But This Is What We Wanted!


It is quite possible that these are the “end times”, though not necessarily those favored by religious fundamentalists.

They see the end of the world from their own moral viewpoint; one that, in my mind, is self-righteous, self-centered, and hypocritical. They complain about the morals of others while clearly living a life that follows the dictum, “do what I say, not what I do.” They want a vengeful God, a hateful God so they can justify their own hatred, their own anger, and most importantly, their own ignorance.

We hear many on the right side of the political and religious spectrum call for troops to patrol our southern borders or to build an immense wall to keep out those from the south who seek employment in this country. They also use the excuse to keep drugs out of this country (unfortunately it is the American people who have created the demand for illegal drugs). Yet we never hear them speak of troops patrolling our northern border (which is far longer and far more open) or building some sort of barrier there.

And there is no call to penalize the businesses that hire illegal workers, wherever they come from, who seem to do the jobs no one else wants to do. And we hear no calls to improve worker conditions in the third world. Could it be that we want cheap products that are produced in third world countries in conditions we wouldn’t work in?

We don’t seek to penalize the businesses who hire the illegal workers because there are many who don’t want the Federal government interfering in the actions of businesses; what we hear is that businesses are capable of regulating themselves. And we certainly don’t want to waste our tax dollars on some sort of program that helps other peoples; we want our tax dollars to be spent on ourselves.

All we have to do is look at what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico to know that businesses are more interested in the bottom line than they are doing it safely and correctly. There is an on-going environmental disaster taking place right now because we have endured some thirty years of rhetoric that government is too big and businesses can do the job themselves.

But in that same thirty year span, the power of big business has grown exponentially while the power of the individual has been stripped and stolen away and trampled on.

But in all of this, the single most glaring fact is that the people of this country have allowed this to happen. They have allowed companies like Massey Energy and British Petroleum to trample regulations and throw away safety concerns, all in the name of the bottom line and profits.

We have accepted the notion that it is easier to drill for oil or dig for more coal than it is to seek alternative forms of energy. We have allowed these things to happen and we have accepted the rhetoric of cheap energy and the god of profit over the stewardship of this earth and the care of the people who live on it because we didn’t know what was happening.

We didn’t know what was happening because we have lost our ability to question and to think, to create new solutions. We have changed the nature of education from that of teaching people how to think to teaching people how to answer questions. Somehow we have decided that grades themselves are a reasonable indication of whether or not someone actually knows something. But good grades don’t tell us anything about how well an individual can create solutions to a problem, especially (as I have previous stated) when the problems haven’t occurred.

The problem is that we are so concerned that no child be left behind that we have left them all behind. We think that if we can teach our children how to take tests and as long as scores go up on the tests each year, then they are learning. Our concern is more for the bottom line, the number of students who graduate, than it is for how many students actually are capable of thinking and creating solutions for tomorrow’s problems.

Look around and tell me that we are using our collective abilities to their fullest. We can’t (or won’t) develop alternative energy resources. We are more committed to the destruction of the world through violence and oppression than we are seeing people fed and kept healthy and live in a world of justice and equality. We somehow think that by our use of violence we can conquer violence; we somehow think that we can live in a world of justice by taking away the rights of the individuals.

All we have done is create a world of fear and ignorance. There is a subtle paranoia sweeping this country that threatens not only our physical safety but our mental safety as well. We have built a wall but it doesn’t keep people out; it keeps us in, prisoners of our fears and ignorance. We no longer seek new worlds to explore and our dream of visiting other planets and stars is just a dream and no longer a reality.

As the cartoonist Walt Kelly once wrote in his memorable comic strip, Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Look around at the world in we live and tell me what you see. These are the “end times”, the times of our own making. The world in which we live is the world that we made.

But there is good news in all of this. The fact that we see the destruction, the fact that we the violence, that fact that we see the poverty and homelessness and hunger and sickness and illnesses and oppression and injustice means that we can do something about it.

Instead of destruction, let us try construction. Instead of feeding an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, let’s really try to develop alternative energy solutions. They do exist and they will cost but, in the end, the cost will be worth it if it means the world will remain.

And finally, let us really invest in education. Let’s put the money in the classrooms so that teachers can truly once again begin teaching our children and grandchildren the skills to think and be creative.

Yes, there are costs involved in all of this. But consider this, if we do not begin to make the changes, there will come a time when we cannot make changes.

We live in the world of our own making; we can therefore make this a better world. We live in the world that we wanted; isn’t it time that we wanted a better world?

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Is This the Straw That Broke the Camel’s back?


I am a casual flyer these days, taking only one trip a year to go to the U. S. B. C. Open tournament, wherever it may be. Last year, it was in Las Vegas; this year and next it is Reno with Baton Rouge on the schedule for 2012. But there was a period where I was doing a lot of flying and getting quite familiar with the ins and outs of commercial flying.

But lately, I am thinking about giving up flying all together. Every since 9/11, it seems we are more interested in keeping people off airplanes than we are letting them on. One guy attempts to blow up an airplane with explosives in his shoes so we all have to take off our shoes. One guy tries to do the same thing with a combination of liquids so now the liquids that we take with us must be of a certain size and quantity.

And the device that detects explosive materials (which I assume to be nitrate-containing compounds) will also detect other compounds such as the residue of local anesthetics. That has to really scare someone recovering from surgery.

