“To Seek Freedom and Truth, We Must Ask ‘Why?’”


Here are my thoughts for July 4, 2021


Lectionary readings

  • Jeremiah 33:14-18
  • Jeremiah 31:31-34 Messiah and New Covenant
  • 2 Samuel 5:1-5
  • 2 Samuel 5:9-10
  • Ezekiel 2:1-7
  • 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
  • Mark 6:1-13

The focus of the message will be John 8: 31 – 47


Some two thousand years ago, Jesus stood before a gathering of religious and political leaders and told them that to be free they needed to seek the truth.  But these leaders scoffed at the notion they were not free, claiming that through Abraham, they had gained their freedom.

But their freedom was, at best, illusionary.  They had constructed a legal environment that limited their actions.  They had forgotten that the dietary rules they so strictly enforced came from health concerns during the Exodus and were not necessarily a requirement for faith.  They had criticized Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath while ignoring that it was permissible for a farmer to take care of an ailing animal.  There were also angry that Jesus sought to open a society that they sought to close.

These religious and political leaders were also blind to the realization that their power, their position, their prestige, and place in society were dependent on their subservience to the Roman political authorities.  In maintaining their lifestyle, they were slaves to the Roman political authority.

Spiritually and politically, they were not free but slaves to their prejudices, bias, and desire for power.

Two hundred and forty years ago, Thomas Jefferson sat in a hot and sweltering hotel room in Philadelphia and wrote what many consider the most radical of all political manifestos, a statement that the people have the right to determine their own freedom.  He wrote of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.

Even today, there is much debate what Jefferson was thinking when he wrote those words.  Over time, we have come to see that singular phrase, that “all men are created equal,” be all inclusive, meaning everyone, regardless of gender, sexual identity, financial status, race, creed, or color.

President John Kennedy once noted,

“the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Some 245 years later, we struggle to achieve that equality as there are those whose view of equality is limited and who see an expansion of equality as a threat to their power and prestige.

As a science educator, I see a society that hesitates to seek the future, trying desperately to stay in the status quo, forgetting, as Heraclitus noted,

“No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

The ruling class saw Jesus as the son of a working man, incapable of deep theological thought.  Somehow, they had forgotten that some twenty years before, Jesus has confounded and astonished the religious elite in the Temple.  It should be noted that the changes in physics in the early 20th century, changes that allowed the development of much of today’s technology, came not from the physics establishment but by younger physicists not bound by the boundaries imposed by the physics of that time.

Today, we are faced with many problems, problems that threaten our freedom as individuals, as a society, and as inhabitants of this planet. 

They are problems of science (climate change, a pandemic, a need for alternative energy); they are problems of equality, in all its forms.  Despite the cries and efforts of a minority, these are man-made problems, and as President John Kennedy noted, can be solved by man.

These problems require that we begin (again) asking the most fundamental question of all, “Why?”

As I noted in “Tell Me The Truth, But. . .”, I am the grandson of an Army officer and the son of an Air Force officer.  This gave me a view of the world different from my many classmates.  And I crossed the boundary from eleven to twelve, the age at which Samuel answered the call from God and Jesus debated the teachers in the Temple, I answer to call from God.

By the time I came to Memphis in 1966, I had chosen to walk two paths, one of faith and one of science.  Each of these paths leads to a definition of the truth.  I do believe there are several truths, some are found in the spiritual world, others are found in the physical world.  To seek the truth should be each person’s goal and the distillation of the facts to their simplest components is how we find that one single truth.  There may be a hint of Eastern mysticism in that, I am not sure (adapted from Yellow Lines and Dead Armadillos | Thoughts from The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)

Let me just say that I am not interested in the post-modern definition of truth where one’s version of truth may differ from someone else’s.  That is for others in a different time and place.

The search for the truth in the physical world depends, in fact, demands that we ask “why?”

As a chemist, I know that there are certain fundamental truths, but these truths have changed over time as we have delved deeper and deeper into the nature of matter.  We have gone from indivisible particles called atoms to the discovery of the particles present at the beginning of the universe.  We have gone from an understanding of matter as simply being a combination of earth, air, fire, and water, to a collection of 118 elements that promises, with the development of new technologies and a better understanding of the technology, to continue to grow.

