“Continue the Journey”


This will be the back page for 29 October 2017 (21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) bulletin for the Fishkill United Methodist Church.  Service is at 10 am and you all are welcome to attend.


In my collection of sayings are the following quotes:

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” (Lewis Carroll)

“If you found a path with no obstacle, it probably does not lead anywhere.”  I found a reference that indicated someone named Frank A. Clark said this, but it didn’t say why he said it or when he said it.

These quotes reflect the paradox of life.  We want to know where we are going but we certainly do not want any obstacles to get in our way.  But journeys without obstacles often do not lead anywhere.  But if we prepare for a journey, even if we do know where it goes, we can deal with the obstacles and difficulties we might encounter.

Moses never reached the Promised Land but the work he did would allow the Israelites to do so.  But Moses left a leadership group to continue the work he began.

Paul focused on two things during his missionary journeys – bringing the Gospel message to the people and doing it in such a way so that others could continue after he left.

Throughout all the time in the Galilee, Jesus did the same thing – bring the Gospel message to the people and teach others to do the same after He left (even if they did not know that at the time).

As the hymn goes, we have decided to follow Jesus.  No matter what difficulties we may have, no matter what obstacles we encounter, we do know where we are going, and we work and prepare to reach that point.

And along the way, we help others to begin and continue their own journey, knowing that in the end, we will share in the Glory of God.

~~Tony Mitchell

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“Staring Across The Abyss”


Mediation for November 2, 2014, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

All Saints Sunday

Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, Matthew 23: 1 – 12

I have chosen to use the regular lectionary readings for this Sunday rather than the lectionary readings for All Saints Day. In looking back at my records, I don’t think that I have ever used the lectionary readings set aside for All Saints Day; in fact, in all the years that I have been preparing messages or writing for a blog, there have been only two occasions where November 1st was a Sunday and one of those Sundays I wasn’t writing or preaching. Maybe that is just as well, especially this year, as I don’t do well with Revelations or apocalyptic writings.

Second comment – this is not going to be a complete meditation, or at least as I begin it, it is not going to be complete. There are things going on which make the writing of anything after my opening thoughts pretty hard to complete. But if you find my opening thoughts helpful, go ahead and finish it out.

Last week, Moses got to see the Promised Land but he wasn’t going to be able to enter it. And I will be honest, for many years, I thought that his not getting to the Promised Land was his penalty for picking the men who first explored the land. Of course, as I reviewed the Old Testament reading, I was reminded that it was Moses’ own errors that prevented him from entering the Promised Land and not what others have done.

But in today’s Old Testament reading, the Israelites are once again standing on the edge of the River Jordan, staring at the Promised Land on the other side. It has been one generation since they stood in perhaps the same spot, one generation in time since some of the fore-fathers had lied about what was over the next horizon, one generation in which those who could not trust in God died off. Now, the next generation stood on the river’s bank, ready to cross over.

What must they have thought? Surely there were some in their group who remembered what had happened those years before and what had caused them to add years to the wandering. Was it going to happen again? Perhaps there was some unwillingness to take the step, wade in the water, get their feet muddy, and move on to the object and goal that for many was the goal of their lifetime.

Now, when I began thinking about this piece, I thought about standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and looking across to the other side and perhaps leaning over and peering down into the depths of that vast split in the Earth. I have never been to this interesting place though I have probably flown over it once or twice in my life. My only connection to the Grand Canyon is a book by Colin Fletcher, The Man Who Walked Through Time, in which he chronicled his two-month journey from one end of the canyon to the other. For those with a geological bent, walking down from the canyon rim to the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado River was also a journey back in time.

I suppose that if I were to ever go to the Grand Canyon, I would want to brush up on my geology and especially a discussion of the measurement of time in geological terms. For, as we stare in awe as what God has done, there will be some trying to tell us that it was all done at once during the Great Flood or something to that effect and that it wasn’t done over a period of thousands and thousands of years.

But that is a thought for another time. Right now, I stare across the abyss that separates me from something that I can’t quite grasp. Maybe it is a struggle with faith; maybe it is an uncertainty about how faith is formed and shaped. I know that you cannot put your faith on a pedestal, to be stared at and admired. Faith has to be a part of you.

There are certain things that I do when I struggle with my writing. If it has to do with Scripture, especially in the New Testament, I get up from my desk and find my Cotton Patch Gospel; reading the words of the New Testament as if they were written by someone I knew growing up always seems to help.

If I am in that part of the writing where I am trying to put things in place, I pick up Faith In A Secular Age by Colin Williams. This was given to me by Marvin Fortel in the spring of 1969 when I was trying to figure out how faith fits into my life. I don’t think that there are too many pages in this book that are still held together as I have put it to pretty good use.

And then there is A Guide To Prayer. I have two copies of this book, one given when I began my “career” as a lay speaker and which shows the signs of age of twenty-three years of use. The second copy was given as a combination Christmas present and going away gift from the first group of pastors that I worked with. In one sense, it marks one step in this journey that I have been on so many years.

And from that book I found two thoughts. Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote,

Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and a place for God and Him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and space to give Him our undivided attention. (from Making All Things New by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

I could not help, when reading that paragraph, think that perhaps the image that I have of the Grand Canyon as a great abyss separating me from something was not that but a reminder of what God can do and how He wants me to better understand how things work.

