Archive for April, 2013

Thoughts on “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” by Jonathan Franzen

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Over 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul wrote in Corinthians, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians, 1:22)  A beautiful line in which we see a mirror of ourselves.

We often do demand of faith miraculous signs, the “hallelujah” moment of glorious insight and conversion.   At other times we yearn for the deep wisdom of faith in which all fears and doubts are allayed with a thunder-clap of certitude. But that is not Christianity.

What is it then?

Christianity is the drawing alongside of suffering with the transformative force of self-sacrificing love … a preaching then of “Christ crucified.”  It understands that “Liking (in the Facebook sense) is for Cowards.  Go for What Hurts.”  And what hurts is learning to love in a specific way.   As Jonathan Franzen recently wrote in a Op-Ed piece for the New York Times …

Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self….

When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.

Welcome to what hurts!  Welcome to what serves.  Welcome to what saves.





Christianity at its worse. Christianity at its best.

Friday, April 26th, 2013

This photo so clearly shows Christianity at its worse … a burnt KKK cross … and Christianity at its best … MLK gently removing it.


As Christians, we need to be aware of both legacies.  The Cross burning legacy knows a long history … the Inquisition, Slavery, Segregation, Apartheid, Westboro Baptist and “God hates fags.” It is ugly, judgmental, self righteous, violent, argumentative.  Its danger stems largely from  the religious language it employs as a patina to cover over ego, an ego more concerned with rightness than with compassion, with rules more than grace.  It burns crosses in yards in Jesus’ name …..

That is why I think it so necessary that Christ embodied God’s life … that Christ was the very incarnation of It.  One cannot looks at the actions of Christ and see Him ever burning anything, ever proclaiming “God hates ….”, ever targeting an outlier group.   The group clearly most likely to feel His upset and disappointment were actually not the outliers but those comfortably in positions of powers.  Those who saw themselves as guardians of righteousness were quickly and disruptively called to question that very paradigm.

Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. (Matt. 23)

Maybe it is time for us to pull, figuratively, a few burning crosses out of yards, not to fashion them in turn into our own swords, but as a way to stand witness to Christianity as God intended.

The Glorious Disruption of Partnership in the Middle and Why Penney’s is Failing

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

I think a lot about the future of “church.”  What will churches come to look like?  How do we join that unfolding?  How do we support other churches?  Being in the place where I am more clear about all I don’t know than about what I do know, pushes this question of deeply interested curiosity.

Four years into the experiment known as “NewChurch LIVE”, what do I think I know, today?  It would be something along these line.   The Christian paradigm as a model of self-less service is joyous, jolting and disruptive.  The New Church is a call back to that model.  We need to gather increasingly effective forms of partnership around that core, forms that include a wide variety of humanity who are willing to be disrupted.  From that place, we learn together to ask the right questions.  

A number of weeks ago JC Penney’s Board replaced their CEO Ron Johnson.  Ron came to Penny’s with well polished credentials. Prior to being named CEO, he served as the Senior Vice President of Retail Operations at Apple from January 2000 to November 2011, where he pioneered the concept of the Apple Retail Stores and the Genius Bar.   What did he accomplish at Apple?  Its retail space became the most profitable on a square footage basis of any space in the country.  With much fanfare then he arrives at Penney’s only to flame out in under 2 years.  Why?

Because he knew too much.  He saw knowledge and critical culture in one place … Apple … as completely transferable to another place …. Penney’s.   The evidence accrued through his outrageously successful tenure at Apple pointed that he was right and that he possessed the answers.  Humility tends to contract in that inhospitable environment.  No humility, no partnership.

Partnership may not “know” answers but it does now direction.  Partnership may not be quick or efficient but it is engaging and effective.  Partnership may be messy, but it is beautiful!


Why do people do that?

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Many of us have been glued to the news as the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers comes to a close.  Many of us ponder the question, “Why?”  Why would people do this?

As with any such incident, I certainly would not want to say the answer is easy.  But some thoughts seem worthy of sharing. I am struck by one of the most moving books I read on this question titled “Eichman In My Hands.” The book chronicled the kidnapping of the Nazi general in charge of the logistical support that enabled the Holocaust. Eichmann was kidnapped from Argentia where he had fled after the war. The book’s author … the Mossad agent who had lost family in the Holocaust and who was tasked with bringing Eichman to justice.

The author’s words, as he concluded the book around the “Why” question, were chilling.  He said he now believed that very normalcy … almost boringly so … of Eichmann should deeply unsettle us.  He also noted that evil grows from “amorality by consensus.”  Restated, what he held was that individuals and communities embark on a dark path when they erase the moral conversation from life.  They become amoral, not immoral.  Ironically, extremists, religious and otherwise, do this adeptly, slowly erasing all moral consideration in a way that is insidious in its boredom.  The bombers, like Eichmann, progressively erased a foundational humanity years before the Marathon, years before the Holocaust.

