Things to do this year

For someone who wasn’t going to do much blogging this year (or at least at the beginning of the year) I am probably doing more than I anticipated.

I still need to focus on the financial issues that four years of unemployment have created. Concurrent with the financial issues are spiritual issues about the direction I am supposed to be going with my life and how I am to answer the call from God. (Interesting, I can write and preach about answering and hearing that call but I sometimes wonder if I have actually heard it).

A couple of notes that came across my desk this morning that warrant attention were “Ten Books to Look Out for in 2012” and “Science’s ‘most beautiful theories'”. I think that the first book on the list to look out for (“Ignorance: How it Drives Science”) is going to be interesting to read because, at least from the synopsis, it shows how we seek knowledge. The best part of that seeking is how we grapple with befuddling mysteries and I can see how that fits into a lot of what I want to do this year.

The second story is going to, I think, confuse people. But that is because they don’t understand how theories are developed and how such development has a degree of beauty in it. I can’t help but think of the stories I have read over the past few years that speak of the need for a developing theory to not only explain and predict but also be simple and elegant as well. I think that most people put theories at a level beyond their thinking and comprehension. Granted, the mathematics that is used can be daunting (and sometimes it is beyond my comprehension) but it is the explanation of what the theory means that is what we seek.

If you follow this blog, then you know about our feeding ministry, “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen”. In the vernacular of today, we have suspended operation of the ministry for the moment.

I always find it interesting when a politician running for President announces that he is suspending his run for the nomination. The announcement is always that so and so is quitting the race but they really aren’t quitting. To quit would mean the loss of matching federal funds so you don’t quit running, you simply suspend operation. I find it interesting that those candidates who are running on a platform of less federal involvement and smaller government still want the federal largesse that comes with running for office. I sometimes wish that they would share this money and the money they have raised (see my thoughts about this from last summer – (“The Situation Today”).

Our suspension of the ministry was not done lightly nor are we expecting a continuation of federal funds. The one thing that we didn’t do was go after federal funds for this ministry. Our experience this past summer with federal funds was not a good one; there is often too much administration in the name of oversight and very little in the way of actual support. And there was a conscious decision to do a quality job with this ministry, not use low-cost commodities and cheap materials. Those aren’t the type of things that you get when you seek many grants. And while the place where we get most of the food that we use does offer support for operations like ours, they aren’t willing to support something that isn’t completely local.

I will be honest; we think we can get the funding (for the record, the operation feeds between 20 and 40 each week, depending on the weather, and runs about $700 per month). We have been told that other local churches are going to be involved in the funding so we should be able to make a good of it. And we have people who help, both from our local church as well as from those who come to the ministry. What we don’t have is, and again I have to be honest, the support within the church. I characterize the reason that we suspended the operation as operational in nature. I don’t expect and never expected glowing and complete support from the congregation; to gain that means that we have to show success, success that is often based on the bottom line of economics rather than the good that has been accomplished.

But if we are to turn around the local church (be it mine or yours) and the United Methodist Church, we have to change the minds and hearts of people. There are those who occupy positions in the local church only for the power and glory that it gives them and they lord that over the others in the church. In smaller churches that is enough to kill the church; in bigger churches, the individuals only make the church ill but it is an illness that drives away those who seek Christ.

I realize that a feeding ministry that feeds twenty to forty people each weekend but doesn’t bring any income to the church is not what many people want. But that is not the goal of the ministry; Jesus feed the multitudes because they were hungry.

On the other hand, those who might come to the same church may stay because they know that the Holy Spirit is working in that church and I hope that is what we were doing with our feeding ministry. We have to step away for a while and see if that is the case. If the Spirit is present, we will resume operations shortly. If the Spirit is not there, well, God does work in mysterious and wonderful ways and we will walk in the path that He leads us.

A Matter of Identity

I got a note on Thursday about the possibility of being in the pulpit this Sunday. So I prepared this message. It turned out that I wasn’t needed after all. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 3: 1- 10, 10 – 20; 1 Corinthians 6: 12 -20; and John 1: 43 – 51.

There is a certain degree of symmetry, if you will, in the Scripture readings for today. For as a boy of twelve, I heard God calling me. Perhaps I wasn’t certain that it was God for it sure felt like my mother’s elbow jabbing me in the side to keep me awake during the sermon. But the message that I received suggested something else.

And when my family moved that summer that I was twelve from Montgomery, Alabama, to Denver, Colorado, I made the decision to pursue the God and Country award in the Boy Scouts. In about four weeks, when it is Boy Scout Sunday, I will post some thoughts about that award and what it meant to me then and still does today. But the symmetry isn’t about the call that a boy of twelve received some fifty years ago; it is about the call that boy received a few years ago.

