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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, April 24, 2014

Deep River Liturgy

We had a great Easter liturgy at Shepherd of the Hills. Photo: He is risen? Who saw that coming?
Easter worship is one of those time when the "deep river" liturgy can make all the difference in the world.

Deep River Liturgy  I've lived most of my life within a few miles of either the Mississippi or Missouri rivers. When you live on rivers, you soon realize that drowning is the least of your worries. (Lakes? Pretty much all you've got to worry about is drowning. It's easy living on lakes.) No, on a river you have to pay attention to the current. Even more importantly, where the water flows. In a big river, all the power of the river is at the bottom, in the deepest parts of the river. All the energy, all the power that drives a river is underneath the surface. The flotsam and jetsam that covers the top is nothing compared to the movement of the deep river. (In 2011, during the flooding of the Missouri River, trenches 45-50 feet deep were being dug by the deep river while trees and houses floated along the top.)

Like the power of a river, the power of liturgy lies way under its surface. The rituals, the colors, the sounds all move together so that the great power of a song, a hymn, a prayer, silence, the sermon, and communion can be experienced at visceral levels. The power of the liturgy is making sense of reality and the presence of God that often goes unnoticed during worship. When worship taps into the deep river power of God, you never know what you're going to get.

For example, on Good Friday I did a meditation on the Virgin Mary. I often preach on the Virgin on Good Friday because I cannot even fathom how a mother could sit at the foot of a son's cross and watch him die. That, more than the Virgin birth, is why Mary is the Mother of God. Anyhow, in order to start off the meditation I sang the Stabat Mater ("At the Cross, her Station Keeping") acapella. I started to choke up around verse 3. Then something amazing happened...

We have a woman who suffers terribly from Alzheimer's disease. I only met her recently, and she has never said a word to me. I always try to say hi, and give her a pat as her husband of 40 plus years rolls her by, but even looking her straight in the eye while delivering communion I cannot say she recognizes me. Or, for that matter, ever understood any word I've ever preached. She doesn't talk or communicate in any way except, so they say, with little squeaks and shouts, but in eight months I've never heard them. Until about 1/2-way through the Stabat Mater...sitting there with her daughter and granddaughter, she was vocally and visibly agitated. But then, so was I...

That's the deep power of the liturgy...somewhere deep inside her wasting body resided a mother who could not bear the pain Mary showed at the cross? And she cried out in protest! This is wrong! Mothers shouldn't have to watch their children die! We shouldn't have killed Jesus! And she got that not from anything we said or did, but from the music, the lights, the wind, the love of her husband, the blessing of the Holy Spirit.

Worship, when it's at that deep level, cannot be controlled or contained, only lived, experienced, and maybe even endured. We never know who's walking into worship. They could be happy, sad, free, oppressed, dying, alive, on the road to ruin or the road to riches...The liturgy is for all to experience the presence of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, the freedom of the resurrected Christ. There are no limits to that, there are no boundaries.

What is there? A power. A deep, abiding love that cries out from depths unplumbed; a love that endures forever.

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Night at the Jewish Temple

Displaying IMG_5499.jpg Last night I was at Temple Israel in Omaha for its Family Seder meal. When I was first invited a month or so ago I had little intention of attending. A Seder meal commemorates Jewish liberty from slavery, and it is the last meal Jesus of Nazareth had before he died. What this means for a Christian pastor is that Passover, and the Haggadah, occur during the busiest of weeks for us. So, although I appreciate the seders I have been to over the years, they are not usually convenient...which is the point.

However, when that crazy guy down in Kansas City on Sunday tried to shoot up the Jews down there, (he tragically killed three people, none of whom were Jewish.) I made it a point to rearrange my schedule to be there. My Hebrew professor, himself forced to leave Germany during World War II because of his Jewish ancestors, once told me, "I will become Jewish if the world takes the last one." I'm in that mindset too. Because my wife is famous, we were sat at a front table with the oldest person at the meal. This is were the story starts...

