Do You See The Light


This is the message I presented for the Epiphany of the Lord (2 January 2005) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 60: 1 – 6, Ephesians 3: 1 – 12, and Matthew 2: 1- 12.

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Possibly the two greatest words in scientific discovery are “serendipity” and “epiphany”. Serendipity is defined as the accidental discovery of something. Many different discoveries in science have been termed serendipitous because the discoverer was looking for something else. Whatever the discovery was, the key is that the discoverer was prepared to act upon the unexpected information.

Epiphany is also a commonly used word in the area of science and discovery. It is sometimes paired with what is called the “aha moment”, that moment in a person’s life when a concept or idea becomes clear or understood. It is almost as if a light went off in one’s mind and the concept that one struggled so mightily to learn becomes immensely clear.

What we have to know today is that the wise men, however many there were, did not accidentally discover the Star of Bethlehem. It has been suggested that these wise men were from Babylon and, as such, were familiar with the prophecies proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. So when they saw that star in the East, a light figuratively went off in their collective minds. Here was the sign for which they had so diligently searched for so many years.

It stands to reason that when a light, no matter how small or bright shines, darkness will disappear. The presence of any type of light will always bring hope among despair. This is part of what Isaiah was speaking to. The world was in darkness, figuratively and literally. And the birth of Jesus would provide the light that would lead the people out of the darkness.

We have to understand that the appearance of this light is more than just an illumination of the world; it is a life-changing event. Isaiah’s words today show that things change; the wealth of others comes to those who walk in this new light. It should also be noted that it wasn’t only the lives of those Israelites who read and heard Isaiah’s words; so did lives change for all those who visited the baby Jesus. The wise men were probably prepared to return to their homes via the route they had traveled to Bethlehem but, as noted in the Gospel reading, they were warned not to. For to do so would mean another encounter with King Herod and this encounter would not be as pleasant as the previous one. So they returned by another route and their lives must have changed as they contemplated the nature of all they had seen and heard.

Paul encountered the light on the road to Damascus and we know the changes that encounter made in his life. He speaks of an understanding that only comes by revelation; in other words, Paul had an epiphany that day on the road. This epiphany of Paul’s gave him the opportunity to tell others of God’s grace which is to be given for all and not for just a select few.

The question for today is a simple one; “Do you see the light?” There is a moment in everyone’s life where that light appears. Some call it being born-again; I personally think of it in terms of the epiphany. There is a point in time where a light will go off in your mind and soul and you will suddenly understand that Christ did die for your sins, even though that death and resurrection was over 2000 years before you were even a thought.

And once you come into that light, that light becomes a part of you and as Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” But what are you going to do when this happens? John Wesley wrote “Whatever religion can be concealed is not Christianity . . . it is absolutely contrary to the design of the great author of it.” Like the sunrise that announces the beginning of a new day, so too must believers announce the dawning of God’s reign in this world. We are called to be witnesses to the love, grace, and mercy of God, without which none of us would be here. In a world where a pall of darkness seems to have covered us, the call for bold witness for Jesus Christ has never been more vital and necessary.[1]

The Bishop of the Alabama – West Florida Annual Conference gave a sermon at the last Annual Conference in which he spoke of churches in his Conference that turned off the lights in the church. It was not a happy sermon to read because he notes that a number of churches in that Annual Conference were going to close. He also noted that while the conference did show a net gain in members, it was a smaller gain than in the past and more than half of the churches in that conference received no one on profession of faith. I have no idea if those statistics are the same in the New York Annual Conference but I would not be surprised if there were.

What we might think are problems only in our area appear to be nationwide. At a time when people may be more spirituality sensitive, they are still void of any notion of God’s redemptive action. This shouldn’t be the case, whether it is in Alabama or New York.

The wise men were drawn to Bethlehem because of the light they saw in the East. They knew from their studies that it meant something important and when they discovered it, their lives changed. Isaiah speaks of a light shining in the darkness, illuminating the lives of those who for so long walked in the darkness.

When the disciples first gathered together those first days after the crucifixion and resurrection, they did so in secret. But that doesn’t mean that we have to do so today. The hope of the world is found in Jesus Christ but the world today does not necessarily know that; the last few months make that very clear.

So we must be more than those who live in the light must; we must be those who heed Christ’s call to be the light of the world. It may mean that we will have to take risks, make sacrifices and move out of our comfort zone. Jesus’ statement that we are the light of the world is a call to mission; a call to light up the world with deeds of compassion and concern.

We know that the wise men saw the light and came to Christ, honoring him as the newborn King. We know that they left Bethlehem and traveled home by another way, changed by their encounter with Christ. We know that Saul left Jerusalem for Damascus, intent on persecution of Christians but he came to Damascus as Paul because of his encounter with the light. Do you see the light? What will you do?



[1] Adapted from “Turn on the Light” by the Bishop of the Alabama – West Florida Annual Conference on 7/2/2004.

Have We Learned Anything?


There was an interesting article in The Christian Science Monitor the other day (“Wanted: More science and math teachers in the US”) that caused me to wonder: should I laugh or should I cry? The premise of that article is that there is a drastic shortage of qualified science and mathematics teachers in this country and schools will need some 200,000 such individuals over the next decade.

I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education with an emphasis in chemical education and I have thirty years experience, yet I cannot get schools in this area to look at my resume or vita. Is the fact that I am “old” and have experience a factor in my not being hired? I have thirty years experience plus a commitment and dedication to teaching but no one is interested in hiring me. Why? Is it better for school systems across the country to hire “rookies” with virtually no experience and hope that they last?