The implementation of policy and training sees inconsistent at best. I have observed TSA agents lift 40-lbs of bowling equipment without bending their knees and being told that they were never given any instructions on how to lift heavy objects. I have observed other agents as they struggle with clear cut instructions (like the time my boarding pass said “must check in at gate” and the agent was telling me that I had to go back to the ticket counter. As he was struggling with this dilemma, I pointed out that the individual behind me had the same boarding pass and that he should resolve the two issues at the same time in consultation with two supervisors. I was told not to tell him how to do his business and after they took some 20 minutes to figure out that I should go to the gate; they took the same amount of time with the next person who had the same issue.

But as I struggle with these annoyances (does anyone seriously think that someone is going to try and destroy a plane with a shoe bomb or a combination of liquids?) I also struggle with the service issues.

I have found that I can get a cheap ticket even two weeks before my departure but that the moment I go to book the flight, the price changes and I am forced to start over. And I know longer check my baggage since they charge you for your checked bags. I now ship my gear instead of lugging it to the airport; yes, it is a little more expensive but it gets to where I need it and I don’t have to worry about the bags being torn up.

And besides, I have to fly out of New York City in order to get any sort of cheap flight. I remember when the airlines were deregulated back in the early days of the Reagan administration. Just as today, there was this cry about getting government out of the way of business. Well, we have seen what happened with oil exploration and the way airlines are going today makes it very clear that while deregulation may help businesses, it does very, very little for the people.

It appears, at least as far as I can see, that all that has happened following deregulation of the airlines is that it robbed many of the smaller airports of service. And if there is service, it is prohibitively expensive. So I no longer can fly out of the regional airport that is fifteen minutes from my home.

Now, the airlines, especially in the past few years, have always charged you for changing your mind. You booked a cheap fare, you had better keep it.

And they have begun charging you for the simple snacks that they serve. But this past Wednesday (May 26th), I found out just how far the airlines (or at least one airline) will go to take every dollar from you that they can.

I knew from experience that the flight I had booked might be oversold. So I got to the airport early with the intention of volunteering for a bump as I have done in the past only to find out that I would have to pay a charge to fly standby. And after choosing the last seat on the plane, I find that I can pay for extra leg room or a more premium type of seat. Neither option is viable at this time. When I inquired about volunteering to move to the exit rows, I found that I would have to pay a fee. Those must have been the seats with the extra leg room that I passed up earlier.

I will not name this airline but I can say that while the skies were very friendly, the ground personnel were not. Weather-wise, this was the first time in all of my flying that the plane had to be diverted to an alternate airport because it was low on fuel. May 26th was not a good day to fly as thunderstorms blanketed the Midwest from Chicago to Denver. I don’t know what it was like in Chicago but when we finally got to Denver, ground personnel handed each of the departing passengers a sheet of paper with a number to call about the status of our reservation and a number to reserve a hotel room. No other information was provided. And of course, because of the severity of the storms and the disruption on the system, both phone lines had lengthy delays.

So I spent Thursday morning in, what is for me, the new Denver International Airport trying with so many others to get some sleep and prepare to get to my destination. Fortunately, the airport (and not the airline) was prepared to hand out sleeping mats, blankets, and a bottle of water.

Everyone must have one trip that borders on the disastrous or ridiculous; this has to be mine. But this trip and how the airline handled the flight reflect what I believe is going on in this country.

The reason for my flight delay was not the airline’s fault; the flight crew did their best to get me to my destination. The weather just prevented them from doing so. And when it is weather that causes flight problems, airlines are not required to offer compensation or assistance. Giving the passengers the numbers of the airline and the hotel booking company was all they are required to do.

These types of situation used to fall in the “acts of God” category and were, thus, exempt from corporate actions. But I am reminded that the single most important act of God was to send His Son so that we may be saved from slavery to sin and death. We make a big deal these days about being a Christian country but our actions sure don’t reflect that.

Our interests seem to be in the bottom line, the profits a company makes. It should be, no matter what the industry, on the people that the industry serves. The most important person flying on a commercial airline is not the most frequent flyer but the flyer that only flies once or twice a year. I am not saying that those who frequently fly shouldn’t be rewarded since they have to endure this stuff far more than the occasional flyer but if you treat the occasional flyer poorly, they may not fly again. Or if they fly again, it won’t be on that airline that treated them so poorly.

Our nation’s focus on the bottom line, to cut costs so as to increase profits, does not do well when there is a crisis. Be it the disaster in the Gulf, the mining disaster in West Virginia, or a stack of late airplane flights over the Denver International airport, the desire to keep the bottom line profitable for the short term will have long term negative effects.

But to keep the eye on the bottom line prevents one from keeping the focus on the people being served. I am not against any company making a profit; hey, that’s what you got into the business for. But when your focus is on the profit, and how much money a few privileged individuals can make, instead of the service you are providing, you have forgotten why you began the business in the first place.

I realize that I probably will have to fly to get to many places in this country. I have thought many times about taking the train but it is not always a good trade off. For essentially the same price that I paid for my airline ticket, I could have taken the train. But the time spent traveling would have been greater on the train and you have to make some decisions as to how fast you want to get to your destination and how much time you have to travel. And next year, I will have the same choices to make. As I plan for that trip, I will consider many factors about how I will get there. But one thing is for certain, the way in which this particular airline handled the problem means that I will probably not utilize their service next year.

I think that we, as a nation, have seen too many instances where profits are more important than people. I think it is time that we change that view.

