Archive for July, 2011

Experiencing Intense Gratitude

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Given the events of the past two weeks, I am struck by what we are to each other.  The image that comes to mind is of a summer time rain – the warm kind of rain, the kind that actually is joyous to get “caught” in.

Drops of gratitude, grace, kindness.  They fall on our lives and at times, actually pour down, all over, to be felt, experienced, danced in.  (Scary thought!)  I like to think that that experience is always available but I know pain keeps the drops at bay.  The noise of such pain can at times be so great it understandably eclipses much of Life.

Brian McLaren wrote of how we move towards a time of radical simplicity, a time when we come to discover the oneness of God not as a singular entity but as a relational oneness, the oneness of trees to a forest, the oneness of a drop to the rain, a oneness of experiencing what we are to each other, what God is to us, what God is through us, what God is through others.   It is Jesus’ prayer of oneness in the Gospel of John.

20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.  (John 17)

God’s Oneness is a Relational Oneness.

Does Suffering Make More Sense With God or Without God?

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

This is a core question.  In “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wrote that without God, all suffering becomes meaningless, without purpose.  With God, we gain a containment for meaning.

Facing the struggles of this past week has been a time of suffering. Watching one’s child face pain, disappointment and uncertainty is certainly far from God’s wish for our lives.  The future may indeed unfold in positive ways, and, that being said, this journey leaves its mark.

And maybe that is where “meaning” comes in.  In other words, what will the “mark” be?

A “mark” that burns, that fails to heal, that says this is further proof of the non-existence of God or the unfairness of God, saddens.  So many places of grace over the past week – impossible to count – gently refute the shouted demands of that mark.

A “mark” of remembrance, of witness however – that is what will remain.  A few weeks ago I talked with a mom of someone in our congregation who spoke with tears about how much it meant to her to know that her daughter’s church was supporting her.  Deeply moving conversation – a remembrance, a witnessing.

Maybe in the end it not about us seeking to find God’s meaning in all this.  Maybe it us joining with God as He joins us in a loving, compassionate search for meaning, for transcendent purpose, for the “mark”, a mark that reminds us of how precious we are to each other and how precious this one wild journey called “life” is.

When The Wolf Finally Comes

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

All face it at some point in time.  For a pastor it is quite a shift moving from being the one who checks in on a family facing serious medical challenges to be the one whose family is being checked in on.

Over 80% of all individuals who go to an emergency room require no care.  Much of life is the same – we imagine problems but most of the time those problems are nothing.  The pain is nothing more than a pain.  The lump is nothing more than fluid.  But not always.

Our family recently faced a serious medical emergency with one of our children.  It may well in the end resolve.  And we certainly have had to face a trying week. Our daughter, an incredible young lady, has done amazingly well – I am certain better than her dad would have under similar circumstances.

A few thoughts …

The little stuff really is the big stuff:  The notes. cards, texts, Facebook posts make a huge difference.  Watching her check her phone and FB to read messages has made a huge difference.  Admittedly we often feel too plugged in but in a crisis, being “plugged in” is priceless.  The words of John O’Donohue come back – “Only in times of crisis do we really experience the intimacy God intends.”  For us, this “intimacy” included conversations with family and friends we have not been in touch with, in some instances, for years.

Perspective expands: Walking the halls of the hospital, I see a great deal more pain than I did before.  The person sitting on the terrace, head in hands; the father telling his son after visiting his wife/ mom that he will need to make sure “take the trash out” to give mom a hand; the mother and daughter arguing in the lobby with hand gestures that seem to show frustration – were they not there before?  Being a pastor, I am no stranger to hospitals, but walking the journey with a loved one changes what we notice.

Perspective narrows: I pride myself on being well read on current events and frankly, none of that matters now.  The budget deficit negotiations go on hot and heavy, threatening our national economy due to a possible default.  And, it does not matter.  What one might usually follow and comment on with rapt attention no longer registers.

Challenges of Re-entry:  I know the crisis will not continue at its current pace and pitch.  We will get answers. Healing in whatever form it takes will be a slowly evolving process.  Much of it will be walked in smaller and smaller circles of community.  And the detachment from the world combined with the myopic focus on the loved one will create challenges re-engaging.  Life matters.  Work matters.  The other kids matter.  And it will be hard putting down the crisis to pick up the reality of day-to-day life.

And, God is here too.  Here in all of it.

