What Is Faith?

These are my thoughts for the First Sunday after Christmas.  May the coming year be blessed and safe for you and your family.


A few days ago I read a comment somewhere (and I cannot recall where that was) that said that the three wise men couldn’t have been that wise. They knew they were looking for a new king and the one thing that they shouldn’t have done is gone to King Herod and ask where the new born child was. It was this part of their trip that brings about the “killing of the innocents” in today’s Gospel reading. (1)

But the problem with this logic is that the wise men did not understand the nature of the Christ Child. As astronomers (yes, I know they were actually astrologers but there wasn’t much of a distinction between the two fields at that time), the Magi were more interested in the stars and what the stars could tell us than they were interested in the political overtones to their observations. To them, a new king was being born and kings were born in palaces and amongst the elite of the nation. That was how it was where they probably came from and they assumed that was the case in other countries as well. It’s as if we looked at today’s presidential candidates and assumed that because one was a governor, he must have authority and power because the governor of the state we live in actually does have power and authority. That is not always the case and the birth of Jesus was not like the birth of any king the Magi had ever known.

We apply 21st century logic to a story that has been told and retold for over two thousand years. We expect the story to fit within the constraints of what we know today. We expect our leaders to come from privilege and expectation, not from within society. The birth of a child who is to be king and who was born in a stable of parents who could only be considered middle class at best does not fit into our concept of royalty and power, just as it did not fit into the concept of royalty and power that brought the Magi to the Holy Land.

Our problem with the Christmas story, in fact our problem with Christianity today is that we do not think about the story or look at it with fresh eyes. We have to look at the Christmas story and, in fact, all of the Bible, from a viewpoint of faith, not fact. We struggle with this viewpoint because of what society today tells us.

There are a number of individuals in this world who will tell you that the Bible is accurate and truthful. It has to be because it was handed to mankind by God. But we know, first of all, that it was mankind who decided what constituted the Old and New Testaments and that it took many years to put together the particular combination of books that we use today. We see historical bibles located in the monastery of St. Katherine in the Sinai desert and in the British Museum in London that are of approximately the same age (i.e. very old) but which contained different books. Even within the accepted Bible of today, we see contradictions and changes in the stories. If we are to accept the Bible as completely true, then we have to ask God to get a new proofreader.

The one thing that many non-Christians delight in, of course, is showing people these contradictions and reversals. They point out these “errors” and say that there cannot be a God since a perfect God would not make an imperfect book. But this argument is in response to an argument that is also flawed.

The Bible is what it is, a collection of stories telling us how God and mankind have related throughout the history of mankind and society. It is not meant to be a scientific work nor is it meant to be factual literature; it is meant to be a story that tells us there is a God and He cares about us.

This is the part of the story that is often overlooked by Christians and those who oppose Christianity. For so many people today, especially on the left of the political spectrum, Christianity is close-minded and intolerant. They are as guilty of close-mindedness and intolerance as the people whom they accuse.

The problem is that the Christmas story, its aftermath, and its fulfillment have gotten lost in translation and the desire of men to make God their servant rather than the other way around.

Christianity was meant as a way to change society; not simply reinforce it. If those who loudly proclaim themselves to be Christians would live as we are supposed to, then things would be different. Christianity developed as an alternative to a culture that threw away people when they had no more usefulness for society. Christianity provided hope and a promise for people whom society told there was no hope or a promise.

It was Christianity that provided community support for the sick, the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed. It was Christianity that opposed war as the answer to all problems. It was early Christianity that gave equality to women when women were considered chattel rather than human beings.

It was the church that changed the message of Christianity, not God. It was mankind that made the church in his image and used it to simply change the location of authority.

If we were to study the history of Christianity through its form as the church, we would see the development of various denominations as protests to the power of the church and its development as the authority and decider for the people. The same is true today; those today who want to impose a theological political system are simply seeking to impose the same sort of theological structure that was in place when Christ was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. They are not seeking what Christ sought or what Christ taught us; they are seeking a reinforcement of their power and their authority.

Isaiah’s words today (2) are a reminder that God has been consistent in His love and mercy throughout the years before Christ’s birth. It is very difficult (very difficult) for us to understand that because so much of what the church says today is in conflict with that understanding. And as we struggle with this dichotomy, we sometimes forget that the birth of Christ was to be that one visible sign of God’s love and mercy.

The writer of Hebrews also points this out. In today’s reading from Hebrews (3), the writer uses the talks about the one who goes before us as a pioneer or pathfinder. Our journey on earth is never easy, yet we know that Jesus endured much the same as we will in order that we would have salvation in the end. It wasn’t just His death on the Cross but His entire life spent as a human that allowed Him to do so. Yes, it is the death on the Cross that we must focus on but if that was all there was, then we would not have to have Christ born among us and being a part of us.

You can, if you wish, choose to say that it is all a myth. There is very little archeological evidence, there is very little written about what transpired some two thousand years ago that will tell you the truth. But the truth is that in every myth there is some truth.

But the truth is that a number of different people saw what happened and they told others what they saw and others wrote down what everyone saw. And over the years the truth found in the faith of those who told what they saw has never been doubted. It is a story that has lived in the hearts of many for all these years.

Faith, as the writer of Hebrews will tell us later, is a belief in things unseen. If we put our belief in what we see and hear, we will be blind to the story that is unfolding before our eyes and ears and in our hearts and minds. In a world where faith is placed in material goods and physical evidence, it is perhaps time we open our hearts to the story of Christmas and what it means today.

