From the Yale Climate Connections newsletter – Christian Values and Climate Change .
A Meditation for 15 May 2016, Pentecost Sunday (Year C). The meditation is based on Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 14 – 17, and John 14: 8 – 17 (25 – 27.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the time when the Holy Spirit came to those gathered in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. And on this Pentecost Sunday, 2016, representatives of the United Methodist Church are gathered in Portland, Oregon, for the 2016 General Conference. I cannot help but think that, from all that I have read and heard, what is taking place in Portland cannot be, in any sense of the thought, be comparable to what transpired in Jerusalem two thousands years ago.
On a day when those gathered were united by the Holy Spirit, why are we so intent on dividing the people? Are we, as it is written in Genesis, all created in the image of God? Why is it that some people, who insist that some people do not fit that definition.
And why, when the Holy Spirit opened both the minds and spirits of the people, are so many intent on closing minds and diminishing spirit?
Why, when Jesus pointed out that He was the fulfillment of the Law, are so many people intent on maintaining the law, even when it is clear that the law is both discriminatory and out-of-date.
On this date, when the church became the church, why does it look so clearly that the United Methodist Church is soon to be simply a footnote to history.
Is it more important to maintain what we have or is it more important that we look at how to make the Gospel message reality in today’s and tomorrow’s society? Shall we deny the reality of today simply to maintain an illusion of reality?
We who have answered the call of Christ to walk with Him and who have opened our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit are challenged today to not simply keep the Spirit that we celebrate today alive but to take it out into the world. Our task is not to shut the door on those unlike us but, as Jesus outlined it when He began the Galilean ministry is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the stranger, the widow, the orphans and relieve the wants of the world.
A Meditation for 21 February 2016, the 2nd in Lent (Year C). The meditation is based on Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18, Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1, and Luke 13: 31 – 35
There is something of a paradox in the Old Testament reading for this morning. God tells Abram to look in the sky and count the stars and he, Abram, will know how many descendants he will have. In other words, as Abram looks at the stars, he will be seeing the future. Of course, we know today that when we look at the stars, we are, in actuality, looking into the deep and far past.
And I believe that qualifies as a paradox. If a paradox is a statement that apparently contradicts itself, then one cannot look at the stars and see both the future and the past. I would think that it is somewhat similar to the Schrödinger’s cat problem.
This is a problem in quantum physics derived by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935 to illustrate some of the problems dealing with the topic of quantum mechanics (or the workings of the atom) in physics. Essentially, one had to make a choice about what was to happen and nothing happens until one makes a choice.
How do we see the world today? Are we more interested in the past when the pews were filled, people were joining the church without much effort, there was a Sunday school class for every grade from kindergarten through sixth grade, there were programs for the junior high and high school students. The adult choir sang every Sunday and the children and youth choirs sang once a month. The stewardship campaign always ended with enough pledges to meet the goals of the budget, the bills were paid on time, and there was even enough money left over each month to support some actual mission work.
Now, if there was ever such a church or its counterparts, it doesn’t exist today. With few exceptions, most churches are losing members and Sunday school programs are almost non-existent. Instead of discussions on growth, church financial discussions focus on where to cut expenses in order to pay the bills; mission support is often an after-thought and membership plans are very seldom discussed because no one is moving into the area. It becomes very difficult to look to the future when looking at the present is difficult enough.
But if you went back and looked at the plans of those churches which are thriving today, you would see that their focus was not on the past or the present but, rather, the future.
I know of one church in my home town of Memphis that saw the future very clearly. The church leadership knew that the majority of members lived outside the traditional area in which the church was located and more and more of the membership was moving away from the city. So this church made the decision to buy property in the area where the members lived and sell the city property (ironically, to a church of another denomination seeking to expand its presence in the city).
