How Do You Grow A Garden?

Here is the 6th of the Friday Night in the Garden Vespers series.


How does a garden grow? It grows with thought and planning. It grows with the right combination of water and nutrients. And it grows because someone went out and dug up the ground, planted the seeds, and added the water and nutrients.

On a number of occasions Jesus spoke of the efforts of people to plant seeds. In the parable of the sower, some of the seeds fell on bare ground where the birds ate them, some of the seeds fell on the rocky ground and died because the soil lacked the right moisture, and some of the seeds fell among the weeds and were choked by those weeds. When there is competition for the nutrients, there will be problems for the plants. But if the ground is cleared and properly prepared, the seeds that you want to grow will do so and the rewards will be evident.

It is possible to plant seeds in the ground somewhere, do nothing to them or for them and come back later to find a fantastic flower garden, some beautiful fruit trees, or some edible grains. We all recall the story of Johnny Appleseed walking across Ohio and Indiana planting apple trees wherever he went. And while it is a nice story, what he did plant were apple orchards, carefully cultivating them and setting them up for people to use. His was a missionary effort not unlike Paul traveling around Asia Minor, planting churches and spreading the Gospel message. Those he met and taught then went and started their own churches.

The garden that became the church in Colossus was first planted by Epaphras. Epaphras was a convert to Christianity after having met Paul probably in prison. The nurturing environment in which the church in Colossus grew was founded in faith, love, and hope. The Colossians’ faith was grounded in the nature and work of Jesus Christ. Love flows from faith and proves the genuineness of one’s faith. Hope is the result of that faith.

Paul writes to the Colossians to remind them that they, neither Epaphras nor the church congregation, are alone in the care of this garden. All who Paul meets are told of the growth of the Gospel and those who Paul tells are brought in for the purpose of carrying for the garden.

So too is it for us. While we may look at the wonderful flowers that bloom in these gardens and we rejoice in the vegetables that are harvested for the food closet, we also know that these gardens represent more than that. They represent a rebirth of hope in a town that many have said has no hope, no future. But if God can rescue us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons (Colossians 1: 13), then perhaps a simple garden can brighten up a spot and let hope shine throw.

A garden grows because people care about it and for it. The message of the Gospel spreads because people care about the message and want others to hear the promise of hope that the Gospel brings. We might come to a garden alone, to enjoy what it offers, but while we are here, we find more than wonderful flowers to smell and look at, we see more than vegetables. We sense the presence of the Holy Spirit. And when we leave, though we came alone, we do not leave alone. We leave with the Holy Spirit, refreshed and renewed, prepared to spread the seed of the Gospel wherever we may go in the next few days.

What Have We Been Taught?

This is the message that I gave on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 August 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 18:5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51.


I subscribe to a magazine called Bible Review. It is an interesting monthly journal that gives me something to think about when it comes to reading the Bible. But what is also interesting are the letters written to the editor. In the August issue were a number of letters. In response to an article about Enoch and Jesus, Doyne Mitchell (no relation, I can assure you) of North Hollywood, CA, wrote,

How dare you presume to proclaim yourself Bible reviewers while printing Birger A. Pearson’s “Enoch and Jesus”? Mr. Pearson’s attempt to equate Enoch and Jesus is to deny both.

There is no equal to Jesus of Nazareth. He is Lord God (YHWH), Savior of sinful humanity (John 1: 29, 14: 6). The biblical Enoch makes no claim to deity! Mr. Pearson leaves out a vital reference to the biblical Enoch: Hebrews 11: 5 – 6. Enoch was taken up by God, because of his great faith, evidently something neither Mr. Pearson nor BR possesses! (Letter to the editor of Bible Review, August, 2003)

Mr. Pearson responded in an editorial note that he had made no attempt to equate Enoch and Jesus but rather to compare their stories as handed down in the traditions about them. He also added that since the writer did not know him, there was no way he, the writer, could determine whether Mr. Pearson had faith or not.

In an earlier letter Rico Carnevale of Pukalani, HI wrote concerning a letter in a previous issue where the writer canceled his subscription to Bible Review.

So another subscription is canceled? So BR “twists the Scriptures to justify its ‘evil work'”?

I find each issue thought-provoking, mentally challenging and very educational. If I wanted a one-interpretation-only faith magazine, I could find several on the newsstand, and they would do the thinking for me.

Continue the fine work. (Letter to editor, Bible Review, August, 2003)

The very next letter was also interesting. Harvey Stoneburner of Brooklyn, NY wrote

I notice that you frequently get letters from intemperate people who denounce your magazine for being a “false teacher.” They seem to think you try to turn people into atheists.

Well, all my life I have been an atheist. Your magazine helped me appreciate the Bible and helped convince me of its basic validity. This past Sunday, I was baptized and inducted into the Presbyterian Church. All I can say is, “I was blind, and now I can see.” Thank you for your good magazine. (Letter to editor, Bible Review, August, 2003)

We live in a complex world, a world in which our ability to understand what is happening is constantly challenged. For the most part though, the complexity of the world never comes into play. It is easy to see life in very simple terms and we are quite happy do so.

It is quite easy then to let others do our thinking for us. You can see it in the letters to the editor to journals like Bible Review. Many readers do not want their view of the Bible challenged by intellectual thoughts; to do so or to be forced to view something in a different view is upsetting. Life should be simple; life should be in black and white. So whenever something happens to upset that simplicity; whenever we are forced to face the fact that life is not as simple as it seems, we get very uncomfortable.

What we have read in the Gospel these past few weeks is Jesus’ explanation about what the bread of life is that he was providing. But while he was explaining about God’s grace and the reward of heaven, the people were expecting real bread, food for the table. The problem that we are becoming aware of in today’s Gospel reading is that the people were not willing to go beyond the present; they were not willing to do what was required of them. Society at that time had made faith a matter of law and obedience to day-by-day rules. There was no need for people to think independently, as Jesus was asking them to do.

But it was because that Jesus was asking them to think for themselves, to look beyond the present, to not accept the status quo, people were getting upset. Life was simple even if the laws of the time were at times contradictory or repressive. And those who benefited from the enactment and enforcement of those laws correctly saw that Jesus would take away from them that which they had gained, rightly or wrongly. Jesus challenged them and rather than accept the challenge, rather than open their minds to the possibilities gained through God’s grace, they reacted with emotion.

