Ages of Wisdom


I am again preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for this 1st Sunday after Christmas.
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There is something about today’s readings from the Old Testament (1) and Gospel (2) that strikes a personal chord in my life.

In the Old Testament reading, we read of the twelve-year old Samuel attending to his yearly priestly duties. We must remember that Hannah, Samuel’s mother, had promised God that Samuel would be a servant of the Lord if she would be allowed to become pregnant. Our reading today shows that the prayer was answered and the loan of Samuel to Hannah and Elkanah by God was repaid.

In the Gospel reading for today, we read of the twelve-year old Jesus sitting in the Temple, discussing the Torah and the Law with the elders of the Temple. We remember that when his parents questioned Him about His absence from the family on its return to Nazareth, Jesus responds that He was only going about His Father’s business. At the age of twelve, Jesus is becoming aware of who He is and what He is to do.

I don’t know if either the writer of the two books of Samuel or Luke chose the age of twelve deliberately but somewhere around the age of twelve, a child begins to become aware of his or her surroundings and begins to formulate thinking about their own identity. While the exact age of transition varies from child to child, the world view of the child begins to change around the age of twelve. At that age, most children begin to change from thinking about things concretely or in terms of physical and real things to thinking about things abstractly or in terms of ideas and concepts.

For me, that was certainly the case. We lived in Montgomery, Alabama, when I was twelve. It was there that I made the conscious choice to pursue the God and Country Award in Boy Scouts. I wanted this award because it is one of the few awards in Boy Scouts that is not rank dependent. In other words, you do not have to be a certain rank before you can earn it. And it is an award, which calls upon the individual to make decisions about themselves that will have an impact on their lives far beyond the time of study and work towards the award. If you are going to earn this award, you must make a commitment to Christ.

It was also during those years that we lived in Montgomery (1962 – 63) that I began to become aware of how racism and segregation were intertwined in everyone’s daily life. My brothers and I had already encountered the effects of segregation while visiting our maternal grandparents in Lexington, North Carolina (3). Those effects were transitory because we lived elsewhere in the country, where segregation was present but not as obvious.

But when we moved to Montgomery in 1962, the rules and effects of segregation became a true part of my life. This was the year that George Wallace ran on a platform of states’ rights and segregation and was elected the Governor of Alabama.

I would later have peripheral encounters with Governor Wallace but it was the political ideas that he espoused that were the prevalent thoughts of the day that would begin the changes in my life. Because the law required that all schools be funded equally, no public school received much in the way of funding. Families had to buy the needed textbooks, no matter what grade they were in. If the schools gave the books to the students, the black students would be on the same plane as the white students. And that was just not acceptable policy in Alabama at that time. And if you could not afford the books, new or used, that was your problem, not the schools.
We would move to Colorado in 1963 as we followed my father across the country during his Air Force career but we would come back to Tennessee in 1966 and find that the situation had not changed very much. Money for education was always controlled so that no school received more money than any other school but schools in high income areas always seemed to be better off in terms of support and equipment.

If I cringe when I hear of someone speaking about a 21st century version of states’ rights or if I speak out against inequality, it is because I have experienced first hand what those words truly mean. And I see those attitudes still present today.

Though Governor Wallace later recanted his segregationist beliefs, there are still those in Alabama who hold to the concept of states’ rights and the oppression of some for the betterment of others. Income taxes begin at $4,600 and top out at 5% on income levels as low as $12,000. This makes the Alabama income tax a flat tax and the only ones that benefit from this are those with higher incomes. Alabama also allows its citizens to take a full deduction for federal taxes, again a benefit for only those with higher incomes.

To make up for lost revenue, local governments are allowed to add to the state’s 4% sales tax. In some of the poorer counties of Alabama, sales taxes run to almost 10% (and we hear complaints about the sales taxes up here in New York). The sales tax in Alabama is the highest in the nation and does not exempt even the most basic necessities such as food. Property taxes in Alabama are the lowest in the nation and are generally one-third the national average. Timber acreage is taxed at less than a dollar an acre. With seventy-one percent of Alabama covered in timber, the timber industry has a powerful say in the state government. Though the income tax and property tax are among of the lowest in the country, there is a tax on just about everything else. Put together, taxes in Alabama put an unfair burden on the lowest income groups and allow the richest in the state to avoid paying any taxes at all. People who own 71 percent of the property pay less than 2 percent of the property tax in the state of Alabama. And if you are paying for schools or healthcare from your property tax revenue, where is the money coming from?

