“The Ultimate Lesson of Sandy”

It is two days past Sandy and time for some thoughts.

Some might say that my family and I were lucky, others would say that we were fortunate. There were very strong wind gusts most of Monday afternoon and into Tuesday but we didn’t get much rain and we never lost power. Some member of the family did lose power on Tuesday when tree limbs fell on power lines in their neighborhood but the outage wasn’t long.

I was totally amazed by the predicted track of Sandy, coming up from Florida, following the Gulf Stream past North Carolina and Virginia, then taking that sharp left hand turn into New Jersey and New York. One of the computer models had Sandy going to the Canadian border and then turning right. I swear that I thought it was going to go to Boston, go out to sea, turn left again and come back to New York for a second visit. There have been a couple of hurricanes that have done that in the past, though I don’t think they were this far north.

Seeing the storm track west towards Chicago was interesting and seeing surfers on Lake Michigan even more so. Seeing the snow in the Appalachians made for a very interesting weather story as well.

When I saw that Sandy was turning left early in the model and going to New Jersey I relaxed a little bit. Not a whole lot, mind you; I guess that having lived through Carla in ’62 and Camille in ’69 keeps me from every relaxing when there is a hurricane. I had a sense that Katrina was going to be a major problem but, to be honest, I never had that same feeling with Sandy.

And I had that wrong. Seeing the devastation that was the New Jersey sea shore and knowing the damage and havoc that Sandy left for the lower end of Manhattan, I remember that one should ever take a hurricane or tornado lightly.

I don’t know the entire extent of damage in this area. I know that friends 5 or 10 miles away are without power; I know that many across the river will not have power for a few more days. I have to go to my church tomorrow and check on the refrigerator there to determine what foodstuffs we might have lost in preparation for Saturday’s breakfast at Grannie Annie’s kitchen. I suspect that this Saturday we may have a higher number of guests but this is only an estimate on my part today.

I grieve at the loss of one’s home and property. For some, recovery will be easy and short; for others, it will be a long time before they are able to return to the point in the lives where they were on Sunday afternoon. I grieve at the loss of life. Things can be replaced; lives cannot.

There were some who felt that they knew the power and strength of Sandy better than anyone else so they choose to stay behind when the order for evacuation came. I hope that those who choose to stay learned first hand the power of a hurricane and that should there come another opportunity such as this, they heed the warnings to evacuate and not stay behind.

Sadly, those who choose to ignore the evacuation warning now find themselves without food or water, power or heat, and no way to get those things which are necessary to life. Those groups who bring aid to people in need at times such as this will not go into areas that have been evacuated.

Lessons from last year’s storms (Irene and the Halloween snow storm) were remembered by some this year. But other lessons that have been taught over the past few years still haven’t been learned. People have been talking about the vulnerability of the New York subway systems for years now but nothing has ever really been done. And now, the flaws and vulnerabilities in the system have been shown and massive work must be done. In many areas of the northeast people still haven’t learned about the dangers of power lines mixing with tree limbs. One of these days we will have a better system of power transmission (though I don’t know what we are going to do about power transformers).

People will rebuild and start over; some will start over at whatever point in life they are for they have no other choice. Others will insist that their lifes be rebuilt at the point in life where it was disrupted because they have the wherewithal to do so.

But please remember this. Before Sandy came to visit the northeast, there were people without homes; there were people who were hungry. The number of homeless, the number of hungry, the number of individuals without adequate healthcare have been on the rise for the past few years. There will be a temporary increase in those numbers because of what Sandy did. What I hope today and in the coming days is that the decrease that will come as we rebuild will decrease beyond the temporary increase and we will take this opportunity to really removed homelessness, hunger, and poverty from this society.

“The Death of Mark Twain and Other Rumors”

I am at at Lake Mahopac UMC this Sunday, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (B); the Scripture readings for today are Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; and Mark 10: 46 – 52. Services start at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

As perhaps some of you know, I am from Memphis, Tennessee, and I went to college in Missouri and Iowa. Now, I will admit that, even though I have lived in quite a number of different places throughout the years, at times my knowledge of specific local areas can be quite limited.

It was that way when I first began college at Truman State University, or as it was known back then, Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. If someone were to ask me where I was from, I automatically assumed that they knew that when I said Memphis, they knew that it was Memphis, Tennessee. I quickly found out that, for many individuals in the northeast section of Missouri, that when one said they were from Memphis, they were referring to Memphis, Missouri, a town about 4o miles from Kirksville, and not necessarily the home (not home town) of Elvis.

Now, as it happens, Kirksville and Memphis are both in the Mark Twain District of the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, just as Mahopac and Beacon are parts of the New York/Connecticut District of the New York Annual Conference. And Hannibal, Missouri, the home of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer is also in this district.

And here is where it may get confusing. While Hannibal may be the home of Mark Twain, it is not where Samuel Clemens was born. Samuel Clemens was born, not in Hannibal, but in Florida, Missouri, a few miles outside Hannibal. You can imagine what I think every time I drive over to the Warwick area across the river to preach at one of the churches in that area and I have to pass through Florida, New York.

Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, and he would move to Hannibal when he was about five. Clemens’ birth was during a visit to our Solar System by Halley’s Comet and he often said that he would die when it again visited this solar system. In 1909, Twain is quoted as saying:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” (From Wikipedia)

He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, the day after this most famous interplanetary visitor passed by the earth. Each year, at this time, we are reminded of this by the Orionid meteor shower, an event that occurs when the earth passes through the debris left by Halley’s comet against a backdrop of the constellation Orion. No doubt Mr. Clemens smiles as we are reminded of his actual death and not those occasions where others said that he had died.

It was that line in Job that we read this morning where Job speaks of only knowing God as a rumor that prompted me to think of Mr. Clemens, his life and the reports of his death, both real and rumored. Twice in his life people thought that he had died, which lead him to state “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” After the second of these instances when it was thought that he had again died, he wrote that he would make an exhaustive investigation of the report and he would let the people know if there was any truth to it.

Now, it is entirely possible that I could have gone to school in Kirksville and never learned about Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. It would have been a little bit difficult, I suspect, for the simple reason that I spent almost eight years in that particular part of Missouri and a better part of my life traveling up and down the Mississippi from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Arkansas and Mississippi delta around Memphis making it somewhat difficult to ignore the history and literature of that area.

If someone were to ask me how I would characterize my education at Truman, I would say that part of it was formal and in the classroom and part of it was informal and outside the classroom. But what I learned in the classroom often times gave me the skills and abilities to learn and understand what was outside the classroom. Too many times, we limit our education to a particular time and place and we are quite willing to stop learning when we are not in those formal settings.

In his own way, Samuel Clemens wrote about the nature of humanity, sometimes with wit, sometimes with sarcasm and sometimes with sorrow. Some of Clemens’ works have been severely criticized in today’s society for their lack of political correctness and I know that I would have difficulty repeating some of that language but Clemens wrote about what he saw. And I grew up in a culture that hadn’t changed much in the 100 years or so after Clemens wrote his stories. So I understood why he wrote what he did. I think that those who object to his writing often times have little knowledge or appreciation for other times and other places; I also know that there are many individuals who stopped learning after their formal education ended and it sometimes shows in their knowledge of the world and what transpires today. And sadly, that includes the church today.