And just as there is a certain set of fundamental truths for the physical world, there is also a certain set of fundamental truths in the spiritual world.  These, I believe, are more difficult to discover for one must find themselves first. 

Part of the difficulty lies in the things that constitute the basis for this truth are often not visible or measurable (as might be the existence of atoms or elements).  President Jimmy Carter once noted,

What are the things that you cannot see that are important?  (2 Corinthians 4:18) I would say justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, love.  You cannot see any of those but they’re the guiding lights of a life.” – https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/does_power_corrupt_everyone_equally

It is not my responsibility to tell you how to think or what to believe; it is my responsibility, my duty, to show you how to answer the question of “why?” 

In 1969, I was a college sophomore struggling with the demands of college life, searching for meaning in my life.  Against that backdrop, I was beginning to ask how a Gospel message of hope and promise worked in a world of war, hatred, poverty, and ignorance.  As I prepared to travel to my home in Memphis for the Spring break, I asked my pastor, Marvin Fortel, if I could meet with him and take communion.  During the communion, I came to discover the true meaning of God’s grace.

That day, so many years ago, I came to understand that I work for justice and freedom, not because it will get me into Heaven but because it is my responsibility as a citizen of the Kingdom of God (adapted from “The Changing of Seasons”).

. . . it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not the object of our knowledge but the cause of our wonder — Based on Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, author 0f The Orthodox Way  

When I was in college and on my own (as it were), I figured that I would be able to sleep late on Sunday mornings and skip out on church.  But then I discovered that I needed to be in church.  College brought up a lot of questions, some about chemistry, some about calculus, one or two about English and history.  But there were also a lot of questions about who I was and I found that the answers to those questions came when I was in church. 

I was lucky.  The pastors that I meet and worked with in college didn’t give me the answers to those questions.  They showed me the way to find the answers on my own. (Adapted from “Now It Is Your Turn!”)

There were some pastors, of course, who will tell you what the answers to the questions are and that you are not to question those answers.  I genuinely believe that had these individuals been my guide, I would have, as so many are doing today, left the church and the faith.

In a way, I still seek the truth, both in the physical world and in the spiritual realm.  And as I help others answer their own questions of “why?”, so too do I find the freedom that comes from seeking the truth.

In the Star Trek movie, “Resurrection”, Geordi La Forge, the Chief Engineer of the Enterprise, asked Captain Picard if the regaining of his sight was worth it if others lose their homes and lives.  Our search from truth and freedom cannot come at the expense of others.  Rather our search from truth and freedom will come when we help others seek the same goals, to answer the same questions, all that being with “why?”

“Permanent Resident or Passing Through: Reflections for Evolution Weekend and Boy Scout Sunday”


Scripture readings for Transfiguration Sunday

2 Kings 2: 1 – 12

Psalm 50 — UMH # 783

2 Corinthians 4: 3 – 6

Mark 9: 2 – 9


On the liturgical calendar, today is Transfiguration Sunday.

Transfiguration Sunday marks the end of the Season of Epiphany and serves as a marker for the being of Lent with Ash Wednesday this coming Wednesday.  Were these “normal times”, we would begin planning for Mardi Gras and pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.  I suppose one could still have pancakes on Tuesday, but any sharing of the celebration would, by necessity, must be virtual.

This Sunday, the second Sunday in February, has a more personal meaning for me.  The second Sunday in February is Boy Scout Sunday and on this Sunday in 1965, in the process of completing the work for the “God and Country Award”, I became a member of the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now the 1st United Methodist Church) of Aurora, Colorado.

Since 2006, this has also been “Evolution Weekend”, a celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project.  As noted on its website, “The Clergy Letter Project is an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue.”

The goal of Evolution Weekend is to show that faith and science are compatible and not adversarial in nature. I have participated in this event since 2009.  The theme for this year Is “climate change”.

Let me pause for a moment and offer a bit of science.  To understand what climate change is, we must first understand what weather and climate are.

What is weather?

Weather is what is happening outside your house right now.  It can be raining or snowing; the temperature could be up or down.  Weather changes from day to day and even at times from hour to hour.

