Transitions


This will appear in the July newsletter for Fishkill UMC

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During my first summer at Truman State University in 1966, I received a letter from my mother which said that the family had moved, and I should not plan on coming home.  So, for a couple of months, I had no idea where my home was.

I was able to go to my grandmother’s home in St. Louis during the brief 4th of July break that summer.  Her home would serve as a second home many times over the next few years while I was in school and at the beginning of my professional career.

The move from Missouri to Tennessee was, for my siblings and I, nothing unusual.  As the son of an Air Force officer, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I lived in two different states and the Philippines before beginning school.  I lived in six states and attended five elementary schools, two junior high schools, and two other high schools before graduating from Bartlett High School, my 3rd high school, in 1968.  And many of those early moves occurred during the school year.

Each of these moves was a transition in my life.  While there were some drawbacks to moving so many times, I saw more of the country than many of my non-military classmates and it was very much a part of growing up. 

Also, I was either lucky or very fortunate.  I was still able to continue my academic progress.  But, for as much as the transitions that I made were positive, I am sure that they were not as positive for many others.

In all these moves, there was one constant, my mother’s desire that my siblings and I attend Sunday school and church every week.  This would establish a practice that I have tried to maintain to this day.  In the beginning, this was perhaps more of a Sunday ritual but over time, the church became a place of renewal and my spiritual home.

In 1966, I only had the beginnings of an idea what I would do professionally, and I certainly had no idea that I would become a lay speaker/minister.  I was certain that Truman State would be my academic home for the next few years, and I wanted to make sure I had a spiritual home as well.

Now this was before the merger of the EUB and Methodist denominations to form the United Methodist Church and I would have preferred attending Faith EUB.  But it was a couple of miles out of town and since I was going to be walking to church, I opted to attend 1st Methodist, which was only about seven blocks from the campus.  So, I transferred my membership from the Wright City (MO) Methodist Church to the 1st Methodist Church of Kirksville, MO (see note at the end of the paper).

When I first came up here in 1999 to meet Ann, I asked that we attend church on Sunday before I flew back to Kentucky.  And so, we came to Fishkill UMC.

For some, Fishkill UMC has been their only spiritual home; for others, it has been one of several.  But no matter how long they have been a member, it has been a place of renewal and to refresh the spirit.

And now it is July and a time of transition for many United Methodist Churches.  But it is not we who are moving but Pastor Micah and other pastors.  In a span of seven days, Pastor Micah and Kiren, along with other pastors and their families will have gathered up their belongings and memories and moved to their new charge.

The transition of church leadership is very much a part of our faith tradition.  Joshua took over the leadership of the Israelites from Moses; David became the heir apparent to Saul; Elisha took over for Elijah, and Paul always seemed to focus on the transition of leadership at the churches that he founded.

For some, Pastor Micah is the only pastor they have known and this change, this transition, can be very hard.  Even for those for whom the change of pastors is part of being a United Methodist, it is still not an easy time.  We have become used to a style, an approach, and all that is about to change.

But even in change, there is still constancy.  Our new pastor, Dan Levine, is versed in the ways of Methodism and that means that the essence of the message will still be the same, no matter how it is spoken or presented.

Each transition, be it a change of place or a change of people, gives us the opportunity to see the world in a new light. 

We must understand that though we may speak of our church home, it is first and foremost God’s home, and we are but His tenants.  If we see this as our possession, then we have evicted God and made it impossible for change to occur.

I know of situations where members of a church viewed the church as “their” church and those who come, laity and clergy alike, must adhere to already written and unwritten practices and protocols.

A transition is not a one-way process.  It is more than saying good-bye to one pastor and hello to another.  If we are to continue our own spiritual journey, and perhaps more importantly, help others begin or continue their spiritual journey, we must be a part of the transition as well.

We have said our goodbyes to Pastor Micah and Kiren.  As we now greet Pastor Dan, we understand that this transition is part of our spiritual journey as well.

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EUB stands for Evangelical United Brethren and was the denomination in which I began my walk with Christ.

In 1994, at the beginning of my lay speaking career, I would preach at Faith UMC.  In my message, I mentioned why I had chosen 1st over Faith.  After the service, a member of the congregation came up to me and said, “You could have called; we would have come and picked you up.”  (A Matter of Faith | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com) -https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/a-matter-of-faith/)

What Is In Your Heart?


How many times have we heard someone say, “God helps those who help themselves”?  As biblical as that may sound, it is not in the Bible, and it is not even true!