Nouwen also wrote,

The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of here and now.

He concluded this by noting that,

Our first task is to dispel the vague, murky feelings of discontent and to look critically at how we are living our lives.

I think this may be what Paul was alluding to in his words to the Thessalonians.

So here we are. Somehow I have been able to put together a piece that meets the general goals of every piece I write (to at least link the three lectionary readings in some manner, shape or form). And I also have a conclusion, which I didn’t think I was going to get when I started.

There are times in our lives when we stand at an abyss, a wide spot that we seemingly can’t cross. And yet, as we look at what seems to be nothing, it gives us the opportunity to see and feel and sense the presence of God. Yes, we are scared; after all, it is a long way across and a long way down (and the old Gospel hymn reminds us that waters of the River Jordan are chilly and cold).

And it is totally possible that we may feel comfortable on this side but we know that the answers we seek lie on the other and the only way that we will get those answers is to get to the other side.

And the only way that we are going to get to the other side is through trusting in God, to lead the life that He would have us to lead. As long as we fear that abyss, we will find ourselves separated from God but as soon as we trust in Him, things are going to get better.

And pretty soon, we will no longer stare across the abyss but find a way to cross over to the other side.

“A Nonconformist In A Nonconforming World”


This is the message that I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (Grace UMC, Newburgh) on Saturday, October 12th, for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 29: 1, 4- 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; and Luke 17: 11 – 19; I focused primarily on the passage from Timothy but used thoughts from the other two readings as well.

Last Sunday I got a note about an interesting book written back in the late 1960s. It was entitled “How To Be A Nonconformist: 22 Irreverent Illustrated Steps to Counterculture Cred from 1968”. It was written and illustrated by a 12-year old girl over in Connecticut. There were two things that were interesting about this book and its author; the author would go on to lead a decidedly nonconforming life and it was the only book that she wrote by herself.

At the end, after listing and illustrating the various rules that one needed to follow, she wrote “Now, you are ready to be a nonconformist.” You turned to the next page and there it read, “just like everyone else.”

I think that 1) that was a pretty good description of our society back then and 2) it still applies today. We seek to be an individual who does his or her own thing yet we end up looking and acting like everyone else. We find our individuality in the common things we share with each other. I am not sure that is being a nonconformist.

I would like to suggest that being a Christian today, in the greatest sense of the word, is to be a nonconformist. In fact, I know that many individuals, Christian and non-Christian today, who would object to that description because they are anything but nonconforming.

And yet, when you look at the work of Jesus as walked the roads of the Galilee you are looking at an individual who did not conform to the rules and regulations of His society. How many times did Jesus heal the sick by touching them, in direct violation of normal rules of society? How many times did He include women and children in His group, again a direct violation of normal behavior? If Jesus’ ministry was anything, it was nonconforming.

And Paul, whose instructions to Timothy are the center of today’s message, was just as much a nonconformist as Jesus was. As Saul, he would seek to persecute Christians because they went against the accepted norms of society. He was very much the conformist, seeking to arrest, persecute, and execute anyone who offered any view that didn’t conform with his society.

But, as Paul, he would continue the preaching the Gospel message that Jesus began and quickly became a nonconformist. And he was sufficiently nonconforming, sufficiently against the standards of society to warrant arrest and persecution. That’s why we heard in the passage this morning that Paul was writing from jail.

Even the early Methodist church was nonconforming; it represented an alternative way of life to the self-indulgence, hedonism, and social fragmentation of society. In a society where admission into God’s Kingdom was believed to be based on who you were and your status in life, the early Methodist church said that all were welcome.

Just as Jeremiah told the people of Israel, returning to their homeland destroyed by war and invasion, when many of what may call the best and brightest were taken away in captivity and slavery, that God had not forsaken them, that there was hope and that they would be able to rebuild their broken lives, so too did the early Methodist church speak out against the norms of society that said hope was impossible for all but a select few.

But we live in a world today where it seems that not much has changed. It is a world where it seems as if people no longer have any hope, that lives cannot be rebuilt and should just be thrown away, where your admittance into God’s Kingdom is still based on the statistical things and not one’s character.

The church must exist as a alternative to that world, it must not conform to the ways of society, it has to be a light to the world and a beacon of God’s coming kingdom that reaches beyond race and class, economic standards and social norms. The church through its people must show the love of God in a world where there is no love. The church through its people must show its concern for and friendship with the poor, the despised and vulnerable people of the world. It has to announce to all that God is present among all the people, including the marginalized, the abused, and the outcast and not just on a Sunday morning at a given hour of the day.

The church through its people must show a moral integrity and commitment to justice that is a prophetic witness to God’s holiness and righteousness. In all that is said and done, the people of the church must stand as an alternative to a society that relies on success, prestige, wealth and power as a means to happiness and salvation.

Paul was preparing Timothy to lead the church when he gave those instructions to him that we read this morning,

Warn them before God against pious nitpicking, which chips away at the faith. It just wears everyone out. Concentrate on doing your best for God, work you won’t be ashamed of, laying out the truth plain and simple. Stay clear of pious talk that is only talk. Words are not mere words, you know. If they’re not backed by a godly life, they accumulate as poison in the soul.

What is that Paul is saying here? He is saying that how we act has a lot to do with where Christ is in our lives and where we are in Christ. If our words are not backed by our actions, then our words are hollow. If we speak of God’s love but have no love, then we do not mean what we say. You cannot say “this is mine and you can’t have it!”

