“Visions or Dreams?”


This is one of the first messages I ever gave in my lay speaking career. I had come down to Tennessee for a seminar and conference at Vanderbilt University so I arranged my flights so I could spend the weekend in Memphis with my family. (Besides, flying down over the weekend was cheaper than flying straight to Nashville for a Monday and Tuesday meeting.)

This was the 1st Sunday in Lent but I was still “picking and choosing my scriptures instead of using the lectionary as I do now (I don’t think that I was even aware of the lectionary readings at that time). So my starting scriptures for this message were 1 Samuel 17: 46 and Luke 23: 39 – 43.

As I was preparing this sermon, I was also preparing a chemical education seminar for presentation to the Chemistry Department at Vanderbilt University tomorrow and another talk dealing with computers, communication, and education for presentation on Wednesday. I hope to keep them straight, but if you learn anything about chemistry or computers today, count it as a bonus.

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry rose before the Virginia Convention and gave a speech that we may have read and perhaps even memorized. He closed that speech with these lines:

Gentlemen may cry peace, peace –– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it the gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me … give me liberty or give me death! (Patrick Henry, A Biography, Richard R. Beeman, 1974

With these words, Patrick Henry provided the spark that brought Virginia into the Revolutionary War. What was Patrick Henry thinking of as he spoke these inspiring words? What vision was before him that might have given him the power to speak them? From the available evidence, it appears that Patrick Henry’s wife was very mentally ill. While we have a somewhat enlightened attitude about mental illness today, the same was not true in the late 1700′s, when those who were mentally ill were locked away as criminals. Henry could have placed his wife in a mental institution but he chose to keep her at home, though locked away in the basement. This image of his beloved wife locked away in the basement of their plantation was probably the inspiration and vision that allowed him to speak the words “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”

Similarly, on another continent, another vision of freedom led to the following interchange between Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol, and John Wesley:

Butler – You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.

Wesley – My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever, therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay. (Frank Baker, John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript, August, 1739)

With these words, John Wesley began the preaching which eventually would lead to the formation of what is now the United Methodist Church. The vision that inspired Wesley to begin his ministry related to what was happening to the people of England during the Industrial Revolution, and what the Church of England, his church, was doing about it. Or rather what it was not doing.

At that time, only those who were members of the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours, limited health care, and the lack of education that the working class and poor had to contend with every day. Like Henry’s wife, these people were locked in the basement of society and not even the Church had an interest in feeding their souls.

For Wesley, the inaction and lack of compassion shown by the Church of England toward the poor was not what the Gospel was about. To him, the Gospel was more than a collection of words one read on Sunday and then forgot the next day. Nor was it reserved for one class of society. Rather, the Gospel was alive and something you lived every day. And it was available for all people. To Wesley and his early followers, if you had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then your life and behavior reflected that acceptance. One way that was done was in how you treated individuals; even those of a lower class than your own. Were it not for the work of Wesley and the Methodist Revival in seeking to correct the many social problems of that period and the changing of many hearts by the Gospel message he (and others) preached, England would have undergone a far more violent social change than it.

Visions have long been a part of our heritage. We are all familiar with the story of Joseph in Egypt. The Pharaoh had a series of dreams which neither he nor his advisors were able to understand. Only Joseph was able to transform those dreams into a vision of the future and take action.

On more than one occasion Jesus Himself gave us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God on earth was to be like. We find one such vision in John 1:42 where we read, “He [Andrew] brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephus (which means Peter – in Aramaic & Greek the rock.” In renaming Simon Peter, Jesus showed us the volatile, wishy–washy fellow who was to become the rock upon which He would build the Church.

What is our vision for the church today? Is our church built, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, on love? Is the mission of our church the one given to Peter? From Acts 1:3 – 18, we read

“…saying ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ But Peter began and explained to them in order: I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance, I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord: for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up to heaven. At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we first believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God? When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God.

Then so to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life. (Acts 10:3 – 1)

In this vision, Peter was shown that the Gospel is for everyone. Yet today, in a society split by race, creed, and economic status, is our church a beacon of hope and love for all those who seek Jesus? Does our church today reflect the concern for society and the well–being of its members that was expressed by both Jesus and John Wesley? We may have answers to these difficult questions but unless action is taken, these answers may only be our dreams. But today’s problems, generated by fear and hatred, will not go away by dreaming or even if we just ignore them.

Robert Kennedy, during that fateful presidential campaign in 1968, often quoted George Bernard Shaw, “You see things and say ‘why?’ I see things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’ We must transform our dreams about what the church is into a vision of what the church should be and can do.

But from where will the power come to make our vision reality? Where can we turn to find the power to deal with today’s problems? The Gospel still has the power to meet the problems we now face. But the Gospel alone will not make today’s problems go away. The only way we can solve these problems and transform ourselves and our church into the vision shown to us by Jesus is through action. Not just any action, but action powered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Consider David as he prepared for battle with Goliath:

“Then Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword over his armor, and he tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these; for I am not used to them.’ And David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near the Philistine.

And the Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield–bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked, and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth, ruddy and comely in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, ‘am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.’

Then David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand. (Samuel 17:38 – 47)

David, armed only with a slingshot and his faith in God, could stand before Goliath while all the armies of Israel ran away. But it wasn’t David who defeated Goliath; it was the Holy Spirit. You can take all the armies in the world and they will still be defeated by the Holy Spirit.

It was the Holy Spirit which gave Jesus the wisdom to answer the questions in the temple when he was just a boy of twelve.

After three days they [Joseph and Mary] found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41 – 52)

Today is the First Sunday in Lent. This is our time of preparation for the walk to Calvary; a time to reflect on how we live. It also that time when we can allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives.

The Pharisees sought to get rid of Jesus because they were not prepared for the Holy Spirit nor were they ready for the new church. The disciples were instructed to wait in Jerusalem until they received the power of the Holy Spirit, and then they were to go out and preach. A dream or vision not supported by the Holy Spirit is doomed to failure. How powerful is the Holy Spirit? It continually offers hope to all, even on the cross.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying,

‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man had done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.’

And He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39 – 43)

Wesley’s spirit was ignited by the flame of the Holy Spirit and with the Holy Spirit came the power to preach the Gospel and revitalize the people, the church and the nation.

So too can it be for us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Holy Savior in our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to fill our lives, the dreams we have become visions, and we gain the power to turn those visions into reality.

A Particular Point In Time


I was at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, this morning (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scripture readings for this morning were Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24; Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; and Matthew 25: 31 – 46. 

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This has been edited since it was first posted.

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I began this message with a thought about how this is Christ the King Sunday and not the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The nature of the liturgical calendar always makes the identity of a particular Sunday very interesting. And the changing nature of the liturgical calendar and how it is dependent on Christmas and Easter lead me to a thought more appropriate perhaps for my chemistry lab than the pulpit.

One of the things that you learn in chemistry is that you may be able to determine the position of an electron with reference to the nucleus or you may be able to determine the velocity of the electron but you cannot determine both. This is the foundation for what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. This is also part of the basis for the quantum mechanical model of the atom. Quantum mechanics can take us into some very interesting areas of chemistry and physics, none of which have any immediate impact on our lives today but perhaps might in the coming years. It also leads to some interesting thoughts and possibilities, possibilities that lead Albert Einstein to reject the notion of quantum mechanics and state quite categorically that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Einstein was never comfortable with the uncertainty that came with the development of quantum mechanics, firmly believing in a deterministic model of the universe; that is, there was an underlying reality in which particles, such as electrons, do have well defined positions and velocities and that this would ultimately become known to mankind (adapted in part from “Does God Play Dice?”)

