Death and Dignity


Those who have read this blog know that I do not like war. Apparently, I am in the minority when it comes to this view. When I posted “Study War No More”, it generated several comments and a follow-up, “Maybe We Should Study War No More”. This generated even more comments. The majority of the comments were surprisingly pro-war. I say that they were surprisingly pro-war because the commentators have identified themselves as ministers or ministerial candidates.

I should have not been surprised that I received such comments. When I posted my thoughts about the shooting at Virginia Tech in the spring of 2007 (“It Happened Again” and “It Happened Again – Part 2”.), the most striking comment was made by a minister who suggested that if one of the victims had carried a gun then the shootings or the multiple killings would never had occurred.

If ministers are for violence, then why shouldn’t we expect more violence to occur? Perhaps there is a justification or a rationale for war; perhaps there is a justification or a rationale for armed retaliation when violence strikes our loved ones. I am also reminded that the Amish community of Pennsylvania did not strike back when a gunman killed a number of innocent children in a community where violence is seldom present (see my thoughts at “What Do We Say?”).

When my wife was growing up at the beginning of the Cold War, the priests and ministers preached against war. People were terrified of “the bomb.” Peace was preached from the pulpit because no one wanted to see nuclear war. There was an understanding then that war has no winners, only survivors. Now, we don’t care. Those who grew up in the days of World War II remember the death and carnage. It has been said that the War Department in 1943 was very tempted to censor the photographs of the dead Marines on the beaches of Tarawa because the scene was gruesome and the number of dead was way beyond expectations.

My wife was 8 years old when she heard those words of ministers and priests; those words have stuck with her all these years. Others heard the words but it seems that they have forgotten them.

It isn’t that our culture is pro-violence or pro-war; it is that our society doesn’t realize what the price of violence or the cost of war really is. It is one thing to hear about a drive-by shooting in some inner city; it is another to know the victim or the relatives of such a shooting. It is quite easy to say that drive-by shootings are the product of a decaying society; it makes it quite easy for us to ignore the shootings. We can escape the inner city and forget those who live there. We don’t have to go into such places so we can ignore the shootings. If we ignore the shootings, we don’t have to seek solutions.

And if we make war into an advanced video game, then war becomes fun. We can easily send young men and women off to die because we don’t have to watch them die. And we don’t see the coffins come home because our Defense Department won’t allow them to be filmed. The dead come home without fanfare and no one, other than the family, knows. Only the family grieves. We can support a war because someone else dies and we don’t have to know.

And our ignorance of war extends to the wounded. The three posts that I posted during the spring and summer of 2007 (“Supporting Our Troops – The Tragedy of Building 18”, “The Tragedy of Building 18 continued”, and “The Tragedy Continues”) pointed out the lack of care received by veterans wounded in Iraq. We care little about those who have died and we apparently don’t care much about the ones who are wounded.

Now, it appears that we do not care about those who were killed in attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In the February, 2008, issue of Sojourners (see “At the Hour of Our Death”) Rose Marie Berger writes about the lack of respect given to the dead buried in the rubble of the towers. The goal of the rescue effort, it seems, was not to recover the victims or find the bodies of civilians, firemen, or policemen but rather to recover the millions of dollars in gold and other metals stored in the vaults. Once the recovery of the metals was accomplished, then the rest of the material was simply trucked over to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island.

It seems that very little attempt was made to actually recover any human remains or artifacts. There are body parts and bodies being discovered even today, despite every assurance from various Federal, State, and Local government agencies everything was done to recover the remains.

What does this tell me? Among other things, we don’t care if someone other than our own family dies. We are quite willing to sacrifice civilians and soldiers alike if it will advance the goals of our greed and our self-interests. We apparently don’t care how the families of those who died for that advance feel.

This is not an argument for some sort of memorial for the dead and wounded of 9/11. Others are doing that.

Rather, this is a statement that says we as a society had better look at what we are doing. We shunt the wounded off to the side and hope that no one sees them. We hide the dead when their bodies come back from war. At home, we ignore the homeless and sick. And now, innocent victims are cast aside because we don’t care.

There is a common conception of Neanderthal man being some sort of brutish “sub-human”. But we have found archeological evidence that they mourned their dead. See http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2002/1015doser3.shtml and http://www.britarch.ac.uk/BA/ba66/feat1.shtml for a discussion of the meaning of burials in early pre-historic society.

The 15th century poet and philosopher Giambattista Vico identified the burial of the dead along with marriage and religion as the three characteristics of a civilized society. He said that these three institutions are the origin of all civilizations and therefore must be the most devoutly guarded (adapted from “At the Hour of Our Death” by Rose Marie Berger, Sojourners – February, 2008).

If you want to call these the end times, today I won’t argue with you.

