One Phrase

A Meditation for 7 September, 2015, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), based on Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23, James 2: 1 – 10, (11 – 13), 14 – 17, and Mark 7: 24 – 37.

I started this back at the first of September but never finished it.  Not wanting to leave things undone, I finished this afternoon.

I think that whenever one writes a sermon, a message or, in this case, a blog post, they do it for one of two reasons. The first reason is to teach something about the Scriptures. The second is offer encouragement or seek some sort of action based on the Scriptures. Often times, these two ideas overlap because true teaching only occurs when the students apply the lesson.

There are also two audiences to keep in mind for any piece or presentation. There are time when one is “preaching to the choir.” (And I might add that one Sunday several years ago, we had a guest choir of some fifty members come to our little church with its average attendance of twenty. That Sunday I truly preached to the choir!) The other audience is often times, especially with blogs in general and this blog in particular, directed towards people who are, for whatever reason, outside the church.

As much as I have always had a problem with seeing the mission of the church in terms of the Great Commission (Matthew 25: 18 – 20).

In the New International Version of the Bible, this passage reads,

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

But reread this passage as it translated in The Message,

Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally. Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”

Note how Jesus’ command changes from “make” to “train”. To further show this, read how Clarence Jordan translated the same patch in his Cotton Patch Gospel translation of Matthew,

Well, the eleven students traveled to Alabama, to the mountain which Jesus had selected for them. When they saw him they accepted him as their Lord, but some couldn’t make up their minds. James came over to them and said, “Every right to rule in both the spiritual and physical realms has been given to me. As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you. And you know, I am right in there with you – all the time – until the last inning.”

I think it is important to notice that the emphasis was on teaching. Teaching cannot be accomplished (as we are finding out) by simply forcing people to learn things. We are finding out that many people who proclaim themselves Christians do not have a firm understanding of the Bible in terms of the words written or the meaning and context of the words (from “How Will They Know?”).

So it is that I see being a Christian in a different light than some of my contemporaries. But then again I have been a teacher for the majority of my professional life and I am of the opinion that unless a teacher’s students are prepared to implement the lessons they have been taught, the teaching was not very good.

But I have also been a Christian longer than I have been a teacher and one of the things that I learned early on in my Christian life was that there was more that life than just saying that I was a Christian.

And I know that part of that understanding comes from an incident in my life when I was a sophomore in college and it was based on a a phrase in the Gospel reading from Mark this week that strikes a deep chord in my soul and that is what the Syro-Phoenician woman said to Jesus when He first told her

Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”

She said, “Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”

In the Prayer of Humble Access found on page 30 in the current United Methodist Hymnal is the line “We are not so much as to gather up the crumbs under the table.” I don’t know for certain but I am pretty sure that those words come from the conversation between Jesus and the women.

I know that Jesus originally intended the message to be for the people of Israel but when they began to turn away, and especially when others such as this women began to listen and pay attention, the focus of the ministry changed. But it was focus that had its foundation in other places in the Bible.

As the words from Proverbs tell us, when it comes right down to it, there is no difference between the rich and the poor (a thought that Paul would later echo). The writer of Proverbs also warned about using one’s position in life as a means to oppressing others.

Unfortunately, in too many cases today, those who proclaim that they are Christian or use Christianity to justify their life or lifestyle forget, if they ever knew, this simple words from Proverbs. And the life lessons that they were taught seemed to have been forgotten as well.

In his letter, James warns about saying one thing and doing another. If you profess your faith in Christ, then your actions must show that faith (from “Teach Your Children Well”).

If you do nothing but go through the motions then it will have all been for naught. Only when you have put what you have been taught into action will your faith mean anything.

And there will come a time and a place in your life where a phrase will be said that will change how you think or how you live or how you treat someone. It maybe a phrase that you say that causes someone to ask you a question; it may be an answer to a question someone asks you.

I cannot predict what that phrase might be. When I heard the phrase about the crumbs under the table I found myself questioning what was going on. And I was in a place and a time when I found out that what I understood was wrong. But in that place and time I believe my life changed.

And since one cannot predict what the phrase will be, who will say it or if it will be you who says it, then perhaps your life has to be the way it is supposed to be from the day you said that you believed. It is better to do it that way and be prepared to help others than to think you know what you will do when it does happen.

