“Finding God in The Details”

This is not necessarily a post for Transfiguration Sunday (11 February 2018) as much as it a post for Boy Scout Sunday and Evolution Weekend; “A Reminder” serves that purpose.  Still it helps to realize that this weekend is a marker in my life.

On the 2nd Sunday in February 1965, I was confirmed and received into membership with the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado (now 1st United Methodist Church of Aurora).  A little over one year later, I was accepted in the High School Honors Program of Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University).  In June of 1966, I choose to become a chemistry major.  Each of those decisions defined the path that I would take over the coming years.

The simplest and easiest way to summarize my beliefs is found in what is commonly called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, “Wesley 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 it is better to describe the relationship between the elements in a 3-dimensional tetrahedral – The Wesleyan Tetrahedron – rather than a 2-dimensional square (hey, I’m a chemist, remember!)Tetrahedron

Perhaps I spent more time 50 years ago focusing on my education and I know that I certainly have spent several years wandering in the wilderness, as it were.  But even if it were not a dominant part of my life, my faith has been as much a part of my life as have been my chemistry studies.

And that brings forth the questions, “Can one be both a scientist and a Christian?  Can one both appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation and still ask how it all came into being?”

Today, there are those who see science as a threat to religion, and especially Christianity.  And there are those who see religion, and especially Christianity, as nothing more than superstition and meaningless today.  There is, I believe a comment on one of my early posts on this blog that questions the validity of my PhD. in Science Education considering my being, at the time, a lay pastor in the United Methodist Church.  I can assure you, gentle reader, that my PhD. is a valid one and that I have done research in both chemistry and chemical education.  Those interests are very much part of my life today.

But there was a point in my life when I was asked to provide long-term pulpit supply for a number of churches and it was a very valuable experience (see the notes with “Who Will Work For The Lord?”.)

After I left the pulpit, but did not give up lay speaking, I discovered that there was a connection between my chemistry and lay speaking ministry.  In “A Dialogue Of Science And Faith” I discovered that Robert Boyle and Joseph Priestley, both chemists, were also heavily involved in matters of faith as they were in matters of science.

And while detractors today may say otherwise, scientists from Copernicus and Galileo to Boyle and Newton and onto this day have never sought to prove or disprove the existence of God, only to understand what He has done.

Perhaps the one defining characteristic of humankind is its curiosity.  From the very beginning of our consciousness, we have looked at the world around us and wondered “why?”  And our answer to this, at once the simplest and most complex of all questions, has lead us to seek beyond the horizon and to the stars and see answers in our soul, even if we are not sure what we were looking for or if we would know the answer.

And we would could not find the answer in the physical world, we often turned to the supernatural or spiritual world to find the answer.  But just as easy as it easy to find the answer in the physical world, it is often just as hard to find the answer in the spiritual realm.  And so, in our own way, we create simple spiritual answers to the most complicated of questions.

When the star that is called Sirius first appeared in the spring, we knew that river was going to flood, and it would be time to prepare.  But instead of tying two physical occurrences, we saw it as a sign from the gods.  When the rains didn’t come, we blamed the rain god.  We knew that if the crops didn’t come in as expected, perhaps we needed to appease the god of crops.  Of course, today we have scientific explanations for most, if not all, the physical phenomena that once was attributed to spiritual or supernatural forces.  But even so, we still search for explanations for good and evil, truth and beauty, and the most important question of all times, why are we here in this time and place.

This search for the answers has lead us in many different paths.  When the writer of Genesis wrote that Adam was given the task of naming all the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2: 19 – 20), Adam became, other things, the first biologists.  And when Abraham was told to count all the stars (Genesis 15: 5), he took on one of the tasks of an astronomer.

Understand that the Bible is and should never be considered the same as a biology, chemistry, physics, or geology/earth science textbook.  From the very day that the first writer put the words of Genesis on papyrus, it has been about our relationship with God.

The Psalmist looked the world around him and at the skies above him and saw the Glory of God,

I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous, your handmade sky-jewelry,

Moon and stars mounted in their settings.  Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,

Why do you bother with us?  Why take a second look our way?

Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods, bright with Eden’s dawn light.

