Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Unrest in Baltimore and “Us”

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Upsetting to watch the unrest in Baltimore. Hard to hold.  These events readily pit us against us.  The need for law and order.  The need for racial justice.  Are those demonstrating thugs or demonstrators?  Are the police oppressors or protectors? We line up very easily on either side of the divide, well armed with labels.

And I believe Christianity again and again calls for a third way, a place beyond simple labels, where we return to seeing each other again.  A way between the poles.  It is a way of gentleness and mercy.

My mercy will not withdraw from you, and the compact of my peace will not recede. (Isaiah 54:10)

Emanuel Swedenborg noted that this “mercy and the compact of peace are the Lord and everything he is.” (Secrets of Heaven, 666)

There is clearly, for the safety of all, a need to reclaim order in the streets of Baltimore. There is clearly a need to search candidly for truth in the death of Freddie Gray while held in police custody.  There is clearly a need for a broader conversation around why so many cities appear to be such tinderboxes.

And there is clearly a need to speak to mercy and to peace.  Without it, there is no “us.”

Always Suffering. Always Winning

Friday, April 10th, 2015

Always suffering.  Always winning.  Two “always” that maybe, in some way, form a key to understanding the Christian life.

It is a life of suffering.  Hard for it not to be.  The call is – really is – to place ourselves as outliers within the broader culture. Not as warriors against common culture but, as Shane Claiborne phrased it, as “a peculiar alternative” to common culture.  ”In the world but not of the world.” That means placing ourselves away from the comfort and self-reinforcing walls we tend to erect in our pursuit of what is safe, what is secure. And placing our full and undefended lives in areas of need.

It is life that is always winning as well.  Hard for it not to be.  The call is – really is – to accept that there is bigger plan beyond ours.  And rest there.  Rest in the peace that “passes all understanding”, a peace not based on circumstances but based on a soul-level, grounded peace that simply knows.  Knows God’s presence.  Knows God’s enduring love. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:23)

Words may well fall short in describing how suffering and peace come together.  Maybe all one can say is this … they do.  And that is the holiness of the struggle.

A Middle Space In Building Churches That Is Almost Impossible To Speak Of

Friday, March 20th, 2015

There is a middle space in churches that is almost impossible to speak of.  Why an impossibility?  Because in speaking both sides, right and left, will find cause for offense.  And that is both the genius and the dizzying riddle of Christianity.  A third way constantly calling us out of our misaligned binary bent to sort life into this “box” or that “box” and calling into surrender deeply down into love. That surrendered spaces lies between two poles.

Pole #1:

One pole holds all things relative.  A Gnosticism of sorts.  Where every individual is captain and commander, each a final arbitrator of all truth. As Pope Francis phrased it, “…a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience to console and enlighten but ultimately keeps us imprisoned by our own thoughts and feelings.”

I read recently read a review of a book written by a woman unhappy in her marriage.  Her quest for fulfillment became sexual experimentation in all its forms outside of her marriage.  The reviewer, in her closing comment, made a salient point … where do we cross over from “finding ourselves” to increasingly damaging forms “self absorption”?  A good question that we should all in turn answer.

Easy to think of the author’s quest as just her quest.  And in a sense it is.  We muddy waters quickly when we seek to legislate private sexual morality.  However hard to imagine that life as healthy.  Hard to imagine concepts of “family” or “commitment” or “fidelity” or “common good” alive within that particular lifestyle choice.

Pole #2:

And the other pole is, to quote Pope Francis again, “a supposed soundness of doctrine [that] leads to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism whereby instead of evangelizing one analyzes and classifies others … exhausts energy in inspecting and verifying.”

This position … clearly intent on “inspecting and verifying.”  Here we fall in love with church ins-and-outs, not God.  There are refreshing few in formal church circles with whom true dialog is possible.  Just dialog.  Many more are interested in defending their view of Christianity.  Conversion.  Argumentation.  As Seth Godin phrased it … “The narcissism of small differences” … where we pull up differences instead of celebrating common themes.

The Middle Space:

Swedenborgian theology clearly speaks to a third way, as does all enlightened faith, all parts of the church universal.  That third way …. a deft centering on key concepts and teachings – compass points as it were.  A clear call to live them out into the world.  And a deep surrender to the “self-evidencing reason of love.”

And what would that theology offer to the author noted above?  That there is a joy, and a freedom, and a liberation.  A place for one’s soul.  A shining place of deep abiding peace. Heaven. Beyond our worries and concerns and compulsions.  One where our true selves come to life once we open to centering our lives on the better angles of our nature.  A place where God seeks to be as we are opened to the overwhelming miracle of that Presence.

Only Love Can Be Entrusted With Truth

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

“Only love can be entrusted with truth.” Fr. Richard Rohr

Early Christian history – beautiful because it fills with all the very normal human foibles and contortions.  Not a sterile pile of sanctified brethren but a pile of simple humanity.  Loved by God.  Lurching their way forward one bad choice, then one redeemed choice at a time.

