How has baptism changed your life?


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (A), 12 March 2017.  They are based on Psalm 13.  This is also part of the Fishkill UMC “Back Pages” series.


I have talked and written about my own baptism on a number of occasions; I have also included a discussion about a baptism that didn’t take place (See “My Two Baptisms” for what happened then; I will be addressing that topic again later in this Lenten series.)

To answer the question posted as the title to the post, It is safe to say that had I not been baptized, I would not be here today.  But because of when I was baptized, a path was set before me that I would, sometimes knowingly but often unknowingly, follow all my life.

My parents understood what my baptism meant and they made sure that I walked a path that would eventually allow me to understand it baptism meant.

There was a time in my life that I have come to call “my wilderness period.”  Life was rough during this period but I never felt lost.  Perhaps it was because the Holy Spirit was a part of life, even if I did not know it.

But when I more fully recognized the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life, I knew had to do some things, things that have lead me to this place and time.  I was lucky; I knew that God was there and all I had to do was look.

The Psalmist knew what it was like to be lost and out of God’s site.  He welcomed being able to be in God’s Grace once again.

Our baptism is never the end of the journey but its beginning.  For some, it sets the path they will follow; for others, it offers a new path.

Baptism represents an opportunity for all.

“A Very Simple Lesson”


I was at the Mountainville United Methodist Church (Mountainville, NY) this past Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Lent (20 March 2011).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 – 4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.  The services at Mountainville start at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  This coming Sunday, March 27th,at 3 pm they are hosting a hymn sing for the Habitat for Humanity project in the Newburgh, NY, area.  There is a flyer about the program included in this post.

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Way back in 1963 or so, I got a chance to stay up late one night and watch the “Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. That night he introduced, at least to me, a rising new comic. I can’t remember, for a variety of reasons, if this was the first time this comic had been on the show. I just know that I found Bill Cosby to be a very funny fellow indeed. Later, when I could, I would buy all of his comedy albums and would use his telling of the conversation between Noah and God for a vespers moment at the Wesley Foundation while a student in college (Truman State University).

But it is something else that he recorded that prompted my recollection of a moment in time almost fifty years ago. He spoke of the time when he began kindergarten and how the teacher taught them that 1 and 1 was 2. And how he and his compatriots all thought how cool it was that 1 and 1 equaled 2. But then they asked that telling question, “What’s a 2?”

I think it is important to think about such moments because they remind us that all of the lessons we have learned in our life have been remarkably simple ones. If you stop to think about it, each time that we have learned something, it has been the result of a simple lesson. Granted, it may not have seemed simple at the time and the topic may have been remarkably complex but the lesson itself was very simple. It was simple because it built upon all that we knew up to that point and utilized the skills and abilities that we were taught as well.

But I think that we have forgotten those early lessons. We seemed bound and determined to make each of life’s lessons a lesson in simplicity, even if the material in question is extremely complex. The events of the past two week, all that has transpired in Japan and the Middle East, speak to our desire to turn extremely complex lessons into simple ones.

If you think about it, much of what has transpired in the past two weeks or so has dealt with energy and how we obtain it. We are an energy dependent society. Take away our energy resources and life would be very, very difficult; we could survive but not as we live today.

We have become a society dependent on oil as the basis for our energy. Because the source of the oil that is so much a part of our lives is located in other countries, we turn a blind eye to governments who suppress the rights of the people. We support the military of such governments because we want the oil supply protected. It would seem, also, that we are willing to go to war if need be to insure that oil supplies are available.

The answer that some offer is to drill for more oil in this country or find ways to extract the oil, natural gas and coal that is underground. We ignore what these processes do to the environment and the drinking water because cheap oil and gas is more important than clean air or clean water. We ignore the scientific results that time and time again show that our dependence on fossil fuels is having a negative effect on the climate of this planet. (Notes from the Union of Concerned Scientists)

We are beginning to see, I believe, what happens when we put profit before safety in the production of energy. We may be shocked that Japan, the only country on this planet to suffer the effects of nuclear weapons, would willingly let nuclear reactors operate within the boundaries of their country. But, if we remember our history, we know that it is a country without energy resources of its own and nuclear power is a reasonable alternative. But the problems with the reactors were not problems with nuclear energy but the short-sightedness of management in putting the profit of the company before the safety of the people.

