“Staring Across The Abyss”


Mediation for November 2, 2014, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

All Saints Sunday

Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, Matthew 23: 1 – 12

I have chosen to use the regular lectionary readings for this Sunday rather than the lectionary readings for All Saints Day. In looking back at my records, I don’t think that I have ever used the lectionary readings set aside for All Saints Day; in fact, in all the years that I have been preparing messages or writing for a blog, there have been only two occasions where November 1st was a Sunday and one of those Sundays I wasn’t writing or preaching. Maybe that is just as well, especially this year, as I don’t do well with Revelations or apocalyptic writings.

Second comment – this is not going to be a complete meditation, or at least as I begin it, it is not going to be complete. There are things going on which make the writing of anything after my opening thoughts pretty hard to complete. But if you find my opening thoughts helpful, go ahead and finish it out.

Last week, Moses got to see the Promised Land but he wasn’t going to be able to enter it. And I will be honest, for many years, I thought that his not getting to the Promised Land was his penalty for picking the men who first explored the land. Of course, as I reviewed the Old Testament reading, I was reminded that it was Moses’ own errors that prevented him from entering the Promised Land and not what others have done.

But in today’s Old Testament reading, the Israelites are once again standing on the edge of the River Jordan, staring at the Promised Land on the other side. It has been one generation since they stood in perhaps the same spot, one generation in time since some of the fore-fathers had lied about what was over the next horizon, one generation in which those who could not trust in God died off. Now, the next generation stood on the river’s bank, ready to cross over.

What must they have thought? Surely there were some in their group who remembered what had happened those years before and what had caused them to add years to the wandering. Was it going to happen again? Perhaps there was some unwillingness to take the step, wade in the water, get their feet muddy, and move on to the object and goal that for many was the goal of their lifetime.

Now, when I began thinking about this piece, I thought about standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and looking across to the other side and perhaps leaning over and peering down into the depths of that vast split in the Earth. I have never been to this interesting place though I have probably flown over it once or twice in my life. My only connection to the Grand Canyon is a book by Colin Fletcher, The Man Who Walked Through Time, in which he chronicled his two-month journey from one end of the canyon to the other. For those with a geological bent, walking down from the canyon rim to the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado River was also a journey back in time.

I suppose that if I were to ever go to the Grand Canyon, I would want to brush up on my geology and especially a discussion of the measurement of time in geological terms. For, as we stare in awe as what God has done, there will be some trying to tell us that it was all done at once during the Great Flood or something to that effect and that it wasn’t done over a period of thousands and thousands of years.

But that is a thought for another time. Right now, I stare across the abyss that separates me from something that I can’t quite grasp. Maybe it is a struggle with faith; maybe it is an uncertainty about how faith is formed and shaped. I know that you cannot put your faith on a pedestal, to be stared at and admired. Faith has to be a part of you.

There are certain things that I do when I struggle with my writing. If it has to do with Scripture, especially in the New Testament, I get up from my desk and find my Cotton Patch Gospel; reading the words of the New Testament as if they were written by someone I knew growing up always seems to help.

If I am in that part of the writing where I am trying to put things in place, I pick up Faith In A Secular Age by Colin Williams. This was given to me by Marvin Fortel in the spring of 1969 when I was trying to figure out how faith fits into my life. I don’t think that there are too many pages in this book that are still held together as I have put it to pretty good use.

And then there is A Guide To Prayer. I have two copies of this book, one given when I began my “career” as a lay speaker and which shows the signs of age of twenty-three years of use. The second copy was given as a combination Christmas present and going away gift from the first group of pastors that I worked with. In one sense, it marks one step in this journey that I have been on so many years.

And from that book I found two thoughts. Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote,

Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and a place for God and Him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and space to give Him our undivided attention. (from Making All Things New by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

I could not help, when reading that paragraph, think that perhaps the image that I have of the Grand Canyon as a great abyss separating me from something was not that but a reminder of what God can do and how He wants me to better understand how things work.

Nouwen also wrote,

The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of here and now.

He concluded this by noting that,

Our first task is to dispel the vague, murky feelings of discontent and to look critically at how we are living our lives.

I think this may be what Paul was alluding to in his words to the Thessalonians.

So here we are. Somehow I have been able to put together a piece that meets the general goals of every piece I write (to at least link the three lectionary readings in some manner, shape or form). And I also have a conclusion, which I didn’t think I was going to get when I started.

There are times in our lives when we stand at an abyss, a wide spot that we seemingly can’t cross. And yet, as we look at what seems to be nothing, it gives us the opportunity to see and feel and sense the presence of God. Yes, we are scared; after all, it is a long way across and a long way down (and the old Gospel hymn reminds us that waters of the River Jordan are chilly and cold).