You put us in charge of your handcrafted world, repeated to us your Genesis-charge,

Made us lords of sheep and cattle, even animals out in the wild,

Birds flying and fish swimming, whales singing in the ocean deeps.

God, brilliant Lord, your name echoes around the world.  (Psalm 8: 3 – 9, The Message)

And how was it that Jesus could use the habits of foxes and birds or know how mustard seeds and grow in his parables if He had not studied science when he was growing up.

Science can give meaning to what we see in this world, but it cannot explain why it is here.  Science can never explain there is good and evil or why there is suffering and pain in this world.

Science can never show you God; it can only show you, through nature, the works of God.  Science has always been driven to know things about the world in which we live.  Scientists from Copernicus through Newton and even into these days used the process of science to understand the works of God, not disprove the existence of God or displace God.

Science gives us the opportunity to know what is happening in this world; it is up to our faith to know why it is happening.  It is our faith that will provide the guidance that we need to use what science shows us.  It is through our faith that we can discern the path that we should take, to use our scientific discoveries for good.

Science can open avenues of research whose answers will help feed the people of this planet and cure sickness and disease, but science cannot eliminate injustice and oppression.  For all that science can do, it cannot do all things.  And for those things that science cannot do, you must have faith, faith in things unseen, faith that will lead you to find ways to use the knowledge that you gain from science.

We look at the world around us and wonder why and how.  As we ask how things came to be, we find ourselves marveling at the works of God.  And as we begin to understand the works of God, we began to understand ourselves just a little bit better.


A Reminder

This will be the back page for the Fishkill United Methodist Church bulletin for February 11, 2018, Transfiguration Sunday (Year B).  This is also Boy Scout Sunday and Evolution Weekend (I will have something else posted this week that focuses on those topics.)

Several years ago, I was headed to a college in northwest Missouri.  Driving across the plains of northwest Missouri that day and nearing Conception Junction, I saw a cathedral rising from the plains about ten miles away.  It wasn’t what I had planned but I had to see what this was.  After all, when does God check your schedule when he has something for you to do?

Conception Abbey postcard from 1908 postcard – By Unknown – postcard, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19493851

Conception Abbey was built in the late 19th century to provide the local Irish and German immigrants of the area a spiritual home.  That day, it served as a reminder that I had made a covenant with God in 1965.

A covenant with God is not a promise but an agreement one makes with God; It is an agreement that each party will do something.  Throughout the ages, God always keeps His part of the covenant; we are often the ones who forget what we said we would do.

Seeing that cathedral, literally rising from the plains, reminded me that I had made a covenant and that it was time to fulfill my part of the agreement.  As I continued my trip that day, I began to think about how I could fulfill that covenant I made in 1965.  How could I use my skills and talents that I had been given and developed over the years?  In one sense, I am here today because of the sudden appearance of the Presence of God in my life.

Each of us, in one way or another, has had that same moment, where God suddenly appears to us.   How will you respond?

~Tony Mitchell

The Past Can Never Be Our Future

A couple of things about this piece – I am posting this on Boy Scout Sunday, which has a special meaning for me.  This is also Evolution Weekend, the celebration of Charles Darwin’s birth (see Evolution Weekend for a list of my posts.) That this is the same weekend as Boy Scout Sunday is also of special significance for me.

Please note that this post will not be a debate on “nature versus nurture.”  But if we are to have a vision for our future, we must first understand our past; I know it is a cliché but one must remember what the poet and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (“Reason in Common Sense”, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason).

The other day I watching the last part of a show on Public Television dealing with genealogy and DNA.  This, coupled with some other shows that I have watched on this topic and similar television stations, prompted the following thoughts.

First, if you have your DNA tested, you will be surprised by the results.  Because, as it turns out, our DNA contains elements of the past that we would have never imagined.  For example, many people with European backgrounds will be surprised to know that some 20% of their DNA is from Neanderthals (At least 20% of Neanderthal DNA Is in Humans).  This research points out, that genetically, we are a diverse population.  And this will be very disturbing for some people because the purest strands of DNA, the ones with the least number of sources come from Africa.  As I said, some people will have problems processing that tidbit of information.

