A Dialogue of Science and Faith


The genesis of this piece came when I chanced upon an article about Isaac Newton and the Bible (“Sir Isaac Newton and the Bible” by Professor Arthur B. Anderson). This is an extremely laudatory and what can be considered a very truthful piece. The problem lies in the interpretation of the information presented, as illustrated by the last two paragraphs:

Sir Isaac Newton and all reputable scientists believed that today’s scarred and marred earth as the result of the great Flood. This was the common opinion of the majority of educated people until around the year 1870!!

In conclusion: Sir Isaac Newton was totally correct in his Observations. If the greatest scientist who ever lived had no problem believing the Bible, what excuse will evolutionists, atheists, agnostics, or other so called men of science have on Judgment Day!!

I will not disagree with Professor Anderson’s assertion that Newton, reputable scientists and the majority of educated people believed in the Flood until 1870, for that is essentially correct. Up until that point, there was no reason to believe otherwise.

But his selection of the year 1870 coincides rather nicely with the debate on the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. It also coincides rather nicely with the development of geology and explanations that went beyond a Biblical explanation.

The problem that I have with his conclusion is two-fold. First, nothing in what Professor Anderson writes suggests what Isaac Newton would have said or thought if he had lived at the time of Darwin.

He was a physicist and a mathematician; his work on the science of optics, the development of calculus, and the development of the idea behind gravity all suggest a man interested in what was happening in the world; would he have dismissed Darwin’s work without a thought or might he have explored the premise behind the work? These are questions we can ask but which we cannot answer.

Second, Professor Anderson’s article also leaves out quite a bit of information about Newton, information that calls into question his rather emphatic conclusion.

In “A Study in Scarlet” Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson that “it is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.” A corollary to this is that you cannot and should not make the facts fit the theory. Professor Anderson’s conclusion seems to fit into that latter category. He wants, as do several others, to find scientists who have a professed interest in the Bible and God in order to discredit others or to give credence to their own viewpoint.

Like so many who will tell you that Thomas Jefferson was guided by God in the writing of the Declaration of Independence or how our founding fathers were devoted Christians, the evidence offered is often incomplete and the conclusions drawn are incorrect (see “Don’t Know Much History”).

Tycho Brahe is best known in history for the detailed observations that he made of the planets and the stars prior to the invention of the telescope. His observations of a supernova in 1572 contradicted the accepted notion that the cosmos (or universe) was fixed and unchanging. His observations of the movement of a comet in 1577 showed that comets were further away from the earth than was the moon, a conclusion that also contradicted the teachings of Aristotle.

In his observations of the heavens, Brahe determined that there was no parallax for the stars. Parallax is the apparent movement of something when you look at the object with one eye open and the other shut and then change the eye which is open and the eye which is shut. As you blink your eyes, the object you are looking at appears to move; that is what is known as parallax. (See http://www.digitalsky.org.uk/lunar_parallax.html or http://spot.colorado.edu/~underwod/astr/para.html for a demonstration.) Brahe showed that the stars did not exhibit such movement and this meant that either 1) the stars were very far away or 2) the earth was motionless at the center of the universe.

Like so many other instances of human thought, Brahe correctly formulated the responses to his thought but then chose the wrong answer. He did not believe that the stars could be as far away from the earth as his observations suggested so he concluded that the earth was motionless and at the center of the universe. (Adapted from http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/history/brahe.html)

Isaac Newton did believe in the Bible as it was written; he had no other information upon which to make a conclusion. In fact, Newton’s writings concerning the Bible were as numerous as his other works and this should not be surprising considering that he was interested in the relationship of God to the universe. His work on the discovery of the law of gravitation told him how gravity worked but not why it worked. His study of the Bible was as much driven by a desire to understand how God made the universe as it was to understand who God was.

My notes on Isaac Newton include a book by Michael White, Isaac Newton – The Last Sorcerer and “Newton’s Hair” by Mark S. Lesney from Today’s Chemist at Work (April, 2003) that relied in part on White’s work. In his book, Michael White also describes the work that Newton did with regards to a scholarly examination of the Book of Daniel and an attempt to determine the end of time (which White says Newton determined to be 1948).

What is also included in the White biography that is not included in the Anderson article is that Newton was a Christian apostate and an adherent to the Arian heresy, a belief that Jesus was not divine. A further reading showed that even though he signed papers agreeing to a career in the ministry following his graduation with his Bachelor and Master’s degrees, he was reluctant to take that step when he was awarded his doctorate. It took a special dispensation from the King to allow him to remain as the Lucasian professor (a dispensation that still is in effect today).

We cannot say whether Newton would have accepted or rejected Darwin’s ideas. History tells us that he was very much opposed to those whose ideas were contrary to his own but we have nothing to suggest what he would have done if he had been presented with Darwin’s theory. But if we are to apply modern day situations to Isaac Newton and his own beliefs about God, Christ, and the church, it is very likely that many churches today would have rejected him for his thoughts and statements.

My own curiosity about the idea that Isaac Newton might have had fundamentalist type religious beliefs led me to another article, “Maxwell, Molecules, and Evolution” by Charles Petzold. In this article, Petzold points out that James Clerk Maxwell and several other early scientists (Lord Kelvin, Robert Boyle, Johannes Kepler, Michael Faraday, and Samuel F. B. Morse) are listed as “Christian men of science”. Now, it would be very difficult to presume that either Boyle or Kepler were opposed to Darwin’s theory for the simple fact is that they didn’t even know that there was such a theory. As Petzold also points out, the presumption that Maxwell might have been opposed to Darwin’s theory is made by very carefully selecting the words that Maxwell spoke and using them out of the context in which they were spoken.

It strikes me that modern day creationists or those who expound on the notion of intelligent design would quickly add Robert Boyle and Johannes Kepler to a list of scientists. I am sure that along with Newton, they accepted the notion of a creator who put into play the work of the universe. But like Newton, their belief in God is radically different from what they would have you believe it to be.

Robert Boyle could hardly be considered the paragon of virtue that one might suspect when given the label of “Christian man of science.” Now, I am familiar with Robert Boyle as the father of modern day chemistry. But it was a surprise to me that there was a corollary between his life and mine. In one aspect, I would agree with those who say that our students today are not given the full story about the individuals who laid the basis for what we do today. But I think that such full disclosures must include all the stories and not just the ones that support the point that the presenter wishes to present.

When he was young, Boyle was introduced to the works of Galileo and he became a strong supporter of his philosophy and approach. It was this that led Boyle to the study of science and mechanics, a study that would be reflected in his later achievements. But at the same time that he was being introduced to Galileo, he also experienced another transformative event that would shape his life, his philosophy and his science, a profound religious experience. In his autobiography, Boyle noted that that his conversion occurred during a majestic thunderstorm and that his spiritual change would be enduring and led him towards a strongly theistic perspective that informed his views on natural philosophy.

In 1643, at the age of 16, Boyle’s father died and he inherited the family estate. Here he settled in to begin a life as a writer, not of scientific manuscripts, but pious, moralistic tracts inspired by his newfound Christian faith.

He would begin the studies that would lead to the writing of The Skeptical Chemist shortly after this. His work in chemistry was aimed at establishing chemistry as a mathematical science that was based on a mechanistic theory of nature.

But even while developing the experimental methods would make chemistry a science, Robert Boyle, like Isaac Newton, also studied alchemy. While we today may see the difference between the two areas, it is likely that such practitioners like Newton and Boyle did not. It can even be suggested that the work that Newton and Boyle did in alchemy was driven by their religious beliefs.

Boyle believed wholeheartedly in the existence of a supernatural realm, a world in which humankind had little experience. For him, alchemy was the link between the two worlds; a link that might provide evidence of God’s existence.

For Boyle, alchemy was a gift from God that, along with chemistry, offered a path to the truth. He was hostile to views of nature that did not demonstrate a proper understanding or appreciation of God’s power in the world. And while he was a devout Christian, he despised taking oaths. His refusal to take holy orders prevented him from becoming the provost of Eton and he would decline the offer to serve as the President of The Royal Society because of the oath he would have had to take.

In reading the information about Boyle (from The Last Sorcerer and “Founding Chymist” by Richard A. Pizzi from Today’s Chemist at Work, August, 2003), I can’t help but think that there are many today who would not welcome Robert Boyle into their church. But like Newton, his work meant to show what God had done and he believed in experimentation over a priori theorizing. He drew on various sources as long as they could be confirmed by experimental results. It remains to be seen how he would have reacted to Darwin’s work or the view of the modern day church.

