Thoughts on the new Pope

Right after Pope Benedict XVI resigned/retired/quit/abdicated his position, someone associated with our local church but not a member asked me about the church’s (meaning the local church) reaction to his actions.

I pointed out that we, as a church and as a denomination, had no concern in the matter.

And I think I was right in saying that. Nothing a Pope says or does really directly concerns the actions and operations of any United Methodist Church.

But, and this was especially after the announcement of the election of Francis I, I began to think about what his election means not just for the United Methodist Church but all churches, local, denominational, and in general.

Okay, first the obvious – the guy’s old but there was a sense of being alive when you, if you were watching the proceedings Wednesday, first saw him. The one cardinal who came out and read the announcement looked and sounded really old. And then Francis stepped out on the balcony and there was a smile on his face and he just seemed alive.

I have said on it a number of occasions in the past but there is mind-set old and there is calendar old. Francis has the years but I think he has a young, or younger, mind-set.

His age is going to work against and I wouldn’t doubt that the pressures of the position wear on him very quickly. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t resign in five years or so.

And while Francis is said to be theologically conservative, I am not sure that is a label that means as much as one thinks. His actions tell more about what may happen than guessing about how he thinks.

He lived frugally as the Arch-bishop and it appears that he has begun doing some of the same things in Rome. I read the other night that he didn’t sit on the throne or ride in the limo provided for the Pope. These actions are going to upset some people, especially those who make their living based on the power of the position. That may be a good thing in the long run, especially in terms of the bureaucracy that so dominates the Vatican.

He is the first pope from the Americas, from the southern hemisphere, the first Jesuit, and he chose a name that had never been used before. Each of these, in a small way, speaks of some change. In his election, the Roman Catholic Church is beginning to realize that their church is changing and is no longer what it once was.

I think that it is a message that we in the United Methodist Church might well listen to. We are not the church we once were and while we would like to be that church of days ago, it is the mission we must consider and not what once was.

In choosing the name Francis, this new pope honored St. Francis Xavier, one of the co-founders of the Society of Jesus, which we know better as the Jesuits. The Jesuits are, as one commentator pointed out, the intellectuals of the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis is saying that what we think is very important.

But he also honored St. Francis of Assisi. In his own live, we can see how or why he choose to honor this saint and it would say much about where this new pope sees the mission of the church.

And that is something that we, as United Methodists need to examine ourselves. John Wesley felt that education and intellect were as important as caring for the poor and the less-fortunate. This new pope’s name tells us that he puts an equal premium on one’s heart and mind together and neither should take second to the other.

And that is, I think, what we should take from the selection of Francis I as the new pope. In order to understand the mission of the United Methodist Church, we need to remember that we live for Christ with our mind and heart together and not apart.

“Just a thought”

I get a daily summary of science news from Sigma Xi and the end of each newsletter is a quote. The quote for March 7th was

Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened.” –Anne Louise Germaine de Staël, Swiss author

I wanted to post this because 1) I thought it was interesting and 2) I wanted to put it somewhere where I could find it in the event that I wrote a piece on that idea. And I also wanted to share it with you all. 🙂

Note added on 30 March 2014 – removed references to scheduled preaching trips.

“The Decision We Must Make”

I am at Grace United Methodist Church in Slate Hill, NY this Sunday morning, the 4th Sunday in Lent (10 March 2013). The service is at 10 am and you are invited to attend. The Scriptures for the 4th Sunday in Lent – Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 1 – 3, 11 – 32. Part of this message was given at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY, on Saturday, March 9th and entitled “The New Paradigm”.

When I began preparing this message I thought about what I wanted to title it. For me, the title is the key thought that I want to express in the message and also perhaps link the three Scripture readings together.

At the beginning this proved to be a little difficult because there seemed to be no link between the three readings. But the link would appear and I would also find the words that would be the focus of the message I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on Saturday.