You see, a seder is not convenient. It's not suppose to be. It remembers a time when people, mired in centuries of slavery, escaped at the spur of moment, so quickly that they didn't have time to let their bread rise. (This is where the matzoh comes from, the ubiquitous cracker-like bread.)  So although this seder was not convenient for me, I figured it was not too convenient for the folks that I'm remembering, so I went.

And the meal was not convenient for the elderly gentleman at the table with me either. He was a World War II veteran (think about that for a it? Yeah. This meal was clearly more than just something to do. He once risked his life in war so he could celebrate a seder.) As we sang the songs, and prayed the prayers, and heard the story, and ate the food at many times he was overwhelmed with emotion. How could he not be? His son and daughter-in-law were there, but what about all his Jewish family that had died over his lifetime? What about all the "slaveries" that bound his heart, his mind, and his soul. Although he was still in good health, his sight and hearing unimpaired, as they said of Moses on Nebo, the tears were real for this gentleman. But they were not convenient...

Now, the story of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt is not the primary story I have for God. Mine involves a Jew, who blessed us with his Spirit, who died on a cross so that we are free eternally, beyond even the exodus from Egypt. We are free to do the scary stuff of life, like love our enemies, trust our friends, and weep with strangers. I realized, about half-way through the meal (and its 2 hours), that were I to die there...well, my daughters would be able to say their dad died in the presence of the God who was good enough for Jesus of Nazareth. And I hope good enough for us all.

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Duck Fat Fries, Temptations, and Doing Nothing

The other night on Darkwood Brew, Eric Elnes   pointed out, in his usually brilliant way, that Jesus was tempted by things that most of us consider "good." That is, the Tempter didn't present Jesus with a 21 year old's dream of "hookers and blow," but rather with feeding people, curing people, and leading people. Jesus turned all those "temptations" down so he could do what he was supposed to do: love people. (Curiously, when you love people, you tend to feed and cure them, and even lead them. So Jesus accomplished what the Tempter offered without succumbing to the temptation. Clever guy that Jesus.)

I am tempted by Duck-Fat Fries from the Grey Plume in Omaha, NE.  Yeah. These fries are cut in generous rectangles, seasoned lightly, fried in duck fat, dressed in an aioli, and topped with a fried egg. (I once had it with a goose egg, and I swear on Jaques Pepin, the egg was the size of the bowl.) They are delicious. However, about three years ago I decided to only eat fries once a month...this is a nod to my age and digestive system. Now, if I know I am going to the Grey Plume, I can plan accordingly. But what happens, as it has, when Chris and I decide at the spur of the moment to stop by and have a drink? (You are shocked?)  There I am at the Grey Plume in the midst of a quandary. Do I have the fries or not? Maybe I've already had fries that month? (It's just a silly rule you made anyhow..go ahead.) Maybe I an not ravenously hungry, and the fries would be "too much." (Hey! It's possible.) Maybe I'll get Chris to order them, and have a few of hers. (btw, this is the option that usually wins.)

But you see, if I have the fries I will NOT have something else...a soup, a chicken terrine, or chocolate soup. So although I am always tempted by the fries in duck fat, oftentimes I turn them down for something else, equally as good, and probably better. The chef is truly great. I trust that he and his team will not let me down if I pass on the duck fat fries (or only eat one or two...maybe three, of Chris')

It is precisely the idea that there is a trustworthy future that allows me to overcome temptation. Were my future not held in trustworthy hands, like his  (Clayton Chapman of the Grey Plume, Omaha, NE), I might not pass on the fries--especially for a salad. That's why Jesus was able to overcome temptation, and how we overcome the temptations in our lives. We trust the people who promise us a future. If you don't trust, the temptation is too good to pass up. Jesus trusted that God had a future for him that was better than feeding the world or curing the injured...that's some serious trust.

Who are you trusting with your future these days? Beware of only trusting yourself because your future then is limited to might not get hurt, but you probably won't flourish either. Who do you trust with your future so you are not overcome by all the goods that swamp you today?

