The Music We Hear


This will be on the back page of the Sunday, April 22, 2018 (4th Sunday of Easter, Year B) bulletin for Fishkill United Methodist Church.


If you haven’t figured out by now, music is very much a part of my life.  Music, however you may choose to do it, is a cooperative effort.  Looking at the Scripture readings for today, I should be referencing Jefferson Airplane.  But since I used that reference a couple of weeks ago, I will settle for the Grateful Dead!

Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, wrote:

“To fall in love is to fall in rhythm.” It is love for each other by which we know we are followers of Jesus, the ever-attentive shepherd. In the face of societal rules and attitudes that strive to foster “everyone for themselves,” they will know we are Christians by our love. How can we listen to the music that draws us together, “falling in rhythm” with neighbor to build up the whole?

We must understand that we are a part of a world and what we do in this world affects others.  Our lives are lived in a rhythm with others, whether we want to or not. If we live in a world in which we are only for ourselves, how can we even care about others and then call ourselves Christian?

One of my favorite hymns includes the line, “my life flows on in endless song.”  Our lives are in rhythm with those around us and our lives are a song of love and hope.  As Christians, how can we not keep on singing?

~ Tony Mitchell

“A New Plan”


This is the message that I presented at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church, Brighton, TN on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 4 May 1997. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 10: 44 – 48, 1 John 5: 1 – 6, and John 15: 9 – 17.

I should note before I start that I have been told preachers should never preach about money. This sermon, though it may sound like it is about money, is not about money but rather, is about planning.

You have probably heard, read, or seen something dealing with financial planning. Now it may have been an ad from some financial institution or an investment firm talking about retirement; it may been about handling debts. Whatever the ad said, for any financial plan to be successful, it will take a long period of time.

Even if you are planning on winning the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, it takes several months of action on your part for the people with the balloons, the cameras, and the check to appear on your doorstep.

Similarly, God’s plan for each one of us requires a long period of time. From the very beginning, God has been thinking of us. I think it the one great mystery of salvation that God has known us and about us long before we ever came into existence.

The God-who-is has always been searching for me. By his choice, his relationship with me is a presence, as a call, as a guide; he is not satisfied with speaking to me, or showing things to me, or asking things of me. He does much more.

He is Life, and he knows his creature can do nothing without him; he knows his child would die of hunger without bread.

But our bread is God himself, and God gives himself to us as food.

Only eternal life can feed one who is destined for eternal life.

The bread of earth can nourish us only for this finite earth; it can sustain us only as far as the frontier, the bread from our fields is not sufficient; if we want to march along the roads of the Invisible, we must feed on bread from heaven.

This bread from heaven is God himself. He becomes food to us walking in the Invisible. “The God Who Comes” by Carlos Carretto

And Jesus told His disciples that He picked them, not the other way around.

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead I call you friends, for everything I learned from the Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit — fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (John 15: 14 – 16)

Through all of history, God has never forgotten His plan. Whether it was His promise to Noah and his family after the flood

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you — the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you — every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the water of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all l living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.” (Genesis 9: 8 – 17)

or his promises to the Israelites wandering through the wilderness, God has always shown his commitment to the plan. It would seem that every prophet from Isaiah to Joel has spoken of God’s caring for us. We know that God sent His son Jesus because he cared for us, because he had a plan for us. As written in John 3: 16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that who so ever believed in Him would have everlasting life.”

But God’s plan is not single-sided. Though it is by God’s grace that we have been given this plan, we cannot simply stand idly by. Action on our part is required. We cannot know God’s Grace if we do nothing! Even if we wait until that last minute before death to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we know that we will receive God’s grace.

If our hearts, like those who listened to Peter preach, are open to the Holy Spirit, then the Holy Spirit will be there for us.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who came with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. (Acts 10: 44 – 48)

The most difficult thing about following God’s plan is that we often feel that it is too hard, that we cannot meet the challenge. But Jesus only gave us one commandment to follow

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15: 9 – 14)

Granted, this commandment is a hard one. It challenges everything we hear and see today. Consider the Pope. After he had recovered from the attempted assassination, he went to the jail where the assassin was and forgave him. The love that Jesus wants us to show others is like this. While we might agree with the penalties someone must pay for their crimes, how is it that we can forgive someone for their actions? Sometimes, it seems a lot easier to take the easy way out. The recent meeting in Philadelphia shows such a conflict. How many people are willing to volunteer, how many people are willing to help others? I have always been amazed that those who help others often times are not far removed from the situations that the ones they are helping are in. Consider the following thought:

We should try to be so closely united to Our Lord that we reproduce his life in our own, that our thoughts and words and actions should proclaim his teaching, so that he reigns is us, lives in us. He so often enters within us in Holy Communion. May his Kingdom reign in us.