A Collection of Sayings


The following are a collection of sayings and quotes that I have gathered over the years.  Some are attributed; others I have just picked up and haven’t figured out who said or when it was said.

SAYINGS OF INTEREST

The Vaccination Theory of Education – English is not History and History is not Science and Science is not Art and Art is not Music, and Art and Music are minor subjects and English, History, and Science major subjects, and a subject is something you “take” and, when you have taken it, you have “had” it, and if you have “had” it, you are immune and need not take it again.

“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”

“A child with a hammer thinks everything looks like a nail.”

“We find our individual freedom by choosing not a destination but a direction.” (Marilyn Ferguson)

“You see things; and say ‘why?’ But I dream of things that never were and say ‘why not?’” (George Bernard Shaw)

“If you found a path with no obstacle, it probably does not lead anywhere.”

“It is necessary to say that poetic spirits are of two kinds; first, those who invent fables, and second, those who are disposed toward believing them.” (Galileo [as translated by Sheldon Glashow])

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (David Thoreau)

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (The Talmud)

Jawaharlal Nehru, who with Mahatma Gandhi successfully freed India from British colonial rule, once said, “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the sound of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” (Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Col. Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816)

“If I am not for myself, who is for me?

But if I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

Rabbi Hillel, Sayings of the Fathers, 1: 14

“It’s a revolution damn it! We’re going to have to offend somebody!” – John Adams, while discussing the massive changes being hacked into the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views, which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” Dr. Who

There is a fine line between being on the leading edge and being in the lunatic fringe.

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. (Albert Einstein)

“Sanity is the playground of the unimaginative mind”.

Programming: The art of debugging a blank sheet of paper (Nick Donaldson, University of Manitoba)

“Foolish is the man who competes for competition’s sake . . . Wise is the man who knows what battles are worth fighting.” – Ancient Chinese proverb.

“There’s this desert prison…. with an old prisoner, resigned to his life, and a young one just arrived. The young one talks constantly of escape, and after a few months, he makes a break. He’s gone a week and then he’s brought back by the guards. He’s half dead, crazy with hunger and thirst. He describes how awful it was to the old prisoner. The endless stretches of sand, no oasis, no sign of life anywhere.

The old prisoner listens for a while, then says, `Yep, I know. I tried to escape myself, twenty years ago.’

The young prisoner says, `You did? Why didn’t you tell me, all these months I was planning my escape? Why didn’t you let me know it was impossible?’

And the old prisoner shrugs, and says, `So who publishes negative results?'” (Jeffery Hudson, in “Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative.”)

“It is fortunate that war is so ugly for we could become very fond of it” — attributed to Robert E. Lee following the Battle of Gettysburg.

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” — Lorraine Schneider, 1969 — www.warisnothealthy.org

Nobody is stupid enough to prefer war to peace. Because in times of peace children bury their parents, whereas, on the contrary, in times of war parents bury their children — Herodotus.

“Men are generally idle, and ready to satisfy themselves, and intimidate the industry of others, by calling that impossible which is only difficult.” — Samuel Johnson

Isn’t It Time For A Change?


I started this piece because I was thinking about what I was going to write for my Sunday blog. But as I started writing, it took on a life of its own. I do know this; Sunday’s blog will be entitled “By What Name Shall You Be Called?” and it will be about hearing and then answering the call that God has made to you, even if you are not aware of it.

Introduction

Things are happening in two areas of society that bother me. The first is what is happened to Christianity and the modern church. The other is education and our schools. This rather long post is a discussion of what I think are the problems with both of these areas and what we, the people, must do to fix them.

It seems to me that the theme of the current political campaign is change. But change will not occur in this country at this time because people are afraid of change. Change requires going into areas that are often unknown and that is something many are unwilling to do. Change requires understanding and understanding requires takes both time and effort. This country and this society would rather spend their time doing other things.

Christmas has become a time of frenzied buying of material goods, not a time to pause and wonder at the single star in the sky or the Babe lying in a manger. Memorial Day has become the start of leisure and fun, not a day to pause and remember who has died and what the horror of war really was and is. Labor Day has become the sad ending to a short summer and the beginning of another school year. Every national holiday becomes a celebration of the dollar and the need to buy more material goods. We hold George Washington as the “Father of this Country” and we proclaim Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents ever; yet, we have combined their birthdays into a single holiday and placed it on a Monday so that we can have a three-day weekend and buy things with our credit cards.

I doubt that too many people can remember why we once celebrated the first Monday in September. But then again, we no longer care about workers’ rights; we no longer care about environmental or workplace safety. Management is all that matters and we can always find workers somewhere willing to work for a little less so that the profit margin can be maintained or increased.

It seems to me that one of the political issues that will dominate the presidential election (once we finally decide on the candidates) will be illegal immigration. Everybody is against illegal immigration but the solutions to the problem do not solve the problem.