One of the things that I have done over the past few years is “borrow” tricks and techniques from some of the pastors I have worked with and whom I may call friends. Sometimes it is the inclusion of song in the sermon; sometimes it is the use of my background in chemistry and science education. Acouple of years ago, following the lead of a friend, I began to explore creating pieces that centered around Nathaniel Bartholomew, one of the twelve disciples and the center of today’s Gospel reading. When I began looking at the history and tradition of this individual, initially skeptical that Jesus was the One and True Messiah, I felt that I had made the right choice.

For Nathaniel Bartholomew (he is identified as Nathaniel in John and Bartholomew in Matthew; we assume that they are the same individual) was the scholar of the group and the one who would go to Georgia to carry the Gospel message to the world. Since I too am a scholar and one who grew up in the South, it made sense to find ways to use Nathaniel Bartholomew in my preaching persona. And while the Georgia that he would travel to was not the Georgia that John Wesley would visit; it should not take much of a leap for a southern boy such as me to put the two places together.

As the saying goes, I am southern born and I am southern bred and when I die I shall be southern dead. But just because I grew up in the south and was raised by a southern born mother, do not presume that I hold to many of the traditions and characterizations that come with the southern label. One of the things that one has to know is that church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began to think about my identity in and with God was a Methodist Church and one of the better known members of that congregation was George Wallace, then governor of Alabama and in the process of putting his stamp on American politics.

For me to say that I am a Southern boy may cause some to think of one of many stereotypes. I will be honest; I could easily be like so many of my classmates of that time and era who still hold on to a view of the world in which one’s identity is predicated on one’s birthplace. But I grew up in more than one place and it allowed me to see the world in many different ways, ways that would allow me to pursue an identity that is my own and not the product of a time or place.

It does not help that I consider my home town to be Memphis, Tennessee. For some, it comes as quite a shock when they find out that I have really never been to Graceland. It strikes many that anyone from Memphis would naturally have been to Graceland at least one and perhaps twice a year. But, while I may appreciate Elvis for his music, and I do know where Graceland is (having been by it on a number of occasions), such is not sufficient for me to visit. Besides at something like $30.00 per ticket, it is not something I can afford to do.

The first thing that Nathaniel Bartholomew said when Philip told him about Jesus was, “what good can come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was never the place to be from and it certainly never fit into what the prophets were saying. Nathaniel’s response was the normal response.

But Jesus changed Nathaniel’s view when Jesus told him that He, Jesus, had seen him, Nathaniel, under the fig tree. Tradition has it that Nathaniel was reading and studying the Scripture so that he would know what to expect when the Messiah did come. Of course, the Messiah’s arrival was not what he expected but then again no one expected Jesus to be the Messiah at first. Jesus looked at who Nathaniel was, not what he was.

And on this weekend, I cannot help but remember that I was a senior in high school the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. Nor can I forget that he came to Memphis in support of sanitation workers who were on strike for better wages and, more importantly, for recognition that they deserved better working conditions as well. There was in this country back then, and is still persistent today, a perception that because someone is of a particular race or economic status then they are not worthy of equality. (My thoughts on this date in history are found at “Where Were You on April 4, 1968?” and “On This Day“)

We have in this country an assumption even today that the poor are shiftless and while we should give them something to eat, we better not give them the “good stuff.” And we best not put out our fine china and good silverware because they are only going to steal it. It would be better if we simply gave them something second class and act as if we were doing them a favor. And yet, what did Jesus say about this? Who would Jesus have invited to dinner? It amazes me when someone tastes the food that my wife prepares for the breakfasts that we host on Saturday and Sunday morning and finds out that this is the food the “poor” people eat. I hate to say it but I am utterly but not completely surprised when someone acts as if the world is coming to an end because we are willing to give a good meal to a homeless person instead of just slopping something on a paper plate and expecting them to like it.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians can be used, I supposed, in many different ways but I think he points out that when our lives are superficial, when our relationships have no depth, our lives have no meaning. And if our lives have no meaning, how can we expect to have any future?

Samuel heard God calling not one time but three times. It is not easy to get to the truth immediately. In a world where superficiality is the norm and not the exception, in a world where we have no desire to look at things in depth because it takes too long, we are willing to except artificial as real and false ideas as the truth. There was a note in The New York Times the other day that pointed out that the economic ideas being put forth in New Hampshire last week as the way of saving the economy of this country were actually the reason why the economy was in trouble.

I would also argue that those who call themselves Christian but turn a blind eye to the suffering of the poor and helpless are a reason why this country is in trouble. Right now, the United Methodist Church is seeking to change the direction that it is headed. The numbers say that the UMC will be dead in twenty-five years. Unfortunately, from where I stand, I don’t see the answer that others may see. Because what I see are many churches that are blind to the condition of the people in their communities. Oh, there are food banks in practically every church in town but there are afterthoughts and if people in the churches were pushed, they would tell you that they would rather not have them.

But I remember that John Wesley saw the condition of the people and the response of the church and he worked to change the perception and the outcome. The first Sunday school, the first credit union, the first health care clinic were all products of the Methodist revival of the 18th century. And because John Wesley and those who followed and walked with him choose to go into the mines and the prisons, the factories and the streets, the violent revolution that ravaged France did not occur in England.