Another chemist whose interests also included theology was Joseph Priestley. And like the others mentioned, his religious beliefs were clearly outside the mainstream of orthodox religion. As a student, his studies lead him to question the orthodox tenets of the Calvinist faith. Like Newton, he could not find scriptural support for the Trinity

This decision effectively denied him access to the great universities of England and he attended a more liberal school where his interest in natural phenomena and experimentation were encouraged. And again, where today his unorthodox views on religion might be cause for his expulsion from the church, he was able to work in an environment where differences in opinion were looked upon as a means of discovering the truth and not as a sign of moral reprobation.

After his fundamental research on the nature of oxygen, done while serving as a minister in Birmingham, he published three rather controversial manuscripts: Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, an attempt to defend natural religion against the skepticism of David Hume; a History of the Corruptions of the Christianity, a direct attack on the central tenets of orthodox religion, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity; and a History of the Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ, where he set out to prove that the doctrine of the Trinity was not according to Scripture. Because of these publications, Priestley was denounced from the pulpit and a mob destroyed his home, laboratory, and library. Ultimately he was forced to move to America. (From “Joseph Priestley”)

In the same mode are the notes that I have gathered concerning Johannes Kepler. Kepler struggled very much with the conflict between his science and his faith. In reading the short biography that Charles Hummel put together in his book The Galileo Connection I also discovered that Kepler was a devout Christian whose interests in science often ran counter to the beliefs of the community. Parenthetically, Kepler, whose work was central to Galileo’s work and the confirmation of the Copernican model of the universe, died without a church. He would not sign a statement affirming a creed in the Lutheran church and so the Lutheran church denied him communion and employment in Lutheran universities. And because he was a Lutheran, the Catholic Church denied him communion and employment. (From the Galileo Connection)

I would have to say that Newton, Boyle, Priestley and Kepler were all men of faith. Their work was focused on seeing how God created this world and better understanding that creation. But their study was very much like that of Nikolai Copernicus.

He saw no conflict between his Christian faith and his scientific activity. During his forty years as a canon, he faithfully served his church with extraordinary commitment and courage. At the same time, he studied the world “which has been built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.” He pursued his science with a sense of “loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.” He declared that although his views were “difficult, almost inconceivable, and quite contrary to the opinion of the multitude, nevertheless in what follows we will with God’s help make them clearer than day – at least for those who are not ignorant of the art of mathematics. (From The Galileo Connection by Charles E. Hummel)

The work of a scientist is not to discover God nor is it to prove or disprove His existence. Such work can only be done, perhaps, in the heart of the individual. The work of the scientist is to examine the evidence before him and make sense of what that evidence means.

I remember a conversation I had with someone several years ago. At that time, the Missouri State Legislature was contemplating the passage of legislation that would have included the teaching of intelligent design in the biology curriculum. I told my colleague that if that legislation passed, I would resign immediately. Now, as a chemistry teacher, this legislation would not have affected my teaching (the benefit of not being certified to teach biology). But such legislation would have interfered with my rights as a teacher by dictating what I can or cannot teach; my colleague, who was both a Southern Baptist and a biology teacher, said that he would be right behind me.

The problem today is that we seek a world in which both faith and science are one and the same or they are permanently split. There are those who say that the argument between faith and science are part of a greater cultural war. And I would agree. But the issue at hand is not what one believes, either by actual evidence or faith alone but rather who controls the thought process.

The present discussion is all about power and who has the power. Both those who argue for the fundamentalist view of the world and those who argue for a more sectarian view of the world want to control the thought process of those who would like to learn about the world. And in their vigorous defense of their view and their vigorous attempts to deny the other viewpoint, they merely show the weakness of their own view.

It may be argued that the strength of one’s argument is inversely proportional to the strength of one’s belief system. The stronger the argument, the weaker the belief; it is entirely logical to assume that the fervor you put into keeping me from thinking about things is that your thoughts are indefensible. What was it that G. K. Chesterton said about atheism, that is was an argument for a “universal negative”?

It has been documented several times that employment at several Christian colleges is predicated on the signing of an oath that your beliefs are in line with that of the faith. I remind the reader that Boyle refused to sign such oaths, Priestley refused to sign such oaths, and Newton did so but then violated them even before the ink was dry on the vellum.

Science is an attempt to discover the world around us. Faith is an attempt to discover who we are. We need both in life and cannot replace the one with the other. We must ask ourselves as we begin the second decade of the 21st century if we are prepared to do both. We cannot discover the world around us if we do not know who we are nor can we find out who we are unless we can find out what this world is all about.

Thoughts on the coming decade


I am working on a number of projects right now, all of which deal with science, education and science education in some manner, shape or form. First is the “book” project. Entitled “Science and Education in the 21st Century: A Contrarian View”, it is a look at science, science education and topics that we all need to have some understanding about as the new decade begins and for years beyond. I outlined this book in the piece “A Not So Modest Proposal”.

Second is a more personal piece in that it deals with the relationship between science and religion. I have said it countless times before but it bears repeating, when you say that you are a scientist today, people automatically believe that you do not or are incapable of believing in God. And if you say that you are a Christian today then many will say that you cannot possible accept the physical evidence about this world. Because I am both a scientist and a Christian, I find it hard to accept either argument and think that to do so demeans both and limits any discussion about what the future might bring.

And finally there is this piece about the relationship between education and the economy. In all three projects, the key point is that this country, this society, is exceptionally dumb. Being dumb doesn’t mean that we are stupid or illiterate. It just means we haven’t a clue what’s going on nor do we have any idea of what to expect when tomorrow comes or what to do when the unexpected does come.

Oh yes, we are a literate nation but all that means is that we can read. There are two definitions of literacy. The first is the most commonly understood one, the ability to read. But literacy also means that we are able to understand what we read and we are able to utilize the information that we read. And this is something that, in my own opinion, we are unable and incapable of consistently doing.

This is illustrated in a number of ways. First, there is the ever increasing evidence that we don’t know or understand what we were required to learn when we were in school. One-quarter of American high school students could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed the freedom of speech and religion and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900 (“Clueless in America”). Our reliance on technology assumes that we understand reading, writing and arithmetic. However, we forget it is humans who program that technology.  It doesn’t teach or require us to think.  It has given us a false sense of being an educated and knowledgeable society.

Our inability to understand what we have read also comes across in our understanding (or lack thereof) of religion. While we routinely proclaim this nation as a Christian nation, we do not know what books of the Bible are in which section, we don’t know (or most of us don’t know) what the Gospels are or that Paul was not one of the twelve disciples. We proudly proclaim that it is written in the Bible that “God helps those who help themselves” and seem unaware that this quote is not in the Bible and that it is most often attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

Even though it has been demonstrated that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction nor was there any connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, most people still insist that there were weapons and there was a connection. We are willingly to accept such notions (along with several other more bizarre conspiracy theories that developed during the last Presidential election) simply because we are more willing to trust the source or we are guided by fear. Our lack of literacy also is evident by the inability to see beyond the horizon of tomorrow and imagine what the consequences of our actions will be for future generations (as if we ever could).  We allow others to tell us what the “truth” is and refuse to search for that “truth” ourselves.  We have become a lazy nation.

We also have a surprisingly inability or lack of or desire to see other points of view. To see and listen to other points of view does not necessarily mean that your views will change; what it does mean is that you can think from the other side of the issue and develop a solution that resolves the problems without strife or resentment. It is a process sorely missing in this country today.  We have become an ugly nation in our inability to see the other side of the issue and would rather demonize people who have a contrary view point.

We are faced with any number of problems facing us as we look into the next decade. There is the terrorism problem, which we seemingly want to combat with more terror. Would it be too much to assume that removing hunger and sickness from the world might actually solve the problem? Or is it that we just like sending our youth off to die in foreign lands for reasons that were lies in the first place?

There is the global energy crisis which we first wish to deny even exists and then, which we want to solve with more crude oil, even though the actual supply of oil is decreasing. There is the global climate change problem, which most people want to say is a false problem but that is because they are 1) unwilling to think it through and 2) are willing to let others tell them how to think. The evidence is there but we are unwilling to accept it.

We could respond to the energy crisis and the global climate change problem if we would think seriously about alternative energy resources. But to think outside the box is something this country is not able to do (as if drilling for more oil tomorrow will save the problem today).  We are losing the competitive edge in innovation and creativity to China and other countries.  We have forgotten that this country lead the world in developing the technology that we have today.  We have become a mediocre nation, willing to sit on the accomplishments of the past without looking to what we can do to ensure a future that keeps us ahead of the rest of the world.  There will come a day when the people of this country will suddenly realize that we are not the power we once were.  What do we do then?