(1) Matthew 2: 13 – 23

(2) Isaiah 63: 7 – 9

(3) Hebrews 2: 10 -18

What Gift Did You Give?

Here are my thoughts for the Christmas Day, 2007.  May the blessings of God be with you and your family and may this truly be a season of peace and joy for all.


Many years ago I used to say that Ebenezer Scrooge had the right idea about Christmas. Now, I never said “bah, humbug!” or anything like that. I never questioned the meaning or reason for Christmas. I just said that Scrooge had the right idea. And every time I did that, I would get criticized, castigated, and ridiculed.

Now, the problem was that the Scrooge that I was referring to was not the Scrooge that dominated Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” but rather the one at the end of the novel who would live the Spirit of Christmas everyday.

Everyone thinks of Scrooge as the miserly old skinflint. To most people, Scrooge was a mean old man and he wasn’t going to change. What this all means to me is that most people failed to understand what Dickens was trying to say and do with the novel.

The same I think can be said about Christmas. How our society views Christmas today is a far cry of what it really means. Christmas today is dominated by the gods of consumerism and selfishness. We speak of the joy of Christmas but it seems to be a joy brought about by the number of presents under the tree that have our names on them. We sing “Joy to the world” but we really mean “joy to me.”

But such celebration and such self-centeredness reminds many people of whom they have lost in the years. It is no wonder that, for many, Christmas is the most depressing time of the year.

Yes, it is a time for families and get-togethers. After all, Jesus was born during what was essentially a family reunion. None of our traditional Christmas stories mentioned the presence of other family members but they would have been there to help with the birth of the baby to be named Jesus. But the family that celebrated the birth of the Christ Child was more than just the blood relatives of Joseph who had come to Bethlehem for the Roman census. It was an extended family that went beyond the accepted societal definitions of that day.

The shepherds were the first outside Joseph’s family to be told that the Christ Child was born. Shepherds occupied one of the lowest rungs in society and their inclusion in the birth celebration was a sign that the message of hope that came with the birth of Christ was a message for all, not just for a few.

The same is true about the arrival of the Magi. The Magi are a reminder that the birth of Christ was for all, not just for a select few. And the Magi brought gifts. They brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh, some of the most expensive gifts know to the society of that day. Today we use this simple act of devotion as a sign that we can receive gifts from our family, our friends, our co-workers, and if need by, from ourselves. We forget that the gold that Mary and Joseph received that day would be used to get them to Egypt when Herod orders the killing of the innocents in order to secure his throne. We forget that Mary will keep the frankincense and myrrh and bring them with her when she and the other women who were Jesus’ disciples go to the tomb on Easter morning to properly prepare His body for burial in the tomb.

We remember that the Magi brought expensive gifts and we expect that others will bring us such gifts. We forget that the Magi gave the gifts without expectation of anything in return. Their knowledge of the world told them that this Child was something special and that they should honor Him, not the other way around. We know that the Magi received a gift because they returned home with the knowledge that they had seen the hope of the world to come.

I have been in churches big and small where the presence of God is perceptibly felt. I have been in church, both big and small, where you cannot feel that presence. I much prefer those churches were God is present. I have been in big churches that were built by people who had the love of Christ in their hearts. I have been in small churches where the building was more important than what transpired inside and there was no love present.

Christmas is about that presence. Christ was born to bring a renewed sense of hope to a people who felt that God had forgotten them. The birth of Christ is our gift from God to be taken, as were the gifts given to Mary, and placed in our hearts to cherish and honor.

Too often, the meaning of Christmas gets pushed aside. Too often, it is not even discussed. Perhaps we need a visit from the Christ Child Himself again to remind us that God had not forgotten us and that there is hope in this world. We have been given that gift of hope called the Christ Child. Like Mary, we need to place that gift in our hearts where it can grow and flourish. And then, like the Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of “The Christmas Carol”, we will live in and with the Spirit of Christmas through all the days of the year. Perhaps we will be like the shepherds who returned to their flocks and told all they met of the great thing that they had seen. Perhaps, we will be like the Magi who changed the path they traveled. And having been given the greatest gift of love ever known to mankind, we will give the gift of love each day.

Christmas can never be about the gifts we got but rather the gifts we give. What gifts did you give?

My Top Posts For 2007

These are the posts that I am listing as the top posts for 2007; if you have one that was a favorite of yours, let me know.

The Lost Generation

October 14

The Future for the Methodist Church

September 29

Don’t Know Much History

October 2

Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century

November 19

Who Shall Be Invited? (sermon)

September 2

The Message Is Clear (sermon)

January 21

Other posts of interest – “It’s a Journey, not a Thought” was selected as “Best of the Methoblogosphere” for the week of September 15th.

The post Supporting Our Troops – The Tragedy of Building 18 (March 3rd) generated five follow up posts – “The Tragedy of Building 18 Continued” (October 21st, “It is time to speak out” (October 21st), “The Tragedy Continues” (November 22), “It Is Time To Speak Out Again” (November 22), and “An Update” (November 23).

There was a follow-up to “It Happened Again” (April 22) – “It Happened Again – Part 2” (April 27)

Thomas Merton prayer

I was looking at some notes on the Methoblog and came across this prayer on http://jimmorrow.wordpress.com/ site.

If I write something like I did for this morning (How Do We Get There?), I will use it.  Let me give a big tip of the hat to Jim!