Going to school and living in Missouri, I remember that statement that if you did not like the weather now, wait one hour.  And the renowned Missouri author, Mark Twain, once remarked that the if you did not like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.  And it does appear that he never said that the coldest winter he ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco (for more on this memorable non-Twain quote, see https://www.anchorbrewing.com/blog/the-coldest-winter-i-ever-spent-was-a-summer-in-san-francisco-say-what-says-who/.)

What is climate?

Climate is more what the weather is over a long period of time.  While the weather may change over a period of hours, climate changes take longer periods of time. 

One might think of weather as being what clothes you are going to wear each day, while climate is what clothes you have in your closet.

And therein lies the rub; what causes climate changes?  The changes in the climate that have been observed since the mid-20th Century can be directly attributed to human expansion of the “greenhouse effect”.  This effect is caused by the increased production of gases which when released into the atmosphere trap heat radiating from Earth into space.  Most of these gases are a result of human activity.

How do changes in the climate affect the weather?  As a result of this increased production of greenhouse gases, the Earth is becoming warmer. Such warmer conditions lead to an increased evaporation of surface water and precipitation overall, but the effects will depend on the region.  Increased global warming will raise the temperature of the oceans, partially melting glaciers and ice sheets, which, in turn, will lead to an increased sea level rise.

The evidence suggests that, with a 95% probability, human activity over the past 50 years has warmed this planet, with increased production of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are the cause.  Industrial activities have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 414 ppm in the past 150 years.  (“The Cause of Climate Change”)

Despite the efforts of some to discredit the science behind climate change (many who also support the inclusion of creation science), the evidence is clear that humankind is a contributing, and perhaps major, factor in change of the climate.

From almost the beginning of creation, humankind has been tasked with the care of this planet.  As descendants of Adam, we are also charged to be stewards of this world.

God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflect our nature

So, they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle,

And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”

God created human beings; he created them godlike.

Reflecting God’s nature.
He created them male and female.

God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!

Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.” ().

Genesis 1: 26 – 28, The Message

We need to be reminded that throughout the Old Testament the writers emphasized that this world was God’s creation and that we must answer to Him when it is done.  Remember that at the end of the Book of Job, God reminds Job that it was He who was responsible for the creation.

And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of a violent storm. He said:

“Why do you confuse the issue?  Why do you talk without knowing what you are talking about?

Pull yourself together, Job!  Up on your feet! Stand tall!

 I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers.

Where were you when I created the earth?  Tell me since you know so much!

Who decided on its size? Certainly, you’ll know that!  Who came up with the blueprints and measurements?

How was its foundation poured, and who set the cornerstone?

While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the angels shouted praise?

And who took charge of the ocean when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb

That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds and tucked it in safely at night.

Then I made a playpen for it, a strong playpen so it could not run loose,

And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place. Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’

“And have you ever ordered Morning, ‘Get up!’ told Dawn, ‘Get to work!’

So you could seize Earth like a blanket and shake out the wicked like cockroaches?

As the sun brings everything to light, brings out all the colors and shapes,

The cover of darkness is snatched from the wicked—they are caught in the very act!

“Have you ever gotten to the true bottom of things, explored the labyrinthine caves of deep ocean?

Do you know the first thing about death?  Do you have one clue regarding death’s dark mysteries?

And do you have any idea how large this earth is?   Speak up if you have even the beginning of an answer.

Job 38: 1 -18

For too long, humanity held the view that the charge to be good stewards of this world meant we could do anything we wanted.  We dumped our trash in the streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, confident that there was always going to be fresh water left over.  We filled the atmosphere with noxious gases, confident that the size of the atmosphere would be enough to eliminate the threat. 

But we have begun to see that there is a limit to the damage we do to this world; we are beginning to see that what we once were unlimited resources are beginning to run out.  In our greed and ignorance, in our lack of care for the welfare of this world, we have sown the seeds of our own destruction.

