Archive for February, 2012

What is the killer question for churches and how Emily answered it

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

What is the killer question for churches?

This week I am traveling to Western Pennsylvania to talk to a congregation located north of Pittsburgh.   Several members from their sister congregation in the city will join us.  And what is it that I find most important to share at these events, among those deeply committed to moving church out into the world as a healing force?  It is the centrality of one thing – what is the first question a church should ask? Is it,”What does the congregation want to do?” or is it “How can this congregation serve?”

“What does this congregation want to do?”

This question is logical.  It is the question any trained minister would by all means start a pastoral call with.  And it is death.

Why such strong language?  Because church and Christianity is not suffering from overt attacks from without but from a slow decay from within.  That slow decay unfortunately gets covered over with various scents and perfumes that confuse activity with effectiveness.  I remember traveling to one congregation in the Allentown area where during the welcoming words by the Pastor, it was clearly stated, “We do not ‘pass the peace’” here.  (To ‘pass the peace’ is the begin the service with congregants welcoming one another with a handshake and welcome wish for God’s peace.)  They even noted this exclusion in their printed worship program.

As a minister, I can easily envision the debate that must have swirled around this decision. The congregation obviously held a degree a pride in this decision, seeing it as a competitive advantage of sorts vis-a-vis other congregations.

The above is what often passes for the work of church.  It comes in various packages – debates over carpeting, music, prayer, liturgy, and the use of technology.  And yet we need to be frank – none of that appears to be of much concern to Christ.  It is trivial – window dressing in terms of the work the church is called to,work closer to justice and care for others.

As needs to be said over and over again, Christ never gathered the 12 to ask “What does the congregation want to do?”  What He did was fire their imaginations with the passion of service, of the lived experience of selfless devotion to the other.  And then, simply, sent them out.  “Go forth and make disciples of men.”  In other words, he asked the second question.

“How can the church serve?”

This question places church and other groupings in perspective and creates a far more meaningful raison d’etre.  It allows for breath – both in and out.  Churches do in fact serve their members.  The couple who invites new people to lunch after church is doing a HUGE service.  And so is the person who organizes a larger community service outing.  Both work hand-in-hand in the spirit of service – breathing in and out, the respiration of a healthy church.

We know very well the hard stories that bring many people to the doors of church.  They need care.  We know very well the hard stories out there in wider environs.  They need care.

A service orientation allows us to engage in the critical and hope filled task of asking even more.  (Courtesy of Richard Rohr)

  1. What should life be?
  2. Why isn’t it?
  3. How do we repair it?


The New Church, like many Christian churches, will reclaim its prophetic voice.  That was Emanuel Swedenborg’s call from God, one unfortunately I believe we have effectively neutered.   What if we take the deeper mantle again – the mantle of “service” minus the “serve us”?  Christianity, in it purer forms appears to be heading more  and more into a period of cultural exile, however the blessing in that exile is that it will enable us to see more clearly and maybe reclaim the faith as a distinct alternative to cultural norms destructive of human lives and spirit.

Shortly after posting this blog, I was interrupted by call from Emily Green, a local secondary school student.  She is organizing a cupcake drive to benefit cancer care at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  We discussed how NewChurch LIVE can help her further her project.  Pass the Peace Sister!!  Now THAT is church.

Protecting Women: “Saving Face”

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Two weeks ago I spoke to the power of Christ’s word when he told people in Mark that a man must leave his mother and father and “cleave to his wife.” That is powerful – revolutionary actually – for the Middle Eastern culture into which it was spoken, a culture that held women as property and the male line as supreme. That battle continues. I was struck by this documentary and the continued need to ensure the protection of women.  As New Church theology clearly points out, the love of dominating destroys all hope of love in a marriage.  Marriages can survive many things, but not one partner controlling the other.

Does your life generate questions?

Monday, February 27th, 2012

It is good to ask, does the way in which I am living generate questions?  Am I engaged and interested enough in the world and others around me that I approach both with a sense of curiousty and wonder, that in turns engenders questions of discovery?  And the converse, am I living my life in such a way that those who know me may on occasion ask questions about my approach to life?

