Guided by the Light

These are my thoughts for January 1, 2012, the Epiphany of the Lord Sunday.

There probably isn’t going to be much reference to the Scripture readings for this Sunday but I will be, as the title suggests, guided by the light of the star that guided the Magi from their homeland to the new born Christ Child.

I have been blogging since July, 2005, which is probably a long time in the blogging community. My blogging allowed me to be part of some other blogs and that was a good thing. I started off blogging as a way to continue the writing that was part of sermon preparation that had been a part of my life since 1998. And I thought that people would take notice of my writing and this would lead to some other possibilities. Sadly, I have come to conclusion that isn’t going to take place.

Yes, my writing lead to my being asked to contribute to RedBlueChristian (link removed on 15 May 2015; the site is pretty much dead) as a voice for the liberal/progressive side of the spectrum. I liked that idea but I am not sure how many people actually visited that blog, especially since most of the contributors, including myself, put the same pieces on our own blog. I fear that this blog, which has not had much activity in the past six months or so, has run its course and will shortly disappear into the vastness of cyberspace.

I am thinking that I need to do something else with my writing. As I have written before, I never bought into the “publish or perish” model of academic success. I published research and other articles that I found interesting. Unfortunately, if you are not connected with a college or university and not putting out three or four manuscripts a year, you are not considered worthy of employment in today’s academic world. I have also come to the conclusion that my thirty years of experience, coupled with the Ph. D., are too much of an expense for many schools that need introductory chemistry instructors. It is far cheaper to take a rookie with a brand new degree and maybe a year or two of post-doctoral experience. And it is better if they can bring with them an active research program.

I am finding that even community colleges are seeking research oriented individuals, no matter if there are research facilities on the campus. Research means grants and grants mean money. If a professor can get grants for research, it means that part or all of his or her salary can be paid from the grant and this relieves the school from that burden.

The only problem is that the research I am interested in doing is related to chemical and science education. To too many “purists” this isn’t real research but something to dabble in late in life. The only problem with this attitude is that ignores problems with chemical education. Right now, it seems to me that our whole basic education process, not just the introductory chemistry process, is to give students a stack of material to memorize for a test and offer no connection between the course and the world. We see it in the vestiges of “No Child Left Behind” where all that matters is the test score. This is now very much a part of the mentality students bring to their college work. Having spent the better part of high school taking tests, they think that all they have to do is the same thing in college.

We have lost our focus on the purpose of education. No longer are we interested in developing thinkers and questioners; rather we want students to come out school blindly accepting authority and doing what the powers-that-be demand. For me, this is especially true in the area where science and religion overlap. There should be no conflict between the two areas but, unfortunately, too many individuals in one area distrust their counterparts in the other area and this is leading to some very bad times ahead. Our misunderstanding of climate change is just a tip of the literal iceberg; our lack of understanding about science in general is far greater than many people would suspect.

And the distrust that many people feel with regards to the church wouldn’t be there if religious authorities were more focused on their real job rather trying to keep their positions safe. There are times when I feel like Job and I want to question God. Some would say that is not possible but if it were not possible, then why is Job included in the present canon? Yes, I know that Job acknowledges he pushed the envelope but all he wanted was the chance to do so. And only a loving God would be willing to let one of His children push the envelope, don’t you think?

So I am going to take a break from blogging on a regular basis. I will continue to add pieces as I find the time and the need; if nothing else, the on-going and seemingly never ending presidential election process offers plenty of opportunities. I will add a piece each week that links my previous posts for the particular Sunday as well.

Now, the reference to Magi – when I wrote “To Return Home Another Way” I pointed out that while we today consider the Magi astrologers they were, in fact, some of the first scientists. I also pointed out that their lives were changed by that encounter with the Christ Child. I also pointed out that Isaac Newton was as much a theologian as he was a physicist. I discussed this in “A Dialogue of Science and Faith” and pointed out that other individuals such as Robert Boyle and Joseph Priestley were also involved in theology as well as science.

I think that I should spend some time this year considering the joint path of theology and science that I have developed over the years. I will, most likely, continue as a certified lay speaker and, on those Sundays, when I am on the road somewhere, you can expect my message to be posted. Each week, I will post a summary of the four or five pieces that I have written and posted over the past seven years or so.

And as I prepare them, pieces on science and religion or chemistry will appear. I also have some obligations that I have let slide and feel that now is the time to get caught up on that. These will also involve the joint areas of science and religion.

As we end 2011 and begin 2012, it is clear that God has been a part of my life. But I need to evaluate the path that I have been walking and see if there is another path that I should be taking in the coming months. Be assured that, just as it has in the past, this new path will be guided by the light.

What Time Is It?