But if we are responsible for the care of this world, we must understand that what we do to this world, its resources, and those with whom we share this world has consequences.  Mike Hulme (“9 Groundbreaking Scientists Who Happen to Be Christians”) is the author of “Why We Disagree About Climate Change”, which was one of The Economist ‘s four science and technology books of the year in 2009. Ever since receiving his Ph.D. in climatology from the University of Wales, he has been a leading Christian voice on the reality of climate change, which he has summed up in five severe but notably levelheaded lessons (“Five Lessons of Climate Change” a personal statement):

  1. “Climate change is a relative risk, not an absolute one.”
  2. “Climate risks are serious, and we should seek to minimize them.”
  3. “Our world has huge unmet development needs.”
  4. “Our current energy portfolio is not sustainable.
  5. “Massive and deliberate geo-engineering of the planet is a dubious practice.

For a variety of reasons, I do not consider myself to be an environmentalist, but when I was in the Boy Scouts, I was taught to always leave the place where we were camping a better place than we found it.

Perhaps because today is also Valentine’s Day and we speak of our love for our family, friends, and others, we might want to also consider how much we love this world on which we live.

Pertaining to the title of the piece, do we treat this world as if we are its owners or simply temporary residents?  Can we, as permanent residents, do whatever we want to our home, or because we are simply temporary residents, just passing through, do we leave this place for the next generations?

In the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, Elisha is concerned about what Elijah, his mentor and friend, was going to leave him.  What are we going to leave those who come after us?

The Season of Epiphany is one marked by illumination; it began with the Wise Men seeking the light that they say, it ends with illumination of Christ.  Yet, there are many, both secular and sectarian, who would rather live in the darkness of ignorance.  We live in a world teetering between the darkness of ignorance and the light of wisdom; as so often happens, we must decide which direction we as society must take.

In the 2nd lesson for today, Paul speaks of a message being obscured, not because he is holding back some information but because the people are not giving it serious attention.

Theirs is a voice which calls the notion of climate change fake or false science.  They are like many who heard Paul’s words to the Corinthians without listening and are blind to what they see happening to this world.

We see the growing seasons for crops changing; we see the average amount of rainfall changing, and we wonder why we see more hurricanes every year wonder why the intensity of hurricanes seemed to be increase with the numbers.  To borrow a phrase from “The Guess Who”, we see the seasons change but we do not wonder why.

When we look at the empirical evidence (remembering that Jesus told the disciples of John to return and tell him what they saw when asked if He, Jesus, were the coming Messiah), we see the signs that there is change and humankind is responsible.   The good sign is that we also have the capability to fix the errors that we have caused.

On this day, when Elijah insured the future for Elisha, we need to think about what we will be leaving for the generations to come.

On this day, when the world of the disciples was enveloped in the Light of Christ, how can we live in the darkness of ignorance.

We are reminded that this is God’s world and while we may feel that we are the permanent residents and owners, we are just temporary residents passing through.  Do we do as we please or do we leave this world a better place?


Notes on climate change (https://www.rff.org/publications/reports/climateinsights2020/)

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. 

“Our Falling Apple Moments”


These are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 26 April 2020 (Year A).  Even when you normally work from home as we do, things can get piled up, pushed around, and buried on the desktop.  And that later point is a fairly good trick when your desktop is your computer screen.

I think that the Gospel reading came at a time when there is talk about getting out of the house.  We certainly would like to be outside, especially as the weather gets warmer and we begin to see the changes in the world that tell us spring is arriving (you all can post photos of the flowers blooming in your garden if you want.).

I sometimes think that we feel that we have a better chance of being with God if we are outside.  We sing of being in the garden alone with him or seeing all that is there as “Our Father’s World”.

And we are, perhaps, getting a little tired of staying inside.  It is okay to stay inside when it is winter and the weather is hardly conducive to rambling walks in the garden or forest.  It is getting warmer and the days are getting longer.  There is something inside us that says we must go outside; we must be with others.

It hurts when we cannot be with others; it hurts when we see people we know suffering and we cannot do a single thing to comfort them.

But common sense, that intuitive nature about life that we were given by God, tells us that perhaps now is not that time.

From the moment we began our own journey with Christ, we have known that we must set aside a time and place where we are with Him.  Many years ago, I was wandering the campgrounds of Perkins Scout Reservation north of Wichita Falls, Texas.  In this wandering, I came across a clearing with a tree stump in the middle.  On that tree stump was a hawk, resting, I suppose, from his day’s labors.  There was something about that image that gave me a sense of calm.

