“Leave Room for Dessert”


For some time, I have been writing some thoughts that my church (Fishkill United Methodist Church) puts on the back page .  Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, 19 February 2017, the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A).


Have you ever wondered why we are “the people called United Methodists?”  The “United” comes, of course, from the 1968 merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches but the “Methodist” part is a little bit older.  In 1729, Charles Wesley and some of his college friends started what they called the “Holy Club”.  John Wesley joined shortly after and became its leader.  The goal of this group was to achieve salvation through a rigorous and legalistic approach to faith.  Because of this approach, others would ridicule them by calling them “Methodists”.

Yet, until that time that we have come to call Aldersgate, the plan was a failure.  Yes, things were accomplished that helped others but there was still a feeling that success and accomplishment was lacking.  The plan was not working.

But when one creates a set of laws, one must be careful that you are not setting the conditions that imprison you.

The focus of today’s Old Testament reading is not about a legal structure for a community but on the relationship between the members of the community.  The Israelites were counseled to leave something behind when they harvested the crops so that there would be something for everyone.  It was important that the Israelites see everyone as part of their community and that they treat everyone fairly.

We leave room for dessert because we want a complete meal.  Our relationship with Christ can never be complete if we do not share it with others.

“The Balance of Life”


This was initially written for another publication (Fishkill UMC “Back Pages”.  Part of what I have written may be used in another piece that I will be posting shortly.

When I began working on my doctorate, I was introduced to the book “Two Cultures” by C. P. Snow.  Snow presented the argument that we lived in two cultures, one based on the humanities and the other based on science and technology, a division that appears to still be present today.

I think we also have another division of cultures in our time, with some proclaiming the need for a solely secular/non-religious life while other proclaim that what it is needed is a sectarian/religious life.

But life is and has never been an either/or choice.  Ideas presented in the secular world tell us how to solve problems but do not always indicate what is the best use of that solution.  And it is only through the sectarian view of the world that we come to understand our relationship with others in our community and around the world.

Jesus never said that we should totally abandon the secular world for the sectarian world; he merely wanted us to view things with a sense of priority.

And that means that while one works in the secular world, it is important to maintain a presence, constant and on-going, in the sectarian world as well.  A world that does not include time for thoughts about God (be it in worship, prayer, music or communicating with others) can be a lonely and desolate place.

 

A Society of Laws


This is an interesting Sunday (at least for me) on the liturgical calendar. While this Sunday is the Baptism of the Lord, it can also be considered Epiphany Sunday.

If the Baptism of the Lord focuses on the relationship between God and society, then Epiphany Sunday is the relationship between science and society.

In the following thoughts, I have tried to addressed those two points, points that are critical to the future of society.


Ours is a society of laws. Some of these laws come from our understanding of nature; others come through interaction with others on this planet.

The laws that come from our understanding of nature come from a deliberate attempt to understand the world around us. The discovery and determination of these laws is often time laborious and difficult with the results often unintelligible to the untrained mind.

The basic premise of our human-based laws should be to do no harm or to prevent harm from coming to us. From the time that the Code of Hammurabi was first written, laws have been written to define relationships between people and groups of people.

The Ten Commandments given to Moses by God also outlined how the Israelites were to relate with God and others. From these basic tenets came some 600 or so other laws, some telling the people what they could do and others telling them what they could not do. Often, actions dictated by one law conflicted with actions dictated by other laws.

There are those today who would like to have a society based on “God’s law”, whatever such laws may be. But these laws merely seek to place one group of people in a position of power and superiority of others. And the implication of said laws is often done with a sort of discriminatory approach that borders on hypocrisy. Those who wish to have “God’s laws” in place would ban abortion, yet they are quite willing to support the death penalty for criminals and equally willing to go to war, even both of those actions violate the basic commandment that one shall not kill.

And in quoting biblical verses that one should seek an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, they ignore that such statements were never meant to be statements of vengeance and retaliation but rather limits for such action.

And such an approach, founded in a distorted view of the Old Testament, ignores the actions espoused by Jesus who often proposed an active opposition to tyranny and power.

And how do we, today, respond, to the imposition of rules and laws that are designed to discriminate and oppress? The answer comes from the same approach that Jesus used, active opposition to tyranny and power; it comes from the same processes that allowed us to discover the basic laws of nature – experimentation and examination and the use of free thought.

One must understand that this approach cannot tell you if something is good or evil. One cannot quantify good and evil like one can quantify the force of gravity or the speed of light. But if we understand the outcome of our work, we have a better understanding of what we can and cannot do.

We may see others as inferior or different from us but there is nothing in nature that supports that idea, so laws that treat people differently because someone fears the differences between them are unjust and illegal.

