Posts Tagged ‘The Bible’

PLEASE don’t ever say, “Because the Bible Said.”

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

We live in bridge times.  Many but not all of use were born into some knowledge of the Bible-the stories, the themes, the Book.  And increasingly those assumptions around biblical literacy are inaccurate.  Likewise the starting point that the Bible is somehow inerrant falls most often on deaf ears these days.

So please, if your interest lies in growing and sharing Christianity, please don’t ever say “Because the Bible said.”  That will appeal to an increasingly narrow and often more fundamentalist slice of the broader population.  And (this pastor says with a bit of trepidation) it might be a very good thing that that line no longer works.

The original 12 disciples who followed Christ did not do so because he was a great author.  They followed him because he said “Follow me.”  They did and their lives grew from death to resurrection in a few short years.

The 100′s who made up the first Christian churches did not even have the New Testament. Yes they held letters floating around as well as oral traditions describing  the life of Christ.  But they did not a have a book they called “The Bible.”  Most could not even read or write.  What they held, what they hosted in their hearts, was “The Way.”

“The Way” was how Christians first described themselves.  This opening movement centered on living communities of love, sharing, humility.  Such communities, revolutionary then, revolutionary now.  Such communities virally grew the church from 100′s to millions.  And no one was exclaiming “Because the Bible said.”  Their pronouncements were their lives.

The does not mean to stop reading the Bible.  In the New Church we believe strongly that reading the Word critically serves both humanity and heaven … that it forms a newer bridge between God and humankind.  And we read it to wrestle with faith and expand our understanding of God.  Not to craft pronouncements that prove others wrong and prove ourselves right.

It is about living “The Way.”


Can we stand for something?

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

In a recent editorial piece in the New York Times, titled “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” Ross Douthat wrote of the demise of both centers of Christianity – liberal and conservative in the form of the Episcopal and Catholic churches.  He pointedly remarked, “The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.”  The article clearly calls for a revisiting of sorts, for a reappraisal as Christianity attempts to find its legs again.

There are those in the “reappraisal” business, a line of work hopefully this congregation has joined.  Look at these words by Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, a pastor aware of NewChurch LIVE.

“We want to do all we can do to help mobilize and spread this rising movement of kingdom people who are rethinking what it means to be a “Christian,” what it means to have “faith,” and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We want to join others in imaginatively exploring the shape that post-Christendom discipleship and the post-Christendom Church might take. And we want to join others in boldly rethinking everything Christians have always assumed they already knew. To recover the self-sacrificial revelation of God in Christ, and to advance the servant kingdom he inaugurated, it is time for us all to take a fresh look at everything.” 

I love the concept of “boldly rethinking” because it closely ties in with the concept of repentance.  That journey however is difficult.  As noted by Dounthat we all yearn at a superficial level for the “health and wealth” messages that abound.   They feel good.  They call us to claim what we “deserve.”  They are entertaining.  Such messages are frankly easier to preach, easier to sell.  In their froth, they avail us of little.

So can we stand for something?  The answer obviously is yes.  And unfortunately, in my humble opinion, we take stands on cultural issues that we then hold as issues at the core of Christianity – a General George Custer like mistake of planting our flag in territory of questionable value.  Taking a stand is not about worship forms, keeping women out of ministry or taking a stand about limiting the rights of homosexuals.   If the litmus test is “Did Christ speak on these issues in the four Gospels?”, one is left with the conclusion, that in these issues remaining unaddressed by Christ, they cannot be the core issues of Christianity.   Human suffering is.  New Church theology reflects that same New Testament perspective. Of course we are called to think clearly and make informed decisions for ourselves but that is different than holding these issues as core markers for adherence to the Christian life.

So where we do we take a stand?

