Archive for April, 2012

Silences That Are Hard to Break

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

All faiths speak in some form or another of transformation.  The language of course varies – enlightenment, rebirth, conversion, regeneration.  That being said, the concept remains the same and that is of a faith that presents itself as a way to give birth to something new.

And that transformation is hard; not something we slide into but more something that we are dragged through some days willingly, other days not.  God’s Word as it speaks to us in its various forms often then comes from a prophetic place, a place as Walter Breugamann phrased of “fearless truth telling and fierce hope.”   And it needs to have that fearless and fierce voice because silences are hard to break.

I have struggled all week with preaching this Sunday.  The issue is over one simple event.  Several months ago I read of the USS New York’s return to New York City and it’s cruise past the cite of the World Trade Centers.  The USS New York was cast with 75 tons of steel from the fallen towers in its bow.   Personally that is a hard silence to break.  For a reader, that statement may make no sense – “So What.”  But for me there is something deeply disturbing about taking a catastrophic event and memorializing it in the form of a warship.  My understanding of God has a hard time justifying it.  That is not to say I am right and those who differ are wrong.  The opposite may well be true.  It is to admit that speaking to that topic is a silence that is hard to break for me, preferring to leave the topic unaddressed rather than risk offense.  And there are many such topics.

That silence stems no doubt from my self centered concern to be safe and liked and comfortable.   That concern in turn feeds the very numbness I am so adamant about preaching against.  And the goal is NOT to speak in such a way that preaching becomes a political soapbox but to preach in such a way that the conversation is had, that the numbness is addressed.

God can only enter a humble heart.  And He can only enter a heart that is fearless and fierce, one in which numbness has been pierced through.   We all need to get there, transformed, a place beyond “agenda” and a place where God’s words in Isaiah ring true in their prophetic fullness, “Come let us reason together.”

The Simple Joy of Being

Friday, April 27th, 2012

So the equation is relatively simple.  Our self-centeredness is our hell – created and staffed by ourselves!  Inmate and Warden – all one and the same.  To the extent that our self-centeredness can be be detached from the thought patterns that protect, and yes even sickly nurture it, the more we let God in.  The more we let God in the more we come to the simple joy of being, the more we open into our true selves.

Funny how those moments of self-less joy catch us by surprise.  I am consistently too self concerned to let joy in.  God, at His always surprising best, works most effectively when I am not looking.  The joy of a new thought gleaned from some unforeseen source.  (Did you know seeds contain within them all the nutrients and energy they need to germinate?  A sermon taking root over that idea!)  Lunch with a dear friend.  Sharing history with a parishioner.  A text from the wise, “Buddy … God’s will not ours be done.”  My mom reminding me to write a poem.

None of that matters right.  Today I did not move mountains or marry a couple or offer words over the end of a earthly life.  But it was a day of joy, a day full of the simple joy of being.

Shun Evil or Shun The Evil?

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Much of Christianity over the decades has closely followed the biblical imperative to shun evil.  A cornerstone of repentance, it calls us to see darkness just as that, darkness.  In Isaiah, the prophet offers the words “Cease to do evil.  Learn to do well.”  So the “not-to-do” list is every bit as important as the “to-do” list.  An alcoholic must stop drinking.  An angry father needs to stop getting angry.  Not complicated.  Not easy either!

What complicates this command however is when we slowly move from shunning evil to shunning the evil.

Here I am not talking of evil or sin or darkness in us, in ourselves, but what we judge to be the embodiment of evil or sin or darkness in others.   We can move then from rejecting the action to rejecting the person.

Humanity wether at an individual or community level is never well served by the detached scapegoating that pins evil to a person in such a way that the “evil” is their very identity.  That very thought is actually fallacious for several reasons.

First the definition of “evil” is at best slippery.  There are clear aberrations, where, as noted, we can readily call darkness darkness.  As a matter of fact, I think we must call them darkness.  However, there are more areas that at their very best are grey and therefore any form of judgement needs to be extremely gentle.  We simply don’t know.  And that is NOT a passive place but a place in which to make a strong, dedicated and committed stand.

Secondly, the call Christ appears to offer has little to do with “shunning” others.  As I think needs restated over and over again, the one group He consistently targeted as dangerous were the priests, the clerics who through their pompous dictates around righteousness and purity actually formed a barrier between humanity and God.  I think that is a poignant warning for those of us involved in church work.  Christ appears to actually call us – clergy and laity – to run towards the chaos, towards the mess, and yes, even towards the darkness, worrying predominantly only about our own darkness in the process.

