The Use of Wisdom

This is the message that I gave on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 September 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 1: 20 – 33, James 3: 1 – 12, and Mark 8: 27 – 38.


Wisdom is perhaps one of the most important concepts for an understanding of what the New Testament says about Jesus. It is central for two reasons. First, Jesus was a teacher of wisdom. Second, the New Testament presents Jesus as the embodiment or incarnation of divine wisdom.

The subject matter of wisdom is a broad one. Basically, wisdom concerns how to live. It speaks of the nature of reality and how to live one’s life in accord with reality. Central to understanding wisdom is the notion of a way or a path, indeed two paths: the wise way and the foolish way.

There are two types of wisdom and two types of sages or teachers of wisdom. The most common type of wisdom is conventional wisdom and its teachers are conventional. This wisdom is traditional and mainstream, “what everybody knows”. Such wisdom represents the culture one lives in and that culture’s understanding of what is real and how to live.

Conventional wisdom provides guidance about how we should live. It goes without saying that we may agree with James about the need to keep our tongue under control. Two weeks ago, we read from James that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. Our wisdom will come not from what we say or do not say but from what we do.

The book of Proverbs is also a source of conventional wisdom. The words of Proverbs offer an insight into the values of a culture, what is worthwhile and its images of a good life. The inclusion of Proverbs in the Bible was to show how people lived and how they learned. Ordinary people did not learn the life they lived through study but rather through growing up in a culture. That is something that still occurs today.

In Proverbs 1: 22 – 27 Wisdom addresses the simple ones. These are young people who have not yet made up their minds about life or the direction they will take. Wisdom ridicules those who reject her when they come to face the inevitable judgement of their foolishness. Yet wisdom laughs with joy at God’s work and has delight in the people of God.

When fools despise wisdom, they must face the results of their choice. Their hatred of wisdom arises out of a refusal to fear God. Verses 31 and 32 of this passage pick up the theme from the previous section that the study of wisdom is a matter of life and death. Rejecting wisdom will ultimately cause one’s destruction. But this passage does not end dismally; rather, it ends with a promise of life for those who will listen. In wisdom and knowledge of God, will people find safety and ease.

But, as the conclusion of the passage from the reading for today points out, conventional wisdom is intrinsically based upon the dynamic of rewards and punishment. You reap what you sow; follow this way and everything will go well. We find this true not only in our religion but our secular work as well. If you work hard you will succeed. Unfortunately, the corollary to this wisdom is also true; that is, if you don’t succeed or are not blessed or do not prosper, it is because you have not followed the right path. In conventional wisdom, life is a matter of requirement and reward, failure and punishment.

Whether in religious or secular form, conventional wisdom creates the world in which we live. It is life that can be and often is grim. It is a life of bondage to the dominant culture; it is a life of limited vision and blindness. It is a world of judgment; I judge others and myself by how well they and I measure up.

There is an image of God that goes with this conventional wisdom. God is seen primarily as a lawgiver and judge. God may be spoken of in other ways but the bottom line is that God is seen as both the source and enforcer. God becomes the one whom we must satisfy, the one whose requirements must be met.

In the conventional wisdom view of Christianity, Christianity is seen as a life of requirements. Another consequence to seeing Christianity in conventional terms is that we begin to divide the world up into two groups, those who have faith and those who don’t. Today, many people see Christianity in terms of requirements (whether of belief or behavior, or most times, both) and of rewards, typically in “the next world” and sometimes in this world as well.

The second type of wisdom is a subversive and alternative wisdom. This wisdom questions and undermines conventional wisdom and speaks of another path, another way. This wisdom speaks of a road “less traveled.” This was the type of wisdom that Jesus offered to people. His road was “a narrow way” that lead to life and subverted the “broad way” that, though traveled by many, was one that lead to destruction.

In the second part of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus offers us an example of that type of alternative wisdom. One cannot make it to heaven by holding on to everything that is part of this world. Peter’s response to Jesus predicting His death, as Jesus pointed out, was a response based on conventional wisdom. Though his response was well intended and was based on fear and concerned, it did not take into consideration God’s purpose or plan. Because he did not understand what the plan was, Peter’s reaction was to rebuke Jesus. Because the Pharisees and scribes did not understand what Jesus’ mission was and what God’s plan was, they began to plan His death.

The image of God that Jesus presented is not one of a lawgiver or judge enforcing the life of requirements but rather that of a loving, gracious, compassionate God. When Jesus spoke of the last judgement, it was to subvert the widely accepted notions about that judgment. Many times what Jesus said about the last judgement was going to be a great deal different from what conventional wisdom said it would be.

Keep in mind that Jesus does eliminate the call for a final judgement. Much like the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus pointed out that blindness to the ills of society will have its consequences.