This was the message that I presented at the Fishkill (NY) United Methodist Church on 31 December 2000. I have this Sunday listed as the 1st Sunday after Christmas but I used the lectionary readings for New Year’s Day (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, and Matthew 25: 31 – 46).

I had moved up to this part of New York in May of 1999 and transferred my membership to the Fishkill Church at the beginning of June. In August, 1999, I began serving as the pastoral assistant to the District Superintendent with the assignment of being the lay pastor for the Walker Valley United Methodist Church. As such, I only knew the pastor (Arlene Beechert) and a few other members of the Fishkill Church. Most of the Fishkill church only knew of my assignment but did not know who I was. So, Pastor Beechert and I looked for a date where we could exchange pulpits and I might introduce myself to my home church at that time.

Unfortunately, the weather on this day was miserable. Services at Walker Valley were cancelled and attendance at the Fishkill Church was minimal. The bad part was that the organist couldn’t make the trip to church and we had to sing unaccompanied. That didn’t help matters. I like singing and think that music is an integral part of any service but I was never a good musician and I have to hear the music in order to lead it. In all honesty, this was not one of my better services. I would return to Fishkill pulpit in June of 2005; I did a much better job that time.

So here are my thoughts for 31 December 2000:

The measurement of time has always been a challenge for mankind. While we can say with a certain degree of certainty that it is 10:00 a.m. on December 31st, the telling of time has not always been that easy. For the founders of the Methodist Church some two hundred and sixty years ago, the telling of time required clocks that were big, bulky, and highly unreliable. And in Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hour glass and the passage of events.

And even today, we still mark the passage of time by the occurrence of certain events. That fact that today is the last day of the year 2000 and tomorrow is the first day of the year 2001 is one such occurrence. The Old Testament reading for today is about the passage of time.

For the Preacher, the name we give to the writer of Ecclesiastes saw time as a passage, as a balance of the events of life. Some of these events are joyful while others are not. And while we may wish to eliminate and do away with those events of life that are not so joyful. But with birth comes death, with love there is hate and with war there is peace.

Does this mean that God condones hatred, war, death, and uprooting? Or are these things beyond His control? I think that is why this reading is paired with the reading from the Book of Revelations. John’s words were words of hope. When John wrote this letter to the churches of Asia Minor, the Roman Empire was exacting a terrible toll on all those who would defy the power of Rome. It was a time of hoping for the return of Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.

But the time of Christ’s return was unknown and though John offers a great hope for that kingdom, He also points out that God is now and forever, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In making a reference to the eternal nature of God, John was telling his readers not to wait for the return of Christ on this earth. In the opening verse of this passage from Revelation, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” John offers not a second beginning but a freshness, a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah 65: 17, Isaiah 66: 22, and 2 Peter 3: 13

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65: 17)

“For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain befroe me,” says the Lord, “so shall your descendants your name remain.” (Isaiah 66: 22)

“Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”(2 Peter 3: 13)

But how is the hope that John speaks about fulfilled? How do we deal with the lack of meaning that Preacher gives to this existence on earth? Early in the American Revolution Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was time 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. Unlike those in the Gospel reading who asked who were the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, sick or in prison, we know who they are. Yet many times, we like they, walk right by.

Jesus told his disciples and followers that the Kingdom of God was already in place. We do not have to wait for His Second Coming because He is always with us, if we but look for him.

The foundation of the Methodist Church was and will always be in how we treat others less fortunate than us. Granted that salvation only comes to those who accept Christ in their hearts but coming to know Christ is very difficult when you are hungry, when you are sick, or when you are in prison, be it one with walls of stone or one which entraps your soul. John Wesley knew that for the world to be saved, concern for the poor, the weak, and the helpless had to be more than just words said on a Sunday. There had to be action on Monday.

But if we try to take on the task of solving all the world’s problems by ourselves, we will be like the Preacher seeing that after everything was tried how futile our efforts were. Because we alone cannot are not equal to the task. But the Preacher also pointed out that God put eternity in our hearts so as to give us a sense that what was around us is not all there is too life. If we allow God to be a part of our lives each day, then the moments of our lives can be transformed into something beautiful and with meaning.

As we end this year and get ready to begin the new one, it is important that we see what is before us, not in terms of what the world puts before us, but rather in what Christ shows us. Christ shows us that the opportunities to let the world know of His presence are in our actions.

The call this day is a simple one. For those in despair and exclusion, Christ offers the acceptance that the world denies you, the dignity denied by the world, and the spiritual guidance and community that are a foretaste of life in the Kingdom of God.

And for those who have come to know Christ as their personal Savior, there is also a call, “I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who knew my grace and were formed by love. But now the hour has come for you to see the signs of a New Hope that are being given to my people in this world. The hour has come to join Me in the midst of the struggle to interpret that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily life.”