What is in the Bible is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

Jim Wallis tells the story about an experiment he and some of his friends performed while they were in seminary.  They made a study of every reference to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, and God being the deliverer of the oppressed.  They determined that such verses were the second most prominent in the Old Testament (idolatry being first).  One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament was about the poor; in the Gospels, it was one of every ten, and in the Gospel of Luke, it was one of every seven.

One member of the group then took a Bible and cut out every verse related to the poor or the oppressed.  When he was done, the Bible fell apart. (1)

When you think about it, this contrasts with the words and voices of many Christian clergy and laity who say that the two moral issues of today are marriage and sexuality.  While there are some verses on these topics in the Bible, they are, as the saying goes, few and far between and Jesus spent very little time discussing them. (2)

A group of ministers and laity who identify themselves as “traditionalist” recently created the Global Methodist Church.  But when you read the words behind the formation of this denomination, you read the words of a denomination more Baptist in nature and far from the traditions of the United Methodist Church.  (3)

These individuals are concerned, upset, and angry that paragraphs 304.3 and 2702.1 of the Book of Discipline are not being enforced. (4) 

These topics deal with the ordination of LGBTQ individuals and the performance of same-sex marriages. Rather than followers of Paul, they are followers of Saul whose journey to Damascus was to arrest and bring to trial followers of Jesus for their failure to follow the law.

We know that John Wesley was barred from preaching in the sanctuaries of the Anglican Church in England. Philip Otterbein and Jacob Albright, two of the three founders of what would become the Evangelical United Brethren Church, were excommunicated from their respective churches for their failure to stay “within the boundaries” of their denomination.

Now, let me point out that Leviticus 21 lays out the physical and spiritual qualification for the priesthood.  Individuals could be considered for the priesthood if they were, first, a man and if they were “without defect.”  As I need glasses to see, under those rules, I could be considered defective and as such, ineligible to have been a lay speaker.

Luther did not define Christians by a strict adherence to those regulations (meaning laws in the Bible), because, for him, the Bible was not a law code for Christian conduct. It was a declaration of freedom based on what he called the gospel. (5)

While I understand that the Book of Discipline is to ensure the continuity and structure within the denomination and that “rules are there for a purpose”, I must question the intent and validity of laws specifically designed to prevent a given group of people from participating in activities others can engage in.

¶304.3 (4) was put into the discipline in 1972 and we have been arguing since then.  But like so many rules of this nature, it strikes me as a rule created out of ignorance, fear, and hate.

The rhetoric and debate that I have heard over these past twenty years are, in my mind, no different from the rhetoric and debate over slavery that split the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844 nor the rhetoric and debate over segregation in this country in the 1950s and 1960s.

Though I did not know it at the time, the baseball team that I tried out for in the spring of 1963 was not part of the national Little League program, but a separate program known as the Dixie Youth League.  It was not part of the national program because the adults who ran the DYL did not want to integrate their teams.

Keep in mind that many of the schools that I attended during that time were segregated by law.  And while, in the most technical of terms, the schools that others attended were equal to the schools I attended, that was never the case.

And I cannot forget, even sixty years later, the uneasiness and possible fear I felt when I encountered the physical barriers of segregation in a theater in Lexington, NC.  (6)

So, I have a problem with a law or rule that says others cannot do what I am allowed to do on the basis of skin pigmentation, gender, or sexual identity.

Who does God call to bring forth His word? 

Some of the prophets, such as Isaiah and Micah, were scholars, individuals who had studied and understood the Torah.  But others, such as Amos and Jonah, came from the general population.

Who was it that told the 12 about the resurrection?  Are we to ignore the contributions of Mary and the other women?

And remember the nature of Peter’s vision.  It was not only about what was served on the buffet table but who could receive the message.

Some received the call from the Holy Spirit in the manner of Paul on the road to Damascus; others received it in the manner of John Wesley in the chapel on Aldersgate Street.  Martin Luther came to his understanding of God’s grace through what he called his “tower moment”, that time when he was deep in a study of the Bible and attempting to understanding God’s grace.

Consider this if you will.  Each candidate for ordination goes through a series of interviews, from the local church all the way up to their District and must answer 13 separate questions concerning their call.  What does it say about an organization that says that one individual’s answers are more worthy of consideration than someone else’s because of how they identify themselves?

It is not ours to decide the validity of another person’s call; it is ours to help them move forward with that call.

Finally, what does it say about us as Methodists when we act against our very soul?

The Wesleyan approach was open, inclusive, and a practical theological vision of the Christian life as opposed to the restrictive, exclusive, dogmatic approach to matters of faith and practice seen in traditional churches.

Our theological heritage was and still is to preach outside the normal boundaries of a church. Methodism began as a spiritual movement to renew a decaying institutional church and serve the outcast, the marginalized, and the poor, those traditional Christians called the “unwashed rabble”.