As I was writing this, I began to think that there might be some sort of correlation between the deterministic model of the universe favored by Einstein and first developed by Isaac Newton in the 18th century and the deterministic, pre-destination model of theology developed by John Calvin.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564), the 16th century theologian, proposed that everyone is born a sinner and there is no escaping the penalty for sin. A simple way of saying it would be that good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people and if you were one of the bad people, then you had no hope in this world. It is a model that has been rejected by most theologians because if it were the operating model for our faith, then there would be no reason to have Jesus in our lives. Our escape from a life of sin and death is predicated on the presence of Jesus in our lives; if we cannot escape sin, then we have no need for Jesus or even God for that matter.

To some extent, this idea, that our lives were fixed and determined by God before we were born, was the basic understanding of the people of Jesus’ time. Illness, poverty, misfortune were all the signs of a sinful life; good health, riches, and a fortunate life were all the signs of a righteous life. How many times was it said that the children suffered because of some sin either or both of their parents did? It was, if you will, the central point of Jesus’ message to say that all had a hope and a possibility, one that came through Christ.

Unfortunately, John Calvin preceded Newton by almost 100 years and if there was any link, it would be in terms of what Newton thought, not what Calvin thought. So I will leave it to others more versed in theology to determine if there is a relationship between John Calvin’s deterministic ideas and those of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). There may be such a link because what most people don’t know is that Isaac Newton wrote more about the Bible and faith than he did about any other area, including optics, calculus, or gravity (See my notes on Newton – “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)

Still, some 600 years after Calvin, it is interesting to note that many people still believe that one’s life is determined at birth and riches come to the righteous while poverty comes because one leads a life of sin. Many people today are quite willing to believe that they will be the ones who will receive the stated rewards of heaven because they are, if you will, the “true believers”. But their actions often times don’t reflect their faith.

Oh, these “true believers” do come to church on Sunday but when the sun rises on Monday morning, in fact by the time the referee blows his whistle to start the football game on Sunday afternoon, what has been said and done on Sunday morning is often forgotten. They heard the pastor speak about the equality found in Jesus but practice inequality in their daily lives. They nod with knowing approval when someone gets up to say that the local food bank needs donations and volunteers but they always seem to find things on their calendar that somehow take precedence. They tell all their friends about how they were part of a mission trip to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but they are not willing to help with local missions as it is a waste of time and only encourages the poor to stay poor. Their day to day lives are more reflective of the people of the Old Testament who ignored the sick, the needy, the hungry, the oppressed and were more interested in their own lives.

It takes more than coming to church on a Sunday to be a Christian or giving lip service to the call of the many; to say that one is a Christian is to say that one has a new life, a new view of the world. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

If we leave Christ behind when we leave the church then it is impossible for Christ to be in the world. If our lives during the week are not reflective of the time we spend in the church on Sunday, then we haven’t learned anything. It becomes easy then to not see the hungry or the homeless, the sick or the oppressed. When our focus is not on Christ and His message, it becomes very easy to become blind to the world.

When your life in Christ is limited to a few hours a week in a single building, you are not likely to see Christ as He walks by you on the street each day. When your focus is on the world in which our bodies lie, it is very hard to see the world in which our spirit tries to live. The Gospel reading today is a very stark reminder of what can happen. When our vision of Christ is an image on the wall in a building called a church, it is very hard to see Christ any other way.

It isn’t always about doing mission work far away from one’s home; it is about doing mission work anytime one walks out of the church and into the world. It is about seeing Christ not in the building they left but in the world outside the building.

It is quite easy, then, to understand why the people responded the way they did in the Gospel reading. I am utterly convinced that people today would respond the same as those who read the words in Matthew when they were first written two thousand years ago. They do not see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, or the imprisoned. Christ is viewed only in terms of the building they called the church, not the person who walked the dusty back roads of Galilee and taught others about the love of God the Father, who healed the sick and brought comfort to people who were convinced that they had been forgotten.

I find too many examples today where that is the case, where the church, despite its teachings and its history, ignores the poor and needy and favors the rich and powerful. Oh, I know that there probably isn’t a church in this country who is not conducting a food drive this week. But what are they doing next week? What are the people of the churches today doing to insure that the Kingdom of God has a chance in this world?

It takes more than a few words and some limited actions one week a year. It takes a change of heart; it takes a new vision. To see each person you encounter as Christ, not just another person on the street.

Some years ago, I took my mother to a new Christian restaurant in Memphis. That was how it was advertised. It was clean, it had a nice environment and no alcohol was served. It was a nice, clean place to take your family to eat. It should have been a booming success. Unfortunately it failed.

Now some will tell me that our society doesn’t like Christian-based businesses. They will tell you that this restaurant’s failure was based on society not wanting anything to do with a Christian theme business. But I will let you in on a little secret; if the food at a restaurant is not good, calling it a Christian restaurant won’t make it better. But the food was lousy and, in the end, a restaurant that serves lousy food is not going to be successful, no matter what its name. If the owners had been more of the Spirit, perhaps they would have understood this. I will be honest; I thought that their attitude was one in which the name would be enough.

What would you serve Christ for a meal? And if you were to serve the best for Christ, what would you serve his children? And that points out something very critical about our lives, do you treat each person that you meet, that you work with, that you encounter as you would treat Christ? Will you know it when you encounter Christ?

I am reminded of a church that one day welcomed a stranger into their midst. But just because he was a stranger, he wasn’t treated as such. He was welcomed as a friend and as a neighbor. It is my understanding that he never returned after that single visit. Some years later, the church received a check from the estate of this man, a check that enabled them to buy some property and build a new parsonage and turn the old parsonage into a Sunday school house. The stranger was welcomed into the church and he remembered that welcome.

I am also reminded of an individual who is a United Methodist preacher today but some ten years or so ago was a bouncer in a local bar. You would never have thought that this individual would become a preacher and even he would tell you that back then it was the furthest thing from his mind. But one day, he came to church because a family member insisted he needed to be there for a baptism. Someone helped him get a cup coffee and he stuck the bulletin for that Sunday in his coat pocket. A couple of weeks later, he discovered that bulletin and remembered the offer about the coffee and he came back. That particular bulletin sits on his desk as reminder that he once was a stranger and he was made welcome in a church.

I recognize that many times we come to church because we are looking for Jesus. In many modern day churches today, that is a hard thing to do. Too many churches today have made that a very difficult thing to do. For one thing, we sometimes don’t really want to find Christ because He will remind us of the things we are supposed to be doing. For another, we want Christ to be in one place when He is very likely to walk through the door as a visitor or a stranger in need. If you leave with one thought it is that we need to see Christ outside this place, not necessarily here.

This day is called Christ the King Sunday. It serves as a reminder of what the focus of our life should be. When John Calvin put forth his brand of theology, he told the people that many of them would lead lives of despair and grief; that was the way it was with God. But Jesus came into the world, not to condemn but to lift up and offer hope, to show that there was another path to take.

We stand at this particular point in time, staring at a choice we must make. We can choose to continue as we have done in the past, hoping against all hope that we will have an opportunity at some other time to choose to follow Christ. Or we can choose to follow Christ, to open our hearts, souls, and minds to Him. And as we leave this place today, we leave knowing that we are going to encounter Christ, not leave Him behind.

Finding the Right People


Here are my thoughts for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 November 2011. I will be at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, next week (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Judges 4: 1 – 7, 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11, and Matthew 25: 14 – 30. 

This has been edited since it was first posted.


It is interesting that these three Scripture readings would come after the week in which elections were held. Because I see in the readings issues about leadership and the response of the people. I also see issues relevant to the church today (I was going to say modern church but there are times when the church today is simply a 21st century version of the Old Testament and one in which the New Testament has yet to be written).

Consider, if you will, the role of Deborah. We hear from many more conservative church leaders today that women should not be placed in roles of leadership, other than perhaps as Sunday School teachers (which would be a stereo-typical role of women as only teachers). But the Old Testament passage points out that Deborah was one of the judges of Israel, one of those chosen to lead the nation in times of war and peace.

Why did Deborah lead her people? Simply put, she had the skills and abilities and whoever wrote Judges must have been impressed enough with what she could do to include her leadership in the history of the people. Her leadership was predicated on her talents, not her gender. This is a point that I think is often overlooked in a reading of the Bible.