What time is it? For some it is 1030 and time to get on with the rest of the day. But I hope that it is time to take Christ into your heart and then take the light of Christ out into the world.

Top Posts of 2011

Here are my top posts for 2011. What amazes me is how it hasn’t changed from last year.

  1. The Chemistry of Bowling – July 26, 2008 (#1 in 2010)
  2. Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday? – March 13, 2008 (#2 in 2010)
  3. Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch – November 18, 2009 (#5)
  4. A Collection of Sayings – January 17, 2008 (#4)
  5. Who Cuts the Barber’s Hair? – September 15, 2009 (#13)
  6. The Dilemma of Modern Christianity – April 18, 2009 (#6)
  7. Ten Pretty Good Rules – June 16, 2008
  8. Hearing God Call – January 7, 2009 (#10)
  9. What Does Stewardship Mean to Me – November 6, 2005
  10. Pledges and Loyalty Oaths – March 27, 2008 (#8)
  11. What Does It Mean To Be Called? – August 30, 2008 (#11)
  12. The Meaning of Service – November 14, 2008
  13. The Mountaintop Experience – March 2, 2011

It is interesting how some of my older posts are getting read more now than when they were first posted.

My all-time list is:

  1. Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch – November 18, 2009 (new to the list)

For those who are interested in this sort of thing, here are links to my previous “top posts”:

My Top Posts for 2006

My Top Posts For 2007

My Top Posts for 2008

Top posts for 2009

Top Posts of 2010

We no longer have a “Best of the Methoblogosphere”, not because there are no noteworthy posts but because there are so many to pick from. I want to give my thanks to Allan Bevere for his effort is picking the best of the bunch. During 2011, Allan focused on the posts of note and one of my posts (“The Situation Today” – July 14, 2011) was chosen to in this group.

The challenge of a weekly blog is a daunting one. There has been a steady increase in the number of individuals who read the various things that I post and for that I am very grateful. Still, I have to wonder what the lifetime of a blog, like any ministry, is. I began posting in July of 2005 so I am approaching the end of my 7th year. Perhaps, in a biblical sense, I should take a sabatiacal and step away from blogging for a while.

Answering the Call to Action

I started thinking about this piece before Christmas.

If we as individuals, churches and a denomination are going to answer the Bishop’s call to action, then we must know some things about ourselves and the United Methodist Church. And whatever answers we receive we have to understand that it each one of us who must answer the call. Individual churches can only answer the call if the people who make up the church do so.

I keep thinking about those who essentially tell me that we must focus on making sure that we have a building in order to do the work of the church. Doesn’t that mean that if we lose the building the faith of the people will be lost as well? How many churches have seen their sanctuaries and educational buildings destroyed by tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters yet vowed to meet elsewhere until they could rebuild. The work of the church is through the people, not the building. It will be the people of the church who respond, not the building.

I will admit that I have mixed and mostly negative feelings about the Call to Action. Everything that has been written and said about it suggests that it favors the bigger churches and that it is a top-down model. My experience in science education tells me that the innovative practices come from those in the field, not the top level management (a bottom-up model, if you will) – see “To Search for Excellence”. And if decisions are going to be made based on the numbers that pastors submit every week, I think that we are missing the point about what the church is and what the church is supposed to be doing.

The church needs to focus on people, not numbers. I know or have come to understand that individual pastors are required to submit weekly reports on their churches. I suspect that such numbers focus on weekly attendance, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. I hope that we aren’t asking for the number of souls that have been saved since that number is truly one that can only be reported on the bottom line. I would suspect that pastors are supposed to report the efforts of their local ministries. It may very well show which churches are viable and vital but I am not altogether certain that it will.

Knowing how many people are supported by the church’s food closet or the feeding ministries of the church only tells you something about the conditions of the area where the church is located. I am more interested in how many members of the church worked at the food closet or served the breakfast and dinners each week. How many individuals supported the specific local ministries through their donations, gifts, tithes, or prayers?

While on a trip a number of years ago I engaged in a conversation about church membership and church duties with someone. She was interested in measuring the number of individuals who had multiple jobs within a given church. I pointed out that she needed to factor church size into the equation. Let us suppose we are comparing a church with 1000 members and a church with 100 members. If ten people are doing all the work in the 100 member church, that is 10% of the membership. If ten people are doing the work in the 1000 member church, then you are looking at 1% of the membership doing the work. Which church is more alive?

I will argue that it is the 100 member church. Yes, it looks great when you have 1000 members in a church but if only 10 people are doing the work, then what are the other 990 doing? And when you could those who participate, make sure that it is more than one time. I don’t mind it when 20 people come to help serve a Christmas breakfast but what are they doing on the other days that the church serves breakfast to the community?