Those who felt threatened by Jesus’ ministry saw their lives in black and white. They did not want to see Jesus outside the image of the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. They did not like being challenged to see God’s work before them. Yet, that was what was happening before their eyes. And because they were challenged they were defensive and angry. It is understandable that they would get angry. There is something in the human nature that causes people to get angry when the way they do things and have done things is challenged.

More times than not, when we react with emotion, it is an angry emotion. There are times when that may be appropriate. Christians may respond in controlled anger to injustice and sin but they should never be consumed by such anger. Instead, those are opportunities when the expression of Christ’s love for other is best expressed.

When we let our anger drive our emotions, when our decisions are made by our anger, we can be assured that the results will never be what we want. Paul pointed out to the Ephesians that we should never “let the sun go down on our anger.” (Ephesians 4: 26)  He knew that we should not allow our anger to fester or continue for long. He was reminding the Ephesians of what Jesus had said earlier,

“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

In the verses preceding the reading for today Absalom, David’s son, had led a rebellion against David and the kingdom. At first Absalom was simply angry at the rape and killing of his sister by his half-brother. It appears that David was incensed by his one son’s actions towards his half-sister but there is no record that he took any punitive action. This inaction, by which David abdicated his responsibility, both as a king and as a father, led to Absalom’s further action.

But in the battles that followed, the armies of Israel defeated the armies lead by Absalom and he was killed. The Cushite comes to David and proclaims victory. He saw the victory as a vindication for the kingdom as lead by David; but failed to see the personal cost to David. The problem with war is that the personal cost is often overlooked.

There are many lessons learned from this episode in the life of David. David’s loyalty to his family blinded him when it came to making decisions as king. His inability to act as king almost lost him his kingdom. The actions of his sons went unpunished and the anger that Absalom held for his brother and his father ultimately led to his own death.

Paul challenges us, through his letter to the Ephesians, to look at how we react in this world. It was not enough to just control our anger. Rather, we need to live life differently, to change the way things are done and to become responsible for our actions.

General William T. Sherman, the man perhaps most responsible for the concept of total war, understood this. He said,

War is at best barbarism . . . Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot, nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. (From Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, Kenneth C. Davis)

Those who call for war, those who call for angry responses more often than not do not understand what the consequences of their actions will be. Those who are safe from the harm are often the loudest to call for action when they know that they themselves will not be harmed. And it is not just in war that the loudest cries come from the least oppressed, the ones who will not take the ultimate actions.

Paul’s challenge to us requires we see life in new terms. Not only must we change our ways, we must work together to see that the goals of the community are reached. It is no longer appropriate to do things the “old” way; life in Christ requires that we do things differently. Paul in saying, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” (Ephesians 4: 28) This was not simply a call to stop stealing or being greedy but a call to be generous, to have a true change in attitude.

Paul reminds us that we must ultimately follow God’s example. We must walk in love as Christ loved us and lead a life in which what we say and do are imitations of what Christ said and did on earth. We will always be aware that evil thoughts and actions are always possible but if we remember that it is God’s own Spirit that lives on in us, we are apt to be more selective in what we say, do, and think.

As we come to the table this morning, we are reminded that what we would do, that what we should say, was first expressed that night in the Upper Room. All that Jesus alluded to in the days after he fed the multitude came to pass with the Last Supper with the disciples. We are reminded that the bread that we partake today is the bread that Jesus himself gave us freely and without reservation or qualification. We are reminded that the juice that we drink is the representation of the blood Jesus shed for our sins.

We come to the table, not judging others or judging those who come with us but confessing in our own sins. We leave refreshed by the bread of life, by the Spirit of Christ present in our lives. Our presence at the table this morning is a reminder of all that we have been taught. And what we have been taught will guide us through the coming days.

Life’s Little Rewards

This is the message that I gave on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 13 August 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 18:5 – 9, 15, 31 – 33; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; and John 6: 35, 41 – 51.


David’s story presents an interesting series of contrasts. ON the one hand, we have David’s successes and wise actions. He asked God for guidance through his prayers. He punished the assassins of one his enemies. He prayed for God’s deliverance. He brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He praised God for his goodness. He offered sacrifices to God and blessed the people of Israel. He confessed his sins before God.

Both the Judeans and the Israelites anointed him King, thus combining the two kingdoms into one. He conquered Jerusalem. His armies defeated the Philistines, the Moabites, the Syrians, and the Ammonites.

But he also had plenty of troubles and not so wise actions. He seduced Bathsheba and ordered the murder of her husband, Uriah. The child that he conceived with Bathsheba died in birth, leaving the relationship with Bathsheba some what strained. He angered God by ordering the census of the people of Israel. And he failed to forgive Absalom, his son, or instruct him.

His relationship with his son may not have been the best to begin with. In the passages of 2 Samuel leading up to today’s reading, Absalom has murdered his half brother Amnon in retaliation for his rape of their half sister Tamar. He also taken steps to overthrow his father David as king of all Israel. It is understandable why David doesn’t like Absalom and has, in fact, sought to kill him. But the loss of a son will always be a traumatic event, especially when they may have been some hope of reconciliation.

Though the annals of history glorify the victories and ignore the defeats and personal flaws of many ancient rulers, the Bible graphically details all of David’s sins and weaknesses. David is no mythical hero; he is a flesh-and-blood human being whose great strengths are matched by great weaknesses.

For we the readers, these stories offer us three lessons. First, they show that we all need the salvation that God alone offers to those who trust him.

Second, David’s sin with Bathsheba robbed him of moral authority in his own family. It paralyzed his ability to correct his own sons. There are consequences even to forgiven sins. Third, though both Saul and David both sinned, there was a significant difference between them. David took public responsibility for his sins and openly sought God’s forgiveness. Saul made excuses and pretended that all was right between the Lord and him. God can and will forgive our sins but we must also be honest with ourselves, with others, and most importantly with God Himself.

So how do we live our lives today? How do we deal with the problems that face us? It seems that Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians is as valid today as it was when he first wrote those words. In today’s world, we found out what David found out; that it is very easy to fall for the temptations that are in the world. In Ephesians 4:30 Paul writes

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4: 30)

Paul is saying that Holy Spirit of God should never be pushed away, ignored, rejected. If we remember that it is God’s own Spirit that lives in us, we would be much more selective in what we think, what we read, what we watch, what we say, and what we do. Paul acknowledged that even those who follow Christ, as he put it, “sealed by the Holy Spirit” are still susceptible to temptations, evil thoughts, and actions.

