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Your Best Life Now

Your Best Life Now

Sunday Morning Spirituality

posted by smcswain
Sunday Morning Spirituality

Sunday Morning Spirituality

For two decades, I have crisscrossed this country giving my best effort at counseling and guiding churches representing every denominational persuasion, Evangelical, Protestant and Roman Catholic. I have sought to serve churches with one pastoral leader and as small as one to two-hundred attendees to churches with more than 20,000 attendees and professional staffs as large as many congregations.

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I have not only tried to bring sound, spiritual counsel to these churches and church leaders but I have sought to be an astute observer, too…a listener. I have observed congregations age, decline, and many even die. I have grieved at how marginalized the Church has become, as people too numerous to count have left or are leaving the Church of their childhood.

I have asked, “Why?”
I have wondered, “What is happening to the Church?”
I have sought to explain, “Why are people walking away from the Church in numbers so staggering that Christian Century now says there are an average of nine church closures every day in America alone.”

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I am convinced…
I am solidly sure…
I am unequivocally certain…

There is but one primary explanation for the rapid decline and widespread departure from today’s church and the theologian Matthew Fox nails it in his new book entitled, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic Warrior for Our Times. He writes that today’s spiritual “seekers want less religion and more…spirituality.”

And, what is spirituality?

It isn’t more church attendance.
It isn’t more Bible knowledge.
It isn’t more obedience to a religious leader’s rules.
It isn’t more positive thinking.
It isn’t more praise songs in worship.
It isn’t more belief in creationism.
It isn’t more separation from the LGBT community or people not like “us.”
It isn’t more insistence on the infallibility of scripture.
It isn’t a return to the “old-time religion.”

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No, it is one thing and one thing primarily:

Spiritual seekers want to know a profound inner feeling that life itself, including the seeker’s own life, is sacred and inseparably connected to the Source of Life itself – the Eternal, Ineffable Presence of God.

What could be more important than this?
What could any spiritual seeker desire more than this?

When the Church gets it, and willingly gives up the other nonsense that has been its maddening agenda for decades, it will live again.

Until then…if or when…

Well…

Just go visit a Starbucks - if you’ve got the nerve – on any given Sunday morning even, and ask the congregation gathered there…

“Was there ever a time you went to church on Sunday morning?”

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What Does It Mean to Be a Spiritual Person?

posted by smcswain

The first thing God said to Moses was, “Take off your shoes” (Exodus 3:5).

Why?

Spirituality

Spirituality

Freshly laid carpet?

Hardly, although sometimes I think that Hank, our newest dachshund family member could show a little more respect for his new home and stop taking a poop on the decorative carpet that covers a portion of the hardwood floors. I don’t care if it is raining outside.

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I suspect what we have in God’s admonition “Take off your shoes” is spirituality in its third trimester. That’s the time in a woman’s pregnancy when the birth of her child could come at almost any moment.

Which is kind of how spirituality works.
Here’s what I mean…

Spirituality is the birth of sacred awareness. Inside the soul.  I know no other way to say this but that, when spirituality comes to life in you, it does so in an instant with or without your assistance. Suddenly, all of life…literally, all of it…becomes alive with sacredness. Everything, as well as everyone, in an instant, is a sacred entity to you…a kind of extension of the divine itself.

Everything feels holy, too. But not in some stuffy way. It is more like how you might feel when standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon…breathless…so much so, you will feel the need to go barefoot…to take off your shoes, so to speak. To step slowly.

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I am frequently asked, “What does it mean to be a spiritual person?”
Here’s what I have come to believe.

1. Spirituality is being struck one day with the surprising realization everything is sacred indeed.

Everything. Not some things. Even pesky little winged creatures like the fly. Or, the mosquito. I know this sounds a bit weird, but maybe it sounds weird only to those who are still asleep.

It is not just in sanctuaries and cathedrals with high ceilings and stained-glass windows where the sense of the sacred is noticed…felt – although, such places are notably sacred, too. What I am saying, however, is this: when you wake up to the Sacredness of all things, it is not just those places but every place indeed…as well as every person who is sacred…regardless of their color, or their religion, or their culture, or their political party…everyone and everything is holy, real, and shoeless.

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Spirituality is the unavoidable awareness everything you see, feel, touch, smell, and encounter has the feel of sacredness surrounding it. Which may be why even an atheist has the capacity of being spiritual. I do not know for certain, but I kind of think this might be what Pope Francis was saying. Only the guardians of religion devoid of spirituality are bothered by such a notion. Those aware of the Sacred – how could they be bothered? Even an atheist is sacred to them.

Spirituality cannot be defined, at best only ever described, as I am attempting to do here. You cannot capture it. You cannot become it. Spiritual is who you are already. But, when you become aware of this, you suddenly realize that spirituality is the most precious of all discoveries. Maybe the most important discovery you will ever make. Which makes it all the more sacred to you, too.

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You also realize you did nothing to get it. You simply awakened to the realization of your natural state. And, by the way, waking up occurs when you least expect it, too, which I’m pretty certain was the way it happened for Saint Paul, too.

