Archive for May, 2013

Can we really marry the “right” person?

Friday, May 31st, 2013

In the midst of wedding season, I want to share again this powerful observation by Stanley Hauerwas.

Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.  We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. For it is through the need of another that the greatest hindrance to my freedom, namely my own self-absorption, is finally not so much overcome as simply rendered irrelevant. It is through the other that I am finally able to make peace with myself and thus have the power to make my life my own.”

Marriage, for many, is an incredible blessing.  For others it falls far short of its promise.  And yet in either case, holding marriage in its proper context appears important.  Marriage does not make one “whole.”  Marriage does not solve all problems.  Marriage is about a struggle, a blessed one, but a struggle none-the-less in which we wrestle with our inherent self-absorption, seeking to put that very self-absorption – seeing it rendered irrelevant – as we learn with the years the gift of unconditional love.

The Freedom of Genuine Choice

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Freedom is the name-of-the-game in a certain sense within New Church theology.   God’s desire is for us to be free.  And we can hold that freedom a number of ways.  Freedom from … fear, anger, jealously, addiction, lust.  Freedom to …. serve, love, connect, relate, live.  Without that freedom – both an end in itself and a means to that end – as Emanuel Swedenborg noted, “How could we co-operate in receiving these things from God?’ (True Christianity 615)

Freedom is more than personal taste. As Seth Godin noted:

Genuine choice involves whole new categories, or “none of the above.” Genuine choice is difficult to embrace, because it puts so many options and so many assumptions on the table with it. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding significant choices most of the time. Life (and an organization) is difficult to manage if everything is at stake, all the time. The trap is believing that the superficial choices are the essential part of our work. They’re not. They’re mostly an easy way to avoid the much more frightening job of changing everything when it matters.

Spiritual choice often presents with just that … the more frightening job of changing everything that matters!   Choices towards life often appear to embrace life-giving danger.


The Crazy Danger Of Fundamentalism

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

With the election for Iran’s next President about to take place, the leader in the race is outpacing his competition by a wide margin through the slogan, “No compromise. No submission. Only Jalili.”

Such is the crazy danger in religious fundamentalism.   No compromise.  No submission.  Only demagogory.

And the challenges of fundamentalism is far from “over there.”  We face the same forces be that within our churches or within political parties.  Wrap the human propensity for machismo in a flag, add religious language, and label a bad guy, and fundamentalism can rapidly spin a nation into a spasm of reactive violence.

How do we find a way out of that cycle?

That is where we will, in the coming years, need to fully re-dedicate ourselves to answers that heal.  That is a large task, a task beyond purely military answers and one where faith communities can find a place of real service.

A case in point was reading a recent article on the refugee camps in Jordan filled with thousands of displaced Syrians.  Living in a compound without jobs or education is hardly a breeding ground for the kind of enlightened action that leads one along the higher roads of human nature.  With guile replacing an open mind as the modus operandi for many of these youths living in these camps, it is hard to see it ending well.

We can however choose to add our voice to the conversation.  Christ’s voice would not be one of evangelization.  I believe it would be one of love, tolerance, and compassion realized through the service.

What does it look like?  I am unsure of the specifics.  But it would not look like “No Compromise.  No submission.”

A Walk Through the Anzio Military Cemetery

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

We spend much of our lives on the surface of things.  Memorial Day is no exception.  It is a day for me that pulls two directions.  One pulls towards a deeper and sober acknowledgment of the heart breaking and often courageous sacrifice made by those in the armed services.  As a former history teacher, graveyards and memorials, from Gettysburg to Omaha Beach, inevitably bring tears.

The other pull wants to say so clearly … we must move towards other ways.  Honoring the fallen and speaking for a world freed from violence are not at odds.  We can, as Christians, speak for veterans and against war.

Fr. Thomas Keating spoke of a profound spiritual experience he had during World War II.  A young Trappist monk during the war, he prayed fervently for those soldiers in harm’s way.  Years later, in a trip to Italy for a spiritual retreat, he toured the American military cemetery at Anzio.  The “thin place” he found walking that cemetery were whispers from the fallen that they had given in their war and that he was called to give in his … a war of love, a war of awakening.  He spoke, with tears, of feeling their presence cheering him on from their resting place.

