“The Winter of the Church, the Season of Innovation” from Hacking Christianity

I encourage everyone to wander over to the “Hacking Christianity” blog and read Jeremy’s latest thoughts, “The Winter of the Churc

I encourage everyone to wander over to the “Hacking Christianity” blog and read Jeremy’s latest thoughts, “The Winter of the Church, the Season of Innovation.”

Who Are Your Saints?

A Meditation for 1 November 2015, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), All Saints Day based on Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1 – 9 (or Isaiah 26: 6 – 10), Revelation 2: 1 – 8, and John 11: 29 – 44

Ordinarily I would be using the lectionary readings for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Ruth 1: 1 – 18, Hebrews 9: 11 – 14, and Mark 12: 28 – 34) but because this is also All Saints Day, I felt it more appropriate to use the lectionary readings for All Saints Days.

But why should we, as United Methodists and also Protestants, even celebrate All Saints Day? To a great extent, the celebration of saints is not a part of our heritage or even our tradition. This, I would think to lead John Wesley to caution the fledgling Methodist Church against holding saints in too high regard. In his Articles of Religion that he sent to Methodists in America in 1784 he included a statement against the “invocation of saints” (Article XIV – Of Purgatory, Book of Discipline ¶104) because he could not find any biblical evidence for the practice and argued against it.

But he also suggested that we should not disregard the saints altogether. In his journal for November 1, 1767, he wrote that All Saints Day was a “a festival that I truly love.” Twenty-one years later, he wrote “I always find this a comfortable day.” And one year later, in 1789, he wrote in his journal that All Saints Day was “a day that I peculiarly love.”

And we know from a reading of Hebrews 12 that we are asked to remember the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us and encourage us, cheering us on in our daily lives. So this day, All Saints Day, gives us the opportunity celebrate our history and tradition by giving thanks to those who have gone before us in faith (adapted from “All Saints Day: A Holy Day John Wesley Loved.”).

Wesley also believed

that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason (The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline).”

And since I see my faith in living and real terms, it is better to describe the relationship between the elements in a 3-dimensional tetrahedral rather than a 2-dimensional square (hey, I’m a chemist, remember!).

Tetrahedron.gif (337×286)

Illustration 1: The Wesleyan Tetrahedron

And in addition to the tradition and history of the church, our own experiences play a strong and equal role in how we see this day.

Each one of us knows that our presence here is because there was someone in our lives who made sure that we had the opportunity to be here. Oh, we may have been brought here kicking and screaming and feeling that there may have been better ways to spend a Sunday morning or some event in the middle of the week. And we most certainly didn’t understand then what we know today.

I have said it before and written about those early moments when I felt that God was calling to me. Quite honestly, what I felt was my mother’s elbow in my ribs keeping me awake while the preacher droned on and on. The only way I was going to stop my mother from planting her elbow in my ribs was to go sit by myself in the sanctuary and hopefully not completely fall asleep (which I was able to do). But somewhere in proclaiming my independence to sit wherever I wanted to in the sanctuary, I began to sense God telling me to do more than just sit there.

And when we moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Denver, Colorado, and I began attending the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado (now the 1st United Methodist Church of Aurora), I also began looking at earning my God & Country award in Boy Scouts. While some may argue that all of the awards in scouting are the choice of the individual, choosing to earn the God & Country award requires a far more internal commitment than the other awards simply because you have to make a commitment to God that changes your live more than one can know when they begin.

So it was that one year later, after having given up my Saturday mornings to be in study at the church with Gary Smith and Don Fisher, when I no longer could sleep late but had to be at church on Sunday morning to serve as one of the acolytes for the 8 am service, after having carried a cross and some small hymnals with me on the troop camping trips and lead short services in the foothills of the Rockies, I had earned the one award in scouting that means more to me than anything else. And I put it away so that I wouldn’t lose it.

But two things happened. First, ten members of my Boy Scout troop who, at first, were probably jealous that Gary and I got out of doing troop things around the church on Saturday mornings (Don was a member of another troop) decided that maybe studying about God and seeking His presence in their own lives wasn’t such a bad idea and the second God & Country class began.

And that is, I think how it works, As there has been someone in your life who pushed you to find God in your life, you will, through what you have done or will do, help someone else to find God in their life. As someone has been a saint to you, so to will you someday be a saint for someone else.

But the odds are that you will never know that this happened. I don’t know what happened to those ten guys who followed us but I trust that it went well.

The second thing that happened was that I found my life changing in ways that were not immediately clear. But one year after I completed my God & Country work, I began the other major journey in my life, the journey that would ultimately lead to my earning my doctorate.

And during the first summer at Kirksville, as a freshman in college at the age of 15, away from home, and with the opportunity at long last to sleep in late on a Sunday morning, I found that I couldn’t do it. I had to be in church on Sunday morning, even though it meant walking to the church as I did not have a car. And on the Sunday that I became a member of 1st United Methodist Church of Kirksville, Missouri, I met another Saint of the church, Dr. Meredith Eller.

When I joined 1st UMC, Dr. Eller and his wife stood there with me as my god-parents. A few weeks later, Dr. Eller would become my history professor and I would take all of my history classes with him. And while I was actually a chemistry major, Dr. Eller served as one of many mentors in my college life. And when I served as one of the junior class marshals for the 1970 commencement exercise, I discovered that Dr. Eller was not only an esteemed professor of history but an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church (which sort of explained why his doctoral robes were a little more faded than many of the other professors at Truman; while others may wear their doctoral robes once or twice a year for commencement and college activities, he wore his every week as a circuit riding preacher in the northeast corner of Missouri; part of my thoughts about Dr. Eller and other heroes/saints was first mentioned in “Guess Who’s Coming To Breakfast?” and in detail in “Methodist Blogger Profile: Tony Mitchell”.)

In 1984 I made a major move in my life and as a consequence of that move, I began to think about what I had done with what I had learned some twenty years before during that time when I earned my God and Country. At that point, I began to serve as a liturgist in my home church and paid special attention to remember the meaning of Boy Scout Sunday.

And then, in 1991, we find God again reminding me once again that I made a commitment to Him in 1965, and that all I had done, even though it was in chemistry, had prepared me to be a lay speaker and ultimately something of a circuit rider. And I think about those who I helped prepare for the ministry in those years and those who heard my words or read them on my blog and I know that someone will change the path of their life and I might have done something worthy of sainthood.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the other United Methodist preacher from my days and times in Kirksville, Reverend Marvin Fortel. In a conversation that we had in 1969, he changed the direction of my life, and as I pointed out in “The Changing Of Seasons”, neither one of us knew how that conversation would change our lives.

And that is the nature of being a saint. You do not know in the present who might be a saint in your life nor do you know if you are a saint in the life of someone else. You lead your life as it was intended to be lead; you met with people and simply talk with them. In your walk and in your talk, you might offer an alternative to what they are doing.

And yes, leading the life that Christ would have you lead is not always the easiest life and the rewards that one gets in the present time are sometimes few and limited.

But the Old Testament readings for today point out that those who suffered ultimately received their reward in Heaven. John the Seer wrote in his Revelation that the outcome of life for the believers was a good one. And Jesus pointed out when he brought Lazarus out of the tomb that God does know what we are doing and that we will triumph of the slavery of sin and death in the end.

So on this day, we pause to remember the saints in our lives, those individuals who, through example as well as word, pointed and guided us to victory. And we stop to think that there will be those who will hear our words and see what we do and their lives will change as a result.

So when we ask the question as to “who are your saints?” we are also asking “how will we be saints as well?”

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.

“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.