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Of course, you could say that we are thousands of years old (from the date the first human set foot on Alaskan soil) or 234 since the Declaration of Independence. But I prefer 1607, the day people started speaking English and living here (Jamestown). That’s when America as we know it started to take shape.

I am hopelessly patriotic. Not sure where that comes from, because I never set out to be that way. And my patriotism is not comparative. I don’t think in terms of “better” than other nations. Having traveled extensively, I can easily see why Italians and Ethiopians are also patriotic.

So, let’s talk about America for a few paragraphs, since we’ve taken another trip around the sun together. Some random thoughts:

1) Patriots can question America and point out faults. Family can do that.

2) Americans need to respect their political opponents more. I am so tired of conservatives and liberals bashing each other.

Conservatives who don’t think liberals are right about anything (and vice versa) lack perspective. I am a family-values free-market guy. But I actually listen to my political opponents, value them, and learn from them. Demonizing Bush or Obama (depending on your flavor) closes your mind. Keep it open.

3) The immigration issue has degenerated into sound bites and posturing. Where are the real solutions that would actually work?

Politicians stir up xenophobia in order to pander for votes, and then they present no real plans to solve the issue. The result is hypocrisy (let them in but say we won’t tolerate it).

Like him or hate him, the last one to present a real solution was W. And his own party shouted him down. Since then it’s been useless pundit-pulpiteering.

4) America needs to re-embrace having children.

Listen to people talk about having kids or being pregnant. Trust me, they will usually imply that children are a liability.

This, not politics, is at the heart of our abortion statistics. Children should be seen as a blessing, not a curse.

And economically, we aren’t having enough of them to pay for our retirement. And then we wonder why we need so many immigrants to keep the country running.

We think that having children will get in the way of our development, but all of us with children know that NOTHING develops and matures us like having them!

And children with more siblings tend to be healthier and have better social skills.

5) America needs to go on a diet.

This is the main problem behind our soaring health care costs. I struggle with it as everyone else does.

6) America needs a big project or a frontier.

We lack vision as a nation. Haven’t done anything cool together since Project Apollo.

7) America needs to embrace the Open Source revolution.

This will most affect education. Stacking kids in huge buildings and talking at them is no longer the best way to maximize learning. We need much smaller schools which encourage friendship building and teamwork. Children need to be evaluated for aptitudes and these skills need to be brought out in teams. We need to re-visit job skills (whatever happened to vo-tech schools?), apprenticeships, and stop implying that everyone needs to go to the university. Children should learn how they are wired up and be motivated to develop those gifts.

8. America needs to solve her energy problem.

The gulf oil spill is a painful reminder that, economically, environmentally, politically, and otherwise, running our national engine on gasoline and diesel is not sustainable for the rest of the century.

Which of you is going to be the new Edison? Time for major breakthroughs.

9) America needs to redesign her cities around people, not cars.

The way we have built suburban tract housing has isolated our children and created a sedentary generation. Most Americans now live in a setting where there is nothing meaningful to which we can walk. It’s all designed around cars.

After many years in tract-land, we moved into a real (old school) neighborhood 8 years ago. I can easily walk to: library, bank, drugstore, post office, UPS, the beach, schools, and 25 places to eat.

Is your neighborhood designed around human beings or cars?

10) America needs to embrace local food and urban gardening.

You don’t want to watch massive food factories at work, especially with animals.

11) Our children need to be given more social free time.

We are over-supervising and over-scheduling their lives. As a result, they are no longer developing leadership skills.

12) It’s time to revisit our spirituality.

American faith is potent and vital. Its taproot is in the slave songs of the cotton fields. It is empowerment-based and transformative.

Listen to gospel music on a regular basis. It’s one of America’s greatest cultural gifts to the world. And develop a live relationship with a live preacher. Having a “rabbi” and a faith community is deeply enriching. There is a little “indie” church near where you live that could use your presence. They are doing a lot of good–join them.

