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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.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Basic Christian Communities: A Primer

Apparently less and less people want to be connected to religious communities anymore. Welcome to America! The freedom from religion that we enshrined into our constitution is now becoming more and more a reality in the lives of people. Since the USA doesn't make people join a religion, they don't. I hope they vote...(Irony of ironies, if they don't keep voting, the government may soon force them to choose a religious community to follow.)

Does this mean people are less religious or spiritual because they do not belong or affiliate with a religious or spiritual community? For some, say Buddhists, the answer may be "No." In general, although it is not recommended, one can be a Buddhist without a community, as the universe itself is the community to which one belongs. For other religious traditions, say Judaism, the answer is "Yes." People are less spiritual and religious as Jews if they don not belong to a community. The ethnic identity is so inherent in the religion, that is is more possible to be a Jew who is not religions or spiritual than it is to be a religious or spiritual person who wants to be a Jew.

What about Christianity? Christianity, as with our Jewish brothers and sisters, also affirms that it is impossible to be a Christian without a community. Christians make this argument in two basic ways.

Way # 1: Community is the cornerstone of Christian faith and life. Often people will call to Jesus of Nazareth who had a group of 12 disciples (turned out to be one too many--should have let Judas go.),and say this is where Christian community began. The Apostle Paul was instrumental in starting groups of Christians within Jewish communities, and next thing you know you have Cyril and Methodius creating congregations in the Slavic region, and Francis Xavier going to China. Community is the bedrock upon which Christian faith and life is built, and many, many, many, Christian congregations build community before they attend to matters of individual belief. Community is the foundation upon which faith in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit makes sense of the world.

Way # 2: God is community. (Or, as I argue, the "Divine Congregation.") This is a less popular way because of the irony involved. You see, if God is community, and community is not optional to faith, religion, or spirituality; then, communities of faith are not necessary to a relationship with God. (God is--literally--all the community you need.) Do you need to have community with other people? Well, one tradition, the Orthodox Christians, argue yes, and like our Jewish brothers and sisters, often base that community upon their ethnic heritage. Like Judaism, the community is not restricted to its ethnic heritage, but it is the tradition. A second group of Christians, spirit-driven Christians, also argue that if one is in community with God truly, you will be driven to community with other people. (That's what God does--God keeps growing community.) Pentecostalists are the most common type of this Christian. If one is of the Spirit, and the Spirit seeks community, you have no choice but to join community. (There is also one other subgroup of the Pentecostalists, and this is people who follow a famous theologian, and there were many, who understood God this way. For example, Martin Luther understood faith, love, and community {he used the term "neighbor"} in this way. One serves and lives with neighbors because one's faith in the Triune God compels one to love your neighbor--or, join a community, as I'm calling it here. Oftentimes you have to abandon those who followed the theologian because they added so much to his or her initial thought. So although you may follow Luther, you would not be comfortable in some Lutheran congregations because they have added other things to this basic idea. This might explain, for example, why people leave Lutheran congregations.)

How does community relate to your faith? You understanding of God? What is God's role in the relationships you have with yourself, with your neighbor, and with God? This is the key question for those who claim no religious affiliation with Christianity. What's the point of joining a Christian community if you have no reason to be religious?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Look Back In Anger

Have you been angry recently? Have you noticed other people being angry? Maybe this isn't a recent thing, but I seem to have come across a lot of anger recently.

I suppose anger comes about when we experience a violation of some kind. A boundary is crossed, an action is ignored, or someone attacks you, and we respond in anger. Anger itself comes in many forms: depression, sadness, violence, and aggressive behavior. My intention is not to make a dissertation on anger, but rather to note how angry we are these days.

Then a day like Mothers' Day (yesterday) comes around. All the pictures and words are not angry. There are smiles, genuine words of gratefulness and love. Anger has receded for a day. But doesn't it seem like it's just lying there, under the surface of forced friendliness, ready to pounce on the next person or situation that leads to anger?

One of my favorite lines from the Marvel Avenger movie (the first one) is when the Black Widow tells the Hulk--as the alien invaders are coming hell-bent for destruction--that "Now would be a good time to get angry." To which Bruce Banner replies, right before he transforms into the Hulk--"That's my secret. I'm always angry." And the Hulk uses his anger to help repel the aliens.
Image result for black widow and hulk

Bruce Banner, however, does not want to be angry. The Hulk is the result of the curse of Bruce Banner's anger. But he turns green and wears purple pants, who wouldn't be angry?

Jesus of Nazareth knew this anger, but he did not let it control him. Even when he lashes out at the moneychangers in the temple, or takes out a fig tree, these are signs of a man under stress, for whom anger is never a first option, but rather a last resort. How does he do it? How does Jesus control his anger?

He feeds people. He heals them. He talks to them about God. He dies in front of hundreds of angry people. He understands that God has the world under control, and his job is to live as a child, a Son of God. So he does. And in doing so he creates the very salvation our anger desires. The cross is the forgiveness we need for our anger. The cross is God's word of love to an angry world bent on destroying itself. Jesus tells each and every one of us it's OK to forgive. Forgiveness doesn't make you weak, it makes you the most human possible.

You see, it turns out all creatures have anger issues, but it seems that only humanity can come about with something like forgiveness. Only we have the ability to remember the wrong, and at the same time not let us look back in anger. Forgiveness is looking forward in love. Forgiveness is choosing to not let the anger rule your life. Forgiveness is letting God's love let you be the human God made you to be. The cross is your freedom into that reality.
Image result for cross and forgiveness

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sticking it out

I guess I was lucky...

Years ago, about to receive my college degree, my adviser urged me to go to graduate school. "The academy needs people like you." I remember my adviser in graduate school who invited us to the first day of class back in 1985 with the introduction "Welcome to one of the two last medieval institutions left in the world--the other is the church." In my second graduate school, my adviser encouraged me to enter the ministry to "keep my options open." I have turned a talent for careful reading, patient thinking, and a general avoidance of anything that could be called "labor" into a career. I guess I'm lucky.

People have seemed to respond pretty positively to my ministry over the past 25 years. Of course, all the people I've forgotten, or ignored, or let down, or dismissed have all been too gracious to raise complaint. People may not like what I do or how I do it, but they often let me do it...there is something to be said for that.

Looking back, I can see some trajectories and influences that have been fairly consistent in my life. Whether you call them values, tendencies, traits, or predilections they lead me to believe something exists outside of my knowledge and control. And although this "something" has not always worked in my favor, I have seen enough to trust in its benevolence, in general.

But the "something" is really a "some way." Life is the manifestation of relationships in time and space, and time and space are the context of our lives. Your mother influences you one way or another--the question is how? This is where God makes the most sense to me. God is the power that frees those manifestations of relationships to live. Life is trusting in the power of God to create a reality of love.

That's why I wrote a book about God as "the Trinity." That doctrine (One God, Three persons) expresses the power, the relationships, the love, the freedom God has for all of us. That I make a living professing a "religion" which seeks to obviate that reality for one of its own constructions, just makes my life more interesting. (I imagine where I an auto mechanic, my ideas would be way more acceptable, and not constantly being ignored because they don't fit rote or sentimentalized traditionalism.) So I struggle to make sense of my world. Don't we all?

I can only assume John, Paul, George, and Ringo must of felt the same way singing these lyrics.

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