Four years later, I would find another tree stump, this one on the edge of the campus of NE Missouri State Teachers College.  I was there to begin another part of my journey and on those days when the journey seemed a bit rocky, I knew that I could come to that place on campus to once again find my focus.

I do not know if that clearing on the campgrounds is still there.  I know that work on the sidewalk took out the tree stump but the spot is still there.  Still, I cannot go to those places of focus but they are imagines in my mind and I can use those images to help me refocus.

There is evidence to suggest that Isaac Newton came up with his ideas about motion and gravity during a period when the bubonic plaque had closed Oxford University and he had returned to the family farm.  While there is no evidence to suggest that a falling apple was the impetus for his thoughts of motion and gravity, he was able to envision the experiment and its results.  Similarly, the evidence suggests that much of Shakespeare’s works were done during periods of plaque that had closed the theaters of London, forcing the Bard to return home to a more contemplative mode.

These are “our falling apple moments”; times when the way we would like to focus has been take away from us and we find it necessary to find a new way.

In this way, we remember that our journey with Christ continues.  In these moments of quiet reflection and solitude, we can refocus our lives.  When the time comes that we can journey out into the world once again, we will be refreshed and able others to continue or begin their journey.

“Theory or Experiment”


Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” on this 2nd Sunday of Easter (Year A), 19 April 2020.

Tradition has it that Nathaniel Bartholomew was the scholar of the disciples.  In John 1: 48, he asked Jesus how he knew him and Jesus replied that He had seen him sitting under the fig tree.  Tradition has it that Nathaniel was studying the Scriptures and it was that knowledge that allowed him to respond that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

One might say that Nathaniel was engaging in a bit of inductive reasoning – making a generalization from a set of specific observations.  The Scriptures of that time would have held many references to the identity of the coming Messiah and, in knowing what had been written, would have been about to conclude that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  To some extent, then, Nathaniel was theorist, basing his ideas and conclusions on what others had done.

I think that Nathaniel’s friend and compatriot, Thomas, was more of an experimentalist.  He needed to see the evidence before making any sort of conclusion.  His conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead comes not from what others said but on what he saw for himself.

But what does this all mean for each of us?  Are we theorists or experimentalists?  And what does how we see the Resurrection help others?  I think that if we are who we say we are, we are experimentalists because it is by what we do that others see that Christ is alive.

Those who say that the only path to salvation is through Christ offer a theory without evidence (and too often, it seems, live lives that belie the notion of Christianity).

But by actively living a life with Christ, we can offer the evidence of what is to come.

So, do you lead a life of Christ that is theory based or experimentally based?

“This First Easter”


Here are my thought for this Easter Sunday,12 April 2020 (Year A)

This piece is entitled “This First Easter” because it is, for me, one of many “first” Easters. 

For most of us, this will be an Easter where we will not be in our church but, because of technology, we will still be able to celebrate the Risen Christ.  We will know that our friends will be celebrating with us, but we will not be with them to celebrate. While I appreciate the technology that allows us to celebrate Easter, I miss the interaction of the people that comes from meeting together and, perhaps, gives more meaning for the day.

And as I thought about this being a “first Easter”, I also thought about other “Easters” in my life.

My first Easter would have been March 25, 1951. As I was just six months old, I really don’t know much about that day.

There was the Easter that I celebrated in 1969.  As I describe in Our Father’s House”, I was a student at Northeast Missouri State College and about to go home in Memphis for spring/Easter break.  I knew that I would be in church with my family on Easter Sunday, it was not my church (it was the church I attended while in high school) and that didn’t feel right.

So I went to the pastor of 1st UMC in Kirksville, Marvin Fortel, and asked if I could take communion before I left town for the week.  He agreed to do that and we met in the chapel of the church. And it was then I began to have a better understanding of what my faith meant.  It was a conversation that I have remembered over the years (see my notes in “The Changing of the Seasons”).

A few years later I was in Lexington, North Carolina for the funeral of my maternal grandmother, Clatie Hunt.  I flew out to North Carolina on Maundy Thursday and stayed for the wake and the funeral on April 3, 1972.  The next day, April 4, 1972, was Easter Sunday and I flew back to St. Louis and drove back to my home in northeast Missouri.  This was, to the best of memory, the only time I was not in a church on Easter Sunday.