Yet, when reform of the tax structure in Alabama was proposed in 2003, it was the modern day Pharisees and Sadducees of Alabama, the Christian Coalition of Alabama that opposed the reform. While these modern day Pharisees fought to keep the Ten Commandments on the walls of the courthouses of Alabama, they fought to keep the principles of Christ, of caring about the poor and the needy from being the policy of the state of Alabama. It may be 2006 but everything I read made it seem like it was still 1962 or even earlier.

I see today, as we prepare for the coming New Year, a nation that consistently fails to learn from its past. I find a nation and a people who have stopped learning. Oh, we still go to school but the support for our schools seems to be declining each year. While some schools may have up-to-date equipment and pay some of the highest salaries in their area, there are other schools which do not have even the basic equipment and struggle to find qualified teachers. We speak of learning when we are really speaking of testing. We are more interested in trivial facts than we are in the analysis of ideas.

One of my Christmas presents was a book that discussed President John Kennedy’s speeches. I found most interesting the assertion by the authors of this book that there probably will never be another President like President Kennedy. It wasn’t so much that we would not allow his personal flaws and medical problems to be covered up as there were some forty-six years ago but rather that he was the last President to speak in literate paragraphs with references to history. He expected those who heard his speeches to understand those references and to understand what he was saying. He did not expect people to always agree with what he said but he did think that those who heard his words should understand them. President Kennedy’s words could not be reduced to sound bites or jingoism; his thoughts were not simple statements easily forgotten but ones that dwelt in our minds and challenged us to think before acting.

Ours is a society where the sound bite rules; where quick snippets of short, witty sayings count more than detailed or thoughtful discussions. James warned us in his letter to beware of those who speak with a quick tongue, for it leads to and causes nothing but trouble. Our lack of wisdom, our desire for the quick and simple answer also leads us away from the church.

Today’s church, in a desperate attempt to answer the questions of the people who come, is not always willing to demand that the people show some wisdom. Many churches today are willing to be ruled by the ways of society. Our society has turned everything into a commodity. So churches have turned the Gospel into one as well. To make church more palatable we have reduced the Gospel to a minimalist set of slogans and techniques. We have pared the Gospel message down to a short message that can fit onto a bumper sticker, letting the consumer be the judge of what can be demanded, said, and expected in the name of Jesus.

We are a nation which has forgotten that for a society to move forward, it must learn. Jesus understood that He must go about His Father’s business if He was to fulfill His own mission some twenty years later. It is noted at the end of the Old Testament reading that Samuel continued to grow in stature and favor with the Lord. In a few verses, Samuel will hear the voice of God but will not understand who it is that is calling. It will be his mentor, Eli, who will teach Samuel to listen to the words and understand that it is God that is calling.
Barbara Wendland is a United Methodist lay person from Texas who publishes a monthly newsletter of her thoughts. In her January newsletter, she has several comments about the traditions of the church. She is not opposed to the traditions of the church; they are what make the church. But she points out that many people today still cling to those traditions, especially in light of a need for new traditions and new ways to express the Word of God in today’s society.

The problem today is that the ways that some people say are the new ways are not the result of thinking and analysis but rather a measure of mass marketing. The words of many pastors today are not a reasoned analysis of the Gospel or Jesus’ actions but rather an attempt to transform Jesus’ words of service and sacrifice into words that put individuals before others.

It is clear, when you read the Gospel message that Jesus has no interest in meeting our material needs. Rather, He appears intent upon giving us needs we would not have had, had we not met Him. He speaks of severance from some of our most cherished values so that we may gain what we do not have. But we rebel at this message for it means that we give up what we truly cherish, motherhood, family and self-fulfillment.

We would rather hear words that make life easier, put a little lilt in our voice, a bit more sunshine in our lives. We like the blandness found in much of today’s spirituality because it does not call for us to do anything.

William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and a major author in Methodism, once preached at a church that tried to make its services “seeker sensitive”. Such churches often remove the historic Christian metaphors and images, such as the cross. The music, as Dr. Willimon reports, is “me, my and mine.” (4)

The cross is often removed from such services or seeker-sensitive oriented churches because it reminds the congregation of Christ’s suffering or death and it makes them feel uncomfortable. The cross is often seen as an impediment, a turn off or it gets in the way of our attempt to reach people with the Gospel.

