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Your Best Life Now

Your Best Life Now

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.

Chaos Without…Contentment Within

Contentment

Contentment

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Ever happened to you?

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?

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

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.

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Contentment and the Stuff in the 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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Contentment is the Goal of All Goals

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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All that Really Matters in Any Religion

posted by smcswain
All that Really Matters in Any Religion

All that Really Matters in Any Religion

“In essentials unity…in non-essentials liberty…in all things charity.”

I have heard this phrase for the greater part of my religious life. In fact, I am pretty sure I have used the phrase myself. It is a much more helpful position to adopt in this world of multi-religious beliefs.

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I have heard it used among Christians and, since there are more Baptists than there are flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, for example – not to speak of all the other denominations within Christianity – I suppose adopting this as your modus operandi can be helpful. But, if there is anything the internet has done for us, it has made many of us delightfully aware of just how varied the religious and/or spiritual landscape is here in the U.S. alone.

America is close to passing India, and actually may have passed it already, as the most religiously-diverse country in the world.

How will we survive this? Will we survive it?

I think the jury is still out on this one.

But my own conviction is this: as long as we insist there are “essentials” in any religion that are regarded as “non-negotiable” then I suspect the disagreements, followed by the debates, and, ultimately, then the divisions (that seems to be the inevitable progression of things, doesn’t it?) even between people within the same religious tradition will answer the question of human survival…the question of the future of humanity.

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It is a big question for which there are no little answers. Which explains why “Rapture-minded” Christians have booked their flights early to escape the madness they’re secretly scared but certain is about to unfold.

I think that rather “big” of them, if you ask me. Frankly, I’m a little more inclined to think Jesus’ method of “facing the music” is a little more in keeping with his way of dealing with opposition and difficulty. Love embraces. It doesn’t look for an escape hatch to imaginary freedom.

But don’t take my word for it. Try reading what we Christians call the Gospel. It’s a little radical I know but it is the “WAY” of Jesus. Which is of course what Jesus meant by “way, truth, and life.” It’s not the way most choose, but one “narrow and difficult” (Matt. 7:14).

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When it comes to “essentials” in any faith tradition, however, tell me something: Who decides what the essentials are?

My beloved Catholic friends say, “The Church, Scripture, and Tradition.” But you can’t even get two Catholic Popes to agree on what within any of these is really “essential.” Pope Benedict and Pope Francis represent two vastly different views of what’s “essential.” Don’t let anybody tell you differently. They do.

My friends among Protestants and Evangelicals say, “Sola Scriptura” – I love that one.

Frankly, I’m at that place in my spiritual pilgrimage where I have decided there are no “essentials.”

Except maybe one.

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And, interestingly, a Catholic Franciscan framed it pretty well. I suspect Father Richard Rohr, OFM may be on to something, when he says, “The only absolute essential is your union with God.”

Isn’t that all that really matters?

And, isn’t it true, if we add anything else, we are only admitting we have not found our own union with God to be “essential” enough?

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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Change: The Two Vital Steps to Lasting Change

posted by smcswain

Change. Sooner or later, everyone wants to change something.  We begin each new year resolving to make changes…

Change

Change

In our relationships;
In our priorities;
In our health;
In our personal fitness;
In our eating habits;
In our ambitions;
In our careers;
Even in our beliefs.

Within weeks, however, many of the changes we set out to make begin to slip. Before long, we fall back into familiar patterns. It’s not only frustrating, we are disappointed in ourselves.

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As a leader and trainer, as well as a private coach to a select group of clients each year, I am frequently asked, “How can I make a change that will last?” Leaders often express their desires to see changes in their company or among their workers. What they do not know is that the changes they want to see around them are often the same changes that they need to make themselves.

Coast to coast, I have observed and coached CEO’s, leaders in major companies and organizations, businesses and communities, as well as religious leaders from within every faith tradition you can imagine. It was not until I became honest with myself, however, and observed my own lifestyle and patterns of behavior, that I made the most vital discovery about change.

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The most vital ingredient in change is closer than you think.
It is actually much simpler than you might think, too.

The spiritual master, Jesus himself, once hinted at this vital ingredient to lasting change when he said, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16).

Metaphors, of course, but potent metaphors, to say the least. Whatever else may be concluded, it is clear Jesus is saying, “Salt and Light both effect change…by their very presence…instantaneously and conclusively.”

Light dispels darkness just as salt, when added to anything, results in instant change. Once you salt something, you cannot un-salt it. Once light has illumined a room, even if the room is later plunged back into darkness, things inside the room are never the same.

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The Most Vital Ingredients to Lasting Change

Therefore, the ingredients to lasting change, even enduring change, are two-fold:

1. Ingredient One is an Inner Motivation: The motivation for change must occur inside you.

Lasting change can never imposed from outside yourself.

A Great Big Example of This is War

It seems our country has a hard time learning this rather obvious lesson. We mistakenly think, for example, that war is the answer to all unwanted conditions. Our recent war with Al’caida seemed successful at first. All of a sudden, however, that victory seemed only to produce a more formidable enemy whose ruthless and barbaric beheadings of innocent people are unimaginable.

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Admittedly, this is an extreme example but the principle surely applies.

You cannot force another to change. Diplomacy, therefore, is almost always the preferred action to take. Only when we sincerely and respectfully attempt to understand another, but especially an enemy, as well as humbly concede where we might be wrong, do we create the possibility of negotiating a better outcome.