And then there is the story of the Clifton Presbyterian Church. In a sermon I gave several years ago (“What Do We Need?”) I spoke of how the members of the Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, responded to the issue of homelessness in their local community. From the simple beginning of offering a few homeless individuals a place to stay for the night, it became a shelter and home where some 30 individuals at a time found a way out of their homelessness and back into society. The interesting thing was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church no longer exists; the congregation voted to disband and become parts of other Presbyterian churches in the area. But the ministry of the homeless stayed in the building that once was the church, continuing the ministry that was begun by the congregation (The link to the story about the Clifton Presbyterian Church in “What Do We Need?” no longer works but you can go to “Clifton Sanctuary Ministries” to find out more about this ministry).
I also talked about a woman who wanted to help local high school students and during a high school assembly gave the students the church’s phone number. If the student wanted to talk with someone about a problem they might be having, all they had to do was call the church and someone would be there to listen. The next day, the church had over 300 calls from local students. (Adapted from “A Different Sense Of Community”)
Side note – I have been part of something similar called the InterFaith Hospitality Network. It is a program that offers homeless families temporary housing while the families seek suitable housing. These are families where both parents work and yet do not earn enough to have suitable housing. The sad part about this is that the churches of which I was a member were covertly opposed to the idea of providing shelter for homeless families. Let us just say that the vision of these churches where I was a member was rather limited and short-sighted.
As long as we are fixed on the past or if we try to stay in the present, we will never be able to do the same. If the church we seek is a church based on the past, we will never achieve it. Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, once said, “no man ever steps in the same river twice”, which would say that we cannot even maintain the present state of the church, for that too quickly passes.
Now, we know that when the Pharisees come to tell Jesus that Herod is looking to kill Him, Jesus responded in a way that suggested He was more worried about the future than He was the present.
What we have to understand is that Christ never had anything but the future on His mind. His mind was always fixed on what it would take to complete the mission.
Paul makes the same case for the future, imploring the Philippians to look to the future and not be distracted by those whose focus is on today (or perhaps yesterday). As Paul pointed out, it is very easy to focus on the present because it is right here, right now. And it is easier to focus on the past because we know (or we think we know what is there).
It is much harder to focus on the future because there is a large amount of uncertainty or doubt about what the future holds. And following Christ, as Paul points out, is not exactly an easy thing to do.
If we think that we can somehow maintain the status quo, then we will be quickly swept downstream by the river of time. And if we focus on the past, then we will quickly lost sight of the present. Only by focusing on the future are we able to move forward.
Either through ignorance or fear, there are those who will do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. But they will quickly find the forces of time working against them.
Our hope for the church and for ourselves is know where we are today, what resources we have, and then determine how we can accomplish the goals of Christ’s mission on this earth today.
The paradox is that if we do not look to the future, then it is very likely that we cannot see the present. Jesus understood very clearly that His future would lead to the Cross. Our future lies beyond the Cross, if only we choose to look in that direction.
If we choose to look to the past or solely at the present, then we will be among those who are lost.
A Meditation for 7 February 2016, Transfiguration Sunday (Year C). The meditation is based on Exodus 34: 29 – 34, 2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4: 2, and Luke 9: 28 – 36 (37 – 43)
There is a point in everyone’s life when the solution to a problem that they have been struggling with suddenly becomes so obvious that they wonder why they didn’t think of it before. In some circles, including my own, this is called the “Aha! Moment”.
What we have to realize is that each person will have numerous such moments in their lives, simply because each subject that we study or work with involves different parts of our brain and will depend on what we already know. The problem here is that too many other people feel that everyone should have the same “AHA” moment at the same point in their lives. What that may simply teaching, it doesn’t really work that way. And, as a side point, as long we continue to believe that this is the best way to teach, with the notion that every student is the same and thinks in the same way, our educational system will never improve.
And it is not just in our educational system that we try to standardize our beliefs. As President Jimmy Carter said in his 2002 Nobel speech in Oslo, Norway,
“the present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.”
President Carter further expanded on this statement by saying,
There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions — including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasing, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman’, and then their lives are not significant.
