How should a church connect with presidential elections?

February 10th, 2016

This is a big question especially in a year when an election feels especially polarized.

Here the words of Jim Wallis seem especially appropriate…

Churches are not to go to the right or to the left.  They are to go deeper.

That hits it for me.

If we don’t focus on that “third way” of “deeper” we can easily lapse into extremism with all its dangers…

Extremism is rarely the thing we need.

Absolutes let us off the hook, because they demand not to be negotiated. But absolutes usually bump into special cases that are truly hard to ignore.

The good middles, the difficult compromises that matter, that’s where we can build things that have long lasting impact.

We need a compass and a place to go. But the road to that place is rarely straight and never absolute.

(Seth Godin)


Playing a Record

February 5th, 2016

Back growing up I remember records.  45′s. LP’s. And record needles that played the song.

And now I think a lot about church.  I love old churches.  By far my favorite form of architecture.  And those old steeples!  Beautiful.  Reaching up into the sky, up into heaven.

Times do change.  And maybe I see steeples a little differently now.  As “needles” not “playing” the song of heaven but instead pointed down, deeply, into this life, into this world.  ”Playing” a song there.

Struck today.  In serving down at St. Francis Inn, Bill, an old patron, seated alone, with a smile shared how good the food was. How good God was. How God provides.

Struck me … every time I work at places like that someone – often more than one – reminds me of the same simple truths.  A beautiful song.  Not played with a lofty skyward view  but by those in this life, in this world who have known more suffering than I can imagine but who seem somehow close to God, touching something very much alive.  A steeple in this world touching heaven and earth.

BEING the Church

January 29th, 2016

BEING the Church.  Not debating.  Not arguing. Not “sorting” who are the “ins” and who are the “outs.”

Living as we were intended from creation to be – forms of love, wisdom, mercy, forgiveness.

Living it.  Literally inhabiting it.  The church as a building whose walls stretch everywhere.

Beautiful.  And that is the New Church view of church. Not faith alone. But a lived experience of God’s presence.

Thank you Mary and Kelly for sharing that light in Kensington this week.



Family, Faith And An Atypical Answer

January 21st, 2016

We often understandably conflate the terms “family” and “faith.”  And the two obviously share so much.  Family very often becomes the loving, caring seedbed as it were where faith takes root. For me that was true.  Parents who showed us not only active faith but a great deal of curiosity as well. That faith somehow mattered in the arc of life.

They did that through quieter commitments – an hour long ride to church in Pittsburgh several times a month, prayers over dinner, questions.  Quiet rhythms. That simple.  And that profound.

And Christ warns several times in the New Testament warns of identifying too closely with family.  Not the typical answer we might think.

A powerful scene.  Talking to a group, someone enters to tell Jesus his mother and brothers are waiting for him outside.  Christ responds ….

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:48-50)

In today’s world those words shock.  And only imagine how much more they would have shocked the listeners in a culture where family ties were not only a matter of affection but a matter of deep, unwavering obligation, beyond what maybe we can grasp today.

What was the point?

The point Christ calls to here is this – first things first.  And that first things must at appropriate times trump family loyalties.

Imagine it this way.  We have all witnessed and/ or participated in family systems where co-dependency reigns.  Where the family unit, as one author phrased it, becomes “an undifferentiated ego mass.”  Where loyalty simply to one another becomes the one and only over-riding virtue. Those systems, as we all well know, are suffocatingly unhealthy.

And yet to take it one level further, the conversation here is not binary.  It is easy to say if family then is no longer #1 so to speak, then God is, cleaving a very satisfactory but false split between the two.  That “splitting” is how the ego works – “If it isn’t this, it must only be that.”  ”Family” OR “faith.”

The reality is that loyalty to the higher virtues Christ spoke of do not in any way pull away from family.  Those re-prioritized values actually meaningfully and tenderly return us to our families.  But this time grounded.  This time anchored deeply into the transcendent values that bring life and promote care.  A wider, transformational loyalty.

