Why Are We Observing Lent Again

These are my thoughts for this year’s season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent is March 2nd this year.  Why are we observing Lent this year?  Are we doing so because we really haven’t observed it these past two years? 

If nothing else, it is nice to be back to the mindset of a “normal” season of Lent.  Then again, because the timing of Lent is based on when Easter occurs, no Lenten season is the same as the ones before it. So, the question really should be “why do we observe Lent every year?”

Perhaps this year we can really look at what Lent means for each of us.  I am afraid that for too many people Lent is about sacrifice.  These individuals will publicly announce, sometimes with great fanfare and showmanship, that they are giving something up for Lent.  But such acts are the acts of the religious elite that both John the Baptizer and Jesus called out.  For as soon as Lent turns to the Easter season, these individuals will return to their consumption or usage of whatever it was they sacrificed for Lent.

Lent is more than the sacrifice of a favorite food or activity; it is about repentance and preparation.

We are far from a perfect people, but we are also a people who, through Christ, seek perfection.  Repentance is, thus, part of this process.  We must repent of our old ways, casting off that which has kept us from reaching our goals.  But we must also have some sense of where we want to go.  And that requires study and preparation.

If our faith is to live, it must be nurtured.  Otherwise, it will die.  And while our physical body may live on, what good is that if our soul has died?

I am not sure if I have ever met someone whose soul has died so I can only imagine what sort of life that person must have.  But I have met many whose intellectual life has died.  These individuals have reached the goals they set for themselves professionally and, having reached those goals, stopped learning.  Such individuals are quite literally out of touch with today’s society.  I have also met individuals who reached the pinnacle in their profession, but they continue to learn, striving to reach higher goals.

The difference, perhaps, is that those who continue to seek understanding also understand that their profession continues to change and to be alive in their profession, they must continue the process themselves.

I have been involved in chemical education for some 57 years, first as a high school student, then as a college student, and then as a teacher in high school and an instructor/assistant professor college.  Even today, as a chemistry tutor, I continue to learn more about this subject that has been my vocation for this so many years (recently, the American Chemical Society announced an online review course to see chemistry with modern examples [Facebook post – 2/9/22]).

Over these years I have observed that chemistry is based on a certain set of fundamentals.  In fact, from the day in 1661 when Robert Boyle published the “Sceptical Chymist”, we have known that there is a set of fundamentals on which chemistry (and all sciences) are based.  [It should also be noted that Boyle was as well known for writings on theology as he was for his scientific endeavors.]  But over the years, our understanding of those fundamentals has changed.

The idea of the atom as the smallest part of matter has been a fundamental part of chemistry since approximately 450 BCE.  But our understanding of what makes up the atom and how the atom interacts has changed.

Even though the neutron was discovered in 1932, there is no mention of it in either of my father’s high school textbooks, both published in 1935. My father had, to the best of my knowledge, a rudimentary knowledge of atomic theory but his ideas were out-of-date by the time I took high school chemistry in 1966.

The idea of an element as the simplest form of matter is one such fundamental. 

Mendeleev used the idea of chemical families, elements with similar chemical properties, to arrange the elements on the first periodic table.  The Noble Gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon) were the last family added to Mendeleev’s table because of the lack of observable chemical properties.

In my 1966 high school textbook was the comment that these elements did not form compounds.  Yet, in 1962, Neil Bartlett had synthesized the first Noble gas compounds.  Do I rely on the material in the text, or do I look at the research in the field?

The discovery of the neutron would lead to two important areas of discovery.  First, it created the path that allowed chemists to create elements heavier than uranium.

Over the years, the number of elements that we know has changed.  There were 63 elements on the first organized periodic table Dimitri Mendeleev created in 1869.  When my father took high school chemistry in 1938, there were 88 elements; when I took chemistry in 1966, the number had risen to 103 and there are now 118 identified elements. 

The work of individuals seeking to create new elements led to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 (the year my father graduated from high school).  And this discovery would lead to the development of atomic and nuclear weapons.

I think there is a corollary to our understanding of our faith.  We learned the fundamentals of our faith in our membership class many years ago.  As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13: 11 – 12,

If our understanding of our faith has not grown as we have grown, then our faith is no longer viable and in danger of dying.  While the fundamentals of our faith have not changed, our understanding has (or should have).  And that means, as we enter in the Season of Lent and a time of repentance and preparation, we must look to what our faith means to us today.

” When I was a child, I was talking like a child, thinking like a child, acting like a child, but when I became an adult, I outgrew my childish ways.”

Why are we observing Lent this year?  Because in our striving to be more perfect, more like Christ, we must set aside time to cast aside that which has held us back and seek to find ways to move us to our goal.


A New Life for the Church and in the Church

Finding the Truth

A Brief History of Atomic Theory

Thoughts on the nature of teaching science in the 21st Century

Amazing Grace as A Song of Freedom

This was first published in the Fishkill UMC July 2020 Newsletter.