A Disturbing Piece of News on a Monday Morning


I just posted this on The Methoblog home page – http://methoblog.com/?q=node/1410

I don’t know if you all saw this new item — http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/05/24/lambuth — but it was a little surprising and a little disturbing.

If you have read my own blog, you know that I am from Memphis which is just down the road from Jackson and Lambuth University.  My own college choices had been pretty well set when I graduated in 1968 so I never considered Lambuth as a college.

But I had friends who did and one friend of recent times went there to get her Bachelor’s Degree in preparation for the ministry.

And now we read that the school is being sold to private investors.  The primary reason given in the article is financial so we can just add "so what else is new?"

But what does this say for the future of Methodist-based education in this country?  Will Lambuth still be a Methodist-related institution or will it give up its affiliation?  In light of other comments being posted about the direction of the church as a whole, what does it say about being a Methodist (United or otherwise)?

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If you post comments and I hope that you will, please make sure that you post them on the Methoblog page as well.  Thank you!

Rethinking the Church


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 14 – 17, and John 14: 8 – 17 (25 – 27).

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Sitting on my desk was a piece entitled “Rethinking the Bible” which I began about two weeks ago because of the reading from Acts for May 9th (Acts 16: 9 – 15). In addition, a second part of this piece came from Allan Bevere’s post this week, “What About Mediocre Churches?”, and his thoughts on the appointment process in the United Methodist Church.

The church today (Pentecost Sunday) is now some two thousand years old. And it is truly showing its age, both figuratively and chronologically. I have always been fascinated by those who are chronologically old but mentally young. Similarly there are those who are chronologically young but mentally old (and sometimes even “dead”).

I think there is nothing wrong with being old in terms of the calendar but I wonder if it is the best excuse to use for not wanting to learn new things or try out new ideas. To be mentally old is to be “dead” before your time.

I don’t mind that the church is, calendar-wise, old. That cannot be helped. But what I do mind is that the church, in form and perhaps function, has become mentally and emotionally dead. What started out as a rebellion against a religious and political establishment is fast becoming the religious establishment within our current political framework (with some trying very, very hard to make it the political establishment as well).

And the problem is, the church knows full well that, unless some radical and revolutionary things are done, real soon, it will be a physically dead entity as well. It should have never gotten to this point.

The church today bears little resemblance to the church of two thousand years ago. We are the people before Pentecost expressing perhaps the same ideas but speaking in thousands of different tongues so that no one understands what we are saying. We are the people who saw Jesus as a threat to the establishment because he took the power away from the establishment and restored a connection between God and His children. We made the building and the structure of the church more important than the mission of the church; in fact, we have made the mission of the church the filling of the building, not the care of the souls of the community.

We have made the physical structure of the church the goal rather than a place to come together. Our inability to think beyond the structure of the church has affected our own society in many, many ways and in a negative way. For the most part, we have failed to do what the early church did, tell the story and preach the Word of Christ. We assume that everyone knows the story so it need not be retold. But the story we live out is not the story that was told two thousand years ago; it is what we think the story was. I think it is time that we rethink what the church is and what its business ought to be.

Rethinking the Church – Part 1

You may or may not be familiar with “The Paper Chase”. For most people, this was a 1973 movie starring Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner, and John Houseman. For some, it would be the television series that followed the movie in 1978 and 1979. It was the final episode of that television series (“The Scavenger Hunt”) that provided the inspiration for how I give exams in my chemistry classes and also served as the inspiration for the piece, “The Final Exam in Contracts”.

But I don’t think many people were aware that the movie and the television show came from a book by John J. Osborne, Jr. Mr. Osborne has written at least four other novels, including one of my favorites, The Associates.

In The Associates, the hero is struggling with life in a prestigious New York law firm. Through a set of circumstances, he ends up having lunch with the firm’s founder and senior partner. One may say that it was a conversation between the two but it essentially consisted of the partner talking and the young associate listening.

In the conversation, the partner describes his early days as a law clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the frustration that he felt as did what he felt were clerical tasks and not the tasks that he had prepared to do in law school. And as the partner describes his efforts in legal research, he tells of bringing in an original (and historical) document which Justice Holmes begins to write on. When Justice Holmes realizes that he has been given the original document in a long and complicated legal problem, he announces that the clerk is now ready to begin the process of law. The discussion between the partner and the associate doesn’t go much beyond that but it plants the idea in the associate’s mind about what he must do if he is to continue a life in the legal profession.

Now, on this Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, perhaps we should consider such a conversation ourselves and perhaps we should go back to the original documents.

What many people know and understand is often limited, often wrong, and in the end, will cause more harm than good.

Rethinking the Bible

There are some shows on the history channel that pertain to the composition of the Bible and what was acceptable as a text and what was not acceptable, both in the Old and New Testaments.  There was also a series on the writing of the New Testament, from the Gospels through the letters of Paul and others. 

Now, it is well known that there are many contradictions in the Bible and some of them we are never going to resolve. Nor should we expect to resolve them. After all, the Bible is neither a literature book nor is it a history book (and please, don’t tell me that it qualifies as a biology or geology text book). For me, the Bible is one of several stories that attempts to explain to the world who we are and why we are here.  When I read the Old Testament, I sometimes imagine children sitting around the fire asking their grandfather or one of the elders the most asked question of children, “Why?” But this simple question leads to answers that are not always simple, and it always seems to lead to another “why?” Just have a conversation with a three year old sometime and you will understand what this means.

