Monday, April 28, 2014

New Life Downtown

Now that I no longer have the responsibility and the privilege of preaching each week, I have the opportunity to do something that I have been longing to do since I arrived - visit other churches.  Yesterday morning I worshipped at "New Life Downtown".  Not a stone's throw from the First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs (and I mean a 2 year old's stone's throw, as in my 2 year old could throw a stone from First Pres and hit the church, which meets across the street at Palmer High) is New Life Downtown.

Let me begin by saying what a wonderful, Spirit-filled, REAL worship experience it was to be with New Life Downtown.

I should offer some background to my many blog-post readers who do not hail from Colorado Springs. On the far north side of "The Springs" is a mega-church called New Life.  Most national news readers will remember New Life primarily for a scandal that occurred almost a decade ago that involved it's senior pastor Ted Haggart.  New Life today, of course, represents so much more than it's association with one pastor's spiritual fall, but suffice it to say that New Life is large.  The New Life building is so large that it can be seen with the naked eye from outer space.  It's huge.

New Life Downtown is not huge (the Sunday after Easter it had around 500 worshippers).  NLD meets in a high school auditorium.  It's senior and founding pastor (my friend) Glenn Pakiam, is understated and down to earth.  There are no fog machines which spew out a purple haze of mist as the band walks on stage.  There are no special lights.  There is no technicolored power point presentation.  There is not a lot of pomp or circumstance about the service.  The Sunday I attended, a single cross stood in the middle of the high school auditorium, adorned with a simple white grave cloth which draped across it.  Communion was served at the end of the service.  A simple message of hope and reassurance was delivered from the floor, at a bar table and from a stool.  It was wonderful.

Let me try to be more specific about what I found so enriching about this worship experience.  The service had three factors which I think are essential to any church that is seeking to be both spiritually alive as well as evangelically accessible to the outside world.  The New Life Downtown service:

Engaged High and Low;  The English poet John Keats once said that his favorite food combination was "pepper on strawberries."  Several years ago the most popular interior decorating style in America was "shabby/sheek".  Fashion designers in Milan have long attempted to combine denim and silk.  New Life Downtown had both high liturgical features and an effective low modern worship music and style.  Liturgical elements like "The Lord Be With You" "And Also With You" were invoked throughout the service.

Conveyed Warmth and Privacy; The morning greeting time lasted exactly two minutes (I know this because there was a time clock counting down from the front).  Two minutes equals a lifetime for an outsider like me who is in a new social environment.  And yet, in the two minutes of greeting time, five people reached out to shake my hand.  They weren't "in your face" or invasive in any way.  I know that some in the church took stock in my presence, because another friend later in the day asked me, "Were you at New Life Downtown today?".  In other words, my presence as an outsider mattered to them and yet I was able to worship in privacy and in my own spiritual space.

Invoked Authentic Experience; The pastor for the morning (not Glenn) talked about struggles that he had had in his life which helped him to understand deeper spiritual truths.  The message essentially dealt with a series of "inherent barriers" that many believers and non-believers struggle with in life.  A special prayer was offered at the beginning of the service for all graduating high school seniors from Palmer.

I fully believe that the future of all effective worship in the United States (at least for the next 20 years) will incorporate elements of New Life Downtown.  If you attend a church that is in major main-line denomination and is seeking revitalization, take a Sunday and check out NLD's  new and refreshing style.  If you are a part of the mega-church model years of the 1990's (Willow, Saddle), and want to experience the new latest model, go visit New Life Downtown.  If you are an outsider to the faith, and are skeptical of organized religion, be assured that this new model, is, in the end, not so new after-all.  the NLD service was more reflective of the first century Christ-followers who met in catacombs beneath the city of Rome and celebrated "Joy feasts" some two-thousand years ago.  The Spirit of the Lord was, as they say, in both places.