What do you do about the others in the church who don’t even know that there is a feeding ministry or would rather that it not be in the church at all? What does this say about the vitality of a church?

To answer the call to action, we also need to remember from where we as United Methodists came. Consider the following items:

  • The first Sunday School was Methodist. John Wesley started Sunday schools because he knew that an understanding of the Bible required literate pupils and the only time many people were going to be able to do that was on Sunday.
  • The first Credit Union was Methodist. When the Methodist Revival began in the 18th century, it was possible for In a day and time when individuals could be thrown into jail for failing to pay their bills and not be released until the bills have been paid (otherwise known as debtors’ prisons, an institution that seems to be making a comeback in some states – see the following story). Wesley created the first credit union in order to give the lower classes a way to borrow the needed funds and be able to pay them back at a reasonable interest rate; something that the banks of that time were unwilling to do (sounds vaguely modern, doesn’t it).
  • The first health care clinic was Methodist. Again, the poor and lower classes of England during the Methodist Revival were unable to get adequate healthcare. Wesley began a healthcare clinic in London to offer low-cost healthcare; he even wrote a book of home remedies though his qualifications as a physician were limited at best.

Historians have long suggested that these efforts kept England from undergoing the violent revolution that swept through France at the same time.

I have said before but I sometimes wonder what John Wesley might think if he were to wander about this country today. What would he say about “those people called Methodists?” (Here is what Garrison Keillor said about Methodists – “Garrison Keillor on “Those People Called Methodists”)

It may be that the Bishop’s Call to Action is about reviving the denomination. But it cannot be simply by talking about it or listing numbers in some weekly report. It is about reaching out to the people in the same manner that our ancestors did almost three hundred years ago. It requires looking at where the church is and what the church can do in terms of where it is at.

When I began thinking about this piece, I thought of a Buffalo Springfield piece, “For What It’s Worth.” Now, many people think this is an anti-war song from Viet Nam era; others think this song is about the Kent State shootings in 1970 which is pretty good since the song itself was written and recorded in 1966. In actually, it is about social unrest in Los Angeles during the fall of 1966. The key in including this song in this piece today are the words about looking around and see what is happening. No matter where a church may be, if the people are to answer the call they must first look around and see what is happening.

For some churches, this is an easy thing to do. The problems of society are right outside their doors. The only thing the members of these churches have to do is step outside.

For other churches, it is not that easy. They are in areas of declining population and see their own membership dropping each year. Their struggle is to be able to keep the doors open for those who are members, let alone those in the community. It would be very easy to say to small churches in areas of declining population that they should prepare to close their doors. I think that is wrong because sometimes the church is what keeps hope alive in a community.

It does not matter whether one is talking about a church in an inner-city community or somewhere on the plains of the rural Midwest; how do we bring hope to the people we serve and who are the community in which we live?

I don’t want to see the United Methodist Church die; the predictions in the Call to Action suggest that we have 25 years left before the funeral. I have thought long and hard about where I would go if the denomination were to do or I was forced to seek another place to go. At a time when I needed a place of hope and promise I found it in the United Methodist Church; I cannot leave so I will, as I hope I have already done, answer to call. What will you do?

Check out Pete Townsend’s “Somebody Saved Me”.

The True Gift of Christmas

I meant to post this on Sunday. It was meant as a blog both for Sunday, using the lectionary readings for Christmas Day (Year B) – Isaiah 52: 7 – 10, Hebrews 1: 1 – 12, and John 1: 1 – 14 – as well as a blog for Christmas. From one standpoint, Christmas this year was special because it came on a Sunday. Looking back at my notes and records I find that I have yet to preach a sermon on Christmas Day.

During the time I was at Neon, Walker Valley, and Tompkins Corners Christmas was on another day of the week and neither of the churches planned anything special. Twice in my career Christmas Eve been on a Sunday; both times it was also the 4th Sunday in Advent. In one instance at Walker Valley (December 24, 2000), I prepared one message for the morning (“It’s the Little Things”) and another for the evening Christmas Eve service (“Why All the Shouting?”) The second time, December 24, 2006, I was at Dover and had to plan for the transition from Advent to Christmas Eve during the same service; it made for an interesting service – “Words of Christmas”.

My previous Christmas Day messages are “So This Is Christmas”
(2005), “Does It Matter?”
(2006), What Gift Did You Give?
(2007), “The Christmas Miracle”
(2008), and “Why Should This Day Be Any Different?” (2009).

So this is an interesting blog

I sometimes wonder if we really understand what the true gift of Christmas is. I am not even sure we understand what the meaning of Christmas is or why we even celebrate Christmas.