As it happens, I believe that nuclear power is a reasonable alterative energy resource for the future of this planet. But I am also aware that a commitment to nuclear energy is not simply a fifty-year commitment nor a 100 year commitment but one that will last 10,000 years or so. And it is a commitment to the safety of the people. If you are willing to make that commitment, it becomes a viable energy resource; if you are not, then you must find other alternatives.

And there are other alternatives. But each one requires a long-term commitment. Solar energy is out there right now but how do you store it so that it can be used at night? How about using the wind to make energy? Again, what do you do when the wind is not blowing? Each alternative energy resource has a trail of thought that make the simple lesson complicated. And if we are not willing to make the commitment, we will find out quite quickly that the simple lessons we seek don’t exist.

The church has found itself caught up in that same sort of thinking. We would like Christianity to be very simple. I mean all we have to do is say that Christ is our Savior, come to church on Sunday, try to have good thoughts about people, and be appropriately horrified when evil things occur in the world. Maybe, if we have some spare change or a couple extra dollars, we will give it to the latest UMCOR relief effort. But we will leave it up to the pastor and the missionaries to do the work of God; after all, that’s what they get paid for, right?

Somewhere along the line, we forgot something. Or maybe we never learned it properly. Jesus may have left us with the Great Commission, to go out into the world and make disciples of all the nations. But we forgot what it means to be a disciple.

In today’s society, it means forcing people to believe in Jesus. It means telling them that they are condemned to a live in Sheol if they do not, right then and there, accept Christ as their Savior. It means telling them that there is only one way to believe in God and that is the Christian way, even when they already believe in that God their own way.

But the word “disciple” means more of a student than a follower. If the commission is to go out and make students of the people of the world, then it makes each one of us a teacher; it means that we have to live a life that embodies the life of Christ. It means that we have to take to our heart the words and actions of Jesus when He began His ministry, of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, finding homes for the homeless (see the attached flyer) and setting the oppressed free. And suddenly a very simple statement, a very simple lesson becomes very, very complicated.

(Comment – this church just happens to be sponsoring a hymn sing for the local Habitat for Humanity program – see the accompanying flyer)

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It bothers me that we say that we are a Christian nation but we are quick to blame poverty on the sins of the poor. We say that we are a Christian nation but we are not willing to find ways to keep people healthy. We would rather find ways to let a few people gather up all the wealth on this planet instead of making sure that all people have an opportunity. We would rather support dictatorships and oppressive governments if doing so allows us to keep our own selfish interests intact.

We have found a way to make the lesson of Lent a very easy one, not a simple one. We publically announce that we are giving up such-and-such for Lent, knowing full well that once Easter has passed we will resume that habit. We have forgotten that Lent is a season of preparation. And though Lent may be over in forty days, our lives go on after the season is done.

So perhaps now is the time to think about Lent and the lesson that we should be learning. Nicodemus comes to Jesus late one night, fearful of what others in his community might think and say if they knew he was seeking wisdom, guidance, and counsel from this itinerant teacher from the Galilee. He knows that there is something about Jesus that is different from the other teachers who have appeared on the scene and then quickly disappeared from view.

He also knows that something is gnawing on him instead; something that tells him that there is something wrong with his life, that leading a life bound by a strict obedience to the law will not give him what he seeks in life. And when he asks Jesus, he gets a very simple answer, “you must be born again.” But his mind tells him that one cannot be born again, one cannot start life over again as a child; it just isn’t possible. But Jesus offers another alternative, of seeing the world another way.

