Archive for September, 2010

Small Groups/ Community Groups

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Small Groups/ Community Groups are the very core of church life.  For NewChurch LIVE, they are our “win.”  What is that they are so critical?  What does NewChurch LIVE offer?

The Need To Be Known And Loved

People join churches largely out of a desire to find meaning and connection.  We of course imagine people joining for reasons of the theology.  That has not been, in my experience, often the case.  Small groups help to focus that desire for meaning and connection into an environment where folks can be known and loved.

The Need To Be More Than Ourselves

Small groups not only hold and cherish but push and challenge.  In a recent small group, the group leader frankly called on someone who appeared retisant after only speaking a few words with the phrase, “You are not getting off that easy.”  I have witnessed that time and time again.  It is not a “free to be you and me” approach but a “once more into the breach” approach that stressed, “and I will be with you all the way.”

Because It Is What God Wants

Clearly small groups are closely aligned with the Christian message.  Jesus needed His own of sorts – 12 disciples.  The God of the Universe could have easily done it by Himself but that appears contrary to the Divine Plan.  He modeled a form of sharing life’s blessings, breakings, joys, saddnesses, wisdom, food etc… with a trusted group of friends.

One piece of New Church theology that further speaks to the above is a statement Swedenborg made.  He believed we come to know ourselves by reflecting on thoughts, actions, motivations but that we only we truly to know ourselves when we allow others to share their reflections about us as well.    As one dear friend put it, there is who I think I am.  There is who you think I am.  And there is who I am.

Conclusion

We strongly urge you whether you are frequent attender of NewChurch LIVE or not to consider joining a small group.  We offer a wide variety – some that are merely a fun way to stretch and get to know others, other groups that more geared for deeper spiritual work.  Look at our offerings and see what grabs your attention!

Sermon Writing: A Look at the NewChurch LIVE Model

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

I fell in love with New Church theology as a teenager.  I loved the intricate weaving of the stories.  I loved the call to pull all experience towards revelation.  I loved that it somehow made sense.    Not surprisingly, I can remember as an early 20 something considering the ministry.

Thankfully, that was not to be.  Instead I found myself a teacher.  American History provided much the same enjoyment albeit on a lower plane – the weaving of stories, the call to pull all experience, the making sense.

Many, many years later I returned to that first love.  I entered theological school with the hopes of ordination.  As we studied sermon writing, the approach was highly scientific, highly deductive, heady.  We read from books and notes written decades before – something as a teacher I found disappointing given that I could not envision teaching US History using a textbook from the 1900’s; the current, modern thought was often the thought of the early 20th Century.   At that time a static view of truth went unquestioned – the truth was the truth and time made no difference.  Of course God’s truth is timeless but to hold that the human forms are as well – I don’t believe that to be true.  Thankfully theological training is far different today.

Time does make a difference.  I once heard a minister speak of picturing an ornate, golden box holding a precious jewel, the jewel that was the wonderful theology of the New Church.  Over time, he continued, people forgot what was in the box.  His charge – do not forgot.  Open the box.

The service was memorable, deeply moving, the best I heard in several years.  I look back on it and believe it includes another sermon I would love to write about what can be the fatal flaw.  The flaw is the box as a static entity – a beliefness that the timeless of the box is the just as assured and important as the timelessness of the pearl.

Boxes must change or the gift will be lost.  As one author noted, when the container fails to hold the pearl inside in ways that honor the gift, in ways that give life, our job is to break the container, knowing it to be only a temporal, physical thing, with no intrinsic value in and of itself.

And yet we fall in love with forms.  Those who no longer love the form, leave.  For those to whom the box is a hindrance, leave.  Some see it as their parents box, and leave.  Others cannnot open up, and leave.  Those who remain, who love the box, can become a self-referencing group who love and seek to pass on “the box”as the holder of  “the pearl.”  The century old notes our theological education was based on, the forms of worship we learned, the practice of sermon writing – all these were decades old boxes, clearly useful in their time, but in need of change or to use a Swedenborgian term, accommodation.   One needs only look the incredible power in the line, “Maintenance is perpetual creation” to see what God’s plan is.

Our approach at NewChurch LIVE is not the final “answer.”  I make no pretence about being “right.”  I am not.  We must all take seriously the concept that the variety of worship forms create perfection.  In our own human way we are trying to craft a different box, to put it simply, to add to that variety, to hold that same pearl in way that it can be accessible to current generations.