Like so many people I grew up with a traditional view of the Christmas story, of Christ being born in a stable in Bethlehem on December 25th with shepherds, wise men, and assorted farm animals in attendance. It was a combination of what Matthew and Luke had written and I accepted it, even though it was clear that there were contradictions in the narrative.

In addition, the celebration of Christmas didn’t begin until almost 250 years after the beginning of the church. Christ’s birth was not as important as was His death, resurrection, and 2nd coming. And if the shepherds were in the fields with their flocks, it probably was more like March or April than December.

It is probably just as well that we do celebrate Jesus birth in December because if we opted for the more probable time we would have the interesting situation of celebrating Christmas and Easter almost at the same time. I do not think that would be the best solution.

The December date was chosen as an alternative to traditional pagan celebrations that occurred around the 25th. For some, doing this creates a falsity in Christianity. I don’t know; Christ was born and so he had to have a birthday. What do those individuals whose birthdate is February 29th do? Do they only celebrate their birth once every four years? It isn’t the date or the choice of dates that is the important part of the moment; it is the celebration of the moment so we do it on December 25th.

We are also hung up on the gift giving that takes place, so much so that it seems our economic system will collapse if we do not buy each and every one of our friends, relatives, and neighbors a gift. But the gifts that were given that first Christmas were not to the parents or the shepherds but to a newborn baby perceived to be a present and future King, a King who would change the world.

Nothing in the Bible tells us when they came (and some traditions put their arrival at up to two years after the birth) or how many there were. We get the idea of three wise men from the number of gifts given. The names of the three wise men that are associated with the gifts come from church tradition perhaps some 500 years after the fact.

We have over the years called the wise men astrologers because they sought relationships between the actions of stars and the actions of mankind. But the study of stars and their motions then was the beginning of astronomy and organized science. We don’t understand this and we tend to trivialize what they did.

Do these contradictions and how we arrive at the Christmas story that we have told for generations dilute or somehow weaken the message? If we focus on the message rather than the date, then I don’t believe so. But it does require that we do what we have been asked to do from the very beginning of our faith journey and that is grow in the faith, if for no other reason than to better be able to tell the story to the next generation.

When you study the story, when you put it into the context of time and place, the message that Jesus will preach when He does begin His ministry becomes clearer. The problem today is that we do want to do this. We have heard the same story for so many years that we have accepted it as it is. It results a terrible misunderstanding of the story and what transpired.

The true gift of Christmas is in the story but we have lost that gift because we do understand the message and we are more wrapped up in what we get from others, not what we get from the Christ Child.

We know that the first announcement of the birth of the Christ Child was made to the shepherds but we fail to understand the significance of that announcement. Perhaps because we so often will refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we think that is why the shepherds were the first to be told.

But what many don’t know is that shepherds were social outcasts, perhaps in part because of Biblical laws stated in the Old Testament and partially because their work in the fields left them dirty and smelly, far more than normal.

To announce to the lowest of society that a Savior was born was to say that all would be welcome in God’s Kingdom. Throughout His ministry Jesus took down the walls that society had erected between people. It began with His birth and the announcement to the shepherds. And yet, how many people in church cringe at the thought of homeless people and other outcasts being allowed into the church today?

The wise men who sought the Christ Child saw signs in the world that suggested something was about to happen. It was this curiosity and desire to seek new knowledge that drove them to leave the safety and comfort of their home and journey to a distant land.

But the inclusion of the wise men is more than just about gifts for a baby who would be a king; it was a statement that we must seek the Christ Child with all our resources. One of the gifts that we receive on Christmas is knowledge, knowledge about the world around us as well as knowledge about God. The passage from Isaiah speaks of the wonders of God; we cannot see the wonders of God if we do not look at the world around us. The wise men that came were scientists more than astrologers; they sought God in His works.

But we live in a world today that says that you either believe in science or you believe in religion but you cannot believe in both. Christ’s birth was a statement that knowledge was important; yet we seem today determine to limit the spread of knowledge in fear that it will destroy us.

Too many people today want religion to limit the boundaries of both society and the mind. Too many people use religion as an instrument of fear. And combined with political power, this fear is a very powerful tool.

Herod feared the Christ Child and we know what he did. The shepherds were fearful when the angels first told them of the Savior’s birth. But they overcame that fear and saw firsthand that hope had been born in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. The wise men journey to an unknown land; surely they must have been afraid at times about having made that decision to travel so far. But they made the journey and beheld the wonders of the Christ Child. And they choose to travel a different direction home because of the knowledge that they have gained during that trip.

On Christmas, we are given the gift of freedom. It is a gift that goes beyond the walls of society and extends the limits of the mind. In accepting Christ as your Savior, you are given that gift. In allowing the Holy Spirit you can use this gift. The call today is to seek this gift, the birth of the Christ Child, and then use this gift so that others can find it to.