His is a message then of a courageous, self sacrificing radical hospitality and radical inclusion.  From a Christian New Church perspective we are in our limited way called to “play by the same rules” that God does.  In that vein,  Emanuel Swedenborg notes that we allow others the space to be “reborn” when we, in a way mirroring God, learn to truly see them.   (Secrets of Heaven, Vol. II, pg. 76)

That is why philosophies centered on exclusion can be so damaging to the soul – they keep us from seeing others..  Those issues, and this is contentious to offer, include the “hot button” issues of 21st century Christianity  - Second Marriages, Homosexuality, and the Ordination of Women.   Those issues were NOT the hot button issues Christ spoke of.  He does address remarriage but there is a context there that we in our contemporary reading miss. (If this topic interests I spoke to it in this linked service.)  In terms of homosexuality, Christ does not address the issue in any of the 4 Gospels nor is the issue of ordination of women addressed either.  New Church canon largely reflects that same treatment.

These hot button issues settle then uncomfortably close to issues of exclusion and as such slide dangerously close to the kind of “shunning” practiced by the Pharisees, not by Christ.

Maybe the darkness in our souls we most need to guard against is that very “shunning” that all too often can be practiced under superficial “righteousness.”  The phrase “Shun the Shunning” sounds cute but maybe is enough to work on today.  A bubble worth bursting.


Glimpses of the Future We Don’t Know

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

I am not a fan of “media” as a whole.  It is simply too often reflective of my own personal challenges and those I see shared in the human condition – principally the overwrought need to state positions emphatically and within a binary container.  Much of the media one might read regarding “faith” slides into the same milieu.   “Faith” is dead.  ”Church” is dead.  Blah, blah, blah.

And that type of emphatic conclusion has not been my experience.  My experience is that faith/ church are changing, evolving, unfolding.  An institutional form is clearly “dead” but that does not mean that an underlying reality is not alive and beating.   Krista Tippett’s words speak to that shift.

Rigid, rule-bound ways of being religious — of being utterly identified not merely by the same denomination, but perhaps the very same church or synagogue your parents and grandparents attended before you — have transformed utterly in a handful of generations.

Strong religious identities survive and thrive. But more than ever before, even in their most conservative iterations, they are chosen. And alongside them is a world of flux and questioning — a new phenomenon of people who have been raised with more questions than answers, more options than givens. They are not abandoning religion, though, or revealing it as something primitive that modernity has outgrown, as thinkers since the Enlightenment have predicted they would. They are rediscovering and reinventing it.

That world of “rediscovering and reinventing” resonates with my experience.  Of course there are aggressive frontal assaults on faith just as there are aggressive retrenchments in the face of those assaults.  But both appear in their own way to draw from a rigid fundamentalist orthodoxy that allows for no movement, no softness.  And yet this is an era of movement – quiet that is true, subtle, maybe even below the surface of the attention of media and broader culture – but still and era of movement.

I have not experienced this movement with those I have come to know through my church as a world of “New Age spiritual promiscuity.”  There is an honest searching, and most importantly an honest desire to serve; “imperative” might be an even better word for the latter.  Such a future of “honest searching” is not a “known” future as in one we can control and predict.  Searching is just that – searching.  That search will refine our tools of spiritual discipline and discovery and allow for the ancient-future nature of faith to find voice for this generation.


Some Financial Good News

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Goals are important, giving us markers along the the way. Yesterday we reached our fundraising goal for the current fiscal year (June 30th, 2011 to June 30th, 2012.) Our goal was to increase donations 20% to $115,000.00. As of the end of the third quarter/ March 31st, we raised over $121,000.00. That is very exciting news! Donations for the final quarter will go towards our fund raising goal for the next fiscal year, giving us a jump start for next year as we move towards a three year goal of self sufficiency so we deeply appreciate continued support.

For churches fund raising is never THE point. The point is service. Churches should be a forum for helping others – both those in the congregation and those outside the congregation.

Gifting has of course a practical element too of keeping the lights on, the heat on, and yes, the Pastor’s kids fed! But that is not the real story. There is so much more.

The spiritual principle behind it is offering back to God what God has so abundantly gifted to us. That is the core reason behind why some choose to tithe (give 10%) as a way to honor God’s gifts. We serve our souls well by gifting back.