I hope so very deeply that our five wonderful children will always take care of each other.  The best way I imagine to pass that on to them is by passing on a legacy of connection, a connection to God through loving service into the world that started at home.  A first things first that maybe holds all things.  That started some place.  But thankfully doesn’t end there.



One Big Warning, Often Missed….

January 20th, 2016

I remember years ago, in elementary school years, a pastor posing the question, “What is the unforgivable sin?”  Pretty heady talk right.  The question was not posed in a mean way.  Nothing scolding about it.  Just a question from a kind pastor.

After fielding a series of flubbing answers from the kids, the pastor noted one sin.  One unforgivable sin.  That sin … “speaking against the Holy Spirit.”  And it is there, clearly listed in the Gospel of Matthew.

Now of course we can read those lines in Matthew as agreeable, reading it with the righteous scorn of a fundamentalist more interested in pointing out God’s wrath than God’s mercy and applaud the rectitude of it all. Or we can take the time ask, what is the warning here?

And here is the warning.  And it is a big one.  Often missed…

Jesus knew their [the priests] thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.  (Matt. 12:25-32)

The warning starts here…

It begins with who Christ is addressing.  And that group was the clergy at that time in that place.  Religious professionals.  The righteous. The pious.  The pure.  Who most often got it wrong.

And then what Christ is addressing.   What Christ is addressing is their accusation that he is able to heal because his power was demonic – the reference to “Beelzebul.” Not from God.  Allied instead with the devil.

And finally how Christ answers their accusation.  Here … BEAUTIFUL theology.  When Christ responds “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven”, he is saying this.  ”You can speak out against me.  That is forgiven.  But you can’t speak against the spirit of healing that frees others.  That is not forgivable.”

And it isn’t.  Not because God can’t forgive it because God does forgive it.  But because we deeply wound our spirits when we cynically pull into doubt the whole spirit of healing.  Rake that spirit, tear it apart in others and its miraculous work, and we rapidly pull ourselves away from the healing spirit that can heal our lives.  Punished by that sin, not for that sin. In that sense … unforgiven.

So that healing spirit – the Holy Spirit – will move where it will.  As Christ notes, it moves like the wind. Our job is not to judge it and its gentle work of healing as it winds around lives and lives of others. Our job – to celebrate it.


Theory to Practice: Reflections from a trip to California and Martin Luther King Day.

January 19th, 2016

Last week began with a trip to California.  Joined by a group of pastors, organized by my dear friend David Lindrooth, we gathered to talk about growth.  About the New Church movement.  About church in the coming years.


The two main presenters, Mac Frazier and Ethan McCardell walked us through a list of lessons learned, one set from an Austin congregation no longer financially viable, the other from a small congregation seeking to serve in Seattle.

And what of those lessons?  What had these two talented pastors learned?

  1. The Pastor-centric model is shifting
  2. A new, more engaging era of dialogic preaching, empowered lay-led teams and co-creation of churches is unfolding
  3. A continued call back to the deep Christian roots of a loving God and caring service towards others – the two Great Commandments – which is the theological underpinnings of these changes
  4. A refocus on shared messages and an inclusion of all voices that will draw various factions together, shoulder-to-shoulder, focused on a common cause.
I found myself again and again nodding in silent agreement.
We can argue – and many do – about the nature of these changes.  About the theology around these changes.  And we can at times -mistakenly I believe – speak then as if we possess a “vote” on these shifts.
There is no “vote.”  These are the changes that are shaping not just the New Church but Christianity as a whole in North America.
Which brings me to Martin Luther King Day weekend.
The week in California ended in this … a weekend where the theory we talked about all week was lived out by this congregation.  Theory to Practice.
This weekend was not pastor stuff. Not a grand strategic plan.  Not the last word on church growth.  Not drawing battle lines either.  It was a lived experience.
It started over lunch months ago, an initial meeting that led to a planning team.  12 people.  A good number!
The team’s ideas for the service…
  1. A Sunday service with speakers who could speak to “The Beloved Community” – Randy Gyllenhaal and Jessica Craft.
  2. A Sunday service with music that included teens musicians from “Rock To The Future”, an inspiring non-profit in Kensington that serves students through music, academic support, and college placement.
  3. Following the service, a time to collect in fellowship over lunch and create small care packages to be handed out to those in need
  4. And Monday, Martin Luther King Day, a trip down to “Rock To The Future” to serve
And this is what happened ….
The speakers spoke.
The teens performed.
We gathered after for fellowship and care packages.
We traveled to Kensington and served.
And this what someone said about just one element of the weekend but that could be said of the whole thing…
No words, just tears when’s came into the New Church Live offices this morning to set up for the ‪#‎blessingsbags‬ such generosity, and more donations on the way. Never have I felt more a part of the ‪#‎BelovedCommunity‬.
And this is what I think…
Someone in California noted how we lack a predictable, replicable system of church growth.  Good point.  And I wonder more and more if there even is a system.
Maybe instead there is just a simple, stripped down commitment to settle in on loving communities and opening the space.  To open the space where churches join/ support/ promote the lived experience of God in many forms.
Not done perfectly.  Never done easily.  But just simply done.