Hell, as well as his hellish behavior, was surprised right out of Saul’s soul, literally. So dramatic was the change, in fact, a name change was in order – Saul became Paul. Saul was not expecting this transformation…anticipating it…praying and pleading for it. Saul who became Paul did nothing to plan for it at all. Most notably, he wasn’t in a worship service, lifting hands heavenward or tapping his right foot to the beat of a praise song when it occurred. He was doing nothing at all in fact, except doing what he thought was right, which was really wrong, and traveling from city to city to do it.

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You cannot manufacture the experience of the Sacred. It will happen to you in its own. When it does, however, it will leave you speechless. Saul went into some trance-like state and, when he woke up, he was Paul. He was different. And, nothing was ever the same.

Which is the story of every awakened soul, whether Christian or Muslim or Hindu or nothing at all.

Except awake.

Isn’t that enough?

Not to those still asleep.

Theologians, Biblical and contemporary, teachers, preachers, and others call the spiritual experience “grace,” which of course it is. The mistake, however, we religious folk too often make is nothing short of a gross and negligent act of reductionism.  We reduce the grace experience of spirituality into a religion of rules and processes and, after a while, denominational procedures that one must follow in order to be properly manufactured as spiritual mannequins. We look spiritually alive but inside we are dead…lifeless…unconscious that we are, too.

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“Seek the Lord while he may be found,” counseled Isaiah (Isa 55:6).

There is but one problem with this, Mr. Isaiah. You’re wrong.

You cannot find God. He/she/it doesn’t play hide-n-seek.

Nope. Spirituality is waking up to the realization that what you seek is seeking you…and may, in fact, BE you. It is hard to say this, I know. But, when spirituality is you…that is, who you now know yourself to be…you almost have this feeling – which may be why Jesus described it as oneness with the Father in John 17 and, coincidentally, prayed that his followers would know the same. But, whatever, you just come to this place where you know that you are that which you seek.

Spirituality, therefore, is an awareness of the sacredness of everything.

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2. The gift of this sacred awareness is God’s part…God’s gift…and, our part? Well, that, too, comes more natural than it may seem: God said to Moses, “Take off our shoes,” but I have this feeling he was already doing so.

Which is the way most people respond to their spiritual awakening. When everything feels and is sacred, something needs removing. After all, when you came into this world, you came fully naked, not clothed. It’s all that clothing stuff…the stuff of religion and rules and proper-ness…that starts coming off the moment you experience again the naturalism of your original state.

What I say next I cannot say with absolute certainty. However, I am growing more and more convinced that spirituality is not becoming more and more holy. It is not wearing a business suit but feeling inside, and so behaving around others, as if you were a monk in a monastery who never thinks a bad thought, speaks only in Thee’s and Thou’s, and is just plain holier than everybody else in the world.

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Heck, some days I feel lousy, out-of-sorts, and anything but holy.
There are times I feel close to God; at other times, I wonder if there is a God.
I laugh. I cry. I am happy sometimes. I am often sad.
I feel confident sometimes but, at other times, I’m scared shitless.
I used to own an arsenal of guns and defended it as an American right. Truth is, I’m scared and find comfort in imagining I have adequate protection.
I get angry. I sometimes cuss. I don’t always think the most wholesome thoughts.
And, I feel guilty about all of this, even as if I should apologize to you for admitting these things when, in my better moments, I’m only describing JUST HOW IT IS WITH YOU, too.

Am I right?
Damn right, I’m right.
I’m not right about many things, but I got this one.

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My problem is, just as your problem is, I was raised wrong. Plain and simple, by people who had spirituality all wrong, too. And, they were very devout churchgoing people. They were just wrong, however. They did the best they could but their best was pretty bad…when it comes to what spirituality really is.

That’s no judgment. Just a fact.

Many still get spirituality all wrong. Which is why pews are emptying everywhere. People have finally gotten the courage to step away from the familiar and look elsewhere for what they haven’t found under the steeple.

Spirituality has little to do with “proper behavior.” Packaging spirituality in a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” and “what we believe” and rules of etiquette and…well…none of this gets at it. So many devout people still have this erroneous notion that the really spiritual people of this world have beaten their “flesh” into subjection so that they never ever again know jealousy or envy or angry or have a lustful thought but they have instead separated themselves even from themselves.

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Well, to that idea of spirituality, I say this: “POPPYCOCK!”

It’s bull. It’s not right. It is in fact just plain wrong.

It’s taken me a lifetime to figure this out – this spirituality thing. Again, and it will take almost a lifetime for you to get this, too, but spiritual is not something you become. It is who you are already. It is simply waking up to this reality. And, the nice part is, you will wake up to this awareness many, many times and, then, one day, you won’t wake up anymore. You will just never again fall asleep to this awareness. You will be this awareness.

So think of it this way: Spirituality is becoming more and more yourself…more and more human. It is to know fear instead of this notion you’ve lived with that, if you’re really spiritual you will never be fearful. Of course, you will. Faithful people are still fearful people. Sometimes. It’s just plain bull to think otherwise. Faith is faithfulness even when you’re afraid. Faith is fear dressed up in a boxer’s uniform and refusing to ever quit fighting.

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Being spiritual does not mean feelings of anger have disappeared forever. Heck no! Hardly a day will ever go by for genuinely spiritual people but what they will feel angry. What changes, I suppose, is the stuff that pisses them off. It starts to become less about little stuff…and, more about big stuff like injustice and social inequality and the abuse of this planet and the abuse of people.

