A New Beginning


Here are my thoughts for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Reformation Sunday.  I am preaching at Dover UMC, Dover Plains, NY this Sunday.

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I recently completed reading Brian McLaren’s new book, “Everything must change.” It is an interesting book and I would encourage everyone to read it. What he writes speaks volumes about the future of Christianity and the church in its various denominational forms.

McLaren is associated with the post-modern or emergent church movement of today. This is the “new” label that is applied to churches today in an effort to show the public that church is “hip” or connected with the times. I have not quite figured out what exactly post-modern or emergent churches are, except that it is somehow a new form of worship. I sometimes get the impression that if you have a coffee shop associated with the church or if the church is associated with a coffee shop, then it qualifies as an emergent church. I think that the church and Christianity is much more than that.

The problem is that we often do not know what Christianity is or what the relationship of the church to Christianity really is. When I read and reviewed (http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/06/11/it-is-no-secret/) McLaren’s previous book, “The Secret Message of Jesus”, I was initially confused. What was the secret that McLaren was trying to tell us about? After all, everything that he wrote in that book was perfectly clear to me and I could not see how the message that Jesus brought to us two thousand years ago could be considered a secret. But, and this is a big but, when you hear the message of so many preachers and ministers today, you begin to understand why the message is a secret.

The primary message of many churches today is not the message that was presented some two thousand years ago. It has been subverted, distorted and hidden. The message of the church today has no relationship to the words Christ spoke in the hills of Galilee. The message brought forth today is no longer a message of hope and promise but condemnation and exclusion.

The message of the Bible is timeless; it is neither frozen in time nor does it bend with the thoughts and processes of society. Fundamentalists see God’s word as frozen in time and its message can only be interpreted in one way. Today, when someone says that they speak for God or they know what God wants us to hear, the chances are that they are only speaking for themselves and using the message of Christ for their own self-interest and selfish goals.

The image of the public church is described in today’s Gospel message. (Luke 18: 9 – 14) You have the Pharisee who comes to the temple and prays what I call the “self prayer.” He is not asking forgiveness for what he has done but rather justification. He has no concern for anyone other than himself. On the other hand, the tax collector recognizes that he is not worthy and he seeks forgiveness. The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him; the tax collector stands in the shadows, embarrassed to be there.

I came to the conclusion many years ago that the primary threats to the church were really not the people in the shadows but, rather, those modern day Pharisees who hold their lives up as exemplary and beyond reproach. I saw and continue to see those who see the church as their own personal showcase, places where they can laud their status and power over others.

I am not alone in this view of the public church. As I noted in my blog (http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/10/13/the-lost-generation/) two weeks ago, there is a report noting the decrease in young people coming to church. They see the hypocrisy of today’s church and saying that they do not want to be a part of it. People are leaving the church because they see the hypocrisy of the church and they do not know where to find the true message.

Today is Reformation Sunday. This is not a day that gets much attention in the United Methodist Church. From an historical standpoint, United Methodists tend to focus Heritage Sunday, that Sunday in April when we honor our heritage as members of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches and the merger of the two denominations, and Aldersgate Day (May 24th) when we celebrate John Wesley?s “heart warming experience” at the Aldersgate Chapel in London. This experience was crucial to Wesley’s own life and it is the touchstone of the Wesleyan movement.

But I think that we need to also consider today as more than simply a date on the liturgical calendar. Reformation Sunday commemorates October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther’s posted his 95 theses or propositions on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Even though he was a Roman Catholic priest, Luther was prompted to do this by the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in those days to sell what were known as indulgences. People bought these indulgences from church authorities in the belief that such purchases would enable them to enter heaven more easily. The money raised was used by the authorities in ways that had little to do with the work of the church.

Luther had become alarmed by this practice because, through his study of the Bible, he had come to understand that God was a God of grace and love, One who reached out to His children, One who understood their fallen humanity and forgave them. Further, God promised eternity to all who had faith in Him.

Luther came to see righteousness as a relationship with God and one that could not be accomplished by anything that we do. Yes, God does demand moral purity from us; yes, our sin does earn us everlasting condemnation. But God Himself took on the flesh and bone of humanity through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ died on the cross so that we with faith would not be condemned. God gives all who have faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life.

In his study of the Bible, Luther came to have what he called his “tower experience”; an experience similar to Wesley’s experience in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred years later. He came to know God’s love included all, including himself. It was the same love that we understand the taxpayer received that day in the synagogue that was the central part of today’s Gospel reading.

Luther came to know that God’s righteousness was a gift from God for all who turned away from sin and entrusted their lives to Christ. God’s love for us was the gift that we have come to call grace. It was this understanding that would lead Luther to proclaim that God’s grace cannot be bought.