There are two stories about the hymn “Amazing Grace”.  One of the stories is about the hymn itself.  I wrote about how people learned to sing this hymn (and other hymns) using shape notes back in the April 2020 newsletter.

But there is the story about the author of the words of the hymn, John Newton.

Do you remember the first time you ever heard the story about John Newton?  We often think that the story of the hymn is the story of the author but that is not the case.

I believe that I heard the story when I went to an Arlo Guthrie concert when I was in graduate school at the University of Memphis.  But the story that Arlo told that night was slightly off.  Newton did embrace Christianity on the night of March 10, 1748 during a rather intense storm at sea.  He had previously denounced Christianity, but something drove him to begin studying it and on the night in 1748, he called out to God to save him.

But he did not turn the ship around and free the slaves, as some have said.  He would ultimately quit the slave trade and become a priest in the Anglican Church in 1764.  (The Methodist connection here is that John Wesley encouraged him to enter the ministry.)

After becoming a priest in the church, he joined the anti-slavery movement in Britain, working with William Wilberforce to abolish slavery.  History will note that the information that Newton provided Wilberforce allowed other important and influential individuals to realize the horrors of the slave trade.

John Newton wrote the words for this hymn in 1772 as a poem for his church’s prayer service. The central idea for this hymn is the grace of God.

While the United Methodist Hymnal gives 1 Chronicles 17:16–17 as the basis for the hymn, it is probably better based on Ephesian 2: 4 – 9.  In Chronicles, the prophet Nathan has pointed out how he had failed in the eyes of God, but that God has plans for him.  David recognizes that it is only by the Grace of God that he will continue.

For John Newton, it was God’s grace that saved him from the life that he was leading.  In selecting the passage from Chronicles as the basis for his poem, Newton showed that God’s grace allowed David to move forward with his life.

So how is this a song of freedom? 

In 1990 Bill Moyers presented a documentary about “Amazing Grace” for PBS (there is a copy of this on YouTube if you are interested (https://youtu.be/wKH1lkUjAgA ;it is an old copy and has some flaws from the recording, but it is worth watching).

Moyers spent some time talking with people about how they sang the hymn, but he also spent time with several individuals including Judy Collins and Johnny Cash about what it meant to them to sing it. 

Judy Collins told Bill,

For me, it was always the song that gave me an inner experience of another dimension. When I sing this song with a group of people, I always feel that there’s a mystical territory between the singer and the audience. It’s not just me singing, it’s something else that’s singing. And it’s all of those people and all of their spirits, so that somewhere or other, there is some experience going on which gives something to them and gives something to me that’s more than the sum of any of us.

I always think that the experience of bliss, of pleasure, of joy, of singing is something that you experience on different level not a material level. And ‘Amazing Grace’ has always locked into that center for me. It kind of hits me on the same place every time.

She would add:


I had heard that the song was written by a man who had had a wretched life and been a slave trader. What an expression of, yes, of gratitude and of joy to know that there was the other side to that, which can only be given by such a profound and I would call spiritual experience. I mean, “Amazing Grace”-I mean, it really says, “This choice is wretched and this other one is worlds apart, indescribable.”


Did you ever feel like a wretch?


Oh, yes, enough so that it always reminds me that there have been those very, very dark times in my own life, some of which, during some of which, this song, I think, really carried me through. “Amazing Grace” is almost like a talisman.

In his interview with Johnny Cash, Johnny indicated that when he sang the hymn, he felt a sense of freedom from the things that had imprisoned him.  It was an idea that was reflected by the comments of others in the video.


We all do have our prisons, don’t we?


Yeah, we do. We can get ourselves into a little prison of, you know, drugs, alcohol, a relationship or a habit or a situation, you know, that we weave ourselves into that can be like a prison, with bars that you can’t break out of.

Cash would say later in the interview:

When I sing that song, I could be in a dungeon, or I could have chains all over me, but I would be free as a breeze. It’s a song that makes a difference. There are some songs that make a difference in your life, and that song makes a difference.

I would think that many others have a sense of God’s grace in their lives when they sing this hymn.  Even in settings where one might not expect it, the celebration for Nelson Mandela a few years ago, for example, people joined with Jessye Norman to sing this hymn.  It says something of its power and the power of God’s grace that a group of people, expecting a rock concert, would join in singing this hymn.

So “Amazing Grace” is a song of freedom, the freedom given to each one of us through God’s grace, freely given and freely accepted.





Note posted on Facebook by Sarah Tillery Caldwell on 23 December 2018 about the nature of the verses of “Amazing Grace” in reply to my comment that we sang carols to tell the story of Christmas, she replied,

All our best hymns are theologically based. Case in point, the five original verses of Amazing Grace describe John Wesley’s teaching on the stages of grace.