Clemens objected to a society that put material well-being over substance of character. So it should not surprise you that Samuel Clemens, who made his mark on American literature with his observations and writings about our society, would have a few choice, and not so kind, words about American Christianity.

There is no doubt that Clemens believed in God but many of the things that drive people away from the church today were things that bothered Twain as well. He would write in an autobiography that was published in 2010, 100 years after his death,

There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory as it is–in our country particularly and in all other Christian countries in a somewhat modified degree–it is still a hundred times better than the Christianity of the Bible, with its prodigious crime–the invention of Hell. Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor his Son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

It would be interesting to delve into why Mr. Clemens characterized the Christianity of the Bible as he did. But that is a topic for another time and place.

But I know that there are many people who see Christianity, the church, and God in much the same way today. They see a vengeful God, willing to strike down any and all who incur His wrath. They see God as one would allow His people to enslave and persecute others in His name. They see a church that closes its doors to all those who seek God, who seek hope and promise in times of strife and need.

They are hard pressed to see God as a loving and caring God who sent His son to save us from being enslaved to sin and death. They cannot see Christ as the one who leads us to a path of peace in a sometimes often violent world.

And they often times back up their beliefs with the notion that what they believe is in the Bible. But they cannot identify where in the Bible it is or they take a particular statement and apply it out of context. Someone said that ours is a society that is so in love with the Bible that we are afraid to open it for fear of damaging it.

And there are those today who say that Jesus Christ was, at the minimum, a rumor, and at the most, a myth. In fact, there are many today who would deny the existence of any god (lower case) or supreme being simply because there is so much death and destruction on earth. What god would allow this to happen, especially if it is a god that professes to love his children.

The vengeful, wrathful God is often the picture presented in the Old Testament but when we say that we are Christians we are saying that we are a people of the New Testament as well and we have to know the difference.

We live in a time when many people hold to the view that we need to return to the Bible and enact laws based on the Bible. But if we are to return to a style of life that is outlined in the Old Testament, what are we to do with the New Testament, the very basis for us being Christian?

Is Christ a myth, a rumor, the product of some vast two-thousand year old conspiracy in which we have been misled and confused? If it is, how is it that we have gotten this far? How is it that this faith has lasted this long? There has to have been some degree of truth to what is said today, otherwise how can we even begin to think about being here?

And that is our problem, we can’t even begin to think of a God that would knowingly and willingly send His Son to live among us and show us a new path, a new life. We are not willing to see among the destruction, the death, the violence, and the hatred that God would love us completely and unconditionally. Unless we are willing to change our lives, it is almost impossible to see beyond the moment; unless we are willing to delve into the material in such a way that it becomes part of our lives, the words of the Bible will only be words and nothing more.

The Old Testament reading for today concludes a four-week study of the Book of Job. It is a part of the Wisdom section of the Old Testament and serves as a transition from the historical and law sections of the Old Testament to the writings of the prophets. It can be a tough book to read and study for it often challenges us to think beyond our own limits. It asks the question, “Is God a remote and omnipotent being who cares little for his children or is He a loving and caring God that will see that no trouble befalls his children?”

Job is identified as the richest man in the country and one who is without sin. Now, some preachers today would say that Job’s riches are the results of his righteousness. Were this the case then the premise of the story, that the loss of one’s material well-being and health would cause one to denounce God, might have some validity. In fact, it is the basis for many of the arguments put forth by Job’s friends.

Throughout the Book of Job, Job’s friends counsel him to either denounce God for all the suffering and pain that he has endured or at least acknowledge that he, Job, must have done something extremely terrible or wrong to receive such punishment. If you stop and think about it, these are often the very responses that so many people today would offer.

But against this backdrop of illness, death, destruction, abandonment, and the taunts of his friends, Job only asks to hear from God why this is all happening. In the reading from last week, God does speak to Job and now Job says to God, “I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!”

There is a difference between the experience Job has with God and the experience of Job’s friends. They can only speak about God. Their knowledge of God was limited to what they had learned in school but never applied. They spoke in correct and beautiful terms but they were often words without meaning simply because they were simply words from a book, not from the heart and mind.

God will rebuke Job’s friends for their persistent argument against Job that God always blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, and that to question this was to question the justice of God, and so to add sin to the obvious heinous sin Job must have already committed to be in the state he was in. This would have been understood as mainstream, everyday, normal theology. God rejects that theology here. He calls it “what is not right” (“right” in the sense here of grounded in fact), while what Job has said is right.

Two things come from this. First, understand that John Wesley rejected this argument when he began his work among the poor and lower classes of 18th century England. Yet, even today, there are people who believe that wealth is a sign of righteousness and poverty the result of sin.

Second, we have to realize that Job’s understanding of God has gone from a routine understanding to a deeper, more personal understanding of God. In a time when many people would rather we not question God, our reading of Job tells us that to question God helps to bring a deeper understanding of faith. Now Job will tell you, as he does in the story, that because he now knows God more personally, he is even more aware of how much he does not know. It reflects a statement about any sort of research that one does, the answer to one question often leads to two or more new questions.

The reading from Hebrews (Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; for those who are interested, here is a link to reading from Hebrews for today) further reflects the personal nature of knowing God. There is a distinct difference between knowing about God and knowing God personally.

I recognize that each person starts off only knowing about God. It is part of the learning process. It is why we have Sunday school and Bible classes. We have to start somewhere. But we must continue the learning or we will find ourselves in very difficult situations. It is like speaking of Memphis, Tennessee, when the other person is thinking of Memphis, Missouri.

I have never had any doubt in my mind, my heart, or my soul that Jesus Christ was and is real and that He died on the Cross to set me free from enslavement to sin and death. As I mentioned last week at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (In Search of Excellence in the Church Today), it was my mother, who through her insistence that my brothers and sister go to Sunday school every week, that put me on the path to Christ. But it is a path that I had to walk alone, though often in the company of others headed in the same direction. And the path that I walked lead me to 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now 1st United Methodist Church) of Aurora, Colorado, where I found a community that would nurture me on my journey.

The Gospel lesson for today tells us of the healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus. This is the second such healing in Mark and it is a story that is also told in Matthew and Luke. Matthew says that two blind men were healed and the story ends with their healing; Luke wrote that one man was healed but he does not identify the man. Luke does point out that the man, whomever he was, followed Jesus after the healing.

Each of the four Gospel writers has a reason for telling their stories. Each of the reasons is played out in how those stories are told. We do know that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the gospels. Mark may very well be the young man introduced to us in the Easter story. And there is evidence to suggest that Mark accompanied Peter to Rome and that he compiled the stories and doings of Jesus while he was in the Galilee. It is quite easy to see Mark listening to Peter as Peter preached to the people and then questioning him for more details about Jesus and what transpired.