The sale of indulgences could be done because many people labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status that God demanded from us but that we, individually, were unable to obtain. If we are unable to obtain the perfection that God demands of us, then there is no hope in our lives. And those without hope will eagerly grab at anything that offers hope, no matter how slim or foolish the chance may be.

Luther was labeled a heretic for this act of defiance against the church of his time. When his preaching and opposition to the sale of indulgences began to affect the bottom line, the Church went after him. He received what was known as an “imperial ban”, an agreement between the Church in Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, the confederation of principalities and nations that preceded modern day Germany that stated that Martin Luther was to be killed on sight. (From http://markdaniels.blogspot.com/2005/10/why-is-this-called-reformation-sunday.html)

I have been told many times in my life that we are to make disciples for Christ. I have to agree that we should do so but we cannot do so by force nor can we do it as a means of subversion. You cannot say to a starving man that the bread you offer is theirs only if they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. Oh, they will say what you want to hear, but how true will that confession be? It is noted that missionaries in China would give rice to the Chinese if they would become Christians. When the rice ran out, the converts left and became known as “Rice Christians.”

The second thing that I find interesting is that the sale of indulgences has not really stopped. If you were to travel through the various religious channels that reside on cable TV today, you would find preachers selling little scraps of prayer clothes or vials of holy water that will cure your ills and enable you to solve the problems of your life. Would people be willing to do this if the church’s message was the true message of Christ?

One of the reasons for the Methodist church is that we saw early on that hunger and poverty must be overcome before one’s heart is truly open to the Holy Spirit. And that is one of the things that McLaren is writing about in his new book. If we do not focus on the things that cause poverty, hunger, sickness, and terrorism, then the message that Jesus Christ brought to us is meaningless and lost.

While there are those who see the words of the Bible frozen in time, there are others who say that the Bible is flexible in what it says. They are not willing to make the choices required of them when answering the call to be Christ’s disciples. Though the crowds that followed Him were initially large, they tended to get smaller when they heard what was asked of them. The message of Christ is demanding but the rewards are plentiful.

There are many people today who are not going to like this message. They prefer that we blame poverty, sickness, illness and terrorism on sin and say that we must impose God’s kingdom on the people of the earth. Where Jesus called for us to make disciples of the people of the earth, I think that many ministers and preachers would have us make servants of the people of the earth. Christ did not come to establish God’s kingdom here on earth; rather, He came so that those who seek God will find Him through Christ and that the gates of the heavenly kingdom will be open.

It may be that we need another reformation in the church today. It would not be difficult. The one reason that I considered McLaren’s book so important to the future of the church is that it gives people the opportunity to see how changes can be made. It does not offer magic formulas that will change the church. But it gives the people the opportunity to seek the changes that they can make.

The words that Paul wrote to Timothy that we read this morning are not sad words. Yes, it is clear from the words that Paul knows that he is at the end of his missionary journey and life. But Paul is not sad that his own journey is ending. Rather, he sees the good in what he has done and he sees that, through Timothy, the work will continue.

There are probably two ways to read today’s Old Testament reading. (Joel 2: 23 -32) There will be those who see a correlation between what Joel is writing and his prophecies and the end times of Revelation. If we read it that way, then there is no hope.

But it can also be read as an announcement that there is a message of hope from God for those who repent and change their ways. But we must listen to the true message, not the self-serving message of charlatans and false prophets. We must recognize that repentance requires change and we must change if we are to see a fulfillment of the Gospel message.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he speaks of being an evangelist. (2 Timothy 4: 5) To Paul, an evangelist is one who equips and encourages believers to share the Good News. That is what we are asked to do today. If we are to see a new beginning today, we must be the ones who share the Good News that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless will find homes, the naked shall be clothed, and the oppressed shall be freed.

We are called today to begin anew. We are called today to cast aside our old ways and open our hearts so that Christ can come in and we can begin a new life. We are called today to open our hearts and let the Holy Spirit empower our lives. In doing so, we can share the Good News and have that new beginning promised to us when the Gospel message was first heard two thousand years ago. It is a message that echoes through the ages and it will be up to us to see that it is carried further.

Everything Must Change – A Review of Brian McLaren’s New Book


Let me start off and mention that I have discussed Brian McLaren’s previous book, The Secret Message of Jesus, in a previous blog.  As I noted then, it took me two readings to understand what the secret was.  The first time I read it, I could not understand what the secret was because I clearly understood the message that Jesus brought to this world.  When I read it a second time, I understood that Jesus’ message was only a secret to those who did not know Jesus or only knew Jesus in a superficial manner.  It does not require an initiation into a secret society to understand the message that Jesus brought to us some two thousand years ago but it does require that you have an open heart and an open mind.  It also requires that you understand the nature of that message.

And I think that is why people are going to have problems with McLaren’s new book. There will be those who couch this book in the vernacular of today’s society. Some will say that it is the vanguard work of the emerging church or the post-modern church. Others will state that it is an aberration of the original Jesus message.

