“The World Out There” – A Pentecost Meditation

One of the requirements that I had to meet when completing Drivers Ed in high school was 6 hours of driving.  Some of this was done in a simulator but I still had to get in a car and do some actual driving.  Because of my schedule, I did this driving after school with a Shelby County Deputy Sheriff as my instructor.

Each day, I would meet him at the car, and he would tell me to just start driving.  Now, because my family had just moved to the Memphis area, I did not know a whole lot about the area, so I drove on the roads I knew.

For four days, I left the high school, dropped down to Stage Road and headed east toward the intersection of Stage Road with Austin Peay and Jackson.  When I got to the intersection, I would turn right onto Austin Peay and drive out to the Naval Air Station at Millington and then turn around and drive back home.  It was a straight road with one turn, no stop signs, probably one traffic light, and virtually no traffic. 

So it was that on my last day of driving, as I prepared to make my usual right hand turn onto Austin Peay, the Deputy told me to make a left hand turn onto Jackson.  This was territory into which I had never gone; I had no idea what I might encounter in the ways of stop signs or stop lights or other traffic.  But I made the turn and headed into the unknown territory of Jackson Avenue.  And as we approached the first of two bridges, the Deputy told me to take a right and go under the bridge.  This would allow me to turn around and head for home.

Clearly, what the Deputy was doing was getting me used to traffic and driving in unfamiliar situations. 

One can only imagine what the people gathered at Jerusalem on Pentecost must have thought when they were told to take the Gospel message beyond the constraints of Jerusalem.

Clearly, they knew that there was a world beyond the boundaries of their daily lives.  The list of various nationalities that were there on Pentecost tells us this.

The Roman Empire had built a network of roads to connect the empire.  They had built the roads to allow the rapid transport of military units to maintain the Pax Romana, but these roads would also allow Paul and the other disciples to take the Gospel message from Jerusalem to the other parts of the Empire.

So those gathered knew that there was a world outside Jerusalem but that would not tell them how they would be received when they presented the Good News.

Did they remember the story of Abram and Sarai leaving the Ur valley for an unknown land with only a promise that it would be a good land?  Or did they fear the consequences of leaving home and becoming enslaved like the sons of Jacob who traveled to Egypt?

Tradition tells us that 11 of the 12 disciples (Matthias having been chosen to replace Judas Iscariot) would meet a violent death.  Only John Zebedee, the Beloved Disciple, would die a natural death, though in exile on the island of Patmos.

In addition, we know that there were internal conflicts among Christians about the nature of Christianity.  At first it was an internal dispute that focused on the nature of Christianity, but over the years we would see the original church split into the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches which was later followed by the Protestant Reformation and further splits in that the various denominations we have today.  Internal divisions in the church seem to be a part of our faith tradition but these divisions were never about the mission of the church, but it always seemed to focus on the how and not the why.

The tradition of taking the Gospel message to the people is also very much a part of our Methodist tradition.  It was the Methodist circuit rider who took the message to the people of first the thirteen colonies and then the newly formed states. We see the results of those efforts today.  Many of the United Methodist Churches in the Hudson Valley were once a stop on a circuit. 

Circuit riders had to be young, in good health, and single (since marriage and a family forced preachers to settle in one area and leave the traveling ministry). Unlike their counterparts in other denominations, Methodist circuit riders did not have to have a formal education. Leaders of the new church wanted educated, trained circuit riders, but they wanted even more to spread their ministry to people on the frontier who needed Christian guidance.

Circuit riders rarely served longer than one or two years in a circuit before being appointed to a new circuit. This gave the preachers an opportunity to reuse their sermons and to perfect their delivery. It also kept them from growing too familiar with the local people and wanting to settle down.

Life was not easy for a circuit rider, partly because living conditions on the frontier were harsh. Often, a stormy night was described as so bad that only crows and Methodist preachers were out.