Unless we find some way and some way quick to think outside the box, the coming decade is going to be a very rough one. As we watch the glaciers in Greenland and Norway recede, we can keep telling ourselves that global climate change is a conspiracy. As we keep creating electronic gadgets that take pictures and send them around the world but not know where we are sending them or where they are coming from, as we create social networks where we can keep up to date with the various failings of sports and entertainment superstars, we wonder why our children are not learning in school and why they can’t write a coherent sentence or don’t know the history of this country.

As we distort the history of this country, as we distort the meaning of the Bible, the Qur’an and the Torah, we have to wonder why we are engaged in countless and seemingly endless wars in far-off lands. And one day we will wake up and wonder what happened to the youth of this country.

As laws are written to protect us from terrorism, we wonder why we have no personal freedoms left.  We are becoming a totalitarian nation without knowing it as our freedoms are chipped away bit by bit.

It comes down to this. Borrowing a quote from Marilyn Ferguson that I wrote down many years ago, our freedom is not found by choosing a destination but rather a direction but we must choose that direction, not let someone else choose it for us. And should we choose a path that has no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.

Thomas Jefferson, who is so often quoted by those who would seek to limit the intellect and freedom of so many, wrote in a letter dated January 6, 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

The agenda for the coming decade is fairly clear. Our educational system must be substantially and quickly fixed. It is slowly approaching the breaking point after which no repair is possible. If our educational system is not fixed, then it will be impossible to create new solutions to the present problems and it will be impossible to even envision solutions for problems that we don’t even know about.

We need to put more money into human needs and less money in creating a sense of false security. If workers in this country are working and being paid living wages and salaries, not minimum wages that require two or three jobs just to get by, the productivity of this country will rise. The conservatives of this country spout the mantra of less taxes will create jobs but what has happened to the jobs in this country? What has happened to the productivity of this country under this mantra?

Let’s try something different. Let’s make sure that the workers get the money, not the rich and powerful. Let’s put the money into workers’ hands, not just trickle down to the people (which never did seem to work anyway).

And let’s work to make working conditions in other countries safe and productive; let’s make sure that the workers overseas are paid equitable wages as well. Why do people from other countries seek work in this country? Because it is a whole lot better than anything that is in their country.

The immediate response for many is going to be that this is too much. It will cost too much and people will lose. The only people who will lose already have too much and too many people at the bottom of the social scale have already lost.

It is time to stop and think; to look around and realize that we have to change our direction right now. It is a complicated and complex situation that we have created and it will take more than simple solutions to fix. This coming decade can be one of the greatest in the history of the planet but right now it has all the markings of being the worst and the last this planet will have.

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Cross posted to RedBlueChristian

That One Singular Gift


I am at Dover UMC this morning.  (Location of church)  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26; Colossians 3: 12 – 17; and Luke 2: 41 – 52.

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If there are ever a particular combination of Scripture readings for which I have a strong personal connection, it is the Old Testament reading for today with the Gospel reading for today. For they speak of the choices I made in 1963 that lead me to walk the path that brings me here today. But it is not the choices that I alone have made that I wish to speak of today.

That fact of the matter, excuse the cliché, is that each one of us has that moment described in the Old Testament reading and Gospel reading today; it is that one moment in time where we become aware of who we are and our relationship to the world around us. It is that moment in time when we begin to formalize the idea that we are both individuals and a part of the world. It is, if you will, the moment in time when we began to accept responsibility for our actions and our acts. At some age in our life, our youth allows us to escape responsibility and accountability but sooner or later, we are become responsible and accountable for what occurs because of our actions.

Can you recall the sense of awe that occurred when you had this revelation? Can you recall the sense of freedom that you had at this moment in time? Can you recall the panic that you felt when you realized what this all meant?

We are the sole proprietors of what we think, what we say, and what we do!

If there is anything wrong in society today, it is that this sense of responsibility and accountability seems to be terribly lacking in much of what occurs today. It is the student who refuses to accept the notion that learning requires an effort on their part, not just the sole exertion of the teacher or instructor. A new term has developed in the lexicon of education these days; it is the “helicopter parent”. This is a parent who “hovers” over the child and watches their every move. It is parenting to the extreme as it has gone from worrying about when to take the training wheels off a bicycle to sending text messages to high school teachers when their child gets a bad grade and where students arrived at college already “burned out” from the stress of learning. I have seen students in college who don’t know how to study simply because they never have had to do so or learned how, in part because their parents have been there to bully and harass the teacher into giving them a good grade. And when the parents try the same tactics in college, they are in for the shock of their lives when they find out that the laws that they lobbied for to protect their kids do just that and they, the parent, no longer have the say in their child’s education that they once had.

But it is more than simply parenting that has escaped the nature of responsibility, for such over protection has long been a part of society. It is just that it has expanded way beyond any rational thought process.

It is the businessman who says that they are entitled to a multi-million dollar bonus when their company is going bankrupt; it is the company owner whose salary is more than the workers may earn in a lifetime. It is the business who sends jobs overseas to foreign sweat shops with near-slavery conditions in order to reduce costs; such decisions are driven by the stock holders who want an improvement on the bottom line but fail to realize that such moves put workers here at home out of work. It is the healthcare industry whose sole interest is a profit, even if that means denying healthcare to an individual because they have gotten sick.

We have somehow accepted the words of politicians that it is better to have a bureaucracy run by a company than one run by the federal government decide our healthcare even when we know that a substantial portion of our population are covered by that federal government bureaucracy.

We want services but we are unwilling to pay for them. We seek politicians who will cut our taxes and find someone else to pay the bills. We agree with politicians who tell us government is too big and spends too much money and then we let them create a new bureaucracy and run up this nation’s fiscal deficit, leaving our children and grandchildren to pay the bills.

It is the politician who pledges to do the work of the people but only works for the highest bidder and can still find time to end their speeches with “God bless America.” Each action that we take has a result and we must at some time be held accountable for our actions.

It may be an overly romanticized depiction of the Great Depression but I am reminded of the Woody Guthrie Song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”, and what it means for today’s social conditions,

But a many a starving farmer

The same old story told

How the outlaw paid their mortgage

And saved their little homes.

Others tell you ‘bout a stranger

That come to beg a meal,

Underneath his napkin

Left a thousand dollar bill.

Well, you say that I am an outlaw,

You say that I’m a thief.

Here’s a Christmas dinner

For the families of relief.

Yes, as through this land I’ve wandered

I’ve seen lots of funny men;

Some will rob you with a six gun,

And others with a pen.

And as through your life you travel,

Yes, as through your life you roam,

You’ll never see an outlaw

Drive a family from their home.

(Lyrics from http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Pretty_Boy_Floyd.htm)

Our inability, reluctance, or refusal to accept responsibility even transcends our idea of religion, and for Christians, what Christmas really means. It is those here in America and overseas, no matter whether they are Christian, Jew, or Muslim, who claim that they have the right to kill someone in the name of God. We have somehow accepted the notion that Christmas is an economic event, not a spiritual one. We have somehow accepted the notion that because Jesus told us that the poor will be with us always that we need not worry about them.

There was an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week talking about a county politician in the St. Louis area wanting to remove some $300,000 in aid to charitable organizations from the St. Charles County budget. His argument was that taxes were nothing more than governmental theft and that the churches should take on the responsibility for the care of the poor.

I have heard this argument before but the kicker in this story is that the councilman is also a pastor of a local church in the area. This councilman didn’t say where the churches and other non-governmental agencies were going to get this money or what his church was doing. And one person who supported the councilman said that the Bible tells us that “God helps those who help themselves.” As you have heard me say before, in relationship to the literacy of the American people with regards to the Bible, it sounds Biblical but it isn’t in the Bible; it has always been attributed to Ben Franklin and his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” Such responses are indicative of how we have shirked our responsibility.

This is not a put Christ back into Christmas argument; it strikes me that those who have been making this argument these past few years are among the loudest when it comes to pursuing the god of mammon and prosperity; they are the ugliest of the hypocrites when one compares their actions in the name of God to the words of Christ and what He did.

Rather, I would hope that we look at what the birth of a child some two thousand years ago means for us today. You see, we were given a gift last Friday morning. Each year, we receive this gift and, it seems to me, each year we waste it.

