A New Understanding of Mathematics

The 2011 IgNoble Prizes were announced this week (see 2011 IgNoble Prizes) and the prize for Mathematics was awarded to Dorothy Martin, Pat Robertson, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Lee Jang Rim, Credonia Mwerinde, and Harold Camping. Each of these prophets had unsuccessfully predicted the end of the world. None of the winners came to the awards ceremony to receive their awards. Could it be that each was too modest to be there (of course Martin and Prophet are dead, so they weren’t available and Mwerinde is apparently on the run from criminal authorities)?

The award was given because each of these prophets, in their own way, has taught the world to be careful when it comes to mathematical assumptions and calculations.

The committee has also included Camping’s prediction of 10/21/2011 as a failure; I suppose this means that if the world does end on that date, he will have to give his award back.

This is not the first time that a noted religious prophet has won an IgNoble Prize. Dr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe of Jack Van Impe Ministries, Rochester Hills, Michigan, won the IgNoble for astrophysics in 2001 for their discovery that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell. What is interesting is that the broadcast in which is this discovery was made is no longer available on the internet. I actually referenced this award in a 2003 sermon that I posted to my blog in 2009 (see “The Evidence before you”).

It should be noted that there are noted scientists who have predicted the end of time. As I noted in “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”, Isaac Newton also spent many hours delving into the nature of the Book of Daniel and concluded the end of time would occur sometime in 1948.

While I chuckle at the IgNoble award (when you look at some of the others, you have to marvel at what people think), the fact that many people put stock and credence into the words of false prophets bothers me. And there will be those who will use this occasion, meant in humor, to attack Christianity and use these “false” prophets as an example of futility of Christianity and religion.

It speaks to the need to teach and explain not only the basic tenets of science and mathematics, but the basic thoughts of the Bible. After all, isn’t that what Jesus did and would have us do? But, you also have to admit, it is pretty funny!

“What Are Our Priorities – Part 2?”

As a follow-up to what I posted Monday, “What Are Our Priorities?”, I want to add the follow items:

  1. It was reported in The New York Times and other papers this morning that 6 Long Island high school students paid a 7th student to take the SAT exams – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/nyregion/7-long-island-students-charged-in-sat-fraud-scheme.html

    I know why the six students did it; pressure from their parents and their peers. I just want to know how the one student who took the test was able to pull it off. The physical part was easy – he took the six exams at six different sites using six sets of falsified identities. But unless he got the same exam all six times, each of the students for whom he took the exam would have gotten different scores (and it was the scores and how they varied from each student’s own academic performance that triggered the inquiry).
    The other thing is that the more times you take an exam, the more you are likely to regress to the mean. In other words, multiple attempts do not result in better scores.
    When I was a junior in high school, we were told (by persons unknown) to take the PSAT as a practice exam and then take the SAT and ACT exams during the spring of our junior year. Depending on which exam we needed, we were to take that particular exam again at the beginning of our senior year.
    I scored something between 90 and 99% on the natural sciences, social sciences, and math portions of the ACT exam. I got the required minimum on the English portion but I had an excuse; I fell asleep during that portion of the exam. The ACT was my backup exam (meaning I didn’t need it for the colleges I wanted to attend but I needed for the one that I might have to go to) so I didn’t repeat that exam. I got what I thought were really horrible scores on the SAT that I took in the spring so I repeated it in the fall and got a 760 on math and something like 1340 combined (there are times when I wish my doubles and single scores at the USBC Open were that good).
    I don’t know if that procedure would work today. But repeating the exam repeatedly and paying money to have someone teach you how to take the test are not the best options.
    Here is my advice on how to take the SAT and ACT exams (it works for other similar exams as well with the possible exception of the GRE).

    1. Read the question but don’t read the answers.
    2. Answer the question.
    3. If you understood the question correctly, then you have the answer or one close to it.

    There are too many people who will read the question and then try to deduce the answer from the choices. Do the work first; that way you can eliminate the obvious. There is a correct answer and there is an almost correct answer and then there are really bad answers. The only way to know is to do the work.

    Also, get a good night’s sleep before and don’t argue with anyone. Come to the exam in a good frame of mind and things will go smoothly.

  2. It was reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this morning that the principal of a school in downtown St. Louis instructed the secretaries to alter the attendance records, so as to meet NCLB standards.

    This isn’t the first time this has happened (look at Atlanta and the mess that’s going on down there or what happened in Houston a few years back).
    As long as we make schools accountable by some weirdly defined bottom line (test scores, attendance, and such) then we are going to have instances where the teachers and the administrators do things like erase wrong answers on test scores or falsely report the scores and attendance.
    The only true measure of a school success is in what its students do with their lives. Consider this – Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow both graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1950. Their independent research in physics would earn them, along with Abdus Salam, the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. Personally, I would hate to be a part of a culture where not winning the Nobel Prize is tantamount to failure but it speaks to that high school that it turned out not one, but two winners.
    While it would be unrealistic to expect the production of Nobel Prize winners as a measure of success, it would be realistic to look and see what impact the graduates of any particular high school had on their community and the world.
    But that takes time and it is the one thing that we don’t put into the mix when we try to make our schools accountable.
    We have to decide right now what our priorities are? We can go for the quick fix and things look nice right now but how much good does it do when the numbers turn out to be false and the students haven’t learned anything. Oh yes, they have papers that say they know this and that but what can they do?
    Our priorities are really screwed up right now and pretty soon we are going to see the outcome of this quick fix mentality.
    Let’s get back on track before it is too late and decide what our priorities should be.