As Robin Griffith-Jones writes in his book, The Four Witnessess,

We certainly should not assume that Mark was the first to tell the story of Jesus’ work “from beginning to end.” Mark’s narrative may very well have grown out of regular recitation at church gatherings. Fewer people in those days were taught to read, and far more instruction was passed on by word of mouth.

That Mark would identify the blind man who was healed and then followed Jesus would suggest that he, Bartimaeus, became a disciple of note and that he was well known in the early church.

The early church, the church before Constantine and its formal organization, was built upon the stories that people told about Jesus. But it was more than the stories; it was about how the people who told the stories had been changed by Jesus. The stories were more than words; they were a continuation of the Good News and what the Good News meant to individuals. There was an acknowledgment that something had happened to them and it changed their lives.

In today’s society, there are those, like Bartimaeus, who seek Christ. And we will be the ones who they will ask. “Is it true what they say about Jesus, that He came to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and bring freedom to the oppressed?”

Some, like the disciples did with Bartimaeus and others before him, will rebuke those who seek. But Jesus always told them to let them come to Him; this time, they understood through Bartimaeus’ cry that he truly sought Jesus and they let him come. How many times have we rejected someone because we felt they were not worthy to be in the church?

Too many others will quote the words of the Bible, saying that you have to know about God and Christ before you can be saved. But words alone will not feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked or bring freedom to the oppressed.

We know what Christ has done for us and it is important that we tell the story, not just to those who will listen but to those who will not as well.

The difference is that we will also show that the words are true, through our thoughts, deeds, and actions. If we speak with words that are hollow, we run the risk of making the story of Jesus Christ truly a myth and his life only a rumor. But if we tell the story as others have, as the encounter each one of us has had, people will know that it is not a rumor and it is not a myth.

That is the way the early church began, telling the story in not only words but in the way lives were changed. The story was told one person at a time. But others heard the story and they saw the changes in the lives and they began to ask why and how.

So we proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive and well, living in each of us. The challenge we face is to know the story, not just in our minds, but in our thoughts, words, and deeds. If you came today seeking Christ, you will find Him here. You are invited to open your hearts and minds. If you came today seeking to know more, you will gain that knowledge. All one has to do is open your heart and mind to the Holy Spirit.

So, just as the meteors that showered the evening skies last week remain us of Mark Twain, so too does that warm feeling that we have in hearts remind us that Christ is alive and living in us this day and for the days to come.

“Thoughts of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away – Henry David Thoreau

Now, the title of this piece comes from the 19th century workers movement that opposed the beginnings of the industrial revolution and is the first of what I think will be a three-part post. The on-line Free Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that a Luddite was

one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving devices as a protest; broadly: one who is opposed to especially technological change.”

Wikipedia tells us that Luddites were

19th-century English textile artisans who violently protested against the machinery introduced during the Industrial Revolution that made it possible to replace them with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.”

I am, by no means, opposed to the use of technology in the classroom or elsewhere. However, I am really not interested in many of things “out there” that define technology in today’s world. I do not own a “smart” phone. Quite honestly, at this point, I cannot afford a new phone nor do I feel the need for it. I can probably do the same things with my net book that I could do with a “smart” phone, even if the net book is a little more cumbersome. The question would be “why would I want to?”

I don’t tweet, I don’t text, and the music that I prefer to listen too is often not in a format that would work on a MP3 player or its equivalent. I have a Facebook account but I don’t update my time line (in fact, I don’t even have it set up) nor do I tell people what I like or dislike.

I have never owned a graphing calculator; in fact, I have never really owned a calculator. I learned early on how to use the graphing capabilities of a spreadsheet so I don’t necessarily need a calculator to do my graphing for me. And when calculators first came out, I couldn’t afford one and when they became cheap enough to buy, students would leave them in the laboratory and I would just use one that someone left in the lab. Besides, I learned how to use a slide rule back in the early 60s and I still have three slide rules sitting on my desk in case I find the need to do some calculations. And if the computer is up, the calculator that is part of the accessories file, when in the scientific mode, does all the calculations that I need.

I do have a blog (as evident by this post) and I use word-processing technology to prepare the blog. I use the search capabilities of my browser and Google to find information but I also have to use my own thinking skills and analytical techniques to determine the validity of the information that I find. And that is why I am a Neo-Luddite. I think that we have become so enamored by the technology and what it does, we have let it dominant our lives, to the point where we no are beginning to lose our ability to think and be creative.

I fear that the manner in which we are using technology is slowly creating the less-skilled labor class that the 19th century Luddites feared would take away their jobs. Perhaps I am more in line with the thinking of the Ba’ku as expressed by Sojef in a comment to Picard early in the movie “Star Trek: Insurrection”,

We believe when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.”

In her piece, “Same Boat, Different Stream”, Rebekah Simon-Peter wrote

Students are producing! They are making apps, posting movies on YouTube, publishing their thoughts on Facebook, and showing their work on Instagram. They research just for the fun of it! They text and tweet in a way that would make ee cummings proud. Young people are wired, networked and engaged.

I won’t argue that there are some out there who are being creative and doing wonderful things with the technology. After all, all one has to do is watch the Mars Rovers, especially “Curiosity”, and know that there are individuals with the ability to think a problem through and create a solution that allows us to travel to another planet and explore it (of course, I would much rather that we were setting foot on that planet but that is for another time).

Whereas technology can help, it also has a tendency to magnify mistakes as well. Remember the old saying that if you don’t know how to solve the problem, all a computer (or calculator) can do is get you the wrong answer quicker.

Students today are quite adept at finding information on the web but they are often times incapable of determining the validity the information that they find. Case in point – In my assignment on academic and scientific integrity, I ask if certain individuals are guilty of perpetrating fraud, committing a hoax, or just doing plain “bad” science. On more than one occasion, students have reported that a Nobel Prize winner was guilty of scientific fraud without realizing the consequences of that conclusion. Their own conclusion was based on information that was on the Internet but was incomplete. Other times, their conclusions contradict their initial statements. They can find the information without any difficulty; understanding it and applying it cannot be done with technology and I don’t think we as a society completely understand this.

My point is that I fear that our reliance on technology as the end ignores the fact that technology is a tool that should open up possibilities for us. I wonder where the next generation of these thinkers will come from. I fear that our reliance on technology has almost become a dependence and we are using technology in hopes of making up for a short-fall in creativity, innovation, and just plain thinking skills.

Our schools trumpet the use of computers in the classrooms and we see more and more schools going to on-line education, not only at the college level but even now at the high school level. But when you look at what is being done in those situations, you see very little creativity, very little original though, and lots and lots of the same old thing. Textbook publishers today are merely transposing the problems from the back of the book to a computer database. They are still the same problems and quite possibly with the same errors. When I see what textbook publishers have done with on-line materials, I am reminded of what they did back in the 1960s and we shifted from problems with English units to problems with metric units. If you look at a text written in the 1950s and an edition of the same text written in the 1960s, the problems are the same with the only change being that instead of inches, the units are now centimeters and so forth.

What is needed at this time is a certain degree of futurism in the classroom and elsewhere. There needs to be a discussion and thought put into what can we do with what we have and what we might have. There is a certain degree of risk involved because the very act of thinking about the future may change what occurs and the future is notorious for never being as we thought it might be (anyone driving/flying an Aerocar these days?).

