Remembering Orlando

June 14th, 2016

A sad week as many of us come to terms with the horrific shooting in Orlando that left 50 dead.

The hard part, for me, was the creeping, uncomfortable feeling that shootings like this indeed are the “new normal.” San Bernardino, Paris, Brussels, Charleston… one right after the other. And that list is without an even more horrific list for those caught in the violence of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each new report of violence in some way – and hard words to find for this – somehow deadening us to the world around. Violence now the norm.

I don’t know but I can feel that slow shift in myself and I don’t like it.

This type of violence is not the norm. It is not what or who we are created to be. It degrades society, frays relationships, feeds ever widening spasms of hatred and retribution. All the things that we as Christians are called to stand against, allied with others from many faith traditions who hold to the same.

We are to stand. We are to stand against this darkness with love. Compassion. With a willingness to draw alongside of suffering in all its forms.

We are to speak. We are to speak of forgiveness. Of healing. Of a third way. Of moral imaginations able to chart new courses towards hope.

And that is what we can do.

That calls us to more than entertainment. To more than the next adventure. To more than the next must-have thing. It calls us to a deeper love, to, as the Greek in the Bible reads again and again, “agapé love”, a self-sacrificing love willing to embrace the greater good. The “we.” Serving there.

So this Sunday, we will light candles at the end of the service. We will gather. We will pray. We will remember.

Finding a Place of Peace in Growing a Church

June 10th, 2016

I love the concept of “The Stockdale Paradox”….

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Very similar to the concept of the prophetic voice, The Stockdale Paradox (a) grounds us in what is and (b) pulls us with hope to what can be.

So what is?

What is is that church growth is HARD.  There are few statistics out there that paint a rosy picture.  A recent article on the largest evangelical denomination, one centered firmly in the Southern “Bible Belt”, the Southern Baptist Convention, recently noted the following

  1. Last year, the SBC baptized about 295,000 people, down from about 305,000 baptisms in 2014.
  2. 2015 was the 9th year out of 11 that the SBC reported declining baptisms
  3. At the same time, SBC pastors planted almost 300 new churches, bringing the total number of SBC churches to about 46,800.
  4. Church membership dropped by about 204,000 people to 15.3 million, and average weekly attendance dropped by about 97,000 people to 5.6 million.
What is an equal reality is that some churches within denominations like the SBC are finding a way forward.  Every city has a least a few congregations that have hit on a formula that allows them to serve people and serve God in healthy, sustainable ways.  A few I have enjoyed in person or online are Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, North Point in Atlanta, and Watermark in Dallas.  All give reason to hope.
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The challenge is that these models grow out of deeply talented pastoral leadership, leadership able to both build viable structures and preach.  Not an easy combination.  And one that frankly leaves me often feeling bereft at my limitations.
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The Stockdale Paradox would say even those limitations are part of what is.
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The hope of NewChurch LIVE thriving is likewise a part of what is.
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It seems we can find peace there.  A peace in living with reality and with hope. And peace in living with those we love. Serving as best we can.  With reality and hope much closer than we might imagine.
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The Gift of Being Disillusioned

May 10th, 2016

It does not take long to search the Bible for examples of disillusionment in its many forms … person-to-person, and with God.

So what might be the gift of disillusionment?

Look at the word.  ”Dis” and “illusion.”  Disillusion is what rids us of our illusions.  That sure is neither a pretty nor pleasant process. But it is necessary.

St. John of the Cross based an invaluable Christian theology around it when he wrote of the “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Those “dark nights” as he held it were not there to crush us but were God’s endeavor to free us, to free us from views of God that were simply inaccurate, or in a softer holding, views of God that may have served us for a time but no longer serve us.

That may not make times of disillusionment easier to navigate through.  But maybe it does this … maybe it gives a sense of meaning and purpose to what can feel like a very dark time.