In Acts 16: 9 – 15, Paul teaches Lydia and the information that is provided says that he does so in what would have been considered a culturally inappropriate manner.  That is, he taught the women without their husbands or brothers being present.  Now, we know that Lydia was independent and self-sufficient; I don’t think that she would have tolerated any man telling her what she could and could not do.

For Paul, who knew the law as well as anyone, teaching unaccompanied women was just not done.  But we also know that at this time Paul is taking a more “liberated” view of the world and the old laws aren’t going to cut it.

So how does Paul get stuck with a sexist label later on?  How is it that he begins all of his early writing by proclaiming the good works of all those involved in the church and he specifically names women when he does so but we have this image (which is pushed by many fundamentalists today) that women have no place in the power structure of the church?

It has been noted that Paul never intended for his letters to become theology but the people treat his letters as such. They are more instructional in nature than theological. If we don’t understand the reason for why Paul wrote his letters (or others wrote them in his name), then we are going to have problems understanding what Christianity is and what it is meant to be. We cannot even begin to think about the nature of the church if we don’t understand the nature of Christianity.

And as Christianity struggles with its own identity, we need to seriously consider what it is that is in the Bible and what is in history.

We know that what many people see in the church today is not what the church was some two thousand years ago.  If we do not understand how it is that a movement spread from Jerusalem to cover the world, we are not going to be able to keep it alive in our part of the world.  And the same goes for understanding Paul. 

Is Paul really the writer of the words in his last letters which run so counter to what he wrote in his earlier letters?  Shall we preach a message that runs so counter to a belief of the equality of mankind in the eyes of God?  Or shall we preach a gospel that preaches that some of us are better than others?

The Bible is not the final word in the matter; it is the beginning word. It is the basis upon which we grow and expand the Word. And we have to remember that the early church had no Bible with which to tell the story; it relied on the people to tell the stories and spread the Good News.

The Business of the Church

What is the business of the church? Why did it come into existence in the first place? Now, you will get no argument from me if you say that the business of the church is the saving of souls. But you will get an argument from me if the saving of souls is accomplished by forcing people to accept your notion of salvation and your notion that the only path to salvation passes through the doors of your church. This says to me that you are more interested in putting more bodies in the building than you are seeing that they enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I am sorry if that upsets you but I have observed many people walk the path of righteousness who do not believe as I do but who believe in God and live a life in accordance with the same precepts that I hold true. Are they to be denied access to heaven because they do not believe as I do? How do I even know that I hold the right answers in my life; perhaps I am the one to be denied and they are the ones who will be allowed entrance?

You see, the problem is that we think it is more important to count the bodies here on earth and proclaim victory than waiting until that time when we will truly know the truth. I think we are sort of afraid of that moment so we focus on the here and now. Then again, we are a society that wants everything right now and we are unwilling to wait until later to find out the true effectiveness of our work (and if this bears a remarkable similarity to some of my thoughts about the present nature of the educational process, so be it because it is the same).

We, as a denomination and as a church, have applied the business model of the bottom line to church development.  The only true way to know if a pastor is successful or if a local church is successful comes a long time after the pastor and the congregation are gone.  We are in the business of saving souls and there is only one way to know if we did our job right.  It cannot be measured with a bottom line mentality. But that is what we do and it is beginning to show.

The problem is that we have applied the Peter Principle to the appointment process. We reward pastors with upward movement, to a bigger church. Some of this can’t be help; after a period of time, a smaller church does not have the resources to pay the pastor the appropriate salary. But successful pastors are successful as much for where they are as for what they do. And unless the new church congregation is willing to undertake the same efforts that the old church congregation undertook, the pastor may not necessarily be successful in his new assignment.

A model which places a pastor in a church because of seniority and time of service can do more harm than good. It is a model that places the beginning pastors (local, student, or otherwise) in situations where an experienced pastor can perhaps do better. I am not saying that a beginning pastor can’t be successful in such settings but there are only 168 hours in a week and the beginning pastor is often faced with other tasks beside running and building a church. (This is also analogous in education where the least experienced teachers are put in the schools with the most problems.)

As we have made the support of the pastor a local issue, we are stuck with a model that puts the beginning pastor at the smaller churches without the resources and support they need and the more experienced pastors in positions where the support is far greater than is needed. There is an imbalance in this system and it is beginning to affect what we do as a church.

There are solutions to this problem but they are not necessarily the ones that people want to implement. It brings into question part of what I said last week at Gardnertown UMC (“Should We Explain This?”).

Faced with their destruction, the people of Athens turned to the Oracle at Delphi for the answer as to how to defeat the Persians threatening the city. The answer was that “the wooden wall would save you and your children.” As history will note, the Athenians took this as a sign to conduct a naval battle rather than a land battle.

We see solutions to the problems but they may not necessarily be the right solutions simply because we are seeing them through traditional approaches and the way we view the world. There are some who see technology as the solution, when in fact it is the mechanism by which the solution will be determined.

Technology and the Church

Someone once said that technology was a two-edged sward. And though I am not quite sure of the analogy other than it can cut coming or going, technology is proving to be both the curse and the solution for many churches.

Recently my church sent out an e-mail announcement about something happening at the church. This was good; it happens to be a quick and efficient way of doing things and perhaps cheaper. But not everyone in the church has e-mail and not everyone who has e-mail is going to read their e-mail on a regular basis (as one person told me, if you spend your entire work day on the computer, the last thing you want to do is spend your home life on the computer as well). As a result, a good portion of the congregation did not receive notice of a very important event in the life of the church.

