Your Blog Steward

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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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Seeing is the first step to believing

I heard that prosecutor's speech the night we learned that another white man was not going to have to have his actions, killing a black man, scrutinized in a public trial. All I can say about that speech was that if I preached liked that I would be fired. Basically he seemed to say that a man is dead, and we know why--he died. What?

I mean, I never watch crime shows, but even I know that people who are dead often are because they died. All the reasons I would have liked to see the officer go on trial are denied me, and presumably more than just me. A trial might have reached the same conclusion that the grand jury reached, but we will never know...I truly wonder why racism always seems to hinder our rule of law?

As a philosopher, I am sure the roots of this question go deep. As one of my Latin professors used to say, "I'm sure I'm as racist, sexist, and class-ist as anybody," but why can't admitting that be a part of who we are? It seems obvious to me that a lot of white police officers patrolling in neighborhoods where there are mostly people of color are going to have to deal with whatever racist thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors they have. And I believe they do have them. We all do. Why not admit?

It's racist, for example, to say that white people get to make all the rules. Admit it. We do. Maybe not so much anymore, or not all the time, but white people do seem to make a lot of the rules we try and live by. Why is that? To try and argue that such things are not racist seems like a lie to me. It is. And we must begin to admit that if we seek the shalom of which we pray.

The other day I was having a meeting with a woman who is of mixed racial lines. She is a black person (partially) in this country. At the bar was a couple sharing a bottle of wine, and she was black and he was white. Our waitress was white. Our bartender was black. As we started a conversation about Ferguson, none of us could fathom what's going on there. It didn't make sense to anybody, black or white. In fact, confusion was about the only thing all of us agreed upon in terms of color.

I wish Jesus would have had to deal with racism in terms of color. (The racism Jesus seemed to deal with had more to do with lineage and religion than with a person's skin color.) Maybe there were other cultural clues, but skin color is pretty obvious. It's part of what makes dealing with racism in this country so hard. You can guess at a person's race long before you know his or her name.

That's what makes this comment by the officer who killed the man so interesting. He said in his interview "I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan," adding, "That's just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm." 

The racism there is so pervasive as to be unnoticeable. You see, in describing the black man he was holding, his mind called him "Hulk Hogan." Hulk Hogan is white.

The officer never saw the man whose arm he grabbed. If he did, why did he think of him as a white man? Because everybody agrees on this: the man who died was black. If you can't admit the color of the person you're grabbing onto, isn't harder to admit the stuff you cannot see? Stuff like innocence, hope, truth, or love? Now--that's something Jesus DID talk about.

"I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." 
                                                                                            Jesus of Nazareth

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

One day at a time

Apparently it is now our job to make what the Church is supposed to look like in the next few years? What? God's plans aren't good enough? Since when has it been humanity's responsibility to decide our future? Church consultants and commentators... (smh).

I have tried hard over the past few years to give progressives the benefit of the doubt when it comes to God, congregations, and our future together both as people of God and neighbors to one another. But no matter how hard they try, they just can't bring themselves to allow God to be a player in those relationships. They talk a lot about Jesus, especially he of the wandering Jewish rabbi in First Century Palestine, but even then it's always about us trying to please him, or walk in his footsteps, or do do as he would have us do. But what Jesus does for us? Or even, did for us?


(Crickets chirping.)   

Would you want to have a relationship with someone where you had to do all the work, you have to measure up to their perfect idealism, and you have to make all the decisions? Probably not. (Remember this paragraph, as it is a summary of all sermons where preachers want to "make a difference" in peoples' lives.)

It is true that the future is murky. As one of my professors often noted, "the only thing for certain we know about the future is that it is not here yet." But that murkiness does not mean that the future is ONLY up to us. That is hubris at the highest level.

(Now, some might say, but we have some role in the future, don't we?) Of course we do. But our role in the future is always as a response or reaction to God's activity in our lives and in our world. It's God's world, we just play in it.

I'm reminded of this bartender I once visited regularly. She knew her customers. She was bright, funny, beautiful, and even would break out into a moonwalk when MJ was played. You could have a relationship with her, but there was always a bar between you and her. I would watch guys come to the bar and be completely captivated by her. And she is captivating...(the original moonwalk)--talk about captivating!