Finding a spiritual life is not about developing an obvnoxiously over-the-top religous persona.  The most spiritual people I know more often live lives characterized by humility, quiet.  And that quiet, filled with an engaged view of the world as full of pregnant possibility , becomes an incredible question generator. People in that place tend to drink life in, to carry a sense of awe and wonder, as well as expressive gratitude.   In their presence, I am often tempted to ask, “You know something don’t you?”

And I certainly have found most people have one or more areas just like that listed above.  I am struck in my work with couples as we prattle on through several hours of pre-marital counseling work, that often one partner will say something that gives me pause – a statement or marverlous insight which I hear, and know at a deep level to be true.  It leads me, smiling, to the questions, “How did you come to know THAT?”

Too often formal religion is seen as a closing of dialog and open mindedness, far too concerned with funneling conversation rapidly down to one pointed answer.  Many  decry that formulaic approach to truth as doing a dis-service to God’s work in the world, work that is far more organic and awe inspiring than I care to admit. God’s life, like ours, should generate marvelous questions!    How we ask and how we answer tells us much about spiritual life.

When Church Has Hurt You

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

For many, wounds they have received from church are some of the most painful.  Given the “newness” of NewChurch LIVE we attract a fair number of folks who talk of how the church in which they were raised hurt them.

Within that conversation, it is not hard to pick up actually a deep longing for re-discovery.  Will NewChurch LIVE be it?  Will something else fit?

Critical to start this conversation with simple humility and penance.  The church through its membership and clergy has hurt people. That hurt came forth in many ways – judgment, abuse, cruelty – the ugly side of religion co-opted as a screen for individual depravity.  Several years ago I read David Miller’s book “Blue Like Jazz” in which he traveled to a college whose hedonistic reputation shaped it’s core.  His goal there was not to call the “lost” but to simply apologize for all the wrongs of the church.  He set up a confession booth in the center of campus not to hear confessions but to ask forgiveness for all the ways in which the Christian church hurt people.  In that vein I am deeply sorry for the ways in which the New Church, Catholic Church, Protestant Church – Christendom in its broadest forms – has hurt people.

Maybe from that place of humility and penance, the journey moves.

I enjoyed these pastor’s words as he addressed those whom the church hurt, a hurt he himself had to overcome.  It is powerful description of a way forward for those hurt by the church.

Understanding the following things is how I found my way back. For the person who has been hurt by the church, they are things they will most need to know.

1) You are not foolish to believe in community. Those who have been hurt by the church almost immediately begin to question everything that happens within it. Because of their experience, they may feel duped and may disregard all the good, determining that none of it can be real. They may shy away from any type of community, sometimes for an extended period of time. They need to be reassured that though believers are flawed, we can be a great gift to each other in times of need, want, and hurt, and it was God’s plan for it to be so. 

2) God is not responsible for man’s decision. The most tragic thing that happens when church people behave poorly is that it can alter the way someone sees God. In researching my book, hole, the Barna Omnipoll discovered that over 30 million people say that religion has caused them to question God. It is important, then, to encourage people to separate the perfection of God from the shortcomings of people, not holding God responsible for the decisions man make without Him.

3) Dropping out or changing churches won’t heal your heart. The tendency when hurt by the church is to self-protect by dropping out of church or finding another place of worship. While there is a time and place for finding a new church (a decision based on core beliefs, steadied prayer, family consideration and theological compatibility) it is important to help people realize that church hurts will only be healed by the Healer, and it is work that will need to be done independently, in the heart.

4) Stay open, believe the best, but lessen your expectations. Church hurts are some of the toughest to move past. But it is our responsibility to help guide people to keep their heart open and pure. How we, as leaders, set the example with how we handle our own disappointments in the church will be the biggest key to this. Things like believing the best in people, offering grace, holding expectations loosely and having a commitment to working through tough issues and disagreements will be the glue that will hold the community together.

5) Know that through the holes from church hurts you can find Jesus. Church hurts can cause deep, limiting and defining holes in our life. But through those holes exists space to see more, know more, and experience greater love for Jesus. Holes help us view the One who will never hurt us or let us down, and with that focus, gathering as flawed humans to worship our one great God becomes possible because it remains about Him.

