Your Blog Steward

My photo
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.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Keep Calm Chive On...and send a selfie

No doubt you have seen this somewhere on the internet  As websites go there is usually something on there to help you pass a couple of minutes looking at the world...and admittedly with all the young women sending in selfies there is a large part of the site looking back at you.

The phrase, originally the brainchild of Britain during WWII designed to help people cope with the struggles of war (Keep calm and carry on), is now part of a culture that is the weird mix of consumerism-advocacy-charity-sexuality-goofiness that is part and parcel of our post-modern age. I have no interest is trying to define "post-modern," but I'm pretty sure this website is a standard bearer.

You know, 20 years when Sheryl Crow noted that "all our pop stars look like porn" we thought it was a fad. Wow were we wrong. I want that fast machine too Mr. McQueen. Here's the song to get you through the next paragraph. (And the irony of the video and the above lyric is not lost upon me...)

The internet has made many things before now thought to be impossible, now to be the stuff of everyday legend. And should something go viral???? The next thing you know you're on the Today show trying to explain why Grand Forks, North Dakota might not be the cultural center of the universe, but you can see it from there. Check out this internet sensation who is just delightful.

Somewhere between Marilyn Hagerty and Sheryl Crow lie most of us. We're neither talented nor lucky enough to have a Sheryl Crow lifestyle and trajectory; nor are we honest and wise enough to know our limits like Ms. Hagerty. But it's for this reason I cling to a God of love. A God whose cross carries not a message of self-promotion but rather to "chive on,"  and perhaps savor a tasty, if uninspiring, meal.

I hope the God I worship understands just how weird things can be where 20 year old girls post pictures of themselves while their great grandmothers have all you can eat breadsticks at Olive Garden...a God who understands that you have to sell stories in t-shirts so that money can be given to those in need...a God with a deep sense of humor, who understands that without Steve McQueen, Bill Murray is just a hack. I have to admit it is weird living in days like this. I understand very little that comes across my screen these days. I could get all worried about war and rumors of war, of disease, poverty, hatred, and just down-right meanness. It does concern me, but how can any of that separate me from the love of God in Christ?

But most days? Amidst all the confusion I just try to keep calm, and chive on...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Now is the winter of our discontent..."

Made glorious summer by who? I am not on expert of climate change, but I do believe things change. And the more agency you have, the more capacity you have to effect change. So do I believe humanity causes climate change? Certainly. What creature has more agency than humanity? So, if the climate is changing chances are humans did it, even if cow flatulence is the prime culprit.

 I am tired of winter this year. I am not sure why. I don't mind moving slower...it's not real cold where I am at (although when the entire nation was cold, I spent that time in St. Paul, MN...and I remembered why I moved. Brutal.) I love the snow which today is falling in big flakes, and giving Omaha a nice, wet layer of white. But I want warmer...I want to wear my Birkenstocks...I want to go without a jacket (I don't do coats unless I am hunting in the mountains.) I don't know, it's just different this year...I want winter over.

It's just winter, but why am I so discontent? Just one of those mysteries, I guess...

One of the things Shakespeare notes is that the change happens because someone (this son of York) precipitates it. I wonder if that is why winter is so frustrating this year? I'm not sure from where Spring will arise this year? Or from whom? It seems like nothing is on the horizon. Just endless winterwinterwinter...

Fortunately, this week's muse, and to be honest he's been a muse for a few decades now, has a suggestion. He suggests we start close in, with ourselves, and seek to be the change we want to see happen.  Usually that kind of stuff is too corny for me, because if I knew how to change myself I probably would. But would I?

We all know that best way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, but how many of us do it? Seeking to be the change we want to see happen is difficult, not because of the ideal it poses, but rather that it asks us TO CHANGE. And who wants to do that?  We are given the freedom to change, but that doesn't make it any easier to actually change. This is where the patience of God is tested...waiting for us to change...to repent...to turn around...to seek to replace discontented winter with glorious summer. Jesus resurrection's happened, the freedom is there...but is the desire? How do you change? Where do you start?
Here's the muse.