Young guys would try to impress her with their muscles, or wit, or good looks. Older guys would try and use their wealth and connections as a way to make their case. Groups of men, single guys, married guys, it seemed like everyone had an agenda for her, and a relationship they might have. But they were all one-sided. The guys did all the work, She served beer.

One day, as a guy my age was getting his coat on to leave, he said to me, "She is pretty amazing. But I didn't get anywhere today. How'd you do?"

I looked at him. "Me? It's her world. I just drink in it."

Just like I made a choice to have a relationship with that bar, that bartender, (rather than another one) so we make our choice with our relationship with God. (And to be fair, we might not even get that choice, depending upon how far you want to take your dependence upon God's grace.) But once we're in the scope of a relationship with God, we are no longer driving the relationship. All the prayers, spiritual direction, Bible study, service to your neighbors matters nothing when it comes to driving your relationship with God. What matters is to be able to steward the world God creates for you.

"Steward" in this case means to appreciate and take care of, and if necessary to protect the world God gives you. But it does not mean "own." We do not own God's world anymore than all those guys "owned" our bartender's love and affection. The world is pure gift bestowed upon us for no reason other than a love for everyone and everything.

This is why it is not our "job" to make the church of the future. It will be what it will be, in spite of our failed programs, in spite of our lack of energy, in spite of our forgetfulness and hatred of each other, in spite of the intentions which pave our roads to hell. Our job is to live together the best that we know how. (Just like when I go to a bar it's my "job" to have a drink, pay the bill, leave a tip. Anything else it just passing time...)

And we don't always do a good job of living together...but as we live and grow into what that will be we create congregations of hope and peace, congregations of mercy, charity, and justice. And as we live in those congregations we live into the Church, the future of eternal love in the living God who remembers all of us, even the drunk and dead.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

And Winter is here...great. Really great.

So the Camaro got stuck going up our driveway the other day because of the ice from a Winter storm. Our driveway is FLAT. I am back to driving the truck for awhile. Whenever I put away the Camaro for the season, I get a bit antsy. For one thing, I miss satellite radio. Little Steven's "Underground Garage" and its zany DJs are some of my greatest sources of entertainment. Here's a song I heard on that station not too long ago. Listen up.  Yeah. Those guys. (As an aside, I am always amazed when I hear Ron Wood play the guitar. He's one of the great guitarists in rock and roll, and he's not even the best guitarist in his own band!) My daughter once asked me why I listen to that station and I said, "Because it's the only place I know where I might get a Jack White song. Here's your bonus song for the week. 

Winter has hit our little village here in Omaha, and all the laughter now has shuttered up behind the draperies. Cars and wind blow up and down street, but we patiently wait for Spring. This climate change stuff is really wreaking havoc with my memories. I was born in the Winter; well, technically 2 days before Winter starts, in Minnesota. It was cold on that day, and it's been cold on my birthday ever since. Even living in Texas my birthday only got up to 59 degrees once. (That is the highest temperature I've ever had on my birthday that I recall.) Now it's cold when it was hot, hot when it was cold. I get confused using the weather as my barometer of memory these days.

Maybe that's a good thing? Maybe my memory needs an adjustment? Maybe I've become too set on things I "think" I know, and over the years I've become certain, in spite of the best available evidence to the contrary? Winter, in its celestial freeze, brings up short the ideas, thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that have languished in my mind. The crisp reality of the Winter Wind attacks the pretentiousness of my Summer Breezes.

But I trust God loves me. Winter or Summer, night or day, good times or bad times, I trust God remembers my name. I have had the good fortune to not be wrecked by love. People are pretty faithful to me, and I have appreciated that over the years. If I've been thrown under the bus, I do not know about it, or have no memory of it. I've been blessed with the best of friends, and I am truly grateful.

About once a month I take out my phone and scroll through the contacts list. I say a prayer for each and every person. I have great memories of them. (I even keep my friends who have died on my phone just for the monthly prayer.) Some of them I haven't talked to for years. Some I only keep up with on Facebook. But I have fond memories of them all. That is how I understand grace.

Grace is God casting loving energy my way through the friends and family of my life. What a wonder to behold...on a the freezing cold. I can't wait til Spring.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Scrambled Eggs and the United States Navy

My dad served in the United States Navy. As a Minnesotan, born, and raised, on the shores of Lake Superior, joining the Navy was kind of natural for him. He liked water. Thanks to people like my Dad, and countless others, we are able to enjoy some of the greatest freedoms in the world. Thank you to all veterans.

