What Are You Willing To Give?

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. I was at Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY this Sunday (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 5: 12 – 23, and Matthew 10: 42 – 46.


How many of you have ever gone on a cross-country trip? Were you the driver in the front or the child in the back seat? Have you ever been both (obviously at different times in your life)? I suppose that the most often uttered words from the children in the back seat of a car, most often yelled, are "Are we there yet?" This question, of immense philosophical meaning, is often followed, especially if the length of the trip is really long (say across town) by the most memorable of lines uttered by one sibling to another, "Mom, he touched me!"

Each one of us probably has a story or two that we could tell about a road trip we took with our family, with assorted tales of who did what and where it all happened. We know that the Bible, especially the early chapters, is the story of families moving from this place to that place and perhaps returning home.

But I sometimes get the impression that I am not supposed to read the scripture passages with any sort of feeling or think about what I am reading. The words were written two thousand years ago and they are not to be messed with. But if the Bible is to be an expression of who we are and how we got to this place, how can we not read the scripture without feeling the anguish, the joy, the excitement or the bewilderment that comes with the words?

A lot of questions should be running through our mind when we read the story in Genesis for today. What must Abraham have taught when God told him to take Isaac to Mount Moriah? Would he have been thinking of those times when he took Isaac with him to work, teaching him everything he could because he feared that there was not enough time in the world to teach him everything possible. After all, Abraham was an old man and nature dictates that the young shall bury their parents rather than the parents burying their young. Were there not tears in his eyes when he told Isaac that God would provide the sheep for the burnt offering? Isaac was his son, the fulfillment of the covenant made with God so many years before. He had already cast his other son Ishmael out into the desert when Sarah thought he, showed more interest in Ishmael’s mother than her. He may not have been crying on the outside but surely his heart was crying; one son lost in the desert, another son about to be sacrificed just to prove his faithfulness and love for God. What type of God demands this type of faith? What type of God would promise that his, Abraham’s descendants, would be too numerous to count and yet take away the children that would begin those families?

And we must ponder the words of Isaac as well. Would Isaac have tagged along with his father everywhere they went, asking questions and learning things? Are not the words that Isaac said along the way, asking his father where is the sheep, words born of the same curiosity, the same desire for knowledge that we have expressed on our own journeys? And can we not completely understand what Abraham so wanted to say to his son as each step up the mountain brought Abraham closer and closer to the test that God had imposed on him. Was there a trembling in his words when he told the servants to wait for them while they attended to the sacrifice? The writer of Genesis uses the plural in saying we will come back to you. But Abraham, and only Abraham, knew or thought he knew that only he, Abraham, would be coming back. Surely, he must have trembled when he spoke those words.

The hard answer to all of these questions is, of course, it was part of the covenant between Abraham and God. A covenant is a contract between two parties, an agreement that states what one party will do in return for what the second party will do. Abraham agreed to follow God and God would give him descendants that far outnumbered the stars in the sky. God never said exactly how He would do that nor was it clear to what extent Abraham would have to follow God. In this story, we know what God expects.

The problem today is that not many people are willing to put themselves into the story, let alone even think of what such a story would mean if it were they who were asked to do something such as sacrifice their only child.

We don’t see God in those terms. We see God as one who answers our prayers and gets us out of the trouble that we made. We do not seek this demanding God; we don’t want this demanding God. We do not sing of an awesome God but an easy God. We only want a God whom we can call upon when we need Him, not a God who will call upon us at the most inconvenient and inopportune time.

We live in a society today where our affirmation of a faith is not published in the back of the hymnal but in how we lead our lives. It is an affirmation that

I am a Christian but I don’t think that everyone is entitled to health care;

I am a Christian but I don’t think we need to worry about the homeless or the poor;

I am a Christian but it is alright for me to proclaim that wealth is a sign of righteousness and the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty;

I am a Christian but it is not the church’s role to help the homeless, the poor, and the needy because they will only steal anything that isn’t tied down.

I am a Christian but it is alright for me to tell you how to live your life while I am free to do whatever I please;

I am a Christian but I cannot answer the question of what would Jesus do today;

I am a Christian but it is alright for my pastor to call for the death of national and international leaders from the pulpit.

(First published in "When Are We Going to Learn?")

I don’t think that we have truly understood the nature of the covenant with Abraham, the covenant made with Moses, the covenant made with David, or the one expressed in Jeremiah. If we had, I don’t think that many of us would be in church today. We see these covenants more as promises; promises that God made with us, not the other way around.

We understand what Paul is writing, how through Christ’s sacrifice we have been saved, and we think that is it. Somehow, we think that by coming to church on Sunday and going through the motions, that everything will be okay. In one sense, I suppose that would be true. For no matter what we do tomorrow or throughout the coming week that belies everything we said and did today, if we are in church next Sunday, then we will have the opportunity to make it all right again. But we don’t always have the guarantee that we will be here next Sunday.

But the covenant between God and us is not a one-way promise. It contains the expectation that there are things that we will do as well. We are called to be Christ’s disciples, Christ’s followers. Last week, the Gospel reading spoke of the Great Commission, to go out into the world and make disciples of all the people of the world.

Now, I must admit, from probably the very first time I ever heard that Scripture reading, I had problems with it. Not so much the actual words but how people implemented it.

