“The Meaning of the Seasons”- An Advent Meditation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In Preparation – 2”


This is the devotion that I presented on Saturday morning for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (8 December 2012) at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. I used the lectionary readings (Malachi 3: 1 – 4, Philippians 1: 3 – 11, and Luke 3: 1 – 6) as the basis for the devotion. We also tried something this morning with Mo Orozco reading the passage from Luke in both English and Spanish; I want to thank Mo for his help as we seek to build a bi-lingual ministry at Grace.  My notes for the 2nd and 3rd Sunday of Advent will be posted sometime this weekend.

We begin this week by lighting the 1st candle of the Advent Wreath, the candle of hope.

Luke speaks of John the Baptist who went around Israel telling people to repent of their sins and begin anew. Luke wrote of every path being made smooth, of their being no detours on the road to Salvation.

This doesn’t mean that life becomes easier when one follows Christ. In fact, it is probably a harder life. The other day I was speaking with someone about the nature of Christianity today and how many people feel that if they do certain things a certain number of times, they will earn enough “points” to get into Heaven. But that isn’t what gets you into heaven and you cannot “buy” your way into heaven. Good works are nice but not if you are doing them for your own personal gain. If you are not leading a life that reflects the love that Christ had for us, all that you do will have no meaning in the end. Second, when you do something in this manner, it is entirely possible to do it without emotion and in an almost mechanical manner; what kind of life is one where everything is almost robot-like?

When John the Baptizer and Jesus spoke of repentance, they weren’t telling the people to say that they were sorry. Repentance is not an apology to God or others; it is a change in one’s life. It comes with the realization that one is headed in the wrong direction and that you have to stop whatever you are doing and change the direction of your life.

When we first opened Grannie Annie’s Kitchen some two years ago we had to tell everyone to leave their baggage outside the building. Remember, though this place is a kitchen, it is still part of a church and the baggage of the outside world has no place here. Repentance means, to some extend, to drop all of that baggage that is holding you back and leave it behind.

The Baptizer spoke of the one who was to come, who would change lives. The prophet Malachi said that this individual, this Messiah, would be

like white-hot fire from the smelter’s furnace. He’ll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He’ll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes. He’ll scrub the Levite priests clean, refine them like gold and silver, until they’re fit for God, fit to present offerings of righteousness. Then, and only then, will Judah and Jerusalem be fit and pleasing to God, as they used to be in the years long ago.

Now some, locked into today’s world view, would say that the Messiah will have a mighty army and will defeat the forces of darkness on some great plain. But we are preparing for a child to be born; how can a child lead a great army? How can one who will be called the Prince of Peace lead a great army?

Repentance requires that we change our way of thinking. To accept Christ is to accept a new life, a life based on hope, love, joy, and peace. It means giving up the ways of the world, of finding solutions through violence and greed; it means doing things because they need to be done, not because you will receive some great reward.

It means working for peace and justice in this world. The second candle of the Advent Wreath is always a different color. On our wreath, it symbolizes peace and it has to stand out in a world that often wants to hide it. We have lit the light of hope; now we light the candle of peace. In a world so often darkened by the worst of mankind, let this light of peace shine so that we can see and prepare for a new life in Christ.

Is It Even Possible?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, 6 December 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Malachi 3: 1 – 4, Philippians 1: 3 – 11, and Luke 3: 1 – 6.

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For whatever reason, the thoughts that I had about this piece never quite came together like I thought they would. But the words of John the Baptizer, written in Luke, still echo in my mind and I wonder if it is even possible to fill all the valleys and make the crooked roads straight.

Of course, if you have read my previous pieces, “Pound Gap, VA” and “Who Is the Messenger?”, then you know that I have seen the valley filled and roads made straight. The pictures of the Pine Mountain after it was cut are posted at http://strata.geol.sc.edu/Appalachian/PoundGap/Appalachian_galleryPoundGap1.html.

The things that I have come to understand with my encounter with this construction are that 1) it took a lot of work to fill the valleys and straighten the road and 2) things changed because it was done. The landscape of that area of Letcher County, Kentucky, is not the same as it was (and that may have been why it took so long for me to realize that I had been there once before).

The changes in the roads did make it easier for those passing through to get through the area. I cannot speak to the changes in the ecology of the area or if it did make driving for the area residents any easier. It made it perhaps a little easier for those who drive through the area to ignore the small towns and hollows where the people lived.

