Posts Tagged ‘Doctrine’

When Churches Fail. When Churches Succeed.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Easy to believe churches fail when they move from the scripture.  Yet the bigger danger is when they move from love.  Failure then comes not from an adherence to scripted language but from a more deadly missional failure to love in the fierce way God calls us to love.

The dawn of a church starts with a deep commitment to loving God and others.  Beautiful to read of the original Christians where references to the other settled in the language of “sister” and “brother” – a familial gathering.   Such an approach sits within soft edges.  As New Church theology phrases it, a schism is not a schism then, a heresy not a heresy, but a place in which differences of opinion are lovingly held as “doctrines tailored to personal belief.”  (Heavenly Secrets 1834)  We do well to welcome those differences within the context of God, His Word, eternal life, and divine order.

As love fails, so does that ability to hear within that familial context, a context that allows for flexibility and individuality within the group, within the missional construct of agape [self sacrificing] love coming central to our lives and our communities.  We atrophy.  We stiffen and bristle,  We erect ever higher walls of literal correctness.  And love dies.  And so does scripture.


Nuns on the Bus

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

It is worthwhile to follow the current conversation taking place within the Catholic church, a conversation between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a professional organization for Catholic nuns.  The LCWR was recently censured by the Vatican for its stance around several issues pertaining to exclusion of women from the clergy, sexuality, and the use of birth control.   The formal Vatican response has been to place the group under the direction of 3 American bishops who will work “educating” the sisters and bringing the group in line with central church authority.

The reaction of the LCWR is deeply instructive, in my humble opinion, about how to dissent in the right way while still remaining part of a church you love.   I love the image of “Nuns on the Bus”, a tour designed to help women religious to speak their truth.  It is a great picture but there is more to it than just a bus.

One must deeply admire the over-riding goal with which these Sisters approach this issue. While formally deciding this week that they were not going to adhere to the Vatican’s directives, they clearly held that their heartfelt desire was for reconciliation.   Here is part of their resolution, passed at the end of their 3 day conference …  It is an example of loving people do.

Utilizing a three-day process of sustained prayer and dialogue, the assembly participants considered various responses to the CDF report, with the goal of deciding together on next best steps for the conference following the assembly. Recognizing that this is a time of historic challenge for the church and for LCWR, the participants expressed the hope of maintaining LCWR’s official role representing US women religious in the Catholic Church. While acknowledging deep disappointment with the CDF report, the members proclaimed their intention to use this opportunity to explain to church leaders LCWR’s mission, values, and operating principles.

The members charged the LCWR officers with beginning a conversation with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the apostolic delegate appointed by CDF to oversee LCWR. Their expectation is that open and honest dialogue may lead not only to increasing understanding between the church leadership and women religious, but also to creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.

Reading the above, shows clearly what a Christian response looks like to issues such as those mentioned above. (1) Unwavering commitment to Truth (2) Invitation for dialog (3) Maintaining Hope (4) Prayer.  While at times we are all tempted “to take our toys and go play somewhere else” this response is frankly, the real deal and demonstrates more courage than simply ending formal ties with the Catholic church in an abrupt, vengeful manner.

A fascinating (and relieving!) part of the commentary from the LCWR’s President, Pat Farrell, was that “Dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point.”  This statement clearly points appropriately to one of the most grievous falsities on which conversations like this involving clergy often start – “The doctrine says ….”  And there the conversation ends.  It is over, done, kaput.  Truth claims without deference to dialog and a loving willingness to LISTEN are no longer truth claims.  That is why in New Church circles we so clearly hold that “Doctrine divides.  Charity unites.”

Imagine a conversation starting from “What a does a loving church look like?  Act like?  Serve like?”   Imagine a conversation with women’s voices. These nuns are giving us and all of Christendom a living example.


How A Friend and Visitor Sees The New Church

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

My friend Matt Stromberg recently wrote and posted a paper he authored on “What is the New Church?”  I posted it below.  Matt is a thorough scholar and a good guy.  Thanks to all of you have who made him feel so welcome when he visited NewChurch LIVE.

In hisMarriage of Heaven and Hell the Poet William Blake asks, “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Like so many others with a mystical bent, Blake sought to experience a world beyond the visible world known to our senses. In June of 1784, a group of intellectuals and spiritual seekers, seeking those same ends, gathered at Bell’s Book Store on South Third Street in Philadelphia to hear a lecture on “The Science of Correspondences.” Among those present were Benjamin Franklin and two other signers of the Declaration of Independence. The lecture explored the teachings of a scientist, mystic, and visionary named Emmanuel Swedenborg. Emmanuel Swedenborg, at the age of fifty-three, believed that he had received a visitation from the Lord Jesus Christ who opened to him the spiritual world.