What brings people to church?

HT to John Meunier for providing the link: “What brings people to church?” For those who don’t want to go through John’s blog to the actual article, this is the link.

I find this interesting, if for no other reason than it confirms something that I found out a few years ago, it isn’t the pastor that brings the people in, it is the congregation. When someone visits a church, there needs to be a follow up and it needs to be done by members of the congregation, not the pastor. The second visit will be by the pastor but not the first.

I also find it interesting that the survey shows that less than 0.3% of those who responded found the church on the internet. What does this say about our “drive” to put the church on-line?

And I go back to something I said a few weeks ago in my post “Thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Advent”,

There is a balance between what we do for the church and what we do for God. It has become more of a social thing where we worry about paying the bills or the color of the carpet or when to have the next fund-raiser. If we were more in terms of what the Thessalonian church was doing, then the societal issues would be easily resolved. If the church today were more focused on providing that which the people truly need, then many of the issues that so dominate this world would probably disappear.

The cynic and the skeptic will tell me that this is all well and good but the church has to pay the bills or it cannot do the work. But people don’t talk about the church that pays its bills; they talk and they visit the church that welcomes them as Christ welcomed us. They talk and visit churches where the spirit of the Lord is alive and present in the thoughts, words, deeds, and actions of the members of the church. And I, unfortunately, know from my own experience that visitors to the church don’t want to hear about the financial problems of the church or the need to get involved in the next big church project/fund raiser. (from

The Demise of Christianity

Certain things in the past week or so have prompted me to post this. Some of what I will conclude with will be part of what I want to post on Christmas.

Now, before those who are the left side of the secular-sectarian divide start to cheer, this is not intended to be a eulogy for Christianity. I believe in Christ and what He stood for and what He means to me individually. I believe in what He did and I believe with all my heart, mind, and soul that I have a responsibility to continue that work in this day and age.

But I also feel that there are a number of individuals who proclaim that they are Christian but whose words, deeds, thoughts, and actions run counter to the words and deeds of Christ.

So, let us begin with an understanding. There are basic concepts, fundamentals if you will, that you must understand If you are a Christian. The same would be true if one were a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or the proponent of any religion or belief system. These are the ideas and concepts that are taught in confirmation class or catechism. Even an atheist must have certain basic concepts about what they believe or do not believe though I don’t know if there is an organized class in which this learned.

And most people have taken such a course. The only problem is that, for the majority of individuals in thiif s country, it is the only course they have taken and they have quickly forgotten what it is that they studied. There are too many surveys floating about that tell us the glaring lack of knowledge of the Bible and Christianity to suggest otherwise.

But it is very clear when politicians speak of a secular atheist society or how our God (speaking in Christian terms) is a greater God that the God of Islam. First of all, how can you have a secular and atheist society? Doesn’t the one contradict the other?

And when you stop to think that Christianity and Islam both claim ties to the God of Abraham, how can one be stronger or better or more awesome than the other when they are the same God?

To say that my God is better than your God only tells me that you know nothing about either.

I am a not a fan of Sharii law but then again I wouldn’t support the notion of some form of Biblical law either. I chuckle when I hear politicians and religious leaders who warn us against the imposition of Sharii law but who would gladly impose some sort of Biblically based law on their own congregations or followers.

The only reason that such comments can be made is that those who make them want to instill fear in the minds and souls of those who listen. Fear is generated by ignorance and magnified by ignorance. There comes a time when one has to move beyond the basic tenets of faith and grow in terms of knowledge and understanding.

The other comment that I heard this past week was an interesting one about mustard seeds. I learned the parable of the mustard seed when I was young and I could envision a small seed growing into a bush or a shrub. But, to be honest, I had no idea how small a seed it was or what type of shrub, bush, or tree it would grow into. All I knew back then was that I liked mustard on my hot dogs and hamburgers; I didn’t know or understand the relationship between the mustard seed in the Bible and the mustard that smeared on my hamburgers.

Later, I would discover just how small the mustard seed was. It gave more meaning to the parable but I still did not have an understanding of what such a little seed grew into. Of course, those who heard Jesus speak of the mustard seed knew what it would grow into. But the interesting thing, which I don’t believe is discussed in too many Bible study classes, is that the mustard plant was considered a weed and a nuisance. How can the Kingdom of God be compared to a weed and a nuisance? Should it be compared to something more stately and regal, say the cedars of Lebanon?

What the parable did, as all the parables did, was challenge the listener to think, think beyond or outside the box. Those who say only a nuisance in the mustard seed could not see that the Kingdom of God would challenge the sectarian rule of the Roman authorities and the secular rule of the religious authorities.

