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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.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Standing, kneeling, and the act of worship

It's pretty clear to me by now that people who follow sports for a living have no idea what standing or kneeling in regards to worship (the media calls it "respect") means. Apparently, whether a professional athlete (or any athlete) stands or kneels during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" shows a proper amount of respect according to some. Since this whole conversation seems like a new way to be racist to me, (let's be fair, the whole reason why an athlete once knelt was because of racism, and those who didn't like his kneeling were clearly driven by racism) it's interesting that it settled on "kneeling."

"Kneeling" is something theologians know a little bit about. So let's talk about kneeling as a way to worship, and then, perhaps we can see kneeling as a way to protest. (If you're not a fan of protests, your stay in the United States of America, especially in the age of social media, is going to be quite frustrating.)

Without a doubt, the Christian faith has asked its people to kneel before God. It's part of our scripture, it's part of our history, it's part of our everyday, regular worship of God. Interestingly, those who tend not to kneel in Christian worship tend to be Protestants, or "protesters." We kneel because we are in awe of God's majesty and power. We acknowledge we are mortal, sinful, and powerless in the face of sin, death, and the devil. Our kneeling is a request to God in Jesus Christ, who himself knelt before God, in the power of the Holy Spirit to relieve us of our suffering, and to forgive us. That's what kneeling is about. (I should add that one does not have to kneel in order to make that request, but kneeling is an action that symbolizes our powerlessness.) That's why we Christians kneel.

That's not why athletes kneel during the overly militarized, nationalistic propaganda that is sports. They kneel because everybody else stands. They are protesting. Although who's to say what's actually being protested now, it started as a protest against police brutality against Black people. Although the kneeling may look the same, there is a huge difference between a person kneeling at an altar and a person kneeling before a football game. Where you kneel often defines why you kneel.

So when you see those memes on Facebook about kneeling, don't pay attention to the kneeler, pay attention to the context of picture. Image result for mlk kneeling

Check out this picture above: why are they kneeling? Protest? Certainly. Prayer? Certainly. (Especially if you know who's in the picture.) What makes the kneeling a protest and a prayer is the context. This is not what athletes are doing before a football game; nor, is it what millions of Christians are doing during confession. It might share some similarities with each, but it is its own unique form of kneeling.

The question we must ask of ourselves is not so much why others kneel, but why you do not? Or, if you do kneel, why are you kneeling? I find it interesting that a professional athlete can take an act of worship, encourage a demagogue to volatility, and lead a country to a state of confusion about "kneeling." There is nothing confusing about kneeling: you kneel because you are powerless to change by yourself, and it doesn't matter if you are a Black American protesting racism or a Christian protesting sin; in each case, you need someone to change something, or you're never going to be able to get up until change is promised. If you could do the change yourself, you'd have never knelt in the first place. Kneeling is always about power, and those who have it stand. Those who don't? They kneel.

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

We are a divided country...this is not news.

America has for most of its existence as a country been divided. Perhaps not from 1917-1945, but a lot had to be ignored (segregation of people of color, for example) in order to believe we were more united than we actually were. In fact, I would argue, people have always been divided, and on the rare occasions when we are united it is quite powerful. But rare. Very rare.

Just use my job, for example. It is quite common for people to come into my office to complain about how God seems to be ignoring them. They use as evidence this, that, or the other thing, and we pray for a sense of God's presence in their lives, and if possible, some type of resolution. Then the next person comes in to my office with a complaint, and their evidence is the exact reverse of the person before them. So we pray again for God's presence, and some type of resolution. Now I realize, as the second person walks away, that I have just prayed to God and asked for two completely antithetical responses from God. In other words, if God answers positively to Person 1, Person 2 will see this as God not listening again; and were God to answer Person 2, Person 1 would believe God no longer listens. Happens all the time.

And it has been happening for the 30 years I've been in ministry. That we are divided in not new. Why do you think we have "United" in our country's official name? Because we are; or, because we WANT to be? It's precisely because we are not united, that we strive for unity. 150 years ago we went to war for this unity. We all know we don't agree, that's why we never talk about important stuff. Silence is how we "agree to disagree."

I preach about racism and white privilege quite a lot, and each week about 5 people talk to me about it. And they all agree with me. I preach to about 400 people. What do you think about the other 395? Do they agree with me or not? I have to assume most do not agree with me. So why talk to me about it? It's pretty clear I'm not going to change my mind too much, and they're probably not either. (Especially if they think silence is the best way to agree to disagree.) That's why I always push the envelope in areas I don't hear anything about--I want to see how far people will go in their silence. (Pretty far, by the way, until they leave.)