Why do people immigrate to this country? From the first day that someone from another country stepped foot on the shores of this continent, people came to this continent for the opportunity that this place offers. Most illegal immigrants can get better jobs here than they can in their home countries. And why do we punish people for doing the jobs that we will not do? Why do we not punish the people who hire the illegal immigrants? It seems to me that the solution requires more than simply arresting illegal immigrants and deporting them back to their home country. Building a wall along the United States – Mexican border will not stop the problem. But then again, the actual solution requires a change in thinking and we are not accustomed to such complicated efforts.

We no longer hear about the problems of homelessness, the lack of health care, or the continued inequalities caused by differences in race, economic status, gender, sexuality, or lifestyle. To do so would be reminded that we are not the great nation we proclaim to be; to do so would remind us of the things that we have failed to do and continue to fail to do.

The buzz word for this year’s political campaign seems to be change. We desire change but we haven’t got the faintest clue what it means. That’s because we have changed the things that once were the implements of change.

The church was once the conscience of mankind; now it is the protector of the status quo. Once the church provided hope; now it takes it away. Once education was the way to improvement; now it is simply a way to acclimate children and young people to an almost “1984” mindset of acceptance and mediocrity.

Marketing the Gospel message

It seems to me that too many churches today engage more in marketing the church than they do in telling the Gospel story. Churches no longer look like churches or feel like churches. In fact, many churches have changed their name; now they are worship centers or some sort of variant on that. The word “church” scares people. So we make church a comfortable place.

I am not saying that it shouldn’t be comfortable; believe me, I have sat in many a hard pew and would much rather be sitting in something easier. But there is no sense of holiness when your seats are theater-type seats.

There is no sense of holiness when you cannot tell who the minister is. The minister is apt to be dressed casually, perhaps in blue jeans and the shirt tail hanging out. This is to show the people that they are “cool” or “hip”. But the message is often empty and vague. It is not necessary to be “cool” if you preach the truth. It is not necessary to be “hip” if you speak from your heart and not with your eye on the bottom line.

By the same token, there are many pastors whose clothing budget surely exceeds the monthly salary of many members of the church. Of course, if you preach the prosperity gospel, then you had better dress for success. But that also means that the money that the people are giving in hopes of getting financial rewards is going into the pocket of the minister asking for the money.

And the presentation of the message or the music is adapted to the ways of the secular world. We put the words to the music we are to sing on screens that everyone can see. Since they watch television and videos at home, why not make the Gospel presentation a video presentation? We have changed the nature of church so that it is like everything else. We have changed the nature of what we are saying and doing so that it will fit onto a single slide in an audio-visual presentation.

We live in a sound-bite society; we know put the Gospel into sound-bites or reduce it to bumper-sticker slogans. There is no challenge in the message because challenge requires changing things.

The Prosperity Gospel and Gospel-Lite Message

It seems to me that most of the modern churches today present one of two forms of the gospel message. They either present what is called the prosperity gospel (or “name it and claim it”) or they present what is called gospel-lite. Neither has any relationship to the true Gospel and neither has any relationship to the historical nature of the church. The prosperity gospel says that you can have riches beyond belief if you plant a seed with the minister. In other words, give the minister your money and it will grow. It will grow, all right, but not your garden. The only ones getting rich under the prosperity gospel are the ones who preach it.

If there is any truth to the prosperity gospel, then why are we not hearing their stories?

There are also others who take the substance out of the gospel message and preach a do-good and feel-good message. People like hearing this message because it does not call for them to do anything; there is no need for them to give up anything or take the message out into the world because it is not needed. You will find no guilt in the gospel-lite message of so many pastors because their message is to make you feel good about yourself, not have you worry about the nature of the world.

The True Gospel message was a message of sacrifice and hard work; it was a message of equality and perseverance. There is nothing in many modern churches that even comes close to the true words of Jesus and the apostles.

We have changed the nature of the message and we have changed the nature of the church.

Megachurches

Let’s face it; we like the idea of big. So it stands to reason that we should have BIG churches. It could be that I am uncomfortable with the concept or idea of megachurches because it is possible the membership of every church I have been a member of or served could probably fit into the auditorium of anyone of many megachurches in this country.

Megachurches seem more like office buildings or large amphitheaters than churches. Instead of pews, you get theater-type seats. Instead of an altar, you get a stage. And don’t even look for a Cross or some sign of the presence of God. It might be there but it is off to the side and hidden by the great screens that televise the minister so the people in the far back rows can see him.

If megachurches are to be the 21st century version of 14th and 15th century cathedrals, they fail. The great cathedrals of Europe and America were built by the people for the Glory of God. Perhaps many of those cathedrals shouldn’t have been built but the people built them for God, not for the church or church authorities. It seems to me that many of the megachurches that are being built today are being built to satisfy the egos of the pastors and the congregations, not for the Glory of God.