It is heart breaking to see the photo of 8 year old Martin Richard.   It is apparent, given the evidence, that the bomber responsible for his death would have set the back-pack laden with explosives right near this child.  That is beyond hard to imagine for us.  And then to calmly walk back down the street, away from the explosion….

That spiritual dullness so apparent in the callousness of it all speaks to a conscience washed clean of any moral feeling.   “Amorality by consensus.” Evil is born of such a perspective.

Evil by its nature wants to wound everyone, goodness by its nature wants to hurt no-one.  The evil feel that are fully alive when they go on the offensive, because they are always wanting to destroy.  The good feel they are alive when they are not attacking anyone but are taking advantage of the opportunity to help others. (Heavenly Secret 1684)

And our call is to watch for ways in which that same callousness, dismissive of all forms of suffering, can start to grow in our lives.  Lord help us be helpers.

Moving In and Moving Towards

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Fascinating.  Just fascinating studying how Christianity moved from a group that numbers in the dozens to a movement that grew to the millions.  As one author noted, it did not start as a religion per se but as a gathering of hearts on fire.  And that start seems so critical to the endeavor we call Christianity.

At times, many centuries removed from the time of Christ, we start things with “hearts on fire” but maybe not often enough.  I look at this congregation.  I came late to the game, enjoyed the task, did the role but it was largely from interest, not from the blessed brokenness of a a heart on fire.  And now, more and more, a heart on fire.  That fire grows from simple witnessing …. a family lost in grief welcomed, new love newly celebrated in marriage, deeper purpose searched for and maybe found,  God’s ever present call to take one more step today.  Both a moving in and a moving towards… that seems to be how this all grows.

And love then gives rise to sight.  As Emanuel Swedenborg captured it:

“To the extent that truth becomes the leader good becomes obscured; but to the extent that good becomes the leader truth is visible in its own light.” (Heavenly Secrets 2407).

The heart bent to goodwill becomes the light by which we see.


Standing Together

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

There is a great and powerful need to learn how to pastor differently.

Imagine these words …  that holiness dwells more so in what we don’t know than in what we do know.  Or as Emanuel Swedenborg phrased it, “Holiness makes its home in ignorance that is innocent … holiness can only dwell in ignorance. (Secrets of Heaven 1557).

That is not speaking to the old business of pastoring, a business centered on a sealed “knowing.”  It is a new business of pastoring … a business of curiosity and questions and engagement and mutual discovery, comfortable with blessed unknowing.   Such business is not without a specialness to it.

There is a specialness, a specialness arguably more concerned with connection and care than with the heady mastery of unique and special knowledge.

A historian of religion once said that all religion begins by the making of a false distinction between the holy and the seemingly unholy. Soon a clerical caste, moral distinctions, purity codes, and temple systems emerge to keep these two worlds defined and apart, and to keep us separate from the unholy. This makes the ego feel safe and superior, so it usually works if you stay at the early level (of religion), where not much self-knowledge has yet been acquired. This becomes the very “business” of religion, and you can understand business here on several true levels: It keeps us busy, it keeps the customers coming back, and it is often a very subtle process of the “buying and selling” of God. It does give us clergy a good job, and most of us run to the occasion—because the crowds like it for some reason, and we get to feel important as “protectors of the sacred” (scriptures, rituals, and moralities). No one has told them any differently, for the most part—except Jesus.

And Christ spoke very differently!  He spoke away from special, caste-protected religion to a democratized faith of the people.  Such speech echoed the sacredness of the rich human lives with which it found itself entwined as a here-and-now, flesh-and-bones proposition.  Christianity’s roots far more hearkened to engagement with the world from the dangerous position of a living alternative than to a deadened ritual more concerned with escapism.

It would be easy to blame pastors for moving away from people towards a role as hyper-intellectual content experts.  But such a ministerial role is deeply comfortable for congregations. It demands little except passive listening.  It places faith at a safe distance with a specialized cadre of those expert enough to handle it…. no wars need be fought because there are trained soldiers to do that.   Many churches then get exactly what they want.

The truth remains … we are all here to learn.  We are all here to do.  Together.


Thoughts On Boston

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

We join together in the deep sadness that events like Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon bring to mind. Events like that of April 15th are not anomalies, though we wish it so. From a suicide bombing in Mogadishu last week to the continued echoes of violent death in Iraq and Afghanistan, these events stain the human experience, reminding us again and again of the caustic power of darkness.

