Archive for November, 2013

Our Money Is Our Story: Welcome to Black Friday

Friday, November 29th, 2013

It is easy to bash the rampant consumerism of Black Friday.  Fed by a scarcity mentality that has people lined up outside Walmart at 5:00 AM less than 24 hours after the blessedly slow rhythms of gratitude, connection and Thanksgiving, the day is indeed ripe for the bashing.  (Juxtapose the photograph from Friday morning below to a photograph of gathered families Thursday night)

But if we are to hold to the concept that our intention is what is most important, the bashing abates a bit.  A mom who can only afford a given gift for a beloved daughter if she is first to Walmart in the wee hours of Friday morning may well be more spiritually evolved than the sluggard who plans to shop for her children at CVS sometime Christmas eve.

Where we need awareness I would hold is to understand a simple differentiation between compulsion and intention.  A loving intention to serve those outside of ourselves is far different than the driving compulsion to get more stuff.   On the outside, both may look the same.  However on the inside, each tells a very different story around money and a very different story around spirit.

Evelyn Klein Stephen’s Memorial Address

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Memorial Address
Evelyn Klein Stephens
November 20th, 2013

Welcome to Evelyn Klein Stephen’s memorial service. Take a moment to just sit and breath for a bit – to take in the beauty of that song, picked by Evelyn. “I am Your Child.”

Our friend Evelyn was Born June 9th, 1963 in Tyrone Pa. to Bob and Laurie Klein. The 3rd of 4 children eventually joined Cory, Sherry, and Gwenda. She was one of those personalities, whether friend or family, that if she was in proximity to any place to one’s life, her presence certainly did not escape you!

And what was that presence? In speaking of her life today, her presence with us, we speak of four things…

1. Passionate Spirit of Life
2. Appreciation of Beauty
3. Humor
4. Courage

A Passionate Spirit of Life
Starting with that passionate Spirit of Life. In conversations with friends, family and colleagues that’s what came through loud and clear, just as her personality came through, loud and clear.

Joie de vivre – a cheerful enjoyment of life … an exultation of spirit. Is how that expression is defined. It made her a cheerleader … it made her vibrant, it made her highly independent.

That independent streak we can see in that joy for life as someone who at the age of 19 decided to set out on her own. Car and apartment, working at Bloomingdales then Jefferson Ward. Then on to Penn State for a degree in marketing. And then came a successful work career.

After marrying and moving to Pittsburg, Evelyn worked at Kaufmann’s. Eventually she moved on to working in New York City as a sales executive for retailer Evan Picone. Then the family moved on to Atlanta where she served as Director for Rocking Horse Child Care Center. Atlanta was followed by New Jersey, and Baltimore, then back Philly. In this area, Evelyn’s path included serving as President of Stephen’s Original Food in which she even got to star on QVC plugging Bookbinders soup. Then it seemed to all come together in a beautiful way with her work at the historic Cairnwood estate located in Bryn Athyn Pennsylvania.

God not only makes and is making many mansions in heaven but he blessed us in this life us with many historic mansions as well, of which Cairnwood is one. Evelyn was very aware of these. Loving architecture, loving different types of houses, loving homes and seeing how they were built and constructed and their history. Her children talked of being dragged from place to place to see these different types of homes that so excited their mother. Her passion around them was infectious.

She really did so much at Cairnwood. Turning a beautiful building beyond just SOME thing to a building that was THE thing. Cairnwood wasn’t just benefiting the community financially, but other benefits flowed as well. It was not a surprise that in posting about Evelyn’s passing on Facebook that the first person to respond was a Cairnwood bride now with a child, now having joined the New Church.

She took that great, great passionate spirit of life and used it in that work. I loved the words that were shared at her retirement party held at Cairnwood. Words that could have been shared no doubt throughout her whole life. Words like: Bold, Fearless, Driven, Intelligent, a Renegade. A deep passionate spirit of life. A spirit that would even lead a neighbor to with smile report her to do such things like yard work in a cocktail dress when she needed to multi-task. One that would drive her as well last mother’s day even in the midst of sickness knowing how precious her mother was to her to take the time to plant a rose bush. Five hours to plant a rose bush for her mother on mother’s day.