That means moving under a whole new set of assumptions about sermon writing that circle around the concept that ministry is about teaching the truths that lead to a good life.  Several key assumptions informed our approach …

1.     Sermon writing is a community event from the topics to the content

2.     Sermon topics must be engaging and relevant

3.     The target audience is the first time attendee

4.     Ministers are process facilitators and story-tellers not experts (We are all “experts” in terms of our individual spiritual life.   We may not do it well but someone else is not any more “expert” than we are.)

5.     Quotes from the Word are short and to the point

6.     Leave people with one takeaway.  (If there are 3 main points, you have 3 sermons.)

7.     The goal: eye level Christianity

In writing the above, of course each one is open to challenge.  That being said, I think we must take a serious look at some simple concepts.  (1) Jesus called the first two disciples in the Gospel of John with the words, “What do you seek?”  (2) Jesus consistently called on the church to find people not for people to find the church (3) Jesus clearly took a “come let us reason together”/ “I call you friend” approach (4) the word “disciple” comes from the same root as “discipline” as in academic discipline and carries a clear connotation being a serious learner.  Therefore the great commission could be read “Go out and be learners.”  The spirit of the above is captured in this passage.

Life makes the church; but not doctrine, except insofar as it becomes of the life. For this reason it is plain that the church of the Lord is not here, nor there, but that it is everywhere, both within those kingdoms where the church is, and out of them, where men live according to the precepts of charity. So it is that the Lord’s Church is spread throughout the whole world, and yet is one; for when life constitutes the Church, and not doctrine separated from life, there is one Church. But when doctrine constitutes the Church there are many. Secrets of Heaven

We need to tap into that “everywhereness” that God breathes into the world.  So what then does the process look like?  Below are the steps in the process as we practice them.

Step One: Topic Folders

The sermons are born out of a great deal of reading and listening.  One professor, who changed my approach to education, said, “The best teachers have the best filing cabinets.”  I believe the same to be true of pastors.  In addition to the Word itself, we need to habituate ourselves to collecting information from numerous media resources, literature, poetry etc…   Create a sharing culture in your congregation where information is being sent around all the time.

Step Two: Sermon Calendar

With many ideas in hand, numerous series folders started, we sit down with a team to plot out the year.  Our general format is 3 -1.  That means a 3 part series followed by a 1 off topical sermon.  We use the format because it is easy to invite people to.  We plug in the givens – holiday series – and then split up the rest.  Fall is the most fertile ground for church growth so it deserves special attention.

Step Three: Sermon Research and Construction

After the calendar for the year is set, I then begin the deeper research.  Aside from intense doctrinal study, it often includes conversations with other folks, preferably folks OUTSIDE of the congregation.    This can even include a brain storming group put together because of their “expertise” in a particular area.  Some times these groups meet in person.  Other times we do it via Facebook Groups.

The end result is a 1 page sermon chart.  It is the sermon itself broken into 5 key elements, written in table form

1.     Welcome

2.     Context

3.     The Problem

4.     The Resolution

5.     Imagine

Step Four: Sermon Writing Team

Maybe the most important step occurs here.  This is the conversation with the Sermon Writing Team.  It is made up of several team members, several volunteers, and occasionally a guest.  There we review the sermon and the group essentially polishes it up.

The importance of this step cannot be overstated.  90+% of the remarks that I will make during the sermon that actually have import grow out of this conversation.  It is where the pearl gets its box.

The input of this team leads to the final sermon chart.  It must fit on one page in the 5 step format.   It must focus on that clear takeaway.

Step Five: Review and Revision

After the service, we meet to discuss how the service went.  I ask for candid feedback – and I often get it!

In conclusion, please consider the above descriptive not prescriptive.  The size of the congregation, the specific cultural values and aspirations of members will mean that the above does change. Rightly so.  Regardless, have fun!

Losing A Thought, Gaining Your Soul

Monday, September 27th, 2010

I was listening to a priest today who made a fascinating point.  He talked of what occurred when the idea that we are separated from God dies.  When that thought goes, so does our separation from God.

Emanuel Swedenborg wrote of attention to the spiritual being attention to what was real.  God is omnipresent – is everywhere.  As the Bible so beautifully words it – Where can I can go Lord that you are not?

I think many have those moments in which the thought of being separated from God disappears.  We are in the moment and that moment, at times, is pure heaven.

That is the essential unity of creation.  We move away from dualism, from separation, to unity, to the oneness spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of John.

The priest went to talk of moments near death, moments when the brain “stops”, the chatter “stops”, when the thought we are separate from God “stops.”  What decision is left but to fall into the loving arms of God.  As one dear friend said on his deathbed, “It is all so perfect.”

Purpose

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Every love has a purpose.  Purpose pushes us thr0ugh fears.  Discovering purpose adds direction and power to our lives.

