Open doors


Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the bulletin of Fishkill UMC for this coming Sunday, May 12, 2019 (4th Sunday of Easter, Year C).

While I had heard the name, Rachel Held Evans, until two weeks ago, I did not know she was.  But with her illness and death, I have come to know that this talented Christian writer and mother reached and touched the hearts and souls of many people, in and outside the church.

Raised in a conservative church environment, she began questioning her faith, I believe, during high school.  (I will be adding a link to a blog post she wrote a few years ago about science and faith later today or tomorrow). But instead of destroying her faith, as the conservative church establishment says will happen, her faith grew, widened, and became stronger.  Because of this conflict, RHE (as she was known) found it necessary to leave the church of her birth but she found a home in the Episcopal Church.

In seeing all the notes and quotes people had gathered, I saw the following:

“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” ― 

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

For many, the Book of Revelation is a violent and exclusionary book.  But the message of the Bible is just the opposite, that God’s Kingdom is open to all who seek God.  In writing Revelation, John was writing to a church under persecution by the political authorities.  His words are words of hope and a promise.

The church today is again under attack, by religious and political groups who would seek to shut the doors to all but a select few.  Our task is to remind the world that God’s Kingdom looks more like us than it does the halls of power and authority.  Our task is to open the doors to all who seek God.

~~Tony MItchell

“Overcoming the Darkness”


This will be the back page of the bulletin at Fishkill UMC this coming Sunday, May 5, 2019, the 3rd Sunday of Easter (Year C)

As Howard Carter peered into to enter the tomb of Tutankhamen and saw all the treasures of the untouched tomb, he told his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, that he saw, “things, wonderful things.”

When the disciples first peered into the Tomb, they saw nothing but darkness.  And in that darkness, they saw no future.  A few years later, Saul, in his blindness, also saw no future.  John the Seer also saw a darkness enveloping his community.

Today, there are many of us who see that same darkness, a darkness created by fear, ignorance and hatred, enveloping our world and our faith.  It is a darkness that threatens our future.

But as the darkness enveloped his community, John the Seer saw God’s Kingdom, a light of hope and promise.  And though Ananias may have been afraid when God directed him to help and guide Saul, he trusted in God.

On that day on the beach two thousand years ago, with no vision of the future, the disciples saw the Risen Christ.  The reality of the Risen Christ helped them to have a vision for the future.

Just as John the Seer saw the new Kingdom as a vision for the future, we too have that opportunity.  Just as the disciples heard their mission that day, so too do we know that our mission is to bring God’s Kingdom to all, not just a few.

The Risen Christ removes the darkness of the world and brings a new light of hope and promise to it.  For us and those whom we meet on our journey, the future is filled with things, wonderful things through Christ.                                                                                ~~Tony Mitchell

That Particular Moment in Time


A Meditation for 13 April 2016, the 3rd Sunday of Easter (Year C). The meditation is based on Acts 9: 1 – 6, 7 – 20; Revelation 5: 11 – 14; and John 21: 1 – 19.

When I first began teaching chemistry back in 1971, I had only a rudimentary knowledge of how to teach. I knew the subject but I was still in the process of learning the nuances of teaching and I knew very little about how students learned chemistry. And to top it off, my first teaching assignment was not in a traditional setting.

Highland High School used a modular plan where each class had one or two periods of lecture, one or two periods of recitation, and one or two periods of laboratory work during on a six-day cycle (which was nice because the cycle kept going, even if there was a break in the regular routine).

But that meant that I had deal with something that didn’t really exist in the traditional Monday through Friday, five periods a day, school calendar and that was laboratory time. So it was that I had to begin developing laboratory experiments.

And like a lot of my colleagues, then and perhaps even now, I borrowed from what I knew from college. I would do the same experiments that I knew from college because I had copies of my notes so I knew what to expect and it was a lot easier to do it that way.

Now, some forty years or so later, I still don’t have the knack for creating experiments that one can use in a teaching laboratory. And what is done in the teaching laboratory today today needs to be done on what is called a micro-scale level and be “green” or environmentally friendly. Were I to be in a position to teach future chemical educators, this is one area that I would really be looking at, if for no other reason than it begins to give the educator an idea of how students learn.

Now, this is has nothing to do with the Scripture readings but since I am at this point, it needs to be said. Students learn best when they actually do the stuff one is talking about in class; you really cannot learn something simply by being in lecture all the time. If you don’t do the work, it never really gets understood.

