Archive for July, 2012


Monday, July 30th, 2012

“Vacation” is rarely easy to come by.  Many of us are haunted by this gnawing need to “do”, to be in perpetual, frenetic motion.  We then constantly effort ourselves towards solutions.  It is the “can do” spirit of Americans run to an exhausting extreme.   Hardly fertile ground for spiritual life and connection. With vacation beginning this Friday, this topic on my mind.  How do we unplug?

I find a key for us is to relax into ways that settle, with our kids, into the natural patterns of life, the natural pace.  And for better or worse, that means eschewing technology, at least for bits in our life.   Mornings follow a similar routine in our household – (1) Wake Up, (2) Dog Out, (3) Computer On.  And right there is where the pattern needs to break and the break is point (3).

Vacation – same root as “vacate.”  We need to “vacate” at certain times in our life.  What we do often however is the opposite, cramming vacation full of entertainment and big ticket buzz.  Maybe a little more “vacate” this year!

I Love You Because We Hate the Same Stuff

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Is life based on a certain fundamental acceptance or a certain fundamental rejection?

Very easy to live in the second.  It is simple. It is comforting.  It allows our ego to remain sheltered – unquestioned, unchallenged and intact. Rejection masquerades as strength, as virtue.  As a result, relationships built in that fashion take far more from shared hatreds than shared loves. (Quick exercise: Is there a relationship in your life where if you did not share complaints, there would be nothing to share?)

The first – to live with fundamental acceptance – is the call.  This is beyond “tolerance” – a buzz word in much of American culture.  I tolerate when my wife serves me asparagus.  Underlying that is a certain, “I disdain this but I am grudgingly willing to …(fill in the blank)”   However acceptance rids us, over time, of that foundational disdain and all the judgments attached to it.

That is a lesson for religious folks and non-religious folks. If foundational rejection is fundamental disdain, what is the alternative world created by foundational acceptance?  That is a world that takes courage in the true sense – a living in and from our heart.   There are better ways to build the world than on hatred of the same stuff.


Moving Beyond Tolerance

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

In teaching for years in a public schools, “tolerance” was a word often bandied about as a key goal of secular education.  But there is more.  There is an embracing that can take place that allows for a wide inclusion of perspectives.

From a Christian New Church perspective, we are to live in such a way as to “draw unity out of variety.”  That includes the life of religious organizations.  The key however lies here – to be within God’s plan, we must have variety in order to have unity.  ”When doctrine or worship varies, then God, working by means of loving service, affects and acts on each of us in  a way uniquely suited to our personality.” (Secrets of Heaven, 1285)  Faith then differs on many levels – denominationally, church-to-church, and individual-to-individual.

What is it then that brings us together?  Mutual love, one for another.  That is more than tolerance.  It is heaven and not heaven there-and-then, but heaven as a here-and-now transformative experience in which the compelling demands of faith can be met with with great joy.  It is why this church must bring numerous voices to bear.  That is the next step beyond simple “tolerance.”  What we do to exclude voices today will look every bit as dated in 40 years as a picture of segregation does to us today.  What we do to include those voices is the way forward.

 I close with these words from a interview on NPR between Sister Pat Farrell and Terry Gross.  They speak to the need noted above.

GROSS: Do you feel like the church is removed from those real-life situations?

FARRELL: I think elements in the church are. And of course we all – within the church there are different roles. And a bishop, for instance, can’t be on the streets working with the homeless. He has other tasks. But we can be. So if there is a climate of open and adequate and trusting dialogue among us, we can bring together some of those conversations.

And that’s what I hope we can help develop in a deeper way, the kind of relationships and climate of dialogue that will make it possible for the different perspectives and roles and positions in the church to be in greater interaction and dialogue with one another, really for the good of the whole church.

GROSS: So I don’t mean to put words in your mouth. So correct me if I’m being presumptuous here. But what I think I’m hearing you say is that you think nuns are in a position to actually educate bishops, to educate some of the church hierarchy about what life is like for women today, about what family life is like, what sexual life is like, because you work with women – and that the bishops don’t want to listen; they want to tell you what to do.