What I can promise our generous donors, is that we will be good stewards. We will keep costs contained. We will be candid with everyone about the need to financially support NewChurch LIVE. And most importantly, we will absolutely remain true to our mission – “A Monday Morning Church … Caring, Accepting, Relevant” – a church that is not about itself and its own survival but about serving others.

I don’t think it an accident we reached our fundraising goal at approximately the same time we were working with “The Breathing Room Foundation.” I think people will support organizations that are supporting others for purposes larger than themselves.

So, to close – a simple, humble, and heartfelt thank you!

It Matters Who God Is, And No, California Is Not An Island

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Walter Brueggemann wrote. “God is the map whereby we locate the setting of our life, that God is the water in which we launch our life raft, that God is the real thing from which and toward which we receive our being and identify ourselves. It follows that the kind of God at work in your life will determine the shape and quality and risk at the center of your existence. It matters who God is.”  Powerful words.

Our view of who God is or is not settles as maybe the fundamental paradigm of our lives.  It likewise becomes the most surprising – our view of God evolving and along with that unfolding the “the shape and quality and risk at the center” of our existence evolves as well.  God then becomes what what God has always been – the “I am”, the “I will be who I will be.”  That speaks to freedom and yet those words from the Old Testament yield up a wonderous surprise of a God who while free remains steadfastly consistent – a partner of unwavering love who is forever coming into Being.

I think of the old maps of California.  As the land was originally charted, cartographers  portrayed it as an island for over a 100 years, detached from the North American continent.

For 70 years there was overwhelming evidence that the opposite was true – that California was not an island.  And yet it took all that time for the maps to change, for the assuredness that “history” and “experience” supplied to be finally overturned.  It was not that California had ever changed.  We had.

Women’s Voices at NewChurch LIVE

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Christianity has struggled with gender equality since the apostle Paul and his 1st century misogynistic decree that women are “to remain silent in the Churches.”  Christ’s life witnesses a far different, a far more egalitarian approach than Paul but the forces of culture were hard to overcome and are hard to overcome.  This particular Christian denomination struggles with this issue as well.

At NewChurch LIVE we firmly commit to women having an equal voice in this congregation.   From Governance, to Women’s Ministry, to Services, that will hold true.  Ruth Clauser as President of our board will hold us to it!  Inclusiveness is what God commands.  As we start thinking about our Mother’s Day Service, here is a sampling of the beauty women’s voices have added to NewChurch LIVE ….







So here is to the dream of a congregation truly inclusive!

Reframing towards Newness

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 Norwegians, mostly school aged, because he felt called to defend Norway from the onslaught of Islam and therefore “bore no criminal guilty and rejected all authority of the court.”

An Israeli officer was suspended for striking a Danish activist in the face with his rifle. The activist was part of bike riding tour engaged in non-violent protest to draw attention to living conditions of Palestinian villagers in the West Bank.

The natural human orientation is towards the “law.” Here I am not talking “law and order” per se but the “law” as in binary forms or lenses through which we describe and make sense of the world.  At an elementary level, that proclivity is harmless – “Touching the hot stove is a bad thing.”  But it is dangerous and naive to carry that same propensity to divide the world between boxes/ polarities into adulthood and into nationhood.   Our opinions too readily serve as our “law.”  Functioning in this way leaves little recourse but violence.  How else do we ultimately express the division but by smashing the opponent?   And no one gets a “pass.”  If our opinions become our law and our law becomes our divisions of the world into “friend” and “enemy” violence at some level, even quiet violence, appears inevitable.

I think the above in no small part is why the call of faith is the call to reframe our lives away from a world of self defined polarities and the resulting violence.  The Christian Way is modeled on that very principle.  Simply look at who Jesus spent his time with  - “EVERYBODY.”  He was known to the poor and powerful.  Romans and Jews.  The social elites, and the downtrodden.  That inclusive reframe, as Christ put it, actually brings life to law.

Living in a world of self defined polarities is frankly miserable.  As the apostle Paul put it, “Who wants to go back to our weak and miserable principles?  Do you wish to be enslaved by them?  … What has happened to all your joy?”  (Gallatians 4:15)  I don’t want to live in Breiviks’ world nor in the world of  the never ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Everyone appears to claim self-defense. There is no room for moral imagination only room for never-ending retribution.   And that is the every problem – a world of polarities IS often about self defense,not self-less defense.  If we found our very lives on these kinds of ego-based polarities, our life will reflect that dividing, “present in every single element of us.”  (Secrets of Heaven, Vol. II, pg. 66)  Christ calls us to more.  Newness.