We can only imagine the troubles and turmoil that the early circuit riders went through. Five hundred of the first six hundred and fifty Methodist circuit-riders retired prematurely from the ministry. Nearly one fourth of the first eight hundred ministers who died were under the age of thirty-five. Over one hundred and twenty-five itinerants were between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five when they died: and over half of the eight hundred died before they reached thirty! About two hundred traveling preachers died within the first five years of their entrance into the ministry and nearly two thirds died before they had preached twelve years.

The traveling minister in the Methodist Church was noted for his self-sacrificing spirit. He endured hardships in the ministry which few men of the present age can fathom. Richard Hofstadter, the widely respected American historian, once stated,

“The bulwark and the pride of the early American Methodists were the famous circuit-riding preachers who made up in mobility, flexibility, courage, hard work, and dedication what they might lack in ministerial training or dignity. These itinerants were justly proud of the strenuous sacrifices they made to bring the gospel to the people.”

It was their devotion to God and America that kept them going. It was a demanding life, as one early preacher wrote,

Every day I travel, I have to swim through creeks or swamps, and I am wet from head to feet, and some days from morning to night I am dripping with water. My horse’s legs are now skinned and rough to his hock joints, and I have rheumatism in all my joints. . . what I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you.

As the preacher continued, he tells why he suffered as he did,

But this I can tell say, while my body is wet with water and chilled with cold, my soul is filled with heavenly fire, and I can say with Saint Paul, ‘But none of these things shall move me. Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy. (“Nothing But Crows and Methodist Preachers”)

Enoch George, who later became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, said that serving the Pamlico Circuit (NC) in 1790 and 1791, he “was chilled by agues [malaria], burned by fevers, and, in sickness or health, beclouded by mosquitoes.”

The lifestyle of the early Methodist traveling preacher perished with the settlement and growth of the nation; however, their dedication remained an inspiration to every generation.

The one thing that ties our circuit riding forbears to the disciples in Jerusalem is/was the presence of the Holy Spirit that empowered them to go out into the world, relying on local travel knowledge as accurate maps did not exist, and not knowing who or what they may encounter.

We no longer have the traditional circuit riders but there is still a need to bring the Gospel message to the people.  And while we may know the territory into which we will take the Message, at times it is just as inhospitable as anything our circuit riding forbearers or the first disciples ever encountered.

If you have been following the news of the UMC, you know that the General Conference scheduled for 2020 was postponed and is not scheduled to meet until next year.  And the primary topic for this General Conference will be whether we as a faith can continue to be known as “United Methodists.”

There are those who call themselves “United Methodists” but whose words, thoughts, deeds, and actions reflect a more fundamentalist and legalistic approach.  They are requesting/demanding that radical changes be made to the nature of Methodism.  These individuals will say that they are reforming the United Methodist Church and returning it to its Wesleyan roots.  But while John Wesley was attempting to reform his church, the Anglican Church, and he never intended to create a new church, these “reformers” are intent on destroying the present United Methodist Church.

As Reverend Paul Chilcote noted in “5 Reasons to Stay in the United Methodist Church, (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2022/04/15/5-reasons-to-stay-in-the-united-methodist-church-by-paul-chilcote/; see also Why Stay? – Stay UMChttps://www.stayumc.com/about/), their words sound more like something a Baptist would draft, not the words of a United Methodist. 

I will be so bold as to say these individuals are not interested in the Gospel but power.  They want to tell us what to believe and how to believe.  They want to tell us who can preach and who can come into the sanctuary.  And, if you should choose to defy their edicts, they want to take you to an ecclesiastical court and then banish you from the faith.

We know that John Wesley initially favored a faith with a legalistic and structured approach (why do you think we are called Methodists?).  But it was an approach that did not work, and it was only when John Wesley went to the Chapel on Aldersgate Street and accepted the Holy Spirit that the movement that became known as the Methodist Revival began to succeed.

Notwithstanding differences between denominations, the fundamental message of Christianity remains the same.  As Clarence Jordan noted,

“It seems to me that we Christians have an idea here that the world is tremendously in need of. When we’re tottering fearfully on the brink of utter annihilation, looking so desperately for hope from somewhere, walking in deep darkness, looking for one little streak of light, do not we Christians have some light? Can’t we say, ‘Sure, we know the way. It’s the way of love and of peace. We shall not confront the world with guns in our hands and bombs behind our backs. We shall confront the world without fear, with utter helplessness except for the strength of God.” – Clarence Jordan, The God Movement, The Substance of Faith

A few years back it looked like I might have to leave the denomination.  But I made the decision to stay.  In part, it was because I could see no other denomination where I might fit in.  But the decision to stay lie also in what the denomination had done for me.