FARRELL: I think that teaching and listening and discerning together is something that belongs to the whole church. The bishops and the hierarchy have a more specific role as teachers and defenders of the faith, but that can’t happen in a vacuum, nor can our lives with people on the margins happen in a vacuum. We are one church. We are the church.

So the dialogue for us is critically important.



A Tale of Two Faces

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

Alex Sullivan, father of two, was one of 12 victims of the shooting last week in Colorado.  His face tells one story.

James Holmes, his killer, shows a different face, a different story.

Each face, in a certain sense, points to a tragedy.  How can a human mind become  so “unhinged?”  How can the beautiful life of a father of two be cut so violently short?  There are no easy answers here.  Just a yawning chasm of pain.

I was struck reading an article recently in the New York Times that talked of reconciliation.  That article was titled “After Assassinations, Basque Killers Explain.”  It told the story of a program, in Spain, in which convicted ETA terrorists, many facing life in prison, come face to face with the victims of their violence in the form of family members who lost loved ones. The hope is that it will bring closure for these families.  So clear that in the terrorists  they talked to, a certain numbness or callousness held sway, and allowed them to approach violence simply as a “job.”  As one now middle aged terrorist noted, “How can you explain what you are thinking when you are 19? You know so little.”

What was most moving however was the story of one elderly woman who lost her husband to a terrorist attack.   The murderer, serving life in prison offered these reflections to the reporter after meeting with the widow.  ”For him, the most moving moment was at the end of the conversation when the elderly woman leaned toward him and put her hand on his shoulder. “My son,” she said. “How did you end up here?”

There is compassion in those words almost beyond human understanding.  And maybe that is all we can bring to events like Colorado, encapsulated in that searching question, “How did you end up here?”

Faith in 4 Seconds

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

This is how many of us want our faith life ….

Quick.  4 seconds.  Let me get back in the race.

This propensity struck me at a recent camp.  Sitting there in front of teens, it is ever so easy to speak to the possibility without sacrifice, to speak to “5 easy steps” to achieve this, that, or the other thing.   I am a sucker for that stuff!   It is the “health and wealth gospel” that has slid into much formal religion.   Give the gas, a new set of tires, and set them screaming back into the race.

But that is not the Gospel.

The Gospel asks time and patient investment.  It does not yield easy answers but instead authors slow transformation.  Things then “grow.”  They don’t “appear.”  There is not a “screaming off to…”  There is a measured “settling into….”  It draws from “peace” and never “frenzy.”

Not an easy message for adults or teens in this culture!

So what did I tell the teens?   With a smile, I told them, that like me, they were spoiled and lazy.  I told them that like me, as the famous saying, they were born on third base and wanted praise for hitting a triple.  And I told them they could make a difference in the world.  It will just take more than 4 seconds.


Thursday, July 19th, 2012

There are many angles from which to thoughtfully consider the spiritual life.  One angle is the two meanings of “light.”

Christ does promise a “light” burden but it is a life’s work to get there!  Try separating someone (or ourselves) from our fears.  We all glom onto them with a white-knuckled intensity.  So there is work involved in securing that light load because it entails learning the art of subtraction. Importantly, it does not mean that faith is a matter of little weight or account.  Faith actually is “heavy” not in a depressive way but in terms of a certain fundamental gravitas, a ‘heft’ that begs us to take the spiritual seriously.

As we shoulder that weight, I think we start to open to the meaning of “light” – that faith is to be a light for ourselves and for others.

Yesterday I traveled with a group of secondary school students to Gettysburg. The theme was simple – “A bid to imagine possibility and sacrifice.”   We spoke to possibility through a tour of Gettysburg College.  We spoke to sacrifice through a tour of the battlefield and National Cemetery.

The capstone of the day came as we closed with a simple ending.  We gathered in the center of cemetery where Lincoln offered the Gettysburg address.  After hearing those words again, we spoke of the fundamental quality of sacrifice – how life comes down to a simple theme of “the little dash” – the hyphen between our date of birth and our date of passing – and what can give to that little space.  Letters were then passed out from family and friends for the students to read as they found a place to quietly hold life and their place in it.  Deeply moving watching as that blessed gravitas settled in.