He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity (Adapted from “Our Endangered Values” by Jimmy Carter; first posted in “Encountering God”).
The problem lies, as Cassius said to Brutus, not in our stars but in ourselves. Cassius suggests to Brutus that we are all born equally free and that we should not bow down to another person. Our futures lies in what we do and not by some per-ordained set of rules that others created for us (adapted from http://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/fault-dear-brutus-our-stars).
However, for the most part, we are incapable of knowing that there are alternatives or that the rules by which we live are faulty and even repressive.
Perhaps I was lucky in that regard. By the virtue of being the son of an Air Force officer and attending a number of different elementary, junior high, and high schools, I saw a world different from others. And beginning with the 7th grade at Bellingrath Junior High School in Montgomery, Alabama, I began to see that there were rules that sought to limit what people could do (“Tell Me The Truth, But . . .”).
These rules were designed to create a separation of people by race and economic status and, to some extent, by gender as well. Sometimes these rules were very clear (“Lexington, North Carolina”); other times they were not so clear. But over time, it became quite clear over time that these rules were put into place by a select group of people and intended to keep them in a position of power and prestige.
Still, as I looked around the world and saw these imposed differences, I began to question the intent of these rules. I also know that many of those whom I went to school with during that same period of time probably didn’t see those differences because they grew up in that system and never knew anything different. And I see in their comments in social media today that their attitudes have not changed much over the years. They still profess the same thoughts that their parents and grandparents expressed. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
They didn’t notice it then and they don’t notice it now, don’t notice that there’s nothing left behind that veil. Even today when the proclamations of that old, bankrupt government are read out, they can’t see through it. Only Christ can get rid of the veil so they can see for themselves that there’s nothing there.
A friend of mine the other day commented that she could never understand the cruelty of man towards other men or even imagine that mankind was capable of such cruelty. But as I pointed out, if we are taught to see others as less than ourselves, it becomes quite easy to do so. And one generation teaches the next that it is acceptable to do that, it becomes easily ingrained in society and just as difficult to remove from society’s mindset (as we are seeing in some of today’s political rhetoric).
And as my friend also noted, there is in this world a certain degree of evil that transcends the teachings of the generations. But it is enhanced by those who seek to hold onto power and who seek to enhance their own power. A few moments after Cassius speaks to Brutus about the future, Caesar says of Cassius, he (Cassius) “has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Men like him are dangerous.”
Caesar feared Cassius because Cassius sought information, sought to go beyond the boundaries imposed by society and those who seek control. If we open our minds and hearts, then those who would be Caesar will fear us as much as Caesar feared Cassius.
And Paul, very bluntly I think, points out to the Corinthians that, in removing the veil, Christ showed the true nature of the political and religious establishments; that their true interest was in the control of the people and nothing else. Through Christ, the people were able to gain hope and have a new vision.
It would take Peter, James, and John a few days to understand what took place on that mountaintop during the Transfiguration described in the Gospel reading for today. But they, and the other disciples, would come to understand what had taken place and what it meant for them. Each one of us is open to the same vision, though how we receive it will be different.
For some, it will be like Saul on the road to Damascus when he became Paul; for others, it will be more the heart-warming and assuring moment of John Wesley in the Aldersgate Chapel. Our challenge today is not to make our vision the vision that others receive but to allow them to have such a vision, to have that one brilliant, life-changing moment.
We can do this through our words, our deeds, our thoughts, and our actions. We can do this by opening our hearts and minds to the power of the Holy Spirit and allow it to transform our lives, to see the world anew, bright and shining as the Son.
That life-changing moment, described in the hymn “Amazing Grace”, comes just as it did for John Newton when one accepts Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, lets the Holy Spirit empower their lives, and then begins to world for a world where others can do the same.
That is the nature of the one brilliant moment in our lives.