My dad often talked about his experiences in the Navy as we were growing up, and one of his favorites was to talk about the cook on one of his ships. "He could crack three eggs in one hand!" my Dad would proudly declare at the dinner table. My dad hated eggs. He did like Cheetos. And candy. And root beer. He thought a pickle as a green vegetable. As my brother remarked during my dad's funeral luncheon, "I'm having a hard time remembering ever seeing dad eat a vegetable." Truly, with his diet it is amazing he lived 76 years.

But I remember the scrambled egg stories. Although I am sure my dad took his service seriously (he took everything he did seriously), by the time he got around to telling stories at our dinner table, the Navy was just a backdrop for a joke or a point to be made. (To be honest, I'm not sure why he told the scrambled eggs stories, he might have actually just liked the cook.) But whenever I make scrambled eggs I remember the stories, and I remember my dad. (I also remember reading in a Nero Wolfe mystery years ago that Fritz, his cook, said you should scramble them for 30 minutes...but I give them a good 30 seconds.)                   

Maybe that's what all these upcoming festivals (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's) are all about. Creating memories to carry us into the future? I often wonder if Jesus of Nazareth knew this when he was celebrating his Last Supper? Was he creating a memory for the future? Was he offering a reality that flows through time to be eternally present? When we celebrate in the name of Jesus we recall a past in our present to be our future. How cool is that?

 It's interesting to think that just like my dad is more than veteran, he was also a veteran, and that I never knew my dad when he wasn't a veteran. Just like I've never known Jesus before he was resurrected. So this Veterans' Day, just like when I celebrate Holy Communion, I will remember what's important--the people who made my past so my future becomes real. Thanks Dad. Thanks Jesus.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Simple man

I watch a couple of reality shows, but they have one thing in common: they take place in the mountains, and their competition is usually just "surviving." One I watch, Mountain Men, I came across by accident. I was surfing through the channels when I heard this song by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I had to watch a show that has this for a theme song 

Now I have to admit that I have always leaned to minimalism in my life. The spartan life has always had an order and cleanliness to it that resonate with my sensibilities. I have always been fascinated with the succinct, the brief, the poignant, and finding ways to make do with as little as possible.

That's why I write essays in this blog rather than a book. They are simple, clean, and if they are any good they leave you with a sense of hope rather than confusion. They may be provocative, ambiguous, and somewhat dense, but what I am trying to do in these blogs is something very different from what most people do with blogs. It all has to do with finding the perfect sentence.

My tagline, for example, "May your tables be full and your conversations be true" is an example of what I am going for in this blog. A full table. Wouldn't that be great if everyone had a "full" table? Sadly, there are too many empty ones these days. Our greed and avarice has shattered the lives of so many people that a full table, even for a holiday, is a dream for many people throughout the world.

And "true" conversations? How many of us would just like ANY conversation? We are so distracted and busy that sometimes a series of texts has to suffice for a meaningful relationship these days. To actually have a "true" conversation is a pipe dream. How can we get to anything true when we are so afraid to risk even the trivial? It's time consuming, somewhat risky, and often scary to have a conversation with a stranger. But how else are we ever going to be friends if we don't talk to each other? Or, at least hang out together?

True conversations happen only when the simple things in life get taken care of in the course of a relationship. One of the greatest stories in the world is the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his friends. The stories we have are often conversations he tries to have with people. Interestingly, the people he has the most in common with often don't get his conversation. People he should have nothing to do with understand him at the most basic--simple if you will--level.

Why? Often because he is their last chance, and they do not have time for complicated conversations. They need something from him, and are too tired, poor, ill, battered, and abused to deal with trivial formalities. So they get right to the heart of the matter: they get true in a hurry. And life gets simple.

I want to get to those true conversations, but not because I am at the end of the line, but rather to be at the beginning, and to set true conversation as the way in which we all talk to each other. All the way down the line. And for me, true conversation is simple conversation. It's the conversation that motivates our days and deeds in peace. It's the conversation that connects us to a world far beyond what we can ever hope to imagine. It's true. It's real. It's simple.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.