“The Life You Lead”


Mediation for October 19, 2014, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Laity Sunday

Exodus 33: 13 – 23; 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10; Matthew 22: 15 – 22

I wrote some notes about these three passages a couple of months ago with the thought that I would be in the pulpit somewhere this Sunday. But in re-opening this file I noticed that what I wrote back then does not match what I am thinking today, which is often the nature and case.

I don’t know why this particular Sunday was picked to be Laity Sunday. I suspect that if one were to go back into the history of the denomination and examine old copies of The Discipline I think one might find a legal paragraph or two that mandates that lay speakers do one service a year in their own church.

I have a sense that such a rule/paragraph existed at one time and I know that it doesn’t exist today. In one sense, if it did exist, it would be a little impractical, especially in those churches with more than one active lay speaker. Of course, there really isn’t such a thing as a lay speaker anymore, having shifted to the title of lay servant and preaching or presenting the message is no longer the primary task of the lay servant.

But in one sense, having changed the focus from speaking to service makes every Sunday a Laity Sunday.

I was in a discussion with a friend the other day about the nature of the sermon and whether it served primarily as a call to respond to Christ or to provide information to the assembled people or some other purpose. I hope that we concluded with the idea that a particular sermon serves a particular purpose based on the situation and needs of those in attendance. But it also served as a call for each member of the church, the laity, to respond in some way.

Now, hold onto that thought for a moment. I will come back to it shortly.

In addition to time being set aside to recognize the laity of the church, this is also the time that many churches begin their stewardship campaign. And unfortunately most of these campaigns are simply pleas for money to operate the church and its functions for another year (see “Creative Stewardship” and “What Does Stewardship Mean To Me?” as my response to that approach).

Stewardship has to be more than simply giving money for the operation of the church. When everything is expressed in terms of operating the church, then I fear that we have elevated the building to a status similar to a false idol. This is not to say that the building is not important but then again, how many successful churches today are operating outside the framework of a permanent structure?

Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, again looking for a way to entrap him. This time, the issue is taxation, an extremely sore point with the religious establishment who could not stand that money taken by the Romans was money that could have been given to them. And Jesus replies that one gives to the government what should be given to the government and one gives to God what should be given to God.

Let’s not get into a discussion on the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of citizenship (of course, back then the Israelites were not necessarily considered Roman citizens). But too many people, I think, use Jesus’ thought of giving to the government and giving to God as an excuse to not give to God because they have to give so much to the government.

But that can only occur when God is not the priority in your life, when His presence is a slot of time on Sundays and sometimes during the week. In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses challenges God to make His presence known to the people so that they will know and understand the special relationship they have with Him.

I think the problem is that, while God is among us today, we are blind to His presence. We speak of the unique relationship that we have but we don’t acknowledge it. And if we do not acknowledge it, we can’t be aware of it.

I wrote a prayer a few years ago that hung in our feeding ministry’s kitchen. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a copy of it on my hard drive. But I remember that one line I wrote acknowledged that Jesus Christ would be one of those who we feed that morning. How can we give to God what is God if we do not treat everyone as if he or she was a representative of Christ?

Second point, how can we see God if our lives are lived in such a way that it doesn’t reflect what we believe? When you read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians for today, note how he commends them for leading a life that shows the presence of Christ and what that means to others. Others see in the Thessalonians the way to live and the openness in which that live works.

And now I go back to the idea that every Sunday is Laity Sunday and that we, the laity, take with us at the end of the service is the knowledge that we serve Christ with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind.

You cannot split your life into parts as far as Christ is concerned. You either live it fully in and with Christ or you do not. And if you do not live it fully in and with Christ, then you had best do what Jesus Himself first called upon the people to do, repent of your ways and begin anew.

You cannot expect people to accept you as a Christian if your life does not show the love of Christ. What was it that cause the people to notice the behavior of the Thessalonians if it was not a change in their life?

In response to such a challenge last week, I wrote that “generosity requires a change in thinking.” Anyone can be generous with their money but how many people are generous with their lives?

On this Sunday, we need to understand that it is not a recognition of what we have done but rather what we are going to do. It is a recognition that the life we lead is one that leads to Christ and helps others find Christ in a troubled and disturbed world. It is a life that does truly lead to peace and justice for all.

“What Is Your Focus?”