He will judge between the nations

and will settle disputes for many peoples.

They will beat their swords into plowshares

and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not take up sword against nation,

nor will they train for war anymore.  (Isaiah 2:4)

Some things are a laughing matter. Others are not.

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

As a pastor, I want to note an interesting dynamic.  On the one hand is the failure of many Christian churches.  On the other is the failure of the culture.

The Christian church, including the New Church, has been failing for awhile.  Vibrant, engaged institutions seeking to serve simply do not witness the collapse in numbers that many churches are experiencing.  Rob Bell, in his most recent book “What We Talk About When We Talk Of God” phrased it this way…

As a pastor over the past 20 years, what I’ve seen over and over again is the people who want to live lives of meaning and peace and significance and joy – people who have a compelling sense that their spirituality is some vital yet mysterious way central to who they are – but who can’t find meaning in the dominant conceptions, perceptions, and understandings of God they’ve encountered.

Some churches in refusing to face this collapse and their responsibility in it have chosen suffocating literalism and retrenchment over dialogue.  Others have gone to the opposite extreme … a form of “health and wealth” Christianity whose giddy focus on “feel good” leaves one on a sugar high but unmoved at the level of the soul.  I am certainly guilty of both at different times in my career.

Culture – and that includes you, me, us – has likewise been failing.  Attending  a recent Justice conference filled with some of the brightest minds going in the Christian world of service, it was disheartening and eyeopening to hear the frustrations of these incredible leaders as they noted a drop of “long obedience in one direction” among those whom Eugene Cho called, “The most disappointed generation ever.”  Ouch!  These words were not spoken by curmudgeons intent on adding a grinding critique onto today’s culture but were offered by impassioned, knowledgeable, global leaders in topics such as sex trafficking and wage slavery.

A recent study published in the New York Times backs up these frustrations.  The study looked at language usage from 1500 to 2008, specifically over the last half century.  What specific words were used more?  What specific words less?


  1. More Frequent: Personalized, self, standout, unique, I come first, I can do it myself
  2. Less Frequent: Community, collective, tribe, share, united, band together, common good
  1. Overall, usage of the top 50 general words dealing with moral virtue fell 74%
  2. Bravery, fortitude – down 66%
  3. Thankfulness, appreciation – down 49%
  4. Modesty, humbleness – down 52%
  5. Kindness, helpfulness – down 56%

To restate our building blocks are now “Come and learn how to standout, how to find your unique self in this personalized program of self fulfillment!”   We can expect, “Join with us in a life of humility, kindness, and self sacrifice as we seek to serve the common good” to, on the other hand, fall flat.

That is not really so funny is it.  It shows we as a church have great work to do.  To do that work we ourselves need to take on the same tools we seek to give others … courage, gratitude, humility, kindness, and the common good.

Power and Love

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

It is so easy to confuse power with love.  Fr. Richard Rohr points to the core challenge and the new paradigm God calls us to …

Any exercise of power apart from love leads to brutality and evil; but any claim to love that does not lead to using that as power for others is mere sentimentality and emotion. I must admit, it is rare to find people who hold both together in perfect balance—who have found their power and use it for others, or people who have found love and use it for good purposes. I think the Reign of God includes both love and power in a lovely dance. I think that is what Jesus means when he tells us to be “cunning as serpents but gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). It is a beautiful combination of both authority and vulnerability.

A loving person then is not as focused on power as they are on empowerment.  There lies a key.  And it is an emancipatory key that takes one out of the crass business of being a gate-keeper.  It moves towards opening doors, not closing them.  Power and love grow then as we give them away.

Syria, Drones, and Niebuhr’s Prayer

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Today’s top right headline feature in the New York Times read ….

None of that should frankly surprise.  The Shia – Sunni divide is centuries old, as are many other contributing rivalries.  Middle East strong men like Hussein and Assad were able to keep that strife contained through simple force and violence.  When that presence lessons however, the tensions underneath bubble to the top and explode in often catastrophic, uncontrollable violence.

This is humanity at its worse.  Easy of course for us in the United States to view sectarian strife as a form of inexcusable barbarity unless of course we come to realize we ourselves fought a bloody civil war, one that to this day remain the most damaging conflict in terms of lives lost in American history.