More to the point and as the title of this piece implies, when are we going to learn what it takes to improve science and mathematics education in this country?

First, the good news; the article notes that about 1/3 of new science and math teachers typically leave the profession after three years. That’s an improvement; when I started teaching in 1971, it was about 50% over 5 years. But the reasons were about the same (lack of support, poor pay, or poor working conditions). The only problem is that not much else has changed in the thirty-plus years since I started.

The article notes fewer than 6 out of 10 science teachers are certified in the areas that they teach. Those are essentially the same numbers as ten and even twenty years ago.

The article noted that one of the teachers hired had to take courses on how to teach, not just to meet certification requirements but to understand how one successfully teaches science. Now, these are not the type of courses that critics of educational schools so often deride. I agree that there are a number of courses that education majors take that they could probably do without (I have taken one or two such courses) but courses in the methodology of teaching are as important to successful teaching as a core foundation in the subject that you are teaching. As with the statistics about the lack of certified teachers, the preparation of those teachers coming into the classroom is no better than it was ten or twenty years ago.

To me, the central point of the article was its statement that

“The United States is not only facing a dearth of future homegrown scientists and engineers, she and others say, but increasingly, everyday citizens need science literacy.”

And those in science education have been making the comment for the past twenty-plus years. We are still trying to find ways of getting qualified people in mathematics and science into the classroom and yet it doesn’t seem that our efforts have made much difference or impact. This is not the first time someone has suggested ways to improve science education and it is not the first time I have addressed the issue; see “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”.

Why is it then that we keep addressing this same problem?

First, the focus is wrong. Instead of continually seeking new teachers, we should be working with the ones in place. As I noted in my 1990 piece, the ones who are making the best impact on science education in the classroom are the ones who have been teaching for several years. We routinely place our new hires in the lower rated schools and often without mentors. Even if they want to try something new and innovative, many times they do not have the support or equipment needed to implement the changes. The information they often have about teaching is “textbook” oriented but the classroom to which they are often assigned is as far from the textbook as anything imaginable.

It is no wonder that they leave the profession. We also do not give them the opportunity to teach the subject that they have studied. Instead, the new hires get the freshman classes and have to wait for the older teachers to retire before getting a chance to teach the “good” courses.

The second major problem is that we are trying to improve science and mathematics education without supporting science and mathematics instruction. The crisis in science and mathematics today is on the same level or higher than the 1957 crisis caused by the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik. In fact, the crisis today may be greater today because 1) there was a plan in place to respond to the Soviet’s launch and 2) there is no “visible” threat today that compares to the “visible” threat of Sputnik orbiting the earth every 96.2 minutes. The threat today is more subtle because our ability to think and analyze is limited, which is why there is a crisis.

The response to Sputnik was a massive infusion of Federal funds. But over the course of the 1960’s and early 70’s, funds were reduced to a trickle. In addition to supporting various curriculum projects (outlined in “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”), the funds were used to support additional education (I know several individuals who obtained their Master’s degree with NSF funding) and the upgrading of laboratory facilities (this also included buying equipment and chemicals). These funds were critical to the curriculum projects because the curriculum projects were very much laboratory-oriented.

As the funding dried up and ran out, schools quit buying chemicals and equipment and the laboratory portion of the curriculum slowly disappeared. The effect of this is seen in the evolution of the chemistry textbook over the past forty years.

Most of today’s chemistry textbooks are 2nd and 3rd generation descendants of the textbooks and curriculum projects of the 60’s and 70’s. The initial textbooks were very much laboratory-oriented and required lab work by the students to provide the evidence for the theories presented in lecture. While laboratory exercises and experiments were phased out because of increasing costs (many people would be surprised to know that a rise in the price of crude oil often leads to a rise in the price of chemicals for research, development and production), the teaching of theory continued. But without the experiential knowledge gained in the laboratory to support the theory present, theories were taught as if they were facts (and that has caused several other problems).

The solution to the problem, in fact, the solution to the problems with teaching today is demand accountability from our teachers. This is not new (as I noted in the “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”). It is easier to have our students take exams and measure how well they do on the exam but teachers will respond, as was noted in the Wall Street Journal article that I alluded to, by teaching (to) the test and even giving out the answers.

There is a crisis in science and mathematics education. It is not a new crisis but one that has been developing over the past twenty or so years. The answer is not simply to hire new teachers with scientific or mathematical backgrounds and teach them how to teach. We knew twenty years ago that we had to change the nature of professional development programs. It is good to see that the teachers mentioned in the article that precipitated this piece are getting support for their efforts; when I started teaching in 1971, I was required by contract to take similar courses but I received no support. It will take more than offering salaries that entice qualified science and math majors to venture into the classroom and stay for a career; it will take a change in the mind set of the public that our schools are the place where our most valuable resource is educated to move us into the unknown that we call the future.

Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

People walking on the moon?


The last person to walk on the moon was Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17.  He and Harrison Schmidt, the first astronaut who was also a scientist, landed on the moon on December 11, 1972, and left on December 14th.  Unless someone has gone to the moon without us knowing about it, it has been 36 years since anyone has walked on the moon.  For how many students is a discussion of walking on the moon a history lesson rather than a science lesson?

I bring this up, in part because of the pieces I have posted on the crisis in science and math and because of the following cartoon, which I obtained in 1986 (March 2nd, if I am not mistaken).