As the recent kerfuffle with the National Football League and the police brutality/racism controversy showed, not even the flag or the national anthem can unite this country anymore. Those symbols as symbols of unity are on their last legs. (I just used a dead metaphor "legs" to talk about dying metaphors, "flags" and "eagles." We all know symbols don't have "legs." Just as we are learning that stars and stripes, red, white, and blue, and feathers and beaks are not "united.")

So what can unite this country? We've already used slavery, World domination by a foreign country has been done. Phantasms of fear is losing ground. As a preacher, I have only one unity I can preach: water is thicker than blood.

The waters of baptism that signal for Christianity the unity of all creation into God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth by the power of the Holy Spirit is all the unity I know. I do not expect us all to be unified as Christians, but rather unified in the forgiveness of God. That might be Christian for me, but for you? Well, there are other options, but I don't have much experience with them. So I'll talk about the unity I know.

The unity I know is a God who loves the world and all creatures in it. A God who cherishes the universe, and all the energy through which it swirls. I know a God that offers forgiveness rather than revenge. A God who offers presence rather than despair. A God who offers love rather than hate. It might be too much to hope we would be unified around such a God, but in a nation as divided as ours is there a better option that uniting around a God who loves us all?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Welcome 8th Grade Confirmation Students!

Google has made memorizing things pretty irrelevant. Actually remembering what you know? That too is mostly moot with a handy Google search bar or a Wiki link. So why memorize anything?

IT'S MOSTLY SO YOU CAN BE WHO YOU WANT TO BE AND WHO GOD CREATED YOU TO BE. (In other words, it's about your identity.) Who am I? Why has God placed me here?

So things we memorize are never forgotten, but rather as we memorize things we add to our identity, who we are. The things we memorize our markers from our history, snippets of who we were, where we were, and even what our goal and dreams could be. We may not ever reach our goal, we may always have a something else we still want to do, but in the words of Robert Browning, "else what's a heaven for?"

Here's some things I've memorized over the years. (They are not exact, I'd have to google them to make sure I got them exactly right, but I think I remember most of it...)

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me. Martin Luther, The Small Catechism 

Image result for martin luther

Consider us this way, servants of Christ...stewards of God's mysteries... Paul, 1 Corinthians

Image result for emily dickinson
Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me/The carriage held but just ourselves, and immortality. Emily Dickinson

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Dr. Samuel Johnson

It seems like while you were searching for the meaning of life, you neglected to live. Voltaire, Candide

Tell your god to get ready for blood...Al Swearengen, Deadwood

All of these quotations are parts of my history, and make up ways that I see the world. They are reminders to me of what I believe, how I think, how to behave, and how to follow God as a disciple of Jesus. I have a lot more, and a lot more goes into my life...but the goal of memorization is not to summarize your life, but rather to remind you where your life has been.

May your table be full and your conversations be true!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Racism and Sexism in the 21st Century

If you would have asked me on December 31, 1999, if the United States of America would be dealing with racism and sexism in the next 20 years, I would have said, "yes." But, but saying "yes," I meant that we would be dealing with it by becoming more equitable in our relationships between the sexes and races. I would not have meant, "sure, we're going back to the old ways of ignoring and disrespecting women, closing our borders to immigrants, and beating and killing of Black Americans." However, as I sit here today, I wonder if it was better in 1999? It seems like we're getting worse...but I'm taking hope from some things these last few days.

A sign of hope # 1: There's more people protesting against white supremacy movements than supporting them

I've noticed the sizes of the groups in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend, and the people on the side of truth, freedom, and justice were much larger than the racists, bigots, and idiots calling themselves the "alt-right." That's a good sign. Although there are racist people with a lot of power, the fact that more people are willing to stand up for others who have traditionally been abused, killed, ignored, and oppressed, rather than those who are doing the killing, abusing, and oppressing, is a sign of hope.

Sign of hope # 2: Many people I know regret their vote in the 2016 presidential election.

