Are You Ready?


Here are my thoughts for 24 May 2020 – 7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday (Year A). This was also Aldersgate Sunday and Memorial Day Sunday. Please note that this summer, the “Back Page” will focus on the back stories for favorite hymns.

When I began thinking about this piece, it was with Ascension Sunday in mind.  Probably because I don’t spend much time in the “outside” world, I had a hard time connecting this Sunday with Aldersgate Sunday and Memorial Day.

The problem with Memorial Day has more to do with the calendar than anything else.  Since Memorial Day on the 4th Monday of the month, it sometime comes before the end of the month and you have to scramble to remember to observe it.  And I wonder if we were, borrowing from the title of this piece, ready for it.

After all, Memorial Day is supposed to be that day when we remember those who have died in the service of this country.  But so much of this country have wanted, in light of the pandemic, for Memorial Day to mark the beginning of summer, we are perhaps not ready to remember those who have died in the service of this country.

And the memories are not just of those who died while on military service but the many people who have died because of the virus that has swept this world.  So I am not entirely sure that we are ready for this Memorial Day.

I do not think that John Wesley was ready for what was to take place on May 24, 1738 when he went to the Aldersgate Chapel.  Nothing he had done seemed to have worked; his plan for salvation was not working and he had returned from America with a sense of despair and defeat.  I do not think he was ready to feel his heart strangely warmed by the experience in the Chapel that night.  But he was ready to understand what that meant and it is clear that, because he was ready, what became the Methodist Revival became a reality.

And how did the Disciples and other followers feel that day, 40 days after the Resurrection?  One has to think that they were not ready for Jesus to leave them and I am pretty sure that they were not ready to take the next step in the mission laid out before them.

But Jesus knew that they were not ready and He told them as He ascended to remain together and the Holy Spirit would be with them.

Were you ready for that moment when the Holy Spirit came into your life?  Are you ready to help others have that moment?

There are many who want to get out into the world right now but it is not the time.  We may not like this imposition of waiting but then many of those gathered that day 2000 years ago probably did not either.  And just as that day for which they were to prepare was unknown, perhaps so too is that date for us.

But, remembering the words of Louis Pasteur that chance favors the prepared mind, we can prepare for that day.

On this day when we remember many individuals, some we knew and many we did not know, we know that memories are best served by what we do.

Are you ready?


Keep Your Eyes on The Prize


Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for June 2, 2019, the 7th Sunday of Easter (Year C)

I don’t know why but, for a while, this past week was not on my calendar.  In something akin to the shift from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, several days just “disappeared”.

As I left the church last Sunday, pondering why I kept skipping June 2nd, I remembered a song from the 60s, “Keep Your Eyes on The Prize”.

While this song was one of the anthems of the goals of the Civil Rights movement, it’s roots come from a time before World War I.

And like so many folk songs, its roots can be found in the Bible, in this case, the lectionary reading from Acts for today.

Paul and Silas were thrown into jail, essentially for disturbing the peace, but for really disturbing the status quo.  In a society where one’s place was defined, Paul and Silas argued that God’s Kingdom was open to all.

We see this today.  There are some who believe that God’s Kingdom is open to only a few and they are the ones who decide who those few are.  But the prize of salvation is not limited to a few but to all those who seek God.

As Paul and Silas found out, as Jesus told the first disciples, achieving the prize is not an easy task.  But when you keep your eyes on the prize, it is within your reach.

Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.

~~Tony Mitchell

24 Hours


Here is the message that a friend of mine, Cheryl Carpenter-Gomes, presented this past Sunday, June 1st, at her church, the Goshen UMC, The Scripture for this morning is John 17: 1 – 11.

Taking a look at the gospel scripture for today, I realize it is probably one of the most amazing scriptures we have. It is one time that we actually hear Jesus praying to God the Father. The bible says He prayed often but this is the one time we can hear how He prays.

We know when the disciples asked HOW to pray he gave them the Lord’s prayer, however this IS the Lord praying himself. He knows the end is near; in 24 hours he will no longer be walking this earth so he prays to his Father. Now, if you learned that you were going to die within the next 24 hours, would you pray? What would you say? What would you ask?

I know I would be praying. I always have a sort of continual dialog going with God through out the day as my prayer but, if I knew that in 24 hours life for me is over, what would I say? Well, it would probably be something like this.

Um. Hey God it’s me, you know I’ve had a truly blessed life, a difficult childhood, I couldn’t “do” things other kids could do like ride a bike or run or even wear cool sneakers till I was 13 due to a bone structure problem, which made me be bullied a lot, but in retrospect, I turned out okay. I lost my dad at 60 and my sister at 36 really much too young, I helped my parents support my sisters kids until they were old enough to help themselves. That was not easy, but we did it. And I have no doubt that they are both with me in spirit daily.

I worked on Wall Street starting at 16, took the subway in to work after school and got mugged on it twice. I graduated at 17 and I was this close to going for my traders license, however in order to keep up with the street in the 80’s it took a lot of controlled substances to play that game and well that could’ve killed me,

I joined the Naval Reserves instead, and I thought for sure THAT WILL kill me, but I made it through and am proud of that accomplishment, unfortunately the only cruise I went on was on a really ugly battleship grey boat, and I spent most of that time swabbing decks, ( I do believe i became very adept at my painting skills however)

I got married and have a beautiful family, I had two kids, 1 boy and 1 girl best of both worlds. And while neither of them were born with instructions, I think they are turning our pretty good.

And for the last dozen years or so, I’ve been working here in the preschool, which I didn’t ever think was in my plans. I had a wonderful mentor for 3 years and then became a teacher, I love what I do, and i believe this is my calling. I have great friends in many walks of my life. heck, I’ve even been for a hot air balloon ride!! so yes, my life has been blessed.

BUT WAIT! I’m only 48! there is so much to do.. My children are only half grown. I want to see them grow older and be happy I want to hold a grandchild (or 2). I want to travel further west than Arkansas! I’m sure there are fine wines I have yet to taste, and sights of your creation I have yet to behold!! There are classic novels to read, great food to taste, more people to meet, I’m really not done yet. I need more time!!!!

Alas, Jesus said nothing like this in his prayer, could you imagine? Hey God it’s me Jesus, I haven’t met the right woman yet, the one in the mohair robe is kinda cute..I want to have a family.. I want to travel more .. No, he didn’t say any of these things. He knew his life was complete as it was. He was born for one reason, so he could die for us and he knew this his whole life.

When he prayed it was for his disciples, he prayed that God’s name be Glorified And Yes, he prayed for us. he was thinking of us way back them.

Jesus prayed that we might all be one. He prayed that the Christians who would come later — you and me — would all be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). He was praying that we would be one so that his work on the cross wouldn’t be wasted. He wanted people to see our love for each other — and to be drawn to Christ.

A person’s dying words tell us what that person thinks is really important. Jesus’ dying words were a prayer for us — that we might be one so that the world would see our unity and be drawn to Christ. That’s what Jesus thought was really important.

So how are we doing? what can we do to make Jesus’ prayer come true? How can we start becoming one with each other and with other Christians?

The solution to our loving problem is to seek God’s help — and to seek each others help.

– With God’s help, we can get past the things that divide us. With God’s help, we can love each other.

– With God’s help, we can love our Christian brothers and sisters down the street — however different they might be — however strange their ways might seem.

– With God’s help, we can become less concerned with the labels and more concerned with what is in a person’s heart.

– With God’s help, we can begin to care about our Christian brothers and sisters who are experiencing persecution in many parts of the world.

– With God’s help, we can become one, even as the Father and Son are one — and then the world will see our witness and believe in Jesus –believe that he was sent by the Father– believe that he came to help them.