It is the gift of opportunity and promise, of a chance for a new beginning and a better tomorrow. But somehow, it gets lost in the pile of ribbon and wrapping paper and somehow it gets bundled up with the tree and thrown out on the street when the tree is taken down. It is a gift that comes with responsibility and perhaps that is why we don’t use it. We don’t want the responsibility that comes with this gift; we want something that doesn’t require anything from us.

Yet somehow we keep getting this gift every year. Perhaps it would mean more if we only had one chance and one chance alone to receive it. Maybe it would mean that we take Christmas more seriously and take time to understand what it really means for us today. But the uniqueness of the gift is that it is given every year without any strings attached. Maybe if we treated Christmas as a spiritual event rather than a social event or an economic event, it would mean something more. Maybe if saw Christmas as a beginning in time rather a moment in time, it would mean more to us.

Surely, Mary and Joseph had spoken to Jesus about His birth and the messages that they had received from the angels. Surely they had told Him about the visitors who came to see Him the day He was born. And like all children He began to look at the world around Him and He began to ask many questions. And as He grew up and saw the world around Him, He began to know and understand not only what His Father’s business was but what His work was to be. It should not be a surprise that Jesus would converse with the priests and the authorities in the temple that day so long ago.

We read of the priest’s amazement and wonder for they certainly had never had a student question them before. Such questioning would have probably not been accepted. It is the type of questions too many churches are unwilling to allow these days as well. For such questioning calls into place the notion of what a church is and what a church does and who the church is for.

It was right for Mary and Joseph to worry about their son, the child into whose care God had placed. And they raised Him with the singular notion of what He was to do, perhaps without true understanding (we know that later Jesus’ brothers would come for Him and He would reject them; but we also know that they would be there after the resurrection to lead the church in its early days).

We know little of what transpired in Jesus’ life for the next twenty years; we presume that He studied and worked for Joseph. But He also prepared for the task of doing His Father’s business.

It was a task that would take Him across the countryside, through the towns and villages of the Galilee, teaching the people, healing the sick and offering them a message of hope at a time when the government oppressed them and their own religious authorities had sold them out for their own personal interests. His ideas were radical ideas and they were not readily accepted by either the political or religious authorities. They were ideas that lead Him to be labeled and executed as a radical and an outlaw.

And the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary was a message to the people, “this is what we do to those who speak out against the establishment, who seek to change the rule of order that we call peace.”

But the people listened to Jesus and ignored the authorities. The people told others and what was supposed to end on a wooden cross on a hill faraway went beyond the boundaries of the Galilee.

And at a time when saying you were a follower of Christ, to proclaim your membership in the Way, was to produce your own death sentence, the people still gathered. They had heard the message of love and brotherhood, of gathering together in fellowship. They had heard the message that it was as important to care for others as it was to look after one’s self. They accepted the responsibility of spreading the message and living the message.

Paul’s words to the Colossians for today aren’t simply words that we have to memorize; they are an admonishment about how we are to live. There are those who say that we, as Christians, are to go out into the world and make disciples of all those we meet. But the word “disciple” doesn’t necessarily mean “a student of a teacher”; it means that one is a “follower of somebody”. From a New Testament viewpoint, to say that you are a disciple, to engage in discipleship, is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey.

So what are we to do? Christianity in the past few years has become extremely passive when it comes to what I believe is the true message of Christ. There is, without a doubt, a very active message out there that passes for the message of Christ but it is a message that is forced upon the listener, it is a message that demands obedience to the speaker, not to Christ. And the one aspect of the Gift that we have been given is that we must each make the choice as individuals; make the decision to follow Christ.

Jesus did not tell the twelve that they had to go with Him; He did not tell them that they would be condemned if they did not. He gave them the opportunity to follow and become fishers of men; they chose to follow. All of that somehow gets lost in the rhetoric and noise of the modern day evangelist and the modern day public church.

To follow Christ today means to be in a community, to be in the company of others who remember and celebrate the presence of Christ in their lives. It means being compassionate. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen)

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (“Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37)

It is the message that we must hear again and which we must again tell others. It is not about building war machines that can destroy the world or seeking domination over other countries and calling it peace. It is not about taking away the fundamental rights of humans and calling slavery freedom. It is not a message that says healthcare is only for those who aren’t sick and can afford healthcare or dropping someone from the roles because they get sick.

It is the message that the sick shall be healed, the hungry fed, shelters built for the homeless, and the oppressed set free. Many will hear this message and say that it is not for them; so be it. But one by one, people will hear the message and they will begin to understand.

Some two thousand years ago a child was born. The child would grow in stature and wisdom. And then he would go to the people with a message that offered hope and promise. We were given that gift last Friday. It is one singular gift that we will ever be given and we are to give it away. We have heard the message and now it is our turn to tell the message.

The Good Thing About Children


This is the message that I presented on the 1st Sunday after Christmas (28 December 2003) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26; Colossians 3: 12 – 17; and Luke 2: 41 – 52.

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he most interesting thing about our society’s view of children is what we think about when we think of children. Without providing any commentary about why, the two things about children that came to mind when I started this sermon were "Children should be seen and not heard" and "A child with a hammer thinks everything is a nail."

The concordance for my primary Bible does not show any similar statements. In fact, any references to children are positive, imploring parents to do those things that will help their children. In Proverbs 20: 1 we read, "The righteous man leads a blameless life, blessed are his children after him." (Proverbs 20: 6) A second proverb, that some might say is negative is Proverbs 20: 11, "Even a child is known by his deed, whether what he does is pure and right." (Proverbs 20: 11) But the commentaries for this note shows that it is not the child that is held in a negative view but rather his or her parents. The patterns established early in life might continue to mark a person throughout his or her lifetime. It becomes necessary for those who are around the child to lead lives that show the type of character that they desire to see in the child. And it is important to realize that such behavior on our part is more than "do as I say, not as I do." For invariably, what we do will have more of an impact on our children than anything we say.

An infant’s smallness and adorable innocence often draw the attention of nearby adults. They know that a newborn life is a gift of great value. But as the infant grows, the parents realize the great responsibility of rearing the child. They know that the child needs to be taught, not just cared for. A multitude of child-rearing books on books store shelves attest to the fact that raising a child takes great wisdom.

At the heart of every good parenting principle lies Solomon’s words, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6) The verb for train means "to dedicate, " and the word for way generally refers to living correctly in God’s sight. Solomon was advising parents to set their child aside for special use, to dedicate him or her to the Lord and His path. The verb train includes the idea of stimulating the child to do good — through words of guidance, discipline, and encouragement on the right path. This is a parent’s main task, to receive a child as a charge from the Lord and then to dedicate the child to God’s ways. Some have taken the line "when he is old he will not depart from it" as a promise. They believe it to be a guarantee that proper parenting will always result in a child’s salvation. Proverbs, however, present general principles, not promises. Proverbs 22: 6, "to train a child", simply assures that the lessons learned in childhood will last a lifetime. Whether their child learns to follow the Lord will, in part, depend on his or her own choices. But lessons driven home at the crucial stage of childhood will not go away. Hence the need for parental discipline and guidance.

God promises to enable parents for their tasks, not to make decision for the child. Each generation is responsible for its own relationship with God. But even without a promise, this proverb remains wise advice for every parent. Dedicating a child to God’s ways is the best course to set.

And it also speaks to each of us in our relationship with all those we encounter. How we act, how we show our relationship with God will have an impact on each child that we meet as they seek to develop that relationship with God.

Samuel’s life was dedicated to a life with God from the day he was born. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, as we know from 1 Samuel 1: 11, was barren. She asked God to give her a son so that she might find favor with her husband. In return for this, she would dedicate the boy to a life of serving God. And when the time came, Samuel went to live and work in the temple in a manner similar to an apprentice serving a master carpenter or mason. And God rewarded Hannah with additional children.

It is important to understand the importance of talking about this. The duties of the priest were essentially a family thing, handed down from father to son. But Eli’s three sons did not keep the lessons learned at home growing up and were corrupt and handled their priestly duties with irreverence and disdain. And so, when the time came for the mantle of the Chief Priest to be passed on, it was passed on to Samuel and to none of Eli’s sons.

But in speaking of Samuel in later years is to get ahead of the story. It is the fact that the Old Testament reading for today focuses on that time when Samuel was twelve. I do not know the deliberations that take place in preparing the lectionary but I have to think that the pairing of 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20 and 1 Samuel 2: 26 with Luke 2: 41 – 52 was very deliberate. For both Samuel and Jesus are about twelve years old at the time of their respective stories.