Now, here comes the “tricky” part. The Gospel reading for this weekend is the story of the healing of the ten lepers. The healing of the lepers was one of those acts that literally got Jesus in trouble because it violated so many of society’s (not God’s) rules. Jesus healed ten lepers, ten outcasts, and brought them back into society. And yet, only one of the ten truly understood what had transpired and he came back to say thank you.

I am sure that the other nine were healed just as well as that tenth one was but I wonder how long they stayed healed and cured. It is our nature to take something and not respond; ours is a society where it is me first and no one else (in part, I think that is why Paul was talking about what Timothy had to do).

What happened to those nine lepers who were healed by Jesus but didn’t come back and say thank you? Who knows? They were happy to have been healed and given a chance to get back into society. But the odds are that they didn’t change the way they lived and probably found themselves with the disease again as a result.

Society doesn’t require that they say thank you; God doesn’t ask for a thank you either. God’s grace is free and unlimited to everyone and you can do with it whatever you wish. He gives us His Grace freely and openly; we are the ones who need to be saying thank you, in our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions to God for what He has done for us.

Each day, we are given the opportunity, to accept God’s grace and change the way we live. Instead of being one who tries to be a nonconformist by confirming to the wishes and desires of society, we can find our individuality and soul by being one with Christ.

The challenge for each one of us is to make that decision – shall I accept Christ or shall I continue along the path that I have walked. The first choice gives me the opportunity to be who I am; the second just makes me one of the crowd. The choice is yours today.

“The Search For Excellence In The Church Today”


I am at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (Greenwich, CT) this Sunday morning, October 21, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 38: 1 – 7, (34 – 41); Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; ; and Mark 10: 35 – 45. Their services start at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.

We have traveled many different paths to get to this place in space and time. We traveled some of the paths because we had no other choice, we traveled some rather reluctantly, but there have been some paths that we willingly and joyfully chose to travel. Our lives have been formed by the paths that we have walked and our lives will determine the paths that we walk when we leave this place today.

In 1984 I moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Silvis, Illinois, to begin teaching at a community college there. I was looking forward to making this move because I was going to be teaching again after being in graduate school at the University of Memphis. And because Iowa City was only about an hour and a half from the college where I was teaching, I would be able to complete the work on my doctorate in Science Education. As a side note, if you are interested in graduate work in the area of science education, the best place then and now to do this work was and is the University of Iowa. It was a path that I chose to walk.

That period of time, the mid 1980s, was a time when many in this country felt that the country had lost its competitive advantage and were seeking to regain it. It was also a time marked by an increased interest in the nature of creativity and innovation.

Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr., wrote a book entitled The Search For Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies in which they identified what they thought were the basic principles of modern business management. I was interested in this research for two reasons. First, my father was an industrial engineer who specialized in time and motion study. As a disciple of Frederick Winslow Taylor, he looked at the ways things operated and thought about how to make them work better.

More importantly, I arrived on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City as this search for excellence was being applied to science education in this country. The faculty members at Iowa who would guide, direct and advise me on my doctoral studies were leading this research.  And one mark of the excellence of the Iowa program, at least for me, is that I was allowed the choose the path my doctoral studies would take and I was not required to be part of this research.

The conclusions as to what made an excellent or exemplary program in science education very closely matched the conclusions of Peters and Waterman (see Penick, J. E., Yager, R. E., and Bonnstetter, R. (October, 1986). Teachers make exemplary programs. Educational Leadership, 44(2), 14-20.)

Peters and Waterman began their research by noting that the dominant model for business management was predicated and based on the financial bottom line. Nothing matter but that which improved the bottom line. There was no concern for the goods or products being produced; there was no concern for the workers involved or what the customers truly wanted. A company’s goal was to produce its product at the lowest possible cost.

Peters and Waterman found a blind acceptance of the bottom line as the only truth. But this model, called by some the “rational model” made people, both employees of the company and customers, part of the equation and, because it was an equation, there was no room for creativity and innovation. Management in the more traditional companies stayed away in their corporate offices, relying on analytical reports to give them a sense of the direction of the company.

What Peters and Waterman concluded was that successful companies did things just a bit differently. Such companies did not put a heavy reliance on analytical tools but understood that you had to understand what was happening. The bottom line on a financial picture can tell you one thing but it cannot tell you what is happening at that moment in the factory, the workplace, or the marketplace. Management in successful companies was accomplished by wandering around, seeing what was happening. By the way, how was it that Jesus conducted his ministry throughout the Galilee?

Successful companies focused on the needs of the customer and listened to the employees; they gave the employees the freedom to experiment, to be creative and innovative. It was pointed out that people in the successful companies were encouraged to develop new ideas and try them out without fear of failure. People in traditional companies who sought to do the same were often discouraged from doing so, to the point of perhaps being fired.

When the NSTA group looked at what were considered exemplary and innovative programs in science education, they came away with many of the same conclusions. It was the teachers in the classroom who created the successful and exemplary classes, not the management or administration. Innovation and creativity come from the bottom up and the bottom line is a lousy way to measure productivity. I recall one instance where a school administration told the creator of one of the innovative chemistry programs that she had to have been doing something wrong because all of the students in that particular school wanted to take chemistry classes and it was the administration’s view that only about 10% of the students were capable of taking chemistry.

