Archive for September, 2010

Danger: Conscious Soley Of What We Don’t Have

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Finishing up church today, we talked about a famous Old Testament story of twins – Jacob and Esau.  The quick summary is that Jacob wanted to steal his brother’s birthright, becoming in effect the “first born” and heir to his father’s blessing.

Jacob – so much part of our lives – pictures that “head” part, the mind, in this case a part of the mind that is only conscious of what it does not have rightful claim to – the blessing of being the first born.

The more one sits with this story, the more unsettling that becomes.  So much of our head space is simply taken up by an obsessive concern centered around how we don’t possess the “birthright” we deserve, an obsession that leads us to “steal.”

What if what we are really stealing from is our own heart – aka our brother Esau?   What if what we are really jealous of is the birthright that lies within, the light within, that place where Esau is?

That is why in New Church theology, when the birthright in a sense is finally re-secured by Esau, it is about understanding the love of God and His gift – our highest and best loves – our truest selves.

Literally, write out the areas where you feel short changed, where you feel as if a birthright was stolen from you.  What is that head space like to live in?   What does living in that space rob you of?  How does that rob of you of a piece of your own heart?

Capturing a Bird In Flight

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Karl Barth wrote of the challenge of “capturing” the Christian experience.  Imagine drawing a bird in flight.  One has two choices.  Choice one is to “freeze” the bird’s motion and capture it as a still image. The other is to blurr the image to create the sense of movement.  The former is the danger of the conservative – believing that the only way to understand something is to freeze it as a set piece.  The latter is the danger of the liberal – believing the only way to understand something is in motion, nothing set, nothing clearly delineated.

Much of the Christian experience is in the letting go of this dualistic approach and simply observing the bird in flight as it is as.  There are times where the frozen motion is instructive.  There are times when the blurred image likewise is useful.  But the reality of the bird in flight is the bird in flight.

In a discussion yesterday with a dear friend, we talked of that search for clear understanding, for the ability to somehow hold it all.  That does not seem to be in the cards, regardless of our best efforts.  Restated, we fall easily into believing that we can definitively and finally capture a bird in flight on canvas – be that the ‘canvas’ of worship, music, sacrament etc….  Maybe the call is for us to simply experience the bird in flight, time and time again in the non-manufactured ways it will show itself.   Christian New Church theology is filled with many canvases as well as many areas where the author, Emanuel Swedenborg, simply reaches the limit of human understanding, using language about beauty that defies description – a bird in flight.

Maybe this is what Thomas Merton was addressing when he wrote …

Truth rises from the silence of being to the quiet, tremendous presence of the Word.  Then, sinking again into silence, the truth of words bears us down into the silence of God.  Or rather God rises out of the sea like a treasure in the waves, and when language recedes his brightness remains on the shore of our own being.

Seek First the Kingdom of God

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Ministers are trained to go out into life with a “pocket full of answers.”  Easy to hold that as the job of clergy.  What one comes to however is a realization that we seek relationship far more than we seek answers.   The questions then gain precedence.  Life becomes about curiosity – going out into life with a “pocket of full of questions.”

In that journey, we travel together.  The line disappears between “expert” and “novice”, “teacher” and “student.”  There is no monopoly on answers.  What is left is openness to the questions that inform and open our lives.  There is a movement into the sacred mystery, into paradox, into wonder, into oneness.

That is the Christian journey.  Emanuel Swedenborg, who shared that prophetic imagination, penned the words from the Bible “Seek ye first the kingdom of God…” as he began the task of authoring the books that would form the theology of the New Church.  Seek.  Seek. Seek – one of Jesus’ consistent messsages.  The kingdom of God is all around us though we may remain asleep to it.  Maybe that is why often the experience of God is written of as an ecstatic experience having far more in common with the rising sun than a fixed point of reference.

What does it mean to say Jesus was the “Son of God”?

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

For the New Church, the figure of Jesus is THE central religious image.  Often referred to as the Divine Human, Jesus is seen as the very embodiment of God.  His life was a life of moving more and more into that power, a power of His Human being made completely Divine.

Interestingly, Jesus never says, literally, that He is “the Son of God” preferring instead the phrase that He is “the Son of Humanity.”  Why is that?  It is my best understanding that Jesus consistently focused on the unity of God, the unity of creation, the unity between the spiritual and natural.  We are the one’s who broke it apart, creating a paradigm where the sacrifice of a son atoned for the sins of masses to avoid the world’s destruction by an angry God – the Father.  That is more a human story unfortunately, a human paradigm, than God’s.

Reading the text can yield that position but a deeper reading appears to support a Man whose primary concern, primary love was people, was compassion.  Christianity then turns from being a belief system – “Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?” – to a creed of life, a creed of consequential faith in which love of others, includes one’s enemies, is the ultimate fruit.

Jesus used many metaphors for His life.  “I am the way, the truth, the light ….”  Few of us would take those statements literally.  We would see the far deeper poetic truth within it.  References to the Son of God are likewise pieces of poetic truth that help to unfold a deeper reality – a God who lives, breaths, and exists with us.

The Tree That Stands

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Henry Nouwen made a fascinating point when he spoke of the spiritual movement from isolation to solitude.

We spend much of our lives seeking connection.  At times that connection appears to be deeply ego driven.  The “I” needs the “you” because “you” complete “ME.”  While no doubt such words, when heard from a beloved, are indeed flattering; they are also dangerous.

The clinging, ego driven, co-dependent love will not win the day because at its core it remains fundamentally transactional.  Therefore it is a far cry from the love that Jesus calls us to.

