Archive for June, 2011

Love Wins

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

We closed our series “Love Wins” this past Sunday.  What a blessed topic to speak on.

It was a deeply moving moment last week to be up front with the 6 volunteers from the congregation – 3 reading passages from the Bible, 3 listening.  The power of God’s Word is a miracle.  Looking at the faces, and at the tears, of those who were read to was profound.  I am reminded in witnessing that why the Bible through most of history was an oral tradition.  There is simply something in those words.  Our job is to give and receive the power present there – not just the literal words but the spirit within them.

The power is so profound I find myself in constant need to remain quiet in it’s presence, humble in its sphere.

Thank you God for being a space where we can experience that, and live into it together.

What is Partnership?

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

(A Paper Presented to Clergy at the 2011 General Church Assembly/ Conference)

New Church theology speaks of the fact that “Divine love constantly aims to forge a partnership with us.”  The relationship God seeks is “a mutual partnership brought about by cooperation not action and reaction.” (TCR 371) How can we, in our limited human ways, try to more effectively cooperate with God’s desire for partnership as we seek to build a church?   How do we make the partnership “mutual and reciprocal?”   If community is “heaven in a lesser form”, how do create community?  (HH 52)

These are critical questions.  Christianity, in the form of institutional religion, faces many challenges.  We are not unique in that regard.  Older models of “church” appear to be fading quickly as congregations age and shrink. The average age for example of a Presbyterian Church goer in the United States is 60.  The same is true in many of our New Church congregations.  Newer models are emerging but remain somewhat undefined and unproven.  Through the process of change, remaining mindful that ‘empting out’ occurs before a ‘filling up’ appears to be of note.

How then are we to navigate these changing waters?  Arguably we, as in clergy, cannot.  We can think long and hard.  We can develop papers and positions.  And yet the future appears to be best served by developing partnership models that pull clergy and laity into an increasingly close, cooperative model based on the partnership model God seeks to establish with each of us and with His church.  Restated, if God desires mutual and reciprocal partnership we need to practice mutual and reciprocal partnership not just with God but with others.  As is noted, we must govern our world as God governs His.   Leadership and partnership then join.

Such a form of leadership entails gaining clarity on the non-negotiables and then allowing new forms to evolve out of those “knowns.”  This occurs in the same way that knowing musical scales or a mathematical equation allows for further growth and creativity.  Through this all the greatest of knowns is love.  What moves us towards being more loving, moves us closer to God.  “To the extent the truth becomes the leader, good becomes obscured; but to the extent good becomes the leader, truth is visible in its own light.”  (AC 2407)

Many lines of new Church theological thought support a partnership model, i.e. “Nunc Licet”, “freedom according to reason” etc….  The role of the clergy then shifts from being resident expert, all knowing seer with answers, to a living partner with the laity.  I believe the Catholic model of God > Clergy > Parishioner does not serve.  The New Church model of God  > People is what does serve.  The special intuition/ perception given to clergy as a function of the clergy’s use is not denigrated in this model.   Arguably it is it even more needed as a way to navigate the difficult, changing waters with grace.

How then, specifically, do we create a church where we live into this partnership model?

Sermon Writing Team

Sermon construction is one core of church life.  The Sunday service and other related services still remain the primary focus of church life.  The focus for many younger adults is clearly shifting away from church attendance as being the key marker of spirituality, however a solid Sunday program that informs and inspires remains central to church life.  Therefore it needs to be fashioned around a partnership model.

People do form communities that we know partner with communities in heaven in ways unseen and unknown.  The Pastor is not the conduit.  The Pastor is just part of the community.   These connections are with “all the varieties of what is good.”  (TCR 15)  So bringing a community together to create the Sunday message appears highly appropriate given the need to draw on these “varieties,” an orientation found in many memorable relationships that speak of gathers of individuals for the purpose of conversation and learning.

