A four letter word with three letters … S I N

September 17th, 2014

Oh goodness do I hate that word.  It immediately conjures up images … images of finger wagging, scolding, shame.

And maybe that is on me.  And not on that word.

Sin can be see in one of two ways.

  1. One way begins with judgment of other.  Then loops up to condemnation.  And eventually rests in damnation.
  2. The other begins with judgment of self.  That loops up into restoration.  And eventually rests in salvation.

I strongly suggest if the three letter word of “sin” is a four letter word to you, take a look at the possibility and promise of living the second perspective.  There is an honesty there, an accountability, a humility we all need.  And there is hope.

Sin in the end is a word for those things that break relationships … “The evil that is sinful is simply evil against our neighbor” (Emanuel Swedenborg).   Sin hurts.  It hurts us.  It hurts others.  God does not.   When we come to terms with sin, no matter how many letters we use to spell it, relationships are restored.

Thoughts on Walking Through a Graveyard

September 16th, 2014

I love old churches.  Given the choice between a new building, shiny, and an old church with wood and leaks I would take the latter and appreciate the former.   And I love that old churches place themselves – surrounded by graveyards.

Not some dark fascination with the macabre, those graveyards remind in some subtle way, or maybe not subtle, the place of those well worn houses of worship.   Their business … about the business of life, the entirety.  A place of life, death, resurrection, hope, sadness, joy, God, humanity.   Grounds reflected that.  Parishioners walked it.

The one where I stopped I saw from the road numerous times.  Ancient, small, stone, slate roof.  Beautiful.  Old grave makers … too old to read; for a church built in 1722 not a surprise.  Even remembrances of those passed carved right into the stone of the church itself.

And think, 100′s of years.  People walking to church. Sundays. Baptisms, Funerals, Weddings.  All winding to tall wood doors through a path where they saw no doubt family and friends, deceased, “At Rest”, “Gone Home.”  Nothing sad there.  Maybe a melancholy joy.  A reminder time is short.  Live deeply.  A labyrinth as beautiful and profound as Chartres.

Important Trends in Churches Today

September 14th, 2014

A recent study, “Changing American Congregations: Findings from the Third Wave of the National Congregations Study,” points to some fascinating developments in the religious landscape of the United States.  These demographic trends are important to note given that in a sense, these are the waters in which we swim.  And with all trends, important to note, they are not “forever” and “always” but instead present us with a snap shot of “now.”

Five Trends:

  1. More ethnic diversity
  2. More acceptance of gays and lesbians
  3. Increasingly informal worship
  4. Declining size (but not from the perspective of the average attendee),
  5. Declining denominational affiliation

Involvement:

  1. Most congregations remain small, with 90% having 350 or fewer people
  2. The median number of people involved in any way in the average church dropped from 150 in 1998 and 2006 to 135 in 2012
  3. The median number of regular participants declined from 80 in 1998 to 75 in 2006, and to 70 in 2012
  4. The median attendance at the main worship service was 70 in 1998, 65 in 2006, and only 60 in 2012
  5. The congregation attended by the average person was larger in 2012 than it was in the earliest time measured (The average church is smaller. The average attendee goes to a larger church)
  6. The median of regularly participating adults in the average person’s congregation increased from 275 in 1998 to 280 in 2006, and increased again to 301 in 2012.
  7. This is because the churchgoing population has become more concentrated in larger congregations, an important trend in the social organization of American religion worship styles, declining size (but not from the perspective of the average attendee), and declining denominational affiliation

What does this mean for us at NCL?

  1. We are well positioned in many ways.
  2. Our congregation clearly reflects many of the trends noted above
  3. In one sense we are a big church with over 350 “members”, clearly in the top 10% nationwide.
  4. In another sense we are small.  Our attendance average of 210 puts on the bottom of that top 10%

And our job … keep loving people, keep loving God, taking note of the numbers and trends but not being slave to them.

And a blessing ….

September 12th, 2014

My life fills with doubts and worries and the occasional “knowledge” that it is all going to hell-in-a-hand basket.  And God I think smiles and gently, graciously blesses me not with answers but with people.