Most recently, I have been reading a book called “The Four Witnesses.” The author has tried to look at whom the writers were and what story each of them was attempting to tell. Central to this story was the question that was in the first part of the Gospel reading for today, “Who do you say that I am?” Each of the Gospel writers challenges us to see Jesus in a new way, to have a new understanding of who Jesus was and what He was about. But they do not show us what we should know, which might be thought of as conventional wisdom, but rather how to know it for ourselves, the alternative wisdom.

The wisdom that Jesus taught, the path that He shows for us is first an invitation to see God as loving and gracious rather than as a source and enforcer of requirements. It is also a way that leads away from the life of conventional wisdom to one more centered in God. The alternative wisdom of Jesus sees religious life as a deepening relationship with the Spirit of God, not as a life of requirements and rewards.

This alternative path also challenges the way we see religion and Christianity. To follow the alternative path that Jesus shows takes us from a “secondhand religion” of conventional wisdom to a “firsthand religion.” A secondhand religion consists of thinking that Christian life is about believing what the Bible says or what the doctrines of the church say. A firsthand religion consists of a relationship with what the Bible and the teachings of the church point — that reality that we call God or the Spirit of God.

It can be difficult to follow this way, this narrow path. It certainly must have felt that way to those who heard Jesus speak of giving up everything in order to gain everything. Conventional wisdom would say to hold on to everything you have and seek more. But such an approach to life is very difficult; think of all the people you know who seemingly have everything and yet long for something more.


Thoughts on the nature of teaching science in the 21st Century

As I suggested in my earlier piece, “Final Exam in Contracts”, I see very little emphasis on the application of knowledge in today’s classroom, especially in the science classrooms. The impact of the “No Child Left Behind” legislation was an emphasis on testing and the easiest testing is simple recall of facts type testing. True learning will not come when an individual is able to recall certain bits of information but when they are able to process that information and develop new information from the information that they are presented with in the classroom.

Many years ago, I proposed that the purpose of teaching was to prepare individuals who could proceed on their own after completion of that particular class; in effect, removing the need for teachers. Right now, if you were to ask a classroom teacher at any specific grade what their purpose in teaching was, they would say that it was to prepare the students for the next grade level; i.e., from the 1st grade to the 2nd, from the 2nd to the 3rd, and so forth up to high school.

High school teachers will tell you that their purpose is to prepare their students to enter college, even if college is not the goal of the students. My research into the nature of the college introductory chemistry course showed that most high school chemistry teachers saw their purpose in teaching high school chemistry was to prepare their students for the introductory college course. Even though that research was twenty years ago (and probably should be redone), anecdotal evidence suggests that it is still true today. Students come into college courses expecting to see the same information presented in the same way that it was presented in high school and are not prepared to move intellectually beyond that same level.

Preparation for the next level is critical but should it be just to give the information that they will need. What would happen if a particular class at a particular level was the last time a student was taking that course? Would they have the skills necessary to move beyond the level they just completed?

I realize that, at certain levels, especially the early elementary grades, this is merely a philosophical exercise but at the higher grade levels, are the students prepared for the world beyond the classroom when they leave the classroom? I contend that our educational system is designed otherwise, for success only in the classroom and continued life in the classroom.

(The following comments are directed towards chemistry at the high school and introductory college level but are applicable to other topics at the same level.)

When I began working on my doctoral dissertation, I was intrigued by how the nature of the chemistry textbook had changed over the years. An examination of one of the chemistry textbooks my father used in the late 30’s and early 40’s shows a mixture of chemistry knowledge and chemistry application. But an examination of today’s chemistry textbooks, while showing much in the way of knowledge and theory shows very little in the way of application.

Now, perhaps we should define these terms: knowledge, theory, and application. Knowledge will be the facts obtained through experience and experimentation; theory will be the explanation of those facts and application will be the usage of those facts in practical ways.

Now, it is understandable that the knowledge of chemistry has changed over the years and the theory that has explained those facts has changed as well. This is understandable. After all, when my father took chemistry, there were only about 90 elements on the periodic table and many periodic tables showed the transition metals as subsets of the representative elements (the A and B classification of older periodic tables). A footnote on the periodic table indicates that two new elements had been discovered and were tentatively named alabamine (Ab) and virginium (Vi). However, it was also noted that the discoveries had not been verified. In another textbook of that period, element 41 (what we identify today as niobium) is identified as columbium and element 43 (technetium) is Masurium.

Any explanation of the chemical behavior of the elements was limited to an understanding of the atom at that time. While isotopes were known to chemists and physicists of that time, the explanation was “unique”. Consider the following:

  1. Atoms are composed of two sub-atomic particles called protons and electrons.
  2. Protons have a positive charge; electrons have a negative charge.
  3. There are two types of electrons: those in the nucleus of the atom (otherwise known as nuclear electrons) and those that orbit the nucleus (otherwise known as planetary electrons).
  4. The sum of the charges of the protons and nuclear electrons determines the atomic number.
  5. Protons have a mass of approximately 1.673 x 10-27 kilograms which we call 1 atomic mass unit. Electrons have virtually no mass (9.109 x 10-31 kilograms). This means that the mass of an atom is determined by the number of protons that an atom has.
  6. For example, 126C has an atomic mass of 12 (determined by experimentation) and an atomic number of 6 (again, determined by experimentation). The 12 protons give this atom of carbon its mass; the electrons are divided into 6 nuclear electrons and 6 planetary electrons. The charge difference between the protons and the nuclear electrons give the atomic number of 6.
  7. Carbon also has an isotope with a mass of 13 (13C). It must have 13 protons and 7 nuclear electrons to go with its 6 planetary electrons.