Look at what Paul said about Abraham. Abraham said that he was the father of us all but if we see that only in terms of biological relationships, as saying that I am the son of Robert Mitchell or that he was the son of Walter Mitchell, then we are seeing it backwards. Paul’s point is that Abraham made a decision to follow God’s command in faith.

Stop and think about it; he was pushing 100 and Sarah was 90-something and God said that He would make Abraham the father of many nations. No wonder Sarah laughed. Abraham began a journey to a place that he did not know by a route that he did not know so that peoples not even born would be blessed. It was and is a journey of faith.

We are at that same point in our own life, to look at where we are and where we are headed. We are being called, not by me but by God to stop and change the direction of our lives, to begin again (to be born again, if you will), to head off into a new direction or to do something that you didn’t think you could do on the simple statement that great things will come because of it.

This is a hard thing for many people to do; it is a hard thing for churches to do. We look around and we wonder what will happen. Through some of the work in my district, I know that there are many churches struggling with their finances. And it is very difficult to make a journey in faith when the finances tell you to stay put. But I also know that there are churches who have made a decision based on faith and have carried out their decision and have been rewarded. I have watched two separate churches in two separate conferences, both behind in paying their apportionments (and I know that the subject of apportionments is a sore subject with many, especially those who do not understand what apportionments are other than a bill from the conference) make the decision to put 10% of the weekly offering into paying the apportionments. And when the end of that year came around, both churches had not only paid their apportionments in full but were one month ahead for the next year. But I also know of a church that would not make that faith journey, who put its hopes in its traditional “fund-raisers” and will soon close its doors.

And we are told of the one single faith journey taking place in our own lives today. It is not the journey that we are making but rather the one that Jesus made for us some two thousand years ago. How many times did Jesus speak of His own death, of His own sacrifice so that we would live? What must have been going through His mind that day when He told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he would send His Only Begotten Son so that whoever believed in Him would have everlasting life.

That is perhaps the simplest lesson we are ever asked to learn. But it is, for many, the most difficult. It means giving up your present life, of leading your present life and beginning anew. And that is the call today. For some, it is to begin anew; to be, like Nicodemus, born again. For others, it is to begin, as Abram did, a new journey or new tasks that will enable others to know who Christ is and will be. The lesson has been taught for today, class is dismissed. Now the learning begins.

“How Will You Get There?”


This is the message that I gave for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (20 February 2005) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 –4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.

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It has been said that the average American moves three times in their life. For my two brothers, sister, and myself, this is an interesting statistic since we made that many moves by the time we were each three years old. As the children of a career Air Force officer, it was not uncommon for us to move each year (a policy that the Air Force and other armed services has changed in the past few years).

Moving a family of four according to Air Force rules was a task that fell to my mother. Essentially all my father did was come home, tell us we had been transferred to another air base and when he had to be on duty at that base. It was up to Mom to pack up the stuff in the house, get the movers over, take the kids and occasional dog to the new location, find the house we were assigned (when we lived in on-base housing), meet the movers and unpack the stuff.

Every time I read the Old Testament reading for today, I am reminded of this process. Abram is told by God to pack up everything and head east to the Promised Land. To do so was not all that difficult because his was a nomadic lifestyle anyway and he and his family could easily make the move. The only problem they had is that they had no knowledge of what would be there when they did in fact arrive; how, would they know when they had reached the Promised Land?

For my family, the move to a new location was a matter of duty. The Air Force said that we had to be there, so wherever it was, we went there. We knew that we would have a house to live in when we got to our new home. Abram’s move was a matter of faith; he, Abram, believed in God and God said move eastward to a new location, so he moved. Since they took their home with them, having a place to stay was not a problem.

But in today’s society, having a home to live in is not an easy task. Homeownership has long been thought to be a right in our society; but not everyone who works can afford a place to live. There is an interesting statistic these days that says that it takes 144 hours of work at the minimum wage in order to find any sort of affordable housing.  (Page 228 of God’s Politics (Jim Wallis) – he cites "Out of Reach 2003: America’s Housing Wage Climbs," National Low Income Housing Coalition, September 2003, http://www.nlihc.org/oor2003/data.php?getmsa=on&msa%B%D=denver&state%B%D=CO)  If you do the math, you can figure out that there are 168 hours in a week.