Blessed Wednesday night by Mary, Rob, Bob, John.  Blessed Thursday by Singhe, Tamar, Theresa, Roger, Chris, and Pete.  Blessed always by my family and those I work with.

And I want to pause … share about Thursday just a minute.

See that day is the day we meet, the Sermon Writing Team and I.  And it is is a miracle.  A “golden goose.”  The age spreads from 20 something to 70. College to retirement.  The gender … how it should be, how it must be … balanced.  Very different people. Very much the same.

We cried a lot yesterday.  9/11.  The tragedy and the healing.  The unity of man and God.  God’s greatest dream, “that they may be one”, the same as our deepest dream.

And we experienced a blessing … not with answers, but with people.

 

PLEASE don’t ever say, “Because the Bible Said.”

September 10th, 2014

We live in bridge times.  Many but not all of use were born into some knowledge of the Bible-the stories, the themes, the Book.  And increasingly those assumptions around biblical literacy are inaccurate.  Likewise the starting point that the Bible is somehow inerrant falls most often on deaf ears these days.

So please, if your interest lies in growing and sharing Christianity, please don’t ever say “Because the Bible said.”  That will appeal to an increasingly narrow and often more fundamentalist slice of the broader population.  And (this pastor says with a bit of trepidation) it might be a very good thing that that line no longer works.

The original 12 disciples who followed Christ did not do so because he was a great author.  They followed him because he said “Follow me.”  They did and their lives grew from death to resurrection in a few short years.

The 100′s who made up the first Christian churches did not even have the New Testament. Yes they held letters floating around as well as oral traditions describing  the life of Christ.  But they did not a have a book they called “The Bible.”  Most could not even read or write.  What they held, what they hosted in their hearts, was “The Way.”

“The Way” was how Christians first described themselves.  This opening movement centered on living communities of love, sharing, humility.  Such communities, revolutionary then, revolutionary now.  Such communities virally grew the church from 100′s to millions.  And no one was exclaiming “Because the Bible said.”  Their pronouncements were their lives.

The does not mean to stop reading the Bible.  In the New Church we believe strongly that reading the Word critically serves both humanity and heaven … that it forms a newer bridge between God and humankind.  And we read it to wrestle with faith and expand our understanding of God.  Not to craft pronouncements that prove others wrong and prove ourselves right.

It is about living “The Way.”

 

And there are days I don’t quite know what to write

September 9th, 2014

And there are days I don’t quite know what to write.  And that is true some days, not because of depletion or depression or a sullen refusal to share nicely.  That silence grows from the subtle awareness that life is all so grand and beautiful and filled with awe.  That words won’t do.  You take a picture of the full moon on your iPhone and it just does not quite capture what you know to be true.  That the moon was beautiful and silver and painted the grass and the Cathedral … all too much.  And did I ever so badly want to capture it.  But no picture. And no words quite do.

Last night we talked about clothing for the homeless.  Two women and myself, all preachers and pastors.  And they said “Lets do it October 26th.”  Excusing myself momentarily, I scurried upstairs, a quick retreat to my 3rd floor office, to gain a hurried peak at what the sermon calendar held that week.  No joke … “For I was naked and you clothed me.”  God again, like the moon.  And I try to write about it but the words … well they lack.

It was a good night.

At What Mile Do Most People Quit the Marathon?

September 5th, 2014

At what mile do most people people quit the Marathon?

Mile 20.  4/5′s of the way through.

What does that say?

I think a lot.

But it misses one point.

All those who never started.

At the Start

August 31st, 2014

Today marks the beginning of a  conference in Albuquerque.   Action and Contemplation.

Yesterday thought of the importance of this work, work many pastors – the last of the generalists as one colleague phrased it – find both so enlivening and heart rending.  The work is hard and important because pastors and many others on the spiritual journey continually must stand in two places.

One, the world of the world.  Worries about budgets and guiding and somehow helping that person who with a chipper, shallow glowing grin chirps “Isn’t life great” with little of the depth that adds meaning to those words.  ”Great”, I fear, can simply be code for “I have a lot of stuff.”