Spiritual people feel sadness at loss, too. They know suffering. They feel pain. They have difficulties. They’re familiar with hardship. They get sick. They grow old, suffer illnesses and, yes, they eventually die. This notion that really spiritual people are never to be sick…is SICK itself. It’s nonsense and, if you believe that nonsense, you of all people are most misguided.

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No, my friend, spirituality is not becoming something other than who you are. It is learning to live INTO your humanity with all of it’s joys, pleasures, pains, hopes, and fears. It is to LIVE into these experiences but…and here’s the difference…you live INTO these experiences with a profound sense of the Sacred.

And, it is that sense of the Sacred…that feeling you should walk barefoot in this world…which is, of course, the way you showed up…barefoot and naked. Human. Spiritual. And, yes, even Divine.

You don’t know this yet? You haven’t yet felt the need to “Take off your shoes?”

You will. One day. When you least expect it.

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Chaos Without…Contentment Within?

posted by smcswain

Chaos without? Contentment within!

Now that’s the goal of all goals, is it not? So, why is it, that your life and mine has more of the former and too little of the latter?

This morning, for example, I had the good fortune of getting caught up in a little conflict with a colleague.

Contentment

Contentment

Ever happened to you?

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It was the kind of conflict that steals your joy almost immediately, does it not? The day starts out well but then this stings you like a bee who appears out of nowhere.

Then, as if that were not troublesome enough, once the unhappy exchange with the colleague is over – with no clear winner – you spend the remainder of the morning replaying the conversation in your head. The trial is over. The verdict has been issued. Everyone has gone home. But you’re still standing in the middle of the courtroom, making arguments for an audience of one — the one in your head.

An empty courtroom of conflict and the chaos is being played out inside your cranium. You are familiar with this madness, are you not?

Here’s how the madness inside your head often goes. You can admit or not if this is how it is with you.

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You say something, as the defense attorney. The prosecutor in your head says something in response. You respond in defense to their charge. But not the same way you responded when the real drama unfolded earlier that morning. No, this time, you respond in precisely the perfect way you wish you had responded when the actual incident occurred.

This insanity goes on and on…

and on still more throughout the day.

Heck, I even took the empty courtroom with me on a walk around the neighborhood. All around me were the sights and sounds of new life but I saw none of the seductive scenery, lost as I was in a salacious drama inside my head.

Then, suddenly, as if surprised by an tsunami, I caught myself engulfed in the mental chaos. And, when I did, I stopped in my tracks. Literally. The thoughts stopped too. The courtroom was silent, for the first time that morning, I might add.

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The interrupted drama came to an instant pause, as if an actor had recited the wrong line on stage in the middle of a play and all the others actors are befuddled and wonder what to do next.

When you are gifted with an interruption inside your head…something that temporarily stops the internal chaos and conflict, then you must seize it, my friend, as if it were the last morsel of bread before a famine ensues.

Think of this interruption as the God of spring herself at work on your behalf.

It just might be, you know.

God may just be gifting you with an opportunity to step outside the conflict inside…and, why? So you may see inside the beauty that surrounds you outside.

Tell me this is not a miracle and you’ll not succeed. For I will always believe that God is the God of springtime interruptions.

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In that moment of silence…standing, no longer inside the empty courtroom of my head but, instead, under the rich, blue sky like an endless ocean…

Everywhere I looked, the sights and sounds of spring were shouting at me. Birds were singing that spring had sprung. Squirrels were dancing to their rapturous songs. Twigs and limbs, still cold and dark from winter, were pushing forth new life in pale greens and bright reds.

God spoke to me today. I know it was her. She is everywhere my friend.

But, you know…

You only ever see around you what you are cultivating within you.

Cultivate chaos and conflict will abound, both within and without.
Cultivate contentment and peace will abound, both within and without.

When there is peace within you, there will be peace in the world.

Until then…

Well…

It’s just drama…
In empty courtrooms…
And, troubled craniums.

I’m ready for something more. Aren’t you?

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Your God is Dead! Just a Little Pre-Easter Thought

posted by smcswain

Your GOD is Dead!

Your God is Dead

Your God is Dead

YOUR GOD IS DEAD!

That’s what the bumpersticker declared on the back of the 1970’s VW van covered with colorful paint. I’m not sure which was holding the hippie van together, the duck tape or the bumper stickers. Maybe they both were.

But I got to thinking. Our ideas about God are sometimes just as old and held together just as tenuously.

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God, as I was raised, brainwashed or conditioned to think of him (I prefer “her” just to remind me to stop thinking of him as a him when he is actually neither him nor her)…it is this God who may be dead. It is this God who may not have ever really existed.

You’ll have to decide that for yourself, however. I can only tell you where I am today and where I am today is miles from where I was even ten years ago.

If it isn’t too threatening to you, I’d like to get you to thinking, too.

God is dead.

The one I was taught to believe in, that is.
He’s died slowly, however, and over a long period of time. Oh occasionally, I still try to keep him alive on a kind of religious life support, comprised mostly of little “beliefs” I self-inject into my soul to comfort the pain of letting him die, much like a nurse might administer morphine to a patient in pain.