But when John the Baptizer was wandering the hills and valleys of the Galilee, he was making it easier for the people to know that the Messiah was coming. He was making it easier for everyone to see the Salvation of God. In a day and age when so many people were forgotten by society, the Baptizer’s voice told them there was a way.

But in today’s society, it seems that we have regressed to the time before the Baptizer’s call. It seems as if we think that one human life has no meaning. We are faced with war and we answer with more war. We are faced with a crisis in healthcare and we answer with politics and platitudes. The number of hungry families, not individuals but families, increases almost everyday, our food banks are stressed, the number of people without jobs is almost at an all-time high and all we have done over the past twenty years is give money to those who have money and hope that they will share it with others. We are not interested in making the rough way smooth, we are not interested in getting the people trapped in the valleys out nor are we interested in the hearing the voice which cries out in the wilderness.

We are a society in which the only individual we will show any interest in is one who is rich and famous and who has committed a grievous error of judgment. We are fighting a war in Afghanistan and we are apparently committed to sending more troops there. But we care very little that we do not have the manpower for this operation and that we are sending troops back for their 3rd or 4th deployment; we care little about the rising number of suicides among our troops because of the stress of these continued deployments and redeployments; we care very little for the effect that this has had on the families of the troops. And the evidence is there that we don’t care about the troops when they come home. The number of homeless veterans is on the rise. Our troops have become a throw-away commodity in a throw-away society. We use them until they are no longer useful and then we thrown them away in hopes of finding new replacements.

The answer to the problem is not the draft or invoking the call for national service. We tried both and both have failed (of course, calling for the people to go out and shop in the name of national security seemed a little ludicrous at the time as did giving them $250 to spend when the $2000 mortgage was due).

How can we say that sending more troops is the answer when it didn’t work in Viet Nam and we know what has happened to foreign armies fighting in Afghanistan in the past? How can fighting more war help those who are oppressed by corrupt governments and war lords? And why, why does this country insist on propping up those corrupt and oppressive governments? Why do we train their troops when they will use the training against the people in their country who oppose the government, not the terrorists who fight us?

More troops, more money spent on armaments, more time spent supporting corrupt and oppressive regimes will only lead this country deep into the valleys where it is impossible to escape. And while we are spending more money and time trying to find our way out of that morass, more and more innocent people are lost.

And it isn’t just the civilian population of Afghanistan that suffer. There are 38 conflicts presently in process around the globe.

The United Nations defines “major wars” as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. As of mid-2005, there were eight Major Wars under way [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen “lesser” conflicts ongoing with varying degrees of intensity.

Most of these are civil or “intrastate” wars, fueled as much by racial, ethnic, or religious animosities as by ideological fervor. Most victims are civilians, a feature that distinguishes modern conflicts. During World War I, civilians made up fewer than 5 percent of all casualties. Today, 75 percent or more of those killed or wounded in wars are non-combatants.

Africa, to a greater extent than any other continent, is afflicted by war. Africa has been marred by more than 20 major civil wars since 1960. Rwanda, Somalia, Angola, Sudan, Liberia, and Burundi are among those countries that have recently suffered serious armed conflict.

War has caused untold economic and social damage to the countries of Africa. Food production is impossible in conflict areas, and famine often results. Widespread conflict has condemned many of Africa’s children to lives of misery and, in certain cases, has threatened the existence of traditional African cultures.

Conflict prevention, mediation, humanitarian intervention and demobilization are among the tools needed to underwrite the success of development assistance programs. Nutrition and education programs, for example, cannot succeed in a nation at war. Billions of dollars of development assistance have been virtually wasted in war-ravaged countries such as Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan.

From http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/index.html

Of course, I will disagree with that last statement if only because the monies that are wasted are lost in the bureaucracy of the government and have little impact on the people that it was intended to reach. And that is the point; it has to be the people who get the aid, not the government.

There was a thought back in the 1960s that the single most powerful foreign aid program this country had ever developed was the Peace Corps. It was a program that sent volunteers into the countryside of the various countries and it had an impact on the countries, not to mention the people. It has been said that many countries, while spouting an anti-American line in public, were privately asking for the Peace Corps volunteers. But because it didn’t fit the mold, it didn’t have the glory that other programs might have had so we don’t hear much about it these days.

If we were to spend as much on people, both here and abroad, as we do on weapons systems and military-oriented bureaucracies, perhaps we could make a difference in this world. But we don’t care for the people, either here or abroad.