40 years ago, in 1963, the nation was rocked by another bombing, this one at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. 4 beautiful young girls died. Darkness had its day.

I was struck recently reading an interview with a survivor of that bombing. A young girl then, a friend of the four, she by mere happenstance was not with her friends the moment the explosion tore through the room. Years later, rummaging through the nicknacks of a now decades long worth of living, she same across the church flier for the sermon that was to have been preached the day of the bombing.

The topic of the service … forgiveness. The scripture for the service … Christ’s words from the Cross …. “Father forgive them for don’t know what they are doing.”

That is the love, the incredibly difficult love we are to bring to these shattered moments. One can see that very love in action from the outpouring of support in Boston. Stories of people opening their homes to now stranded runners. Courage of first responders running towards the carnage. Runners running directly from the race to donate blood. The helpers. As Fred Rogers shared, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And we do.

And that love is both what gives us hope in these moments as well as a call for what we are to become. It is not a simple call but a jarring one because it calls us so clearly out of our settled selves. It is why churches exist. Our job … to join in the suffering and to continue to seek a new world.

“Now I say to you in conclusion, life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.” Rev. Martin Luther King delivering the eulogy for three of the girls killed at the 15th Street Baptist Church.

Confusing Christianity with a Verdict

Friday, April 12th, 2013

Imagine being faced with sure knowledge that the child you carry will be born with a crippling birth defect.  What choice would you make?  Would you carry the child to term or not?

Such was the dilemma faced by a young couple who sought the counseling of Rev. Samuel Wells, dean of the Duke School of Divinity.   His points around this issue were profound.

The couple approached her parents for input.  One parent came down staunchly as “Abortion is Sin.”  The other’s “Pro Choice” orientation clearly meant that to keep the pregnancy was wrong.  Both parents were Christian.  Both saw Christianity as a “Verdict”, a body of knowledge to which one brought a given challenge which then in turn was judged.  The shallowness of this approach to Christianity-as-Verdict is distressing.

The distress, as Wells so ably pointed out, is that the verdict is rendered only as a point-in-time decision.  It says nothing to the couple in terms of the tortuous choices before them or of care for the couple and a new family after the birth.  Many see Christianity this way, as a point-in-time-phenomina vs. the life giving transformative path rendered originally as “The Way.”

New Church theology warns us away from a narrow, verdict centered approach.  As Emanuel Swedenborg noted, we move away from truer forms of deep love when we remove goodwill from the conversation and turn such decisions “into something merely moral.”  (True Christianity, 503)   This echoes Paul’s words in Romans 13, a passage that speaks to the ultimate law under which we are to function.

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” [fn2] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.


Meeting with Theological School Students to Talk about Women’s Ordination

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

I LOVE teaching.  Always have.  So it is fun to get the opportunity to return to the classroom to share thoughts.  Today was just such a day as I spoke to Theological Students at the Bryn Athyn College about the reasons for opening up the clergy to women pastors.

For me, the heartbeat of New Church theology centers on this view of an intensely loving God.  God is love.  Love is the core and central part of our life.  From there, our life of faith is built out.  It is not necessarily a life of “faith as certainty” but more a life in which “Faith is the eye of love, since it is from love through faith that the Lord is seen.”  (Heavenly Secrets, 3863)

In a fascinating theological premise, one that is frankly revolutionary, Emanuel Swedenborg held that churches actually “fall” when they deviate from this self-sacrificing love that is to be their pivot.  “Every church in its beginning regards the good of life in the first place, and truths of doctrine in the second; but as the church declines, its begins to regards the truths of doctrine in the first place and the good of life in the second.”  (Heavenly Secrets 82)  Simply put, we stop asking “What would love do?” as we mistakenly come to believe that we know is actually the most important thing.

I believe there is little hope in effectively answering the question, “What would love do?”, without a full balance, reciprocity, connection that a male and female clergy would supply.   A new world can be born out of fuller forms of partnership!

Put Down The Drink. Then Get Better

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

We remain aware, often painfully so, of our short comings.  And what are you, me, anyone doing about those shortcomings, today?  What is the thing you could point to that says “Here.  Here is one step I am taking this morning.”

So easy I think to see a problem as just “the problem.”  ”If I stop doing ‘x’ then all life is better.”  But that fails often.  One need look no further then the “Dry Drunk”, the alcoholic who while they may have stopped actually drinking, continues the same behaviors as before, behaviors born of a self-absorbed ego run wild.   The problem then, goes deeper than the problem.

As we work towards a practice of daily, spiritual discipline, towards the sacred “no” that opens us to God’s “yes”, those daily steps should include, figuratively, ways to put down the drink and importantly ways to get better.