What we may have no time for….

January 8th, 2016

Wheaton College has begun termination proceedings against Professor Larycia Hawkins following her controversial Facebook post holding that Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God.  Wheaton College issued this statement…

Dr. Hawkins’s administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions…While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer.

My thought as a pastor is that we simply don’t have time for these kinds of debates.  While I fully acknowledge that private colleges have not only a right but a duty to abide by their founding principles, I personally find these types of actions tiresome.

Christ spent precious little time debating belief systems while he walked this earth. Time was spent, for the most part, connecting, teaching, and healing.  Far from creating small enclaves of doctrinal purity built on principles of exclusion, Christ embraced an incredibly wide cross section of humanity – Romans, Greeks, and Jews of all stripes and classes.  That radical hospitality was a defining characteristic of fledgling Christianity as it found legs and grew throughout the Middle East.

Wheaton College can of course make a decision for themselves and can terminate a professor whom they consider heretical.  And there needs to be a more sobering awareness that such actions color all of Christianity, reinforcing yet again a view of Christianity as a faith for a select view, a chosen people, set apart from others.  A modern day sectarianism that I believe dangerous.

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?  Yes.  I believe they do.  That however is not the last word on the topic.  The last word is this … next Monday, Rev. Martin Luther King Day, we travel to Kensington to serve.  To serve those in need. Interested?  Join us. That is what Christians do. What good people of many faiths and beliefs do as well.  Serving one God.

Imaginatively Different

January 5th, 2016

Sometimes the most basic and transparently self evident ideas are the ones least preached on.

So here, one foundational idea….

There is no place for combining religions and violence. Religions must seek a world that is imaginatively different.  That is our cherished role.   One that even the most enlightened elements of liberal, market driven Western democracy cannot supply.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth put it…

What the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose.

Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defended and cherished.

But they do not answer the three questions that every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? The result is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.

“Meaning” is our task and no small one. “Meaning” leads to a world imaginatively different.

What Is Wrong With Church Today?

December 30th, 2015

“What is wrong with church today?”  Whether a question or a statement, it leaves me feeling uneasy.

Recently I pulled a Podcast where the host ticked off his list of the current failings of churches, a list that ranged from a flawed theology to clubishness. And I get it. But to stop there seems premature.

For I know this … I am part of church that does many things right.  We are blessed with a theology that doesn’t trip on many of the normal places where contemporary Christian theology can easily fall.  We hold deeply to a loving God, manifested in Christ who shows us how to live in such a way that will return us to our truest God given selves, a self made in God’s image and likeness.  An angel.

We are likewise blessed with a congregation that shares a clear un-clubishness as well as a service orientation.  Rarely do we struggle with getting volunteers to help the many non-profits we are connected with.  And we are blessed with many wonderful and welcoming small groups.

We likewise have great music – if I do say so myself – maybe the best of any local church. And the preaching – because of its team-based approach – is highly relevant, God centered and maybe even on a rare occasion inspiring. :-)

There is little, if one goes by the Podcast list, not to like. We simply have addressed many of those flaws, flaws well known in the church world for the past two decades.