Even Jesus understood that point. Remember that He sent 72 of his group out into the world while He was still in the three year period of ministry. He sent them out to do what He had been doing and to prepare them for what they were going to be doing when He left.

Now, back to the Scriptural train of thought. The other thing that happened during those first two years of teaching was that I developed an understanding of how students learn chemistry. It was, if you will, the beginning of my “aha!” moment (I first defined this idea in “The AHA Moment”; I expanded on this idea a bit in posts linked to that post).

Without realizing it, I was learning what Jean Piaget learned in the early 50s; that students go through a series of stages of learning. In chemistry, they come into the class at the concrete level, comfortable with what is before them and able to use those examples to find the answers to similar problems. But during the time frame in which they are taking chemistry, they are transitioning to a more abstract level, whereby they assimilate the information and are able to use it to solve new problems.

This is a critical point in today’s world. When faced with a problem, we are very apt to fall back on what we know as a way of solving the problem. In the days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, the disciples do just that.

They are certain about what to do, so they go back to doing what they know. And in the case of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, they go fishing. And as we read in today’s Gospel reading, there is that moment when Peter recognizes Christ. It is Peter’s “aha!” moment. And things change as a result. In the dialog that follows, Peter gets a better understanding of what the past three years have been about and what his life is to be in the coming years. Each disciple, each individual who encountered Christ in that period had, I am sure, a similar moment.

There are some who say that your “aha!” moment has to be a dramatic one, such as Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. And for some, that is probably the case. For many others, their moment is more like that of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, when you understand in your mind and heart what is happening.

In my collection of sayings is the following quote from the The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the Torah,

In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.”

Each of us has our own particular “aha!” moment. Though there may be some commonality between our own moment and the moments of our friends, there is no requirement that they be alike. And by the same token, we should not expect our moment to be an exact copy of our friends’ moments or that our friends’ moments should be an exact copy of ours.

The most critical thing about this experience is that it must be reinforced. You can have that moment but if you are not careful, you can lose it. You cannot simply say that you have had the moment and then move on; you must make sure that the moment has taken hold in your life. Perhaps that is why Paul’s moment was so dramatic and why he was blinded. He needed for that moment to take hold; Wesley’s understanding of his own moment came about because he had been preparing for it, though perhaps without understanding that was what he was doing.

But, and that is one of the most important roles of the church in today’s society, we can help each other to find that moment, that particular moment in time when we each come to Christ. In a world where Christianity has quickly become a negative term, the challenge is for those who have Christ in their hearts to find ways to express that experience.

Now, I realize that I do not espouse the traditional line that the mission of Christians is to make disciples of all the peoples of the world. I have had too many negative experiences with individuals who tried to force their encounter with Christ on me and who suggested that if I did not accept that idea that I was doomed.

In one aspect, and I have said this before, they may have been correct. If I do not accept Jesus Christ as my Savior and I choose no other path, then I am probably doomed. But that is my choice. On the other hand, if I understand that Christ’s command to teach those they encounter about Christ (which is what is means to make disciples), then I have to show them what it means to be a Christian and give them the opportunity to become one.

And when we think about that moment when Jesus stood up in his hometown synagogue and told those who were there that he had come to heal the sick, feed the hungry, help those oppressed and bring hope to the world, he outlined what it is that we need to be doing. Throughout His entire ministry, Jesus opened doors and offered opportunities to all who sought Him.

There is one particular moment in time when each one of us sought and found Him; there will be one particular moment in time when others will find Him. It is our task to help make that time a reality.

A Rock and Roll Revival


I am at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, are Acts 9: 1 – 6 (7 – 20), Revelation 5: 11 – 14, and John 21: 1 – 19.

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A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for my blog entitled “A Rock and Roll Revival”. In it, I set down an order of worship based almost entirely on 60s rock and roll music. It was done partially because of a piece that I had written that earlier week (“Are You Ready?”), partially in fun, and partially because of how I felt about the music being passed off today as modern worship music.

Now, let me say that there is some very nice modern worship music in the world today and when it is played properly, it adds to the service as it should. But most of what I hear does little for me and I truly believe it only exists because someone thinks that the only way to get the young people to come to church is with guitars and drums and rock and roll sounding hymns. It doesn’t work for me and I am not certain for how many people it does work.