13) We need to withdraw our military from the Eastern Hemisphere. Our future is in teamwork with Canada and Latin America. All North Americans should learn some Spanish. All Latin Americans should learn some English. We need to build a 21st century railroad to South America. We need to send out brightest and best north and south, not east and west.

Our over-involvement with the Old World has caused nothing but trouble and heartache. Most all of our war casualties (since 1865) have soaked the battlefields of the Eastern Hemisphere with their blood, and we don’t have a ton to show for it. The founding fathers saw this ahead of time and warned us against “entangling alliances.” We are obsessed with virtually impossible blood feuds in the Middle East, which they are going to have to solve on their own, and we all saw how this bit us on 9-11. Badly.

We could easily protect the Western Hemisphere, with about half of our military budget. Dream a little. What if we sent all of our young adults on a one-year sojourn to Canada or Latin America (instead of straight to college) to work and learn and build contacts?

In the broadest sense, everyone in the New World is an American too.

All that being said, I love living in this country. I love being American. We can rise to prevail over all of these challenges. I feel blest every time I wake up here.

God bless you all and God bless the United States of America on her birthday.

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Please pass the link to this essay on to everyone you know. Thanks!  Short version: http://wp.me/pGQxY-b0

I have been especially aware of patterns this week.

People all have a certain way of being in the world. A pattern.

There is a Muslim way of being in the world, a Mormon way, a Right-Wing-Fox-News way, a PC-liberal way, etc.

Some of these patterns are potent (Islam). Some are not so potent (mainline Presbyterianism). Some are on the rise (Hipster-ism), and some are on the decline (the “emerging” church).

I’ve done extensive live-in stints with:

Lutheranism

Action Sports World (surf/snowboard)

Theological Academia (22nd grade and a Fulbright Scholarship)

Pentecostalism (even wrote a book on it)

Each “-ism” has abundant self-serving circular reasoning and tribal litmus tests. They have buzzwords and enemy images. Perhaps they are even necessary–but none of them correspond perfectly to naked reality and truth.

It’s a trade off; you get security and you tolerate errors and inaccuracy when you “buy in” to any “-ism.”

I am about to be voted off the Lutheran island for good. Sad, because I have nothing against it, and, on better days, I consider myself one of its more intentionally constructive, original, and helpful thinkers. I appreciate the good in Lutheranism, my family of origin, but I don’t pretend that God depends on it, or that it is the highest possible way of being in the world.

I am increasingly troubled by the American liberal/conservative polarized political thinking. The left doesn’t understand the power and creativity of the free market and globalization, and the right doesn’t understand sustainable environmentalism, and the potency of collectivism for certain public endeavors (fire, utilities, roads, etc.). We are disintegrating into TV attack ads with stupid sound bites. We need an intellectual like Lincoln to come back, who sees deeper nuances.

In any case, these political “patterns” relieve everyone of the responsibility to think.

And the much of the world is just plain out-growing the need for religious patterns. Especially the overwhelming majority of non-fundamentalist global young people. If you don’t believe me, you’re not spending much time with them.

Let’s just have real conversations about who God really is. Let’s pray together. Let’s talk about Jesus and how his message is so different than that of the Buddha (see E Stanley Jones and his “Egg and the Bubble” analogy). Let’s talk about God’s preferred future, and include him in on the conversation, rather than argue about the merits and errors of competing eschatological “systems.”

Does God Almighty really care about the victory of Confessional Lutheranism or TULIP Calvinism? Is he secretly pulling for a return to a stricter Reformed theology? Is he really upset about the idea of married Catholic priests? Is he hoping we finally secure the Mexican border? Is he worried that Health Care Reform will ruin the world he created? Is Oprah his worst nightmare, wrecking his weekly Sabbath rest? Hardly.

Are we willing to set aside our patterns, even ones we love, to seek the truth? Look it right in the eye?

I have this crazy idea that God is real, and that he doesn’t report to a pattern.