The noted Baptist minister, Tony Campolo, noted that
… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (5)
It appears that Christianity in America is a different sort of religion from what it was meant to be. It is one in which people can live their own lives, not one in which they seek the one given to us by Christ.

While we need to reach out to the seekers and younger generations, we will fail if we do it with slick marketing techniques. We must constantly remember that what people seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, people cannot find what they seek.

If we do not put in the cross, if we do not mention the pain Christ will endure, then the Gospel becomes meaningless. It is an example of our dangerous willingness to reach the world at any cost. The trouble is that if the world ever gives the church a real hearing, we, as the church, will find that without the cross, we have nothing significant to say in return.

Of course, in this day of quick learning and minimal thought, you have to wonder why more people do not stay away from church. Jesus didn’t say that His was the way for nine out of ten who heard His words. He wasn’t saying that His was the truth we think we wanted or His discipleship was the life we seek. Clearly, Jesus spoke words that often went against the desires and needs of the crowds.

People came to hear Jesus back then because what He said was the truth. Those who could not stand to hear the truth left; those who sought easy answers or quick riches left. But those that stayed knew that in Christ there was a hope and a promise not found on earth or in earthly possession. People were willing to pay the price that would ensure them what they truly desired.

We are reminded today that wisdom, as described in Proverbs 1: 20 – 33, mocks those who do not seek it. But despite all we might say, ours is a society in which wisdom is not sought or desired. Too late, we have discovered that rather than the Gospel message transforming the world, the medium has transformed the message. Evangelism is now measured by the feelings of good engendered in the congregation. In a society where everything is a commodity, the value of a church service is measured by what is gained from spending one or two hours in church every Sunday.

The Gospel message requires understanding, not a reduction to a short sound bite. It requires study and thought; it cannot be done by simply writing down what the pastor says. I would have a hard time being one of the modern day preachers that you see on television today. I would have a cross on my altar, not a world globe or a dove. I would demand that people listen to the words being spoken, not just simply write them down.

I would be like Paul, encouraging the people of the various churches that he founded and helped to grow. I would remind them about Christ and the role of Christ in their lives. I would remind them that they, those who have chosen to follow Christ, were the examples for others to learn from. I would remind them of what the Cross meant two thousand years ago and what it means today.

It is important that we remember Paul’s words to the people of Colosse (6). It is important that we continue to treat each other as Christ treated each one of us. It is important that we lead lives that speak of the peace of Christ that is in our lives. We must also remember that Paul included the word “teach”, not in passing but in the way we are to live.

As the old year ends and the new year begins, as we look forward to the new while we remember the past, we must look to the wisdom of the ages and use that wisdom to insure that we have ages to come. We are reminded today of the words of the classic Isaac Watts hymn, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”. Though the title and first stanza speak of the past, the second stanza speaks of God being our help for years to come. We are challenged, as was Samuel and no matter how old we are, to continue learning and growing in the eyes of the Lord.

(1) 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26
(2) Luke 2: 41 – 52
(3) “Lexington, North Carolina”
(4) “It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003
(5) Tony Campolo as quoted in Christian Week magazine and reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03
(6) Colossians 3: 12 – 17

Does It Matter?


Here are my thoughts for this Christmas Day, 25 December 2006
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Today is Christmas Day. But that doesn’t seem to matter when the news of the day focuses on deaths in a war half around the world. It doesn’t seem to matter that today is Christmas when we read of churches about to split apart because of differences in how we treat people. It doesn’t seem to matter when the lead financial stories seem to be how people are spending million dollar bonuses on fast cars and multi-million dollar houses. It doesn’t seem to matter when the sermon at last night’s Christmas Eve service was about the love and redemption that began in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago but the people complained because they didn’t sing the traditional Christmas carols.

But every story that seems to take away from the Christmas story gives further evidence that the Christmas story does matter. Every time a person puts their own interests before the interests of their friends, their neighbors, or the person they pass by on the way to work is another reason why the Christmas story matters.

We need not go out into the world and chastise people when they act in a manner that shows disrespect for God. There have been those who have sought to do this in the past. They were the forerunners to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes of Jesus’ day. They are still present today, using incomplete quotes in the Bible to justify hatred, exclusion, and ignorance. As their hearts harden, their voices seem to get louder and it gets harder for each of us to hear the truth.