There is much to be said about the place and role of music in the worship service. Throughout my life I have had an appreciation for music of all ages and kinds. I appreciate the beauty and workmanship of a Bach cantata or a Mozart oratorio as much as I appreciate the guitar work of Eric Clapton. I can hear the power of God as much in a modern jazz piece or rock and roll as I can in a traditional choral piece or an organ composition.

I wrote two other pieces about the use of rock and roll music in worship services and one of the things that I discovered was that the Irish rock band, U2, allowed certain pieces of their music to be used in a music liturgy (see “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited” for further information about that liturgy and when it can be used.) As Sarah Breuer pointed out, if you are going to use modern music in a worship service, it helps to see what resonates with the congregation.

And that is part of the reason for my choosing the particular title for today’s message and the change implied in the Scriptures for today.

One of the pieces that I suggested in the original worship piece was “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane. I did it because there are clear references in the song to the Gospel reading today, especially the part where Jesus challenges Peter to “feed my sheep”.

Out of curiosity, I checked out the history of this song. Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, who wrote the arrangement that I am familiar with was introduced to one variant of the song in the late 1960s. It had evolved from a 19th century Gospel hymn into a mid-20th century blues-based folk song. But what was interesting, at least for me, was that the roots of this song come from an early 1800s hymn written by John Adam Grande, a Methodist preacher from Tennessee.

 

Now, I cannot speak to what others hear when the song is played or if they even see the connection to the Gospel passage that we read today. But as recently as 2004 Kaukonen and others continue to find a meaning in the song and other such songs where religion is celebrated in one context or another without preaching. Kaukonen has said this material has given him a doorway into the scripture: “I guess you could say I loved the Bible without even knowing it. The spiritual message is always uplifting.” (Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd_(song); see http://mtdalton2.blogspot.com/2008/02/good-shepherd-jefferson-airplane.html for additional thoughts on this song.)

It is interesting to note that some can hear the call from God through rock and roll music. Such a thought is almost contradictory to the ways of the church, or at least the way that many people see the church.

The problem is that too many in the church have a legalistic, formalized view of the church. There is a fixed way to do things and the call that one receives is the same for all, no matter who they are. But the Old Testament reminds us that we were created in the very image and likeness of God. And God will not call us to do something that has nothing to do with what brings you alive in the world today? It may not fit within the category others may have but that is their problem, not yours.

Can we not respond to God’s call through rock and roll music? Are there other ways in which people can even begin to hear God’s call?

Far too many people sit in the church pews across this country every Sunday, the very place where the perception of God’s call and response to it should be of the utmost concern, and have no idea what to do with the experiences they’ve had that bring them alive in this world. They have no idea because, for the most part, the church couldn’t care less what they are feeling.

I think part of the reason is that the church itself doesn’t know how to respond. It is locked into a mind-

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set, if you will, that says there is only one way to read the Gospel and there is only one way to sing the music of the church. And battle lines are drawn when it comes to doing things in new and different ways, so much so that when a new way is created for doing something, it has a way of quickly becoming the old way and not to be touched.

Christianity in this country is a part-time thing, a hobby to occupy our time on Sunday morning. It is something to be stored away during the week and brought out on Sunday for a few short hours.

And in all of this, the message of the church has gotten lost. I came of age during a time when the church was a powerful voice for civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam. But the meaning of this message has, sadly, been lost over time.

The message of the church has become a message of the church that existed before Jesus, a legalistic and controlling entity that told the people what they could and could not do, that created myriad mazes of laws that made it impossible to find hope in the world. That is the church of today as well.

It has been replaced by a Gospel message that requires little but promises a lot. It speaks of exclusion rather than inclusion, of hatred instead of peace, of violence and retribution as the answer instead of peace and justice. It demands an acceptance of knowledge without question; it provides no answer for the myriad questions that many people ask today.

It fosters a belief in the Bible that says the Book of Revelation presents a message of destruction instead of the celebration of a loving God who sent His Son, Jesus Christ. It is lost on many today, Christian and non-Christian, that the total destruction of the world, so often portrayed as the product of John the Seer’s vision is actually the result of several 19th century ministers who interpreted Revelation according to their own world views. If this is the true ending for humanity, then Jesus suffering and death on the cross was for naught. But because the message of the Gospel has been lost, many believe in this final vision of the world.