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The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)


The following letter appeared in the November 13, 1989 issue of Chemical and Engineering News:

Upgrading Science

SIR: Education in the physical/biological sciences and mathematics sectors can be easily (but with bloodletting) upgraded at the precollege level as follows.

Eliminate tenure completely and adopt objective methods of performance review used in industry to weed out the deadwood and reward and attract solid professional talent to primary and secondary school education. Industry no longer has any guarantee of permanent professional employment. This died in the early 1960s. If you can’t produce, out you go — no one good-old-boy system to protect you.

Start attracting enthusiastic, talented people by paying them competitive salaries. If this requires a surtax at the state level, so be it. The time for hand-wringing and bemoaning poor quality technical education must come to an end now! Let’s get our best industrial people together into a task force and get the mechanisms into place that will start the upgrading of our nation’s science and math programs within the next year.

Seymour Broad

Cincinnati

The following was my reply, printed in the February 5, 1990 issue.

Teaching Science Teachers

SIR: Seymour Broad’s letter (C & E N, November 13, 1989) presents an interesting, although possibly wrong, solution to the problem of correcting science education in the U. S. today.

I will not address the issue of tenure in terms of the implication that it is used to hide incompetent or improperly prepared teachers. This is more of a political issue than an education issue. The rational that maintaining tenure does so also ignores the fact that many of the better teachers (as identified by the National Science Teachers Association) have a longer term of service than do most teachers. This would indicate that the problems of improving science education lies more at the administrative levels than it does in the classroom.

Broad is correct in stating the need to attract talented personnel into teaching; yet, he does not appear to realize that the majority of funding for teacher salaries comes from local funding, rather than state sources. Additionally, many schools use a salary schedule independent of teaching area. Changing this salary schedule to reflect market supply and demand is also a political, rather than educational, issue. And if there are changes in salaries, such changes will be made at the administrative level rather than in the classroom.

I do not wish to suggest that there are no educational changes necessary. If it just that, without the support of school administrators, little can be done that will have long-term affects. Borrowing the business analogy of Broad, would 3M’s Post-it Notes be successful if 3M did not have the policy of allowing individuals to pursue other ideas? It has been shown time and again that innovation in the business world comes from outside the normal channels of company development. If innovation is to occur in the classroom, similar administrative support must exist.

Let us take Broad’s suggestion to remove all the deadwood and replace them with new teachers. What will happen if we get new teachers into the classroom based solely on their ability in science? There have been arguments that state graduates are not prepared for industrial work, so how can we assume that these same graduates would be prepared to teach? Knowledge of the subject matter is not enough for effective instruction to take place. There must be some consideration for how students learn as well as what they are to learn. This is evident in the studies on how teaching is done. In most cases, teaching is done in the same manner as the teacher was taught. Oftentimes, this means lectures with little laboratory instruction (or if there is laboratory instruction, with limited connections between the two). Since much of what is done in science occurs in the laboratory, these typical instructional processes do not match the manner in which science operates, and, as a result, do not give students a true picture of the subject.

The current emphasis on teacher evaluation does not take this into consideration, either. It is proper to suggest, as Broad does, that more objective means of performance evaluation be adopted. However, current evaluation of teacher performance is often done by measuring student learning. As a November 2, 1989, article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, this process is open to much abuse and does little to meet the goals it was intended to meet. On November 16, 1989, the Wall Street Journal presented an article about alternative student evaluation methods. Such alternative methods can work only if the teacher has a firm understanding of the subject and teaching processes. If we are to measure teacher performance, it must come independent of student learning (though there is a probable correlation between the two).

Changing the way in which prospective science teachers (including those at the college level) are prepared cannot be done overnight. In the meantime, what can be done to help current classroom teachers? In an article by Penick, Yager, and Bonnstetter in Educational Leadership (October, 1986), it was noted that those teachers identified as exemplary continually upgraded their own content knowledge in addition to teaching skills. The critical need here is to help all classroom teachers update their knowledge of science.

ACS, through its local sections, can do much to help improve local science instruction. Are local teachers invited to the section meetings even if they are not ACS members? ACS has provisions for affiliated members. Does the section offer a speaker’s list to the local schools so teachers now who to call when t hey need answers to questions? What activities do sections offer to provide continuing education for local teachers? One of the greatest needs in secondary education is how to deal with the chemical stores developed over the years. Here is an area where industrial safety personnel can work with teachers to solve a major problem.

The call for improvement in science education is not new. The need for a scientifically literate populace is well understood and need not be redefined here. What we need to see is how individuals and groups are working to make that improvement.

Tony Mitchell

Science Education

University of Texas of the Permian Basin

Odessa, TX

Be It Resolved


This is the message I presented on the Epiphany of the Lord (4 January 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  I used the Scriptures for the New Year instead of the lectionary for the Epiphany of the Lord (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, and Matthew 25: 31 – 46).

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This is the time of year when we look at things past and things yet to come. But time is a fleeting thing, and looking forward is difficult to do. There are many shows that will speak of things yet to come during the coming year but very few of these shows will come back next year and talk about how their predictions came out.

There are those who would say that John the Evangelist saw the future in his writing of the Book of Revelation. But John was writing to a group of Christians in seven different churches, each with their own problems, each with their own cares. His was not a prediction of the future but a warning of what was to come unless changes were made.

John didn’t see an end to time but rather the cause of time. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” was not a statement coming at the end of time but rather a statement of continuation. John recognized that God’s time and presence were continual while ours was not. We may not see much in the future to come but God is the future and in that future we have hope.