I live in a county where the current President received over 60% of the vote. And many of the people I live around, now realize that who we have as President of the United States of America does matter if we want to be called "united" in any sense of the word. It's fair to say that for most of us, over the past 30 years, who we had as President did not really matter. The trajectory of our lives was set by our economic, not our political agendas, and most Presidents kept those trajectories on an upward scale, at least for some people. The rest of us just assume, at some point, the economy will work in our favor. (But that's another post.) The current regime has shown us in stark contrast that the Presidency is a political, NOT NOT NOT an economic position. He's disgraced us not because he failed us economically, but because he fails politically time and time again. As much as we may not trust or like politicians, if we're going to be "united," we need them.

Sign of hope # 3: People are coming back to church.

As a pastor in a very middle-of-the-road congregation, one that values the historic Christian tradition, and embodies the political "middleness" of the country, people  are coming to church again. After 30 years, I've given up trying to figure out why people come to church or not. Attending worship, or being involved in a congregation's activities, is a spiritual practice, and everyone has different practices, and different emphasis of those practices on their faith journeys. People come, people go, that's faith. People coming around this time are asking, "How can I make a difference? How can I help stop the hate? What can I do with my life that I would be proud to share with my grandchildren?" (This from people who aren't even parents yet!)

That's a huge sign of hope. People turning to God, to Jesus Christ, to the power of the Holy Spirit to seek guidance and wisdom on how their lives may have meaning. I trust God will walk with them in this discernment. I trust Jesus Christ will break their chains of bondage so they may be free to explore their power and variety of the human experiences. I trust the Holy Spirit will provide them energy to succeed, and comfort when they fail. That's what a congregation is, a "demonstration plot" of God's kingdom where all of life is encompassed and embraced. Where love wins.

I'm not happy days, but I do see signs of hope every now and then. What signs of hope do you see?

My your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A (very limited) Interfaith primer

Because of some personal connections I have with Christian leaders of interfaith religious experiences (dialogue no longer seems to be enough these days, so I am using the word "experiences" to get the the sharing of ministries, stories, and lives that goes much broader than dialogues), I have taken an interest in the lives of my Jewish and Muslim relatives these days. I do not pretend to be an expert in this area of theology as I've read a few books and had a few conversations with Jewish and Muslim people, but I would like to offer some ideas on how to be a Christian when living with Jewish and Muslim neighbors. (And I know there is more to interfaith experiences than these three faith traditions, but this Tri-Faith is what I am part of these days.)

First, know that your history as a Christian matters to them, even if it really doesn't matter to you. In Europe, where my Christian tradition originated, Jews, Christians, and Muslims never really got along. And my own personal tradition (Lutheranism) was one of the worst. Martin Luther's hatred and anti-Semitism is particularly atrocious, and let us not forget that Germany, populated by many Lutherans, once tried to eradicate the entire Jewish tradition. Interfaith experiences are not a strong point in my tradition, and it is known and remembered by those whose traditions suffered under mine.

So, I understand that people don't always have to trust me once they discover I am a Lutheran Christian. (I should note, for those wondering, that it isn't "Lutheranism" per se that caused Luther to rail against the Jews, or created Nazi Germany; it was fear and perversion that led to their actions, and a complete repudiation of Lutheranism's understanding of God's pervasive love and grace. That it happened to Luther is proof that Christianity is not about getting it right once, but rather Christianity is a day to day living in the scope of God's grace.) So I have to patiently witness my faithfulness and neighborliness every time in interfaith experiences, primarily because so many in my tradition before me have not done so.

Secondly, and this will be my last point for this post, is that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are related, even if some Christians do not think so. There is no doubt that there are a bunch of Christians who do no consider our Jewish and Muslim neighbors to be part of our family of God. But, that's how families are--there's always some who don't like the cousins. It has always helped me to know that Jesus was Jewish, and didn't really see that as a problem. Although Islam does not consider Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, nor that he died, they do not deny his existence.

Every religion has more to it than just what one person knows and believes. It is true for Christianity, and even though I am the one writing this, I have to admit there are many Christians who do not agree with me on this topic. If it's true for my religion, I assume it's true for the others as well. Perhaps that's why it's so important to realize we are all related: disagreements do not have to lead to war. There may always be some who want to make the tri-faith picnic a last supper, but they are related to us, even if they do not want to be. Our God family is bigger than any one of us.

As a Christian you don't have to like, know, or even live with our Jewish and Muslim relatives, but it is just silly to believe we are not related. You may never show up to a tri-faith family reunion, but there is a place for you if you ever do.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Faith in an Age of Disbelief

As with the late George Michael, you "gotta have faith." But "faith" is not the same as believing something. Those are two different experiences, and many people these days seemed to have confused the two. And even worse, would rather believe than have faith. Belief is trivial. Faith is everything.