Twelve is a magic number for today’s children. Most kids today see it as a countdown to becoming a teen and the gaining of independence. Society, through its fashions, lifestyles, and whatever else might come to mind, easily reinforces that notion. But for all the hype and thought that being a teenager will set you free, little discussion is made about the fact that responsibilities come with the independence gained from a birthday. It should be noted that boys at twelve in time of Samuel and Jesus were getting ready to move into roles of responsibility and some authority, not simply getting permission to stay up longer at night.

I also find the fact that both boys were twelve interesting. For the age of twelve, at least from one theory, is the transition period from a concreter, physical object based thinking pattern to a more abstract and formal thought pattern. This was first proposed by the Swiss biologist Jean Piaget in a period of study just after World War II.

Unfortunately, in the fifty plus years since that landmark research the age of transition has moved backwards with most child developmental specialist feeling that that transition doesn’t take place until seventeen or eighteen. And from the viewpoint of a classroom teacher, and with a slightly cynical tone, I am not entirely sure that it is later than that. In fact, I think that many of today’s graduates are incapable of the complicated abstract thought patterns Piaget proposed as the nature of junior high students in the late 1940′s.

Maybe that is why we are amazed by the Gospel account of Jesus’ time in the temple. We cannot imagine or envision a child of twelve sitting in the great temple of Jerusalem and leading a thoughtful and in-depth discussion of the Torah with the nation’s best and brightest scholars. It would be almost like finding out that Albert Einstein was twelve when he formulated the basic concepts of relativity.

But the scholars were amazed as well, for their view of society held that children were an impediment. The view of children then is in harsh contrast to the words of Proverbs which speak of loving and caring for children, not ignoring them. It does not matter whether we are amazed that a child of twelve could have the intellectual capacity to discuss the Torah with scholars who had studied the law all their lives or whether we are amazed that a child would dare move outside his place in society; what matters is that we are amazed and we don’t think a child is capable of doing such things.

And I think that is the case today. If we cared for our children, if we followed the words of Proverbs, then why are schools in such disrepair? Why, when the subject of spending money on schools is brought up, is there such a hue and cry against the idea? If we are a nation that thinks of itself in terms of excellence, why are teachers among the lowest paid professionals in the world. We are willing to spend countless dollars thinking about our own immediate future but we barely even consider the impact of our decisions and actions today on our children’s future?

And if we cared for our children, would we as individuals and as a country act like a spoiled child when things do not go our way? Why does the leadership of this country continue to follow the schoolyard rules of "it’s my ball, so the game is played by my rules" in its international diplomacy. Why, when we are the wealthiest country on the earth, are there still poor and homeless? Shouldn’t the lessons of sharing and giving, taught at home at an early age, have some meaning in this world?

And why are our responses to crisis after crisis quick and impetuous, the signs of a child still in a concrete type of thinking. You would think that some thought would be given to looking at things from a long-term view, ending violence forever and not simply today.

I am not laying all the blame on the present administration. The trouble goes much deeper than that. Look at the television, our primary source of information and entertainment. Of course, telling the difference between the two has become almost impossible these days. Can we honestly say that we are challenged by what we read or see in today’s media?

And whose fault is that? The development of abstract thinking is not necessarily time independent. It must be pushed and there are a lot of people quite happy not to be pushed. There are a lot of people who want others to do their thinking for them and are willing to accept the consequences. Unless we are willing to take on the responsibility, we cannot accept the independence that free thinking brings.

Paul was faced with such a problem when he wrote to the people of Colosse. For there were some who thought that the freedom of the spirit allowed them to do just about anything they so desired. There were others who felt that Christianity was just another form of Judaism, bound by law and scripture, to a particular lifestyle. Neither view accepted the central truth of the Gospel, that salvation is found only through Christ.

And like a good father, Paul was counseling the members of the church in Colosse about how they should act. As you read Paul’s letter, you will notice that he spends as much time counseling and adjucating disputes as he does teaching and preaching. Like a father counseling his son or daughter, so too does Paul counsel the people.

And it is counsel that we should look at more closely,

"clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone, has a complaint again another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And the let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. (Colossians 3: 12 – 15)

The good thing about children is that they have parents. It may seem illogical to think of ourselves as a child in the same terms that we see our own children. We thought the birth of our own children had taken away that distinction. But we are still the children of God, a statement we affirm every Sunday with the Lord’s Prayer. And as children, we are still growing and learning. Growing in the eyes of God and learning how to better show the love that God has for us in the ways that we work and respect others.

So, as the 2003 ends and 2004 begins, we look our own behavior and vow to make it more like Jesus, dutiful son or daughter, obedient to God, and working to bring God’s message to the world.



Why Should This Day Be Any Different?


As the song goes, “so this is Christmas.” Why should we pause and celebrate an event that many people say never happened? Why should we even think about something other than business matters or football games? Why should this day be any different from the other days of the year?

As I think back over the many Christmas that have been a part of my life, I cannot help but think that there has never been a day when there wasn’t a war or the threat of war going on somewhere. I was born during the Korean War and I grew up on Air Force bases, constantly reminded that the threat of nuclear war was just a few moments away. There was a war in Southeast Asia that stretched almost from the time of my birth to the years that I became a father.

There have been countless wars and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East over colonial issues, territorial rights, and land ownership problems that date back to long before Christ was born in Bethlehem.

I grew up and went to school in states that required students to learn the words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men were created equal”, and then proceeded to destroy that statement by the structure of the very schools in which it was taught. I grew up and went to church in states where we sang “Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white” and then heard the pastor proclaim that Jesus only really loved the white children. If nothing else, I learned hypocrisy real well and real early

Somewhere along the line, the birth of a child in a country occupied by a foreign power, with a tax burden that exceeded anything that one might complain of today and with a religious establishment that was more interested in its own power than it was the needs of the people, doesn’t seem to matter.

And it seems to me as I look over the years, this day has become no different than any other day. Hypocrisy in the name of the church is still alive and well. There are those who proclaim equality in the eyes of God but will not let the people with whom Jesus walked and ate with into their churches. We still have war, even when we call Jesus the Prince of Peace.

There are those today who want to put Christ back into Christmas but they are the one who cry loudest for more war and whose voices are the most hateful and vitriolic ever heard across this land. They are the ones who see Christmas as the economic salvation of this country, not the spiritual salvation of individuals.

When you hear ministers tell us that the poor get what they deserve, that their sin is the cause of the poverty and we, the people, should not take care of them, you have to wonder why they celebrate Christmas when they have forgotten what it really means.

They would have us live in a land where they, the theocratic power elite, tell us how to live but allow themselves the right to do whatever they please. They would have the right to tell us how to think but not how to find the truth.

And there are those who would tell us that this is all a myth; that it never happened and, if it did happened, it happened in March. Christmas, to these individuals, is merely a sign of the selling out of the church. Perhaps it is; perhaps Christ was really born in March or April. But when they argue about the day Christ was born or, for that matter, if He was even born, they miss the point.

This day is different because a child was born some two thousand years ago. The actual day really isn’t that important but that child grew in stature and wisdom. And when He was old enough, his parents told me who He was. And He continued to grow in stature and wisdom.

And in a political and religious environment not so much different from the one we have today, He began to teach the people, heal the people, and tell the people that they were not forgotten. And the people told other people and those people continued telling the story.

Maybe Christ wasn’t born today some two thousand years ago; maybe Christ wasn’t born at all. But something happened and that one small thing changed the course of society. It is a story that has been told over the years from one person to the next and it is the story we need to be telling today.

That is why today should be different from all the other days of the year. In a world filled with war, violence, greed, hatred, persecution and oppression, we need to stop and think about that birth and what it means to each one of us.

It was a small and to many at that time, inconsequential occurrence. But from the birth of Jesus some two thousand years ago, a movement began. Each one of us is invited today to continue that movement. One by one, little by little, what we do will take down war, violence, greed, hatred, persecution, oppression and those who profit from such acts will be destroyed. It is not important that others make this day different; it is important that each one of us make this day and tomorrow different.

Top posts for 2009


It has been an interesting year.  I want to thank all those who have read this blog and helped in its continued growth.  I don’t know where I stand on the various and sundry measuring scales but I am higher on the “blogging food chain” than I was last year.

When I started this in July, 2005, I never imagined what it would become.

The top posts for 2009 were the following (the ones posted in 2009 are in bold).