For New York, someone earning $6.00 per hour, can afford monthly rent of no more than $312. This means that this individual must work 121 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the Fair Market rent. The housing wage, the amount a full-time worker (40 hours per week) must earn earn in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the Fair Market rent is $18.18 per hour.

We have just completed a political campaign unlike no other in the history of this country. One of the points/issues that people used in deciding how they would vote was something called "moral values." But every time this was discussed, it was described in terms of sexuality and abortion. But the primary moral value cited in the Bible is the care of the poor and the oppressed; and little was done or said during this last campaign in that regard.

I suppose that it is because many people feel that if one works hard and full-time, you need not be poor. But for many working families and many low-income breadwinners, it is necessary to hold down multiple jobs just to survive. The truth is that the safety net that is supposed to protect people has been taken down over the past few years. The number of hungry without food stamps is on the rise; the number of poor and low-income children without health insurance is rising; the disparity between the schools where the parents have a high income and the parents have a low income is constantly increasing. Yet, the treatment of the poor is not considered important enough for a sustained political debate.

In a political debate, where the Bible is used by one side to justify its claim of moral values, there were over eighty references to the poor in the Bible. There is the reference of Jesus rebuking Peter when Peter complained about the extravagant use of oil by the un-named woman in Matthew 26.

And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, "Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor."

But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always but Me you do not have always. (Matthew 26: 6 – 11)

It would be nice to say that we are a society that cares for the poor, the needy, the oppressed but the facts suggest otherwise. It would be nice if we could say that we no longer believe that poverty is a result of sin but we cannot, even if that were the case. No matter that we somehow still believe that working hard will get us into heaven, even when we are told that it is only by our faith that such entrance is granted. In a world where we argue for free will, we still seem stuck in a Calvinist concept that sin and salvation are predetermined.

But if sin and salvation are predetermined, then professing one’s belief in Christ, trusting in one’s faith is absolutely meaningless. Because if sin and salvation are predetermined, it does not matter what we do for we are either saved or doomed. But we accept as the basis of faith that Christ died for us and that we can come to Christ, openly accepting Him as our Lord and Savior. It is not who we are on this earth that brings us heaven and salvation; it is what we believe.

And if what we believe is that anyone can get to heaven through the profession of faith, then we must help them overcome that which blocks them from doing so. We are Methodists because we believe 1) that all can be saved, 2) all can know that they are saved, and 3) persons and nations can be saved from the power of sin. In a world that placed a premium on societal standing as the key to heaven, John Wesley refuted and contested that thought.

We have heard this morning about Habitat for Humanity. I became aware of this organization through a book that I had to read for one of my lay speaker courses. In this book I came to know Clarence Jordan, one of God’s "misfits". Just as John Wesley had done some two hundred and fifty years ago, Clarence Jordan saw that there was a difference between the nature of the Gospel as written in the Bible and what people said and believed. Rather than simply accept society’s notion of the Gospel, he chose to let Jesus guide and direct him through the Holy Spirit.

And one day Millard Fuller came into Clarence Jordan’s life; or more to the point Clarence Jordan came into Millard Fuller’s life. Taking the advice of Jordan (that what the poor need is not charity but capital and not caseworkers but coworkers and that the rich need an honorable way of divesting themselves of their overabundance), Fuller created Habitat for Humanity.

Jesus chastised His disciples when they ignored the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. Wesley once wrote that it was impossible for the poor to concentrate on salvation if they were hungry or cold. So too must we look at what we do and how we express our faith. For it is not what we do that determines our faith but rather how we express our faith that shows others what we believe.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus one night, asking how he can gain the kingdom of God. And Jesus says that he, Nicodemus must be born again. But Nicodemus confuses the physical act of birth with the spiritual act of accepting the Holy Spirit. Locked into an old style of thinking, Nicodemus cannot see that Jesus is calling for a new life and a new way of thinking. In a world that demands a reliance on the here and now, Jesus speaks of something beyond the physical.