Meditation for 12 October 2014, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 32: 1 – 14; Philippians 4: 1 – 9; Matthew 22: 1 – 14

The challenge in today’s society is no different than it was in yesterday’s society or even in society three thousand years ago. The challenge is and will always be to do what it right and not necessarily what society ask of us.

There are those times when what society asks of us is the right thing to do but only when individuals have stood up and called the people to act in the appropriate manner. For the most part, what society has asked people to do seems to be the logical thing but not necessarily the right thing.

Right now, society seems to be careening and bouncing its way into a world of never-ending wars that will never be decided. Society seems to decided that there will only be one view of the way things are and the existence of two different ideas is the basis for conflict.

I realize that certain ideas, which place the thoughts and values of one individual over those of another and do not allow for a discussion of the differences, are not appropriate. But that only means that we need to be aware of what is happening and prepared to meet the challenge before it gets to the point where violence is the only alternative.

This can be a difficult task. Consider what the Israelites were going through in the Old Testament reading for today. Their journey, guided by a mysterious fire and a strange cloud, had lead them to the base of Mount Sinai and now their leader, Moses, had seemingly disappeared. And there was no tangible evidence of this God they had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and given them bread to eat and water to drink while they wandered in the desert.

It is no wonder that they reverted to old habits and demanded the existence of a physical idol. The golden calf gave them the focus that they needed to survive. I think that is part of the problem in today’s society. We find it easier to focus on something tangible and physical; we have difficulty focusing on the abstract and invisible.

Even Paul warns against focusing on the negative things in life. I don’t think he wants us to ignore them but put them in the proper perspective. The problem today is that too many pastors have opted for a view of life that sees only the good but offers no plan for dealing with the bad part of life.

We have been given a great opportunity (as declared in the parable of the wedding banquet in today’s Gospel reading) but it is only there if our focus is on God. Those who were invited had their focus elsewhere and they missed the invitation. But unless your focus is totally on God then you will probably miss the invitation as well, as noted by the individual who was kicked out because he wasn’t properly dressed.

Now, there are some who will glory in these words. But they might miss the point. We live in this world and we have to work in this world. If we try to make this world God’s world or what we think might be God’s world, we will miss the point. We will have our focus on the rules and the means of enforcing the rules and not on God Himself. But if our focus is on God and what God means to us and we exhibit His love in our work, our words, our deeds and actions, then our focus will be where it needs to be.

So, what is your focus? Is it on society and how society see you or is it on God and what God would have you to do to show His love in this world?

“A Second Question Related To Academic Publishing”


Back in 2011, I posted a piece on my blog entitled “A Question Related To Academic Publishing” (http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/a-question-related-to-academic-publishing/ if it doesn’t show up as a link).  In this piece I asked about the viability of listing blog posts as publications on one’s vita.  There was only one response to the post (and I want to thank that person for making the comment).

I bring up the idea of alternative publication processes because 1) I think the presence of electronic journals is more prevalent and the use of the Internet suggests we think about such alternatives and 2) an article published in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review” (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60.full).  In this article, the author describes an experiment to determine the viability of publishing in “open access journals”.  The conclusion is not very good.  It would seem that the majority of such journals are only interested in scamming money from the authors and will publish anything if the check clears (sarcasm is mine).

I suppose we should not be surprised by all of this.  The academic world is a distinct part of the information age and we should expect individuals seeking to take advantage of the opportunity before them.  The next question is, “What do we do next?”

“Faithfulness”


The following was the morning devotional for the New York Conference Board of Laity for Tuesday, October 7, 2014.

Good morning, my name is Tony Mitchell and I am a certified lay servant from the Fishkill United Methodist Church. A copy of this devotional can be found on my blog “Thoughts From The Heart On The Left.”

I choose Hebrews 11: 1 – 31 as the scriptural basis for this morning’s devotional but, for time purposes, not going to read it this morning. But I suggest that when you get the opportunity, you read it one more time. Perhaps, as is often the case, a second reading of a familiar passage provides a new understanding.

This passage begins with the idea that faith is a belief in things unseen and then goes on to list all those incidents where our spiritual ancestors acted on faith.

Now, when Clarence Jordan wrote his Cotton Patch version (which he called a “colloquial translation with a Southern accent), he noted that he saw the Letter to the Hebrews as a convention sermon at an annual conference of early Christians. The delegates may have been so impressed and inspired that they insisted that it be included in the convention minutes.