But we remember that the first to hear that the Savior was born were the shepherds, the lowliest of society. So it does matter that today is Christmas because we know that the story is the same for all and it offers proof that God cares for all, not just some. We remember that the shepherds left and became the first to tell the world that the Savior had been born. We remember that the wise men came because they sought the truth. They found the truth in a little child and they returned home via a different road because their encounter with the baby Jesus changed their lives. So it does matter that today is Christmas and that Christ was born this day so that we might win over sin and death.

And, it should matter that tomorrow, when all the trappings and decorations of the season begin to be taken down and every thing returns to normal, we do not return to normal. Through our lives, through what we do, what we say, and how we treat others that we come into contact with each day, we will show that Christmas and the birth of Christ continue long past December 25th. We are the ones who heard the angels singing this year; we are the ones who saw the star in the East and followed it this year; we are the ones who came to the manger this year. So we are the ones who will take the Christmas message out into the world tomorrow. Does it matter that today is Christmas? Most certainly, it does. But it will only matter if you don’t forget it tomorrow.

Words of Christmas


I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY, tomorrow. We will be lighting the 4th Advent Candle at the beginning of the service, celebrating communion during the service and lighting the Christ Candle as part of the benediction. Dover Plains is on the edge of part of the Catskill region of New York. The Benediction for tomorrow will be something on the order, "having heard the Words of Christmas, now Go Tell It On The Mountain" (the congregation will sing).
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It is with some degree of sarcasm that I say that the three most dreaded words of Christmas are “some assembly required.” It isn’t that we dread assembling the toys or items that we bought at this time of year that causes the dread; it is reading the instruction or interpreting the diagrams that accompany our purchases. It seems so often that it takes an advanced degree with additional post-doctoral study to understand and comprehend what must be done.

The same is true for the words and rituals of the sacrifices that the writer of Hebrews alludes to as he writes down the words of Christ. (Hebrews 10: 5 – 10) The writer points out that Christ came to serve as the one true sacrifice because the words and rules dealing with sacrifices had become too complicated. Instead of bringing people to God, the words and rules were driving people away from God. It is for that reason that Christ came into this world, to bring the people back to God.

I sometimes wonder if today is not much different from two thousand years ago. We see darkness enveloping our society just as darkness envelopes the world. We search for simple answers to complex questions. And the churches of today give answers that sound simple but do not answer the questions we ask.

In the darkness that seems to be our life, we readily accept the answers that we are given. But when we read those words again in the light of knowledge, we read words of fear and exclusion. We hear the innkeeper saying “go away, my inn is full.” We hear churches today say the same thing, “go away, we’re full.” We hear churches today say, “Go away, you’re not our kind.” These are not the words of Christmas; these are not the words of hope and promise that we seek.

The words of Christmas must be and should be words of hope, joy, and promise. The words of Christmas should not drive people or keep people from the church; the words of Christmas should bring them in.

We do not know what Elizabeth and Zacharias said when they first discovered that Elizabeth was pregnant. But, since Luke wrote that Elizabeth had been barren (Luke 1: 7), we can only assume that they were words of amazement and wonder. We do know that Mary’s words were also words of amazement and wonder when she discovered that she was pregnant. But we also know that she was troubled by this event. We can only imagine what her neighbors said. Mary was betrothed to Joseph and to be pregnant before the actual marriage was a sign of infidelity. Any words that her neighbors spoke would probably have been words of abuse and ostracism; they would have been words of hate and fear. Mary would have easily been shunned by her community and cast aside in disgust.

Even Joseph first thought in those terms. As we read in Matthew, Joseph was first inclined to divorce Mary for her apparent violation of the marriage agreement. (Matthew 1: 19) The rules and words of society at that time would easily allowed Joseph to cast marry aside and let words of shame follow the rest of her life.

But the first words spoken by the angels who visited Elizabeth, Zacharias, Mary, and Joseph were “fear not, for I bring good news.” God spoke to each one of them and told them that what was to come was a great and wonderful thing, not something to be feared or ashamed. Joseph, who was described as a righteous man, resolved to stand by his betrothed. Elizabeth marveled at the grace that allowed her a role in God’s great plan. She knew that God owed her nothing and that God had mercifully given her much. (Luke 1: 41)

And as noted in the Gospel reading for today (Luke 1: 39 – 45), the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt in joy when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting. How can the words of Christmas be anything less than joy and praise? As we lit the fourth Advent candle this morning and read the Psalter for this morning, we repeated the words of Mary as she sang of joy and hope. Her words are the true words of Christmas, of hope and promise for all, not just for a select few.