The problem that I had when I first read the book was that McLaren is writing things that I have been writing and thinking about for the past few years. What McLaren does in this book is provide a list of discussion questions at the end of each chapter. This will allow readers to form their own decisions about what course of action they, as a group or as a church, want to take.

I think this is a very important point to make. It frames what Christians are going to do in the coming years. It also removes the desire by some to label this as a post-modern or emergent church topic.

The problem with the contemporary church today is that, for the most part, it does not have a clear understanding of what Jesus was trying to do in this world and what we are supposed to be doing as His disciples.

Early in the book, McLaren recalls a conversation that took place in Africa. The speaker pointed out that he had only heard one sermon in all the times that he went to church. Every Sunday, no matter what the Scripture readings for that Sunday were, no matter what the preacher said, the message was the same “You are a sinner and you are going to hell. You need to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus might come back today, and if he does and you are not ready, you will burn forever in hell.”

The speaker pointed out that he had lived his entire life against a backdrop of genocide, violence, poverty and corruption. Nothing changed and the sermons that he heard never addressed the realities of life. Nothing had ever been said about the transforming message of Christ, of loving others as God loved us.

We live in a time when fundamentalists and conservatives call for a return to the basic values of Christianity but their call sounds like a return to Old Testament times. The call from conservatives for God’s Kingdom on earth does not reflect the Kingdom in Heaven of which Jesus spoke. By the same token, those who seek social change today seek to do so without the moral or philosophical basis that comes from Jesus’ message.

What McLaren does in his book is lay out a view of society and how it fails to meet the message that was given to us two thousand years ago. But more importantly, he lays out ideas upon which people can build and from which the transforming message of Christ can grow. This is not a book that tells you how to build a church, turn around a church, or save a dying church.

But this book will give the reader time to think and consider what it means to be a Christian personally. The reader will be forced to see how they relate to others. And it will bring into focus what is the true message of the church.

There is a clear need for a change in this world. Change will not come from some program but from the decisions of individuals united in Christ and seeking change in the world. This book will help in that process.

Portions of this review are probably going to appear in the message “A New Beginning” that I will give at Dover Plains UMC, Dover, NY on 28 October 2007.

It is time to speak out


As a follow up to my posting “The Tragedy of Building 18 continued”, my wife and I have sent the following letter to our Congressman and Senators.  We are also mailing a copy to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. 

We encourage each of you to write your Congressman and Senators and speak out against the treatment of our veterans and to end this war.  If you need to get the contact information for your congressman, go to http://www.house.gov/.  You can find your representative’s web site through a search at the top of the page; if you do not know who your representative is (and you might be surprised how many people do not know who there representative is or found that the state legislature redrew the districts and change the district we lived in) by searching for your representative by state in the search link below the connection to web sites.  Similarly, to get the contact information for your senators, go to http://www.senate.gov/ and select your senator through the search links provided.

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In the Sunday, October 21, 2007, issue of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was an Associated Press article entitled “Veterans are denied medical help.” (see http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/washington/story/A4781B1563BC2E448625737A0011D862?OpenDocument).

That we are outraged would be an understatement! To say that we are mad and angry at the way our government is treating veterans would be putting it mildly. You would have thought that following the exposure of the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital that there would have been an improvement in the treatment of veterans. The Associated Press article suggests otherwise.

We have been told that we go to war with what we have, not what we desire. That is fine but we should not have gone to war in the first place.

First, we are fighting a war that was based on lies. At every step where an attempt at justification was made, more lies were given. From the very start of this war, the troops that we sent into Iraq have been under-prepared and ill-equipped for the tasks that they faced. Countless stories have come out about troops having to improvise equipment in order to defend themselves; countless stories have come out about troops having to call their loved ones in order to get basic items that should have been provided in the equipment issue before deployment.

Troop deployments are being constantly extended. This only adds stress to an already stressful situation.

Our troops are under-equipped and overextended. They are fighting a war by methods that cannot win the fight. How long must this war continue before we realize what we are doing to not only our troops but the people at home?

And this story does not end when the troops come home.

When the troops have come home, we have been told time and time again that the veterans of this war have been ignored by the very administration that set them overseas. Now, the problems with the Veterans? Administration are not the sole preserve of the current administration; this country has a long and sad history of mistreating its veterans after every war.

It is not so much the scandal last spring at Walter Reed. Now the Defense Department is telling soldiers that their problems existed before they enlisted. So any problems that they had overseas are none of the Defense Department?s concern. And what is more aggravating is that the Defense Department is asking for the return of the enlistment bonuses plus interest these soldiers were given.

If these soldiers had problems before they enlisted in the army, why were they allowed to enlist in the army in the first place? Is the Defense Department so desperate that they will take anyone willing to serve this country and then just throw them away after they have served?