We argue for healthcare reform but we focus on the cost instead of the people. And I fear that the result of the political theater that Congress has become will result in the rich having coverage, the middle class getting it but at a cost beyond their means and the poor having little or none. Yes, healthcare reform today will cost a lot of money but that is because we have neglected and fought against the reform for so many years. And if we are going to argue for savings, how much do we save if we make sure that all who get sick get the care that they need?

It should be clear that the old ways don’t work. And just like the project to straighten out the road that passes through the Pound Gap took a lot of time and a lot of money, so will any project that focuses on the people and not the system. And, yes, there are going to be those in power, both left and right, who are going to fight against the change. They know of what the prophet Malachi speaks in today’s reading from the Old Testament. They know that the change that is coming will destroy them; that they will be lost in the fire that purifies the gold.

When Malachi made his call, the people were indifferent and apathetic. When Malachi challenged them, they responded with the type of Christianity that we see today. It is the response that we are a Christian nation because we go to church and it doesn’t matter that we don’t heed Christ’s words to feed the hungry and we ignore the oppressed and we don’t care if the sick get health care. When confronted with their own sins and greed, the people denied them.

My Advent reading for today (I am writing this on Saturday, the 5th) comes from the booklet “Love Finds a Voice in Bethlehem” (by Peter Mead and based on the writings of Roger R. Sonnenberg).

From the fruit of the mouth one’s stomach is satisfied; the yield of the lips brings satisfaction. Death and life are the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18: 20 – 21

Words have power, Lord, MY words. The things I say matter — to you and to those around me. They mean something. The writer of Proverbs, the gatherer of wisdom, knew their power — the awful, awesome power of death and life. The things I say can kill an idea . . . can kill a relationship . . . can kill the spirit of those toward whom I recklessly shoot off my mouth. The things I say can encourage creativity . . . can enliven a friendship . . . can affirm life and light and love in those toward whom I offer a tender word. Send your Christmas angels to guard my rebel tongue. Then I will shout loud “glory” to you, and “peace” to those around me. Teach me the love language of AFFIRMATION.

Words do matter. It is time to speak up, to say we cannot forget the people. It is a cry that John Wesley spoke some two hundred years ago when the church and society cast aside and forgot the many in favor of the few. It is a cry that should be heard in this country and around the world today.

We read the words of Paul who saw the impossible take place in Philippi. Philippi was a culturally diverse city, yet the people came together in the name of Christ and worked in the name of Christ. Paul’s words today are a shout of acclamation that the work of Christ was continued, not just on Sunday but on every day of the week.

There are those who scoff at the idea that the valleys can be filled, the road made straight. This is the way that things are and that is what we have to do. But how long can we support, let alone fight a war? Sooner or later we will have no youth to send off to battle. Who will send then; the old? Must we lose a generation before we find peace?

How long can we let the sick get sicker and those who can work go without work? Shall the profits for the few mean more than the riches of the many?

The work is before us. The work can be done; it is possible. It begins when each individual hears the cry of the Baptizer to change their ways, to repent and begin anew, to cast aside their past and be cleansed by the Holy Fire. It will take work because we are so accustomed to our previous ways. But it is possible and it must be done, for if we don’t it will be each one of us who becomes the lost and forgotten.

“Pound Gap, VA”


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 7 December 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Malachi 3: 1 – 4, Philippians 1: 3 – 11, and Luke 3: 1 – 6.

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The Appalachian Mountains are both a thing of beauty and a barrier to advancement. Stretching from northern Georgia into Maine, the mountains blocked easy passage from the thirteen colonies into the undiscovered heartland of this newly discovered continent.

This is not to say that there weren’t ways to get around or through the mountains. On the boundary between Virginia and Kentucky is a ten-mile wide gap in the mountains best known as the Cumberland Gap. This natural opening in the mountains was known to the Indians of the area and then used by Daniel Boone as he moved into Kentucky, developing the Wilderness Road from the gap to Boonesboro, KY.

The next such gap in the hills is about 100 miles north of the Cumberland Gap and is known by the town that it is close by. This is Pound Gap and marks an easier passage through the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia into Kentucky. I first became aware of Pound Gap when I moved into the area to teach chemistry at the local community college in that part of Kentucky. At that time, in 1998, the Kentucky and Virginia Departments of Transportation was in the process of rebuilding the roads coming down from the northeastern corner of Kentucky and splitting into highways going into Virginia and Kentucky.