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Here’s the God I was taught to believe in…

Some of you’ll recognize this description of him.
Just don’t confuse the description with the deity herself, which may be our biggest error.

This God lives above the sky, somewhere even in the “heavens,” wherever that may be. Perhaps somewhere among the stars.

It was much easier to think about this when I was a child. Then, I went to school one day and learned our nearest star is something like eight or nine light years away. That is, the little light I saw at night when I was just eight actually emanated from its source before I was born.

Not a very comforting thought to an eight year old looking for God in the heavens at night.

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So, where is this God? And, what does he look like? And, what am I to think about him?

Is he as angry as the preachers I see on television and hear on the radio? Is he as pissed off as I was when I was a preacher? Angry at sin. Equally angry at sinners. Ready to hurl a lightning bolt or two or a tsunami at any moment against those not like the righteous “us,” like those gays and lesbians and transgenders? Oh, and Muslims, too?

Know this God?
Ever heard of him?
I’m pretty sure you have.

Is this God Dead?

Is this God dead? Not hardly!

He’s very much alive in the thinking…and in the believing…of religious people today, whether they are Christian or Muslim or whatever. He’s still alive, too, from time to time in my own thinking. It’s true, whoever said it, God loves those I love and, at my worst, he probably hates those I hate, too.

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I know better than this, however, in my better moments. I just don’t have enough of them.

I was raised to believe in a God who was super-human but human-like, the big super-duper guy in the sky.

Isn’t it true that this kind of God comes to your mind even when the name of God is mentioned?

Honestly, for me, I have this image of a aged male in a white robe, long beard sitting in a high-back chair, similar to a throne, and the throne is floating around on a cloud somewhere just above the clouds. Or, maybe on the clouds.

This God is a miracle-worker, just like Cecil B. DeMille depicted in “The Ten Commandments” starring Charlton Heston as Moses. If I watched that movie once as a young adult, I must have watched it a dozen times. More recently, there have been newer, more dramatic depictions of this God that have been captured on the big screen.

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“Our God is a powerful God!” I was told. If Moses carried a big stick, you should see the stick God carries!

It is to this kind of God you offer up prayers in hopes you’ve offered them correctly, in the “right” spirit, with the “right” words, and, of course, with just the right amount of faith to move him to action.

Always on your behalf, too, and why not?

So, I regularly prayed, “Bless us, O Lord,” by which I really meant, “Bless Me, O’ Lord.” If I’ve prayed that prayer a hundred times, I’ve prayed it maybe several thousand. After all, I’m deserving of a blessing.

It is this God I was raised to believe in…that many still believe in.
It is this God the atheist reacts against and says “God is dead” or never existed.

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And, they’re probably right.
But, what Christian has the gumption to admit it?

Just my opinion, of course, you might disagree. But…there’s no need to react to any of this. Or, to write me and tell me how wrong I am, how misled I am, and how mistaken I am to mislead others who’ll end up in hell with me and because of me.

You really believe in Hell? Don’t get me started. Just add me to your prayer list. I could use your prayers. You likely could use the practice. We’ll be mutually benefitted.

All kidding aside, I wish only to invite you into thinking about all of this…about the God you were taught to believe in, just as I was.

Just ponder the whole God-thing but give up feeling that God needs you to defend him. I can assure you, if God is the kind of God I was raised to believe he is, there is nobody big enough to threaten him.

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It is this big, angry, bully God I no longer believe in, however – the one I used to say with one breath is a God of love but in the next would say is going to judge the world and consign to hell all who are not real believers like us.

So, why are you threatened? Do you not react because there is something in all these questions that rings too painfully true?

 Can You Let this God Die?

I know how scary it is to let old ideas of God die. I know how much easier it is to cling to mythical ideas of God, too. I did this for a long time precisely because I had no other way to think about God. And, giving up old ideas about God felt too much like I was giving up God herself. That was too frightening to face.

Do you cling to a God deep down you fear has died because you have no living God with which to replace her? Is this why you keep listening to preachers talk about things you know just aren’t so because it at least means you’re not alone in the denial of truth?

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But then, aren’t you getting tired of pretending to believe things you know are simply not true? Isn’t that like administering CPR to corpse that’s been embalmed already?

What if God…the real God…is not this miracle-working, super-duper Guy in the Sky with all the answers printed in a leather-bound King James Version of the Bible?

  • What if, instead, God is the spontaneous thought of God that just pops into your head from time to time?
  • What if God is the face you see across the counter at Starbucks?
  • What if God is the feeling of awe you get when you hear the birds at dawn?
  • What if God is the gay, the lesbian, or the transgender person across the hall?
  • What if God is the immigrant you’d rather fence out to keep out than cut a path to let in?
  • What if God is the woman wearing the hijab to work?
  • What if God is the smile you see on a stranger’s face? Or, the pain you see in a starving face?

Wonder what would happen if you were to let go of the God who is dead and believed instead in a God who is invisibly visible all around you?

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I’m just asking. You’ll have to work this out on your own, which is what aint Paul meant when he said, “Work out our own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).