When you look at the structure and organization of these many megachurches, you find that they have subdivided the congregation into various groups based on common interests. Since a megachurch is actually a collection of many small churches, why not put the time and energy into small churches? Why not put the time and effort into helping put the presence of God where it is needed, not where it can be built. A baseball field was built in a cornfield in Iowa because the people will come. But the people of the inner city or the rural parts of this country can’t necessarily make it to the megachurch in the nearby suburb.

People like megachurches because it is easy to go to one. With so many people present, you can easily get lost in the crowd. With the focus of the service no longer on the True Gospel, you don’t have to worry. You can now go to church (even if it isn’t called that) when you want and feel good when you come out. The problems of the world have disappeared for a few hours and you have had a great time with your friends.

Praise Music

I am very leery when I hear the term praise music. Modern day praise music was developed because people said they were tired of traditional organ music and wanted to hear guitars and drums and the sounds that they hear every day.

Music has always been in worship for the purpose of praising God. I have no problem with bringing new music or new ways to play the music. The lute, the harp, the flute, and the cymbal were all instruments played in the early church. I am sure that when the harpsichord, the piano, and the organ were invented, traditionalists complained about the quality of music. And the players who brought the new instruments into the sanctuary probably rejoiced at the change they were bringing into the worship.

There is great music that can be played on guitars, electric basses, electric keyboards and drums. But, like the music of old, it requires work to achieve the desired goal. Many praise music teams sing great music, music that moves the heart and inspires the soul but it isn’t the music that the congregation sings and this is the problem with praise music.

The praise music that congregations sing is tepid at best. It does nothing to praise God or inspire worship. It merely replaces old music that you don’t like with new music that you don’t like. It has no feeling; it inspires nothing in my soul. With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I would say that most praise music today doesn’t even have a good beat and it is lousy to dance to.

I know that people have complained about the traditional music of the church. Often times, the congregation cannot sing the music because they are not familiar with the tune or the words. Congregations get locked into the songs they know and they complain when they are forced to learn something new. But what is wrong with learning new music? Can we not express our joy in worship with new words, instead of mindlessly repeating old words? Let all of us bring all of our talents into the worship of God and let see what happens then.

The only problem is that when you remove any meaning from the worship service after you have removed the meaning of the Gospel, there is nothing left. This has allowed many, whom I have taken to call quasi-religious, to change the meaning to fit their view of the world.

A New World Vision

I grew up in the South and I heard and saw quasi-religious figures try to use the Gospel to justify segregation, exclusion, and hatred (both organized and un-spoken). But I also saw many in the church who believed in the Gospel message and fought to bring equality to this country. Now, it seems that we have forgotten that the fight for equality is a constant one; those who opposed the efforts of the church to bring equality to this country now seem to dominate. Now it seems that the church is the agent for exclusion and hatred.

It also appears to me that many quasi-religious figures are trying to change history to fit their view of the world. They are also trying to eliminate or alter science so that no questions can be asked about the world around us.

It always amazes me how those who proclaim to know the truth are quite willing to blame others for the problems. They are the ones who complain that their children don’t learn values in school today. They are the ones who say that our schools began to fail when prayer was taken out of the classroom.

But the days of prayer in the classroom were days when the classroom was homogeneous and differences between Christian denominations were minimal. In the South (where I grew up), the classrooms were segregated. Now, the classroom is heterogeneous and there are likely to be representatives from every major religion. A single prayer that accommodates every religion is a meaningless prayer. And prayer must be more than a few moments of silence. Prayer is an interaction between the individual and God; it cannot be done in a few moments of silence at the beginning of the school day.

Who is God?

Is my God better than your God or is your God better than my God? Whether one chooses to use Yahweh, Allah, or God as His name, it is the same God. So Yahweh cannot be better than Allah and Allah cannot be better than God and God cannot be better than Yahweh; because they are three names for God. All that is accomplished when people use the arguments of a superior God is that it shows their lack of understanding about God. Right now, we do not need people who do not know God telling others what to say, do, or believe.

Ignorance, Understanding, and Control

Ignorance is not a lack of education; it is a lack of understanding. There are many who are educated but ignorant. I have known a great number of people whose reading and writing skills were extremely limited yet their understanding of God exceeded that of many educated people.

Understanding requires questioning and questioning requires thinking. If one is not capable of thinking, then one is incapable of truly understanding. If you take away the ability to understand something, then you can exert control. Authoritarianism, be it sectarian or secular, is always marked by the effort to control what the people can think or say.