Not only did Swedenborg discover that everything in the visible world corresponds to a spiritual reality, the doctrine of correspondence, but the interior, hidden sense of the scriptures was also revealed to him. According to Swedenborg the last judgement occurred in the spiritual world in 1757, not on May 21 2011 as believed by some today. The last judgement was followed by the long promised second coming of Christ. The second of coming of Christ was not a physical event, but the spiritual revelation of the interior meaning of God’s Word (discussed above.) Swedenborg, in his book True Christian Religion—one a many volumes of spiritual writings—spoke of a series of ecclesial dispensations, the Adamic, the Noahtic, the Israelitish and the Christian Church of the apostles. Swedenborg believed the revelation he received to mark the beginning of a new dispensation, the coming of a true Christian faith that would be the culmination of all of God’s work in the past. Swedenborg believed that Saint John’s vision of the New Jerusalem corresponded to this heavenly church, and so he spoke of it as The Church of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem Church would finally unite the true and good and establish true charity. His belief was that it would bring the sad divisions within the church to an end establishing a unity based on love of God and neighbour. Swedenborg never sought to institute any outward organisation of the New Jerusalem Church himself.

An Anglican clergyman named John Clowes began to translate Swedenborg’s writings into English and distribute them in his native England. Clowes formed a society of fellow devotees of Swedenborg’s doctrine, but did not seek to break from the established church either. Another believer in Swedenborg’s doctrine, Robert Hindmarsh, was the first to precipitate a break with the established church and the form a separate body. It was James Glen, a convert to the New Church, who brought Swedenborg’s ideas to the United States. In fact Glen was the one who delivered the lecture at Bell’s Book Store in Philadelphia.

Perhaps no one else was more influential in the spread of Swedenborg’s theology in the United States, however, than a missionary named John Chapman. Chapman planted several nurseries of apple trees all across the nation. He also sowed the seeds of Emmanuel Swedenborg’s heavenly doctrine through distributing his writing everywhere he went. Chapman is immortalized in American folklore as “Johnny Appleseed.” Helen Keller was another outspoken advocate for Swedenborg’s doctrine. Keller was influential in spreading Swedenborgian ideas in later years. It was the group that first met at Bell’s bookstore in Philadelphia, however, that would become the beginning of the New Church’s presence in America. On Christmas day in 1815 the group was formally organized as “The First New Jerusalem Society in Philadelphia.” A dispute arose over the authority of Swedenborg’s writings in 1889 which resulted in a schism. One group remained in Philadelphia while the other moved to their new headquarters in Bryn Athyn, founding the Academy of the New Church, and building the beautiful Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The Bryn Athyn group goes by the name, The General Church of the New Jerusalem or simply the New Church.

The New Church’s faith is based on the Bible as illuminated by the revelations of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The New Church, although sharing much, also differs from orthodox Christianity in several key areas. New Church theology rejects the orthodox idea of the trinity as three persons and instead speaks of God as one person, Jesus Christ. What are thought of as distinct persons within orthodox Christianity, are believed by the New Church to be three attributes of the same God, a kind of modalism. The Father is the invisible, divine soul, the Son the visible embodiment of that soul, and the Holy Spirit the truth that flows to all people from the divine soul. God is deeply personal and intricately involved in every area of our lives.

The Bible, along with being a book of history, prophecies, etc also corresponds to Divine Truth, hidden in its symbolism. This Truth is consistent with reason and the external sense of the scriptures and can be used to help us live a life of usefulness to others. The Second Coming is the arrival of that spiritual vision within us. Angels are people who once lived lives like our own and chose a life of usefulness to others or charity, loving God and their neighbour. Every human being was created to be on a spiritual process preparing them for life in heaven. This process involves repentance from sin, prayer, avoiding evil, and living a new life. All people who strive to live a life of goodness, according to the truth within their own faith, will eventually reach Heaven. The New Church does not believe in a physical resurrection. They believe, that upon death, we will pass into the spiritual world where we will live a recognizably human life with the same gender, personality, and memories we had in this life. Hell is a place for those who have denied God and pursued lives of selfishness while heaven is a place where people joyfully serve one another in love.