The soldiers in the AP story and the countless soldiers that are not mentioned whom the Defense Department is treating in a similar matter served this country with honor and to the best of their abilities. The Defense Department chose to ignore pre-existing conditions until such time that it was a convenient excuse to throw them away.

It is time that we stop the maltreatment of our veterans. It is time that we provide each veteran with the support that they need when they need it and until such time as it is no longer needed. It is time that we treat soldiers as humans and not parts of a machine that can be thrown away when used up or broken.

And it is also time that the Congress of the United States do what it has failed to do. Congress must exercise its Constitutional Authority and state that this war must end. This war has been fought under the most dubious and flimsiest of excuses and Congress has accepted those excuses, even when common sense and the truth have shown otherwise.

From the very start of this war, the mantra from the present administration and its supporters has been that it is our patriotic duty to support the troops. It is convenient for the supporters of this administration to call those who speak out against the present administration cowards, unpatriotic, or phony. It seems that those who call for others to support their efforts have often failed to do what they ask others to do. It is more convenient for them to question the motives of others than to be questioned about their own motives.

No doubt, we will be called unpatriotic for what we have written in this letter. Well, we are the ones who are supporting the troops.

And one day, when the people of this country look around and wonder where the youth, the best and brightest of this country, have gone they will look to the leaders and ask why those who seek to lead this country were silent. And when the bill for this war comes due and the debt must be paid, the youth of this country will ask their parents why they, the ones who are left, must pay the bills of the past.

What are we going to say to the veterans we have cast aside? What are we going to say to the future generations of this country?

The Tragedy of Building 18 continued


Last March I posted some thoughts about the mistreatment of our veterans and the scandal that was undergoing at Walter Reed Army Hospital (see Supporting Our Troops – The Tragedy of Building 18).  Now a report comes across the Associated Press wires that veterans  suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) are 1) being discharged from the Army because of “pre-existing conditions” and 2) being billed for the enlistment bonuses (with interests).

Is it bad enough that we went into this war ill-prepared to fight it and ill-prepared to end it?  It was bad enough that the quality of care that our veterans was pathetic at best; now, they are being told that their illnesses are essentially their own fault and the Army is not going to help them.  And, to top it off, the Army wants their money back.

It has been said time and time again that we live in a throw-away society.  I said it in my first comments and this report only confirms it.

In a world where reality TV is a show, when are we going to see the reality of war and do something about ending the war and ending the causes of war?  When are we going to put meaning in often tossed-about phrase “family values”?  What is more valuable than the life and mind of a young person whom we send off to war and comes home broken in body and now mind? 

Planting Gardens


Here are my thoughts for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost.  This is also Laity Sunday and I am presenting the following as part of the message.

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While I live in New York and consider it home, I still call Memphis, Tennessee my home. It is where we ended up after my father retired from the United States Air Force and where my mother still lives today. But if home is where your roots are or where they run deep and strong, then the state of Missouri is also on that list of places that I call home.

It isn’t just because I started college there or that I started a family there. When I was one year old, my family planted a Christmas tree in my grandmother’s garden. And to the best of my knowledge, that tree is still growing on the northern edge of the property in St. Louis that was for so many years the center of my life.

The Christmas tree

The north side yard at 3603 Union (taken in July, 1952). The young spruce tree was called “Tony’s Christmas Tree”.

2nd view

Another view of the northern boundary of the property (looking at the northwest corner of the property.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother’s house in St. Louis County was a place that we could always go. It was my grandparent’s home after my grandfather retired from the United States Army and it was the place that grandchildren and great-grandchildren could come and play. It was an anchor in our lives that enabled us to roam the country and yet never feel lost. The one thing that I remember most about that home was the garden that my grandmother started when they first moved in. This was not your typical flower box garden but an effort that spanned the perimeter of the 1/4 acre property. It was, I think, my grandmother’s statement that this is where we are going to live and this is where we are going to stay.

I learned many things over the years watching my grandmother work in her garden. But the greatest thing I learned was what love and care can do. Trees do not grow tall and straight nor will flowers survive generation after generation if there is no love present in the garden.

around 1985

The north side of 3603 Union some 30 years later - that is my grandmother

Ann never met my grandmother but I am sure that if they had met they would have bonded immediately, sisters of the soil so to speak.  And I can hear my grandmother today encouraging me to get out there and help Ann in the garden.

In his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5) Paul encouraged him to remember the love and care that surrounded him when he was growing up. Remember how you were raised as you bring the Gospel message, Paul wrote. He was also encouraged to “proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” (2 Timothy 4: 2 ) I would think those are almost the same words that John Wesley and Francis Asbury used when they sent out the first circuit riders some two hundred and sixty years ago.

Circuit riders were usually laymen who rode on horseback or in a carriage from town to town bringing the Gospel message to the various Methodist societies of the time. Today is Laity Sunday and we are celebrating that heritage of the United Methodist Church. The Hudson River Valley is home to some of the earliest and oldest circuits in the history of the Methodist Church.