The definition described above is the explanation of atomic structure based on the knowledge of the time. It’s just that the textbook was written in 1934. (First Principles of Chemistry, Brownlee, Fuller, Hancock, Sohon, and Whitney, Allyn and Bacon, 1934; Chemistry For Today, McPherson and Henderson, Ginn and Company, 1934; these were the books that my father used in high school)

Even though the neutron was discovered in 1932, as the publication date for the textbook indicates, the incorporation of this new information took several years before it was included in subsequent textbooks.

The application of the knowledge of chemistry focused on processes such as the commercial production of sulfuric acid or aluminum. For every page devoted to chemical knowledge and theory, there was a page devoted to the application of such knowledge.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s there was a perceptible shift in the makeup of the chemistry textbook. Information concerning commercial application of chemistry was reduced as theoretical information increased. This was a reflection of the shift in the emphasis in science education during that same time frame.

At the present time and as a result of the shifts in the college chemistry curriculum during the 1960’s, high school chemistry matches and essentially duplicates introductory college chemistry courses.

What is interesting is that it shouldn’t have turned out this way. In the early 1960’s, as Americans reevaluated the nature of science teaching in general, chemists were looking at chemical education. The prime conclusion of this study was that while there needed to be a strong emphasis on the theoretical nature of chemistry, it should not be done at the expense of the heart and soul of chemistry, descriptive chemistry. In addition, college chemistry curriculum changes of that era were predicated on the idea that high school chemistry would maintain something of the traditional approach.

The high school chemistry courses developed during the 1960’s, while shifting in emphasis from traditional descriptive chemistry to a more theoretical basis still maintained the emphasis on the use of experimentation to support and develop theories (a process that is often reversed in introductory chemistry courses today).

It is interesting to note that the two major chemical education projects developed in the 1960’s and which are the literary ancestors of the majority of today’s chemistry textbooks (CHEM Study and the Chemical Bond Approach) both approached the teaching of chemistry from an experimental and developmental viewpoint. The CHEM Study was developed to enable

“. . . the student to acquire a knowledge of chemistry, not merely some knowledge about it. Abandoned are authoritarian pedagogy for teaching, descriptive chemistry facts for content, memorization for study, and regurgitation for evaluation. Instead, the student is engaged continually in the patter of scientific activity – experimental collection of data, assessment and organization of facts, deduction of unifying principles, and application of these principles in developing expectation (making predictions).” (Pimentel, G. C. and Ridgway, D. W. “CHEM Study: Knowledge of Chemistry”, Science Activities, 8(3), 40 (1972))

Ramsey summarized the goals of the CHEM Study program as:

  • to stimulate and prepare high school students whose purpose it is to continue the study of chemistry in college as a profession; and
  • to further in those students who will not continue the study of chemistry after high school an understanding of science in current and future human activities. (Ramsey, G. A. A Review of the Research and Literature on the Chemical Educational Materials Study Project, Research Review Series – Science Paper 4, Ohio State University, p. 2 (ED 037592) (1970))

Similarly, the goals of the Chemical Bond Approach were:

  • to devise a course for high school students that would be basic for future study in college and better relate the first year of college to that of high school chemistry;
  • to develop critical thinking in students;
  • to present chemistry in a logical course; and
  • to present a course that would be on the intellectual level of average chemistry students as well as offering a challenge to the more advanced students. (Osborn, G. “Influence of the Chemical Bond Approach and the Chemical Educational Materials Study on the New York Regents Examination in High School Chemistry”, School Science and Mathematics, 69, p. 53 (1969))

In conjunction with these philosophies was a concurrent thought that high school chemistry would continue focusing on the application of chemical knowledge (which became known as descriptive chemistry) while college chemistry focused on the theoretical portion of chemistry. Unfortunately, despite the thought that there should be a strong emphasis on theoretical chemistry but that descriptive chemistry should also be continued to be emphasized. It was felt that this could only be accomplished if high school chemistry continued the traditional approach and let college chemistry focus on the theory. However, high school chemistry quickly took on the look and feel of college introductory chemistry courses (and continues to do so today).

But, in making the shift from a descriptive approach to a theoretical approach, certain things became apparent. First, many students could not distinguish between experimental evidence and theory. In what is a classical description of the problem, Derek Davenport noted that students thought that silver (I) chloride was a pale green gas.