On a broader note, I am a preparing a list of United Methodist Churches within a particular radius of my home church. This was very easy to do because we have a zip code search function on the “find-a-church” part of the umc.org website. This allows me to get contact information for the various churches I want to contact. What is interesting is the number of churches listed whose contact information is minimal, incomplete, or incorrect.

Now, the “find-a-church” function is an important one, though I am not sure how someone not familiar with the United Methodist page would find it. But if I found it and used it and found a church that only listed its street address (which may or may not be correct) and listed no web page or had an e-mail address, I may not be interested in that church. Personally, I want to go to the church and meet the people before making a decision but it tells me something when the church’s web page information is limited. It may be a sign that they want people to think that the church is “with it (hey, we are on the web)” but they don’t necessarily want people visiting.

But it also says something when a church doesn’t have an e-mail address or if the e-mail address is wrong (like the address for a church which was another church’s address). It also says something if there is a web page for the church but the wrong thing when the web page is not up-to-date.

Our thinking cannot be determined by the technology because not everyone has the capability (or desire) to use the technology. The technology can help the church; however, it is not the solution but a mechanism for achieving the solution. And it requires an effort on the part of those who made the decision to keep the work up to date.

And by the way, church is not an event that can be done on-line. It can be streamed and pod-cast; it can be recorded and re-shown (I hope to have the video of my Palm Sunday and Easter messages posted but I am finding the size limitations daunting) but it cannot be done on-line. Church is something that must be done with others, be in it a building or in a garden or in a forest or on a mountaintop.

Rethinking the Church – Part 2

There are those today who are trying to find the original church and to revitalize Christianity. They are doing so by creating house churches, of bringing back the original meeting places. Some are even going so far as to learn Greek so they can read the Bible in its original language.

For whatever reason, these attempts have been labeled as post-modern and are being met with great resistance from the religious establishment and sometimes from church congregations. I have said, and will continue to say, that I find many parallels between the church establishment of today and it’s counterpart of two thousand years ago.

The establishment likes the way things are done today and many people, while looking around at their church and wondering what is happening, are reluctant to change the way things are being done. But unless we do that, unless we change our thinking, the existence of the church will be like that of the dinosaur, a relic of the past unable to adapt to the changes in its environment.

Some of the resistance comes from poor planning and lack of thought on the part of the reformers. There is clearly a need for the use of technology in the church today but a worship service with Power Point presentations and insipid praise music is not the answer. Find new music, yes! Use all sorts of presentation methodologies, yes! But don’t simply copy something someone else is doing and expect it to work unless the people you are presenting it to are just the people of the church whom you copied the idea from.

The Holy Spirit

Today is about the Holy Spirit and its presence in our lives. I think the state of the church today is due in part to the lack of the Holy Spirit. The people made the church what it is today and they have been going through the motions for so long that the Holy Spirit is no longer present. Each week the people say the words and expect that will be enough. But they say the words without spirit, without enthusiasm and without feeling; it is no wonder that there is no spirit.

If it is possible for the Holy Spirit to come upon a group of people and allow them to speak in such a way that everyone knows what they are saying, it is possible for the Holy Spirit to revitalize the church and renew its spirit. But the people must be prepared for that moment. The people had gathered together that first Pentecost Sunday and they gather together every Sunday; so the possibility exists.

There are some who look around and see no hope; I know many who feel this way and I see countless others who see the church as antiquated and out-of-touch with the realities of the world outside the church walls. But I also know that those who have turned from the church really don’t have the answer, either.

And I know that two thousand years ago, one man asked twelve others to follow Him. And the twelve followed as did others. And they saw the miracles and they heard the lessons and they took to heart all that they had seen and heard. And when that First Easter was over, they had a better understanding of what had happened in their lives.

And on that First Pentecost they received the Holy Spirit into their lives and then they went out into the world, far beyond the boundaries of their normal, everyday routine, and they changed the world.

And I know that John Wesley had a vision for this world and that on that night when he understood and received the Holy Spirit, his vision became alive and it too changed the world.

The vision is there and it is now our call to take the message into the world. We do have to rethink the ways in which we have done things but we do not and will not change the simple fact that Christ is our Savior and that we are to be his disciples, not merely telling people but showing them. It is a challenge but no greater challenge than the church has faced in the past.

If we open our hearts and minds to Christ and then allow the Holy Spirit to be a part of us, then we can revitalize the church and make it what it was and what it is to be.

Should We Explain This?


I am at Gardnertown UMC in Newburgh, NY this morning (Location of the church); services start at 9:45 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, are Acts 16: 16 – 34, Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 1, and John 17: 20 – 26.

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Borrowing a thought from the entrepreneur and philosopher Charles Handy, I believe that our life today is a paradox.

We are asked to live in a world of simultaneous opposites, where the political dialogue calls for lower taxes yet the social dialogue calls for a deeper caring of the human condition. The paradoxes that we encounter confuse us because things don’t behave as we think they should and what worked well before is not guaranteed to work as well this time. The key is to understand where we are, how we got here, and where we want to go from here; yet, such understanding itself is often a paradox.