In the verses just before the passage that we read today, Paul compared the Christian life to stripping off the dirty clothes of a sinful past and putting on the snowy white robes of Christ’s righteousness. We can see this analogy in another way. At many salad bars and buffets in this country, you see signs that you must use a clean plate each time you get food.

To truly experience God’s power fully, it is imperative that we start each day with a clean plate. If we take our grudges to bed with us, then it is very hard for us to start the next day clean. Paul tells us, through the Ephesians, that we should not let the sun go down on our wrath.

Jesus knew that it was important to forgive. If Jesus had not absolved Peter, Peter would never have become the great and bold leader that he did. If Jesus had not forgiven Paul, how could Paul have ever declared the Gospel, let alone believe it himself?

The words of Paul apply in a much deeper sense. If we allow our anger to control us, be it against another person or the way the world is, then any actions we take will be a result of that anger. Paul pointed out that not all anger was sinful. As Christians, we may respond in controlled anger to injustice and sin but we should not be consumed. Instead, we should find ways to express God’s love for everyone. In his ill-fated presidential campaign of 1968, Bobby Kennedy often quoted the great writer George Bernard Shaw, “You see things; and say `why? ` But I dream of things that never where and say `why not? `” (George Bernard Shaw)

Paul’s words are a call to action as well as a call to a new way of life. This call is even more to the point for us as United Methodists. When we joined the church and when others joined the church, we said that we would offer “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” Service can take many forms, both in the local church and in the community outside. How one serves the church is not the question; the question must be “are you serving the Lord?”

Somehow, we have gotten the idea that for whatever we do, there must be sometime in return. That is why so many of the temptations around us are so tempting. The rewards that are offered seem so great. There are those who have argued that a Christian life is not possible in today’s society; that to gain the rewards in life requires actions and deeds incompatible with Christ’s standard.

But Jesus told us, in the Gospel reading for today, what rewards await us. If we take of the bread of daily living, we will die. But if we take of the bread of heaven, we will have eternal life. Our actions in this world are not for this moment, but for all times. The rewards we seek will come to us; we may not seem them but others will.

Life’s rewards are to be found. The thirsting of your soul cannot be filled with the water you drink during the day but only by the everlasting water offered by Jesus; the longing of your soul cannot be filled by the accomplishments of the date but only by bread of life offered by Jesus. There is a challenge before you this day. How shall you find life’s little rewards?


Solving Problems

This is the message that I am presenting at at Germantown UMC (Wilton, CT) on July 26th; services are at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11 1 -15; Ephesians 3: 14 – 21; and John 6: 1-21

I will be at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church next Sunday (August 2nd); services there are at 10 am and you are welcome to attend.

(This has been edited since first posted.)


Back in 1965, when the country’s space program was going full blast and I was a freshman in high school, I had to have a science fair project.

For any science fair project, you must have a problem to solve. You cannot simply prepare a demonstration (such as growing crystals); you must present a problem and a potential solution (such as “what are the conditions for optimal crystal growth?”).

Now, for some reason, as I prepared for school in the morning I would watch an educational television program. I don’t remember the name of the show but I do remember that the topic one morning was Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation (clip_image002). I then began to think of a problem that I might solve utilizing this mathematical law. Ultimately, with the aid and prodding of my father, I came up with the question “What is the effect of the earth’s gravitational field on a spacecraft on a journey from the earth to the moon?”

The problem statement that I developed read

“Assume that we have successfully launched an Apollo spacecraft. At exactly the mid-point between the center of the earth and the center of the moon, the spacecraft loses its velocity. Considering only the gravitational force, where would the spacecraft fall?”

Now, I had a problem that I could solve using Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. I determined what would happen at the mid-point of the flight and at what point the moon’s gravitational field would dominate. If this sounds vaguely familiar, you may recall the flight of Apollo 13 which suffered a catastrophic power failure on April 13, 1970.

Now, the purpose of today’s message is not to discuss science fair projects or trips to the moon (for a related discussion on the process of science, the reader is directed to “The Processes of Science”). Granted, the Apollo 13 mission is often called the “successful failure” because of what transpired to bring the crew home safely and how it illustrated the need to think a problem through in order to find a solution.

And in that regard, that is what both the Old Testament reading for today and the Gospel reading for today are concerned with. In the Old Testament reading for today, the story of David and Bathsheba is recounted; in the Gospel reading, we hear John’s version of the feeding of the five thousand.

For David, the problem is that he has gotten Bathsheba pregnant while she is still married to Uriah. For the disciples, the problem is that there are between five and twenty thousand people who have been listening to Jesus preach and now they are hungry. This is right after the disciples have returned from their first mission trip, joyously recounting all that they had done in preaching, teaching, and healing.

So Jesus asks them, specifically Philip, what they are going to do to feed the people. As John indicates, Jesus asked Philip in order to stretch Philip’s faith because He (Jesus) already knew what He (Jesus) was going to do. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, in accepting Christ, we are able to expand our limits. We are able to push the boundaries of what we can do.

And in challenging Philip, that is what Jesus is doing. For the disciples, the solution to the problem is to send the people elsewhere in order to get food to eat. But Jesus knows that some of the people have brought food and that with that food, it will be possible to feed the multitude.

David has a problem, a problem brought about by his own failure to do what he should have been doing. Whether or not you believe that war is an acceptable solution to any problem, there is a war being fought at the beginning of the Old Testament reading and David is involved in the planning of that war.

But when the troops are sent off to battle taking with them the Ark of the Covenant, David elects to stay at home. In his failure to lead his troops, David sets the table (as it were) for his own destruction. In contrast, Uriah stays with his troops while they are in the field along with the Ark of the Covenant. (And I wonder how different the past few years would have been if our leaders would have lead with the truth instead of lies and had acknowledged the military personnel who came home injured or dead instead of neglecting their care and bringing home the dead late at night.)

David realizes that he must marry Bathsheba before it becomes obvious that she is pregnant but to do that she must also be a widow. Now, as has been pointed out by others, David has already broken two of the commandments (he has coveted his neighbor’s wife and he has committed adultery), so breaking a third (ordering that Uriah be killed) really isn’t a stretch.