As a chemist, I know how to answer questions that deal with how things are done; as a Christian, I seek to answer questions about why.  In that regard, I had pastors who taught me, guided me, and helped me find the answers to the questions I was asking. 

Without their teaching and guidance, I may never have understood the nature of God’s call or realize that one day some years later I needed to do more than simply say that I am a Christian and a Methodist. 

Three hundred and fifty years ago, when John Wesley and his friends began what became known as the Methodist Revival, the conditions for a violent revolution in England were present.  It is a matter of the historical record that the Methodist revival, which began after Aldersgate, prevented the type of violent revolution that swept over France at the same time. 

And in today’s world marked by more violence, where wars are waging and poverty, homelessness, and sickness are more and more part of our lives, where people are excluded because of their race or identity, more and more people are asking “why”. 

Where will those seeking answers to their questions find them? 

We are being called.

As Pentecost approaches, we are being called.

We are being called to help people find answers to their questions of why? 

We are being called to answer the question, “Where is God in the world out there?”

We are being called to take the Good News into the world out there. 

We are being called to tell the world out there that there is a better way, a way of love and peace, a way where all succeed, where pain is relieved, where injustice is overcome, where repression is banished to the 11th level of Sheol, never to escape.

We are being called to go outside our comfort zone and into the world out there.

We are being called.

Yes, it was scary when that Deputy Sheriff told me to “turn left at the light” and go into unknown territory.  But I trusted that he knew what he was doing.  He had watched me drive for four days and knew what I could do.

Those gathered in Jerusalem two thousand years ago were told to wait until the Holy Spirit had come and empowered them.

I remember that first summer when a District Superintendent asked to me lead a series of churches for ten weeks.  And while I may not have known it at that time, I have come to know that every time I stepped up to the pulpit, I did not do it alone, for the Holy Spirit was there with me.

And as we go into the world out there, we know that we do not go alone.  We go with our friends, and we go empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The world out there awaits the Good News, so go in peace, and take the Word.




Notes on the history of circuit riders –

“Into the Wilderness: Circuit Riders Take Religion to the People”, Jordan Fred, Jr., Spring, 1998 (https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/wilderness-circuit-riders)

“Methodist circuit-riders in America, 1776 – 1844, William A. Powell, Jr., 1977 (https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1836&context=masters-theses)

References within

Elmer T. Clark, Album of Methodist History (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1932), p. 107.

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 95.

Methodist Revival and the non-English Revolution



http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/367 disputes this notion



“Civis Christianus Sum”

This will be the “Back Page” for this coming Sunday, June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday (Year C).

On 26 June 1963 President John Kennedy spoke to the people of Berlin.  In his memorable speech, in which he spoke against a wall that separated families and stopped people from seeking freedom, he said that the proudest boast two thousand years ago was “civis Romanus sum” or “I am a citizen of Rome”.  It was a claim that allowed Paul, as a Roman citizen, to move around the Mediterranean, preaching the Gospel message.

I was born in 1950 in the hospital on the post known as Fort Belvoir, Virginia.  As such, I am a United States citizen.  Had I been born one hundred years before, in 1850, I would have been considered a citizen of Virginia first and a citizen of the United States second.  It would take the Civil War to change the meaning of “the United States” from a plural meaning to a singular meaning.  I have noticed that there are many today, North and South, who still identify themselves with their home state rather than this country.  And had I been born 200 years before, in 1750, I would have been born a British citizen, though many in Britain at that time would have considered me a 2nd-class citizen.

And while my citizenship may be a factor of my birth; by baptism, confirmation, and choice, I am a follower of Christ and, thus, a citizen of God’s Kingdom.