While grading a beginning graduate inorganic examination some time ago I was startled to discover that the student believed silver chloride to be a pale green gas. Now we all have our off days…and I read on willing to forgive and forget, if not to allow partial credit. A little later the student launched into a long plausible explanation as to why silver chloride is a pale green gas. I was reminded of Dr. Johnson’s: “I can give you the explanation, M’am, but not the understanding of it.”…

That we should begin by setting up a skeleton of inorganic principles is undeniable. Without it the presentation of facts becomes inefficient and their accumulation a shapeless mass of protoplasm. Instability and stability, lability and inertness, oxidation and reduction, acidity and basicity, and their relationship to position in the periodic table are as much a part of modern inorganic chemistry as is ligand field theory….
….It takes effort — what in teaching doesn’t — but the effort must be made. For as Conrad urged: “Every sort of shouting is a transitory thing, after which the grim silence of facts remains.” (
“The Grim Silence of Facts”, Derek A. Davenport, Journal of Chemical Education, 47, 1970, p.271 (from

In light of Dr. Davenport’s comments and with the knowledge that introductory chemistry textbooks today have effectively removed descriptive chemistry, we have to ask ourselves what the future for introductory chemistry might be.

The removal of descriptive chemistry from the chemistry curriculum, for whatever reason, has effectively made the presentation of theory become the presentation of fact. This in return means that many instructors do not have any idea how science operates or what it is that chemists do.

I have presented what I considered a brief synopsis of how science operates in “The Processes of Science”.

And, with the emphasis in today’s classroom for testing, students are further removed from any understanding of what science is and what it does. This is clear when you examine the lack of understanding in a number of topics that impact our lives each day outside the classroom.

Among these topics are:

  1. Energy – not only energy production in today’s society but energy sources (renewable and non-renewable) for tomorrow
  2. Global warming – if there was every a topic that called for the public to have a knowledge of science and its role in society, it is global warming.
  3. Environmental chemistry – how we view recycling and what can go into landfills and what cannot
  4. The role of chemicals in our environment – I would include the issue of mercury and mercury compounds in the preservation of vaccines and what this may or may not do. I would also include the use of the word “organic” to mean pesticide and insecticide free produce (when all foods are organic in nature).
  5. The debate for free thought in the classroom – if I was a biologist, I might have entitled this the creation/evolution debate but I am not a biologist. But to me, this issue has several impacts besides biology; it goes to the issue of free thought and what our responsibilities as scientists and educators should be. It also speaks to how we, individually, believe.
Additional Questions

There are several other questions that arise from this discussion (again, I have phrased these questions in terms of chemistry but they are probably applicable to other subjects as well):

  1. Should the goals of high school chemistry be the same as those of introductory college chemistry courses? Or should there be a complimentary nature to these goals?
  2. What course should a student take in college if they did not take a high school chemistry course or did poorly in their high school chemistry course?
  3. When should descriptive chemistry be included in course materials? Should it be integrated with the normal course or an additional course to be taken either earlier or later?
  4. Where does laboratory work fit into this process? Is laboratory work critical to the understanding of the course material or is merely needed to supplement course materials?

Forgotten Books

Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27, and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23.


There is a set of shows on the History Channel entitled “Banned from the Bible”. Along with another series, “Who Wrote the New Testament?” they provide an interesting insight into the development of the Bible.

In “Banned from the Bible”, scholars discuss books and manuscripts that were written but which were not considered, for a number of theological and historical reasons, not appropriate for the Bible. This discussion includes those books that are included in what is called the Apocrypha. But the discussion is not limited to books that somewhat fall in the period between the Old and New Testament; they also include books written after the beginning of the new Christian Church and include what have become known as the Gnostic Gospels.

What I find interesting and pertinent to today’s message is that the discussion amongst men about what should and should not be in the Bible provides an interesting counterpoint to those who say that the Bible is the divine inspiration of God. I am not saying that God’s hand was not in the writing of the various books of the Old and New Testament. But if mankind is going to argue and discuss what is to be included, what does that say about this idea of biblical inerrancy?

While there are also those who use these discussions to put forth their own hypothesis that the crucifixion was a hoax and Christianity is a two thousand year old hoax, with cover-ups and conspiracies galore, these same discussions tell me of people trying to put into words what their faith means to them and how they are going to explain their faith to others. And in the end, those who developed the Bible some two thousand years ago came up with a document that must be read in its entirety, not in parts. They came up with a document that was coherent in its thought that God cared for us and we are to care for others.

And that makes at least two of the readings for today very interesting. Someone, or a group of people, many years ago developed what we called the common lectionary. It was later revised into what is called the “revised common lectionary” (duh!), which is what I have used for most of the past fifteen years. It provides an Old Testament reading, an Epistle reading, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading for each Sunday of the Christian Year. If you follow the lectionary, over a three year period, you will cover every book in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.

In the present part of the lectionary (Year B), the Old Testament reading is from the Song of Solomon. This begins a series of readings from Proverbs, Esther, Ruth, and Job; books that stand out for the lack of the mention of God or, in the case of Job, for the confrontation with God in a time when people followed God.