If he sends us happiness let us accept it gratefully. Like the Good Shepherd he sets us in rich pasture to strengthen us to follow him later into barren lands. If he sends us crosses let us embrace them and say ‘Bona Crux,’ for this is the greatest grace of all. It means walking through life hand in hand with our Lord, helping him to carry his Cross like Simon of Cyrene. It is our Beloved asking us to prove how much we love him. Whether in mental suffering or bodily pain ‘let us rejoice and tremble with joy.’ Our Lord calls us and asks us to tell him of our love and repeat it over and over again all through our sufferings.

Every cross, great or small, even small annoyances, are the voice of the Beloved. He is asking for a declaration of love from us to last whilst the suffering lasts.

Oh, when one thinks of this one would like the suffering to last forever. It will last as long as Our Lord wishes. However sweet the suffering may become to us, we only desire it at such times as Our Lord sends it. Your will be done, my Brother Jesus, and not mine. We long to forget ourselves, we ask nothing, only your glory. (“Meditations of a Hermit” by Charles de Foucauld

Life today is not easy. There are cynics among us who would ridicule us for believing in Jesus today. But I think that many of these people are probably leading very miserable lives today.

I can imagine John sitting down writing those letter to his friends and thinking about the problems he had to endure as a disciple of Jesus. But he could remember what Jesus told his disciples.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15: 12 – 14)

Today, John tells us

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

This is the one who came by water and blood — Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is truth.

God’s plan is very simple actually. Accept Jesus Christ into our heart and then live a life which shows that Christ is a part of our lives, loving others as we know Christ has loved us.

Defining Love


I am at Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan, NY, this morning (location of the church). The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 6th Sunday of Easter and Mother’s Day, are Acts 10: 44 – 48, 1 John 5: 1 – 6, and John 15: 9 – 17. Their services start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

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I am at the end of a three-week journey as a lay speaker. Two weeks ago I spoke about the continuation of the church and how, among other things, how the local church is part of the community (“Passing the Torch”). Last week I spoke of the encounter one has with Jesus (“A Chance Encounter”). I mentioned that I felt that each person’s encounter with Jesus was unique and that one should not necessarily expect others to have an encounter like their own nor should they expect their encounter to be like someone else’s encounter.

Our personal journey with Christ is just that, a journey and a personal one. Our role as individuals and as a church in all of this is to be of assistance, to help the journey begin, to help with the encounter, and to help after the encounter. It is simply a matter of being there.

For no matter where your journey may lead you, it is not always going to be an easy one. There are going to be rough times as well as good; there are going to be moments of sadness as well as joy. And while we would like to just have the good times, we have to realize that there will be bad times as well. And we need a place where we can share the joys and find support for the bad times. And if the church is not there, where will many people find the support and comfort needed on their own journey? How will people find that support and comfort? Where can people share their joys and sorrows?

For me, one of those bad times was the spring of 1969. Not much had gone right the previous few months and I had just completed the worst quarter of my academic career, one that effectively killed any hopes of receiving any sort of academic honors when I graduated from college. I was not failing by any means but sometimes failure is a selective standard and I was not at the level where I wanted to be.

The pressure that I felt internally was increased by pressure from my family and compounded by questions about the draft. For the record, I was not nor am I necessarily opposed to military service; how could I as the son of an Air Force officer and the grandson of an Army officer? I just didn’t, and I still don’t, like the idea of a draft. The idea of the draft seemed, to me, undemocratic; if you want someone to serve in the Air Force, Army, Navy, or Marines, give them reasons that make sense; don’t force them to join.

Now, because of how I began college, I turned 18 one month after the start of my sophomore year in college and I dutifully attempted to register for the draft. At Christmas that year (1968) I found out that I had not, in fact, registered for the draft when I thought I had. And while I corrected that matter rather quickly, I spent the better part of the beginning of 1969 worried that I would be called into service. And with the poor winter quarter grades that I received, I was certain that I would be in Army by the summer of 1969, a future that I did not want or even envision.

It did not help matters much that by 1969, the justification for the expansion of the war in Viet Nam was fast disappearing. The arguments being made for the war at that time were no longer being accepted by the American people and they could not or would not view the combat losses as acceptable losses (an interesting counterpoint to today’s society, to say the least). So I became involved, or it would be better to say that my involvement in the anti-war movement on my college campus increased. It wasn’t a big movement as it was on other, far larger campuses, but it was there, though not readily accepted by the college administration or the town. Truman State, then known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College, was and is in the heart of conservative farm country and most people felt that it was your duty and right to serve in the Army and to do so without questioning the reasons or the rationale.