And this will allow you to be ready to help the person who is looking and seeking for they may have heard the phrase or asked it themselves but not know where to find the answer.

In the end, we are reminded that God loved and loves each of us so much that He sent His son to this earth to live and die so that we may live. And that is the phrase that we must remember.

“What Can We Say?”

Free Speech In The 21st Century

This is an unpublished devotion that I wrote a few months ago. I would appreciate knowing what you think about it.

What can we say in a free society? Are we free to say whatever we wish, whenever we wish, and wherever we wish? Or must the words that we say or sing, the words that we write or the images we create confirm to a set of standards and rules created and determined by society, even if we do not know what those standards or rules might be?

May we use expressions and phases that demean or insult others?

Are we free to exercise our right to free speech without having to accept the responsibilities that come with exercising that right? Are we responsible for if people to take action that result in the destruction of property or the death of individuals after hearing or reading our words?

Is it even possible for one to advocate change in a way that does not result in the violence, death, or destruction?

The answer to this last question is most certainly “yes” but it requires more than just getting up in front of an audience and saying what one thinks. For any words written or spoken or images created to have an impact, there must be an understanding of the people listening, reading, or looking as well as an understanding of what ones has created. Free speech is more than just the right to speak; it is the opportunity to change the world.

For me, free speech in all its forms (with the possible exception of money) is a right granted and guaranteed by citizenship in a free and open society. But when one accepts the rights of citizenship, one also accepts the responsibilities that come with those rights. The right of free speech does not give one, for the lack of a better term, carte blanche to say whatever one feels like saying.

I firmly believe that speech, in any form, which instills fear or incites violence is morally wrong. And words which demean or degrade any individual or individuals threaten all people by encouraging the creation of inequality and division.

And while it may be morally wrong in a free and open society for such speech to take place, it remains the right of any individual to exercise his or her right to free speech. The French philosopher Voltaire, as expressed by the author Evelyn Beatrice Hall, said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The foundation of this country, going back to the days before the American Revolution, is not just in the sense that free speech was a right but that all, not just a few, were entitled to those rights. When John Adams, the first Vice-President and second President of this country, was still a lawyer in Boston and leading the movement towards separation from Great Britain, he took on the task of defending the British soldiers accused of murdering civilians in what has become known as the “Boston Massacre.” While his sympathies may have been more in line with those who were injured and killed, he also believed that the soldiers had the same rights as well and that, in a democracy, in a free and open society, those rights were protected as well. If we do not understand this crucial point that every person is entitled to the same rights as everyone else, then we will never understand what it means to have the right to free speech.

So while some forms of free speech may offend; they also challenge people to respond. One problem in today’s society is that we do not sufficiently challenge those who use words to demean or degrade, who use words which instill fear or incite violence. We do not call on those speakers to accept the responsibility for what they have done; in fact, society has become such that such words are encouraged.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for those who oppose the ideas or thoughts of one speaker is to present a counter-proposal, to refute the ideas that they oppose without resorting to the negative.

Consider how the legendary basketball coach John Wooden swore. As many of his players will tell you, he never used a cuss word or swore; rather, he would say “Good gracious, sake’s alive!” and get his point across.

There are times, perhaps, when anger overwhelms the words we want to say but there can never be a time when anger or hatred are the motivation for what we wish to say. Society becomes limited and closed when words of anger, hatred, and inequality become the normal rather than the exception. When words that demean or deride are used in common speech, it implies an acceptance of an inequality between the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the artist and the viewer.

A society which seeks to ban or limit free speech because it seeks a sense of equality is no better than the society which allows inequality in the first place. Such societies cannot survive because their resources are directed towards the maintenance of the status quo and the present instead of looking to the future, beyond the edge, and being more creative.

A free and open society, one in which people can engage in free speech, is characterized by an openness rather than a hierarchy, an ability to take risks rather maintain the status quo, and a desire to seek innovation over settling for the tried and true.
If we limit our creativity, we cannot expect to learn. Thinking skills cannot be developed in an environment where free thought, through free speech, is limited.
There are those who would seek to limit free speech, especially in the classroom, because they feel that it encourages disrespect for authority. If we think about it, however, the use of free speech requires a certain degree of discipline that will not allow for disrespect.