It is by faith that we are saved; it is by faith that we are literally able to move mountains. Was it not faith and faith alone that allowed Abram to leave his ancestral home and move eastward to the Promised Land? Was it not faith and faith alone that allowed Abram to become Abraham and the father of many nations? Paul makes it very clear that those who hold to the law, that is to say, to the here and now, are not going to be saved. What Paul told the Romans, what Paul writes to us today is that it is our faith and the expression of that faith that will gain us our salvation. So, if we give something to charity feeling that this act of kindness on our part will get us into heaven, then we are missing the point.

But does that mean that we should not give to charity? Should we not share with others what God has blessed us with? Too often, we engage in charity without engaging in community. If we are to be servants of the Lord, then we are to be a part of the community in which we live. If we are to bring into focus that which is in our hearts, then we must go out into the community.

It has been said that John Wesley opposed the rich and the powerful. I know that he wasn’t happy about the power structure of the church that seemed more interested in self-preservation than spreading the Gospel but I am not sure that he necessarily opposed the rich. I do know that while he encouraged everyone to give all that they could, he also encouraged everyone to save all that they could and, more to the point, earn all they could. He just wanted everyone to make sure that what they earned they earned fairly and not at the expense of others.

John Wesley wanted to make sure that everyone understood that poverty was not a condition of sin. It is unfortunate that this lesson has still not been learned. Too many people today still feel that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and poverty a sin of God’s damnation. For such, charity is a non-engaging task, designed to sooth their own consciousness. But should we not consider that, as I think Wesley did, put our faith into action.

Some have said that Lent is about giving up something for forty days; I like what Gordon Bienvenue at Van Cortlandtville Community Church wrote in the church newsletter. We shouldn’t give something up, we should add something one. We should begin to be a community, offering ourselves beyond the walls of our own existence. We can better express our faith when we give of ourselves in service to others.

It is not often that I use the Psalter reading in my sermons but this is an exception. I was contemplating a move away from the hills of Kentucky and as I was coming back and driving along the plains of central Kentucky, I could see the Appalachian Mountains in front of me. Literally, I could lift up my eyes and see from where my help would come. The decision to stay in Kentucky then came because I saw those hills and knew that I had been called to that part of the country. Shortly after that came an opportunity to share and express my faith.

The same is true for those of us gathered here today. We have been given a chance to express our faith; to say to others that theirs is not a life of desolation and devoid of hope and joy. By our act of giving, we share with others in our lives and in our journey.

The season of Lent is a journey. It is a journey that we take as reluctant observers, watching Jesus enter Jerusalem and then climb Cavalry. As we watch Jesus complete His journey, we see our journey began. But too often is it a journey not expressed to others. Like Abram, it is a journey of faith. It is a journey that should end at the cross. Today, you are asked how you will get there? How will you express your faith so that others know where your heart lies?


“A New Way of Thinking”


This is the message that I gave on the 2nd Sunday of Lent (28 February 1999) at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 –4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.

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Can you remember what it was like when you learned something new? Now, I am not talking about when you did something like passing your driver’s test but rather when you mastered a new idea. Perhaps it was in math class when the teacher was trying to teach you how to multiply fractions? Or it could have been when you were trying to cook something from scratch and you finally got the ingredients just right. When this happened, there was a sense of exhilaration that you finally learned something.

When we try to learn something new, often times we encounter difficulties because we try to fit this new learning into what we already know. As long as we do this, as long as we try to learn something new based on our old ways, we have a hard time learning new things. Often times we can get real frustrated about learning. That’s why when we do finally learn the new point, there is a feeling of exhilaration. We have overcome the barriers that we were faced with and things become easier. Then when we look at that problem again, it seems so simple.