Citizenship in God’s Kingdom does not depend on where you were born or who your parents were or how much money you might have or your sexuality; it simply depends on whether you seek God.  As a Citizen of God’s Kingdom, my duty is not to select those who can enter but to help those seeking God find their path.

The people who gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost two thousand years ago were many and varied, yet surrounded by the Holy Spirit, they become one.

Pentecost did not shut the doors to God’s Kingdom; rather it opened it up.  Our challenge is to say to those who, this day, would seek to close that the doors that the doors will be opened and we will be there to open them.

~~Tony Mitchell

Thoughts On Pentecost Sunday

A Meditation for 15 May 2016, Pentecost Sunday (Year C). The meditation is based on Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 14 – 17, and John 14: 8 – 17 (25 – 27.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the time when the Holy Spirit came to those gathered in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. And on this Pentecost Sunday, 2016, representatives of the United Methodist Church are gathered in Portland, Oregon, for the 2016 General Conference. I cannot help but think that, from all that I have read and heard, what is taking place in Portland cannot be, in any sense of the thought, be comparable to what transpired in Jerusalem two thousands years ago.

On a day when those gathered were united by the Holy Spirit, why are we so intent on dividing the people? Are we, as it is written in Genesis, all created in the image of God? Why is it that some people, who insist that some people do not fit that definition.

And why, when the Holy Spirit opened both the minds and spirits of the people, are so many intent on closing minds and diminishing spirit?

Why, when Jesus pointed out that He was the fulfillment of the Law, are so many people intent on maintaining the law, even when it is clear that the law is both discriminatory and out-of-date.

On this date, when the church became the church, why does it look so clearly that the United Methodist Church is soon to be simply a footnote to history.

Is it more important to maintain what we have or is it more important that we look at how to make the Gospel message reality in today’s and tomorrow’s society? Shall we deny the reality of today simply to maintain an illusion of reality?

We who have answered the call of Christ to walk with Him and who have opened our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit are challenged today to not simply keep the Spirit that we celebrate today alive but to take it out into the world. Our task is not to shut the door on those unlike us but, as Jesus outlined it when He began the Galilean ministry is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the stranger, the widow, the orphans and relieve the wants of the world.

“The Sound Of A Great Wind”

Here are the thoughts for Pentecost Sunday that I presented at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on May 18th. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 1 – 21 (I used the Cotton Patch translation), Romans 8: 14 – 17, and John 14: 25 – 27.


When you grow up in the South, you learn real quick the signs of a possible tornado. In Georgia, for example, it is said that you should listen very carefully when the wind goes silent.

In Missouri, they will tell you that a tornado is probably eminent when the sky is green.

And every person who has ever survived a tornado will tell you that you will never forget the sound of a tornado as it roars by your house.

And whatever the signs might be, you learn quickly to heed them and to know what to do if one should come. Unfortunately, we were reminded of this with all of the death and destruction that took place outside the Dallas/Fort Worth area this past week.

As we view the destruction that took place in Texas and which will undoubtedly see again through this summer, we can begin to imagine what the people gathered in Jerusalem must have felt when they heard the roaring winds that Clarence Jordan described as a tornado.

And surely they must have thought they were in the midst of a summer thunderstorm when the room was filled with fiery bolts of lightning.

And what did those outside the room think as they rushed to see what was happening, imagining death and destruction but finding celebration and rejoicing? We know that they were confused and convinced that those who had just experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit must have been drunk.

Here were all these people, gathered from every part of the world, speaking in their own language and yet understanding what everyone else was saying. It was a reason for rejoicing, a reason for celebration.

Peter will speak of the prophecy of Joel and how the young will once again have visions of the future and the old will again begin to dream. He will speak of the new community that begins on this day.

For those who remember, there was once a time when all the people of the world basically spoke the same language. But their own pride, their own greed, and what the Greeks called hubris lead them to build the tower of Babel and seek to be the same as God. God, perhaps rightly so, created the different languages to separate the people and force them to find new ways to work together.

Our history tells us how well we have done in that regard and how well we understand the cultures and personalities of other countries.