A strong, connected teaching of the New Church is that we all possess our own individual spiritual lives.  We, like the disciples, all speak “in unique voices.”  (TCR 146)  Our unique spiritual lives then are not dependent on man-made organizations, formal church structures etc… which attempt to have all sing in one note versus all sing in harmony. And yet there is a continual, and I believe misguided default to seeing the minister as the only one with a grasp of the spiritual – as the one who knows THE note.  As one former bishop noted, a great disappointment he faced often was being a “conversation stopper” in which others looked to him for THE answer.

Yet every week we are actually preaching to a room or auditorium filled with experts.  It is not like a doctor addressing sick patients.  It is like a doctor addressing other doctors.  “Come let us reason together.”  They may be doctors in search of more knowledge, in search of care, in search of community, some of whom may have reached the end of their “knowledge” but we should still assume they are doctors.  We need to remain humble to the fact that what we do not know is “infinite” in comparison to what do know.  (AC 1557)  Therefore as clergy we must reach out to our congregation in the spirit of co-creation, doctor to doctor.  As pointed out in the Arcana, “The Lord’s Church differs from one group to the next, and not only from one group to the next but sometimes from individual to individual.” (AC 3451)

Personally, the creation of a sermon writing team may have been the most significant change at NCL compared to how I formerly functioned.  We employ a team approach from picking topics, to crafting the message, to sharing thoughts/ readings during the service.      I say it without hesitation – the most resonant ideas that I speak are gleaned from the thoughts of others – a fact consistently reinforced week in and week out.

Examples abound.  Our recent series on “Lets Build a Church” included topics that were encapsulated in wording that absolutely got right to the core of the New Church message in language that was highly accessible.  A sermon on “The Empty Chair” for example spoke of the need to keep space open for others in the church.  Of course, the concept was not hard to grasp, but wording/ language such as that opens up the message in new and memorable ways.   The same is true for the graphic for the series.  A volunteer designed it.  It captures the concept of “Church Universal” in a brief, memorable snapshot.

Worship as a Sunday activity is made real by worship as a Monday activity.  This is a clear New Church teaching.

The essential divine worship in the heavens does not consist in going to church regularly and listening to sermons but in a life of love, thoughtfulness, and faith.  HH 222

The Monday morning experts are sitting in the congregation!  They know the experiences of “love, thoughtfulness and faith” in the arena of life better than I do, encumbered by own ego, blind spots, and prejudices.    Importantly, they know the questions.  Clergy, as one author famously noted, must stop answering questions people are not asking.   I believe we better hear what questions are in need of answering if we partner with our congregants.  That requires an outlook more aligned with partnership than has traditionally been the case.

Volunteering/ Ministry

TCR 38 holds that the two essentials of the church are goodwill and faith.  Aligned to the that idea is the concept that “A person who lives a life of faith and compassion is constantly at worship.”  (AC 1618)  The compelling why behind volunteering therefore is self-evident.  And here is another area where the New Church concept of partnership as being “mutual and reciprocal” can be applied in fresh ways.

A traditional approach to volunteering is listing the needs of the congregation and/ or community and then asking who would like to fill what need.  This approach is not without merit.  And yet there is a deeper form of volunteering that seeks to ask people what it is that is calling to be born into their lives.  Out of that grows ministry – a volunteering born of the heart vs. just duty.  Ask out of duty, and someone will deliver their body.  Ask of their heart, and they will deliver their spirit.

Restated, imagine a congregation that is highly effective at tapping into the deeply held loves of its congregants.  In a recent conversation, I shared a laugh with a NCL congregant who is willing to give us 12 hours of her time writing and unwilling to give us 1 hour of her time parking cars on Sunday.  The pastor’s role then is to help her develop that love of writing and to help discuss the avenues where her particular gift can be a made an offering in her church.  And the miracle?  We have people who love parking cars.

Importantly, this deeper partnering allows church to be a dynamic entity.  For example, a typical volunteer list includes (a) hosting/ ushering, (b) music, (c) Sunday school.  NCL has much the same list.  That being said, if a, b, and c are the sole opportunities of giving, what does that in turn say about what church is?  To me it says church is static – limited to a, b, and c – which is hard to support given New Church teachings which center on the fact that love in action is what remains.