Now, some thirty years after these studies, I have to wonder if we learned any lessons from them, both in business and education. A number of years ago I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on Total Quality Management (see “To Search For Excellence”). As I wrote then, about half-way through the three-day seminar I began to experience a sense of deja vu. In the end, the only thing that I learned was that I already knew most of the points that were being presented because they were the driving points behind what my father did as an industrial engineer for the United States Air Force, McDonnell Aircraft (before the merger with Douglas Aircraft) and RCA. All that TQM did was take time and motion study and give it a new name. And for the record, this seminar was sponsored by the United Methodist Church.

I am not entirely certain that what Peters and Waterman laid out before us has ever accepted. It seems to me that we still place an overbearing reliance on that traditional model, that if big is better, becoming bigger is even better. In the time since that book was first published, we have seen company after company get bigger, not by work, but by buying other companies. And the American people have accepted that idea that low cost is better than quality. We see in the products we buy; we have pushed the idea in our schools.

And I fear that today, with regards to Christianity and the church, we may be doing the same thing. One of the things that prompted me to title this message as I did was the beginning portion of the conversation James and John had with Jesus that day some two thousand years ago. What does it say about your work when you are more interested in the power of the position than the outcome? How many times in our own churches have we heard such a discussion? How many times have we seen a church destroy itself internally because of similar power struggles?

A recent survey by the Pew Institute indicates that 1 in 5 Americans today no longer claims any religious affiliation. This doesn’t mean that they no longer believe in Christ or God but rather they can find no place where they feel it possible to express their beliefs. What they very well may see in churches today is not the church that was but an extension of the world around them. Those who disavow religion are not necessarily forsaking Christ but they want to know how to deal with the world and they believe that Christ will offer them the answer. But if the church, in general, by denomination, or by building, is no different that the world, how will they find the answer?

And there is that prediction that I am sure that you are well aware of that there will be no United Methodist Church in twenty-five years because there will be no more United Methodists alive. Personally I hope to still be around then but where will I go if I should be one of the few?

I know that my voice is in the minority and there are many out there who would rather that I keep silent on the subject of revitalizing the United Methodist Church. But when I consider how people of the United Methodist Church helped me find the path to walk when I needed that guidance and how that guidance kept me from the wildnerness, how can I keep silent?

I know that there are others like me who see a church that has forgotten what path it is supposed to be walking. There are many out there, laity and clergy, who feel that the present plans and thoughts of the United Methodist Church miss the point and lead down the wrong path. Like me, they are committed to returning the church, both in general and for the United Methodist Church in particular, to a path that leads to the Cross and beyond. Perhaps we are disturbers of the peace that don’t fit well into the traditional model of how things work but then again neither were the prophets of the Old Testament and John the Baptist. They raised their voices, they cried out in the wilderness and in the cities for the people to repent and change one’s ways.

I think about what a blogging colleague of mine, John Meunier, wrote about John Wesley a few weeks back. John is a local pastor out in Indiana and a business communication instructor at Indiana University. We will probably come to a major disagreement of some sort when the Iowa Hawkeyes soundly defeat the Indiana Hoosiers in football on November 3rd but not about Methodism in general. He wrote,

Methodism began because a group of college kids obsessed with holiness of heart and life discovered that such holiness was a gift of grace by faith in the saving work of Christ. They called it justification by faith and they preached it to everyone who would listen and to those who would not listen. Thrown out of pulpits, they preached it in the fields.

It was a movement grounded in spiritual disciplines and convinced that holy living included and required following the moral law of God. As it gathered people, it created new disciplines to help the people grow in grace. They held each other accountable in love for progress toward perfection in love. This was the growth that Wesley cultivated, growth in holiness. He would gut the membership of a society if he thought that was required to increase the holiness of the members who remained. This is what he meant by discipline.

In our 21st century context, we do cultivate independence, as the IOT report says. We cultivate independence from our own tradition and our vows of ordination. We cultivate independence from the doctrine of our own denomination. We cultivate independence from our own connection. Our solution, paradoxically, is to solve our decline by skipping over matters of doctrine and spirit and focusing solely on matters of discipline — but only for certain segments of the connection.

Much of what the Call to Action seeks to do is worthy, but the initiative has missed the words that it has quoted in its own support. If we seek not just the form of religion but its power, we need to grasp hold again of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our movement. One out of three will not do it, I fear. (From John Meunier’s “The final word from the IOT”)

I fear that what has caused our numbers to drop and what has caused people in general to say that they have no religious affiliation is not a lack of belief but an indication that churches today no longer focus on the primary mission of the church. They have become way too concerned about other things, things expressed by the bottom line on a financial statement. Perhaps the one thing that the Peters and Waterman study showed was that when you put people first, you succeed. And if the United Methodist Church is not in the people business, then I don’t know what its business is.

The church, be it in general, by denomination, or by individual building, should be concerned about the people and not just the people who come on Sunday and sit in the pews. It is the people who are outside the sanctuary walls, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the oppressed. Those where the people Jesus came to minister to; those where the ones that Wesley and the other early Methodists reached out when the church ignored and cast them out.