As long as the people were ignorant, the church could control their lives. It seems to me today that many quasi-religious figures miss the good old days of that control. For a long time the church didn’t want the people to be able read and write. But as people began to read and write, the more they began to understand. The more they could understand, the more they would seek improvement.

In fact, it appears to me that the church didn’t even want the Bible to be available to the people. If you wanted to print the Bible, it had to be in Latin so that only a select few (and not necessarily the local priests) could read it.

But one of the hallmarks of the early Methodist movement was education. John and Charles Wesley started Sunday schools because the people needed to read and write so that they could understand the Gospel message for themselves. The first universities of this country were founded to insure that ministers had the fundamental skills necessary for understanding. It will come as a shock to many on both sides of the political and religious spectrum that Harvard and Yale began as religious supported institutions, institutions that would supply the preachers for this young country.

Those who worked to build this country understood the need for education as a defense against tyranny. Now education is merely a period of time when a lot of facts are presented for memorization and regurgitation on a test, only to be quickly forgotten.

Education was and should be more than simply learning facts. The problem is that education no longer has the stature that it once had.

People complain about the quality of education but won’t fight to improve the quality of education. It seems to me that the predominant attitude about pre-college education today is that “what worked for me will work for my children”. The problem with education today is two-fold. First, the money for salaries and support does not go to the instructional staff but rather to administrators. That is wrong. If you want quality instruction, then you must pay for quality instruction. The salary gap between CEO’s and workers is not limited to the industrial sector; there is and has been a similar gap between school administrators and classroom teachers.

Second, how many classrooms are equipped to meet the needs of the society that the students will encounter when they leave formal education? Nobody seems to care that the majority of classrooms in this country are under-equipped, if they are equipped at all to teach and prepare for the future. Education has always been about preparation but it gets harder when you don’t have the tools.

We have sought to correct the problems of education with testing. But all we have done is prepare our children for things that they will not encounter in later life.

There is also no sense of balance in our education. Our Founding Fathers understood that education covered both the rational world and the moral world. Thinking involved questioning and we do not do enough of that in our educational system today.

We no longer teach critical thinking or ask students to make evaluative decisions because our educational systems fear the backlash that such processes would bring. This is especially true when it comes to values education.

Values Education

It is very difficult to teach values in the school because those who demand that values be taught only want their values taught. I have come to the conclusion that those who call so loudly for such teaching are insecure in their own beliefs.

Values education cannot be taught from the viewpoint of a single values system. To teach values is to teach children and young adults to think and analyze. It will produce questions and the one thing that those who want only a single value system taught do not want is questions about their value system. Any value system that does not allow questioning is based more authoritarianism and blind following than it is a true understanding and will fail when scrutinized.

I have come to the conclusion that those who wish to impose their value system on others do so out of fear of what might happen if their system were analyzed. Out of fear, we seek to control the unknown but in fear we cannot proceed into the unknown and find out what is there. If our value system is strong, it will endure any questions.

Liberals and Conservatives

Obviously, I am not crazy about conservatives and those who would seek to hold on to the status quo. By the same token, I don’t like people who think that Christianity is what I have described. I don’t like it when people write off Christianity because of what they see on television, hear on radio, and read about in the broadsheets and tabloids of this country. Most of that information is not what Christianity is about but people don’t know or understand that. They are too smug to admit their ignorance and unwilling to find out what the truth really is. I don’t like those on either side of the religious and political spectrum who are not willing to speak to the other side with an open mind.

The Next Step

We are fast approaching a time when the cost of our ignorance, both secular and sectarian, is going to exceed the resources that we have available.

It would be nice if the people of this world would stop for a moment and look at what they are doing to the world and the other inhabitants.

Global warming, though a theory, seems to be the correct explanation for what is transpiring in Greenland, the Artic, and on the Antarctica continent. Divisions between people grow each day; our own national political campaigns have become consistent episodes of mud-slinging, back-biting, and name-calling. Our political campaigns have turned into nothing more than overblown kindergarten disagreements but with far more disastrous consequences.

And we, as a collective society, have allowed this to happen, more out of ignorance than anything else. Keep in mind that most of the children of the world have never had the experience of seeing a person walk on the moon. That means that any political campaigns that they have lived through have been the ones of the 1970’s, the 1980’s, the 1990’s, and now the 2000’s. The only political campaigns that they have listened to or studied have been negative in nature. The winner has often been the one to whom the mud stuck the least.

Computers are not necessarily a part of the instructional process. In most schools, computer education is a period during the school day and/or week. Computers become another thing that must be learned, not a tool to be used.

It is quite easy to get lots and lots of information with computers today. But we have lost the skill of analyzing this information. The rapidity in which we send salacious or vitriolic e-mail messages to our friends without questioning the content of the message has always amazed me. If it comes from a friend and it is shocking, then it must have some truth in it.