“What Are Our Priorities?”

In principle, I agree with the logic that says that when one must spend money that you don’t have, you must make some cuts in other areas. This is the logic put forth by conservatives on both sides of the aisle in Congress right now.

It is the logic that also dominates too many households in this country today. Unfortunately, for many of these households, the need to pay rent or food means that other items such as medicine are cut. Congress has taken the unexplainable logic of saying that when we must spend extra, say to keep our promises to the people of Joplin to rebuild their city, then we must take the money from some other area, such as any number of social spending areas or loan guarantees for electric cars. By the way, did you notice that some of the disaster relief money that is being held up by this fight about where to cut other spending is money that is going to Ohio? Want to bet that money will somehow appear while other states with more sensible representatives will lose their money?

I have yet to hear anyone from Congress, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, say that perhaps we should cut the funding for the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Maybe if we cut some of the money from the 2nd biggest bureaucracy in Washington, the Department of Homeland Security, we might find that little bit of extra money.

And why is that every time that there is even a suggestion that the rich pay a fair share of their income, there is a cry that it is class warfare. You know what class warfare is? It is going to church in a second-hand suit that someone was kind enough to donate to you while other men in the same church are wearing $2000 suits and the women have diamond rings that reflect so much light that you have to wear your sunglasses to avoid the glare. And then while they make you feel uncomfortable about your clothes (believe, no words were ever spoken but the looks made it clear how they felt), they vote to spend close to a million dollars on a television program because the other big church in town just increased its television budget. The money that those two churches spent could have easily helped resolved other issues, such as hunger, health care, and homeless.

But I guess when your priorities are television ratings or the need to fight another war to prove that you are the biggest and the baddest, I guess it is alright to spend the money that way instead of helping people. What was it that Marie Antoinette said, “let them eat cake”?

Of course, from the viewpoint of those who would prefer that those of us who have to work (or try to work for a living), there is the old Wizard of Id carton in which the people cry, “The peasants are revolting!” And the king replies, “You can say that again.”

As long as we are going to spend money on war and violence, as long as those who have the means refuse to share, our priorities are all wrong. Class warfare will be the least of their worries.


Here are my thoughts for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Philippians 2: 1 -13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32. This was edited on 25 September 2011.

I will be at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY) for their Saturday evening worship service. There is lobster and chicken dinner from 4 to 8 with the service at 7 so, if you can, make plans to be there for the meal and stay for the worship. <Contact information>

There are choices and there are choices. Do I go with the lobster or do I go with the chicken? Actually, in my case, there is no choice. I am allergic to shell fish and I would rather not risk an allergic reaction, so I go with the chicken.

But, even if I couldn’t make the choice, it does illustrate something about making choices. You have to know what is involved if you are going to make any sort of choice. Sometimes you don’t have all the information; sometimes you do.

For me the problem is that we are a society that really doesn’t want to know what lies around the corner or over the horizon. We are like the society in the days before Columbus where everyone thought that the world was flat and that if you ventured far enough away from the safety of your home, you would fall off.

However, I really think that this image of a “flat earth” was a myth. There is enough evidence to suggest that people as far back as 240 BCE knew that the earth was a sphere (“Was Eratosthenes Correct? A Multi-Class Science Project”).

However, with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria it is quite possible that this information was lost. We know that many other writings, such as Democritus’ original work on the nature of the atom were “lost” in this way. There were enough fragments of Democritus’ work surviving to allow Isaac Newton to develop his ideas on optics and give John Dalton the impetus he needed to begin the first atomic theory.

So why would we even think that the earth might be flat? Because our initial impression tells us that things disappear over the horizon and since we don’t know what is over “there”, we create an answer that we can understand. And unless we do something to test that answer, we are apt to keep that answer in our minds long after we know the correct answer. Consider that most adults today will tell you that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, even when they learned in school that they fall at the same rate. (See the discussion on this in “A New Vision (Part 1)” and “The World “Out There””.)

If we hold onto beliefs that have been shown to be outdated or incomplete, then it should not be a surprise that we tend to fear the unknown.

I will be honest; I think this is one of the major problems with the church and Christianity today. You see it in the opposition to the teaching of evolution. Now, this isn’t about whether or not God created the heavens and the earth; I happen to think He did. I also think that it was done in such a way that just begs for us to explore the whole concept.

But there are a number of individuals who would have us accept the first two chapters of Genesis as the truth and nothing but the truth. And it is to be accepted without question. But when you do that, when you put something out there and tell inquisitive minds that it cannot be explored, you are just asking for trouble.

And when powers that be say that is the way it is going to be, then you are also asking for trouble. And that is the problem with the church today. There are many in today’s churches who hold on to points of view that are in conflict with the world around them but they say that their points of view are the only ones that count. People will leave any organization when they are told what to think, what to say, and given no other options.

In the end, any organization, be it a church or some other group, that is not capable of adapting to the times risks death. Now, I am not saying that the beliefs of the organization have to change (unless, of course, time and evidence prove them incorrect. Nor am I saying that a church must adapt its message to the culture in which it exists. Too many people are doing that and all it does is send an additional message of hypocrisy to a population that would like to have some decent answers for the questions that bother them.