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Thomas Merton

How Do We Get There?

Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.  I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY this weekend.  (I found out that I had posted this particular message twice so, obviously, I deleted the other one.  Also, as it happened, I didn’t make it to Dover on this particular Sunday; there was a rather bad snowstorm the night before and we cancelled the services.


With the words of Isaiah for today (1) and what Jesus said about John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading (2), I could not help but think about the first time I came to preach at Dover.

Like many computer/Internet savvy users, I pulled up one of the map and direction websites and put in the address for the church. The advantage for the modern day circuit rider is that you can get a map with directions from anywhere to everywhere. The disadvantage is that the way that is determined the best way may not always be the best; it may be the most direct but it is likely to be a route that takes you over hills and through the woods. What many computer map systems do not have is a sense of what is actually there. Because I have come back to this church on a number of other occasions, I have come up with a route that gets me here quickly and safely.

The one thing about finding your way to someplace new is that you have to be able to read a map and you have to be able to determine if the information that you have been given is correct. There have been a number of occasions when the information given does not match the actual situation or you have to modify the directions because your knowledge of the roads tells you to find another direction.

There are times, of course, when you just want to follow your own thoughts about where a road might take you. When I lived in Kansas a number of years ago, I noticed something slightly odd or perhaps just quirky about the U. S. highways in the area where I lived. In the southeast corner of Kansas is the small town of Oswego. If you take U. S. Highway 59 south out of Oswego, you eventually run into U. S. Highway 60. Driving eastward on U. S. 60 will get you to U. S. Highway 61. If you are careful, you will eventually drive on U. S. Highways 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, and 67. For reasons known only to the highway builders, U. S. Highway 68 runs through Ohio. But from Highway 67, you can get to U. S. Highway 70 which will take you to U. S. Highway 69. And when all is said and done, you are in Columbus, KS and 16 miles from where you started.

Based on this little journey through Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, I thought it might be possible to go up to Maine and follow Highway 1 to where it intersected Highway 2 and continue all the way across the country. It turns out that you cannot do that because the number of the highways was not done in such a logical manner. What this little trip through the Ozarks does show is that you can take a journey and end up where you started.

Our lives are sometimes like that. We go through life headed in a particular direction because we think it is the right direction to take and we make the changes when it is appropriate but when the time comes to evaluate what we have done and where we have been, we find that we are where we started and no better off. It is at such times as these that we wonder where we are going to find any meaning to life and how we are ever going to find our way in this world.

It is human nature to seek meaning in life and we desperately want to know that what we do has meaning. Many times, we simply want someone to point out where to go or give us the right direction in which to head. But other times, we simply want someone to get us where we need to be or give us the things that we seem to be lacking.

In one sense, the question that John the Baptist had his disciples ask Jesus is a question that we often ask ourselves. Is Jesus the One who has come or is there someone else for whom we should wait?

John the Baptist is in prison for having questioned the legitimacy of King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s widow. The Baptist knows that his life is about to end and his work is over; all he wants to know is whether or not all the work that he had done was in vain. He sends his disciples to Jesus and has them ask if Jesus is the One who is to come. Is Jesus the One whom John the Baptist prepared the people for? Even though Jesus is his cousin, John is not certain if what he has done means anything to the people.

Jesus replies by asking the disciples what they see. Do they not see the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the sick healed, and the oppressed rejoicing with the hearing of the Good News? The signs tell them that Jesus is the Messiah and John’s work has not been in vain.

But what does this mean for us? How can we, in the chaos of today’s world, see the signs that tell us Jesus has come or that what we have done has any meaning? Too many people want the church today to give them the answers; too many people want the church to ease the pain of living in this world. They do not want the church to tell them that their work and their lives have been in vain.

And too many churches today do exactly that; they give the people what the people want to hear. They do not give them the truth. Did not Jesus ask the people who were following him if John the Baptist was wearing colorful robes? Did not Jesus point out that John the Baptist came as he was and what he said was, if you will, the plain and unvarnished truth? The truth is often a very hard topic for the church to say and for the people to hear.

Last week, there were two shootings in Colorado. Some said that the killing of the people was part of God’s plan and nothing anyone did would have stopped the killing. I have a hard time with that view of the world because it means there is no hope in this world. It means that you walk a path through life but it is a path that goes nowhere and when the path ends, it ends. What Jesus offered was hope, not despair and I don’t think that God would allow people to die just to fulfill a plan.

There were others who said that these killings were indicative of how society is. Those who died in the school in Arvada or in the church in Colorado Springs died because of society’s indifference to the problems of the world. But, placing the blame on society still does not give us a reason or a solution. If society is partially to blame for the Colorado killings, it is because it has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the young man.

And if society did not hear the young man’s cries, it is because the church has not done its job. Despite what others may say, the church is neither the master nor the servant of the state; it is the conscience of the state. (3) The church is called today to lead those who hear the cries of the lost and the forgotten, not be among those who ignore the cries.

But in too many ways, the church does forget or ignore the cries. There are pastors today who will tell you that it is entirely proper and right for you to seek riches in this world. God has blessed you and you have the right to those blessings here and now. All you have to do is plant the seed and let the seed grow. The more you plant, the greater will be your reward. This is what is known as the prosperity gospel. It does not matter whether you have the money or not; you can always use your credit cards. But it seems to me that the only ones who are being rewarded are the preachers who ask you to send them your money and they are not too happy when you challenge them about their finances.