Do I follow my heart and mind or do I follow the crowd? That’s one of the great questions that every college sophomore, in fact every person has to answer at one point in their life. I found the answer myself because one of the things that I learned at Truman was to think and to think independently. And while I found support for my decisions in the pastors of the college community churches, including the pastor of the 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville (Marvin Fortel) and the pastor of the Wesley Foundation (Dick Todd), I also found a part of my soul as well, something I will come back to in a moment.

And so it was that as Mother’s Day, 1969, approached, amidst all the turmoil in my life, I had to come up with something to give my mother for Mother’s Day. And it happened that I discovered an organization called “Another Mother for Peace”. They made a necklace that had on it the statement “War is not healthy for children and other living things”. It was a statement of the times, it was a statement that I could believe in then and now, and I thought it would be a good gift for my mother. And for the record, “Another Mother for Peace” is still active today and has its own web site at www.warisnothealthy.org.

But after my mother received this gift from the heart of her oldest son, she wrote a very stern letter indicating a disapproval of my extra-curricular political activities (you should have heard what she said when I was involved in a civil rights protest later that same spring but that is a story for another time and place (see “Side by Side” and “Side by Side” if you can’t wait). But, and what is so important to the meaning of today, she told me that she would keep the necklace because I was her son and she loved me.

Later she would tell my niece, her third granddaughter, in an interview for a high school project that she was relieved that neither my two brothers nor I were drafted and required to go off to war.

If I were to define love, it is with the understanding that it will not be done from the traditional standpoint of the three definitions from the Greek word for love. That is a philosophical exercise that has been played out too many times in the past. Rather, it has to be done within the framework of my mother’s reaction to that 1999 Mother’s Day gift.

I know that neither of my parents approved of my anti-war stance nor my civil rights stance but they never stopped loving me. My journeys in life would take far from my home in Memphis but never far from the heart of my mother.

Love isn’t always the automatic acceptance of someone but the ability to accept what they do. My mother’s love was unconditional.

It was part of the foundation that she laid down for each of us, my two brothers, my sister, and me. She laid the foundation so that we could choose our own path, knowing that no matter where it may lead, we would be supported in our efforts. In our Momma we knew there was a home to come to in times of strife, struggle, and celebration.

When I married Ann in 1999, Momma rejoiced. She jokingly told Ann that now she, Ann, was stuck with me and that I couldn’t come back home. But in a more serious vein, Momma told Ann that she was happy that I had found someone to love and care about me; that now she didn’t have to worry so much about my happiness.

Momma was patient with us, teaching us right from wrong. Rewards came when we did well. We were encouraged to, if you will, do our own thing. This doesn’t mean that we could do just about anything that we wanted. If we did wrong, we could expect punishment. It was sometimes harsh, sometimes hard, and sometimes stern but always, always with the understanding that we were still loved. Still, we had to eat the Brussels sprouts that were every so often a part of the supper meal.

But against that was the incident somewhere in Louisiana in the early 1960s when we were traveling from Texas to North Carolina. We had spent the night in a motel and were ordering breakfast. Breakfast on the road was a treat for us because we got to order what we wanted. Each of us, my two brothers, my sister and I, each ordered something (though I think my mother ordered from my sister who was only two or three at the time) and we anxiously awaited this joyous repast to begin our day of travel.

Each of us received the breakfast that we had ordered but each plate also had on it a mysterious white, gelatinous-like substance on it. In a single voice, my two brothers and I asked, “Momma, what’s that white stuff??” To which she, a Southern born and bred mother, replied, “Those are grits; you don’t have to eat them.” A mother’s love can be expressed in many ways and allowing us the privilege or opportunity to not eat grits that morning in Louisiana was one such expression.

Were my parents perfect? Far from it; there were times when we thought they were the most horrible and terrible parents one could ever imagine. Did we want them to express their love in perhaps the more traditional ways, say by buying us a car or new clothes when we didn’t need them? Of course we did. And there were times we would have liked to have heard it stated more clearly that everything was going to turn out alright or that we had done a fine job or made a valiant effort. Every child wants to hear those words. But in the end, what our parents did was give us the opportunity to be who we were to be, not who they wanted us to be.

But I know of too many parents today where love is conditional, where receipt of the love, in whatever form it may be wished, comes with a price, a price that sometimes cannot be paid. There are many parents who will say to their children that they must go to this school or get this degree or marry this person if they want their parents’ love. And there are many children who feel that they must do something like that if they are to gain their love and support.