We expect our music to be traditional music and the reading of the Scriptures to be in the traditional language that we heard growing up. There are many today who say that the only true Word of God is the King James Bible.

Now, I have never understood that reasoning. I am sure that Jesus, the disciples, and members of the early church did not speak in 17th century English nor did they see the “divine right of kings” as an outcome of the Gospel message. If anything, the message of the Gospel spoke against any divine right of any individual to govern the people. What Jesus, the disciples and members of the early church did speak was Aramaic and I doubt that there are many among us today who speak that ancient language. Once again we have someone, notably the monarchy, using a translation of the Bible to validate their own worldview and justify their existence.

What should matter is that we hear the Word of God is such a way that it has meaning for us, not worry about the translation. I have come to enjoy reading the “Cotton Patch Gospels”, a translation of the Scriptures by Dr. Clarence Jordan from Greek into the language of the south. To be honest, if you spoke to me of Corinth, Shiloh, Athens, or Mount Moriah, I am more likely to think of towns and places in the South rather than places in the Middle East and the Holy Land. In Dr. Jordan’s translation, I hear the message in a way that adds a little more meaning. I would have used his translation this morning but he died before completing the translation of the Gospel of John.

And though today’s churches may have lost the Gospel message it has not been lost to the people. God is still calling them and there are people who are striving to hear that call. To hear God means that you need to be open to the moment. It means hearing the scriptures read in a different translation or hearing an old hymn sung in a new way; it means singing with a new voice and seeing with a new vision.

When Saul left Jerusalem for Damascus that day some two thousand years ago, it was with the intent of destroying a movement that threatened the established church. But, on that journey, he encountered Jesus in a way that was truly unexpected. It was an encounter that would change his life so much so that he took a new name.

Our encounters with Jesus, our responses to God’s call may never be so dramatic. We may hear the call in a new song or in a new version of the Scriptures. But it is certain that as we see this unexpected light of Christ, we will find the freedom from the smallness of vision and the limited obedience that strangles us and confines us in this world today. In this revival we find the freedom that we need — the freedom to accept Christ as he comes to us from the world of which He is the Lord; freedom to be with Christ as we answer the call.

It Happened Again


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
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I have said it before and I will say again, “I am not a big fan of the Book of Revelation.” Like many, it seems out of place with the other books of the New Testament, especially in terms of its imagery and tone. It is a book that is filled with symbolism and hidden meanings that perhaps only make sense when read in the context of the period in which it was written. There is even some doubt as to whether the John that wrote this book is the same John who wrote the Gospel of John and the three letters from John. It is certainly not what I would consider to be the culmination of the New Testament.

Yet, there are many today who see the images that John the Seer saw and say that those are the images of today, not 2000 years ago. There are many today who see the events of today, especially the violence and war in the Middle East and say those are the signs of the coming Apocalypse. But those who follow that line of thinking follow a line of thinking that did not come out of 2000 years ago but rather 200 years ago. And it is a line of thinking that is inherently, or at least I think it is inherently, flawed.

We speak of a new hope in Christ and John the Seer writes of a vengeful God who is going to destroy the world because we are not willing to follow the teachings and the manner of Jesus the Christ. And if this world is to end with some major battle on the plains of Armageddon, shouldn’t the ones who are saved be the ones who worked to prevent this battle? Those who proclaim the End Times as described in the Book of Revelation are, at least to me, pushing for this final battle; they are the ones who want the war to end all wars. And I don’t see how God will ever reward those who push for the destruction of the human race and this planet; rather, they will be the ones left behind wondering as to where the true peacemakers went.

I write this today because John the Seer does speak, in the Epistle reading for today (1) of the hope and promise that comes in the presence of Christ. Unfortunately, this week all we heard was wailing of loss and the shouting of blame.
No doubt you have wondered why someone would kill thirty-two people for no apparent reason. And the videotapes that the killer provided offer no answers other than that he was a young man who found himself full of rage and estranged from the world. Sadly, we will never know why. We might ask why he was not helped but we find out that help was offered but he refused the help. We might ask how it was that he was able to get the weapons that he used and we find out that it was all perfectly legal (though later in the week that wasn’t so clear).

We might ask why, in the light of this tragedy, anyone would not want some form of gun control? And then we hear others say that if everyone had a gun and shot first and asked questions later, then such acts of violence would be eliminated. This, of course, precludes the inevitable consequences of having a gun in your possession when you get angry or frustrated but apparently that is not a problem to be considered.