The real passionate spirits of her life no doubt were three wonderful children: Richard, Brook and Hunter. When I asked her what she most wanted those children to know she talked of love, how proud she was of each one, and what she saw in these three smart, beautiful, resilient kids. She summed it all up in these three beautiful words: “3 great kids, 3 great futures.”

Her children remember that passion for life as it showed itself in holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving; matching colors between the tree and wrapping. Easter bunny footprints painted on a walk that led one little girl to truly believe that the Easter bunny was real. Birthdays as well, true celebrations. Pink milk for Valentines day, Green milk for a Goosebumps birthday. Rooms decorated, with sky and flowers, with Winnie the Pooh, with stars, all done out of a mother’s love for her children.

The final theme, the universal theme, of all this that Richard put so well was a game that she used to play with him when he was very little. She would ask quizzically “You’re never going to forget how much I love you Richard. “It is so easy to remember and to think of her saying those words even here, even now, in spirit. Saying it throughout the rest of your lives “you’re never going to forget how much I love you.”

An Appreciation of Beauty
There also was great appreciation of beauty. It is easy to wonder how many of us today in getting ready for this funeral got extra dressed up knowing that it was for Evelyn. She would no doubt offer, “you all look beautiful.”

There is that wonderful picture in your program which you are welcome to pull out now. The picture captures her on the way to her final Cairnwood Gala, a picture of her looking skyward. Knowing that it was going to be a wonderful fundraiser, as well as a wonderful excuse to get dressed up.

That appreciation of beauty went many different places went as well. It included wearing a hot pink wig as she went through chemotherapy. A hot pink wig that actually led to a friendship with another hot pink wig wearer.

And did she ever love the beauty of the outdoors as well. Not just beauty as a person, not just beauty as fashion, or beauty as what is what we can make ourselves or be in this world, but beauty of the world: Flowers, food, nice wine. In talking to her as she approached the end she made mention of one particular meal that she said was of 5 star quality and the way she described it, you know, you had to be there, but the way she described it was just so poetic and artistic. A dear friend delivering chicken pot pie, a bottle of wine, and flowers. And she talked of this meal like Le Bec Fin would have nothing on this meal of chicken pot pie, wine and flowers. A joy in the small stuff … a thanksgiving and a gratitude in the small stuff in the warmth of that meal in the warmth of the fellowship of around that meal, that is where she found life. That is where she found celebration.

We also have to smile remembering as well her humor. A humor that she largely maintained up until the very end. One friend who she often went on business trips with said she could even make traveling to Albany, New York fun.

Others shared how much she enjoyed a game called “Bunko.” A game that when I looked at it’s described this way “A social dice game: 100% luck and no skill.” And I’m wondering, who makes that fun? Well the answer maybe we could all say the name. Who makes that fun? “Evelyn.”

At of course, Barry Manilow. I don’t know who finds that fun. But I love this line. She referred to herself as a fan of Barry Manilow. And as some of you might be aware, do you know what the name of someone who is a fan of Barry Manilow is? A Fanilow. Who does that? Evelyn.

And it’s not that cancer leached out that humor. That cancer actually kept the humor in place. For many of us, as we run through the inevitable stumbling blocks of our lives one of the first things unfortunately to disappear is humor, but not with Evelyn. She shared a very funny story. As the brain cancer progressed she wasn’t always able to articulate exactly what she meant to say. To someone she offered this: “I need to go to the hospital”, but what she actually meant in her head was “I need a shower.” So the person dutifully went and found a way to get her help as she’s taking a shower and she found that humorous. Just think about that moment right there. How many of us would find that moment tragic? How many would find that moment a part of a rutted despair around a disease that kept getting progressively worse? And what did Evelyn find? Occasion to laugh. Which brings us to Courage.

Courage is such a beautiful word. “Cour” meaning our heart “age” meaning where we live. Courage is about this question, “Where do our hearts live?” Where does your heart live? Where did her heart live? That is where courage grows. That is where courage takes root. And we know that that courage took root from her very youngest years. Most of us only have to learn how to walk one time. Evelyn found the courage to learn how to walk three times.