Such love is a far cry from the love that Jesus expressed in the Gospel message for today, an unconditional love that reaches out, that creates and demands respect, that lifts people up and offers them hope. The love that we are to have is a love that is an expression of our love for God. Remember what John called those who would say that they loved God but did not love their brothers and sisters? He called them hypocrites. He reinforces that sentiment today. If we love the one who conceived the Child, then we will surely love the child who was conceived. The proof is in our ability to keep God’s commandments and the first of these is to love others as you would have them love us (yes, I am paraphrasing several thoughts).

But I fear that today we have forgotten how to love in this way. We find it so much easier to hate. We find it easier to put labels on people that enable us to make them a second class or lower. There are those who would have us create a society much like the Old Testament with clear lines of demarcation between peoples, a society in which the chosen are protected and the others are cast aside. They would create a society where God’s gifts are only available to a select few and not the many and where they, the select few, get to decide who will receive those gifts.

Look again at the reading from Acts for today. Those who had come with Peter that day could not believe it when “outsiders” received the Holy Spirit in the same manner that they had. I can imagine what some of those in the Church of England must have said when Wesley reported on his work in the prisons and the mines, in the mills and the countryside. But I also can imagine how those who received the Holy Spirit that day recorded in Acts must have felt and I am sure those who heard Wesley’s words and the words of others in the Methodist Revival of the 18th century must have felt when they were told that they were loved by God through Christ as much as those who lead the rich and privileged life.

There are many today who have heard the words of the United Methodist Church spoken at the General Conference held the past two weeks. They heard the words of hatred and ignorance, words that would seek to expel people from the arms of God because they are different. Growing up in the south, I have heard those words before; one cannot help but remember hearing people who say they are Christians speak of other human beings as lesser persons because of the color of their skin or the nature of their religion. Those who say they are Christian but act this way go to great lengths to twist the words of the Bible and science to justify their policies, policies which have and continue to lead to the death of thousands.

On day when the words from the pulpit will speak of a mother’s love for a child and a child’s love for their mother, it is perhaps discomforting to hear that we find it easier to hate. But John, writing to the people, noted that those who believe in Christ, who have experienced and live the love of God through Christ, will win.

In a world where violence and strife seem to be constant occurrence, where the words of hatred and prejudice seem so commonplace, how can love prevail?

The good news is that there are those who have rejected those words, those attitudes, and that culture. They are the ones who began a journey two thousand years ago, who traveled a path known as “The Way”. They shared their property, their gifts, and their story about Jesus Christ with all who they meet along the way. Persecuted at the beginning, they changed the world.

This journey continued when a group of friends gathered on the Oxford University campus in England to pray together, read the scripture and go forth to the mills, mines, and prisons in England. Called “Methodists” by those who ridiculed them, they wore the name as a badge of honor. And when John Wesley understood deep in his heart that he was loved by God, the movement that became the Methodist Revival swept across England and through the American colonies and changed the world.

I know two things today. I know of my mother’s love for me. I know of Christ’s love for me, even when I strayed from the path that He would lay before me. I know that were it not for the presence of 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville and its pastor at the time, Marvin Fortel, and the presence of the Wesley Campus Foundation and its director, Dick Todd, my story would be a different one today and I might not be here at all.

You will also note that the changes brought by the early Christians, the followers of “The Way”, and the members of the Holy Club who would become the founders of Methodism were not the leaders of the church. They were the people of the church who understood through their own experience the love of God and the need to show and express that love to others, no matter who they might be. They sought to open the doors that others had shut.

As I was preparing this message I found these words, written in the aftermath of General Conference.

We are called to love people and reflect God’s presence in whatever culture surrounds us. Love often involves accepting people where they are, in what they believe, and in how they live because that is where God meets each of us and calls us. That means being with and among the people, bearing their suffering, hearing their cries, celebrating their successes, laughing and rejoicing with them, and weeping with them in their pain. I will not meet a single individual today who is not precious to God. From “Reflections on Following Jesus, Culture Wars, Loving People, and Radical Discipleship”

It is clear to me that one thing that came out of the General Conference proceedings was that the top-down model that was to be the salvation and saving model for the church will not work. But then again, anyone who has ever studied how excellence is created in an organization could have told you that; effective change in an organization begins at the local level. Effective change occurs when the local church looks at where they are and what they can do and should be doing. I followed Rebecca Clark’s blogs as she traveled from Vermont to Tampa to participate in General Conference. What she wrote was often not easy to read because she wrote of the strife and struggle she and others encountered during General Conference. But out of that came an opportunity to seek and effect change. In one her latest blogs, she quoted a colleague and friend on Facebook, Pastor Deb, as saying “vital congregations cannot be legislated, or mandated, or created by statistical reporting. The Spirit has begun to empower the people.” (From “Diary of a Delegate: in the end, Hope.”)