David’s treachery and willingness to trash the Ten Commandments merely reflect what happens to each one of us when we put our interests and our desires before those of God. Philip’s inability to see a solution to the problem before he and the other disciples merely shows that, despite what they have already accomplished, they still see things from the perspective of the old ways.

Paul makes it very clear that accepting Christ in one’s life changes the view one has of life. We are faced with a number of problems, not the least of which is our own inability to see beyond the future. While I may have seen the space program of the 1960’s and 70’s as opening the gateway into the universe, most people saw it only as a race between our country and the Soviet Union. And when the race was won, there was no reason to go any further. And while there are at least two generations who have never lived in a world where mankind did not walk on the moon, we have at least one generation who can only see that in the context of history rather than actuality.

For people who have been created in God’s image, we seem to have forsaken the curiosity and inquiry that are part of the human psyche. And this failure manifests in too many other situations. We have a healthcare crisis in this nation today but all of our efforts to find a solution have been focused in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on the people (as Jesus did when he challenged the disciples to feed the people), we have focused on the cost (as Philip responded). We are more interested in how the solution to healthcare will benefit each one of us individually rather than we as a community. Instead of treating people, the discussion is about cost; yet Jesus fed the multitude without worrying about the cost.

David’s failure to lead and his subsequent efforts to resolve the problem to his best advantage should tell us plenty about when our focus is not on our duties and more on our own interests.

In preparing for this morning, I came across Dan Dick’s blog for 4 July 2009 in which he talked about the issues that are dividing the church

Without weighing in on one side or the other, I want to pose a question: Are these the most important things that Christians in the 21st century should be focusing on?  People are starving.  People are dying.  People are being subjected to indefensible violence.  People are being abused and hurt and robbed of a basic minimum standard of existence.   Is personal comfort and a personal bias toward who is acceptable and who isn’t really the point?

Our world is broken and in deep need of healing and help.  Most of the issues that divide and sometimes destroy our local congregations are truly insignificant — worship styles, leadership styles, preaching styles, and other selfish demands.  Oh, certainly these are symptomatic of deeper issues, but we never get to the deeper issues.  We often can’t get to the important stuff, because we are bogged down by the selfish, narrow-minded, and insignificant issues of the nominally Christian.  Cranky Christians rule the roost.  We can’t deal with truly important issues because we are divided over such earth shattering disagreements such as music styles, copier contracts, and the way the pastor chooses to dress.

How the worship bulletin is designed, where the baptismal font is placed, who gets to choose the hymns — these are only important issues to those who have no real understanding of the gospel.  Those who reduce our faith to such insignificant issues are those who have no real desire to be the body of Christ — laity or clergy.  How to make a difference in the world, how to save a person’s self respect and dignity, making sure a person has a safe place to sleep or a warm meal — these are the things our faith tells us God is interested in. (“Cranky Christians”)

We have a momentous opportunity staring at us at this time. We can let this opportunity pass us by, being more concerned with our own self-preservation as David was when faced with the results of actions. Or we can use the talents, the skills, and the creativity open to us through our acceptance of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that will lead to changes in society that will benefit all those on this planet, not just a select few.

This is the opportunity that was given to the Ephesians two thousand years ago. This is the opportunity that Jesus showed to the disciples that afternoon when their own self-doubt prevented them from seeing the solution.

The Gifts We Have Been Given

This is the message that I gave on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 August 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11: 25 – 12: 13, Ephesians 4: 1 – 16, and John 6: 24 – 35.


I may not have mentioned this before but, in the history of my family dating back to Germany in the early 1600’s and Martin Luther, I am the thirteenth or fourteenth person to preach the Gospel. I am unique in that I am probably the only one of the group who is not originally a Lutheran. But the ties that bind me are still there as I come to this place today through the German brand (as it were) of Methodism.

But it should be noted first and foremost that I began this path of my life long before I ever knew where I was in the history of the Schüessler family or even that there was a Schüessler family outside of my grandmother and the family of my great-uncle. And it wasn’t until I went to my first reunion back in 1995 that I met my three cousins, Paul, Karl, and Deane, who were ministers.

Being a minister cannot be something genetic nor is it hereditary, though each of my cousins will tell you that growing up in the house of a Lutheran minister was as much a factor as any other in their own decision to enter the ministry. Still, the ability to be a good preacher and the call to be a preacher come from God, not from family pressures or genetics.

As Paul noted, we are given many gifts. And it is through those gifts that some of us are called to be apostles, prophets, or evangelists. Others are called to be pastors or teachers. Both to the Ephesians and to the Corinthians (in 1 Corinthians 12), Paul pointed out that each of us has some unique gift to bring to the community. And though each of us has unique gifts, we should not be envious of other’s positions or gifts nor should we boast in what we have and what others do not have. Rather, we should work together to maintain the church and build up everyone in order that good works can be done.

It is when we use the gifts given to us for our own purposes or when we try to hold what we have given as being more special than what has been given to others that we run into trouble. In today’s Old Testament reading David is reminded of what he had been given by God.

“Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! 2 Samuel 12: 7 – 8

Not only did God say to David what he had been given, He told him that he would have given him even much more.

But because David “despised the commandment of the Lord” (2 Samuel 12: 9) all of that would now be taken away from him. Because of his actions, his adultery, his covetousness, his murder of Uriah (and the innocent soldiers that died in that action undertaken to kill Uriah), there would now be bloodshed through all of David’s life. Because of his action, David’s own family would bring him troubles and adversity. And because of his actions, David would see that which had been given to him taken by his own son. And though what David had done was done in private, his suffering and shame would come in public. David would not be able to hide the punishment that he was to receive.

The gifts we have been given are to be developed, not hidden. The gifts that we have been given are to be used so that others may grow and come to know Christ, not simply used for our own benefits. When the people followed Jesus to Capernaum, they were still interested in the food that Jesus had given them. But they saw only the food as life for the present; they were not at all interested in what the future would hold.

We live in a society where now is the key. Let us not worry about tomorrow because that time will take care of it. We have a society that says we need to worry more about ourselves than others. We have leaders that get elected by dividing us rather than uniting us.

Those who hold to a conservative viewpoint deny the reality of structural injustice and social oppression. They blame the victim while ignoring the effects of poverty, racism and sexism. But those with liberal viewpoints are no better. They espouse a viewpoint that is unable to articulate or demonstrate the kind of moral values needed for serious change or transformation. There is no link between personal responsibility and societal change. Everything around us tells us that God has forsaken us. We do not know where to turn.