Dangers of Christian Fundamentalism

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

The pictures from the recent shooting/ bombing in Norway are simply heartbreaking.  The grief over so much senseless violence is hard to even hold.  Our hearts go out to all who were lost.

It also brings great sadness to know that the phrase “fundamentalist Christian” in our cultural carries with it a connotation of a warrior like Christianity that can arguably give rise to such senselessness.  If Jesus is held as a religious zealot asking for “war” against those from other cultures and against perceived “threats” to cultural homogeneity, such events are predictable.  This appears to have been a least part of the assassin’s motivation.  It is a motivation not far different from al Queda.

“The Norwegian man charged Saturday with a pair of attacks in Oslo that killed at least 92 people left behind a detailed manifesto outlining his preparations and calling for a Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination, according to Norwegian and American officials familiar with the investigation….  Like Mr. Breivik’s manuscript, the major Qaeda declarations have detailed accounts of the Crusades, a pronounced sense of historical grievance and calls for apocalyptic warfare to defeat the religious and cultural enemy.”

And clearly, nothing could be further from the Christian message, message in which Jesus NEVER took up a sword, a world in which Jesus CONSISTENTLY crossed cultural barriers, and a world in which the primary call was to LOVE and COMPASSION.  And that is where our heart must rest, in that Christianity.  The warrior stuff is simply dangerous crap peddled by those who seek to cloak megalomania in a religious patina.  It is easy to hold it as harmless, a difference of opinion as it were, but it is perspective that carries with it the danger of heartrending consequences.

How A Friend and Visitor Sees The New Church

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

My friend Matt Stromberg recently wrote and posted a paper he authored on “What is the New Church?”  I posted it below.  Matt is a thorough scholar and a good guy.  Thanks to all of you have who made him feel so welcome when he visited NewChurch LIVE.

In hisMarriage of Heaven and Hell the Poet William Blake asks, “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Like so many others with a mystical bent, Blake sought to experience a world beyond the visible world known to our senses. In June of 1784, a group of intellectuals and spiritual seekers, seeking those same ends, gathered at Bell’s Book Store on South Third Street in Philadelphia to hear a lecture on “The Science of Correspondences.” Among those present were Benjamin Franklin and two other signers of the Declaration of Independence. The lecture explored the teachings of a scientist, mystic, and visionary named Emmanuel Swedenborg. Emmanuel Swedenborg, at the age of fifty-three, believed that he had received a visitation from the Lord Jesus Christ who opened to him the spiritual world.

Not only did Swedenborg discover that everything in the visible world corresponds to a spiritual reality, the doctrine of correspondence, but the interior, hidden sense of the scriptures was also revealed to him. According to Swedenborg the last judgement occurred in the spiritual world in 1757, not on May 21 2011 as believed by some today. The last judgement was followed by the long promised second coming of Christ. The second of coming of Christ was not a physical event, but the spiritual revelation of the interior meaning of God’s Word (discussed above.) Swedenborg, in his book True Christian Religion—one a many volumes of spiritual writings—spoke of a series of ecclesial dispensations, the Adamic, the Noahtic, the Israelitish and the Christian Church of the apostles. Swedenborg believed the revelation he received to mark the beginning of a new dispensation, the coming of a true Christian faith that would be the culmination of all of God’s work in the past. Swedenborg believed that Saint John’s vision of the New Jerusalem corresponded to this heavenly church, and so he spoke of it as The Church of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem Church would finally unite the true and good and establish true charity. His belief was that it would bring the sad divisions within the church to an end establishing a unity based on love of God and neighbour. Swedenborg never sought to institute any outward organisation of the New Jerusalem Church himself.

An Anglican clergyman named John Clowes began to translate Swedenborg’s writings into English and distribute them in his native England. Clowes formed a society of fellow devotees of Swedenborg’s doctrine, but did not seek to break from the established church either. Another believer in Swedenborg’s doctrine, Robert Hindmarsh, was the first to precipitate a break with the established church and the form a separate body. It was James Glen, a convert to the New Church, who brought Swedenborg’s ideas to the United States. In fact Glen was the one who delivered the lecture at Bell’s Book Store in Philadelphia.