The message that the people today hear is either one that that is old and out of touch with them or is the product of some very interesting marketing techniques. It is a message that says that the sanctuary is there to protect them from the world and all that goes on in the world. It is a message that says that the church is there for each one of them, to allow them to achieve greatness while others may suffer.

The sanctuary, this place we are in tonight, is meant not to protect us from the world but to give us a place where we can find protection with the Saving Grace of Christ. It is meant to give us a place to recharge and regroup after we have done the business and the work of the church and of Christ.

Paul wrote to the Philippians and said to keep doing the things that you are doing. And what are those things? They are the things that Christ taught us, to care for the sick and the hungry, to work towards building homes and giving comfort to the people of the community, no matter who they might be and even if they may not be a member of the church. Those who came last week spoke of the meaning of this church and its people in their own lives and it gave credence to the words of Bishop Park.

The problem facing the United Methodist Church, as Bishop Park noted last week, is that we are an aging church. But before we say that we cannot do anything because we are an aging church, remember how old Abraham was when he and Sarah had their sons. Remember how old Moses was when he was told to bring the people out of Egypt.

Age is a point in time on a calendar somewhere. I have seen too many people whose calendar age is far less than mine but who are old in ways and desires. I have seen many whose calendar age is greater than mine but who are so young in mind and spirit.

The Pharisees were challenged by Jesus. It was a challenge that they were afraid to answer because it would show that they were as old in mind and spirit as they were in body. Their church and religion were suffering from a fixed viewpoint, one that would not allow questions, one that feared the unknown.

Jesus offers us a new vision, one that renews the mind and spirit and gives life to old bones. It is one that allows us to not fear the unknown.

We know where the walk with Jesus will lead us. There are some who are like the second son who act and talk as if they were devout and pious but who will not take that walk. There are those who are like the first son, whose lives are not the best, but who know that the only path that they can walk is the one that leads to the Cross.

We have never been asked to die on the Cross; Jesus Christ did that for us. But we must be prepared to go to the Cross, not just sit back and admire it from afar. At this point in the message I told the story of Clarence Jordan and his brother Robert and how Robert stated that he would go to the cross but that he wouldn’t be on the cross. Clarence challenged him as to how much of a Christian he really was. The first time that I told this story was in “What Do We Say?”. We must make a choice tonight; shall we be like the one son who says that he believes but does little? Or shall we be like the one son who may hesitate at first but does the work of Christ when called upon to do so?

“What Is Fair?”

Here are my thoughts for Sunday, September 18, 2011, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 16: 2 – 15, Philippians 1: 21 – 30, and Matthew 20: 1 – 16.

Note – I will be at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY) this coming Saturday, September 24th, for their Saturday evening worship service. There is lobster and chicken dinner from 4 to 8 with the service at 7 so, if you can, make plans to be there for the meal and stay for the worship. <Contact information>

The one thing that has always amazed me about the lectionary and the Scripture readings each week is how they easily fit into the topics, events, and issues of today. Now, some may say this is God’s plan but I, as you all probably know, have a hard time with that concept. It speaks of pre-destination and no free will on our part, an idea/concept which I know some people gladly accept.

But that also makes the Bible a fixed and unchanging document. And when that happens, it becomes impossible to relate what Jesus said two thousand years ago to what is happening today. And when you cannot relate what Jesus said, you essentially make the Bible and Christianity irrelevant.

On the other hand, if you understand that God gave us the ability to think and make choices, then the Bible becomes a living and breathing document, one that allows us to see paths in this world.

But we must also make sure that the path is guided by the thoughts and words that are in the Bible, not what we would have them to be.

Consider if you will the Gospel reading for today. We read the story about the workers every three years and we get upset about it. On the one hand, we can sympathize with those workers who put in a full day’s effort but, in the end, received the same wage as those who only worked a half of the day or even only worked one hour. If we see those who worked the full day as receiving a fair wage, then those who only worked the ½ day or the one hour received far more than they deserved. But suppose that those who worked the one hour received the fair wage; then those who worked the ½ day or the full day were underpaid.

Of course, in today’s society, where we are apt to see day laborers standing at the corner waiting for someone to come by and offer them even a little snippet of work, we are apt to take the attitude (which I know many people take) that they were lucky to get the work and they should be grateful for what they got and not complain.

In today’s Old Testament reading, the Israelites are beginning the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And as will happen each week for the next few weeks, they will be complaining about the travel conditions, the food, and the water.

In today’s Old Testament reading, the people are grumbling about the food, saying that the food was better when they lived in Egypt. Maybe the food was better but they were slaves in Egypt, not free people; and they had made the choice to leave Egypt to seek a better live in the Promised Land.

I am reminded of those who came to this country some four hundred years ago, expecting to see gold lying around just waiting to be picked up. There is one document that lists those who lived in the Jamestown, VA, colony as “gentlemen.” It was a term for someone who wasn’t expected to do hard labor. One can only imagine this gentlemen sitting around expecting the laborers who came on the journey to do all the work and make the colony survive. We know from our history books that the Jamestown colony was in deep, deep trouble because of this attitude. And only when John Smith made some major changes in the social order did the colony begin to survive. And it only truly began when they quit looking for the gold and began working on crops and buildings.

But God provides the people with the necessary sustenance for their journey. He also provides instructions that state to take only what you need and no more. Those who take more find that what the extra that they take is no good when they go to eat it. And on the sixth day, they are told to take a second share because they will be no food delivered on the Sabbath. Those who do not take the second share find themselves without anything to eat on the Sabbath.