Now, if it were affordable, I would like to take advantage of that testing, if for no other reason than to prove or disprove some thoughts about my own heritage and ancestry.

When you look at my family tree, there are four branches.  The most dominant one is probably the one that extends back to Germany in the 16th century.  It would appear from the records that were discovered that constructed this branch that we, as a family, may have known Martin Luther personally for the records indicated that some twelve of my ancestors were or are Lutheran ministers.  Perhaps it was this hidden genealogy that played a part in my choosing to be involved in lay ministry through the United Methodist Church.

But I came to this ministry through the Evangelical United Brethren Church instead of the Lutheran Church.  And even though there is a shared German heritage in these denominations, there are those in the Lutheran Church who would view me as something of heretic for choosing a different path.  But that, as you will see in the coming paragraphs, is perhaps one marker of my life today.

The other dominant, though shorter, branch on the family tree leads to the hills and hollows of Appalachia.  I don’t know as much about this branch as I do the German branch but the signs on this second branch say that I am of the Scotch-Irish tradition.

The Scotch-Irish of America are among those whose families moved from Scotland to Ireland because English authorities encouraged Scottish families to move to Ireland, in part because of conditions in Scotland and in part because the English authorities wanted more of a presence in Ireland.  Later, the English authorities decided that to be in a position of authority one had to be a member of the Anglican Church, which many of those Scots living in Ireland were not.  From this began the move to America, a move to escape religious persecution where a government felt it had the right to tell others how and what to believe.  And again, I can see in my past another strain of rebellion.

I would like to write more about the other two branches of this tree but those branches end rather abruptly, clothed in a seemingly impenetrable darkness.  It may be with modern technology and perseverance along with society’s penchant for record keeping that this darkness can be removed and that my siblings and cousin will come to know more about what is for the moment, “familia incognito”.

And while there may be a genealogical basis for my rebellious streak, one can also become a rebel despite one’s genetics or family history just as easily.  And in fact, it is probably easier to do it than one might think (see, for example, “I Am a Southern-born Evangelical Christian!  What Are You?”

My choice to become a member of the Evangelical United Brethren church was not so that my ancestors could call me a heretic; rather, it was a choice of convenience since 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado (now the 1st United Methodist Church of Aurora) was the closest church to where I lived and it fit into the pattern of church attendance my family followed at that time.

My choice to enter lay ministry of the United Methodist Church was made before I knew of my family’s ministerial history.  Perhaps the only part of my own past that directly influenced the path that I would walk was the decision in the summer of 1966 to become a chemistry major at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University).  (This, by the way, was also an unconscious act of rebellion because it did not fit the pattern that my father would have preferred; but that is for another time and place.)

The point must be made, and I feel that this is true for everyone, it is not necessarily one’s past that determines one’s future.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

When you look at the river of time, you see a changing image; one that is not fixed in the past.  But what you see can determine what you do.

I grew up at a time of great creativity.  The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik spurred a demand for increased mathematics and science education.  As I noted in “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”, there was development of curriculum materials that focused on experimentation, rather than the traditional method of rote memorization.  It was a process that required the development of higher-level thinking skills.

653px-bloomscognitivedomainFigure 1 – Categories in the cognitive domain (Bloom’s Taxonomy) – Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001

And alongside this change in how science and mathematics were being taught came a similar expansion of what I shall call the creativity aspect of social relations.  No longer was there an acceptance of the traditional social status quo but a demand for an explanation of why people were treated equally in a world which proclaimed equality was the norm.  (Or as George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “while all are equal, some are more equal than others.”)

I know that my questioning of Southern traditions began when I could see differences in the ways schools operated during the period from 1962 to 1966 when I moved from Alabama to Colorado to Missouri to Tennessee.

In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy sought the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President of the United States.  Throughout that campaign, he used variations on the following George Bernard Shaw quote,

“You see things; and you will say, “Why?”  But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”

And in questioning some of those traditions, I began, in my own way, to ask “Why?” and “Why not?”

There are those today who would rather we not ask why but to simply take their word as the final authority on the matter, seemingly in both science and faith.