We easily allow those who claim to know the answer the right to tell us what the question is. We hunger for justice and righteousness but settle for quick settlements that never fill us, that never solve the problems. Those that were following Jesus wanted the quick fix, the bread that fixed the immediate hunger and were not interested in any long-term thoughts.

Jesus warned those who were there that day that His words were not quick fixes as long as what they sought were such, His words would not be the answers they sought.

Jesus reminds us that His words bring us a long-term answer. His work reminds us that we are not working for any kingdom on earth but rather for God’s Kingdom in Heaven.

What we do on earth is not for us but for others. We are not to work for our own benefit, we are not to work for the present. Rather, we are to work for the future, for that which carries us beyond the present. Jesus was trained as a carpenter. A carpenter then was an artisan rather than the tradesman we know today and it was a pretty good life. But He knew that His life was more than that. As he told his parents when He was twelve, “Don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2: 49)

God encourages us to take what we are have been given and move to a higher level, to be more than we can be. God encourages us to take what we have been given and help others move with us.

Now, you may say that you don’t even know what your gifts really are. It then falls to the rest of us to help you find what those gifts are, not limit what you or anyone else can do. By taking the gifts that we have been given and using them to the fullest, we are able to help those who do not know what their gifts are to find them. By sharing our gifts with others, we are able to help others see Christ.

The basis of our faith is not a feeling that we have within us; it is a revelation that Christ is real, that he died for us. This was the gift that He gave to us, a gift that enables us to live long beyond the time we spend here on earth. Through us, others will come to see Christ, but only if we use the gifts that we have been given.

Where We Gather

This is the message that I am presenting at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church on July 19th.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14; Ephesians 2: 11 – 22; and Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56

I will also be at Germantown UMC (Wilton, CT); services are at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.


“We Gather Together”

The people came to the shores of the lake because that is where Jesus and the disciples were. It always seems that wherever Jesus and the disciples were, huge crowds would immediately appear.

To understand what is happening with regards to today’s Gospel reading, you have to know what has already happened in Mark.

First, in what was the Gospel reading from two weeks ago, Jesus has preached, without success in Nazareth, and sent the twelve disciples out on their first mission. Then, last week, Mark reports on the death of John the Baptizer. In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples return from their mission and they are telling Jesus all that they had done (there is an analogy if you will in what will happen when the ASP team returns today).

After getting their reports, Jesus suggests that they go somewhere to rest, a practice that He often did and which was not unique. After all, even God rested after seven days. What Jesus and the disciples were doing was physically demanding and there were times when they needed to get away, to physically rest their bodies and recharge their souls.

This is something that we need to do as well. We spend so much time focusing on the former that we too often forget that we need to do the latter as well.

But when they had crossed the Sea of Galilee in an effort to get away from the crowds, the people still came. It is noted in the Scripture reading that Jesus felt compassion for the people and he continued to teach. Now, in our reading of the Gospel today, we skipped verses 35 – 52 which are Mark’s account of the feeding of the multitude. This is not necessarily to minimize this aspect of the ministry but so we can focus on another part of the same ministry.

As we also read, the people brought their sick to Jesus so that He could heal them. Everywhere Jesus and the disciples went, there were crowds and in the crowds were people bringing their sick friends so that Jesus could heal them. And, shortly after this passage, a Phoenician woman will try to sneak up on Jesus while He is not looking in order to touch his cloak and hopefully be healed.

Whenever we read a passage from the Bible, we have two often conflicting tasks in front of us. First, we have to put the passage and what it is saying in the context of the lives of the people of Jesus’ time. Then, we have to put the same passage in the context of our lives. And there are many times where these visions of the passage conflict with each other.

If we were to view such scenes as this one in terms of today’s understanding of medicine, disease and sickness, we might be tempted to call Jesus a faith healer. But this would also invalidate our moments when we put our prayers in the book and lift them and ask Jesus and the Holy Spirit to pray for our own friends and family that they might be healed.

But we know that Jesus did heal the sick and the infirmed, that He brought sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, that He gave life to the useless limbs of the lame and He empowered the disciples to do the same. So our prayers count and they mean something.

But we also have to understand that there is a substantial difference between our understanding of medicine and disease today and some two thousand years ago. While I trust that we have a more enlightened view of physical and mental illnesses today (though I sometimes wonder), two thousand years ago many of the diseases that we routinely treat were often sentences of death and/or exile.

Because people did not understand what caused someone to get sick and die, the populace in general quarantined the sick and the dying. While this may have unknowingly kept infectious diseases from spreading, it also served to place a stigma on the sick as well. The result was that many of those who suffered from various ailments were denied access to the temple because their illness (physical and/or mental) caused them to be deemed ritually unclean.

Then, the reality of the moment was that people who were sick were shunned by society. It is why people sought Jesus; He was truly their only hope for redemption and a return to society. How many times did Jesus cure someone of a disease or an ailment and then have the person seek the religious authorities to insure that they were certified clean? It is not a question of whether or not going to the temple would help them be healed but was a gesture that said they were once again part of society.

Still, any discussion of Jesus’ healing the sick must account for the fact that He healed all those who sought His touch and that He turned no one away. It is a part of the healthcare process today that seems to get forgotten. While the Bible does not outline specific public polices regarding the provision of health care it does make it clear that protecting the health of each human being is a profoundly important personal and communal responsibility for people of faith.

Jesus and the disciples demonstrated that sharing the good news and healing the sick are bound up together (Luke 9: 6; Mark 7: 32 – 35). Physical healing was a part of the salvation Jesus brought. The word “saved” was used throughout the gospels to refer to physical healing. Healings represent a sign of the breaking of God’s reign into the present reality.

So where do we fit into this? This last week, I listened to a discussion about mega-churches and whether or not they were beneficial or not. Now, it should be noted that I am not a fan of such churches and that I would much rather be in a physically smaller church.

But it isn’t the size by itself that bothers me; but as the size of the church grows, it seems to me that the “personal touch” disappears. That may be why the new mode of worship is what are called “house churches”, churches which emulate the early church when believers met in each person’s home rather than in a formal building. Of course, back then, the idea of a formal building for a church was missing because to publically acknowledge a meeting of Christians was tantamount to asking to be arrested.