And so it is on this day, this Pentecost, that people have come together and the Holy Spirit gave each one the ability to hear others and speak to them. It brought back the sense of community that was torn apart so many years ago but which Jesus sought to build during his ministry.

Howard Snyder points out that Jesus probably gave as much or more to building a community of disciples as He did proclaiming the Good News.

He did this because it is in the community where individuals can grow in faith. Our task today is to recognize each individual’s responsibility before and to God (and not God’s responsibility to the individual as many people think) and recognize that we gather as a community so that Spirit can grow in all who gather together. (adapted from The Community of the King by Howard A. Snyder)

Pentecost will have no meaning for us if we see the church as a collection of saved souls and not as a community of interacting personalities.

Paul wrote to the Romans about the life we received when we came to Christ,

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him

We have said before and we will continue to say that this time together on Saturday mornings was never meant to be just a meal but the beginning of a new community.

Jesus told the disciples before He ascended into Heaven that He had shown them the way to the Father and He would send the Holy Spirit to give the ability to show others the way.

The challenge before us is perhaps daunting but not impossible.

For some, it is to help the church today regain the sense of community that it once had. It means tearing down the walls, both physical and spiritual, that keep people apart. It means seeing worship in a new way, offering new opportunities for people to come to Christ.

For others, on both sides of these spiritual and physical walls, it also means removing the barriers in their own lives that keep Jesus from being a part of their lives.

Today is the day 2000 years ago that the church began. It began as a community, a community for all, not just some. It was community that offered to all, not just some, the Hope and Peace that is Jesus Christ.

Today, in 2013, we celebrate that community of Christ and we invite all who seek Him to join this community today.

Rethinking the Church

Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 14 – 17, and John 14: 8 – 17 (25 – 27).


Sitting on my desk was a piece entitled “Rethinking the Bible” which I began about two weeks ago because of the reading from Acts for May 9th (Acts 16: 9 – 15). In addition, a second part of this piece came from Allan Bevere’s post this week, “What About Mediocre Churches?”, and his thoughts on the appointment process in the United Methodist Church.

The church today (Pentecost Sunday) is now some two thousand years old. And it is truly showing its age, both figuratively and chronologically. I have always been fascinated by those who are chronologically old but mentally young. Similarly there are those who are chronologically young but mentally old (and sometimes even “dead”).

I think there is nothing wrong with being old in terms of the calendar but I wonder if it is the best excuse to use for not wanting to learn new things or try out new ideas. To be mentally old is to be “dead” before your time.

I don’t mind that the church is, calendar-wise, old. That cannot be helped. But what I do mind is that the church, in form and perhaps function, has become mentally and emotionally dead. What started out as a rebellion against a religious and political establishment is fast becoming the religious establishment within our current political framework (with some trying very, very hard to make it the political establishment as well).

And the problem is, the church knows full well that, unless some radical and revolutionary things are done, real soon, it will be a physically dead entity as well. It should have never gotten to this point.

The church today bears little resemblance to the church of two thousand years ago. We are the people before Pentecost expressing perhaps the same ideas but speaking in thousands of different tongues so that no one understands what we are saying. We are the people who saw Jesus as a threat to the establishment because he took the power away from the establishment and restored a connection between God and His children. We made the building and the structure of the church more important than the mission of the church; in fact, we have made the mission of the church the filling of the building, not the care of the souls of the community.

We have made the physical structure of the church the goal rather than a place to come together. Our inability to think beyond the structure of the church has affected our own society in many, many ways and in a negative way. For the most part, we have failed to do what the early church did, tell the story and preach the Word of Christ. We assume that everyone knows the story so it need not be retold. But the story we live out is not the story that was told two thousand years ago; it is what we think the story was. I think it is time that we rethink what the church is and what its business ought to be.

Rethinking the Church – Part 1

You may or may not be familiar with “The Paper Chase”. For most people, this was a 1973 movie starring Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner, and John Houseman. For some, it would be the television series that followed the movie in 1978 and 1979. It was the final episode of that television series (“The Scavenger Hunt”) that provided the inspiration for how I give exams in my chemistry classes and also served as the inspiration for the piece, “The Final Exam in Contracts”.