Right now, I see a world in which people can solve problems but only problems that already have solutions. New problems require new solutions and often times those solutions are not in a book. Case in point – Dimitri Mendeleev was able to predict the existence of several elements and their properties because he had something upon which to base his predictions. But he could not predict the existence or properties of the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, or radon) because he did not have the same comparable evidence that he had for the other predicted elements. So his Periodic Table does not have the last column that we see on most modern Periodic Tables. Had he had just a little bit more information, he might have added that missing column and predicted the elements. Or, if he had waited two more years before producting the table, the discovery of helium would have provided the additional information that he needed.

We are in the same boat. We have a society that can solve problems if they are like problems we have dealt with in the past. But to solve a problem that we have never faced requires abilities that we are not focusing on.

We have to begin thinking far beyond the walls of the classroom and far beyond the pages of a calendar. We have to place an emphasis on higher-order learning skills. In her piece, “Same Boat, Different Stream”, Rebekah Simon-Peter made note of a suggestion by Shawn Jensen,

He suggested that educators include a digital native’s real life skills in the classroom. For instance, ask students to construct a FB timeline of Abraham Lincoln. What might he have posted before giving the Gettysburg address. After? How might others have responded?

What are the skills that we need for tomorrow? Will technology provide the skills that we need?

We need to be able to work cooperatively, we need to be able to see beyond the walls of our present existence, we need to be able to communicate, we need to be able to see in new ways. The technologies that we have today cannot do that but they can help us to achieve those goals.

We must also realize that there is an ever-increasing technology gap. We are quickly developing a social class of people who simply cannot do any of the jobs available in the modern world? What will happen to those individuals who, in the past, would have been the salt of the earth ditch diggers, janitors, and so forth as those jobs will become more and more scarce over the next few decades. Is there a way to train them to function? Will we create a permanent welfare class that consists of people who want to work hard and produce, but don’t have the necessary ability?

Are we open to new ideas? Or will we take old ideas and just recycle them? Speaking as a Neo-Luddite, I would hope that we seek new ideas for the technologies that we have and not merely recycle old ones. I want to explore this in the next part of this series, “Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite” which I hope to post in the next day or so.

“The Search For Excellence In The Church Today”

I am at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (Greenwich, CT) this Sunday morning, October 21, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 38: 1 – 7, (34 – 41); Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; ; and Mark 10: 35 – 45. Their services start at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.

We have traveled many different paths to get to this place in space and time. We traveled some of the paths because we had no other choice, we traveled some rather reluctantly, but there have been some paths that we willingly and joyfully chose to travel. Our lives have been formed by the paths that we have walked and our lives will determine the paths that we walk when we leave this place today.

In 1984 I moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Silvis, Illinois, to begin teaching at a community college there. I was looking forward to making this move because I was going to be teaching again after being in graduate school at the University of Memphis. And because Iowa City was only about an hour and a half from the college where I was teaching, I would be able to complete the work on my doctorate in Science Education. As a side note, if you are interested in graduate work in the area of science education, the best place then and now to do this work was and is the University of Iowa. It was a path that I chose to walk.

That period of time, the mid 1980s, was a time when many in this country felt that the country had lost its competitive advantage and were seeking to regain it. It was also a time marked by an increased interest in the nature of creativity and innovation.

Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr., wrote a book entitled The Search For Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies in which they identified what they thought were the basic principles of modern business management. I was interested in this research for two reasons. First, my father was an industrial engineer who specialized in time and motion study. As a disciple of Frederick Winslow Taylor, he looked at the ways things operated and thought about how to make them work better.

More importantly, I arrived on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City as this search for excellence was being applied to science education in this country. The faculty members at Iowa who would guide, direct and advise me on my doctoral studies were leading this research.  And one mark of the excellence of the Iowa program, at least for me, is that I was allowed the choose the path my doctoral studies would take and I was not required to be part of this research.

The conclusions as to what made an excellent or exemplary program in science education very closely matched the conclusions of Peters and Waterman (see Penick, J. E., Yager, R. E., and Bonnstetter, R. (October, 1986). Teachers make exemplary programs. Educational Leadership, 44(2), 14-20.)

Peters and Waterman began their research by noting that the dominant model for business management was predicated and based on the financial bottom line. Nothing matter but that which improved the bottom line. There was no concern for the goods or products being produced; there was no concern for the workers involved or what the customers truly wanted. A company’s goal was to produce its product at the lowest possible cost.

Peters and Waterman found a blind acceptance of the bottom line as the only truth. But this model, called by some the “rational model” made people, both employees of the company and customers, part of the equation and, because it was an equation, there was no room for creativity and innovation. Management in the more traditional companies stayed away in their corporate offices, relying on analytical reports to give them a sense of the direction of the company.

What Peters and Waterman concluded was that successful companies did things just a bit differently. Such companies did not put a heavy reliance on analytical tools but understood that you had to understand what was happening. The bottom line on a financial picture can tell you one thing but it cannot tell you what is happening at that moment in the factory, the workplace, or the marketplace. Management in successful companies was accomplished by wandering around, seeing what was happening. By the way, how was it that Jesus conducted his ministry throughout the Galilee?

Successful companies focused on the needs of the customer and listened to the employees; they gave the employees the freedom to experiment, to be creative and innovative. It was pointed out that people in the successful companies were encouraged to develop new ideas and try them out without fear of failure. People in traditional companies who sought to do the same were often discouraged from doing so, to the point of perhaps being fired.

When the NSTA group looked at what were considered exemplary and innovative programs in science education, they came away with many of the same conclusions. It was the teachers in the classroom who created the successful and exemplary classes, not the management or administration. Innovation and creativity come from the bottom up and the bottom line is a lousy way to measure productivity. I recall one instance where a school administration told the creator of one of the innovative chemistry programs that she had to have been doing something wrong because all of the students in that particular school wanted to take chemistry classes and it was the administration’s view that only about 10% of the students were capable of taking chemistry.

Now, some thirty years after these studies, I have to wonder if we learned any lessons from them, both in business and education. A number of years ago I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on Total Quality Management (see “To Search For Excellence”). As I wrote then, about half-way through the three-day seminar I began to experience a sense of deja vu. In the end, the only thing that I learned was that I already knew most of the points that were being presented because they were the driving points behind what my father did as an industrial engineer for the United States Air Force, McDonnell Aircraft (before the merger with Douglas Aircraft) and RCA. All that TQM did was take time and motion study and give it a new name. And for the record, this seminar was sponsored by the United Methodist Church.

I am not entirely certain that what Peters and Waterman laid out before us has ever accepted. It seems to me that we still place an overbearing reliance on that traditional model, that if big is better, becoming bigger is even better. In the time since that book was first published, we have seen company after company get bigger, not by work, but by buying other companies. And the American people have accepted that idea that low cost is better than quality. We see in the products we buy; we have pushed the idea in our schools.