I first visited Bryn Athyn on a glorious spring morning. I had Van Morrison’s Astrial Weeks on the radio. Morrison’s soulful, mystical music seemed the perfect soundtrack for a place with such a spiritual mystique about it. At the heart of Bryn Athyn is the astonishing Bryn Athyn Cathedral. I’ve never seen the great churches of Europe, but the Cathedral is among the most impressive houses of worship I’ve ever seen. The New Church presence in Bryn Athyn is ubiquitous, a kind of Salt Lake City for Swedenborgians (much smaller of coarse.) The concentration of New Church presence combined within a small town setting, gives one the impression of a very tight nit community.

The people of the New Church are a very warm a friendly group. They are also very devout, committed to Jesus Christ, and dedicated to walking out their faith in a practical and loving way. I was there to meet Chuck Blair, the very earnest senior pastor of New Church Live, for lunch. Everywhere we went friendly members of Chuck’s Church greeted us. Chuck and I had been exchanging emails for quite awhile and he invited me out to talk face to face. He explained to me that his own take on New Church theology was that it was all about “eye level Christianity.” How are we living our faith here and now? Swedenborg taught about a God whose central attribute was love, a love so great that he came to live among us. He also warned about the danger of separating faith from life. Swedenborg sought to reconnect the True (doctrine) and the Good (Charity.) In keeping with Swedenborg’s ideas, the vision of New Church Live is to be “a Monday morning church.” The focus is not just what happens on Sunday mornings but also on how the church’s members live out the gospel the rest of the week. Chuck and I both found deep resonance between this idea and the missional ethos of Biblical Seminary.

I also had the pleasure of worshiping at New Church Live on a Sunday. Chuck’s congregation is unique within the New Church. More traditional congregations, like the one who worships at the cathedral, have services very much reminiscent of a traditional Anglican service. There is a liturgy, a choir, hymns, and special vestments for the clergy. There are also readings from both the Old and New Testaments, the difference being that there is also a reading from the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Swedenborg reading is usually chosen to illuminate the other text. Also the New Testament readings do not include Acts or any of the epistles with the exception of Revelation. Although those books are held in esteem, they are not recognized as canonical or inspired in the same way.

New Church Live is much different. Services are held in a performing arts centre on the Campus of Bryn Athyn College. It is a casual and contemporary worship service similar to many evangelical churches. The staff, including greeters, AV techs, coffee servers etc all wear T-Shirts with the New Church Live logo emblazoned on the front. The church band sounds more like a bar band than your typical worship band. They tend to play secular, rock songs, but secular songs that have some kind of spiritual or religious content. On the Sunday that I visited, the band performed two reggae songs, one a Bob Marley tune and the other Jimmy Cliff’s wonderful interpretation of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon. They also played one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite artist, Bruce Cockburn’s All the Diamonds in This World.The music seems to be an effective way of connecting to people where they are. It is very accessible to a secular audience.

Chuck has a very welcoming a relational preaching style that is also very accessible. The service opened with a sneak preview of the upcoming sermon series titled “Love Wins.” The series will look at some of the ideas discussed in Rob Bell’s new book of the same title. The controversial trailer made by Bell to promote the book was projected on the screen and appeared to have a very favourable reception. Chuck told me that he is a big admirer of Bell and other teachers often associated with the emerging church. Bell’s book has stirred up a lot of interest in the New Church. Chuck sent me a link for a podcast on Oprah Winfrey’s website by popular television personality and physician Dr. Oz. Dr. Oz praised Bell’s book as highly compatible with New Church theology. This particular Sunday’s service was not part of the “Love Wins” series, however, but the final sermon in a series called “212.” The series is based on an illustration about the temperature at which water boils. At 211, water begins to bubble, but at 212 it begins to boil. The difference is a matter of one degree.

Chuck presented the question of what it would take in our lives to have that extra bit that takes us from 211 to 212. The series worked out of the Biblical story of David, specifically his anointing by Samuel. This Sunday was focused on David’s well-known battle with Goliath. The exegesis of the scripture, in keeping with New Church principles, was allegorical. David could not defeat Goliath (read the obstacles in our own lives) by pretending to be someone he was not. Saul’s armour was ill fitting and heavy for David. Only by discovering his unique gifts, “God’s fingerprints,” symbolized by the five smooth stones, could David have victory. Like David, we should also discover God’s finger- prints within us, those strengths that are uniquely ours, and use them for the love of God and in usefulness to others. New Church theology teaches us to be angels in training, and angels always think in terms of opportunity to love God and others. With an angelic mindset, we must be constantly vigilant to find opportunities for useful service. We must not simply be content to allow God’s love to flow to us, but we must allow it to flowthrough us to those in need. If we try to keep the blessings of God for ourselves we will loose them. If we allow them to pass through us to others we will find that we are more truly blessed, because real blessing comes through being a blessing to others.