If you happen to visit Pound Gap, and it is a place that I recommend, you will be impressed by the wonderful beauty of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and eastern Virginia. It is even possible on a clear day, to see the presence of New York on the far northeastern horizon. And on the northern edge of Pine Mountain, you will see where the covering has been stripped from the granite underpinning, showing the natural history and numerous rock layers that have shaped this part of the country.

It did not occur to me until one day as I was coming down from a meeting north of Whitesburg that I realized that my first visit was not in 1998 but rather back in 1987 when I drove from central Ohio down to Jacksonville, Florida. As I compared the road that I was driving back then to the one I drove almost weekly during 1998, I received a very clear impression of what it meant in the scripture for the valleys to be filled, the mountains and hills made low, and the roads to be straightened. As noted in some of the publicity about the project, this was one of the most massive earth removal projects in the history of road construction.

In 1987, as I was driving up the side of Pine Mountains, the road was a series of switchbacks and since it was after dark, I could see the front lights of the cars in front of me above me. Yes, above me! But, in 1998, all of those curves and rises in the highway had been stripped away and the valleys filled to bring a more gradual straight drive up to the split in the roads, which then went down the respective sides of the mountain.

It has often been noted that straightening roads or filling valleys requires a great deal of effort. And that was certainly the case for the redesigning of Highway 19 through Pound Gap.

It was also the case for John the Baptizer and Malachi. As those charged with the task of preparing people for the coming days, their tasks were not easy. Especially in this day and age, and no doubt in Jesus’ time, we turn a tin ear to those who proclaim themselves as messengers from God. When we do listen, what we hear wears out very quickly. We do not listen because their call focuses more on them than it does their message or mission.

It is interesting reading Malachi in light of his call for preparedness and the attention that the community to which he gave the message listened. When he began preaching to the people of Israel, he found that they had cold hearts. They were indifferent and apathetic. And when he confronted them with their sins, they asked a series of questions that tell us much about their spiritual condition.

At the very beginning of his ministry, the people of Israel ask God, "In what way have you loved us?" (Malachi 1:2) The people do not trust God and implied that God had not been faithful to them and to his Covenant with them. They were in effect saying, "If you really love us, whey are we still under foreign oppressors, waiting for the promised Kingdom?" How many times in our own days do we hear people questioning God and asking where is He? How many times do we demand that God prove His love for us when we should be showing our love for Him?

The people then asked, "In what way have we despised Your name; in what way have we defiled You? (Malachi 1: 6 – 7) Here the people are showing the half-heartedness and rationalization that allowed to give less then their all. Malachi pointed out in verses 8 – 10 of this same chapter that their sacrifices were unfit and not prepared according to the law. As we prepare for Christ’s birth we have to ask ourselves if we too give our best or do we just go through the motions?

Later, in chapter 3, the people ask, "In what way shall we return?" (Malachi 3: 7) Here the people show an apparent blindness to sin and an arrogant attempt to gloss over their wrongdoing. "We don’t know what You want us to do because we haven’t done anything wrong." When we are faced with our sins, what are our excuses?

The greed of the people was clearly evident. In response to Malachi’s charges of greed, they replied, "In what way have we robbed You?" (Malachi 3: 8) They did not view their possessions as God’s possessions and to be used for his glory, not their own. In light of the trial of the Tyco CEO going on right now, that is an interesting call. In our own way, do we gladly give to God? How will you respond to the call to give so that this church may do its work?

It is our actions that tell people what we think. Paul writes to the Philippians to tell them how happy he is that they have accepted the Gospel. And, more importantly, how they are showing the acceptance of the Gospel in their own daily lives. Philippi was a culturally diverse Roman city on the main highway from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire to Rome. In his writing, Paul specifically refers to three people; one Asian, one Greek and one Roman. On the surface, they had little in common; one was a businessman, one was a slave girl and the third was a jailer. Yet, though they were three races and three social ranks they were all equal in the body of Christ. They humbled themselves as Jesus had done and were unified in the love of Christ.

There are those who preach the word of God as John did, calling for repentance in preparation of the Second Coming of Christ. By now you know that I am not one of them. I accept that idea that there will be no more prophets or messengers from God telling us to prepare. Christ has come and no more prophets are needed. But that is not to say that there are not signs or indications that we should prepare. All we have to do is look around us.