At the time that John wrote the Book of Revelations, Christians were experiencing the first of many persecution. To the readers, especially in the seven churches to whom the Book was directed, it was necessary to give them hope and show that there was a promise for the future.

And that is why the Preacher writes about time. The Preacher, as the author of Ecclesiastes is commonly known, saw time in passages and seasons, in moments when one should think, pause, and consider. Life was not simply a collection of bits and pieces of things done and yet to be done. Rather, life was a balance of actions and tasks.

The Preacher knew that life was futile when it was seen as a collection of things solely measured by time. Life was more than chasing after things that would not exist beyond the moment of the chase; life was more than a measure of the time we are on this planet. The Preacher knew and wrote that if we see life only in terms of what we have done, we can never even begin to see beyond today. Putting things into categories does keep things in order but it does little to help us see or understand God’s purpose.

Though we would like to even begin understanding God’s purpose, we cannot even begin to comprehend what it might be. But that should not stop us from trying. That is the very essence of the difference between our souls and us. We have been made in God’s image so we have an inborn inquisitiveness to find out about external realities. By coming to know our Creator, we can find our peace. The whole prelude to the reading of Ecclesiastes for today shows that without that purpose, all is folly.

All we can see are the micro-moments of our own existence in the grand span of eternity. But those moments give us a glimpse of what is to come. The Scriptures call us to live a life in robust faith, even during times of trial and pain. For we know that in the grand scheme of things God will make everything beautiful.

But therein lies the problem. We don’t like the idea that our time is limited. We don’t like the notion that in the grand scheme of things we are simply a blip in the passage of time. We are so caught up in our battles with time, we forget about others. Jesus spoke of the people missing Him when He was tired, poor, hungry, and homeless. But the people didn’t even know what he was talking about. “When did we see you hungry, or tired, or poor, or homeless?” they asked.

The Gospel message for today is interesting. It speaks of the Second Coming of Christ but it does not give a time when one might expect it to happen. And that is the point.

Jesus said we would never know the day, the hour, the time or the place of His coming. But our preparations should not be limited because we do not know; rather, our preparations should increase. It is easy to say that we are prepared but are we?

What would happen if someone came up to you and asked for help getting a bit to eat? What would happen if someone came up to you and asked you for a ride someplace down the road? Would you help them get the food they needed? Would you give them the ride?

It isn’t likely that such things are going to happen to you every day but it begs the question as to how you treat people you meet every day? How do you treat the people around you? Do you treat them the way you wish to be treated? Or is your treatment conditional? Do you treat them well when they do things for you?

It is very simple; our preparation of Christ is not based on apocalyptic visions or our random acts of kindness to strangers. It is based on what we do each day to those people whom we are in contact with every day.

That is why I make such a big deal about reaching out to those who are members of this church but are not here on a regular basis. But it has to be more than simply my sending letters to them. Because the letters that I send are the letters of a pastor, warning members of what will happen if they do not take action. But the words that come from the membership tell those individuals that they are in fact missed and that they are still considered a part of the community.

There really is no way that we can determine what will happen if we ignore these inactive members. But a church that does not care for its own will slowly die. A church that does not show care or concern for its own cannot show care or concern for others.

And if there is to be a Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church in 2005, it will be because there was an effort made to reach out to those in the community and try and bring them back in. Like those who heard the words of Jesus but did not know when they had missed their opportunity, so too will the opportunities for the growth of this church be fleeting and quickly gone if one is not careful.

We begin each year with resolutions, actions that we want to take that will make us better. I hope that the members of this church will resolve to reach out to the other members of this church who are not here and say to them, “You are still a part of this community and you are missed.”

John was writing at a time when the future was bleak, when the whole idea of Christianity was in doubt. But he saw hope for the future; he saw knew that God would be there. The Preacher wrote at a time when he thought his future was bleak; when he could see no purpose for living. But he saw hope; he saw that in all there was and would be God would be there. He gave him hope.

Jesus pointed out that He was here around and among us. Our hope and future lie in our ability to bring His presence into our lives and into the lives of others. I would hope and pray that we resolved to carry that mission into the future as well.

The Light We See


This is the message that I presented at Neon UMC (Neon, KY) on The Epiphany of the Lord, 3 January 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 60: 1 – 6, Ephesians 3: 1 – 12, and Matthew 2: 1- 12.

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The month of January is the appropriate month to begin the New Year. For it is named after the god, Janus, who had the ability to look backward to where he had been at the same time that he was looking forward to the future where he might be going. At this time of the year, we take stock of what we did last year and hopefully make notes so that we do not make the same mistakes again. However, there is a limitation to this approach because we can never adequately determine the direction that we are to take.

Even though the Magi knew the direction they had to take to meet the newborn king, they still did not know the exact location, which is why they stopped and asked Herod for help. The Magi knew the prophecies which foretold of the birth of Jesus and looked for the sign that would tell them when the birth had happened. But all that knowledge was not enough for them to know where exactly he was born.

It is important to note that having met the Christ Child, the direction of the Magi’s lives changed rather dramatically. For after meeting the Christ Child, an angel of the Lord came to them and advised them to take a different path home, rather than returning to Herod as was originally planned.

Meeting Christ does change the direction of one’s life. As Paul noted in his letter to the Ephesians, “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you,”. Everyone knew that Paul had met Jesus in a rather dramatic fashion and not only was the direction of his life changed, so too was his name.

When John and Charles Wesley returned from England in 1738, they felt that there missionary work in Georgia was a failure. Though both brothers felt that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their backgrounds, neither brother could truthfully say that they trusted the Lord.