Now, I will be honest; when I read the parable of ten talents, today’s Gospel reading, I see it in a variety of terms. When you read the translation from The Message or Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels, it is read in terms of money. But one has to be careful, I think, in putting in terms of money because the idea of a five-fold or ten-fold return on your investment is the foundation of the prosperity gospel and I have no desire to go there.

And as someone asked me over the weekend, what would the master have done if either the individual given the five talents or ten talents had invested it in something speculative or risky? Would they have benefited in the same manner as they did with what one may assume were safe investments? Or would they have been chastised as the individual who took his one talent and hid it away so that it could not be lost?

I realize that there is a risk involved in many investments and I want to be assured of a reasonable return on my investment but I also know, especially in today’s society, that the thrill of a fantastic return on a small investment leads to many penalties. By the same token, if you have some skills or talents and you do nothing with them, then you have wasted those skills and talents. But if you use those skills and talents, you have the opportunity to go beyond your present limits.

I see the parable of the ten talents in that light, especially when you think about Deborah. You take the talents you have and you move beyond the limitations that are imposed on you by society. Deborah should not have been a leader of the Israelite nation but her talents and skills were better than any other possible candidate. I routinely point out to my chemistry classes that the first person to win two Nobel prizes was Marie Curie and both were awarded at a time when women were not exactly welcome in either chemistry or physics. But the work she did could not be overlooked and it is too the credit of the Nobel Prize Committee that she was given both awards.

The same is true for each one of us; we each have a unique set of talents and skills and what we do with those talents and skills that will determine the outcome of our life. As I read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, I since an attitude that may have been shared by the individual who received the one talent. We have what we have and we need do nothing more; we can take it easy. But what will happen then?

The title of the message is “Finding the Right People”. It means that we must identify the skills and talents of each individual that we work with and we must determine how to best use those skills and talents. But we have to push the envelope when it comes to making that determination. For only by pushing the envelope (and my apologies for using that cliché) can we move forward.

The problem right now for the church is that we are afraid to move forward, afraid to use our talents and skills in ways that reflect the mission of the church, afraid to venture outside the safety of our sanctuary and church. We hold to worn-out views of the world, views that say only certain individuals are capable of leadership and others must follow them. We hold to views that say that there are only certain things that a church can do. We have to move beyond those views, look at what the churches of the past have done (and I mean the past, say two thousand years ago) and see how we can make that the church of the future.

Actually we don’t need to find the right people; we have them in the congregation today. We have to find out what their skills and talents are and we have to be able to use all of those skills and talents for the good of the community. It is not easy but doing the work of the Lord never is.

It means moving beyond, not holding back. The question has to be, “are you ready to do so?”

Carrying the load


Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 October 2011. The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12. I have put my previous posts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) and my posts for these readings at the end of this particular post.

I have edited this since it was first posted.

Somewhere on my blog there is a note that I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. That means several things. It means that my academic gown is a little more elaborate than the gowns worn by those with Master’s degrees (though I liked the sleeves on the Master’s gown) or those worn by those with Bachelor’s degrees. It would have been nice if I could have gotten a beret to wear but that wasn’t part of the Iowa package. But I am happy with a robe that has a nice hood that shows my area to be science oriented and trimmed with the black and gold of Iowa.

More importantly, for those who are familiar with the field of science education, Iowa is the standard by which the field is measured. Because I choose to do my work in chemical education, it might have been better if I had gone to Purdue instead. Purdue has been the center of chemical education research since the late 1950s, when we began seriously examining the nature of how individuals learned science. But the opportunity to attend Iowa and complete my doctorate there was something that I could not pass up. To the credit of my doctoral committee, they gave me the opportunity to follow some ideas that I had rather than forcing me to choose one of their ideas that, while valuable to the field of science education, did not fit into my own career plans. It should be pointed out that I wanted to stay in and have stayed in chemistry; if I had desired or wanted to pursue a more education oriented career path, it would have been far more beneficial to follow the lead of the faculty at Iowa.

So, I am entitled to the use the title “Doctor” because I have earned it. But as a number of my friends, who supported me in the pursuit of this degree, have told me, they still won’t kiss my ring because of the extra letters I can put after my name.

But I have encountered many individuals who are like the religious scholars and Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. They have that air about them that says that because they have a doctorate or, even worse, a doctorate from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, they are to be treated as royalty and every word that they uttered is to be treated as if it were from God Himself. There are on occasion those who even view God as an interloper into their realm. The sad part is that because the way life in academia goes, such attitudes are more prevalent and tend to be the norm, rather than the exception. And if you so desire to move forward in an academic-based life, it is the way that you have to go.

We do live in a world that almost demands adherence to the status quo, even when such adherence works against the goals of the organization. That I have a doctorate in science education means to some that I cannot, as I have written on a number of occasions, also have an active lay ministry. And for some, being an active lay minister in the United Methodist Church means that I cannot have a doctorate in science.

I also think that you are supposed to maintain the status quo when you receive your doctorate, even when your research and your writings are “outside the box” when it comes to the status quo. As I have pointed out on this blog, there have been a number of instances where I did something driven by my research or interests that don’t fit within what others think my doctorate should be about. Case in point – I was doing things relative to computer literacy before computer literacy was even considered a buzz word. Because I was ahead of the curve, I received quite a bit of static instead of praise. I thought that having a doctorate meant pushing the envelope, not simply confirming that wheels are round.

If the title that you have or the place you went to school is all that matters, then I fear that we are in for a very rude awakening in this country. For the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t all go to the very best schools and we can’t all have the fancy titles. Somewhere along the line, we have to get our hands dirty.

Twelve men were picked to carry the Ark of the Covenant across the River Jordan. While they stood in the River, the water stopped flowing and the people could cross safely. The Old Testament reading tells us that the river went dry while the twelve were standing in the river bed. But I wonder if the ground was immediately dry or if took some time to get that way. If it took time, that meant that the twelve carrying the ark were standing in mud for a little bit of time. It probably dried out as the people walked across but it had to be messy at the beginning.

And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he and Silas worked at other jobs so as not to burden the people. Paul also speaks of the attitude in which they worked. Contrast what Paul to the Thessalonians with what was written about a prominent televangelist a few years ago –

One friend of mine in Texas recently inquired to see if a prominent preacher could speak at her conference. The minister’s assistant faxed back a list of requirements that had to be met in order to book a speaking engagement. The demands included:

  • a five-figure honorarium
  • a $10,000 gasoline deposit for the private plane
  • a manicurist and hairstylist for the speaker
  • a suite in a five-star hotel
  • a luxury car from the airport to the hotel (2004 model or newer)
  • room-temperature Perrier

This really makes me wonder how the apostle Paul, Timothy or Priscilla managed ministering to so many people in Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalonica. How did they survive without a manicurist if they broke a nail while laying hands on the sick? (from http://www.fireinmybones.com/Columns/072707.html – his is only one part of what J. Lee Grady wrote; let’s just say that some of those who claim to be preaching the Word of God are quoting the wrong book.)

It isn’t about who you are but what you do and why you do it. The research professor who simply passes notes to his graduate students about what to do and then write up the research report so that it can be submitted over his name without giving credit will have a hard time understanding the research if he never goes into the lab. The preacher (and there are so many of them today) who proclaim the prosperity gospel the true word of God will have a very hard time when they answer to St. Peter.

But I am concerned with those who listen to those false prophets and accept their words as the divine truth. I am concerned for those who see the poverty in this country but walk on by it; who see the need for housing in this country but choose to let the bankers destroy the housing industry. I am concerned with those who would rather let the insurance companies destroy the medical profession instead of seeking health care for all. I am truly concerned for those who say that the role of a Christian is to make disciples of all the peoples but who have no idea what that means.

