Archive for December, 2012

I Get What We Are Supposed to Achieve but What Are We Supposed to Do?

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Living in a time of Mayan Calendars and Fiscal Cliffs adds a poignancy to this year’s New Years celebration.  We all carry a faint sense, I would imagine, of what we are supposed to achieve.  But … what are we supposed to do?  A good question as 2013 arrives with all the attendant expectations, fears, hopes – the whole slop.  Here is a parable about the life of churches that leans towards a directional answer and a directional warning.

On a dangerous sea coast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves, went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and gave of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little life-saving station grew.

Some of the members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The life-saving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations, and there was a liturgical life-boat in the room where the club’s initiations were held. About this time a large ship wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house build outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s life-saving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life-saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station. So they did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another life-saving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.

So what is there to do?  Save some lives, including our own.  It is incarnation not the evacuation strategy from planet earth and life … aka the “Club” we think it to be.  As Emanuel Swedenborg phrased it “Heaven is not located on high, but where the good of love is, and this resides within a person, wherever he or she might be.”

Arcana Coelestia 8153 Emanuel Swedenborg

Meeting Christ Christmas Eve

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

 ”Divine Revelation is not something you measure or critique. It is not an ideology but a Presence you intuit and meet! It is more Someone than something.”

Join us this Christmas Eve as we celebrate the Christmas story.  This is more than just a story, but a meeting of Someone, a meeting of God in His weakness and in His power.

Christmas Eve Service: 5:00 PM, 800 Tomlinson Road, Bryn Athyn, PA.

What is it like to see the Star?

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

From a fellow pastor’s blog:

Then a young woman walked up to me and she was shaking and near tears. She spoke through an unsteady voice: “I don’t know why I’m having such a strong reaction to you, but I wonder if I can just be near you. Can we sit down for a cup of coffee?”

We talked for two hours. She thought she wanted to talk about movements, but what she really wanted to talk about was God and Jesus and the Roman Empire and the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25 and the image of God on Earth. And she couldn’t believe it was really possible that Jesus cares that much about the things she cares about!

My new friend is coming alive to the soul within her — that part of herself that yearns for right relationship with God and with her neighbors. Last week she emailed me asking if I knew a church in her area that preached and moved on the words of Jesus today like the saints of the movements of old. I put out the word on Facebook and received two recommendations from friends in her area — two.

My heart said, “There must be others.” But my brain knows the facts. Every single arm of the church has experienced decline over the past two decades. A report from explains that we’ve created a church consumer culture. The report describes the struggle of today’s church leaders. Leaders are so busy surviving, offering programs or entertaining parishioners that many have lost their sense of mission to their surrounding community and to the world. And many more have disengaged from witness against structural evil all together. It just feels like too much.

I was struck by this woman. Her shaking body and tear-filled eyes, her questions and her follow-through showed me that in the deepest recesses of our beings, we all ache for God. The world is hungry for the God who cares about them and their neighbors, the God who offers intimate relationship with the divine and at the same time moves against mountains of structural injustice.

The world is hungry. And people need the church to feed them.

Perhaps you are a faith leader in the kind of faith community my friend is looking for. Or perhaps you are working to move your faith community to put faith into action in a way that bears strong witness to the God who cares and has the power to move the mountains of injustice.

This Advent season I feel God pushing, working to birth something new in the church, trying to push us out of the four walls of safe sanctuaries and back into the streets where faith grows through action and the church grows through public witness.

Perhaps this Advent season the church, the bride of Christ, is the one who is pregnant? And perhaps a new movement of the spirit, the kind that invites the hungry to feast and moves mountains of injustice, is the baby waiting to be born … again.

Vulnerability and Engagement

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

It is excruciatingly hard to change, to place ourselves at the growth edges where success is every bit as much a possibility as failure.

Living in our culture, most of us, as Brene Brown points out eloquently, live in deep fear of being ordinary.  So the pull to change can at times grow from a false motivation – that very fear of the ordinary – a fear more closely tracked by how we perceive ourselves to  be in the eyes of others vs. our own eyes and the eyes of God.  Such a motivation is fear based and in the end self-seeking.

I don’t believe God worries much about whether we live “ordinary” lives or not.  We all experience the extraordinary in the ordinary.   A favorite uncle, for example, fails in certain measures of eloquence but far surpasses others in terms of dedication to higher purpose, support of family and friends, as well as just plain fun. Ordinary in one sense. Extraordinary in another.

I do believe God’s desire for us is to live engaged lives regardless of whether the wrapper is “ordinary” or not.  Engagement of course predicates itself on vulnerability.  We have to allow ourselves and others the vulnerability that in the end will engage.

That is painfully difficult. As a pastor, I face those challenges constantly.  It is far easier to function out of a list of “nots” and “knowns” then to take risks.  As one pastor phrased it, we prefer certainty over the grace that would change us

I imagine the whole of regeneration connects to that very work.

The Christian Mission in a Couple of Paragraphs

Monday, December 10th, 2012

My sister shared this blog post with me. Want to understand how radical the Christian message is?   Read this ….