What is the option here?  Is it to flee from engagement in these war torn areas?  Is it to engage militarily?  Is it to continue the expansion of drone strikes and programs?

There are no easy answers.  Unlike the American Civil War, these groups are able to inflict damage on a far greater scale, reaching distant shores.  There is no moat wide enough, so to speak to protect us.  Even the simple solution of drones which appear so sanitary and detached (and popular among the electorate) arguably engender a whole new cycle of violence.

What is there then to do?  I believe again a pastor’s job is to keep calling all of us to a third way, searching beyond violence-for-violence and calling out God’s tender image of a re-imagined world in which  “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”  (Isaiah 2:4)  That is God’s vision, one that will not come easily.

As Reinhold Niebuhr beautifully phrased it …

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.



Finding A Way To Be Who God Wants Us To Be

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

The words, “The most courageous thing we can ever do is to be who God created us to be” challenge.  We spend so much time skirting around that very “trueness” of God’s intention for our lives.  The good news of course is that God’s intention is who He has already created you to be!  These words of Anne Lamott get right to it:

We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be. The only problem is that there is also so much other stuff, typically fixations with how people perceive us, how to get more of the things that we think will make us happy, and with keeping our weight down. So the real issue is how do we gently stop being who we aren’t? How do we relieve ourselves of the false fronts of people-pleasing and affectation, the obsessive need for power and security, the backpack of old pain, and the psychic Spanx that keeps us smaller and contained?

Here’s how I became myself: mess, failure, mistakes, disappointments, and extensive reading; limbo, indecision, setbacks, addiction, public embarrassment, and endless conversations with my best women friends; the loss of people without whom I could not live, the loss of pets that left me reeling, dizzying betrayals but much greater loyalty, and overall, choosing as my motto William Blake’s line that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love.

And God is for us in that endeavor, a fact lost in many religious circles.  He not only remains steadfastly for us in that endeavor but modeled the journey himself … no small miracle… in Christ, “God as a human being.” (True Christianity 538)  More interested in our character than in our comfort, there may just be place to rest for you there.   Knowing that with mess, comes the answer. He lives it.  So can we.


The New World: Fewer Limits. Fewer Guarantees

Monday, May 13th, 2013

We live in a brave world into which Christianity must offer a voice … a shift I wrote on several weeks ago, that needs addressed over and over as we sort through even what conversations need to be had.  Thomas Friedman, as noted in a previous blog, captured it well with his words in a recent Op-Ed piece carried in the New York Times.

What’s exciting is that this [hyper-connected] platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online. But this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.

If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing. That is what I mean when I say “it is a 401(k) world.” Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it.

We can rest fairly assured that the economic certainties our parents grew up with will continue to rapidly erode as life time employment and pensions slip into a bygone era.  Churches will live into that same era of economic uncertainty and into the endless possibilities as well that such an era ushers in.

This means churches will thrive provided they remain (a) mission centered and (b) highly innovative/ agile.   There are few other social bodies able to do the work that churches do.  The mission is unique and inspiration … a community of the willing organized around higher purpose, able to draw alongside the suffering of the world.  And to serve into that will call on congregations to bring fresh eyes and perspectives to the endeavor, employing the spirit of empowered partnership.

The model is messy.  The model is beautiful.   Fewer limits.  Fewer guarantees.


“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” TS Elliot

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

T.S. Elliot penned the famous line in Four Quartets,“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”   What is it though that we cannot bear?   Matthew 25 speaks right to it ….

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Powerful line, a reality hard to bear.  Finding God in weakness?  Finding God in the stranger?  Finding God in the sick and imprisoned?  Finding God in those we are most likely to reject?

And note who are the ones who do not get it.  The very ones who should … “the righteous.”   One reads this passage and easily imagines clergy oblivious to the unsettling call of the Gospel that the finding of God is not purely “in here” but “out there” in the margins of a world seeking resurrection.  Such subversive thought redefines salvation.  ”… all people who do what is good as a religious practice, not only Christians but non-Christians, are accepted and adopted by the Lord after they die.” (True Christianity, 536)

A life giving reality check.