When “lost in our thoughts” though that purpose is hard to discover.  God’s voice and His vision for us become obscured by the illusions created by our fretful minds, minds tossing and turning constantly, weighing and categorizing.

That is not where we will be able to find God.  Rather consistently, after giving a sermon, I get “lost in my thoughts.” What went right. What did not.  Where did I mis-speak.  What did I fail to speak to.  Who did I support.  Who did I offend.  Crazy stuff.   One avenue to right the ship is to refocus on the purpose of ministry – teaching God’s truth that leads to a good life.  I think many of use share those same challenges in work and in our sacred relationships and battle to re-orient ourselves to purpose.

As such journey is about constantly rediscovering “purpose.”  Rich Rohr once spoke that we all should pray for at least one humiliation a day.  Good words.   Small humiliations, small “trips and stumbles” may start to create the fertile soil for really discovering God.  For the fact is “being lost in our thoughts” rarely (never?) yields results.  What yields results is not then the resolution of the being lost in our thoughts but the giving up even of the being lost there to God.  We don’t sort the jumbled basket.  We turn it over to God.  From that place, we will re-find purpose.  We seem to need to get good-and-crazy though before we give it over!

Christian Evolution

Friday, September 24th, 2010

New Church theology posits that the growth of faith, historically, moved through several “churches” – groups who had a deep understanding of God and His Word.  Some of that was specific to a given church body.  Other elements were far more broad, more shared as it were, constituting a church of the heart, a universal church that crossed denominational boundaries.

Each phase was inaugurated within God’s plan to uniquely serve humanity at that time.  Within the Christian tradition, that means the Old Testament was to serve humanity at that time as was the New Testament and as is New Church theology for this time.   Each builds and adds on to what went before, adding its own unique layer of meaning to what preceded.  As each sows itself together, married with experience, it constitutes for a Word for now.

The author Parker Palmer wrote: “All of our propositions and practices are earthen vessels. All of them are made by human beings of common clay to hold whatever we think we’ve found in our soul-deep quest for the sacred or in its quest for us. If our containers prove too crimped and cramped to hold the treasure well, if they domesticate the sacred and keep us from having a live encounter with it—or if they prove so twisted and deformed that they defile rather than honor the treasure they were intended to hold—then our containers must be smashed and discarded so we can create a larger and more life-giving vessel in which to hold the treasure.”

At a certain point we do outgrow the older forms he references. losing touch with the treasure within.  We then need to find “a more life-giving vessel.”  That does not change the sacredness of revelation.  It does however call us to be aware of the “pots” we place it in, including worship and Christian community.

Just as revelation “moves”, so much churches.    The trouble  is “when any religion insists that the treasure cannot be carried except in their earthen vessels ….”

Relationships of Power, Relationships of Love

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Clear from the New Church, that the Chrisitian perpective is about moving to a loving place – big stuff given that it redefines traditional Christianity around an expanded view of “salvation.”   Emanuel Swedenborg wrote of this fact, “People in whom the life of love and charity dwells have the Lord‘s life within them. Nobody can be joined to Him by any other way.”  Love and useful service is simply how we connect to God.

That loving place however is arrived out via an often rather arduous road.

This is where “power” comes in.  We often involve ourselves in “power” relationships, figuring out ways in which we can either be powerful or associate ourselves closely with those who possess power.  That does appear to be part of human growth – for better or worse – a natural proclivity, a natural attraction to what judge as power.

And at some point, after gaining power, we must freely give it away.  Into that breach, love arrives.  As one good friend noted, this is not about an un-boundaried “Free to be you and me” type of love.  It is actually a love that knows and understands power AND gains its power from having given it away.  To quote Richard Rohr …

“Power apart from love leads to brutality and evil; but love that does not engage with power—and become a whole new kind of power—is mere sentimentality.  It often becomes a destructive kind of powerlessness.  True love is not naïve, but is a conscious and intelligent gift of the self.”

This again, pulls us right back to Easter and the power of the temptations faced by Jesus on the Cross, over what we now call Easter.  Many Christians view the Cross as the symbol of salvation.  Maybe there is even more space to view it as empowered love.

“Spiritual power is to desire the well–being of another.”

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

We search for spiritual power.   One provocative book placed a legitimate and weighty caveat on that pursuit.  The book’s focus – “How to save your faith from the American dream.”

It is easy to transpose the spiritual search, the spiritual path onto the American dream, a dream that in turn promotes self-assurance, self- sufficiency, self-realization.  The self the American dream seeks to serve vs. the self God yearns to bring to life are different creatures.  Restated, the transposed American dream -”Spiritual power is to desire the well-being of one’s self.”  The Christian dream – “Spiritual power is to desire the well–being of another, and to desire to give to another as far as possible what is within you.”  (Emanuel Swedenborg)   From one, life springs from independence.  From the other, life, salvation, springs from partnership.