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has asked six prosperity gospel ministers to answer some questions about the money they receive and their clearly extravagant lifestyles. Two of the six have answered his questions; two of the six are thinking about answering the questions. The other two are refusing to do so, saying that to do so would be a violation of the separation of church and state.

There should be no questions whatsoever about one’s ministry. New Testament Christianity is humble, selfless, and authentic. Those who carry the truth don’t do so for selfish gain or to meet an emotional need for attention. We can only hope that God will help us root out the false apostles and false teachers who are making the American church sick with their human-centered, money-focused heresies. (4)

Not all churches preach the prosperity gospel. They just don’t preach the gospel at all. All you hear in so many churches today is what the people want to hear, not what they need to hear. Again, we hear Jesus rebuking the people who wanted John the Baptist to give it to them easy all over again. And Jesus’ rebuke to the people is a reminder that what He will ask of them is far harder and more demanding than anything John every asked.

It is one thing to have modern music in church today; it is an entirely different thing to take away the meaning of the music. It is one thing to put the Gospel into the vernacular or patois of today’s society; it is another thing entirely to take the Gospel out of the service. It is one thing to expect that we should live well or not lose what we have. It is another thing to say that what we have is ours and ours alone or that we will not share what we have with others who do not have anything. It is one thing to say that we have what God gave us and we do not have to give what we have to others.

God created the world before He created the church. The church is a part of the world but it has moved away from the world as people have sought easy answers. The church has moved away from being a church that faces conflict and suffers persecution, killings, and bombings to one that avoids conflicts and causes persecution. The church has moved from seeing Jesus as liberator to seeing Jesus as a servant of the church.

It is no wonder why people do not turn to the church in moments of crisis or turmoil; they see the church as the reason for the crisis or turmoil.

If we are to find our way again; if we are to get back on the “right” track, we have to make some radical changes in our lives. And we need to be reminded that John the Baptist’s call for repentance is a call for change. Repentance does not simply mean that we say we are sorry for what we have done; it means that we will seek to change and become a new person.

Instead of wrapping an impenetrable barrier around our hearts while we wrap the presents that we will place under the Christmas tree this year, we need to unwrap our hearts and let the Love of Christ come into our lives. Instead of thinking about December 26th as the day after Christmas and the day we return the unwanted gifts, we should begin to think about how we can take the Love of Christ given to us on Christmas Day and give it to others each day after Christmas.

The change may not come that easily but we are comforted by the words of James today who told us to be patient. (5) It is easy for us to do this because we have seen what Jesus can do; we know what we must do.

Christmas has become that time when we think we have to go to Bethlehem. But because of the demands that society places on us, we don’t think that we can get there. We ask how we can get there when everything around us tells us that we can’t get there. But there is no longer a place in our journey; it is a time. And that time is now. How do we get there? We open our hearts and let Jesus come in.

(1) Isaiah 35: 1 – 10

(2) Matthew 11: 2 – 11

(3) Martin Luther King, Jr. – in “A Real ‘Values’ Agenda” by Jim Wallis, Sojourners, January 2008

(4) “The Deadly Virus of Christianity”, http://www.charismamag.com/fireinmybones/Columns/show.php

(5) James 5: 7 – 10

A Few Thoughts on a Friday in December

It’s a Friday and there are a few things that I just have to post.

Drilling for Oil

Have you seen that Shell Oil commercial where the petroleum engineer is having a problem drilling for oil? To begin with the company is not able to find the oil. When they do find it, it isn’t in one big “pool” of oil but is scattered all over the area. Finally, the engineer is having lunch with his son, who is not happy that his father is in a business which pollutes the environment. The son is drinking a milkshake from a glass with a bubble-shaped bottom. To get the last drabs of the milkshake, the son bends his straw so that he can get into the various nooks of the glass and get every last bit of the milkshake. This gives the father an idea on how he can get all of the oil out of the new site.

The whole concept of drilling for oil is, I think, badly misunderstood. First, there is really no such thing as a pool of oil that you stick your drill pipe into. At best, oil underground is trapped in the empty spaces between rocks (think of a sponge filled with water). There is a pressure differential involved that allows the oil to flow upwards (you squeeze the oil). That is why some oil companies have begun pumping water into oil wells that have stopped producing; there is probably still some oil in the site but there is no pressure to force it out. If you pump water down, it stands to reason that you can force the residual oil up.

But the thing that gets me is that this petroleum engineer thinks he has come up with an innovative and inspired way of drilling for oil. The thing is that this method of drilling (from the side) has been in use since the first wildcatter drilled a dry hole next to a producing hole in the “oil patch” of Texas and Oklahoma. It is not a new idea and some people feel that it is essentially an illegal way to get oil out of the ground.

But I guess that it is all right to say that you have come up with a new way of drilling for oil if no one knows (or cares) that it is not a new way. I have had students give me the same argument on some of the papers that they have submitted; but in their case, it is called plagiarism.

That leads me to my second topic for today.

The Mitchell Report

First, I will state that Senator George Mitchell is no relation to me. Second, I believe that steroid usage for any reason other than legitimate medical reasons is wrong. Third, I have not read the report.

But because I have taught students who are going into medicine, I have kept abreast of the problems with steroids in sports, not just baseball. It is interesting to read what some of my students have found out and what they believe.