But with that moment that we have come to know as Aldersgate, John Wesley’s life changed. Wesley wrote,

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

The star of Bethlehem offered the Magi a wonderful light, directing them towards the Christ Child. The light that Saul, the persecutor of Christians, encountered on the road to Damascus changed his life so that he became Paul, the missionary to the world. The presence of the Holy Spirit, the Light of the World, gave the John Wesley the hope and direction he needed to lead the Methodist Revival.

What does the presence of the Light mean for us? What does meeting Jesus, whether as the Christ Child or as the grown-up Jesus mean for us today? The first lines of the Old Testament reading for today tell us

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm.

Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.

Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

Whether our journey in life requires that we travel to new places far away like the Magi or has us stay home, it is a journey that is changed by the presence of Christ in our life. If somehow we ignore His presence, we are like those covered in darkness. Yet, if we accept Christ in our life, our lives change. Perhaps we do not receive the riches that are spoken of in Isaiah but we become partakers of the mystery that Paul understood.

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

The birth of Christ is a bright shining light in the darkness of the world. Like the Magi, we see that light shining on the horizon. The journey that we do make through this coming year depends what we do. Should we ignore that light, should we try to stay on that path covered in darkness, then we have no guarantees about what the coming year will bring. And the journey through this year will be made alone.

But if we see the Light, the Light of God’s Glory, if we feel the warmth of the Spirit, such as Wesley did so many years ago, we know that our lives will change. Nor longer will we worry about what the year brings because we know that we are not making the journey alone. Wesley understood that once he accepted Christ as his savior, he was no longer alone. The assurance gave him the strength he needed to go on. Like Wesley, the presence of Christ in our live provides a joy and comfort like no other feeling in the world.

And What Change Will We Make?


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, December 28, 2008. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3, Galatians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 2: 22 – 40.

The Sunday after Christmas is either the hardest Sunday or the second hardest to prepare for with, no doubt, the Sunday after Easter being the other Sunday. Attendance is lower than the previous four weeks because the reasons for attending church in December are now past tense. Unless there are dramatic changes in an individual’s life, the odds are that we won’t see many of the people until perhaps Easter and most definitely not until the next Advent season. And this year, between the downturn of the economy and the bad weather, there wasn’t much of a Christmas “presence” anyway.

And with the New Year now fast approaching, our thoughts are as much on the celebrations and parties that we will attend on New Year’s Eve as they are on attendance at church on Sunday. At least, the message of hope and the promise of a better tomorrow that comes with Christmas will stay with us through the first few months of 2009 as we wait to see if the new political administration can turn this country around and bring this country back to the glory that it has lost.

I, for one, would like to see this country turned around, though I am not certain about the glory part. Because the glory that everyone wants for the United States is a glory found in “old school” thinking, a style of thinking that preceded and precipitated the problems that we are faced with right now. And I am not altogether certain that this incoming administration is going to have much in the way of new thinking, not because they have a lack of it but, rather, because the current culture of political thought and machination will not allow it.

Over the past few days, I have had opportunities to think about this change in thinking and what it means. So many of the churches that I work with are locked into a mindset as to what they have to do in order to get people into their church on a weekly basis and to keep them coming back. The creation of new forms of worship, that is, the inclusion of praise music and “free-form” services, has done a lot to bring people in. But, by the same token, it may have done much to exacerbate differences within congregations.

There are those who would like to see more modern music, be it rock and roll, jazz, or whatever (though let’s limit the amount of whatever we use). But for every person who wants to “upgrade” the music, there is someone who feels the hymnal that we have in the United Methodist Church is just fine and we should stay with that. There are some, I am sure, who are still complaining about the revision in the hymnal that moved “O for a Thousand Tongues” from #1 to #57.

As I have suggested before in “Rock and Roll Revival” and the follow up pieces, “The Rock and Roll Revival Continued” and “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited”, there are plenty of songs with Biblical themes that we can use in church today. And as I noted in “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited”, there is an interesting piece of liturgy involving U2.

The key point about changing the music of a worship service isn’t the music itself but rather the quality of the music that is played and the “attitude” with which it is performed and sung. Bad music, no matter the type, is always bad music and to sing without meaning it (to paraphrase John Wesley’s “sing lustily and with good courage) just won’t work.

Change for change’s sake is never a good idea nor is not changing something because “that’s they way we have always done it.” If we are not open to change and if the change we seek is not real change then we are going to have problems in the future.

The Gospel reading tells of Joseph and Mary taking the new-born Jesus to the temple for the first time. At the temple, they encountered Simeon and Anna, individuals who would see in the baby Jesus the fulfillment of the prophets long before anyone else. Simeon announced that there would be some who would see in Jesus the hopes and promises of the future while others would be blind to what He would do. He also announced the Jesus would be misunderstood and contradicted, resulting, of course, in His rejection and death on the cross some thirty years later.

And what I find interesting is the last line of Simeon’s thoughts, (as translated in The Message), “But the rejection will force honesty as God reveals who they really are.” (Luke 2: 40). If there are those today who hold tightly onto the power that they have acquired over the ages and are reluctant to let go, it will be obvious. If there are those who have gained power but in doing so have split apart a community, that too will be obvious.

With Jesus’ birth, there is a new way of thinking, a manner which cannot be accomplished by old means. It will be a challenge for many because they have literally fought to get what they have and they are not willing to give it up; yet, when Jesus had the opportunity to grab the power, He gave it up. Simeon and Anna saw a new world in Jesus, a world in which He was the Christ. They welcomed the change.