Jesus lived and died for His message of redemption. Seeing those who have been hurt by the church, loving them, and helping restore them back to spiritual health not only furthers this message, but invests in those who already believe but simply need to find their way back.
This congregation can be a place of healing then if we , well, simply commit to creating a place of healing.  Not a group holding a “holier-than-thou-other-churches” position but a congregation that candidly acknowledges the pain in life and humbly works with God and others to bring healing in its season.


Too Blessed To Be Stressed

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

My sister sent me a text.  She enjoyed a conversation she had with a house painter.  He found faith through battling a drug addiction. The conversation started simply – his T-Shirt read “Too Blessed To Be Stressed.”

Why don’t we live there?  Why do I choose stress so often?  Why do I choose worry so often?  Why am I so dammed “serious?”  Here is the reality – life is actually good – broken but good.  Blessings abound.  Most of what I categorize as “failure” opened up into something far different.  Learning to love is a life’s work but also a life’s joy.  Adventure.

On Sunday night a support group around divorce met.  Looking around that room, seeing so many tender faces there for reasons beyond “self” was a glimpse of heaven.  Yes it was serious and there was an underlying joy – not a joy of laughter but a sober, deeper joy of life lived well as life lived for others.  It is serious stuff but as Mary Oliver put it … “happiness, it is another one of the ways to enter the fire.”

You are allowed to have one opinion of someone else

Monday, February 20th, 2012

You are allowed to have one opinion of someone else.  That opinion is that they are a child of God – a powerful thought shared by Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church.

That does not mean of course that there are those from it is better to keep a certain distance or to call to ask on certain challenges.  What it does mean is that that person, right here in front of us, is always a child of God first and foremost.

Years ago I was struck on hearing a pastoral challenge about loving your “enemy” – a clear spiritual call.  The challenge was to think of the person you loved the least.  And, right there, to candidly allow this rather disturbing thought to enter the social equation – you only love God as much as you love the person you love the least.  Hard to refute.

From that place I think we can understand the New Church perspective that no one, not even an angel, can possibly know all the ways someone comes to God.

Above all else, avoid success

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Thomas Merton famously wrote, “”Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success.”

One must smile at the sentiment behind his words.  Success does truly dull us to so much, leaving us feeling smug and self assured in a way that cuts off the possibility of reflection and growth.  ”Success” at the spiritual journey appears far different however than more contemporary forms for success.

Spiritual “success” as I witness with those with whom I work pastorally often include …

  1. Surrender: The surrender is of a different ilk than the royal ego – the “I” deciding to surrender something.  Surrender is not chosen.  It is forced.  There is no “choice” involved because the individual ego is “defeated.”  All that is left is presence.  As one clergy friend, who had suffered painful loss said, “I know I am just along for the ride.”  That is surrender, said by her with a grin.
  2. An Irrefutable and Uncomfortable Call: This one brings a smile to my face – a large smile – because who wants THAT!  It is fun watching the contortions of “should I” or “shouldn’t I” when, if those questions are asked in a spiritual environment, the answer has already been given. It just remains to be lived into.
  3. Loneliness: The call is a solitary one, adding color to Jesus’s comments about “leaving family.”  Not many join that journey early.  Not many speak of it to others.   I hear often universal expressions of loneliness.
  4. Peaceful, Quiet Joy: And undergirding all the above is the Gospel – the “good news.”  The peaceful quiet joy may not always be present but I am left hearing it spoken of frequently.  ”I was sitting by water and I felt a peace I have never felt before” one courageous woman wrote.  Another spoke of her dedication to Taize services and contemplative prayer – and their “intoxicating” impact.  A third struggled to find any words, saying only that she somehow knew I “would understand.”  And I do!
And what can a Pastor offer?  Really just a simple “yes.”


Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

I say, with an attempt at being lighthearted, that the most common theological question I field is “I am thinking about a divorce. What should I do?”  There is nothing however lighthearted about the question.  Divorce often is devastating not just to the couple but to families and friends alike.

And yet there are situations where divorce is a legitimate choice.  I don’t believe the job of a pastor is to serve as a court-appointed arbitrator who renders decisions on a “legitimate” or “illegitimate” divorce. The role of a Pastor is to listen, to hear, to offer an unanxious and loving presence willing to sit with someone in pain who has reached a painful crossroads.  From that place a pastor can offer what he/ she sees as God’s insights from His Word.