It should be noted that the opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution is relatively modern.  At best, it arose because religious authorities, having accepted the primacy of the Bible, could not accepted a reasoned and developed idea about how life evolved on this planet.  But on at least one occasion in His ministry, Jesus told those around him to look at what they saw.  If we are not to look around us at the world in which we live, how will we ever be able to make this a better place?

And while many will say that it was the Catholic Church that was opposed to Galileo’s depiction of the cosmos (based on what he had observed), it was the academic establishment who opposed his ideas, simply because they were counter to what they were teaching.  This academic establishment pushed religious authorities to declare Galileo a heretic because that was the easiest way to get him out of the way.

It should also be noted that the notion of the “Big Bang”, confirmed by physical observations, was initially opposed by the scientific community because it was like the Creation story in Genesis.

If we are not teaching our children how to think and evaluate, how then can we even begin to envision the future?  And I am fully aware that in doing so, we are encouraging our children to think independently and without our input.  And this causes great concern for some because it brings into question what they have been teaching their children all these years.

My only response to this is that if you have been teaching your children through strict adherence to a set of guidelines and without explanation, you had better be willing to accept defiance and rebellion.  And you had better begin questioning just what it is that you believe.  Is your faith and belief system strong enough to withstand questioning?

My understanding of evolution and the “Big Bang” only enhances my belief in God, for when I see the wonders of His work, I can only begin to wonder how it all took place.  And, as it is written in Genesis, I was created in God’s image, then I was created to be a questioning and inquisitive individual.

I look at my heritage with an understanding that is where I come from.  But my heritage can never tell me where I am going.  Nothing from our past or our present can give us any insight into what our future will hold.  But it is what we do today that will allow there to be a future.

We must be working for a better understanding of the world around us, for a better understanding of the other people with whom we share this world, and for a better understanding of how we came to be on this planet.

The future will always be the last “great unknown” and getting there will not be easy but, with the tools and abilities that we have been given, it ought to be fun.

Boy Scout Sunday

In 1962 and 1963, I lived in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a year of many firsts for me; I began playing the trumpet and I was introduced to or at least became aware of the role of football in Southern culture. It was the beginning of my awareness that equality in this country was perhaps nothing more than words.  It was also when I began to think that God was calling me. When we moved during the summer of 1963 to Denver, I began to explore how I would answer that call. And thus I began working towards earning the God and Country award in Boy Scouts.

As I worked on this award, I was also in confirmation class and during the spring of 1965 I would earn the God and Country award and be confirmed in the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Thus I began my walk with the Lord. It has been a rough walk, done at times without acknowledging His presence in my life but perhaps more times than not knowing that His presence was a distinct part of my life.

There came a time around in 1984 when I began to think about that call and that I really hadn’t answered it completely. You have to realize that earning the God and Country award is more than simply answering some questions and do some exercises each week. It requires more than that, a commitment of heart and soul. And I needed to find a way to fulfill that commitment. So I made a covenant with God to be more active. In the churches where I was a member, I began to be a liturgist, specifically requesting that assignment on the 2nd Sunday in February, Boy Scout Sunday. And to the best of my ability, I have done so every year since then. Of course, from 1999 to 2005, on that Sunday, I was also the lay pastor of the church. And since 2005, if I was not somewhere in the district covering for a pastor, I have posted my thoughts on this blog.

The following is a summary of my sermons/messages/posts for the 2nd Sunday in February, Boy Scout Sunday.

February 14, 1999 – Neon (KY) UMC – “A Scout is Reverent”

February 13, 2000 – Walker Valley (NY) UMC – “Following Directions”

February 11, 2001 – Walker Valley (NY) UMC – “Two Roads”

February 10, 2002 – Walker Valley (NY) UMC – not on file

February 9, 2003 – Tompkins Corners (NY) UMC– “A Scout is Reverent”

February 8, 2004 – Tompkins Corners (NY) UMC – “A Scout is Reverent”

February 6, 2005 – Tompkins Corners (NY) UMC – “The Mountaintop Experience”

February 12, 2006 – “Seek The Truth”

February 11, 2007 – “A Brief Discourse”

February 10, 2008 – “What Have We Learned?”