And we remember the first words that were said to the shepherds in the fields outside the city of Bethlehem. Shepherds were among the lowest of society; yet they were the first to hear the words announcing the birth of Christ. And like the angels who spoke to Elizabeth and Zacharias, Mary and Joseph, the angels’ first words to the shepherds were “fear not.”

The words of Christmas take away fear; they bring forth joy and hope. They are words for all, not just the mighty and powerful. Micah pointed out that the hope of the nations would come from the smallest of the tribes, not the biggest. The hope and promise of the future is seen in terms of the coming Messiah, not in the words of the present (Micah 5: 2 – 5). The words of Hebrew also tell us that the present order, that which we have tried to do in order to achieve salvation, would be replaced by Christ’s sacrifice.

So, we come to the table this day remembering what transpired in the Upper Room that last night before Good Friday. We remember the words of Christ telling us that the bread that we eat today represents the body of Christ, broken on the Cross for our signs. We remember the words of Christ telling us that that juice of the vine that we drink today represents the blood of the new covenant, poured out for all who believe. As we celebrate communion today, we remember that complicated and complex rules of the old days are replaced; the words of fear are replaced with words of hope and promise.

And when we light the Christ candle in the Advent wreath during the benediction, we will remember the words of John who told us some two thousand years ago that God so loved us that he gave us his only Son. The words of Christmas are words of love, hope, and promise. As we celebrate the birth of Christ again this year, let us remember that and go out into the world with the words of Christmas.

Words of Hope


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.
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I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Advent comes at the darkest part of the year. For many, this time of year is dark, not only in terms of sunlight but also in personal terms. To hear the words of hope offered by John the Baptist and the prophet Zephaniah is to hear that the darkness that envelopes ones life is only temporary.

Zephaniah is writing at one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history. The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed over 100 years before Zephaniah began writing his prophecy. The southern kingdom of Judah had suffered under the wickedness of Manasseh and Amon. To the people, the evils of their reigns made doom appear certain. Though Josiah led a revival that affected all of Judah, it only delayed the invasion of Babylon in the mid 6th century B.C.E.

Zephaniah first proclaimed the day of doom and did so in the darkest of terms. But, in the passage that we read for today (1), he offers a blessing for future glory that is as bright a picture as the doom he foretold was dark. This prophecy offered words of hope for those who truly know God. Zephaniah promises us that even God will sing in these new days of hope.

But for this to happen, the people must turn back to God. Those who listen to his call for repentance and respond, the good news will wipe out every piece of bad news. These are the same words that John the Baptist uses in his call for repentance.
Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; to repent is to change one’s life, to renounce the past and begin anew. In today’s New Testament reading (2), the people ask John what they should do. These are not questions about repentance but rather questions about their new life. Repentance means nothing if your life remains the same. Our preparation for Christ’s coming in this world is seen by the manner in which we treat others. If we choose to ignore others, then our act of repentance was meaningless.

In his letter to the Philippians for today (3), Paul challenges them not to worry about what is happening in this world but, rather, trust in God and give Him thanks. This is because there has been some sort of disagreement between two members of the church and the disagreement is threatening to disrupt the attitude of love that had been a distinctive part of the church. We are not told what the disagreement is about, though we are told who the participants are.

I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement, also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. (4)

How we treat others will always be the way others know that we have changed our lives and made the decision to follow Christ. When Jesus was with His disciples and followers following His resurrection, He told them that the signs of His presence were around them. When they asked how, Jesus pointed to the sick, the needy, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed, and those who society would rather ignore. It is how we treat others that will tell the world that Christ is in our lives. To treat those whom society would rather throw away is to say to all that hope is present in this world.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul points out that it is important that we focus on our relationship with God, especially in times of strife and stress. God will hold to the covenant; it is up to us to do so as well. When Zephaniah spoke of the doom that was to come, it was because the people had forgotten their relationship with God. In calling for the people to repent and begin anew, John is also speaking of the relationship that one has with God.

As these days become shorter and darkness seems to readily enfold everything around us, we hear words of hope. We hear Zephaniah speak of the lost coming home, the lame walking, and the outcast welcomed. We hear John telling us that the Messiah is coming. We hear God singing and we hear the words of hope.