And what would those insights be?

For me, it starts with the overwhelming need for compassion.  Working on both sides of the marriage equation – with those who want to keep working and those ready to leave – I know the entire enterprise is filled with pain for everyone.  No one gets a “Get out of jail free” pass .  That is a clear call for compassion, a call we see again and again in God’s Word.

In the New Testament, Jesus consistently narrowed the scope of appropriate reasons for divorce, eschewing the Old Testament teaching that a man could divorce his wife if she was “displeasing” to him.  That Old Testament perspective reflected the overbearing paternalist chauvinism of Middle Eastern culture.  Christ stood clearly against it, urging men to leave ancestral family ties behind in order to join with their spouse.  He likewise narrowed the cause for divorce to adultery.  Those teachings were offered in the spirit of compassion, as a way of protecting women for whom a divorce was often, literally a death sentence, given their lack of rights and their inability to claim any of their husbands property in the event of a dissolution of the marriage.   New Church theology reflects that same basic posture.

I do not believe marriage should be dissolved for “light” reasons.  I likewise believe that adultery is a broad term.  A husband addicted to pornography who purposefully pushes the marriage aside as he dives further into a land of addiction is adulterating the marriage covenant.  Abuse – physical, sexual, or verbal – arguably would be the same I believe.  All relationships entail periods of suffering.  However there is a categorical difference between the suffering that is within God’s will and the suffering that is death dealing, that is outside of God’s will.

And what I know at a very deep level, is that regardless of “rights” and “wrongs” compassion must reign supreme.  For those versed in the New Testament, Jesus’ comment to the woman caught in adultery was not “suffer the consequence” but instead quite literally the life saving approach of the Savior.  To the Samaritan woman at the well – married 5 times and now living with her boyfriend – the promise was in the same vein – a promise of “living water.”

Words of kindness are not just reserved for the easy situations in life.  They are likewise applicable to the mess.   As Emanuel Swedenborg noted, “Those guided by kindness hardly notice evil in another but pay attention instead to everything good and true in the person. When they do find anything bad or wrong they put a good interpretation on it.” Lets do the same.  Lets be guided by kindness.

The Eyes of Love

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

The eyes of love are eyes that are simply focused on the core message of our soul song – Mean Well,  Think Well.  If we can do those simple things God’s presence arrives because we – as in our judgements, opinions, agendas – get out of the way.  Open the blinds on a sunny day, light is there.  Have a blessed Valentines’ Day!

What is the greatest danger to Christianity? Sentimentality

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Stanley Hauerwas offered a simple answer – Sentimentality.   The challenge with sentimentality is that it is a presentation of an accommodated form  of faith, made to stir emotions but not disrupt our lives in a positive way.

Take for example the traditional pre-Super Bowl National Anthem.  I heard a commenter from Australia note how strange that all appeared to him.  The strangeness, from his perspective, grew from the quasi-religious nature of it all, the “civic religion” that passes for spiritual depth.  It was clearly part of that days “liturgy”, a liturgy that set us up for a form of worship (or at least a 100,000,000 of us!).

Of course, there is nothing per say “wrong” with it.  I love the Super Bowl.  I love the National Anthem.  However, can we really take note of the fact that it is sentimental, not real?

The Christian New Church message can lapse into that sentimentality as well.  We are no different than other faiths.  As a Pastor,frankly, the sentimental buttons are the easiest one’s to press.   They draw an immediate empathetic response and never, in my experience, engender any form of criticism.

Sentimentality has a place as a holding for those who need held.  That being said, if sentimentality pulls us into the comfort that deadens us to the necessary suffering and challenge of life, we missed.  Christianity is a witnessing, a watching as it were.  At its very core it is about a death, a waiting, a resurrection – very human experiences in which the Christian message can create a holding in a new way.

We are to be different.  We are to be unique.  We are, as St. Francis famously said, to preach the Gospel every day and if needs be use words.  In that sense, YOU may well be the only Gospel many ever read.  That is not a sentimental task. That is the task of transformation.  Kelly Clarkson?  She got me choked up.  God? He gave me a new heart.