Archive for December, 2010

Finding a Path Through the Liberal and Conservative “Worship Wars”

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Denominations of all sorts face “worship wars”, wars that often can tend towards a Liberal vs. Conservative breakdown.  The Liberal camp calls for more individuality and freedom of expression.  The Conservative camp calls for closer adherence to the historical traditions of a given faith.  The “battlefield” most often is the Sunday service.  How do we find our way through?

One possible element to consider is that Jesus calls us neither towards a “Liberal” or “Conservative” perspective.  What He calls us to is a Radical perspective.  The word “radical” is often misunderstood and misinterpreted.  What the word radical actually means is to go to the root.  Radical = Root.

What is the root?  What is that call?  The root of Christianity is simple to describe yet a difficult world to live into.  One element – Jesus clearly calls on us to “loose our life.”  For me, that struggle entails getting clarity around the parts of my life that must “die.”  The easiest way, personally, to see what those areas are is to reach out in service to others.  As soon as I reach out, I can count on numerous bits of “noise” trying to force me back into my false/ lower self that wants nothing to do with the discomfort associated with a stretch to reach out beyond self.  And yet, if I am to be a Christian New Church “Radical”, reach I must.

In the Swedenborgian tradition, the concept of “as of self” is ever so helpful.  Restated, by reaching out as if it were all up to us AND at the same time knowing all is a gift from God, we experience the transforming power of Christian love in action – agape love.

Such lines of thinking, as is obvious, simply don’t break down neatly into a “Liberal” and “Conservative” typology.  When we go to the “root”, becoming Christian radicals, our path lies well outside these two constructions.

Amazing how Christianity continually points us to a “Third Way!”

Christmas Wishes To Our Great Congregation

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

So many thoughts swirling around as we get ready for Christmas!  I want to start by wishing you and your loved ones a blessed Christmas.   I love our congregation – on line and in Philly and my heart is fill with wishes of blessedness for all of us.   In that light, I  want to take a moment just to reflect with great joy about what Christmas means.

There is a Bigger Picture

Just sit with that for a moment – there is a bigger picture.  We are part of a tapestry extending in all directions through all time.  We are a part.  But in being part we are woven into the whole as well.   We don’t often see that during our life.  Maybe at Christmas there is a glimmer

The “glimmer” will not arrive at moments we expect it.  Maybe you will see it on Christmas Eve (my favorite) or bowling on Christmas Day (my #2).  Just be open to it.  Keep the edges soft.  Hear the music.  The glimmer is there!  Stars are not that big but wow are they cool to look at.  If you are having problems, please watch this clip.  Watch silently – still your mind, let the rushing thoughts pass.  Catch a glimmer of the bigger picture.  Remember the old twist – seeing is not believing, believing is seeing.

Transformation is Possible

No matter how blessed or bad 2010 was, transformation is always possible.  Transformation, in a Christian sense, is not coupled to a particular event or action.  It is coupled to the heart, a coupling that heals regardless of life circumstances.

I was recently skating with our youngest child.  With pride, she said, when we left the ice, that she had only fallen twice – a new record!  I asked what last year’s record was.  She said 15.  Ah there is a God moment. And I think the crazy part to accept is that God cares not a lick about 15 or 2.  Did I love her less at 15 or more at 2? Frankly, neither.  What I love is her and her pluck.  And God’s love vs. my love?  Not even in the same ballpark.  None of us remain hopelessly beyond improvement and transformation and maybe one of the best paths to improvement is to remind yourself – 15 or 2 – God does not really care.    Maybe when that message sinks in, and we can actually say we fell, then we will fall less!

Joy is There

Joy is there.  Joy is there.  Joy is there.  God is.  God is present.  He loves you dearly.  He has your “back.”  He has placed you in the worlds in which you can offer a healing hand.  He placed Himself in YOUR hands so you could use His love to reach out to others in the Spirit that is your divine heritage.  Hold a baby this Christmas, still your mind, ask yourself “What if it is all true?”

Closing

“Peace on Earth.  Goodwill to Men.”

Peace

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

“Peace on earth, Goodwill toward men” – the core of the Christmas message.  Peace finds forms.  This Christmas, there is the obvious form of Peace that Christianity calls us to – peace as in an end to war, as in “beating swords into plowshares.”  This level of peace is of no small consequence and of no small responsibility.  “Peace” and “Goodwill” are connected in that regard.  By practicing one, we practice the other.  By feeding one, we feed the other.  By creating the space for one, we create space for the other.

In that regard we must be mindful of not using theology as excuse making.  Christianity, as an institution, over the ages has advocated for certain wars based on “just war theory.”  Deciding which wars are justified and which are not may well not be a topic to be addressed from pulpit.  Yet, as Christians, at the very least, we must remain uncomfortable with any war, justified or not.  When theology confirms the justification of war, we should be fearful of getting too comfortable with a bedfellow we must remain leary of.  To put it simply, Jesus was never comfortable with violence.  Neither then should we be.