I am not enough of a theologian to know but I also think that the instructions that Moses gave to the Israelites about the gathering of the food also included instructions for gathering food for those who were unable to gather for themselves (the infirmed, the elderly, the young).

I can only look around at today’s society and wonder how we would deal with these instructions. Shouldn’t we be allowed to get as much as we desire instead of the amount that we need? Is it fair for some to have more when others have less?

Yes, I still have a problem with the Gospel reading and feel that someone who works 8 hours should receive more money for their work than someone who only works 1 hour. But I also know that there are many who would love to be working right now, even it is only for one hour. That’s why I asked which one of the workers received the fair wage.

Now, I also know that that perhaps the real meaning of the Gospel story is that God’s grace is the same for everyone, even if there are some who feel that they more they do, the more of God’s grace they should receive.

But what is fair? In a world where there are some who would proclaim that their wealth gives them the right to pay in taxes than the people who earn the wealth for them, what is fair?

Should not everyone receive the same basic needs and make sure that all are taken care of? The words of the politicians today, along with the words of many who proclaim Christ as their Savior, run so counter to the words of Paul written to the Philippians two thousand years ago as to not be funny.

Paul tells the Philippians to live a life worthy of Christ. Christ treated everyone equally and fairly and if that is the way He lived, how are we to live today?

I suppose that what bothers me more than anything is that much of the rhetoric of today is couched in terms of Christianity. But the words of Christ, the words of Paul, and the words of the Old Testament are words that speak of equality and fairness; of taking care of the people, not casting them aside. The words speak of taking only what you need and not keeping more than you deserve. Is it not the time so ask when we are going to be fair to all the people, no matter who they may be? Is it not time to live the life worthy of Christ?


As I was writing this, I received notice about Jay Voorhees’ piece – “Get the churches to do it. . . they’ll do anything!”. I suggest reading that piece as well.

“Together or Alone”

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2002. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.

That Jesus was a teacher should be fairly obvious. Most of the time He was giving the disciples and followers stories and parables about life. But He also spent a great deal of time questioning. Questions about the parables, about the lessons that they learned. Today’s Gospel reading was an example of such questioning.

Jesus wasn’t so much interested in what the masses were saying but rather what the disciples themselves were thinking. “Who do you say I am?” was the central question. But the disciples, still thinking like the others who followed him, could only answer in terms of the masses, “You are another prophet” or “You are one of the old prophets, come back in another form.” It was still very difficult for them to see Jesus, as He really was, the Messiah; all that it is, except for Peter.

Peter, then known as Simon, has always been characterized as impetuous, quick to move, no matter what the consequence of his actions. Confident in his answer, Simon claims that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus responds by renaming Simon Peter, the rock. In naming him Peter, Jesus states this is the rock, the cornerstone upon which the church will be built.

It is important for us to realize that while Peter assumed leadership of the new church, he was still one of twelve and an equal among equals. The foundation of the church was not Peter’s personality but his faith.

Jesus always made sure that we understand the role faith would play in our lives. In last week’s Gospel reading it was the faith of the woman from Sidon that was central to the story. This woman, a Gentile, came to Jesus seeking help for her sick daughter. Though He first ignored her, Jesus ultimately acknowledged her and her faith. It was through her faith in Jesus that her daughter was saved.

These are and have been times when our faith is tested. All around us we see examples that suggest that our faith is not sufficient for the task; that God has forgotten or deserted us. At times like these we are not certain who we can turn to or who we can listen to.

We may turn away from God, feeling that because he has deserted us, there must be other alternatives. But we must always remember that God will never turn away and that no matter how bad things get, He will never desert us.

For the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, things looked pretty bad. The reasons for being in Egypt were long forgotten, both by the Egyptians and the Israelites themselves. And now, because things were not going well, the Pharaoh looked for a reason for the crisis. Because the Pharaoh feared the Israelites, it was easy to blame them for the problems of the country. So it was very easy to have the first born son of each family killed as a means of removing the Israelite threat to Egypt.

So it was that Moses was born. But instead of being killed, Moses is saved. Saved not by just anyone but by the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses’ name serves as a reminder that Moses was pulled out of the water at a time when all the sons of Israel were being killed.

God wanted the Israelites to know that even though they were enslaved and far from their home, they had not been forgotten. He also constantly reminds us that we cannot ever be far from him.

Ezekiel had stood up against the evil in his country and had to run for his live. But God reminded Ezekiel, alone in the wilderness and convinced that he is the last, that there were others, that there would always be a small core that would stand up against what was wrong in the world.

Things may seem bleak. I think that it must have been that way for Ezekiel, alone in the wilderness, questioning his call to be God’s prophet. It certainly had to be for Peter, who denied Christ not just once but three times and then remembered that Christ has told him that would be the case. How desolate must Peter have felt to realize that Christ knew him better than he knew himself? But yet, when they met after the resurrection Christ forgave Peter and commanded him to lead the church and take it beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem.

We may see the world and feel that all is lost; there is nothing to be gained by being a part of the world. There have been times in our history where withdrawing from society has seemed to be the way to save the church. During the Dark Ages, it was those monks who had withdrawn from society that protected the treasures of society. But protecting the treasures did not enable the society to grow. That required that the monks ventured outside the safety of their monasteries. And to this day, there is no group of Christians who has been successful in withdrawing from the world.