Perhaps no one else was more influential in the spread of Swedenborg’s theology in the United States, however, than a missionary named John Chapman. Chapman planted several nurseries of apple trees all across the nation. He also sowed the seeds of Emmanuel Swedenborg’s heavenly doctrine through distributing his writing everywhere he went. Chapman is immortalized in American folklore as “Johnny Appleseed.” Helen Keller was another outspoken advocate for Swedenborg’s doctrine. Keller was influential in spreading Swedenborgian ideas in later years. It was the group that first met at Bell’s bookstore in Philadelphia, however, that would become the beginning of the New Church’s presence in America. On Christmas day in 1815 the group was formally organized as “The First New Jerusalem Society in Philadelphia.” A dispute arose over the authority of Swedenborg’s writings in 1889 which resulted in a schism. One group remained in Philadelphia while the other moved to their new headquarters in Bryn Athyn, founding the Academy of the New Church, and building the beautiful Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The Bryn Athyn group goes by the name, The General Church of the New Jerusalem or simply the New Church.

The New Church’s faith is based on the Bible as illuminated by the revelations of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The New Church, although sharing much, also differs from orthodox Christianity in several key areas. New Church theology rejects the orthodox idea of the trinity as three persons and instead speaks of God as one person, Jesus Christ. What are thought of as distinct persons within orthodox Christianity, are believed by the New Church to be three attributes of the same God, a kind of modalism. The Father is the invisible, divine soul, the Son the visible embodiment of that soul, and the Holy Spirit the truth that flows to all people from the divine soul. God is deeply personal and intricately involved in every area of our lives.

The Bible, along with being a book of history, prophecies, etc also corresponds to Divine Truth, hidden in its symbolism. This Truth is consistent with reason and the external sense of the scriptures and can be used to help us live a life of usefulness to others. The Second Coming is the arrival of that spiritual vision within us. Angels are people who once lived lives like our own and chose a life of usefulness to others or charity, loving God and their neighbour. Every human being was created to be on a spiritual process preparing them for life in heaven. This process involves repentance from sin, prayer, avoiding evil, and living a new life. All people who strive to live a life of goodness, according to the truth within their own faith, will eventually reach Heaven. The New Church does not believe in a physical resurrection. They believe, that upon death, we will pass into the spiritual world where we will live a recognizably human life with the same gender, personality, and memories we had in this life. Hell is a place for those who have denied God and pursued lives of selfishness while heaven is a place where people joyfully serve one another in love.

I first visited Bryn Athyn on a glorious spring morning. I had Van Morrison’s Astrial Weeks on the radio. Morrison’s soulful, mystical music seemed the perfect soundtrack for a place with such a spiritual mystique about it. At the heart of Bryn Athyn is the astonishing Bryn Athyn Cathedral. I’ve never seen the great churches of Europe, but the Cathedral is among the most impressive houses of worship I’ve ever seen. The New Church presence in Bryn Athyn is ubiquitous, a kind of Salt Lake City for Swedenborgians (much smaller of coarse.) The concentration of New Church presence combined within a small town setting, gives one the impression of a very tight nit community.

The people of the New Church are a very warm a friendly group. They are also very devout, committed to Jesus Christ, and dedicated to walking out their faith in a practical and loving way. I was there to meet Chuck Blair, the very earnest senior pastor of New Church Live, for lunch. Everywhere we went friendly members of Chuck’s Church greeted us. Chuck and I had been exchanging emails for quite awhile and he invited me out to talk face to face. He explained to me that his own take on New Church theology was that it was all about “eye level Christianity.” How are we living our faith here and now? Swedenborg taught about a God whose central attribute was love, a love so great that he came to live among us. He also warned about the danger of separating faith from life. Swedenborg sought to reconnect the True (doctrine) and the Good (Charity.) In keeping with Swedenborg’s ideas, the vision of New Church Live is to be “a Monday morning church.” The focus is not just what happens on Sunday mornings but also on how the church’s members live out the gospel the rest of the week. Chuck and I both found deep resonance between this idea and the missional ethos of Biblical Seminary.

I also had the pleasure of worshiping at New Church Live on a Sunday. Chuck’s congregation is unique within the New Church. More traditional congregations, like the one who worships at the cathedral, have services very much reminiscent of a traditional Anglican service. There is a liturgy, a choir, hymns, and special vestments for the clergy. There are also readings from both the Old and New Testaments, the difference being that there is also a reading from the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Swedenborg reading is usually chosen to illuminate the other text. Also the New Testament readings do not include Acts or any of the epistles with the exception of Revelation. Although those books are held in esteem, they are not recognized as canonical or inspired in the same way.