None of this mitigates the great sacrifices of the military and military families.  None of this says that there are not real threats out there in the world that call us to legitimate self defense.  As a former history teacher I shudder to think of what the Nazi war machine would have done if it went un-confronted.

And I believe Christian pastors need to constantly remind all of us (including me) that if we simply start to accept war as a comfortable “status quo” we are missing a key to the Christian message.  If Jesus’ message does not unsettle us at least in this area, we arguably missed part of the Christmas message, a message of hope and comfort, but a message also that should confront us with something that maybe is just a bit more than a triumphal proclamation of “Peace on earth and Goodwill toward men.”  That proclamation may just be a command.

Winter Solstice: Faith in the Present Moment

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

God calls us to places where faith becomes possible – an important topic to speak on this winter’s solstice, the darkest day of the year.  For some, that place, that call comes at times when all else is stripped away.  For others it comes at times when the world breaks open in a limitless horizon of boundless opportunity.  I imagine for most reading this that a combination of the two probably rings true.

This morning reading of the “13th Disciple” I was struck again by the Jesus’ call to the young man and his clear rejection of it.  That rejection does not of course mean a “loss.”  The text is clear – Jesus “loved him.”  Jesus’ patient compassion is ever knocking on the door.  And the call is to leave behind so much – “sell all you have.”  So opening that door is a rather scary proposition!  Who wants to hear that as a sales call.

Remember the context though.  It is the context not of selling all of our material possessions and living in abject poverty.  It is the context of “selling” the comfort of our lives to heed a call that will lead us to a place where true faith is possible.  That will not be comfortable terrain.  But it will be terrain where we can find the true faith, faith as in living life deeply in the present moment, a faith no longer uncoupled from love.

How Important Is It For Us To Be Close To Others?

Monday, December 20th, 2010

“Invest and Invite” is a catchy little phrase and the basis of our growth strategy at NewChurch LIVE.  Restated, it means we must “invest” in relationships and then “invite” if and when appropriate. These words though carry with them greater gravity then just a prescriptive catch phrase that informs marketing.

Parker Palmer, a Christian Quaker, wrote the following words about his own spiritual development. “I had embraced a form of Christian faith devoted less to the experience of God than to abstractions about God, a fact that now baffles me; how did so many disembodied concepts emerge from a tradition whose central commitment was to the Word become flesh?“  Christianity without the investment in others clearly is a disembodied concept, uncoupled from the incarnational core of  our faith.

As we approach Christmas, I am struck by how much the story of Jesus’ birth is designed to draw us in.  The main characters – Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, the Wisemen – were inspired by angels, faced fears, were asked to travel.  The only individual who did none of these things was Herod, and, well, he does not come out so well in this story.  The point is that all were asked to “invest” in different ways.  When our goals are clear, when trust is present, when we see the star, we move more easily though the fears that surround us will no doubt accompany us on the trip.

Maybe that is the “risk” of investment.  We need to allow the call of Christmas, of Jesus, to actually unsettle us.  That “unsettling” should call us to candidly look at where we are investing our lives.  Are we close to each other?  Are we reaching out?  Are we willing to travel?  Are we willing to look up and see the star, to see the angels, that will call us home?  Can we come to see God incarnate as more than a disembodied concept but as the Other?

No fear, no movement.  No joy, no movement.  No risk, no growth.  Be mindful of this blessed promise, “The Lord is present with you the moment you start to love the neighbor.” (Heavenly Secrets)

What is Holy Communion?

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Holy Communion, called by some Holy Supper, is an ancient Christian sacrament body spoken of in the Gospels.  From the Gospel of Luke …

14 When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. 15 Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”19 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 20 Likewise He also tookis the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.

In the Christian New Church, we celebrate Holy Communion several times a year.  The actual service includes a brief talk, and then the wine and bread are passed and everyone partakes.  (Water or juice is provided for those whom the consumption of alcohol is unwise or unhealthy.)  Within what is actually a rather simple sacrament lies a true celebration of the heart of the Christian faith – or as the New Church theology phrases it, “the primary thing of external worship.”
The first part to consider is that the call the celebrate the Holy Supper is an unqualified call.  Regardless of our station in life – broken or blessed – we are called by Jesus to this communion.  He arrived in life living with others as they were.  Around the table of 12 disciples – the first group gathered for the Holy Supper – were Thomas the serial doubter, Judas the betrayer, Peter the mercurial hot-and-cold one.  The other 8 brought their imperfections as well.   We will bring the same.
Secondly, consider the elements of the Holy Supper – unleavened bread and wine.  We are asked to picture unleavened bread as symbolizing our desire to bring a “sincere heart” to life.  A sincere heart wraps around that deep call to love unconditionally.  We take it into us – “eating it” – because that is life – bringing in that piece of God.
Wine differs from the bread in that wine actually comes into being from fermentation process.  This makes for a fascinating paradox within the elements – one, unleavened bread, “pure,” the other, wine, “contested.”   Fermentation images the struggle of truth with falsity, with the end – wine – becoming the fruit of that struggle.  We must welcome that struggle.  It is part of life.  I love the words of Yann Martel that speak so clearly to the struggle ….

