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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.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Life of One Interim

Her name is Shelby, and she lived in Hazen, ND, and was in my confirmation class during the time I was the interim pastor of her and her family's congregation. On my last day, as the congregation hosted a meal for me, and gave me some nice parting gifts ("Thanks for playing at Pastor Scott! Here's some nice parting gifts for you from our sponsors."), and she came up to me perplexed.

"So, this is it? You're just done?"
Yep.
"Oh...well, thanks. Have a good life."

You too. I smiled as she turned and walked away. I haven't seen her since, and I can't remember her last name. But I do remember her. I remember how she wanted a pastor who could understand what life in a small, rural community could be like for a 14 year old girl. She wanted a pastor who could help her believe in stuff she couldn't see, and to trust in the love of her parents that she could see--even if she didn't want to. In this particular case, I believe God sent her that pastor. But it wasn't me.

As an interim pastor it is NEVER me. I am not the answer to any congregations' questions or prayers. My job is to listen, to explore, and to help congregations claim their identity as places of God's work in the world. And their next pastor will see in their faces, hear in their words and laughter, their tears, and flagging energy, a way to live and be in the life of God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Congregations long for pastors to live with them in the promised land. Interim pastors like me, we walk with them through the wilderness right up to the Jordan river. But we don't cross over with them. We are never the ones to live in the promised land. We go back into the wilderness and get the next group that wants to go through.

I was in the promised land once. Turns out, not for me. Too many rules. Too many personalities. Too much politics. You don't have that stuff in the wilderness of interim ministry* There is no time for most of that stuff. You can politic all you want, but pastors will come with you only if they think ministry can be done with you. You best keep your crazy folks under wraps, as no pastor wants to interview with a bunch of questions designed to appease a few folks who have an axe to grind. And you better not have too many rules, else you may eliminate from consideration the very pastor you need.

Interim ministry is ministry on the run, making things up as they go, and trying things once. (There's usually no time to try something again.) Interim ministry is having people step up and claim their identity as children of God, and to have them be mature about their faith. Interim ministry is not for the faint of heart, as it requires you to ask hard questions about why God has called you to this place, and how you are to be a child of God in this congregation? Interim ministry shows people the best of what a faithful life can be. There is no other option, otherwise you just wander until you die.

I have met so many wonderful people in interim ministry over the past 20 years. People who really care about their faith, the faith of their communities, and trust God. I've met great congregational presidents, leaders of choirs, women's groups, and parishioners of all ages and types. I love getting to meet new people.

I do get sad when I am done with an interim. But I am also hopeful. I trust we have done our work in the wilderness of transition well. We can articulate who we are, what we are about, and how we see God calling us into the future, into the promised land. Yes, the teenagers are not used to such transient relationships (for that matter not all adults like them either), but not everything in life is meant to be permanent. Especially, living in the wilderness. That never lasts more than 40 years--give or take.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

*Interim ministry is ministry that helps congregations transition from one pastor (or leadership team) to another. Depending upon the traditions of the congregation involved, interims last from 6-24 months usually. Some interims, especially if malfeasance is involved in previous leadership, may require specific rituals and healings in order for a congregation to find its next leader.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

When will we ever learn?

I get that people don't want to believe that God is a reality to be dealt with as we go about our day. Such a belief can really be a downer...
My friend has just been diagnosed with cancer...good one, God.
          Some terrorist just killed a innocent child...that's OK with you God, right? Since you didn't do anything about it?
I just cashed my paycheck, and you want me to give how much to freeloaders? Ten percent? I'll do two.

Believing in God can be a real inconvenience to anyone who expects God to make everything better. As Robert Browning noted, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"   Image result for robert browning poetAnd when God and God's powers do nothing to help us cope or survive, why bother with heaven or even to believe in the first place? Especially if there are no forced social or political constraints to have you believe?

According to many researchers, more and more people are just giving up on trying to fathom life with God. Just eliminate the whole relationship, and get on with your life. I can get by just fine without having to give away money or blame bad luck on some magical karma-thing. And because there are no social or political advantages in the USA to believing in God, people give up on believing. (Unless you want to be President of the USA, that seems to be the only exception...and professional football player, especially in Dallas.) Image result for prayer circle dallas cowboys

Why believe in anything outside of our material reality? Are we all Marxists now?

I get why people don't want to bother believing, thinking, or living with something that seems to have no positive or negative impact upon their day-to-day living. As I sing a liturgy or preach a sermon or give cash so a person can pay her rent, I too wonder about God?

But I wonder why not why God doesn't make an impact on my life, but why would God bother? What about me makes me so special that God, the God who created heaven and earth, the God who dies so I can live, the God who powers life itself--why would that God care about me? What makes me worthy of such consideration?

I believe in God most days not because I have seen evidence of God in my life, but rather because I have not. And quite frankly--what I see most days, I can hardly blame God for looking into some other galaxy for intelligent, compassionate, justice-oriented life. Why does God bother to show up on this planet at all?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Al little Sam Cooke for your soul

If you listen to one song today, listen to this one Change is Gonn'a Come  The artist is Sam Cooke. The coolest cat I've had the privilege to listen to, and he is the one artist I wish I could have heard live. That first line, out of the horns and strings, "I was booorn..." makes me tear up every time. That Mr. Cooke, that man could write a tune. And sing it.

And change does come. Maybe not fast enough for some, maybe too fast for others. They call me an innovator when it comes to change in congregations.


I've done stuff in congregations that even early adopters take five years to catch up on. There are only two numbers in my world: one (1) and A Lot. There is no in-between. Either you change or you die.

One of my most formative conversations happened with my college roommate and best friend Marty. We were sitting on his porch as I was about to begin to seminary. He was worried that my lifestyle, my temperament, and my need to do things my way might not work well in a typical Christian congregation. He was wrong. They don't work in ANY congregation, typical or not. Except that it does...People want to change. People don't want their congregations to die.