Where's that mirror?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Crucial Distinction

I was listening to two gentlemen arguing while they were filling out paperwork for our food pantry. Gentleman A (he was wearing an Atlanta Braves baseball cap) was saying that God is angry with people these days. Gentleman B, no cap, says he thought God might not care much. And that my friends...is pretty much the two options you hear if you ever go to a website like Patheos or read anything on the web in general. Religious journalists have pretty much abandoned the love of God. There are still some theologians out there hammering on the love of God but they are pretty much drowned out by the cacophony of folks who are pretty convinced that if we don't change our behavior God is going to stay really angry with us.

The internet is filled with tons of journalists who pretend to be Jonathan Edwards without his sense of style. Jonathan Edwards.jpg "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God" is just one of the many imperatives tossed upon us if we do not care for the earth or believe in the inerrant word of God or whatever hobby horse the person is upon this week.

The other half of religious journalists seem to think God doesn't care at all what we do. People seem to think if they write about a story that happens in a church or invokes a swear word that somehow that is a religious experience. They never even consider what God might think of what is going on...how is that religious if you never consider the ultimate?

So I didn't blame the guys, because that's pretty much where we're at...but there is a still more excellent way.

"If I speak in the tongues of angels and elites, but have not love I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."
Paul of Tarsus.

The Christian message has always been about God loving the world, even when the world is not perfect. The message is always about God caring for people, even those no one else cares for. For all I know, God might be angry, God might not care...but God is not dependent upon my knowledge...God invites me to love--whether I understand or not. I want to understand, but I understand that I may never...and I'm ok with that.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Heard any Good Sermons Lately?

As my wife is from Columbus, OH, on one of my first trips there I talked her into visiting First Congregational Church to look at a pulpit. She thought I was crazy. But it wasn't just any pulpit, it was the pulpit of this man: Washington Gladden. So we sneeked into a side door (the first of many times we would sneek into worship places), and I went up into the pulpit. It was nothing special: a few pencils, a couple of scraps of paper, and an old pew Bible. Even so, around 80 years before I got there, Washington Gladden was there. That was enough.

It's been my fortune to hear a lot of sermons over my life. I've even given a few sermons in my lifetime. I've heard sermons in houses of worship, in parks, in bars, in auditoriums, and once heard Billy Graham in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. I sat in the very last row on the back of the chair with my head hitting the nylon roof. Very interesting.  Can you see me? I'm off to the left...

There are many ways to deliver a sermon, and just as many ways to receive one. A sermon is a way that God interacts with our world through words, silence, and images so that we are free to participate in the world and in the life and being of God. (No pressure, preachers...)

A sermon--at least in the Christian tradition--does a lot of different things. It can teach you something new about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It can convict you of your less-that-stellar moments. It can free you from crushing guilt and despair. A sermon can tell a story. A sermon can highlight the connections between God and the world in which we live. And that's just some of the content!

Of course, there are many ways to offer a sermon. You can stand and talk--the most common method. There's clips and YouTube movies, powerpoint slides, and the occasional object lesson.

And then there's the preachers...some are good at preaching. Some are not. (Usually with practice you do get better--usually.)

When I listen to a sermon I am not sure--at first--what I need, or even what I want to hear. I hope, by the end of the sermon, to have an inkling of the answers to those questions. If I do, it was probably a good sermon. If I don't...if I'm still wondering what I heard, well it still might have been a good sermon, but I didn't hear it. (Maybe it wasn't addressed to me? Who knows? It's possible I might have been distracted, especially during football season.)

In the end I am hoping to hear and see a way in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit that God frees me to participate in the world. That's a good sermon for me. What makes a good sermon for you?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Thank you

I left my phone on the cabinet in my office because no one calls me on Saturday mornings. We were making our weekly grocery shopping excursion and the day was mild and bright. When I got home I looked at my missed calls and saw three in a row from my parents. I didn't have to listen to the message...I've had a cell phone for over 12 years and that's never happened. When I got a hold of my mom, she told me dad had a serious stroke. Within 24 hours of that call my dad was dead. 