The early Methodist movement was everything the traditional church wasn’t.  It was often messy or unregulated.  It was based on small groups, it empowered women, gave enslaved persons a sense of freedom, and created a vision of justice and liberation.

In 18th century America, Methodism was a “volatile, alienated, defiant, and charismatic” movement that empowered “those who were demeaned and degraded” with a revolutionary sense of God’s liberating loved (“Religion in the Old South”, Don Matthews, University of Chicago Press, 1977).  Methodism was seen as a threat to the establishment of the time because it was revolutionary, inclusive, heart-centered, and Jesus-fired.

Isn’t it time that we revive our true nature?

It is found in our hearts, strangely warmed and on fire with love.  It is an identity of risk and rebellions, of holy revolutions, of challenging ecclesial authorities who say “No!”, of listening to the voices of the outcast.

Our table is an open table, open to those who profess a love of Christ in their hearts.  From the very beginning of the Methodist revival, we turned no one away who openly professed such a love.  What other denominations or faiths can say the same? (7)

What is in your heart?  What is in your soul?  At a time when others will try to change the meaning of Methodism to facilitate their own desire for power and prestige, will you seek the fire that burns, the fire that cleans and allows one to bring the message of Christ to all the people, openly and truthfully.


Notes and references

1        When Are We Going To Learn? | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/when-are-we-going-to-learn-2/

Can You? | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/can-you/

2        “What Will Tomorrow Bring?” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/what-will-tomorrow-bring/

3 https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2022/04/15/5-reasons-to-stay-in-the-united-methodist-church-by-paul-chilcote/

see also Why Stay? – Stay UMChttps://www.stayumc.com/about/)

4        ¶ 304.3 While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world.  The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.2

1            Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, Board of Ordained Ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.  See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844, 984, 1020.

2        See Judicial Council Decisions 984, 985, 1027, 1028

¶ 2702. 1.  A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference (¶370), local pastor9, clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged (subject to the statue of limitations in ¶ 2702.4)10 with one or more of the following offenses: a) immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage;11 (b) practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings,12  including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies;13 (c) crime; (d) disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church; (e) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church; (f) relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor;14 (g) child abuse;15 (h) sexual abuse;16 (i) sexual misconduct15 including the use or possession of pornography, (j) harassment, including but not limited to racial and/or sexual harassment; (k) racial or gender discrimination; or (l) fiscal malfeasance.

9           See Judicial Council Decision 984

10         The statute of limitations went into effect as law on a prospective basis starting on January 1, 1993.  All alleged offenses that occurred prior to this date are time barred.  See Judicial Council Decisions 691, 704, and 723.

11       The language beginning “including but not limited to . . . “first appeared in the 2004 Book of Discipline, effective January 1, 2005.

12       See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 984, 985, 1185.

13       The language beginning “including but not limited to . . . “first appeared in the 2004 Book of Discipline, effective January 1, 2005.

14       See Judicial Council Decision 702.

15       This offense was first listed as a separate chargeable offense in the 1996 Book of Discipline effective April 27, 1996.  See Judicial Council Decision 691.

16       See Judicial Council Decisions 736, 768.

6        Lexington, North Carolina | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/lexington-north-carolina/

7        “We Are Outsiders!” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)

Wise and prophetic words from Diana Butler Bass (posted on Facebook by Elizabeth Brick, 3 May 2022)

Note Posted on Facebook by Paul Chilcote, 4 May 2022

The Days We Remember


As I began this piece, I thought of a piece by the Beatles, “There are places that I remember.”  This is a very appropriate song for someone who has grown up in so many places and met so many people along the way.

But I also see my journey through time and space in terms of dates, days of special importance to me.

We all have a set of dates that we remember.  Birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions are a part of our memory.  They are dates on the calendar that mark the high points (and sometimes low points) of our lives.

I will always remember that December 23, 1950, was the date of my baptism.  I will always remember that on February 14, 1965, I became a member of the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now the 1st UMC) of Aurora, Colorado).

And I have the letter dated March 7, 1966, that told me that I was accepted into the High School Honors Program at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University).

I cannot forget July 7, 1973, or June 7, 1976, as those are the birthdays of my two daughters (Melanie Mitchell-Wexler and Meara Lee Mitchell).  And I had better not forget April 22, 1943, as that is Ann’s birthday or July 17, 1999, as that is our anniversary.

Despite their importance in my life, I do not remember the date of my high school graduation in 1968, my graduation from Truman in 1971, or my graduation for the University of Missouri in 1975.  I remember that it rained the night of my high school graduation, so our after-graduation celebration was somewhat muted.  I remember that my graduation from Missouri was on a Saturday afternoon in August and how there had been finals that morning and there were perhaps a few people in attendance who really hadn’t graduated.  I suspect that I do not remember those dates because I was expected to graduate.