And yet growing this church is a constant struggle as a well as a constant blessing.  We have grown, slowly and steadily.  And it has taken immense work to do it.  Three steps forward, two steps back.

So what gives?  Why so hard?

What I think “gives” is this.  Churches and the pastors who lead them hold much responsibility for their demise, a demise that marks make growing a congregation challengning.  And that does not leave the other half of the equation free from responsibility either … society at large, congregations, people.

I love the way Miroslav Volf puts it. Volf notes that we act a great deal like the “last man”, a “last man” who in a completely secularized world has finally “invented happiness” and so is…

    1. Weary of great striving

    2. Obsessed with comfort and safety

    3. Dreaming petty dreams

    4. Enjoying unsubstantial pleasures

    5. Entertaining ourselves to idiocy while imaging ourselves the measure of humanity

Those are harsh words but maybe we need to hear them.  I can certainly say at the very least I need to hear them.  And maybe we need to hear them because part of all of us knows better.  Knows there is a focal point beyond the mundane realities where our souls soar.  Where love is present and forms the very ground of reality.  Where joy permeates lives in such a way that we feel the true freedom of lives both lifted beyond and at home with circumstances, circumstances that are often dark.
What is wrong with Church today?  We are.  As a whole.
And what is the remedy?  We are.  As a whole.
There is so much here folks.  Christmas Eve.  A divorced mom separated from kids for the Holidays.  Invited to dinner after the service by another family. That brings to tears.  That is caring and concern and sacrifice and love and joy. It is Christianity at its glowing best.   That small miracle – beyond an invented, entertainment-doused happiness. The real deal.
Join us in 2016.  We need you.

Our Money Story And A Few Lessons Learned

December 26th, 2015

A truism working with couples is that the three greatest sources of stress are money, sex, and household chores.  Not that all arguments center on one of these three, but many arguments do.

So what about money?

Keene and I both turned 50 this year.  Our financial history is turbulent.  We got married, immediately bought a new car and rented a full 3 bedroom house way outside our means.  The low point came when I took out a loan to pay interest on a second loan.  That simply could not continue.

Change started shortly thereafter when I told my friend Brent I was nearly done with car payments was ready then to trade it in on a new car (and new car payments.)  He said very calmly, “You do realize Chuck you don’t need to buy a new car.”   That thought had NEVER occurred to me. I took Brent’s advice, and so began our journey to being debt free, outside of mortgage debt.

Debt free means just that.  We pay cash for everything.  Nothing goes on cards.  Nothing does on installments or layaways. If we want it, we save for it.  That includes car replacement. That includes vacations including a Disney vacation just a few years back.  That includes tuition payments for our kids.  (We pay for the first two years of college.  They pay for the last two.)

To keep us remain debt free, we put $500.00 a paycheck away into a savings account for emergency money.  We tap that account often.  We also have a third account where extra income goes from extra jobs.  Very, very simply, systems and restrained spending have had a huge impact.

  1. We have largely done it on my full time income and my wife’s part time income.  We are very average earners.  Most of your households make far far more than ours.
  2. We have 5 kids.  All of have gone to private schools and had/ will have 2 years of college paid for. Tuition assistance at the school has been an immense and blessed help.  And we had the $ to make up the difference.
  3. We have saved well about the national average for retirement.
  4. We have made enough to have an invest property that we rent.
  5. We are able to generously gift including tithing to our church and supporting other non-profits.
So what would I offer to couples?  Here is what has worked for us…
  1. Stay out of debt.  Cut up the cards.  Keep one for emergencies. Always pay off the balance.
  2. Pay cash for everything.  If you want to do something great.  Save for it.
  3. Shop at thrift stores for clothing.
  4. Earning more DOES NOT  mean “now we can spend more.” It means now we can gift more and save more.
  5. 10%: Put 10% per paycheck into an emergency fund, 10% into a retirement fund, and gift/ tithe 10% to a church, synagogue, temple, non profit.
Nothing complicated here.  Just a simple valuing of giving and saving over spending, priorities supported by a system to ensure that happens.