Our challenge today is very simple. Create a society in which we understand the world around us that allows us to understand those who share this same world. On this weekend when we celebrate the visit of the Magi, we are quietly saying that we want a world in which we seek the information that brings us to a better time.

Chaos or Opportunity


Posting this today (31 December 2017) but it is also my beginning 2017 post.  Comments and thoughts about the coming year are welcomed.  I would also would like to know if the blog is “readable” (i.e. reasonable font with reasonable size, and so forth).


In some of his speeches, President John Kennedy would offer the thought,

In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity (Speeches by President Kennedy at United Negro College Fund fundraiser, Indianapolis, Indiana, 12 April 1959, and Valley Forge Country Club, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 29 October 1960)

There are some linguists, however, who suggest that this is, at best, a very bad analogy based on a simplistic understanding of the written Chinese language.

Perhaps a better thought is the one offered by Sun-Tzu, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Whether one wishes to see the world before us in 2017 as one in chaos or one in crisis, we need see the opportunities that this presents.

Some of these opportunities are short-term while others will not come to fruition for one or two years.  But we must begin immediately to counter-act and reverse some very disturbing trends.

It is obvious that the political system has been hijacked, or stolen if you wish, by individuals who feel that equality is simply a word in the dictionary without any definition or meaning.  These individuals feel that one’s social and economic status count matter more than anything else and that one’s race, gender, or sexuality are reasons for divisions, not unity.

It is also obvious that religion has been hijacked, or stolen if you wish, by individuals who wish to use the idea of religion and belief as a means for control and power.  And it is not surprising that the many of the individuals in this group consort and conspire with individuals in the first group, for the aims of power, creed, and control transcend political and religious boundaries.  (And while I feel that the concept of religious control transcends faith, I will focus on Christianity.)

As a Christian, I am disturbed that there are those who insist on the acceptance of certain documents as factual and true when there are questions as to their source and authorship.  I do not deny the thoughts that lie in the Bible for to do so would be to deny my faith.  But I also believe and know in my heart and mind that I was given a mind that would allow me to look at the world and understand what I see, not merely to accept the views and thoughts of others whose goals have nothing to do with the growth of knowledge and understanding.

I am also disturbed by the slow and, perhaps deliberate, degradation of our educational system.  It seems to me that, in the name of accountability, we have stripped our educational system of the very thing that makes education the liberating force it was always meant to be.  As Nelson Mandela said,

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

While I have no problems with demanding accountability in educational systems (which would suggest that other systems also be held accountable), I do feel that we need to do more than simply expect students to memorize data without meaning and repeat that information back on a test.

This process removes much of the learning process from the equation and develops a culture in which one does not question things.  Right now (and I have said this before), we need to prepare our students to answer questions that haven’t been asked or even considered at the present time.  What we are doing is teaching students that all the problems have been solved and the answers are in the back of the book.  This is a recipe for disaster.

The solution to this problem, as well as the solution to the political and religious problems that so dominate the conversation, cannot be achieved immediately nor with broad pronouncements from the “powers that be”.

The solution should take time, if for no other reason than it will take time to correct the mistakes and errors we have made already.  It must be a broad-based, again because the errors are so wide-spread.  And we must realize that one solution will not fit all.  We must take each student and see where there are at and work from that basis (which, admittedly, goes against the current process).

Second, the change must come from the local level.  Those who are at the top of the structure have no interest in changing a system that can and will bring about change.  In addition, working at the local level and building up provides the basis for a long-term solution and works well with the concept of seeing each student as an individual, rather than part of a group.

The changes in the political and religious systems must also take place at the local level, if for no other reason that change does not come from the top down.

2016 ended in and 2017 began in chaos.  But in the chaos comes a great opportunity, the opportunity to make possibility more than just a word in the dictionary.

Where are you going?


In a meeting of the Disciples just before going to Jerusalem for the final time, Thomas said to Jesus, “we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  (John 14:5)

I truly believe that our lives are private journeys publicly shared.  It is a journey of faith and reason.  It is a journey of reason for it will be through reason and with the accompanying tools of reason one can find their way.  It is a journey of faith because it is through faith that we know what lies at the end of the journey.

This is a journey in which I welcome others, no matter what their faith may be, because no journey should ever be undertaken alone.

Now I understand that your own personal journey is different from mine because a journey of reason allows one to see other options.  And should you desire not to walk with me, I shall understand and I will wish you well and offer my help should you ever need it.  I trust that you would do the same.

But today there are some who will not allow me to walk my own journey of faith, implying that they alone know the correct path and that all other paths lead nowhere.

These same groups also imply that only they have the key to knowledge and that all other paths to knowledge are false.  They will seek to limit the power of reason because they fear the ability of people to independently think and reason.

Jesus never intended for Thomas, the other Disciples, or even us today to not know the way.  He spent three years preparing the Disciples to understand what lay before them and what they would need to travel on their own journeys.  It was a preparation of faith and reason.  It was a preparation done with the understanding that each person learns differently and each person’s journey is different.

