Category: Blogs

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Someone else once said, “A society based on the pursuit of personal happiness cannot survive, only one based on freedom and truth is sustainable…” In a fascinating recent New York Times article: “A Revolution in Happiness”, (7/2/19) the author posits a similar argument, that is, America’s obsessive preoccupation with finding personal happiness is actually leading us into being unhappy. I agree. In spite of the countless self-help books, seminars, sermons and even college courses on how to find personal happiness, the United States rates low in the world on the scale of personal happiness. I sense a quiet desperation in many people, even the most affluent and resourceful. There is a subtle anxiety, a low level joylessness and a yearning for something more, something outside of themselves which can make them happy.

From Jesus’ perspective, there is no happiness without freedom and no freedom without truth. We are living in perilous times in this regard. The “truth” is under assault on many fronts. Our own president has led the assault on truth with constant references to “fake news” and with constantly shifting statements and stories which have little basis in fact and which equivocate, exaggerate and conflate the facts until all people can say is, “I guess we’ll never know what the truth is.” The internet is the megaphone which amplifies the assault on truth and increases its impact exponentially. When truth dies, freedom is the next casualty. Scholars of totalitarian and fascist governments have chronicled this pattern historically. Our response is often to carve out our own little spaces and sanctuaries where we can feel free and in control and to cultivate our own personal little happiness.

An alternative to the quest for private happiness is the quest for what the author of the Times article I mentioned calls “public happiness.” She asserts, in fact, that this is what the Declaration of Independence refers to when it talks about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is in this experience of public happiness, i.e. the common good, that the citizens of a country find their personal happiness. Public happiness was once defined as the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and this is the guiding star that should define good government. In this context, we should conceive of happiness as social well-being, the sum of individuals who achieve health, wealth and security-that the state is called on to produce, increase and protect.

As I celebrate the 4th of July, I find these ideas not only consistent with the founding fathers, but with the teachings of Jesus who always subverted personal happiness to the larger community and especially to those most vulnerable and at risk within that community. Jesus always talked about freedom in the context of truth and said that the very purpose of life was not about our own comfort, security and personal happiness but stewardship, and service. As a Christian, I equate “happiness” with the “abundant life” that Jesus spoke of and if I really understand Jesus, I can’t think of abundance only in individualistic terms, but only as all people, the whole “household of God” share in this abundance.

What Does It Mean to be Truly Rich?

What Does It Mean to be Truly Rich?

The Tao De Ching is a classic 6th Century Chinese book of wisdom and one of the most translated texts in literature. It a brief and brilliant series of chapters of how to live from the mind of the Chinese sage Laozi. Stephen Mitchell has written a beautiful translation of this little book, which I treasure and have read many times and which reinforces many of the biblical principles I hold dearly. The “Tao” in the Taoist religion is loosely translated as the “way.” One of these days I will bring you a sermon entitled “The Tao of Pastor Ken”, which will include some of the life lessons I have gleaned through the years.

Willie Nelson, picked up the Tao theme in his little book, “The Tao of Willie: A Guide to Happiness in Your Heart.” He begins one chapter with one of my favorite riddles: “What is gooder than God and more evil than the devil, that the rich need and the poor have, and if you eat it you will die? The answer, of course, is “nothing!” We live in a culture that always wants to “add value” to make life (and products) worthwhile. We are constantly told that if we just have a little more, get a little more, or add a little more life will be better and we will be happier and more satisfied. Just think, for one $1 we can supersize a fast food meal and add so much more satisfaction (and calories). Someone once asked J.D. Rockefeller how much money it would take to make him happy. His response was, “Just a little bit more.

“From my perspective, most of us already have everything for our lives to be complete and for us to be happy. What do we really need? For most of us the answer is “nothing.” The apostle Paul said that “God has already blessed us with every spiritual blessing.” (Ephesians 1:3) We have enough and we ARE enough. We have already been blessed and forgiven and gifted to live full and flourishing lives. Unfortunately, in a society where everything is monetized and marketed, even the life of the soul, we are often left feeling that our lives are not quite good enough, or that we are not quite good enough. One of the life lessons of the Tao De Ching is that we should accept life as it is, because life as it is, is enough! “To know you have enough”, says the Tao, “is to be truly rich” God help me when I forget how blessed I am. I have so much security and comfort in my life. I have so many people who love and support me. Things go so well for me most of the time. God help me to want the life I have, in-stead of having the life I think I sometimes want which will make me happier.