All our children know about computers and technology is that you can play games and send quick messages. Their grammar and language skills are limited because instant messages require acronyms and abbreviations. Computers are only useful for playing games and we are beginning to see the effects of the lack of socialization.

Our children and young adults have no concept of what war is, other than reports on television. They see no dead, they see no grieving. War has become nothing more than another video game, bloodless and painless, without suffering.

If we are to change this world; if we are to provide hope and meaning for the days to come, then we must change. We must change our view of God from a multi-fragmented mythical being to the source of our existence. We were created in His image; isn’t it time that we start reflecting that image instead of trying to hide it?

And we must start demanding that education do what education is supposed to do. Through education, we are supposed to learn how to think and imagine, to move beyond the boundaries of our present existence. It will cause many to challenge commonly held viewpoints and it will cause many viewpoints to disappear because people will quickly find out how weak they are.

Society is going to go in one of two directions, either into a new era of discovery and promise or into an era of destruction and desolation. I fear that it will go into the era of destruction and desolation because we are unwilling to change our ways. But if we are willing to change, then we can begin to see a new era of discovery and promise.

So isn’t it about time we change?

What I See


As many know, every four weeks or so I present the message and lead the worship at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY.  From the pulpit, this is what I see.

View from the pulpit at Dover UMC

View from the pulpit at Dover UMC


The congregation sees this picture above the altar.
View over the Altar at Dover United Methodist Church

View over the Altar at Dover United Methodist Church


I have been told that these were painted in the 30’s as part of the Works Progress Administration.

I don’t know about you but they do add something to being a part of a worship service in that church.

To Give Our Best


Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, The Baptism of the Lord.  I will be preaching at Dover Plains UMC, Dover, NY tomorrow.

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The comments between John the Baptist and Jesus (1) that are the centerpiece of today’s Gospel reading are very interesting, if for no other reason that they speak highly of how we see our relationship with God today.

John understands the relationship between Jesus, his cousin, and himself and he is not willing to baptize Jesus as he has baptized others. He understands quite easily that he does not have the stature or the ability to truly baptize Jesus. Yet, as Jesus points out, John must baptize Jesus if righteousness is to be fulfilled.

We do not make that distinction. We accept quite willingly and almost deliberately the idea that Jesus is our servant, the person who does our biding. We quite willingly place ourselves, individually and as a society, above Jesus and expect Jesus to do whatever it is we ask of Him.

We are told today by so many self-proclaimed ministers of God that all we have to do is give them, the charlatans, our money and God will return it to us seven- or ten-fold, because that is the power of the Holy Spirit. We no longer see Jesus Christ as our Savior and God as our Father but rather a means by which we can achieve money or whatever we desire or seek.

We have confused the role of God in society. God is no longer the reason for what we do but rather the vehicle for what we seek.

We hear nothing today about the mission of Christ, which He Himself proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth some two thousands years ago, a mission first proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah. (2) At a time when I needed to know if there was ever an answer to the problems of the world, if it was ever possible to end war and hatred, segregation and injustice, I found the answer in the church. Now, it appears that the church supports war and hatred and is moving to increase segregation and injustice.

The awe and respect that we should give God has been taken away by those who seek to limit His presence to one or two hours on a Sunday morning. We measure the effectiveness of a preacher by the shortness of their sermons, not by how they inspire us to action. In Memphis and other parts of the South, even perhaps in other parts of this country, a good service is one that lets out early enough so that the congregation can get to Applebee’s or Shoney’s before the other churches do.

We hear too many preachers and ministers preach against sin yet repeatedly get caught in the very act they preach against. It is no wonder that the cry of hypocrisy that was first voiced by John the Baptist along side the River Jordan is voiced by so many young people today. The youth of this country are turning away from the church, not because the church doesn’t care about them (which is true) but because the church doesn’t care that its message is so often empty, meaningless, irrelevant and seen as an attempt to market the Gospel instead of telling the story and spreading the Word of God.

The God who may have inspired the first successful peasants’ uprising in history (the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt) is a God of revolution. Yet, it has often been said those who make up the three faiths that He has inspired (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have failed to live up to this ideal and have transformed this God of revolution into a God of the status quo. (3)

We have been commanded to go out into the world and make disciples of all whom we encounter. And this we do quite readily, offering bribes to some and threatening others with death, so that they will convert. We do so without concern for where we are or whom we are with. We proclaim that our God is the only God, even when the historical records tell us that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worship the same God. We expect the people whom we expect to convert to think and believe as we do. There are those who are quite willing to tell devout believers in other faiths that they, the devout believer, are doomed because they do not follow the same path of faith as others do. If we do not understand what and why others believe, then we have no business trying to explain what it is that we believe.