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Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch

Please forward the link to this essay to the leaders of your congregation: http://wp.me/pGQxY-8T    Thanks!

I hang out with theologians and pastors a lot.

They often bandy about the term “The Gospel” as if it were a fixed commodity on which we all agree.

So what is this “Gospel?”

Gospel means “Good News.” But what Good News are we talking about?

Jesus, in Mark 1:15, kicked off his ministry by suggesting that the gospel was the fact that the Kingdom of God was near.

Conservative Evangelicals seem to imply that the Gospel is the Good News that Jesus died for us. If we say yes to this, we go to heaven. If we don’t, then…well…

It seems, in the New Testament, that there is a Gospel which Jesus preached, and then there is a Gospel that was preached about Jesus. The two come together a bit in John 3:16, but we wouldn’t want to reduce all of the Bible to one verse.

If we don’t preach the Gospel simply enough, we get lost in vague piety and religiosity.

If we preach it too simply (without any nuance) then we collapse the entire Word of God into a simple transactional contract that does not do justice to the depth of our relationship with God.

And then there is the matter of fact that the four “bios” of Jesus are called “Gospels.”

What is, for you: this “Gospel?”

Not a rhetorical question. Please have at it.

A lot of us fail to connect with the spirituality and faith of others.

Often we get into conflict with those who don’t pracitce their “piety” as we do.

The word “piety” is a Latin term. It was a highly prized and nuanced virtue, meaning “devotion” or “Spirituality.”

We think that our faith differs from others because of content, theology, politics, or philosophy. And we tend to avoid and mistrust those with a different faith temperament.

The truth is, piety temperament divides us more from others than anything else. We get into arguments with people which stay on the intellecual plane and we don’t deal with the real issues that divide us.

First, it helps to define the three different flavors. They cross all “religious system” barriers.

1) Athletic Piety. These folks use words like discipleship, discipline, and mission all the time. They are evangelistic and zealous. We don’t want to be cornered by them. Left wing or right wing, they tend to be activists and have a cause. Those with Athletic Piety (AP) like books like My Utmost for His Highest. Their preachers love phrases like: if you only knew what was at stake! One more conference! One more book to read! Theology can be an excercise in combat; and many of them gravitate, over time, to Calvin as a guide. Those of you with “AP” will get frustrated with this essay and write a critical comment. Their churches have clear windows. APers contribute a great deal, because without them, who would feed the hungry and transform the world? Their public leaders wear power suits and ties.

2) Cool (or “Deep”) Piety. These are the sophisticates. They prefer Henri Nouwen books and Taize music. If they start to struggle–candles always help; aesthetics in their shadowy churches and shrines are everything. Pipe organs resonate with their very souls. Reflection, contemplation. Ideally, their faith expression would be a succession of Haiku quotes. The sermons in their churches are complex, nuanced, and “oblique,” often with great depth. The first thing they visit in a European capital is the cathedral; and they love stained glass. Their public leaders wear embroidered robes.

3) Warm Piety. This is me, so I’m biased. Please forgive that. There is a lot of human touch (WPers can’t pray for someone without touching him or her) in these faith groups, and a lot of humor in the messages. Their love for the Bible is affectionate rather than theologically rigorous. Rules are just suggestions. People raise their hands when they sing together and talk a lot about a relationship with God; WPers expect God to touch them in one way or another. Testimonies are more important than detailed instruction by the teacher. They love Cursillo weekends and Bible Camp, and they know songs with hand motions. They have the best youth groups. Their mental background music is made up of inspirational, positive quotes. Their leaders wear non-trendy jeans and hooded sweatshirts. They love hugs.

A spiritual community with one “flavor” contracting the services of a leader of another flavor is a recipe for trouble.

We can also be a blend. I can float in the other two flavors without too much distress.