And then Jesus’ prayer — his dying request — will be answered. Amen

“What Do We Do Now?”


Mediation for the Ascension Sunday/7th Sunday of Easter (Year A), 1 June 2014

Ascension Sunday

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.

I am beginning a personal study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think I was introduced to this individual when I was in college because of his anti-war stand but I didn’t equate that with his religious writings. In fact, I may not have even been aware, some thirty-five years ago, what he thought in that area.

But now it is a different story. I still am interested in a man who would renounce his pacifist background and work actively against a totalitarian regime, knowing full well that in doing so he risked his own life. And how, in these efforts, he challenged each one of us to examine our own belief in Christ and what it means to be a Christian.

I am aware that some of what Bonhoeffer wrote doesn’t set well with some religious writers and thinkers today. But at a time when Christianity is slowly but seemingly steadily moving towards a more legalistic and rule-bound religion, maybe we should stop and think about what he said. And how does this apply to this particular Sunday, Ascension Sunday?

I get a sense from in reading today’s passage from Acts that the disciples and other followers really didn’t want Jesus to leave. I am not sure if they were afraid of what might happen after He left or if they felt that they weren’t ready. Jesus did tell them that they would receive the Holy Spirit but that they would have to wait. I wonder how that would be received in today’s society with our “I want it now” mentality?

For me, the meaning of Ascension Sunday and the subsequent preparation for Pentecost is that the responsibility for bringing the Gospel message to the people is shifting from Christ to us. For three years, Jesus brought the Good News to the people and taught the disciples how to do it themselves. Granted, the disciples weren’t really aware that was what He was doing but during this period of time, from the Resurrection through this Sunday and on to next Sunday, the “light bulb” in their minds was beginning to come on.

I have said it before but it bears repeating. As much as I am Southern born and Southern bred, so too am I evangelical. I was baptized an evangelical and I was confirmed in the Evangelical United Brethren Church and I have this evangelical nature to me. But just as I do not hold to so many of the Southern traditions that tore this country apart some 150 years ago, I am not an evangelical in the manner that it is used today.

And quite honestly, and this will tick off some of my friends, I don’t think my purpose as an evangelical is to make you come to Christ or condemn you if you don’t. I don’t see evangelism as the imposition of my will on your life.

Rather, I hold to evangelism in much the same manner that Clarence Jordan did. For Dr. Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God was changing people and the world. It was the broadcasting of the Good News that kingdom of God was breaking loose in human history and that a new social order was being created and that we were all invited to share in what was happening. Evangelism required that we declare the Gospel in both word and deed.

Yes, evangelism includes challenging people to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives and allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations. But it was much more than than. It was also in proclaiming what God was doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed.

Evangelism was the call to participate in the revolutionary transformation of the world. It required that you live out the Kingdom of God in community and through social action. (notes on evangelism from the foreword to The Cotton Patch Gospel: Luke and Acts by Tony Campolo).

So, if evangelism is our opportunity to show the Gospel as well as speak of the Gospel, shouldn’t it be done on our own. It isn’t that we don’t need Christ to do the work but He sort of wants us to do the work, don’t you think?

And yet, how many people are willing to do that? They are quite willing to speak of what needs to be done but not so quick to take on the task. And what I have gained from reading Bonhoeffer is the distinct impression that we need to be doing what we have been called to do. My early reading of The Cost Of Discipleship suggests that he saw the church more in the streets than in a sanctuary on Sunday.

I don’t think he was saying that we shouldn’t be in the sanctuary on Sunday but that isn’t where we were going to do the most good. And this fits well with my understanding of prevenient grace, that having achieved a state of grace, we need to work to improve on it rather than lose it.

But I don’t think that we can do anything if we are completely and totally focused on Jesus, here on earth. And while it may be presumptuous on my part, I don’t think that was His intention either. We weren’t going to do much with Him around, no matter how much we might want Him to be.

But Jesus reminds us, as He reminded the disciples gathered that day that He would send the Holy Spirit to facilitate the actions that we have to take.

So what do we do now? We proclaim that Jesus is the Christ and then we show the people what it truly means to be a Christian, by not only our words but our actions and our deeds. We open our hearts and receive the Holy Spirt so that we are empowered to bring the Good News to the world.

“The Gift Of Love”


I am at Monroe UMC (Monroe, NY) this morning; services are at 8:30 am and 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend. The message for Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday is based on the lectionary readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter: Acts 16: 16 – 34; Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21; and John 17: 20 – 26.

Monroe UMC is contemplating a program similar to what we are doing at “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen”. While the specifics of such a program are for another time and place, I felt that this message should provide a reason for doing the project. I hope I have achieved that goal.

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I could easily begin this message with a tribute to my mother and/or my grandmother as I have before; for that is what this day is about. But it would be much easier to speak about what my mother gave me and what that gift of love means to each one of us today.

When I was a sophomore in college back in 1969 I was very involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements on campus. Now, I thought that being involved in such things was the right thing to do and I also thought that doing the right things was what would get me into heaven. I still believe that my involvement in those activities was the right thing to do and I would do it again if presented with the opportunity (of course, if you read my blog you know that I never stopped being involved).

I would, however, find out that spring that simply doing the right thing would not get me into heaven and that it was only by God’s grace that the door to heaven would be opened. And perhaps the story could end there but I was also reminded that having said that I was a Methodist I was obligated to do the right thing.

Now, as Mother’s Day, 1969, approached, I sought to find the perfect Mother’s Day gift. What I found was a pendant with the words “War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things” engraved on it. It came from an organization known as “Another Mother For Peace”. Now, admittedly it was not the most elegant piece of jewelry one could conceive; in fact, it was rather clunky and probably very garish. But it expressed my thoughts and what I thought was right; so I bought one for my mother.

Now, you have to understand that my parents raised my two brothers, sister, and myself to be independent, to think for ourselves and to take responsibility for our actions. Our parents and especially our mother laid the foundation so that we could choose our own path, knowing that no matter where it might lead, we would be supported in our efforts.

Also, my mother was never one to get involved in politics and her guiding words to me on more than one occasion were to “not rock the boat”. So it was that this particular gift and my involvement in the on-campus civil rights and anti-war protests didn’t set well with her and she let me, in no uncertain terms, know that she (and my father) disapproved of my actions.

I probably have the letter she wrote to me somewhere in the various files I received when she died two years ago but I don’t really need a copy to remember what it is that she wrote. While she wrote that she did not approve of what I was doing I was still her son and she would still love me.

But I think that is what this day means and what love is about. It is the love that one expresses for another that goes beyond the moment and is unconditional and eternal. I know of too many parents and people today for whom love is very much conditional; people who put conditions on their love.

By the way, my mother would later tell her third granddaughter that she was glad that neither my two brothers or I were drafted and sent to Viet Nam. It should also be noted that the organization from which I bought that pendant in 1969 still exists and has its own website (Another Mother for Peace) and it still sells the same pendant. I guess we haven’t quite learned what the gift of love means on a broader, more global basis.

And as I was thinking about this idea of love on Mother’s Day and what is required of us in today’s world, I remembered Senator Edward Kennedy’s words when he eulogized his brother,

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. (from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ekennedytributetorfk.html)

Edward Kennedy closed his eulogy with the following words, a quote that I have always kept in my mind and my heart,

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

“Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.”

These are the words that we remember, as perhaps we should. But in finding these words that so many of us remember, I also found words about love and our responsibility to others, words that I think we have forgotten or never remembered.

