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. 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, March 31, 2015

Theologically, Indiana misses the boat...

A lot of people believe Indiana passed a law that protects "religious freedom." Pundits and bloggers and other folks are spending a lot of time talking about religion, and missing the point. (Religion never solves anything, it either pacifies, opiates, or represses, as critics of religion note.) What could help, however, is conversation about God (we call that theology), but nobody really is doing that. That is why the state of Indiana, and just about everybody else, won't get us anywhere with their laws. Because although they might understand "laws" they certainly don't understand sin.

Sin is the rupture of the relationship between God and humanity that spills out into ruptures between humanity and creation, people and other people, and even brother against sister. And sin cannot be repaired by law. This is a basic Christian tenet. Sin is "repaired" (and I don't care right now which verb you would rather use for your own atonement theory, but feel free to replace mine if you don't like "repaired." It doesn't matter for this argument.) in the power of the Holy Spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. That's it. No law needed. No law would actually accomplish that repair, because no law can compel or necessitate God's gracious love towards humanity. Only God's freedom to love us in Jesus Christ heals the rupture.

The good politicians of Indiana are trying to repair a broken relationship with something that does not fix broken relationships. It's like trying to fix a computer with a blowtorch. Nothing will be repaired and everything will be destroyed. You can't make a person like another person by making a law. Only grace frees the heart to love another person. And you can't make laws about grace. You can only make laws about laws, and that they seemed to have accomplished. (I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the first logical conclusion of the First Amendment of the Constitution, that a freedom from a state-sponsored religion would lead someone to use their own religious beliefs as motivation for behavior? Why make a law for a law that already is widely accepted in the entire USA, not just Indiana? Politicians must really not have much to do in Indiana.) So although Indiana has understood laws they have missed the boat on sin and grace.

Indiana, and other states like it, will now see religious expressions in ways it has never imagined. Why? Because they have now burdened "the state" to double its compelling evidence to halt aberrant religious expression. More and more people will be able to use "religion" as the excuse for their behavior. Even if the behavior pushes the envelope of community norm. (This is another reason why law cannot repair sin--it winds up destroying the integrity of the community in its effort to appease everyone. If there is one thing Judaism has taught us in the last 4000 years about law, is that there is no law broad enough to appeal to everyone. Not even the First Commandment is enough.)

What does the law mean for the good people of Indiana (or any other places that have such strictures)? It means you're still going to have to love your neighbor...even if the law says you don't have to. Of course, the law says we are to love our neighbor, and we don't do a very good job of following that law either...That's why Christians trust in the power of the Spirit through Jesus the Christ on the cross and from the empty tomb...that's all that keeps the boat afloat. Sin, and all the laws that follow it, are just anchors dragging us down.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Academic "Geek-Fest" on philosophy and theology

I discovered a quirk in my college experience after my first semester. I could take 5 courses for the same price as 4. (4 was the normal, as you needed 31 courses to graduate in those days. In 4 years. I understand that things are different nowadays.) What that meant for me was that I got to take 7 more courses (basically another year) for free. I finished with 39 credits in 4 years.

You might ask, rightly, why would anyone do that? First, I like going to school. I liked taking classes in college and learning new things. That's fun for me. Secondly, I have a lot of interests. At my college, Gustavus Adolphus College, we had "minors." Everyone needed a major to graduate. (I had mine in English), and you could have minors as well. A minor was a field of study where you had 5 courses (majors were at least 8). I had 4 courses in each of these fields of study: Theatre, Music, Physics, and a minor in classics. I also was able to study Hebrew, German, French, and Swedish. Pretty good deal for $22,000 total. All 4 years.

Notice I did not mention Religion, Theology, or Philosophy. That's because I only took one course ever in those three fields. The Bible as Story was a Religion course that satisfied the Religion requirement we needed to graduate. So I took it. That was it. I realized in my second year that I was not going to be able to take every course I wanted or a class on every field of study I was interested in at the time. So I spent my free time studying Religion, Theology, and Philosophy. And I read them all. I started with Kierkegaard. Then Nietzsche. Then Freud. Hegel. Marx. Heidegger. Sartre. Foucault. Derrida. Russell. Whitehead. Wittgenstein. Popper. And then I went to graduate school.