New Church Live is much different. Services are held in a performing arts centre on the Campus of Bryn Athyn College. It is a casual and contemporary worship service similar to many evangelical churches. The staff, including greeters, AV techs, coffee servers etc all wear T-Shirts with the New Church Live logo emblazoned on the front. The church band sounds more like a bar band than your typical worship band. They tend to play secular, rock songs, but secular songs that have some kind of spiritual or religious content. On the Sunday that I visited, the band performed two reggae songs, one a Bob Marley tune and the other Jimmy Cliff’s wonderful interpretation of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon. They also played one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite artist, Bruce Cockburn’s All the Diamonds in This World.The music seems to be an effective way of connecting to people where they are. It is very accessible to a secular audience.

Chuck has a very welcoming a relational preaching style that is also very accessible. The service opened with a sneak preview of the upcoming sermon series titled “Love Wins.” The series will look at some of the ideas discussed in Rob Bell’s new book of the same title. The controversial trailer made by Bell to promote the book was projected on the screen and appeared to have a very favourable reception. Chuck told me that he is a big admirer of Bell and other teachers often associated with the emerging church. Bell’s book has stirred up a lot of interest in the New Church. Chuck sent me a link for a podcast on Oprah Winfrey’s website by popular television personality and physician Dr. Oz. Dr. Oz praised Bell’s book as highly compatible with New Church theology. This particular Sunday’s service was not part of the “Love Wins” series, however, but the final sermon in a series called “212.” The series is based on an illustration about the temperature at which water boils. At 211, water begins to bubble, but at 212 it begins to boil. The difference is a matter of one degree.

Chuck presented the question of what it would take in our lives to have that extra bit that takes us from 211 to 212. The series worked out of the Biblical story of David, specifically his anointing by Samuel. This Sunday was focused on David’s well-known battle with Goliath. The exegesis of the scripture, in keeping with New Church principles, was allegorical. David could not defeat Goliath (read the obstacles in our own lives) by pretending to be someone he was not. Saul’s armour was ill fitting and heavy for David. Only by discovering his unique gifts, “God’s fingerprints,” symbolized by the five smooth stones, could David have victory. Like David, we should also discover God’s finger- prints within us, those strengths that are uniquely ours, and use them for the love of God and in usefulness to others. New Church theology teaches us to be angels in training, and angels always think in terms of opportunity to love God and others. With an angelic mindset, we must be constantly vigilant to find opportunities for useful service. We must not simply be content to allow God’s love to flow to us, but we must allow it to flowthrough us to those in need. If we try to keep the blessings of God for ourselves we will loose them. If we allow them to pass through us to others we will find that we are more truly blessed, because real blessing comes through being a blessing to others.

The more we allow ourselves to be useful in this way, the more we will find opportunities to be useful opening up to us. It takes more energy to go from 211 to 212 than in does to reach 211. That one degree extra requires the hardest push and we can easily get caught in the middle and never allow our lives to reach their boiling point. Chuck quoted from author Seth Godin, who writes in his book Linchpin about being an indispensible person, someone who really makes a difference. According to Godin, real change “…depends on motivated human beings selflessly contributing unasked for gifts.” Chuck left us with these thoughts, being a person that really makes a difference in the world requires that we make that extra push to be a 212 person. He said, “We are asked to use our own initiative on God’s behalf.” The service ended with prayer and invitation for people to come forward if they wanted prayer from Chuck or the assistant pastor.

After the service I was invited to join Pastor Chuck and some others at Betucci’s for lunch and fellowship. I had the opportunity to talk to other people about their faith and the New Church. One individual who joined us was Dave Fuller a medical doctor who was writing a book about Swedenborg and Osteopathic medicine. Dave believes in integrating spiritual practices and alternative medicine with modern medical practices, and works out of Holy Redeemer Medical Offices. He was a fascinating person and very helpful as he was extremely knowledgeable about New Church history and theology.

I also met an older couple that were converts to New Christianity from Catholicism. They spoke about how they never felt the spiritual nourishment they needed in any other church, and what an impact being a part of the New Church community has had on their lives and their relationship with God. What particularly attracted them was the openness and tolerance that the New Church has for other faiths. They first came to the church after their daughter planned to have her wedding in the Cathedral. Since then they have been very involved in the church both on Sunday mornings and also in midweek “Strength Groups.” Although their daughter’s engagement actually fell threw, they believe very strongly that God used those events to lead them to the New Church. Everyone I met was very friendly and extremely hospitable. They all encouraged me to come back another time.