If you say that you are a Methodist, then you lay claim to that heritage that changed the world some two hundred and fifty years ago. If you say that you are a Christian, then you claim to follow Christ, to do the things that he did when he walked the dusty roads of the Galilee.

The Old Testament reading is about God calling the young boy Samuel to service in His name. And for some, those first few verses are all that matters. But those who prepared the lectionary also included the next set of verses, verses that are not often read. But I choose to include them today because I am concerned that church is in the same situation today as it was some three thousand or so years ago. There are those who have and are destroying the church; they have taken the name Christ but only superficially. It is not just the television evangelists who would have you send in a couple of dollars for a small vial of oil or a piece of cloth but those who come to church on Sunday and then leave Christ tucked away in a storage closet until they come back the next week.

Jesus promised Nathaniel that he, Nathaniel, would see great things before he was through. And that is a promise that is given to us as well. Just as Samuel was called, just as Nathaniel was called, so too are we called today to follow Christ. We do not have to answer that call but if we are to be who we say we are, we have to. It is a matter of our identity, of saying and being who we are.

The State of Education – 2012

Two notes came across my “virtual desk” last week that really struck a chord with me. And when you put in the fact that last Friday, January 6th, is the traditional day that the Magi came to see the Christ Child, it struck me that I should put something down. That, plus the fact that I am focusing more on education in my writing this year prompts this post.

The first note came from The New York Times“Students of Online Schools are Lagging”; the second from Inside Higher Ed“Academically Adrift”.

In the Times article it was noted that number of students in schools run by educational management organizations rose last year. It is stated later in the article that the schools in question are high schools. Now, the basis for any statistical comparison between two different groups is that there are no differences between the two groups (the null hypothesis). So, we should expect that there is little or no difference between the academic achievement of students who attend a traditional school or go to school online. Yet the result of the study reported in the Times is that students attending online schools have lower scores than their counterparts in traditional schools.

It was not reported how the students who take their course work online did the coursework but based on my experiences with online process, it was essentially drill-and-practice and recitation of memorized information. It was also designed to meet the requirements of the now ten year old No Child Left Behind legislation. One might conclude or hope that online education would produce better results, if for no other reason than we want technology to triumph. But the Times article points out that students in online schools lag behind their counterparts and that does not bode well for those who see such technology advancements as the means for improving education in this country.

That does not mean that the present process is doing an excellent job; in fact, the evidence from the second article would suggest that traditional processes are doing, at best, a mediocre job. If we are to assume that the basic benefit of the No Child Left Behind legislation are students who are better equipped to attend college, then we must either re-examine our assumptions or reconsider what we are doing because of this law.

For the results of this second study tell us that college students are not learning anything in college. All they know how to do is memorize facts for the sole purpose of using such information on a test. There is no emphasis on critical thinking or analysis of information and without those skills it is very difficult to develop new knowledge.

The sad part in these two articles is that they don’t say anything that I haven’t already said before. For entirely different reasons I went back and looked at two articles that I wore in 2009. In “The Future of Education” I suggested that relying on the internet as the means for education was a little over-rated and not well thought out. In “The Grinch in the Classroom” I looked at the impact of testing imposed by the No Chlid Left Behind legislation and its failure to properly teach students.

What can I conclude about the state of education as we begin 2012? If we do not immediately begin to change what we are doing; if we do not focus more on the learning process and less on the testing process, then we will not have an educational system to speak of in 2013.

The Magi who visited the Christ Child were scientists, individuals who saw things that caused them to question and seek answers. Nowadays we are apt to call these individuals astrologers and magicians but make no mistake about it; they were scientists. They saw the world around them and it caused them to ask questions and seek answers. They were not the only ones who saw the signs in the sky that announced the birth of a new king; those individuals who were in King Herod’s court saw the same signs.

Perhaps that latter group understood what the signs meant about the future; but they also knew that future would put them out of a job so they ignored the signs and maintained the status quo.

Education is not designed to maintain the status quo; it is designed to push the boundaries and allow individuals to go beyond the limits in place. Education should be liberating; all we have to do is look at what happen in the Middle East. The dictatorships in place at the beginning of the Arab Spring and Summer tried to maintain control by shutting off communication and the free flow of information. But they could not do it and the dictators that ruled Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya all fell from power.

I sometimes think that we see education more as a teaching process rather than a learning process. Teaching is a one-way process, from instructor to pupil. Learning is an interaction between pupil and instructor. The present use of the Internet can best be described as a one-way process; all the Internet is doing is replacing the traditional lecture with an electronic lecture. We must work to bring back true learning, the interaction of individuals in a community. It happens that we call the community the classroom, though we have removed the interaction.

The state of education in this country at the beginning of 2012 is not very good. But, if we are willing to put some effort into it and bring back what we know works, then the state of education in 2013 will be better.