It has to be understood from the beginning that the contributions of all members of the group are acceptable provided they are within the boundaries of the shared information of the group. One may not introduce an idea that does fit within the framework of the discussion. All members of the group must understand that everyone’s contribution is equal.

Let us understand that there is some basic information which has to be taught on an acceptance basis. Every subject has to have a set of shared key assumptions that allow the group a basis from which to begin. There are, within the framework of the discussion, certain specialized concepts and ideas from which to organize information and data. 2 and 2 will always be 4 in every number base higher than base 5 but everyone in the group must understand this before proceeding. If the concept in question is not completely and totally understood, then one cannot proceed until it that occurs (this does change the way we see education today).

The challenge, thus, is for the instructor/teacher to show why it is accepted and what one can do with that information. Teaching at higher levels of thought require the learner to interact with the teacher and this requires respect from both parties.

We must begin by seeing that the learning process is not a top-down model, where the teacher/instructor passes down information to the student/learner who will in turn pass this information onto the next generaion. Rather, it is a two-way interaction between teacher, who know becomes a mentor, and the student/learning. Learning in this model is an interactive process, with a shared point of view, that is, the pursuit of a common goal from a common framework.

This framework consists of a set of shared goals and objectives which can be questioned by all involved in the learning process. It leads to questions about the nature of the issue being studied and allows for alternative interpretations of that shared information and data. (This goes back to the beginning of the process where the information is gathered and studied.)

It can be readily seen that such an approach is a multi-cultural approach because it demands an understanding of many different viewpoints. We live on a planet of many cultures and movement into the future cannot occur if one is not aware of the cultures of other peoples. We cannot realisticaly move into the future when we do not understand how other cultures work; our own society’s history shows the failure of such mono-cultural approaches.

Those who oppose free speech or insist that their viewpoint is the only one that need to know seek a closed, unequal society, in which opportunities and limited and a vision of the future, if it exists, is either limited or lacking.

A society which believes in free speech becomes an open creative society, one in which each individual has many opportunities.

The hallmark of a free and open society is its willingness to allow its citizens the right to exercise their right to free speech. And the citizens of such a free and open society understand that they take on the responsibility of leading the change that they individually advocate in their exercise of that right.

What can we say in a free and open society? Ultimately we can say anything we want but we have to understand that, if we do not understand the meaning of our words, what is said can prevent society’s movement to the future. But if we think about what we say and understand what it is we say, then those words can serve as the springboard to the future.

“To Call One’s Life One’s Own”

The meaning of free will in defining destiny

This is an unpublished devotion that I wrote a few months ago. I would appreciate knowing what you think about it.

There is a set of jokes that starts off with “I have some good news and some bad news”. Most of these jokes involve decisions about life where one part is good and the other is just the opposite; of course, the catch is that neither part is really that great.

To some extent, the idea of free will is one of those good news/bad news ideas. The good news is that you have the opportunity to determine the outcome of your life. The bad news is that you have the opportunity to determine the outcome of your life. And that is the rub.

It is, as some might believe, entirely possible that the outcome of our life has already been decided and we have no say in how our life is going to play out. Things were determined the day and time we were born and there is nothing we can do about it.

In a way that is a good thing. Because it means that we can do whatever we want and, in the end, not be held accountable for those actions. A predetermined and inflexible outcome also means that there is no purpose or no meaning to our lives. We are doing something because that is what we are supposed to be doing, not something we would like to do or might be interested in doing.

It also means that if the outcome places us in some variant of Sheol, then our lives are doomed and all that we do is for naught. For me, personally, it negates the presence of Christ in my life; if Christ died for me, even when I was not yet on this planet, then there means that there is hope. And with hope comes a possibility, a possibility that the outcome of our lives on this planet are determined, not by the stars or other influences, but what we do and how we act.

And that for me is the essence of free will, the ability to discern the purpose of one’s life and take the necessary steps and actions to fulfill that purpose. It means that one can change the direction and purpose of life; it also means that we can foster the work of others for the good of the people.

It is very interesting, in this day and time, to find that many people still hold to some sort of predetermined view of life. They see place and condition of birth as being the limits that define one’s person. And in a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy set the system in place so that the limits cannot be surpassed.

If, on the other hand, we say that all people have the potential to do, perhaps the impossible, then we must also work to ensure that the impossible can be achieved.