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Figure 4 - “Methodist Circuit Rider” - engraving, early 19th century (from 200 Years of United Methodism - An Illustrated Historyhttp://oldwww.drew.edu/books/200Years/gallery/gal050.htm)

The early church and its circuit riders faced many problems helping this new church grow and survive. In the early days of this country, when we were still part of England, Methodists were considered part of the Anglican Church. They were able to receive communion in their local churches.

But, as the American Revolution began to separate colonies from the mother country, so too did Methodists separate from the Anglican Church. And, when many Anglican priests left for England because of the Revolution, there was no way for Methodists could receive the sacraments. As laymen, circuit riders had no authority to baptize or offer Holy Communion.

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 18: 1 – 8), we heard the cries of one person for justice and the action of a judge to bring about justice, even if that is not what he wanted to do.  That was the cry of the American people some two hundred and sixty years ago.  Without the sacraments, there was a feeling of incompleteness and emptiness that no circuit rider, however good a preacher he might be, could fill.

It was a problem that John Wesley struggled with for a long time. Wesley was a firm believer in the rules of the Anglican Church. As such, he did not feel that he had the power or the authority to ordain ministers who could administer the Holy Sacraments. But the Anglican Church in England would not answer the cries of the American people, so Wesley took it upon himself to solve the problem by ordaining Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as bishops.

Thus the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1784. But even then there were still too few elders to offer the sacraments on a regular basis to the increasing number of Methodists in this country. During the decades of the circuit rider and laity led church services, communion was offered on, at best, a quarterly basis. Eventually most Methodist Churches were served by ordained elders. (Adapted from This Holy Mystery) But without the use of circuit riders and the laity, the Methodist Church would not have grown in those early years. And even today, there are many times when lay speakers are called upon to carry the Gospel message to the people of the church.

As we celebrate the past and the growth of the church through the years, so too do we look to the future. Today Grace Church is planting three gardens. Each of these gardens, in their own way, will have roots that run deep. Each of these gardens will be nourished by the love and care that comes from the members of the church. The first garden is in the corner of the parking lot and will be a place of memory and meditation. The second garden will be in the plot of land between Broadway and the parking lot. This will be a garden for the future, planted by our children. With love and care, these two gardens will have roots that run deep and strong and will last long after we are gone.

The third garden also has roots that run deep and strong. It is the garden found in our soul. It is the garden that grows when we bring the Holy Spirit into each of our lives. In today’s Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34), we heard Jeremiah announce to the people there was a new covenant, a new agreement between God and the people. Just as He watched the people tear things down and allow evil to be in the land, so too will He now watch people build and plant.

None of these gardens will grow if we do not tend to them with love and care. This is especially true when it comes to tending the garden of the spirit. For, if people hear false words or follow their own desires, they will quickly turn away. Paul warned Timothy about this and his words are prophetically true today. Words of false hope or selfishness will kill gardens but words of truth guided the Spirit will help the garden grow.

So, as we come to the Table this morning, we remember that night some two thousand years ago when the disciples gathered with Jesus in the Upper Room. We hear the words that have been spoken throughout the ages at gatherings such today; that is where our roots lie. As we celebrate our heritage as Methodists today and in the coming days, so do we also celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives.

The Lost Generation


Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 October 2007. (This has been edited since it was first posted.)
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It was a time tempered by the First World War and the disillusionment that came with war. It was the time between World War I and World War II when a group of American writers felt that America had lost its identity and become, in their words, the place to go to start a business. It was a country devoid of a cosmopolitan culture. America was no longer a place where creativity was valued more than materialism. Authors and artists such as T. S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway sought the meaning of life against a backdrop of the First World War. They became known as “the lost generation”. (See http://ok.essortment.com/whatlostgenera_nkj.htm and http://users.rowan.edu/~lindman/lost_generation.html for additional information)

As the fifties began, another generation of writers and authors took their place. Jack Kerouac called it “the beat generation”. It’s not immediately obvious why he chose that term but it was not because of the music of that time. Perhaps it was because the word “lost” can be used to describe defeat, that he coined the term. It quickly became slang for “exhausted” or “beat down”. Still, its motives were the same as those who affirmed membership in the lost generation. There was a rejection of middle-class values, the purposelessness of modern society and the need for withdrawal and protest. (See http://www.rooknet.com/beatpage/index.html or http://www.litkicks.com/BeatPages/page.jsp?what=LostBeatHip for additional information)

As one born just as the fifties were beginning, I did not participate in either of these generational shifts in culture and time. Rather, my generation benefited from the works of these two generations. Of course my generation also was faced with the civil rights movement at its peak and the Viet Nam war at its loudest. Society was showing its worst at a time when it wanted its best. It seemed clear to me that my future was pretty well going to be determined by what I choose to do and not what society or the prevailing power structure said it would be.