Leviticus 13.45-46
Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” As long as they have the disease they remain unclean.

They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.

Matthew 8.2-3a
A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

And Jesus reached out his hand and touched him.

Every Angel Adds to the Perfection of Heaven

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

I love the New Church concept that every angel adds to the perfection of heaven. Yesterday, I quickly scanned through a spreadsheet outlining our sermons for the past calendar year.  We hosted 26 people who spoke as part of a NewChurch LIVE service.  This is a simple thanks to all those who spoke and to a congregation willing to take the necessary risks in having speakers.

It is easy in opening the door to speakers to unleash a race to mediocrity as the message of one’s church gets muddied, gets watered down.  It can become so overly identified with inclusion that all sense of purpose is lost. That has not been my experience.  As a matter of fact the opposite has been true.   It has been wonderful to witness inclusion with purpose.

That approach can continue to bear fruit as we focus more and more on the very nature of commitment.  That commitment is God centered, embracing of blessed unrest, asks us not just to give our approval but more importantly our time, treasure, and talent.  It is real commitment we are called to.

What could commitment look like for us?  (A sermon topic in 2013)

  1. Community Service
  2. Baptism
  3. Prayer
  4. Devotional Reading
  5. Volunteering on Sundays
  6. Life Group/ Small Group
  7. Tithing
And yes …. maybe even sharing part of your story at NewChurch LIVE sometime!

A New Form of Music In Your Restaurant Bathroom

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

I read recently of a restaurant in San Diego that plays voice-overs in their bathrooms that feature complaints from “Yelp.”  That brought a smile!  (Article)

Complaints are part of life.  They certainly certainly play their role in church world.  In so many areas of life we navigate delicately between the two islands of anger and apathy.  Anger: Hearing constantly about this particular form of worship being “evil” or that person needing to be “set straight.” Apathy: Hearing constantly from people who are ABOUT to get involved, who will get involved WHEN YOU … (fill in the blank) but who, even when the blank is filled do little.

And what is our job?  Not to let the anger or apathy of others overtake our vision and direction.  In other words, we can never become what we struggle against.  Those islands are little more than mirages, the shouts little more than siren songs.  As Emanuel Swedenborg so aptly pointed out, “Goodness is the soul of truth.”  That means anger and apathy aren’t.

Memorial Service for Ian Haney

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Memorial Service for Ian Haney
December 1st, 2012
Bryn Athyn, PA.

There is life as it is and there is life as we desire it to be. The life we live here and now is both and broken and blessed, filled with the noise of our addictions and compulsions as well as the beautiful stillness of a God-given core filled with joy, connection, with peace. Life as we desire it to be grows from the core though it is a place often lost tragically for a time to the noise. That core is who, in the end, we really are. Who we truly are. Who we will truly become as this life fades, the noise stills, and the next life opens.

All of us here are aware of the tragic circumstances around Ian’s passing. He struggled with addiction and the addiction – that dreadful noise – created immense pain for Ian, for his family, and for others who deeply loved him. That addiction eventually led to his death. While it is important to note it, it is not what we are here to remember. We are here to remember Ian.

John Donne phrased it so well when he wrote of death, saying,
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful for
thou art not so.” “Thou art not so” – brave lines to place in front of death. Death in the end has nothing to be proud of here because Ian left us memories, a legacy of sorts. His life was much more, so much more than an addiction. And what is it that Ian leaves as a legacy, as a lived experience to those with whom he shared life?

First is his deep love of his family – his parents Rob and Mary, his brother Rob, and his sister Eileen. As many of you know, Ian tattoed on his chest a beautiful picture of that very connection. It was of a hand with 4 birds – one for each member of his family – supporting it. The birds supported the hand. The hand supported the birds. Underneath was the phrase, “believe that you have it and you do.”

I am sure if Ian was here today he would of course want for you four to know that he oh so wished for just one more fishing trip, just one more time surfing, just one more trip to Wallmart, just one more phone call to check in. Maybe even squeezing a final trip to Wawa. And he would especially want you to know this …. He knows, in ways beyond words, that you never gave up on him. Four birds … he always believed that he had that. And he did.

And there were other things he would want us all to know as well. First, as noted, is love. A second one is simply the gift of time. While notoriously a skinflint, a bargain hunter, he was never “cheap” with his time. And such gifts, as time, point us to what matters, what is important – the simplicity of being a good person, holding others with loving accountability – as his father noted, giving us “a leveling effect on all our pious bullshit.”

And a third is the gift of resiliency. Ian was incredibly resilient. That could be seen with his struggles in formal schooling. This was a man who learned far better with his hands than with the skills of an academic. As he noted in elementary school, his favorite school day would be “8 hours of recess with lunch in the middle.” But he made it through and even harbored plans to maybe sometime pursue a degree in engineering.