There are those who argued for the exclusion of Esther because there was no mention of God. But the story of Esther is a description of the redemption of God’s people and God’s hand is seen in the story, even if He is not part of the story. Similarly, the Song of Solomon only contains one reference to God and virtually no prayers, or references to worship or piety.

And some commentaries indicated that, because of the explicit and sexual nature of the writing, many ancient and modern Jewish sages forbade any man under the age of thirty from reading the book. This probably also applied to any woman who could read. But we all know that human nature requires an examination into those things which we are told to stay away from.

If the Bible is story of whom God is and what God does, then the Song of Solomon provides us a description of what God desires for us. The Song of Solomon provides an example of how we are to live in happiness and fulfillment.

But when we hear descriptions of the Old Testament, we often hear of a God of wrath and anger, of war and violence, of retribution and revenge. We hear very little about the love of God for us and how we are to love each other. We have forgotten what was written in this book and if we know anything about love, it is the physical part of love and not the emotional part or communal part.

Similarly, the Book of James has its critics as well. When he was preparing the first German translation of the Bible, Martin Luther wanted to keep James out of the Bible. James speaks of the works of the person and there are those who proposed this meant that you could work your way into heaven. Luther was like Paul in saying that it was God’s grace that provided our salvation and our work did little to earn that salvation.

There are quite a few people in this world today who still hold onto this view, that it is what they individually do that ultimately decides whether or not they get into heaven. But in verse 22, James writes that those who have not heard the word are only deceiving themselves. If the words of Christ are not part of one’s life, then one’s actions are meaningless. If you do not believe in what you are doing, then your actions have no meaning.

James’ words only have meaning when they are taken with the other words of the Bible; if you do not love your fellow man it is very difficult to think that you love God as He loves you. And just as we tend to forget the Song of Solomon, we also tend to forget James when we say that all is necessary for admission into God’s Kingdom is an acceptance of Christ as your Savior.

If you say that you are a Christian and you haven’t accepted Christ, then you are a hypocrite. If you say that you have accepted Christ and your works do more harm than good, if you do not walk the extra mile or give the person without a coat your coat, if you keep your riches instead of giving it all away, then you deceive yourselves. As James wrote, “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act” will be blessed in their doing (verse 25).

We have forgotten too much of the Bible. We remember the war and the violence; we highlight selected verses that justify segregation and repression but we forget that the Bible must be seen as a whole, not in parts. And while there is war and violence in the Bible, there is love. There is the love of two people for each other, there is the love of people in a community for the members of the community, and there is the love of a Father for His Children, a love expressed when He sent His Son to be our Savior

We can acknowledge that love but it requires a clean heart and a clean mind. We cannot, as Jesus proclaimed in the reading from Mark for today, abandon the commandment of God for human traditions. We cannot control the environment outside if our insides are not cleansed of the evil and sin that exist there.

When you look at the sins that Jesus says comes from the heart (fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly) and you look around at the words and actions that fill the air today, you know that he spoke the truth. The words and actions of too many people speak of what is truly in their hearts. The actions of too many people in the debate over health care belie a nation that says that they are Christian. It speaks of a nation that has forgotten not only some of the books of the Bible but the words of the entire Bible, of words that speak of caring for your fellow man, your neighbor.

We can read the Bible from cover to cover and perhaps even memorize all the words. But unless we take those words into our heart and make them part of our lives, the words are simply smears of ink on a piece of paper. Those words will have no meaning unless we also accept Christ as our Savior, opening our hearts and minds to the cleansing power of God’s love, a power that will transform our lives and our presence. We may have forgotten that love is a part of the Bible and that our work must be in response to that love. But God did not forget; that is why He sent His Son. We have the opportunity today to make a change in the world, but only if we make the change in our lives.

The Torch Is Passed But To Whom?

On January 20, 1961, John Kennedy stood before the people of America and the world and announced that the torch had been passed to a new generation. I cannot help but think that on August 26, 2009, with the death of Ted Kennedy, the light of that torch may have gone out. We must now ask the question, “who will carry the torch?”

In his inaugural address, President Kennedy spoke of a generation

born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

We accepted the challenge presented that cold day in January. Now, who will carry the torch?

An entire generation came to believe that a new and better world was possible; later writers would call this “Camelot” but for those who heard the words, it was a call to action. And this generation, to whom the torch was passed, gladly and quickly took up the challenge. Now, who will do the same?

I was ten years old when President Kennedy was elected and I was thirteen when he was assassinated; my memories of this time are limited in nature and substance. But as I read what he challenged Americans to do, I came to see and sense the new and better tomorrow that he spoke of in that inaugural address.

I was a senior in a Memphis area high school when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; I was beginning my third summer of college when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. In their deaths, I began to see the slow and painful unraveling of that dream. Last week, I spoke of what has transpired in the forty-some years since that summer of dreams and nightmares.