The old way of thinking was what Paul was writing about in his letter to the Romans. What Paul was talking about was two different ways of living. In the old way, admittance to heaven was granted through your adherence to the law, by the manner of your works. But God’s Grace is a gift, given to us because, as it was written in John 3: 16,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

And if God’s grace is a gift to us, how then can anything we do get us into heaven? This is an interesting question; it is a question that can cause us long sleepless nights. What can we do to get into heaven?

Nicodemus was faced with such a dilemma. He came to Jesus seeking to find out how it was that Jesus could be doing what He was doing. As Jesus told him, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

To my mind, this is one of the most important statements in the whole New Testament. Unless we are born again, we cannot see the kingdom of God. This statement was very hard for Nicodemus to understand because he was listening to it with his old way of thinking. As Nicodemus replied, “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

Nicodemus still thought that the way to heaven was through strict adherence to the law. Yet the law was often times contradictory and you could find yourself easily violating one point of the law while upholding another one. That is true even today. In our secular society, we seek to meet the requirements for success that are imposed on us by our culture and our society, often times to find that when we reach success, we find our lives lacking something or that the definition of success has changed.

As Jesus told Nicodemus, “ we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” This means that as long as we continue to believe in terms of the law, in believing that what you do is our key to heaven, then there was no way that we can ever understand the message Jesus was telling.

The period of Lent is a period of preparation. It is a journey that begins when we accept Christ into our lives. But we must first change our way of thinking. We must go beyond the old way of thinking, of trying to live within the boundaries of society and its laws. It is a journey based on faith and understanding what Christ expects from us. Faith is something that we cannot learn. God spoke to Abraham

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

So Abram left, as the Lord has told him;

And without hesitation, Abraham left for the Promised Land. And each time that Jesus called one of his disciples to follow him, they did so without hesitation.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5: 10b – 11)

Later, Jesus called the last two disciples, Phillip and Nathanael, Nathanael first expressed disbelief about Jesus. He said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” because it was a popular belief that no one from that town was any good. Yet Jesus knew who Nathanael was,

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 47 – 51)

The promise that God made to Abraham, the promise that Jesus made to his disciples, came only through the faith that they, Abraham and the disciples, put in God and Jesus. As Paul wrote, “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be grace”

Jesus challenged Nicodemus to change his way of thinking, to go beyond simply living the law and to have faith that God did love him. It was not necessary to return to his mother’s womb because as Nicodemus knew, that was physically impossible. But Nicodemus could let the Spirit of the Lord come into his live and he could then be born again.

The invitation that Christ gave to Nicodemus is also given to us. It is an invitation to see God as a gracious and womb-like, offering the sanctuary of shelter that we often need. This is in contrast to a view of God through the law where He would be the source and enforcer of requirements, boundaries and divisions. Christ’s invitation to be born again, to accept the presence of the Holy Spirit, is an invitation to take a different path for the rest of our live.

The path that He gives us is a much more difficult one, but only if we view it with our old way of thinking. If we take this new path, we find a life that is more and more centered in God and one in which we have a deepening relationship with the Spirit of God.

Just like Nicodemus had a hard time accepting the invitation, so too is it hard for us. After all, our old way of thinking does not confirm the reality of the Holy Spirit; the only reality that we can be certain is the visible world of our ordinary experience. And in this view, the only means of obtaining satisfaction is through the material world. We live our lives, measuring our self-worth and level of satisfaction based on how well we measure up to what the material world defines as success. Not only is this burdensome and often times unreachable, but when we do reach success, we finds the results, the rewards unsatisfying.

Jesus’ invitation, to Nicodemus to be born again, for the disciples to follow him, challenges and changes our way of thinking. It shows us that the Holy Spirit is real and that God is real. Consider what happened to Job. At the end of the Book of Job, after Job has experienced a dramatic self-disclosure of God, he exclaimed, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds thee.” (Job 42: 5)

When we view the world with our old way of thinking, we cannot envision a God who would give up his only son; we cannot envision Christ dying on the cross for our sins. In our old way of thinking, the law traps us, forcing us to seek things and rewards that are extremely fleeting.