A person who walks the path of faith dictated by their religion is walking a different path than the one we walk. They will reach their goal if they hold true to their beliefs, just as we will. We should not be condemning them or chastising them just because their belief system is different from ours.

But those who proclaim a belief system but do not follow the belief system, those who flit between one system and another, and those who try to choose the best virtues of all systems must be shown that such an approach will not work. But to say that our system is the best system is egotistical at best and shows a great lack of understanding about what others believe.

It is true that when Peter spoke to the crowd that he repeated the commandment that Jesus had given to the disciples. (4) But Peter added two other comments that reflected what Jesus also said; respect those who know God and do it in the right way.

When mankind first came to know God, it was done with a certain amount of fear. We were to see God with a sense of wonder and awe but that was because we didn’t know who God was and what God meant. Through Jesus Christ we have come to know that God is our Father and that He loves us. Now, when we hear the word “fear”, we should realize that it means more to understand and know more than anything else. As Peter reminded the people, we are to respect those who know God.

In part, that is why we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Last week we celebrated Epiphany, the Magi’s recognition of the true nature of the Christ Child. These are occasions that illuminate God’s nature. These are occasions when God chooses to reveal who He is. These are also occasions that not only demonstrate what God is like but also who God wishes us to be.

Baptism is like so much of the church today. It is something we desire but it is something that we don’t understand. We often forget that baptism is the celebration of the incomparable gift we have received from God. It gives us an identity. But it is also about fully engaging the responsibility that this identity entails.

Just as the baptism of Jesus initiated his public ministry, so to is it our call to the community of the church. It means that together as a church we are meant to be witnesses for peace in an often cruel and violent world. We are to bring a message of hope in a world of despair. Whoever the worldly powers may be, Christians are called to witness to another, greater power. (5)

It has often been said that Christianity began as a way of life, an alternative to a set of creeds and doctrines that demanded total agreement. Christianity was a reaction to a religion narrowly defined by law, by ritual, and by an angry God. It was a way of life that demanded radical inclusion, not exclusion, as an expression of faith in action. It offered hope and aid to those who needed it.

Yet today, we see a church that is becoming increasingly rigid and orthodox, a church that is becoming more and more exclusionary in nature. What we were taught by Jesus before Easter has become less important that the things the post-Easter church insists that we believe. We have created a God in our image.

God sent His Son as a sign that He cared about us. He did not send a substitute but the best. Are we able to say that when we represent the church in today’s society we show the best?

The readings from Acts (6) and Isaiah (7) offer us a glimpse of that quality that we profess but do not possess. We do not have a God who is limited by our understanding of baptism and what it signifies; we have a God who created humanity in His image and whose love for us is so great that it embraces all people with no exception. (8) He has given us His best and He expects us to do the same.

I have seen churches, both large and small, that were built by their respective congregations who gave of themselves in terms of time, money, and energy all for the Glory of the Lord. But I have seen too many churches, both big and small, that were built to glorify the building and the congregation.

I have heard and sung music that reflects the joy and power found in the Glory of God. I rejoice in music written and played that uplifts the congregation. But I have also heard music played in churches and in religious situations that is only played for the glory and enjoyment of the player. I have left those performances wondering why there was no feeling in the songs that were sung or the music played.

When He first articulated His mission, He proclaimed that He had come to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring hope and freedom to the oppressed. He stated that the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled in His presence. Yet, today there are still homeless and we probably have only an estimate as to how many there are.

The infant mortality rate in Orange County (and perhaps elsewhere in this country) rivals that of many third world countries. This country’s overall healthcare system ranks nineteenth among the major industrial nations in preventable deaths. I won’t even begin to comment on the ranking of our educational system when compared to those same countries. For a country that is so often pre-occupied with being number 1, we have a rather dismal record. We say that we are a Christian country but we are more interested in ourselves than we are others.

To give your best is probably the hardest thing you will be asked to do. But God sent His Son knowing that His Son would die on the Cross for us. His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, began His ministry at the River Jordan knowing full well that the path He walked would take Him to the Cross.

We are called to give our best, not just part of it. We are called to give our best each day, not just one day a week. It is a call that says “in the years of your despair, I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who know my grace and are formed by love; but now the hour has struck for you to see the signs of new hope that I am giving to my people in the world; and to join me in the midst of the struggle, interpreting that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily lives?” (9)

Too many people today see Christianity as a part time thing, a hobby at best. But to be called by Christ is a full-time experience. It does not matter what you do in life, for each person’s role in life is different. But as Paul wrote to the people of Colossus, “whatever you do, do it from the heart, as though you were working for God and not men.” (10)

God gave us His best, so why should we not also do so?