Christ’s words from Matthew: “You are the light of the world.”


Belief or Belonging?

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Many people talk of a basic tension growing within Christianity in 2012. That tension may come to down to this idea – “I want to be part of a Church that stands FOR something but does not stand AGAINST other people.”  Tricky!  A ticklish issue, one Christ wrestled with.  One growing as the traditional forms of faith shift.  Much of it connects to the question – does the life of faith start with “belief” or “belonging”?

The “belief” argument goes like this.  It must all start with belief.  That is the key differentiator.  Proper belief gives rise to well lived life.  Without belief squared away churches are no more than social clubs, unanchored institutions buffeted by the waves of culture.  Christ was clear on principle.  So should we be.

The “belonging” argument follows a different track.  Christianity is about belonging to ever widening circles of community.  As those circles widen, of course they will encircle those for whom traditional belief is a challenge but who are looking for a sense of belonging in the world as well as a life of higher purpose.  Christ was comfortable with outliers. So should we.

What of the New Church?  As I understand it, it would be this.  You can have no true “belief” without first creating a senses of “belonging.”  Here is how Emanuel Swedenborg phrased it: “The knowledge of spiritual realities becomes nothing more than objects of memory when the people who are adept at them have no love for others.” (Secrets of Heaven, 1197)  Belief then is just a “dead object,” lacking any connection to great purposes of love, conscience and LIFE. Restated, hold onto belief as the sole criteria, belief becomes merely superficial ornamentation, “Belonging” can be so much more!  And have no worry for those want a challenge – the “belonging” game is many times more difficult to play than the “belief” game.  That is because you have to BE the truth, not just think it, not just speak it.


Can we stand for something?

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

In a recent editorial piece in the New York Times, titled “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” Ross Douthat wrote of the demise of both centers of Christianity – liberal and conservative in the form of the Episcopal and Catholic churches.  He pointedly remarked, “The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.”  The article clearly calls for a revisiting of sorts, for a reappraisal as Christianity attempts to find its legs again.

There are those in the “reappraisal” business, a line of work hopefully this congregation has joined.  Look at these words by Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, a pastor aware of NewChurch LIVE.

“We want to do all we can do to help mobilize and spread this rising movement of kingdom people who are rethinking what it means to be a “Christian,” what it means to have “faith,” and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We want to join others in imaginatively exploring the shape that post-Christendom discipleship and the post-Christendom Church might take. And we want to join others in boldly rethinking everything Christians have always assumed they already knew. To recover the self-sacrificial revelation of God in Christ, and to advance the servant kingdom he inaugurated, it is time for us all to take a fresh look at everything.” 

I love the concept of “boldly rethinking” because it closely ties in with the concept of repentance.  That journey however is difficult.  As noted by Dounthat we all yearn at a superficial level for the “health and wealth” messages that abound.   They feel good.  They call us to claim what we “deserve.”  They are entertaining.  Such messages are frankly easier to preach, easier to sell.  In their froth, they avail us of little.

So can we stand for something?  The answer obviously is yes.  And unfortunately, in my humble opinion, we take stands on cultural issues that we then hold as issues at the core of Christianity – a General George Custer like mistake of planting our flag in territory of questionable value.  Taking a stand is not about worship forms, keeping women out of ministry or taking a stand about limiting the rights of homosexuals.   If the litmus test is “Did Christ speak on these issues in the four Gospels?”, one is left with the conclusion, that in these issues remaining unaddressed by Christ, they cannot be the core issues of Christianity.   Human suffering is.  New Church theology reflects that same New Testament perspective. Of course we are called to think clearly and make informed decisions for ourselves but that is different than holding these issues as core markers for adherence to the Christian life.

So where we do we take a stand?