My experience with the New Church has been extremely positive. Although I take strong exception to much of their doctrine, I continue to be impressed by their sincerity of devotion. It is humbling to see a friendliness, generosity, piety, and zeal for service that is often lacking in the more orthodox among a group that we would label heretical. I feel that I have made real friendships, especially with Pastor Chuck Blair, and I look forward to continuing my dialogue with the New Church.

… do hereby affirm our belief in … eternal, conscious punishment of the unregenerate in Hell

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

The Southern Baptist Convention, in June of 2011, passed a resolution stating that they “do hereby affirm our belief in the biblical teaching on eternal, conscious punishment of the unregenerate in Hell…”  The resolution specifically targeted Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.”

Such resolutions are deeply saddening.

It is important to honor, first, that many (most?) Christians – from Baptists to Catholics to those in the New Church – are sincerely motivated to share their faith as a way of helping others find salvation, find resurrection, find new life.  God clearly blesses that motivation.  If we are not sharing our faith – holding it tight out of the mistaken belief that others neither (a) need it or (b) want it – we are far afield from true Christianity.  Christianity does not flourish when we believe we somehow possess it.

And, we in the Christian New Church need to clearly say that the idea of a God who inflicts “eternal and conscious punishment on the unregenerate” is misguided at the best, and calamitous at the worst.

Imagine that kind of God – a God who created a world where – for ALL TIME – individuals who struggle with belief are tortured – actively and consciously – due to their non-belief.  That makes no sense.  That speaks to a pagan, tribal God motivated by conditional love and hatred towards those who fail to offer the proper sacrifice.

It is hard to imagine an image of God more starkly at odds with the image of God presented in Jesus.

The resolution calls the belief in eternal, conscious torment as Biblical.  But is it?  There certainly is room for counterarguments.  Many of those Jesus “healed” and “saved” in no way fit the description many contemporary Christian faiths formally hold of what salvation entails.  The Roman soldier asked Jesus to heal his daughter.  This pagan occupier of the holy land neither underwent baptism, nor declared Jesus his “personal Lord and Savior.”  He simply had faith that Jesus could heal.  And that faith “made him whole.”  Go to a fundamentalist Christian church, ask for their list of what salvation entails and then go to the Bible and see how many times Jesus did that to those he healed.   The answer will surprise.

Statements of course can be pulled from the Bible to create the image of an angry, vengeful God.  Our lives our similar – one could take “sound bites” out of our lives to create any image – from loving to hate filled – that one wished.  And that is why I believe Jesus consistently expounded the Gospel and then returned to the touch stone of love, period.

A loving Jesus and an angry God cannot exist together just as “Hatred and Charity cannot exist together.”  (New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine).  It is wrong, and dangerous, and deadly.

Is hell eternal?  From a New Church perspective, Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that hell was our choice, not Gods.  The torment that accompanies that choice is self inflicted, not God inflicted.  And those who choose hell are loved, are held closely by God, as He seeks to pull them as close to Himself as they will allow.  God’s work then of salvation goes on to all eternity.  That is the God of love – Jesus Christ – not the God of punishment.

How Do I Keep It Simple?

Friday, July 8th, 2011

From the book “True Christianity” Volume 2, pg. 23:

Friends, abstain from what is evil, and do what is good, and believe in the Lord with your whole heart and your whole soul; and He will give you love for what you do and faith in what you believe.

That is simple.  Often for me life chugs along and then I just hit patches where I feel unteathered, disconnected from God and other people. And at those time, a simple reminder of a simple truth brings me back to center.

What is powerful about this line from True Christianity is that it speaks of our need to follow the God of our understanding and how in doing that, God helps us to have faith (think “confidence”) in what we know and to have love at the core of what we do.  In other words, it is settling into our true selves.  Yes, there is a need there for an external form of revelation as it were – a rock “higher than I” as the New Testament would put it – to pull us out of our petty selves.  And, at the same time it focuses us back on our true selves in a healthy way – our informed perspective on the world, our enlightened view of God, our love.  Put your heart and soul into it and you get your heart and soul.