His battle with addiction shows that same resiliency. Yes the addiction did claim his life – an addiction that was crippling. But it did not do so without a fight. Many times, he felt he finally turned the corner. For periods of time he did. His last extended period of sobriety was as his beloved sister-in-law Jamie put it, a very good time, a real gift to all those around him. He accomplished THAT.

Gifts noted above – love, the simple connection of time, and resiliency – are actually the very core we spoke of at the beginning of the service. They are Ian as he truly is. They are Ian without the painful noise of addiction. They are the Ian we glimpsed. They are Ian at peace, at rest in the joy of his true self – made in the image and likeness of God.

Those gifts are what God will gently cultivate and bring to new and abundant life as Ian awakens to heaven. They will help him become the man those of you here saw, however fleetingly. They will help him to come home.

See “Death be not proud.” Death in the face of love, connection, and resiliency means very little though the pain of separation is indeed great, even overwhelming at times. God’s promise, a gentle holding of heaven, a promise maybe only our soul knows, is quietly sure. “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

We will smile at memories of a young man and bowling shoes. Of a young man who somehow enjoyed the combination of ramen noodles and Dooritoes. We will mourn a son, a brother, a friend who left us way before his time leaving a hole that will go unfilled.

I close with this story from his sister Eileen. “When Ian was about 3 or 4 the three of us were home together while my mom was at work. We never had a fence around our backyard until Ian came along- he just couldn’t resist the temptation to go on unsupervised outings.

That day he was playing out back, Rob was watching a movie, and I was on the phone. I looked out the window to check on him and the yard was strangely still. By the time I got outside the gate was open and he was gone. Rob and I panicked- Rob got on his bike and took off down the street to look for him. I started running the other way- I found Ian about a half block away, leisurely walking on the sidewalk pushing his play lawnmower. I was upset with him because I had been so scared something happened (you know the feeling)- I yelled “what are you doing out here?!?!” to which he calmly replied “I’m cutting the grass” and looked at me like I was a lunatic.

Though we only had him for a very brief time, he’s left us with a lifetime’s worth of memories- in just 20 years I think he lived more than some people do in 70 years!”

That is Ian’s life beyond the yard, outside the fence! And we know what Ian would most want us to know now, on this early leaving. He would say, as he often did, “I love you” and “Thanks.” Thanks for standing by him and with him in his triumphs and his struggles. Thanks for sharing life with him. Thanks for never giving up. You are a testimony to his love and to a life, with its flaws, well lived.


Lost faith. Found faith.

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

There are many joyous moments as a Pastor.  One is seeing faith just starting to break into the open.  Usually that takes the form of rather qualified statements ….

  1. If I went to a church, it would be one like yours. (My thought: See you in 6 months)
  2. I don’t have much space for God but I like that. (My thought: You might not have space for God but He has it for you.)
  3. If only I had not lost my faith…. (My thought: Buckle your seat belt for a great ride!)
I think those statements actually are ways of returning to faith. But that faith is far different than what we hold faith as.  We will find Faith, but it will NOT be how we supposed it to be.
You live in an unobserved culture.  We all do.  That makes it nearly impossible to see the ways that the hidden forces of culture impact how we hold the world.  Maybe it makes it impossible to see how corrupted the concept of faith is by our cultural predispositions. For me, I often mistakenly hold faith as a “thing” that lies “out there” that I am to “achieve.” or “attain.”  Therefore as I turn faith into a commodity, it becomes both imminently losable and findable.
But what if faith was far different than an objective thing, a commodity, detached from the deepest nature of humanity?
See I wonder, and I might be wrong, if even the debate over faith, taking as it does that commodity approach, is a red herring of sorts, sending us scurrying down paths of our own mental and cultural constructions.  Christ spent no time in deep existential debate about faith and its attending proofs. The questions He did offer of salvation were stark.  Want to know what the state of faith is in your life, answer these He would say.  What do we do when we see hunger? What do we do when we see poverty?  What did we do when we see the single parent?
Maybe in life we tend to start the journey by asking the questions, making the statements alluded to at the beginning of the blog and then get, blessedly, those were never actually the questions.   Faith, as the New Church holds it, is the eye of love.  Live with courage and humility and faith there!

“Advent is a groaning.”

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

I love these words. “Advent is a groaning.” And it is.

Much of the Christmas season is a season of waiting,  a season of patience.  If we see Christmas as countdown-to-gifts, the patience takes a certain color.  If however we see Christmas as countdown-to-birth, the color shifts. When we speak of Advent, we speak of birth not gifts.

As a father of  5 beautiful children, I have heard my wife many times, while pregnant, say she was ready not to be pregnant any more.  Those comments, offered in the midst of frustration over aching legs, lack of sleep, tiredness, while serious in a sense, were not literal.  No mother wants their child to arrive in month 6, knowing all too well the complications created by an early delivery.

“Waiting” of course is not always joyous.  Much is just such “groaning.”

That is well worth remembering as we enter this advent season.  God so seeks to be born into our lives, not as a gift per se, but as a living, breathing, look-me-in-the-eyes presence.  Immanuel, God with us.