Archive for August, 2013

The Weight That Is Syria

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

The pictures are clearly appalling.  Watching in still photographs and video men, women, and children dying from poison gas released by the regime in Syria last week sickens.   The violence in the world at times appears so far beyond measure.  What is a church to do?

Our role first, I believe, is not to be silent.  It is to speak of these things, to speak of the adulteration of violence wherever it might appear.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran Pastor and critic of the Nazi regime in World War II, wrote convincing that he knew the church in Germany was dead when it no longer had anything to say about the outbreak of war.  We must speak.

And our role, second, is to be a beacon of hope that re-imagined worlds are possible.  I want so very much to get lost in the fun of church frankly.  I am not nearly as keen to get lost in the work of church.  And hope, if it is to be real, must connect to that work.

That work says that church at its best is a counter-cultural statement of an often joyous dissent, a joining together of a “community of the willing”, prepared to roll up sleeves, with a smile.  It is not sour righteousness but the joy of life lived around purpose, “Love in action” as Swedenborg phrased it.  And what we find, to borrow the words of MLK …”We discovered it was easier to love than to carry the burden of hatred.”

We join into that work locally.  Here.  Now.  That is the opportunity where numbing silence is broken, hope stirred, and the work engaged.   Violence is not ok with me.  The work has to be.

‘Who are you?’ vs. ‘Who can you persuade people you are?’

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Those are not easy questions!  We spend incredible amounts of energy on persuading others that the persona – Greek for ‘mask’ – we hold out there really defines “us.”    The self-forgetting however that leads us to “Who are you?” is far more elusive.

And maybe, we only know ourselves in God.  Maybe that is the only we write our own book.

That of course sounds deeply esoteric and maybe even creepily over-the-top Christian.  But there is truth there.

How did the 12 Disciples “know” themselves in relation to God?  They did so through their relationship with Christ.  That relationship was not a faith statement the way we hold it today.   The belief that a statement as in a profession of faith and a relationship with God were one and the same would have appeared ridiculous to these 12 people I think.  They saw who they were in relation to Christ.  And what is it they saw?

They saw Christ serving, healing, reaching out beyond gender, national, and religious identities… a clear clear answering who he was through how he related to others.   That is then how they knew themselves, how they answered “Who Am I?” by literally stepping into those same shoes, modeling that same behavior.  The statement of belief was then the act of service, acts which in turn proclaimed joyfully the answer to the question, “Who are you?”

I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.  (John 14)

What a radically different way that is to know who we are, to know that “love is the reality.”  (Divine Providence 11)

And with the change, what is next?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

A reader posed the question in response to the blog ‘Churches are Changing’, ” Wish this were a longer article. I wanted to keep reading to find out what comes next.”  So what might just be next?  What might the church of the future look like?  I imagine it will be distinguished by three characteristics.  It will be challenging, curious, and kind.


We live deeply wedded to a culture largely motivated by self indulgence (You deserve) and self actualization (Be your best self).  Within limits, none of that is wrong.  But idolatry grows as we make self indulgence and self actualization the very gods we worship.  (Pick up most magazines and see where the preponderance of articles point.)  Self indulgence and self actualization as ends in and of themselves create a fatal arrogance.  The challenge – they look good and feel good.  And in leaving us satiated, they leave no room for challenge and surrender.

My goal is largely to get more more stuff, feel good etc…..  God’s goal for me is transformation.

A large part of religion today however draws from the wells of self indulgence and self actualization that keep us a safe distance from transformation.  Not unlike the Pharisees of the New Testament, in the pursuit of purity, creedal agreement, and set worship forms  in which all sacredness is mistakenly imbued, we rapidly turn faith and church into a “club” in which we as “members” can feel good about ourselves, indulging in our unique knowledge and practice compared to “them.”  It is an ego trip in religious garb. That is true of churches on the right and churches on the left.

But transformation, not membership is the goal.  And transformation does not occur outside of challenge.   And crazy part … I think we all know that!  I think we all crave challenge.  I think we all harbor a need underneath that material numbness around which most of our lives pivot to have God and our churches call us out not with crushing guilt, but in a way that gives breath to who we truly are, where our soul seeks to come to life.