My roommate used to joke that I never read a book published after 1700. In a way, he was right. And that only got worse when I went to the University of Texas-Austin for a Ph.D. in Rhetoric. Turns out as I was getting a degree in reading (that's basically what "rhetoric" is) that my professors noticed something: I liked to write about God. So they sent me to Chicago (long story) to study Theology. (I had read 2 books by Martin Luther in his battle with the philosopher Erasmus, a lot of Augustine and Aquinas for Latin classes and that was about it. I knew nothing about theology.)

In seminary, my first course had me read Paul Tillich. I liked Tillich which means I read a lot of his stuff. Turns out his last Graduate Assistant was one of my professors. So I asked him which I should read next, and he is still helping me sort through Theology. My Master's degree at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago was a crash course in Theology for 2 1/2 years. I went out into the parish as a pastor, and had a lot of fun. (I love congregations it turns out. that's another blog). But I felt as if I didn't know enough.

I went back to seminary and asked a former professor to write me a recommendation for Graduate School in Philosophy and Theology. He asked me why I wanted to go to Grad School if I liked being a pastor so much? I told him, "because I don't know enough to be a good pastor." So I went to Grad School and received a Doctorate in Philosophy combining the work of a German theologian (Eberhard Jungel) with the sociological research just beginning to be published on congregations, mostly using the early work of Nancy Tatom Ammerman. In my day there were no "Congregational Studies" programs, so I made one up. Other than one little hiccup concerning the Gospel of John, and my reading of it (another blog), it went pretty well.

That's me. Although a lot of people don't know this side of me. (This is the first time I've ever published this.) Most people don't know that I considered writing a dissertation on Feminist Literary Theory at one time. Most people don't know that I once met a theologian named Douglas John Hall, and told him I thought he was pretty good. He asked me what theologians I was reading, and when I told him, he said, "It might be wise to just pick one or two." So I did. 10% of my dissertation was on Douglas John Hall.

Although I was trained very well by the Academy, I am not in the Academy much anymore. I'm in congregations. There are many reasons for that (yet another blog), but the main one is this: what all the philosophers, theologians, theorists, writers, and storytellers I have read have all known is that you must live. Even if it's just to read another book...

Congregations are where people live. And God. That's why I'm there too.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How new is "new?"

An ago-old question, that maybe fifty plus years can help me discern? Probably not. I remember listening to a Van Morrison interview a few years ago where he remarked that there is nothing new in music anymore. To him, it was obvious...to the people who commented? Not so much.

Most of the younger people wanted to hold out and believe that something new was still possible in music. And it may be...but probably not from Van Morrison. Maybe Macklemore or Kendrick Lamar? Maybe the next person Kanye West produces? (Did you know that all-time, Kanye West is second in Grammy Awards, tied with Allison Krauss, and behind Georg Solti? Which name is most surprising to you of the top three?)

Of course, I deal with God mostly, and a 4000 year old book. My chances of finding anything new are slimmer than Kanye's. There is some sense of "newness" even if there is really nothing new. For example, I'm pretty sure our recent understanding of God and creation of gay people is not something people assumed years ago, if ever. And that's really all you have to change in order to see where our thinking and behavior on homosexuals have come from in the past 50 years or so. God makes people gay. God makes people black. God makes people male. God makes people to love and grow, even people who have had bad luck at birth, or with cancer, or with drunk drivers. We are all made to love and grow.  Some of us have more struggles towards that than others. But all of us were made for love and to love.

Things are new because circumstances are new. Being a grandfather is new to me, although there have been grandfathers for thousands of years before me. But for me to discover something "new" about grandparenting is a bit silly. I may never have had the pleasure of seeing a grandson hug his mom (my daughter), but plenty of grandpas have. New can only take you so far. As far as YOU go.

That's why I am so fascinated with God. God promises to be with each of us in our journey, not just some corporate, cosmic spin on the third rock from the sun that we are all part of in this race. As I live and grow, God goes along with me (and against me, if I'm being honest), just as God does with all of us in our unique, separate journeys together. That is what is cool about God, we're all different. We're all alike.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Van Morrison for your listening pleasure.




Thursday, March 5, 2015

On being a grandpa

A month ago today I became a grandfather. Add this to the list of relationships I have or have had. This is a new one to me, and one I wonder how to do--or more accurately--how to be.