We had better ask why it is so much different when thirty-three people die in a college town in this country as opposed to any number of deaths in Iraq or Darfur or anywhere else. Is it because violence in other countries, the death of young people elsewhere in the world, has no meaning to us? Is violence so much a part of our lives that we can ignore it unless it comes in big numbers?

Are these the End Times that others say John the Seer spoke of? Is all the violence in the world a precursor to something apocalyptic and move violent than we could ever imagine? Or is it simply just a sign of our culture and what we have allowed it to become and what we are turning into? Are we like Saul, blind to the world and the message of Christ? In the April 18th issue of the Kansas City Star (2), Mike Hendricks wrote,

Consider: Why is it that a college student in Virginia can so easily obtain handguns to spray his classmates with deadly bullets?
Because we help make it possible. You and me.

No, we don’t pull the trigger. But we might as well be helping the killers reload by not demanding an end to the easy availability of firearms in this country. We let the NRA have the ears of our politicians, when our voices could be so much louder.

Jeneé Osterheldt wrote,

Everyone wants to point fingers.

Some say hip-hop is the culprit. Others want to blame George Bush. And then there are the truly hateful who blame homosexuality for all the world’s ills.

But they can say what they want, right? We let people use their right to free speech as a shield, their words as weapons.

Are we so blind that we cannot see that there are problems in this world and we are going to be the ones who must solve the problems? Saul could not regain his sight until he went to Ananias and allowed Ananias to heal him. And we have to realize that we are a lot like Ananias in that we do not want to take on the task of dealing with things that are abhorrent to us (3). We would rather simply be who we are and say that we are Christians without having to do anything which proves that we are.

Amidst all the shouting and the accusations, amidst the finger pointing and sorrowful looks, we cannot hear Jesus quietly speaking to us on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But, hopefully, we will be like Peter, quick to realize that it is Christ who is offering us breakfast this morning. But like Peter, we will also know that we have denied Christ. And, like Peter, we will frantically seek to get Jesus the Christ to accept our apologies for not being His faithful servant.

You can almost hear Peter shouting to Jesus, “Please accept my apologies, Lord!” And you can sense the frustration that must have been inside Peter when all Jesus would say is “feed my sheep.” (4)

If we love Jesus as we should, then we must be like Peter, reaching out to others and offering them the Love of Christ. If we love Jesus as Peter did, then we will work to make this a world in which senseless acts of violence become moments in the past.

This is not an easy task by any means. For John the Seer, the world around him was not the safe and serene world that he would have liked it to be. But he saw a future that would be a far better one than the present world around him.
Ananias might have been afraid that helping Saul would be dangerous but, in the end, the future that he feared never materialized. Saul became Paul and the Word of God was brought forth to the world. And, no matter what doubts Peter might have had, he knew that Jesus loved him and he too took the Word of God into the world.

Yes, this week has been one that causes us to fear what might come next week. But if Ananias had let the fear within him control his actions then he might not have gone and healed Peter. Then the Word of God would not have gone forth. If Peter had remained uncertain about where he stood with Christ, he would have never sought forgiveness and then there would have been no one to take care of the new church and the people that were to come. If we allow our fears to control us, we lose sight of Christ and what we are supposed to do in His name. If we allow our fears and our uncertainties to control our lives, then it is certain that the tragedy of last week will happen again.

If we let the fears of the world dictate what we are to do, then we will not be there when others cry out. We cannot let the fears of the world do that; we must be there at that moment when others need us. It is comforting to know that there was a United Methodist presence in Blacksburg this week. It is also comforting to know that the Wesley Foundation was able to offer comfort and support to its campus community this week. I add this little thought because there are some places where the discussion is to take the Wesley Foundation off campus. If the fears and the darkness of the world are allowed to rule the world, then where will students go for solace, comfort and support? The fears and darkness of the world will rule if we let it. And then the tragedy of last week will most definitely happen again.

If we listen to God, just as Ananias and Peter did, then we can carry the Word of God out into the world, we too offer the hope and promise of Jesus Christ to those without hope. And then the joy and peace found in Christ will happen again.
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(1) Revelation 5: 11 – 14
(2) My thanks to Andy Bryan (http://entertherainbow.blogspot.com/index.html) for first posting these comments
(3) Acts 9: 1 – 6 (7 – 20)
(4) John 21: 1 – 19