February 8, 2009 – “The New Paradigm”

February 14, 2010 – “That Transforming Moment”

February 13, 2011 – “It’s about Commitment”

February 12, 2012 – “To Leave the World A Better Place”

February 3, 2013 – “Removing The Veil”

February 9, 2014 – Sloatsburg UMC – “The Master Lesson”

February 8, 2015 –  did not post a blog for this Sunday

February 14, 2016 – “Where Are We Going?”

February 12, 2017 – “The Past Can Never Be Our Future”

Where Are We Going?

A Meditation for 14 February 2016, the 1st Sunday in Lent (Year C). This is also “Evolution Weekend” and Boy Scout Sunday. The meditation is based on Deuteronomy 26: 1 – 11, Romans 10: 8 – 13, and Luke 4: 1 – 3

I was going to use what I thought was a quote from Lewis Carroll,

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

But, according to http://philosiblog.com/2011/07/13/if-you-dont-know-where-youre-going/, that is only a paraphrase of the actual conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat:

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

The Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,”

Alice: “I don’t much care where–”

The Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,”

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

The Cat: “Oh, you’re sure to do that, if you only walk long enough.”

So where are we going? Are we going to wander aimlessly about until we get somewhere? Or should we stop and consider where it is that we would like to go? Today is the 1st Sunday in Lent, that season of the church year when we begin or renew our own personal journey of preparation and repentance. There is also some personal significance for this day for me.

It is Boy Scout Sunday. On this Sunday in 1965 I began my own personal journey with Christ. This is also Evolution Weekend, the celebration of Charles Darwin’s birth and the role that science and faith jointly play in our life. For me, these two events serve as markers in my professional and personal careers and the interaction in both the secular and sectarian world.

There are many today who feel that you cannot live in both worlds, that you must choose one over the other.

There was a discussion on Facebook recently about why it was that there was such a strong conflict between science and religion.

There are those who say that the battle between science and religion is as old as the Scriptures. Others say that you must choose between explanations based on divine intervention and explanations based on logic and reason.

There are those who see any idea of religion as mere superstition and outmoded, overtaken by the enlightenment of the ages. But there is still evil in this world and no degree of enlightenment or understanding of the natural world is going to explain or create ways to remove it.

Somehow, we must find a way to live in a world where science, which is very good at explaining how things work, and faith/religion, which offers an explanation of what it all means, not only co-exist but work together (http://www.rabbisacks.org/books/the-great-partnership-god-science-and-the-search-for-meaning/).

Why does it seem that so many people would rather “burn the bridges” that connect the two worlds than make sure that there is an open and available path between them?

Ian Barbour, 1999 Templeton Prize winner, offered the idea that there were four prevailing views concerning the relationship between science and religion:

  1. That they fundamentally conflict,
  2. That they are separate domains,
  3. That the complexity of science affirms divine guidance, and
  4. Finally — the approach he preferred — that science and religion should be viewed as being engaged in a constructive dialogue with each other.

Barbour would later write,

This requires humility on both sides. Scientists have to acknowledge that science does not have all the answers, and theologians have to recognize the changing historical contexts of theological reflection” (Obituary of Ian Barbour, New York Times, January 13, 2014)

Albert Einstein offered a similar view that “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind” (“Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941).

We can begin by understanding that this conflict is not as old as the scriptures and that is driven by the need for individuals to control the lives of others. Advocates for a single point of view (be it secular or sectarian) are seeking one thing and that is the power, simple raw power, to control the lives of other people.

When Galileo was tried by the Catholic Church for heresy some four hundred years ago, the opposition to his ideas and the ideas of Copernicus and Kepler did not originate with the church. The opposition came from individuals within the academic establishment of that time. They were opposed to these new ideas because their reputation, status, and power were built on maintaining the Aristotelian view of an earth-centered universe. The church was brought into the argument because the academic establishment convinced members of the church establishment that the changes proposed by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would harm the church and threaten their status, reputation, and power.

It was an atheist who called the beginning moment of creation the “Big Bang” because he felt the idea of a beginning moment in time was too much like the opening words of Genesis. His terminology was meant to deride a point in time that he felt did not exist. Unfortunately, the name stuck and his ideas didn’t.