It wasn’t the invitation that Jesus offered each of his disciples but a commandment. And it wasn’t so much a commandment but an order. Now, I grew up as a military brat and I have always had trouble taking orders from others, especially those whose attitude is and was one that "I know what you need to do".

That’s the problem with being an officer’s son and grandson; there is a clear demarcation of authority and unless you can show me that you have that authority, then we are going to have problems with you telling me what to do. I also grew up in the South, so hearing that one had to follow Christ or expect to die was an essential part of the Sunday message.

But, as one who moved about and saw this country during the turbulent post-World War II times, and studying the message of Christ in Sunday School, I also saw a contradiction. How is that you can tell me what I must do when you don’t do it yourself? For every clergy who was for civil rights during that time, there were two or more who were opposed to civil rights and used the Bible to justify their opposition.

I could have left the church back then. After I graduated from high school in Tennessee, I went to college in Missouri, following a path that I had set before we moved back to the south. It would have been very easy for me to have left the church. The decision to go was now mine and I didn’t have my mother yelling at me to get ready so I could drive her and my siblings to Sunday School. But I continue to go because there were something else driving me, not what my mother said or what my peers might have been doing (as if that were ever a reason).

I came to Christ, not because I was ordered to do so, but because I sought Him out. I sought Him out because I wanted to know how, in a world that sought to resolve its problems through hatred, exclusion, and violence, a God could exist. And I did what I hope that you do; I studied and explored. And I will admit that I have done more of this exploration and study in the past few years than I did when I was in confirmation class. I suppose that it goes with the territory when you decide to be a lay speaker in the United Methodist church.

I discovered that the word disciple does not automatically mean follower and that my role is not to force you to follow Christ. When I discovered the Cotton Patch Gospels, a wonderful translation of the New Testament from the original Greek by Dr. Clarence Jordan, I found another meaning. The Cotton Patch Gospels are not your typical translation of the Bible but one in which the places became towns in Georgia and the people were people of the South. Jesus’ parables became the stories of a Southern preacher.

From Clarence Jordan’s translations, I learned that to be a disciple was to be a student as much as a follower. To be a disciple is to show others what it means to follow Christ, by thought, word and deed.

And you cannot show others what it means to follow Christ if you are not willing to lead that life yourself. Clarence Jordan was raised as a Baptist in rural Georgia during the early 20th century. Like perhaps so many others, he began to question the nature of a church where one could sing songs that "Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight" on Sunday yet which supported the discrimination and harassment of blacks and other non-whites outside the church walls.

Dr. Jordan would follow his faith and establish the Koinonia Farm in the late 1940s. Naturally, the establishment of an integrated farm in the Deep South did not go over well with other residents of the county, some of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their disagreement with Dr. Jordan was neither social nor civil. But it speaks to the nature of faith that the Klan has virtually died while the Koinonia Farm is still going strong today.

That’s not to say it was an easy going. To combat some of the early attacks on the farm Clarence Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some civil actions against the Klan. His brother, a rising star in the Georgia political scene (he would later become a Georgia state senator and justice on the State Supreme Court) refused, claiming it would harm his political aspirations. He said such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence (though I don’t see how).

Clarence Jordan then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert replied that he followed Jesus up to a point. Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross. Robert replied that he would go to the cross but (ah, another one of those "buts") that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but an admirer and he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert replied that if everyone who felt like he did were to do what Clarence suggested, there wouldn’t be much of a church. Clarence asked if Robert even had a church to which he could go. Later, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (First published in "The Gifts We Received")

This is the covenant that we have today. We no longer live in the law, as the people who first encountered Christ did in the Galilee. We live in the fulfillment of the law. We, wretched as we may be, have been saved by God’s grace.

I hope that each one of you knows that moment when you understood what it meant to be saved. For John Wesley, it was that moment of assurance that we have come to call the Aldersgate moment. For Paul, it was that encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus when his life was changed from Saul to Paul. For John Newton, it was on a storm-tossed boat in the Atlantic when God called him to account for his life and what he had done with it. Each of us has that moment; some have encountered it, others will. Perhaps I came to that understanding in the chapel at 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville, Missouri, during the spring of 1969.

I sat with Reverend Marvin Fortel that day and reviewed the communion ritual. There is a line in the old ritual that reminds us that we are not worthy of gathering the crumbs from God’s table. It is by God’s grace and God’s grace alone that we can even think to sit at His table. Naturally to a world-wise and immensely smart 18-year old college sophomore, this revelation was quite shocking. I was doing good things, I was working to end racial discrimination in this country, and I was fighting against the war in Viet Nam. How did this all not open the door to heaven for me?

What you do means nothing if you have not accepted Jesus Christ; nothing you do means a thing if you are without Christ. You can do all the good things (and I hope you don’t stop) but don’t expect the rewards of heaven. It doesn’t work that way.

And when you say that you are a Methodist, expect more to follow. To say that you are Methodist is to say that you know your life is not perfect and that you will now begin to work towards that perfection. Now you begin the work, the work that shows the world that you are a disciple of Christ.

Understand that you are never called to do something that you are incapable of doing. Understand that what you are called to do may be something that you don’t even know yet. We are not called to be martyrs for Christ; we are called to be witnesses (funny how the word martyr actually means witness). We are called to the Cross and then beyond.