And now Ted Kennedy is dead. Both of his brothers were undeniably conservative in their outlook until they encountered the secrets that lie beneath the veneer of American life. John Kennedy came face to face with hunger and poverty in the hills of West Virginia, Bobby Kennedy would meet the same on the plains of Mississippi. Both would encounter the evil that lies in mankind with the resistance and violence that accompanied this country’s slow progress towards civil and human rights. It was long said that John Kennedy didn’t want to put human rights into his inaugural address but Harris Wofford (later Senator from PA) pointed out that you couldn’t be for human rights in the Third World if you weren’t for it at home.

Ted Kennedy was different. The liberal nature that his brothers accepted reluctantly came to him naturally and he accepted the fights that they fought as his fights. But he did not fight his brothers’ battles; he fought the battles for the American people who had been forgotten and would have continued to be forgotten in the years between 1968 and 1992. Those who had little or nothing had a champion in Ted Kennedy.

I don’t know if he should have been President; I am not entirely sure that he ever knew. But he came to love the Senate and he saw a way to make a difference. In his eulogy for his brother, Senator Kennedy said,

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

“Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.”

I believe that President Kennedy once said that should something happen to him, Bobby would carry on, just as he carried on when their brother Joe was killed over France in 1944, and if something should happen to Bobby, Ted would carry on. As much as to honor his brothers and what they had done for this country, Senator Kennedy made those dreams a reality. And now he has died and there appears to be no one willing or capable of carrying the torch.

This is still a world in which inequality is the norm rather than the exception. This is still a world where regions of this country resemble some distant Third World country. This is still a world where war is the first answer for too many problems. This is still a world where the wealth of one comes before the simple needs of all. This is still a world in which personal greed and self-interest ranks before care and compassion. And now there is no one to carry the torch.

There are those in this country who will not go hungry tonight, who will get the medical care that they need and who are able to sleep at home because of what Ted Kennedy stood for and fought for in the United States Senate. But there are still too many people who will go hungry tomorrow and who will not get the medical care they need and for whom a home is only a dream. Who will carry the torch tomorrow?

A Cake Without Baking Powder

This is the message that I gave on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 7 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23; James 2: 1 – 10, 14 – 17; and Mark 7: 24 – 37.


I hope that when you read the title for today’s sermon you had the same thought that Ann did when she first read it, “You can’t bake a cake without baking powder.”

Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda, corn starch, sodium aluminum sulfate (or alum), calcium sulfate, and monocalcium phosphate. It is simple enough to say that when you add water to this mixture of solids, you get carbon dioxide and the dough is able to rise. Without baking powder, the cake is going to be extremely flat.

It is that combination of materials that produces the reaction needed to bake a cake. It is a combination of things that make a church what it is. The world, of course, is the ultimate combination of people, places, and things. But often times a church tries to choose the parts of the world that will make up it’s identity..

Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been many attempts to define how the church should be a part of society and how society and the church should interact. Some of those attempts removed the church from society.

Many of the great utopian experiments of the 19th century were of this type. The Shakers, who we know today for their expensive and elegant but simple furniture, were one such group. The group flourished just before the Civil War because there was a growing sense that the coming war was a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ. There was a need to pull away from society so that you could better prepare for Christ’s coming.

But the problem with the Shakers was that they had no way of continuing the movement and thus ultimately died out, leaving only memories of a simple life and basic furniture. In fact, it is ironic that the simple furniture that marked the Shaker lifestyle now sells for prices that only the rich and famous can pay.

Another, earlier attempt at communal, utopian living was made at the Amana colonies in Iowa. We associate the name Amana with dishwashers and stoves and the Amana Radarange. But most people do not know that this company has its heritage in same millennial roots that later formed the Shaker movement.

The Amana colonies were found by a group of German and Swiss colonists who came to the United States in the fall of 1842. Persecuted and faced with a religious intolerance, these German and Swiss colonists came to America seeking a place where they could worship, work, and live in peace. These colonists first settled in the Buffalo, New York area but moved to Iowa because the area around Buffalo was becoming rapidly urbanized.

For over 100 years, the Amana colonies proved that communal living was possible. The difference in their style of communal living and other similar attempts was not found in philosophy or social concepts but rather in their belief that it was the best way to worship in peace.

The people of the colonies pooled their resources in order to market their agricultural and manufactured products. In return, their food, shelter, and clothing needs were met. But in what became known as “The Great Change”, the colonies decided to separate their religious and economic interests, thus ending a long period of isolationism and beginning a new period of community openness. Unfortunately, it would seem that while we remember their works, we do not remember why they worked.

The problem is that when you define your church without society, it ultimately dies. A church must be a part of society if it is to survive and grow. But, by the same token, if the church becomes too tied to society and the ways of society, it will lose its identity.

It is the very nature of society that makes us want to pick the best parts as those that define who we are. We do not want that which we consider the worst or unseemly parts to be even known. And that is exactly what James is warning is about.