The Rebirth of Emmanuel

The Rebirth of Emmanuel

Anyone who has watched a childbirth knows there’s no easy way to be born. There’s also no easy way to be reborn, especially for churches. As odd as it sounds, religious institutions seem to be inherently resistant to change and transformation. About five years ago, Emmanuel initiated a strategic, long range planning process and, simultaneously, a search for a Senior Minister who could lead in carrying out the vision. I have just completed four years at Emmanuel. Not everything has gone as smoothly or quickly as we all would have hoped for but there are a number of important things which have happened which I’m very happy about:

– The Chapel and the Peace Lounge: Our beautiful small chapel was restored and has become a beachhead for prayer and meditation. The Peace Lounge, beautifully refurbished 20 years ago by Frank Cocheo, was in need of a facelift. With the help of artist Connie Buckler Gill, the Peace Lounge has become a truly peaceful and joyful place, a central gathering place for fellowship and church and community events.

– The building of a wonderful staff: Jo Marie, John Giresi and the Rev. Arturo Lewis have joined our ministry team along with Pastor Judy Wheeler. They are all outstanding. It’s been a joy to serve with Marek Jura as well. In addition, our regularly scheduled musicians have become a part of our worship team and church family.

– A welcoming congregation: Several years ago the church went public with its “open and affirming” position. We welcome not only persons of the LGBTQ community but an increasingly diverse group of friends and visitors. Our hospitality to all shines!

– Getting the church into the “world” and the “world” into the church. Emmanuel is becoming known as a vital part of the peace and justice community in Bergen County. As well, our outreach programs like “Uncoupling” and our many long standing mission and outreach programs reflect our growing strength as more than just a Sunday morning congregation.

– A 21st century congregation: We now have a high quality audio/video system, an appealing contemporary website and have rebranded our community church as simply “Emmanuel.” We are no longer the best kept secret in Ridgewood.

– A healthier church body: The Apostle Paul talked about “the spirit of unity in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:3) We are now a more unified, and peaceful congregation. We are more patient with each other and our communication skills have improved. Our trust has grown and our leadership has evolved. As your pastor I have felt growing trust and support in my leadership.

In many ways, our church is very lucky and very blessed. If anything good has happened in the last four years, it has been God’s gracious gift. I still want to see many more people find Emmanuel and for our outreach to continue to grow. The world needs Emmanuel!

“That Your Joy May Be Full” – The Gospel of John, Chapters 14-17

“That Your Joy May Be Full” – The Gospel of John, Chapters 14-17

Chapters 14-17 of John’s gospel are some of the most important in the New Testament. These are the last teachings and instructions of Jesus to his disciples before his death. The Gospel of John is unique. It shares little in common in terms of structure and content compared to the other three “Synoptic” gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John’s gospel Jesus is the “logos”, the eternal Word springing forth from the very life of God before time began, arching into the created world and into the arena of time and space; “the word became flesh.” The final chapters also expand on and elaborate the events of the “passion” (Jesus suffering and death) in a way that the three other gospels don’t. They contain the beautiful imagery of the vine and the branches and Jesus call for unity and oneness, not only between him and the disciples but among the disciples themselves so that the world would be convinced of his claims.(17:20-21)

It is the relationship of the disciples and relationships in general, that are the focus of the gospel story. Before there was a Christian Bible, i.e., the New Testament, there was a church. Before there was a book, there was a community, a set of relationships. Jesus prayed for the unity and “oneness” of all people. Great religious traditions (and physics/metaphysics) teach us that separateness is an illusion. We are all connected to a greater reality and connected to each other. This is why Jesus said things like, “As much as you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me.” We could just as certainly say that as much as we’ve done it to the least of these, we have done it to ourselves! We are all inherently connected and so the quality of our relationships is vital to our flourishing not only as a Christian community but as a human community.

Connection and relationships are part of the tapestry of being itself. Martin Buber, the Jewish Philosopher wrote about this beautifully in his classic book “I and Thou.” Human beings cannot be happy and healthy outside of healthy relationships. Our relationships serve as a mirror through which we can see ourselves for who we really are. It’s also true that we not only come to know ourselves but to know God better through authentic, honest and caring relationships. This is the whole point of a Christian community. It’s not that the relationships in a spiritual community are conflict free and void of all the normal, human, ego driven dysfunction that is part and parcel of being a human being, but the goal should always be for the oneness in Christ which more and more bonds our spirits together and makes us one with each other. This must have been important for Jesus to have saved this teaching for the very end of his earthly life. When we read it now, it almost seems like such an ephemeral and out of reach goal for mere mortals to achieve. It is only through the power and presence of the spirit that anything approaching this ideal is achievable. It is only because we have each been made in “the image of God” and share in the very nature of God that it is possible. During our Lenten journey we go deeper, dig deeper and find ways to be more connected with the spirit, with God, with reality and with each other, not just as some narcissistic, spiritualized goal but that “the world” might see the beauty of the unity and be inspired and find hope. Take time in the next few weeks to read John Chapters 14-17. You will be inspired too.

