Archive for March, 2012

What did Bach write on the bottom of all 10,000 plus pages of music he composed?

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Bach wrote simply – S.D.G. – “To God alone the glory.”

Pastor Greg Boyd, called the glory of God God’s shininess.  I love that definition – “glory” as “shininess.”  The “shininess” is the brightness of an encompassing love, a light in which we live.  Living in that light is not living in the spotlight so to speak – center stage, all eyes on us, as we “perform” to the wild acclaim of those gathered.  It is a brighter light and more defuse light than that, a light that allows us to see everyone, to really see.  The only way into that light is humility.  The only way into that humility is repeated failure and repeated success as we graph what accountability looks and feels like.


I know this sounds odd, but what pushed me to write on this particular topic was a recent article on gas prices.  The gist of that article focused on a recent survey that stated “Sixty-eight percent (Of Americans) disapprove and 24 percent approve of how Obama is responding to price increases that have become one of the biggest issues in the 2012 presidential campaign.”

NewChurch LIVE is NOT a political church.  We will never weigh in formally on a Presidential campaign in terms of an “approved” candidate.  What struck me however was what this headline says about our culture, not our candidates.  Our culture often appears, despite the rhetoric, unable to often grasp much in the way of accountability.  Even higher gas prices become part of a conspiracy.  I often wonder, is this penchant for conspiracy theory from a lack of humility?

Those who struggle with humility tend to take all the credit at the top, and none of the blame of the bottom.   That creates rather tempestuous souls, prone to wild swings of euphoria and despair.  Add in a political environment and a media often more interested in following those swings than leading, and the result is frankly toxic.   How do we create a new consciousness, a new perspective?

Bach is a good starting point.  We all have “music” – giftedness from God which we alone can offer.  But in that offering, we must remain clear – the gift is part of God’s “shininess” – a gift!  And as for taking some control of Gas Prices ….



Is this barrel moving?

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

In a recent “TED” talk, the speaker addressed the need to move from the “what” and “how” to the “why.”

The logic was simple and compelling.  Many businesses and institutions readily can tell you what they do and how they do it.  Precious few are clear on why.  They often confuse the what and how with the why  and in so doing make the forms the point, the reason d’etre.  So churches may mistakenly think their why is only a certain worship style, and yet worship style is merely one of a churches what’s.

This concept of what was brought starkly to mind in Gregory Smith’s recent letter of resignation from Goldman Sachs, a letter in which he said that he stopped hearing the question asked, “How can we serve the customer?” in meetings within the company.

Institutional forms of religion, like Goldman Sachs, have little future unless they start asking this question.  Growing forms of faith have little hope of maintaning growth if they fail to continue asking this question.

That question is not about simple pandering to the whims of the masses.  At the core, it is about asking who do we serve, ourselves or others?  Do we serve those in the seats or do we create disciples to serve those not in the seats?  This faith is clear on that point – the answer is the latter – loving others remains inextricably linked to loving God.  We must serve those outside ourselves and I humbly think my job, as it true for many pastors. is to continually remind ourselves and those around us of this foundational truth.

See creating disciples to serve those not in the seats will call us to places we don’t want to go.  It pulls us at the core towards discomfort.  There is no pandering there.  The same cannot be said of congregations who incessantly asks congregants what they want to do, what they like, and serve that answer myopically.  I am often tempted to do just such a thing.  It is the difference between asking “What do we want to do?” vs. “What do we want to do for others?”  The former question is pandering and unfortunately will feel very good to all involved.  (To see how this has played out dangerously in the medical field, read “Hospitals Are Not Hotels” in the NYT)

Those who want a bigger answer about who to serve will simply vote with their feet.  They will find churches or other institutions with bigger more, engaging missions or simply decide to go “solo.”  Those who stay with the small answer, only asking of themselves what they want/ like, will be left with the question, “What’s happening?  Why is this barrel moving?”

Let’s keep asking the bigger question!  If you want to know what the answer looks like see the work the congregation is putting in around the “Breathing Room” cancer support weekend in April.  It will leave you inspired.

There is both space and need to serve those within the congregation; fellowship and community is critically important as a starting point.   However, the wider project of those outside a congregation must remain ever present in our thoughts and aim.


We stopped risking long ago.