A person can believe any manner of silly things. You could believe Donald Trump is a good president. You could believe the earth is flat. You could believe white people have it tougher than black people. So what? Just because you believe them does not make them true or even useful. For example, most people who steer boats don't drive as if the earth is flat. So believing the earth is flat is not even a useable belief.

Belief is just trying to make yourself feel better about stuff you know nothing about. You have no idea what makes a "president," so you believe Trump is one. You don't want to understand how science works so you believe it is not true, and belief satisfies your laziness. You feel some disparagement, and assume someone is to blame, so you choose the person of color, or a sexual minority as the reason for your failure, rather than try to investigate why something didn't go your way. Scapegoating depends wholly upon belief to succeed.

Faith is a completely different thing than belief. In fact, it is not a "thing," at all. Faith is a relationship established between participants depending upon trust and love. We can even use an inanimate participant to show what I mean. I have "faith" in gravity. I don't believe it. I have faith in it. What that means, to have "faith" in gravity, is that when something drops I trust gravity will work, and whatever dropped will fall. And I love the consistency of gravity. It always works, and Hollywood wouldn't have had to develop CGI if it didn't. You could have a participant, say a helium- filled balloon, be designed to counteract gravity. But the very existence of the helium-filled balloon is proof that you trust gravity will work. In general, I trust gravity will work. I also assume, although I have no evidence for this assumption, that gravity trusts me. So gravity and I have a "faith" relationship, not a "belief" relationship. It doesn't matter what I believe about gravity, I just trust that when my pen rolls off my desk, gravity will work.

That's why faith is so much more important than anything you choose to believe. It has to do with how you live, not how you think you live. Or believe. Beliefs are ephemeral, mystical, and in most cases childish. Belief has one use only: to push us into ever greater awareness of our dependence upon faith. Those who "believed" we could fly, have strengthened our faith in gravity. Those who believed we could conquer disease have emboldened us to to trust in vaccines. Belief is the realm of poets and mathematicians, faith is where the rest of us slog in our day-to-day lives.

All that I've said about the relationship between faith and belief, also applies to faith and disbelief. You may not believe in gravity, but I don't see you jumping off buildings. Most of us live our everyday lives just fine with gravity. (And on an added note for the scientists, most of us live just fine with Newtonian physics, as much as we might believe Einstein was correct.) Disbelief, therefore, does not mean that you do not nor cannot have faith. In reality, you probably have more faith because you trust some participant in reality more than any beliefs. And the trust and love you have with that participant is what frees you to believe or disbelieve something.

This is why Christians have "faith" in Jesus Christ as the Son of God rather than "believing" it. (It is one of the great tragedies of English language that "fides" in Latin cannot be translated into a verb in English. That's why Christians say the "believe" all the time, even though "fides" means faith. The great Marine Corps slogan semper fi means always "faithful" not always "believing." Interestingly,  when the Reformers suggested a slogan about this concept of trust in God, they used sola fide, faith alone, rather than belief alone. Faith is the preferred Christian understanding of one's relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. One of my predecessors use to call it the "regal relationship." {Joseph Sittler}) Believing is the ultimate transitory nature of reality. Faith is the everlasting value of trust and love in reality.

So go ahead, believe or disbelieve anything and everything you want or don't want. As the Apostle Paul noted years ago, what's valuable, or as he thought, salvific, was "faith." Not belief. "For by grace you have been saved by faith..." (Ephesians 2.8) No belief necessary. You just gotta have faith.

May your table be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Fourth of July in the United States of America

One thing I notice, especially when the 4th of July holiday falls on a weekday, is that the rest of the world just thinks it's Tuesday. Maybe a few ex-patriates had some hotdogs on the beach in Belize, but most of the world seemed not to care that the United States celebrated a "birthday" of sorts yesterday. This makes me wonder why we celebrate it all? I mean, think of your own birthday.

Because of the date of my birthday, I rarely celebrate it. There are too many other things going on in December, and my birthday has often fallen through the cracks of people's schedules. I have had some memorable birthdays, like when I turned 19 or 30 or 46 (The Year of Bourbon), but I have had many birthdays where it is just a regular day. (I do like it that many of the bars and restaurants I frequent, have a special on my birthday. I especially like when the server says it must "suck to have a birthday today." Makes that free dessert taste all the better.)Image result for birthday cake

Image result for fourth of july

Imagine if no one stopped what they were doing to celebrate your birthday with you? Would you celebrate it anyhow, even if no one sent you a FaceBook felicitation, no one sent you a card? (I'm giving England a pass on not sending greetings these past few years.) I mean, if a birthday means nothing to anyone but you, what does a "birthday" mean?