I again turn to John Wesley’s words, words that he spoke about what Christianity should be doing. And I again give thanks to John Meunier for putting them on his blog. John Meunier wrote,

In his sermon “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” Wesley put the issue in plain terms:

Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! See that poor member of Christ, pinched with hunger, shivering with cold, half naked! Meantime you have plenty of this world’s goods, — of meat, drink, and apparel. In the name of God, what are you doing? Do you neither fear God, nor regard man?

How much more would Wesley be horrified by us than he was by them? In practical terms, Methodists abandoned the tradition with regard to the use of money before John Wesley was laid to his rest. And we’ve gone on abandoning him on this point ever since. (From John Meunier’s “What is a Methodist?”

In another sermon, I believe that Wesley pointed out that for those who are physically hungry, there was little comfort in the Scriptures. How can we even begin to find excellence in the church today when our concerns no longer match the reason we are called Methodists?

So I return to the title of this message and ask how we will find excellence in the church today? Let us look again at what Jesus said to James, John, and the other disciples in the Gospel reading for today, if you want the power that comes in God’s Kingdom, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to go out and serve those whom you would lead. And if you are not willing to do that in some way, then be prepared to be left behind.

There are many interpretations of God’s monologue with Job in today’s Old Testament reading. Some will say that the God who spoke to Job and his friends was an angry God, reminding each and everyone of them of His power. For these individuals, God was reminding everyone that He is superior to all and that everyone needed to know it. In this vein, those who dare to challenge God are to be put into their place. I have heard this type of response before, from management who feel that they know my subject better than me and that my ideas are meaningless and worthless.

For the past five years I have served as the registrar for the New York/Connecticut District Lay Speaking, now Lay Servant, Committee. We have discovered that this position, which I essentially invented, may very well be the only such position in the entire United Methodist Church. Others are discovering that such a position is needed as we make the changes in the lay servant ministry. The other day someone high in the conference administration told the individual who took on my job as the registrar that he had a better program for monitoring the work of lay speakers. That’s great but how does he know that his program or method is better than mine when he never discussed it with me?

Would a god (lower case, by the way) more interested in power and authority have sent His Son to this time and place to save us?

If we understand that what God is doing in this case is responding to the request of Job, then we have a better understanding of what is happening. God’s Words are not words of anger but words of revelation. In His words to Job and Job’s friends, God opens up the world for us to see it in all of its glory. Instead of fear, we are to stand in awe.

For me, this monologue is also a statement that God is here, right now, in this place at this time, and if we cannot see Him, it is because we have forgotten who God is and what He looks like. We have become so hung up on the trappings of the church that we have forgotten why we are here in the first place. People do not come to church because of a number at the bottom of a column on a budget; they come to church because they seek God. They have heard of the great things God has done; they want to experience those great things as we have. They have heard the message that Jesus offers hope to the downtrodden and they seek that hope.

And yet, too many times, they are rejected by the people of the church. The passage from Hebrews that we read this morning reminds us that the church of Jesus’ time put layers between the people and God but that through Jesus’ sacrifice, those layers were removed. Can we truly say that anyone walking through the doors of this or any church are able to gain access to Christ or are we more worried about the way they look or act?

I began by noting that each one of us came to this time and place by a variety of paths, some that we choose, some that others choose for us. There was another path that I choose to walk, the path that lead me to Christ. My decision to seek Christ, as is everyone’s decision, was an individual one. The path that we walk to and with Christ is one that we will always walk alone, though others may be on the same path as each of us.

Yes, part of my journey on that path was not by choice. It was my mother who insisted that I, along with my brothers and sister, be in Sunday School and church every Sunday, no matter where we might be or live. With my father as an Air Force officer, we moved from base to base on an almost yearly basis when I was in grade school. It was not easy finding a church but we did and my mother made sure that we were in Sunday School and church every Sunday.

She laid out the first parts of the path that I was to walk and she showed me the direction but it was a path that only I could walk. And when I made the decision to continue walking on that path, I was able to do so because 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church, now 1st United Methodist Church, of Aurora, Colorado was there.

There are others who wish to walk this path to Christ. But can they find that way station, that place of rest and hope that will help them find the way on their own journey? The measure of excellence in the church today is how well each church responds to the needs of those in its community, to find the path to Christ and to continue the journey in Christ. Each church must look at where it is, both spiritually and physically, and ask itself how can we help those in this community begin that walk to and with Christ?

The search for excellence in the church today is a search for Christ. It is also a part of our lives as Christians to seek the perfection that is Christ. We must be prepared to help others find Christ and we must find ways to seek the excellence that is Christ.  The challenge that each church faces today is to find those areas of excellence, the place where our gifts and our talents shine, and see how best they can be used to help others find Christ.

The invitation today is to open your heart and allow Christ to come in. Perhaps you are searching for Christ, now is the time to see Him right here. And perhaps like so many others you are seeking answers, much like Job. Now is the time to hear the answers to your questions. Or perhaps you are looking for ways in which you can help others to answer the questions that so often perplexed you. Now is the time to allow the Holy Spirit to come into your life, warm your heart as it did John Wesley’s heart that night in the Aldersgate Chapel so that when you leave this place, you leave on a new path, committed to the excellence that is Christ.

Carrying the load


Here are my thoughts for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 30 October 2011. The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12. I have put my previous posts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) and my posts for these readings at the end of this particular post.

I have edited this since it was first posted.