In Clarence Jordan’s translation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians for today, we read that we were ruled by the deeply entrenched patterns of the culture in which we lived. But Jesus’ birth and resurrection rescues us from being caught in that system. Yet, Paul continues in verse 8 to point out how the Galatians, even knowing what being a Christian was all about, continued to follow the same old rules and regulations that existed before Christ. If we are to begin a new year with a vision of change and a promise of hope for tomorrow, then we cannot continue following the same methods, procedures, and policies that have lead us to this point.

The prophet Isaiah announced to the world that there was a new beginning, much like a wedding. A wedding is an opportunity for a new beginning as the bride and groom leave their old families behind and begin a new family. The word righteousness is very prominent in the reading from Isaiah for today and well it should be, for righteousness denotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard. It has meaning when applied to honorable business dealings (something that has been sorely lacking in the past few years) and in proper speech (which should come as a surprise to many religious and quasi-religious individuals).

As I was completing this piece, I thought about a piece of music from my high school days which I thought involved the word change in its title. In looking for the piece I came across another piece which I think is highly appropriate for this time and moment (see “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, performed by Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore”).

Unfortunately, I was either thinking of “Shape of Things to Come” by Max Frost and the Troopers

or “Shape of Things” by the Yardbirds.

If we want to keep what we have, then we do not need to make any change. But if we are to bring about true change in this world, we will first to need to change how we think. If we understand that Jesus was born so that we might live and that if we change our lives (in other words, repent of our past lives and begin a new life in Jesus) then we will see the hope and promise that we so much want to find. What change shall we each make as we begin the New Year?

The Gifts We Received


This was the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 1st Sunday after Christmas, 29 December 2002.  The Scripture readings for this Sunday were Isaiah 63: 7 – 9; Hebrews 2: 10 – 18, and Matthew 2: 13 – 23.

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“Well? Did you like your presents? Were they the right size? The right color? Were they what you wanted? Did you have to take it back and get something else?” These, I am sure, are some of the questions often asked on Christmas morning. They come about because I think we give gifts for two reasons: 1) because they are practical or 2) because they mean something. The problem may be that we sometimes confuse the two purposes. We also give them in expectation of receiving gifts or because it is expected that we do so.

The tradition of gifts comes, of course, from the three wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the child. Tradition in the church is that the gold was used to pay the expenses of the family as they fled to Egypt when King Herod ordered the killing of the infants in Bethlehem following the non-return of the wise men to his palace. The frankincense and myrrh were kept and used to prepare Jesus’ body following the crucifixion.

But somewhere along the line, we have forgotten why we are even giving the gifts in the first place. If we were to monitor the news broadcasts during the month of December, it would seem that the purpose of Christmas was to revive and maintain the national economy. And having giving our gifts, it becomes our national duty to return to the mall the day after Christmas for an additional round of buying and exchanging of gifts. I think that we, individually and collectively, need to stop and pause for a moment and think about what this time of year is all about.

It isn’t so much the gifts that we give to our family and friends or the gifts that we get in return. It is the gift that we were given some two thousand years ago that really counts; it is a gift that cannot be measured in a monetary sense, a gift that even the prophets could not adequately describe.

“for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.” (Isaiah 61: 10)

The birth of Jesus was more than simply a birth; it was a gift to all the people of the world. It was a gift for which the impact was almost immediate. When Mary and Joseph, as the parents of a newborn son were required by law to do, brought Jesus to the Temple, there were two people there for whom this birth was special.

Simeon was waiting for the Consolation of Israel (Luke 2: 25), the Comforter of Israel, a hope that parallels the hope of deliverance first expressed by Mary and Joseph at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. Simeon had known for some time that he would see the salvation, the rescuing of Israel in his lifetime and this was accomplished through the presence of the Holy Spirit present in Jesus that day in the temple. Anna was also someone whose life had been devoted to the work of God. And when she saw Jesus she knew that her work and prayers had been answered.

We are not necessarily expected to react in the same way that Simeon and Anna did upon the occasion of Jesus’ birth; but we are expected to do more than simply celebrate the birth. His birth was a gift from God to us and it is a gift that cannot be simply put on the back shelf of our lives.

This spring, as part of my certification training, I had to review a book. I chose a book entitled “Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs: Saints and Their Stories” by James C. Howell. In this book, Dr. Howell writes about various Christians whose belief in Christ, their faith in Jesus directed their duties, tasks, and lives. It probably does not come as a surprise that I found the chapter on misfits especially enjoyable.

One such misfit was a Georgian by the name of Clarence Jordan. Raised as a Baptist in rural Georgia, he came to question the hypocrisy of singing songs like “Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” in church while seeing the discrimination and harassment of blacks outside the church walls. His struggles led him to seek a doctorate in Greek New Testament and then to serve as a Baptist preacher. In that regard he is best known as the author of the “Cotton Patch Version” of the New Testament. In this adaptation of the New Testament, he told many of Jesus’ parables from the standpoint of a Southern preacher. His own faith in Jesus Christ caused him and led him to challenge others to do the same.

He established a community in Georgia based on Christian principles, principles that admittedly did not go down well with the so-called white Christian community of Georgia in the late 1940′s. It was a community that on more than one occasion was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan.

After one incident with the Klan, Mr. Jordan asked his brother Robert (later a Georgia state senator and justice on the state Supreme Court) to be the community’s attorney. Robert declined, stating that to do so would destroy his political aspiration and that he might lose his job and house and everything for which he had worked.