A Meditation for 31 January 2016, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C), based on Jeremiah 4: 1 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30
There is something rather Calvinistic (if there is such a word) about the Old Testament reading for today. If God does know me in the womb, does that mean that our lives are laid out before we are born and nothing we say or do changes the outcome? Or does God see in each of us the untapped potential that we all have? I, of course, would prefer the latter, for that gives us the opportunity to do the work that we have to do.
Standing before the people of Nazareth in the synagogue that Sabbath day some two thousand years ago, Jesus spoke of the prophecy being fulfilled. He knew what He had to do and He most definitely knew where it would lead Him. Make no mistake, if Jesus had not gone to the Cross, the narrative of life today would have been different. The difficulty that Christ had then and each one of us has today is that society defines who we are before we are born and places limits on what it is we can do based on where we were born, our race, our gender, our economic status. And when we placed limits on anyone, it becomes very difficult for anyone to see the potential you have.
If, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, there is no love behind our actions, then all is for naught. If we, as a society and as a people, do not have love for others in our society, then we are in effect shutting them out of the future. Our love for others has to be such that each person meets his or her greatest potential.
If, however, we live in a society based on our fears, our bias, and our ignorance, then we are no better than those who heard Jesus speak that first Sabbath and ask how it is that the local carpenter’s son could say such things. And our reaction today, sadly, would be the same as it was then, where because of our fears, our bias, and our ignorance we destroy or limit those who have the potential for good.
Our call today is very simple. If we say that we are Christians, then there is love in our actions. We do things, perhaps feed the hungry, heal the sick, or free the oppressed, not because it will get us something but rather because we love those people and do not like seeing them sick, hurt, hungry, or oppressed. And if we merely say that we are Christians but then do nothing, then our words and actions ring hollow and false. And in today’s world, it is quite easy to hear hollow words and see false action.
The season of Lent is two weeks away; the call for repentance and the beginning of new life, a life in Christ is two weeks away. But we must begin today. We must work for the revival of the Holy Spirit and for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and the lives of all those we touch, either personally or peripherally.
We must speak out against injustice and repression because Jesus spoke out against it. We must help people get healthcare and housing, not because it is the political thing to do but because the prophecy calls for it.
And when someone happens to ask us who we are, we can say that we are followers of Christ, who came to this world to save us from slavery to sin and death, to a live free and eternal.
My closing question this day is a very simple one, who are you?
Last night (Tuesday, January 19, 2016), as noted below, I was part of the discusson on Creation and science. My contribution was in the area of basic science concepts.
Tuesday Night (January 19, 2016, 7 pm Central Time): Dr. David Moffett-Moore, author of Creation in Contemporary Experience, discussing our ethical obligation to care for our planet (7:00 pm to 7:27 pm), then Dr. Tony Mitchell will discuss some basic concepts in science (7:33 pm to 8:00 pm).
No, this is not about the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It isn’t even about the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Mary Magdalene, or Judas Iscariot.
Rather, it is about how I perceive churches in America operating in today’s society. This is not any sort of scientific study but perhaps anecdotal in nature. But in a world and a society where how Christianity is perceived, it might help if we consider what it is we do as a church and how it reflects on Christianity and on us.
This critique is not about the style of worship but the meaning of worship. There is an argument in churches today that music must be modern in nature, to appeal to those outside the walls of the church. But if the message that the people hear when they come is not a true message, then being hip or cool will not keep them there. Nor is this an issue of the use of technology in today’s church. You may use the newest and best technology but, again, if the message is old, out-dated, or limiting, all that new technology does is highlight how wrong it might be.
The “Four Gospels of American Christianity” are:
- The Corporate Gospel
- The Prosperity Gospel
- The Old Testament Gospel
- The True Gospel
The Corporate Gospel
For me, churches who believe in the “corporate gospel” are driven by the bottom line. The bills must be paid first and the building must be in excellent condition. Members of the congregation are more like customers who purchase time on Sunday. There is a set time for the service each week and members of the congregation are expected to be there at that time and in their proper seats. There are no deviations from the time or style of worship. The message given each Sunday by the pastor is very easy and never demanding, almost to the point of having no meaning at all; for to do so would drive away the customers. If churches operating on the corporate gospel have one redeeming value, it is that the coffee is good and the snacks served during the post-service fellowship hour are fresh.