Jesus reminded us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, care for the needy we are seeing Him. Our own actions tell others of our preparation. I know very little about the writer Anne Lamott but a recent article suggests that perhaps I should. She said,

I do not have a deep theological understanding or opinion, but I do not read the Bible as the literal word of God. I try to share my own resurrection story with people in hopes that some of them who have left churches or been kicked out because of their beliefs or sexual orientation will find something in my words and humor that makes church safe for them again. That gives them the Holy Spirit nudge to try and find a spiritual community where they will be freely given what I have been so freely given. I have never said that I am a good Christian. I just know that Jesus adores me and is only as far away as his name. (from Context, December 2003, Part A, page 6)

It is how we meet others that we say more about who we are than any other action. The last questions that the Israelites put before Malachi showed their own callousness. "What have we spoken against you?" (Malachi 3: 17) they asked. They had said that it was "useless to serve God" (Malachi 3: 14) and they continued to think that their external observance of religious ceremonies would satisfy God’s demands on their lives. Do we wholeheartedly serve God? Or do we go through the motions hoping that our external actions will cover up our insides?

We hope that our lives will allow us to find the Cumberland Gaps in our journey; those broad gaps in life’s difficulties that allow us to get by. But more often than not, there are none. More often than not, the gaps that make life easier are at just out of our reach and take an effort to reach. That is why Pound Gap is not the historical landmark that the Cumberland Gap is. It was easier to go through the Cumberland than climb the mountainside and go over the mountain at Pound.

But the roads have been straightened, the valleys filled, and the mountaintops laid low and it is easy for the folks of Letcher County, Kentucky, to again visit the people of Wise County, Virginia. But in doing so, the covering of the mountainside has been laid bare showing the foundation of the mountain.

John called for repentance for one’s sins in preparation of the coming of Christ. That is still true today. We are reminded that Advent is the opportunity to again straighten the paths of our lives so they easily lead to God. We may not visit eastern Kentucky or western Virginia but we can see the gaps in our lives and see if they are enough for us to see God in his glory and birth.