And sooner or later, you have to respond to the call. If the people are hungry, what will you do to feed them? If the people are sick, what will you do to help them find healthcare? If the people are homeless, will you be there to build the houses? If the people are oppressed and imprisoned, will you find a way to free them? It is not that hard to give a thirsty person a drink; it is hard to say find the water yourself.

God reminds us that He gave His Only Son so that we would have this opportunity today. What are you willing to give in return?

A Leap of Faith

Here are my thoughts for Trinity Sunday, 19 June 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 1 – 2: 4, 2 Corinthians 13: 11 – 13, Matthew 28: 16 – 20.

This is part of a four-week stewardship campaign. My part in the campaign is to present a short witness statement and then give a summary of the current giving patterns in the church (based on a per-week basis). This latter part of the presentation is the same presentation that I gave last spring.

Good morning, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians I greet you with a holy embrace and tell you that all the brothers and sisters here in Newburgh and New York and far as the eye can see say hello in the name of Christ.

As I was preparing this message, I saw the line in Matthew that said that there were those who, even after the reunion with Jesus still held back, afraid to risk themselves totally. I can understand why they may feel that way. Jesus was now gone but they were still here and it was a world in which the political and religious establishment viewed them as a threat.

They were afraid that what the Romans and religious authorities did to Jesus would be done to them. Oh yes, they understood that He had conquered sin and death but He was the Messiah, He was the Christ. We are just mere mortals and death is certainty in our lives. And the Pax Romana, the peace that covered the world, was ensured by military and political repression. Those who sought to change the status quo quite often found themselves as enemies of the state, sentenced to die by crucifixion just as Jesus died.

The paths through history also tell us that the church authorities have never taken kindly to those who have spoken out against traditional church. Even John Wesley was barred from preaching in churches belonging to the Church of England because he spoke out against the failure of the church to respond to the needs of the people. To be a Methodist at its beginning was as dangerous as it was to be a follower in those days following the Resurrection.

And now Jesus is commanding all who were there to go out into the world and instruct everyone they meet in the ways of the Lord. This is not the time to upset the apple cart; this is not the time to do something daring and bold. It is the time to sit quietly, hunker down, and wait for the moment.

It is still true today. One does not mention that one is a Christian or a member of the United Methodist Church. One does not invite friends, neighbors, colleagues, or passing acquaintances to the Vespers in the Garden that start this coming Friday at 7 pm or our summer services. It is a quick and easy way to make enemies and we don’t link up with our enemies on Facebook, just our friends.

Thanks to a number of people who have no idea what is written in the Bible, the average person today has a distorted view of God, religion, and Christianity. You would be surprised how many people today recoil at the notion that I can be a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church and also hold a Ph. D. in Science Education. For many people, to be a scientist, to seek answers that go beyond simple statements of fact, means that one cannot be a Christian. Believe me, one of the most intellectually challenging things that I do is read Sunday’s lectionary readings and think about how to make those words relevant to the 21st century. Let me be so bold as to say that if you are not willing to spend some time thinking about what the Bible is about and you let others dictate the message of the Bible, then you are not completing Jesus’ commandment at the end of the reading from Matthew for today.

But how can any of us do what we have been asked to do, go out into the world and instruct everyone whom we meet in the ways of the Lord? We don’t have the skills; we don’t have the ability; we don’t even have the time. If we were to end the reading from Matthew there, it would be difficult to do anything, let alone that which is expected of us.

But Jesus also told us that He would be with us as we ventured out into the world. I can speak from my travels across this land, both as a lay speaker and otherwise, that when you open your heart, your mind, and your soul to the power of the Holy Spirit, great things happen.

About twenty-five years ago, my mother participated in one of the Volunteer in Mission trips sponsored by the United Methodist Church. My mother had no business being on that mission. She was a grandmother in her late 60s. She didn’t have the skills necessary to do the carpentry work on the school building part of the team would do; she didn’t have the medical training that the nurses who went to provide basic medical care had. She knew very little about dentistry, other than the dentist on the trip, Solomon Christian, wasn’t taking much in the way of pain killers or other such drugs. She didn’t have any of those skills but she did know one thing.

She knew that the children for whom Solomon would provide the basic dental work would be hurting. And so my momma went as the DH, the designated hugger. She hugged each child with the love of a mother for her own children or a grandmother for her grandchildren. Her hugs and encouragement eased the pain of the necessary dental work.

I cannot speak to why my momma went to St. Vincent other than to say she took a leap of faith. She knew that she would be needed and so she went. And it remained for the rest of her life, one of the high points.

And if Virginia Mitchell can undertake such a mission, what is to stop each of you? Last week was Pentecost and it marked the beginning of the church. But it wasn’t an organization meeting as this Saturday’s church conference will be; it was the inclusion of the Holy Spirit to empower the people to go out into the world.

It does take a leap of faith to see that you can do great things. It is not what others think that you can do; it is what you think that you can do. Perhaps you will not go on a mission trip; perhaps you will only sing in the choir or teach Sunday School. Maybe it will be just saying hello to the stranger who walks by the church and inviting them in. And yes, perhaps it means giving from your income as much as you give from your heart and soul. I know that these are hard times for us all, and I am not going to be like other Southern-sounding preachers with their syrup-sweet accents who promise you great things will come if you but send them your money.