Senator Edward Kennedy, in speaking of the love he had for his brother said,

A few years back, Robert Kennedy wrote some words about his own father which expresses [sic] the way we in his family felt about him. He said of what his father meant to him, and I quote:

“What it really all adds up to is love — not love as it is described with such facility in popular magazines, but the kind of love that is affection and respect, order and encouragement, and support. Our awareness of this was an incalculable source of strength, and because real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving, we could not help but profit from it.”

And he continued,

“Beneath it all, he has tried to engender a social conscience. There were wrongs which needed attention. There were people who were poor and needed help. And we have a responsibility to them and to this country. Through no virtues and accomplishments of our own, we have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States under the most comfortable conditions. We, therefore, have a responsibility to others who are less well off.”

In one sense, these words from a son about his father echo the words I expressed about my mother this day.

But in today’s society, such unconditional love is funny because it works so much against what we think this world is about and how it works. We expect something in return for what we give; we expect to put strings on our love and concern for others.

The Scriptures for each Sunday are compiled in what is called the lectionary and are designed so that over a three year period it is possible to read through the entire Bible. What this means is that for every three years you get the same set of readings for a particular Sunday in the church calendar.

This Sunday happens to be one of the Sundays where the preacher, pastor, or lay speaker has a choice of two sets of readings. This is the 7th Sunday of Easter; last Thursday, May 9th, was the 40th day after Easter and is the day on which Jesus ascended into Heaven. Next Sunday will be Pentecost Sunday and the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on all those gathered in Jerusalem.

As it happens, I picked the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter because I felt they were more appropriate for Mother’s Day. And as it happened, these were the same three readings I used in preparing the message that I gave for this same sunday, the 7th Sunday of Easter, three years ago.

There is a certain degree of irony in all of this. Three years ago, I offered the following thought:

The reading from Acts today starts off with a young slave girl who offers visions for a price. There were a number of things in this piece that spoke of labor practices and their application to today’s society but I will save such a discussion for later. (from “Should We Explain This?”)

In light of what has transpired around the world these past few weeks, it would appear there is a need for that discussion today.

Let us review what transpires at the beginning of the reading from Acts. We have a young slave girl who sees visions for the benefit of her owners. She follows Paul and Silas around proclaiming that they are servants of God who can show the people the path to salvation.

Now, one would think that Paul and Silas would be greatful for such pronouncements; after all, that is what they have come to Philippi to do, preach the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer a path to salvation. And I would think that they were greatful.

But then again, the people came to this girl because they wanted to hear the truth and they were willing to pay her owners (not her, mind you) for the truth. Though she was speaking the truth, others were profitting from her skills, not her.

So Paul removes her ability to prophesize and then the trouble begins. This young slave girl must have been very good at what it was that she did because those owners go after Paul and Silas for taking away their livelihood. Yet, according to the laws and customs of that time, Paul and Silas did nothing wrong and the corresponding court action is not about the welfare of the girl but rather the loss of income for her owners.

And how can we not see, in light of the tragedies in Bangladesh and perhaps the financial problems of this country today, that our love of money is greater than our love and concern for people.

As a society we turn a blind eye on the working conditions in the 3rd world just along it does not interfere with the production of low cost goods for the people in 1st world. And how is that the rich have kept getting richer in today’s society while the rest of society struggles?

Some 1700 years later, John Wesley would put it this way – it is okay to earn as much as you can but don’t do it on the backs of others.

What happens when we put the love of money above and before our love and concern for others?

As I was re-reading Edward Kennedy’s eulogy I found other words of Robert Kennedy that speak to this time and this moment. They were spoken when Robert Kennedy was in South Africa in 1966 and speaking to a group of young people.

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again. The answer is to rely on youth — not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.

Robert Kennedy concluded his remarks in South Africa by saying,

*The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.* Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.”

Those words of Robert Kennedy, spoken almost fifty years ago, seem so eerily prophetic when read again today.

Over the past few weeks, as we have concluded the season of Easter and approach the Day of Pentecost, we have journeyed through the Book of Revelation. For some, this book is the culmination of life, with victory in Heaven for a select few. But I have come to understand that this is not the end but only the beginning. The Good News is that God wins and evil is defeated. The vision of John the Seer is one of hope and promise for all, not just a select few. But it is also a call, a call to respond, a call to action.

Who will step forth? Who will answer the call from Christ to offer the drink from the Tree of Life that John the Seer foresaw in his visions recorded in the Book of Revelation?

Who will be the ones that prepare the table for the hungry, offer the medicine for the sick, and comfort for the needy? Who will be the ones to remind and show others the love of God that was expressed by Jesus?

Some fifty years ago, my mother told me that her love for me was unconditional. Two thousand years ago, God sent His Son to this world to die for my sins because of His love for me, unconditional and with no questions asked. How can I not express that same unconditional love for others?

On this day when we express our love for our mothers, how will you show the gift of Love that God has given to you this day?

“To See the World with a New View”


Here are my thoughts for Ascension Sunday, 5 June 2011. Sorry that it was late but I had to focus on the funeral of my mother. I posted my thoughts at “A Celebration of Life.”

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.

Some years ago, while working on my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri, I attended a weekly science education seminar. Now, I didn’t have to attend this seminar because I had already received credit for attending in a previous seminar. But it was expected that one attended all of the seminars, so I came, I listened, and I participated.

As it happened, this seminar was held on a Monday and Monday was one of the nights that I bowled, so my schedule was pretty busy. I would teach during the day, come home, grab a quick bite to eat, run over to campus for the class and then get to the lanes for the league.

As it happened, there was an opening in the seminar schedule and they needed someone to fill in so I volunteered to do an extra seminar. It also worked out that it would help explain why I rushed out of the classroom at the end of the seminar. And because there had been a couple of more humorous seminars that semester, I choose as my topic “The Bowling Ball as a Curriculum Tool.” (I wish I had kept my notes on this talk because there may be other opportunities in the near future for me to do something similar.)

The talk went something like this: We see bowling in terms of physical education and the scoring often reminds us of the mathematics involved in bowling. But there is also chemistry (as I would later write about in “The Chemistry of Bowling: A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners”) and physics (referred to in the chemistry article that I published) involved. The dynamics of skid, roll, and hook are determined by the friction between the bowling ball, the lane itself, and the lane conditioner – it is this combination of chemistry and physics (perhaps more physics today than chemistry) that determines the outcome.

What people may not realize is that there is history involved as well. It is said that Sir Frances Drake wanted to finish his game of lawn bowling before setting sail to lead the English against the Spanish Armada. There is American literature with the story of Rip Van Winkle and the reason for thunder and lightning. There is also home economics (hey, someone has to sew the names of the bowlers on their shirts), geography (when I travel to the USBC Open, I don’t always go to Reno; I have been to St. Louis, Tampa, Louisville, Memphis, Baltimore, Niagara Falls, Tulsa, Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Wichita, Toledo, Corpus Christi, Mobile, Salt Lake City, Huntsville, Syracuse, Albuquerque, Billings, Knoxville, and Baton Rouge as well). So, in the end, there are a variety of topics that can be examined with the bowling ball as your primary curriculum tool.

Now, this idea of using an item as the basis for teaching a variety of topics or subject areas is not necessarily new. It is sometimes covered as “writing across the curriculum” but I present my idea in 1973 and I think that was before the idea of “writing across the curriculum” was fully developed. Second, while there are many proponents to this idea now, they tend to see it in areas that don’t often include science and mathematics. There are reasons for this and I hope to cover them in a project I am working on.

When I taught science education courses at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, I always pointed out that science could be taught in terms of water and oil. Those two liquids are key to the success and life in west Texas (and probably many areas as well). I encouraged my students to see beyond the “walls” of the classroom and utilize all the subjects in teaching, not limit it to a particular place and time. (It should be noted that one of the ways that we incorporated art in the curriculum of science was to prepare maps for the field trips that I had my students plan.)