A complete understanding of the nature of free will includes understanding that not all individuals accept the idea of unlimited potential. But it also accepts the idea that society, as a whole, sets the parameters for meeting that potential.

Our destiny is determined by what we set it to be; but our destiny is also set by what others would have it to be as well. When Cassius told Brutus that the fault was in us and not in the stars, he was saying that it was we who created the destiny of the people on this planet and that we had the ability to change it.

Theory In The Science Classroom

This is an unpublished piece that I wrote a few months ago. I would appreciate knowing what you think about it.

Should theory be taught in the science classroom? The answer, I feel would have to be an unequivocal yes but with a certain degree of understanding of the setting and the situation. If the ultimate goal of learning in the science classroom is an understanding of the scientific process (and this does not mean that a particular student will become a scientist but rather a more informed citizen), then theory needs to be taught in the classroom.

But this is with the understanding that theory should never be taught as a stand-alone topic but as the result of experimentation and development. This is extremely important when teaching in the early and mid-level grades (K – 8), simply because students at those levels may not yet be able to understand the abstractness that goes with a theory.
That’s not to say that students in upper grades (9 – 12 and college) are automatically able to understand the abstractness of theory and theory construction simply because, if nothing has been done at the earlier levels to foster the development of general abstract thinking, then these upper level students will not have developed the skills necessary for the tasks at hand. (And I am willing to bet that the experimental data would bear me out on this).

Let’s add a warning here. Much of what has to be done to achieve the idea of theory building has to be active learning. Active learning builds neural pathways in the young child, on which all future thinking is processed.

The scientific thinking that is required for theory development arises from the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, as noted on the following diagram:


In other words, students must be doing things rather than simply reading about them or doing worksheets. This would be contrary to, unfortunately, current practices in many classrooms. It would also require that many teachers reinforce their background in the sciences. And what is done in the upper grades is not always appropriate for the lower grades.

All scientific theory is based first on observation of natural phenomena. Young children naturally work to make sense of their world. Scientific process and development of theoretical concepts can be encouraged with support of an open-minded teacher, who is curious about what children are thinking, rather than trying to fill them up with correct answers.
The minds of elementary, middle and high school students are often closed by teachers unwilling to venture off the charted curriculum, and into areas of thinking that are not merely memorized lists of facts, but require analysis, reflection, and creativity to produce new theoretical ideas.

Still, the outcome of such activities will improve the learning process and allow for more developed thinking skills in the long run.

So, how do we develop the ability to understand what a theory is and what one can do with a theory? We do it in the same way that theories are developed outside the classroom, through experimentation. And we have to understand that what the experiments are doing is providing the basis for theory development, not necessarily creating a theory.

In the upper grades, we can do some very basic and fundamental work. What would happen if we took a map of the globe, cut out all the continents, and treated it like a jig saw puzzle. Would the pieces fit together in some sort of pattern?

If I am not mistaken, it was this sort of puzzle that allowed Alfred Wegener to develop his ideas about plate tectonics and continental drift. The fitting of the South American and African continents together, along with similar fossil records allowed for the development of this idea.

Similarly, if a second map of the globe is marked with the presence of volcanoes and earthquake zones (the “ring of fire” around the Pacific), one creates a map showing the markings of the various tectonic plates.

Children as young as 3 and 4 construct knowledge through the development of a hypothesis, making a prediction, testing and experimentation and reflection on their results. Active learning is essential for the development of this thinking skill. Children in an early childhood classroom might chart the weather as well as how it affects the garden in their playground. They might wonder where the water goes after it puddles from a rain, or they might wonder what an earthworm eats when they find one as they dig to plant some seeds.

A wise teacher capitalizes on the teaching moment children’s questions imply, and will furnish the environment with books, worms, water, magnifying glasses and trips outside to make observations.

A similar exercise that can begin in the lower grades would be to make a daily record of the weather – hourly temperatures, weather conditions, and so forth. As the data is collected, the students can begin to see patterns and perhaps even begin making predictions as to what the weather might like in the coming days. In doing so, students should begin to see some of the requirements for creating a theory (observations, seeing the development of patterns, creating hypotheses – though not necessarily calling them that – and testing ideas/predictions).

The child becomes a more active learner when theory building is incorporated into the science education processes of today’s classroom.  