But there comes a moment in time when you are staring at the abyss and you have to get to the other side. You cannot do so if you don’t have an abiding trust in the Lord. The Israelites wandered through the wilderness for forty years and when the time came to cross the River Jordan, they balked. The spies they sent in lied about what they found and the crossing was delayed. They had seen all the signs that God had provided and yet, when the time came, they were not willing to make the leap of faith necessary to cross the River Jordan. Each person comes to that point on the River Jordan sometime in their life; each church, no matter what denomination, also comes to that point. Today, I will show you a plan that asks you to make that simple leap of faith.

And They Gathered Together

Here are my thoughts about Pentecost Sunday. I know, I know, it should have been posted two days ago but I was occupied with other matters and getting this piece up was not a priority.

My first thought about Pentecost this year, especially when I read the translation, was that maybe we shouldn’t be thinking about the birth of the church. The problem when we do that, think about the birth of the church, we don’t adequately think about the church then but rather the church today. That makes the church way out of date and hardly relevant to any discussion today.

The church that developed two thousand years ago was not the structured church of today, though I would hazard a guess that many people today don’t realize that.

The church that began was more of a community, a collection of individuals each with particular gifts, all working together for the good of the church. They received these gifts, these talents from the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that brought them together on that first Pentecost.

It was the Holy Spirit that allowed the various people who had gathered together that day and it was the Holy Spirit that allowed each person to speak to each other, even if they were of different nationalities or spoke different languages.

I recall one of the commentaries that I have used saying that this moment, when everyone is able to understand what others are saying, reverses the moment that we became different peoples, nationalities, and races during the building of the Tower of Babylon.

It would seem that today we have forgotten this commonality and have regressed to the separation of peoples and nations. I find too many churches where a particular task is one person and one person’s alone. They “inherited” the task and it will be theirs until such time as it has to be passed on. And quite honestly, this is one of the main reasons that people leave the church or don’t join. They see a hierarchy in place and you have to wait your turn, no matter if you have some good ideas or not.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we are more interested in calling our own shots. We want our churches to be separate enclaves, where everyone is the same and everyone fits the same mold. We know no longer look for ways to work together or to build the church.

And that takes us away from what this day was and should be about. Yes, we should celebrate the birth (and if your church was like mine, celebrate those who have been a part of the church). But it should also be an occasion to think about where we are, as a church, right now and how are we going to make sure that we are around next year and perhaps 50 years from now.

Can we go back and look at what the early, the real early church was doing, and see what we can do to make that possible today?

Can we again look at the skills and abilities of each person and find a way to utilize those skills? Can we make sure that we utilize the skills of everyone and not just those who have, through time and perseverance, earned their “place?” This comes with a caveat though; don’t assume that just because someone is good at something that they will want to do that skill in church. Someone might come up to me and say, “You are a college professor so why don’t you start a Sunday School class for college students?” One of the things that many teachers don’t need these days is to have their day of rest become another work day. What other skills might a person have that often doesn’t get used?

If anything, Pentecost Sunday ought to be a day on which we consider what the early church did (and that would include our own particular church when it was first founded) and see if we are still doing whatever it was that cause the church to begin. And then we need to think about whether that is what we need to be doing now and for tomorrow.

Those who gathered together on that first Pentecost gathered together to receive the Holy Spirit and to be empowered to go out into the world to show the world what Christ had done for them and what Christ can do for each one of us. We probably out to gather together for the same reasons.

On That Day

This is the message that I presented on Pentecost Sunday, 15 May 2005, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 1 – 21, 1 Corinthians 12: 3 – 13, and John 7: 37 – 39.

In every learning opportunity, there comes a time when you realize that you have learned something. You have been trying to learn something and it hasn’t been easy. But suddenly, without any forewarning, you find that you understand perfectly clear what it is that you are trying to learn. And the funny thing about it is that after you understand this new concept, it seems so simple and clear that you wonder why it seemed too hard in the first place. That moment of learning is known as the AHA moment.

It is really hard to define this moment in any other terms simply because the time and place are determined by the characteristics of the learner and what may be that moment for one will not be the same for another.

Today may be considered such a moment. It is that moment in time when the early church became immensely aware of the power of the Holy Spirit and the true meaning of the Gospel message. But there is a difference between one’s knowledge of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s own life and the sudden acquisition of knowledge.

The one thing that these two events have in common is that how one gains the knowledge, be it of the Holy Spirit or just “book” knowledge, is different. As Paul pointed out, each person comes to know the Holy Spirit in a unique and singular manner. And what one does with the acquisition is determined by one’s own skills, not by some common definition of utility and usage.

Now, it is entirely possible that you can go through life without learning the intricacies of some abstract concept. But you will know when the Holy Spirit has come into your life. It is also possible to go through life without having to use the knowledge of various abstract concepts but you will find that life is immensely different because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.

Notice what happened to those gathered that day when the Holy Spirit came into their lives. “They spoke to each other in their own language yet were able to understand what the others were saying.” You can spend most of your life working to acquire particular concepts but the presence of the Holy Spirit is an immediate occurrence.

Finally, learning and studying will prepare you for that moment when things all come together but no studying or preparation can actually prepare you for that one singular moment when the Holy Spirit enters into your life. The one example that illustrates this is the degree of preparation John and Charles Wesley put into their efforts to become faithful followers of Christ.