(1) Matthew 3: 14 – 15

(2) Isaiah 42: 1 – 9

(3) Adapted from Karen Armstrong’s History of God, page 20

(4) Acts 10: 34 – 43

(5) Adapted from “Marked for a purpose” by Kathleen Norris, Christian Century, December 25, 2007

(6) See footnote 4

(7) See footnote 2

(8) See footnote 5

(9) Adapted from “Evangelism in Our Day”, Faith in a Secular Age, by Colin Williamson

(10) Colossians 3: 23

Some Thoughts on Education


The following are just some thoughts I have formed recently about education.

It is an axiom that each individual learns at a different rate and in a different style.  Yet, our educational systems are designed to have each student learn at the same rate and in the same style.

Also,if you were to take 100 randomly chosen classrooms of the same class or age group from across the country, you would find that materials available to the students in that classroom differ widely and according to the locality in the country and the economic status of the region.  Education should be a level playing field and it is not.

Finally, education should be about encouraging creativity.  But it turns out to be more about developing commonality. As a student progresses through each year of organized education, their creativity diminishes.

Star Light, Star Bright


Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, The Epiphany of the Lord.

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We have always been fascinated by the stars. From the day that mankind first looked skyward, we have wondered about the stars. No matter what the culture, mankind has seen patterns in the stars and created stories to go with the patterns. Over the years, we have come to realize that stars are not merely pinpoints of light fixed on the celestial heaven but rather celestial bodies in similarity to our own neighboring star, the Sun.

Mankind’s exploration of the heavens began when we were able to differentiate between stars and planets because planets wandered across the fixed, relative unchanging background of the stars.

Early on, mankind realized that it was possible to find their way by following the stars in the night. Tradition has it that runaway slaves used the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as a means of finding their way north to freedom. The “drinking gourd” was another term for the “Big Dipper”, the constellation in the Northern skies that points to the North Pole.

For early mankind, though, the stars were more than simply signposts in the skies that gave directions. In conjunction with the planets and other heavenly bodies (comets, meteors, and so forth), early mankind saw the handiwork of the gods.

Whether it was the conjunction of several stars and/or planets or a comet passing through the skies, something occurred some two thousand years ago that shook the scientific worlds of people far away from Bethlehem.

Today, we would call those who attribute occurrences here on earth to the alignment of the stars astrologers and, hopefully, we give little credence to what they say or do. There is no evidence to suggest that a particular alignment of the stars at a particular time of a person’s life will have any influence on what will happen to that person. All one has to do is consider the dire warnings that were broadcast when all the planets were essentially aligned, as was the case in 2000.

It was said that the combined gravitational pull of all the Jovian planets would have dire consequences on the planet earth; unfortunately, this was not a unique occurrence. The same thing had occurred in 1962 (with the added benefit of a solar eclipse). Neither of these were an exact alignment but the planets were close enough that, if anything was going to happen, it would have happened. (1)

But, two thousand years ago, as knowledge was developing and other gods still dominated daily life, there was something in the sky that spoke of great things about to occur. The Magi were men of science who saw the signs in the sky and deduced that something great was occurring. They were not necessarily magicians or sorcerers, though those are often the images we associate with them. For them, the signs of the sky were an announcement that a new king was being born and such a birth was worthy of their attention and presence. (2)

But the star that they sought was not just a simple combination of planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies. It was the star whose light has shown throughout the ages. It was a light that shown in the darkness and illuminated the world so that all could see. The prophet Isaiah wrote that darkness covered the world but the Lord illuminated the world so that all could see. (3)

The idea of light as part of the Word and as part of Jesus presence is one of the central tenets of the Gospel message. Jesus spoke of not being able to hide the light in a bushel basket and how evil would come to fear the light, for the light would bring the truth.

Even Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (4), alluded to the opening of God’s word through Christ. God’s mysteries were closed to man until Christ came. But through Christ, the mystery is solved and all are aware of it.

We call this Sunday “The Epiphany of the Lord”. Epiphany is often used to mean that we come to an understanding of what we have been studying. The Magi, however many there might have actually been, came to Bethlehem thinking that they had come to a new-born earthly king. They left aware of a new-born King who transcended heaven and earth. Their own understanding of God’s message to the world had changed.

We live in a society and at a time when we are more interested in the gifts that we can get during the season of Christmas. We focus on the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the Magi brought to the new-born child. We forget the meaning those gifts would have in the years to come. We have been given the opportunity for a great Epiphany of our own, on the order as the one the Magi received. We have the opportunity to change the direction of our life, to go like the Magi in a different direction because of the birth of Christ.

We saw the star, we wondered at its brightness and its luminosity. Did we understand what it was that the star meant?

(1) See http://www.etsu.edu/physics/etsuobs/starprty/22099dgl/planalign.htm among other sites for more on such planetary alignments.

(2) Matthew 2: 1 – 12

(3) Isaiah 60: 1- 6

(4) Ephesians 3: 1 – 12