If we show partiality about whom we shall love or who we will be with, then we would be considered sinners and convicted by the law as transgressor. We cannot ignore that we are part of society but we have to be careful that we do not become so ingrained in it that we lose our identity as a representative of Christ on earth. We have a unique opportunity to proclaim the kingdom of God but if we are not careful, it can also be an opportunity for what one author (Colin Williamson, Faith In a Secular Age) calls atheistic self-assertion, claiming and keeping what is truly God’s for ourselves.

A woman comes to Jesus. We do not know who she is for she is never named, either in Mark’s description of the encounter or Matthew’s similar description. But we do know that she was not a Jew, for she was of Syro-Phoenician origin. At first, Jesus wants nothing to do with her, proclaiming that His mission was only to the lost sheep of the kingdom, a reference to the Jews of that time who had become hung up on the rules of society without the use of faith.

The analogy that Jesus used that the children’s food should not be thrown to the dogs was a fair one because anyone not of the faith was considered an equal to the dogs. But, as the women pointed out, even the dogs gathered up the crumbs under the table of the children. And because she was so determined to overcome every barrier that society would put in her place, Jesus granted her wish that her own child be cured.

But it is equally important that we look at how the disciples reacted. In Matthew 15: 21 – 28, we see that the disciples would have rather this woman left them alone. Send her away was their cry. But Jesus doesn’t send her away. Rather he watches the disciples to see how they will react.

The disciples don’t want that woman in their life right now. They want her to go away. She is their enemy and inferior, and she is making a pest of herself. She challenged Jesus and took away time that they felt belonged to them.

But she would not give up. And because she does not give up, Jesus does what no one else would do. He commends her faith, “O woman, great is your faith.”

We have said that we are going to be like Jesus. We have to be careful that we are not like his disciples in those early days of the ministry. The poor and needy are as much a part of our life as the rich and well off. A church cannot survive without either. There are churches in this country built with the largess of their members but they are more country clubs than they are houses of worship. There are churches today where pastors preach individual repentance but never ask that the money that is spent on the upkeep of the building be spent on the upkeep of the people.

One person whom I have come to admire is a Georgian by the name of Clarence Jordan. As a young man growing up in the segregated south of the 1930’s and 1940’s, he saw the hypocrisy of the church in its fullness.

A pastor of one of the more gilded cathedrals in Atlanta once asked Mr. Jordan for some advice. It seems that the custodian for the church had eight children and worked seven days a week for eighty dollars a week. The minister had tried to get him a raise but without success. Jordan suggested that he, the pastor, swap his salary with that of the janitor. It would cause no hardship for the budget since no extra money would be needed.. It is not noted what the pastor’s response was.

Another time, Jordan spoke of a church that wanted to establish a fabulous fountain on its front lawn while its neighbors had no running water. “As long as God is God and not man, we know how to handle him — we can build him a fountain on the lawn. But as soon as we see God as man, then we have to give him a cup of water. (Lee, Cotton Patch Evidence, 11. — from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs.)

A church that ignores a part of society is a church that will die. It will not be a quick or easy death. There are still Shakers living in this country but their days are numbered, if not already completed. The last ones saw that the church could not survive and they decided a number of years ago to stop taking in new members.

As we prepare for the coming year, as we look to what will be Tompkins Corners UMC we have to think about what defines this church. It is not the size of the church that will define this church; it is what this church does.

And if this church does nothing more that what it has to do, it will do nothing at all. I have mentioned over the past two weeks that we need to develop our own unique outreach program. All that we have to do is decide that a portion of our offering, perhaps the total offering of the fifth Sunday of a month, will go to particular missionary or outreach activities either in this area or in a place of our choosing. It is a small step but one that will reap great rewards.

We must also make a concerted effort to reach out to those who are members of this church but who have decided for whatever reason to not attend on a regular basis. I have made a copy of the church membership roll for people to look at. It is broken down into four parts: active members, homebound members, inactive members, and unknown members.

The inactive ones are that way in part because they do not come to church nor have they returned the information sheets or responded to any of the mailings that have been sent out. They may be active but in such a way that very few people know who they are. The ones considered unknown are that way because we have no current address for them. If we knew their address, then we would reach out to them.

Some have expressed concern that the conference will close the church if we take too many people off the membership list. Personally, I don’t think so. But I do know that if we do not make a concerted effort to be a more active church, then what some fear will happen will in fact happen. It is one thing to have faith but if the faith does no work, what good is it?

Jesus may have ordered those who saw him perform the miracles to keep silent until it was time to tell the world. Well, that time is now and we can no longer keep silent. You cannot bake a cake without baking powder; you cannot have a church that ignores part of society or fails to reach out to all parts of society. The charge before us this day is the charge that James gave so many years ago, take care of those who are in need or face the fact that your faith will die.

The Final Exam In Contracts

The title for this piece comes from an episode of “The Paper Chase” in which the students are faced with the daunting task of passing Kingfield’s final exam in contract law. As I recall, the exam consists of some 100 questions in a variety of legal areas. It requires that the study groups that had formed during the course of the semester seek out the answers from a variety of sources, including the theology school. These lead to a scene where the other college faculty, in and outside the law school, complained about how this exam disrupted the normal and placid academic setting of the university.