Somewhere on my blog there is a note that I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. That means several things. It means that my academic gown is a little more elaborate than the gowns worn by those with Master’s degrees (though I liked the sleeves on the Master’s gown) or those worn by those with Bachelor’s degrees. It would have been nice if I could have gotten a beret to wear but that wasn’t part of the Iowa package. But I am happy with a robe that has a nice hood that shows my area to be science oriented and trimmed with the black and gold of Iowa.

More importantly, for those who are familiar with the field of science education, Iowa is the standard by which the field is measured. Because I choose to do my work in chemical education, it might have been better if I had gone to Purdue instead. Purdue has been the center of chemical education research since the late 1950s, when we began seriously examining the nature of how individuals learned science. But the opportunity to attend Iowa and complete my doctorate there was something that I could not pass up. To the credit of my doctoral committee, they gave me the opportunity to follow some ideas that I had rather than forcing me to choose one of their ideas that, while valuable to the field of science education, did not fit into my own career plans. It should be pointed out that I wanted to stay in and have stayed in chemistry; if I had desired or wanted to pursue a more education oriented career path, it would have been far more beneficial to follow the lead of the faculty at Iowa.

So, I am entitled to the use the title “Doctor” because I have earned it. But as a number of my friends, who supported me in the pursuit of this degree, have told me, they still won’t kiss my ring because of the extra letters I can put after my name.

But I have encountered many individuals who are like the religious scholars and Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. They have that air about them that says that because they have a doctorate or, even worse, a doctorate from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, they are to be treated as royalty and every word that they uttered is to be treated as if it were from God Himself. There are on occasion those who even view God as an interloper into their realm. The sad part is that because the way life in academia goes, such attitudes are more prevalent and tend to be the norm, rather than the exception. And if you so desire to move forward in an academic-based life, it is the way that you have to go.

We do live in a world that almost demands adherence to the status quo, even when such adherence works against the goals of the organization. That I have a doctorate in science education means to some that I cannot, as I have written on a number of occasions, also have an active lay ministry. And for some, being an active lay minister in the United Methodist Church means that I cannot have a doctorate in science.

I also think that you are supposed to maintain the status quo when you receive your doctorate, even when your research and your writings are “outside the box” when it comes to the status quo. As I have pointed out on this blog, there have been a number of instances where I did something driven by my research or interests that don’t fit within what others think my doctorate should be about. Case in point – I was doing things relative to computer literacy before computer literacy was even considered a buzz word. Because I was ahead of the curve, I received quite a bit of static instead of praise. I thought that having a doctorate meant pushing the envelope, not simply confirming that wheels are round.

If the title that you have or the place you went to school is all that matters, then I fear that we are in for a very rude awakening in this country. For the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t all go to the very best schools and we can’t all have the fancy titles. Somewhere along the line, we have to get our hands dirty.

Twelve men were picked to carry the Ark of the Covenant across the River Jordan. While they stood in the River, the water stopped flowing and the people could cross safely. The Old Testament reading tells us that the river went dry while the twelve were standing in the river bed. But I wonder if the ground was immediately dry or if took some time to get that way. If it took time, that meant that the twelve carrying the ark were standing in mud for a little bit of time. It probably dried out as the people walked across but it had to be messy at the beginning.

And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he and Silas worked at other jobs so as not to burden the people. Paul also speaks of the attitude in which they worked. Contrast what Paul to the Thessalonians with what was written about a prominent televangelist a few years ago –

One friend of mine in Texas recently inquired to see if a prominent preacher could speak at her conference. The minister’s assistant faxed back a list of requirements that had to be met in order to book a speaking engagement. The demands included:

  • a five-figure honorarium
  • a $10,000 gasoline deposit for the private plane
  • a manicurist and hairstylist for the speaker
  • a suite in a five-star hotel
  • a luxury car from the airport to the hotel (2004 model or newer)
  • room-temperature Perrier

This really makes me wonder how the apostle Paul, Timothy or Priscilla managed ministering to so many people in Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalonica. How did they survive without a manicurist if they broke a nail while laying hands on the sick? (from http://www.fireinmybones.com/Columns/072707.html – his is only one part of what J. Lee Grady wrote; let’s just say that some of those who claim to be preaching the Word of God are quoting the wrong book.)

It isn’t about who you are but what you do and why you do it. The research professor who simply passes notes to his graduate students about what to do and then write up the research report so that it can be submitted over his name without giving credit will have a hard time understanding the research if he never goes into the lab. The preacher (and there are so many of them today) who proclaim the prosperity gospel the true word of God will have a very hard time when they answer to St. Peter.

But I am concerned with those who listen to those false prophets and accept their words as the divine truth. I am concerned for those who see the poverty in this country but walk on by it; who see the need for housing in this country but choose to let the bankers destroy the housing industry. I am concerned with those who would rather let the insurance companies destroy the medical profession instead of seeking health care for all. I am truly concerned for those who say that the role of a Christian is to make disciples of all the peoples but who have no idea what that means.

It does not mean that we force people to believe as we do. When Jesus gathered with the disciples for what we call the Last Supper he told them love one another as He had loved them. This is how others would know that they were His disciples, by the love that they show for others. To show the love for others means that we must carry the load. We cannot stand on the side of the river and expect others to do the work; we have to be willing to help in whatever way we can. The Bible is filled with those stories that tell us the consequences of not completely the task before us.