The more we allow ourselves to be useful in this way, the more we will find opportunities to be useful opening up to us. It takes more energy to go from 211 to 212 than in does to reach 211. That one degree extra requires the hardest push and we can easily get caught in the middle and never allow our lives to reach their boiling point. Chuck quoted from author Seth Godin, who writes in his book Linchpin about being an indispensible person, someone who really makes a difference. According to Godin, real change “…depends on motivated human beings selflessly contributing unasked for gifts.” Chuck left us with these thoughts, being a person that really makes a difference in the world requires that we make that extra push to be a 212 person. He said, “We are asked to use our own initiative on God’s behalf.” The service ended with prayer and invitation for people to come forward if they wanted prayer from Chuck or the assistant pastor.

After the service I was invited to join Pastor Chuck and some others at Betucci’s for lunch and fellowship. I had the opportunity to talk to other people about their faith and the New Church. One individual who joined us was Dave Fuller a medical doctor who was writing a book about Swedenborg and Osteopathic medicine. Dave believes in integrating spiritual practices and alternative medicine with modern medical practices, and works out of Holy Redeemer Medical Offices. He was a fascinating person and very helpful as he was extremely knowledgeable about New Church history and theology.

I also met an older couple that were converts to New Christianity from Catholicism. They spoke about how they never felt the spiritual nourishment they needed in any other church, and what an impact being a part of the New Church community has had on their lives and their relationship with God. What particularly attracted them was the openness and tolerance that the New Church has for other faiths. They first came to the church after their daughter planned to have her wedding in the Cathedral. Since then they have been very involved in the church both on Sunday mornings and also in midweek “Strength Groups.” Although their daughter’s engagement actually fell threw, they believe very strongly that God used those events to lead them to the New Church. Everyone I met was very friendly and extremely hospitable. They all encouraged me to come back another time.

My experience with the New Church has been extremely positive. Although I take strong exception to much of their doctrine, I continue to be impressed by their sincerity of devotion. It is humbling to see a friendliness, generosity, piety, and zeal for service that is often lacking in the more orthodox among a group that we would label heretical. I feel that I have made real friendships, especially with Pastor Chuck Blair, and I look forward to continuing my dialogue with the New Church.

Sermon Writing: A Look at the NewChurch LIVE Model

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

I fell in love with New Church theology as a teenager.  I loved the intricate weaving of the stories.  I loved the call to pull all experience towards revelation.  I loved that it somehow made sense.    Not surprisingly, I can remember as an early 20 something considering the ministry.

Thankfully, that was not to be.  Instead I found myself a teacher.  American History provided much the same enjoyment albeit on a lower plane – the weaving of stories, the call to pull all experience, the making sense.

Many, many years later I returned to that first love.  I entered theological school with the hopes of ordination.  As we studied sermon writing, the approach was highly scientific, highly deductive, heady.  We read from books and notes written decades before – something as a teacher I found disappointing given that I could not envision teaching US History using a textbook from the 1900’s; the current, modern thought was often the thought of the early 20th Century.   At that time a static view of truth went unquestioned – the truth was the truth and time made no difference.  Of course God’s truth is timeless but to hold that the human forms are as well – I don’t believe that to be true.  Thankfully theological training is far different today.

Time does make a difference.  I once heard a minister speak of picturing an ornate, golden box holding a precious jewel, the jewel that was the wonderful theology of the New Church.  Over time, he continued, people forgot what was in the box.  His charge – do not forgot.  Open the box.

The service was memorable, deeply moving, the best I heard in several years.  I look back on it and believe it includes another sermon I would love to write about what can be the fatal flaw.  The flaw is the box as a static entity – a beliefness that the timeless of the box is the just as assured and important as the timelessness of the pearl.

Boxes must change or the gift will be lost.  As one author noted, when the container fails to hold the pearl inside in ways that honor the gift, in ways that give life, our job is to break the container, knowing it to be only a temporal, physical thing, with no intrinsic value in and of itself.