So we must smile at the story in Acts 15.   The belonging police issue an edict.  ”Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses you cannot be saved.”  (Act 15:1)  Boom.  Unequivocal.  Measurable. No doubts. So we need to smile, smile at the painfully recognizable human tendency to create forced barriers of entry – a figurative secret handshake only the “chosen” know.

Thankfully the redeeming words of those of who knew Christ won the day … “It is my judgement that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Act 15:19)  Not sure how they found such graceful words but there you have it … a simple statement.  A simple invitation. “Lets not make this thing hard”, an echo of Christ’s words, “For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”

Faith can become either.  Either a form of exclusion or a form of inclusion.  The former grows in places where love recedes.

The knowledge of spiritual and heavenly realities and even the mysteries of faith become nothing more than objects of memory when the people who are adept at them have no love for others. (Secrets of Heaven, 1197)

And there is a choice.  A choice to not make this thing hard … life is hard enough.  A sacrificial choice then to love.  A love that can be entrusted with the truth.


Christianity: A Humble Not Knowing

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Yesterday broke my heart.  Our oldest son called with news.  A paramedic, he had just returned from a call.  An Amish buggy hit head on by car.  A family shattered. We cried together on the phone.

Those are moments of unknowing.  Those are the  moments where the ringing, small theological debates so much of religion unfortunately concerns itself with became transparently the hollow “clanging gong”  Paul wrote of thousands of years ago and we shift to the real.  Where all that remains is a crucified God, God in pain, God suffering with us.   A presence even though we don’t see the plan.   A humble not knowing.

The good story of Christ … gospel, good news … did not happen in a good story.  It happened in a hard story.

Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

In a very well written work, Thom Rainer observes these characteristics of deceased church.  Churches that failed shared the following traits …

  1. The past was held as hero
  2. The Church refused to look like the community
  3. The budget moved inward
  4. The great commission became the great omission
  5. The “preference” driven church focused exclusively on the comfort and wishes of current church members
  6. Pastoral tenure declined
  7. Church rarely prayed together
  8. The church lost a clear purpose
  9. The church became obsessed over facilities

To summarize churches moved away from being self-sacrificial and instead became self-serving, self-giving, self-entitled.

This list is accurate.  New Church theology clearly warns against this very turning of churches inward that eventually leads to their demise.

It is hard to make an argument supportive of churches solely focused on their members’ needs, churches in turn that regard ‘outsiders’ with deep suspicion.  Organized religion as such becomes organized and sanctified exclusion, more interested in talking about outliers than talking and working with outliers whomever that might include be that the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, or simply the different.

Commentators like Richard Rohr rightly posit … if the above is the preferred future for organized Christianity there is no future for organized Christianity.

There is likewise no future for the opposite extreme either, an extreme that values entertainment over engagement, that proposes a “soft” Gospel with nothing sacrificial in its bones.  As Ken Wilbur noted, such a Christianity leaves “the self” intact and does little to dig at the soul, to dig at the true self, to sacrificially call out humanity to wider, more challenging and more promising vistas.  There is then no connection to Christ because there is no call beyond self.

Hope lies, as always, in a third way.  And this is a hope not for  the continuance of an institution but a hope for  a reborn institution living powerfully and humbly into a new era.  Church with strong enough structures and boundaries to stand for many things.  And church with porous enough structures and boundaries that enable it to easily easily connect and breathe with the communities in which it is placed.   There are bones … strong. There is muscle, and flesh, and heart… warm.  And it all serves.


Issues Small And Large

Friday, August 8th, 2014

It is hard to grasp the brutal nature of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq and Syria.

Who is ISIS? “The West considers ISIS to be an international terrorist organization. It operates in Iraq and Syria with the aim of creating an Islamic state across the borders of the two countries and beyond. Initially called Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria last year. It has played a prominent role in Syria’s civil war with the chaos enabling it to quickly develop a reputation as one of the most extreme groups operating in the region.” (New York Times)

The immediate crisis centers around what looms as a potential genocide as ISIS fighters surround  over 40,000 of Yazidis refugees, who have fled to Mt. Irbil in Northern Iraq. They are of Kurdish descent, and their religion is considered a pre-Islamic sect drawn from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.  (CNN)  In calling in today’s airstrikes President Obama noted “We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

ISIS holds to a radical view of Islam that in turn regards Shiite Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others who differ from their conservative views as infidels and worthy of destruction.

As Christians, we must deplore the rank fundamentalism that feeds this kind of genocidal fervor.  We likewise must speak as Christians to the authentic alternative of a multicultural, religiously pluralistic world that embraces diverse faiths and perspectives captured in the words announcing Christ’s birth in Luke, Do not be afraid I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all  people.”