Yep, I’m afraid so. No good thing comes cheap. There’s a little effort involved in spiritual enlightenment. The gift of grace may be free. But the package wherein it resides needs to be unwrapped.

Just sayin…

What if, however…

What if God is bigger, grander than anything you could define, describe, or draw on a piece of paper or print on a page of inspired scripture?

My own experience has been…when you can let go of your definitions of God, you might just discover…as I did…a discovery worth making…

One that’ll leave you wondering why you kept returning to a tomb every year, looking for a body…

When the tomb emptied of all evidence 2,000 years ago.

Except, of course, for a few garments called “old ways of thinking…”

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The Joshua God, the Jesus God, and Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

posted by smcswain

The Joshua God…

The Jesus God…

And, Why Millennials are Leaving the Church…

Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

“Christians must start to believe in the God that Jesus presented,” says Fr. Richard Rohr. I would add, “instead of believing in the God that Joshua believed in and so described in the Old Testament.”

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Throughout the history of Christianity, the Church, church leaders, and, therefore, Christians themselves have justified the Church’s right of violence toward others, its discrimination of others, and even its condemnation to hell those who did not subscribe to the same beliefs the Church had defined and so declared were “infallible” doctrines, beliefs, and “viewpoints” of their faith.

Which is always easy, isn’t it…

…Whenever the God you have created in your own image is the God you’ve fashioned after your own hatred, prejudice, or envy of others? After all, what better way to feel better about your own evil and prejudice than to say God hates homosexuality, too, or that God wants us to destroy Muslims, too, or whatever it is or whomever it may be that you do not like yourself?

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Of course, it is easy…

To deny others the right to same-sex marriage, for example, whenever “your” God is the same God the tribal Jews created in their own image and told about through their stories in the Old Testament. Many of them believed, just as Christians today believe, God hates sin so badly, in fact, that sin had to be destroyed – by any and all means, in fact – and, sometimes, that may unfortunately mean you have to even destroy a sinner or two in the process…

…or three or more in the process.
It’s unfortunate. But, after all, God is “righteous” and will not tolerate sin.

Of course, the end justified the means. Which is what gave Moses all he needed to declare to Pharaoh, “Our God says, ‘Let my people go’ or else!”

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Of course, the Jews were as suspicious as the Egyptians were stubborn. And, well they should have been. This formerly-raised Egyptian whom the Jews most likely wondered if he had been wandering much too long under the scorching desert sun shows up one day trying to garish their support. To encourage them to follow him in what their historians would later describe as the “Exodus,” he presumably displayed their tribal God’s power in plagues on Egypt.

These plagues were to prove to the stubborn Egyptians and suspicious Jews alike, Moses is for real…that his “God” means business, and that their tribal God is more equipped than all the gods of Egypt combined.  So, yes, of course, it is perfectly fine to call down fire from heaven and all kinds of natural disasters so everyone would know God not only favors his people but is more than willing to destroy his enemies, if need be.

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The Joshua God…the Jesus God…

The plagues were pretty convincing, too…but, none as convincing as…

…the killing of all the first born. “Oh, that’ll do it,” Moses must have thought to himself. “Now, they’ll believe in God when God sends a death angel to destroy countless numbers of innocent firstborns.  That’ll do it…that’ll “show ‘em” whose God is the REAL God…our big Guy in the Sky, He’ll get ‘er done…”

Think about it, you can damn well justify anything, can you not?

…when you have created your tribal God after your own image and then told your historians to spin your history into stories you ultimately call “Divinely-inspired and infallible” Holy Scriptures?

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Who can argue with “inspired” and “infallible?”
Never mind that the presentation of God is just plain wrong!

Well, it wasn’t wrong among the religious leaders…
Until Jesus showed up.
Damn Jesus.
He has a way of messing things up.
We had this thing all figured out…and a God created in our own image of hatred to boot.
Until HE came along.
No wonder they killed Jesus.

We can’t kill him anymore.
There’s this little thing called the RESURRECTION in our way.

So, what a prejudiced Christian does today is to say that Joshua’s God in the Old Testament is the same as Jesus’ God of the New Testament.

Well, I’m not buying it.
And, I think Millennials are leaving the Church today because they’re not buying it either.

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Why Millennials are Leaving the Church…

It’s not rocket science to see that people today…even those who still call themselves “Christians” can justify…indeed do justify all kinds of prejudice toward, for example, homosexuals or those longing to live in same sex relationships, when their God is Joshua’s God of the Old Testament…instead of Jesus’ God of the New Testament.

But let’s be honest.
Let’s be real honest.

If God — I mean, the REAL God — is the one defined and described not by Joshua of the Old Testament but by Jesus of the New Testament – if Christians insist, Jesus was/is God in human flesh – then, for anyone to say that Jesus’ acceptance of all people…Jesus’ love of all people…would exclude homosexuals or Buddhists or Muslims or whomever it may be just because they don’t live like Christians live or because they don’t believe as “believers” believe…

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The REAL God…

To keep insisting that Joshua’s God in the Old Testament is the same as Jesus’ God of the New Testament…well…that is, it feels to me, to be an almost deliberate misrepresentation of God. And, if it isn’t a blatant, willful misrepresentation of the REAL God Jesus showed up to correctly portray…

It’s wrong nonetheless and it should be corrected. If the Church does not correct it, my guess is it will continue its downward decline into mediocrity. It will give more Millennials, and others, reason to leave the Church.