Becca Clark also indicated that there is the making of a conversation about the nature of the United Methodist Church and what the future of and for the denomination will be. And this is being done at the local, albeit a 21st century version of the local level, with a TwitterChat. I do not Twitter but if you do or are interested look for #dreamUMC. Further information can be found in Becca Clarks’s post, “Diary of a Delegate: in the end, Hope.”

I am also going to echo some of the thoughts that she posted in next post, “I’m still here.” There are some who would have individuals like Becca and I leave this church, this denomination. She could easily leave and she has options that would allow her to do so. But she is staying in the United Methodist Church because there are others who cannot leave. She concluded her blog by writing,

I’m giving my all for a church that practices the grace we say we believe in, and that orders itself with love and compassion around Wesley’s rule to do no harm and do all the good we can, and I hope we can someday live into his invitation: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

I do not have the options that she has. I have thought about it and I have to think about the love that has been shown to me; the love of the people at 1st UMC and the Wesley Foundation that supported me in a time of crisis; the love of pastors who pushed and prodded me to continue my journey of faith. And then there is the love of a mother that sought to lay a foundation for me so that I may begin a journey.

Love is defined in many ways but it is best defined by that one verse that we as children memorized, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we could be saved.” If you have not done so, you are invited this day to know that you are loved by Christ; if you have accepted Christ this day, you are invited to open your heart and soul to the power of the Holy Spirit so that you can go out into the world and show the love of God to His Children.

Have We Forgotten?


There is an interesting thing about this particular Sunday in the liturgical calendar. As I have been writing my blogs for these past few months, I have been posting my sermons from Walker Valley UMC and Tompkins Corners UMC (this was before I began blogging). But this week, there are no sermons from the two churches. On 28 May 2000, I was in Albuquerque, NM at the USBC Open; on 25 May 2003, I was in Knoxville, TN, for the USBC Open. For the 6th Sunday in Easter in 2006 (21 May), I did post my thoughts (see “Opening the Circle”).

I am again bowling in the USBC Open this year in Las Vegas (it will be 32nd tournament appearance) and it will once again coincide with Pentecost Sunday.

So, here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 6th Sunday of Easter. The scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 10: 44 – 48; 1 John 5: 1 – 6, and John 15: 9 – 17.

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Abraham Lincoln once told us that the government of this country was a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But it doesn’t appear to me that we have that sort of government anymore.

In the period from 1995 to 2005, the gap between the rich and the poor has gotten bigger and there is almost virtually no middle class left. (Gap between Rich and Poor Growing) The number of people unemployed keeps getting larger each week and while the number of foreclosures may be slowing down, they are still much higher than one would expect in “normal” times. The people of this country are hurting and, yet, we are not doing much of anything to ease the pain and suffering.

It has been reported that the money for the stimulus bill was going to areas that didn’t necessarily need the money while areas which needed the funds weren’t getting any funds. In a review of 5,500 planned transportation projects, the Associated Press found that most of the funds are going to be spent in areas that most likely don’t need the money. The government, according to the AP review, is going to spend 50 percent more money on projects in areas with lower unemployment rates than in areas harder hit by unemployment. Elks County, PA, with a unemployment rate of 13.8 percent is not receiving any of the funds while Riley County (home of Fort Riley Army Base), KS, with an unemployment rate of 3.4% is receiving approximately $56 million dollars. (STIMULUS WATCH: Early road aid leaves out neediest). It was also pointed out that it will probably cost the states as much money to manage and distribute the money as they will receive over the course of the stimulus package. (Stimulus funds in states: It costs money to spend)

Somehow, this doesn’t compute. I am sure that there is some sort of logic to what has been done has some logic to it but it is logic of a day and time that is out of step with what is happening. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to create jobs in this country and that if major parts of this country’s economy go down, then jobs will go down with them. But you cannot create jobs that are copies of the jobs created in the 1930’s and expect anything less than 1930’s results. And I do not believe that anything that is being currently done or anything that took place in the last eight years has done anything for the people of this country, unless they happen to be richer than most or more connected than most.

Our healthcare system is broken but the fixes offered only seek to enrich self-interests on both the left and the right sides, not the people. There are solutions to the health care problems of this country that do not involve immense bureaucracies or are driven by the profit motive but no one wants them because they mean that some will have to give up so that others may have something better.

Our schools are in trouble and while there is talk about upgrading things like science and mathematics education, when it is done it will not reduce the inequality between school districts and it will simply mean that the high income school districts will have more money and the low income school districts will have less. And the students in each district will reap or not reap the benefits accordingly.