I have passed up many goods over the years (I still wonder about that Irene Ryan scholarship?) in order to trust the future God seems to have laid out for me. At 50, I've come to accept that it means I will die, probably on a cross. The temptations pass because I do nothing, and let them pass in hope for tomorrow. Seems rather pathetic, I know, but imagine Jesus in the desert, how pathetic do you think that was? And he didn't have duck fat fries anywhere near him. At least for me, the Grey Plume is only 30 blocks away.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Facebook, Future, Forget about it

Perhaps you have seen this symbol  which is really a logo? But don't you think it almost stands for all social media these days? I mean, whether you use Instagram, Foursquare, or even MySpace, isn't Facebook the one that says it all? We may not like its control over our social media lives, but there it is...we deal.

I was not an early adopter of Facebook, and I am not an early adopter of social media in general. I have never sent a Tweet in my life. Heck, I still barely use text messaging. But even though I am not of the "social media" generation, I am glad for it. People that I might not remember all of a sudden pop up with a reminder that they are still here, and although we haven't talked in decades their lives still go on...and I can hear snippets or see snapshots of it...amazing.

Social media has completely disabused me of the idea of "privacy." In general, social media destroys everything John Locke built his world upon, which for you and me in the USA means we don't have much of a "private" life anymore. We may think we do, but NSA pretty much proves those thoughts misguided. I now assume everything I do is possibly being watched and recorded by someone somewhere. Certainly this is the case in my public speaking, preaching, and writing. But also, just wandering around my house or my garden, I don't worry if people are watching me.

Basically, social media forces me to live the life I want to live all the time. If I don't want someone to see me this way, I don't act that way...anywhere, anytime. I mean, I guess my great hope is that Facebook and social media will eventually eliminate hypocrisy. Think about it. If you can no longer say one thing in public and do another in private (because technology has erased the public/private separation), hypocrisy becomes harder to pull off.

For example, you can't be a Christian preacher who preaches against homosexuality all the while when you are having sex with your own gender, and not have people know. You have to somehow reconcile your preaching and your sexual activity to the world because you cannot hide the hypocrisy anymore. Imagine a future with hypocrites?

Now, some may argue, and they may be right, that a society needs hypocrisy in order not to implode. That is, for example, we need rich people to care FOR poor people even if they don't really care for people who are poor. That kind of hypocrisy is necessary for a society to exist without revolution. Maybe even social media itself contributes to this? Just today, I read that a school district in Omaha is going to give all students a computer--even kindergartners. I remember when parents use to worry about giving kids cell phones. Imagine what a 1st grader could do with an Ipad? But what about the school districts where kids don't get computers? (I mean, let's face reality: if you don't have a computer, your chances of reading "Thoughts from the Prairie Table" are pretty much zero. If you want to haverich and poor to get together, you have to treat internet access like air and water, not like a gym membership. Everyone should have free access to the internet.)

Jesus of Nazareth didn't have social media, but he did have an interesting piece of advice on how to behave. He said, "let you yes be yes and your no be no." That seems like good advice as we move into the future with social media in tow...or following How is your yes a yes, or your no a no these days?

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

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Meaning of Resurrection

I am always amazed when people show up to worship on Easter morning. (Actually, I am amazed people show up to worship at ANY time...) What about Easter has people getting up in the morning and going to church?

Some people have suggested to me that they want to be with their "families," which given the cultural attitudes latent in our society means "Mom makes us go." I suppose that is possible, but Mother's Day is just 3 weeks after Easter, and how many moms have the credibility and influence to pull off that twice in such a short span?

Some people suggest that Easter is an American cultural thing, and that may be so, but it certainly pales in comparison to Christmas Eve. I mean, I can think of a half-dozen famous movies that involve Christmas, and I can't think of one that involves Easter. Even atheists celebrate Christmas. Not so much for Easter I suspect. (It is true, Easter has the Easter Bunny, but again, Santa? No contest.) No, I have trouble believing people go to Easter worship because their moms make them or our culture says it's the thing to do. No, it seems to me if you come to worship on Easter, especially if you don't go to worship very often, you come because you wish the story were true.