Where I come from, a misrepresentation of the truth is a lie.

…And, frankly, I’m not so certain but what to lie about God…the “real” God…Jesus’ God…
…is unbecoming of those who claim to be his followers.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why Millennials are leaving the Church.

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The Problem with Most Prayers…Including Yours and Mine

posted by smcswain
The Problem with Most Prayers

The Problem with Most Prayers

THE PROBLEM WITH MOST PRAYERS

The problem with most of our praying – my prayers, too, mind you – is this: we pray because we are looking for a way out. But why? Precisely because nobody likes pain. Nobody looks for uncertainty. Nobody wants to suffer.

What healthy-minded person prays for pain…for suffering? No, as a matter of fact, we do everything we can to avoid either.

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Which is where prayer comes in.

For most of us, most of the time, prayer is…
A longing for a way out…

.
May I suggest something?
Sometimes…
No, maybe most of the time…
The only way out is the way through.

Or, so reminded Mark Nepo in The Book of Awakening.

Instead of reducing prayer to a laundry list of things you’d like to be rescued from…sickness, suffering, separation, sadness…

Instead of praying and looking for a way out…
What if you made it your practice to do the following?

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Whenever you face something totally overwhelming…and, btw, if you have not yet faced something totally overwhelming, it isn’t because you’re special. It isn’t because you just happen to be doing everything right so God is “on your side.” It isn’t because your faith is strong compared to others.

Nope, it’s more likely you’ve just been lucky.

Yea, you could call it luck. You might as well. That’s about as good an explanation as any you’ll ever come up with on your own for why life has treated you kindly…

So far.

The Way Out is the Way Through

But, take it from one who’s been around the corner a time or two…

Luck runs out.
Count on it.
Your moment is coming.

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I’m pretty sure I can say, “Yep, your day is coming.”

A few of you reading this are in the middle of the biggest challenged you’ve ever faced.

Here’s what I’m suggesting. Instead of praying…pleading…promising…
Do this.

1. Pray three times to escape. Jesus did.

2. End each prayer for escape with a prayer of surrender. Jesus did (Luke 22:42).

“Not my will but yours be done.”

3. See what happens.

It’s called Enlightenment. Salvation. Awakening.
The old country preachers I grew up with…well…they just called it, “Gettin’ saved.”
And, “saved” didn’t mean “escape.”

Nope, it meant “Surrender.” Therein is the mystery of peace.

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The Christ Experience…What Must Die this Easter and Stay Dead

posted by smcswain
The Christ Experience

The Christ Experience

“Separate the Christ experience from the Christ-explanations,” suggests Bishop John Shelby Spong.

In other words, you and I may experience Christ but we could never explain Christ. When you try to explain what God has done in and through the Eternal Christ…

…well…

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That’s when it gets complicated and mostly just plain wrong. Furthermore, when you rely on the old explanations from our past, you will almost always come up woefully short and/or wrong again.

The Explanations of Christ

Which is the plight, and peril, of Christian theology throughout Christian history. For all the good, for example, the incredible mind of John Calvin produced for theology in his seminal Institutes of the Christian Religion, one could point to an equally confusing, and ultimately divisive, consequence of his propositionally-laden explanations of the Christ experience.

If you do not know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky. No one ever needed Calvin’s explanations of Christ to experience the Christ of eternity.

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The books of the Bible, for example, were written between 1000 BCE and 135 CE. Which means, most people writing what we still regard as the sacred writings of the Old and New Testaments believed in a three-tiered universe, thought of the earth as the center of the universe and the sun as rotating around it, believed all sickness was a sign of God’s disfavor and regarded anything they could not explain as a “miracle,” as Spong and others have so rightly helped us to understand.

We know better today than to believe any of this.

Or, do we?

Many believers who claim to be faithful followers of Christ mistakenly think that “faithfulness to Christ” is only ever demonstrated by trying to defend old, worn out explanations of the world, God, and the human experience of Christ by arguing incessantly things like “the Bible is infallible” whenever it speaks of anything…whether science, evolution, the human experience, psychology, biology, astronomy, etc.

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Really? Do you actually think that by telling people Genesis is a factual account of how the world came into existence you are being “faithful” to Christ?

I do not agree.

I do not feel this being faithful at all. In fact, to still be trying to defend “infallibility” borders on arrogance. Rather than drawing people to Christ, which is really what all of us want, it actually leaves people with no option but to reject Christianity as some antiquated belief system, even a useless relic of an ancient past.

Is that really what Christians want? Is that really what many define as being faithful to Christ?

Personally, I think there is a better way. And, one more infinitely more faithful to Christ, too.

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That way is to let go of the old, worn-out explanations of God, Jesus, the Bible, the universe, how humans evolved, what went wrong with humans, creation, evolution, etc. In other words, rather than regarding everything we are learning in our rapidly changing world as suspicious or worldly or, worse, as being unfaithful to Christ, question everything instead. Start with your own beliefs. If they prove to be antiquated and contrary to what we are learning, let go of them. Staying attached will only ever produce a insufferable inner dilemma. If what you question proves to be true, however, embrace it.