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Some risks are plain stupid.  Others absolutely necessary for growth.  Much of faith stopped risking generations ago.  And how do we recapture that, that “risk?’  Not foolish risk but risk necessary for growth? Maybe it is by becoming a loyal opposition within our culture – both the broader, secular culture and the faith culture.

Walter Brueggemann writes of this “opposition” when he speaks of criticism as “not carping and denouncing.  It is asserting that the false claims to authority and power cannot keep their promises, which they cannot in the face of a free God.”  Such criticism in a word reframes the world, a world in which the secular and religious have so bled together that it is hard to see much of an authentic alternative any more in Christianity – the “City Upon a Hill” now leveled into trackless suburbia.

Christianity though is an authentic alternative.  Risky yes.  But also authentic.  Easter very much encapsulates that authentic alternative.  Neat and tidy theological “packages” give way to the mess of crucifixion.   Hatred and hopelessness are met with the authentic alternative of love, grace, and forgiveness – Christ’s lament from the Cross to “Forgive them for know not what they do.”

My prayer is that this Easter be a conversion experience.  My prayer also is that maybe we can re-invite ourselves into a world of risk, and in that process reclaim in some small way the heritage and hope of Christianity – a world made new.   Resurrection and transformation.   Mess and all.


Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Catching up this morning on news and noted how the coach of the New Orleans Saints, Sean Payton was suspended for a year. The cause was the practice of raising locker room bounties in which the saints pooled money to reward players for injuring opponents, including very large gifts for injuries that necessitated an opponent being carted off on a stretcher. The defensive coordinator who organized the bounty system was suspended indefinitely.

The point here is not to demonize men like Sean Payton.  The moral lessons remain clear and transparent.  He screwed up, period.  It is valuable though to offer a candid observation about human nature.

We live within a culture very uncomfortable even discussing the possibility that maybe within all our hearts lurk darkness.  And within all our thoughts the ability to rationalize darkness.  That is true for me, for you, for everyone. But we don’t much like talking about that.  Even as a Pastor, I shy away from reading biblical passages about our sinful nature.  It sounds archaic.  ”What will the new person think if I don’t give a message of pure happiness and light?”

However we need to own up to the darkness that is part of the human condition.  It should give us pause as well when we look at Robert Bayles, a soldier accused of killing 16 civilians, Deryl Desmond, convicted of a murderous hate crime, or Mohammed Murah, dead after shooting Jewish children in France.  These men gave into that darkness and no doubt, in some twisted way justified it.

‎”Light of my heart, do not let my darkness speak…”  God gives us the power to actually say “no” – to move beyond the darkness into the light.  That is never an easy process.  Even with these men, to dismiss them as rogues is dangerous – giving us an easy answer.  Their actions however evidence broader parts of the human condition.   Accountability means looking at the darkness for what it is – darkness.  Not dismissing it.  Not justifying it. Owning it.  And learning to really say “no.”

A Very Public Departure from Goldman Sachs and Hitting the Lottery

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Gregory Smith, an executive with Goldman Sachs, resigned, publishing the reasons behind his resignation in the New York Times.   The core of his reasoning focused on a shift of culture at Goldman Sachs away from serving customers towards making money for the firm; as he stated “… the interests of the client continue to be sidelined.”   On the heals of the economic meltdown and a public skeptical about the culpability of Wall Street, such a public resignation may feed a needed discussion.

I remember years ago in a class at Penn State experiencing a rare moment of public indignation when a fellow student answered the professor with the response “The only reason people go into business is profit.”  As a child of self employed parents whose orientation towards their business went way beyond mere profit, I was loudly incensed.  And I still believe life is not that easy – that demonizing business or Wall Street as all “bad” because all “they” care about is profit is faulty logic.  Such a position is overly and seductively simplistic, demonstrating the ego’s need to break the world into the good guys and bad versus a more properly nuanced position that understands that yes, individuals and corporations do get off track but that that is a reflection of the mixed nature of the human condition itself, a condition that letters like the one  written by Gregory Smith “calls on the carpet.”

Case in point about the flawed humanity we all share – on the day the above hit the paper, the front page also carried a story about Americo Lopes.  After spending years collecting money from his fellow workers to buy lottery tickets, he purchased the winning ticket worth $38.5 million.  He kept the winning ticket secret from this friends, quitting work and quietling settling into life with all the winnings.  The jury ruled that he had to split the winnings.  And again, note the craziness of it – even if he split the winnings immediately he still would have been a multi-millionaire but that was not enough for him.  He needed it all even at the cost of those friendships!