Similarly, opposition to Darwin’s ideas about evolution began in the late 19th century and solely because some in the church establishment saw his ideas as threats to their views. Those who opposed Darwin’s ideas felt that it was in their best interest to limit the information that the people received, probably understanding that the more information a person had, the more likely that they would begin to make decisions on their own. It should also be pointed out the Darwin never considered what he was writing to be an alternate view or replacement for the Creation story in the Bible. Rather, it was, as all theories are, an explanation for what he had observed.

When you look at the history of the church from its early days through the 18th century, you find something totally in opposition to the present attitude. Many in the early church saw the opening words of Genesis as an allegory, written to help the people understand it better (from “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”).

If there is to be a coherent and civil discussion about the nature of science into today’s society, be it on the topic of evolution and creation or any other topic (climate change, for example), it must be made with all of the facts and not just a select few. It must be done with an understanding both of the meaning of the Scriptures and the science that is involved.

It should be noted that the Devil has this tendency to only partially quote the Scriptures (or simply misconstrue or change the words of God, such as he did when he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden). Now, it does not help things when people do the same thing, knowingly or unknowingly. If you do not understand the topic, then it becomes very difficult to talk about it.

The Devil, in whatever form he may take, takes advantage of our ignorance and uses our own ignorance to feed our fears. In the Old Testament reading for today, the people bring their gifts to place before God. Is not our ability to reason and think one of those gifts from God? Should we not be celebrating that gift, should we not nurture and support that gift? Surely, the ability to think, to reason, and to be creative is as important as any other gift we have been given?

Paul, in writing to the Romans, speaks of preparing to greet the Messiah and of the difficulty of living a righteous life through the law only. We must prepare to meet Christ as the Messiah so that we gain a total and complete freedom, a freedom to seek the unknown in the world around us, a freedom to begin making changes in this world that reflect the wonder and beauty of God.

We must begin to see science as a way to the truth of the natural world, knowing that each time we answer one question, we create two new questions. We must understand that our faith gives us the power to seek the unknown and that questioning the world around us does not destroy our faith but makes it stronger.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote of standing at the crossroads and having to make a decision, of deciding which way we are going to go. There are actually three roads at this intersection. One is the path wholly sectarian in nature, a path that leads to discoveries of all sorts. But this road has no understanding of good or evil and discoveries that could do wondrous things can also lead to disaster.

The second path is a secular path but it too is limited, just as it was when Jesus began His ministry in the Galilee two thousand years ago. Life is good because you don’t have to think, for there are those who will do the thinking for you. But such a life has no hope, no promise of anything better, for it is hard enough living with in the structure of a law.

And there is the third path, a path which contains all that we can be. It opens up to us when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, for it frees us from the chains of sin and death, it offers an opportunity to have and seek hope, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we become empowered to reach out and venture into the unknown.

As we began our journey through Lent and to Easter and the Resurrection, which path will you choose? Where are you going?

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?”

“The Master Lesson”

Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Epiphany (Year A), 9 February 2014. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 58: 1 – 12, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 16, and Matthew 5: 13 – 20.  This is the message that I will give at the Sloatsburg United Methodist Church this Sunday (I may make some changes in it between now and Sunday but this is essentially what I shall say); services there start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

Today is Scout Sunday and something of an anniversary for me. In 1965 I was working on my God and Country Award in the Boy Scouts. I actually received the award and was confirmed as a member of the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now 1st UMC) of Aurora in May of that year, this Sunday serves as a marker and a reminder of when I began this journey with Christ.

As I noted in my summary sheet for Boy Scout Sunday, there was a period of time when I didn’t do much after earning the award. But sometime around 1984, I felt the need to do something that reflected the choice I had made twenty years before. Since then, I have either been the liturgist or presented the message on the second Sunday in February as a reminder of a choice I made many, many years ago.

My appreciation for the environment around us also began when I was in the Boy Scouts. And when I began my college studies a little over a year after completing my God and Country work, I began a second journey, a journey of investigation of this world.

This weekend is also Evolution Weekend and marks the celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday on February 12, 1809. This message marks the 6thyear that I have participated in this part of the Clergy Letter Project, an effort to show that science and religion are compatible and can safely interact with each other. (Here is a link to my previous messages and posts – Evolution Weekend.)