It does not mean that we force people to believe as we do. When Jesus gathered with the disciples for what we call the Last Supper he told them love one another as He had loved them. This is how others would know that they were His disciples, by the love that they show for others. To show the love for others means that we must carry the load. We cannot stand on the side of the river and expect others to do the work; we have to be willing to help in whatever way we can. The Bible is filled with those stories that tell us the consequences of not completely the task before us.

In this time of so much uncertainty, it bodes well when we carry the load. Those who refuse to do so will find out soon enough what their refusal means.

“Doing the Right Thing”


I am preaching at Long Ridge United Methodist Church (Danbury, CT) and Georgetown United Methodist Church (Wilton, CT) on Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20. The service at Long Ridge starts at 9:15; the service at Georgetown begins at 11. You are welcome to attend.

I began preparing this message a little over a month ago. When I began looking at the three Scripture readings for today, I came to the conclusion that the title of the message should be “Doing the Right Thing.” In the passage from Exodus that is part of the lectionary for this morning, we are told that the Pharaoh has commanded that all new born baby boys be killed. The mid-wives are more afraid of what God might say than they are what the Pharaoh could ever do, so they create a story that explains their failure to follow the Pharaoh’s orders.

Later in the same passage, we read of the birth of Moses and his adoption by the Pharaoh’s daughter. And thus begins the story of the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. From a historical standpoint, the mid-wives did the right thing. But how do the actions of some mid-wives some three thousand or so years ago pertain to us today?

Paul, in writing to the Romans, writes of what it is we are to do as followers of Christ. And, at least for me, this is where it becomes interesting.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Henderson Settlement in Kentucky. I accompanied another adult and four of the youth from my home church for a week of volunteer work. Ours was one of three groups, one from the Ohio area and the other from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Each group worked on a number of assignments, generally fixing or repairing homes and buildings within the area of the Settlement. Some of the work was on the Settlement property; other assignments were in the surrounding countryside.

The Henderson Settlement is part of the Red Bird Missionary Conference. I would think that many people are aware of the Red Bird Mission, which is part of this unique conference of the United Methodist Church. I don’t have all the details with me but the work of the Missionary Conference is, I believe, supported in part by our apportionments. But much of the funding for the Conference, the Red Bird Mission itself, and the Henderson Settlement comes from individual gifts and tithes. In addition, much of the work done in and around the Settlement and elsewhere through the Conference is done by volunteer work.

The interesting thing is that some years ago I lived about two hours from Henderson and, while I knew of the Red Bird Mission, I knew nothing about the Red Bird Missionary Conference or even the existence of Henderson. But while I may not have been aware of either the Henderson Settlement, the Red Bird Mission, or the Red Bird Missionary Conference as they were, I was aware that the three counties of southeast Kentucky (Bell, Cumberland, and Letcher) are among some of the poorest counties in this country (the poverty line for a family of two adults and two children in Bell County where Henderson is located is $21,000 and the median income for the area is $22,000; you do the math.)

If for no other reason than to say to the individuals of that area of this country that they are not forgotten, there is a need for the presence of the United Methodist Church in that area of this country. Sometimes the way that you tell someone that they are not forgotten is to help them do things that they cannot always do on their own. And that is why I went to Henderson two weeks ago.

This was not a vacation trip nor was it done so that I could revisit a part of the country where I lived and served a lay minister. It was an opportunity to put into practice during the week the words said so many times on Sunday.

It was not a vacation by any means. If anything, it provided the opportunity for many individuals, both youth and adult, to experience what I have come to call “working Christianity”, of putting the words taught in church on Sunday into practice on Monday. And this was before I began to consider the words that I would put down for this message today.

While I was there in Henderson I had the opportunity to lead the morning devotions on Monday and Tuesday. Devotions at Henderson are held on the side of a hill overlooking a valley and three crosses (pictures of which are on the Henderson Settlement page on Facebook). On Monday, with those three crosses and the valley as a backdrop, I spoke of the 72 who were sent out on mission trips by Jesus and how they came back jubilant at what they had done.

I have seen that type of expression in the youth and adults who have gone on similar mission trips in the past few years. To go on a mission trip, to work for Christ and not get paid, to give up a week’s vacation time and know that it was not wasted has to have an impact on one’s life.

But when I have read the passage in the past from Mark about the 72, I always thought that the 12 disciples were part of that group. That meant that there were some 60 individuals who went on a mission trip, came back with the glow of success but were never heard from again. What did they do between that passage in Mark and the Resurrection? Did they continue the work that they did in their home town and region? I pointed out to the fifty or so adults and youth that were there on Monday morning that they too would go home and I hoped that they would continue the mission work that they began in the hills of Kentucky during a week in August (“Thoughts for a week in August”).

On Tuesday, I offered a story that I have told many times before. It was a story that caused me to think about who I was when I was a college student, what I was doing at that time and what it meant to say that I was a Christian.

When I was a college sophomore, I was active in the anti-war and civil rights movements on campus. I participated because I thought that it was the right thing to do. But I also thought that my participation in these activities, which I felt were for the common good of the people, would be the key to my getting into heaven. Marvin Fortel, my pastor at that time, pointed out doing good things, in whatever form they may take, will not guarantee my entry into heaven.

Only a true and honest acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior will allow the doors of heaven to open up. Now, I suppose this is why we have so many individuals who profess to be Christian but whose actions, words, thoughts, and deeds belie that very idea. They have professed an acceptance of Jesus Christ and therefore expect that the doors of heaven will swing wide open upon their arrival. But the manner in which they have made this profession, often times very publically, belie their actions. They are the ones that John the Baptist and Jesus Himself would call hypocrites. Their actions do not speak of the act of repentance that must also come. You cannot profess Jesus Christ on Sunday and then go out into the world on Monday and forget what you said the day before.

My trip to Henderson also confirmed something that I had long suspected was true. When I was 12, I lived in Montgomery, Alabama. One Sunday, my grandmother, who had come down from St. Louis to visit with us, went to church with us. We attended St. James Methodist Church (this was in 1963 before the merger). Somehow, as we were leaving the church that Sunday morning, Grandma Mitchell got separated from us. When we found her outside the church, we asked her how she got out and she pointed over to a gentleman and said, “That nice young man over there helped me.”

Our response was that that particular young man was the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. For those who do not know, George Wallace was elected the Governor of Alabama as a staunch and defiant segregationist, and as I found out while in Henderson, a member of St. James Methodist Church. At that time, he had proudly and defiantly announced what the policies of the state of Alabama would be with regards to civil rights and equality in the state. If you did not understand where he stood politically then, I suppose you could say that he was a nice young man. But it was very hard for me, even at the age of 12, to see him as nice.

I will say this; to his credit, Governor Wallace repented of his words and actions and sought to make right the wrongs he once so proudly supported.

I will also say this; it was at that time that I made one of several decisions that would lead me to this particular place and time. I did not know what it meant to be a Christian in 1963; I had very little understanding of what the Methodist Church stood for. But I began a walk that year that I still continue to this day, learning and working about Christ and what it means to say that I am a Christian and a United Methodist.

But it didn’t sit right in my twelve-year heart then to hear a Methodist Governor preach hatred and exclusion, to say, in public, words that run counter to the very expression of what it means to be a United Methodist. There is no doubt that those words, along with the actions of the political establishment of that time, did a lot to push me in the direction I would walk a few years later.

To say that you were a Methodist back then or a member of the United Methodist church today means that you have accepted Christ as your Savior. You have acknowledged, along with Simon Peter, that Christ is your Messiah. And when you make the decision to follow Christ; when you acknowledge Him as your own Savior and you make that commitment to follow Him, your life changes. Your name may not change as it did for Peter or as is it did for Paul on the road to Damascus but your life will change.

And like I learned that spring day in Kirksville, Missouri, some forty-two years ago, when you make the announcement that you are a Christian and a Methodist, you are making the announcement that you understand that you fall short of the perfection of Christ. But, even in falling short, you are willing to work to reach the perfection of Christ, to go out and do as Paul suggests to the Romans:

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

It is admittedly a very difficult task, to do something for others when you want so much to take all the credit for it. Our whole society is predicated on the notion that we do things for ourselves and that we seek wealth, fame, riches, and glory because those are the way we will be measured in this world. We live in a world where the words that we say are more important that what we do.

