Thoughts As We Enter Easter

April 18th, 2014

Take a minute to hold “Easter” …

We live life often like set of domoinoes … either “flipping” up or “crashing” down. Easter reminds us of one critical piece of life we often forget … we get to choose what stands and what falls.

Many of you hold wildly varied perspectives on faith, Christ and religion. With a smile I say that seems to be God’s plan! So beyond the story of Christ’s resurrection and the Christian faith is a simple story Christians and non-Christians can embrace. That is the story of dominoes, dominoes that actually did not fall.

Christ’s death on the cross, marked on Good Friday, was the culmination of years of unjust persecution at the hands of the Roman occupiers and religious authorities in ancient Israel. He was tried and executed in the most painful way known at that time … to languish, naked, nailed on a cross, a public humiliation of agonizingly slow death.

Imagine dominoes. Imagine them falling. And imagine, just before the final domino falls, someone says “Stop.” “The pain stops here.” “Revenge stops here.” “No more.” That is Christ on the cross where his plea is not for vengeance but “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” The cascading fall ends.

Christian or not, we can learn right at that place. What does it look like to give up vengeance in our lives … our marriages, our families, our communities, our nation, our world. Even in the face of shocking, unjust de-humanizing brutality can our words be for forgiveness and even hope?

And this is the miracle … they can!  Welcome to resurrection.

Reflection: A Day Spent Talking About Near Death Experiences

April 8th, 2014

“Once you have one sincere moment of divine union, you will want to spend your time on the one thing necessary, which is to grow deeper and deeper in love every chance that you get. Talk to someone who has had a near-death, or nearing-death, experience. They all agree: It’s all about love. It’s all about union.” (Fr. Richard Rohr)  This core, so beautifully captured in Rohr’s words, is shared across many experiences, experiences from Christian mystics to those who underwent a near-death experience.  Welcome to what we heard this past Sunday!

Those experiences share general traits … it is all about love in the end, God is everywhere, we need not fear.   They vary a great deal in specifics.  As Emanuel Swedenborg noted in the book Heaven and Hell, “The heaven that is outside reflects the heaven that is within.”  So that wonderful variety, no doubt embedded in the very DNA of creation, serves us and God well.   Variety is perfection.

Much was striking on Sunday.  First, clearly there is a huge interest in these conversations around life after death.  Our morning service drew 362, one of largest crowds ever.  The evening event, featuring a talk by Dr. Eben Alexander, the NYT’s best selling author of “Proof of Heaven”, drew over 1,000.

The second thing striking to me personally was the profound impact of these types of experiences on the individuals who face them.  Much of life flashes by us as an often shallow listing of events and activities.  Near death experiences … not so much.  These experiences CHANGE people.  There is a softness, a joy, an enthusiasm for life that all the speakers in the morning and Dr. Alexander in the evening shared.   As Sgt. Matthew Pennington so beautifully phrased it…

“I know there is a purpose for my life greater than I can understand and comprehend, to spend the time lying on the desert floor [injured and dying] sensing the love of God and not wanting to live but having the foresight to know everything is going to be alright [and everything] is certainly divine in nature. I believe we all have a purpose while we are here, whether it is inspiring a stranger through an open act of kindness, guiding the father and mother-less, assisting those less fortunate than ourselves. Sure my life has not been easy I have been tested and have had my fair shares of passing and failing them, but through my trials I have grown to have compassion and understanding.”

And the third part that was striking was frankly a deep honoring, a deep pride that I am part of a church that comfortably and warmly entertains these conversations.  Truth can be either a point or a portal.  If we orient ourselves to truth as a point we all must agree on the one thing, on the one experience, leaving little room for dialog.  If we see truth as a portal however, our conversations open to much grander vistas.  As a New Church pastor, I believe that is the nature of true wisdom because it is the nature of true love.

Stephen Lis, Sgt. Matthew Pennington, Margaret Gladish, Dr. Erica Hyatt, and Dr. Eben Alexander all articulated different perspectives.  And all shared an experience of the heart of our Creator!

So thank you to everyone from the sponsors to the team members to the volunteers.  Sunday was a great blessing!

What is the litmus test of “Worship”?