And I fear that today, with regards to Christianity and the church, we may be doing the same thing. One of the things that prompted me to title this message as I did was the beginning portion of the conversation James and John had with Jesus that day some two thousand years ago. What does it say about your work when you are more interested in the power of the position than the outcome? How many times in our own churches have we heard such a discussion? How many times have we seen a church destroy itself internally because of similar power struggles?

A recent survey by the Pew Institute indicates that 1 in 5 Americans today no longer claims any religious affiliation. This doesn’t mean that they no longer believe in Christ or God but rather they can find no place where they feel it possible to express their beliefs. What they very well may see in churches today is not the church that was but an extension of the world around them. Those who disavow religion are not necessarily forsaking Christ but they want to know how to deal with the world and they believe that Christ will offer them the answer. But if the church, in general, by denomination, or by building, is no different that the world, how will they find the answer?

And there is that prediction that I am sure that you are well aware of that there will be no United Methodist Church in twenty-five years because there will be no more United Methodists alive. Personally I hope to still be around then but where will I go if I should be one of the few?

I know that my voice is in the minority and there are many out there who would rather that I keep silent on the subject of revitalizing the United Methodist Church. But when I consider how people of the United Methodist Church helped me find the path to walk when I needed that guidance and how that guidance kept me from the wildnerness, how can I keep silent?

I know that there are others like me who see a church that has forgotten what path it is supposed to be walking. There are many out there, laity and clergy, who feel that the present plans and thoughts of the United Methodist Church miss the point and lead down the wrong path. Like me, they are committed to returning the church, both in general and for the United Methodist Church in particular, to a path that leads to the Cross and beyond. Perhaps we are disturbers of the peace that don’t fit well into the traditional model of how things work but then again neither were the prophets of the Old Testament and John the Baptist. They raised their voices, they cried out in the wilderness and in the cities for the people to repent and change one’s ways.

I think about what a blogging colleague of mine, John Meunier, wrote about John Wesley a few weeks back. John is a local pastor out in Indiana and a business communication instructor at Indiana University. We will probably come to a major disagreement of some sort when the Iowa Hawkeyes soundly defeat the Indiana Hoosiers in football on November 3rd but not about Methodism in general. He wrote,

Methodism began because a group of college kids obsessed with holiness of heart and life discovered that such holiness was a gift of grace by faith in the saving work of Christ. They called it justification by faith and they preached it to everyone who would listen and to those who would not listen. Thrown out of pulpits, they preached it in the fields.

It was a movement grounded in spiritual disciplines and convinced that holy living included and required following the moral law of God. As it gathered people, it created new disciplines to help the people grow in grace. They held each other accountable in love for progress toward perfection in love. This was the growth that Wesley cultivated, growth in holiness. He would gut the membership of a society if he thought that was required to increase the holiness of the members who remained. This is what he meant by discipline.

In our 21st century context, we do cultivate independence, as the IOT report says. We cultivate independence from our own tradition and our vows of ordination. We cultivate independence from the doctrine of our own denomination. We cultivate independence from our own connection. Our solution, paradoxically, is to solve our decline by skipping over matters of doctrine and spirit and focusing solely on matters of discipline — but only for certain segments of the connection.

Much of what the Call to Action seeks to do is worthy, but the initiative has missed the words that it has quoted in its own support. If we seek not just the form of religion but its power, we need to grasp hold again of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our movement. One out of three will not do it, I fear. (From John Meunier’s “The final word from the IOT”)

I fear that what has caused our numbers to drop and what has caused people in general to say that they have no religious affiliation is not a lack of belief but an indication that churches today no longer focus on the primary mission of the church. They have become way too concerned about other things, things expressed by the bottom line on a financial statement. Perhaps the one thing that the Peters and Waterman study showed was that when you put people first, you succeed. And if the United Methodist Church is not in the people business, then I don’t know what its business is.

The church, be it in general, by denomination, or by individual building, should be concerned about the people and not just the people who come on Sunday and sit in the pews. It is the people who are outside the sanctuary walls, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the oppressed. Those where the people Jesus came to minister to; those where the ones that Wesley and the other early Methodists reached out when the church ignored and cast them out.

I again turn to John Wesley’s words, words that he spoke about what Christianity should be doing. And I again give thanks to John Meunier for putting them on his blog. John Meunier wrote,

In his sermon “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” Wesley put the issue in plain terms:

Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! See that poor member of Christ, pinched with hunger, shivering with cold, half naked! Meantime you have plenty of this world’s goods, — of meat, drink, and apparel. In the name of God, what are you doing? Do you neither fear God, nor regard man?

How much more would Wesley be horrified by us than he was by them? In practical terms, Methodists abandoned the tradition with regard to the use of money before John Wesley was laid to his rest. And we’ve gone on abandoning him on this point ever since. (From John Meunier’s “What is a Methodist?”

In another sermon, I believe that Wesley pointed out that for those who are physically hungry, there was little comfort in the Scriptures. How can we even begin to find excellence in the church today when our concerns no longer match the reason we are called Methodists?

So I return to the title of this message and ask how we will find excellence in the church today? Let us look again at what Jesus said to James, John, and the other disciples in the Gospel reading for today, if you want the power that comes in God’s Kingdom, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to go out and serve those whom you would lead. And if you are not willing to do that in some way, then be prepared to be left behind.

There are many interpretations of God’s monologue with Job in today’s Old Testament reading. Some will say that the God who spoke to Job and his friends was an angry God, reminding each and everyone of them of His power. For these individuals, God was reminding everyone that He is superior to all and that everyone needed to know it. In this vein, those who dare to challenge God are to be put into their place. I have heard this type of response before, from management who feel that they know my subject better than me and that my ideas are meaningless and worthless.

For the past five years I have served as the registrar for the New York/Connecticut District Lay Speaking, now Lay Servant, Committee. We have discovered that this position, which I essentially invented, may very well be the only such position in the entire United Methodist Church. Others are discovering that such a position is needed as we make the changes in the lay servant ministry. The other day someone high in the conference administration told the individual who took on my job as the registrar that he had a better program for monitoring the work of lay speakers. That’s great but how does he know that his program or method is better than mine when he never discussed it with me?

Would a god (lower case, by the way) more interested in power and authority have sent His Son to this time and place to save us?

If we understand that what God is doing in this case is responding to the request of Job, then we have a better understanding of what is happening. God’s Words are not words of anger but words of revelation. In His words to Job and Job’s friends, God opens up the world for us to see it in all of its glory. Instead of fear, we are to stand in awe.

For me, this monologue is also a statement that God is here, right now, in this place at this time, and if we cannot see Him, it is because we have forgotten who God is and what He looks like. We have become so hung up on the trappings of the church that we have forgotten why we are here in the first place. People do not come to church because of a number at the bottom of a column on a budget; they come to church because they seek God. They have heard of the great things God has done; they want to experience those great things as we have. They have heard the message that Jesus offers hope to the downtrodden and they seek that hope.

And yet, too many times, they are rejected by the people of the church. The passage from Hebrews that we read this morning reminds us that the church of Jesus’ time put layers between the people and God but that through Jesus’ sacrifice, those layers were removed. Can we truly say that anyone walking through the doors of this or any church are able to gain access to Christ or are we more worried about the way they look or act?