What is the “call to action?” What is the way forward?  While options are limited maybe some thoughts …

  1. Speak clearly and act clearly against religious fundamentalism that seeks to destroy others where ever that fundamentalism appears, in whatever form fundamentalism takes, in whatever religious group however small or large we find it espoused.  That includes our own churches and in the world at large.
  2. Speak clearly and act clearly against that same fundamentalism in ourselves, a fundamentalism evidenced by a binary world view of “ins” and “outs”, of members and non-members.  The word “diabolical” means “to divide”… a poignantly accurate description of hell.
  3. Pray

There is nothing small or light here folks.  This is our world.  This is our choice.  This is where Christianity through you, through me, through courage and commitment, returns to being “The Way.”

Excommunication in the Mormon Church and Notes of Caution for what Religion Can Become

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

From the New York Times, June 23, 2014…

“Kate Kelly, who unsettled the Mormon Church by founding a movement to advocate opening the male-only priesthood to women, was excommunicated by her bishop and his two counselors in Virginia on Monday….

Bishop Mark Harrison informed Ms. Kelly by email that she had been excommunicated “for conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church,” according to a partial text of the decision shared by an Ordain Women spokeswoman.

The bishop said in the email that Ms. Kelly may not take the sacrament, hold a voluntary position or give a talk in the church; vote for church offices; contribute tithes; or wear the sacred Mormon undergarments.

To be considered for readmission to the church, “you will need to demonstrate over a period of time that you have stopped teachings and actions that undermine the church, its leaders and the doctrine of the priesthood,” the email to Ms. Kelly said. “You must stop trying to gain a following for yourself or your cause and taking actions that could lead others away from the church.”…

Mormons believe that excommunication breaks the eternal ties to one’s spouse and other family members who were sealed together in temple rituals.”

What is written above can be true not just of Mormonism but of many faiths who come to view themselves and their ordained as gate keepers.  From outbreaks of unspeakable violence between Sunnis and Shiites on down these kind of events should signal a caution about the dangers of organized religion when it comes to no longer value an inclusive humanity but instead holds that there is but one path and one way.  Something then as incredibly beautiful and helpful as organized faith can degenerate rapidly in such a toxic environment.

And how do we know when faith has crossed that line?  How do we support religion in holding to the necessary bonds on human conduct that actually allow for a healthy flourishing while at the same time being appropriately wary of the extremism that a fundamentalist approach can engender?  Some ideas.

In this denomination, we believe that the greatest of evils grow out of a love of power for selfish reasons.  We flip consequently from seeing ourselves as servants to instead seeing ourselves as entitled to be served.   We are no longer embedded in a world of fellow travelers on life’s journey but instead become band leaders knowing both the tune and the formation in which all should march.

That kind of narcissistic orientation works it way out into both distorted reasoning and distorted action where we come to truly believe that “killing” in its various forms somehow serves God.

And God’s Word is co-opted by that whole process, a process where the Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Koran is used to legitimate and rationalize behavior that falls far from the clear spirit of a loving God.  The wisdom of revelation is “recruited” and then “distorted” as Emanuel Swedenborg noted.  (Divine Love and Wisdom 274)  It can be”transformed step by step into something false.” (275)

So truth, if it is distorted, no longer serves as the protector but instead serves as a way to mask what in not of God.

Love then remains the ultimate answer.   But this is not sloppy love.  This is not “anything goes” or “nothing matters” or “everything is relative.”  This is agape love …. “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.”  (Thomas Oord)   Agape love creates a wisdom that returns religion to its best self and in so doing turns us towards God and each other.

Building Open Christian Communities or Closed Christian Churches

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Christianity is a communal endeavor, an endeavor to live not for ones self but for others.  What is holy is what is connected and open. Christianity is not then for the rugged individualist.  Christianity offers little as well for those who see in it a highly prescribed form of holiness … a closed system of righteousness.  What it offers to all is community, a functional definition of the word “community” readily substituted with the word “heaven.”

Communities form and the miracle of God’s spirit does its work.  But we, as human beings, largely fail to be content with just that.  We strive to formalize, codify, capture and tame (neuter?) the experience of God.   Instead of building open Christian communities we build closed churches. Christianity then morphs into Churchianity.

The loss in this downward progression from Community to Church are those whom we are called to serve … the suffering of the world.   There is little space or “band width” for the work of extending community to those in need when the work instead goes towards maintaining a church.

That is not to glibly pass over the need to maintain structures but that work must be done in the spirit of holding first things first.  A church is not created to serve itself and a closed community.  A church is created to be a matrix out of which the lived moral experience of flawed souls trying to live Christianity is drawn outward to touch the suffering of the world.  I live in deep gratitude for all those around me who live that very thing!



Generousity as a Path To Spiritual Knowledge

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Generosity is a path to spiritual knowledge.  Some days I wonder if it is the path. From New Church religious canon ….

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.  The Lord says “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger and you took me in.  I was naked and you clothed me.  I was sick and you visited me.  As much as you did this to one of the least of my people, you did it to me.  (Matthew 25)” (True Christianity 536)

So clear. Those I find most inspiring inevitably do not have solo thoughts articulated in a vacuum around the spiritual life but they instead have a lived moral experience shaped with God’s grace around those thoughts.  And maybe, just maybe, the experience comes first a lot of the time.