Doubt is useful for a while.  We must  all pass through the Garden of Gethsemane.  If Christ played with doubt, so must we.  If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt.  But we must move on.  To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

So we bring the sincere heart and truth born of struggle together, together.  Sit with the words.  In this Christian denomination, I will file a report at the end of year that asks me to record the number of celebrants.   What a marvelous word!  How many “celebrated” this wondrous sacrament!  And we celebrate it in the form of a holy “communion” – an act or instance of sharing, together.

What Role Should “Church” Play In Our Lives?

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Church, religion, spirituality, faith, belief – all these terms are hard to nail down, hard to define tightly.  Often different words are used by different people to mean the exact same thing, i.e the individual who says “I am spiritual but not religious” might mean the same thing as someone who states that they are “deeply religious.”

What is clear is that we have to remain deeply aware of the difference between church as a man-made institution and the heart of God.  A church – including NCL – is one of many possible expressions of the heart of the God.  We are no more “valid” than other denominations, or than individuals who chose to find God on their own outside of formal religious/ denominational affiliation.  As Swedenborg noted, “Everyone whose soul desires it is capable of seeing the truths of the Word in light.”  We can all see it – there is no denominational “lock” on truth  When lived into as a “truth” of the New Church, this concept makes us pretty unique and tolerant!  Actually to be a New Church “fundamentalist” is to be VERY tolerant – actively tolerant.  (I giggle thinking about using the words like “fundamentalist” and “tolerant” in the same sentence!)

“If we try to make the church into the kingdom of God, we create a false idol that will disappoint us.”  These words by Richard Rohr were the first words I read this morning.   Clearly uplifting and challenging they call us to a core truth – “Church” does not equal “The Kingdom of God.”  The Kingdom of God will exist, will constantly be born anew again and again into the world.  We can cooperate with that birth, choose to be part of that path, “ride the current” so to speak.  Thankfully just as we cannot create the Kingdom of God, we neither can destroy it.  What we can do is inhabit it as something already here.

Church can be an incredibly powerful vehicle as an expression of the heart of God.  Just don’t think this one church is the only expression!  God decided a long time ago against a one-man band.   He went right for the choir.

So church should play an absolutely key role.  We should find one that passes the “sniff” test – does it exist just for itself or for others?  If it exists for others and centers on a form of truth that resonates with the highest angels of your nature, calling you to be more than you currently are, it could be a wonderful spiritual home (a good band helps also:))   That “home” will need your care – volunteering, in service, in stewardship, in creating small groups.  You can celebrate finding it.  And you can celebrate every time someone else finds home – here or elsewhere – as well.

Living Life vs. Managing Life

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

So easy to fall into a pattern in which our primary concerns center on managing life vs. actually living life.  It is easy to become deeply fearful within the lives we have created.  On a recent trip to Lancaster, it was frankly with a sign of envy that I watched carriages carrying Amish on their way.  Granted such a life of rigid uniformity is limited in ways of which I am unaware, yet, in watching those buggies I thought of issues such a culture does not create – global warming, war, avarice.

Maybe this is part and  parcel why we need to continually ask question ourselves in terms characterized by deep thought and true candor  – what is God’s will?  As society runs towards limits, runs towards certain historical “stoppings”, alternative ways of holding the world I imagine will emerge.  In times of fear, we focus on accruing numerous forms of “insurance” that we believe will give us back control and safety.  Yet those efforts arguably will fail.  They will prove to be non-viable alternatives.  Forms of “preservation” rarely succeed – “He who saves his life will lose it.”

How then will Christianity step forward?    How will the Christian message form a viable alternative?  Jesus did not establish an economic, social or political “system” in the way we understand those words today.  He appears to allow those areas to be sidebars by effectively claiming “There is a bigger picture than what we see.  There is a bigger call, a bigger vision than what we know.”  And, in calling us into that bigger picture, He in turn calls right back down into the very human lives we live and the decisions we make, opening up alternatives of which we may have been blissfully unaware left to our own thoughts, ideas, rationalizations.

When we are thus called into life, we can then learn to live life vs. just manage it.