Without a clear understanding of the process, things will not work as they should. But how do we obtain such understanding? How then do we find the truth in what we seek? (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox” by Charles Handy)

We live in a world where our acceptance of the truth is predicated on reality but we will readily accept as reality the claims in an e-mail that we receive from the friend of a friend of a cousin who knew someone who might have possibly heard that “so and so” was actually there when it happened. (And I want to thank Dale McClure, a friend, for providing some of the inspiration for this sermon.)

We accept without question the claims of politicians and pundits when they tell us things as the truth; even thought we know that they are not true or too implausible to be true. But we accept them because we have willingly given these individuals the power to tell us what to think. And when such statements are constantly repeated, they begin to take on the aspects of truth and they defy any and all attempts to correct them and remove them from the social landscape.

Similarly, when we speak of things mystical or we read of a prophet having a vision, we dismiss the speaker with phrases like loony, wacky, or just plain crazy. We associate the Book of Revelation with the Apocalypse and well we should because “apocalypse” means “revelation”. But our association with the term is one of death and destruction, of actions that are not necessarily in the reading but in the interpretations of 19th century theologians. What many people don’t realize is that apocalyptic writing was common place writing in the early days of the church (there is at least one other Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of Peter, but it is not part of the accepted canon) and that it was almost a literature for “insiders”; understanding required knowledge of the situation and the symbols that were used. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/)

Our view of the Seer’s vision is clouded because we do not understand what was written two thousand years ago on Patmos. As a result, our own view of Christianity is distorted and clouded. We also have problems with the whole nature of visions. If John the Seer had written his revelation in the 60s, we would have dismissed him as wacky, loony, or just plain crazy.

This “vision thing” is something we do, not something that has any validity. We will accept the results of a visioning exercise if the results are what we want to happen, not just what might happen.

The reading from Acts today starts off with a young slave girl who offers visions for a price. There were a number of things in this piece that spoke of labor practices and their application to today’s society but I will save such a discussion for later. Suffice to say, I grew up in an environment that justified slavery because slavery was in the Bible.

If we are to accept as truth all that is written in the Bible, then we can easily accept the notion that it is right and permissible for one group to oppress another. But this flies in the face of the ideas that are clear and present throughout the Bible; that all of humankind is the same in God’s eyes. And it should be noted that the treatment of slaves in our own history runs counter to the rules set forth in the Old Testament.

So we have this situation where a young girl sees visions for the benefit of her owners. And she must be very good at it because those owners go after Paul and Silas for taking away their livelihood. Yet, according to the laws and customs of that time, Paul and Silas did nothing wrong and the corresponding court action is not about the welfare of the girl but rather the loss of income for the owners.

It does not say how she had the visions but, from the actions of Paul and Silas, we can presume that many would have felt that she was possessed by some sort of demon. Paul is not angry with the girl for following him and proclaiming the truth; Paul is angry that she is viewed as the source of truth (which leads me back to my original thoughts about how we seek and see the truth).

Because of how the young girl is described in the historical texts, there is an association with the Oracle of Delphi in terms of how the young girl in the story had her visions. As I said, she must have been good at what she did, because, why would the owners have taken action against Paul and Silas?

But did she tell the truth as it was to be or did she tell the truth as the listeners wanted to hear? Were her words of prophesy clear and distinct or clouded in mystery and ambiguity? Was she truly a prophet?

Prophets do not foretell the future; what they do is tell the truth as they see it. They point to the way things are, not the way people want things to be. They can warn of dangers ahead if things are not changed (we would call such people “whistle-blowers” today). They can and do point to what they think is wrong, unjust, or prejudiced. (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox” by Charles Handy) This was the way of the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke out against the actions of the people of Israel and the dangers that lie before the nation if it did not change its ways. For the most part, the people of Israel ignored the prophets until it was too late. The words of the prophets only made sense to the people after the fact, not before.

What a prophet cannot and should not do is tell the doers what to do. I get this sense that people came to this young girl so that they could be told exactly what to do. And that is a very dangerous thing.

There is a reference in the commentaries for the reading from Acts to the Oracle at Delphi. This was a shrine to the Greek god Apollo and apparently was built around the entrance to a cave. Those seeking answers would approach the priestess of the Oracle and pose their question.

She then would go into the cave and enter into some sort of hallucinogenic trace caused by ethylene and other hydrocarbon gases in the cave. In this state, she would utter some incomprehensible phrase that the petitioners would have to decipher.

Such a vision/prophecy occurred in 480 BCE. The Persians, under the command of Xerxes (who is mentioned in Ezra and Esther), had conquered and occupied 2/3 of Greece and were threatening Athens. As custom demanded, the leaders of Athens send a delegation to the Oracle at Delphi for instructions on what to do. They received the message, “the wooden wall will save you and your children.” But what did this mean?

To some, it meant building a wall around the city as a defensive measure. This was a logical conclusion. But it was a conclusion based on traditional thoughts. But others were pushed to see beyond the traditional logic. A static defense of the city may not work; after all, the Persian army had already shown its power in battle and it would have only been a matter of time before Athens fell to that military might.

For others, the answer to the Oracle’s pronouncement lie in the strengths that Athens already possessed, its navy. Lining up the ships of the Athenian navy side by side formed a wooden wall and, as history notes, the Athenians defeated the Persians in 479 BCE at the naval Battle of Salamis (http://www.ancient-greece.org/history/delphi.html and “A Whack On The Side Of the Head” by Roger van Oech).

The church today, whether we are talking about an individual church, a denomination, or in general, faces an uncertain future. The question is thus one of how shall we see the future? Should our vision of the future be framed in conventional and logical terms? Or is there an alternative view to seeing what lies ahead?