  1. God’s Word: That there is a revelation higher than ourselves that we must look to guidance.  We are blessed in the New Church to have a revelation that calls us to see revelation far more broadly than many formal theologies but that is not “anything goes” but instead a “go and search.”  For me the hierarchy flows from the Bible, to New Church Theology, to everything else, (including Douthat’s article).  The imperative is to keep first-things-first.
  2. Piercing the Illusion: Ouch!  … but yes I have to say it.  We have to piece our illusions/ self delusions of what we hold as right and wrong – the core work of repentance.  Our ego gets it wrong all the time.  Please read my previous blog on the Penn State football scandal for an example of why those illusions are so badly in need of puncturing.
  3. Establishing a Church that is an Authentic Alternative: We can use cultural allusions but I think the stand is to be in some areas counter-cultural.  Christ’s call is both be different and to be difference maker, humbly and with the most grace we can muster.
  4. Reaching Out: It is about loving service looking outward – the self-sacrificial love that forms the very core of Christianity.   One immense fear for this church as for all churches is that we forget this core principle, and slide slowly towards a concern about ourselves as the relationship between God – Pastor – Congregation becomes divided along “Producer” and “Consumer” lines.   One immense hope is that we create the opposite!
What I have found is that if I don’t take a personal stand on the above four, I become spiritually “sloppy”, more concerned with entertainment than transformation.  Shane Claiborne’s words ring in my ear.  ”If we loose this generation, it won’t be because we did not entertain them.  It will be because we did not challenge them.”    So here is to the challenge, here is to taking the right kind of stand.


The Penn State Football Scandal

Friday, July 13th, 2012

“While people are saying ‘Peace an Safety’ destruction will come suddenly.” (2 Thessalonians 5:2)

It was sad reading the Freeh report about the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at my alma mater, Penn State.  The facts appear irrefutable.

  1. Those in positions of power, notably  President of the University Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, University VP Gary Schultz, and head football coach Joe Paterno all knew of credible allegations against Jerry Sandusky as early as 1998
  2. All failed to act even though as Schultz in 1998 noted in his files, “Is this opening a Pandora’s Box?”  ”Other children?”
  3. The above men at best misled a Grand Jury about their knowledge of the 1998 incident including Paterno who clearly was informed in 1998 but denied any previous knowledge of allegations against Sandusky.
That is sad.  Being a pastor I have huge compassion for the victims and for these gentlemen as well.  And incidents like this mean we have to ask some pointed and uncomfortable questions.
The Nature of Evil
What is the nature of evil?  It is far more complex than what we at first might imagine.  We need to see it in three “layers” – culture/ institutions, then individuals, then protectors.
The base, the culture, is hard to call into question and what I want to share will upset some. It upsets me as an avid lover of athletics.  Our culture is in many ways numb and sick.  Scandals like this grow out of that very numbness.  Just look at the outsized role football played at Penn State as well as at many other universities.  It’s outsized importance molds it into a quasi religion of sorts replete with “offerings” and “sacrifice”, all managed by its own “priesthood.”   That of course is not to say athletics are without merit but lets ask the hard questions, the hardest of which is this, “Have athletics become too important in our culture?”
The fact that they have, I believe, fed at least in part the timeline that unfolded at Penn State.  These men were caught up in that very culture where 11 to 12 games per season determined whether the university had a “good” year or a “bad” year.  Look at the statistics. In college after college, a winning season, especially if it involves championships, leads to a sizable increase in donations.
The problem is we rarely question that culture and if we do, it creates a backlash.  Here is a stir-the-pot question.  How many of us have missed a church service due to an athletic contest for our children.  How many of us fear that our child will “fall behind” if we don’t attend such contests?  Church will loose out to Sunday morning sports every time because our culture gives us parents little choice frankly.  Just ask your coach!
Or let me put it another way, what has your family done more of, athletics or community service?  If your family is like ours, the proportion is overwhelming lopsided in favor of athletics.
This is where the ground for “evil” is established.  A slow,cultural numbing occurs that blinds and binds us to certain behaviors and an increasing inability to envision alternatives.  I have to ask myself would I EVER choose church for my kids over a game?  Am I even be able to see it as a choice anymore?
Out of a numbed culture grow numbed individuals like Spanier, Curley, Schultz, and Paterno.  These people are not demons.  They are you.  They are me. They are people who have done many good things, even great things but because of a numbness growing out of a given culture, they were unable, simply put, “to see the forest for the trees.”  That inability carried tragic consequences for those children abused by Jerry Sandusky.
We will demonize them without ever looking at the very culture that created these horrific events and that created the coverup.  We pluck the leaf but leave the roots.
And what of the “Protectors” at the top of the pyramid, those now charged with cleaning up the mess?  Sad to say, but they likewise contribute to the numbness.  Many in the Penn State community will feel a sense of understandable closure with the release of Freeh’s report, which is in part true.  Rigorous honesty is a step towards healing.  But the danger is this – by targeting individuals and their accountability – which is necessary – the wider culture remains outside the realm of critique.   Have we “solved’ the problem of the aforementioned numbness with this report?  If we think it ends the story, it has not.  If we think this opens up a conversation, maybe something different comes out of this.
Peace and Safety
We love “peace and safety.”  No doubt Spanier, Curley, Schultz, and Paterno were all at least partially motivated, as we all often are,  by a desire for “peace and safety,” realizing that in coming forward there would be neither.  Coming forward in 1998 would have saved many victims but also probably would have cost all these men their jobs.  So they chose to push Sandusky’s criminal activity to the side as well as any concern for the victims.
Yet “Peace and Safety” kill.   Christ never asked us to pursue safety nor did He hold it as a moral virtue.  Life well lived calls us to discomfort, to unease.  That is the only thing that gets us to look candidly at evil in all its various disguises. Only an awake life has any hope of puncturing self deception.