I began by noting that each one of us came to this time and place by a variety of paths, some that we choose, some that others choose for us. There was another path that I choose to walk, the path that lead me to Christ. My decision to seek Christ, as is everyone’s decision, was an individual one. The path that we walk to and with Christ is one that we will always walk alone, though others may be on the same path as each of us.

Yes, part of my journey on that path was not by choice. It was my mother who insisted that I, along with my brothers and sister, be in Sunday School and church every Sunday, no matter where we might be or live. With my father as an Air Force officer, we moved from base to base on an almost yearly basis when I was in grade school. It was not easy finding a church but we did and my mother made sure that we were in Sunday School and church every Sunday.

She laid out the first parts of the path that I was to walk and she showed me the direction but it was a path that only I could walk. And when I made the decision to continue walking on that path, I was able to do so because 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church, now 1st United Methodist Church, of Aurora, Colorado was there.

There are others who wish to walk this path to Christ. But can they find that way station, that place of rest and hope that will help them find the way on their own journey? The measure of excellence in the church today is how well each church responds to the needs of those in its community, to find the path to Christ and to continue the journey in Christ. Each church must look at where it is, both spiritually and physically, and ask itself how can we help those in this community begin that walk to and with Christ?

The search for excellence in the church today is a search for Christ. It is also a part of our lives as Christians to seek the perfection that is Christ. We must be prepared to help others find Christ and we must find ways to seek the excellence that is Christ.  The challenge that each church faces today is to find those areas of excellence, the place where our gifts and our talents shine, and see how best they can be used to help others find Christ.

The invitation today is to open your heart and allow Christ to come in. Perhaps you are searching for Christ, now is the time to see Him right here. And perhaps like so many others you are seeking answers, much like Job. Now is the time to hear the answers to your questions. Or perhaps you are looking for ways in which you can help others to answer the questions that so often perplexed you. Now is the time to allow the Holy Spirit to come into your life, warm your heart as it did John Wesley’s heart that night in the Aldersgate Chapel so that when you leave this place, you leave on a new path, committed to the excellence that is Christ.

“Do You See the Light?”

This is the message I gave for Laity Sunday, October 16, 1994, at Grace Memorial United Methodist Church (Independence, KS) and Sycamore United Methodist Church (Sycamore, KS). It was also the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (B) but I choose Acts 9: 3 – 9; 17 – 19 and John 9: 30 – 34 as my Scripture readings.

Caves are very interesting places. For early mankind, caves offered shelter from the weather. During times of trouble, caves offered places to hide. Many a prophet hid in caves when the people got angry. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves. Even today, they serve as places of entertainment. One thing that used to dominate the countryside, especially in this part of the county, were barns painted with advertising to come and view Meramec Caverns outside St. Louis. I am sure that many of you have seen such advertising.

If you have never taken a tour of a cave, you should. And inevitably, during the tour, after you have gone deep into the passages, the tour guide will have everyone stop and then he (or she) will turn off the lights. When that happens, you begin to get the feeling of what it is to be blind. Nothing else comes close. Even at night time, with no moon, there is still enough light to allow us to see. In a cave with no added lights, the statement “so dark you cannot see your hand in front of your face” comes true.

It is also at such times that we can understand the fear that Saul must have felt when he was blinded by the Holy Spirit.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.(Acts 9: 3 – 9)

The fortunate thing for Paul is that the blindness he suffered on the road to Damascus and the darkness we are surrounded by when we are in the caves is only temporary. Even while he struggled with his blindness, Paul knew that the God would take care of him. We know that the lights will come back on inside the cave.

Still, the thought of becoming blind is very frightening. Even in today’s enlighten times, it is hard for us to realize the limitations that society placed on the blind. During the 17 and 1800’s, the blind were often institutionalized. For others, though, blindness is not so temporary. It was perhaps even worse during Jesus’ time. The blind were looked upon with pity and sorrow for it was felt that, in someway, their blindness was due to some sin in their life. And if the person was born blind, as was the case of the individual in the passage we read in John, the sins were assumed to have been those of his parents.

Against the background of blindness and an indifferent society, the author of the three hymns we sing today, Fanny Crosby, triumphed. Most people are probably aware of the many traditional Methodist hymns written by Charles Wesley, John Wesley’s brother. However, I am sure that not many people are aware that over 1000 hymns Christians sing today were written by Fanny Crosby. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915, living most of her life in the New York area. And from the sixth week of her life, she was blind. The notes that accompany the United Methodist Hymnal point out that she spent most of her adult life working with other blind people and, of course, writing those wonderful hymns that we turn to in times of trouble and in times of joy.

Fanny Crosby was much like the blind man in John. Her presence and her song writing skills were to let others know what joy Jesus brings to our lives.

“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)

It was her faith in Jesus that gave Fanny Crosby the vision needed to write such powerful songs as “Blessed Assurance”. Through her faith, through the light provided by Jesus, she saw just as well as you or I, perhaps even better.

Today, as we begin looking to the coming new century, we hear a lot of talk about our country’s lack of vision. But why should we be surprised by our country’s lack of vision. What Abraham Lincoln said some one hundred and thirty years ago is still true today. Governments are of, by, and from the people. If the people are lost and confused, the government will be likewise. If the people do not have a vision of what they expect for the future, how can we expect the country to know where it is going? If the government is to have a firm sense of direction for the coming years, that direction must come from us, both as individuals and as the church.

Today is Laity Sunday. This is the day we honor all those who have worked for the church during the past year. It is also an opportunity to look at how we, the members of the church, can work for the betterment of the the church and society. I do not think that it is a coincidence that our observation of Laity Sunday comes at the same time as our national elections or the meeting of the Nominations Committee of the local church. This is the time when we set the direction we want our church and our country to take. Yet, at least on the national level, this direction is very, very confusing.

The tone of most political commercials today seems to be how bad the opponent will be for the country. During the last two presidential campaigns, there were a number of complaints about the negative nature of the advertising. It does not appear that much has changed in the past two years. I heard a political advertisement the other day as I was driving to Tulsa. In this commercial, the challenger stated that his opponent was out of touch with Oklahoma and then he went through all the bad things the opponent had done. For this candidate, the solution to the problem was for the voters of Oklahoma to vote for him. Yet, this challenger never did say what it was that he would do if he were elected. Kansas political ads appear to be no different.

But our political campaigns are merely a reflection of the way we have allowed our nation. Whether it is in politics or just everyday living, the majority in this country willingly let others tell them how to act, what to wear, and how to think. At the time when the world is at peace, when the Glory of God should be shining through, we have lost our direction. We stand at the brink of the greatest time of our lives and our direction is set by others, not by God.