Let me begin by saying that the United Methodist Church has 1) endorsed this project, 2) included a statement concerning the relationship between science, technology, and theology in The Social Principles section of The Book of Discipline (¶ 160 – The Natural World, section F), and 3) this will not be a science lesson.

Now, in one sense, perhaps I shouldn’t concern myself with issues about evolution and the creation of the universe and life on this planet. After all, I am a chemist more than I am a biologist and the issue of evolution and creation is one of biology, isn’t it?

But there is a lot of chemistry involved in the beginning of the universe and the development of atoms, elements, and compounds. And the combination of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen to ultimately form the various components of DNA means that I have to be interested or at least should be interested in how it all works.

So, I participate in this project, not because I don’t believe that God didn’t create the universe, this planet, or the life on it but rather because I do believe that He did create the universe, the planets, and all the life that we see.

It never occurred to me back in 1966 that by declaring that I would study chemistry that such studies would be conflict with my belief in God and that Jesus Christ was my Savior and that I could not be a certified lay servant/speaker in the United Methodist Church. Nor did it occur to me that my acceptance of Christ somehow prevented me from being a chemist and from searching for answers to questions sometimes out of reach.

I hold a view of the relationship between science and faith similar to that expressed by Alan Lightman, the first person to hold dual appointments in physics and the humanities at MIT. In an essay entitled “The Spiritual Universe” (from his book The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew) he writes

If science is the religion of the twenty-first century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God? Physicist Alan Guth, another member of our salon, pioneered the inflation version of the Big Bang theory and has helped extend the scientific understanding of the infant universe back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after t = 0. A former member, biologist Nancy Hopkins, manipulates the DNA of organisms to study how genes control the development and growth of living creatures. Hasn’t modern science now pushed God into such a tiny corner that He or She or It no longer has any room to operate—or perhaps has been rendered irrelevant altogether? Not according to surveys showing that more than three-quarters of Americans believe in miracles, eternal souls, and God. Despite the recent spate of books and pronouncements by prominent atheists, religion remains, along with science, one of the dominant forces that shape our civilization. Our little group of scientists and artists finds itself fascinated with these contrasting beliefs, fascinated with different ways of understanding the world. And fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds. (“Brain Pickings for 15 January 2014”)

And while Lightman and those in his group might see a world in which there is a need for both science and faith, there are those today who would tell you that to be a scientist, or in my case, a chemist precludes one from being able to study and preach the Word of God, just as there are those who feel that one’s presence in the pulpit prevents being in a lab somewhere during the week.

And as a science educator, I have to be concerned about what is transpiring in this world today, when people seek to limit free and independent thought about things both secular and sectarian to the point of being forbidden. This limits what we can do, what we can envision and where we might go.

The title of this message comes from a term often used in fine arts and music classes. A master class is one in which a recognized expert comes and teaches something a topic that everyone knows but in greater depth and detail that normally covered. It is designed to take you beyond where you are and to where you can be.

If as it is written in Genesis, we are created in God’s image, how can I not ask questions? Am I, as some would have me to do, to blindly accept something as the truth when other information tells me otherwise?

What I find interesting is that I have learned more about the Bible, Christianity, Methodism, and my own personal faith in the past few years than I learned in the two years I devoted to earning the God and Country Award and becoming a member of this church. But if I were to accept the notion that such knowledge was fixed, I would not have learned anything. And where would I be on this journey that began almost fifty years ago?

You may disagree with me on this point but telling me that I cannot pursue this information just makes me want to find out what it is you don’t want me to know. And I am fully aware that in some translations of the Bible, it was eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that drove Adam and Eve out of the garden and destroyed their relationship with God. In looking for and finding Christ, we have the opportunity to restore our relationship with God.

I know that when I began my journeys in both the secular and sectarian worlds I probably accepted the notion that the world was created in six days as described in the opening verses of Genesis. But somewhere along the line, I began to ask questions, questions that the Book of Genesis could not answer directly, questions that many people do not want answered or even asked today.