The Fundamental Weakness Of Churches in 2012 America

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

We stand in a place of change.  These eras are not new to Christianity or any other faith for that matter. As one author noted, our job is to pass on this beautiful and transformative  faith with enthusiasm to the next generation.  To do that effectively, we need to get clear on both the problem and the solution, for as one CEO observed “When the rate of change inside an organization is slower than the rate of change outside an organization, the end of that organization is in sight.”

Bill Vlasic wrote of the woes of the US Automotive industry in the book “Once Upon a Car.”  Having lived through the demise of the Steel industry in Pittsburgh many of his points resonated.  There is much to be learned from this type of study and how it connects to institutional struggle with the change.

The basic weakness – whether one is talking of Church or Industry – is that we become increasingly unable to question the validity of our own paradigms.  While everyone was aware that there were significant structural weakness, Detroit as well as many church organizations make it politically incorrect to say anything challenging out loud.  At GM this was exemplified in the “GM Nod” – the management teams ability to acquiesce to anything, with a smile-and-nod, as long as it was not challenging those cherished assumptions.

One example was the “nod” given for decades to the “sales” focus.  With sales held as the ultimate “virtue,”  inventories were allowed to build to dangerously high levels, brands became too diffused,  and innovation stagnated.  No one questioned the legacy costs associated with the old model or ever seriously considered the danger of high inventories if sales went south. And south they went, trapping the companies in unsustainable business models built in post-war America.  GM and Chrysler eventually fell into bankruptcy.

The solution of course is to create organizations that are healthy enough to question their own paradigms – which is actually repentance practiced at the corporate level.  What if we questioned the following assumptions as a way to “unfreeze”?

  1. That the sole and dominant church event is Sunday morning worship
  2. That church membership is constituted by those who unwaveringly hold unbending and homogenized theological belief systems
  3. That the Pastor is the expert-in-residence
  4. That the role of church staff is to provide programs for the members of the congregation
And I think the biggest thing that needs questioned is this – the belief that any movement into new forms of Church constitutes a rejection of God’s Word.
That is big!  Live in that assumption and all conversation becomes angry vitriol quickly.  Live in that assumption, and innovation gets stifled.   Live in that assumption, and we can only keep doing what we are doing.  And for Christianity right now, that is not very good.
New Church theology clearly warns of the rigidity that grows from an over reliance on doctrinal truth to the exclusion of all else.  This is a time in need of flexibility and the innovation it allows.  That flexibility will increase as what is good/ loving service becomes the end of in view.  (Heavenly Secrets, 7068)  With that kind of flexibility, I think Christianity will find its soul once again.  If we however insist on living in the old paradigm, the challenges will catch up with us.  Hello GM!