We are like the Israelites standing before the Promised Land. We struggled for many years to reach this point and now we wait for the final report. In the case of the Israelites, it was a matter of sending in twelve spies, one from each of the tribes of Israel. You would have thought that, considering the time in the wilderness and all the difficulties that trip had to overcome, the people would have been overjoyed. Yet what did the spies report:

“We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”(Numbers 13: 31 – 33)

And to this, the people cried

“Would that we have died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”(Numbers 14: 2 – 3)

Every time during the Exodus when the Israelites ran into trouble, they cried out how Moses and Aaron had failed them and that they were going to die in the wilderness. Faced with the difficulties of traveling and living in the wilderness, knowing that the Promised Land was just inches away, the Israelites would have rather turned around and returned to the seemingly comfortable life of slavery in Egypt. Are we not like that today? Isn’t it much easier for us to complain about the present situation than to work towards improving our lot?

The turmoil in our lives today is directly related to the fact that we, both as a nation and individually, have lost our commitment to God. We have forgotten that with God, all things are possible. We no longer put God first in our lives and, as a result, have lost our spiritual direction. Like the Pharisees, we have become blind to the troubles of the world. In a world split by race, creed, and economic status, we see the problems these differences cause but we want others to solve them. Even though He has repeatedly told us that he would provide, we no longer have faith that God will do so.

It is admittedly not an easy task. But it was their faith in God that enabled the Israelites to leave slavery in Egypt and make the trip to the Promised Land in the first place. It was their faith in God that enabled them to conquer that land. Despite the negative report from ten of the spies, not all of the Israelites had lost their faith in God. Joshua and Caleb offered a different opinion of what was in the Promised Land.

And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” But the whole congregation threatened to stone them. (Numbers 14: 6 – 10)

Joshua and Caleb put their faith in the Lord and were rewarded for their faith. When the Israelites reached the Promised Land after spending the extra time wandering, only Joshua and Caleb were still alive to enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land. Those who had lost their faith had died during the extra years in the wilderness.

It is the same for us. In these times of trial, all we have to do is return to God. As James wrote

“If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way, and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer.”(James 1: 5 – 8)

When God sent the Israelites out of Egypt, he did not do so without providing them instruction. Even as they began that journey from the certain and safe surroundings of Egypt into the unknown wilderness they called the Promised Land, they still knew that it was God who guiding them.

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 17 – 22)

I have painted an admittedly dark picture of our and this country’s future. Yet, the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites by night and the pillar of cloud which accompanied them by day is still present today. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples in the passage from John, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)

Paul understood what it meant to see the world through the light of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in his second letter to Corinthians.

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”.(2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)

The light that shines in the darkness today is Jesus Christ, our Savior. It is that light which can guide each one of us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, we will be like Saul regaining his sight and becoming Paul.

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus,who has appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.(Acts 9: 17 – 19)

We are entering a world which is becoming increasingly dark and forbidding. We, you and I, must make a choice. We can live our lives in the total darkness of sin or we can live our lives in the light of the salvation of Jesus Christ. The question is ours to answer “Do you see the Light?”

“A Matter of Integrity”

I was at the New Milford (NY)/Edenville United Methodist Church in Warwick, NY, Sunday morning, October 7, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 1:1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16. Their services now start at 10 am with Sunday School at 9 and you are welcome to attend.

Ann told me that she thought this might be a bit more intellectual that some of my sermons, as if most of my sermons are not. But in this case, perhaps that is the case.

But when you are basing your message in part on one of the wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs or Song of Solomon; the Apocrypha also contains the Book of Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach), the message will be somewhat intellectual. Such messages are the most challenging to write for they demand one think it through to the end. That’s not to say that every message or sermon that is written does make the same demand but when you are using something from the wisdom literature, it requires a little bit more than usual. I hope and pray that I have that challenge and that when it is done, you will be challenged to seek more information for yourself as well.

I have always been amazed at how the topics that dominate the news are always matched by the Scriptures that have been designated for that particular week of the year. In this case, the Gospel reading from Mark deals with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about the subject of divorce. And two weeks ago, there was an announcement that a fragment of papyrus had been discovered that suggested that Jesus had a wife. Of course, a week later, it was announced that this papyrus fragment was a forgery and not a very good one at that.

Now, why would someone want to make a forgery like this? What motive was there in doing so? Of course, from my point of view, I also had to wonder why it was such a poor forgery in the first place. There is, after all, a curiosity about the life of Jesus, in part because of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, and its plot that Jesus not only had a wife but a child as well and that child’s descendants can be traced through the blood lines of European families. Now, The Da Vinci Code is clearly a work of fiction but because of the nature of the topic, there were a lot of people who believed that there was some degree of truth behind it. After all, there is the notion that every myth has some element of truth in it. And since we know so little about the life of Jesus between the time He was 12 and engaging the Pharisees, scribes, and scholars in the temple and when He was thirty and He embarked on His mission, it becomes quite easy to imagine just about anything we want. And someone looking to make a few extra dollars can quite easily do so by creating a story that fits within the framework of what we want to believe.

There will be some who hear or read these words and feel that I have just given them justification for not believing in Jesus as the Risen Savior. To many people today, Jesus Christ is a myth. But who concocted this myth? And why?

That we are here today means that there is a degree of truth to the story of Christ, even if there are gaps in the story. And that the story of Christ has been told over the years across all of the continents should suggest that there is an element of truth to the story as well.

So, how we react to the story that Jesus may have had a wife and whether we choose to believe or not is a measure of the integrity or strength of our faith. How well can we stand up to the pressure of being questioned about our faith? How strong is our faith in our day-to-day life?

The Old Testament reading for today tells us of the story of Job, a seemingly rich and powerful resident of Uz. Job is characterized as an upright and blameless man who feared God and avoided evil. But in the first chapter of Job, he loses everything he has – his children, his servants, his flocks – only his wife remained.

The sad part about this is that we know someone who has suffered such a loss; perhaps we have suffered such a loss ourselves. And how did our friends, how did we handle this? Did we curse God and question why He would allow this to occur? And if God did allow this to occur, what does that make Him? What sort of god (and notice that I used a lower case god) would allow one of his beings, someone that was created in his image, to suffer as Job did in Chapter 1.

It is critical that we understand that one of the things that occurred in this reading still occurs today. When something goes wrong, when we suffer, we often presume that we have done something wrong. Listen over the next few weeks to the friends of Job as they make that same assumption; that Job’s suffering is a consequence of his having done something terribly, terribly wrong. But Job always asks, “what is it that I have done so wrong as to warrant such punishment?”

Others will argue that they want no part of a God that would allow a believer to suffer like Job. They would argue that such suffering and the level of evil in this world are perpetrated or permitted to go unchecked because faithful adherents to religion accept the notion that it is “god’s will”.

But the patience of Job is neither a rejection of God nor blind acceptance of what is happening. Rather it is done with the notion that something will transpire that will bring sense to it all. Job will never curse God but He will demand that God show up to defend His actions. Job will do what his wife and friends will ask him to not do, “persevere in his integrity.”

Much has been made about divorce and marriage and what Jesus said and did not say. I think it important to note the differences between Mark’s recording of this encounter and Matthew’s recording. But what I think we need to understand is why the Pharisees questioned Jesus about this matter in the first place (and I don’t think it had to do with whether or not Jesus had a wife).