Asking questions about the Book of Genesis or any of the material in the Bible does not necessarily mean that one is questioning their faith. It means that one is trying to understand what their faith means. If I am not driven to seek more knowledge, of what value is my life? What have I learned if I do not know who God is and what He means to me?

The British philosopher and writer Alan Watts wrote a book in 1966 entitled, interestingly enough, “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”. In a sentiment that Alan Lightman (physicist and holder of a joint appointment in physics and the humanities at MIT) would come to echo more than half a century later in his remarkable meditation on science and what faith really means (and which I have expressed on numerous occassions before), Watts adds:

Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness – an act of trust in the unknown. … No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. (“Brain Pickings for 2 February 2014”)

For me, Watts is not saying that because I have studied chemistry that I must abandon God nor because I believe in God and accepted Christ as my own personal Savior that I should ignore chemistry and its scientific foundations but rather that I should use the one to find the other.

But today’s so-called experts don’t do that; they tell you to accept what they tell you as fact and irrefutable. But basis for their knowledge is often limited and incomplete and any challenge to their authority brings ridicule and scorn.

The roots of today’s debate go back almost four hundred years. Each one of us was probably taught that the church did not want Galileo to publicize his ideas about the nature of the universe. But it was not the church, per se, that sought to limit Galileo or the work of Copernicus and Kepler; rather it was individuals within the academic establishment that had based its power and authority on the Aristotlean view that Galileo’s observations challenged.

They were opposed to these new ideas because their reputation, status, and power were built on maintaining the Aristotelian view of an earth-centered universe. The church was brought into the argument because the academic establishment convinced members of the church establishment that the changes proposed by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would harm the church and threaten their status, reputation, and power as well. (From “The Changing of Seasons”; I believe my original source was The Galileo Connection by Charles E. Hummel)

What I fear, perhaps more than anything else in this world, is this same sort of world today. A world where those whose power and status are maintained in a closed environment, a world in which we cannot find the answers to our questions, a world in which we say to seekers and those on a journey that this is the answer and no questions are allowed in either the secular or sectarian world.

Were Paul’s words to the Corinthians an encouragement to seek new wisdom? Were Paul’s words not an indictment of those in power who sought to limit such new wisdom?

We, of course, have plenty of wisdom to pass on to you once you get your feet on firm spiritual ground, but it’s not popular wisdom, the fashionable wisdom of high-priced experts that will be out-of-date in a year or so. God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene. The experts of our day haven’t a clue about what this eternal plan is.

Paul makes this point –– those who crucified Jesus were blind to the message that Jesus gave. They were so fixed on what they had at that moment that they could not see what lie before them.

If we are trapped in the moment that we call today, how can we move beyond the boundaries of that thought. As I read the words from Isaiah for today, I could not help but think about how those words, writen over three thousand years ago, still have meaning today and how we haven’t learned much in that time.

We are still so much more interested in our own well-being that we are others. Our greed and ignorance take precedence over caring for others and making sure that all have a chance. Isaiah makes the point, I believe, that when we are are more concerned with what we have and we ignore the plight and circumstances of others, we cannot expect much in reward.

Even Isaiah points out that when you do God’s work, you begin to shine as a light that shows the truth and the future. Those who find protection in the Law often times find themselves trapped in it.

Are we to be blind to what transpired in the Galilee some 2000 years ago? Are we to ignore the words that were spoken, the actions were taken as Jesus and His followers walked those roads? Would not asking those questions make us more like those who crucified Jesus?

What is that Jesus said to the people in our Gospel reading for today? We are to be the light of the world. Does that not mean that we show others what we have found and help them to find it themselves?

Jesus points out that He came not to fulfill the Law but to go beyond it. Those who would seek to limit what we know want the Law to constrain and prevent, to keep people where they are and not where they can be.

The lesson from the Master is very simple; if we impose boundaries on others, we will find ourselves limited. If our focus is on ourselves, we will find ourselves trapped. Our journey will be over because we can go nowhere.

But if we accept Jesus Christ as our Saviour, if we open our hearts, our minds, and our souls to Christ, we will find something beyond the horizon. There will be meaning and purpose to our lives, meaning and purpose that we cannot find any other way. That is the lesson to be taught, that is the lesson to be learned, and that is the lesson to be shared.