As always, we warmly invite you to share your thoughts.

Some Comfort Along the Way

Friday, September 17th, 2010

In the book “Divine Providence”, Emanuel Swedenborg makes the following observation.  “We need to realize that God knows the kind of person we are and the kind person we want to be.”  A comforting thought.

God’s foreknowledge is far richer I believe than what we imagine.  He does know our path. He knows the choices we will make.  We of course have agency – we do the choosing.  However within that context, God knows the deepest of self identity.  Within the confines of His divine providence, He will place before us the opportunities to move towards what we truly want to become.

No doubt this process may never reach full fruition in this life.  That however does not mean that God will not plant the seeds along the way that we are open to nurture as we come more and more into our true selves, more and more into a life where the inner self and the outer self weave together in complimentary fashion.

Our job, in one sense, may come back to simply giving into the trust that there is a Knower holding us gently, seeking to move us more and more towards the blessedness of who we really are.

True Life

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

“True love is love to the Lord, true life is the life inherent in love from Him, and true joy is the joy of that life.” Secrets of Heaven

Living into “true life.”  Funny how often we do get caught up in living a “true life” that may be wide but very shallow when what God may well be calling us towards is depth.

Living into true life, life that is part and parcel of living into God’s love, does make that demand of depth – a far different demand than our culture often makes of numerous, wide ranging experiences as the path to life.

Interesting reading an article sent to be by Rev. Mac Frazier, an article written by Helen Keller.  Given how most of us would define “living life” her experience fascinates because there is little in way of “experiential happiness” as many might define it given her blindness and deafness.  And yet she writes of being clearly happy.  Within the confines presented her, her world did break open and while clearly her range of experiences was indeed broad – far broader than many – her challenges clearly limited the range of “experience.”

What broke open was the present.  Finding the blessing where she was, where she stood.  “I do live in a beautiful dream; but that dream is the actual, is the present – not cold, but warm, not bare, but furnished with a thousand blessings.”  She was living the life inherent in living from God’s love, and the true joy growing out of that life.

A Wedding Charge

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Two words, “finding” and “being” – a world of difference between.   We do first “find” each other – our beloved.  Marriage celebrates that finding and that sense of being found.  It also initiates a change.  The change is from “finding” the perfect partner to a promise of “being” the perfect partner.

One minister penned the words “Until we love, we really do not even know who we are.”  Note the language carefully – it is about the fact that when we love, we finally come to know who we really are. There are incredibly deep implications for the two of you, for all of us.

We exist within a culture largely concerned with being loved, – with celebrating self-advancement, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency.  Odd to say but these are not the three keys of marriage.  Imagine seeing marriage as merely a way of getting ahead?  Imagine holding it as way of building our ego’s need for affirmation?  Imagine the same with self-sufficiency?

How then do we learn to really love, learning to be the perfect partner?  No easy answers here.  It is simple work but it is work you can enter into with great hope, with great promise, and with great joy.

See marriage, like all things of great spiritual value, is an invitation into a larger story.  Our lives begin where our lives begin – as individuals.  We take root in one place long enough to grow deep.  And the time arrives – from growing deep – that we start growing out.  It is the invitation from my story, to our story.

God absolutely will always invite you to that larger story.  As you cross each threshold in your life together – you will hear that voice – a voice that calmly gives time for rest and peace and then quietly calls you – volume no louder than the beating of your own heart – to the next, to the larger story.  Your job will be to answer.  Life then moves from gazing at each other with the fawn like eyes of first love to the eyes of the explorer – looking out from the same place, together, towards an unfolding and as yet unknown future.  Travel.

Loving couples know how to take on that future in the grace and peace that allows for the “sacred space in between.”  They allow their partner the space to grow and the togetherness to always find safety and peace.  In those endeavors we come more and more to reflect the love of God.  We start to experience the love of God.  “God is now working in us – as us.”    That is part of the sacredness of marriage – of conjugial love

Crazy stuff – but your married life together will be nothing more in a sense then to continually re-awaken to what you already have.  And oh do you have “it.”  All of us here are blessed to know the two of you.  We know the joy and laughter of Brie.  We know the focus and commitment of Rich.  Wrap yourself today in the love and joy of those gathered here today.  Wrap yourself today in the love so apparent in each other eyes.  Wrap yourself today in God’s love.  Imagine with wonder what lies ahead as your travel forward.