Lent: The Season of Renewal

Lent: The Season of Renewal

Any authentic religion always issues in personal transformation. This is exactly the message of the Easter season, the transformation from “death” into new life, from despair, hopelessness, egocentricity and hatred into joy, abundance and self-giving love. March 6 is Ash Wednesday. Thus begins the start of a season of reflection and introspection leading to Easter day. Sometimes it helps clear our minds if our stomachs are not always full and our physical indulgences not always satisfied and so some people fast. The real point of the Lenten season, however, is not what we give up but what we take on, especially taking on the responsibility of being honest with God and honest with ourselves. Lent is the season when we can look at ourselves with radical honesty and with the radical love and acceptance God has bestowed on us. In actuality, this kind of spiritual reflection is not something for a season but for a lifetime. It is our labor of love and God’s gift to us; the ability to be continually transformed and to use every experience and season of life as a means of receiving God’s grace.

We will have some special gatherings at Emmanuel this year to provide a space for you to make the most of Lent:

March 20 – Wednesday Soup Dinner & Devotion 6-7 pm Peace Lounge

March 27 – Wednesday Soup Dinner & Devotion 6-7 pm Peace Lounge

April 3 – Wednesday Soup Dinner & Devotion 6-7 pm Peace Lounge

April 18 – Community Maundy Thursday service at Emmanuel – – – Simple Supper at 6 pm / Service at 7 pm

Becoming New – by Rev. Arturo P. Lewis

Becoming New – by Rev. Arturo P. Lewis

Matthew 9:16, 17 NIV

16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

We change into something new when we trust that Jesus is able to help us. Trust that together we can do what Jesus teaches, what he calls us to be. Jesus teaches us to put new wine into new wine skins. We are the wine skins and our acceptance of Jesus is the new wine. We can become new. A good place to start is by deepening our intimacy and our dependency on Jesus’ teachings. As our faith grows and we join this with our intellect, and activities, we will find ourselves developing a capacity and abilities to be that new wine skin, that new Christian, that new church. We can help make a wonderful difference in the lives of others. Jesus calls us to be the light in a dark world. This is part of our responsibility as Believers. It is our duty to be new wine skins. When we become new wine skins, we pour our new wine into other new wine skins. We can bring new people into our lives because now we will be able to bring them closer to the Lord. We can bring new people into our church because now that we are the new wine skins with new wine. We will be able to hold them and nurture them just as we’ve been cared for. Our faith, our stories, love and hospitality inform others that they are welcomed and needed right where we are. We can do it because Jesus helps us all to become new.

Don’t Blink, or You’ll Miss 2019

Don’t Blink, or You’ll Miss 2019

It is true, time seems to pass exponentially faster as we age. The weeks run into months, the months turn into years and the years blend into decades. It now takes me several months into the new year before I actually begin writing the correct date for the new year! I will have served at Emmanuel four years in April. I was called to help lead the church into a process of change and transformation and I have to say that the challenge has been even more than I expected. The Northeastern United States is known for its historically low rate of church attendance and Bergen County is no exception. The good news is that we are now beginning to see a returning group of new, diverse and energetic persons into our fellowship. We are also reaching out to the wider community in ways that aren’t directly apparent in the Sunday service. The Uncoupling Group, the Peace and Justice Forum, the Community Pasta Dinner and our mission and outreach programs continue to flourish and expand and help identify our congregation as an open, outward bound, and progressive Christian church. Our new part-time associate minister, the Rev. Arturo Lewis has completed one year of work with us and building bridges with youth and young adults and is working with me planning for 2019.

There are many new persons who need to find the compelling message and caring, inviting community that Emmanuel offers. According to a recent poll cited in the New York Times, even though interest in institutional religion has been decreasing since the 60’s, the search for “peace and well-being” has almost doubled. Yes, human beings have always had and will continue to have a longing for the “transcendent,” or as I call it a “spiritual g.p.s.” which points them to a deeper and more authentic life. I will be looking forward in the coming year to bringing a sermon series on “the spiritual journey” to meet those spiritual seekers at their point of need and interest. As well, we will be experimenting with some new and exciting forms of worship to speak to the needs of our diverse audience.