What I do know is that the personal touch, the idea of a community of believers being together for each other is independent of church size. In that same discussion about megachurches was a comment that the daughters of one individual were going to a more Pentecostal and definitely non-United Methodist church because the United Methodist church did not offering the daughters anything in the way of spirituality (I believe the term “boring” was used as well).

And I still remember that Sunday many years ago when one pastor of the largest church made the invitation to join the church one Sunday. Now, I had indicated that I was interested in joining this church but I wasn’t sure how it was done. This church qualifies as the largest church in which I was a member and I wasn’t sure how you went about joining the church (it had also been several years since I had transferred my membership and this lead to part of my confusion). After the service, I went looking for someone who might tell me what to do; as it happened, the person whom I sought was in fact looking for me for that very reason. I joined the church the next week.

One of the questions that we have to ask ourselves in the church today relates to that very issue. Are we doing what we have to in order that people will seek us out? Or do we view our church as a church for only a select few? This was one of the points that I hopefully made last week and it is one of the major issues facing the church today.

In the Old Testament reading for today, David has settled in Jerusalem and has a fine palace. But the Ark of the Covenant still rests in a tent. So David decides to begin building a fine and impressive structure in which God may reside. But God, through the prophet Nathan, tells David that it is not yet time for him to do that. David must first establish his own house before there is to be a house of God. And we know that in telling David that he must first establish the House of David, we are being given the first hint of the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

It is not that David should not build a permanent place for the Ark of the Covenant but those weren’t God’s priorities. David saw the building of the new home for the Ark in terms of the old ways where humans served gods by building temples. God, in his words to David, says that he had raised the rulers of Israel to be the shepherds, to care for the people. God’s plan is to build the House of David, not a physical house.

This goes back to something I said last week. When we are more interested in the building in which we meet, we destroy the sacredness of that place and we go back to the old ways. Now, I am not arguing that we shouldn’t maintain our churches and our homes, but we have to make sure that we are also maintaining the relationship with and between the members.

Let us not kid ourselves; the church today is dying. It is a slow and painful death, brought about by years and years of neglect and abuse. Often times, church members have been more concerned about the physical state of the church when they should have been concerned about its spiritual state. People today are not seeking “modern” services; they are seeking the Holy Spirit, even if they don’t know that is what they are seeking.

We have a generation called seekers because they are seeking something and because of how we have viewed the role of the church over the past few years, this younger generation hasn’t got a clue as to what they are seeking. They don’t have a clue perhaps because the church today has forgotten what it once was.

In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably linked to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners for the struggle for freedom.

I hope that the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

To meet this challenge, to be what we once were and can still be, we must make some changes. These are not changes in where we gather but in what happens when we gather.

This new community may be in a massive and ornate structure; it may be in a small wooden-frame building built almost 150 years ago; or it may be in someone’s home. But despite the fact that this piece is entitled “where we gather”, where we actually gather doesn’t matter. What does matter is what happens when we gather together. What matters is what we do after we have gathered.

If two or more have gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing, then we have been promised that He will be there with us. But we cannot gather as we once were but as we must be. We must first understand who we are. Paul points out to the Ephesians that they, the Ephesians, were once the outsiders but are now part of Christ’s community. Christ treats us all as equal and as equals we are building a new community.

It is not an easy task to build this new community. It requires breaking down walls built over the years; it requires seeing things perhaps in a different light.

When Jesus began His ministry, He began with a call to repent. The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return.” To repent is to return to where we came from. We are God’s children and we have gone astray; if we repent, we return to God. The Greek word from which we get “repent” means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” So when Jesus called on the people to repent, He was really saying that one needed to stop what they were doing and return to the way of life that was first in God.

No one has the right to call on others to change their ways unless they have a better alternative. Getting people to stop doing wrong is only half of repentance; heading in a new direction is the other half. The call to repentance is accompanied by the announcement that the Kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way for people to live. (Adapted from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Clarence Jordan)

It is no wonder that people are turned off or driven away from the church. How can we ask people to be Christ’s disciples if they cannot see Christ at work in this world? How can we call men and women to conversion without seeing that Christ calls all of us to repent of our prejudices and be open to the fullness of life? We cannot practice Christianity and be a false witness; we cannot be evangelists while escaping from Christ’s demands for ourselves.

We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

We have gathered here this morning to ask the Lord’s blessing; now we prepare to leave, refreshed and renewed. We have heard the call from God to repent of our old ways and return to the ways that we were once supposed to walk and can again walk. And as we leave this place today, we leave with a new sense of community, open to all and in which all are welcome. We go, taking the light of the Holy Spirit with us to reach out to those around us, inviting them to gather with us next week.

The Meaning of Words

“In the beginning” is a phrase that a lot of people have problems with; perhaps not with the words themselves but with how long ago it was. The physical evidence tells me that this world began several million years ago and the universe began even further back in time. But there are those who will tell me the beginning of the universe, this solar system, and humanity in general began over a period of seven days less than 10,000 years ago.

The purpose of this piece is not to debate the age of the earth or the cosmos but to point out that the words that we often use can have different meanings to different people and depending on the frame of reference in which they are used.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.” (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

The discussion about health care essentially revolves around who can better decide what is right for the people of this country and it goes back to the writers of the Constitution, what they wrote and what we think they meant.

The Preamble to the Constitution

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

When I studied the constitution in high school, I was given the impression that the writers framed their words in such a way as to allow for a variety of interpretations. The discussion that has recently taken place with the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice-nominee Sotomayor and which has taken place for every justice nominated to serve on the Supreme Course tells us that this may have been their intention.

So, do the words “secure the blessings of liberty” mean that a President can authorize the tapping of phones of unnamed individuals just because someone thinks that it might provide information that will lead to the arrest of terrorists?

Are the words “promote the general welfare” sufficient justification for the government to establish welfare programs or even suggest that healthcare should not be solely for those who can afford it? Should the government, in other words, provide the wherewithal so that people have enough to eat and don’t have to worry about getting sick?

Or do these words mean that the government should stay out of healthcare and let businesses do their own thing. After all, businesses have an understanding of how to manage money and it costs money to have insurance and good healthcare.