Who Is The Messenger?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Advent
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Recently, on some of the Methodist Blogs that I read there has been a discussion prompted by the question, “What is an evangelical?” (1) I commented,
“. . . that where does spreading the Gospel come into play in the discussion? To me, an evangelical is one who spreads the Gospel. The root word for evangelical comes from the Gospel and I think that is where the discussion must focus.” (2)
Jason replied,
“. . .you bring up what may be another discussion, which focuses on what evangelicals do (which would be much harder to pin down in my opinion!). My purpose was to lay out doctrinally what I think evangelicals believe.” (3)
In following up the idea about doctrine and what evangelicals believe, Andy Bryan wrote,
There are some people for whom theology is a set of propositions to which one may subscribe. If you subscribe to one set of propositions, you are a Christian. If you subscribe to another, you are Jewish. If you subscribe to another, you are a Muslim. And so forth. Even agnosticism and atheism fit in nicely here, as the subscription to their own respective sets of propositions about God.
For a Christian who has this mindset, evangelism seems to be a rather rudimentary process of comparing sets of propositions and ascertaining which set is “right” and which set is “wrong,” and convincing people to subscribe to the “right” one. The “right” set of propositions is almost always the set held by the one doing the evangelizing, which makes the set of propositions held by the object of evangelism, by definition, “wrong.”
So, the evangelist starts off telling their target, “You are wrong; I am right. The only way for you to get right with God is to stop subscribing to your set of propositions, which are wrong, and adopt mine, which are right.” (4)
Now, as suggested by my original thought, I think that being evangelical is more about what one does than what one thinks. I also do not think that one can have a conservative mindset when it comes to being evangelical. If we say that being evangelical is being committed to the spreading of the Gospel, that is, the spreading of the Good News, then we are in agreement with what Jesus said the day He began His ministry,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (5)
Of course, you have to believe in this statement in order to make it true but this is a statement of action, rather than just a statement of belief.
The Gospel message is a message of bringing hope to the poor; it is a message of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry; it is about being a voice for those oppressed and without a voice. It is also a message telling others about the personal relationship with God that can be obtained through Jesus Christ. But it is not about forcing a message of any kind down the throats of others.
The thing is that when you say that you are an evangelical, or for that matter, a Christian in today’s society, it is automatically assumed that you are also a conservative. To say that you are a liberal is to say that you have no religion or that you are not willing to publicly acknowledge your faith. And try as I might, I cannot figure out how that is possible.
There is, I believe, no contradiction between the nature of the Gospel message first put forth by our Savior, Jesus Christ, and the nature of being a liberal. To be a liberal is to bring hope to the individual, to the person lost in the shuffle of big business and big government. It is about insuring fairness and equality for all, insuring that all get an equal opportunity to succeed. It is about being able to provide the basic necessities of life without struggle. If we are not mistaken, these are the same basic aspects as the mission statement first put forth by Jesus Christ some two thousand years ago.
Unfortunately, most liberals have forgotten that it is the individual that they should be supporting and they have paid the price for this forgetfulness. But while conservatives say they are for the individual, they do little for most individuals, favoring the rich and powerful.
Conservative religious leaders are correct when they say they are following the Bible. But instead of following what Jesus would do, they are following what the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the scribes were doing. Then, the majority of the political and religious leadership condemned Jesus for eating with sinners; they judged people without willing to be judged themselves.
Read what these major conservative Christians have done over the past few years. They have condemned Tony Campolo, a noted Baptist minister and evangelical, for ministering to President Clinton. They condemned Rick Warren for inviting Senator Barack Obama to a conference on AIDS because Senator Obama supports abortion. They presume to say that they speak for God and tell us that God has chosen President Bush. Time and time again, leading conservatives have shown that their place in the Bible is among those who condemned and persecuted Christ, not along side Jesus in his ministry.
Let me take this moment and state that I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and I have accepted Him as my one and personal Savior. I also believe that there are a set of beliefs that you must have in order to build a foundation for your faith.
But this is where I probably separate myself from many people. My beliefs are what I build upon, that which makes my faith stronger. I think today that too many people try to use their beliefs in order to build walls around them. And while such walls are meant to protect one from the outside, they also lock you inside a structure and you cannot interact with the outside world.
Do I believe that the Bible is the Word of God? Yes. But do I believe that the words in the Bible are inerrant and fixed? No. When you start critically reading Genesis and you finish Genesis 1 and begin Genesis 2, you find that there are two creation stories. So you begin your study with contradictory stories and you have to realize that these are words that mankind has written to explain to others who God is and what God does.
This, of course, means that I do not accept the viewpoint of many concerning creation. The earth was not created in seven days and the world is not less than 8,000 years old. I am reminded by the Gospel for today (6) that God’s power and his work are readily seen.
Have you ever seen a valley filled, a mountain made low, and crooked made straight? (7) I have.
The Appalachian Mountains are both a thing of beauty and a barrier to advancement. Stretching from northern Georgia into Maine, these mountains blocked easy passage from the thirteen colonies into the undiscovered heartland of this newly discovered continent.
This is not to say that there weren’t ways to get around or through the mountains. On the boundary between Virginia and Kentucky is a ten-mile wide gap in the mountains best known as the Cumberland Gap. This natural opening in the mountains was known to the Indians of the area and then used by Daniel Boone as he moved into Kentucky, developing the Wilderness Road from the gap to Boonesboro, KY.