I am so thankful for my great staff at Emmanuel and for the many gifted lay leaders who do much of the heavy day to day lifting in order to keep things running smoothly. Most importantly I am ever grateful to my wife Connie who supports me and this church whole-heartedly and joyfully makes the sacrifice to be separated from me for many weeks out of the year so I can do the work I feel called to do. I hate to say it but soon I will be writing my year end column for 2019, so don’t blink or you’ll miss the new year. I hope we all can “redeem the time” so that we can make the most of the months that lie ahead. To quote the Psalmist, “May the favor of the Lord rest upon us, and establish the work of our hands, yes establish the work of our hands.”

Advent Reflections – by Pastor Judy

Advent Reflections – by Pastor Judy

The Advent Season has come again when we are invited to make our journey to Bethlehem to see the lovingkindness of the Lord revealed in the baby Jesus in the manger.

This season we rejoice, for Jesus’ coming brings us “good news of great joy.” It brings us peace and hope and light in our darkness.

We can hardly believe that God would be this humble, this self-giving, this vulnerable, in order to be Emmanuel, God-with-us! But such is the depth of God’s love for us. Seeing Jesus in the manger changes our understanding of God completely, for now we see God’s tender mercy, pure compassion, and loving presence as never before.

God has come to dwell with us and in us!

Let us respond with this prayer, in the words of Phillips Brooks who wrote the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

“O holy Child of Bethlehem,descend to us, we pray;

cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;

O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!”

Thankfulness (a devotion by Pastor Arturo Lewis)

Thankfulness (a devotion by Pastor Arturo Lewis)

Rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.  Colossians 2:7

The result of a “Thankful Spirit” is that it has the power to replace…

Anger with Love.

Resentment with Happiness.

Fear with Faith.

Worry with Peace.

The thought to Dominate with the Desire to play on a Team.

Self-preoccupation with Concern for the needs of others.

Guilt with an open heart to Forgive.

Jealousy with Joy for someone else’s success.

Lack of Creativity with Inspired Productivity.

Inferiority with Dignity.

Lack of Love with an Abundance of Sharing.

Don’t fall victim to spiritual amnesia

Don’t fall victim to spiritual amnesia

I’ve long been a fan of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” The program is sponsored by a bunch of fictitious sponsors, including the Duct Tape Advisory Council and Peninsula Shirts. Peninsula makes monogrammed shirts for men and women. Its radio commercial features a couple that has four children and has been married 28 years. Suddenly, the wife realizes something is terribly wrong as she says, “Honey, you never call me by name anymore. Don’t you love me anymore, or have you just forgotten my name? After some awkward moments, it becomes obvious that the husband has, in fact, forgotten his wife’s name, as well as the names of his four children. Then comes the pitch for Peninsula monogrammed shirts: “If only you’d gotten her one of our special monogrammed shirts for her birthday, you’d have that telltale signal right on her front pocket, and you’d never again forget your true love’s name.” “And,” the announcer adds, Peninsula also makes monogrammed underwear for those intimate moments when it would be very, very bad to forget your sweetheart’s name.

In his classic novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells of a village of people who are afflicted with a strange plague of forgetfulness, a kind of contagious amnesia. From the oldest inhabitants to the youngest, everyone in the village forgets the names of everything, even the most common objects. One young man, still relatively unaffected by the epidemic, seeks to minimize the damage by labeling everything in town with a sign. “This is a table, this is a window, this is a cow which has to be milked,” etc. At the entrance of the town, on the main road, he puts two large signs. One reads; “The name of our village Makondo.” The other sign reads: “God exists.”

It seems to me that a strange kind of plague has infected our society as well, a kind of spiritual sleeping sickness of the soul, a kind of “spiritual amnesia.” It is a malady that causes us to forget who God is and who we are in relationship to God. It causes us to act in ways which as if we have forgotten that God even exists. When we forget who we are and whose we are, life loses its meaning and purpose and begins to disintegrate.

A billboard recently caught my attention. It read, simply, “We need to talk. Signed, God.” Whether or not we are attentive to it, or even conscious of it, we all exist in relationship to the divine. I find it increasingly difficult to “define” God, but I am more convinced than ever that at the center of the universe stands a loving inviting, gracious presence, around which all reality finds its unity. This same gracious presence has “hard-wired” us for a relationship, which heals us and sets us free. All this stuff is easy to forget in a society which tends to validate only the material world. It’s our time to remember who we are and “whose we are’” and who God is; The one from whom we came and the one to whom we return.