More to the point of today, it is interesting to note the clamor that is coming from his report about the apparent widespread usage of steroids in major league baseball. That he was able to produce a report at all is remarkable. Senator Mitchell had no way to force anyone to talk with him and his report carries no legal weight. Players were reluctant to talk to him, perhaps because they were embarrassed but probably more because to do so would expose them to legal problems. I find it laughable that some people say he had a conflict of interest because he is on the board of directors of the Boston Red Sox.

If his loyalty to the Red Sox is greater than his own personal ethics, then the problem of steroids is far greater than anyone can imagine. And that is what bothers me about how everyone is reacting to this report.

First, when the majority of the players took steroids, it was legal for them to do so. This may not have been the case in football, basketball, or other sports. We have to define the timeline when the use of steroids for performance enhancing reasons was deemed illegal. This is not to say that steroid use at any time is smart. Those who took the drugs, by what ever means, and did so without knowing the risks associated are stupid; it is that simple.

But they took the drugs and accepted the risk. Why? Because we, as a society, like winners; those who are not winners will do whatever it takes to become winners. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that the majority of the players named in the report were lower-level players, players trying to get to the “big kid” level. Yes, there were several All-Stars and MVP’s named.

I was a football official for a number of years and did games at the elementary, junior high and high school level (I was getting ready to move up to the college level when I suffered the career ending knee injury). It was before steroids were a problem but “winning at all costs” was still a virus that infected too many players and coaches.

It was probably worse at the elementary level because the coaches were often volunteers and their knowledge of the game was limited to when they themselves played the game. But you could see the need to win rather than have fun as the driving force in the game. The fundamentals of the game were only taught in terms of what was needed to play.

What we as a society have forgotten is that the games that we played as children are now businesses. We get upset when our “games” are corrupted and we cry when our “heroes” do not meet our expectations. But we cheer our heroes when they win the “big game” and we certainly don’t cry because they somehow altered the playing environment for the chance to play in the “big game.”

If we want the games of our childhood to be the games we watch as adults, then we have to insist that they still be fun. In his autobiography, Bill Russell wrote about the challenge of playing against Wilt Chamberlain. While they were good friends, the media played them as “enemies” and Bill Russell described a fantasy scene where they were playing against each other in pure friendship. But then he described how the game turned into competition by those who wanted a winner and a loser.

The players who took steroids were wrong and there is no denying that. But we have to look at the forces as they understood them that made them take the drugs, risk and all.

Having said that, there are some times when one should take a risk.

The Political Climate Today

As of right now, with every political pundit making their pronouncements and every television news broadcast reminding us how many days until the caucuses in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary and so forth and so on, I want to announce that I do not intend on voting for any of the candidates of either major party. If I could, I would vote for “none of the above” but I can’t do that because I don’t live in Nevada (which, I have been told, allows people to do that in certain elections).

I have had it with the campaigning that has been going on since, it seems, the 2004 election campaign ended. I have this image in my mind that no matter how the 2008 election turns out, someone will announce on the November 5, 2008 their intention to seek their party’s nomination for the office of President in 2012.

As much as it has been the endless drivel that all of the candidates have given, I have heard nothing that is substantially different or exciting. I have heard nothing that gives me hope for the future. Now, many of the candidates have offered plans that speak of what they are going to do but nothing has been given in depth or in such a way that it can be really studied and discussed.

Part of the problem is that no candidate is willing to put anything out in the open for such study and discussion because the other candidates will tear it apart and destroy it without offering anything substantial in return. Our politics no longer are politics of hope but politics of despair and fear. We are entrapped in a war of our own making and no one is willing, though some have come close, to be definitive in what they are going to do. To do so is to cause others to question and criticize. We have become a society that has changed the definition of patriotism; we are a society that supports any idea that benefits us but will tear apart any idea that requires an effort on our part. We have become a society of sound bites, not real thoughts.

Oh, I know that many of the candidates will say they offer a plan for tomorrow but they spend as much or more time telling us how their opponents’ plans for tomorrow will not work. No politician today, it seems to me, is willing to put their plans out before the public and defend them. And it seems to me that every politician is more than willing to attack their opponents and degrade them before offering something better.

And the American people repeatedly allow this to take place. It is not enough to say to the politicians “quit the mud-slinging, the back-biting, and the negative campaigning.” We have been saying that and politicians say that they are going to do it. But when “push comes to shove” we, the people, allow it to take place and the politicians are quick to do it.

So, right now, unless any of the candidates makes a are major and dramatic changes in what they say or do, my choice for President of the United States is “none of the above.”

Side By Side

On September 1, 2007, I wrote and said the following,

We say that we are a Christian nation yet we have let our brothers and sisters down. We seemed to be more concerned that the casinos on the Gulf Coast are rebuilt bigger and safer than we are that homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans are.

The sad thing about all this talk about Katrina and the slowness of the recovery is that it is only the tip of iceberg. The destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is only the latest event in a series of events that demonstrates the lack of concern we have for people in this country. How long will we be a country that speaks of “family values” yet does not value the family? How long will we be a country where wealth is the goal and poverty is considered sinful? How long will we be a church where the prosperity gospel of wealth and abundance and not the Heavenly Kingdom is preached in the pulpit?

I know that countless people have gone to Biloxi and I know that not everyone can go. But if we are who we say we are, then why have we not, as Christians, cried out in anger at how we have treated our own brothers and sisters!? Is it because we would rather not think about it; is it because we would rather not bring the lower classes, the outcasts, and the refuse of society to our dinner table? Are we to forget that England in the period of time following the American Revolution almost underwent a similar fate as did France? Are we to forget that were it not for John Wesley and the Methodist Revival speaking out against the injustice done to the poor and lower classes, England would have undergone a similar violent revolution as did the French? (“Who Shall Be Invited”; the information in italics was quoted in the 5 September 2007 edition of the UM Nexus.)