I don’t deny that we need to work on the infrastructure of this country but it has to be done in a manner which is fair and equitable, not one that responds to the political prowess of each area’s representatives and senators. While the mantra of the political campaign was and still is change, it doesn’t appear that much change has taken place. But that is because the culture hasn’t changed all that much anyway.

We do not need the same old thoughts because, quite honestly, the same old thoughts don’t work. We do not need responses from our political leaders that are reflections of the old political methodologies and mythologies but rather are images of what we can be. We need new ideas and we are not getting them.

I don’t want the conservatives to begin cheering out loud or telling me that they told me so. To the greatest extent, all conservatives have been doing lately is offering resistance and negative comments, not real and viable alternatives.

This isn’t about being a liberal or a conservative; it is about being who we say we are. We proclaim that we are a Christian nation, though such proclamations come from conservatives and not liberals. But, as Christians, we need to remember the words of Christ when He began His ministry some two thousand years ago. He proclaimed that he had come to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and bring hope to the oppressed; yet today the only words that we seem to recall are his command to go and make disciples of all the people.

And while saving the souls of people is critical, if the daily lives of the people are in danger, if there is no food on the table, then it really doesn’t matter what the condition of their soul is. As John Wesley put it,

Has poverty nothing worse in it than this, it makes men liable to be laughed at? Is not want of food something worse than this?

God pronounced it as a curse upon man that he should earn it by the sweat of his brow. But how many are there in this Christian country that toil, and labor, and sweat, have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength? You that live at ease on this earth, that want nothing by eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God has dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none? Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give!

Were it not that he is restrained by an unseen hand, would he not soon curse God and die? O want of bread! Want of bread! Who can tell what this means, unless he has felt it himself? I am astonished it occasions no more than heaviness even in them that believe.

John Wesley, Sermons, Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations III 3 (S, II 270-71) (http://www.umc-gbcs.org/site/c.frLJK2PKLqF/b.4452011/k.7E8E/Quotations_by_John_Wesley.htm)

It seems quite clear to me that we have forgotten who we are when we say that we are Christians. We need to remember that those whose actions some two thousand years ago gave us the name of Christian banded together to insure that no one went hungry, naked, or was sick. Yes, they chastised those who did not carry their fair share of the community responsibility but they took care of everyone. And I don’t really care if that would be called socialism today; it is what those who were called Christian did and it is what those who call themselves Christian today should be doing. Society is on the verge of failure, of meeting its collective responsibility to all its members. We cannot blame either liberals or conservatives for this failure; it is a collective failure of all us.

I also know that those early Christians were tortured because of their faith. And yet, the majority of those who proclaim this country a Christian nation have been remarkably silent on the issue of torture and the treatment of prisoners. Have we forgotten that our Savior was tortured? Have we forgotten that crucifixion is one of the most inhumane means of torture and execution ever devised by mankind? Oh, I suppose that we could point out that neither the political or religious authorities were interested in getting some sort of secret information out of Jesus before they nailed Him to the cross; they simply wanted to put Him up there so that others would understand the consequences of going against the status quo. But torture is torture, no matter the reason it is applied.

And now, conservatives are trying to change the discussion from whether or not we tortured the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere and the justification for doing so to saying that those who opposed it knew all about it.

Let’s face it, any discussion of who knew what when is a non-issue; we should be interested in why nothing was said or done to stop it. We tortured prisoners and it really doesn’t matter whether so and so was told or not. What matters is that we did it and many people stood on the sidelines and stayed quiet.

The moment that it became clear that we were torturing other humans, there should have been the loudest cry of protest ever heard on this planet. But somehow we accept the reason that it was necessary for national security and that important information was gained from the process. But what information was gained and why are there reports indicating that torture doesn’t work and that some of those who were tortured were already providing the desired information before they were tortured.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus points out that we were chosen by Him and that we will bear fruit, fruit that will last. If our concern for other humans is such that we can willingly accept the notion of torturing people, then I have no desire to eat such fruits.

In that same Gospel reading, Jesus proclaimed His love for us and that we were to return that love by loving others as we have been loved. How can we say that we love others as Jesus loved us when we treat other human beings as we have been doing, economically, socially, and politically?

Now, some will tell me that we shouldn’t love those who are seeking, in some way, to destroy us or our way of life. But can we truly protect our way of life when we ignore the principles that we say we believe in? Or are we blind to the signs that we see and hear?

Those who are conservative and fundamentalist are quick to tell you that society is destroying itself and that we need to return to God. I would agree but not in the manner that they would suggest. This is not a proclamation for the need to become an even more Christian nation. If anything, our hollow proclamation that we are a Christian nation yet we do little to stop hunger, heal the sick, and treat all people fairly and equally should tell us how much we have failed.