The link appeared and the title came to me when I saw that “Amazing Grace” was one of the hymns that we could use for this Sunday. The popularity and power of this hymn is such that Bill Moyers once did a one-hour documentary on the song (see “”) and its popularity as a folk song. The song speaks to me, in part, because the melody comes from our Southern heritage. But it is the story behind its writing that speaks to the power of God’s Grace and what it means for us. It is a story that many people do not know.

John Newton was the author of the hymn and he was a British ship captain in the mid and late 18th century. Like so many other ship captains, he was involved in what was politely called the triangle trade, of sailing from England to Africa with a load of rum which would be sold there. From Africa, he would sail to the Americas with a cargo of slaves to be sold. He would pick up a cargo of sugar in the Americas to be shipped to England and made into rum which would complete the triangle and begin the process anew.

It was a very lucrative business and John Newton became very wealthy. But on one of those sailing trips, the storms that define sailing in the Atlantic were far rougher than normal (keep in mind that it was similar storm that caused John Wesley to begin having doubts about his own life and mission). The severity of the storms began to give John Newton cause to think about his life and what he was doing. When Arlo Guthrie sings “Amazing Grace” at one of his concerts, he tells the audience that John Newton turned his shipped around and began a new life.

However, it does not appear that this is what he did. But it was clear that he began to question the morality of a business that involving the selling and transportation of other humans and he began to change his life. He would leave the sailing business altogether and ultimately become a vicar in the Church of England, a leading anti-slavery advocate, and a writer of many hymns, some of which are in our own United Methodist Hymnal today.

The one question that we might ask today is “which son in the parable of the lost son was John Newton?” Was he the younger son, who took everything he had and squandered it away, whose life was such that he was reduced to eating corn cobs? Or was he the older son, who stayed home and worked for his father and lived the proper and correct life?

And how should we see our own experiences in this story and in the story, perhaps, of John Newton?

The New Paradigm

As some of you know, I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. In my studies, I had to take a course in the philosophy of science and I was introduced to Thomas Kuhn and his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this book, Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift.”

I happen to think that this is one of the most abused phrases in the English language today. Everytime someone makes some sort of change in something, they refer to it as a “paradigm shift.” But change alone cannot do that. What Kuhn meant by a paradigm shift was a complete change in thinking.

Too many people today think that any change in the way we do things, especially if it is radical or steps outside the normal operation, is a paradigm shift. The church today, be it the church in general, a specific denomination, or a specific church within a denomination, is faced with the problem of reaching out to many people. So they seek to be “hip” or “cool”, offering upbeat music with guitars and drum or having their pastor wear outlandish Hawaiian-style shirts and blue jeans while preaching from a pulpit-less stage. If you see some of these pastors today, look closely at the stage and tell me where the cross is; I don’t think you will find it because, as I have written and others have noted, the cross scares people away from the church. So churches have come up with ways to bring people back to the church. But I will tell you this; it does not matter if you have the hippest or coolest church in town and your pastor really digs what’s happening, if the message that the church gives is the same old tired message, it won’t work. It doesn’t do any good to change the appearance of things if the thinking behind the changes is the same old stuff.

Consider the following if you will and when you answer the question, think of the answer a child would give – does the earth move?

Now, hopefully we know that the earth is moving around the sun and the solar system that it is a part of is moving through the universe. But when we see the clouds above us move or we watch the stars move across the nightly sky we can conclude that the earth is stationary and it is the universe that moves around us.

Early astronomers were so convinced of this that our first model of the solar system placed an immovable earth at the center. As it happened, this model worked quite well for over 1000 years or so. But as we gained new information about the stars and the planets, it began to run into difficulty. To keep the earth-centered model with all of the information that we were gathering required constant tinkering with the model. All this did was make the model more and more complicated and more complex.

When this happened, the astronomers of that time had to make a decision. It was either try to force the model to work, despite the evidence that it wasn’t, or step back and create a newer model. And this, of course, is what was done; led by the work of Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo, astronomers created the sun-centered model of the solar system.