See that is the human condition – the blessing and breaking.  From those with resources to those without, we all battle the same human proclivity toward selfishness – a battle requiring vigilance.  In Corinthians, we read that Christianity “speak(s) a message of wisdom among the mature but not the wisdom of this age.”    The misguided “wisdom of this age” is what needs questioned, a “wisdom” that commoditizes much of our world.  For healthy dialog, faith must remain a foil of sorts to the commoditization of life, to the breaking down of the world into dollars and cents.   Then faith can rightfully take its place not as a demonizing force but as a “message of wisdom among the mature.”

“Eden” in this world will not a be place devoid of these conflicts, these battles between the higher and lower natures of the human soul.    How can it be?  We all have a Gregory Smith and an Americo Lopez in ourselves.  But we can live into an informed future where faith does speak.

Getting right about where to look

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Christianity is about reframing, about recasting.  It is not about easing the journey through the life – though it often does that.  It is not about bringing peace as in comfort – though it often does that as well.  It is about reframing the world and how we choose to live in it, about joining a wider project.  To see the soul of this faith, we need to slip beneath the waves of common culture so to speak, easing ourselves down into a greater reality.  The apostle Paul spoke to this thousands of years ago in these words from 1 Corinthians.

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

I love the line that for some the “block” was the desire for miraculous signs for others wisdom.   Profound.  I smile at how little we have changed.  An avowed atheist turned Christian, Mary Carr spoke of her spiritual life breaking open when she could finally say the word “Christian” without immediately coughing out the word – underneath her breath – “idiot.”  It is so easy to think of faith as needing the miraculous sign often because we see it as anti-intellectual, as flying right in the face of wisdom!

But the “foolishness” of God, of faith is actually a deep wisdom.  Last night I was reading of a group of Franciscan monks serving in the South Bronx.  No cell phones.  No iPods.  No money.  Just them – willingly stripped down to their capacity to love and serve others.   To many – and to me on certain days – that type of life style is baffling, foolish.  And yet who is engaging life from the deepest wisdom?  As the author noted he paradoxically found in these robbed brothers the most “out of touch” and yet “in touch” people he had ever met.  On a trip uptown, the world of Manhattan looked a lot more lost than the Franciscan world he found in the South Bronx.

Maybe that is why “holy fools” create such an impact on this earth.  I am often dismayed at the “Jesus Marketing Movement” that speaks almost exclusively of church growth vs. church mission. “Holy Fools” like those Franciscans as well as a few marginalized Swedenborgians – all of whom by the way I think would identify themselves as “Christians” first and foremost, preferring that to a denomination label – gently remind me that in simply and courageously living the Gospels we will appear “foolish” much of the time.  But that foolishness quietly conveys a gentle statement that “Life Can Be Different. Life is More.”


What is risk?

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Last night I finished the Movie, “Of God’s And Men.”  Deeply powerful.  Working through more and more what it means to give one’s life to God, not in a brash way but in the quiet understatement common among those whom we would call “saints.”

In that quiet, there is deep freedom.  I imagine many of us have met those who live that freedom.  And paradoxically, in that freedom lies tremendous courage, strength, and determination.  Risk is then redefined.

“Risk all for love, Jesus tells us, even your own life. ‘Give that to Me and let Me save it.’ The healthy religious person is the one who allows God to do the saving, while I do my part to bring up the rear. It always feels like a loss of power and certitude at the beginning, which is why it is called faith, and why true Biblical faith is probably somewhat rare.”

The men in the movie did loose their lives.  They “risked” it all but within the parameters of an empowered surrender to their fates that placed the definition of risk well beyond what common culture can make sense of.  By the end of the movie, with their physical fate obvious, one is left feeling the restful peace of God, a peace filled with hope, the peace of free men – a place where the only call is to love completely.  I close with this scene from the movie in which the head of the monastery talks to one of his fellow monks, a doctor who finds it his call to treat to all who come to him, including members of  the terrorist group who will eventually claim his life.

Kony 2012

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Very striking watching the video “Kony 2012.”   There is a piece of humanity, a part deeply embedded in our souls that responds to causes like this – that simply knows.

The phrase “What would Jesus do?” is often misapplied.  Christ’s concern is not about many of things we believe it to be.  Justice, Mercy – those strike closest to His heart and closest to our mission on the planet.