I have written before about being 18 and facing the draft. I took a hit when I characterized the military as a less than honorable profession. (See “Study War No More”) Those that have read my writings and have heard me speak know that I am a second generation military brat. My grandfather retired as a Colonel in the United States Army and my father retired as a Major in the United States Air Force; I was prepared to walk those same steps and would have joined the officer corps of the Air Force. But I was also brought up to make my own decisions and the one thing I objected to the most was being told that I had to serve and if I didn’t choose to serve, I would be drafted. And then when the inequities and inadequacies of the draft became evident, it was clear that the draft was not an honorable path.

To ask me to serve in a military that was fighting a war of questionable outcome and was willing to sacrifice the blood of thousands of young men for a dubious political goal was also not honorable. I was lucky; the bureaucracy didn’t get me and when I got the call for my physical, my acne and what it did to my back kept me out.

There are those today who call for a return to the draft. I am not one of them. The reasons for the war in Iraq not withstanding, if a draft is instituted there will be those who will find ways to avoid service and the same faults that dominated the draft in the 60’s and 70’s will dominate the draft today. Those who can escape the draft will do so; those who cannot will be called to die on foreign soil far away from their loved ones in a war that is fought for reasons no one can recall.

And just as many of the best and the brightest of one generation were lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia, so too will the best and brightest of another generation be lost in the deserts of the Middle East. My concern today is not about a war that is fought without reason or cause; my concern is for the generation that must follow us and who, whether they wish to or not, must bear the burden of decisions that our generation and the generation before us have made for this society and this country.

Earlier this fall, in my message (“Who Shall Be Invited?”) at First United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, I stated that we have lost the present younger generation and possibly lost the next generation as well. Our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions as a church have driven many of today’s young people away from the church.

As I was preparing that sermon and after I had written those words, I added the words that Martin Luther King put into his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King also wrote of a generation that the church has lost because of its actions and deeds, its words and its thoughts.

And now we learn that others are making the same conclusion. The Barna Group has recently completed and published a study that shows that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than previous generations at the same stage of life. (See http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=280) What is possibly worse is that the percentage today is lower than ten years ago. How can that be?

With the dominance of fundamentalist viewpoints and the call for family values, why are the youth of today turning away from the church? The answer comes from John the Baptist and his encounter with the Pharisees and scribes when they came to the Jordan River to watch his baptisms? (See Matthew 3: 7 if you forgot) What drove people away from the church during the sixties? Very simply, hypocrisy drove them away and it is hypocrisy that is driving them away today.

This is not just a report of nameless teenagers and young adults. The thoughts expressed in the report are thoughts of one of our granddaughters. Despite all the evidence we can show her and our encouragement to see for herself what is going on at our local church, she says she finds the church hypocritical.

For her, church is a lost cause because it hasn’t spoken out against the killing of innocent people in Iraq. She wonders why the people killed on September 11, 2001 are more valuable than the children killed in Iraq. She wonders if the American lives are worth more than the lives of Iraqi citizens or the citizens of other countries.

She also sees the church as driving gays away, excluding them from regular lives and from even entering a church. She knows of one and possibly other classmates who think they are gay but are afraid to say anything because they fear what actions their parents will take.

But what our granddaughter has encountered is nothing new. There were many of us who sang “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” and watched our parents actively and passively support segregation and racial discrimination. You can’t say that we are all brothers and then have us go half way around the world and kill those same brothers.

Those of us who grew up in southern churches where the brotherhood of man and the love of Christ for all was preached on Sunday saw many congregants and pastors fight to maintain the status quo of legalized apartheid in this country during the rest of the week.

The Barna report only puts into words what many of us have understood and spoken about for the past few years. You cannot preach the Word of God and then not live it to its fullest and expect people to listen to you, let alone follow you!

This report will be and is being welcomed with great shouts of joy and acclamation by those on the political left. They see it as the death knell for fundamentalism and the political right’s alliance with the church. I am a little leery of such joy or expressions of glee. The feelings that young people have expressed when it comes to the church may apply to fundamentalist churches and those who attend such churches but the young people do not necessarily make that distinction.

The people being described in the article are leaving the church, not leaving particular churches. They see all churches, no matter what may be happening in individual churches as being close-minded, bigoted, and exclusive. While they may express a belief in the need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, build homes for the homeless, and free the oppressed, they do not see those words or thoughts as being at all connected to Jesus Christ or the mission of the church. They speak the words of Christ without knowing that they do. They are seeking a place in which to live lives that they know are right but the church has put up walls and shut the door to them.

We have created a new lost generation and we must work to bring the lost ones home. We cannot do it by creating modern worship services that simply transform church materials into the vernacular of the age, though having modern music wouldn’t hurt. It isn’t a matter of what you wear. It is what is said and how it is said.