We have belittled and forgotten what it means to be a Christian and we are reaping the “rewards” of that effort. Time and time again in the Old Testament, we would read about how the nation of Israel would forget how it came into being and follow a path that only lead to destruction and desolation. Time and time again we hear the words of the prophet urging repentance and a return to God. This, by the way, is not done by laws governing moral behavior or a return to days long past; it is done by changing our lives and our thoughts.

We do not live in an Old Testament world; we are a New Testament people, a people whose lives should have been altered by the presence of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to this world, as He did, in order to offer salvation and promise. He knew exactly what was coming and He had many opportunities to change the direction of His life. But if He had done just that, changed the direction of His life, then His life would have had no meaning and our lives would be equally meaningless.

We should not live our life in expectation of death nor should we live our life in fear. Yes, there is evil in this world and there are going to be those in this world who would seek our destruction. But I don’t believe that we can ensure the victory of good over evil by using the methods of evil; whatever else is true, if we choose methods that our opponents use, then we are no better than they are.

Now, you have the right to feel that it is proper to torture prisoners in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. But, please, please, do not say that you are a Christian. You have the right to earn as much money as you want and keep that money and do whatever you want with it. But, please, please, don’t tell me that you are a Christian.

If we say to someone that poverty is the fault of an individual while others earn far more than they will ever need, we are going to have a hard time when Jesus calls us to task as He said He would in Matthew 25. You can look at verses 14 – 30 and decide if one is wasting their talents or verses 31 – 46 about the blindness of society to the sin and evil around them.

If we say that homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, and oppression are none of our concerns then we have forgotten the very words Jesus spoke when He began His ministry. If we say that torturing human beings, for whatever reason, is acceptable then we have forgotten what Jesus said about loving others and our enemies.

Christ came into this world to save it, not destroy it. The hymn says that they will know we are Christians by our love. It was the love of the early Christians for each other and their neighbors that changed this world. Let us not forget why we are Christians and what those who came before us did. We who have accepted Christ as our Savior have been given a task; in two weeks, we shall once again receive the Holy Spirit and be given the power to accomplish that task. Let us not forget what we have been called to do.

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Opening The Circle


This is my regular post for the 6th Sunday of Easter. Next weekend I will be in Corpus Christi, Texas, for my annual trip to the USBC Open tournament. Hopefully, I will able to post something related to the history of bowling and the church. But for now, here are my thoughts for today.
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I have a friend who I am concerned about; he has said some things that are very questionable, at least in terms of where he said them and his current position. What he said was not derogatory or anything of that nature but it brings to question his value system and how it has changed over the almost forty years that I have known him. I suppose what bothers me more than anything else is that he is probably going to ignore my comments and keep moving in the direction that he has been headed for some time. It is as if he drew a circle around himself in order to shut out others. His actions remind me of a poem that has lurked in the back of my mind for many years:

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in! (1)

I always thought that this was a Robert Frost poem but I discovered that it was by Edwin Markham, an American poet who died in 1940. From the cursory information that I found on him, it seems that he was considered a poet of consciousness’ and social justice. Perhaps his words about the drawing of circles and the consideration of social justice should be considered more today. It seems that the church is drawing a circle around itself and not letting others in.

How do you see the church today? Is it open to all who seek to find Christ? Or is it closed, both in spirit and in mind, to those whose lives or attitudes are different from ours? Is the church capable of absorbing the trials of society and still remaining the source of hope, justice, and righteousness that were the promise of the Gospel message some two thousand years ago? Or is the church a rigid and inflexible relic that refuses change and challenges any threats to its existence?

As I am writing this, the DaVinci Code is opening across the United States. Much has been said and written about the book and, now, the movie. I have read the book and found it to be fascinating; it was a good novel. But too many people see it as real and it doesn’t help that churches, both Catholic and Protestant, see it as a threat to their existence. Just as I have written and said in the past with regards to the teaching of evolution and the battle to include intelligent design in the science curriculum, if your faith cannot stand scrutiny under pressure, then perhaps you need to look at your faith before you make changes in the system. This is exactly what is happening with the DaVinci Code and the assorted other books that have come out lately, all with the notion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had a child, and lived happily ever after. Some people cannot accept the Crucifixion for what it is and what it means; they have to have a conspiracy theory to explain the unexplainable. You believe in the resurrection of Christ or you do not; there is no middle ground. If your faith is strong, you will be able to withstand the pressure put on you by those whose faith is weak. It seems to me that those whose faith is weak often times try to keep others from questioning faith and belief so as to avoid the testing and questioning of faith.