Reaching for the Sun

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Convenants, from a spiritual perspective, carry a simple purpose – “to tie people together … to live in mutual friendship.”  (Secrets of Heaven, Vol. II, page 61)  They are about love.

Last week I was struck by a simple conversation I had with a parishioner.  She leaned in, smiled knowingly, and shared quietly “None of this matters does it.” I knew exactly what she was saying.  None of this does really matter.  All the hub bub, the frenetic “collecting” we are so prone to, stuff – none of it in the end matters.   As a cancer survivor she no doubt came to that knowledge in a deeper way than I can imagine. The covenant, I can see, in her mind shifted.

For me, much of my covenant with God has been based on moralism, on the belief that if I do things the right way, the perfect way that somehow I will be rewarded with His recognition – an eternal celebration to validate my efforts – an earning of His love.  If I think harder, work harder, be ever more vigilant – all of that will be met with ultimate payoff.   Falsely held, such an approach is a contract between my ego and desire for recognition, not a covenant based on love.

God is no fan of sin.  But the point of His gentle holding is to remind us, tactilely, we are held regardless.  Saint or sinner – the covenant will always hold.  Sin is suffocation and as such we need held especially in those seasons of life colored by lack and darkness.

And His covenant is not a private affair negotiated individually in the back rooms of our solitary spiritual lives.  It is negotiated “out there.”  The covenant is knowingly choosing the loving bonds that bind one person to another, joining together into the immensity of an impersonal love that because of its non-judgmental character can in turn be deeply personal and specific.

There we finally know God not as something we possess or earn but as He is.    No more reaching for the sun, maybe on our best days we can then simply settle into the warmth as we celebrate the ties of One to another.

On the bus? Off the bus? What bus?

Friday, April 13th, 2012

We all wrestle with “truths” that are numbing.  Here I am not talking of “truths” that are actually true but our illusions masquerading as reality, as “truth.”  In this culture, as it stands today, unfortunately belief in God is seen by many as anti-intellectual, as a front for political agendas, and as the domain of the narrow minded.  Those critiques are not unfortunately without some element of veracity.  A few short months ago I shuttered seeing a candidate’s bus emblazoned with the slogan, “Faith, Jobs, Freedom.”  I am all for faith.  I am all for people having jobs. I am all for freedom.  I am leary of mashing all three together under a religious umbrella for partisan purposes.  God’s concern is more than a revived American economy and that type of sloganeering places His providence into a rather small box.  When we invite Christ in, it is like saying as one author noted, “Here comes everybody.”

Reading this morning about the spread of Christianity.  Several of the original 12 disciples and Paul get together for what we would call a “strategic planning session.”  Paul agrees to focus on working on Gentiles (non-Jews).  James, Peter, and John agree to continue to work within their homeland of Israel and its Jewish citizenry.  And then the three offer Paul an important reminder.  As Paul reports, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor.”  (Galatians 2:10)

Reminders like what James, Peter, and John offered to Paul are what puncture numbing truth.  God’s truth – “remember the poor” – cuts right to it.  Our hearts should “burn within us” when we hear what is actually true.   God’s truth likewise always evidences a physicality to it – part of its incarnational nature – mirroring “a God who can be seen, in whom is what cannot be seen.” (True Christianity, pg. 519)

These thoughts are deeply present as we launch our weekend helping the “Breathing Room Foundation.”  Take note of their mission:

Our mission is to reach out to every family within a twenty-mile radius who has a member suffering from cancer. We recognize that a cancer diagnosis affects every aspect of a family’s life; emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial. 

We strive to provide a family with whatever it is that will allow them a bit of “breathing room” from their daily struggle against cancer. It is our hope that this will allow them to concentrate all of their efforts toward regaining their physical health.

Just reading it reminds us to “remember the poor” – a definition of poverty in all its aspects – emotional, physical, spiritual and financial.  That is the kind of truth which was at one point considered Christianity’s birthright, a defining characteristic of the faith.  I humbly hold we have forgotten that birthright.  Emanuel Swedenborg, the prophetic voice of this denomination, railed against the over-intellectualization of faith and the numbing truth of “faith alone” being the sole vehicle of salvation.  Our job is to recapture the original birthright, to remember.  Can this congregation – NewChurch LIVE – play a humble and measured role in offering something of value to the poor, a “poor” which includes us?  Emotionally? Physically? Spiritually? Financially?  The answer is a celebratory “YES!”