I went to Henderson really not knowing what I would be doing. I found myself doing things and using skills that I hadn’t used in some thirty years. I came back to the dormitory for lunch and dinner with my tee-shirts soaked to the point that they were still not dry the next day. And yet, it didn’t bother me. I was asked to go down and I expected to work, so I did. And I think that is the same feeling that all that came down from Newburgh and those who came from Ohio and New Jersey also felt.

But more importantly, there was something about being there, in the hills of Kentucky that allowed me to remember who I am and what I am. Over the past few months I have seen my ministry evolve from simply pulpit supply to one of caring. It has been a challenge as a small group of people have gone from strangers to part of a Christian community in Newburgh. Many of those in this community are perhaps not Christian but, then again, many of those in the first Christian communities two thousand years ago did not know who Christ was either. But those who did know Christ let them in and supported them in the ways that they had been taught.

As I said to those on the hillside that Monday morning now two weeks ago, I hoped that those who had come to Henderson that week would, like the 60, go home after that first mission trip and continue working for Christ. It is very easy to go home after a mission trip like Henderson, Red Bird, Biloxi, or Haiti and tell everyone about it and then do nothing until next year’s trip. Please excuse me if I sound blunt but when you do that, when you engage in mission work for a week and then rest for 51 weeks, you are doing it for yourself, not Christ. And that is not the right thing to do.

There are many challenges in this area. In response, my wife and I offer a worship ministry on Fridays and Sundays called “Vespers in the Garden”. It is a simple worship service but I have had the opportunity this summer to watch an individual grow in Christ and take on tasks that a few months ago he was only dreaming about. It also gives some individuals the opportunity to hear the Word of God and sing songs of praises in a peaceful setting that offers protection from the world outside. It is often the only worship they get because many of the churches in Newburgh have found a way to shut their doors to them because they are homeless and unemployed.

Our food banks are stressed to the limit and each week more and more people come looking for assistance. On Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings my wife and I host “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen”, which is sponsored by our church. We open the doors of the fellowship hall and offer a breakfast to those who might be hungry. We don’t ask what their situation might be; we do have some guidelines in place so that all may share of the limited bounty that we have. I wish it weren’t the case; I wish that there was a way to do this more often and for more people. We do not do it for glory or honor; we do it because Christ came to feed the hungry and heal the sick and find homes for the homeless. We do what we can with what we have and we praise God that we are able to do a small part. This is not a “feel-good” ministry; it is hard and sometimes burdensome. But it is, I think you will agree, the right thing to do. If you are up to it, I invite you to be a part of this ministry.

There is, in Orange County, a project called “Methodist and Friends Build” which works with Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing for families that cannot, even in the best of times, afford to buy a home. There is also a project, called “Family Promise”, which is trying to help families who are homeless. You would be surprised how many families there are in this area, this state, and across the country who cannot afford housing, even though both parents are working. These programs offer opportunities and alternatives.

And yet there are those who profess Christ as their Savior on Sunday and then wonder why we allow the homeless, the hungry, the sick, to come to our church. There are those who would say that the hungry, the homeless, the sick or the destitute have no business being in the church at all. They brought their problems on themselves; let them fix them themselves.

And when Jesus ate with the sinners, the religious and political establishment questioned his ministry. What is the right thing to do?

I would encourage you to consider what you might do. Each community is different; each community has different things it can offer. You may not be able to go to Henderson or Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but you can do something. It may be that you can help fund a youth trip or something similar. You may wish to support the Red Bird Missionary Conference or parts of it in addition to your regular tithing and support here in the New York Annual Conference. But don’t say that you can’t do something; my mother went on a Volunteer in Mission trip to the Caribbean when she was in her mid-sixties.

But don’t go or give expecting some great reward for your effort. God doesn’t want that nor do the people who you would be helping. And I don’t think you would gain much either. No longer do you work for yourself, expecting riches, fame, and glory for your efforts. You, having proclaimed Christ as your Savior, now do the right thing and work for God.

A Door That Swings Both Ways


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter, 15 May 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 42 – 47, 1 Peter 2: 19 – 25, and John 10: 1- 10. Next Sunday, May 22nd, unless something really dramatic happens on the 21st, I will be preaching at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY (location of church) at 9:30 and then traveling down the road to its partner, Red Hook United Methodist Church (Location of church) to preach at 11:00.  You all are invited to either service (or both). The title for my message is “Did I Miss Something?”

The other day Andrew Conrad posted a question on his blog concerning the Gospel passage for today (John 10: 1 – 10) – from “Scripture Monday: John 10:9″

I was stumped with this question. If Jesus is the gate . . .

  • What does it mean to come in and go out?
  • Where is the pasture found?

I replied by saying

Can we assume that we are free to enter into a relationship with Christ and just as free to leave the relationship? The pasture would then be the world outside the sanctuary of God’s kingdom. The challenge, of course, is that we can stay within the sanctuary of God’s Kingdom but nothing would ever get done. When we venture outside the Kingdom’s walls, we risk the chance that we will be sidetracked by the voices of others. We can easily be lead astray by those voices.

Andrew’s response was

The freedom to enter and leave (the) relationship with God makes good sense. Perhaps it is related to the encouragement to be in the world but not of the world.

Now, as I thought about this, I thought about how one develops a relationship with God. Our own relationship is, by nature, a private one but we live it in a public way (or at least we should). How many people in this world today want Jesus to be a true gatekeeper, letting only certain ones into the safety of the sanctuary? These individuals want the gate closed and locked so that all those inside can be safe and secure.

There are many, perhaps more, who do not want to come it. Oh, they seek the safety that being inside brings but they also know that they those who are inside will not welcome them. They are not welcome because there is something about them that the people inside don’t like.

But it isn’t just who comes in and who stays. If the gate is closed so that no one comes in and no one goes out, how does the business of the church get done? How is a relationship with God developed if no one can come in or go out? Remember, if you lock the door so that no one can come in, you have prevented yourself from getting out.

Kary Oberbrunner, in his book The Journey Towards Relevance, speaks of three kinds of Christians today. There are the separatists, individuals who live a life separate from society. For these individuals, if it is not clothed in Christ, it is not part of their lives. They will be at Christian groceries, eat at Christian restaurants, shop only at Christian stores, and listen to Christian music. It is a life separate from others.

A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity. But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them. And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic.

There are conformists, individuals who adapt their thoughts to the world, making sure that no one knows that they might actually go to church on Sundays. And it is quite easy to see that many of their friends would be surprised to know that they are Christians because there is no evidence to suggest. Religious conformists use religion when it is convenient for them. Christianity is something done on Sundays; Mondays through Fridays, one must be a realist and you cannot be a realist if one is a Christian.

Fortunately there is a third type of individual, the transformist. Such individuals seek to make faith a part of the prevailing culture; they use their faith to change the culture, not for the purpose of a self-proclaimed religion but for society. John and Charles Wesley could easily be seen as transformists. Transformists understand that you cannot categorize faith, love for God, and love for people into separate and independent categories. Their faith is integrated with their live and their love for God is shown by their love for people. (Adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner)

Now, when one reads the passage from Acts for today, one might get the opinion that the members of that early church were separatists. But separatists would have nothing to do with the world outside the church and it is very difficult to grow when you cut yourself off from the world. An examination of Christian communities in this country would tell us that if you are not constantly recruiting members, then your community will slowly die. And the history of the early church tells us that the way that they lived (why is the early church was called “The Way”?) brought people in and did not keep them away.

For the church of today to grow, it must go out into the world. But it must be careful that it doesn’t become a part of that world. Rather, it must find ways to transform the world, utilizing the teachings of Christ.