The only way that this model could have been created was to step back and re-think the solution, not merely make force the old solution to work. This is what Kuhn termed a paradigm shift, a changing not in the way we do things but in the way we think about the solution. Such a change is often met with resistance and, some times, hostility. We are quite aware that the 15th century church saw this change in the solar system as an attack on the church. And we know how that turned out.

It was noted in the Gospel reading for this morning that the Pharisees and other religious authorities were very upset because Jesus ate with the sinners and others with questionable reputations. One can understand why; it violated every known rule of social behavior. And it seems that Jesus gave little thought to the purity codes that dictated one’s life in those days.

The mere act of eating with those who were sick or through some action of life were deemed ritually unclean made Jesus and those who sat with the sinners also unclean. And if you were unclean and failed to follow the proper procedures to regain your cleanliness, you would not be allowed to enter the Temple.

And if you could not enter the Temple, how would you ever hope to meet God? In being with the sinners and telling them there was a new way to meet God, Jesus was striking at the very core of religious life in Israel.

The people of that time had been brought up with the notion that only a select few could meet God. And one might hope to meet God if they followed the regimented life of laws and regulations that were imposed on them and enforced by the Pharisees and other religious authorities. Yet here was Jesus telling them there was another way. How many times did Jesus say that when you were with Him, you were with the Father? How many times did Jesus say that the way to the Father was through Him?

Jesus made it very clear that there was a new process in place and this, to me, was a very clear paradigm shift.

The parable of the lost son makes this clear, I think. There are those who are like the younger son, having lost everything (perhaps not physically but most certainly spiritually) and cut off from life.

There was more to the story than the younger son eating the corn cobs that were given to the pigs to eat. The very fact that this son was working with pigs made him an outcast in his own society. His contact with the pigs would have caused his family, his friends, and all in society who knew him to shun him. He couldn’t get anything else to eat because society had cast him aside and wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

But there are many today who are like the older son, the one who stayed home and dutifully did all that was asked of him. They get angry when they don’t get the same banquet that the younger brother got.

But those who react like the older brother don’t get the point. Doing everything by the book doesn’t mean that you get God’s Grace. If you only see Jesus Christ with your mind, you might miss Him. You have to see Him as much with your heart as you do your mind.

And here Paul’s words ring true. Our world is a different world when it is viewed in the light of Christ. It is what is inside our hearts that counts, not what is on the outside.

The Pharisees and authorities saw Jesus eating with sinners but they did not see what was happening to them. What did they discuss with Jesus? What questions did they ask Him? Our Scripture reading tells us that they listened intently; I am sure that Jesus, as a Master Teacher, listened to their cares and concerns as well.

He spoke then and He speaks today of a Hope and a Promise. But it was a Hope and a Promise that could only come when one changed their life.

I sometimes think that the greatest challenge we face today is not the world outside the church walls but what goes on inside. There are so many people who live a life like that of the older brother or the Pharisees. But there are many who live the life of the younger brother. When you think of it, neither life is really worth the living.

There is a new life in Christ. The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the end of the manna that feed the Israelites throughout the Exodus. But now the manna no longer comes and the people must work for their food. We see so many people who expect God to give them everything they have (and it does not matter whether one takes on the role of the older brother or the role of the younger brother) and that is all that they do. If we have truly come to Christ, we must do Christ’s work.

Borrowing an idea expressed by John Meunier, “if the people are faithful, God will see them through the struggle, but they must exert themselves and they must show their faithfulness.” (from “Reading Joshua 5: 9 – 12”)

Repentance is the one true paradigm shift because one is to give up all of the old ways and take on the new life in Christ.

The call to repentance is not for one group of people but for all people. And one group cannot say to another, “you must repent but we don’t have to.” The contradiction of that statement should be self-evident.