In the ministry approach far deeper springs are tapped into.  There is a meeting of a person’s strengths, their loves, and the worlds needs.  Restated in New Church terminology – love, wisdom and use. Through that small convergence in the middle, passion is born, and truly generative service grows.  We are able to give to the given use out of our live and gifts.  And we can trust that God will bring people to our congregations who can fill even the most mundane of tasks with the passion born of useful service.  And where “service rules the Lord is ruling.”  (HH 564)

Out of this approach to growth Small Groups can grow.   Some groups will spring from a more traditional desire within the congregation for instruction.  Other groups will grow from a desire for community or to delve into a topic.  Regardless, the groups will spring from congregational interest.

This ensconces the small groups in relevance.  The congregation requests and forms what they want.  We are to serve spiritual hunger, and spiritual hunger is particular in nature.  Not everyone hungers and thirsts after the same particular thing.  One individual may be excited about a reading group because they are in a learning phase, another may be searching fellowship and are more pulled towards community building.  Therefore creating a process that allows these particular interests to bubble to the surface is important.

Growth

Engaged people engage people.  Engaged people invest in relationships.  Investing in relationships in turn grows a church – the “invest and invite” strategy of evangelization.   In other words, if the congregation takes the partnership model to heart and applies it in their own lives, that partnering in turn will bring others into the church.   If we can create church where the modus operandi is “walking with” that is exactly what we will get.  “If you plant corn, you get corn.”

As Jesus notes in the Gospel of John, “Feed My sheep.”  Yet we live in a world where the primary concern is “Am I fed?”  That is true of many church attenders.  If they feel “fed” they return.  If not, they leave.  And clergy – and I include myself here – can feel that way as well.  Am I “fed” by my congregation?

Growth in a real sense will not come from those merely looking to be fed.  It will come from a counter-intuitive flip of perspective.  This flip is where the concern moves from being fed to feeding.  Can I feed others?  Can I invest in the relationship?  This is the question that must be asked by both laity and clergy.   And that is where compassion and love come alive – true worship.

You continually pray when you are living a life of kindness, although not with your mouth yet with your heart.  That which you live is continually in your thoughts, even when you are unconscious of it.”  (AE 325)

Then we live into the Great Commission, making disciples who carry forth the message – not as piles omniscient teachers but as engaged learners, focused students out to be vehicle for bringing the Kingdom to the world.

How Do We Thrive In God’s Good World?

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

We thrive in God’s good world by living not with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth but with both feet in both.  ”The life that leads to heaven is not one of withdrawal from the world but a life in the world. A life of piety apart from a life of kind service does not lead to heaven at all.”  (Heaven and Hell)

That entails work.  This week we looked at the “New Jerusalem”, God’s prophecy of a new church descending onto earth. In this city, the gates were always open, the light always on.  At the center was no longer a temple but a tree – and not just any tree.  It was the tree of life, the same tree from Genesis – creating a beautiful bookend to the Biblical narrative.

We thrive when we get that this life is not something to escape from but something to engage.  Much of that work will be living into the prophecy of the New Jerusalem – gates open, light on.  That may feel vulnerable.  But we always must question what vulerability is.   This scene from Blood Diamond tells a very different story about vulnerability.  It is a scene in which a father finally finds his son – a young boy kidnapped and trained to be a child-soldier in Africa – and attempts to bring him home.

A different view of vulnerability isn’t it.  And it is what the world needs.  As Brian McClarren noted:

“Perhaps the most promising possibility lies with the thousands of SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) who are waiting for something very much like Progressive Christianity to emerge and get down to business. By “business,” I mean the sacred endeavor of loving God and neighbor, stranger, alien, outsider, outcast, and enemy. I mean the work of healing our broken world, the vocation of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. I mean the spiritual work of forming Christ-like people, and the social enterprise of seeking the common good, beginning with the last, the least, and the lost. Moving forward, little by little, in the robust organic process of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven—that’s the progress that Progressive Christianity is about.”

Sounds like the New Jerusalem!  Sounds like thriving in God’s good world.