 

A Different Kind of “OK”

May 6th, 2016

Much of current culture is based on “Project Self” as described by Alan Mann in his book “Atonement for a Sinless Society.”

“Project Self” focuses myopically on self realization without any reference to Other/ others. As such it gravitates to the language of rights and away from the language of responsibilities.

The tools in that construction project are simple … (1) therapeutic liberation and (2) self-satisfying consumerism.   Both point back towards our own individual desires and tastes for their fulfillment sans the disruption of connectedness.  ”If I feel good about myself, all is well.”  ”If I get what I want, all is well.”

Inevitably “Project Self” fails as we come to feel increasingly estranged and divided, faced with the growing shadows and doubts around the apparent meaningless of it it all, insufficient relationships, and alienation from our fell man.

And, free as we are, we can choose differently. To simplify, imagine a “Project Connection”, a counter narrative, characterized by an enlivened self forgetfulness, in which we invite each other to that focuses on God, the world, others, and self.

The tools in this construction project are likewise simple … (1) Deep, humble, open connection and (2) Contagious, service-oriented generosity.

What results is shame free self-coherence. The image and likeness of God now alive, now moving through us.  A different kind of “Ok.”

 

 

How do we love God?

April 13th, 2016

Loving God, at one level is incredibly esoteric. “Wu Wu” stuff as my friend would say.  How do we love something that often appears to our dim human eyes distant, disembodied, contentious even?

Emanuel Swedenborg offered this:

Loving God “does not mean loving God for the image he projects but loving the good that comes from him.  Loving the good is intending and doing it.” (Heaven and Hell, 15)

Restated, there are these good things that come from God – the good stuff – the good stuff often even in the midst of the hard stuff.  God’s love made real into the world. Seen, heard, witnessed, experienced, shared.

Our job – to love God.  Which means placing our intention behind that good stuff and DOING IT.

In ways hard to describe that aligns our best intentions with God’s loving intentions.  Or more accurately, it uncovers in our soul those loving intentions gifted from God – God’s and ours at the same time.

We can see that all over.  A recent story featured the photograph below of a group of fast food workers joining a woman in prayer who had shared with the cashier that just a few hours before she had lost her husband.   Humanity at its best.  God’s loving work among us and through us. A picture that answers in some small way, “How do we love God?”

 

 

 

The Allergic Reaction to the Word “Sin”

April 12th, 2016

Many struggle with the word “sin” a word often drawing an immediate connection with the word “guilt.” Raised in cultures steeped in those two descriptors, descriptors used to capture what some churches see as the generalized plight of humanity, many simply choose to leave church altogether.

So how can we hold “sin” in a healthy way?  An important question because there is indeed such a thing as sin.  People do do horrible things to others ranging from abuse to terrorism. So we have to talk about it.  The question becomes how.

Alan Mann offers some interesting perspectives, ones closely aligned with New Church theology.

From his perspective, while the word “sin” clearly creates an often negative reaction, we almost all universally share a sense of estrangement, a sense, a knowledge that we are failing to live fully into the lives God intended for us.

Life is relational.  Loving God and loving others functioning one and the same.  So sin is relational.  Sin is what obscures and damages relationships with God and with others.   Those damaged relationships feed very readily into those feelings of a core estrangement, a sense of lostness.

Christianity offers a way out.  Not in terms of transaction where Christ becomes the sacrifice for all sin.  Instead in terms of seeing in Christ, God incarnate – as the human embodiment of the Divine – seeing God in a focused way that we can in our small and broken ways emulate. A loving, functional model we can follow in that search to come into our fullest humanity, living life as God truly intended.   That comes right back to this key bit – Christ does not ask us to worship him but instead asks us to follow him.

Healing and reconciliation can occur there – in the following – remembering that the issue is always with us, not with God. We are forgiven instantly by God.  Our role however is to “come right” in ourselves, to live more fully into the lives we were intended to live, regaining a sense of inner coherence in our lives, one married to the best angels of our nature.