But we celebrated the 4th of July and people seemed to make it relatively unscathed. The fireworks are curious to me as in a time of supposed economic downturn, there's a lot of money spent of them. Perhaps we're not as poor as we get on?? That leads me to my favorite experience of yesterday.

As we were walking back from our town's fireworks display, the people in front of us were talking excitedly about what they had seen and heard. The children talked about the many colors, and the tallest girl said she liked the red, white, and blue ones best. The younger boys loved the boom, and how they could feel it. Mom and Dad just laughed, and kept warning them to stay on the sidewalk. What made overhearing this so special was that they were all talking in Spanish.

And that's why we celebrate the 4th. We celebrate it not because others recognize it or that we even enjoy it, but rather because the USA is one place where you can celebrate political freedom no matter what your mother-tongue is.

I re-read My Antonia by Willa Cather the other day. One hundred years ago, on the very lands I am sitting on right now writing this, there was a huge amount of language diversity going on, but everyone was united in trying to survive. We know now that the Native Americans, a monument of one famous Native leader is a mile up the hill from me, were decimated to help others survive. We also know that a good deal of luck allowed people to survive where others did not. But we all want to survive. And we'll probably do anything within our grasp to try and make that happen. That's what we celebrate on the 4th, we survived another year. Technically, it's what any birthday is.

That's why Jesus of Nazareth is so interesting. (His culture didn't celebrate birthdays. No cake for Jesus.) His survival was all about giving away health, life, and love. He survived by dying. How can you celebrate that? It turns out that he discovered a way to survive that did not involve marking time by yearly celebrations, but rather by marking time with love to someone else. You see, for Jesus, what mattered was not how many years you lived, but rather how many years you loved. May the same be true for us all.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Cool Cup of Water

It's a thirsty world out there. (and now that I know that "thirsty" is a common term these days for sexually aroused, it's even thirstier.) But I am talking about plain, old, parched and dry world. A world devoid of the freshness and life that water affords. We're thirsty.

I work with a lot of conservation organizations, and water is a constant theme for all of them. We cannot take water for granted. I, probably because of my upbringing, do take it for granted. Sadly.

I grew up on lakes. I was born in a hospital just a few blocks from the shores of Lake Superior. I always lived on a lake until I moved to college. From then on, I've always lived by a major body of water. Since I was 18 I have lived within a mile or two of: the Minnesota River, Lake Austin and the Colorado River, Lake Michigan, the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River. There's always been a large body of water around me for as long as I can remember.

I remember once when Chris and I were visiting Sante Fe, NM to help with some of their hunger ministries and projects. We go to talking about whether we could move to Santa Fe. As much as I love the city (and I really love it!), I told Chris I couldn't. When she asked why, I replied, "I need a consistent water table wherever I live." Truer words I never spoke. 14.21 inches of precipitation in Santa Fe is not enough. (In Blair, NE, where I currently live, we get 30.32 of rain, not including snow a year.) So I am addicted to my water.

But I do worry about it. Glaciers melting. More chemicals being used to provide us food, and those chemicals leech into the water. A town like Flint, MI has water, but its water system is so poisoned that the water is undrinkable. And then, of course, there is drought. Drought just moves its way across the globe, and seems to settle where people are already vulnerable. "Water, water everywhere," Coleridge wrote, "and nary a drop to drink."

There is a saying of Jesus of Nazareth that "whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones...none of these will lose their reward." (Matthew 10.42) I'm not sure what the reward is he's talking about, but the standard for receiving it seems pretty low. Share a cup of water. So maybe one of the ways to improve our world, to slake some of the thirst, is to share a cup of cold water? When was the last time you shared a cup of water with someone? When was the last time you shared a drink of any kind with someone? A thirsty world yearns for cool water. I hope you get a share a cup.

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

487 years of the Augsburg Confession

This coming Sunday, June 25, 2017, marks the 487th Anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The Augsburg Confession is a document presented by the Lutheran Princes to show their allegiance to the Christian faith, and therefore, similarly, their allegiance to the Emperor. Written by a Lutheran theologian, Philip Melanchthon, it has been called the "most important document" of the Reformation. Lutherans have spent 487 years trying to convince people they are Christian...our success is mixed.