The gospel of Jesus – the good news of Jesus – is that there is a way of being that moves beyond both secular and religious conventional wisdom. The path of transformation that Jesus spoke about leads from a life of requirements and measuring up (whether it is to the daily culture we live in or to God) to a life of a relationship with God. Though the path that Jesus puts before us may look narrow, rough and rocky, it leads us away from a life of anxiety and towards one of peace and trust; from a life centered in culture to a life centered in God.

Jesus challenged his disciples to follow him, to go from being just fishermen to becoming fishers of men. Jesus challenged Nicodemus to be born again, to be born of the Spirit. The disciples followed through faith and came to understand Jesus’ message when the Holy Spirit came to them. Nicodemus went away, probably more confused than he was when first came to Jesus that night so long ago. How will you accept Jesus’ challenge and invitation? Will you hold to the old way of thinking and not understand? Or will you accept the Holy Spirit and accept Christ as your Savior? It is a new way of thinking. But then again the life that you lead as a result is a new life, one in Christ.


Back to the Fundamentals


Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent.

I have decided to try something different this week (and for the next few weeks). Instead of footnoting the scriptures, as I have done in the past, I am simply going to list them up front. The scriptures for this week are Genesis 12: 1 – 4, Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.

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As I have noted in the past, I bowl in the USBC Open national bowling tournament. I have also noted the connection between bowling and the church (see “Bowling and the Church”).

This year is scheduled to be my 31st consecutive tournament. This is by no means a record, not even in my own family. My mother bowled in 36 WIBC national tournaments and so I still have a few years before I hold the family record.

Back in 2002, I received my award for participating in my 25th tournament and my mother was there to see me receive it. Since it was a rather unique situation for a mother and son to have such a participation history, a reporter from the local paper interviewed us. We both noted that when we were struggling, we went back to the fundamentals.

But when one speaks of fundamentals in bowling or in any other sport for that matter, one is speaking about the basic understanding of the sport. It should be the same in religion as well. When one speaks of the fundamentals in religion, it should be a discussion of the basic understanding of what one believes and what one does.

The fundamentals are the starting point. They are what you start with so that you can grow. But fundamentalism in religion has taken on an entirely different meaning and those who call themselves fundamentalists miss the point.

To me, the Bible is a living document. Its message is one that resonates throughout the ages. It grows with you and provides the means for one’s own growth. But fundamentalists speak of the Bible as unchanging and inerrant, fixed in time and meaning.

When Clarence Jordan wrote his series of books, The Cotton Patch Gospels he took original Greek translations and translated them into words that the people of Georgia could understand. Instead of faraway places that no one knew about, he put the localities on a map, the people understood. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians became a letter to the Christians in Atlanta; Paul’s letter to the Galatians became the letter to the churches of the Georgia Convention; Paul’s letter to the Ephesians became the letter to the Christians in Birmingham and so forth. Instead of writing to the Romans, Clarence Jordan wrote to the Christians in Washington. The words of the letters may have changed but their meanings did not. In his letter to Washington, Clarence Jordan still has Paul pointing out that it is faith, not an adherence to the law that brings salvation.

As I noted two weeks ago (“Where Do We Go From Here”), Clarence Jordan’s translation of Matthew 28: 19 (go into the world and make disciples of all the nations) became “As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you.” It makes a difference, don’t you think?

And how much trouble would we have avoided if we understood that the first syllable in Adam is pronounced with a soft “a” and not a hard “a” sound. How much trouble would the churches of today have avoided if they understood that Adam is not the name of a single man but the name for all mankind?