Apparently, my words are in vain. There is a report (link no longer works) telling us that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is planning on tearing down 4,600 public subsidized apartments and replacing them with 744 similarly subsidized units. An additional 1,000 market rate and tax credit units which will have an average cost of $400,000 are to be built in, apparently, the same area.

In addition, over 50,000 families living in FEMA trailers who are being forced out. Over 90,000 homeowners are still waiting to receive federal recovery funds. And it appears that a tent city has sprung up across from the New Orleans City Hall and under Interstate 10. In Mississippi, poor and working people are being displaced to allow the casinos to grow and develop other commercial activities. Somehow, I can’t see how this will be an improvement on the situation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

It would be one thing if the destruction of housing for the poor was limited to one place or time but that is not the case. Neighborhoods are being taken away around the globe, in Angola, Hungary, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. We already minimize the poor; must we destroy any hope they have for this life? Do we think that by taking away their housing and limiting the amount of money they can earn through the minimum wage that they will eventually go away?

If that were to occur, then the people who are the middle class will become the lower class and what shall we do then? Jesus reminded His disciples that they would not always have Him in this life but they would have the poor with them always. (Mark 14: 7) And what I said on September 1st rings even more true.

The oldest community in the history of the United States is the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia (yes, I know that St. Augustine, Florida, has been around a lot longer). From what I remember of my history, the people who settled Jamestown saw this country as a land where gold lay on the ground and all you had to do was pick it up to become rich. Those early settlers, gentleman by profession, quickly found out that you had to work in order to make a community survive. Communities are not built by those who seek quick riches but by those who have other goals.

Even the Pilgrims, who came to this country to escape religious persecution, understood that. No matter how we romanticize their survival and what exactly they ate for their first Thanksgiving dinner, we have to understand as they did that you cannot build a community that is separate from those around you. The survival of the Pilgrim community could not have been accomplished without the aid of those who already lived there.

Sadly, our concern for the native population of this country never carried forward and we found ways to bring people over to do the tasks which many found disdainful and beneath their status. Still, the point is made that you cannot build communities for a select few and you cannot build communities that ignore the residents who are there already. What the Department of Housing and Urban Development is trying to do is follow paths that go in the wrong direction and which lead to failure in the long run.

This same report also included several disturbing comments about the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson. These comments echo comments made last year about Secretary Jackson.

Last May when I posted “Opening the Circle”, I wrote

I have a friend who I am concerned about; he has said some things that are very questionable, at least in terms of where he said them and his current position. What he said was not derogatory or anything of that nature but it brings to question his value system and how it has changed over the almost forty years that I have known him. I suppose what bothers me more than anything else is that he is probably going to ignore my comments and keep moving in the direction that he has been headed for some time. It is as if he drew a circle around himself in order to shut out others. His actions remind me of a poem that has lurked in the back of my mind for many years:

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in! (“Outwitted” by Edwin Markham)

The friend that I referred to in that post was Alphonso Jackson, the same Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. We once were friends but I am not sure where we stand today.

In the Bush Administration, loyalty is much more important than friendship and friendship, it appears, is based on your social and economic standing. In those regards, I am not longer in the same league as Secretary Jackson.

But it wasn’t that way several years ago. I have on my desk a picture of the two of us taken in 1995 when we both attended the ceremony in which our alma mater changed its name from Northeast Missouri State University to Truman State University.

The author and Alphonso Jackson (1995)

It is an interesting picture because, for us, it evokes memories of another day in 1969 when we stood side by side in an entirely different situation.

We first met during the summer of 1966. I was a fifteen year old “whiz” kid entering college for the very first time and Al was a nineteen year old transfer student from Dallas, Texas, seeking to get his grades up so that he could run track for Kenneth Gardner and the Bulldogs of Northeast Missouri State. I would eventually receive my Ph. D. from the University of Iowa and Al was to become the Deputy Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2001 and later, in 2004, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I have always said that the college should put a sign on the door of Missouri Hall 520 indicating what the two occupants of that room during the summer of 1966 later accomplished in life

The significance of the two of us standing together in 1995 is that there is another picture of the two of us standing together in 1969. For many years, I thought that a copy of the picture existed in the archives of one of the Missouri newspapers but I had never been able to find it. (It turns out that there are no newspaper photographs. The Baldwin Hall sit-in received minimal coverage in the media outside Kirksville.) The only pictures that ever existed were the ones taken by a video cameraman and I doubt that he kept a copy.

In the spring of 1969, the black students at Truman sought equal housing opportunities in the city of Kirksville. Though the university had been a part of the city for over one hundred years, the relationship between the two institutions was never the best. Despite its designation as the state’s liberal arts university today, Kirksville was then and probably still is today a very politically conservative area. The stone over the entrance to First United Methodist Church shows that the church was once a Methodist Episcopal South church.

Since its beginning as 1st District Normal School, the majority of its students came from the area around Kirksville. There was a substantial population, however, that came from beyond the regional boundaries of the college and needed to live on the campus or in town. And therein lay the problem. It was possible, if you were a white student, to find a place to live off-campus. But for black students, however, this was not possible. The landlords of Kirksville, reluctant to rent to white students but willing to take their money, did not want to rent to black students at all. The Association of Black Collegians sent a delegation, including Al, to meet with the College Board of Regents for help in resolving this problem.