And yet we fall in love with forms.  Those who no longer love the form, leave.  For those to whom the box is a hindrance, leave.  Some see it as their parents box, and leave.  Others cannnot open up, and leave.  Those who remain, who love the box, can become a self-referencing group who love and seek to pass on “the box”as the holder of  “the pearl.”  The century old notes our theological education was based on, the forms of worship we learned, the practice of sermon writing – all these were decades old boxes, clearly useful in their time, but in need of change or to use a Swedenborgian term, accommodation.   One needs only look the incredible power in the line, “Maintenance is perpetual creation” to see what God’s plan is.

Our approach at NewChurch LIVE is not the final “answer.”  I make no pretence about being “right.”  I am not.  We must all take seriously the concept that the variety of worship forms create perfection.  In our own human way we are trying to craft a different box, to put it simply, to add to that variety, to hold that same pearl in way that it can be accessible to current generations.

That means moving under a whole new set of assumptions about sermon writing that circle around the concept that ministry is about teaching the truths that lead to a good life.  Several key assumptions informed our approach …

1.     Sermon writing is a community event from the topics to the content

2.     Sermon topics must be engaging and relevant

3.     The target audience is the first time attendee

4.     Ministers are process facilitators and story-tellers not experts (We are all “experts” in terms of our individual spiritual life.   We may not do it well but someone else is not any more “expert” than we are.)

5.     Quotes from the Word are short and to the point

6.     Leave people with one takeaway.  (If there are 3 main points, you have 3 sermons.)

7.     The goal: eye level Christianity

In writing the above, of course each one is open to challenge.  That being said, I think we must take a serious look at some simple concepts.  (1) Jesus called the first two disciples in the Gospel of John with the words, “What do you seek?”  (2) Jesus consistently called on the church to find people not for people to find the church (3) Jesus clearly took a “come let us reason together”/ “I call you friend” approach (4) the word “disciple” comes from the same root as “discipline” as in academic discipline and carries a clear connotation being a serious learner.  Therefore the great commission could be read “Go out and be learners.”  The spirit of the above is captured in this passage.

Life makes the church; but not doctrine, except insofar as it becomes of the life. For this reason it is plain that the church of the Lord is not here, nor there, but that it is everywhere, both within those kingdoms where the church is, and out of them, where men live according to the precepts of charity. So it is that the Lord’s Church is spread throughout the whole world, and yet is one; for when life constitutes the Church, and not doctrine separated from life, there is one Church. But when doctrine constitutes the Church there are many. Secrets of Heaven

We need to tap into that “everywhereness” that God breathes into the world.  So what then does the process look like?  Below are the steps in the process as we practice them.

Step One: Topic Folders

The sermons are born out of a great deal of reading and listening.  One professor, who changed my approach to education, said, “The best teachers have the best filing cabinets.”  I believe the same to be true of pastors.  In addition to the Word itself, we need to habituate ourselves to collecting information from numerous media resources, literature, poetry etc…   Create a sharing culture in your congregation where information is being sent around all the time.

Step Two: Sermon Calendar

With many ideas in hand, numerous series folders started, we sit down with a team to plot out the year.  Our general format is 3 -1.  That means a 3 part series followed by a 1 off topical sermon.  We use the format because it is easy to invite people to.  We plug in the givens – holiday series – and then split up the rest.  Fall is the most fertile ground for church growth so it deserves special attention.

Step Three: Sermon Research and Construction

After the calendar for the year is set, I then begin the deeper research.  Aside from intense doctrinal study, it often includes conversations with other folks, preferably folks OUTSIDE of the congregation.    This can even include a brain storming group put together because of their “expertise” in a particular area.  Some times these groups meet in person.  Other times we do it via Facebook Groups.

The end result is a 1 page sermon chart.  It is the sermon itself broken into 5 key elements, written in table form

1.     Welcome

2.     Context

3.     The Problem

4.     The Resolution

5.     Imagine

Step Four: Sermon Writing Team

Maybe the most important step occurs here.  This is the conversation with the Sermon Writing Team.  It is made up of several team members, several volunteers, and occasionally a guest.  There we review the sermon and the group essentially polishes it up.

The importance of this step cannot be overstated.  90+% of the remarks that I will make during the sermon that actually have import grow out of this conversation.  It is where the pearl gets its box.

The input of this team leads to the final sermon chart.  It must fit on one page in the 5 step format.   It must focus on that clear takeaway.

Step Five: Review and Revision

After the service, we meet to discuss how the service went.  I ask for candid feedback – and I often get it!

In conclusion, please consider the above descriptive not prescriptive.  The size of the congregation, the specific cultural values and aspirations of members will mean that the above does change. Rightly so.  Regardless, have fun!