But for all their efforts, all their studies, all their hard work, neither Wesley could truly say that they had found Christ or that Christ was a singular point in their lives. They both knew who Christ was but they did not know Christ in their own lives.

For John Wesley, the moment when the Holy Spirit came into his life is that moment in the Aldersgate chapel when he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” What John did not know was that at that moment when the Holy Spirit was changing his life, it was also entering and changing the life of his brother Charles.

Charles had accompanied John on the mission to Georgia and served for a time as the secretary of the Governor, James Oglethorpe. As was the case for John, this experience was a disaster for Charles and he returned to England in December of 1736 (John remained in Georgia until February of 1738). During the year apart from his brother, Charles was able to gain a measure of strength and self-respect. But it appears from history that Charles’ struggle to find Christ in his life lead to many illnesses. The Moravian missionary, Peter Bohler wrote “His brother [speaking of Charles in reference to John] is at present very much distressed in his mind, but does not know how he shall begin to be acquainted with the Savior.”

In the month of May 1738, the Wesleys were in London. Charles was recovering from a recurrence of illness in the home of some Moravians in Little Britain, not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Through the humble concern and sincere Christian testimonies of his hosts and others, Charles was deeply affected. God was truly dealing with him. Opening his Bible at Isaiah 40:1, the light of salvation shone upon him! His Journal entry for May 21st reads:

“I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ….. I saw that by faith I stood, by the continual support of faith…….I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness….yet confident of Christ’s protection.”

On the following day, Charles strength began to return. He also commenced what proved to be the first of some 6,000 hymns! The day after – May 24th – John himself found assurance of salvation during a meeting in nearby Aldersgate Street. Charles wrote of his brother’s experience:

“Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared, “I believe.” We sang the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer……….”

The joyful account is not complete without the hymn (UMH #342):

Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire!
How shall I equal triumphs raise
Or sing my great Deliverer’s praise?

Exactly a year later, Charles wrote the more famous hymn, “0 for a thousand tongues to sing”, which he recommended for singing “on the anniversary of one’s conversion.”

For both John and Charles Wesley, that moment in time when they became aware of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s presence in their live was the changing point in their individual and collective ministries. As D. M. Jones wrote, “After this experience Charles Wesley was for a time at least lifted quite above all timid introspection and anxious care about his own spiritual state. It seemed as if this release was all that was needed to make him a channel for immense spiritual forces.” (http://www.christian-bookshop.co.uk/free/biogs/cwesley.htm)

It has been said that the church was born on this day some two thousand years ago. Because the people gathered that day opened their hearts and minds to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, others were to come to know the same power and presence. And, as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, how the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is used by each individual in the church is unique and separate. But while unique and separate, put together the works of the individuals come together for the benefit of the whole church.

In bringing people into the church, we integrate church and culture. Unfortunately, in today’s society, we find a battle ensuing in this attempt. There are those who would place the culture under the auspices of the church and there are those who would rather the church just quietly go about its business and leave them alone. Unfortunately you cannot distinguish between faith and culture. You cannot separate the work of the church from the work of society.

It was the work of the early Methodists, preaching salvation by the Grace of God that changed England in the mid-18th century. It was the evangelical revival first started by the Wesleys and the early Methodist church that had a profound impact on stemming a revolutionary tide sweeping England. Conditions improved by changing the hearts of the people; the wealthy become more caring and lower classes more respectful and civilized.

It would be nice if we could say that this was still true today. Unfortunately, evangelism no longer has the same connotations that it held for the Wesley brothers. One thing is true; opposition to the evangelism of Wesley is still true today. Both Wesleys were attacked by those claiming to be Christian.

Today, you have a chance to be one of three individuals. The first can be called a separatist. They have their Christian friends, their Christian music, and their Christian church. They wear their faith all the time but fail to relate to the world around them. They pride themselves in having a pure faith. But they fail to see that no one wants to hear about their faith because it is so completely irrelevant to the culture. When you challenge them to integrate their faith with their culture, they get a frightened look in their eyes. They don’t want to integrate the two because then they would have to give up control.

The second individual is a conformist. These individuals live a one-day religion, going to church for two hours on Sunday and then placing their faith on the shelf and living a life of the current culture for the remainder of the week. When it is needed, they bring their faith down from the shelf and wear it when it is convenient; they remove it when it becomes too uncomfortable.

The third type of individual would be called a transformist. Like both John and Charles Wesley, they sought to make faith a part of culture and used their faith to change society, not for the purposes of a self-proclaimed religion but rather for society. Such individuals understand that one cannot categorize faith, love for God, and love for people into separate and independent categories. Such individuals integrate their faith with their culture and their love for God with their love for people. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)

The question for today is what type of person will you be? The world is a big place and each of us is just one person. That may well have been thought of those present that day some two thousand years ago. On that day, their lives were transformed and with that transformation, the world changed. On this day, we are offered the same opportunity to let the Holy Spirit come into our lives as was offered to the people hearing the Gospel message that we heard today. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink. Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

On that day some two thousand years ago, people’s lives were changed. On this day, your life can change just as theirs did.

“The Time Has Come”

This is the message that I presented on Pentecost Sunday, 23 May 1999, at Neon (KY) United Methodist Church. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 1 – 21, 1 Corinthians 12: 3 – 13, and John 7: 37 – 39.