When she was born there was great fear that her mother would not actually make it, but she did. Then later on Evelyn, as a senior in high school, was hit by a car and nearly killed. Leg broken in 5 places, cast for months, jaw wired shut. And Mark referred to that event saying “Actually she turned that into a positive.” He said, “that it was life forming for her. She got attention, she learned perseverance and resilience, she got to wear pants to school.” And learned many of those same skills when she would show us and live throughout her cancer.

And that courage of course did have zany parts. There’s another story where she was shopping with her kids, bags in hand and watched someone snatch a purse from an elderly women. Evelyn took off in hot pursuit. Thought she finally had the purse snatcher cornered as a car pulled up. Shouted to the driver to get the man and then watched the man hop into the car and drive off. But she did that kind of thing. She had that kind of courage.

Courage and vision come together so well, don’t they. There is that beautiful line from Divine Providence which we read to start the service. I love that passage. Even if we can see divine providence. Even if we can possibly get a glimpse of God’s leadership in our life, all we will see are the piles, the scattered heaps of construction materials. This bit here, this bit there. That’s all we really can naturally see. What does God see? He sees possibility. He sees destiny. He even sees home. Evelyn, when you look at her vision, possessed an uncanny ability to see that big picture when many may have only seen scattered heaps. She saw beautiful buildings, she saw potential.

I remember once standing with her in the beauty of Cairnwood. The beauty of Cairnwood looking complete and her informing me with a smile that they were only 10% of the way there. That’s vision, and she was one of those blessed with the courage to achieve it. To see that big picture in her life and in those she loved and to be able to speak to that. Be that in a board room or at 2:00 in the morning with her beloved daughter.
That courage gave her a certain toughness a certain strength underneath that smile. Her mother Laurie spoke of a necklace that she had that had Sacagawea on it. As Evelyn approached the end Evelyn kept on commenting on the necklace, her mother offered it to her and when Evelyn passed the necklace was taken back to be given to Brook. Evelyn’s comment on that Sacagawea coin that was part of that was “Sacagawea was one tough broad,” sounds like Evelyn.

Isn’t it interesting as well. All of you in here had a conversations with her and how many times did the conversation start with her talking about all her ailments? Not too often. It was about how are YOU doing? What’s going on? What’s the plan? The illness was not the conversation. LIFE was the conversation.

Even after attending THE doctor’s visit when she got the news with her dear sister Gwen. She went out and within hours bought a string bikini. That is courage. Yes, it is humor, yes it is fun, and yes it brings a smile, but that is courage. That is somebody showing where their heart lives, that their heart does not live in death and loss that their heart lives in life. That the choice said over and over again is the choice of life.

Of course none of these fine qualities – Spirit of Life, Appreciation of Beauty, Humor, and Courage – go with out struggle. Of course she struggled. No one whose nickname in elementary school was Devilyn would not. We can see those flips. Life really is about those pieces, about the light and dark. That somehow they bring us to who we are. The negative space in paintings that allows our lives to come into full contrast, allows our lives to be fully seen. An independence that could be seen at times and no doubt was defiance. A persistence that was no doubt at times stubbornness. When you ask a father about his daughter and he raises his eyebrows and goes “She was a firecracker.” You could fill in a lot of other words for “firecracker.” And that is who she was.

She was very aware of those struggles. She was very aware of those things that she felt she needed to continue to work on and that she will continue to work on. Struggles around control, struggles around trying to fix things and fix people, and struggles around forgiveness. But she did work in that direction. A very loving story that the told of her parents was this. I’m sitting by her bedside and I’m typing notes on my Iphone and Evelyn pats the phone down. She doesn’t want me to write this but I don’t think she would care now. She said “Chuck, you know it took me four years after moving here to realize how cool my parents were.” That is beautiful.

To close, Evelyn was a genuinely good person. I read recently in an article about somebody and they were commenting about this person. They said these beautiful words. Listen … they said that this person “gave life a good squeeze.” I think Evelyn gave life a good squeeze.