We also hear that we cannot simply wait for hope to become a reality. We must take the words of hope and write them on our heart. We must take the words of hope and use them to change our lives. And in these changes, by our words, our thoughts, and deeds, we offer hope to those around us so they will also know that even though the days are dark, there is a light of hope coming to this world.

We hear the words of hope today. We leave with those words of hope so that others may hear them as well.

(1) Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20
(2) Luke 3: 7 – 18
(3) Philippians 4: 4 – 7
(4) Philippians 4: 1

My Top Posts for 2006


Here are my five top posts for 2006:
1) “Maybe We Should Study War More Often” – This was in response to what I wrote about war and what we should do.
2) “Study War No More” – my thoughts on the Fourth of July weekend about war.
3) “What Have We Learned?” – thoughts on wisdom, knowledge, and learning
4) “Where Is God?” – finding God in worship and life
5) “Are You Coming or Going?” – This was part of a trilogy about the role of Christians in war time (the first two are #1 and #2 on this list).
“What Do We Say?” – this was my sermon at Edenville UMC the Sunday after the tragic shooting of the Amish school children.

Who Is The Messenger?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Advent
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Recently, on some of the Methodist Blogs that I read there has been a discussion prompted by the question, “What is an evangelical?” (1) I commented,
“. . . that where does spreading the Gospel come into play in the discussion? To me, an evangelical is one who spreads the Gospel. The root word for evangelical comes from the Gospel and I think that is where the discussion must focus.” (2)
Jason replied,
“. . .you bring up what may be another discussion, which focuses on what evangelicals do (which would be much harder to pin down in my opinion!). My purpose was to lay out doctrinally what I think evangelicals believe.” (3)
In following up the idea about doctrine and what evangelicals believe, Andy Bryan wrote,
There are some people for whom theology is a set of propositions to which one may subscribe. If you subscribe to one set of propositions, you are a Christian. If you subscribe to another, you are Jewish. If you subscribe to another, you are a Muslim. And so forth. Even agnosticism and atheism fit in nicely here, as the subscription to their own respective sets of propositions about God.
For a Christian who has this mindset, evangelism seems to be a rather rudimentary process of comparing sets of propositions and ascertaining which set is “right” and which set is “wrong,” and convincing people to subscribe to the “right” one. The “right” set of propositions is almost always the set held by the one doing the evangelizing, which makes the set of propositions held by the object of evangelism, by definition, “wrong.”
So, the evangelist starts off telling their target, “You are wrong; I am right. The only way for you to get right with God is to stop subscribing to your set of propositions, which are wrong, and adopt mine, which are right.” (4)
Now, as suggested by my original thought, I think that being evangelical is more about what one does than what one thinks. I also do not think that one can have a conservative mindset when it comes to being evangelical. If we say that being evangelical is being committed to the spreading of the Gospel, that is, the spreading of the Good News, then we are in agreement with what Jesus said the day He began His ministry,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (5)
Of course, you have to believe in this statement in order to make it true but this is a statement of action, rather than just a statement of belief.
The Gospel message is a message of bringing hope to the poor; it is a message of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry; it is about being a voice for those oppressed and without a voice. It is also a message telling others about the personal relationship with God that can be obtained through Jesus Christ. But it is not about forcing a message of any kind down the throats of others.
The thing is that when you say that you are an evangelical, or for that matter, a Christian in today’s society, it is automatically assumed that you are also a conservative. To say that you are a liberal is to say that you have no religion or that you are not willing to publicly acknowledge your faith. And try as I might, I cannot figure out how that is possible.
There is, I believe, no contradiction between the nature of the Gospel message first put forth by our Savior, Jesus Christ, and the nature of being a liberal. To be a liberal is to bring hope to the individual, to the person lost in the shuffle of big business and big government. It is about insuring fairness and equality for all, insuring that all get an equal opportunity to succeed. It is about being able to provide the basic necessities of life without struggle. If we are not mistaken, these are the same basic aspects as the mission statement first put forth by Jesus Christ some two thousand years ago.
Unfortunately, most liberals have forgotten that it is the individual that they should be supporting and they have paid the price for this forgetfulness. But while conservatives say they are for the individual, they do little for most individuals, favoring the rich and powerful.