Philip Melanchthon

There is a problem from the get-go with the Augsburg Confession: it is a theological document created for political purposes. As such, various traditions and people have received it differently over the last four centuries. Charles V himself rejected the document, and part of the next 130 of wars in Europe can be drawn back to this day in June. Others, like Christian III of Denmark, would take their country into Lutheranism through this confession of faith. This is the reason you see way more Lutherans of Danish descent than Spanish, by the way.

Although theology and politics has always mixed in the world, this Confession stands out for its clarity. The great confessions which have followed it, and some are still being done today, all seek the same force and power Melanchthon was able to give the Lutheran princes in his work on the Confessio Augustana (in many Lutheran circles we still refer to it in Latin because we are just that pretentious. It's in our theological veins.)

The Augsburg Confession is not designed to replace the Bible, but rather to explain how Lutherans understand the God-Human relationship (we call this "faith.") So although the Bible is our primary reference to why we believe what we believe, and act the way we do, the Augsburg Confession goes to show how flexible we are in our interpretations of the Bible. That is, the Augsburg Confession confesses what we believe to be true to our faith.

The document was written as a defense because some people believed we did not love, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and by extension, the Church. But those folks back then loved God and the Church, and we do as well today. But--and this is a big deal for us Lutherans--we still maintain a critical attitude towards our faith. In other words, we admit we might not have all the answers, (although humility is not a strong point of ours either, but we are willing to admit God is all-powerful, and that makes all our confessions temporary.) Our critical attitudes mean that we put every belief, statement, text, or image to as many tests as possible so that we can ascertain its truth for our faith. This critical nature drives many other Christians nuts.

We just don't "believe" because we're told to believe. We believe because we've tested, and come to believe. We don't accept it just because we're supposed to accept. We test until we can begin to accept it may be possible to accept. We are a difficult lot, and we have many things we wish to test and talk about. And there are also many, many things we agree on with other Christians. And that is why Melanchthon wrote the Augsburg Confession. He, for one, was convinced that our agreements far outweighed our differences. After 487 years, the jury is still out...

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

I walk in the garden straight to...

The first funeral of a close family member I experienced happened in January of 1987 with the death of my maternal grandfather. He was a huge influence in my life, and I remember that funeral vividly. This past week (Saturday, April 29, 2017) I went to the exact same funeral. Different person, same funeral.

The woman we buried last week was 93 when she died, but she had the exact same hymns, exact same scripture readings, the exact same song sung by a soloist (different singer, however...). Amazing. 30 years later, I am transported to a large Lutheran congregation in Duluth, MN all the while sitting in the balcony of my congregation here in Blair, NE (My colleague often does the funerals in our congregation. I am for "emergency use only" in this regard.) 

So, I got to thinking about that...

This woman would have been 63 when my grandfather died. No doubt, she would have been one of the women serving lunch. She would have respected and mourned my grandfather (everybody else did, why not her?) And she might have even said, "That was a nice funeral" for him. And 30 years later she got the exact same funeral.

And the women (and a few men now too) who served the lunch respected and mourned her passing. They said it was a "nice" funeral. And perhaps a few of them, if they could be honest, would hope that they too won't have to worry about their death for another 30 years or more? 

But did nothing change in 30 years? I mean, it's the same Bible, and there are limited options for "traditional" funeral passages, but no changes? Really??? Music didn't change? (And why do Lutheran congregations sing In the Garden, anyhow? I mean, the song is almost anti-Lutheran theology.) But perhaps there's a reason, and even more so, perhaps these scriptures will be read and these songs be sung at some funeral 30 years from now.


Because for most of us our piety is formed around events like funerals and weddings. (I've done so many weddings with the same music and scriptures and even poems and rituals that I couldn't even begin to count them all.) And this is just what it is for pietists out on the prairie. At a funeral, you get some Swedish soul music (O Støre God), a tour through the garden with Jesus, and the promise of God to make a room for you in the afterlife, preferably heaven. Top if off with What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and you are good to go. Wherever.

And it's the "wherever" that has changed the most in the last 30 years. At my grandfather's funeral there was a lot of talk about "heaven." At the one I was at Saturday there was none. Other than the songs the word never made the service. It's not that my colleague or the people at the funeral don't believe in "heaven." They all do I am sure. What they are not sure is where it is; or, for many of them I suspect, if it's even a place at all?