What will she be waking to? Maybe to the love hate relationship she had with her dog, Toby. Be we can rest assured that she will wake to great love. The Lord will resuscitate her, angels will surround her. “Angels” a word also meaning “messenger.” Listen to the music she picked for the day. “Angels we have heard on high. Sweetly singing over the plain.” Right now she would gently say, angels are whispering in my ear “you are loved, you are home.” No doubt she will be able to enjoy mayonnaise, mashed potatoes, corn, butter pecan ice cream all those things she craved. Flowers, gardens beyond compare maybe even a manger, a home in heaven under construction where God sees the plan.

She leaves us with these beautiful reminders from her mouth. You can see from within these reminders her strengths and her struggles embedded in what she wanted you to hear. That you can’t fix people. That what we have to do is appreciate perspective because in her words “It’s all a circle.” Try to maximize the good and minimize the bad. Let go. No drama. Good is good even if no one sees it, even if it is in the little things, like a Rose bush on mother’s day.

Yes, of course there is sadness for her, sadness for family, sadness for friends sadness for colleagues. I love these words from Anne Lamott “You will lose someone you can’t live without and your heart will be badly broken. And the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But that is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up and you come through it. It’s like having a broken leg never heals perfectly that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

The place to be is celebrating that life, well lived, and at the same time allowing our hearts to be broken. Allowing our hearts to be broken by what breaks God’s heart. We move forward with 11 words.

What I’m going to do is I’m going to offer these 11 different words in 4 different sections and I’m going to ask you to say them after I say them. They will mean different things to different people, but this is a way that we can offer something that we can send forth to Evelyn:

Please forgive me
I forgive you
Thank you
I love you

Lets find our way to those words of forgiveness, gratitude and love. Marry those words with those memories of a passionate spirit for life, beauty, courage and humor. Our life will find our way, her life will find its way, to that vastness that is heaven. To that vastness that is coming alive. That vastness that is our true self, now freed from this world. Sad and missing people, of course, and freed to be it’s own true self, an angel, a piece of heaven. Because in the end I think we all can agree Evelyn gave life a good squeeze.


A Thought on Addiction

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Addiction ravages lives and, paradoxically, creates after years of painful work around sobriety some of the most spiritual beings one can know.

Even having known countless folks who made it through the darkness to the other side, such knowledge does little however to mitigate the tragedy active addiction visits on individuals and their families.

Clear boundaries may well be one of the hardest lessons for the loved ones of addicts to come to terms with.

The serenity prayer encapsulates much of that paradox around a boundaried sense of holding on and a letting go.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

For me, I had to get clear that we never have to accept unacceptable behavior.  And I likewise had to get clear that I could not control others.  That meant learning to take stands from love and not from an ego-based sense of demand.

We all are called to live a life beyond a living death.  Some types of suffering are redemptive.  Other forms of suffering are not.  At times, what we can change … “the things I can change” … are finding ways to construct a healthy separation from an unhealthy situation.



Jesus as a Brand

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Samuel Wells wrote of lost pastors, categorizing a certain group of clergy, “…busy proving that the church can play with the big bucks in the big league, can mix it with contractors and commercial players, can hold its own in the market place of social forces, that the reason for the church’s existence is submerged in the activity and profitability of its flourishing. It’s like Pentecost without foregoing cross and resurrection. Christ hasn’t saved us from anything or to anything—merely provided a dynamic and resonant brand name..”

The last phrase sticks doesn’t it … Christ as merely a “resonant brand name.”

The spiritual journey climbs up to the mystical experience.  That mystical journey however must travel back down then into the prophetic.  Perils await on both the assent and decent.  Ascend to the wrong god, we return with little to offer.  Ascend to a right view of God but fail to allow the mystical assent to change us prophetically, on the descent, in this world, and we bring nothingness.   However … ascend to the right view, allow that view to do its sacred breaking of our petty agendas, and then live courageously into that space, into the descent, and …. “fire, fire, fire.” (Read Mirolsav Volf’s, “A Public Faith.”)