The building and the operation of the building is the primary ministry of these churches. Help for the community around the church or in the world is secondary.
The Prosperity Gospel
Churches utilizing the prosperity gospel are churches filled with glitz and glamour. Pastors leading the service are among the most well-dressed individuals you will ever find because God expects them to dress that way. But suits and outfits which cost on the order of one thousand dollars require money and money is the driving force of these churches. The members of these churches give their money to support the communications ministries of the church (which are some of the best ministries in the business) but the money goes to support the minister and the life-style of the church.
Often times, it is very hard to discern where the focus of the message and the mission of the church lie because the traditional symbols of the church are missing or secondary in nature.
The Old Testament Gospel Church
If anything, churches that focus on the Old Testament as their gospel shouldn’t be even be considered Christian in nature. If the meaning of the word “gospel” is “the good news”, then it essentially applies to the New Testament. Churches who use the Old Testament as their gospel may be considered fundamentalist in nature. They have a fundamental understanding of the message of Christ but it has gotten lost in legalistic nature of their structure, much like the church establishment did in the time when Jesus began His ministry in the Galilee.
The gospel of the Old Testament is a very legalistic gospel but without much love or understanding. It is very much in tune with the written laws and regulations of the Old Testament but has no understanding of why those laws and regulations were even considered two thousand years ago, let alone today.
Christ told those who questioned his attitude towards the laws and regulations that He came to fulfill the law the following:
“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working. (Matthew 5:17-18, The Message)
Clarence Jordan, translating Matthew from the original Greek, wrote it this way:
Don’t ever think that I’m trying to destroy the moral and religious principles of our way of life. My purpose is not to destroy them but to establish them. For I truthfully tell you that as long as he)aven and earth remain, not one dotting of an “i” or crossing of a “t” will be eliminated from our highest and noblest ideals until every one of them becomes a reality. So then, if anyone disregards one of the least of these God-given principles, and encourages others to do so, he shall be considered unimportant in God’s new order of the Spirit. But whoever lives by them and upholds them shall be considered vital to God’s new order of the Spirit. (Matthew 5: 17 – 19, The Cotton Patch Gospel of Matthew)
Now, same may argue that Jesus’ words, as given in Matthew, allow for the legalistic view espoused in the Old Testament and the imposition of a strict code of behavior. But we also have to realize that that approach limits life, not encourages life. And that is what Jesus did, he came to bring life and meaning to the people, which in turn required a breaking of the legalistic framework that had been opposed on the people by the church.
Without the love of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, all the laws do is imprison people, not free them.
It should be noted that in each of these three church models, power in the church is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals.
Another distinction is that the ministries of these churches are often considered missions, to which one gives but does not take part. The attitude is that there are others who can do the Lord’s “dirty work.”
The True Gospel
There are churches today in which the true Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is heard and seen. But one must seek them because they are not very evident. But when you find this place, you will know it.
The building may not be shiny and new as other churches but there is a warmth in the building that doesn’t come from the heating system. Extra monies that could be spent on the building and properties are often directed to ministries in the community and the world.
Such churches are clearly in tune with the needs of the community outside the building and their outreach programs and ministries seek to involve those in that community. The people of the church are involved in this programs and they are more than just an afterthought.
It is clear that the goal of such “True Gospel” churches is understanding how to make Christ part of the process rather than to simply teaching others about Christ
It is perhaps an axiom that there is something of all four churches in each church but that would force the question of which one dominates? A church was never meant to be a building but rather the people inside the building. A church was never meant to be enclosed inside a building but to be a part of the community in which the building served as a meeting place.
And in today’s world, any place can be a meeting place if the meeting is to bring the Gospel message to the world. The question then is, “What Gospel message does your church bring to the world?”