The church today must be open; it cannot close the circle and not let others in. This is not to say that our basic beliefs and the foundation of our faith changes with the whims of society. It does say that we are open to all whose expression of love for each other expresses the meaning of the Gospel. This was the dilemma of the early church as expressed in the reading from Acts for this morning. (2)

The context for this reading is the question as to whether early Christians had to first be Jewish. Did a Gentile have to first convert to or accept the notion of Judaism before he or she could become a Christian? One of the things that came out of the Book of Acts was that it was not necessary; our reading for today shows us that anyone who accepts the Holy Spirit in their life is welcome in the church.

This merely reinforces what Jesus told the disciples in the Gospel reading for today. (3) When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, our relationship with Him changes. We change from servants, tied to the world, into friends. And just as Jesus laid down His life for us, so too must we also act towards our friends and neighbors.

How we act towards each other, as friends and neighbors in the community of God, or individuals gathered together for one brief moment every Sunday morning, will determine the growth of the church. There are present three current models for church growth; one based on the megachurches like Willow Creek and Resurrection UMC, one based on a conservative, “evangelistic” approach, and one more “diagnostic” in nature.

The megachurch approach minimizes distinctiveness and gives those seeking a church home an anonymous, symbolically neutral, user-friendly church. But how can you be friends in a place where you are one of thousands and there is no immediate evidence of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?

The “evangelistic” approach is based on a conservative theology. Even though evangelism implies taking the Gospel out into the world, most people today equate evangelism and its accompanying approach as closed to the world and exclusive in nature. If you are different from the others in the congregation, it will be very difficult to be a part of the congregation.

The third approach starts off with the assumption that there are systematic problems within the body of the church. Neither the traditions of the church or the theology that the church embraces hinder the growth of the church; rather, the institution itself is broken. It must be fixed or repaired before the church can grow.

There is, fortunately, a fourth style slowly appearing in churches today. It is characterized by a blend of local vision, denominational identity, and Christian practice. Congregations that choose this style embrace or recreate practices that bind them together and connect them with older patterns of living as was to relate to each other in today’s society.

This is a style developed by choice and through reflective engagement, both individually and communally. It is not based on some business model or with a political agenda in mind. It is a style that uses the traditions of the Christian church to move forward. It does require a commitment, it requires nurturing and a willingness to change as God’s spirit directs. (4)

One way is to pay attention to what visitors to this or any church experience on Sunday morning. Will they experience warm hospitality? Will they get a palpable sense of the presence of God? Christopher Schwartz has stated that this is the single most powerful evangelistic outreach possible and through it church growth is possible without the presence or plan of an evangelism program. He concluded his discussion about church growth by noting that all growing congregations have eight traits in common:

  1. Leaders who empower others to do ministry;
  2. Ministry tasks distributed according to the gifts of the members;
  3. A passionate spirituality marked by prayer and putting faith into practice;
  4. Organizational structures that promote ministry;
  5. Inspiring worship services;
  6. Small groups in which the loving and healing power of fellowship is experienced;
  7. Need-oriented evangelism that meets the needs of the people the church is trying to reach;
  8. And loving relationships among the members of the church.

Schwartz maintains that if all eight of these characteristics are present, congregations will grow naturally and organically, without the need for an evangelist program.

This can be quite a challenge for many people. Some people think that the task of sharing the Gospel is harder than it actually is. It would seem that, as the humorist Dave Barry once wrote, the people who are the most interested in telling you about their religion don’t want to hear about yours.

Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church “When has God seemed near to you?” There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.

If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.

There are people who will use whatever means possible to draw a circle around them and shut others out. But it is the church which must draw a circle around all the people and bring them in. We often think that this is either impossible to do or at least rather difficult. We make it seem that God’s commandments are burdensome and difficult; but John, in his letter to the congregation (5) pointed out that it was just the opposite. God’s commandments are not burdensome and those who chose to follow God through Christ will find such commandments easier to hold and follow.

We are told by Jesus that we have been called, not as servants but as friends. We are called together by the love that God has for each of us and we are commanded to follow Christ with the love of God in our hearts, our minds, and our souls. We are not to close the circle of love to keep people out but rather open the circle and draw everyone in. Let us leave this place today with the plan on drawing a big circle around those we met so that they are here in the company of friends and neighbors. Let us leave this place opening the circle of fellowship so that all can be a part.


(1)  “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham

(2)  Acts 10: 44 – 48

(3)  John 15: 9 – 17

(4)  Adapted from “The road to vital churches is paved with good intentions”, printed in Context (January 2004, part B; volume 36, number 1).

(5)  1 John 5: 1 – 6