All For Now,

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Monday

Happy Easter!  "What?" you say, "Easter was yesterday.!?! on Sunday, not on Monday."  Well, it just so happens that in many Christian traditions, Easter is not only marked by the third day after Jesus was crucified (Sunday morning), but it is also celebrated on Monday morning.  The Monday after Easter is known in many parts of the world as;

Easter Monday

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, a denomination of Christianity that quite literally has liturgical movements for every aspect of human life, the Monday after Sunday is known as "Bright Monday," or "Renewal Monday."  In Egypt, the Coptic Christians, a sect of Christianity that hails as one of the oldest on the face of the earth, celebrate; "Sham El Nessim," or "the smelling of the breezes."  Although the holiday stems back to at least 2700BC, predating Christ's birth by almost 3,000 years, the day is celebrated as a way to take stock in how life is different after Jesus' life, death and resurrection.  As a dog smells the breeze on a fresh ocean morning (picture above), we smell the breeze of life.  The thought was that one needs to quite literally "smell the breeze" to detect that even the air we breathe is different the day after Jesus' resurrection.  Polish Christians have been celebrating a day called "Dyngus Day," on the Monday after Easter for centuries.  Dyngus is more akin to Mardi Gras, a celebration of life after death, usually recognized by the drinking of many bottles of libation.

What I was thinking about today on this Easter Monday, is what the first Easter Monday must have been like.  The first Easter Monday after the Easter Sunday, in about 33AD.  What was it like to first life in a post-resurection world?  We don't know exactly when Jesus met the disciples in the upper room, but it was likely on Sunday afternoon or evening.  We don't know for sure when the road to Emmaus occurred, whether on Sunday or Monday or later in the week, but we do know that the entire city of Jerusalem and the countryside was abuzz with chatter the Easter Monday after the Easter Sunday.  We know that the word of Jesus' resurrection must have travelled to Rome by the middle of the week (Wednesday), with the aid of a ship or two which would have sailed from the ports of Caesarea, to arrive on the Italian peninsula, and then be carried by horseback rider to the Roman citadels of power.  Rumors would have swirled about the rabbi-prophet named Yeshua, who was said to have actually come back from the dead after being crucified.  Perhaps the news would have been met with skepticism at first (Jesus was not the first rumored resurrection of a fallen, rural, tribal prophet from the sticks of Judea).  The intelligencia and Senators of Rome might have scoffed; "Resurrection of Yeshua…just a nice bit of gossip about a man coming back from the dead.  It's just a murmur  (a Hebrew onomatopoetic word) among the Jewish widows…not really true, but quaint.  Ha Ha!"

Easter Monday

Here's the big question for us.  How do we in the year 2014 experience Easter Monday?  The answer to this question surely boils down to the immediacy and the impact of our experience of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If yesterday (Easter Sunday) was the first time that you learned who Jesus was, how much he loves you, how he died for you, how he loved you enough to come back to life for you, then this day (Easter Monday) has deep significance.  It always will.  You will never forget this day.  Like the day after handing in a final paper for an exam, and receiving an "A" on that paper (but much more portentous), you feel relief today.  Like the day after VE day (Victory over Europe Day), you feel a renewed sense of peace and calm and tranquillity.  If you have been a Christ follower for many years, then this Easter Monday is likely no different than any other Monday.  Perhaps you are able to live in an Easter world; every day is Easter.

For me personally, this Easter Monday has a renewed freshness about it.  It isn't just that I am spending time with family in Sacramento, California, away from the 20 degree (snow filled) skies of Denver airport when I left.  Easter Monday for me today, on April 21, 2014, has possibility in it.  The "breezes" that I am smelling today, are breezes of newness, hope, relaxation, and recuperation.  Maybe my own Easter Monday, full of potential and aspiration is not so different than that first Easter Monday on the road to Emmaus.  Perhaps Easter Monday is what Easter is all about.

All For Now,

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Seeds of Evil

Now that I am no longer writing for an audience of 4,000 congregants, primarily on topics relevant to  church spiritual life, I have a bit more liberty to write about a few of the topics that are have been of interest to me for some time, but I haven't had a chance to reflect on.  This week I want to think for a moment about the topic of evil.  More specifically, I want to reflect very briefly on;

The Seeds of Evil

Evil is a word that is hardly ever used anymore, even in churches.  When the word "evil" is used in popular culture it is often used satirically (e.g.: "that was an evil snowstorm," "the last hole at Augusta is the most evil hole on the course").  But of course, evil is a very real dynamic.  Though the Bible isn't exactly specific about the origins of evil, we know that a snake in the garden was possessed of evil, and helped to promulgate the fall of humankind.  We know that the Bible is specific about the existence of a devil, and that Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, but how the devil exactly came about the Bible is vague about.  Most important, as Christ followers, on this Holy Week monday, we know that Christ conquered all the aspects of evil forever and ever on the cross.  The question I want to ask this morning is, "How does evil grow?" "Why does evil take shape in some people's lives and not others?"  What are;