Keep in mind that John the Baptist was executed in part for his denouncing Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias as a violation of Old Testament law. There is commentary by the Jewish historian Josephus that Herod was also afraid of the growing political and religious movement John was leading and his arrest and execution, for whatever reason, was an attempt to put an end to that movement.

The encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees occurs in part of the territory controlled by Herod. We know that the Pharisees were beginning to see Jesus as a threat much in the same manner as John the Baptist and they, the Pharisees, probably felt that if they could get Jesus to make some sort of pronouncement similar to John’s, the same results would occur.

For me, the Pharisees saw themselves as keepers of the faith though it was more that they were keepers of the religion. Religion may be seen as how we reach out to God; faith is God reaching out to us. At times, the two will be in direct opposition to each other. Religion is the interposition of our thoughts onto God, making God what we want Him to be, not what He is. Faith is that which may be termed spiritual and is separate from religion.

I would rather not have such distinctions but unfortunately I have meet too many people for whom their religion is their faith. They are not interested in what one believes as much as they are in maintaining what is currently there. The Old Testament prophets sought to deliver the people from an idolatrous trust in their own religion with its shrines, both mental and physical so that they could be delivered into faith with its trust in the living free God who comes to us in the moving events of history.

How we see God says a lot about the integrity of our faith. If we see God as being on the edges of our lives, there when things go wrong, then I would make the argument that our faith is weak; its integrity low. For me, the Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat because He challenged their faith and they were unable to respond.

For me, there are too many people today who have such an attitude. Jesus has a place in their lives but it is only on Sunday mornings, between 8 am and 12 noon. When they leave church on Sunday, they quietly but quickly put God on the shelf in the closet where He can’t be hurt and they go about their business for the rest of the week. Such a faith cannot stand to be questioned and such individuals will not allow such questioning to take place.

But if you see God as part of the day-to-day occurrences of life, as One who comes at points of confidence and strength as well as points of weakness and uncertainty, then the integrity of your faith cannot be questioned. And if it is questioned, you can answer with both word and action and you see the opportunity to bring Jesus Christ to those who seek Him.

Ask yourself this, how do I see Jesus today? On his blog, “Irreverend Mike” wrote,

The issue is this – we tend to treat Jesus like he’s a fact to believe rather than a person in whom we place all our faith. This is what Christianity is about. It’s not a truth we believe in like we believe that 2+2=4, or that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It is about Jesus, who is the truth, who tells us “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6). Being a Christian means having a relationship with this Jesus – following his way so that we may truly live with God.

When we forget this – and Jesus becomes to us just another thing that we can think and say is true – then we do not truly know Jesus. Not only this – but when Jesus becomes a thing to us in our minds, we begin to shape him into something he is not. We create an “imaginary Jesus”.

Your imaginary Jesus tends to think like you, agree with you and never challenges you. And this imaginary Jesus is nice! He gives you the assurance of eternal life and unconditional love – and you really don’t have to do anything. It’s a good deal. That is – if this was the real Jesus. Which it is not.

The real Jesus isn’t like us. He is perfect and holy and filled with so much love – that we can’t handle it. The real Jesus isn’t content to leave you where you are in your sin, brokenness and failings. The real Jesus beckons you to follow him to do hard things and love people you don’t want to love. The real Jesus asks you for nothing less than your whole life, because after all – he gave his for you. (from http://irreverendmike.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/will-the-real-jesus-please-stand-up/

There comes a point when one must make a choice. We are reminded in the reading from Hebrews exactly why it was that Jesus began His mission in the Galilee and why He comes to this place and time today. Our salvation is found through Christ; His death on the Cross was so that we would be set free from sin and death. And having been set free from sin and death, we have the opportunity to find a new path in life and help others seek what we have found.

I find myself drawn more and more to the thoughts and words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the 30s he was living in America and had the opportunity to stay in America when Hitler came to power. But to do so would have been too easy and he returned to Germany because he saw a church, his church, turning a blind eye to the horrors that engulfed his country. He began to feel that to religion was becoming separate from the world and that, in its silence, let the horrors of the Nazism grow and fester. A pacifist, Bonhoeffer would ultimately join the underground resistance against Hitler and lose his life just days before the concentration camp in which he had been a prisoner was liberated.

I have never understood, until perhaps today, why he would do that. But he thought that if one was to be truly Christian, there had to be a reliance on the Grace of Christ because it was only through that Grace that we could be free from self-concern and doubt and be freed to show a truly worldly concern for others. Being a Christian was, in Bonhoeffer’s thought, not merely an acceptance but an act of being in the world. It was more than what one did on Sunday but what one did throughout the week.

We are never asked to make a sacrifice such as the one Bonhoeffer made or even the one that Christ made. We are asked only to let Jesus into our hearts, our minds, and our souls.

Are we prepared to open up and let Jesus into our lives, not just on Sunday mornings but all day Sunday and then through out the week? Or will you be like the disciples who, despite what Jesus taught them, still tried to deny the children access to Jesus? We are all children of God and Jesus said to let the children come to Him.

But how many times has someone told another child of God that they could not come into the church because they were somehow different. Perhaps they were too loud, as a two-year-old might be; perhaps they were unclean, as Job became. And as Job became unclean, his friends deserted him.

I have not neglected the reading from Hebrews that comes with the passages from Job and Mark. It concludes by noting that Jesus Himself trusted in God and that He was and is with us, the children of God. And if He is with us, how can we deny others that same right?

I begin by suggesting that our faith is being questioned, in part by the “discovery” of the “Jesus’ wife papyrus fragment”, and how we might answer that. There was a time long ago when I felt that my faith was being challenged. I was enduring a series of setbacks and I could only conclude that perhaps I was a pawn in some game being played by individuals or beings outside the realm of my consciousness. I didn’t care that I was a pawn; I just wanted to know what the rules of the game were.

Amidst all of this, I obtained a book entitled The Passover Plot in which the author hypothesized that Jesus faked His death on the Cross. After reading it, I could only conclude that if someone was willing to undergo what has been acknowledged as the most gruesome form of torture ever devised by man, then there must be something to what He believed. Over the years I have come to see Christ in my life in ways that are not always easy to describe. But I have come to think that because others have believed and that belief has remained strong over the years then what I know in my heart is true. And if what is in my heart is true, then I am obligated to help others know that as well.

Perhaps this is not the best way to think about the integrity of one’s faith but consider this. I cannot say I am a Christian if I do not believe it in my heart and live it with my words. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say to you that you must believe as I do. I cannot say that I am a Christian because I go to church on Sunday but ignore the hungry, the homeless, the needy, or the oppressed. I cannot say that I am a Christian if I say that I am saved but do little to help you find your salvation.

If there is to be any integrity in what we believe, what we say, and what we do, it has to begin with us accepting Jesus’ invitation to let the children come to Him. In this case the invitation is to each one of us to allow Jesus into our hearts. And then, after we have let Jesus into our hearts, our souls, and our minds, then we must go out into the world, not just telling people about Jesus but showing them how Jesus changes lives and offers hope. The integrity of our souls is at stake if we do otherwise.