When the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people about living in Babylon during their exile (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7), he told them to live their lives as normally as they could.

The Israelites had two choices when it came to living away from the Promised Land. They could accept the lost and meld into the culture around them or they could maintain their own identity even though that meant being treated as “strangers in a strange land.” To meld into the culture around them would mean losing their own identity and almost certainly the loss of their souls. But to maintain their culture was to maintain their identity and when they returned to the Promised Land, as they had been promised by God that they would, they would be able to continue their lives.

The church has always walked that fine line between the secular and the sectarian. The church lives in a secular world and it must fight to avoid being swept up by that world. But, when the church lives in a sectarian world, with walls built to protect and defend the faith, it becomes very difficult to live at all. For walls that protect people from things on the outside also keep the people inside and prevents them from growing spiritually.

But a church (or any institution for that matter) that speaks the truth and encourages people to see the truth for themselves can maintain its identity without being caught up in the world around it. Paul warned Timothy that there would be wrangling over words but if he, Timothy, presented himself to God then he had nothing of which to be ashamed. (2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15)

Some years ago, I wrote a note to myself about today’s Gospel reading. (Luke 17: 11- 19) I was going to call the piece “Did the others say thank you?” Ten lepers, spiritual and physical outcasts of that society, approach Jesus in an effort to be healed. Jesus cures them by having them go to the local priests and be declared healed and ritually pure. Only one, the Samaritan, returns to say thank you to Jesus. In turn, Jesus tells him that it was his faith that healed him. Does this mean that the others were not healed?

I don’t think so. Jesus healed without distinction. Those who came to Him received the benefits of His touch and His words. Would the other lepers lose the healing that they sought? It is possible that they might for leprosy is an infectious disease and it is possible that the other nine might continue to live in the same areas that they had been living and thus were subject to re-infection. The Samaritan chose to walk another way and truly gain his freedom.

The church as a whole has put up barriers and it is these barriers that are driving people away. We may say that “our church does not have those barriers” and it is possibly true. But sometimes we do not even realize that there are barriers that keep people out of our church.

Some will say that the decreasing membership of the United Methodist Church is a failure of the church to be modern; in other words, the church is not up-to-date. Some will say that is a failure to be true to the words of the Bible; in other words, the church is too modern. But the words of Christ are timeless; they mean the same no matter what age we might live in. The question for us becomes one of where are we.

The Barna report is another warning that we are not living in Christ and the presence of Christ is not living in us. It is a call to each one of us to find Christ again and bring Him back into our lives. And then take Christ into the world each day.

We must live our lives so that we show the presence of Christ. It is not easy to do this; ask Paul about the life he lead when he chose to follow Christ. We are reluctant sometimes to do that. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we chose to live differently. We choose to live in a way that breaks down barriers that are built in our society because of nationality, gender, religion, or education.

The lost generation today is not a generation of writers or poets, artists or thinkers. The lost generation is that same generation that Jesus spoke of when he spoke of the shepherd who would go seeking the one lost lamb when the rest of the flock was safe. The lost generation are those who, no matter how old they may be, have turned away from the church. They will not return unless we seek them and they will not return if what we offer is what drove them away. These are not easy words to write; they are even harder to speak. But, if we fail to live with Christ in us only means that we will also be lost.

The invitation today is to let Christ into your heart so that you may be found. The invitation today is to let the Holy Spirit come into your heart and empower your life so that you may live with Christ and Christ may live with you and you may help others to find that singular joy and peace.

What Are We Supposed To Do?


Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. This has been edited since it was first posted.

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The last verse (“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” – Luke 17: 10) in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 17: 5 – 10) poses an interesting question. What are we as a church supposed to do?

Are we to be the moral conscience of society or its moral police? Are we to be the social conscience of society or its primary social agency? There is today, I believe, a crisis in the church. It is because we cannot answer those questions; it is because we, as a church, do not know what it is we are supposed to do.

The leading religious voices in America today claim to be Christian but I can no longer accept that notion. Jesus commanded us to consider the least of all the people yet so many of these quasi-Christians are more interested in their own power and position. How can you say you are a Christian when your values and your voice are not the same as those of Christ? How can you say you are a Christian when your goal is a kingdom on earth and you put politics before people?

We are told that a true Christian is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriages. Yet nothing is said about defending the power, healing the sick, building homes for the homeless, and freeing the oppressed. Why are two topics of abortion more important that the ones that Jesus expressed when He began His ministry?

It is one thing to speak out against abortion. Personally, I am opposed to abortion. But notice the word “personally”; it is not my right in any realm to impose my beliefs about this or any other item on others. It is not my right to revise the Bible in such a way that it makes one act wrong but sanctions other acts.