And now I return to John Newton and the storm that caused him to change his life. Perhaps I should have entitled this message “The Storms in Your Life”, as I did once before. But there is a time when you will have to make a decision. For some it is a decision to come to Christ; for others who have come to Christ, it is a decision to now go out and live for Christ, to show others what Christ can do.

No one can make that decision for you; it is one you must make for yourself. The Gospel message is a prophetic message and it is a radical message; it is about who has the power in your life. When do not have to commit your life to Christ but then who has the power? There are forces in place that will enslave and destroy you. But a commitment to Christ breaks those bonds of enslavement and destruction and frees you.

The decision one has to make is very clear; are you prepared to make it?

“Growing the Faith”

Sunday was one of those times when I would have liked to be in the pulpit somewhere. But if you look, you would see that I have only been in the pulpit once in the past 8 years on this liturgical date. And that is to be expected since this is a time of year when most pastors prefer to be in the pulpit. (This was edited to take out a reference to a summary page that I deleted.)

Now, as it happens, I will be filling in for a pastor next Sunday, the 4th Sunday in Lent (10 March 2013) at Grace United Methodist Church in Slate Hill, NY. Service is at 10 am and you are invited to attend. On Saturday, I will provide the reading and message at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. We open the doors at 8 on Saturdays and you are invited to be a part of this new community growing in Christ and faith.

The message for next Sunday is entitled “The Decision We Must Make” and is based on the Scriptures for the 4th Sunday in Lent – Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 1 – 3, 11 – 32.

The Scriptures for the 3rd Sunday in Lent were Isaiah 55: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 10: 1 – 13, and Luke 13: 1 – 9.

As I stated, because of the Gospel reading for Sunday, I would have liked to have been in the pulpit. A number of years ago I wrote a piece (“The Bottom Line”) in which I noted that M*A*S*H was my all-time favorite television show/series. The movie is also one of my top ten but that is for another time and piece. I also noted in the piece that the “Banacek” and “The Rogues” were among my favorite shows.

For me, there was a little bit of an anti-establishment flavor in them. Banacek, played by George Peppard, was an insurance investigator brought into cases that were seemingly impossible to solve and beyond the capabilities of the insurance companies investigators. “The Rogues” were a family of thieves who started off planning some sort of elaborate theft or con that would bring some more evil person to justice and bring them a little more wealth. Both shows had limited runs on television and I always suspected that one of the reasons was the intellectual level was perhaps a bit higher than normal television fare. Besides, many times shows with an anti-establishment attitude generally don’t last long anyway (with M*A*S*H clearly an exception to this rule).

Two current shows that have joined my favorites lists are “Leverage” and “White Collar”. “Leverage” was on for about four years and just recently ended (though I think there is the possibility of some sort of made-for-TV movie lurking in the future somewhere). “White Collar” started a year after that and is currently completing a series of episodes.

Both have that anti-establishment tone that I like and both involved someone on the wrong side of the law doing good.

The reason that I am referring to “Leverage” is that we find out in the third episode of the first season (“The Miracle Job”) that Nate Ford had once studied for the priesthood while growing up in Boston. In the pilot for the series Ford is brought together with three individuals whom he had chased as an insurance investigator – Parker, the thief; Hardison, the hacker, and Elliot Spencer, the hitter. Circumstances in the pilot episode bring Sophie Deveraux, a grifter, onto the team.

After the pilot episode, the team established Leverage Consulting in Los Angeles and begins going after individuals or groups that have abused their power and privilege. In the third episode, an unscrupulous real estate developer has engineered a deal that will close the church pastored by a good friend of Nate.

As the episode is ending and the Leverage Consulting team is finishing their plans to bring down the real estate developer, we hear part of the priest’s homily, which focused on the parable of the fig tree that is our Gospel reading for today. For the priest, the parable of the fig tree represents an opportunity to speak to the church authorities who have approved the closure of the church and the sale of the property to the developer, arguing that time is needed to see growth in the church, growth in an area where there isn’t much life or hope, topics that speak to many churches today.