I would like to say I remember receiving my doctorate from Iowa but the administration of the university where I worked wouldn’t let me travel to Iowa City, so there is no ceremony to remember.

June 6th has a double meaning for me.  If the notes I have concerning my grandfather’s military career are correct, he was going to be promoted to brigadier general and would have commanded a unit that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944.  But a recurring ulcer forced him to retire in 1943 and I would get a chance that many did not to know him, if but for a few years.

Senator Robert Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet on June 6, 1968.  I was in school at Truman, so the impact of his death was not as direct or powerful as what had transpired two months earlier on April 4, 1968.

On that Thursday, four days before the beginning of Holy Week, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.  His assassination had perhaps a bit more of an impact on me as I was living in Memphis at the time.

Slightly over one year later, I would be standing next to the leadership of the Association of Black Collegians during a sit-in of the administration building at Truman (an act that did not please my parents).  I had experienced the effects of segregation while growing up in Alabama and Tennessee, so I could not stand by when some of my college friends were treated in the same manner (see Side by Side).

It was also at that time that I began to gain a better understanding of what it meant to be a Christian (see “The Changing of Seasons”).

In a few days (depending on when you read this), we will begin Holy Week (Palm Sunday is April 10th and Easter Sunday is April 17th).

These dates are on our calendar because someone two thousand years ago wanted us to remember what happened.

They wanted us to remember the joy and celebration that occurred when Jesus entered the city on the day that we now call Palm Sunday. 

They wanted us to remember the anger that Jesus expressed when he threw the money changers out of the temple on Tuesday of that week.

They wanted us to remember the bewilderment they felt when they heard Jesus speak of His broken body and shed blood during their last meal together.

They really didn’t want to remember how the crowds that cheered on Sunday jeered on Friday or the sadness they felt as they saw Jesus crucified.

They really didn’t want to remember watching Jesus die on the Cross or the fear they felt because they thought that the political and religious authorities would now be looking for them.

And they really did not want to remember the feeling of hopelessness that engulfed them on Saturday as Jesus lay in the tomb and it appeared that all they had worked for the past three years seemed to be for naught.

But most important of all, they wanted us to remember the joy and excitement that came with hearing that Jesus had risen from the dead that Easter Sunday.  And they wrote this all down so that those who were not there then and people for years to follow would know what had taken place those three years in the Galilee.

They wanted us to know about the people who were healed, of the people brought back to society after being cast aside, of bringing hope and a promise to those who were lost and forgotten.

Each generation has taken the words written down some two thousand years ago and added to the story.  What will we be adding?

Will the people of the church remember what Jesus said that day in Nazareth when he began his ministry?

“The Lord’s spirit is on me;

He has ordained me to break the good news to the poor people.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the oppressed,

And sight for the blind.

To help those who have been grievously insulted to find dignity;

To proclaim the Lord’s new era.”

(Luke 4: 18 – 19, The Cotton Patch Gospels)

Will the people of the church remember that Jesus came, not to enforce the law, but to bring life to the law?  Will they remember that what Jesus offered gave them a path to God that the religious authorities denied them?

Will the people remember the church as being people-centered or for maintaining the status quo?

Today, some two thousand years later, I am not sure that people remember that Jesus turned no one away, that he felt compassion for all, and that he forgave those who persecuted Him.  There are many who call themselves Christian, but they do not fear the religious and political authorities for they have sought to become those individuals.  Their only desire is to persecute those who do not believe as they do or might question the tenets of faith that they hold dear.

Today, I am not sure what my classmates remember about that April day in 1968.  From comments that I have seen from some of them on Facebook, the death of Dr. King had no effect on their lives.  All the work that was done to achieve equality for all is slowly being taken apart by those who believe there is no equality among people, and they are superior.

And yet the equality the Civil Rights movement sought, and for which many died, has its very roots in the equality that Jesus sought.

Will the church be remembered for preaching that the Gospel message was for all the people and or for preaching a message of exclusion and hatred?

Will the people of the United Methodist Church remember that it was the early Methodists who started the first schools for children, who created credit unions to help the working class, provided free health care clinics to people who could not afford health care, or that they fed the hungry and visited the prisoners in jail?

Will the church be remembered for welcoming immigrants because we were once immigrants, or will it shun the immigrants because it does not want to remember?  And will people remember that those who laid the foundation of our faith were once immigrants as well?