If one is opposed to abortion because it is a clear violation of the Sixth Commandment, then one had better be opposed to the death penalty. And one should also be opposed to war. There are those who hold to all three but the ones with the loudest voices, the ones who oppose abortion are quite willing to let states murder in our name and call it justice. They are quite willing to go to war and kill others because “our god is strong and your god is weak.” It makes no difference that many times their god is our god and we don’t understand that fundamental fact.

And if one is opposed to abortion then one should be working towards removing abortion as an option. This means offering other forms of birth-control and increasing sex education. These are topics that seem to be off-limits to the anti-abortion foes. In fact, it would seem as the entire topic of sexuality is off-limits in the world of the fundamentalist. Could it be that they fear what they do not know or understand? Could it be that what is unknown or to be feared is to be ignored or banned?

There are those who oppose same-sex marriages and construct Biblical justification for their opposition. Theirs is a church that only certain people can enter. Theirs is a church that only certain people can lead. And theirs is a church that would bar Jesus from entering and preaching in.

The same arguments that are used today in regards to sexuality and love were used when it came to slavery and our concept of humanity. It took almost two hundred years but we finally learned that the color of one’s skin does not change their humanity and that whatever color we might be, we are all the same. We are still learning about sexuality and we, as a church, are going to be in great danger if we continue a policy of sexual apartheid and then find out that sexuality is more genetic than choice. We walk a fine line when we try to explain God’s handiwork with only a limited amount of knowledge.

When all is said and done, it is quite clear that we have not even done what we should have done.

What are the sound teachings that Paul is speaking of in his letter to Timothy? (2 Timothy 1: 13) What did Timothy’s grandmother and mother teach him that Paul suggests still lives in him? Are they the values that are expressed in today’s culture?

The word Christian should describe people of extravagant grace and generosity; it should describe people associated with acts of courage, justice, and compassion but it is more often used to describe people who are close-minded, vindictive and judgmental. Studies show that nine out of every ten people identify themselves as Christians but only about four of the ten will say they have been to church lately. What American people know about the Bible and religion, both other religions and their own, is surprisingly limited. Eight of every ten Christians say that a person from another faith can be saved or go to heaven. Broken down, seven of every ten Christian evangelicals and nine of every ten Catholics say that is possible. But it is a major tenet in both evangelical and Catholic communities that there is no salvation outside the Christian faith (and in many cases, they will say there is no salvation outside their “brand” of Christian faith. While Americans may say they are Christian, they do not know what they are. And if they do not know what they are, they are incapable of deciding if what the leaders say is even remotely true. (Statistical information and other information from The Phoenix Affirmations by Eric Elnes)

It is easy then to see why people so easily accept what other Christian leaders, ministers, or spokesmen say. The public does not know what the truth is so when they are only given one view, they can only conclude they have been told the truth. It explains why so many people have turned away from the church; their understanding is in conflict with what they see and hear. There is a gap in the lives of many people and each day the gap grows bigger. And with each day that the gap grows bigger, people find it harder and harder to come to the church. Each day, it becomes easier and easier to see the church as a meaningless and archaic institution, out of touch with the modern world and incapable of working and living in it.

We read the Old Testament reading for today (Lamentations 1: 1 – 6) and we can understand the hurt and pain that the prophet must have felt. The people of Israel were scattered from Jerusalem and Jerusalem was empty. There was a sense of desolation and loneliness in what the prophet wrote and it is no wonder. Everything that one hoped for was gone.

So what are we to do? Some would say that there is nothing we can do. The signs that we see are signs that the End Times are near and that Armageddon is just a matter of time. As I noted in “The Future for the Methodist Church”, after one individual gave his reasons for leaving the ministry, someone added their own comment that his leaving was because he hadn’t been brought up in the ways or Word of the Lord. Of course, this reasoning ignored the fact that the student minister was studying the Word of the Lord and he had been doing the Work of the Lord. To give fatalism as the reason for the failure of the church to shepherd its own is limited reasoning at best. It says that there is no hope.

Unfortunately, such reasoning takes place because people have not studied the Word. They are quite willing to accept the pronouncement of others as the truth even when it is false teaching. Instead of studying the Bible on their own and coming to understand what is written in each chapter, they let others explain it to them. And when there are contradictions, they don’t know how to deal with them because they haven’t studied the Bible themselves.

What are we supposed to do? Having come to Christ ourselves, we have to go out into the world, taking the Word of God with us. We are to testify to the world as to what Christ means to us. But such testimony must be more than words and the words must be words of hope, not condemnation. Our testimony must be done through not only what we say but what we do.

Paul points out that it is not our works that count but rather what was given to us through Christ. Now some will say that we only have to say what Christ has done but it is meaningless to say for a representative of God to say that God loves you when the representative does not. It is meaningless to say that God offers the water of eternal life and ever sustaining bread when representatives of God won’t share his bread or water.

We are faced with a great challenge. It is to show the presence of God’s Word in this day and age. It is what we said we would; it is what we must do.