Treating Christ as a “brand” fails on both accounts.  It calls out neither the mystical nor grounds the prophetic.  All if offers is to slap a glitzy label on the shallowness we often call “life.”   And we can feel good then … without doing a damm thing.

So thank you believers and doers!


Evalution vs. Valuation

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

In a recent meeting of small group leaders, Jeremy offered a tremendously insightful point. We tend, from ego, to approach others from the perspective of evaluation, aka judgement. What God wants however is value-ation. Restated, God wants us to seek, to discover, the value in the other, to find that part (and we all have it) that is valuable. As Emanuel Swedenborg phrased it – that is the good in others we are to seek and then serve.

Fr. Richard Rohr offers this additional reflection driving the point home …
By teaching “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1), the great teachers are saying that you cannot start seeing or understanding anything if you start with “no.” You have to start with a “yes” of basic acceptance, which means not too quickly labeling, analyzing, or categorizing things as in or out, good or bad, up or down. You have to leave the field open, a field in which God and grace can move. Ego leads with “no” whereas soul leads with “yes.”

The ego seems to strengthen itself by constriction, by being against things; and it feels loss or fear when it opens up. “No” always comes easier than “yes,” and a deep, conscious “yes” is the work of freedom and grace. So the soul lives by expansion instead of constriction. Spiritual teachers want you to live by positive action, an open field, and studied understanding, and not by resistance, knee-jerk reactions, or defensiveness, and so they always say something like “Do not judge,” as judging is merely a control mechanism.

Words and thoughts are invariably dualistic, but pure experience is always non-dualistic. You cannot really experience reality with the judgmental mind, because you are dividing the moment before you give yourself to it. The judgmental mind prevents you from being present to the full moment by trying to “divide and conquer.” Instead, you end up dividing yourself and being conquered.

Seeing Nadia Bolz-Weber

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

It was a joy last night to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber, the author of the New York Times Best Seller, “Pastorix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.”

What was striking to me …

The Mind Blowing Speed of Change

Nadia, in her tatooed, swearing splendor noted that a decade ago she would not have been standing where she stood, speaking to whom she was speaking.  It would have been an impossibility (and unfortunately still is in some denominations).  But it no longer remains an impossibility.

The building in which she spoke easily seated 2,500.  In talking to the staff, their attendance averages between 600 to 700 out of 5,000 members.  Nadia last night easily drew 1,500+.  The picture of the future speaking within the context, the holding space of the past, contrasted beautifully to the opportunities and challenges churches face today.

And worthy of note as well within the context of change was to witness the number of NewChurch LIVE friends and parishioners there.  Seeing John, Janice, Lisa, Mary, Shada, Bronwen, Bob, Cory, Rob, Ruth, Gail, Edwin and others served as a powerful reminder that the journey of change aligns many fellow travelers.

The Ancient-Future Resiliency of the Christian Message

Nadia is in many ways a staunch defender of tradition within a context of the above change.  She remains a strong supporter of liturgy, the Eucharist, traditional hymns (in 4 part harmony).  She preaches in clerical garb.  I love her language that in hewing close to tradition she can rely on an integrity not her own.

In that regard she appears blessed with the ability to “bridge” two worlds, progressive and traditional, in a fashion that allows both to feel at home.  If I was a traditional church members, at home in old forms, I would have left with a smile.  If I was a teen, hair died in rainbow of colors, wondering if Christianity could offer anything to me, I would have left with a smile as well.

The simple call

And some of her most choice remarks centered on the simple.  In describing her anxiety at serving as a young hospital chaplain, she made note of that call, one that encapsulates our role amongst the brokenness of life that often surrounds us, as she shared, “In that messy chaos, my job was to just stand there and be aware of God’s presence in the room.”  Words to live by!

A Bias Towards Fullness: Thoughts About Holy Supper/ Communion

Friday, November 8th, 2013

A bias towards fullness is the bias that comes from joyful commitment declared and lived. Such commitment is rare but, in it rareness, lies its beautify! That makes the entire concept of church profoundly counter-cultural.