Why wouldn’t you?

The Christ Experience

Be content to invite people into the Christ experience.This never changes. What it does do, however, is change people. Experiencing Christ always defies explaining Christ.

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It always has and it always will, too. What will NOT abide are all of our explanations, antiquated beliefs, and things like the Institutes of our theological explanations. These become relics. Why? Because explanations could never be equal to experience.

There is much about the Church today, as well as the beliefs Christian people argue and debate over almost endlessly, that must die with Jesus this Easter season. But, not just die with him, they need to remain in the grave forever.

It is only ever the experience of Christ that will live beyond the cross and the grave, isn’t it?

Indeed!

What else but the experience of Christ HAS ever lived? What else but the transformative power of the Eternal Christ should live?

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Isn’t this what we call the resurrection?

It is my prayer this Easter season “explanation” will cease to trump “experience?”

As far as I’m concerned, you can take all the explanations of what God has done in Christ – including my own explanations – and, bury them forever.

What lives beyond the grave is your experience of Christ.
What could be more important than your experience?

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The 21st Century Church: “Absolutes” the Church Must Embrace Or Die: Part One

posted by smcswain
21st Century Church: Absolutes the Church Must Embrace or Die: Part One

21st Century Church: Absolutes the Church Must Embrace or Die: Part One

The popular group Hozier has a hit song “Take Me to Church.” Lest you think, however, the title reflects the current youth culture’s longing to return to the Church they have abandoned, think again. One line in the lyrics goes like this:

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“If the heavens ever did speak
She’s the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week”

A fresh poison each week.” Sobering words. And, representative of what many young people think and feel about the Church today. To say the Church across all denominational lines is suffering is an understatement.

Christian Century says there is an average of nine church closures every day in America.
The Bishop of New York recently declared 100+ parishes will close or merge in their Diocese.
According to the Pew Forum, the Millennial generation has all but abandoned the Church.

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It would not take much to conclude the Church is dying. And, in its present form, I suspect it is.

I have written extensively on this subject before, as many of you know. And, while some mistakenly think I, too, have left the Church, I have actually stayed.

Admittedly, I am not involved in the same ways as I have been in the past. Nevertheless, it is my sincere hope to “be the change I’d like to see,” as Gandhi used to say. I believe a viable future exists for the Church in all its historic dimensions, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical alike. I am working toward this end.

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My own feeling is, however, the 21st Century Church future lies in offering “absolutes” to young people who do need boundaries within which to safely forge a real world faith. Those boundaries, however, must be grounded in facts, in honest inquiry, and in intellectual integrity.

Unfortunately, the Church has too often wrongly assumed what those “absolutes” must be. In other words, the Church that keeps trying to resurrect old, worn-out ways of thinking and believing, and pretend while doing so that those absolutes have never changed throughout its history, has decided already on its preferred destiny: the graveyard of history.

Old absolutes?

Here’s a sampling of some of the old absolutes to which dying churches and church leaders still cling today…

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1. The Bible is inerrant and infallible.
2. Adam and Eve were real people, the first two to walk on planet earth.
3. Creationism is a credible explanation for the origin of all things.
4. Evolution is just a “theory” and, therefore, it is evil.
5. Theism or the belief that God is a superhuman who resides somewhere just above the clouds who favors his followers and answers their prayers.
6. Original sin is an infectious disease that automatically separates everyone from God.
7. Substitutionary atonement or the belief God that sent his son Jesus to pay the price for sin.
8. Homosexuality is abhorrent to God and, even if it is a genetic phenomenon, it must be rejected or held in submission.
9. As the only way to God, Jesus is going to return to earth one day and condemn all unbelievers to hell.
10. Hell is, therefore, the final destiny for anyone who does not believe in Jesus.

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There are other “absolutes.” But these may be among the more familiar ones. It is many of these “absolutes” that I see Millennials rejecting outright. In other words, if you want to know why this generation has left the Church, look no further. You’ll find many of the reasons in these antiquated beliefs.

I have listed below a few of the “absolutes” a new generation of believers are embracing. These absolutes are among those the 21st Century Church of the future must embrace with both enthusiasm and devotion, if viability is the desired outcome.

I am convinced, however, survival is not the interest of many church leaders. In fact, there seems to be a kind of victimology disease from which many church leaders are suffering today. When I was in seminary, we called this disease a “martyr complex.”

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Many blind leaders today have actually duped themselves into thinking that the widespread departures from their churches is somehow the fault of those leaving. It’s as if those leaving are in the wrong. That their faith is faulty. That what they believe is misguided.

It is, however, the same age-old blindness Jesus came up against repeatedly. As Father Richard Rohr has correctly noted: “Jesus was never upset with sinners; he was only ever only upset with people who thought they were not sinners.”

And, guess who thought they were not sinners?
Hint…hint.
It wasn’t those outside the Temple.

No, it was the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were wrong.
And, yes, it is the religious leaders in our day who are wrong, too.

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Church leaders who cling to old ways of believing and refuse new ways of understanding “the greatest story ever told,” are victims of their own blind stupidity. They mistakenly think a change in their theology is a compromise of their beliefs.