And it is totally possible that we may feel comfortable on this side but we know that the answers we seek lie on the other and the only way that we will get those answers is to get to the other side.

And the only way that we are going to get to the other side is through trusting in God, to lead the life that He would have us to lead. As long as we fear that abyss, we will find ourselves separated from God but as soon as we trust in Him, things are going to get better.

And pretty soon, we will no longer stare across the abyss but find a way to cross over to the other side.

“How Do You Reach Your Goals?”


Mediation for October 26, 2014, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8; Matthew 22: 34 – 46

The problem with following the lectionary is that sometimes you don’t know the “whole” story. Of course, that implies that 1) you only follow the lectionary on Sundays and don’t do any reading during the week or 2) you have never studied the Bible.

There is something in my mind’s files that says that there is a lectionary reading for each day of the week to fill in the gaps between the readings on Sundays. And I know that there are parallel readings that are often covered in Sunday School so that the stories that we remember growing up are taught (since many of the Old Testament stories seem to be missing in the Sunday lectionary readings). And I would hope that there are supplemental or additional readings during the week, especially in the New Testament so that we get to cover the writings of Jude (which never show on Sunday).

But if you have never studied the Bible or done any regular reading, then the line in Deuteronomy where God tells Moses that he can look at the Promised Land but that he will never enter it has to be quite a shock. Especially when a few lines later, it is noted that there were no prophets like Moses in Israel after his death.

What was it that prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land? What had he done that was so wrong that he could see the object of the Exodus but would never be allowed to reach? Let’s put it this way. My guess is that the answer is not what you think it is.

Earlier in the Exodus, the people wanted water to drink and Moses provided it. But he did not provide in the manner that God had prescribed and what he, along with his brother Aaron did, was sufficient for God to be really, really angry. So while Moses did the right thing in providing a fresh water supply for the people, he did not do in the manner that reflected God’s work in the process.

The Pharisees come to Jesus and seek to trap him, trying to find some way that they can show the people that Jesus is not who He says He is but some charlatan out to deceive the people and gain all the power for Himself. Of course, we all know by now that the Pharisees and others in the religious/political power structure of the time are more interested in keeping the power for themselves (or at least we should know that by now).

So when Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment, Jesus says to love your God with all your heart and mind and spirit. This question from the Pharisees, like all the other questions they have been asking, always seeks to determine the priorities in life one has. Where are your priorities? How will you reach the goals you have in life?

Some years ago, when I was working on my Masters degree at the University of Missouri, an assignment required that I review a book. The book that I picked dealt with a topic related to statistical quality control. Now, it was a short book so it was easy to read (or I thought it was easy to read) and I thought that it covered the topic pretty well. Now, on the day that I was to give the review in class, I happened to be at one of the local low-cost mega-stores that had sales in aisles for a few moments. As it happened, the book that I was reviewing was being sold at a ridiculously low price. So my review that night was that it was a good book and covered the topic pretty well but it was on sale at that store for $2.00 which should give you some idea of its value. The professor leading this course agreed with my review and noted that he knew the author and that the author had written the book as part of the tenure process. The value of the book wasn’t in what I got out of it but what the writer got.

Are we doing what we do because we get something out of it or are we doing it because it furthers the work of God’s Kingdom? Now, this isn’t one of those things where we succeed and we proudly announce to all that it was for God’s Glory. I think that is a round-about way of saying that we are doing whatever it is we are doing for ourselves.

Paul warns the Thessalonians about doing something that has mixed motives or hidden agendas. Perhaps it is the Methodist in me but we don’t do something because of what we might get out of it but because it is what we are supposed to be doing. Do we shop at a Christian store because it is a Christian store or because it is a good store to buy what we need?

We are reminded that when John Wesley first began what came to be known as the Methodist Revival, he did it in a legal and mechanical way, a way with absolutely no feeling. And at the beginning, it was an abysmal failure. Now, when you look at what he and the other early Methodists were doing, one might get the idea that it should have worked. But it was being done for the individual and not for God, nor was God anywhere in the process.

But when the Holy Spirit became a part of the process, in that night that we have come to called Aldersgate, things changed.

Where are you in this process? Is what you do for you or for God? Are you doing what God wants you to do or are you trying to do what you think God wants? This is perhaps the hardest question one has to answer because we are so tempted to do something our way and then say that it was for God.

How do you reach your goals? Do you start with God? Do you consider God in the process? Now is the time to make a decision, not unlike the one John Wesley made many years ago, to trust in God and allow the Holy Spirit to guide and direct the process.

Now is the time to decide how you will reach your goals.

“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?