God’s help in this endeavor is His spirit moving among us and through us. “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)  Spirit and Breath – the same words speaking to that amazing movement God in our journey.

Wisdom then comes to be “written not on our memories but on [our] lives.” (Divine Love and Wisdom, 427)

All of this leads to a different view of  the word “sin.”  It does not leave the word devoid of meaning.  What it adds to the word is a context – a context of sin clear about the fallen parts of our nature that harm others and, at the same time, a context embedded in healing, embedded in a sense of humble empowerment, of grace.

 

 

Loss

April 7th, 2016

Loss often sneaks up on us. “Out of nowhere” as Dr. Dan Gottlieb put it … that “Out of nowhere” we all come to regard with dread.

And this is what I know….

Life fills with “thin places” as the ancient Celts put it, places where the spiritual world and natural world work themselves together in tangible, knowable moments.  Death of those we love places us there – right there – in thin places.

Nothing easy in that place, filled as it is with sadness and grief.

But somehow we find each other there. We see each other.  Reminded again of how deeply our loves matter, each to the other.  Woven together.  It is not a way out of the pain. But a way forward with it.

 

To be there differently

March 30th, 2016

Much of Christianity, in ways hard to grasp, asks us to allow in the suffering of others. To permit their suffering access into the tidy arrangements of our lives and in so doing allowing us “to be there differently.”

The recent bombing in Lahore bring that great unsettling truth to mind. A suicide bomber attacking a family carnival. Over 70 killed, Over 200 injured. Such events should matter.

The attack itself is hard to imagine.  Hard to imagine someone so tragically warped by a misguided view of God they would purposefully kill innocent families in the name of faith. Hard to imagine the shattering loss those families must feel.  Hard to imagine those traumatized children who experienced that bombing and survived.  What cracked imprint will that event leave in shaping their future lives?

So what can we do?  Maybe for now, we can simply let that suffering into our hearts.  Allow it purchase.  Not to immobilize us with fear or worry. But to humbly say yes to God – a brokenhearted God –  in new ways.  Ways born of suffering.

“To say yes … is not withdrawal from the struggles of the world.  But it is to be there differently.” (Walter Breuggemann)

 

 

 

Gathering and Things Larger Than Us

March 25th, 2016

We gathered last night, Thursday, to celebrate what is known traditionally in Christian circles as “The Last Supper.”  It is a simple sacrament, often called “Holy Supper” or “Communion”, that marks Christ’s last meal with his followers before his death at the hands of the Romans.

It is a very contemplative, prayerful, blessed time.

So we gathered.  We shared the hardness of recent goodbyes. Many tears. Many laughs. We read from Scripture. We prayed.  We asked for prayers. And we were blessed.

These moments are “perfect” in ways that are challenging to capture in words.  Constant reminders of the power of connection, joyous reminders of things larger than us.

A Faith Amidst Changing Times

March 15th, 2016

There are few who write so well of changing times as Walter Breuggemann. In re-reading some of his material there is an uncomfortable foreshadowing around our current challenges….

We are witnessing the demise of patterns of power and patterns of meaning that have been seen as eternal….. There is a deep loss [then] among us that gives way to deep anxiety and that produces deep resentment…. The outcome is a fearful hollowness at the center.

Striking, accurate lines.

And yet we shrink from candid talk of either this deep sense of loss or of the impending newness and the challenging arrangements it may herald.  What we tend to focus on is scapegoating, fear mongering, moralizing.  None of which I would argue will ever feel quite right given their grounding in anxious, pervasive fear and a mistaken certainty.

So churches, maybe be this … maybe speak to this…. Re-imagination.  Shared horizons.  A third way navigating forward and between anger and apathy. A cosmic statement of “being for” – FOR some thing.  For love and service and humanity. “Away from hard, dismissive indifference to compassion.”  It is the way, I believe, modeled by Christ.   Followed by many.

Finding faith amidst changing times by simply living it.