In challenging Robert to do what was right rather than what was the expedient thing, Clarence Jordan reminded his brother of that day when they were both boys and they had come to the altar of their church to accept Christ and become members of the church. In response Robert Jordan said that he followed Jesus up to a point, to that point just before the cross but certainly not on the cross.

Clarence responded by saying that his brother was no disciple, an admirer of Jesus but not a disciple. He even suggested that his brother should go back to that church and tell the congregation that he wasn’t a disciple of Christ but rather a good admirer of the man.

Robert Jordan replied to his brother’s challenge by saying that if he did just that there wouldn’t be a church. And that is when Clarence asked his brother if he did indeed have a church. Later, Robert saw the light and became a true disciple, dedicated to the work of Christ in the world.

We have been a great gift. You can almost hear Paul shouting as he wrote those words in Galatians that the gift we have been given frees us in this world of sin and death. And you can sense what Isaiah must have felt when he completed writing those words that we read today:

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” (Isaiah 62: 1)

There is a challenge before us. That is why I made the questionnaires that came with the bulletin today. Take this questionnaire home, think and pray about it but do answer it. This is for all the members of the church, not just a select few. As we read in the Psalter this morning, “Young men and women, old and young together!”

You are a part of this church and a part of its future; without your input, that future becomes a little less clear. There is a deadline of January 12th, two weeks away. This will give us time to look at the responses and see what the future for this church is. As this year ends and the New Year begins we must begin thinking about what it will bring.

You may choose not to fill it out, you may feel that you cannot offer anything but I want you to stop and think about what you think you are. Are you an admirer of Jesus or simply a disciple? We have received a great gift but now I ask you what you are going to do it?



Here is a copy of the questionnaire that I mentioned in the message.  Unfortunately, some six years after the the questionnaire and the attempt to revitalize the church, it only meets once a month on a Sunday afternoon.

Where do you see Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church in

1) One year?

2) Five years?

3) Ten years?

What one thing needs to be done now to meet the goal of

4) One year?

5) Five years?

6) Ten years?

7) How will you be involved in meeting these goals?

And What Presents Did You Get?


This was the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 1st Sunday after Christmas, 26 December 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3, Galatians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 2: 22 – 40.

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As I was preparing this sermon, I thought that it might be better entitled “This Time Next Year” because though it speaks of what we got this year, it also speaks about what we will be doing at this time next year.

As I think I have mentioned before, I view the travel through life and time as a journey, one often bumpy and sometimes without a clear-cut destination. But as we come to the end of this year and we begin the next year, I think that we as a church need to at least think about what it is going to bring.

Now, some of the things that I hope will happen have in fact already started or at to start soon. As we have already done this morning, there is a congregational response to the scripture readings. I did this so that you may take a more active, even if it were a minor, part in the service.

Over the coming weeks, you will be contacted about serving as either one of the ushers or as a liturgist. I know that this may sound scary and that your first inclination might be to say no or that you wouldn’t know what to do but remember that almost every prophet that God called to serve had the same inclination. And no matter what the situation was or what each prophet was asked to do, God provided the means and the support that they needed to accomplished their given task.

At the December Administrative Council meeting, the motion was approved that 10% of each Sunday’s offering or $40.00, whichever was the greater, would be set aside to met our apportionments for the year 2000. I truly believe, and I believe that it is a matter of record in the Council minutes, that with this decision and your efforts, we will be begin paying our 2001 apportionments, not in January, but in December of this year. It is possible that we may even begin paying them sooner. The financial challenges facing Walker Valley Church this year are great and after the budget and other financial matters are approved at the Church Conference on January 9th, we will look at what each member must do.

The board to my right has shown the attendance for last Sunday for a number of weeks and I have noticed that the number has crept up. I do not know what the average attendance for 1999 was but I am looking for an average attendance approaching 70. The goals of the church, whatever they may be, are easier to reach when you have people to call on.

As was announced this morning, we are asking Eric Cook to serve as youth representative to the Board of Trustees. While this position is a non-voting position, Eric will have the right to speak at the Trustees and his thoughts will be heard. The Nominations & Personnel Committee, as allowed to do in the Discipline, have also nominated two other youth of this church to serve on the Nominations & Personnel and Pastor-Parish Relations Committees.

The youth of this church are where the future of the church ultimately lies and, by placing these three persons on the committees, we are saying that they have a voice in the affairs of the church. I am also asking today that the committees designated to serve the various age-level, family, and youth ministries as well as the Sunday School develop a regular schedule of activities for the youth.

With a regular schedule of activities, open to all the youth of this area, not just our youth, I hope that the UMYF, the United Methodist Youth Fellowship, can be renewed. I also feel that it would appropriate to consider renewing the United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men as well.

By now, you are probably thinking that my dreams are too big and that I am asking too much. And I know that if it were left solely up to me or to any one individual that nothing that I see or hope for will come to pass. But there are two things present or soon to be present in this church that give me the optimism to set these goals.

First, I am not asking individuals to do these things. Yes, as an individual you come to church and you give your tithes and offerings, but the work of the church is done by all of the church, not select individuals. That is why we have a committee on finance to set the budget, that is why we have a nominations & personnel committee to find the people to serve in leadership positions, that is why we have committees for the various age-level and family groups, the youth, and the Sunday school. It is through the efforts of many, working towards common goals that success is reached.