The video and the organization that produced it received criticisms from various quarters.  And it is not for me to weigh in on the validity of those critiques, many of which center around finances.  It is important to note that none of that criticism appears to center around a defense of Kony’s alleged crimes.  As the ICC indictment reads ….

“The 33 criminal counts against Joseph Kony include 12 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, enslavement, sexual enslavement, and inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injuries and suffering, and 21 counts of war crimes, including murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape and forced enlistment of children…”

Kony’s acts are clearly barbarous.  The video appeals to a different side of our humanity – the better angels of our nature.  That is why it went viral.  It tells a simple moral lesson, and tells it well.

How do we join in ministry?

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Joining in ministry and “going to church” are not necessarily the same.  Joining in ministry is a deep form of practiced, lived faith, one shared by clergy and laity. As such, it raises the “bar” so to speak.  And as I write, I have to smile, because I think a certain part of us – admittedly buried deep – wants that bar raised!

Ministry, if it is to take on the import intended, needs to cast aside the often meaningless shlock that passes for a life of faith.  It is, in a word, “More.”  As Emanuel Swedenborg noted, “the essential divine worship in heaven does not consist in going to church regularly and listening to sermons but of a life of love, thoughtfulness, and faith in keeping with doctrine.  Sermons in church serve only as means of instruction in terms of how to live…. All the doctrines that govern preaching focus on life as their end, not of faith apart from life.” (Heaven and Hell, pp. 199, 201)  A pretty strong argument for relevance, for a call to the “More”!  Sunday worship then informs and inspires ministry; worship as a supporting means to an end but not the whole game.

I love the words of  Walter Brueggemann in this regard.  He spoke to four key elements of prophetic ministry.  Read these words and hear them as spoken to you about your “ministry.”

  1. The task  of prophetic ministry is to evoke an alternative community that knows it is about different things in different ways.
  2. The practice of prophetic ministry is not some special things two days a week.  Rather it is done with, in, and under all the acts of ministry – as much in counseling as in preaching, as much in liturgy as in education.
  3. Prophetic ministry seeks to penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught.
  4. Prophetic ministry seeks to penetrate the despair so that new new features can be believed in and embraced by us.

Ministry then is about a dismantling and an energizing, in grieving a loss as well as living in a hope.  It pierces numbness and despair, calling us to imagine a future of the Kingdom on earth and heaven and then forward that imagination into the very living of our lives.  Now there is a real call.  This is not about pressing ministry into set political agendas. Christ was way beyond that, preferring the “Third Way” to easy political divides.  It is about raising the bar.  About “More.”

We only can pray for what we have experienced

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Here is a unique thought around prayer:

“God seems to plant within us the desire  to pray for what God already wants to give us, and even better, God has already begun to give to us!  We are always just seconding the motion, but the first motion is always and forever God’s.  The fact that you prayed a all means God just started giving to you a second ago.”

I read these words after an early morning walk east down Arch street in Philadelphia.  Looking at the buildings and the city starting to awaken, the words of a theologian whose name escapes me rang true.  ”If God could have saved man without Creation, He would never have made Creation.”   I think the same holds true for our lives – our individual lives are the ONLY means of salvation, of creating a new person.  Discovering that creation is one of the utmost joys of lifes and one of life’s most difficult journeys.

For me, over this past week, much of that struggle has been around how do I pray for NewChurch LIVE, for this church?  To pray to be Andy Stanley and North Point – peerless preaching, huge numbers, immense energy – appears egotistical and self serving.  To not pray is patently a cop out.  So what does one pray for especially when it is something so important?

The prayer then ends up being one of wishing God’s blessing on this endeavor – that we reach and serve countless folks.  Hopefully in saying it I do not limit God to numbers – a capitalist habit of answering “how many?” that often does not belong as central to conversations around mission.   But I do believe the intention to humbly serve behind a prayer for growth is maybe the best spirit of prayer, right now, that I can offer.

And if Richard Rohr’s words cited above are right, that prayer is God’s prayer, AND we have actually started to experience it.  How else would we know what we are praying for?  That does not mean we will inevitably hit our objectives and goals.  There no doubt will be many, many necessary failures leading this group in unanticipated directions.  But can we surrender up our view of how things must play out and allow God to do His work?  Knowing that our prayers, at their best are his prayers too?  Knowing that the only way there is this journey, as it is, right now, here today?