Second, the word of the Spirit, where life remains precious, connected and touching and at the same time broken so deep that tears come easily.  Imagine shuttling between McDonalds and the silent oasis in prayer.   That is often my day.  Not just with others.  But with myself.

And so the work matters.  It matters that we effort to cross over to new places and new language and new ideas, it matters that we go back to to help others and those lost parts of ourselves do the same.

At the start.

You know what I notice?

August 28th, 2014

I am blessed in sharing life with a number of deeply spiritual people.  Far beyond me and my petty compulsions and annoyances, these folks work on a different floor.  I have met them in many walks of life.  Some Christians. Others Jewish … take your pick of backgrounds. Some – don’t tell anyone -  proclaimed agnostics though I suspect if I got a few beers in them I would find out otherwise.

And you know what I notice?

I notice a deep reverence for the individual’s journey.  I notice an unwavering dedication to the work of love – “long obedience in one direction.”  And I notice a a distrust.  Not a distrust of God.  Not a distrust of their fellow human beings.  But a distrust of their own personal thoughts and emotions.  Pleasant travel companions – thoughts and emotions – yes but to be faithfully and fully trusted without question? No.  Get to that “ah-hah” and I think we find laughter!

This week spent time on the porch with two friends.  One expecting, one there helping.  And me listening.  I always feel a rush to talk, to fill uncomfortable spaces with chatter.  And that night was different.  More conversation.   Less chatter.  Long enough that what started as a pleasant evening on the porch became a need for a candle so we could see each other that warm summer night.

And as with all friends, new and old, there are those tell tale signs, those words or phrases that let us know we are home.  That it is ok. Safe harbor.

For me those phrases are honest, clear, joyous statements, and some tears, around us, as human beings.  The smiling mess, held by God, that we are.  And how we are called to be more than ourselves with “ourselves” understood as all our thoughts and all our emotions that race through our lizard brain.  There is something else to be seen.  Beyond thoughts.  Beyond emotions.  Beyond all our self-proclaimed identities.  And it is brilliant.

From Thomas Merton:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.

I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.

 

The criticism that sucks the life right on out of me … and breathes life right back in

August 27th, 2014

Fr. Richard Rohr offers a painful, necessary, and strangely liberating prayer, “Lord, I am praying for one good humiliation a day.”

I HATE that prayer!  Not because I find it theologically offensive or too long or too hard to remember.  I hate it because it is true.

And some humiliations, for the necessary good they do, hurt more than others.  This week got a battery of those from an individual. The pattern is consistent …

  1. That was not church
  2. Where was the Altar/ Bible on stage?
  3. Where was the Lord’s prayer?
  4. I can see that service anywhere
  5. Seems like you have sold out to popular culture

This script gets passed off and recited by a different individual once every few months.  Their profile … similar.  They have been in the New Church for several generations.  They attend or lead a conservative congregation.   They are usually a male over 45.

The challenging part is where does one “park” this critique?  Every critique offers a least a parcel of truth that I need to hear… that I MUST hear.  Got it.  But where does the bulk get parked?  It is not appropriate to share specifics with the congregation or even necessarily the board because the one critique will outweigh the 20 other positive comments … such is human nature and our “negativity bias.”  So I share the specifics “on the side.”  I hope I can refrain from sharing them in a catty/ I’ve-got-a-story-for-you! kind of way.  I hope I can share it privately in a “This is the stuff that hurts.  This is the stuff that sucks the life out of me…. And now, back to the business of life and sharing and growing.”

So I loved this response after a private email exchange ….

My question would be were 315 people served [this past weekend]?  Were their lives better for having attended that service?  Did those people leave reminded of God’s love?  Did they hear some truth?  Were their hearts stirred to make the choice to let God’s love flow through them and make a positive difference in the world?  Did they wind up feeling a deeper sense of unity and connection with God and God’s people?

I suspect they did. 

And that, my friend, should be the only thing that matters in anyone’s mind.  If we truly care about the part of the Lord’s prayer that asks for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, our prayer should be for there to be hundreds if not thousands of services just like the one you led last Sunday… services that accomplish those sorts of outcomes. The more the better!

Thank you.  And life gets breathed right back in.