Posts Tagged ‘Christian Realism’

What Is Success?

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Critical question: What is Success?

It is interesting living in this culture because we frankly are a sports obsessed nation.  I would argue that much of our understanding of success gets tied back into athletics.  Athletics clearly can teach the right lessons and it can just as clearly teach the wrong lessons.

A few statistics that point to the challenges of equating athletic success in terms of “wins” and “losses” with success….

  1. Suicide Rate for Retired NFL Players is 6 times the national average
  2. Life expectancy for a NFL player who plays 4 years is 55 (CBS News)

Anecdotally, I hear from parents all the time – and I have experienced first hand – that the pressure continues to build in terms of athletic success and yet it appears very hard to step off the merry-go-round.  Spring seasons have try outs in the fall.  Travel teams are billed as the way to “keep up” and ensure that your son or daughter does not “fall behind.”  Every new piece of equipments is a “must have” in order to gain the competitive advantage.  (Underarmour touts that it’s new mouthpiece makes players faster and stronger.)   Parents spends thousands of dollars a year to secure a hoped for college scholarship worth a few thousand dollars.

I am not disparaging this from a  distance.  I get it.  With my own children, I participate in the above.  We have rarely said “no” to any of the above.  And we need to acknowledge there is a cost.

The cost is the immersion in a cultural based on the endlessly frenzied pursuit of athletic success versus the pursuit of a settled soul that can leverage the best of athletics without the accompanying obsession.

And I say the above with some trepidation, worried it will be misunderstood.  I LOVE sports.  I played numerous sports.  Captained my high school’s football and lacrosse teams and played the later through my 20′s.  I coached at Youth, Junior Varsity and Varsity levels.  I witnessed numerous young men and women find in organized sports a sense of purpose, a sense of discipline and and sense of direction via athletics.  It no doubt “saved” lives in a certain sense.   I watch football every weekend!

And I need to clearly sound a note of caution.

As a Junior in high school, I was privileged to be a second stringer on a  football team that was unimaginably successful.  Quarterbacked by our very own assistant pastor, Barry Halterman, the team gave up ONE touchdown the entire season.  The star of the team was one of the most violent individuals I knew.  I remember numerous events even in practice where teammates were mocked or pummeled.  On one drill for an onside’s kick I recovered the ball and went to the ground, as we were taught.  Standing over me, he snarled “Good thing you got down” – clearly a threat to the violent end to the play that would have awaited me if I stood up.  And I wasn’t a tackling dummy – I was a decent player.  I can only imagine what life was like for those lower on the athletic food chain.

What never sat right and still does not sit right is the constant chatter that “sports teach us about life.”  Because here was the rub – this violent individual was wildly successful, receiving numerous accolades.  He was the model.  He was who we were supposed to be.  It was not an approach to “life” I thought much of then and I certainly think less of it now.

This individual clearly mellowed with the years.  And sports may well have been integral to that evolution. And lets sound a note of caution.  Life is not athletics. Life is life.  Athletics can support life, can teach us lessons about life.  But to say sports is life?  Problem.  And note, we may not say that but we may live it.

What then is success?

Success is the settled soul.  Success is the undoing of fear.  Success is the deep understanding of the moment.  Success is the development through spiritual practice of a connection with God that guides us in every moment of our thinking. Success is freedom from the limitation of our ego-driven will.   Success is actual “surrender” to a purpose larger than ourselves which is the only “currency” we bring to the next life.

Success is defined then in relation to our true, best selves, our relation with others, and our relation with the God of our understanding.  Hopefully you can read the above list of definitions and with ease connect the dots about what athletics, when held in perspective, can teach.   Discipline, teamwork, sacrifice, resiliency are all embedded in the above.

When I met with Vaughn Hebron, one word got right to the core.  In talking about success, Vaughn said it is “relationship.”  He said that the transportable value that flowed from the NCAA to the NFL to his business is “relationship.”   A great point!

Christ consistently used relevant cultural metaphors to bring His points home.  It was a agrarian society and so He used numerous agrarian references.  In today’s culture, athletics functions the same way.  We can talk of spiritual topics using athletics as the matrix.

And what is it that I think Christ would remind us?  I love this line from Matthew, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” The settled soul – that is success.