For when you withdraw from the world in order to protect what you have, you are not able to grow what you have. The Shakers, from whom we get such wonderful hymns as “Simple Gifts”, sought to survive by withdrawing from the world. But the Shakers went the way of all whom sought to withdraw and ultimately disappeared from view. Ironically, though the Shakers as a group are nothing more than a footnote in history, the works they did survive today.

Each person, who seeks to withdraw, choosing to follow a solitary way of life ultimately will find out that nothing is gained. In fact, those who seek solitary contemplation as way of find Christ often find only those things which they wish to get away from.

Being Christ is very much a personal thing. Each person’s relationship with Christ is unique and what works for one does not necessarily work for another. But it is not important that others duplicate what works for some. I think churches fail in today’s society because they insist that everyone follow the same line rather than following Jesus. This was certainly the case with the Pharisees and Scribes; they were more interested in people doing what they perceived was the law required rather than what God required.

Paul speaks to the uniqueness and differences of individuals in his letter to the Romans. Do not look upon your way as the only way but one of many, he told the Romans. Remember that we are a community of believers, bonded together by the single fact that Jesus died for our sins, and united in our being able to use all of our skills to accomplish the goals of the church.

Thomas Paine once wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The battle for freedom is a never-ending battle. Paine was writing of a political freedom. But now we are faced with another battle; the battle for our own soul. The question is how we will face the struggles before us, be they internal and only know to us individually or external and the ones we face as a society. We can face them alone and know that we will lose the battle. But we can take Christ into our hearts and realize that we are not alone and that we Christ, along with the community we call the church, be successful.

That is the question we faced today. Shall we be together or alone?

“A New Way to See”

This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 29 August 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, and Matthew 16: 21 – 28. I added the picture of the Cades Cove Methodist Church on 25 September 2011.

During the summer of 1969, my family and I were on our way back from North Carolina to our home in Memphis. We had planned our return so that we could go through the Smoky Mountain National Park and camp there. But as we passed through the Newfound Gap, we discovered that it was quite literally “wall-to-wall” people. We, or rather I, had hoped that we would camp that night in the Cades Cove section of the park but we discovered that it was one of the more popular sections and that unless you had made reservations and gotten there early, you wouldn’t get it. Though it is some thirty years later, it is still pretty much the same today.

I was disappointed because I had read about Cades Cove and really wanted to see this section of the mountain South’s past. I don’t remember just how I felt that summer some thirty years ago but I knew that I wanted to come back there some day.

In March 1988, I drove from near Toledo, Ohio, where I was teaching and living at the time to Jacksonville, Florida, to participate in the American Bowling Congress tournament. On the way back, I decided that I would go through Newfound Gap and make that visit to Cades Cove that I had wanted to do many years before. As I came to the gap, I discovered that there was no one there. What I remembered as being filled with people was amazingly empty. But then again, it was an early spring morning and not yet the peak of the tourist season. So it was that I was able to visit Cades Cove and see the old Methodist Church and get a sense of what the world was like in rural Tennessee and North Carolina some two hundred years ago. The Methodist Church was interesting, if for no other reason that it had one door through which the men entered and another door for the women and children to enter through.

And this trip proved to be more prophetic than I might have thought because the path that I took to get to Florida took me within 15 miles of Whitesburg and Neon, Kentucky, where I was living last year before coming here to New York. I didn’t realize that I had gone that way until I had time to look at the path because the road had been dramatically altered.

So the view that I had, both of Pound Gap in Virginia and Newfound Gap and Cades Cove in Tennessee, was an entirely different one from the one I remembered. How we view things depend on the time and the place where we are.

In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law when he was “introduced” to God. I am sure that Moses had seen burning bushes before, perhaps as a result of a lightning strike during a thunderstorm. But the burning bush that Moses saw that afternoon was a far cry from what he was prepared to see since it was not consumed by the flame.

God often presents himself in a way that challenges our view of the world. We live in a world that we can taste, touch, feel, see, or smell. But the problem with living in a world based solely on physical evidence is that we find ourselves relying only on the physical world to supply all of our needs. And when that happens, God becomes a God that we only read about or hear someone speaking about. When this happens, we push God to the edges of our lives, only to be called upon in our moments of weakness.

We must see God not as One who only comes to us at the edges of our lives but as One who is a central part of our live. God is more that simply a god of convenience. “I am who I am”, the way that God was to be called by the Israelites, is a name which means faithfulness and dependability. God indicated that He would always be there, not just as times of stress and turmoil. But this name also meant the Israelites give Him their full trust as well. To know God, we must see him in a different view.

When Jesus told his disciples of his impending death, Peter’s response that it would never happen showed that he was still thinking in terms of the world being the center of life, not in terms of a life with God at the center. But what good is a life in which God is not the center?

Jesus spoke to his disciples about this when he said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” A world in which we see God as the center is, admittedly, a difficult one for us to see. It requires that we give up our focus on secular things; it requires that change the path that we walk.

And that, I think, is part of what Paul was telling the Romans. Everything Paul said in the Epistle reading for today runs counter to what we ordinarily do.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Some people are not willing or ready to give up the secular world because it is too much of a challenge. But we do not have to give up the world; in fact, we cannot give up the world. But we can change the path that we walk. All we have to do is change the focus of life, to take God from the pages of the book and make Him a part, the center of our life.

At the climax of Job, Job exclaims “My ears have heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job saw his life no longer through the eyes of the world around him but through the eyes of faith and spiritual understanding.