The Seeds of Evil

I have recently been reading a biography of arguably one of the most evil people ever to live on the face of the earth - Adolf Hitler (the above picture is of Hitler as a child).  Hitler was responsible for the wholesale slaughter of millions of Jews, mentally challenged people, gypsies and vagrants (today we would call "homeless people"), and many others during World War II.  How did Hitler's evil take root?  Where did it come from exactly? It turns out that a quick look at Hitler's personal life reveals a depressingly fascinating recipe (or to carry the metaphor of this piece - bag of seeds) for evil.  Here's a quick bullet pointed list, with some of the seeds of evil underlined for emphasis:

*  Born in Munich in 1914 - in the context of a racist society.
*  There was a fever for war throughout Europe.
*  Hitler was beaten by his father at a young age.
*  Hitler's was abandoned as a youth when father and mother died when he was just 14.
*  Hitler was described as a loner in school, and socially isolated.
*  Hitler was rejected from art school twice.
*  Somewhere along the way, Hitler developed a kind of, "I am special narcissism".
*  Hitler was exposed to and encouraged towards anti-semitism in the hospital in WWI.
*  Hitler was exposed to gas in WWI and suffered mental neurological damage.
*  The remedy they used to cure Hitler of this damage was verbal abuse by therapists.
*  Hitler also experienced "shell shock", today known as PTSD.

This is just a short list of Hitler's upbringing and the context for the early development of his life.  However, if one were to list some of the extreme challenges Hitler faced, it is easy to see some trends and significant factors.  These factors, I believe, could be applied to any individual as a breeding ground or "seed bed" of the potential for evil.  One of them alone would be hard to overcome.  All of them together represent a very dangerous soil for seeds to take root:

*  A culture of violence
*  Traumatic loss
*  Abuse
*  Social isolation
*  Rejection/Shame
*  Narcissism
*  Hatred
*  Neurological Damage

These were the seeds of Hitler's upbringing.  These factors, combined, I believe can function as the garden bed, a richly fertilized soil, where seeds of evil can take root in any individual's life. Now, of course, many people have traumatic loss but do not become Hitler.  Many people were abused by someone close to them but don't turn into "The Furer".  Many people suffer from neurological damage or PTSD and do not commit genocide or terrible atrocities.  However, where you find several of these factors (or seeds) in a person's life, unaddressed or treated, there can be cause for great concern.

As Christ followers, we are called to be aware of the world around us, to understand the factors and the conditions in which we live.  When we see individual's who are more prone to, or have seeds of malfunction or evil, we are called to try to love them, to help turn the abuses around.  Christ followers are called to foster a culture of love not violence, gain not loss, nurture not abuse, fellowship not social isolation, connection not rejection, compassion and not narcissism.  In short, we are supposed to sow;

Seeds of Love!

All For Now,

Monday, April 7, 2014

Snow Falling on Spruces

It is 7:45 in the morning, I am about to take my daughter Haley to school, I am sitting at my desk and I am looking out my home office window, and I am watching

Snow Falling on Spruces...

It is snowing in Colorado Springs on April 7!?!?  "I'm dreaming of a white Easter..."  But mostly I woke up this morning deeply grateful for my incredible journey with First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs which officially ended, as senior pastor, yesterday afternoon.

As the last member of the church made their way through a long receiving line to say goodbye to Star and I, at 2:00PM in the afternoon, I walked out of First Pres, with my pulpit robe thrown over my shoulder with a huge amount of gratitude.  As difficult as a call of the magnitude of First Pres can be, it is not the difficulties that I will take away with me.  My main takeaway will be the memory of a deeply loving congregation who is ardently, and sometimes desperately seeking God's will in their lives.

One exchange from yesterday will remain with me for a long time.  A 93 year old woman, who has been a member of first Pres for over 50 years peered at me from underneath the weight of a back that was bent with osteoporosis and time and said, "Graham, I was around when Howard Hansen (the previous, previous, previous pastor) of First Pres left as pastor.  I was sad then, and I am sad now.  You always reminded me of him.  I will miss you.  And I will see you in the next life."  Then, with the strong smile of a farmers daughter, and the focussed determination of a school teacher she said, "Now, get out of here, know that we love you, take care of that family of yours, and go have some fun!"

It's now 7:53 and I should take my nonagenarian friend's advice.  My daughter Haley needs to get to school before she and I get an "oops" sheet from her teacher.


For this church, this experience, this family, this life...and for...

Snow Falling on Spruces...

All For Now,