But, in today’s classroom and educational systems, I fear that such across the board and outside the box thinking is not well received. We like our educational process to be simple and neat. It is so much easier to teach each subject separately because then the testing process becomes easier. (See “The Vaccination Theory of Education” in “A Collection of Sayings”).

The same is true with religion and the church. As long as everything is simple and neat, cut and dried, black and white, fixed and inflexible, we are happy. But when the boundaries of church and society are crossed or get mixed, we are uncomfortable.

I can imagine that the disciples and early followers were very happy during those forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Jesus had been with them and teaching them and it was as if nothing had changed. They didn’t have to do anything. I think one can feel of panic creep in as they watched Jesus ascend into Heaven. With one event, they now realized that He was leaving it would be up to them to carry on the mission that Jesus had begun.

Now, it wasn’t so simple; now it wasn’t so easy. Now, it was no longer just Jesus talking about what was come, it was time to begin doing it themselves. But, it should be noted that Jesus was fully aware of this sense of panic that might have been engulfing His followers because He promised help; He promised that Holy Spirit would be come.

I think we forget this, especially when we see the nature of the church today. Many churches today act as if the world was like the first days after the Resurrection; they hide in fear of the world outside, afraid to let the world outside into their safe sanctuary. Their concerns are about the condition of the church and not the condition of their souls. It is almost as if putting time and energy into a building will somehow make it easier for people to come to the building. But only certain people are allowed to come into the building and nothing happens.

If there was more concern about doing the work of the church, it would be easier to meet the needs of the church. Right now, in some of the churches where I serve as a lay speaker and member, opposition to paying apportionments. It is more important that we pay the utility bill and the salaries than it is to be worried about missions and the overall church structure. I think that part of this is due to the fact that those who oppose apportionments have absolutely no clue as why apportionments are even required or what would happen if an individual church were to not pay its apportionments in full.

I have suggested that each church should take 10% of its weekly offering and set it aside for apportionments. In some of the churches I have been involved with, this suggestion has met with opposition. I have pointed out that when this was done, the church paid its apportionments (in fact, was able to begin paying the next year in advance); at least one church that refused to think of doing this is now closed.

I am hoping this summer that the Vespers in the Garden series that we host will lead to an awakening of the Spirit in the people. We are expanding the service from simply on Fridays to Fridays and Sundays. I would like to think that we can continue the Sunday Vespers after Labor Day, the end of the summer series. I have in my mind that 25 people will use the opportunity of the summer vespers to become members of the church. It is perhaps a little bit audacious but I think it is possible.

There comes a time when we have to continue the work that was begun two thousand years ago. I imagine that when the disciples and the early followers watched Jesus ascend, there was a sense of panic. But I think that they also understood that He wasn’t leaving them but allowing the process that would bring the Holy Spirit into their lives.

I think the same is true today. We need a new vision of the world. We should not be focused on the building in which our church resides but on the world in which the building resides. And to have this view, we must go outside and look up to Jesus. And we need to understand that with Pentecost, we will be empowered in such a way that what we seek we will accomplish.

We cannot come to Pentecost unless we first change our view of the world. That is what today is about.

Should We Explain This?


I am at Gardnertown UMC in Newburgh, NY this morning (Location of the church); services start at 9:45 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, are Acts 16: 16 – 34, Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 1, and John 17: 20 – 26.

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Borrowing a thought from the entrepreneur and philosopher Charles Handy, I believe that our life today is a paradox.

We are asked to live in a world of simultaneous opposites, where the political dialogue calls for lower taxes yet the social dialogue calls for a deeper caring of the human condition. The paradoxes that we encounter confuse us because things don’t behave as we think they should and what worked well before is not guaranteed to work as well this time. The key is to understand where we are, how we got here, and where we want to go from here; yet, such understanding itself is often a paradox.

Without a clear understanding of the process, things will not work as they should. But how do we obtain such understanding? How then do we find the truth in what we seek? (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox” by Charles Handy)

We live in a world where our acceptance of the truth is predicated on reality but we will readily accept as reality the claims in an e-mail that we receive from the friend of a friend of a cousin who knew someone who might have possibly heard that “so and so” was actually there when it happened. (And I want to thank Dale McClure, a friend, for providing some of the inspiration for this sermon.)

We accept without question the claims of politicians and pundits when they tell us things as the truth; even thought we know that they are not true or too implausible to be true. But we accept them because we have willingly given these individuals the power to tell us what to think. And when such statements are constantly repeated, they begin to take on the aspects of truth and they defy any and all attempts to correct them and remove them from the social landscape.

Similarly, when we speak of things mystical or we read of a prophet having a vision, we dismiss the speaker with phrases like loony, wacky, or just plain crazy. We associate the Book of Revelation with the Apocalypse and well we should because “apocalypse” means “revelation”. But our association with the term is one of death and destruction, of actions that are not necessarily in the reading but in the interpretations of 19th century theologians. What many people don’t realize is that apocalyptic writing was common place writing in the early days of the church (there is at least one other Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of Peter, but it is not part of the accepted canon) and that it was almost a literature for “insiders”; understanding required knowledge of the situation and the symbols that were used. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/)

Our view of the Seer’s vision is clouded because we do not understand what was written two thousand years ago on Patmos. As a result, our own view of Christianity is distorted and clouded. We also have problems with the whole nature of visions. If John the Seer had written his revelation in the 60s, we would have dismissed him as wacky, loony, or just plain crazy.

This “vision thing” is something we do, not something that has any validity. We will accept the results of a visioning exercise if the results are what we want to happen, not just what might happen.

The reading from Acts today starts off with a young slave girl who offers visions for a price. There were a number of things in this piece that spoke of labor practices and their application to today’s society but I will save such a discussion for later. Suffice to say, I grew up in an environment that justified slavery because slavery was in the Bible.

If we are to accept as truth all that is written in the Bible, then we can easily accept the notion that it is right and permissible for one group to oppress another. But this flies in the face of the ideas that are clear and present throughout the Bible; that all of humankind is the same in God’s eyes. And it should be noted that the treatment of slaves in our own history runs counter to the rules set forth in the Old Testament.

So we have this situation where a young girl sees visions for the benefit of her owners. And she must be very good at it because those owners go after Paul and Silas for taking away their livelihood. Yet, according to the laws and customs of that time, Paul and Silas did nothing wrong and the corresponding court action is not about the welfare of the girl but rather the loss of income for the owners.

It does not say how she had the visions but, from the actions of Paul and Silas, we can presume that many would have felt that she was possessed by some sort of demon. Paul is not angry with the girl for following him and proclaiming the truth; Paul is angry that she is viewed as the source of truth (which leads me back to my original thoughts about how we seek and see the truth).

Because of how the young girl is described in the historical texts, there is an association with the Oracle of Delphi in terms of how the young girl in the story had her visions. As I said, she must have been good at what she did, because, why would the owners have taken action against Paul and Silas?

But did she tell the truth as it was to be or did she tell the truth as the listeners wanted to hear? Were her words of prophesy clear and distinct or clouded in mystery and ambiguity? Was she truly a prophet?

Prophets do not foretell the future; what they do is tell the truth as they see it. They point to the way things are, not the way people want things to be. They can warn of dangers ahead if things are not changed (we would call such people “whistle-blowers” today). They can and do point to what they think is wrong, unjust, or prejudiced. (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox” by Charles Handy) This was the way of the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke out against the actions of the people of Israel and the dangers that lie before the nation if it did not change its ways. For the most part, the people of Israel ignored the prophets until it was too late. The words of the prophets only made sense to the people after the fact, not before.