The Board refused, saying that it was not their problem. The ABC then went to the City Council of Kirksville asking for their help. The Council also refused to help, saying that it was not their problem and they needed to work through the university. With no clear-cut solution to the problem and because 1969 was the season of sit-ins and demonstrations, the decision was made to occupy Baldwin Hall, the College administration building.

I was a sophomore that spring, struggling with the realities of college education. The demands of college had taken me away from campus activities and I knew little of what was happening on the other side of the campus. But either by word of mouth or some announcement on the local radio station, I heard that the administration building had been occupied and a confrontation was developing between the black students in the building and white students outside the building.

When I found out what was happening, I immediately went over to the administration building. I was able to get into the building. I went because the people in the building were my friends and times like these demanded that you support your friends. That is when the other picture was taken. A news cameraman was taking pictures inside the administration building. The picture that I speak of shows a young, long-haired white boy standing next to Alphonso Jackson and the other leaders of the Association of Black Collegians as the announcement of a peaceful settlement was made. Those who saw the picture assumed that because of where I was standing that I was one of the leaders, which was not the case.

It is not the type of picture that mothers, fathers, grandmothers and other relatives (or at least my mother, father, and grandmother) speak of with pride. My grandmother saw the news footage when it was broadcast on the St. Louis stations; she immediately called my parents and told them what I was doing. Now, my family had never easily accepted my political activities and the knowledge that I appeared to be leading a campus sit-in didn’t help matters either.

But I wasn’t standing there because of my politics; I was standing there because Al was my friend. Politics may have motivated me in part, I am sure. Interestingly enough, while some white activists were involved in the negotiations to peacefully end the sit-in; most of the white activists were nowhere to be found.

But I was raised with the thought that if you accepted Christ, you fought for peace, justice, and righteousness. More than anything else, that is what had lead me to enter the building that night.

When we left the building, there was hope that there would be a change in the policy and that all students at Truman would have a chance for equitable housing. After that, we went onto other things. Al moved onto St. Louis and then to Dallas. I went my own way and our contacts were limited. But a friendship that started in 1966 didn’t end because we no longer saw each other. And things that he said and what he did stayed with me and were as much a part of my education through out the years as the formal learning I received at Truman, the University of Missouri and the University of Iowa. I assumed the same was true for Al. It is apparent that was not the case.

It is because we once were friends and we stood side-by-side in the fight for fairness and equality that I have to wonder what happened. I have my own thoughts as to why there has been this shift but they are my own thoughts and not germane to the matter at hand. But I have to wonder if the quest for money and power, which it appears Al is attempting to make, are the reasons for this shift.

What are friends for? Do they stand by your side only in times of your success? Or are they there no matter what? A friend will tell you when what you are doing is wrong, though that doesn’t appear to be the standard for friendship in the present Bush administration.

It is s a friend that I write to remind the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development that there are those who remember what he once stood for and what he once did. I stood by the side of Al Jackson as he worked for his friends and classmates in an effort to have the same opportunities as others. I cannot stand aside and let the actions of Alphonso Jackson destroy the work that he once did.

In this season of Advent we are reminded that Jesus came to bring shelter for the homeless. There is still time to stop the destruction of the housing in New Orleans and then begin building affordable housing, not just for those in Louisiana or Mississippi who still suffer from Hurricane Katrina, but for all those in the United States who lack affordable and safe housing. There is still time to do what is right and not just politically correct.


What Is The Guarantee?

Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Advent.  May this be a season of happiness and peace for you and your family.


There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the two most important dates on the Christian calendar are Christmas and Easter. But why are they so close together? Wouldn’t it be better to have scheduled the two events six months apart in order to maintain a semblance of balance in the calendar? Wouldn’t it have been better to have scheduled these two events in such a way as to maximize the impact of each date?

Christmas is the day we celebrate Christ’s birthday. It is interesting that when the church was in its own infancy, there was a feeling that we shouldn’t even celebrate His birth. Since the church was living at a time when the birthdays of other gods were celebrated, many felt that to celebrate Christ’s birthday would diminish its meaning.

Of course, the suggestion that the shepherds were in the fields the night of Christ’s birth puts his birth either in the late Fall, say November, or early Spring, say March. The actual date of December 25th wasn’t chosen until 336 AD, after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the Empire’s favorite religion. It was also chosen to co-opt the pagan celebration of Saturnalia. But prior to that time, January 2nd, March 21st, March 25th, April 18th, April 19th, November 17th, and November 20th all received consideration. (1) Now, if it had been up to me, I would have picked one of the spring dates.

But, if we celebrated Christmas in March or April, then there would be times when Easter and Christmas are at the same time (and even on the same date) and it would not be right or logical to be celebrating both Christ’s birth and death at the same time.

But why is Easter when it is? And who came up with that wonderful method for calculating when Easter occurs? (2) It seems to me that because the first Easter was held during Passover, Easter and Passover should occur at the same time. And while this does occur every few years, the methods used for the determination of the two dates do not match.

While it seems that Christmas was the decision of a single individual, Easter was decided by a committee. After the Council of Nicea met in 325 AD and settled the Arian controversy, they began debating how to determine the proper date for Easter. Other than stipulating that Easter be celebrated on a Sunday, the council could not resolve the matter and left it for another committee to make the final decision.