Will we continue to see the world based on that which is around us or will we see it from a view of God as our center? Do we want a live of anxiety or a life of peace and trust? Some day we might be walking along when we see the burning bush? Will we know what we see?

This Day – 9 – 11 – 2011

Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 September 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 14: 19 – 31, Romans 14: 1 – 12, and Matthew 18: 21 – 35.


I have not quite figured out how I feel about this day.

I remember murmurs going through the school building where I was teaching ten years ago but not knowing what exactly was transpiring. After some time, the principal came on the loudspeaker and made some sort of perfunctory announcement that something had occurred but didn’t clarify exactly what.

I remember trying to get home that night on the train and watching train after train roar by the station, packed with people desperately trying to escape New York City. I could only presume that my wife had gotten out of the city and was on her way home. Cell phone communication was almost impossible, as was almost all communication, because the twin towers had served as the primary cell and radio towers.

My youngest daughter would later tell me that she was frantic, not only because she couldn’t reach me and she only knew that I was teaching in New York City (I was in the Bronx), but because she couldn’t reach her sister who lived in the D. C. area. And when I would go to Billings, Montana, to receive my 25-year award at the ABC national tournament (now the USBC Open), I found out that the plane that struck the Pentagon struck the offices where my mother had been a secretary.

Like many who preached, I was also faced with the dilemma of what to say on September 16, 2001. I posted the sermon last year as “Seeking the Truth.” On 9/11/2004, we had a revival at my church that some wanted to be a memorial service for 9/11 – my thoughts and concerns are posted as “There Is A Rock And Roll Heaven.”

Between 9/11/2001 and this day, there has been one other 9/11 that came on a Sunday. I posted my thoughts as “At What Point?”

The extent to which the events of 9/11/2001 extended beyond New York City will probably never be fully realized nor will individuals, families and communities ever recover from the innumerable losses incurred that day. And while we can count our losses, how many people in Iraq and Afghanistan have died? Shall we read their names as well when the roll call is made?

And while we may pause to remember those who lost their lives ten years ago, we seem to have forgotten those who have died or were wounded in the battles fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have only given lip service to those who had died and we cut Veteran’s Benefits at the drop of a hat. And heaven forbid that we would even think of caring for reservists and members of the National Guard. I do not want to cheapen the memories of those who died ten years ago but we cheapen that memory when we consider how we have treated the service personnel who have died or have been wounded.

But that was ten years ago; still, we make it seem like it was just yesterday. Of course, with each news broadcast that speaks of death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are reminded of what happened. But we don’t remember that none of those who planned the attack, coordinated the attack, or carried out the criminal activities of that day came from Iraq and Afghanistan. None of the justification for going to war was linked to what happened. In the end, if you want to call the mass murders carried out on 9/11/2001 terrorism, you can. But it was our actions in response that made it terrorism. If we had treated the attacks as a conspiracy and murder, we could have probably resolved this eight years ago.

Look at where we are today. Look at the deficit and tell me what the primary driving force behind the deficit is. Look at the bureaucracies of the federal government and tell me which agencies need to be cut (and, as a hint, they don’t do much in the way of social work).

I think that there will be a number of sermons today that will link the images of the cloud and pillar of fire in the Old Testament reading for today with the two beams of light that were created after the ground around the World Trade Center was cleared. But the cloud and the pillar of fire were reminders to the people that God was present in their lives and that He was protecting them.

The twin beams of light only served to remind us that our master is the dollar and that we will do whatever it takes to make sure that the dollar remains supreme. We invoked God when we went to war ten years ago and we have invoked God at almost every turn over the past ten years. We have stated unequivocally that our god is the better god (and I choose to use the lower case). And we have done so knowing full well that the God that Jews, Muslims, and Christians worship is the same God and that He protects us all.

And before you say anything, remember that 1) the Egyptians that are in the Old Testament reading were not Muslims and 2) their hearts, or at least the heart of the Pharaoh, had been hardened. God’s destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea can never be used as a justification for armed conflict in today’s world.

There are some who will disagree with me on that but I don’t think Paul would be one of them. When you read the 2nd reading for today, you read words of acceptance, not division. Paul’s words to me mean something I have said all along; it does not matter whether one is a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian, as long as they hold to what they believe. Just saying that one is a Christian is no guarantee that they will get into heaven. It is how you live your live having said that you were a Christian that will determine the outcome.

What happened ten years ago has done a great deal to change the nature of the church today. We have slowly transformed the church into an instrument of the state, an act that is antithetical to the true nature of the church. I find myself struggling with a church which tries to make God in its own image rather than trying to be the image of God for the people of the community it is to serve.

Today’s Gospel reading begins today with Peter asking Jesus how many times we must forgive someone. We expect mercy but we act like the servant who will not give mercy and what do we think the King will do to us?

I would hope that when all the speeches are completed and the sermons have been preached, that we will think, not about what the politicians and the preachers said, but what Jesus said and what Paul wrote. There is a great opportunity in front of us. There is an opportunity to preach peace and forgiveness, to build newer world in which we may believe as we so choose, not as someone would have to believe. There is a great opportunity to build peace in this world if the money and the energy that were spent on bullets and bombs and hatred were directed toward food and medicine and peace.