Jesus got up. That's how Methodist preacher Will Willamon talks about Easter. We want to get up to, and not just from death, but from all the stuff that has got us down. We want to be healthier, have more money, have more free time, have more laughter, have more celebrations, have more lovers, have more everything good and less of everything bad. Easter, unlike the Monday that comes after, or the Friday that came before, has more of the good, and less of the bad. Easter is the one day a year where Christians are honest about the fact that crazy shit happens...Jesus got up.

Most of the days of our lives roll by with a stultifying predictability that is comfortably numb. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is neither predictable nor numbing. He has to live AGAIN. I mean, he was dead, he didn't have to show up at the office the next day, and then he went and got up...did he go back to work? Easter is the day we can dream that live can be--will be--different. God did an amazing thing with Jesus, and promises to do amazing stuff with us as well. So we show up on Easter to pray and wonder and sing on how our lives should be different, but probably won't be...but they can be...And that's why the resurrection is important. Jesus doesn't promise that you will not die, but he does promise you will changed, and live forever. And at least one day a year that is enough.

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

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Dinner with Ani

I was blessed to have dinner with Ani Zonneveld of Muslims for Progressive Values. It was a delightful and educating experience to say the least.  As with most things, if all you know about someone or some group of people is what you hear on the internet or a cable news program, it is safe to say you know nothing about the person or people. There is way too much depth and complexity to people that TV and the internet cannot provide enough information for you to understand someone. (Plus there's that whole being able to fib thing...)

Ms. Zonneveld showed a whole another side to what Muslims are capable of being and doing, and the stories were quite eye-opening. My first experience with Islam came through the Sufi tradition, and the art and novels of Muslim writers in the early 20th Century. (For a long time, while I was in college, I wished I could go back to 10th Century Cordoba, Spain, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in relative peace under Muslim rulers. It was my answer to the question of Mr. Peabody and Sherman...if you could go way back, where would you go and when?) So I am partial to Muslims who are artistic, spiritual, hold to democratic ideals (such as the separation of church and state, and equality for everyone, including women and gays), and able to hold a decent conversation. Ms. Zonneveld more than fit the bill.

Perhaps my greatest learning was that the Islam that gets talked about most in my circles is not the Islam most Muslims practice. It is true that there is a huge revolution taking place in Islam, and it will be interesting to see if Islam produces a "Martin Luther" (one who can break though the calcifying traditions that many Muslims believe are not the way to live Islam?) As a Christian, and as a Christian leader, I was left with the rather confusing perspective that Islam is facing some kind of "civil war" for its soul, and they worry less about me than about those Muslims who do not agree with them. If Koran-based Muslims and Tradition-based Muslims are going to battle it out, what do I--as a non-Muslim-- do?

And there was a guy at dinner who provided an answer without saying anything. You see, he eats a gluten-free diet. For allergy reasons he has been gluten-free long before it was hip and cool. But what do you do with someone who is gluten-free? Simple--change the menu. You invite them to dinner, you share food (although I never worry about him taking the last roll in the bread service), and you do what dinners are supposed to do: nourish bodies and friendships. But not everybody eats the same thing. In the same way that I eat dinner with someone who eats gluten-free, I can relate to Muslims who share (or don't share) my values. I can support their efforts at health (or religious expressions) without resorting to their diet, and trying to see what we can learn together.

(And it should be noted that usually only Muslims who are progressive and share some core values with me, go to dinner with me. If for no other reason, as you know, I am known to have alcohol every now and then.)

I often wonder if that is how Jesus dealt with those Jewish leaders he was constantly at dinner with and arguing over Jewish law? How are you in relationship with someone; yet, not completely subsumed or dominated by the relationship? Jesus seemed to respect them, maybe even love them, but he didn't agree with them. I try to get to dinner with people who are not like me as often as I can. That's what the "Prairie Table" is actually--a place to gather with people who may not be like you. You never know who's going to show up at the prairie table...sometimes it may be a progressive Muslim woman, sometimes it may be a gluten-free friend, and may be even the Christ of God. We can hope.

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