Will the church of today be remembered as the church that fostered scientific inquiry or the church that stifled it?  Will the church be remembered for caring for God’s creation or will be it remembered for allowing it to be destroyed through war and neglect?

We have spent the last forty days preparing for this time. 

We stood at that altar at one point in our life and gave our lives to Christ.  Are we disciples of Christ or merely admirers of His work?

Are we willing to stand before the world and say, “I am a Christian!  I may not want to do the work before me, I may not want to feed the hungry; I may not want to find shelter for the homeless or clothes for the needy; I am in no position to give comfort or support for those in pain and I certainly do not want to fight oppression and persecution.  But that is what I am called to do and that is what I shall do.

On the day when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, how will you be remembered?


Notes:

Dreams of the Present, Visions of the Future | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/dreams-of-the-present-visions-of-the-future/

“This Is the Place” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/this-is-the-place-2/

Where Were You On April 4, 1968? | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/where-were-you-on-april-4-1968/

“Let Us Finish What We Started” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/let-us-finish-what-we-started/

Amazing Grace as A Song of Freedom


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how is this a song of freedom? 

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

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

Judy Collins told Bill,

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

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

She would add:

JUDY COLLINS:

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

BILL MOYERS:

Did you ever feel like a wretch?

JUDY COLLINS:

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

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

BILL MOYERS:

We all do have our prisons, don’t we?

JOHNNY CASH:

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

Cash would say later in the interview:

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

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

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

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http://anointedlinks.com/amazing_grace.html

https://billmoyers.com/content/amazing-grace-bill-moyers/

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

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

“The Meaning of the Seasons”- An Advent Meditation


And the Preacher wrote, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven.”

There is a sense of rhythm to the changing of the seasons.  At this time of year, the changing of the colors of the leaves, the chill in the morning, the southward migration of the birds, and the loss of sunlight tells us that winter is approaching.

It took humankind a long time to understand this rhythm.  The “medicine wheels” of the high Northern plains, the stone circles at Stonehenge and the similar wooden circles in Germany, the intricate calendars of the Mayan civilization were, as it were, not created overnight but only after many years of study.  Someone or a group of people saw the changes in the Sun, the moon, and the stars and began tracking and studying those movements.  And from their observations and studies came the ability to begin planning for the special days in their lives.  And remember, it was that study of the skies and the movement of the stars that led the Magi to the Christ-child.

But it takes time to do such studies, it takes time to detect the rhythm.  It is very hard to do so in an environment where things are rushed.  In a world where the “sound bite” rules, we are not prepared for lengthy and deep discussions concerning the world around us.  In these times, we find ourselves listening to false prophets pass on false, misleading, and incorrect information.

But there were and are true prophets, prophets who speak not for themselves but for the people.  They do not tell the people what to think or who to listen to; they point to the signs and say, “Look and listen!”.

This Sunday, look carefully at the altar.  See that it is clothed in green, the color for me that symbolizes growth.  Over the next six weeks, watch as it changes from green to white on November 21st to mark the end of the church calendar year.  And look as the altar colors change from white to purple on November 28th.  When we see this change at this time of year, we know that the Season of Advent is approaching.

Advent is the season of preparing for the coming of Christ.  It is a time to stop and look around, to consider how your life has been and know there is time to repent, to change and begin anew.

Listen as the Scripture readings each Sunday prepare us for the coming of Christ.  Take time to ponder those words throughout the week.

When the Preacher wrote the words that we read at the beginning of this piece, he knew that time could not be rushed.

We need the four weeks of Advent to pause, contemplate, and prepare.  The four weeks of Advent are a way to step away from the rush of the world and give us the opportunity to truly prepare for the coming of Christ.

In the words of “Take Time to Be Holy” (UMH #395), Advent gives us the time to talk with the Lord, to see the world as it is to be and not as it is.

To paraphrase the thoughts of the Preacher, there is a time for every season and this is the Season of the Lord.

Some Post-Pentecost Thoughts


 I am once again reminded that I don’t like open time.  Even with the thought that Isaac Newton developed his ideas on gravitation and calculus during one episode of the Black Plague in England (which is perhaps ironic for me as my first major scientific work dealt with Newton’s Law of Gravity) and William Shakespeare did most of his best writing in similar periods, for some reason I do not find the same spark of creativity. 

But that is not to say that I haven’t been thinking and in the coming weeks, I will have to not only be thinking about what I am going to be writing but I will have to put some effort into the research phase of writing as I look at the history of our favorite hymns. 

But, let’s step back a day or two on think about Pentecost and what it means for the coming days. There were three points made in the Lectionary for Pentecost – common languages, skills, and community. 