They remind me of the stubborn Protestant preachers during the days of the Civil War. Many of the white, southern preachers proclaimed to their death their mistaken belief that slavery was ordained by God.

Slavery was never ordained by God and, as an erroneous belief, it could never be defended.

But defend it, they did…even unto their deaths.

History would be their judge and their judge history was.

For churches today to defend narrow-minded beliefs as “absolutes” shared by God himself is to adopt a similar path that leads to a similar end. No, there won’t be another war over such beliefs, I don’t think.

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Instead, what will happen is what we see happening all around us today. Slowly, but certainly, methodically, people by the hundreds at first, but now by the thousands are quietly leaving these churches, or mindlessly participating for the sake of the kids, but they have little to no interest in what is believed, proclaimed, and promoted.

Such churches have become theaters of religious entertainment – those that appear to be thriving, anyway. The others – the ones whose death is more visible – are slowly becoming church museums like their counterparts in Europe.

For these churches and their leaders, I have a feeling history is about to repeat itself and, once again, preside over a slow and painful graveside eulogy.

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Before mentioning the absolutes the viable Church of the future will embrace, however, I offer first this analysis for consideration:

My feeling is, there will always be a few “mega” churches around that stubbornly cling to old “absolutes” or worn-out ways of believing. Their seminaries will continue to produce mindless robots of mediocrity dressed up in collars and conditioned to hammer away on a building nobody really wants to build anymore. By their sheer size, however, they will successfully deceive themselves into thinking that their size means everyone attending agrees with their narrow theology and, worse, that God actually favors their narrow-minded thinking.

But they are wrong.
In both instances.

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Those of us who try to carefully and honestly study these things know for a fact that such churches lose as many people each year as they appear to gain. In some instances, in fact, they are actually losing more members than they are gaining.

Nevertheless, they give the appearance to the uninformed that they must be reaching the multitudes.

They are not, however.

The real truth is, they are treading water, so to speak. Their actual numbers are declining. Revenues are diminishing. Layoffs are occurring within their staffs. Anyone on the inside knows this.

What keeps people coming, however, is the good music; the fact that their preachers are superior motivational speakers; and, mostly, the activities for children and youth against which small, struggling congregations could never compete.

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There may be a few other reasons that create the illusion of growth. But this one thing is clear: for the most part, the growth these churches seem to be experiencing has nothing to do with widespread agreement among attendees with what is either preached or believed by their leaders. Other reasons draw them and, among the most prevalent I’ve identified already. The only other reason is because they have grown disillusioned by their former church and/or rigamortis has set in and they have lost interest in sticking around for the church’s funeral procession.

Strangely, however, church leaders seem to miss this salient reality.

We have just such a mega church in our city that fits this description.

Were it not for the multiple sites the church keeps starting here and there, the fact is, their annual report would show nothing but declines in both membership and attendance. By starting all these churches and combining their growing numbers with their own declining numbers, they successfully maintain the illusion of growth.

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The real truth is, however, the mother church is suffering. People are leaving. Revenues are diminishing. Layoffs are occurring. Insiders…that is, the few in the know…are growing more and more disenchanted with what is all too apparent to those leaving – hypocrisy at the core of the beliefs.

Are they still big? Yes, of course. Do they still have “dynamic” worship services? How could they not? Their musical staff is made up of professional musicians, “the cream of the crop,” as we say in rural Kentucky.

Facts are facts, however, and truth cannot be hidden in the baptistry. The future looks rather bleak for this church and many other mega churches like it.

Conversely, we also have in our city a church like the one I believe will be the growing, viable 21st century church of the future. It is experiencing growth and vitality already and it has for many years.

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More interestingly, however, it is a “city” church and, while others around it are declining and dying, it is growing, thriving, and has the healthiest mix of young and old I have seen in any church in America. And, I have been in literally hundreds of them representing virtually every denomination within Christianity.

More importantly, however, this city church embraces a different set of Christian “absolutes.” The kind I have briefly outlined below.

Consequently, in this Part One of a two-part post, it is my intention to outline the “absolutes,” core values, or beliefs that this church not only embraces but the absolutes I believe the viable, 21st Century church of the future will embrace as well.

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In Part Two, I will more fully elaborate on these absolutes. Here, I mention them only for your reflection.

1. The universal need for union with God.
2. The innate goodness within all people.
3. We are a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints or a hotel for paying customers.
4. All people are created equal and equality for anyone is equality for everyone.
5. When we say everyone is welcome, we actually mean EVERYONE. Including the LGBT folk.
6. The Bible is our guidebook. It is not our “rule” book and certainly not our science text.
7. Jesus is “our way” to God. But we know our God is bigger than any of our beliefs about HER.
8. Doubts and questions are encouraged here. In fact, we believe faith is forged through doubt.
9. Stewardship is about money but also justice for all people and the care of God’s planet.
10. Heaven is not about “golden streets” any more than hell is about “flames and torture.”

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Just like the others, these, too, are only a few of the core absolutes the thriving 21st century church of the future will embrace. But they represent some of the more important ones.

I remain hopeful.

As Saint Paul put it, “…old things are passing away. Behold all things are becoming new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

And, none too soon, in my own opinion.
And, in the opinion of the 3,500 people who will choose to leave the Church before the end of this day.

Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.

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