In a few days, we will be engrossed in a story about freedom. We will be told that the shepherds will come down from the hills to see the child lying in the manger. We will be told about the three wise men from the east that came seeking the new King.

There will be those who will say that they did occur on December 25th, no matter what. The cynics will tell us that these visits never occurred, or if they did, they occurred in March or April, not December. Both groups miss the point of the Christmas story because both groups are not willing to grow in faith.

To grow in faith means more than just taking the words of the Bible and stay that is all there is to the story, nothing more and nothing less. It becomes very hard to grow and even harder to move forward.

We have to take the stories that we learned when we were young or when we decided to join a particular church and really get into them. We need to find out what was happening then and what that meant to the story. We need to look deep into the words spoken and written. For if we do not that, if we do not explore the story, then what little faith we have will die and no matter what happens to our earthly bodies, our soul will die. The demise of Christianity isn’t about the death of some organized body but what it means to our soul and our being.

The birth of Jesus that we will celebrate in 10 days is more than just an opportunity to exchange gifts and see carols; it is an opportunity to regain the freedom we have lost to sin and death. It is an opportunity and a change to regain the freedom we have lost to ignorance and arrogance. It is a change to celebrate life the way it is meant to be celebrated.

Thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent

This morning, as I prepared for our breakfast ministry, I looked up the color of the candles in the Advent wreath. Now, I will admit that I am still learning about the various aspects of worship, especially when it comes to the seasons of the church calendar.

I discovered this morning that the colors of the candles of the Advent are purple because of ties between Advent and Lent. The color of the 3rd candle is pink to give a sense of joy to an otherwise dark and somber setting.

I also discovered that there are a variety of names for the meaning of the candles. I prefer hope, peace, joy, and love though there are other meanings as well. I used those four titles for an Advent reading that I prepared and posted back in 2005 (“The Candles of Advent”).

What names are used in the lighting of the Advent candles at your church or place of worship? Do you only do the lighting in the major service or is it part of other worship services as well?

The Candles of Advent

I first published this on 24 November 2005. As I was preparing some thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, I thought about this piece. In looking at it, I saw a number of errors that I didn’t realize were in the post. So I have cleaned it up and am reposting it for this season.

This is the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the birth and coming of Jesus Christ. To celebrate each week of Advent, we light a candle on the Advent wreath. But what do the candles mean? There are a number of reasons but here is something to consider.

Lighting the 1st Candle

Advent begins in the darkness of the year. It is darkness both in terms of sunlight and in terms of our own lives. We see violence, poverty and oppression all around us and we wonder if there ever will be sunlight again. We wonder if the world is meant to ever see sunshine or whether we will always be trapped in the darkness that we experience. But we are reminded that

The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Genesis 1: 2 – 4)

And John reminds us that

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1: 1 -3)

We light the first candle of Advent, not so much to relieve the darkness but to bring light into the world. We light the first candle not so God can find us but so we can find our way to God. It may only be one light in the vast expanse of darkness but it cannot be hidden in the darkness. We are able to begin Advent because we have the light and in the light we find God.

Lighting the 2nd Candle

We light the second candle of Advent first out of fear but then out of joy. We are fearful because it is still dark and we are still uncomfortable being in the darkness. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, the beginnings of Advent bring fear.

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1: 26 – 38)

Mary was fearful because she knew how society would react upon hearing that she was pregnant. Joseph, soon to be Mary’s husband, was also worried because society would not approve of Mary being pregnant before the completion of the marriage vows. But angels told both that everything was going to be alright and that there was nothing to fear. Joseph understood and stood by his wife to be. Mary exalted in her joy and said

Mary’s Song

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” (Luke 1: 46 – 55)

Mary and Joseph were not the only ones to first fear and then rejoice in the announcement of Jesus’ birth. The first to hear of Jesus’ birth that night in Bethlehem were the shepherds in fields outside the town.

The Shepherds and the Angels

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 1But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2: 8 – 20)

So just like before the angels told Mary and Joseph about the birth of Jesus and they proclaimed the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, so too do we experience fear in the darkness of the times. But our fear turns to joy because we know that Christ is being born in Bethlehem. Like the angels, we exclaim our joy in this event. So we light the second candle in joy.

Lighting the 3rd Candle

The third candle is the light of discovery. The shepherds left the manger and went to tell others. And while they were doing so, there were others who sought the new-born child.

The Visit of the Magi

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2: 1 – 2)

We light the third candle because we know others, like the wise men of the east still seek the Christ child. They have heard the Good News first told by the shepherds and they seek to find the child, just as the wise men did. But discovery is never easy, especially in the darkness of the world. So we light the third candle to bring light into the world, knowing that in the light truth will shine and in the truth, people will be set free.