When I was in high school, I planned on taking three years of German.  But this plan was quickly cast aside when we moved from the Denver area to the St. Louis area and then to the Memphis area.  The high schools I attended in Missouri and Tennessee did not offer German and I was not interested in taking Spanish, French, or Latin.  So, the plans of my freshman year were cast aside. 

That’s not to say that I don’t have a “foreign language”.  My interests in computer programming would provide the basis for meeting the language requirement for my doctorate at Iowa as I used my proficiency with SPSS to meet the language requirement (and produce my first set of professional papers). 

The idea of a foreign language being part of one’s doctoral program goes to the idea of being part of a community.  For many years, German was the language of science and mathematics because much of the ground-breaking work was done in Germany.  But over the years, the language of the lab became English and the demand for German dropped.  But the development of computers suggested a new language, that of computers, as the means for communication. 

There is still a need in science and mathematics for traditional methods, but computers offer ways to assist those traditional methods.  And it was through computer-based communication that several of the papers that I wrote with Marcin Paprzycki and George Duckett were produced. 

On Pentecost, many individuals, from various places around the Middle East, had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Harvest.  One can only imagine the chaos of that time and place as people found it impossible to communicate with each other.  But when the Holy Spirit came, it suddenly became possible for the visitors to Jerusalem to understand the Christians and each other.  And though there were many different individuals, from many different lands and backgrounds, through the Holy Spirit, a new community was built.  It was a community of believers, using the skills and abilities to meet the needs of the community. 

If we fast forward to today, we find that the idea of the community of believers is being tested, tested perhaps to the breaking point.  Can Christianity or any of its denominations, survive a time when many who identify themselves as Christians demand that believers accept what they believe as the absolute truth. 

Can society survive when the search for truth, a process that requires many different skills and, often, people working together, is questioned.  It strikes me than the greatest resistance to the search for truth often comes from people ensconced in their self-contained bubbles, impervious to change and new information? 

Can society survive when, while we speak one common language, are unable to understand what others are saying?  We see the same object but, at the same time, we do not see the same object. 

We are at a crossroads and we must decide which way we are going to turn.  One way leads to the Kingdom of God and the other leads away.  What Pentecost tells us is that we must turn as one community, working together, using all the skills we have, finding many ways to communicate.  If we declare that our way is the only way, we may find ourselves going in the wrong direction.  But if we see that we are a community of many believers, then we will find the right path. 

Are You Ready?


Here are my thoughts for 24 May 2020 – 7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday (Year A). This was also Aldersgate Sunday and Memorial Day Sunday. Please note that this summer, the “Back Page” will focus on the back stories for favorite hymns.

When I began thinking about this piece, it was with Ascension Sunday in mind.  Probably because I don’t spend much time in the “outside” world, I had a hard time connecting this Sunday with Aldersgate Sunday and Memorial Day.

The problem with Memorial Day has more to do with the calendar than anything else.  Since Memorial Day on the 4th Monday of the month, it sometime comes before the end of the month and you have to scramble to remember to observe it.  And I wonder if we were, borrowing from the title of this piece, ready for it.

After all, Memorial Day is supposed to be that day when we remember those who have died in the service of this country.  But so much of this country have wanted, in light of the pandemic, for Memorial Day to mark the beginning of summer, we are perhaps not ready to remember those who have died in the service of this country.

And the memories are not just of those who died while on military service but the many people who have died because of the virus that has swept this world.  So I am not entirely sure that we are ready for this Memorial Day.

I do not think that John Wesley was ready for what was to take place on May 24, 1738 when he went to the Aldersgate Chapel.  Nothing he had done seemed to have worked; his plan for salvation was not working and he had returned from America with a sense of despair and defeat.  I do not think he was ready to feel his heart strangely warmed by the experience in the Chapel that night.  But he was ready to understand what that meant and it is clear that, because he was ready, what became the Methodist Revival became a reality.

And how did the Disciples and other followers feel that day, 40 days after the Resurrection?  One has to think that they were not ready for Jesus to leave them and I am pretty sure that they were not ready to take the next step in the mission laid out before them.

But Jesus knew that they were not ready and He told them as He ascended to remain together and the Holy Spirit would be with them.

Were you ready for that moment when the Holy Spirit came into your life?  Are you ready to help others have that moment?

There are many who want to get out into the world right now but it is not the time.  We may not like this imposition of waiting but then many of those gathered that day 2000 years ago probably did not either.  And just as that day for which they were to prepare was unknown, perhaps so too is that date for us.

But, remembering the words of Louis Pasteur that chance favors the prepared mind, we can prepare for that day.

On this day when we remember many individuals, some we knew and many we did not know, we know that memories are best served by what we do.

Are you ready?


“Who Is Your God?”