April 3rd, 2014

Just in a week’s time we have faced here at NCL as a community needs ranging from families in crisis, addiction, to catastrophic loss and health crises.   Throw in new small groups launching, a wedding, and a two baptisms and one can sense the richness, the dark and light of church.  And worship is not detached from those events, those needs.

Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that “essential divine worship in heaven does not consist in going to church regularly .. but in a life of love, thoughtfulness, and faith in keeping with the doctrines.” Formal worship is “worth doing” but essentially sterile if it remains detached from life. (Heaven and Hell, 222)  So life informs church and church informs life.  As such,worship focuses on life as its end, not on faith apart from life.

So what is that litmus test of worship in its expanded form?  What keeps worship connected to life and life connected to worship?

  1. Is it loving?
  2. Is it thoughtful?
  3. Is it in keeping with what God asks of us?
  4. Does it place the incarnation, Christ, the embodiment of God, at the core?

We don’t find that space playing by any of the rules we have played by before.  The rules shift.   Old ways, which served us well, will not get us there.  And the crazy part … expect language to fail more and more as we draw closer and closer to what matters.


Compassion and Community

March 20th, 2014

Henry Nouwen wrote ….

  1. The crisis in the lives of many caring Christians today is closely connected with the feeling of not belonging.
  2. Without a sense of being sent by a caring community, a compassionate life cannot last long and quickly degenerates into a life marked by numbness and anger.

Those lines ring so true.  For many the church is not the safe harbor from which we are sent forth to compassionately serve with love, but instead becomes a bastion of estrangement, a place of sorting, a place of degraded, privatized faith where the Word is used as a set of directions for parsing who gets to heaven and who goes to hell, and not as a story of hope, peace, reconciliation and resurrection.

The result of that estrangement?  Numbness and anger.

And yet different approaches abound, antidotes to numbness and anger, churches that move us back to a community of compassion, a matrix out of which healing and service grows.

Such churches understand faith as a flow of energy.  As an environment.  As an ecosystem.  Not as mono-culture.  Such churches – breathing –  are not without mechanics, doctrine and structure, but those three now serve.  They create, as it were, the banks of the river but they are not confused with the river.

A Chosen People … Or Not?

March 11th, 2014

In my own young and small head I grew up believing I was a privileged member of a special church, a unique dispensation… in my immature universe, a chosen people.

Many denominations, Christan and otherwise, hold to binding mental forms of uniqueness as an unspoken yet very foundational element of their existence.  We then in turn engage in practices of legitimation to prop up that special status, to both remind and comfort ourselves in our choseness over and against “them.”  Religious warfare, from Shiite vs. Sunni on down,  grows from that very ground.

The movement away from “choseness” to “with-ness” is painful.  The “with-ness” I speak of here is not a defining of self as over and against other but a redefining of self as ‘part of’, a ‘being with’, not over and against but a shoulder-to-shoulder partnering, a kinship.   Paradoxically, such a withness does not take away uniqueness but actually feeds it in the form of wondering, a beautiful wondering around the unique gifts we are called to bring to the human endeavor.

What are those unique gifts we can bring here in the New Church to the human endeavor?  For me they center around a loving God, a God deeply concerned around suffering, deeply present in the world, a God incarnated in the life of Christ.  And the joy of that uniqueness?  That it can in turn become this enlivening touch point with others engaged in the same endeavor.  Not ‘better than.’  Not ‘chosen.’  But ‘with.’   Being chosen after all is about reminding others, they are chosen too.


Generousity as a Path To Spiritual Knowledge

February 28th, 2014

Generosity is a path to spiritual knowledge.  Some days I wonder if it is the path. From New Church religious canon ….

All people who do what is good as a religious practice – not only Christians but non-Christians – are accepted and adopted by the Lord after they die.  The Lord says “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger and you took me in.  I was naked and you clothed me.  I was sick and you visited me.  As much as you did this to one of the least of my people, you did it to me.  (Matthew 25)” (True Christianity 536)

So clear. Those I find most inspiring inevitably do not have solo thoughts articulated in a vacuum around the spiritual life but they instead have a lived moral experience shaped with God’s grace around those thoughts.  And maybe, just maybe, the experience comes first a lot of the time.

Marching or Dancing?

February 25th, 2014

What is the role of a church?  Teaching people how to march or teaching them how to dance?  The answer is simple to state and at the same time incredibly complex.  The answer is dance.