Like many of my generation I had two grandfathers. I knew them both, and they died within a couple of years of each other. I did not have the same kind of relationship with my two grandpas. One, I consider a major influence on my life; the other, I barely knew. I can recall countless conversations and stories with one of my grandpas, and I don't know if I ever had a conversation with the other one. He wasn't a real talkative guy.

I remember one grandfather used to get me magazine subscriptions for my birthday. I usually got Outdoor Life and Sports Illustrated. I used to look forward every week to Friday. I would get my SI copy and read it cover to cover, usually before bedtime. And one Friday every month would be extra special because I would get both, and the Outdoor Life magazine was my constant companion--even in the bathroom!
 I remember this cover. I remember this one too.  She was Billy Joel's wife, I guess...whatever, I was 17.

These days I am trying to read less on computer screens. I don't own an e-reader of any kind, and I probably won't unless they stop printing books and magazines. I read the old-fashioned way because it hurts my eyes too much to read screens for more than an hour, and I like to read for long periods of time. So I read books at my desk. (Obviously I read at computer screens too--but I try never to only read that way.)

I have three academic degrees in reading. It has always fascinated me, and I have always loved doing it. I remember reading once that a "reader" is someone who has to read all the time, even cereal boxes at breakfast. I can't tell you how many cereal boxes I have read over the years.

Right now I have about six books going, and my usual research into a book of the Bible. (Ephesians these days.) Put in a few scrolls through Facebook, and couple of internet articles from Alternet or Salon, and you get a full day of reading. Sadly, unlike the magazines my grandfather got for me, most of books I read these days don't have pictures...which--apparently--is my loss.

What are you reading these days?

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

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Governor--sadly, doesn't understand justice....

Today a US District judge ruled that my state of Nebraska should allow gay and lesbian people to get married. (see this article) This ruling squares with current legal opinion all across the country (with the notable exception of one Alabama judge). To live in the United States of America these days means gays and lesbians pretty much all across the country can get married. Whether they want to or not...well, that's another question.

Naturally, there is opposition to this ruling here in Nebraska, and our Governor Pete Ricketts is quoted as writing “The definition of marriage is an issue for the people of Nebraska, and an activist judge should not substitute his personal political preferences for the will of the people,” Ricketts wrote. Well, actually he should, especially if the "will of the people" is unjust. In fact, in the USA, this is why we have judges--to keep us from making unjust laws. The judge was doing precisely what our system asked him to do--Governor Ricketts is living in some other land where the majority rules simply because it is the majority. We live by a rule of law, and even the majority has to follow the law.

What makes the marriage of gays and lesbians problematic for others is their religious convictions that marriage is religious, and their religion does not allow gays and lesbians to marry. Now, as a matter of practice, many religious groups live in the USA, and many rules contradict various religious beliefs. Think, for example, of Mennonite Christians opposition to war. Do you think it's been easy to be a Mennonite in the last 20 years of constant war? When was the last time you heard about Mennonites being upset that we have the Pentagon? Christians for whom the law of gay and lesbian marriage goes against their religious beliefs are going to have to find ways to live with this law. But if Mennonites can live here and we still have war, other Christians can live here even if we have gay marriage.

So far I have had no phone calls or emails about this ruling. (To be honest, I did not expect any. Here's a secret for those of you who don't live in the Midwest: if we don't actively deny something we tacitly support it. That is, there are no "silent majorities" in the Midwest. This is a hard and fast rule of passive-aggressive behavior. It's impossible to be passive-aggressive if you disagree before a decision is made.) There is also a libertarian streak in the Midwest that allows us to accept some things simply because they do not affect us. I may have a couple of off-handed conversations about the ruling this week, but that will be about it. 

Of course, if anyone asks I will marry people who are gay. It does not go against any religious or theological convictions I have, and both my state and my religious tradition allow me to perform them. Somebody would have to make the case of why I shouldn't marry a gay couple. And frankly, fewer and fewer people care enough to even try. So I will marry someone should they ask. I work in a town in Nebraska where the next gay person I meet here will be the first one (at least, openly. I could have met gay people here, but I never wonder about people's sexual identity, and I never ask. It is not an issue for me. I'm trying to save the universe--sexual orientation is not on my radar screen.)

I am glad for my gay friends who want to get married, but were not allowed to, or were married, but did not have their marriage recognized in Nebraska. Their day of justice has arrived. Congratulations.

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