  1. God’s Word: That there is a revelation higher than ourselves that we must look to guidance.  We are blessed in the New Church to have a revelation that calls us to see revelation far more broadly than many formal theologies but that is not “anything goes” but instead a “go and search.”  For me the hierarchy flows from the Bible, to New Church Theology, to everything else, (including Douthat’s article).  The imperative is to keep first-things-first.
  2. Piercing the Illusion: Ouch!  … but yes I have to say it.  We have to piece our illusions/ self delusions of what we hold as right and wrong – the core work of repentance.  Our ego gets it wrong all the time.  Please read my previous blog on the Penn State football scandal for an example of why those illusions are so badly in need of puncturing.
  3. Establishing a Church that is an Authentic Alternative: We can use cultural allusions but I think the stand is to be in some areas counter-cultural.  Christ’s call is both be different and to be difference maker, humbly and with the most grace we can muster.
  4. Reaching Out: It is about loving service looking outward – the self-sacrificial love that forms the very core of Christianity.   One immense fear for this church as for all churches is that we forget this core principle, and slide slowly towards a concern about ourselves as the relationship between God – Pastor – Congregation becomes divided along “Producer” and “Consumer” lines.   One immense hope is that we create the opposite!
What I have found is that if I don’t take a personal stand on the above four, I become spiritually “sloppy”, more concerned with entertainment than transformation.  Shane Claiborne’s words ring in my ear.  ”If we loose this generation, it won’t be because we did not entertain them.  It will be because we did not challenge them.”    So here is to the challenge, here is to taking the right kind of stand.


Alive To The Word

Friday, July 6th, 2012

A blessed place to be in life is when we “are alive to the Word.”  What does that term mean?

To be alive to the Word means to be alive to the deeper poetry, the heart and soul within the words themselves.  It is when we move from listening to the music to losing ourselves to the music.  When we allow ourselves to see beyond the surface of things, we find God’s song.

The Bible often is pigeon holed as a do-gooder guide to sanctimonious, self righteous judgment.  But that is at best an unfortunate way to use the Word.  Being alive to the Word means being alive to the ebb and flow within the language and story, a story far from the pristine or perfect but more closely anchored in all the faults, doubts, and foibles of the human condition .  As one Catholic author noted, there are precious few biblical characters worthy of even remote consideration for sainthood…. thank goodness!

Again and again that aliveness calls us to a simple process of spiritual growth.  As Emanuel Swedenborg phrased it, “Actual repentance is examining oneself, recognizing and acknowledging one’s sins, praying to the Lord, and beginning a new life.” (True Christianity #528)  So we look “in” and the look “out.”  We clean up the engine and move forward. The Bible is there to help us with that very process.  New Church theology gives us another layer of clarity, another way of seeing into that every life, that internal sense, the poetry of God’s Word.  Place those two within the context of a church anchored in living that “new life”, and life moves in some refreshing and unanticipated directions.

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.

True North

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

The Compelling Need for a True North

NewChurch LIVE seeks to be a growing, outward reaching presence in the world.  In so doing our hope is to join many other churches and denominations in the real work of faith-based living.  We join a movement,  broader than any particular denomination.  ”Movement” actually forms the very core of why churches were established – to draw a community together around a movement – a movement then supported by a disciplined community that inspires, informs and supports.

As such we actually need to travel to the edge of what feels like chaos.  A growing church, as is true with any growing institution must carefully tread that line between the known and the unknown, finding the “sweet spot” where creative tension moves us from the “as is” to the “can be.”

That place is admittedly uncomfortable.  We will take time to look at more extensively as we close the series with a sermon on “Blessed Unrest.”  And that is where we are and where we need to be!

To keep our bearings, we need a “True North.”   Easy to fall prey to mixing the busyness of congregational life for the business of congregational life.  Our “business” centers on several key non-negotiable.  I share these knowing there are numerous ways to state them.

  1. God’s Word, a.k.a. the Bible
  2. New Church Theology, a theology codified by Emanuel Swedenborg to articulate the true meaning of Christianity
  3. Life lived for others without claiming cultural or spiritual superiority.
  4. Respectful dialog that treasures belonging

From that place we tap into the co-creative capacity alive in all of us, a place from which a dynamic emergence grows into life – aka “A Monday Morning Church.”  That is where our church hits its real capacity to be a positive force in the world.  For the fact is, as Senior Pastor, maybe one of the more significant leadership insights I can offer is “I don’t know.”  I don’t know.  I don’t know where NCL is headed.  And that is actually pretty exciting.

What do I know?  I know the heart.  We have seen it over and over again.  It is a heart not unique to NCL but a heart where maybe NCL is a special expression.  The other part I know?  I know that while I don’t know where NCL is headed, I fully trust that you do.  I trust that God is stirring something in your heart, that He is calling something into Being.  ”True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of best efforts to deny it or avoid it.”  I trust that the team will fashion and achitecturalize structures that support that “knowing.”

Then we will possess what I think Jesus calls us to – a true north that both settles and expands.   So lets build a church!