In this time of so much uncertainty, it bodes well when we carry the load. Those who refuse to do so will find out soon enough what their refusal means.

“Who Will Teach The Children?”


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 17 October 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34, 2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5, and Luke 18: 1 – 18.

This is also Laity Sunday and I will be taking part in the message at my home church, Grace UMC. I hope to have a video of this message posted and when I do, I will let you all know.

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I had thought of writing this from the perspective of three different people (a disciple, a parent, and a circuit rider) but it wasn’t flowing like I wanted it to. So it will be from a individual perspective. Still, I am a parent (and a grandparent), I am a circuit rider, and I hope that I am a disciple.

The key thing about the Scriptures for today, especially in light of this being Laity Sunday, is the need for people to learn what is in the Bible and how that that learning is going to be accomplished. Actually, the title of this blog should be “How will the children learn?” because we have “taught” our children already. Unfortunately, we haven’t taught them well.

I would be willing to bet that if someone were to take a survey of Biblical knowledge at this time next year, the results would be viewed as appalling. But why should that be a surprise? After all, most of us viewed the results of the recent Pew Survey with alarm and amazement. (See “What Do You Know? For some, apparently not much!”) How is it that we still, after years of teaching people about the Bible, have people who cannot name the four Gospels? Why, after all these years of teaching, do the majority of Christians still not understand what it is that they believe? And when you look inside the Methodist denomination, you still see a woeful lack of understanding about who we are as a denomination and what we believe.

We think we have taught our children but we taught them what we knew and since we do not know much, there is no way that they can know much either. Paul tells Timothy to remember what it was that his mother and grandmother taught him and to take those teachings to heart. And perhaps that is where we are missing the point. We see the words, we memorize the words, but we do not take them to heart. We do not make the words of the Gospel more than words in our minds; we leave them out of our heart and soul and thus we have not learned them.

The difference between teaching and learning, at least to me, is that learning is a two-way process. Teaching is the transmission of knowledge from one person to another. That’s all we are doing in our schools (both on Sunday and the rest of the week) right now. We teach our children and expect them to memorize the answers and then “spit” them back on the test.

But what do they learn? Six months after the test, how much of the knowledge that they so laboriously studied do they remember? How much of the confirmation class that many of our youth and young adults is still a part of their lives? If the truth were told, I don’t remember much, if any, of what I was taught in confirmation class back in 1964 and 1965.

There is a certain degree of responsibility when it comes to learning something. And what we do as teachers goes a long way to insuring that our students learn the material, instead of just knowing it. What good does it do to speak of God’s love for all mankind when the actions of a congregation do not reflect that love? What good does it do to speak of missions to the world when the people of the congregation are more concerned about the building?

I do not expect the laity of the church to totally understand the nuances of a Greek translation. But I do think that they should be able to understand what’s in a Bible and why there are different translations. I expect the laity of the church to have a basic understanding of what the church is about and what is expected of them.

God spoke to Jeremiah of a new covenant, not one given to the leaders who will share it with the people, but one written on the hearts and in the minds of each individual. Jeremiah writes of there being no need for schools where we teach others about God because the teachings will be written on our hearts.

That may remove the schools from the picture but that will not remove the learning. In fact, it will make what we do on Sunday (or whenever we might worship) even more important. It will become a time when there is meaning to the words that are said and feeling to the songs we sing. It will be a place where the Holy Spirit is alive again.

I am not sure where the church is headed in the coming days. I see so many churches who offer a muddled, escapist type of religion. They are so much like the judge in the Gospel reading who doesn’t want to hear the cry of the widow.

But the world outside the church walls is crying out and it would seem that many are not listening. They aren’t looking either. They wonder why their church is dying, or perhaps just lifeless. They wonder why there are no youth in the church anymore. The youth were taught in the church but they saw that the words spoken had no meaning and the songs had no feeling. So they left looking for meaning and feeling somewhere else.

Laity Sunday holds a special place in the United Methodist Church. We are the only denomination that puts an emphasis on the laity’s role in its operation. In the early days of the denomination in this country, it was the laity that spread the word from place to place. So, the answer to the question that frames this message is that it will be the laity that teaches the children. And if the laity does not know the answer, then it would be best that they seek it out themselves.

There is a new covenant found in Christ. It was promised by God through Jeremiah and it was lifted up by the disciples and the early teachers. Some were parents, some were leaders, but all were disciples. Our call today is to accept Jesus Christ in our hearts so that we can renew that covenant; our call today is to accept the Holy Spirit into our hearts, minds, and lives so that we can go forth into the world and teach the world and show the world the power of Christ. If we live the words that we speak then the children will not only be taught but they will learn as well.

“How Shall We Be Judged?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 24 October 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Joel 2: 23 – 32; 2 Timothy 4: 6 – 8, 16 – 18; and Luke 18: 9 – 14.

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It has to be hard being a Christian in today’s society. This is a society where there is a contradiction between the expression and the practice of one’s faith. On the one hand, we cherish religion along with all matters of private conscience. This is partially why we justly celebrate a strong tradition against state interference with private religious choice. But, at the same time, many are coming to the view that the interjection of religion into the public moral discourse is a tool of the radical right for reshaping American society. The result seems to be that while trying to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religious faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately, as though their faith does not matter to them. (Adapted from The Culture of Disbelief by Stephen L. Carter)

And if you should happen to express publicly your religious beliefs, you are looked upon as some type of aberration or weirdo. And if you happen to express the thought that you are evangelical in your outlook about Christianity, you are apt to be labeled a conservative and perhaps Neanderthal in your outlook.