My thanks to Lauriston Avery for her thoughts and comments in the preparation of this manuscript.

Too Gifted?

This is an unpublished devotion that I wrote a few months ago. I would appreciate knowing what you think about it.

Is it possible to be too gifted, to have so many gifts or talents that it is impossible to use them all? How do we know if we have any gifts at all? It would seem to me that you have to know what you have, what your gifts are before you can worry about having too many.
Besides, having too many gifts is only a problem if you never use them. And one doesn’t use one’s gifts for one simply reason; they are afraid to use them.

In the Parable of the Talents, three individuals are each given a set of talents. Now, when ministers and pastors use this parable in their sermon or message, it is often from a financial standpoint, since a talent was a type of coin used back then.

But what if we look at the parable with a slightly different viewpoint, one where a talent represents one’s skills, abilities or gifts? Now, we start off by saying that to be given just one talent should not be considered a disgrace but to do nothing with that one talent would be. And, just as in the parable, to do nothing with what you have been given, will incur the wrath of the Giver.

And those who took the talents that they were given find that their talents have multiplied, which is the case many times today. When you have a set of talents and use them to their fullest, you find other talents developing as well. And as you gain more and more talents, more and more opportunities open up, creating new paths that one might have never thought possible.

So it is quite obvious that one can never have too many talents. But it is also obvious that one has to know what one’s talents are and which ones we should use. There are two steps to doing this. The first is to figure out what your talents are and then you have to find someone to help you develop them. This second step also points out that one of our own gifts might be helping others find their talents.

On a number of occasions, Paul wrote that we were each given some talents and that we should try to use them to the best of our ability. So, we start by figuring out what it is we are interested in and finding out what we need to do to utilize those those talents. This will require that we identify resources and individuals in our community who can help us. And this may mean that sometimes, instead of being the one who is looking, we are the ones providing the help.

We have a great opportunity before us; to build a community based on the skills, gifts, and talents we have, to help others build the skills that they have and to use the skills that we have. And I have a feeling that this will go a long way to building the Kingdom of God because such efforts will transcend race, creed, and culture, much like the early church.

Belief & Doubt

This is an unpublished devotion that I wrote a few months ago. I would appreciate knowing what you think about it.

I cannot speak for others but I know that much of what I do today is a result of what I did when I was in college. But it was more that my being a chemistry major in college or that I worked in chemical education after I graduated.

College was also the time during which I began to ask questions about my faith and I began to seek answers to those questions. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. There has to be a time and a place where one can begin to ask questions and find answers on their own; for me, college was that time and that place.

But this search, this quest, comes from more than what one learns from a book or in a classroom; it also comes from being in a new place at a transitional period in your life. It means that you take what you have read and heard and learned and use that knowledge. It means that as you find the answers to questions you have been asking, you also find that you are asking more questions.

For the followers of Jesus, this transitional period of time was that period right after that First Easter and the Resurrection. First, there were the questions about what would happen to them and what would they do now that Jesus was dead. Then they began to wonder about the meaning of the Resurrection and what they would do because He was alive. Should they tell others or should they keep it to themselves?

We all know the story about how Thomas questioned what the other disciples, and perhaps others, were telling him. It wasn’t so much that he doubted what he was being told but that he wanted to know for himself that Christ had truly risen from the dead; he wanted that little extra bit of information.

A lot of people today are like Thomas; it isn’t that they doubt that Christ is real; they want the same proof that Thomas wanted, the evidence that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, they want to touch Him and put their hands in His wounds.

People today are seeking the truth, much as Thomas did. They see a world in flames and wonder how this could happen; they see neighbor attack neighbor or let others starve or shiver in the cold and they ask how could Christ be alive today? And perhaps the same is true for those who do believe as well.

And this is where the challenge lies. It is, I believe, permissible to doubt one’s faith but that should only move you to seek it even more. But it is more than simply asking questions; it is also about providing the answers, answers like those that Jesus gave Thomas. Others will believe because they see that Christ is alive.

If one believes that Christ did arise from the tomb on that First Easter, then one is prepared to live out the story in his or her own world today. If we live the life that we have been called to live, then what we do offers the proof that Christ is alive. Our challenge today is to find ways to express the love God had when He sent His Son that tells the world that we believe.