As Christ says in John:

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

That challenge will be in many forms. It will be personal (Can we see our obsession with consumption differently?)  It will be local. (Can we see and serve the broken in our community?) And nationally.  (How can we step in to areas where the massive economic shifts we are undergoing have creating need?)  These are really hard ways for churches to function because they call us to a certain “death” in terms of self preoccupation but it is death, like the kernel of wheat, that leads to life.


What if, as one author noted, churches were known more for curiosity than certainty?  What if curiosity typified a religious person?

I think the future church will be a collection of the curious.

And how can it be otherwise?  We simply have no clue what the future will hold.  Simple case in point … approximately 1/3 of all Americans retire with less than $10,000 in savings.  That is daunting.  How long will their life span be? Whose responsibility will it be to give them a baseline quality of life?  How will we avoid “generation war” as the ratio of workers to retirees shrinks? I am deeply curious about that.  None of it will yield to simple answers.  What it will yield to however is transformation, slow and challenging as that is.


In my experience, some of the meanest folks I have experienced come from religious circles.  As Shane Claiborne noted, you can be right but if you aren’t kind, you quickly aren’t right.  And, it should be noted, some of the kindest folks I have met come from religious circles as well.  Which will we choose?

Creating churches that challenge and that are curious will need to be done in a spirit of kindness.  If such transformation lapses into one church believing they “get it” and needing to “correct” other churches, we rapidly fall away from transformation right back into self indulgence and self actualization at the corporate level.   Transformation means it all belongs … all the parts.

I loved the words of Gregory Boyle.  In talking of the Pharisees, he noted how the Pharisees did everything right, from how they worshiped, to how they prayed, to how they gave alms. What did they miss?  They had forgotten the duty to delight in people.  They had forgotten the simple virtue of kindness.  Swedenborg was crystal clear – churches end not from a theological lapse but from when they no longer hold loving kindness as the priority.   Faith then separates from charity.

Challenge, curiosity and kindness point the way towards a transformation that will breath new life into churches.  We, I think, bear some responsibility in having the conversation about how it unfolds and in the sacrificial work it takes to create churches that do what churches do best … serve.


Churches are Changing

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

In this line of work, one hears often of the strength of Christianity in the Bible Belt, a Christianity largely centered around the Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest denomination in the United States.  Even that group however is far from immune to the changes reshaping the religious landscape.  A recent article noted …

Annual baptisms in South­ern Baptist churches have declined by 100,000 in the past 12 years and last year dropped to the lowest number in 64 years.

With a total membership of 15,872,404, the SBC marked the sixth straight year of statistical decline. It remains the nation’s second-largest faith group, behind Roman Catholics. Membership dropped by 105,000—two-thirds of a percent. Weekly worship attendance, meanwhile, fell below 6 million to 5,966,735, down 3 percent.

Long regarded a sign of denominational vitality, SBC baptisms leveled off after an all-time record 445,725 in 1972. They have declined six out of the last ten years to the lowest number since 1948, the year Southern Baptists first exceeded the 300,000-baptism benchmark with 310,266.

What gives?

What gives is that we find ourselves in the midst of a sea change, a dramatic and arguably permanent shift in how churches function within the broader cultural context.  No denomination will find itself immune.

The challenge is that such shifts will tend to encourage a retrenchment back into a “what was” versus a more uncertain and perilous leaning into what could be.  Fear creates strangeness.  And both sides of that argument share a fear in these uncertain times, a shared fear I imagine around an impending sense of loss of the living water of the Word. With traditional involvement in churches declining, maybe even on the verge of collapse, it is easy and understandable for us to feel that fear.  But ends and beginnings are often one and the same.

The furthest point of creation as Emanuel Swedenborg noted is, after all, a seed.   The whole process – the goal – is headed “for a seed that has a new power to reproduce.” (Divine Providence 3)

“Seeds are produced anew from year to year, and new productions of them never cease. They have not ceased from the creation of the world to this day, nor will they cease to eternity.”  (Divine Love and Wisdom, 318)

None of that makes the times we are entering easy.  But such thoughts give us a peaceful sense of what might lie beyond the horizon of our finite sight.