“The Online Looking Glass”

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

In a recent New York Times OpEd piece Ross Douthat wrote of the recent challenges facing Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York.

Writing in the late ’70s, Lasch distinguished modern narcissism from old-fashioned egotism. The contemporary narcissist, he wrote, differs “from an earlier type of American individualist” in “the tenuous quality of his selfhood.” Despite “his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem.” His innate insecurity can only be overcome “by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power and charisma.”

This is a depressingly accurate anticipation of both the relationship between Weiner and his female “followers,” and the broader “look at me! look at meeeee!” culture of online social media, in which nearly all of us participate to some degree or another.

Facebook and Twitter did not forge the culture of narcissism. But they serve as a hall of mirrors in which it flourishes as never before – a “vast virtual gallery,” as Rosen has written, whose self-portraits mainly testify to “the timeless human desire for attention.”

And as Anthony Weiner just found out, it’s very easy to get lost in there.

I loved the reference to the “hall of mirrors” in which it is “very easy to get lost.”  That is an accurate portrayal of the world in which we find ourselves, a world in which conversations around the “common good” appear quiet at this time.

We can lose ourselves individually that way.  Churches can loose their way as well.  I often think that maybe Jesus’ last word’s to me as I leave this earth will be said with a big smile, and what they will say is “It was never about you.”  Then I know I will have found my Self – that by His grace, I got out of the hall of mirrors!


Obstacle Course vs. Runway

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Our view of God is central to our view of how the world works.

For some, the God of their understanding is an angry God, a God of vengeance, a God of conditional love.  The demands of that deity can appear like an obstacle course.  There are “cones” to touch, a course to be run, times and performances to be met.  God’s acceptance of us is based on the speed and accuracy with which we move through that course.  And don’t screw up!

This view holds true in many Christian circle.  God’s anger at the human race was appeased through the bloody sacrifice of His Son, Jesus.  We get “in”, we are “saved” through that sacrifice but only if we regard Jesus as our one, true personal savior.  Left out are all those who did not come to belief.  They are in turn “left behind” to live lives of eternal torment and punishment for non-belief regardless of anything they did.  The beautiful Buddhist?  Toast.   The Mormon who serves overseas?  Done.  The person who tries to live a loving life but can’t find a way to belief right now? Over.

This may appear as overstatements but the “Left Behind Series” has sold millions of books and comic books based on that very premise.

But what if God instead was unconditional in His love?  What if Jesus, not as the Son of God, but as the very Incarnation of God, came to earth to show us clearly how to love unconditionally?   What if the rules of life were there not an obstacle course but were crafted boundaries to form a runway what would allow us to take flight?  Sounds like “the fullness of joy!”

What Kind Of God Is That?

Friday, June 10th, 2011

The next 3 Sundays we look at “Love Wins.”  Imagine that love for God for other people “embrace within themselves everything that is true.” (Heaven and Hell)  The ultimate truth is love.  The ultimate discipline is learning how to be loving.  Join us!

No Where vs. Now Here

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

“No where” vs. “Now Here” is one of the transformative shifts of life.  We can see our lives and the opportunities essentially as “no where” or we can see those opportunities as “now here.”

The “no where” perspective is fear driven, blinded to the God given opportunities before it.  As with anything, we can actually practice it and that is where the “no where” perspective can become increasingly a shut down, increasingly life into blindness.  In “Divine Providence” Emanuel Swedenborg writes that unless we act on our intentions eventually our real intention becomes unwillingness.  That was an eye opener for me – imagine if my intention was not just the lack of willingness of actual unwillingness!

The “Now Here” perspective, stated simply, is the perspective of angels.  Angels “desire nothing more than to perform useful service.”  (Secrets of Heaven)  Restated, angels life is about the opportunity – seeing it and filling it.  They fill it on their “own initiative on behalf of God.”

Love then is point – not love that grabs and points towards ourselves but love that we allow to flow through our selves.  That is work, no question.  But it is highly practical.  As Seth Godin noted in his recent book “Linchpin”, the future belongs to those who offer “unasked for gifts of emotional labor.”  Welcome to “Now Here.”