Jordan wrote as verse 1 of chapter 11, “faith is the turning of dreams into deeds, it is betting your life on unseen realities.” I think of all those listed in this chapter of Hebrews and the trials and difficulties they endured, all based on the proposition that the Kingdom of God and the promises it held were real and not some sort of myth or superstition.

In today’s world, faith is often treated as just that, a myth or superstition. The critic and the cynic will tell you that any belief in God is something that one cannot prove and thus is meaningless in a life that demands proof.

Over the past few weeks and even months, I have felt that my own faith has been tested, perhaps to the point of breaking. But I keep holding on, with my faith sustaining me when nothing else seems to work. And as I look back at history, those 2000 or so years since Jesus began His ministry on the dusty roads of the Galilee, I have to say to the cynic and the critic, if this is all a myth or superstition, why does it still exist? Shouldn’t faith have disappeared a long time ago.

In the end, the proof that faith is real is found when we show God’s love to others, when we show the existence of God in our own lives and help others when they are tested. The proof of God’s love comes when we answer the cries of the people who are hungry, the cries of the people who are sick, the cries of the people who are naked or homeless and the cries of the oppressed. Faith is truly the turning of dreams, those of others into deeds, that which we do.

“Systems Or People?”


Meditation for 5 October 2014, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9, 12 – 20; Philippians 3: 4 – 14; Matthew 21: 33 – 46

The other day I put up a post entitled “A World Wide Systems Failure.” In part because of this post, I took that post down. But here is part of what I said in that post.

Have you noticed how administrators and other individuals in power are explaining things in terms of ‘the system failed”? That prompts me to aks when did we get to the point where we relied on systems to solve our problems. Are humans no longer involved in the problem solving process?”

One of first major political novels that I remember reading was the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler entitled Fail Safe. It was made into a movie in 1964 and then a TV movie in 2000. the premise of the movie was that there had been a systems failure which allowed a squadron of Air Force nuclear bombers to attack targets in the Soviet Union. And while a total nuclear war was adverted, there were nuclear-based consequences.

Today, in addition to the system failures that dominate our every day news, we are looking at the possibility of many other such failures. A war which should never have started threatens to become a global war; the recent civil unrest has reminded us that societal divisions cannot be swept under the wrong.

And what’s worse, we seem to have lost our ability to solve problems, in part as a consequence of relying on systems rather than people. We talk about the capabilities of our smart phones without realizing that no phone is smarter than the person using it. We have forgotten that, no matter what the speed of the processor, no computer or calculator can solve a problem if the person who inputs the information doesn’t understand how to solve the problem. All a super fast computer or calculator can do is get the wrong answer quicker. (See Thoughts of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”, How To Become a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”, and Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite” for more thoughts on this idea.)

The fault, dear Brutus, lies with us. We have created the system and enhanced it. From the very day Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai, the lawyers and other legal experts have been creating rules and laws on how to make those ten statements of life work.

Let’s forget for a moment those who would put carve the Ten Commandments into stone and post them in every court and classroom in the country; I think that falls under the “don’t make graven images” rule. Let’s forget those who apply “thou shall not kill” to one set of circumstances but will not speak out against the death penalty or seem to think that war is an acceptable alternative.

Let us look at the 613 laws written in the Old Testament that were created to make sure that we obey the primary ten. But the Ten Commandments were and are about our relationship with God and others. The other laws created a legalistic system where salvation was impossible unless you happen to be one of those who wrote the rules. For the way the rules and laws were written, obeying one set of laws would invariably cause one to violate another set.

God’s Kingdom is first and foremost about how we react with others. In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus points out that we have forgotten that point. And what is Paul telling the Philippians, “stay away from those who focus on appearance and adherence to the law, those who hold onto the system.” Paul points out very clearly that he himself was once such a person, more interested in preserving the system than the people. And Paul acknowledges that approach took him away from God.

I don’t know if John Wesley ever made such a statement but we do know that what he initially created was a legalistic, mechanistic system that almost destroyed the movement before it began. In fact, all that we got from that initial approach was our name, “Methodist”. It was only when Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed that the Methodist movement became successful.

Systems are the means by which problems are solved. People still remain the problem solvers. When we rely solely on systems to solve the problems, then nothing will get solved. When we look to the people to solve the problems, then things will change.

Jesus came at a time when the system made it impossible for people to find God. He went beyond the system to meet the people and show them God.

When John Wesley went beyond the mechanics and legalisms and welcomed the Holy Spirit into his heart, the Methodist movement became successful and world changing.