Yes, it will be difficult. Not only does the world not want to be transformed, too many Christians do not want to be the transformers. There are times with our feeding ministry that it is easy to get depressed. But then when you see lives transformed, when someone whom society has cast aside says to you, “Thank you for a wonderful breakfast”, then you know that a change has occurred.

You have to ask yourself where you are in this process. Is your church like the early church, filled with celebration and harmony? Is every meal a celebration of life and God’s presence in the world? Or is your church worried about the bills that have to be paid? Is every meal that the church offers seen as a means of getting extra income so that a particular bill can be paid?

Is the door to the church closed so that those inside are protected and safe? And while it may keep people safe and secure, when the door was closed, was Jesus left outside, unable to get in?

Or is the door to the church open so that people can come in to find God and people can go out to take God into the world? The door to the church, like the door to the soul can swing shut or it can swing open? Which is it to be? The door swings both ways and you have to make a decision about the direction you want it to go.

“Faith and Vision”


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, 1 May 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 14, 22 – 32; 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9; and John 20: 19 – 31. There are references in this post to the age of the earth. ; see “A Brief History of Atomic Theory” and “How Old Is Old?” for a discussion on the topic of atomic theory and radiometric dating.

But unless I see the wounds in his hands and feet and feel where the sword pierced His side, I will not believe that He has arisen from the grave. With those words, Thomas the disciple became “Doubting Thomas”, forever remembered in the history of Christianity as the one who doubted the stories his friend told him about Christ’s resurrection.

It is very interesting that in today’s society, we will quite willing believe something someone tells us and not ask for the proof. Our educational system seems to have evolved into a system of pronouncements from the instructor that are taken at face value by the students who will dutifully write them down, memorize them, and then at the appropriate time, record them on the test. This will be followed with the removal of the information from the brain and the memory so that more facts, figures, statistics and trivia can be stored until the next test.

I don’t think that Thomas deserves the rap that he gets for telling his friends that he would not believe until he had the proof; it should be in our nature to question things and demand the proof.

As you should know by now, I am a chemist by training and temperament. The whys and wherefores behind the decision to become a chemist are more a matter of time and place; still, I made the decision to major in chemistry as an undergraduate and it is a decision that I have never regretted. And when I made the decision to become a teacher, I became interested in how students learn chemistry and that interest was behind my doctoral research.

And yet, today, when I look at the students in school today and society in general, I see a society and schools totally devoid of curiosity and a desire to inquire about the world around us. The frightening thing is that such a world, a world where statements made are blindly accepted, is a world in which a few individuals can easily control society.

And this includes the church as well. Now, Christ will tell Thomas that others will come to believe without seeing. But that is because Thomas and the other disciples will tell them what they saw and those individuals will tell others. And the story will be told throughout the ages until this time.

There are those who today say the Crucifixion and Resurrection were either a hoax or a conspiracy. But if it was a hoax, if it was a conspiracy, how is that the story has lasted for over two thousand years?

Faith may be a belief in things unseen but faith is often times seen in the things we say and do. Faith demands testing, for only in the fires of a test, is it refined and purified.

But too many people do not want their faith tested; they don’t want questions asked nor do they want to ask any questions. This is the way it is and the way it will be and that is all there is to it.

Such individuals are quite happy that we have lost our questioning skills. It gives them power. They don’t want people to question their faith because if they did they would fully understand what Christ meant when He walked on this earth two thousand years ago. They seek, they demand that we accept their version of reality, a version that tells us that the world is only six thousand years old. But the evidence tells us that the earth is over 4.5 billions years old.

They demand that we accept their version of how the Bible was written as insight from God and not through an agreement between individuals answering to the Emperor Constantine. They demand that we accept their version of society, in spite of the fact that the evidence of the early church was a society where men and women were equal.

But, in the end, those who prefer that the earth be 6000 years old, the Bible be written in somewhat magical terms and the rich have power while the poor suffer will succeed only if those who truly believe do nothing.

When Jesus began His ministry in the Galilee some two thousand years ago, disciples of John the Baptist came to Him and asked if He was the True Messiah. The Baptizer, sitting in Herod’s jail and about to be executed, was concerned that all of his preparation work and his baptism of Jesus had been for naught. In reply, Jesus told the Baptizer’s disciples to go back and tell him what they had seen, how they had seen the sick healed, the lame allowed to walk again and the blind regain their sight. Tell them that the people had regained a hope that had been lost. Then the Baptizer will know.

Two thousand years ago, how did those who did not see the Resurrection first hand know that Christ had risen from the dead? It is because a story was told again and again. It was Peter standing before the crowds and proclaiming that the prophecies that they had all been taught in school had come true in Jesus Christ. It is a story that we have the opportunity to tell.

In the end, I cannot make you believe; I can only give you cause to belief. I must put before you the reasons for you to change your own thoughts; I must challenge you (not command you) to see the new vision that Christ offers. To do that, I must provide a vision, a vision of the world where the Kingdom of God does exist. Faith may be a belief in things unseen but others see faith in action when those who have faith and believe live a life where Christ is a part of their life.

The words echo throughout the ages, “tell the world what you see and they will know.” The challenge is to lead a life that shows that Christ is alive; the challenge is to offer a vision so that others will know that Jesus Christ is alive today.

A New Life for the Church and in the Church


These are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 10 April 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, Romans 8: 6 – 11, and John 11: 1 – 45. I started this last week but didn’t get to finish it because of some other more pressing tasks. The delay did prove to be fortuitous because, in the delay, I was able to find the closure for this piece.

One of the things that happened allowed me to note that some of what I was thinking was not entirely new but rather a restatement of things I had previously written (see “Rethinking the Church” and “To Search for Excellence”). That I reuse my ideas means either I am guilty of what I preach against or we are ignoring the solutions to a problem that has been with us for some time. Let us hope that it is more the latter than the former.

As I noted last week (“The Teaching Fantasy”), I feel that the educational system in this country is slowly being dismantled. In 1963, Clark Kerr spoke of the university (and by extension, all forms of education, as primary producers of knowledge (The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr – cited in http://www.vitia.org/wordpress/2003/09/02/clark-kerr-and-cardinal-newman/). The irony of this speech is that it was used by the free speech movement on the Berkeley Campus to characterize the university as a machine with the students as the workers. Considering the political climate of today, it would seem that is what the whole educational process is today. If current educational reforms are designed to increase productivity and make teachers accountable for what they do, then we have turned our educational process into a machine designed to turn out mindless robots, capable of repeating what they have been told but not capable of any independent or creative thought. And it seems that the attempts to modify this “reform” will cause more damage than is repaired.

We have turned the process of education into exercises of memorization and repetition. All a student needs to do to be considered successful in class is simply repeat, essentially word for word, what the instructor said during lecture. Free and creative thought is discouraged and any class discussion not directed towards the course exams is considered a waste of time, both by the students and the administration of the education factory, whoops, school.

Education should challenge the learner to seek what is not known, to go beyond the boundaries of the horizon. Education should open the mind, not close it. But yet, that is what is happening to so many today. Instead of pushing and prodding us to seek new ideas and new lands, we want education to comfort us and allow us to know only that which we want to know. For too many people, learning stops when the formal education process ends.

Personally, I think it is sad to watch someone who is physically alive yet mentally dead. I have seen countless college instructors, many younger than I, whose only goal in their educational career is to obtain tenure. They use the notes they so ardently wrote down as undergraduate students as their teaching notes and their research has stopped once the Tenure and Promotion Committee has granted them access to the “Holy Grail” of academia. These are the ones who make the argument against tenure a valid one.

But there are many instructors, some who are older than I, who continue doing research and who use tenure as it was meant to be used; for the freedom to seek new things without fearing that failure will cost them their job.