What a prophet cannot and should not do is tell the doers what to do. I get this sense that people came to this young girl so that they could be told exactly what to do. And that is a very dangerous thing.

There is a reference in the commentaries for the reading from Acts to the Oracle at Delphi. This was a shrine to the Greek god Apollo and apparently was built around the entrance to a cave. Those seeking answers would approach the priestess of the Oracle and pose their question.

She then would go into the cave and enter into some sort of hallucinogenic trace caused by ethylene and other hydrocarbon gases in the cave. In this state, she would utter some incomprehensible phrase that the petitioners would have to decipher.

Such a vision/prophecy occurred in 480 BCE. The Persians, under the command of Xerxes (who is mentioned in Ezra and Esther), had conquered and occupied 2/3 of Greece and were threatening Athens. As custom demanded, the leaders of Athens send a delegation to the Oracle at Delphi for instructions on what to do. They received the message, “the wooden wall will save you and your children.” But what did this mean?

To some, it meant building a wall around the city as a defensive measure. This was a logical conclusion. But it was a conclusion based on traditional thoughts. But others were pushed to see beyond the traditional logic. A static defense of the city may not work; after all, the Persian army had already shown its power in battle and it would have only been a matter of time before Athens fell to that military might.

For others, the answer to the Oracle’s pronouncement lie in the strengths that Athens already possessed, its navy. Lining up the ships of the Athenian navy side by side formed a wooden wall and, as history notes, the Athenians defeated the Persians in 479 BCE at the naval Battle of Salamis (http://www.ancient-greece.org/history/delphi.html and “A Whack On The Side Of the Head” by Roger van Oech).

The church today, whether we are talking about an individual church, a denomination, or in general, faces an uncertain future. The question is thus one of how shall we see the future? Should our vision of the future be framed in conventional and logical terms? Or is there an alternative view to seeing what lies ahead?

When John Wesley came to America almost two hundred seventy years ago, he came with a plan, logical in nature and clearly thought out. It was reflective of his life and methodology. But, as he crossed the Atlantic, the plan began to fall apart. The crossing of the Atlantic in the early 18th century was not an easy one and we know that John Wesley was sick during most of the trip.

His illness and discomfort were complicated by the fact that he could not find solace and comfort in God. Yet, there in front of him on that same ship were a group of Moravians enduring the same hardships yet singing hymns and praising God. The logical, methodical plan for salvation that Wesley had developed during his college days at Oxford was slowly beginning to fall apart.

We know that Wesley’s mission to America ended in abject failure and he brought a sense of failure with him when he returned from England. And this failure was not just felt by John Wesley. So affected by the failure of the American journey was Charles Wesley that he was literally on his death bed the night that John went to the chapel on Aldersgate Street.

It has been recorded that on that night when John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and he received the Holy Spirit, Charles began a recovery from the illness or illnesses that had forced him to his death bed. And with the acceptance of the Holy Spirit came the assurance and the power needed to move forward and begin what has become known as the Methodist Revival.

Now, there is no logical explanation for this nor should we try to find one; because it cannot be explained in such terms. For me, the acceptance of Christ as one’s Savior and the acceptance of the Holy Spirit brings about a new consciousness, a new understanding of the world around us.

It is very difficult to understand this when we are constrained by the logical of common thought. We are constrained when the loudest voices today call Christ a myth and religion mere superstition. Those who do think that Christ may have existed two thousand years ago say that our scientific and technological enlightenment have removed the need for such beliefs.

For me, personally, it comes down to this. Two thousand years ago, something happened in Jerusalem. Whatever happened there so profoundly affected a group of people that they began to tell others. And in spite of persecution and unknown dangers, they took their message of what happened beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and ancient Israel.

It wasn’t just the telling of the story that changed the lives of those who listened; it was seeing the changes that occurred in the lives of the people who told the story. The people of “The Way”, as the early Christian church was known, were a loving people, committed to the care of everyone, even those outside the group. And that had to change the minds and hearts of those who saw these changes.

Yes, in the period since those early days, when the church became officially sanctioned, there have been wars fought in the name of God and under the banner of Christ. There have been people and nations enslaved for the same reasons. But were these the actions of God or the actions of people who would have done so under the auspices of any other organization?

For every instance where God has been used as the justification for violence and hatred, there is an instance where people have been feed, people have been healed, and people have been freed from oppression and injustice.

Something inside me tells me that the movement that came out of Jerusalem, spread across the Mediterranean and around the world could not have survived these two thousand years unless there was some truth to it. We must offer a vision of that early church, not just in words but in action as well.

We must speak and act with the same love that Jesus Christ spoke of in His prayer that we read in the Gospel today. We must offer the evidence in actions and deeds as well as thoughts and words spoken.

In a world where truth is often sold, we are faced with a challenge. People are not willing to believe that the truth that will set them free comes without a price; that is freely given to all those who seek it. We need not explain what happens when one accepts Jesus Christ as one’s Savior; we merely have to live the life found in Christ so that people will see Christ in us.

So the offer is made this day, not to explain what we do but to live the life that we have proclaimed. For if we live the life that we have proclaimed then others will know that Christ is alive.

Our closing hymn this morning is “Shall We Gather at the River?” As we gather at the river, we are reminded of the people who came to hear John the Baptist call for repentance and renewal; to begin a new life. We are called to gather at the river and begin anew.

The Next Step


Here are my thoughts for Ascension Sunday, 24 May 2009. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1:  15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 -53.

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There is an old Chinese proverb that says that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” There is also a corollary to this saying that says that those who can’t teach become administrators but I will save any discussion of that for a latter time and place.

Naturally, I would disagree with that proverb. Up until the writing of this piece I thought that this saying came from many who disagreed with the nature of our educational system. And my own experience suggests that there are many in the educational system who could not survive in private industry with the same education that allows them to be teachers.

Now, before anyone (and especially teachers) gets really bent out of shape with this idea, let me put forth another idea. Are you a practitioner of the subject who happens to teach or are you someone who teaches the subject? I am by training and preference a chemist but I find my interests and desires lie in chemical education. I have a friend who is an artist first and enjoys transmitting the joy of sculpture and painting to his students. But there are many teachers who have the certification to teach subjects like chemistry and art but approach the subject from the standpoint of only teaching the information. In too many situations today, we have people teaching subject matter but who only have a basic understanding of what the subject is about. They have enough information to teach students the subject but not enough so that they themselves can utilize it in other settings.

In today’s world, what this has done is create a situation where we are teaching facts and figures, without any respect to how the information is applied. In a recent discussion on the CHEMED list (a discussion list for chemical educators), it was noted that we are fast preparing students who know how to look up the answer to a question but who cannot come up with a solution through thought and analysis. Our students are very proficient in the use of the modern calculator with its graphing capability (where were these calculators when I was in high school!!) but have no idea if the answer that they come up with has any validity in the real world.

One of the reasons that I was drawn into chemical education research was that I was fascinated by how students learned and what one could do to improve that learning. One of the things that I discovered in preparation for my doctorate was that the majority of experiments in chemistry are designed to prove what was said in lecture was correct rather than providing the data necessary to confirm the theory. And too often, the work that is done in the classroom only serves to reinforce the present instead of providing the basis for students to develop their advanced thinking skills.

Now learning takes many forms but one model (Bloom’s Taxonomy) identifies three different domains or areas of educational activity: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Each of these domains has a specific area of interest; the affective deals with growth in feelings and emotions, the psychomotor domain deals with the development of manual or physical skills, the cognitive deals with the development of mental skills and knowledge.