Now, as it happens, the church is named after Saint Nicholas, whom Parker sees as Santa Claus. But as Nate Ford points out at the end of the episode, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of thieves. And the priest added earlier that it was interesting how God used the work of Nate Ford and his crew, thieves themselves, to save a church.

I think that I could have easily found a way to use the other readings in this message because they speak of moving beyond the present. Whether I am thinking about an episode of “Banacek” or “The Rogues” or watching a past or current episode of “Leverage” or “White Collar”, there is that thought that the hero is working at a slightly higher level than the others.

When I look at the work of the church today I wonder how many people do that, work at a level slightly above normal.

When I began teaching high school chemistry I found myself in a situation far different from the six or seven classes a day, five days a week that most teachers encounter. Lewis County C-1 operated on a modular schedule that was more along the lines of a college schedule of lecture, recitation, and laboratory. The typical method of teaching didn’t always works and I found myself trying to develop lab experiments and exercises since the traditional high labs didn’t fit.

Unknowingly, my work to prepare those lab materials for my chemistry lab introduced me to the work of Jean Piaget and his theory on how children develop their thinking skills. When I began working on my doctorate, I was convinced that my dissertation studies would be in that area, especially since much of the research literature in chemical education at that time focused on intellectual development in chemistry.

While I was looking at this idea, I was also introduced, admittedly in passing, to Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Kohlberg argued that one’s moral development was in stages very similar to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

Now, whether one is talking about cognitive development or intellectual development, it seems to me that it cannot be done independently. Each person develops at their own pace but for there to be progress it must be done in an environment that stimulates the development.

I cannot speak specifically to the ideas presented by Kohlberg but I do see too many people who, even completed college, have difficulty with abstract thought. Their entire educational process has been done without any stimulus and while they can respond to and solve basic problems, they are incapable of solving more complex problems or even thinking through problems with possibly no solution. All one has to do is look at what is happening in the world today and how we continually and constantly rely on old methods to solve new problems. In the end, the old methods don’t work and our general response is to force the solution instead of developing new ones. The problem is that we can’t develop new solutions because we don’t know how.

And I fear this is happening in the church today as well. There is a stage that every person has to go through when they grow in the faith – that of the child, learning about Christ and God.

There is a second stage, which I believe many people are in today. It is a stage where they have learned the Bible and the basic understanding of what it means to be a Christian but they haven’t done much with that learning. There is a need to learn the fundamentals of the Bible and we do that as children but there is also a need to understand those fundamentals and I fear that many adults do not do that.

They haven’t been placed in a situation where that was necessary and it will not come without stimulation. And because they haven’t been taught how to think beyond the walls of the room or outside the box, they are unwilling to grow their faith as well. The strength of those we call “fundamentalists” comes from the fact that they are able to state basic concepts of the Bible without fear of contradiction or questioning.

There is that third stage of Christian development. It is that stage where one takes the words of the Bible and makes them come alive; where they read of the people of the early church and how they helped others and seek to emulate that work in today’s society. Part of this might be found in the emerging church movement; part of this might be found in those who claim to be spiritual but not religious.

Those who look at the numbers that are generated by the church are still in that middle stage. They see the numbers as the indication of life and vitality. The only problems is that numbers speak to the size of the church and not the life.

Do the numbers tell you of the discussions that take place during a meeting, when individuals with varied backgrounds gather together for one reason but stay for another and discuss the meaning of God, Christ, and religion? How do you measure the change in life on an individual who comes to the meeting without knowledge of the love of God but leaves with perhaps some knowledge?

The numbers told the owner to cut down the fig tree because it wasn’t producing fruit. But the gardener argued that it needed just a bit more time and effort. If we are to be true to the Gospel and we want to grow the faith, shouldn’t we move beyond the walls of the sanctuary and into the fields and pay attention to the plants, trees, and individuals that live there? Our faith will not grow unless we do.