And both sadly and joyfully, I see many in the church, in the pulpit and the pew, who live the same lives. There are those who obtain a level at which they are comfortable and then stop seeking the ultimate truths of life. They learned about the Bible in confirmation class (those in pew) and in seminary (the pulpit) and that is all that they needed to know. One translation of the Bible is good enough for them and anyone who even suggests that other translations may offer new insight are considered heretics. They use the Bible to justify what they believe, even when what they believe is not in the Bible. Those in the pew don’t want those in the pulpit to disturb their sense of the Bible; the Bible was never meant to challenge but confirm. It wasn’t meant to push you into the world but allow the world to be blocked out.

These people often times sound like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and scribes of Jesus’ time. They saw the Gospel message as a threat to their power, their position, and their status.

But there are many (unfortunately, it is a minority of the population) who see the Bible as a living and breathing document. They are like Ezekiel, dismayed at the valley of dry bones that lie before them. They maybe hesitant at first but they have come to know Jesus as part of their lives and they have heard the call of God to prophesy to the dead bones; God has called them to speak out and seek ways to bring those old, dry bones back to life.

It will take more than doing the same old thing, if for no other reason than the same old thing is what caused the bones to dry up and the breath of life to disappear. All the words being bandied about come from those who really don’t have any clue what the person in the pew hears and the person in the pew long ago tuned out the words “spoken from the mountaintop.”

When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, there was a movement sweeping the business world to search for excellence. It even came into the science education field (see the reference in “To Search for Excellence”). What came from this movement was the idea that true and effective change came, not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Second, even when it didn’t come from the top, it was still critical that those at the top support and commit to the changes brought from the bottom. What happened in too many situations was that upper level management thought of an idea and rolled it out to a big fanfare but then delegated the task of implementing to underlings; it then died on the vine, as it were.

In one sense, that is what God did. He spoke to Moses and Moses spoke to the people. In the end, the people lost interest because the message was filtered too much through the administrators. Ultimately, God saw that wasn’t working and He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live and die with us. And the ones who were picked by Jesus were not the administrators or the powerful; there were not necessarily the best or the brightest but they were willing to listen and learn (though it took them a while). The success of the early church came from the fact that it was first and foremost a community of people, developing ideas on their own. They could not listen to some hierarchical authority because there was no hierarchy.

I have come to a point in my journey where I feel that I am called to prophesy. The other day John Meunier posted a note about some comments that Jay Voorhees had made regarding the Leadership Summit in Nashville (see “A Proposal for Church Development” and the dialogue that Jay and I had at #UMC Lead: The View From Table 9-part 3). Jay’s ideas mirror an idea that I began developing about a month ago to begin a school (only in the sense of an organized collection of classes).

This school will focus on Biblical studies (many of the lay speakers in my district want Bible study), studies on Methodism (you would be surprised how many members of the United Methodist Church do not understand the structure and philosophy of Methodism – see “When Did You Learn about Methodism?” – I would be interested in knowing when you learned about Methodism) and Christianity (each year there is a survey which points out how illiterate we are about what is we say we are) and leadership studies. In his comments, Jay offered some thoughts about books in the area of leadership. What are your ideas? What books have you read that suggest new ways to lead?

I am working with one of the seminaries in the area to find individuals interested in teaching some of the courses; I don’t think that all of them will have degrees in theology and/or divinity. One of the individuals I have contacted about teaching a course in the history of Methodism has a Ph. D. in Pharmacology.

But is the traditional classroom the only way to teach? I happen to like the traditional gathering because I think that the interaction between classmates

Let us bring the dry bones back to life. Let us breathe a new spirit into the body that we call the church. Let us find ways to bring new life and a new breathe in the people who make the church. I would normally say that we should begin that today but it has begun. I am asking that you come along as we seek to bring a new life for and in the church.

A Door or a Window?


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 3 April 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Ephesians 5: 8 – 14, and John 9: 1 – 41.

There were times when I was growing up when all the members of my family (my parents, brothers, sister, and the dog) would be watching television together in the family room. Invariably, one of my siblings or me would get up and walk or stand in front of the television. One of my parents would the invariably say “you make a better door than a window” and we would, sometimes immediately, get out of the way.

Windows are meant to let the sunlight into a house and let the people see what’s outside. Those who built sod houses on the prairies of this country would write about the excitement of obtaining real glass windows that would open up the interior of their homes. The artistry of the magnificent stain-glass windows was only secondary to the need to find ways of illuminating the great cathedrals built in the early days of Christianity. Doors were meant to give access to the outside (my parents were also fond of reminding us when we held the front or back door of the house open too long that we weren’t heating or cooling the outside; and for the record, my parents were saying this to us, even when we were grown-ups, not just as children in the fifties.)

We are meant to use windows and doors in our lives. Windows let us see what is outside the walls of our lives; doors let us explore that world. The problem is that not only can we see what’s outside and use doors to go outside but what is ever “out there” has the opportunity to enter into our carefully crafted lives. And because things outside can come in, we have chosen to close and lock our doors and cloud our windows and shutter them so that nothing can enter our lives. But when we do that, we find ourselves locked in prisons of our own making.

We feel safe inside this sanctuary that we have made, safe and secure that nothing outside the walls can harm us. But because the windows have been clouded and the shutters drawn, we have no clue what is actually out there. The world is changing and we have no way of knowing what is happening.

There was a time when safe and well-built sanctuaries saved mankind. The monasteries of the early Middle Ages were repositories of the accumulated knowledge of mankind and their thick walls prevented the destruction of much of that knowledge that became known, very appropriately, as the Dark Ages. I see in society today a very similar situation except that no knowledge is being protected as the darkness of ignorance and apathy slowly covers the land and the minds of the people. And sad to say, some of that ignorance and apathy comes from within the church. Was the fabled library of Alexandria not destroyed by religious authorities who were convinced that their Holy Scripture contained all the information that was needed and other books were superfluous?

Why is it that even today religious and political authorities seek to stifle scientific and free inquiry with claims of theological superiority? Is the foundation of faith so weak that it can only be supported by book burnings and attempts to control the minds of the people? Are its foundations so weak that democracy will crumble if free thought grows unfettered across the landscape?

We may marvel at the reading of stories such as the one in the Gospel today for we have a slightly better understanding of what causes sickness and death. We cannot even imagine that sin would have been the cause of one’s blindness, sickness or death. But we still believe that a person with AIDS can somehow inflict us with that disease by just looking at us. Even worse, there are those who believe that allowing a homeless person into our church will cause each of us to lose our homes and be cast out on the street. And while we may not wish to admit it, we still believe that the wealthy became rich because God has smiled on them and the poor are poor because they have led sinful and evil lives. We are blind to oppression and exploitation that has taken place over the past few years because we have clouded our windows and closed the shutters.

Let’s admit it. We fear the outside. Once we ventured forth from our shores, first from Europe to America, and then from the coast of America into the vast expanse of its interior. Each time, there were tails of monsters and unbelievable creatures ready to destroy us. We watched as ships sailed over the horizon and were convinced that they had fallen off the edge of the world. And from the days that we became conscious creatures on this planet, we have looked to the stars. Once we desired to go to the stars. So we began to make small steps, by sending people into orbit around the earth and then to the moon. But as the cost of these small steps rose and competed with the money needed to fight wars on this planet, we cut back. And now we have at least one and possibly two generations of children who have never seen a person walk on the moon.

We have shuttered our windows and we have closed the doors. We seek bold and brave leaders to make sure that the shutters are sound and the locks in the doors are strong. We welcome the rhetoric of the brave warrior, be they male or female, but we fail to see the lies and deceit in their heart. We hear their words encouraging each of us to be like them and to support them but because we cannot see and because we do not want to go outside, we do not see that their words and their actions are designed to make their homes safe and secure while destroying ours.

When Samuel went looking for the new king, the one who would replace Saul, he met David’s brothers. Each of the brothers was strong and handsome and brave but their outside belied what was inside of them. And God was more interested in what was in the heart and soul of the person than he was what was on the outside. Are we not like that today, seeking leaders because of what is on the outside and caring very little for what is on the inside?