But the goal of business is to make a profit and if you have to spend money on things like medical bills for the insured, then the size of the profit is reduced. There is enough evidence to suggest that healthcare companies do not hold the welfare of the people who have the insurance in their best interests but rather the interests of those who have invested in the company. And all the words that fill the media today from the healthcare companies, their advertising gurus, and their political supporters twist the situation so much so that it is almost analogous to Winston Smith’s acceptance that “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” (From George Orwell’s 1984; see in regards to what is being said about the healthcare debate)

Now, the one thing that got my attention (and it wasn’t any e-mail dealing with healthcare scares) was the thought that many of the insurance companies want me to accept the idea that some government bureaucrat would be making my healthcare decisions. What exactly are the people in the insurance companies who are already making such decisions if they are not bureaucrats?

The question should not be about who is responsible for healthcare but rather why the healthcare in this country does not apply to everyone and why we are even having this debate. Yes, it is going to cost money but it seems to me that it costs more money right now because not everyone is covered and the profit motive is the driving force. As a Christian I have a very hard time accepting the notion that people seek to profit on the misery and illnesses of other people.

As a United Methodist, I am reminded of a dictum that John Wesley used to use:

  • Earn as much as you can.
  • Save as much as you can.
  • Give as much as you can.

John Wesley had no problems with earning a large salary; after all, he had one of the higher salaries in England. But don’t earn the money through the oppression of others – a fact that is often lost on many today.

And while encouraging each person to save as much as they could (again, something lost on many today), he also insisted that you give away as much as you can. The British tax authorities could never figure out how he could be earning so much money but yet have nothing in the way of possessions. Wesley would be anachronistic in today’s society with very few ministers matching him deed for deed; just how many private jets or thousand dollar suits does a pastor need?

Within the framework of Christianity, we have to also ask “what is our role in all of this?” Too often we think our role as Christians is phrased by the Great Commission,

The Great Commission – Matthew 28: 16 – 20 (King James Version)

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

But if we examine how others have translated this, we read

The Great Commission – Matthew 28: 16 – 20 (The Message)

Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.

Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”


The Great Commission – Matthew 28: 16 – 20 (Cotton Patch Gospel)

Well, the eleven students traveled to Alabama, to the mountain which Jesus had selected for them. When they saw him they accepted him as their Lord, but some couldn’t make up their minds. Jesus came over to them and said, “Every right to rule in both the spiritual and physical realms has been given to me. As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you. And you know I am right in there with you — all the time –– until the last inning.

If we look at the later translations and know that the Cotton Patch translation came from the Greek, we see that we, as Christians, have been instructed to teach others in the way we were taught.

And what have we been taught?

Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:

“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously. (Matthew 10: 5 -8 – The Message)

This was the same message that Jesus first proclaimed in the Nazareth synagogue some two thousand years ago.

To Set the Burdened Free

He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,

God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” (Luke 4: 16 – 21)

It would seem to me that healthcare has been a part of the Christian message from the very beginning; it was part of the first mission of the disciples and it was part of what we are to do in this world today. To discuss healthcare without that context, it would then seem to me, to be a violation of what we as Christians are to do in this world.

The words we use can mean many things so let us choose the meaning that brings out the best and allows each one of us to seek the best.


Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

To Meekly Stay Home

Forty years ago this week the world was watching a little point of land in central Florida as this country prepared to launch Apollo 11 on its mission to the moon. For some, it was to be the first voyage to the stars, a voyage that would take us beyond the moon, to Mars, and then ultimately beyond the planets and on to the stars. But for too many others, it was the culmination of a race that began some eight years ago when President John Kennedy challenged this country to use it resources, its abilities and its capabilities to place a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade.

And while there were six more missions to the moon after Apollo 11 and ten more men would walk on the surface of the moon after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, we have not been to the moon since 1972 and it doesn’t appear that we are going back there any time soon. Whatever interests we might have in finding out what is “out there” lies deep within our imagination. And the imagination of too many people today is very limited.

If you will, our imagination is very limited because we have not done much to encourage imagination and creativity in our schools. When the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik in 1957, there was a great outcry in this country to upgrade the science and math education of our students so that we could compete with the “communist menace”.

So, when we won the race to put a man on the moon in 1969, we gave up that effort. We are still trying to upgrade our science and math education programs (as I noted previously in “Have We Learned Anything?”). And one of the points that I stressed in that earlier piece was that our general scientific literacy had not improved either.

This was brought home by an article on about America’s scientific illiteracy (see “Why America is flunking science”). It seems to me that the majority of the article is a gentle diatribe against Michael Crichton and his writings but the authors (or rather Michael Crichton) make a valid point about how science is viewed by the public today.

What Crichton pointed out is that scientific research can be very boring, very tedious, and take a very long time to complete. None of those points are qualifiers for good quality science-based films today. In addition, the authors point out that the public sees scientists as male, mean, mad, and old, qualities that don’t match many of the chemists that I know (I may be male and old but I am not certain about the mad or mean part, though many of my students might say that I was one or both).

This is not to say that we need to “liven” up our science courses. But we do need to spend more time working on getting people to see what is happening in their world and where science will have a role in the outcome. First, consider the following three topics (in no particular order of importance):

  • Intelligent design
  • Global warming
  • The role of vaccines in autism

There is a great deal of controversy with each of these topics and there is a great deal of research that shows the validity or invalidity of each topic. For the record, I would say that the arguments for intelligent design, against global warming, and for the role of vaccines in autism are essentially pseudo-scientific at best; they don’t fit within most accepted scientific themes. The only reason many people argue for intelligent design, against global warming, and for the role of vaccines in autism is that they aren’t willing to delve into the science themselves.

But why should they? The science itself requires many years of study and evaluation and those are not easy points to accept in a society that wants things quick and simple. Tell me what I want to know right now and test me over it right now so that I can get on to other things that are more important in my life.

One of the things re-discovered in the development of the post-Sputnik chemistry curriculum projects was research first done by Jean Piaget in post-war Europe. There are stages in an individual’s learning:

  1. Sensorimotor (from birth to age 2)
  2. Pre-operational (from 2 to 7)
  3. Concrete operational (from 7 to 12), and
  4. Formal operational (from 12 onwards)

It was discovered that it is entirely possible for high school and college students (who Piaget suggested should be at the formal operational stage) were actually at the concrete operational stage. And it is entirely possible that one could be at the formal operational stage in one area (such as chemistry) while at a concrete operational stage in other areas.

But one is not going to move from the concrete operational stage in thinking to a more formal and abstract operational stage if not presented with challenges and thought-provoking ideas, neither of which dominate our educational process. If you do not have the ability or the wherewithal to look beyond the moment, then you will willingly accept the words and thoughts of others if they mirror your own thoughts and you will not accept the thoughts and words of others that do not.