We all grieve in our own ways, as you know (and apparently my way includes blogging. Who knew?) My friends, and many of you gentle readers, and even people who barely know me have expressed so much sympathy in cards, letters, phone calls, Facebook, and text messages. Thank you for your friendship and prayers, they are much appreciated.

One woman in my congregation, the same age as my dad, has lost both of her parents within the past 14 months. That gets me to stop. What if I had another 25 years with my dad? Many of you know my wife lost her dad almost 24 years ago. I got a lot more years with my dad than she did with hers. It is strange how this all plays out for us.


However my dad is participating in reality these days, I assume at some quantum level he is making jokes with other atoms about still having to have a "polar opposite" in his life, I am sure he is participating. My dad was of a generation that never talked much about their "faith." My dad was quite comfortable to let the professionals of his generation take care of that...he sold trucks and did math. But it was pretty clear to most people that my dad did have faith, especially if you define the term to mean a "relationship with God." (Or, as one of my dad's generation theologians called it, "the regal relationship.")

Most sociologists will tell you that I am a pastor in Christianity because of the faith my dad showed to me. I can't disagree. Although I come from a long line of church secretaries, I had countless conversations with my dad about God, church, and faith. In fact, one time my dad and his friend were teaching confirmation at our local congregation. On trips home from college, my dad would have me teach the class...I think this was so the kids would possibly learn something other than how to tell jokes and drink coffee. But when those kids were confirmed at the end of their Jr. High School years, they all remembered and thanked my dad. That's the kind of guy he was.

Back in seminary I developed a close relationship to Paul's First letter to the Corinthians. It is my second favorite part of the Bible after the Gospel of John. I love 1st Corinthians for many reasons, and here is one
"Hear this--I'm telling you a mystery.We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet." (15.51-52) Paul probably means by "last trumpet" some final moment when the universe stops expanding and starts contracting again. Some time when reality ceases to be. But for my dad, that last trumpet blew a few Sundays ago. And he was changed. And so was I. That's the mystery.

Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers. May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

5 Books for Congregational Leaders

In order to make this list comprehensible, here is what I mean by "congregational leader:"

1) the context of their ministry centers around a congregation of Christians in a particular community.
2) the leader believes in the adage "to be a better leader you become a better theologian."
3) the leader trusts that God's mission (missio Dei) uses congregations
4) the leader reads the Bible regularly and leads authentically from their tradition

If you can buy into this list of 4 characteristics of a congregational leader (and there can be more, I am sure), then these five books that follow I hope would be of some use in your ministry.

Welcoming the Stranger by Patrick R. Keifert.  This book has a lot to offer leaders even after reading it 2 or 3 times. I've been reading it for over 20 years, and I still find new stuff in it.

PastorPower by Martha Ellen Stortz  A leader has to understand power and this work does a good job of handling the issue. Even those who are not "pastors" can benefit from her reflections on power.

The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. by Justo L. Gonzalez.   No Christian congregation lives in a vacuum, and to know the history of our predecessors is vital to keeping us from falling into the two traps of "despair" and "arrogance." Despair is when you think no one has been their before and you are doomed...(there is nothing new under the sun you will find.) And arrogance is when you think no one has thought or lived this way before...(again, there is nothing new under the sun. Chances are there are Christians who believed about God, Jesus, and the Spirit just like you do and they lived 700 years ago, and they didn't have quantum physics...hmmmm.)

Oxford Bible Atlas  It is amazing how much clearer the stories of the Bible are when you can get a sense of where they came from and where they are going.

Studying Congregations, ed. by Nancy Ammerman, et al.  I am a big fan of using economic, statistical, and other social sciences to lead congregations. This book is a decent summary of how to go about analyzing your congregation without having to resort of guesswork about what is going on in the parking lot after a meeting.

I can think of many other books I would add, and this list is clearly based on my preferences. If you have ones you would suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.

For me, community, in this case congregations, are not optional if you are to have a Christian faith, a faith from the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth through the power of the Holy Spirit. I think of Jesus himself, hanging on the cross at his last, and saying to his mother, here is your new son, and to his friend, here is your new mother. The guy just couldn't help building community. It's who he is. And I love it!

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