I mean, other than a few die-hard fundementalists and even fewer artists, no body really believes heaven is a "place" anymore. Where is it? It's tough to believe in a place when you're on the third rock from a medium sized star, someplace among galaxies and galaxies of such rocks. You could pick one, call it heaven, I suppose, but that's so arbitrary as to be worse than not picking one. So every time people hear the word "heaven" it has no meaning to them. And they move on...

For most of us these days, the word "heaven" functions like the quality of a relationship. It's similar to the difference between "loving" something and "liking" something. You love something, and that something is often more important than something you like. Heaven is a way of describing your relationship with God that is more important than other relationships. When we die we want to be surrounded by family and friends, and for believers, God too. That's heaven. At the bedside. And it ends when you do.

Heaven has meaning for people because it describes a quality of their relationship with God. A relationship that transcends time and space, a relationship that is eternal. Heaven is not a place where my grandfather or this wonderful lady "went to" when they died. Heaven is a way of being loved by God that does not stop just because you die. Heaven is God's eternal love for you. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Permit me to quote a piece of the scripture read during the funeral: Jesus says,
"Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many chambers..." (John 14. 1-2) God's house is God's heart, and living in one of the chambers is living in the heart of God. For 2000 years the Christians have called that "heaven." It was true 30 years ago, it was true last week, and it'll be true 30 years from now as well. Even if we don't use the word.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, April 24, 2017

It's been a long year...

About a year I stopped doing this blog on a regular basis. There was so much going on in my psycho-spiritual world that I could no longer be sure that anything I wrote about here would make sense; much less hint at what's under the veil of the chalice we seek. So I stopped it.

Of course, as a practioner of the public presentation of theology, I still have outlets for my ideas and I am able to unload so much of what takes up residence in the rooms of my mind. I am always glad if something I write helps brighten a day or open up a forgotten avenue of thought; but, if I am being honest, I write this blog for me. (I'm just glad it's still free.)

When I was in the fourth grade our class made a movie.We wrote it, acted in it, directed, built sets and costumes, and just about everything else that goes into a movie. I remember it as being quite fun, and we had a woman in my class who was just the right mixture of "bossy," and "sweet" to make sure it was completed. That was 1972. 45 years ago. That's what school was back then, working together to make a movie. We couldn't have passed a test. We didn't learn appropriate behavior or speech. We just tried to make a move so we could get to summer vacation...or the weekend.

I think a lot about my 4th grade year, and I wonder how important it was to who I am today? For one thing, I don't care about tests in schools. That's got to be about the stupidest idea of all time. All the time I wasted in my life taking tests...mind-boggling. We didn't have a lot of tests back in 4th grade, but we did have these individualized learner's packets where you read a laminated sheet of information, answered a worksheet about it (I guess those were "tests"), and then took the next information card and did the same thing. (I was blessed with eidetic memory at the time, and such a game was simply that. A game. Not much learning involved.)

Most of what I remember in the 4th grade was all the "stuff" we did like making a "Milk house" out of wood and milk cartons that we used a a reading room; making movies, dioramas, taking German (we had "interest groups" on Wednesday afternoons), a class election where the boys kept voting for the boy candidate and the girls kept voting for the girl candidate, and finally after 20 votes, the boy candidate cast his vote for the girl. Of course, she cast her vote for him, so we had a 22nd ballot. A friend and I were able to vote for the girl, and the teacher let us go to lunch. I lost my teeth in the 4th grade. I heard the Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey," which is still my all-time favorite song.

But I have realized over the years, that my experience of anything, much less something as grand as a "year" cannot be universalized for all people. Even with the people I shared the experience. Everyone experiences things differently at some level. I guess that's what makes that year so important to me. It's when I learned that we can all connect together, but some we connect on a different level than with others. I mean, I don't even know when the last time I talked to anybody I went to 4th grade with? Probably 1976 when I moved away. It's been over 40 years since I've ever seen or talked with anybody who did that year with me in school. Who knows how the others fared? Certainly not me.

I'm not sure how I will remember 2016 and the first part of 2017. I'm in a new place, meeting new people (that is hardly news, it's my job), and still wondering what's God doing? But something seemed to change in this past year...and I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's just age? Maybe there is a "new reality" coming at us? Maybe anger and frustration have finally found a way to revolt? Maybe people are just too tired to care? All I know, is that it's been a long year.

May your tables be full and your conversation be true.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Does any Congregation matter in the ELCA?