Now, I have come to this point in my own journey because of what I know and what I believe.  It has not been the easiest journey, to be sure, and I have no doubt that it will get any easier.  But I have chosen to walk this path and one of the things that came with choosing this path was that I would help others find their own path, just as there were those before me who helped me.

We cannot prepare for the future and we cannot travel either journey if our ability to reason is limited or there is only one path to walk.  We cannot prepare for the future if we are not prepared to help others with their journeys.

Come with me as we walk this journey.

Okay, here’s the plan.


First, we need to continually remind President-elect Trump that he is the President of the United States and not chairman of the board.  He cannot appoint friends and cronies who will loot the United States Treasury for their own personal well-being.

He is the President of all the people but just as some of his supporters say that we need to support him, so too do we remind us that he must lead us all and not those who curry his favor or his temperament.  The Constitution remains in effect and he will take the pledge to preserve, protect, and defend it.  If he so desires to dismantle laws designed to protect people, if he so desires to dismantle laws design to ensure that this planet on which we live is safe to live on, if so desires to create and extend divisions between the people because of race, religion, economic status, gender, then he will have violated his oath of office.

And the second part of this plan is to remember that there is an election in 2018 and that every member of the House of Representatives and 1/3 of the Senate are up for election.  Despite the efforts of the Republicans to strip individuals of the right to vote, to return to the days when only a select and privileged group of old white men with property could decide the future of this country, the people still have the right to vote.  Any member of Congress who works to insure the equality of all people, to maintain this planet as a safe place to live and work, and works to advance the rights of all people has nothing to fear.

But any member of Congress who seeks to limit equality, who does not care about this planet on which we live, or seeks to limit the rights of all people needs to be voted out of office.

The American Revolution was a long and sometimes frustrating period in the history of this country.  And these next few years promise to be as frustrating.  But when one thinks of the future, it is what we must do.

What does it mean to be a conscientious objector?


There is a movie currently in release that describes the life and actions of the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  This individual felt that he needed to serve in the military during World War II but he also felt that his beliefs would not allow him to carry a gun or kill anyone.  After some difficulty, the Army allowed him to serve as a combat medic and it was in that role while on Iwo Jima in 1945 that he repeatedly risked his life to save the men of his unit.

When I was in college and faced with the possibility that I would be drafted into the Army, I contemplated seeking conscientious objector status.  But merely being opposed to the war and the draft was not sufficient conditions for such a status and I had to consider other options.

In the end, the effects of acne on my back was sufficient for me to be exempted from the draft and I went on to teach high school chemistry.

Now, before going on, let me point out that as the son and grandson of military officers, I was not, at that time nor am I now opposed to military service.  I am opposed to the draft because of its inherent inequality and the use of military power to solve a world problem should always be the last option and never the first.  Unfortunately, I do not believe that many people feel that way today, thinking that we should just bomb our enemies first and then seek a peaceful solution.

But more to the point, what does it mean today to object to something because it goes against one’s religious beliefs, what I believe to be the major point in considering conscientious objection.

When I was teaching college chemistry a few years ago, I had a Muslim woman in my class.  And as an article of faith, she wore the hijab.  I will be honest; this did not bother me but I was worried about the safety issue of having the fabric of the covering being close to any open flames.  But rather than make a big deal out of this, I simply conferred with her about being careful in the lab.  And that was the end of the discussion.

Later in the course, the question of ½-life and radiometric dating came up.  This was, for a few students, a problem because it was an article of faith that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.  And again, you have the problem of dealing with an article of faith and a matter of scientific fact.

In the end, my counsel to the students was because this topic was highly unlikely to play a factor in what they were going to do.  I simply suggested that they understand the mathematics behind the problem so they could solve the one or two questions I was likely to answer and any discussion about the meaning of physical evidence with relationship to issues of faith should be discussed within their faith community.

But there are situations where the article of faith is, in my judgement, faulty.  And to use faith as a reason for holding onto a false belief is wrong and a discredit to the faith in question.

There is in this country and around this planet a crisis of faith.  There is a need for faith in these times as there is a need for reason.  And the need for faith requires more than just blind acceptance but an examination of the reasons.  There are those who say that you can never question the articles of faith for it will destroy your faith.

But if you say to me that I must accept a statement of faith, then you must also show me why.  And you must allow me to decide.

Understand, there are some articles of faith that I do not question.  I trust that I understand what I believe and I know that I must work to make sure that is true.

But there are also articles of faith that I have discarded because it is clear to me that they were false in their basis and run counter to the basic tenets of faith.

In the end, you may claim that you cannot do something because it runs counter to what you believe.  But if what you believe is based on false assumptions or false teachings, then you will have a problem.