This was the last Sunday for me at Neon. I would leave for New York following the service to begin a new ministry with the Walker Valley United Methodist Church and a new life with Ann. But I left knowing that this small little mountain community church would continue and I hope that it is going well today.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”

A time to be born and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to kill and a time to heal;

A time to break down and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)

This passage from Ecclesiastes, assumed to be written by Solomon or someone known as the Preacher, was talking about the passage of time through the ages. It has always been one of my favorite passages from the Bible. I suppose that it is because it was one of the first folk songs to ever be a rock and roll hit. And I am sure that there are many people who sing this song who have no idea that it comes from the Bible.

The measurement of time has always been a challenge to mankind. While we can say for sure that it is 1030 a.m. on Sunday, May 23rd, the telling of time has not always been so precise. In John Wesley’s time, clocks were bulky and highly unreliable. For the people of Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hourglass and by noting certain events (as noted in the Gospel reading for today — “On the last and greatest day of the Feast”)

So it was that time was seen in terms of the passage of seasons and the completion of tasks. But there are times separate from seasons and tasks. Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” While he was referring to the early days of the American Revolution when things were not going good for the colonists, such a sentiment could be justly as easily expressed today.

We look around us and see countless examples of problems for which we feel there is no solution. We feel hopeless and unable to comprehend what is going on.

But, while there is not a lot that we as individuals can do, there is a lot that we as a church and a community can do. While we may think that Jesus spent most of his ministry preaching the Good News, the majority of His time was spent building a community. Jesus knew that if His work was continue beyond His time on earth, it would have to be through the community of believers.

Paul writes

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

But for the body to function, it must be filled with the Holy Spirit. Throughout the time between Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus told his disciples to stay as a group so that they could receive the Holy Spirit.

For without the Holy Spirit it is not possible to accomplish the great things Christ asks us to do. And without the community, there is no place to do His work.

The challenge is two-fold. As individuals, we must have a place where we can go to celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives. As a community, we must offer a place where others can see and hear what Christ is all about. And in this time when people are crying out for comfort and solace, the church must be ready to offer such.

But no matter how hard we might try, we cannot do it by ourselves. Paul noted that there are many different kinds of gifts and many different kinds of service. How we work can vary but it is only accomplished through the Holy Spirit. The miracle of Pentecost, what this day is all about, was possible because the people were filled with the Holy Spirit. As Paul noted also, no works could be accomplished unless each individual first received the Holy Spirit by accepting Christ as his personal Savior.

The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the Torah, offers the following comment,

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.”

The time has come. The offer has been made. Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”

Jesus offers to all who believe in him the gift of living water, the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit in us, great things can be accomplished, both by individuals and by communities.

“To See the World with a New View”

Here are my thoughts for Ascension Sunday, 5 June 2011. Sorry that it was late but I had to focus on the funeral of my mother. I posted my thoughts at “A Celebration of Life.”

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.

Some years ago, while working on my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri, I attended a weekly science education seminar. Now, I didn’t have to attend this seminar because I had already received credit for attending in a previous seminar. But it was expected that one attended all of the seminars, so I came, I listened, and I participated.

As it happened, this seminar was held on a Monday and Monday was one of the nights that I bowled, so my schedule was pretty busy. I would teach during the day, come home, grab a quick bite to eat, run over to campus for the class and then get to the lanes for the league.

As it happened, there was an opening in the seminar schedule and they needed someone to fill in so I volunteered to do an extra seminar. It also worked out that it would help explain why I rushed out of the classroom at the end of the seminar. And because there had been a couple of more humorous seminars that semester, I choose as my topic “The Bowling Ball as a Curriculum Tool.” (I wish I had kept my notes on this talk because there may be other opportunities in the near future for me to do something similar.)

The talk went something like this: We see bowling in terms of physical education and the scoring often reminds us of the mathematics involved in bowling. But there is also chemistry (as I would later write about in “The Chemistry of Bowling: A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners”) and physics (referred to in the chemistry article that I published) involved. The dynamics of skid, roll, and hook are determined by the friction between the bowling ball, the lane itself, and the lane conditioner – it is this combination of chemistry and physics (perhaps more physics today than chemistry) that determines the outcome.

What people may not realize is that there is history involved as well. It is said that Sir Frances Drake wanted to finish his game of lawn bowling before setting sail to lead the English against the Spanish Armada. There is American literature with the story of Rip Van Winkle and the reason for thunder and lightning. There is also home economics (hey, someone has to sew the names of the bowlers on their shirts), geography (when I travel to the USBC Open, I don’t always go to Reno; I have been to St. Louis, Tampa, Louisville, Memphis, Baltimore, Niagara Falls, Tulsa, Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Wichita, Toledo, Corpus Christi, Mobile, Salt Lake City, Huntsville, Syracuse, Albuquerque, Billings, Knoxville, and Baton Rouge as well). So, in the end, there are a variety of topics that can be examined with the bowling ball as your primary curriculum tool.

Now, this idea of using an item as the basis for teaching a variety of topics or subject areas is not necessarily new. It is sometimes covered as “writing across the curriculum” but I present my idea in 1973 and I think that was before the idea of “writing across the curriculum” was fully developed. Second, while there are many proponents to this idea now, they tend to see it in areas that don’t often include science and mathematics. There are reasons for this and I hope to cover them in a project I am working on.