With many conservative Christians expressing their views openly and actively, we see a contradiction between what they are saying and the teachings of the Bible they say they support. It is hard to say you are a Christian when people think that Christians want to dictate all factors of other people’s lives while being free to do whatever they please. It is hard to say that you are Christian in today’s society when people think that Christians feel that wars in the name of God are the solutions to the problems of the world. How is that we can say that Jesus is the Prince of Peace but so vividly celebrate war?

We live in a society today where Christians appear to be more like the Pharisees in the New Testament rather than the disciples. We live in a world where the actions of Christians are to persecute or at least ignore the least deserving of society, not bring them up in stature and thought.

There is clearly a contradiction between the Jesus, His words and His actions and the words and actions of today’s public Christians. The problem is, of course, that those who might understand this contradiction too often are silent, not willing to point out the contradiction. And this leads those seeking to find an answer in this world with very little choice.

The primary issues for Christianity in today’s society were birthed when Jesus spoke the profoundly prophetic words found in Matthew 25: 32 – 46. These scriptures reveal God’s heart for the poor, the sick, the needy, and the oppressed, not just in the days two thousand years ago but today.

I have always said that I saw Jesus as one of the world’s first revolutionaries. The religious and social structure of his day hated and crucified Him because of His actions, words, and deeds. He rebuked the religious leaders of His day because they embraced the letter of the law instead of the Spirit. He saw the hypocrisy of their lives and rebuked them. They saw in His life everything that they opposed. He challenged the religious orthodoxy of His day. He aligned Himself with the poor and the oppressed. He liberated women and minorities. He healed on the Sabbath and forgave adulterers and prostitutes. He associated with drunks and other social outcasts. He loved sinners and called them to be with Him. For all that Jesus did, He was hated. (From a note the Buzz Flash website by Gary Vance of Loretto, TN – "Wasn’t Jesus a Liberal?")

This is the Jesus that I learned about growing up and through my own experiences. Yet, this is not the Jesus that I see through the many conservative Christians today.

And I think that is where we have a problem. We live in a society where many feel that it is the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading who should be rewarded, not the repenting tax collector. We see those who follow the rules and do the right things as the ones who should be rewarded. We cannot understand how it is that the tax collector, one of the dregs of society, who is openly contrite and seeks God’s forgiveness for his sins, receives the rewards of God’s heaven.

But the problem with this is that the Pharisee expects a reward because of what he has done. The tax collector expects nothing because he knows that he is unworthy of any reward. Second, the Pharisee’s expectations are self-centered. All of his actions are based on that expectation that he will gain something. All of his actions are done for his benefit, not for the benefit of God.

The letters that Paul wrote to Timothy were among the last of his letters to anyone. Paul knows that his time has come and that shortly he will get his reward. The difference between Paul and the Pharisee in today’s Gospel is that Paul has, first, worked constantly for the benefit of God and, second, any rewards that he might receive only come at the end of his life, when his work is done. Contrast that to the Pharisee who is expecting his reward now. In today’s vernacular, the Pharisee is seeking instant gratification for something that will only come at the end of one’s life.

On the other hand, the tax collector knows that his actions have done damage to others. He knows that because of his actions, harm has come to others. He knows that there are no rewards for him, now or later, unless he repents of what he has done.

The prophet Joel is speaking of the rewards that the people of Israel receive. But they are rewards received because of repentance. As with most of the prophets, the people of Israel have rebelled against God, going against the direction that He has set for them. The people of Israel feel that they have a better understanding of what God wants than God does Himself.

And we know through history that any one individual or group who deems themselves worthy enough to know the mind of God probably knows nothing. And the results of actions that are based on nothing generally result in nothing being accomplished. That is the case with the people of Israel prior to this passage. They have presumed to know God’s will and have gotten into trouble.

But the interesting thing to note is this time; the people of Israel repent. They come back to God and seek repentance. God will always grant repentance and with repentance comes rewards. Repentance comes with humility. You cannot simply ask God to forgive you if your heart does not hold the same thoughts as your mind. Humility is necessary.

The tax collector is clearly humble in his actions as reported in the Gospel; the Pharisee is not. This is not made clear to the people of today; too many people feel that there is no need for repentance, there is no need to act humbly before God.

They have done what it is right, even if they have ignored those around them less fortunate in mind, body, and spirit. They have come to expect that their adherence to the letter of the law transcends their need to adhere to the Spirit. They have allowed their pride and arrogance to allow them to demand things from God.

But we have to stop and think for a minute. Why exactly did God send His Son, our Lord and Savior, to this world? Why exactly is the centerpiece of our being Christian a wooden cross? In the times of Christ, to die on the cross was the most shameful way to die; yet, we hold that one death in glory. In the times of Christ, those who held to the views that they knew best for their people were put to shame by an itinerant preacher from Galilee who served the people first rather than expected the people to serve Him. As we go through this day, as we go through this week, as we prepare to think of the future of this church, perhaps we should each ask ourselves which of the two men on the corner is the best representation of our lives to date? Which of the two would we rather be? Today is not about judging others, it is about considering how we shall be judged.