Conservative religious leaders are correct when they say they are following the Bible. But instead of following what Jesus would do, they are following what the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the scribes were doing. Then, the majority of the political and religious leadership condemned Jesus for eating with sinners; they judged people without willing to be judged themselves.
Read what these major conservative Christians have done over the past few years. They have condemned Tony Campolo, a noted Baptist minister and evangelical, for ministering to President Clinton. They condemned Rick Warren for inviting Senator Barack Obama to a conference on AIDS because Senator Obama supports abortion. They presume to say that they speak for God and tell us that God has chosen President Bush. Time and time again, leading conservatives have shown that their place in the Bible is among those who condemned and persecuted Christ, not along side Jesus in his ministry.
Let me take this moment and state that I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and I have accepted Him as my one and personal Savior. I also believe that there are a set of beliefs that you must have in order to build a foundation for your faith.
But this is where I probably separate myself from many people. My beliefs are what I build upon, that which makes my faith stronger. I think today that too many people try to use their beliefs in order to build walls around them. And while such walls are meant to protect one from the outside, they also lock you inside a structure and you cannot interact with the outside world.
Do I believe that the Bible is the Word of God? Yes. But do I believe that the words in the Bible are inerrant and fixed? No. When you start critically reading Genesis and you finish Genesis 1 and begin Genesis 2, you find that there are two creation stories. So you begin your study with contradictory stories and you have to realize that these are words that mankind has written to explain to others who God is and what God does.
This, of course, means that I do not accept the viewpoint of many concerning creation. The earth was not created in seven days and the world is not less than 8,000 years old. I am reminded by the Gospel for today (6) that God’s power and his work are readily seen.
Have you ever seen a valley filled, a mountain made low, and crooked made straight? (7) I have.
The Appalachian Mountains are both a thing of beauty and a barrier to advancement. Stretching from northern Georgia into Maine, these mountains blocked easy passage from the thirteen colonies into the undiscovered heartland of this newly discovered continent.
This is not to say that there weren’t ways to get around or through the mountains. On the boundary between Virginia and Kentucky is a ten-mile wide gap in the mountains best known as the Cumberland Gap. This natural opening in the mountains was known to the Indians of the area and then used by Daniel Boone as he moved into Kentucky, developing the Wilderness Road from the gap to Boonesboro, KY.
The next such gap in the hills is about 100 miles north of the Cumberland Gap and is known by the town which is close by. This is Pound Gap and marks another passage through the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia into Kentucky. I first became aware of Pound Gap when I moved into the area to teach chemistry at the local community college in that part of Kentucky. At that time, in 1998, the Kentucky and Virginia Departments of Transportation were in the process of rebuilding the roads coming down from the northeastern corner of Kentucky and splitting into highways going into Virginia and Kentucky.
If you happen to visit Pound Gap, and it is a place that I recommend, you will be impressed by the wonderful beauty of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and eastern Virginia. It is even possible on a clear day, to see the presence of New York on the far northeastern horizon. And on the northern edge of Pine Mountain, you will see where the covering has been stripped from the granite underpinning, showing the natural history and numerous rock layers that have shaped this part of the country. Geologists from the world over come to Pound Gap to see the layers of rock laid down over the countless billions of years that it took to form the Appalachian Mountains. (8)
It did not occur to me until one day as I was coming down from a meeting north of Whitesburg that I realized that my first visit was not in 1998 but rather back in 1987 when I drove from central Ohio down to Jacksonville, Florida. As I compared the road that I was driving back then to the one I drove almost weekly during 1998, I received a very clear impression of what it meant in the scripture for the valleys to be filled, the mountains and hills made low, and the roads to be straightened. As noted in some of the publicity about the project, this was one of the most massive earth removal projects in the history of road construction.
In 1987, as I was driving up the side of Pine Mountains, the road was a series of switchbacks and since it was after dark, I could see the front lights of the cars in front of me above me. Yes, above me! But, in 1998, all of those curves and rises in the highway had been stripped away and the valleys filled to bring a more gradual straight drive up to the split in the roads, which then went down the respective sides of the mountain.
It has often been noted that straightening roads or filling valleys requires a great deal of effort. And that was certainly the case for the redesigning of Highway 19 through Pound Gap. But as you see the cuts on the side of the mountain detailing the history of this world, you can begin to gain an appreciation of the complexity of God’s work and why it is so hard to understand what He has done.