The next such gap in the hills is about 100 miles north of the Cumberland Gap and is known by the town which is close by. This is Pound Gap and marks another passage through the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia into Kentucky. I first became aware of Pound Gap when I moved into the area to teach chemistry at the local community college in that part of Kentucky. At that time, in 1998, the Kentucky and Virginia Departments of Transportation were in the process of rebuilding the roads coming down from the northeastern corner of Kentucky and splitting into highways going into Virginia and Kentucky.
If you happen to visit Pound Gap, and it is a place that I recommend, you will be impressed by the wonderful beauty of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and eastern Virginia. It is even possible on a clear day, to see the presence of New York on the far northeastern horizon. And on the northern edge of Pine Mountain, you will see where the covering has been stripped from the granite underpinning, showing the natural history and numerous rock layers that have shaped this part of the country. Geologists from the world over come to Pound Gap to see the layers of rock laid down over the countless billions of years that it took to form the Appalachian Mountains. (8)
It did not occur to me until one day as I was coming down from a meeting north of Whitesburg that I realized that my first visit was not in 1998 but rather back in 1987 when I drove from central Ohio down to Jacksonville, Florida. As I compared the road that I was driving back then to the one I drove almost weekly during 1998, I received a very clear impression of what it meant in the scripture for the valleys to be filled, the mountains and hills made low, and the roads to be straightened. As noted in some of the publicity about the project, this was one of the most massive earth removal projects in the history of road construction.
In 1987, as I was driving up the side of Pine Mountains, the road was a series of switchbacks and since it was after dark, I could see the front lights of the cars in front of me above me. Yes, above me! But, in 1998, all of those curves and rises in the highway had been stripped away and the valleys filled to bring a more gradual straight drive up to the split in the roads, which then went down the respective sides of the mountain.
It has often been noted that straightening roads or filling valleys requires a great deal of effort. And that was certainly the case for the redesigning of Highway 19 through Pound Gap. But as you see the cuts on the side of the mountain detailing the history of this world, you can begin to gain an appreciation of the complexity of God’s work and why it is so hard to understand what He has done.
Now, some might say that the multiple layers of rock that you see on the northern face of Pine Mountain are a result of the great flood. But the problem is that the other evidence, such as the dating of the rocks, shows that it took several steps and several million years to accomplish. If, as some might say, this evidence is wrong, then how is it wrong? Have scientists continued making the same mistake over the course of their work? Or has God “played” with the data so as to cover up the actual age of the rocks, so that we cannot find the truth? Neither of these two scenarios is quite likely. What is likely is that we are seeing a process that is overwhelmingly complex and when we try to explain it, we do in simpler terms. The story of the creation (either story) is not about the physical formation of the universe and the earth but rather an explanation of God’s presence in our lives and it should be understood that way. And it should also be understood that no matter how the earth was created and life on this planet has evolved, science will never answer the question about why it was done?
The battle over evolution and creation are, it seems to me, an attempt by conservative Christians to seek an environment where open scientific inquiry is stifled. They would rather tell someone who God is rather than have individuals discover God for themselves. Free inquiry in science does not prevent people from finding or believing in God; rather it promotes the notion of faith and knowledge.
Being evangelical is being committed to the notion of promoting faith and knowledge. It is not done by forcing others to believe what one believes or by proclaiming that the only path to truth is the one that you have followed; it is by showing that there is truth in the Gospel message and that such truth is available to all.
Look at what Paul writes to the Philippians for today. (9) Is he not commending the Philippians for their sharing of the Gospel? Is he not commending them for showing how the love of Christ moves beyond the boundaries of the community? If we hold to a set of beliefs that serve more as a wall to protect us, it is impossible for us to share what we believe. If we hold to a set of beliefs that serve as walls, then others cannot easily be a part of our community. And I think that is what Paul is telling us today. Unless we are willing to share what we believe, unless we are willing to show that we live by the way that we believe, our efforts to bring the Gospel message to the world will be futile.
The prophet Malachi spoke of a messenger preparing the way, of someone who would speak of the coming Messiah. For us, that passage tells us of the coming of John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the wilderness, crying out for each of us to repent of our sins and prepare for the coming of Christ.
But who is that messenger today? Who brings forth the Good News that Christ is a part of our lives. There is still a need for a call to repent but it should be made with an understanding that there is also a call to begin a new life in Christ as well.
Who is it that will make this call? Who shall be the messenger today? Who shall offer words of hope and bring forth the light that is Christ? We know of those who have encountered Christ in the past and through him received the hope and the assurance that there was a life beyond the boundary of death. We know that those who believe in Christ find a life that has opened up for them a way to ultimate fulfillment. These witnesses have found that the valleys have become filled, the mountains laid low, and the crooked paths set straight. We know that these witnesses have encountered Christ and we know that their lives have changed. We know this because we are those witnesses.
And because we are those witnesses, it is our task to do the same today and project our faith through what we say and do into our time. Who are the messengers today? We are the messengers.
(1) http://post-methodist.blogspot.com/2006/12/what-is-evangelical.html
(2) See note 1 – comments for 4 December 2006
(3) See note 1 – comments for 4 December 2006
(4) From http://entertherainbow.blogspot.com/2006/12/heads-youre-right-tails-im-wrong.html
(5) Luke 4: 18 – 21
(6) Luke 3: 1 – 6
(7) Luke 3: 5
(8) You can go to http://strata.geol.sc.edu/Appalachian/AppalachianTrip.html to see pictures of the side of Pine Mountain at Pound Gap.
(9) Philippians 1: 3 – 11