If we cultivate that settled place, we can handle far more calmly the ups and downs that are inevitably part of life’s journey.  And, ironically, the settled place can allow us to really launch ourselves passionately into LIFE!   Hell, from our theological perspective, is constantly telling us “Anything but THIS …. Anything but NOW.”  And success is now – in its blessings and breaking.  Life based on an endless, frenzied pursuit of athletic success, simply won’t get there and will burn itself out.  A deeper flame can light the way, allowing us, to use Kipling’s words, “to meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”

Rummage Sale

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

Phylis Tickle in a recent podcast commented on the current historical period as being a “Rummage Sale.”  We are in “cleaning out” time, a time when many, many things are up for question, are open for evaluation.  What do we sell?  What do we keep?  We do we re-purpose?

In the late 1990′s, much was made of the “end of history.”  Liberal Western capitalist democracy was seen ascendant, victorious almost given the fall of Eastern Bloc.  There remained no truly viable “challenge” to the Western world view.  Amazing in a way to see where we are currently – 15 years later – where so many ideas are open to question.  Even look at our idea of market economics within the current economic crisis.  Given the excesses of Wall Street that fed into the “Great Recession” clearly even the idea of totally unregulated markets holding the key for society’s advancement is open for revision.  Hence the “rummage sale.”

The New Church, as is true for many (all?) other denominations is experiencing those very same cultural forces, forces that place what was a “tradition” into the market place of ideas where it must compete with many other allegiances.  As with all rummage sales, it is about cleaning out everything – the house, the attic, the basement – looking at the debris of life and choosing what stays and what goes.

It is easy to regard this societal shift as negative, as directly oppositional to the very concept of “Church.”  The Christian New Church perspective however reassures us that “rummage sales” are healthy.  Emanuel Swedenborg clearly saw that the world was not – in the 1700′s – or in the future, moving towards a homogeneous society.

The New Church then is not a promise of Christianity triumphant.  It is a promise of perspective – of being able to approach faith free from many of the trappings of traditional Christian religious order while being increasingly free to experience the deeper, transformative heart of the Christian faith.

As Swedenborg predicted, in the future, the existence of different denominations is to continue.  Variety absolutely would remain perfection.  This is the doctrinal absolute that we often miss.  Swedenborgian thought is NOT a perspective that narrows the church experience into a myopic trouping of set, creed-orientated faith statements.  It is actually an expansive perspective that holds all faiths as having value and utility for those who sincerely practice them.

The rummage sale is actually a time of great promise.

What the “Dark Night of the Soul” Reveals

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Many (all?) travel through what St. John of the Cross referred to as the “Dark Night of the Soul.”  What does that “night” accomplish?

I wonder at times if these dark nights are the only thing that actually will accomplish much in terms of starting us on the spiritual path.  That night clearly will show us, if we allow it, the thoughts, the attachments, the concepts that need to die for us to grow in a way that little else will.

Our limitations are perfectly camouflaged, perfectly blended with their surroundings.  We have cultivated them.  Many times they actually have served us well for an extended period of time.  Their death is painful, literally feeling like a part of us is dying, and in a sense it is.

That can be especially painful when a certain concept of God must go.  God is omnipotent – true – but as we grow we must develop a nuanced sense of what “all powerful” means.  To hold onto the concept of a muscular, all conquering, triumphal Christianity  might lead us to conclude that God is absent simply because we fail to see His actions as being in accord with our deepest desires.  Restated, from a New Church perspective, God’s goals are always eternal.  Clearly ours tend towards the more temporal – a very different agenda.  That means we must create space for a seemingly weak God, a weak and powerless Jesus, not fitting Himself to our temporal agenda, who acts quietly and with great patience, demonstrating a love that accepts life as-is and lives into life as-is always with an idea to what can be.  We simply lack the foresight to see it.  Our proper place then is the surrendered place of the dark night of the soul, trusting in the Knower.

Moments then of quiet desperation can in reality become turning points.

The Importance of Christian Realism

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

I always appreciate the pragmatic – a trait that draws me to New Church theology – at theology that well holds the light and the dark of the human experience.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Nazi resistor, stated the call for Christian realism well ….

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves this dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians which his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.