You have the opportunity to escape from a system designed to enslave and entrap you. Shall you stay with the system or rely on Christ? Shall you work for the people or for the system. What shall you do?

“What Do You Want? What Will You Get?”


Meditation for 28 September 2014, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, Matthew 21: 23 – 32

Somewhere in my academic files is a paper entitled “Whadja Get?” It is, I believe, the first draft of a paper that was to be submitted for publication. I base this on the fact that the author’s name is not on it nor is there any reference to what journal the author was submitting. I suppose that, on that basis, I could publish it and claim it as my own and take the heat if it is in fact published elsewhere. But that is 1) the subject of another piece and 2) not the reason I mention it at this time.

The purpose of this particular paper was to discuss, in the early/mid 1980s, the idea of grades in a classroom. We were then and are now dominated by a “bottom-line” mentality, especially in the area of education. The grade you receive in any course is supposed to represent some measure of what you know about that subject but often times is more reflective of your standing in the class.

When I was teaching college, I found myself spending the first day or two outlining how one achieved success in my classroom. I was and still and am convinced that much of that fell on deaf ears, because most of the students were only interested in what was the fastest and easiest way to get an “A” in the course. And many of those students did not like my rule for extra credit: Extra credit was possible, provided all the other work had been completed.

Now, I will be honest. I grew up in a competitive environment and, while not explicitly stated, being “number 1” was always the goal. But I also learned that the deck was often stacked against those, such as I, who were newcomers to the system. And many times, it wasn’t what you did but who you were and where you came from that counted more.

Fortunately for me, there were individuals in my life who made sure that our competition was fun and we did things right. I will always remember one particular contest that had several parts, most of which we could do by ourselves. There was one requirement, though; you had to do have a partner so there were no questions. I had a friend who wanted to win this particular competition and he asked me to be his partner. The outcome was that my friend won the particular competition and I finished in the top five. Now, I suppose that if I wanted to, I could have finished higher with a little more effort but to finish 5th without trying and, in the process, helping someone else was a pretty good outcome.

I wonder sometimes if we are so focused on the outcome that we fail to consider what we are doing. Throughout the Exodus, the Israelites constantly questioned the purpose of their trip, never considering what they were getting as a result. In the Old Testament passage for today, it was about the quantity of fresh water that was available. For some of the Israelites, being in slavery in Egypt was more preferable to searching for water in the desert.

In the Gospel reading for today, the people are more concerned with the trappings of power than they are with the validity of the message those with the trappings give. And yet, in today’s society, an easy life, bound by slavery to ritual and trappings, is a preferred life to one that is free but requires work.

I think about what Paul wrote to the Philippians about how they should be living their lives. I think, though I am not a scholar on the topic, that one of Paul’s common themes was the relationship of Christ in our lives. He writes to the Philippians about Christ taking on the status of a slave and, through that process, achieving a greater status.

And notice what else Paul wrote; by living a life with Christ, we gain an energy that will enable and sustain in all that what we do.

I can think of many verses in the Bible in both the Old and New Testament that speak of victory. But it is not a victory that comes from being alone at the finish line but the victory that comes when others celebrate in the same victory.

I have no doubt what people want and there are many times that I want many of the same things. But what will you get if all you seek are those things that have no meaning tomorrow?

What are your priorities? In seeking that which you treasure, will you lose what is more valuable?

“Finding My Faith (and keeping Mariano’s)


This is the message that Wanda Kosinski presented at the Goshen (NY) United Methodist Church on September 14, 2014 (14th Sunday after Pentecost (A)). Sunday services are at 10:30 am and you are invited to attend.

Please join with me in prayer … Dear God, may the words I prepared to share with everyone here this morning be found pleasing to you. And if it is a different message you wish your people to hear from the one that I plan to deliver then I would ask the Holy Spirit to help me find the words that you wish to be shared with those gathered here this morning.

Good morning! Some of you may already know that back in June I was supposed to deliver a sermon but then a case of laryngitis made that impossible. I do appreciate Cheryl filling in so wonderfully for me that day.

And here today, I’m given another opportunity but the words I prepared previously did not seem to quite convey the message for today so while I plan to share with you a portion of that other sermon – my inspiration for today’s message came from a different source.

I spent a good deal of this past summer on a personal spiritual journey of sorts. I decided to do this because I came to realize that more and more I was feeling sort of distant or lost (for lack of a better word) from God and especially the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. So, I decided that with Sunday school ending it was a good time for me to take a time out and re-evaluate my faith and my beliefs and try to re-energize or what I like to refer to as finding my faith focus.