When John Wesley came to America almost two hundred seventy years ago, he came with a plan, logical in nature and clearly thought out. It was reflective of his life and methodology. But, as he crossed the Atlantic, the plan began to fall apart. The crossing of the Atlantic in the early 18th century was not an easy one and we know that John Wesley was sick during most of the trip.

His illness and discomfort were complicated by the fact that he could not find solace and comfort in God. Yet, there in front of him on that same ship were a group of Moravians enduring the same hardships yet singing hymns and praising God. The logical, methodical plan for salvation that Wesley had developed during his college days at Oxford was slowly beginning to fall apart.

We know that Wesley’s mission to America ended in abject failure and he brought a sense of failure with him when he returned from England. And this failure was not just felt by John Wesley. So affected by the failure of the American journey was Charles Wesley that he was literally on his death bed the night that John went to the chapel on Aldersgate Street.

It has been recorded that on that night when John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and he received the Holy Spirit, Charles began a recovery from the illness or illnesses that had forced him to his death bed. And with the acceptance of the Holy Spirit came the assurance and the power needed to move forward and begin what has become known as the Methodist Revival.

Now, there is no logical explanation for this nor should we try to find one; because it cannot be explained in such terms. For me, the acceptance of Christ as one’s Savior and the acceptance of the Holy Spirit brings about a new consciousness, a new understanding of the world around us.

It is very difficult to understand this when we are constrained by the logical of common thought. We are constrained when the loudest voices today call Christ a myth and religion mere superstition. Those who do think that Christ may have existed two thousand years ago say that our scientific and technological enlightenment have removed the need for such beliefs.

For me, personally, it comes down to this. Two thousand years ago, something happened in Jerusalem. Whatever happened there so profoundly affected a group of people that they began to tell others. And in spite of persecution and unknown dangers, they took their message of what happened beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and ancient Israel.

It wasn’t just the telling of the story that changed the lives of those who listened; it was seeing the changes that occurred in the lives of the people who told the story. The people of “The Way”, as the early Christian church was known, were a loving people, committed to the care of everyone, even those outside the group. And that had to change the minds and hearts of those who saw these changes.

Yes, in the period since those early days, when the church became officially sanctioned, there have been wars fought in the name of God and under the banner of Christ. There have been people and nations enslaved for the same reasons. But were these the actions of God or the actions of people who would have done so under the auspices of any other organization?

For every instance where God has been used as the justification for violence and hatred, there is an instance where people have been feed, people have been healed, and people have been freed from oppression and injustice.

Something inside me tells me that the movement that came out of Jerusalem, spread across the Mediterranean and around the world could not have survived these two thousand years unless there was some truth to it. We must offer a vision of that early church, not just in words but in action as well.

We must speak and act with the same love that Jesus Christ spoke of in His prayer that we read in the Gospel today. We must offer the evidence in actions and deeds as well as thoughts and words spoken.

In a world where truth is often sold, we are faced with a challenge. People are not willing to believe that the truth that will set them free comes without a price; that is freely given to all those who seek it. We need not explain what happens when one accepts Jesus Christ as one’s Savior; we merely have to live the life found in Christ so that people will see Christ in us.

So the offer is made this day, not to explain what we do but to live the life that we have proclaimed. For if we live the life that we have proclaimed then others will know that Christ is alive.

Our closing hymn this morning is “Shall We Gather at the River?” As we gather at the river, we are reminded of the people who came to hear John the Baptist call for repentance and renewal; to begin a new life. We are called to gather at the river and begin anew.

Try To Remember


These are my thoughts for the past week as well as for this Sunday, May 9, 2010, the 6th Sunday of Easter and Mother’s Day. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 16: 9 – 15, Revelation 21: 1 – 10, 22 – 22: 5, and John 14: 23 -29.

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The title of this piece comes about because of a little news blurb this past week. It was noted that the musical, “The Fantasticks” was something like fifty years old last week and was the longest running musical on Broadway before it closed a few years ago. It also noted that those who backed this musical when it first started received something on the order of a 2,000% return on their initial investment. But as I was reading this little tidbit of information, I was trying to remember the music that was associated with the show.

And then as I tried to remember the songs, a jolt of neurons hit my brain. The song in question is and was “Try to Remember”!

That’s the thing about our memory. We can remember things if we have the right motive or the proper aid. But we also need to have something in our minds that will bring it back to us. As I did some searching about the musical and the songs, it was noted that the late Jerry Orbach was the singer in the musical. Most people only know him as one of the detectives on the television show “Law & Order” and know little about his early acting and musical career.

Along those same lines, I was chatting with a help-desk tech the other day as we were trying to resolve a particular computer issue. It was necessary for me to reboot the computer and as it was doing so, that insidious little piece of Windows music played. I mentioned that I used to have a clip of “Elvis has left the building” that played when I would shut down my computer.

I asked the techie if she knew who Elvis was and she replied that she did. But when I asked her if she knew what band Paul McCartney was in before “Wings”, she couldn’t tell me. That is the way it goes sometimes. What constitutes part of life for some of us is only ancient history for others and it is quickly forgotten after it is studied, if it is studied at all. I wonder how many mothers and grandmothers there are today who are fearful their children and grandchildren will see pictures of them on the Ed Sullivan Show screaming and shouting when the Beatles or Elvis first played?