We struggle in that arena.  Arguably the mother of dance in the United States, Martha Graham, captured the spiritual journey with these moving words, “The athletes of God wrestled and grew strong.  They choose and they acted.”  But we prefer the known synchronicity of the march, of the enforced unity, of the stamping of feet, all in unison.

I think TS Eliot had it right … in the end, there is only the dance.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

Speaking Past the Question

February 23rd, 2014

Judaism at the time of Christ orbited around concepts of righteousness.  Those codes, taking the form of 613 laws, covered the gambit from justice and the priesthood to sexual ethics.  That legalistic approach actually represents a distinct contribution to world history, directly supporting a pillar of modern day culture … the rule of law.

And like everything, even the “law” can become emphasized to the point where the function of the law as a guarantor of  human freedom and the common good lies forgotten and the law becomes an end to itself.

In steps Christ.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:34-40)

Brilliant theology.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, Christ in these words speaks past the question as posed by his detractors.  “He seems to speak past the question, but in this very act he completely addresses the questioner.”  In so doing, he “throws out all the distinctions that the Pharisees strive to work out so conscientiously.”  What remains is grace.  And an incredible answer.


Westboro Baptist and The Students of Missouri

February 18th, 2014

Michael Sam of the University of Missouri recently set off a flurry of media coverage when he announced he was gay.  Nothing unusual in that announcement except that Michael Sam is one of the top players in one of the top football conferences, the SEC, in the country.  He is expected to be a high NFL draft pick.  And how do we react to those kinds of announcements?

Westboro Baptist took one tact, sending a small group of protestors to the Missouri Campus.  The photo captures the Westboro baptist position well.

Many students at Missouri took a different approach.  Creating a human shield around the Westboro protestors, they sought to support their hero with human “A Wall of Love.”

Important to note, this is not a battle pitting the Christians of Westboro Baptist against the non-Christians student body at the University of Missouri.  No doubt, being a bible-belt college, the vast majority of the several thousand student who gathered to support Sam are indeed Christians as well, coming from a wide variety of denominations.  So the two photos represent two different views of Christianity.

Faced with those two worlds of the protestors and the students what do we choose?   There are stands to take.  There are times to share what we think God is teaching about sexuality.  And the most important stand is Christ’s core teaching.   A teaching that moves us ever further … it takes us away from the angry reactions of Westboro Baptist, to the wall of love created by the students, to the circle of love that is able to take the hardest stand of all … compassion across the board.  God everywhere in everyone.   That is the kingdom.  That becomes, as Emanuel Swedenborg held it, the kingdom of “…mutual love in which alone is peace.”

Blessings on Valentine’s Day! (And some thoughts on marriage)

February 14th, 2014

We wish all of you a blessed Valentine’s Day!

As a Pastor, and as someone married for 26 years, I have experienced large parts of the journey of marriage, the good, the bad and the ugly.  Since ordination, I have walked those very same steps with many couples, from joyous weddings, through painful challenges, even through divorce.   I remember officiating at a wedding and noting in the charge that marriage moves through seasons, one of which will be not feeling in love.  The bride very quietly whispered to her groom, “That won’t be me.”  I would imagine, with a smile, all these years later she no doubt would change what she said.

So what can remain the same in the often tumultuous reality of marriage?

I think this is what can remain the same …

  1. We are always free to offer our best intentions on God’s behalf.  My intentions are more often than not, to put it kindly, limited.  But my best God-given intentions, often buried beneath my own hurts and neediness, are there.  God is the one who reminds me those best of intentions hold the most significant offerings I can bring to our marriage.
  2. We are always free to ask God’s help and the help of others in finding perspective.  There is a way in which when we can step back, problems, even dire ones, gain more manageable proportions.  We need others, not others who will agree with us no matter what, but others who will help us develop the more rounded, less harsh perspective within which marriage thrives.
  3. We are always free to love.  Some days that freedom looks like a non-reaction.  Other days it looks like forgiveness.  Some days a gift.  Other days passion.  But while I may not be able to choose feeling in love, I am always free to choose whether or not to be loving.

Our endeavor towards these three things is imperfect at best.  But that is why marriage presents us with the incredible opportunity to grow … to grow as individuals and to grow together.

Happy Valentine’s Day!