To understand the Bible takes more than simple acceptance of the words that appear before you. You must seek and explore what is written. There are contradictions in what is written but they are only contradictions to those who do not study the words. And when you demand strict adherence to the words, without understanding what they mean, you are just like those Paul was referring to the passage from Romans for today. Faith is more than adherence to the Law and adherence solely to the Law will not gain you anything.

It is that dilemma that faces Nicodemus when he visits Jesus that one night so long ago. For he has heard of what Jesus is doing and he has seen what Jesus is doing but he cannot understand how such things can be done according to the Law. And when Jesus tells him that he must be born again, he is further confused.

I would classify Nicodemus as a concrete thinker, one who can only explain what is in front of him in terms of what he already knows. To understand what Jesus is doing requires a further step in intellectual development, a step from concrete thinking into the realm of abstract thinking.

There is nothing wrong with concrete thinking. It serves us well in so much of what we do in our daily lives. It has been shown that we can live almost entirely without changing the structure of our thinking.

But concrete thinking is limited. It cannot explain the motion of Mars in a backward motion across a field of stars when all the other visible planets move forward. The earlier version of the solar system had the earth as the center and it made sense. The sun and planets moved across the sky in an orderly fashion. But on occasion the planet Mars moved in what we call retrograde motion; in other words, it moved backwards. To explain this within the framework of the geocentric model of the solar system took some doing. Copernicus offered an explanation that was rejected by the church and the political establishment as essentially heretical. But when Galileo saw moons orbiting Jupiter, the explanations of Kepler and Copernicus made sense and a new explanation, a new theory for the solar system was developed. It, of course, met with resistance because it was radical and it challenged the mindset of the time.

We live in two worlds, one of physical reality and one of faith. We have to have these two worlds if we are to be a complete person. We cannot live in only one of these worlds. There is a wall between these two worlds.

But too many people today are trying to tear down this wall and merge the two worlds into one. Some try to do this by creating law after law that will dictate what we are to believe and how we are to act. Others try to tear down the wall by arguing that everything can be explained by its physical evidence and if there is no physical evidence, then it cannot exist. But when you try to tear down the wall between faith and reality, you remove the completeness of the person.

What is required of us is not to remove the wall but to rise above it. Being born-again means thinking at a higher level, of thinking “beyond the walls”, or as, as George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “to think of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’”. Being born-again means transcending the wall and opening one’s life to both worlds, not destroying one or the other.

Some may disagree with my explanation of being born-again but what does it mean to be born-again if not to see the world in a different way?

This is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus. When your thinking is limited to the world around you, you can see things but you cannot explain them. And you cannot go beyond this present world if your thinking is limited. In coming to Jesus, your perception of the world changes; you see things differently.

That is, I think, what faith is about. It allows you to do many things that could not otherwise be done. It was Abraham’s faith that allowed him to move from his homeland to a new and uncharted country. It was Abraham’s faith that fulfilled the promise of mankind. Nothing Abraham saw would give him the answers that faith would. Nothing that Abraham did would guarantee the results that God promised.

Paul’s words to the Romans ring true this day. We can never gain salvation by limiting our lives by the law or by physical evidence.

The fundamental truth is that we must open our hearts and our minds. The laws provide the structure for growth, not the answers to the questions that lie before us. And if we seek to find answers in the physical evidence (if we seek to know why the wind blows where it chooses or why it makes the sound it does), we will fail. The only way we are going to find the answers is that moment in our life when we open our hearts, our minds, and our soul to the Holy Spirit.

During this season of Lent, we are constantly reminded of our need to repent, to return to God and lead the life He would have us live. We are asked, essentially, to go back to the fundamentals. But the fundamentals are only the starting point.

The fundamental truth is one that we were given that night that Nicodemus sought Jesus. God loves us so much that He sent His only Son that who would ever believe in Him would not perish but gain eternal life. He sent His son to save this world, not condemn it.

It is our choice. We can live in a world restricted by law and a lack of understanding and die. Or, we can follow Jesus and teach what we were taught so that others will know; we can believe and be saved.