Lighting the 4th Candle

We light the fourth candle in celebration. Now the light, once so feeble and perhaps overwhelmed by the darkness, glows brightly. We remember the words of John, who wrote

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. (John 1: 5 – 9)

Like John the Baptist, we now go forth proclaiming the coming of Christ. In lighting the fourth candle, we now proclaim the birth of Jesus the Christ child is soon to be. We have completed our four week journey and preparation, so we can begin celebrating. With the light of the fourth candle, we can see much clearer than we could a few weeks ago. Like Mary and Joseph, we began this journey in darkness with fear, but our fear turned to joy because we know what the birth of Christ really means. Like the wise men who were guided by the star in the east so too have we been guided by the light of the candles. We come seeking to find the Christ child. So we light the fourth candle in celebration.

Lighting the Christ Candle

Over the past four weeks, we have lit the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. Each week the light of the Advent Wreath has grown brighter. And now the circle is complete. The four candles of Advent remind us and direct us towards the center candle, the Christ Candle. Just as the Christ Candle is the center of the Advent Wreath, so too should we make Christ the center of our lives. In lighting the Christ Candle, we are bringing forth a light that is so bright that it cannot be extinguished. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, we bring light into a world of darkness; no longer is the world a place of fear and darkness because fear and darkness cannot survive in a world of light. As we celebrate Advent and Christmas this year, let us take the light of Christ, that light that abides in our hearts and allows us to light the four candles of Advent, out into the world. We take the Light of Christ out into the world to bring the Good News that the sick will be healed, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear and the oppressed will be set free.

TSA Searches Again!

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook the other day and it is worthy of note for the blogging community.

At New York’s Kennedy airport today, a person later discovered to be a public school teacher, was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a drafting triangle, a compass, and a calculator.

During a press conference the Attorney General said he believed the man was a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement and the FBI intends to charge him with transporting weapons of math instruction.

“Al-Gebra is a fearsum, transverse cult,” the Attorney General said. “As a group they seek means of average solutions by extremes, and sometimes randomly go off on tangents in search of absolute values. A member of al-Gebra may use acute alias such as ‘x’ or ‘y’ and refer to himself as an unknown identity, but we have determined that he is likely to belong to a common denominator — the axis of medieval that coordinates in every country.” The Attorney General continued, “Al-Gebra functions as a bunch of standard deviations that have been tribal since the time of Noah’s arc,” a remark that struck a chord with the media. “They are inordinate in terrorism, of that I’m abscissaly sure.

They use degrees of irrational subtrahend to create differences and conditional inequalities among friendly, discriminant nations, leading to arguments and making us less functional and coefficient in attaining our goals. And they have the international mobility of a swarm of loci. Give them an air matrix to inflate and a plot to set it on, and they can live anywhere. If necessary, we will pursue them to the corners of this Earthly sphere.”

He complemented this with the supplementary remark, “As the Greek philanderer Isosceles once said, ‘Never forget that there are three sides to every triangle, and sometimes two of them are normal.’ ” The Attorney General added, “As you can tell, I am not diagonally opposed to that prime concept.”

When asked to comment on the arrest, President Bush obtusely said, “If God had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, He would have given us more fingers and toes. Next to bisectual marriages and those polygonists in Utah, I’m concerned about the significant places of such weapons. Tomorrow I intend to go to the hill and address Congruence about this situation. I have a volume of suggestions and a finite series of common solutions for them to consider.”

The President also warned, “These weapons of math instruction are without parallel and have the potential to decimal everything on a scalene never before seen unless we become exponents of an infinity Higher Power and begin to factor-in random facts of kindness. If we enter a phase in which all nations are integrated in all degrees of purpose, that steady state will give us slope for a better tomorrow, and we will all be infinitely better off. In such a case we could have our pi and eat it too.”

The President further declared, “I am gratified that we have been given a sine that al-Gebra is protracting this situation with calculusing disregard. Their murky statisticians plan to inflict plane of new dimensions on every sphere of influence,” he added. “Under these circumferences, we must differentiate their roots, make our points, draw our lines, and proportionally intersect these people throughout whatever area of the domain they range. And, above all, we must make sure that they can’t get their hands on radii active materials. That is one thing you can secant you? What we need is a higher quotient of linguists embedded with our troops so that they can interpolate the gibberish that al-Gebra uses to communicate. If we had that capability, we could periodically reach new limits of success as easily as falling off a natural log. Anything short of that could lead to some real, not imaginary, complex circumstances.”

The Secretary of Homeland Security added, “As our Great Leader would say, ‘Read my ellipse.’ The one angle that I am uncertainty of is that although al-Gebra will probability try to continuously multiply in theorem, their days are numbered as we draw the hypotenuse ever tighter around their necks.”