When I taught science education courses at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, I always pointed out that science could be taught in terms of water and oil. Those two liquids are key to the success and life in west Texas (and probably many areas as well). I encouraged my students to see beyond the “walls” of the classroom and utilize all the subjects in teaching, not limit it to a particular place and time. (It should be noted that one of the ways that we incorporated art in the curriculum of science was to prepare maps for the field trips that I had my students plan.)

But, in today’s classroom and educational systems, I fear that such across the board and outside the box thinking is not well received. We like our educational process to be simple and neat. It is so much easier to teach each subject separately because then the testing process becomes easier. (See “The Vaccination Theory of Education” in “A Collection of Sayings”).

The same is true with religion and the church. As long as everything is simple and neat, cut and dried, black and white, fixed and inflexible, we are happy. But when the boundaries of church and society are crossed or get mixed, we are uncomfortable.

I can imagine that the disciples and early followers were very happy during those forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Jesus had been with them and teaching them and it was as if nothing had changed. They didn’t have to do anything. I think one can feel of panic creep in as they watched Jesus ascend into Heaven. With one event, they now realized that He was leaving it would be up to them to carry on the mission that Jesus had begun.

Now, it wasn’t so simple; now it wasn’t so easy. Now, it was no longer just Jesus talking about what was come, it was time to begin doing it themselves. But, it should be noted that Jesus was fully aware of this sense of panic that might have been engulfing His followers because He promised help; He promised that Holy Spirit would be come.

I think we forget this, especially when we see the nature of the church today. Many churches today act as if the world was like the first days after the Resurrection; they hide in fear of the world outside, afraid to let the world outside into their safe sanctuary. Their concerns are about the condition of the church and not the condition of their souls. It is almost as if putting time and energy into a building will somehow make it easier for people to come to the building. But only certain people are allowed to come into the building and nothing happens.

If there was more concern about doing the work of the church, it would be easier to meet the needs of the church. Right now, in some of the churches where I serve as a lay speaker and member, opposition to paying apportionments. It is more important that we pay the utility bill and the salaries than it is to be worried about missions and the overall church structure. I think that part of this is due to the fact that those who oppose apportionments have absolutely no clue as why apportionments are even required or what would happen if an individual church were to not pay its apportionments in full.

I have suggested that each church should take 10% of its weekly offering and set it aside for apportionments. In some of the churches I have been involved with, this suggestion has met with opposition. I have pointed out that when this was done, the church paid its apportionments (in fact, was able to begin paying the next year in advance); at least one church that refused to think of doing this is now closed.

I am hoping this summer that the Vespers in the Garden series that we host will lead to an awakening of the Spirit in the people. We are expanding the service from simply on Fridays to Fridays and Sundays. I would like to think that we can continue the Sunday Vespers after Labor Day, the end of the summer series. I have in my mind that 25 people will use the opportunity of the summer vespers to become members of the church. It is perhaps a little bit audacious but I think it is possible.

There comes a time when we have to continue the work that was begun two thousand years ago. I imagine that when the disciples and the early followers watched Jesus ascend, there was a sense of panic. But I think that they also understood that He wasn’t leaving them but allowing the process that would bring the Holy Spirit into their lives.

I think the same is true today. We need a new vision of the world. We should not be focused on the building in which our church resides but on the world in which the building resides. And to have this view, we must go outside and look up to Jesus. And we need to understand that with Pentecost, we will be empowered in such a way that what we seek we will accomplish.

We cannot come to Pentecost unless we first change our view of the world. That is what today is about.

A Celebration of Life

My mother passed away on Sunday so I haven’t posted much this week. The memorial service was on Thursday and I want to express my thanks to Reverend Gail Gaddy for officiating. Burial was in my mother’s home town of Lexington, North Carolina, this morning (June 11, 2011) and I lead the service. Here is my tribute/eulogy for my mother.

Virginia Louise Hunt Mitchell LeBouef

Momma, Grannie

June 15, 1924 – June 5, 2011

Would it be alright with you if I speak of my mother rather than Virginia? I don’t want to conduct a second funeral today because my mother would pitch a fit if I were not to call her Momma; such is the power of my mother.

I believe that Momma has seen me in my preaching robes before but she never got the chance to see me fully attired in my academic gown. In her honor, I wear my robe and hood today.

I would like to begin by reading you a poem by Carl Sandburg.

FOG by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

HE fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

Our mother used to tell me that this poem was the first poem she ever memorized. That, along with its simplicity and elegance, speaks volumes about her.

There was a quiet, unstated elegance in the way our Momma lived. Many a person has seen a picture of our mother and commented on how she looked like Queen Elizabeth, only softer. Funny, I always thought that Queen Elizabeth looked like my Momma.

That she could remember a Carl Sandburg poem years later speaks of her ties to Lexington and her view of life. And though she might have left Lexington, it never left her. As a family, we would visit here, especially the house outside town on U. S Highway 64. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out that the highway, a couple of blocks away from her home in Memphis, was the same highway that passed in front of the house that was her parent’s home in Lexington. You may leave home but there is always a way to find your way back.

For Momma, education was more than simply a way to leave home; it was an opportunity to go beyond boundaries, to try new things and to know who one was as a person. I think this is what she gave each one of her children.