The work moving towards the kind of unconditional love Jesus calls us to is incredibly difficult.  For me, to make church ‘pretty’, ‘easy’, ‘fun’ is appealing.  Frankly much of church is that and that strikes me as good if not taken too far.  But church must also present a balanced view of life – the costs as it were – the true costs of discipleship.

One of those costs is loneliness.  On that path, we will find ourselves alone, even if we move easily among groups of people.  At a certain level, spiritual growth demands of us a certain willingness to travel in paths that we would not choose, paths we travel alone.  In that place we truly learn of the unconditional.

I have puzzled over that more than once.  What I know from my own life experience is that that is what in the end destabilized my ego enough to realize that I could stand as I felt God called me to stand without obsessing about how it would be received by others.  It is easy to write those words and conjure up images of the heroic.  But it has been a far different journey than the heroic.  There is often a sadness and melancholy in that place.   When joy appears – and there is great joy – it comes from a quite, deeper place of peace.  As one author noted, we come to see that both the sadness and joy draw largely from the same well.

Re-read the Jesus prayer in the Garden as He wished for the “cup” to pass from Him – for there to be an easier way.

Gettysburg, 1944, and Spiritual Growth

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

On a walk around the cemetary in Gettysburg, it was striking the number of World War II casualties from 1944 and 1945.

World War II was effectively “won” when the allies invade France – D-Day – in June of 1944.  Yet the overwhelming majority of Allied ground casualties in the European theater occurred after that date.

For Lincoln, a full year after the tide had really turned at Gettysburg, he wrote of the election of 1864 that the “bottom was out of the tub” and that he had precious little time to save the Union before he was run out of office in the fall elections.

Spiritual growth is much same way.  As one individual noted, we get asked the same question twice.  The question, “Do you really want this?”  That question comes as the excitement of the beginning ends.  It comes again right before victory, right before real change.

There is a way in which when we really engage – really take on the enemy in enemy territory – that we have “won.”  That does not mean though that life will be without challenges – many of which appear death defying.   It does mean a part of us has “died” or surrendered that will actually allowed for real growth to take place.

I want to see God but I can’t

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Many people want to “see” God, experience God.  But the “seeing”, the experience, eludes them.  How then do we see God when our best efforts seem to leave us “without”, searching within what appears to b a vacuum?

To start, God simply “is.”  That means that God is something we awaken to vs. journey to.  We can often fall into the belief that certain actions will inevitably lead us to the experience of God.  I have not found that to be true.  My understanding is that we do those “actions’ – be they prayer, reading, meditation, service, worship – so that we are awake when God shows up. They do not create the experience.  They do however ensure that we are awake enough to know when the experience arrives.

Secondly, God’s presence is most often not of the “clouds parting” “trumpet blaring” variety.  The experiences tend to be far more gentle.  One author compared God’s voice to being as quiet as the beating of our own heart  (Try listening to your heart beating to get an idea of what that means).  While some individuals do experience the granduer of God in dramatic fashion – i.e. Martin Luther, Emanuel Swedenborg, Bill Wilson – most of us experience God in more muted yet not any less powerful ways.  That is why perhaps Jesus spoke of the presence of the Divine as the spirit, a word that can be translated “wind.”

One author’s point is one I have been thinking a great deal about recently.  Her perspective grew out of a endless prayers for the experience of Divine.  What she came to realize was that God’s answer to her longing was her longing.  It was that love, that compassion, that “pull” in her heart that bore great fruit in her life, a “pull” that might have moved her more in her life than any dramatic presentation of God.

If the pull to experience God is moving you forward in your life, that might just be the whole point.  That might just be the mercy and compassion of God at work in your life. Stay awake.  Keep doing the work.  God will show Himself in the ways He knows to be most important in light of goals that are eternal, not temporal.  Those are not often the most dramatic but they are the most transformative.

A Worthiness Test?

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Christianity is not a worthiness test.  It is incredibly easy – and at times even well intentioned – to allow religion to become “membership” religion.  Christianity is not membership religion.

Making faith about membership makes it about dogma – about specific doctrinal ideas/ concepts that we believe or don’t believe.  This is not to say that beliefs are unimportant.  They are incredibly important but that cannot lead us to an exclusionary form of faith.  New Church theology is clear on this ….

  1. Heaven depends on people from many religions
  2. Heartfelt belief is possible only for people who lead a good life
  3. All religions give people the general principles to live that good life through communicating what evil is and asking people to avoid it and what doing good is and asking people to do that.

Allowing faith to narrow to solely dogma does create drama, clearly.   The drama feels good.  But does it move us forward?  Does it focus us on what is right in front of us?  Does the drama get us off the hook, allowing us to feel like we are doing God’s business when we are really just concerned with our ego’s need to be right?

Anne Lamott asked a friend with cancer to comment on her dress.  Did it make her look fat or not?  Her friend commented, “Anne, you don’t have that kind of time.”  We don’t have that kind of time to spin around in our heads wondering how we look.

That is why, we as move into the fall, the “invest” and “invite” strategy around NewChurch LIVE is so critical.  This strategy is not about membership.  It is about engagement, about moving out of heads and out into the world.

When we engage others, searching for ways to connect and serve, we are living into the Christian life.  That is why Jesus issued “The Great Commission” – to go out into the world making disciples out of people, baptizing – in all 4 Gospels.

It is not about bringing people to the church (membership) but about bringing the church to people (engagement).  That is one of the more potent guards against worthiness tests, against exclusionary claims.    As we reach out beyond ourselves in God’s name, it becomes less about ourselves and more about God.  As it becomes more about God, we in turn understand and live into more and more the life He intends us to lead -  a life lived from our best selves.