I spent a lot of time reading the Bible and other Christian books and in silent prayer. I also took the opportunity to attend Sunday worship in a few places other than a Methodist church. And on several Sundays, I skipped attending a formal worship service altogether and simply took a long walk outdoors in nature to serve as my worship time for the day.

On more than one occasion I’ve found it challenging to find a topic for a message or sermon from the lectionary readings for a particular Sunday. And I know that when that happens it is perfectly fine to use another source for inspiration.

But finally after reading and re-reading the lectionary verses for this Sunday, the first few lines of this morning’s reading from Romans became a starting point for preparing today’s message. Initially, I used the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible for reading this verse:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, (my first faith encounter) but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.”

I then decided to use the Bible Gateway web site to do a bit of research and look up the same verse but using 3 other Bible translations and this is what I found:

First, from the Easy-to-Read Version of the Bible:

Be willing to accept those who still have doubts about what believers can do. And don’t argue with them about their different ideas.”

Second, from the Living Bible:

Give a warm welcome to any [person] who wants to join you, even though [that person’s] faith is weak. Don’t criticize her for having different ideas from yours about what is right and wrong.

And third, from the Common English Bible:

Welcome the person who is weak in faith – but not in order to argue about differences of opinion.

After the opening sentence or two of the verse from Romans, each of the Bible versions proceeds with an example of the difference in how some people eat meat and others only eat vegetables. Of course, this is just one of many differences among people.

On a whim, I attempted to correlate the food eating difference to the difference in levels of faith at different times in one’s life and how circumstances and events might effect and change one’s level of faith.

Perhaps when faith is high – meats are on the menu and when faith take a dip, then only veggies are in order. Of course, I don’t mean for this correlation to be taken seriously and hope the Bible scholars in the house won’t call me on this (smile).

With that thought, I was reminded of an interview that I’d heard on National Public Radio while driving home from work one day a few months ago – what I’ll refer to here as my second faith encounter. Mariano Rivera was being interviewed by Robert Siegel on the program All Things Considered about the book he wrote entitled “The Closer.”

As I’m sure many of you already know Mariano Rivera was the famous closer with the NY Yankees until his recent retirement. What not everyone might know is that Rivera is a devout Christian and a very religious person. At one point, he was asked about something he wrote in his book concerning the hand of God being in everyday life, even in baseball.

Rivera answered: Well, it’s my belief. You know, it’s all about faith, not only in baseball, but just normal life. My faith in the Lord is everything.

He went on to explain how his faith made it possible for him to walk out of circumstances like losing Game 7 of the World Series. If he wasn’t able to win the game that day it was alright because he had given it everything that he had. But he wasn’t going to second-guess his faith or ability due to the loss.

Rivera suggested that we need to shine in the middle of adversity. He said, “You still have to point to the sky and say, you know what, Lord? Thank you for this moment, because you permitted it.”

My third and final faith encounter happened quite unexpectedly and it was, I believe, the thing that renewed or reconnected me to a closer feeling to God and my faith.

It happened last month when I was at the hospital in Toms River NJ visiting my Mother. On my 2nd day there, I arrived at the hospital quite early in the morning – about an hour before visiting hours started. When I entered my Mother’s room she was sleeping so I sat down and started to pray.

A few minutes later a Catholic priest appeared at the door. He was doing his daily visitation rounds. I told him that I was here from New York to see my Mother.

He then asked me if I’d like to share communion with him. Now I know that the Methodist communion table is open to all but I also know that this is not the case in the Catholic Church concerning the sacrament of Communion. So, I explained to him that although my Mom was Catholic and I had been raised in the Catholic faith that I was now a Methodist and about 5 years ago had taken a reaffirmation of faith and joined the Methodist Church.

We talked for a few minutes about my involvement in teaching Sunday school and my service as a lay servant in my church. He then again asked me if I’d like to share communion with him and that the only requirement, as far as he was concerned, was a belief in God which I clearly had.

So, he gave me communion and we prayed together (my Mom was sleeping through this) and this exchange was so comforting and healing to me. I thought it was so cool that he could set aside whatever differences about communion might exist because the moment asked only to do what Jesus would do.

To me, this final faith encounter was comforting and healing for sure, but it also reaffirmed my belief that there is so much more all people and all religions share than the minor differences.

And most important, it left me feeling, once again, connected to God. Amen.