Since we all know change is going to come, people are often waiting for it--and when they see me--they pretty much know it's here. The look my late father-in-law gave me upon first seeing me told me he knew things were never going to be the same for him...or his daughter.

I wonder were Jesus might have fit on the "adoption scale?" He doesn't seem to be an innovator, as a lot of what he did has stories that go back, way back. But you wouldn't call him a "laggard" either, would you? Jesus had a lot of people with him, many of those might have been early adopters. It's tempting to think of Jesus' opponents as "laggards," but they could have just been competing early adopters or innovators. (Especially if you believe, as I do, that Jesus was a Pharisee early in his life in Jerusalem before he embarked on his own ministry outside of Pharisism.)

Now, unlike Mr. Cooke I have not been running. I embrace change. I seek change. I create change if no one else does. The change he was talking about involved his understanding of being a black man in a white-dominated world, and that a change is coming. Maybe the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States was the last (the laggard) of Mr. Cooke's innovation? Maybe not. But change does come...how do you deal with it?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wondering about betrayal

Without betrayal, this probably wouldn't have happened 

The stories about the death of Jesus make it pretty clear that he was betrayed by his friend Judas. There is some disagreement about why Judas betrayed Jesus, but that is because people are searching to discover why Judas WOULD betray Jesus? I mean, what would it take for you to betray your best friend and teacher? Do you have a price? Do you have an unmet goal? What does it take for you to betray someone?

I think what the story of Judas' betrayal shows is that all of us have a price. We may not know it, we may deny it, we may shake our heads at my insistence that we all have a price...but we do. that's why torture works. Now, Judas wasn't tortured in order to betray Jesus. Even Peter betrays him eventually. But we all have a price for betrayal.

And it's a moving price...some betrayals are going to cost a lot. Some are pretty innocent. But all betrayal makes people vulnerable to people they didn't expect to be vulnerable to.

Now, you don't want to get paranoid about the whole betrayal thing, and start looking at friends, family, and colleagues as future enemies. That's the one thing Jesus DIDN'T do. He probably knew he was going to get betrayed...I mean, he would have had to be the dumbest person in the history of world to think someone wasn't going to tell on him. But he didn't go around not making new friends, not helping people, or closing off his access and boundaries so people couldn't hurt him. Jesus embraced his eventual betrayal.

That's why he could be so cavalier at the last supper about Judas sneaking off to betray him. He knew it was going to happen someday, why not on Passover? Why not by Judas? (I mean, he'd proven himself trustworthy, and at least Jesus knew he wouldn't botch it up. If you're going to do it, do it well. Right, Brutus?)

So you're probably going to get betrayed someday. Are you ready for it? Are you going to keep risking relationships, even though you know one of them will betray you down the road? Are you going to keep opening up your arms to let people in, or are you going to cross them and keep people out?

That's one of the great visual teaching moments of Jesus' death. His arms outstretched on the cross, as if he's embracing the universe, embracing his friends, embracing his enemies, embracing his betrayal. Jesus never stopped loving and opening his life to people just because he might get betrayed. Rather, even at the end he was reaching out, opening up, and letting new people, new experiences, new universes into his life. Love that doesn't stop because of betrayal...we call that God's love, Jesus love.

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

2nd Naivete (that's Lent, that's what people say...)

Every now and then when approaching the season of Lent, and its wonderful herald "Transfiguration Sunday," we should remind ourselves of the importance of Paul Ricouer's idea of "Second naivete."Paul Ricoeur.jpg Dr. Ricouer famously postulated that in order to comprehend what you are reading (a myth or a narrative, not a newspaper or a blog like this) one must read it naively. However, how can you read such a way, if you are not naive? For example, it's pretty clear Jonah couldn't live in a fish for three days--no matter how many rooms the fish had in its belly. Everybody knows that. You'd have to be a complete idiot to believe that some guy named Jonah actually lived, really spent three days in a great fish, and lived to tell about it. So what do you do with the story if you think it's a fable or a myth?

What other thinkers argued was that you had to ask what the story "means." What does it "mean" that a prophet lived in a fish? Does it mean he was exiled? Does it mean he was saved by a miracle? Does it mean he has a relationship with God? Does it mean he was historically dispossessed of his authority? Critics would try to find what a story like Jonah and the whale was supposed to "mean."

Although Ricouer wanted to know what such a story means, he argued we should read it a different way. We should read it with all our critical faculties engaged, but we should also keep an attitude of naivete about the story as well. For example, what might Jonah have learned about his God if he actually did spend three days in a great fish? Now, no one is saying he did, but what might we learn about humanity, God, or even fish, if such a thing happened? As Ricouer said most famously, "the symbol gives rise to thought." Ricouer asks us to expand our thought process to imagine new thoughts. He does not argue that assuming such a naivete means one believes it actually happened. It never happened, according to our critical faculties, but imagine a world where it might have.

So as we come into Lent we should be gearing up our second (that is after our first one has been corrected by our critical faculties, sort of as children learn that it is electricity, and not magic, that turns on a light) naivete. What might it look like that Jesus asks you to carry a cross? Does it suggest you give up chocolate? Should we help our neighbors even more? (Nothing says loving your neighbor more than mowing his or her grass.) How would you imagine living your life differently if you are carrying your cross?

Lent is a big deal for Christians, but it is not because we like to fast from good food or pray more. It's a big deal so that we don't forget that Jesus died. We remember that love conquers death. That God remembers us even when we die. But in order to imagine those realities we must use our critical faculties to hear the story, and our naivete (second) to imagine life in that story and all its wonderful possibilities. That's Lent.

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