In the research that was done to identify these three areas, it was shown that there were sublevels in each area. Within the cognitive domain, these sublevels can be identified as:

  1. Knowledge (dealing with the recall of data or information)
  2. Comprehension (dealing with the understanding of the information)
  3. Application (using the knowledge in new situations)
  4. Analysis (separate the parts of knowledge into components so that it can be understood)
  5. Synthesis (building from the analysis and putting different parts together to form new information)
  6. Evaluation (making judgment about the value of ideas)

(Adapted from “Learning Domains or Bloom’s Taxonomy”)

Now, the problem with America’s educational system is not that we have too many unqualified teachers (which is still a problem) but that our educational system concentrates only on the first two levels of this taxonomy. Very little is being done to move beyond the simple absorption of information and its recall for a test; too often, students will memorize countless reams of information for a test and promptly forget it, even if it is necessary for future learning and examinations.

And any learning process that focuses on the lower levels of thinking is not going to create situations whereby the upper levels can even begin to be applied. And they cannot be done through instruction and memorization; there must be an active involvement of the student in the learning and it is something that they must internalize. (For a discussion of this moment in a student’s learning process see “The AHA! Moment”)

If we do not provide those opportunities, then our students are never going to develop the thinking skills that are going to be so needed in the coming years as we find ourselves incapable of solving the problems that we now face and unable to determine solutions for the problems that we do not even know about at this time.

And it is a problem that the church faces as well. Now some may tell me that the church’s problems are more in the affective domain than they are in the cognitive domain (and I would have to agree). But the challenge of the church to find its mission in this world has to be seen in the same light as any other problem that society faces.

The old ways haven’t worked and the new ways aren’t doing the job that they need to be doing. And I think the reason for that is the same reason that we are having problems with our educational system. We are not allowing those special moments that internalize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

We are too much like the people who are expecting the 2nd coming of Christ and the establishment of the New Kingdom in the 1st reading for today. With the ascension of Christ into Heaven, the people are already talking about the 2nd coming without having experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The same is, I believe, true today. Too many people in churches today are more interested in establishing some sort of heavenly kingdom here on earth today but they are doing it without the Holy Spirit. It is their kingdom that they want to establish, a kingdom where they can dictate how people think and behave. They cannot stand the thought or possibility that individuals can come to Christ on their own or that they can find the presence of Christ in ways other than what they think are appropriate.

To me, that moment that we call being born again is a personal and internal process; it cannot be accomplished by someone else on your behalf nor can someone else dictate to you how you will receive the Holy Spirit. But others can show you the Holy Spirit and others can provide the opportunity for you to encounter the Holy Spirit.

Harvey and Lois Seifert in their book Liberation of Life wrote,

This internalizing of openness to God and concern for neighbors is what it means to be a Christian, rather than simply to act like a Christian. That the church can produce this kind of person is a persuasive recommendation for the church.

Within the fellowship of the church, we help one another become such Christians. Here we can become comrades of our better selves. We support one another in our highest resolves. An entire searching congregation turns our attention to the liberation of unrealized possibilities as we respond to the upward call of God. Even one other person or a small subgroup within the church can sustain our determination to spend more time at devotions and to act differently in society.

In such a combination, we are to love both God and neighbor. We cannot fully do either without the other. We reach the ecstatic heights of a devotional life only as we also act creatively in society. Full creativity as consumer, worker, citizen, and friend is possible only with the vision and power that comes vital devotion. To “turn on” is to “turn up” toward God and to “turn out” toward neighbor. The two wings of soaring, liberated life are indeed devotion and action.

They also wrote that those two wings were personal piety and community charity.

An ancient saying suggested that there are two wings by which we rise, one being personal piety and the other community charity. No one can fly by flapping only one wing. It is impossible to be sincere in our worship of God without expecting to do the will of God. It is equally impossible to do the full will of God without the guidance and empowerment of a vital personal relationship with God. As Allan Hunter has said, “Those who picket should also pray, and those who pray should also picket.” The same combination of devotional vitality and social action is also emphasized in the two great commandments of Jesus — to love God with all one’s being and to love other persons as ourselves (Matthew 22: 36 – 40). (Harvey and Lois Seifert, Liberation of Life)

The church cannot be a community of itself for to do that is to shut its doors to the community outside its doors. A church which shuts its doors to the outside community becomes a collection of individuals who have shut the door to everyone, including Christ. As individuals who have accepted Christ as our Savior, we are part of a community and we are charged with taking the Word out into the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr for the faith, wrote,

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to god. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. Luther said, “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me.”

But the reverse is also true: Let he who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. Luther also said, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me. (“Life Together”)

If you believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior of all and your words, actions, thoughts, and deeds reflect that, then you are an evangelical. If your words harmonize with the examples given to us by Jesus, then you are an evangelical, whether you claim to be one or not. (Duncan) Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that he has heard of the faith of the people of Ephesus. He has heard of their faith, which means that the people are living the faith and they are evangelicals.

Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch Gospels, said that evangelism was declaring the Good News about all that God is doing in the world. While he emphasized that evangelism includes challenging individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations, he also made it clear that evangelism is much more than that. It also involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. It was a call to the people to participate in this revolutionary transformation of the world.

For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action. His work in founding the Koinonia farm was his way of showing the world how to put words into action.

We are at a special moment in time with this Sunday. We, through the eyes of history, know what is to come. We also know that we have to each take the next step, the step in which we open our hearts and minds to the power of the Holy Spirit. When we accepted Christ as our Savior, we began that process. Now, we must complete that process and take the next step. The Holy Spirit will come and we must be ready and then we must be prepared to go out into the world and help others to see and feel and know the presence of the Christ in their lives.

Where Did He Go?


This is a sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on Ascension Sunday (1 June 2003).   The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1:  15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 -53.

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Traveling around the country has given me opportunities to see many things, among them churches. Over the years I have played a game guessing the denomination of the various churches that I drive by. Though it is not a perfect technique, it is getting so that I can spot a Methodist Church from 500 feet away.

Another thing that I have observed is that as you go from the countryside into the city, the nature of the architecture of the church changes. For the most part, this new architecture is not bad. Churches need to show in some way that they are a part of the society in which they exist and that they are in touch with the people of the community.

We certainly have come a long way from the days of churches like the Methodist Church in Cades Cove, NC (part of the Smoky Mountain National Park). There you have a church where the men came in through one door and the women and children through another.

But when churches take on the look of businesses or other buildings and you have to guess what it is, then you are getting away from the concept of what a church should look like. There is a church in Springfield, MO, that, were it not for the windows in the shape of cross built into the front of the building, you would think is nothing more than one of the many businesses along Battlefield Road.

The church has always had a problem being a part of society. By its very nature, it must be separate from the society in which it resides if its message is to have any meaning. But at the same time, as the church stays outside of society, it risks losing touch with those in society who need what only the church and its mission can provide.

You would be surprised how many churches insist on reading the scriptures from the King James Version and not some of the more modern translations. Some even say that the King James Version of the Bible is the only true translation. But a translation written in the essentially archaic language of 17th century England, with “thee”, “thou”, and “thy” is most certainly going to turn away people seeking a message which speaks to them today.

During the 1980’s, there was a movement in self-help philosophy, commonly called “new-age.” It emphasized the self as the solution to the problems around you. Many churches decried this approach because it quite rightly took God out of the picture. But I think that many of the solutions that churches came up with in response were as equally bad and merely designed to package the church in such a way to get people to come to church.

And that is what bothers me about the new churches in this country. What I have seen more and more is that what are clearly churches no longer include “church” in their name. Instead of churches, we see “worship centers” or “life centers”. Many don’t even advertise their denomination.