From the words of President Kennedy, forty years we chose to go to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. And in doing so, we would utilize the best of our energies and skills. And we boldly went even though we knew that there was danger in what we proposed.

But now, some forty years later, as we still stand at the beginning of a new century and faced with problems that threaten the safety of this planet and all of its inhabitants, we are unwilling to venture beyond the limitations of our own creativity. Instead of boldly seeking the answers we have chosen to meekly stay home and wonder what happened to the world in which we live.


Why Not Simply Call It What It Is?

Tolls are a part of life where I live and toll increases come with the seasons.  So the reason for the most recent hikes in the tolls for the bridges and tunnels in the New York City area don’t come as a complete surprise.

But I do wish that they had thought of a better name for the web page where you can get information about the new schedule of tolls –

And if you need assistance, put an “i” between the “d” and the “t” in the page id.  🙂

What Is Power?

This is the message that I gave on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 27 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11: 1 – 15, Ephesians 3:14 – 21, and John 6: 1 – 21.


We are a nation preoccupied with power. We fought a revolution so that we could control our own destiny and we fought a bloody civil war to define that destiny.

And it is not only our political history in which the control of power has played such a dominant role. Our social and economic history, the struggles of farmers in the late 19th century, the struggles of workers in the early 20th century have all been about who would benefit from the power of wealth. Perhaps the political, social and economic dissent that dominated our own time was a culmination of that struggle.

As we have struggled to define individual freedom, we have also found that the notion that “all men are created equal” cannot be true if situations exist where one individual’s freedom or ability to succeed is limited because of someone else’s power. Unfortunately, even as we seek a society in which equality is true, we find situations where an individual seeks power for his or her own gain.

We want to hold on to any power we might have, no matter how great or small it might be. It gives us security and allows us a sense of comfort. When we control life, our life is simplified. We do not have to deal with others because we have a sense of mastery over our world. And we get uncomfortable when others threaten our power. We feel threatened when there are others who might take away what gives us security.

The killing of Councilman James Davis Thursday was an example of one man feeling that his own power had been taken away. This past week also brought us reminders of the accounting scandals of last, when CEOs of various corporations sought to hoard the power entrusted to them for their own selfish goals or interests.

And the news of the nation brings into question the motives and interests of our own leaders. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was evil and that the Iraqi people feared for their own safety. That fear is deep since they will not believe that Saddam’s two sons have died until they confirm it themselves. But, was the manner in which the freedom for the Iraqi people obtained consistent with the ideals of freedom expressed by this country or was it merely to further the desires and motives of individuals in the administration?

Power when used for one’s own benefit, even if it should also benefit others, can never be justified. In light of what has transpired in the past few days concerning our rationale for going to war, I found it ironic that the Old Testament reading for this Sunday involves the death of a solider on a battlefield far from home to cover the lies and deceptions of his commander.

There are clear reasons whey the story of David and Bathsheba is in 2 Samuel. David’s place in history should be that he was God’s choice to be the king of Israel and that it was through him that the people of Israel would be linked to the kingdom established by Jesus.

But we also need to be reminded that such anointing did not give David the right or the ability to misuse the power of kingship. One commentary noted that by sending the messenger to Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11: 4) David ultimately breaks the seventh, ninth, and tenth commandments.

And it also shows that David was slacking off as commander-in-chief. In verse 11, Uriah’s statement suggests that the Ark of the Covenant is in the field with the army rather than in its customary place in Jerusalem. Now, the Ark would only be away from Jerusalem if there was a battle going on and if David was at home, he was not leading the army, as he should have been. In other words, he was more interested in his own needs than he was interested in doing his job as king. David’s sins will come back to haunt him, as we will find out next week. But we can see that when one persons abuses the powers given to him, others will get hurt.

By the same token, the Gospel reading for today is also about power. The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle (aside from the resurrection) reported in all four Gospels. It shows Jesus using the power of his position to insure that others gain. One cannot understand what was in the minds of John, Mark, Matthew or Luke when they wrote their Gospels but we know that they were trying to tell people who Jesus was.

To the skeptics, centered as they were in their own sense of the world and trusting in only that same sense, Jesus was not capable of doing any miracles. After all, as they mocked him on the cross, “He saved others but He cannot save Himself.” But the powers that would have allowed Jesus to do exactly that, save Himself, were the same powers that enabled him to feed the multitudes. And it was not just the five thousand as reported in the Gospels or the four thousand that Matthew reported that He fed later but rather the fifteen or twenty thousand that were actually on the hillside that day.

The application of power is still a concept we have difficulty understanding. We fail to realize that Christ offers us a new view of life. As long as we view life from our own prospective, of power enriching us at the expense of others, we can never understand why Christ died to save us.

But when we allow Christ to be the center of our lives, we begin to see life differently. Paul’s words to the Ephesians express this very clearly. Paul is stating his own awareness of all that God is doing for us. The primary gifts from God that Paul speaks of in this regard are the power that He gives to us to do His work and the love He has for us through Christ.

But the power we receive is not power that is hoarded but rather shared. We can never conceive of this power in its entirety because it surpasses all of own knowledge. But we are able to use it so that others may benefit. Leadership means power and that in turn should mean that we help people.

Instead of limiting what we can do, the power given to us frees us. It allows us to expand our boundaries, to see beyond the limits of the physical world. Power in the old sense limited what we could do because we would not give up what we had. And when there are limitations to what can be done, hope diminishes.

There can be no hope if there can be no way to see beyond the present. And if there is no hope, there can be no life. There are too many people in this world who have lost hope; they hunger for life’s basic needs but see no relief; they see too many problems but cannot find a solution. (Adapted from Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)  But when we realize that the solution is not found in the power that we have but rather that power that comes from God, hope can be found.

Power is a wonderful thing but it is absolutely worthless unless others benefit. We are reminded that John Wesley struggled in his early years with his own salvation because he was trying to solve the problem on his own, with his own power. It was only when he turned over the center of his life to the Holy Spirit that he received the answers he so desperately sought.

The same is and will always be true for us. If we try to use whatever power we might have only for ourselves, we will fail. It may not be immediate but it will be the result. By surrendering our lives to Christ, by giving up what we desire the most, we will eventually gain what we seek. We seek power over our lives, the ability to do what we want; but the ultimate power is the power over death. Through Christ, that power is possible.