It also played on the fact that many law students are predatory, seeing their success only in terms of the failure of others. These students would latch onto a source and keep it so that others would not be able to answer that particular question, thus being unable to finish the exam with all the questions answered. It became apparent to the one student whose life was the focal point of the “paper chase” that successful completion of the exam did not require the completion of the exam itself but rather the development of arrangements with the other groups to share the materials that each group had. In other words, each group had to write a contract with each group that would balance the needs of the other group with the requirements of each group.

In reality, the final exam in contract law was to write contract; what more should you expect from a final exam in a course but something that illustrates what the course should teach you? (There were some students who insisted that the purpose of the final was simply to get as many points as possible so as to pass the course; needless to say, they didn’t get it.)

Now, this was fictional but I can think of time when the exam was based on what it was you wanted to be after you graduated. One of the universities where I was a graduate student had a problem. In keeping with one particular environmental requirement, all of the waste for the various teaching labs was stored in 55-gallon drums and stored in the basement awaiting removal and disposal. And until a means of getting rid of the waste was determined, there it would sit.

Finally, a means of disposal was arranged but with the means came a new problem. Each of the drums represented a composite of wastes and it wasn’t clear just what was in each of the drums. To properly and legally dispose of these drums, the contents of the drums had to be determined. Now, most of the drums simply contained aqueous solutions so the primary waste was water. But some of the drums came from the organic laboratories so there were organic solvents to deal with and the way you deal with organic waste is many times different from how you deal with aqueous waste.

Still, there was the problem of what was in the drums? Now, as this was a research-oriented chemistry department, there were a number of graduate students in analytical and organic chemistry. And these students (along with the graduate students in physical chemistry and biochemistry) took monthly qualifying exams. Each exam that was passed generated a number of points towards the completion of the degree.

The powers that be decided that the qualifying exam that the analytical and organic graduate students would take one month would consist of one question, “This is your drum; what’s in it?” In all, this was a reasonable solution to two problems, how to ask a student a question that would test their knowledge of the subject and also identify the material so that it could be properly disposed.

I have always wanted to prepare a manuscript entitled “Do We Teach What We Do?” This is because I am not entirely certain that our students understand what it is that they will do with the chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, or other courses that they must take to either graduate from high school or college.

Ideally, each of these courses will offer a foundation in the subject area and provide part of the foundation each student will need to think and analyze a variety of things later on in life. But, it is becoming quite clear, through the public discourses that many people do not have the capability to think and analyze what is happening in their lives.

In 1998, it was reported that more than 90% of Americans are, by the broadest possible definition, scientifically illiterate. That is to say, they are incapable of understanding many of the scientifically and technologically oriented topics; in other words, they cannot critically think. They have no way of knowing if a claim made in the commercial or by a politician is true or untrue; they are quite willing to accept something as true if it comes from someone with authority or presumed authority.

And what is happening is that we are not moving towards decreasing that percentage but rather away from that goal. Our insistence on testing as a measure of competency and qualification means that we have a generation of children who can recall facts but do not know what to do with the facts that they have.

A recent manuscript for The Journal of Chemical Education that I reviewed noted that many of the students in introductory chemistry courses are ill-prepared to think independently and develop the procedure for completing a simple experiment. In part, I was not surprised by that statement because I have observed the same in some of the classes I taught. And I was not surprised because, when you only test students on what they know and not what to do with that knowledge, they cannot begin to create new paths of thought, i.e., the tool needed for critical thinking.

Part of science literacy (or scientific literacy, depending how you want to define each) is critical thinking, the ability to think through a problem. Testing alone will not achieve that goal. Nor will it help people to understand what science is and how it works. If you do not know those things, it will be very difficult to do much else.

In the next part of this series, I want to look at issues society is facing today where this lack of literacy plays a very critical role in an understanding of the problem.

Who Owns The Zebra?

This is a logic puzzle that should challenge you.  I will be honest and note that there are a number of web sites “out there” that have the solution.  But do it the old fashion way and work it out before “cheating”.


  1. There are five houses in a row, each of a different color and inhabited by people of different nationalities, with different pets, drinks, and flowers.
  2. The English person lives next to the red house.
  3. The Spaniard owns the dog.
  4. Coffee is drunk in the green house.
  5. The Ukrainian drinks tea.
  6. The green house is immediately to the right (your right) of the ivory house.
  7. The geranium grower owns snails.
  8. Roses are in front of the yellow house.
  9. Milk is drunk in the middle house.
  10. The Norwegian lives in the first house on the left.
  11. The person who grows marigolds lives in the house next to the person with the fox.
  12. Roses are grown at the house next to the house where the horse is kept.
  13. The person who grows lilies drinks orange juice.
  14. The Japanese person grows gardenias.
  15. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.

Who owns the zebra?

Who drinks water?