Now, some might say that the multiple layers of rock that you see on the northern face of Pine Mountain are a result of the great flood. But the problem is that the other evidence, such as the dating of the rocks, shows that it took several steps and several million years to accomplish. If, as some might say, this evidence is wrong, then how is it wrong? Have scientists continued making the same mistake over the course of their work? Or has God “played” with the data so as to cover up the actual age of the rocks, so that we cannot find the truth? Neither of these two scenarios is quite likely. What is likely is that we are seeing a process that is overwhelmingly complex and when we try to explain it, we do in simpler terms. The story of the creation (either story) is not about the physical formation of the universe and the earth but rather an explanation of God’s presence in our lives and it should be understood that way. And it should also be understood that no matter how the earth was created and life on this planet has evolved, science will never answer the question about why it was done?
The battle over evolution and creation are, it seems to me, an attempt by conservative Christians to seek an environment where open scientific inquiry is stifled. They would rather tell someone who God is rather than have individuals discover God for themselves. Free inquiry in science does not prevent people from finding or believing in God; rather it promotes the notion of faith and knowledge.
Being evangelical is being committed to the notion of promoting faith and knowledge. It is not done by forcing others to believe what one believes or by proclaiming that the only path to truth is the one that you have followed; it is by showing that there is truth in the Gospel message and that such truth is available to all.
Look at what Paul writes to the Philippians for today. (9) Is he not commending the Philippians for their sharing of the Gospel? Is he not commending them for showing how the love of Christ moves beyond the boundaries of the community? If we hold to a set of beliefs that serve more as a wall to protect us, it is impossible for us to share what we believe. If we hold to a set of beliefs that serve as walls, then others cannot easily be a part of our community. And I think that is what Paul is telling us today. Unless we are willing to share what we believe, unless we are willing to show that we live by the way that we believe, our efforts to bring the Gospel message to the world will be futile.
The prophet Malachi spoke of a messenger preparing the way, of someone who would speak of the coming Messiah. For us, that passage tells us of the coming of John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the wilderness, crying out for each of us to repent of our sins and prepare for the coming of Christ.
But who is that messenger today? Who brings forth the Good News that Christ is a part of our lives. There is still a need for a call to repent but it should be made with an understanding that there is also a call to begin a new life in Christ as well.
Who is it that will make this call? Who shall be the messenger today? Who shall offer words of hope and bring forth the light that is Christ? We know of those who have encountered Christ in the past and through him received the hope and the assurance that there was a life beyond the boundary of death. We know that those who believe in Christ find a life that has opened up for them a way to ultimate fulfillment. These witnesses have found that the valleys have become filled, the mountains laid low, and the crooked paths set straight. We know that these witnesses have encountered Christ and we know that their lives have changed. We know this because we are those witnesses.
And because we are those witnesses, it is our task to do the same today and project our faith through what we say and do into our time. Who are the messengers today? We are the messengers.
(1) http://post-methodist.blogspot.com/2006/12/what-is-evangelical.html
(2) See note 1 – comments for 4 December 2006
(3) See note 1 – comments for 4 December 2006
(4) From http://entertherainbow.blogspot.com/2006/12/heads-youre-right-tails-im-wrong.html
(5) Luke 4: 18 – 21
(6) Luke 3: 1 – 6
(7) Luke 3: 5
(8) You can go to http://strata.geol.sc.edu/Appalachian/AppalachianTrip.html to see pictures of the side of Pine Mountain at Pound Gap.
(9) Philippians 1: 3 – 11

YOU KNOW YOU’RE A UNITED METHODIST IF:


You don’t take Rolaids when your heart is strangely warmed.
You know that a circuit rider is not an electrical device.
“The Upper Room” is as essential to your bathroom as the toilet paper.
You sit while singing “Stand up, stand up for Jesus.”
You’ve ever sung a gender-inclusive hymn.
Tithing is encouraged but widely ignored.
The word apportionment sends a chill down your spine.
Your church is named for a geographical location rather than for a saint.
Your pastor moves every four or five years and you like that.
Your congregation’s Christmas pageant includes both boy and girl wise men.
You know that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral isn’t a trick football play involving four lateral passes.
You realize that the Book of Discipline is not meant to help raise children
Your annual conference spends most of its time debating resolutions that nobody reads.
You’d rather be branded with a hot iron than serve on the Nominating Committee (or SPRC, Trustees, Finance, etc.) You’re asked to donate money to a “special offering” every other Sunday.
When the worship service lasts for more than one hour, the beeping of watch alarms drowns out the final hymn.