  1. The Chemistry of Bowling:  A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners – published 26 July 2008
  2. Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday? – published 13 March 2008
  3. Hearing God Call – message at Tompkins Corners UMC on 19 January 2003- published 7 January 2009
  4. A Collection of Sayings – published 17 January 2008
  5. The Difference Between Republicans and Democrats – published 27 November 2008
  6. John Wooden – A Review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yaeger – published 9 October 2009
  7. A Cake Without Baking Powder – message at Tompkins Corners UMC on 7 September 2003 – published 25 August 2009
  8. Ten Pretty Good rules – published 16 June 2008
  9. Pledges and Loyalty Oaths – published 27 March 2008
  10. What Does It Mean to Be Called? – message at Stevens Memorial Church on 30 August 2008
  11. Thoughts on the Nature of Teaching Science – published 30 August 2009
  12. Parts of the Church – message at Tompkins Corners UMC on 20 October 2002 – published 30 September 2008
  13. The Dilemma of Modern Christianity – published 18 April 2009
  14. How Ironic – published 21 October 2009
  15. An Assignment on Academic and Scientific Integrity – published 1 December 2008

Two pieces made the “Best of the Methoblogosphere” this year:

  1. The Dilemma of Science and Faith – posted on 21 January 2009
  2. What Did You Learn in Kindergarten? – message at Tompkins Corners UMC on 14 December 2003 – posted on 8 December 2009

All-time posts as of 23 December 2009

  1. The Chemistry of Bowling:  A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners – published 26 July 2008 (up from #2 last year)
  2. Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday? – published 13 March 2008
  3. A Collection of Sayings – published 17 January 2008
  4. The Lost Generation – published 13 October 2007 (was the #1 all-time post last year)
  5. Hearing God Call– message at Tompkins Corners UMC on 19 January 2003- published 7 January 2009

Thoughts on Christmas, 2009


I first posted this as “Christmas, 2009” on 20 December – I have updated with a link to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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It is very interesting.  I provided long-term pulpit supply to three different churches from 1999 to 2005 (Neon UMC(Neon, KY), Walker Valley UMC (Walker Valley, NY), and Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).  But during that time, I never had to prepare a Christmas Day sermon or message because Christmas never fell on a Sunday.

In fact, during the time that I have been a lay speaker (since 1991), Christmas has only come on a Sunday twice (in 1994 and in 2005).  It will not occur on on Sunday again until 2011 and in 2016.  It is a cycle that is highly dependent on leap year and the seven-day cycle of the week.

But I suppose that, like it has happened for Christmas Eve (see my comments on “Why All The Shouting?”), this can be a problem and/or a challenge to the lay speaker and the pastor.  Some pastors have taken a very “innovative” way of avoiding the conflict; they simply closed the church – see “Open For Business”.

This year, I will not be preaching on Christmas Day but I will be over at the church assisting with a community breakfast.

Following what I have done these past four years (2005 – “So This Is Christmas”, 2006 – “Does It Matter?”, 2007 – “What Gift Did You Give?”, and 2008 – “The Christmas Miracle”) that I have been blogging, I will post my  thoughts for Christmas Day on Christmas Day.

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There is an article in the Tuesday (22 December 2009) article of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that bears reading – POKIN AROUND: Cut all funding for the poor! Is that a Christian message?

I am not surprised that a conservative would make the decision to seek cutting aid for the poor.  Unfortunately, that’s what conservatives do.  Spending any sort of tax money is wasteful spending, especially when it comes to social programs.  The individual who this article is about makes the claim that

The government taxes you and then decides how your money should be spent to help those in need. That’s not the role of government. In fact, he says, that’s "theft." Politicians look good giving your money to causes they deem worthy. Instead, Wynn reasons, since you are free to directly donate to individuals, churches or non-profits, the government should have no part in this equation, especially in tough times. The task of caring for the poor should be handled by churches and other nonprofits, he says. He mentioned that he personally donates to his church. (from the article)

Somewhere in what I have posted before (I think) are two points – 1) I have heard this before and 2) it is the lower incomes that give a higher percentage of their income to help others.

And right now, with the economy still struggling, the pressure being placed on churches and other non-profits is unbearable.  Our church participates in a community food bank and the number of families, not individuals but families, has increased every week.  The church’s resources are strained to the point of breaking. 

But it is the councilman’s feelings that are the most shocking; for as you read the article, you will note that it is a good thing that he personally donates to his church.  He better, he’s the pastor!  But his decision and his rationale beg the question, “Is his church going to contribute the entire $300,000 that is being removed from the budget?”

Personally, I don’t think so.  It may be that they can’t.  His church may be like our church, with elderly on fixed incomes and many people out of work.  I can’t say because I don’t know the details about the church or what they do in the community.

But who is our brother?  Who is our neighbor?  At what line on a map does our community end?  Should our taxes (which I see as a obligation of citizenship, not theft) go for military purposes only?  We live in a time when individuals are struggling; the health care bill that is about to be passed is a joke but no one is laughing.  From where I sit, it doesn’t matter whether you were liberal or conservative; the only ones who benefited from this were the rich and powerful.  Those in need got the short end, again.

The numbers of homeless and hungry increase ever day yet nothing is done.  How many more people will lose their healthcare or be denied healthcare before the healthcare legislation is put into affect?

We say that we are a Christian nation.  As my pastor spoke this past Sunday, we as a nation are functional atheists.  We speak the words of the Bible and we say that we believe them.  But we don’t do the words of the Bible.  The words of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, speak of caring for the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the ill.  And yet, the number of poor increases ever day, the middle class gets pressured from both sides, the number of homeless increases and the lines at local food banks get longer every day.  The sick will not be healed.

The words of the Bible speak of compassion and caring.  Each one of the Old Testament prophets challenged the rich and the elite to forsake their god of mammon and power and care for the less fortunate; Jesus spoke of caring for the one soul among the many who was lost.  Yet we quickly tell the lost to stay that way and let us keep our money and our power.

It is two days before Christmas when I write this.  Personally, this is going to be a very bleak Christmas for me but no matter what it is for me, it is going to be a lot bleaker because there are those in the world who do not care for their neighbor.

Punch Cards and the First Census


This is my message for the Christmas Eve service at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church in Putnam Valley, NY.  The scriptures for this message are Isaiah 9: 2 – 7, Titus 2: 11 – 14, and Luke 2: 1 – 10. 

It was a communion service but I choose not to include the communion as part of the service itself; instead I brought the elements from my home church (Fishkill UMC) and provided the table for thought and contemplation.  (I am sure that I put this together from references on-line but I don’t remember where I got them.)

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Christmas Eve, December 24, 2003

Communion

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.

Our communion tonight is not solely a communion service but also an opportunity to remember the presence of Christ in your life. We begin by taking a few moments for preparation and confession.

You may come to the table when you are ready but you are first asked to prepare and think about this time and this moment.

A Time of Preparation

This Christmas we celebrate with all those who chose to discern the meaning of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Scriptures, Jesus speaks of a Kingdom of God that is coming to pass.

This will be a Kingdom where men and women are honored for their inherent worth and dignity. It will be a Kingdom where the poor and rich alike know justice, equity, and compassion. It will be a Kingdom where people are encouraged to spiritual growth in a community of believers.

In this Kingdom, human conscience becomes the doorway to the spirit. In this Kingdom people choose to share their goods freely. In this Kingdom, peace abides among people of difference. In this Kingdom, the interdependent web of all existence is honored because it rests in the loving arms of God.

Jesus talks about this Kingdom of God that is in us and around us. He invites us to enter this Kingdom and be blessed.

Remember the words of Jesus which speak of the way of blessedness:

Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

During this time of celebration and joy, we also need to take time to remember those who cannot celebrate or for whom there is no joy. Again, we remember the words of Jesus:

I was hungry and you gave me food.

I was thirsty and you gave me drink.

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

I was naked and you clothed me.

I was ill and you came to me.

I was in prison and you visited me.

A Time for Confession

Can we acknowledge that in our lives there have been times when we have spoken or acted carelessly or intentionally to harm others? Have we hurt those we love and care about? Have we ignored the needs of our neighbors? Have we hurt our environment? How do we lead our lives? Can we live in a way that brings blessing to ourselves, our neighbors and our community?

Christmas is a time of change. We honor the birth of the Christ Child and we embrace hope and the power to heal. Let us take this time to reflect, confess, seek forgiveness and resolve to change.

A Time of Communion

The elements for communion were blessed by Rev. Peggy Ann Sauerhoff of Fishkill United Methodist Church. On this evening when we celebrate Christ’s birth, let also remember those who carry out his ministry.