The question has to be which direction do we want to head? Ten years from now, will we once again gather in remembrance while a seemingly endless war continues to drag on or will we gather to celebrate that a peace that began on this day. Jesus spoke of forgiving those whom we would rather not forgive; Paul wrote of a world in which differences between individuals would be the starting point for discussion, not conflict. On this day, we have gathered to remember, can we also gather to begin to build a new world and not simply seek to destroy the world we have right now?

On this day, we must make a choice. The road that we walk seems destined to be an endless road of war and violence. But the road with Christ is a road of peace. It is the harder road to walk and that makes the choice that much harder. But on this day, we must make a choice. We speak of the future; now we must look to build the future. That is what this day should be about.

Welcome Home

This was the message that I presented on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 15, 1999, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 45: 1 – 15; Romans 11: 1 – 2, 29 -32; and Matthew 15: (10 -20), 21 – 28.

The scriptures for this morning reminded me of a couple of episodes in my own life. The story in the Old Testament of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers after being separated from them for about 20 years reminded me, to some extent, of what happened when I returned to Memphis in 1980 after having left in 1968 to go to school in Missouri.

Now it should be noted that I am the oldest of four children, not the eleventh of twelve sons. And when I moved from Tennessee to Missouri to continue my college studies, I was going of my own accord. Joseph, of course, went to Egypt because his brothers had sold him into slavery.

Like Joseph, my contacts with my family after I left were limited and, after I graduated from college and was married, virtually non-existent. So it was that when I returned to Memphis in 1980, those people who knew my father and my two brothers were somewhat shocked, as were Joseph’s brothers, to discover my existence (the general acknowledgement of my presence was often “My God, do you mean that there’s another one!”). And like Joseph, I recall a great exhilaration on returning to my family.

But the major difference between my story of separation and that of Joseph’s was that my brothers and sister knew that I was alive and, most of the time, where I was living. Joseph’s brothers had no idea that he was still alive and that he had risen to such a position of power and authority.

And it is safe to say that my brothers and their friends was far less frightened that were Joseph’s brothers when he told them who he was. After all, he had far more power than they could ever conceive and their first thought must have surely been that he was going to seek revenge for what they had done to him. And I don’t doubt that Joseph sensed that fear. For as the scripture said,

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.

He sought to comfort them and let them know that all was part of God’s plan.

God’s plan is an interesting phrase. For it can suggest that all is ordained before hand. But if that is the case, it also means that nothing we do changes things. Quite simply, then, there would be no need for us to meet today or at any other time, for we would have no reason to celebrate Christ’s presence in our lives; we would have no hope.

And like the woman of Canaan in the Gospel reading for today, we could not seek out Jesus. But that is not the case. God’s plan offers us hope, to know that through our Savior Jesus Christ, we always have salvation. God’s plan is for us to come home to Him. It is that very plan that Paul writes about, “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” God shows us his mercy but we must come to Him seeking forgiveness.

Jesus alluded to that plan when the woman from Canaan came to him that day, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” While that may have meant only the Jews of Jesus’ time, we have come to know that all who are lost can be saved by Christ.

The other episode that the scriptures today reminded me about occurred during the spring of 1969 while I was at college. That year had not been a good one for me and I struggled with many questions. But the one light in my life that year was the presence of Jesus.

Now I grew up going to church on Sunday. So, going away to college meant that I could sleep late on Sunday morning. But I quickly found out that I couldn’t do that. It was important to me that on Sunday morning that I go to church, to a place where I had a home and security.

First United Methodist Church in Kirksville offered me a home and a place of security at a time when it was most needed. So, when it came time for me to go back to Memphis for Easter, I felt that I needed to first celebrate communion at my own church. So I went to Marvin Fortel, the pastor at First that year, and asked if there were some way I could take communion before leaving for the spring break.

Reverend Fortel was surprised by this request. No other student had ever made such a request before but he agreed and we met at the chapel of the church. Rather than a formal observance of the communion ritual, we sat down together and discussed what the words of the ritual meant.

I remember arguing with Reverend Fortel about the words that we find on page 30 of our present hymnal, those words that the Canaanite woman spoke to Jesus so many years ago. It seemed to me, with all the wisdom of a college sophomore, that it wasn’t fair. Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice on the cross mean that we could sit at God’s table? How can we, who were saved by the grace of God, not be allowed to sit at God’s table? Wasn’t that why Jesus died for us? Wasn’t admission to God’s kingdom granted to us because Jesus died for us?

But I had it backwards. It is by Christ’s death and our faith that we are saved. Like Joseph taken away from his home in slavery, sin takes us away from our home in heaven.

Deep sadness and an aching loneliness mark life in exile. The cries of Joseph upon being reunited with his brothers were heard throughout the palace. It is expressed in the words of Hymn 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” which we sing at Advent, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

The feeling of being separated from home and longing for home runs deeply in us. It may be one of the reasons the movie E. T. was so popular. Those who saw the movie can remember E. T. pointing his finger at the sky and saying in a haunting voice filled with prolonged yearning, “Home.” In our own lives, the experience of exile as estrangement or alienation can be felt as a flatness, a loss of connection with a center of vitality and meaning, when one day becomes very much like another and nothing has much zest. We yearn for something that we perhaps only vaguely remember. Life in exile thus has a profound existential meaning. It is living away from Zion, the place where God is present.

But if our problem is exile, of being separated from God and our home with him, what is the solution? The solution is a journey of return. The invitation for communion that I took some thirty years ago starts over with “Ye who truly and earnestly repent of your sins”. The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return”. The invitation to return sounds throughout the second half of the book of Isaiah, spoken by a prophet whose name we do not know.