But my reminiscing about the music of my youth also reminded me of another song and what transpired forty years ago last week. Forty years ago, on May 4, 1970, four students where shot by Ohio National Guardsman. The incident and I think the protests across the nation concerning what President Nixon had ordered done in Viet Nam prompted Neil Young to write “Ohio”. I remember being a part of a protest at my school (Truman State) but I don’t know if we knew that four students had been shot. I also know that very few people today remember that two students were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi that same day.

In light of what is transpiring in this country, both socially, politically, and environmentally, perhaps we should be doing a little more remembering. We, collectively, stood by and allowed our his country to begin an ill-conceived war in Iraq; it was a war conceived in lies and more lies and it continues today. The war in Afghanistan is now considered a separate theater of operations by the Army so that it can transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and call each a separate tour. It promises to be a war that shall go on for a very long time.

I remember studying in my history classes about the “Forty Years War” and the “Hundred Years War” and wondering how a war could last for one, two, and even three generations. Now, as I read the reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and I see how we propose to fight terrorism, I no longer have to wonder. I am watching history develop its own story line in my own lifetime and I am watching my generation, who protested the war in Viet Nam and walked the streets in support of civil rights and free speech stand quietly on the sidelines, not in protest but in quiet acquiescence.

We have, in this country, a selective memory. We will send our troops overseas to fight in a war, bring them home for a short period of time, and then send them out again. Oh, yes, we will celebrate their return; as the song goes, “the men will cheer and the boys will shout and the ladies, they will all turn out, when Johnny comes marching home”.

But we have chosen to forget the darker side of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”; the side goes something like this:

Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo

With your drums and guns and guns and drums,

The enemy nearly slew ye

Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer

Johnny I hardly knew ye

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your eyes that were so mild,

When my heart you so beguiled

Why did ye run from me and the child

Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your legs that used to run,

When you went for to carry a gun

Indeed your dancing days are done

Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo

Ye haven’t an arm, yhe haven’t a leg,

Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg

Ye’ll have to put with a bowl out to beg

Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo

They’re rolling out the guns again,

But they never will take our sons again

No they never will take our sons again

Johnny I’m swearing to ye

(From http://www.instantknowledgenews.com/johnny.htm)

We would rather not know the consequences of our actions because then we would have to face up to the reality of life. And we prefer life where “reality” is a show on television, not what we have to face in life.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Mother’s Day? Well, from my point of view, there are two things. First, one year when I was in school, I gave my mother a pendant that said “War is not healthy for children and other living things” as a Mother’s Day gift. It came from an organization called “Another Mother for Peace” that had formed back in 1967 in opposition to the Viet Nam war. I thought it would have “disappeared” but I discovered that it is still around and it is still very active in the causes of eliminating war as a means of solving disputes between peoples, nations, and ideologies.

My mother wasn’t exactly thrilled with this gift but she knew that it came from her son and she told me that she loved me as her son and would always do so. A parent need not always approve or support their child’s actions and beliefs but they need to love them as a child and as a person. John writes in his Gospel that Jesus said those who love Him will keep His word will be loved by the Father. Those who do not love Jesus do not keep His words.

We have, in this country today, changed the meaning of that love to where it is almost hatred. We no longer love the other people on this planet but would rather ignore them when they come home wounded from war or throw them in jail for coming into this country illegally to find work. The issue cannot be about throwing people in jail because they are here illegally but rather resolving the issues about why these people seek work in this country. We are so caught up in our own self-interests we would rather ignore the real economic problems of this world than try to solve them.

And we do not remember that those who came to the shores of this country some 400 years ago could easily be considered illegal immigrants and we choose to ignore the fact that we essentially stole this continent from its inhabitants.

We have forgotten that Christians were first known by the love they expressed for others in their community and outside as well. In the eyes of many, Christianity is sexist, racist, and exclusionary. The actions of so many today, operating in hate and angry have made Christianity evil rather than good. And we have forgotten that women were a powerful force in the early church. Go back and read the account of Paul’s travels in the selection from Acts as well as his opening remarks in his early letters and contrast that to the operations of the church today. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten what we were and who we were; perhaps it would be well for us to remember.

And to borrow a phrase from the beginnings of the 1970s environmental movement, perhaps we should listen to Mother Earth more closely. We seem to think that we can do whatever we want to this planet but the tragedy and catastrophe that is taking place in the Gulf should be a reminder of what happens when we do not care for this planet properly. We seem to think that the only answer to our energy problems is to drill more holes in the earth’s crust and we have decided that safety is only one part of the equation and that it is to be factored against the cost of production. We have made the production of energy more important than the well-being of the workers. We seek to tap the same old energy sources and run the risk of damaging, beyond repair, the climate of this planet upon which we live.

We take the words that John the Seer wrote in Revelation and make them the end of the earth, not the beginning of a new life (because we fail to remember that the scenario of an apocalypse is a 19th century creation, not the vision of a 1st century mystic). The Seer cared for the people of this earth and he saw a new world, founded on the love that God had for his people and expressed through the mission and work of His Son.

On this day, when we remember our own mothers with flowers and phone calls, let us also remember the love that a parent has for a child. And then let us remember that Our Father in Heaven so loved us that He sent His Son to save us from our sins. His Son’s death on the Cross will not be in vain if we remember why we call this the season of Easter and perhaps it will help us to remember where we have been and what we have so that we can begin anew and complete the task begun two thousand years ago.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian