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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, September 29, 2014

Coming to Grips with failure...

As you may imagine, there are all kinds of different types of pastor "jobs." Approaching my 24th year of pastoring, I seem to have found my calling in this gig. (Using the "better late than never" approach, although to be fair, most ministers work well into their 70s, so I still have another 25 years to go.) What I seem to be good at is transitioning congregations from one pastor to another, what we call in our tradition, "interim ministry."

To be fair, all ministry is interim ministry, as we are in the time between the resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection, both communally and uniquely. Wolfhart Pannenberg, who died just a few weeks ago, would call this "proleptic eschatology." Since we're in this interim time, anyone who ministers would be--technically--interim; however, what I do is interim-interim ministry.

Pastors leave congregations for many reasons. They have worn out their welcome. They have run out of ways to motivate and encourage their parishioners. They are unethical, and their congregations no longer trust them. The congregation can be unethical, and the pastor no longer wants to be part of such a community. There are lots of reasons why pastors leave congregations.

(On an aside, this is one of the great differences between a denominational congregation and a non-denominational congregation. In non-denominational congregations the pressure on a pastor to continue doing ministry or continuing to abet unhealthy behaviors is very strong. If something no longer works in that relationship, the pastor and congregation must come to some kind of agreement in order to survive. While that might lead to new and greater ways of being a Christian community, it often devolves into the pastor succumbing to the pressure of sin. At least that's what we get from the press. I mean, Jesus only worked his ministry for three years, and there is no indication that anything more than that is beneficial to the community. Nor, for that matter, for Jesus.)

What I like to do is come into those congregations that have a leadership vacancy, and give them a new way to see their future. Even congregations that are healthy and flourishing can use new images of leaders. (And what images that can be! I have yet to follow a pastor--male or female--that has hair longer than me.) Congregations are pretty convinced they know what they need, but that only happens because they have not thought about what they need.

Congregations tend to repeat the same patterns over and over again. (This is the great failure of denominational congregations, and why some pastors go into non-denominational ones. You can easily get stuck in a rut if you never think about the things you think about.) The ministry of transition that I seem to be called to is one that allows congregations to think about what they do, and if they want to continue on in the same way; or, if they want to make changes. Some congregations actually know they want to change, and that's another good reason to have a transitional minister.

What is interesting to me is that these transitions are often approached as failure. They aren't, of course, but because we think all relationships should be eternal--including the pastor/congregation relationship--to bring in someone like me to a congregation seems to admit failure. But this is the kind of failure we want in life.

We want the kind of failure that doesn't kill us, but instead teaches us, or makes us stronger as Nietzsche might say. We want the failure that allows us to process our identity, to assess our resources, and to pray into our future with God. We are OK with the kind of failure that the cross of Jesus Christ represents.

Because from his cross  we understand, we live, and trust in our identity, in the power of suffering to resource our lives, and to live into the future for which God has called each and every one of us. The cross of Jesus Christ is a failure--no one, not even Jesus, wants to die--but his cross is not the final word. Neither are our failures. Neither are our deaths...there is always resurrection. There is always God.

That's why I'm called to interim ministry...I like to tell people who feel as if they failed, that God might not think so.

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Boss, Violence, and why Jesus matters

The Boss turns 65 today. That's pretty funny when you think about it.  Happy Birthday Mr. Springsteen. Here's my favorite song of his.

But in more important news, our country has pretty much abandoned any coherent discussion about violence. We rightly get disturbed if women or children have violence inflicted upon them by professional football players, but we are more than willing to accept violence inflicted upon "terrorists" by the United Nations. Clearly we accept violence as a solution to problems. We just pick and choose which problems we can solve by violence. Unruly children? No. Unruly terror cells? Yes. Wives and husbands who cannot communicate? No. Countries that cannot communicate? Yes. Corporately we are way more willing to accept violence as a solution than in our personal, individual lives.

This is what makes Jesus of Nazareth so important when it comes to the issue of violence. He knew it existed, and he also seems to have guessed that he was going to meet a violent end. But he did not respond to violence with violence. He responded with love. And this "love" is different than just mere acceptance of victimhood...he actually tried to make the violent accusers better, maybe so they wouldn't have to use violence? Instead of bombing "terrorists" who do violent things (like beheading journalists), what have we done to help them stop being violent? What if it takes 20 years to curb someone from resorting to violence? Could we last 20 years in order to help them?

I am a violent person. I like football because it doesn't shy away violence. I like Game of Thrones because it understands violence. I like Bruce Springsteen's music for the violent way in which he and his band drive a song. (Alternatively, there is a beauty to a pro football sideline catch; or a joke by Tyrion Lannister, or a ballad by Springsteen. There is way more complexity to sport and art than just winning or losing or liking or disliking something.) But violence is always a symptom, never a solution. That's why Jesus often eschewed violence, he was looking for solutions...

What he found, ironically amidst the most violent of deaths, was love. A love for his fellow criminals, his mom, his friends (at least the few still lingering nearby), a love even for this accusers. He was hoping that by showing love he could stop the cycle of violence that was his demise. Apparently, 2000 years later, he still hopes...and so do I.

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dinner with Don Henley

Because my wife has a mutual friend with Don Henley, we had a brief conversation with him the other night after dinner. (Dinner itself was compliments of Mr. Henley, as mine consisted of a tomato bisque made from tomatoes from his own garden and a grilled cheese sandwich with roasted garlic bread and gruyere cheese. He chided me for not trying the pork shoulder, but c'mon? Tomato soup from Don Henley? How cool is that?)

Anyhow, I digress because I want to point out one of the greatest lines from music that pretty much sums up the Christian religion: Mr. Henley once wrote, "I think it's about forgiveness, even if you don't love me anymore." (Apologies to readers in Illinois, Minnesota and North Dakota who have heard numerous sermons on this line.) It comes from this song "Heart of the Matter." Go ahead and listen. I'll wait.

(waiting.)

If you want to think of forgiveness as a kind of love (and all my learned Hebrew friends are probably thinking that), I have no problem with that. If you think of forgiveness as a kind of love, then Mr. Henley's song makes sense in that solipsistic way of all pop music, where it only references the song, and has little connection to any reality outside of the song. But if you think that "forgiveness" is something different then "love," then the song has a simple brilliance.

What I take from this song is that something survives through all the death, decay, failure, despair, and frustration that makes up so much of our lives. And what survives--forgiveness--comes about from someone, something, somewhere else, but it isn't love. What could survive death, create forgiveness, and motivate the world if not love? What is "the heart of matter" if it isn't love?

The Christian tradition has always answered that question with one word: God. Although God is love, love is not god. And it's God who decides what love is, and not love who decides what God is. We only know love because it's about "forgiveness," and that is what Mr. Henley noted in his song.

Sitting in his dressing room, a 1/2 hour before an Eagles concert, I was struck by how shy and self-deprecating this uber-famous man was. Here was a man whose best friends include the greatest rock stars of the last 40 years, a man who gets awards; but just a guy who cares about his kids, the environment, his wife, and all the stuff all guys do. But when the lights came on, when the music began to play, he wasn't just a guy anymore, he was Don Henley and all his Eagles mates. He was the rock star, and the women still go crazy...

But I'll always have the tomato soup...

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