In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40: 3 – 4)

The beautiful and powerful language of this prophet has become familiar to us through Handel’s use in his work, The Messiah.

But, as Paul pointed out, God does not reject us and He has not forgotten us. The gifts that God has for us are irrevocable. God knows that we have sinned but still grants us mercy when we seek Him.

We may be like the Canaanite woman, thinking we are outcast but by our faith in Christ, we can hear God speaking to us, “welcome home.” It is the longing for home expressed in the gospel hymn (#348) “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me.” The invitation is given to you this morning. If we believe in Jesus, He becomes a part of us. If we open our hearts to Him this morning, then we know can hear God saying to us, “Welcome Home.”

A New Beginning

Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2011. I will be at Dover Plains UMC; the service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures are Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20.

I will also be at Grace UMC in Newburgh for the final Sunday of the Vespers in the Garden series. We will start at 7 pm and you are welcome to attend as well.

There is something intriguing about this particular Sunday. There is in the Old Testament reading for today a celebration, a celebration that we understand in the context of an organized religious practice but, as we read today, began as a family gathering. And the calendar tells us that we are or should be celebrating the American worker and his or her role in the building of this country. There is also the looming shadow of next week before us as well.

I say that it is a looming shadow because I am certain that while speaker after speaker, preacher and politician alike, will speak of the honor, courage and sacrifice of countless individuals, there will also be those who call for more sacrifice. But I fear that the call for sacrifice will be from those who have already sacrificed while others who have gained and profited from the ten years of war will continue to contribute nothing to the effort. And with countless families being threatened with home foreclosures and the loss of work, with countless workers being told they must take pay cuts and a reduction in benefits for the sake of the company, all the time while company after company reports record profits and jobs are exported overseas I am not entirely sure that we need to hear those words this time.

There seems to be a mentality in today’s society that runs completely counter to the words spoken by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. We are more than willing to confront those who oppose us but not in the style and manner that Jesus said; we want the confrontation, we want the chance to strike at our enemies and banish them from this world. We are not comfortable with the notion that maybe there is a solution in ways other than violence and war. There are alternatives to violence and war and yet we are not willing to look for them.

And if what is said between two individuals is eternal, be it a yes or a no, then we must choose our words carefully. When Patrick Henry rose before the Virginia House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, he began the speech, for which he is best known by first saying,

We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Yes, Patrick Henry would argue for war but his argument for war came from the evidence that was before him.

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! 

But we entered a war ten years ago on our own. We have elected to walk a path that was fed by lies and deceit, not truth. We had a chance to do it right but we did not. And now we are paying the price. We have bought into the rhetoric of those who see power in the same way that the Egyptians and Romans controlled the Israelites, through slavery and oppression.

Countless individuals have accepted the argument espoused by corporation and political bigwigs that union rules work against them. History tells us what it was like for the American worker before there were unions. History also tells us that corporations have always used the notion that unionization would work against the best interests of the worker. Excuse me if I sound a bit cynical but I get the impression that we are going to bring back the good old days when twelve-year olds worked in the mills and the mines. And let us not forget that one of the reasons for the Passover Feast was to remind the people of the life they had lead in Egypt before the exodus; a life as slaves.

It is not that I have anything against corporations. After all, there has to be some sort of organization in order for individuals to have jobs. But, when the interests of the corporation overshadow the interests of the workers who toil for the corporation then there is something severely wrong in this country. I am reminded that John Wesley had nothing against anyone earning as much as they possibly could but it was not to be earned through the oppression of the worker. And John Wesley made it abundantly clear that though one could earn as much as they could, they were to save as much as they could and then give away as much as they could.

But we have bought into the words of the hucksters and the scammers, politician and preacher alike that the best possible outcome is to have it all. And then once we have it all, we are to keep it for ourselves. In our efforts to earn as much as we can, we somehow have forgotten those two other conditions.

I am not enough of a Wesleyan scholar to know the basis for Wesley’s financial statement but I am sure part of it comes from Paul’s words to the Romans, especially the part about not running up debts and then making sure that you are not absorbed and exhausted by day-to-day obligations. When the focus becomes such that we are more concerned with the day-to-day stuff, it is quite possible that we lose track of things far more important, such as family and home.

So maybe we should think again about that time when families gathered together and prepared a feast to remember. Let us remember that it was the Methodist Church, following John Wesley’s example that brought about a revolution that saved England and brought about true social reform. This will come as a shock to many who see the church in terms of a fortress with iron gates and a moat that will protect them from the evil of the world around them.

But what did the Israelites put on their door to protect them from the Angel of Death, sent by God, the night of that First Passover? It was the blood of the sacrificed lamb. We don’t need to mark our doors as they did because Jesus died on the cross for that very same reason. The blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, will protect us if we are willing to accept Him as our Savior.

But we must be willing to put aside our worldly concerns and live for Christ. This is what Paul wrote to the Romans; this is what John Wesley discovered that night in the chapel on Aldersgate Street. It is that opportunity for a new beginning that we are offered at this moment, this time, and this place. Three thousand years ago, the Israelite nation began its journey from slavery to independence. It was a new beginning for them. Today, through Christ, we are offered the same opportunity to escape slavery, slavery from sin and death, and have a new beginning, a new life. That is something worth celebrating.