When John Kennedy proposed that we go to the moon forty some years ago, he said that we did it even though we knew that it would be hard. I don’t hear that today. I hear that we can’t do things because they are hard and that we shouldn’t even try unless we can do it easy and quick and cheap. We would much rather go to war than seek peace; we would rather let people go hungry or homeless or sick because it is easier to do so than spend the money to insure that all people get feed or that homes can be built and people can have jobs that will allow them to afford housing today. Our answer is the 21st century equivalent to why people got sick in Jesus’ time – they are sinners. People got sick back then because they were sinners; people are poor today because they are sinners.

We have closed the door of opportunity and we have no desire to see what is outside the window in our sanctuary.

But it need not be that way. Paul reminds us that there is a different world out there if we allow Christ into our lives. It is a well-lit world in which evil dies because it cannot live in such a world. But it is not an easy world to live in. For in the light of Christ, we see the world and all that is there. We see what we must change. It is not always a pretty world and when we open the door to cautiously step outside, we run the risk of letting the world into our lives.

Many years ago, I received a book (Faith in a Secular Age) that spoke of the problem of the church in today’s world. It spoke of the church that sought to protect itself from the outside world by building walls and shutting its doors and shuttering its windows. It was a safe church but a church without any effect on the world. A former pastor of mine has pointed out that the church of the 21st century will be a church outside the walls of the sanctuary.

Last week, I wrote of the feeding ministry that we have started at our home church (see “How Long?”). It has been an interesting ministry. There are some who say you take the trash out of the church, not bring it in. And yet, they will come to the kitchen table and eat the food that we serve. There are some who will not eat this food because somehow food cooked for the poor is of a different quality than food cooked for Christians.

This past weekend we saw what happens when you open the doors and venture into the community. A young woman, abandoned by her family and perhaps society, came to the kitchen for breakfast and to see if we might offer her some work that would count towards community service and allow her to possibly enter into a drug-rehabilitation program. We found a way to give her some work which she did very well. But, perhaps more importantly, we connected her with other people in the church who understood what she was going through and were willing to walk with her this week as she sought to improve her life.

I cannot tell you today what the outcome of this will be. I hope that this young lady will return to the church as part of the covenant that was made this weekend. I will know this weekend when my schedule brings me back to the church. But I know this. If we were to have closed our minds, we would not have seen the opportunities that lie before us. If we were to have closed the doors and said that “her kind” were not welcome, we might have lost her.

It isn’t a matter of being a door or a window. It is a matter of opening the windows to let the sun shine in and the Son shine out and to have the doors open, not only so that people can come in but that so that doors are open for the opportunities that come your way.

How Long?


These are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.

I am sure that there are some people on this planet who feel the recent earthquake in Japan, the resulting tsunami, and then the nuclear reactor disaster are the harbingers of the final days. Or perhaps they wondered just how much more humanity can take.

We know that people can survive for long periods of time without food, though the actual length depends on the individual’s physical situation and circumstance. But we can only go three or four days without water and even less time without oxygen.

From that standpoint, we need to look around at the world and what we have done to it. Our supplies of fresh water have always been limited and our cavalier attitude about the environment means that what fresh water and clean air that remains will soon be gone if we are not careful.

But how long can the spirit survive when it is assaulted? Look around at what is going on in the world and tell me if the human spirit may have reached such a point. Would the revolutions in the Middle East have occurred if the governments were not more attuned to the needs and cries of the people? Would the protest in Wisconsin have occurred if the governor were more attuned to the needs and wants of all the people instead of one or two rich individuals who want to keep all that they have?

I cannot explain the politics of this country, of people losing their rights and then watching whatever safety net might be in place taken away as well and cheering as it is done. I cannot explain how it is that so many people in this country are willing to cheer on the politicians who stand up and call for the removal of all social programs while allowing the military and defense budgets to keep growing, who stand up and call for less taxes for the rich but not for the rest of the country. I cannot explain how a politician can say that they are for jobs yet support measures and policies that take away jobs. I cannot explain how anyone can say that they are a Christian yet wrap themselves in the American flag and disdain helping the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed.

Look around and tell me that is not what is happening in this country and around the globe today. And tell me why there are not more protests?

I have friends who feel that this country is on the verge of a revolution because a small group of individuals who have virtually all the wealth are trying to take what’s left as well. There are already those who call this country a plutocracy where a few rich individuals own everything and have no desire at all to share with anyone. How long can the human spirit endure?

How long can a church survive in a world where its members do not want to hear that their responsibility is to the people in their community and that the church is a sanctuary against the evil in the world? How long can a church survive when it only gives lip service to the food closet that is open once a week but for which the lines grow longer every day?

As you perhaps know from previous posts, my wife has started a feeding ministry at our church. It is one of two such ministries that take place on the weekends at our church. When she started this ministry, my wife wanted to feed the neighborhood children because many of them did not get a breakfast on the weekends. That hasn’t developed as we thought it might and maybe we should have stopped the ministry when it became apparent that it wasn’t headed in the direction we thought it would go. But that isn’t always God’s plan, now is it?

After all, as the Israelites wandered in the desert, they probably didn’t have a firm idea of where they were actually headed and each day’s journey was predicated on where the next water hole might be located.

So, we have kept this ministry going, giving between twenty and thirty individuals, some out of work, some homeless, some with substance abuse problems a good breakfast each Saturday and Sunday morning. It would appear that other ministries are going to come out of all of this, perhaps directed towards changing the direction of the lives of these individuals. But it hasn’t been easy. It is safe to say that there are individuals in the church who aren’t exactly thrilled that people off the street are coming into “their” church. And while many in the church worry about how the church will keep its doors open, they seem reluctant to let just anyone come through those open doors. I only say that because it seems to me that this is indicative of what is transpiring across the country. We have turned the sanctuary of the church into a safe haven for the members, protecting them from the evil outside the walls, instead of offering sanctuary to those whom evil will consume and whom society will toss on the garbage heap.

There are those who would tell us that we need to stop this ministry. After all, I haven’t had a full-time job for four years and it hasn’t been the easiest road to walk. There are times when we sound like the Israelites screaming at Moses about the lack of fresh water. The desert can be very cruel to people without water but just when the Israelites are screaming the loudest, God tells Moses what to do to get the water. That’s the way it has been with this ministry and I suspect that God will show us where to find the funds that will enable us to continue the journey. (And if you so desire to be a part of this effort, the address is “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen c/o Grace UMC, P. O. Box 2556, Newburgh, NY 12250.)

But Ann didn’t start this ministry for glorification or hope that God would repay us for our generosity. I don’t help where I can and write about it because I am expecting a pat on the back. It is because there are people out there whom society has cast aside and said that, because of one thing or another, they aren’t worthy of anything. But the church has said that each person is worthy and we are trying to put the words of the Gospel into action. And when the woman comes to the well in the middle of the day, Jesus offers her the respect that she is missing in her life.

Perhaps I am wrong about my assessment of the state of the world and the state of the church. But I also know that when society was in similar situations, it was the church that changed the course. When I first began my lay speaking ministry, I would say that England was saved from the violent revolution that overtook France in the years following our own revolution. I had read something about it but didn’t make note of where I had read it. But later on, I would find other documents that said the same thing – that because of the work that John Wesley and the other early Methodists did with regards to healthcare, schooling, prison and work reform, England did not undergo the violent revolution that would engulf France.

Look around and tell me if we are not in the same situation today. It isn’t just what is happening elsewhere; it is what is happening in our own backyards and neighborhoods. And Paul tells us that Christ has arrived at just the right time. When we open our doors to Christ, we find that the same doors have already been opened. And our fears that there is nothing that we can do are cast aside because of what Christ did for us so many years ago.

We are halfway through Lent. That means that there are only twenty days left in this journey. That means that there are twenty days left to make a decision, a decision to follow Christ, to put the Gospel message into action. How long will it take? How long before it is too late? How long, O Lord, how long?