One of the keys to getting along with people is learning to appreciate the value of the other groups:

-Effectivenes (AP)

-Depth (CP)

-Love (WP)

This is all more or less true in most all faith systems. A warm piety Christian may get along better with a WP Hindu than with an AP Christian who drives her nuts. An AP Protestant has immediate resonance with an AP Roman Catholic.

We often feel that we are in a faith community that doesn’t “match” because we were sent there by God as missionaries to “change it.” Not a good idea. It’s malpractice to try to turn a WP church into an AP church. Help your faith community be the best at its own temperament that it can be.

What about “balance?” Also not a good idea; like putting mustard on waffles. Better to stick with one basic flavor in a church or faith community.

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American national church denominations are not as old as people think.

We have no real memory before national denominational corporations, because they started before any of us saw the light of day; but not long before…

They came into being with the advent of the railroad.

For instance, with Lutherans, we used to gather, more or less, in state-sized groups:

-The Pennsylvania Ministerium
-The Ohio Synod
-The Iowa Synod
-The Missouri Synod
-The Wisconsin Synod

etc. etc.

The railroad changed all that. It made a national bureaucracy and national gatherings (assemblies) possible and affordable. This new transportation method also created the big political party conventions.

Nothing lasts forever.

These statewide church groups merged into national groups which merged some more. Along with the “Peter Principle,” they advanced to their level of incompetency: they became politically and economically unmanageable.

There are many reasons for the demise of national church corporations:

1) Many, if not most young adults, prefer being part of cool indie projects to being “tools” of large corporations.
2) The mergers have created coalitions with incompatible viewpoints (sexuality, etc.)
3) Lutheran versions (more so than other brand names) of these corporations tend to operate as closed systems (tightly controlled roster, Lutheran seminary requirements, etc.).
4) These corporations, in efforts to hold things together and make structure and function coherent, have discouraged innovation by entrepreneurial types.
5) For whatever reason, these corporations have very strained relationships with their best practitioners.
6) Generational and ethnic diversity issues have become too heavy for the corporations to carry.

This does not mean that church brand names are a thing of the past. It just means that the national church corporation is unraveling before our eyes. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is nothing wrong with this and it should not be seen as a failure–every human organizational form has a life span.

This does not mean that faith families and connectional Christianity are dead.

Post-denominationalism is just a reality that is emerging. I want to clarify: this does not mean post-brand-name.

This means that the national corporations are failing and will continue to fail. There is no point in any effort to “renew” them.

I don’t know what the post-denominational world will look like. But I do know that:

-Railroad-era national conventions are a thing of the past.
-Coalitions will replace national corporations
-The effort to form smaller, new “theologically correct” corporations to replace national denominational corporations will fail if they follow the template of the national church corporation (parliamentary conventions, national office, official rosters, closed systems, etc.). That’s railroad thinking in a Twitter-world.
-The influential congregations within faith families will fill the leadership vacuum, along with the more innovative evangelical seminaries (Fuller, Asbury, Gordon-Conwell, Bethel, Luther, etc). Classic “div schools” (Chicago, Yale, Union) will become irrelevant to church life, as will “company shop” seminaries of dying corporations.
-A lot of people won’t be able to separate the faith family names (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) from the national corporations. Some of those names might not survive because of this. Hard to say.
-National leaders with a clear life message and a New (Social) Media presence will rule the roost. If it doesn’t matter on Twitter, it doesn’t matter.

My advice:

1) Think both/and, not either/or. We are in a postmodern era.
2) Stop trying to renew the denominational corporations.
3) Find new ways of being connectional.
4) Resist the temptation to build up new theologically “correct” corporations which are infected with the same terminal virus.
5) Find ways to embrace the good things about your faith family and preserve them for the future forms which will emerge.
6) Take social media seriously. Very seriously.
7) Be willing to let people of color and Global South Christians take the lead. It’s their churches that are doing the best. The New African Churches are very post-denominational and organizationally effective.
8) This will take time; perhaps a whole generation. Practice patience.

It’s a brave new world. Let’s watch it emerge, together.

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