Again, both sides must have a willingness to admit to error and culpability. Each must make concessions and be willing to make change. If both will not, however, then sometimes drastic measures have to be resorted to…but, only out of necessity in order to effect change. Drastic actions, however, as in war, should always be a “last” resort. Too often, it seems we are impatient with the time factor necessary in making lasting change.

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The Change Must Come From Within

It is the same with personal changes you might wish to make in your own life.

Changed forced on you, or imposed too quickly, or coerced by someone with more authority than you, as from the CEO or the manager above you, usually will not work to produce the results anybody wants. Sure, actions imposed might produce immediate change, but long-lasting change will often backfire. For change to be enduring, the motivation within workers must be tapped. Otherwise, the change will have as much lasting effect as the typical resolution made by someone at the start of a new year.

Even your doctor telling you that, unless you stop smoking or lose weight, you are going to develop diabetes or cancer or, worse, premature heart disease is not enough to produce lasting change in you. Enduring change must come from within yourself.

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Change that sticks is change that starts within.
This is where the second vital ingredient comes in.

2. Ingredient Two: The Second Ingredient to Lasting Change is the Pain/Pleasure Factor

I do not remember who said it but I learned just how true it is:

“When the pain of remaining the same is greater
than the pain of making a change,
you will change.”

Lasting change will occur, almost naturally…even spontaneously…with this internal shift in consciousnessb takes place – whatever the subject.  In other words, I learned that when the pain of smoking – which I loved to do for years – became greater than the pain of quitting, I quit.

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I had tried for years to quit but with little success.  I refused to listen to my inner voice warning me time and time again to quit. I had good intentions but I never realized the importance of listening to your inner guide.

That is, until the day I suffered a heart attack.

While I denied it for hours while it was happening, I was not surprised by it at all. My inner voice had been warning me for years.  The shift in consciousness, however, brought on by the heart attack itself, resulted in instantaneous and thorough change. I have never had the desire to smoke again.

Now, it would be better to follow  your inner guide. It will not mislead you. But, if you’re stubborn like me, you had better hope you are lucky like me, too. If it takes something as dramatic as a heart attack, maybe then you’ll experience the shift.  What I know is this: until the shift in consciousness takes place, whatever changes you make will be short lived.

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The Pain/Pleasure Factor

For years, as I describe in my book, The Enoch Factor, I had serious doubts about my faith and many questions about the practices I saw in my organized religion.  For fear of losing my ministerial job, however, I kept most of my doubts and questions to myself. Like too many other religious leaders, I seldom voiced my complaints about my religious establishment. I too infrequently voiced my objections to many of the beliefs my friends said I had to believe in order to be in their group.  So, I said I believed things that I knew in my heart I did not believe and why? I was afraid not to…afraid of being alone…afraid of losing my place in the religious group where so much of my identity had been wrapped up.

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Having lived this way for so many years, I became quite proficient at playacting. I was like a professional, religious actor, auditioning for a part. The only different is that I was auditioning for the approval of others, almost all of whom I was giving way too much control over my life.

Ever made a similar mistake?

The consequence is…you will find a way to fit in, but you will lose yourself in the process. You can hide from others. But you have to sleep with yourself. When you make a whore of yourself, you’ll soon grow tired of yourself.

Trust me, I know

Seems like I read somewhere, too, when Jesus provide a similar warning: “In seeking to save yourself, you actually only succeed in losing yourself” (Luke 9:24).

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Yet, isn’t this the way many people live today?
Is this the way you are living?
For some of you, sure it is. That’s why you’ve stayed with this post all the way to this point. I’m writing about me, but it feels like I’m writing about you.

Here’s the good news.

One day, everything changed for me. Permanently.
I’m pretty sure it could change for you, too. Permanently.

For me, I became excruciatingly tired of seeking to live by the beat of everyone else’s drum. Something in me had shifted. I think it was my father’s untimely death that triggered the start of the shift. It is often out of crisis of death that a needed change is birthed. Again, I tell this whole story in The Enoch Factor. That is, if you’re interested.

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No longer was my attempt to please everyone else just a minor discomfort, it had become a royal pain in my ass. Pardon the bluntness. But it is precisely my point. Earlier, I would never have been so blunt. Why? My position as a religious leader dictated I should never speak so bluntly, especially around proper and “holy” church people. Their spiritual sensitivities might be too easily offended. And, since they’re paying my salary, I must conform to their expectations.

Do not miss my point while stumbling over the word “ass.” You’ve heard worse. One thing I’ve come to know is that even the proper “holy” people, as I pretended they were, said “ass” and many other things regularly themselves. But that’s another story for another time.

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My point is simply, there is of course a place for proper talk. I am being blunt here only as an example. I am hardly suggesting you go about breaking all rules of etiquette. What I am illustrating is just how ill I had become at wasting so much of my life trying to please everybody else and live up to everyone else’s expectations.

And, all for what?

Job security?
A comfortable retirement?
A position of status in my religious community?

Bull! That’s what it all became to me. Bull.

In other words, the pain of remaining the same was suddenly more painful than the pain I had thought about for years that would accompany change. When this inner shift occurred, however, I did change. I left the professional ministry and pursued the life of my dreams.

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That was twenty years ago, almost to the day. I’ve never been happier, freer, or more content for having made permanent changes in my life goals, beliefs, ambitions, and dreams.

When this kind of internal shift takes place in you…

You, too, will change
Permanently.

Until the shift internally occurs, however…
Well, the best you’ll ever be able to do is a…
Resolution.

This post first appeared on Dr. McSwain’s own blog under the title: Change: Making Real, Lasting Changes in Your Life.

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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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