In part, the difficulty was due in part to the nature of the church. Churches in the eastern part of the Roman Empire wanted to follow the Jewish calendar because the majority of their members were Jewish converts; churches in the western part of the Roman Empire favored a date that matched the spring equinox because the majority of their members came from pagan roots.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that churches in the west began using the method of Dionysius Exiguus where Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. The problem of when Easter is scheduled wasn’t completely resolved because of flaws in the Julian calendar which had the beginning of spring (as determined by the spring equinox) slowly moving back into February.

Even with the development of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, there are still going to be differences between Easter as celebrated in western churches, eastern churches and Passover still exist. The actual date for Easter will vary over a period of some thirty-five days. That is because Easter is essentially based on a lunar cycle and the combination of lunar and solar cycles can get very complicated. (3)

Now, it really doesn’t matter who scheduled Christmas and Easter or when they actually occurred. What does matter is that it is not the day that we hold holy but rather because of who made it Holy. (4)

As it is right now, we spend six months of the year in “ordinary time” and then, when Thanksgiving rolls around, we madly rush through the four weeks of Advent to Christmas. We pause very briefly in January and February in order to set up things for Lent and Easter and follow it with the Easter Season leading up to Pentecost. Then we coast from June to November when we start it up all over again.

We see people who haven’t been to church in six months but who feel that somehow attendance now “validates their parking ticket” or somehow justifies their inactivity during the rest of the year. For so many people, the church and Christianity are these two dates and it is what you do on these two dates that matters most. But Christianity is not set by the calendar; it is set by what is in one’s heart.

So it is that we begin the Season of Advent, a time when we prepare for the Coming of Christ. And despite what some may say about the Gospel reading for today (5) being a description of the Rapture, we are not preparing for the end of the world but for the coming of the one person whose presence in this world can change the world. Too many people speak of these days as being part of the end times and use this passage from Matthew as part of their justification.

But the Rapture and any consideration of the End Times do not come from the Bible but from a single interpretation by a 19th century minister, John Darby. Granted, the concept of the Second Coming is not new. The people of the churches to whom Paul wrote (6) felt that the Second Coming was close at hand and they had stopped doing the work of the church. That is the basis for Paul’s warning in the Epistle lesson for today.

People were expecting Christ’s return and they had quit doing their own work and the work of the church in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming. But to stop doing what you should and are expected to be doing because you expect to be called into God’s Kingdom at any minute is as foolish as not expecting the Kingdom at all. One of the reasons for today’s Gospel reading is to point out that you need to be prepared at any time for the call.

But this preparation does not mean that you should walk around with an air about you or an attitude that says that you will be going and others won’t. Jesus held his greatest criticism for those who held themselves above others and felt that they were the only truly righteous ones. Having been told on too many occasions that I am doomed because I do not live my life as others dictate that it should be lived, I can understand why Jesus would say this and have such thoughts. If there is any hope in this world, it comes from the promise of salvation through Christ and not what others may say. There is no guarantee in this life other than the one that it is given to us through salvation.

The one thing that can destroy Christianity is the attitude that so many Christians have that they will be the ones who are taken in the moment described in the Gospel. From this attitude comes arrogance and that is not what Christianity is about. We are called to bring people to Christ, not scare them away. But we have to understand what it means when we say we are Christ’s disciples and when we seek to make others disciples..

The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament means to be a follower of Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus. Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual journey but one done in the company of other disciples. While it is a journey on a road less traveled, it is a journey done in company with others who remember and celebrate the presence of Jesus in their lives.

And discipleship also means being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of a follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

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

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

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (7)

We are faced with a challenge today. In light of the violence that seems to be so much a part of our society today, in light of the poverty and homelessness that seems to be so much a part of our lives today, in light of the injustice and oppression that seems to be the norm rather than the exception, what do we say? What do we do?

We can say that the violence, poverty, and oppression are signs of God’s wrath for the sins of unnamed souls. But when innocent children are killed and other lives are destroyed through senseless violence, will we cry out to God that it is His fault?

Our only answer to war seems to be more war. We hear today that the present administration is moving to fix the housing crisis. But they are not doing so to help homeless people find homes or let people keep the homes that they bought; rather, they are working to help the banks whose policies have helped to fuel the crisis not go out of business. The temple stood when Jesus threw out the money changers but it fell when the people sought war as the answer to oppression.

This is the Sunday we begin the journey that ends with the birth of Christ. We may not know when Christ was actually born but we have the guarantee that He was born and He came to bring peace on earth. The Old Testament reading today (8) speaks of the people turning their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and working with other nations so that war will be no more. If we are part of the community of Christ, then that is what we should be doing. If we are a part of the community of Christ, then we should be working to insure the sick are healed, the homeless have shelter, the hungry have food, the blind see and the deaf hear.

If we decide that we do not want to be a part of the community of Christ, then there is no guarantee as to what comes next. But if we decide to be a part of the community of Christ, then and only then do we have the guarantee.

(1) Adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2000/dec08.html

(2) The Astronomical Society of South Australia offers a “simple” method for calculating Easter up to and including 4099 AD. They even offer a computer program that will do the calculations for you. Go to http://www.assa.org.au/edm.html.

(3) Adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2000/apr20.html

(4) See footnote 1.

(5) Matthew 23: 36 – 44

(6) Romans 13: 11 – 14

(7) From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen

(8) Isaiah 2: 1 – 5