You are invited to come to the altar rail at your calling. The communion table of the United Methodist Church is open to all those who seek Christ.

All that is asked is that you come truly and earnestly repenting of your sins, walk in love and charity with your neighbors and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking henceforth in His Holy Ways. Draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort and make your humble confession to almighty God.

You may come to the table whenever you are ready, remembering that on that evening before his death, Jesus took the bread of the dinner, broke the bread and blessed it, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

And when the meal was done, Jesus took the wine and blessed it, saying, "This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

It is the remembrance of these mighty acts through your Son Jesus Christ that we know offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us and confirm the mystery of faith that though Christ has died, He also risen and He will come again, bringing peace to the world.

A Time of Prayer

We give thanks for this communion time – a time to reflect on the meaning of our lives and how we are with those we love and those we do not love. This is a time to reflect on how we could change if we need to, and how by our words and deeds we could usher in the Kingdom of God here on earth.

We are reminded of and thankful for the sacredness of common things, the grapes and the wheat, which have sprung from the earth. We are reminded of and thankful for the many invisible connections that give our lives meaning.

Let us give thanks for this evening of communion and preparation. We are called now to love and sacrifice. May we walk the path of righteousness and blessing.

AMEN

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Christmas Eve, December 24, 2003

The message

What do the following companies have in common?

3M

Alcoa

Arco

BP

Esso

IBM

Nabisco

Sohio

Texaco

To avoid the problem of having you think about this throughout the sermon, I will give you what I think the answer is. Each company’s name is an abbreviation or acronym of the original name of the company.

Company today

Company then

3M

Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing

Alcoa

Aluminum Company of America

Arco

Atlantic Richfield Company

BP

British Petroleum

Esso

Standard Oil

IBM

International Business Machines

Nabisco

National Biscuit Company

Sohio

Standard Oil of Ohio

Texaco

Texas Arabia Company

Each company started with another name but over time went to a more convenient or easier name. There are probably some very unique stories in each of these companies and much could be gained by looking at how they were developed.

For example, Charles Hall was a professor of Chemistry at Oberlin College when he developed the process for refining aluminum ore or bauxite into aluminum metal. He approached the owners of the Wellington Machine Company (located near Oberlin College) about investing in this new process. They were not interested; so Dr. Hall took his process to another group of investors in Pittsburgh. This second group ultimately formed the Aluminum Company of America or as we know it today, ALCOA. With the profits that he gained from this endeavor, Dr. Hall was able to leave $10 million dollars to the general education fund of Oberlin College.

Even though, as a chemist, I find the story of Charles Hall and his discovery interesting it is how IBM, or International Business Machines, was created that relates to the Gospel tonight. I do not think that any of us living in the Mid-Hudson valley can say that we are not affected by the actions or decisions of IBM. It is just that we may not recognize how that is.

As a doctoral candidate, it was necessary for me to declare a foreign language. Had I been working on my doctorate in the 1880′s or even in the 1960′s rather than the 1980′s, I would have had to study German, French or some other traditional written or spoken language. But because it was the 1980′s, I was able to use FORTRAN as my language. Now FORTRAN is an acronym for "formula translation" and it was a computer code developed to help scientists write computer programs. Interestingly enough, just as the study of Latin, Greek, and other ancient languages as a requirement for advance study has gone by the wayside, so too has the study of the early computer languages. Remember the "Millennium Bug", the threat that all of our computers would revert to January 1, 1900, when the clocks rolled over on December 31, 1999? Part of the problem then was all of the code written in the early days of computers was written in a language long forgotten by computer programmers today.

The results of computer programming today, the word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, e-mail applications that we take almost for granted today didn’t exist then (and I am talking the late 60′s and early 70′s). Everything done in the way of computer programming then required a skill that is long forgotten, typing punch cards.

In the early days of computer programming, punch cards were the bane of programmers. You wrote out your program and then went over to a typewriter console and typed in your code, putting one line of code on a single punch card. You then ran the program to see if you typed everything correctly and then finally ran the program to get your experimental results. If there were errors, you had to retype the punch card for each line of code that you had to change. And you also had to check for those wonderful little pieces of punched material that might not be torn from the card after punching the code, the "hanging chad". Do you think that the problem of counting the votes in the 2000 election was a new phenomenon? All of us who ever typed in punch cards knew there would be problems with that method.

It is an interesting commentary that in the process of some thirty years we have gone from punching computer code in line by line on a series of cards to developing and producing thousands of lines of code on the screen of a desktop computer. We forget that the idea of punch cards has been around since the early 1800′s and was the basis for the founding of IBM.

Herman Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company, which was to later become International Business Machines. At that time, the data gathered from the United States Census was too complicated to be easily tabulated. It was thought that the data for the 1890 census was going to take over ten years to analyze. Through the use of punch cards and the tabulating machines Hollerith invented, the time for the analysis was reduced to six weeks. The rest, they say, is history.

Punch cards have actually been around since the early 1800′s and were used in the automation of weaving. Workers, not surprisingly, rioted when this change was implemented since it caused a loss of their jobs. When Charles Babbage designed the first mechanical computer or "analytical engine", he included punch cards for input and output purposed.

We don’t remember this history because we are also too familiar with the warning not to bend, fold, or mutilate the punch cards. Punch cards are too impersonal, changing our identity as a person into a number. Like the weavers who rioted against the automation of the weaving process, we rebel (or at least we should rebel) against the notion of losing our identity.

And it was the same for the people in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. The whole purpose of the trip to Bethlehem was because Augustus had commanded that all people return to the city of the ancestors for the census to take place. It was a census for the sole purpose of taxation. And taxation by the Romans was easily the most offensive thing that could be done to a Jew. The census and resulting taxation took away the identity of the Hebrew people. It was bad enough that the country was occupied by a foreign power; it was insult over injury that they had to pay for the occupation.

I think that it is very possible that we can identify with Mary and Joseph. Treated as if they were simple numbers in a census taker’s notebook, they get to Bethlehem only to find that there is no place to stay. It is not fair to say that they slept in the stable that night because they were poor; in fact, they were probably a typical middle class family of that time. As a carpenter, Joseph was not necessarily the blue-collar worker that we envision today. Rather, he was more of an artisan and more well off than many others.

No, the reason that there was no room in the end that night was based more on the fact that literally everyone and their cousin was in town and there were no rooms available. It wasn’t just Mary and Joseph that had come to Bethlehem; it was anyone in Israel whose ancestral home was Bethlehem and whose lineage traced through the House of David. Jesus was not born in solitude and loneliness but in the midst of a "family reunion".

And when we see that the birth of Christ was announced to the shepherds in the fields outside the towns, we can begin to see that this was just not another birth. If there was a lower class in Israel, it was those like the shepherds. Their very occupation put them at the bottom of the social ladder. If Mary and Joseph were lost in the madness of the crowds coming into Bethlehem that night, shepherds and other farm laborers were lost among the crowds of daily life. Not only were they just numbers on the census rolls, they were lost to society.

When we see the birth of Jesus in terms that we are familiar with, we can see that this was a special birth. To the Romans, this new family was just a set of numbers. But to those in that town that night and even now here in Tompkins Corners we can see the birth as Isaiah prophesized some 2500 years ago.

Christ’s birth brought light into the darkness. Christ’s birth was a statement that we as individuals in this world are more than just a set of numbers in somebody’s book of life. Christ’s birth should be seen as a personal statement from God, that we are not forgotten and not just a number amongst the countless peoples of this earth. We are reminded that Christ came to this world, as Paul wrote to Titus, "for us". And our response should be to show others the same love that Christ showed for us.

Christ came to this world at a time of darkness and oppression. He came at a time when many people were cast aside by society because of who they were or the work they did or some other trivial reason.

Christ brought light into this world so that the forces that caused the darkness would be driven back. Christ’s birth brings hope back into this world; Christ’s birth brings peace back into the world.

Christ’s birth is a reminder to us that God does truly care about us. In the book of Heaven, we are more than simply lines on the page or numbers to be counted. Christ’s birth is also a reminder that our lives are more than holes in a punch card or lines on a census taker’s notepad; to God, we are his children and He will do what is needed to save us.

Our challenge this evening, as we depart to be with our family and friends, is to remember God’s love for us and to show that love to the others we might encounter on this journey. Just as God does note count us as numbers, so too are we challenged to treat others as God treats us. So too are we challenged to walk in peace with the "light of the world."

Why All The Shouting?