She saw to it that there was a foundation in our life, a foundation that would always be there for us, as it was for her. Even in the days when part of her was missing from this physical world, she was still here. Her pastor, Reverend Gail Gaddie of Good Shepherd UMC, told me that she was able to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed from memory and without assistance at the end of each weekly visit.

And I would be remiss if I were not to say that it was that foundation that she laid for me here in Lexington when I was baptized at the First Evangelical Reformed Church. I don’t believe that the path in ministry could have been accomplished without the foundation that Momma laid. The same is true for each of my brothers and sister as well. She laid the foundation so that we could choose our own path, knowing that no matter where it may lead, we would be supported in our efforts. In our Momma we knew there was a home to come to in times of strife, struggle, and celebration.

When I married Ann in 1999, Momma rejoiced. She jokingly told Ann that now she, Ann, was stuck with me and that I couldn’t come back home. But in a more serious vein, Momma told Ann that she was happy that I had found someone to love and care about me; that now she didn’t have to worry so much about my happiness.

Momma was patient with us, teaching us right from wrong. Rewards came when we did well. We were encouraged to, if you will, do our own thing. This doesn’t mean that we could do just about anything that we wanted. If we did wrong, we could expect punishment. It was sometimes harsh, sometimes hard, sometimes stern but always, always with the understanding that we were loved.

We are, as siblings go, a competitive group. And we got this competiveness as much from our mother as we did our father. Her trophies and her participation in 36 Women’s International Bowling Congress Tournaments are proof of that. And it did not sit well with her when injuries and operations took her away from bowling.

But I think Momma also wanted us to understand that success was more than just winning. Doing things right was always more important than finishing first.

Momma did not suffer fools gladly. There is many a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force who felt the wrath of my mother when they had the audacity to tell her how to move a family of six (plus, on more than one occasion, a dog) from one base to another. Momma was quite proud of the fact that she held Top Secret clearance while she worked at the Pentagon in the late 40s and early 50s (a security level that my father didn’t hold and of which she would occasionally remind him). And she absolutely hated it when one’s bravado and/or bragging was greater than the prize that they received.

The elegance in Momma’s life was often found in the simple things. When I was a Cub Scout, I found the easiest way to earn Arrow Heads was by cooking. And so Momma taught me how to cook. And then when Terry and Tim became Cub Scouts, she taught them how to cook as well. And when Tracey turned ten, it was her turn to cook. But it wasn’t just a skill that we learned. Now that we knew how to cook, we began cooking once or twice a week. She would plan the menus for the week, go to the commissary and get the groceries and then turn it over to each of us when it was our turn.

One day, a neighbor was visiting as one of us began the preparation of the meal. Shocked by this, the neighbor proclaimed, “Do you let your children into the kitchen?” And Momma, in a quiet understated way, replied, “Why, yes. Don’t you?”

I think Momma taught us to go beyond, to push the envelope, to not do just what is expected but a little bit more. And she didn’t just say that or push us; she lived that life.

Several years ago, she was part of a group from Good Shepherd that went to St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean. Today, such projects are part of the VIM (Volunteers in Mission) program of the United Methodist Church; I don’t know if it was called that then. But the purpose of the trip was the same; to go to a place that needed help and give of your self. The Good Shepherd team consisted of some carpenters, a dentist, and some nurses. The carpenters were going to begin work and continue work on a school for the children of the island. The dentist and the nurses were going to provide rudimentary dental and health care for the island’s residents.

Momma had no business going on this trip. She wasn’t a carpenter, a dentist, or a nurse. But Momma knew that the dentist and nurses were going to need a “DH”, a “designated holder or hugger.”

Because it was neither practical nor possible to take many pain killing drugs with them, the dental work was often done without. And it can be very uncomfortable to have a tooth worked on in this way. So you can imagine that there was a great deal of crying and hurting go on. And that is where Momma did “her thing”. She may not have had the skills of a dentist or a nurse but she knew how to ease the pain of a little one. So she hugged them and loved them as a mother would hug a child or a grandmother would hug and love a grandchild.

So don’t ever think that there is not a role for you. Momma showed that anyone can go on a mission trip and help. She showed and reminded us that no matter how old you might be or what you think your skills are, there are things that you can do that you never thought possible.

In later years, Momma decided that she wanted to sing, not just on Sundays in the church choir but at local senior centers. She wanted to sing for the old people; now, keep in mind that Momma was almost seventy when she decided she wanted to be a rock star. But seventy years was just a number on a calendar somewhere, not a clock in her mind. So Momma started practicing, working with the organist at Good Shepherd and finding songs to sing. We helped by producing a CD of song tracks that she could take with her when she went visiting.

She even went with me one Sunday when I preached at the Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Mason, Tennessee. And it speaks to who our Momma was. Born in North Carolina, raised during the depression, she would go with her son when she was in her 70s and sing for the members of a black church in rural Tennessee. Momma taught us to not settle for the moment but to push the envelope.

Momma’s time on earth has ended but not her presence. It is felt and measured in her children, her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It is seen in the gardens she planted and the music she sang. It remains in all those who knew her as Virginia, Jenny, or just plain “Grannie”.

It was a life that was sometimes filled with sadness and pain but it was and always will be a life of celebration. We grieve today at the loss of our Momma but we celebrate her life and we continue the legacy that she has passed on to each of us and those who have been touched by her presence. The circle of life has neither a beginning nor an end. It is a circle that cannot or should not be broken.