Saddness about the Violence in Egypt

Friday, August 16th, 2013

The stories arising from Egypt as a violent crackdown continues are saddening. Over 600 known dead. Countless others injured. Much of the violence perpetrated either in the name of religion or the fear of religion.

Idolatry is often not holding onto the wrong things. Idolatry is, as Roger Owens noted, “Holding onto good things wrongly.” Religion is a good, and we often, oh so very often hold it wrongly.

At the danger or creating another split, what is the right way to hold faith? I offer some simple guidelines …

(1) Keep religion focused on our own personal journey calling us to loving engagement with the world.

(2) Avoid seeing in faith a wide ranging political program. Jesus never speaks to the perfect form of government or the perfect economic system. He speaks frequently of the need for all entities to serve the vulnerable.

(3) Gather as communities of faith that in turn become a healing presence in the world.

(4) Never engage in violence.

There is no place for the bloodshed that is occurring.  There is no place for the hatred and distrust that fans it.  To throw stones in the name of religion or  from the fear of it saddens.  To shoot in the name of religion or from fear of it destroys the very fabric of our better selves.

Alex Rodriguez, Sports, and the limits of Idols

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

One author famously noted our biggest challenge is not atheism but idolatry.  We all believe then in a god of some sort, be that human reason, militarism, or even athletics.  We pick.  At times we pick well, at times we fail.

Sports is one arena in which it appears we are constantly caught up short as our idols crash … be that Lance Armstrong, Aaron Hernandez, or now, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees who is facing what could amount to a lifetime ban from baseball due to the continued use of performance enhancing drugs.

David Brooks in a recent editorial wrote movingly of the perils of the self-preoccupation rife in our culture, a self-preoccupation fed in two equally destructive ways … by a culture forever searching for idols and by individuals forever searching to be idolized.  Those two together create a potent “soup” that is hard to arrest, hard to stop, hard to limit because for a brief maybe we all get what we want.  But it cannot last….

Self-preoccupied people have trouble seeing that their natural abilities come from outside themselves and can only be developed when directed toward something else outside themselves. Enclosed in self, they come to believe that their talents come from self, are the self. They have no outside criteria that tell them what their talents are for or when they are sufficient. Locked in a cycle of insecurity and attempted self-validation, their talents are never enough, and they end up devouring what they have been given.   (David Brooks)

The way forward is to chose well.  To makes choices pushing away from idolatry.   To make choices leaning toward humility, gratitude, and transformative relationship.  From there we find ourselves but that new found self is of a different, more settled quality. “A person who is given a heavenly self-hood enjoys serenity and peace, for he trusts in the Lord and believes that no evil at all can come to touch him.”  (Heavenly Secrets, 5660)


Learning to Fall Upward and Chicago

Monday, August 12th, 2013

GK Chesterton observed that we must look at the familiar until it becomes unfamiliar.  To restate, we become so used to business as usual that we forget there are other alternatives that “familiarity” keeps us from seeing.  This means many of our challenges, because of that very familiarity, are hidden in plain site.

One such example among many are the looming challenges faced by numerous cities, including Philadelphia,  in terms of future pension obligations.  Chicago, for example, has only funded 36% of it’s current pension obligations.  The only way out of such a condundrum is to more than double property taxes by 2015 or dramatically curtail benefits.  The odds are the solution will include both.

Why talk about this is in a church blog?  Because this is real.  This is the sea in which churches will be swimming.  This is our future.  The obligations of the city of Chicago, vastly underfunded, may be a precursor to the future challenges Americans face in regard to the Social Security trust fund as well as Medicare/ Medicaid.

And yet, the conversations that need to occur often do not.

So here is a conversation starter … the future, I believe, will be one in which our standard of living – assumed as it is to be constantly improving – will actually decline.  And the crazy part … that is not all bad.

Who else can say that but churches and synagogues and mosques?  Who else can remind people that there is more to life, far more?  Who else can define quality of life in ways that are far healthier?   Who else can say, as Fr. Richard Rohr consistently points out, that we can actually fall upward?  Who else is better equipped to create communities that live that message?

Cities like Detroit and Chicago are but precursors to challenges we will all be facing in the upcoming decades.  Can we move beyond the familiar solutions which, structurally, simply cannot work or can we find the courage to look through the familiar to a new place, an unfamiliar place of promise?