When you come into the auditorium where the services are held, you see theater type seats rather than the traditional wooden, straight-back pews of the old church. Now I can appreciate the replacement of pews with soft, comfortable seats, having endured my fair share of the hard benches, but the purpose of church is to make you think, not necessarily to make you comfortable.

Instead of an altar, many of these new modern churches have broad stages designed to put on musical productions and utilize other forms of worship. But in creating these new forms of worship, they have thrown out the Gospel music of old and replaced it with “scripture songs” and “praise songs”. Some of this new music is good and should be included but I, like others, find this new music merely repeats the same words and melodies over and over again. Nothing in these new songs shows the beauty and depth of God’s nature in life and again does nothing to challenge the listener or cause them to think about who they are. (From Connections, February, 2002)

Similarly, many of the pastors in these “new-age” style churches present a message that very rarely speaks of the issues of today or how God can show us love and promote justice. And the more I hear some of these preachers, the more I have to wonder if they have forgotten that there is a New Testament in the Bible. They preach a message that brings back the wrath of God and speaks of a way of life that abuses people rather than makes them equal in the ways of the life. If what drove people away was a lack of receptivity to the needs of the world, I do not see how preaching a message that does not include the love of God found in the New Testament will actually bring them back.

But what may bother me the most is that these modern churches, with their emphasis on reaching out to the younger population and encouraging them to come back is that nowhere on the stage in which the worship is held is there a cross. It is the cross that is central to the Gospel message and it is the cross that offers us a visual image of the hope and promise of tomorrow.

But since the purpose of the modern worship service is to help the worshipper feel comfortable, to put a reminder that we are sinners and that Jesus died for us because we are sinners can only make the observer uncomfortable. What we have to realize is that many of those who are not attending church today were turned off to the archaic nature of the worship service of their childhood and the lack of receptivity of the church to modern problems. But simply modernizing the service and making the people comfortable in their worship does not help them answer the question of how to find peace and comfort in a time of stress and turmoil.

People come to the church to find Jesus, the promise of hope and peace. But they do not find him in these modern churches, where style matters more than substance, where the wrapping about the package matters more than what is in the package.

The early Christians didn’t have any of these problems. Meeting in a public place was cause for concern since, especially in the early days following the resurrection, there was fear that the authorities would arrest them for being followers of Jesus. And finding Jesus was not a problem, for He was right there with them, proof that the resurrection was not a rumor and that the promise of the Gospel was true. Their problem was that Jesus was going away and they did not know where He was going or what they were going to do with Him gone.

And that is why we have today. Today is the fulfillment of the resurrection and God’s plan. The suffering of Christ on the cross and the resurrection from the dead are only two parts of the whole story. Christ’s ascension into heaven completes the plan as it was outlined in the Law of Moses and told through the Prophets and the Psalms. His ascension shows that He, Jesus, was truly the Son of God and the fulfillment of all that was foretold. Now the disciples can carry out the mission of preaching repentance and calling for the people to turn from their own selfish ways to follow Christ. From this day forward, the disciples’ preaching would center on God’s gracious offer of forgiveness to all would believe.

The message of the disciples carries through to today. The building in which a congregation meets does not carry the message of hope, promise, and salvation; it is the people in the building that make up the congregation. That is what Paul was telling the Ephesians. The message of faith that was not told by the building in which they met but rather by how they, the members of the church demonstrated the faith that they held.

The challenge before us is to find ways to let people know that the church is here and that there are things being done in which they can participate. There is nothing wrong with a non-church organization holding its meeting or event at a church, just as long as that organization’s goals and objectives are not in conflict with the basic goals and objectives of the church. And there is nothing wrong with a church holding an activity in the church or on the church grounds that is purely social and not overly religious in nature.

For the church, we must understand that such activities are an important part of the church life and that to turn them into worship experiences will turn people away from the church. And those who come to the church for the social activities must also understand that such activities are in no way a replacement for the central activity of the church, worship.

As we go across this country, we are going to see many different churches, each unique in some way. But if the congregation which meets in that church does not exhibit the love and carrying for the people of the community in which they live, the uniqueness of the building is not going to be of any consequence.

We are called, through our faith, to meet the needs of the world by practicing the radical love and seeking the justice that Jesus taught and lived. People are seeking comfort and peace in this world. They will come to the church once in order to find that comfort and peace. The age of a church and its architectural style are not what is important; if there is no promise of hope and peace, then the people will not come again. They will leave still looking for Jesus and wonder where he went.

But, if the people who make up the church are active in seeking the way of Christ in this world, of seeking justice and righteousness for all, and practicing the love that is what the Gospel message about then they will know where He went and where to find what they are looking for.

On Eagle’s Wings


I am preaching at Dover UMC again this Sunday.  Here are my thoughts for Ascension Sunday.  The Scriptures for today are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.


4 July 2015 — This has been edited since it was first posted to modify with a bad link.


 

I have spent the better part of the week thinking about how I could put the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven into a modern-day perspective. How would we have reacted if Jesus had been with us these past forty days as He was with the disciples and the others some two thousand years ago and then ascended into Heaven?

Would we have done as the disciples and followers did back then? Would we have watched in wonder and amazement? Would we have returned to our homes and celebrated as they did? Or would we have cried out in anguish? Would we have reacted with fear and trembling? Just exactly how would we have reacted?

There have been instances in the Bible where someone ascended into Heaven. The first is recorded in Genesis 5: 24, “Enoch walked steadily with God. And then one day he was simply gone: God took him.” The only problem is that nothing else is said. This does not help. But in 2 Kings, we read

And so it happened. They (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along and talking. Suddenly a chariot and horses of fire came between them and Elijah went up in a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it all and shouted, “My father, my father! You—the chariot and cavalry of Israel!” When he could no longer see anything, he grabbed his robe and ripped it to pieces. Then he picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him, returned to the shore of the Jordan, and stood there. He took Elijah’s cloak—all that was left of Elijah!—and hit the river with it, saying, “Now where is the God of Elijah? Where is he?” (2 Kings 2: 11 – 14)

In this passage the prophet’s mantle is transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha’s response could be categorized because of what is happening and because of what it means. No longer will Elisha be the student and follower; now he is the teacher and the leader.

It can be a frightening thing to have to go out on one’s own and to do the things that others have done for you. In Elisha’s case, it was the acceptance of the role that Elijah had played. Elisha was afraid of the change. Elijah was Elisha’s mentor, prophet, teacher, and father-in-the faith. But now it was time for Elisha to move on and take charge of the ministry entrusted to him. Yet, he was afraid to do so. As the student, there was a degree of comfort and a manner of protection. But as the prophet, there was no comfort, there was no protection. Harvey and Lois Seifert put it this way,

In an atmosphere of security and trust, persons are likely to be more ready to change. The child who trusts the mother lets go and takes the first unaided step. A social prophet is better received when listeners have learned to appreciate his or her integrity and friendship. Healthy growth more easily takes place when all participants interact in a mutually supportive environment rather than when some manipulate others to secure the ends of the manipulators. (Liberation of Life)

It is easy to understand Elisha’s response, of not wanting to let Elijah go. Fear makes it easy to cling to the past or to familiar traditions. But that is why faith becomes so strong. While fear would have us cling to the past, faith has us look to the future.

What Elisha was most afraid of was that God would leave him, that he wouldn’t be there. In verse 14, Elisha cries out in despair and loneliness, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When Elisha hits the River Jordan with Elijah’s cloak, the river parts; in effect, God said to Elisha, “I never left. Life goes on. Elijah’s journey may have ended but your journey continues.”