Recently, I came across a teaser for a documentary film coming out entitled “Do Black Churches matter in the ELCA?” I love that question for many reasons. Here are some reasons I consider this an important question for the ELCA today.

Reason # 1
It assumes not one, but two collective nouns, and a provocative, identity-based adjective. Questions that have so many variables are always the most interesting for moving conversation forward. Take, for example, the object of the sentence “ELCA.”

What is the ELCA? It is a collection of individuals, gathered in various ways, who adhere to the precepts and principles of a particular constitution and attendant ways of being Christian. And what’s most exciting about this particular group of Christians is they have never settled on the question of individual vs. group mentality. In other words, it’s not the Marines. Individuals can flat-out disagree on any topic, and both of them can still be “ELCA.” The ELCA does have some theological touchstones that many give a passing nod to every now and then, but by and large, the ELCA is made up of people who believe they are the ELCA, even if no one else believes they are.

So to ask, as the movie does, do Black Churches matter to the “ELCA” has 3.9 million answers. (That’s roughly how many people self-identify as ELCA.) Granted, the answer will probably be somewhat quantifiable, but there is no “one answer” the ELCA could offer to the question. That’s why the question is so important: the answer is irrelevant, because we already know what it’s going to be. There will be some “yeses” and “noes” on each end of the Bell Curve, and all the rest somewhere in the middle.  But that’s if you take the “ELCA” as a collective noun.

If taken from an individual perspective, the question has even more power. Now, all 3.9 million folks have to answer for themselves whether Black churches matter? It’s tougher to be in the middle when you’re the middle, as well as both ends of the Bell Curve. And to throw an interesting twist to this question, although there are Black members of the ELCA, the congregations have historically been constructions of White culture. This leads us to that wonderfully provocative adjective…

Reason # 2
Who knows what a “Black” Church is? What does it mean to be a “Black” Church? We might think Richard Allen and the African Methodist-Episcopal Church is a Black church, but would a Church that has a few Black Americans amongst a majority of White Americans be a “Black” Church? What makes a “Black” Church black? This is especially difficult to answer in a Christian tradition like the ELCA dominated by White, Euro-centric culture.[1]

For example, I went to seminary on the south side of Chicago in the 1980s. I went to a lot of Black congregations, some of them were in the ELCA or one of its predecessors.  But looking back on those experiences, what made them “Black” was either the leader was a Black American or they were populated by “more than a few” Black Americans; otherwise, my memory is that those congregations were just like any others. They did the same stuff, had the same posters, and sang the same songs. But again, that’s why the question in the film is so important. I’m willing to bet that if you think you know what “Black” Church means, you probably don’t.  And you should probably watch the film.

Reason #3
The Church historian Martin Marty once remarked that all Christian traditions in the USA are “de-facto Congregationalists.” For one thing, it’s built into the IRS tax-code all Christian congregations adhere to in their formation[2] For another thing, almost all Americans value “freedom.” That means you are free to join or free to leave any congregation without adverse recrimination. Neither a White European like Jean Calvin or a Black African like St. Augustine understood congregations that way. There were huge recriminations for not leaving or not joining. But in the good ol’ USA…

The word “Church” forces us to come to grips with God.  What is God doing with “Church?” Does “Church” matter to God? Does “Black” matter to God? Does the “ELCA” matter to God?  It has to matter if only because it does not matter; and it has to not matter only because it does. God has made us each beloved children, regardless of identity. But built into each identity is a corporeal existence that subsists in communion.  Each of us are created to participate in the life and being of the Triune God, both together and alone (or, both alone and together, if you’d rather.)

I am looking forward to this documentary not because I am Black (I am not); nor, because I am of the ELCA (I do self-identify that way.) I am looking forward to this because I want to know what God is up to in this film-maker’s corner of the world. Because that corner is my world too, whether I ever go there or not.

[1] I do not delineate in this essay men from women in creating the dominant Christian tradition in the ELCA. Both men and women are very responsible for its culture. No White male has ever asked my wife is she wished to be “First Lady” of the congregation, but women ask her that all the time. There is a definite need for a feminist critique of the ELCA, and I would love to see a film about that as well.
[2] Interestingly,ecclesiologist Daniel Anderson, often suggests that if he were starting a new congregation he would not seek tax-exempt status. This would allow the new congregation to actually franchise new congregations down the road, and perhaps they would not be “Congregationalist” in their polity and structure?