In recalling these two Easter Sundays, one where I celebrated Easter on the day of the Last Supper one where I could not be in church, I realized that there were many Easter Sundays where I don’t remember if I was in church or not.  But this was the period that I have come to call my “wilderness years” so it is understandable that I would not remember.

But as I wondered in the “wilderness” I also began to remember the covenant I had made with God in 1965 when I earned the God & Country award in scouts.  And so it was that I began to be more active in the church, making sure that, at least on Boy Scout Sunday, I was the lector. I began to sing in the choir again and, in 1991, received the call to be a lay speaker.

On Palm Sunday in 1997 (March 30), I became part of a pastoral worship team serving two small rural United Methodist Churches in Mason, Tennessee.  In 1998 I would move from Memphis to Whitesburg, KY. I was asked to become the lay pastor for the Neon UMC in November, 1998.

On April 4, 1999, I would celebrate “The First Easter” as a lay pastor.  In the message I gave for that Sunday, I would use a story written by Thomas G. Pettepiece that was in my Prayer Guide.

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion – without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”

“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” The father of a dead girl came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.” (From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)

This was Pettepiece’s first Easter in jail.  I do not know why he was in prison or where he was in prison, though the use of “gaol” suggests he was in Ireland.  I would use this same story a few years later in “The Message Is Clear”.  Thomas Pettepiece’s daughter discovered this writing of her father but could not offer any information about what he might have been doing.

So on this First Easter, we are much like Pettepiece and the other prisoners, separated from our church and our family.  And in our separation, we cannot even celebrate the “Communion of the Empty Hands.” On a Sunday when we should be celebrating the Risen Christ, we have a sense of sadness and our view of the future is shrouded in a cloud of gloom and despair.  We have to ask ourselves if there will ever come a time when we will again be a physical community of believers.  As we gather collectively on the Internet, we have to wonder what the future will be.

And if we stop for a moment, we can realize that these are the same feelings that the disciples and followers had some two thousand years ago.  Two thousand years ago, the disciples were in hiding, knowing that if they were seen in public, they were likely to be arrested and suffer the same fate as their Teacher and Friend; as they woke up that first Easter morning, they must have thought that there was no future.  After three years with Jesus, how were they ever going to go back to the old life?  What will the future hold?

Today, as we watch the sun rise over the eastern horizon, we know that the Tomb is empty and the Son of God has risen.  It would take a few hours on that First Easter before the disciples got the word from Mary and the other women of that news.

And because we do know that the Tomb is empty, we can, even separated, celebrate the Risen Christ.

Whether this is one’s First Easter or one of many, it is beginning of a season.  As I thought and pondered about these words, I also realized that there will be days when in the solitude of our own room, we will feel the presence of the Lord, just as the disciples did in the Upper Room.  Some may say that this is a simply a hallucination but then again, I am pretty sure that people said the same thing back then.

And as we find ways to take private walks in the woods, we are most likely to encounter Jesus in much the same manner the disciples did on the road to Emmaus. 

In the coming days and weeks, as we begin to return to the world, we will, as the disciples and followers did, discover Jesus Christ is here, with us.  We approached this First Easter with caution and possibly fear.  We asked ourselves how we could celebrate the Risen Christ when we ourselves have been separated.  And yet when this day is over, we know that we have been given the opportunity to reconnect with Christ, much in the way the disciples did two thousand years ago.

And no matter when it might occur, we will have a gathering of family, friends, and neighbors, much as the followers celebrated the Day of Pentecost.

The world tomorrow will not be the same as it was two months ago.  Much has been discovered about our society and our world that has long laid beneath the surface.  The cry for the Presence of Christ, so long quiet, has become very loud.  Some will try to return to the “old days” and quiet the voice, just as their predecessors tried to do two thousand years ago.

Even as we are apart from family, friends, and neighbors, we are again one with Jesus and we will hear the call that came to the followers at Pentecost to take the Gospel message, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and free the oppressed.  Take this “First Easter” to reconnect with Christ.