The same is true, I think, for each one of us. What the Ascension means is that we are now left without Jesus physically present – that means we have to do it now – we have to do the work that he has been teaching about and teaching us. We no longer have any excuses; Jesus is not here to do it for us. Jesus’ ascension means that Jesus really is asking us to get to work.

The problem, I fear, is that we, as a society do not want to hear about the troubles of the world. If we do not hear about them or are forced to face the problems, we think that they will quietly go away. With the exception of those individuals who make the trip to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast, very few people know that the damage from Hurricane Katrina, some three years ago, is still there. Because it is not in the news, it must not be happening.

It is quite likely that many people do not know how many of our military personnel have died in the Middle East in the past seven years; we certainly do not have any idea how many civilians have died. Yes, our lack of knowledge is because the media does not report the death toll with the same fervor and intensity they reported the dead during the Viet Nam war. Yes, the present administration has gone to great lengths to prevent the public from seeing the dead come home. But, as a society, we are not asking or demanding that the truth be told.

We say that we are a Christian country and that we have strong moral values. But when does concern for the lives of the unborn have more value than the environment into which they will be born and have to live? What are we to say when our “family values” are devalued by the very people who proclaim them to be the most important value in today’s society? Why is it more moral to declare homeland security a priority in life while ignoring or denigrating global warming? Where is the morality in extolling the virtues of democracy while at the same time undermining the right of free speech? How are we to judge those who would exclude many from society because of their religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or racial identity when Jesus Himself walked and ate with those whom society excluded? (Adapted from God Laughs and Plays by David James Duncan)

We have become a society where others do our thinking for us and tell us what to say, what to do, and more importantly, what to believe. We are quite comfortable with a religion that allows our fears to dictate what we will do and not do. Instead of resolving our fears, we use our fears to build walls. When faced with the problems of the world, we turn the other way and hope that the problems will go away.

I wrote a piece the other day about the state of education (see “The Bottom Line”). After I wrote, there was a op-ed piece in The New York Times about a report on the state of education in this country today (there is a link to the article in my piece).

This report from Common Core points out that nation’s children are increasingly less prepared for the world outside the classroom than any previous generation. What does it say for our future when fewer than half of the nation’s 17-year-olds can place the Civil War in the correct half century or forty-four percent think that the Scarlett Letter was a piece of correspondence?

But this ignorance is not limited to just high school students and current studies. In a report last year, sixty percent of Americans could not identify five of the Ten Commandments and 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book that is definitely not one of the four Gospels. But don’t ask too many Americans because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2007-04-29-oplede_N.htm?csp=34) And our understanding, or rather our lack of understanding, of what we say is our religion extends into a lack of understanding of the other religions of this world. And the lack of understanding, as history has time and time again shown, leads to violence and mistrust. And violence and mistrust invariably lead to conflict.

It is time that we begin to change the world that we live in. It is time to begin flying on our own, to begin doing what we are asked to do. You cannot be a Christian if you are not willing to lead a life as Christ would live it nor are you a Christian if you are unwilling to share that life.

I have struggled with the idea of evangelism and what that means in today’s society. The meaning that I give to the word evangelical does not seem to match the meaning that society has given it today. And the meaning that society has given it does not seem to match what it meant that day on the hill in Bethany some two thousand years ago.

What does it mean to be an evangelical? There are those today who define evangelism in terms of bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus. But the word evangelical is derived from evangel which means “the gospels” and that means something entirely different.

If you believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior of all and your words, actions, thoughts, and deeds reflect that, then you are an evangelical. If your words harmonize with the examples given to us by Jesus, then you are an evangelical, whether you claim to be one or not. (Duncan) Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that he has heard of the faith of the people of Ephesus. He has heard of their faith, which means that the people are living the faith and they are evangelicals.

Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch Gospels, said that evangelism was declaring the Good News about all that God is doing in the world. While he emphasized that evangelism includes challenging individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations, he also made it clear that evangelism is much more than that. It also involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. It was a call to the people to participate in this revolutionary transformation of the world.

For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action. His work in founding the Koinonia farm was his way of showing the world how to put words into action.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and, if you will, martyr for the faith, wrote,

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to god. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. Luther said, “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me.”

But the reverse is also true: Let he who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. Luther also said, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me. (“Life Together”)

There is a distinct likelihood that what I have written will make some people mad. They want the church today to be exclusive, to deny membership and acceptance to those whose life is somehow different. They would change the community that is found in Christ.

There are those who say that religion is superstition and should be removed from society. No secular philosophy addresses the fact that we are born alone and we will die alone. It is in our nature to seek the solace of divine truth amidst our mortal suffering. To be an evangelical Christian is to offer hope and peace.

The other day, someone posted a comment to my blog in which they say that I offered a “middle-of-the-road” theology. This person identified themselves as one who is on the left side of the Methodist theological spectrum and I thought it was interesting that what I write would be considered middle of the road. I have, in the past, been characterized as conservative and liberal so maybe I am in the middle of the road. But, as I responded to this comment, I thought that the only things in the middle of the road are dead armadillos.

To offer hope and peace in a world of violence and despair is not middle of the road theology; it is a radical new way of life and it forces you to walk another way. But how are we to do this?

The world outside the walls of this church is a hostile world, one not receptive to the thoughts we have. The world of the early disciples was also a hostile world, a world in which a public pronouncement that one believed in Jesus Christ could lead to torture and death.

Because of His own arrest, torture, and crucifixion, Jesus knew what the disciples would encounter. The Wisdom of this moment and this day is that we are not expected to do what is expected right now and by ourselves; rather, we are told to wait ten more days, wait until the Pentecost when the Holy Spirit will come and empower us.

Harvey and Lois Seifert in their book wrote,

This internalizing of openness to God and concern for neighbors is what it means to be a Christian, rather than simply to act like a Christian. That the church can produce this kind of person is a persuasive recommendation for the church.

Within the fellowship of the church, we help one another become such Christians. Here we can become comrades of our better selves. We support one another in our highest resolves. An entire searching congregation turns our attention to the liberation of unrealized possibilities as we respond to the upward call of God. Even one other person or a small subgroup within the church can sustain our determination to spend more time at devotions and to act differently in society.

In such a combination, we are to love both God and neighbor. We cannot fully do either without the other. We reach the ecstatic heights of a devotional life only as we also act creatively in society. Full creativity as consumer, worker, citizen, and friend is possible only with the vision and power that comes vital devotion. To “turn on” is to “turn up” toward God and to “turn out” toward neighbor. The two wings of soaring, liberated life are indeed devotion and action. (Liberation of Life)

When I began working on this sermon, I thought of the song “On Eagles Wings.” It is a song that speaks of the trust that we can have in Christ; it speaks of the empowerment that we will gain through the Holy Spirit.

An ancient saying suggested that there are two wings by which we rise, one being personal piety and the other community charity. No one can fly by flapping only one wing. It is impossible to be sincere in our worship of God without expecting to do the will of God. It is equally impossible to do the full will of God without the guidance and empowerment of a vital personal relationship with God. As Allan Hunter has said, “Those who picket should also pray, and those who pray should also picket.” The same combination of devotional vitality and social action is also emphasized in the two great commandments of Jesus — to love God with all one’s being and to love other persons as ourselves (Matthew 22: 36 – 40). (Harvey and Lois Seifert, Liberation of Life)

We have declared our faith in Christ; we have opened our hearts to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we have gained a trust that we cannot find in the secular world. It is the one thing that will allow us to gather together as a community; it is the one thing that will allow us to go out into the world and showing through our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions that Christ is alive and that there is hope and peace possible in this world.