And I know this as well. I know the goals can be reached, not because any other individual or I say that they can be met or because any one individual does all the work. I know that the goals can be met because we each received a present for Christmas. On Friday night, I spoke of the presents that Christ was given and the present that He gave us. Through Christ we have been given one other present, as rich and bejeweled as the gifts Isaiah described in the Old Testament reading today.

“for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me wit the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

Isaiah also pointed out that everyone would see this gift.

“The nations will see your vindication, and all the kings your glory.”

He is of course speaking of the birth of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life.

When Jesus and his family came to the temple that day described in the Gospel, both Simeon and Anna saw the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus. As Simeon said,

“for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel.”

This is not a singular gift but one given to us all. As Paul wrote the Galatians, “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts”.

We all received a great number of presents yesterday but the greatest one was perhaps not gaily wrapped or even in a box. It is the one that is in our hearts, it was the gift of the Holy Spirit given to us by Christ through his death on the cross and resurrection. As we celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ, we also celebrate our own rebirth and the renewal of His spirit in us.

There is a year of hope and promise in front of us. It is a journey that will not be an easy one. If we try to undertake all that is ask by ourselves individually, our efforts will be fruitless, our journey long and lonely. But God said that he would never ask us to do anything that we could not do and He has promised to always be with us. If we allow the Holy Spirit to reside in our hearts and our lives and guide and direct us, this coming year and the journey we make will be a joyous and happy one and we will not be alone.

My friends, I ask you these questions today, “What presents did you get?” and “Where will you be this time next year?”

The Christmas Miracle


Here are my thoughts for Christmas, 2008.

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What is the true meaning of Christmas? Has it gotten to the point where Christmas carries the same meaning for the month of December as the name aspirin does the Bayer? Is Christmas so much a part of our December lifestyle that we don’t even pause to think about what we should be doing?

We hear politicians almost automatically end their speeches with “God Bless America” and woe be to any politician should they not add “so help me God” to the end of their oath of office, even if it is not part of the official oath. We put “In God We Trust” on our money and we raised all sorts of ruckus when it was placed on the side of the coin instead of the full side (there are numismatic terms for where it goes but I don’t remember them). We get bent out of shape when someone argues about taking the phrase “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, even though the phrase was never in the original Pledge and only put into the Pledge during the 1950’s, at the height of the great “Communists in the closet” scare.

We hear commentators on the far right get all bent out of shape when some store uses “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in their advertising and call it the “war on Christmas”. But these commentators are not interested in the meaning of Christmas; all they are interested in is that our economy and Christmas be linked together. We have lost the meaning of Thanksgiving through the need to have sales over the Thanksgiving holiday and now it seems as if all we hear at Christmas time are economic reports and the need for lots and lots of spending to keep our economy strong.

This may be the year a miracle is needed then because it will almost certainly take some sort of miracle for this country’s economy to recover to the level everyone wants it at. But that’s not the true miracle of Christmas and unless this country seriously stops what it is doing and begins to think about what Christmas means, it will take more than a miracle to solve the problems of this country.

Because the problems of this country are not just economic; they are social as well. The problems of this country are not found in how much we spend and buy but in the fact that we equate success with how much we spend and how much we earn. And while we focus on monetary gains, we forget that there are many people who will not have anything this Christmas and that a simple dinner of hot dogs and beans may be a luxury dinner.

Society has used Christianity to justify war, violence, racism, and suppression while at the same time saying it represented peace and hope. It is no wonder that so many people are leaving the church today or finding solace in other places. The words that they hear do not correspond with the actions they see.

And in a world drowning in despair and lost in the present darkness, the one thing the world does not need is a confusing message from Christ’s representatives on earth. The core message of the Gospel, in fact the core message of the entire Bible, is to care for other individuals, no matter who they might be. But we have transformed the message of the Gospel into a message of the individual first. Instead of a community of believers dedicated to the care of all the members of the community, we have become a corporate entity that serves the interests of selected individuals.

Instead of caring for the world in which we live, we quite willing pursue policies that pillage the environment. Instead of challenging our youth to see beyond the boundaries of tomorrow, we seek to limit how they learn and what they learn. We call for accountability from our teachers yet we won’t put money into the educational processes so that our children can truly learn.

And while we worry what will happen if our corporations fail, we show little concern for the people who work for those corporations and who may lose their jobs because of the greed and incompetence of upper management. We call for sacrifices and givebacks from the workers but we don’t demand accountability or sacrifices from the recipients of our government.

Against this background of indifference, antipathy, and ignorance a child will be born. This child will be born into a world of limits and rules, a world where economic status guarantees privilege and success, a world where one is born and who their parents are will determine their future.

The birth of Jesus will be announced to the lowliest of society, the shepherds in the field. The wisest and perhaps richest of society, the Magi, will seek Him out. The message of Christ’s birth some two thousand years ago will echo across the land of his birth and around the globe. It will echo down through the ages to this day and place. It is a message that transforms people and changes societies.

In the darkness of the season, a light first appeared. In the stillness of the night, a tiny cry was heard. The message of Christ began in that light and with that cry; it is the miracle of Christmas. Shall that light be seen in the darkness of today; shall the cry of joy be heard this year?

If people choose to ignore this message and choose to put themselves before others; if people choose to ignore this message and put corporations before individuals; if people choose to maintain the status quo of wealth and privilege then there will be no miracle this year.

But if those who call themselves Christian again hear the message and take it into the heart and soul and put the message into action, then there will be a miracle this Christmas. If society is transformed from what it is now into what it can be by the people who celebrate this birth, then there will be a miracle.