And the fullness there … almost beyond words. When we welcome, embrace, hold on to others … in community …. not in a startled moment of accidental compassion but in the slow, enduring work of love, we will find fullness.

Holy Supper, an ancient Christian tradition dating back 1,000′s of years, offers, in taking a “meal” together of bread and wine, the picture of Christian communion. The names then of Holy Supper and Communion are interchangeable. We gather, in communion. We are served/ offered God’s love and wisdom, symbolized by bread and wine – a holy supper.

Such a sacrament reminds us of the need to carefully examine our lives and prayerfully ask for the willingness to repent of those areas where we have gone astray. Likewise it reminds us that this is an “open table”, a table without seating assignments, a table then open to all. And when we can see it thus, it right sizes us, brings gratitude for the diversity present, and stirs thirst and hunger for an ever wider communion.

Honesty. Simplicity. Generosity. Table open wide. Arms open wide. A bias towards fullness!

So we invite you to our first ever Holy Supper/ Communion service held at one of most beautiful churches in this part of the world, the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Join us for this adult service on Wednesday, November 20th at 7:30 PM.

Two Things Churches Must Give Up

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Life begins with paying attention first to what we need to stop doing.  That is the essence of repentance.  Churches do not live outside that dynamic.  So what are two things church might be called to give up?

Churches are called to give up the concepts that it is all about ….

  1. Who has the right ideas
  2. Who is worthy to belong

The battle over “rightness” whether in a marriage or in a church rapidly becomes a non-starter.  That does not belittle the power of truth, especially in terms of God’s Word.  However, it does press us towards a view of truth that remains both focused and open.  Solid.  With ductile edges.  Able to deeply honor the poignancy and privacy of each individual’s journey.  From that place we cease arguing who possesses the better, truer map.

Battles over worthiness likewise are the same non-starter.  Of course there are necessary boundaries and divisions from those with whom contact is toxic or dangerous.  And, if the assumption is ‘open until proven otherwise’ vs. ‘closed until proven otherwise’, we are aligned to Christ’s message.  As Nadia Bolz-Webber phrased it, “Anytime we draw a line, there is Christ on the other side of it.”

Emanuel Swedenborg wrote of a view of heaven aligned outside of “rightness” and “worthiness”, a heaven with places for many, an echo of Christ’s word in John, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?.”

Grounded and Inspired

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

What we offer in terms of language is a dramatic gift.  It begins with Genesis, and God speaking the world into existence.  It then moves to Christ’s words, “It is not what people put into their mouths that makes them unclean. It is what comes out of their mouths that makes them unclean.”  (Matt. 15:11)

Life giving language takes two forms, language that (a) grounds and language that (b) inspires.

Language that grounds is language …

  1. That pulls us out of worry and anxiety down into God’s love and care
  2. That reminds us of our identity, our true self
  3. That forces a life-changing accountability through it candor

Language that inspires is language …

  1. That allows us to see a brighter future than we can currently see ourselves
  2. That moves us to visualize a re-imagined future
  3. That forces us out of stuckness … the status-quo belief that life “is what it is” and will never change

In this particular church, we hold that actually we are not accompanied through life by one guardian angel, but by two.  I wonder if the job of one is to ground us and maybe the other is to inspire.  Seems that is what the best people in our lives do.

What are the steps I need to take to find heaven?

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

We love plans.  We love steps.  Take a look at the the Oprah magazine …. 5 steps to joy, happiness, better sex, your best life now.   Start a title with “5 Steps To …” and you have a winner!

Steps are important.  Process is more so.

Emanuel Swedenborg commented on how much people desire to know what they need to do and what they need to believe in order to get into heaven.  Such a line of very understandable questioning he posits actually grows more from a fear of hell more then a pull towards the promise of heaven.  Such a line of thought is also, I might add, centered on a conditional view of God’s love.

The answer Swedenborg heard many times from good souls was that people,  “… should do and believe whatever they like; but they should realize that in hell people do not do anything good or believe anything that is true, only in heaven.”  So what is we it should ask?  “Ask what is good and what is true, think about it, and do it if you can.”  (Divine Providence 179)   That is far more a process question than a list of steps.