

Even as a pastor, Jesus can sometimes be pushed aside in our rush to “get things ready.” (As an aside, my birthday is in Advent, and as a kid sharing this season with Jesus and Santa Claus led for interesting gifts from relatives who had forgotten that fact. I once got a razor. I was six.) But Jesus Christ is Lord whether we remember that or not…talk about a gift!

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation in fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians. 2.12-13

Happy New Year!        

Paul ends his reflection on Christmas with a great new life resolution—fear and trembling! That is that now that we have been blessed with the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives we are now set free to live as people. Real humans (found in human form); filled with hope and joy (make my joy complete); and trusting in God rather than ourselves (look not to your own interests).

So what? So God has done this marvelous thing, big deal? There are no easy answers to how Christ Jesus is Lord of your life. Some of your choices will be good, some…not so much. Sometimes good things will happen, sometimes evil will win. Everything is penultimate. (Thank you, Bonhoeffer.)

So as we approach the New Year, it might be well to remember that our lives are lived in fear and trembling, not because we are afraid, but because there is nothing else to go on as we live from the freedom of the cross.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.