Here are my thoughts for 17 May 2020 – 6th Sunday of Easter (Year A)

In our first reading for this Sunday, Luke notes that there was a monument to an unknown god; a simple statement that even the people of Athens had a “god of the gaps:”, the god they could turn to when none of their regular gods was available or could solve the problem at hand.

Some years ago, one of my students suggested that as humankind became more intectually capable, it eliminated the need for gods.  Unitl Abraham, society had always had created gods to deal with the problems of the world.  If rain was needed to water the crops, we prayed to the god of rain.  We prayed to a goddess of fertility if we wanted things to grow (or if we wanted to have children).  There was gods for the wind and rain and it was clear that we, humankind, had to have done something wrong when our society was beset by a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or some other natural disaster.

But as we began to understand the world in which we live, the needs for these gods diminished and ultimately disappeared.  But, as I suggested, to my student then, this approach could not provide an adequate explanation for why there is good and evil in this world.  And despite the suggestions of some, a better understanding of science does provide answers for the “why” questions of life.  Science cannot explain why mankind is created or even why there is good or evil in this world?

It could be that we have a gene that determines whether we will be good or evil but that begs the question of what we will do if this is the case.  We have seen what has happened when society has sought to remove those deemed less desirable.

So if good and/or evil are not an integral part of our lives, then there must be something else.  Throughout the history of mankind, we have sensed the presence of another God, one above all the minor gods, the gods that we can explain through our experience in this world (from https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2008/03/01/a-particular-moment-in-time/)

I have sensed the presence of God in my life many times and in many ways.  It is that same sense that allowed Isaiah to know that God knew him before he was born; it was the same sense that allowed John Newton to write “I once was loss but now I am found.”

These are times when we might feel lost.  Our daily lives have been interrupted and there is a sense that we will never return to that routine.  It is a time when we might feel lost or at least confused.

It is at times like these when we remember that Jesus said that He would not leae us, that we would not be alone.

Thomas Paine wrote of the times that tried our souls.  They were times where the struggles of the world were clear and the choices to be made perhaps clearer.  These are the times that try our spiritual souls; our struggles are not perhaps as clear.  

But in these times, in our moments of solitude, we have the opportunity to reconnect with Christ.  We are not bothered by outside noise so we can, in this earthly peace, find the moments to reconnect with Christ.  And in this time with Christ we can begin to think of those moments when we will again be a part of this world.

Poet, novelist, and environmentalist Wendell Berry writes in What are People For?:

“We enter into solitude, in which we also lose loneliness.

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. 

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. …

After having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness. For all creatures there are in place, hence at rest. 

In their most strenuous striving, sleeping and waking, dead and living, they are at rest.”

This season we can cultivate a healthy practice of solitude in creation and recover our humble place in the communion of all creatures. A solitude practice can be especially challenging when you already may feel isolated. But remember, solitude is not a lack of connection; it is a deliberate spiritual discipline that allows us to become fully attentive to other lives – to God’s voice, to the voices of other beings.   (from Sojourners e-mail, 15 May 2020)

The thing is the world in which we will go tomorrow is not the world we left behind yesterday.  Which means that the way we may have connected with Christ may not be there when we go back out into the world.  But in these times of solitude and contemplation, we will find ways we never knew to be better disciples of Christ.

“Stones”


Some thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2010.  This was also Mother’s Day, which is for those who are not aware, the result of Methodist activism. I am a little behind in my writing but working to get even and perhaps ahead of the curve.

It is safe to say that no one likes stones.  Stones hurt.  Perhaps that is why the Romans allowed the Jewish authorities to use stoning as a means of capital punishment and saved the other froms of punishment for themselves.

We may not use stones in the manner that the ancients did but we still use them to hurt.  But it is an interesting comment that the same stones that we use to hurt people can be gathered together and make something useful.

In the Old Testament, every time someone encountered God, they gathered the stones together to make a monument to that meeting.  Even today, we still do that, looking for the largest stone upon which we begin building our lives.  On this Mother’s Day, 2020, amidst all that is going on, I want to pause for a moment and remember my Momma, who set down the cornerstone of my own personal journey in faith.

The Romans gathered stones together and built the roads that would unite the Roman Empire.  And those same roads that allowed the Roman legions to maintain the Pax Romana through intimidation and violence were the same roads that allowed Paul and the other disciples to leave Jerusalem and spread the Gospel message throughout the whole word.

Stones come in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes we use them to hurt others; sometimes others use them to hurt us.  But we also gather those same stones together and build things.  Our faith is built upon Christ, the Cornerstone.  As our faith grows, we build the roads that allow us to bring others to Christ.