If you have been following my postings, you may have noticed that I have been posting sermons/messages/thoughts from the years that I served the United Methodist Church in the Mason City, TN, area, the Neon, KY, area, Walker Valley, NY, and the Tompkins Corners UMC in Putnam Valley, NY. I haven’t figured it all out but when I get them my sermons (which cover the year from 1997 to 2005, the year I began blogging), I will work on some sort of catalog to link them all together. 

December 24th can be a challenge for the preacher and the lay speaker.  Because if it falls on a Sunday, as it did for me in 2000 and 2006, it is both the Fourth Sunday in Advent and Christmas Eve.  But Christmas Eve is a night time event so the morning belongs to Advent and the preparation for the Birth of Christmas falls for later that day. 

In 2006, I was asked to cover the services at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY.  The message for that day was posted as the 4th Sunday in Advent for that day at “Words of Christmas” but because the church does not have a regularly assigned pastor, the challenge was also to present thoughts that related to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as well.

The first time this ever occurred for me was on December 24, 2000.  That morning we had held our usual Sunday Services and had celebrated the 4th Sunday in Advent (I posted these thoughts last week at “It’s The Little Things”)  That evening we returned to church for a Christmas Eve service.  The following is my Christmas Eve message for that evening, 24 December 2000, at Walker Valley UMC (Walker Valley, NY).  The scriptures for this message are Isaiah 9: 2 – 7, Titus 2: 11 – 14, and Luke 2: 1 – 10. 

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The problem with the birth of Jesus is that it is in the wrong place. Kings are not born in mangers but palaces. Kings are welcomed into the world with the fanfare of trumpets, not the soft looing of cattle.

But Jesus was more than just a King. His presence in this world was to be more than a simple ruler of people. And if he was to meet the goals of God’s plan, if he was to hold all the titles that Isaiah gave him, then he couldn’t be born in a palace.

The society of Jesus’ time was sharply divided by religious, economic, and social lines. Everyone knew their place and what they could and could not do. If Jesus had been born in a castle or with great fanfare, he could never have reached those whom most needed to hear his message of salvation, promise and hope. And that is as true today as it was some 2000 years ago. For Christ to be a part of our lives today, he had to be a part of our lives back then.

It should not be surprising then that the first to hear of his birth where those considered by society outcasts or, at the least, marginal. By the nature of their occupation, shepherds were considered sinners and outcasts. For the birth of Jesus to be announced to them was an important note in telling the world that this kingship would be different from all others imagined.

It is also interesting to note that among those who knew that Jesus was born were the three wise men from the east. Acclaimed scholars in their own right, they had come to know that Jesus was born through their own studies. Scholars among the Jews seemed to have missed this important prophecy. And by telling others outside the boundaries of Israel and Judah, God said that all were welcome, not just a select few.

Everything about Jesus’ ministry was meant to show people that God loved them and that their social or economic status counted little in that regard. At a time when the society around them closed its doors, Jesus opened the doors to the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus ate a meal, he ate with those whom society considered outcasts. Those who opposed his ministry accused him of eating with tax collectors and sinners. In polite society, that just wasn’t done.

The communion that we celebrate this evening is a continuation of those meals of fellowship that Jesus ate. Just as his meal were open to all, so to is this communion. No one asks if you are a sinner or a saint, no one checks your membership card to see if you belong in this place. All that is asked is that you come with an open heart.

What Jesus did was change the view of the world. No longer was salvation and redemption outside the reach of people. No longer was darkness dominant in the lives for whom hope and promise were long gone.

Jesus showed that God’s grace was for all, no matter who they are or where they came from. For us this day, the birth of Jesus’ is a sign that God cares for us. That is what all the shouting is about.

The Final Days


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Advent, 20 December 2009. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 5: 2 – 5, Hebrews 10: 5 – 10, and Luke 1: 39 – 45.

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These are the final days of Advent. In a few days, it will be Christmas and then the shouting and the preparation will all be over and our attention will turned to the football bowl games, the parties and the New Year. And we will begin to wonder what happened to 2009 and what will happen in 2010.

But that is later in the week; right now we aren’t ready for the coming of Christ. And I wonder if we will ever be ready. The sectarian fundamentalists have already started their cry about the war against Christmas, which I think is sort of funny. For the sectarian fundamentalists, those who so desperately want to keep Christ in Christmas, only offer a vision of the world that favors the rich and the powerful.

And if anything, Christ’s birth was a vision for the forgotten and the weak, the poor and the helpless. How many times is Bethlehem mentioned in the Old Testament? That, of course, is one of the wonderful trick questions because of the Old Testament reading for today. The prophet Micah is the only prophet to speak of Bethlehem as the birthplace for Jesus.

Now, if we are to accept the view of the secular fundamentalists, Christmas is an attempt by the church to co-opt pagan winter solstice holidays. To some extent, they are correct; because the evidence provided in the Gospels suggests that Jesus was born in the spring. But it would be rather difficult to celebrate the birth of Christ in the spring when we are preparing for Easter. Can you imagine what it would be like if, because of the formulation for the observance and celebration of Easter, Christmas and Easter were on the same day? It is bad enough when the 4th Sunday in Advent is also Christmas Eve (as it was three years ago).

It doesn’t bother me that Christmas was placed on the calendar to coincide with various winter pagan ceremonies. Christmas is that single moment of hope in a world of darkness. And the one thing that the secular fundamentalists with all their cries about the mythology and falseness of religion cannot offer is a hope for the future. You can place your hope in the material goods but if you are poor or sick or homeless or oppressed, it is very difficult to do so. The world is against you from the very start and you don’t want to hear some pompous atheist telling you there is no god; because he or she cannot offer you the hope that was offered two thousand years ago.

The problem for many people is that Christmas is not a time of joy. The darkness of the season hides the darkness that lies within their soul. This is the time that many counselors and psychologists probably fear because it is the time that everyone’s fears and troubles come out. And all the talk about economic rebuilding and gift giving and love and happiness found in sales merely accentuates those fears and troubles.

I understand those fears for I have had to deal with too many of them. And I know that it was because of the hope and promise that Christmas brings that I have been able to get through these dark times.

And when someone says that this is all a myth, I wonder how it has come that we are still celebrating it today. If it didn’t happen, how did we get to this point?

Secular fundamentalists cannot offer hope to the people and seek to use the actions of the sectarian fundamentalists for their justification in saying that there is no god and that Christ is a myth. By the same token, as much as the sectarian fundamentalists want Christmas to be the center piece of the “prosperity gospel” and as much as they want the Bible to be the justification for capitalism (as well as slavery and the subjugation of women and others), they too have taken the hope and promise out of Christmas as well.

Both sides have sought to make the Bible what is not and what it was never meant to be. It is not a history book; it most certainly is not a science book. Yes, it is full of contradictions but, then again, so is mankind full of contradictions. The Bible is a story about who we are as a people; it is about our journey. It is a journey that is told through the eyes of history and so it is a story about people. It is a story about friendships and relationships (good and bad); it is a story about the balance in society and how, when the balance has been upset, God through Christ has sought to restore that balance.

We live in a time when peace is measured by victory in war. We occupy a foreign land and call it liberation. We worship Mars, the Roman God of war and call it peace. But such peace comes with destruction and desolation. Our young die in lands far from home and yet we call for celebration and rejoicing, not solace and comfort for the families.

And in a small town, mentioned only once, will the true Prince of Peace come, born neither to kings and royalty nor to the rich and powerful but to the lowly and the meek. And we shall deny this King, just as those two thousand years ago.

The writer of Hebrews points out that all that we have done in the name of Christ has been futile, just as the sacrifices made at the Temple two thousand years ago were often falsely done. We have transformed the babe in the manger into a corporate identity, useful for selling things and creating divisions in the land.

For some these are the final days; the days when the world will come to an end and they and they alone will be taken up into heaven on the wings of angels. But they, like so many others, will be surprised when it is they, the self-righteous and condemning people are left behind and they see the poor, the meek, the lowly, the forgotten, and the oppressed being welcomed by the Savior.

Yes, these are the final days. These are the days when the voice is heard crying out in the wilderness, telling us to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Even the young Baptizer, still in the womb, could feel the presence of his cousin, the baby Jesus. There is time to repent and begin anew. There is time but time moves quickly when you aren’t prepared. We have had three weeks and are now in the fourth week.

In the darkest part of the year, a child will be born. And this child will bring promise and hope. The season of Advent was meant to prepare us for that moment. These are the final days; people get ready for Christ shall be born among you and for you and to lead you.