As you wander through this time and space, consider the stones that lie at the foundation of your faith.  How will you use those stones?

“Are You Coming In or Going Out?”


Some thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter (Year A, 3 May 2010) 

As I read and pondered the lectionary readings for this Sunday, I was struck by the contract between them.  The reading from Acts speaks of a welcoming community; the reading from the Gospel speaks of a welcoming Christ.  And yet, in the 2nd lesson, Peter talks about the suffering one is going to receive for being a Christian. 

And as I thought about that, I continued to think about how the church today is going to respond to the issues that society faces today. 

Like so many people today, I have quite a few friends on Facebook.  Of course, there are members of my family.  But there are those whom I went to either high school or college with them or I knew them before Facebook existed.   

I share something in common with each of my Facebook friends.  But I have found that I do not necessarily share the same beliefs that some of those on my friends list have.  I suppose the proper thing to do would be to drop those with whom I do not share a common belief set and whom I have never met. 

But then I would only have a distorted view of the world on Facebook.  For example, I would not know that I am being persecuted for being a Christian or that other religious groups are receiving preferential treatment.  Apparently, I didn’t get that memo.  I also didn’t get the memo detailing the various and sundry conspiracy theories that lurk beneath the surface veneer of society. 

It is interesting and somewhat frightening to see what many of these will post.  But is what more frightening than the hatred they preach, the false information and conspiracy theories that they push is that they claim to be Christian, believing in the power of Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. 

And in today’s world, I cannot see how one can espouse a doctrine of hatred and ignorance and claim to be a Christian.  Perhaps you can but I don’t share that view of the world.  How do you explain someone who proclaims to be a Christian but hates the world?  How do you explain someone who attends church on Sunday and is a pillar of the church but who ignores the cries of the needy during the week or even, as I discovered growing up in the South, works against the goals of Christianity during the week? 

There are, perhaps three types of Christians in the world today.  The first can be called a separatist.   

A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity.  For these individuals, if it is not clothed in Christ, it is not part of their lives. They will be at Christian groceries, eat at Christian restaurants, shop only at Christian stores, and listen to Christian music. It is a life separate from others.  But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them. And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic. 

The second type of Christian is a conformist.  These individuals adapt their thoughts to the world, making sure that no one knows that they might go to church on Sundays. And it is quite easy to see that many of their friends would be surprised to know that they are Christians because there is no evidence to suggest. Religious conformists use religion when it is convenient for them. Christianity is something done on Sundays; Mondays through Fridays, one must be a realist and you cannot be a realist if one is a Christian. 

The third type of a Christian is a the transformist. Such individuals seek to make faith a part of the prevailing culture; they use their faith to change the culture, not for the purpose of a self-proclaimed religion but for society. John and Charles Wesley could easily be thought of as transformists.  

Transformists understand that you cannot categorize faith, love for God, and love for people into separate and independent categories. Their faith is integrated with their live and their love for God is shown by their love for people. (Adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner; first published in “A Door That Swings Both Ways”

For me, those who say that they are being persecuted for their beliefs are quite easily separatists.  Theirs is the only world that counts; as I have written before, they see the sanctuary as a protection from the outside world. 

And yet today, we do not meet in the sanctuary.  The sanctuary now extends beyond the walls of the church into our homes and yards and throughout the world.  These must be frightening times for separatists and conformists alike.  For the separatists, the outside world which they don’t want to enter their lives is now very much a part of their lives; for the conformists, the lessons of Sunday now become the actions for the week.   

If I am not mistaken, the community of believers that formed the community outside Jerusalem did not prevent anyone from entering or being a part of the community.  Yes, they did “throw out” some who did not want to follow the rules of the community, but they also realized that some were not able to do that.  Theirs was a community of hope and promise. 

I am not interested in building a new community; I am interested in making sure that the community in which I live is one in which all can live.  I want a community of hope and promise.  I know that it will not happen tomorrow or even within the next few weeks.  But there will be a time in the next few months when our gatherings will be in person rather than online.  It will be a moment when we must decide the future of our faith community. 

As I looked at the lectionary readings for today, my focus was on Jesus is the Gatekeeper.  For the separatists and the conformists, He stands at the Gate, letting only a select few, locking the Gate to keep the sheep safe.  But if Jesus taught us anything, it was that the traditional view doesn’t always work. 

Yes, Jesus stands at the Gate but not letting us in but directing us to go out into the world, to transform the world.  Locked behind the Gate, we are protected from the ravages of the world, but we cannot begin to transform the world. 

God does not expect us to venture into a world unprotected, but He does expect than when it is time, we will leave the safety of the sanctuary.  Between today and that time, we must decide if we are going to go in or come out.