But I don’t think many people were aware that the movie and the television show came from a book by John J. Osborne, Jr. Mr. Osborne has written at least four other novels, including one of my favorites, The Associates.

In The Associates, the hero is struggling with life in a prestigious New York law firm. Through a set of circumstances, he ends up having lunch with the firm’s founder and senior partner. One may say that it was a conversation between the two but it essentially consisted of the partner talking and the young associate listening.

In the conversation, the partner describes his early days as a law clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the frustration that he felt as did what he felt were clerical tasks and not the tasks that he had prepared to do in law school. And as the partner describes his efforts in legal research, he tells of bringing in an original (and historical) document which Justice Holmes begins to write on. When Justice Holmes realizes that he has been given the original document in a long and complicated legal problem, he announces that the clerk is now ready to begin the process of law. The discussion between the partner and the associate doesn’t go much beyond that but it plants the idea in the associate’s mind about what he must do if he is to continue a life in the legal profession.

Now, on this Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, perhaps we should consider such a conversation ourselves and perhaps we should go back to the original documents.

What many people know and understand is often limited, often wrong, and in the end, will cause more harm than good.

Rethinking the Bible

There are some shows on the history channel that pertain to the composition of the Bible and what was acceptable as a text and what was not acceptable, both in the Old and New Testaments.  There was also a series on the writing of the New Testament, from the Gospels through the letters of Paul and others. 

Now, it is well known that there are many contradictions in the Bible and some of them we are never going to resolve. Nor should we expect to resolve them. After all, the Bible is neither a literature book nor is it a history book (and please, don’t tell me that it qualifies as a biology or geology text book). For me, the Bible is one of several stories that attempts to explain to the world who we are and why we are here.  When I read the Old Testament, I sometimes imagine children sitting around the fire asking their grandfather or one of the elders the most asked question of children, “Why?” But this simple question leads to answers that are not always simple, and it always seems to lead to another “why?” Just have a conversation with a three year old sometime and you will understand what this means.

In Acts 16: 9 – 15, Paul teaches Lydia and the information that is provided says that he does so in what would have been considered a culturally inappropriate manner.  That is, he taught the women without their husbands or brothers being present.  Now, we know that Lydia was independent and self-sufficient; I don’t think that she would have tolerated any man telling her what she could and could not do.

For Paul, who knew the law as well as anyone, teaching unaccompanied women was just not done.  But we also know that at this time Paul is taking a more “liberated” view of the world and the old laws aren’t going to cut it.

So how does Paul get stuck with a sexist label later on?  How is it that he begins all of his early writing by proclaiming the good works of all those involved in the church and he specifically names women when he does so but we have this image (which is pushed by many fundamentalists today) that women have no place in the power structure of the church?

It has been noted that Paul never intended for his letters to become theology but the people treat his letters as such. They are more instructional in nature than theological. If we don’t understand the reason for why Paul wrote his letters (or others wrote them in his name), then we are going to have problems understanding what Christianity is and what it is meant to be. We cannot even begin to think about the nature of the church if we don’t understand the nature of Christianity.

And as Christianity struggles with its own identity, we need to seriously consider what it is that is in the Bible and what is in history.

We know that what many people see in the church today is not what the church was some two thousand years ago.  If we do not understand how it is that a movement spread from Jerusalem to cover the world, we are not going to be able to keep it alive in our part of the world.  And the same goes for understanding Paul. 

Is Paul really the writer of the words in his last letters which run so counter to what he wrote in his earlier letters?  Shall we preach a message that runs so counter to a belief of the equality of mankind in the eyes of God?  Or shall we preach a gospel that preaches that some of us are better than others?

The Bible is not the final word in the matter; it is the beginning word. It is the basis upon which we grow and expand the Word. And we have to remember that the early church had no Bible with which to tell the story; it relied on the people to tell the stories and spread the Good News.

The Business of the Church

What is the business of the church? Why did it come into existence in the first place? Now, you will get no argument from me if you say that the business of the church is the saving of souls. But you will get an argument from me if the saving of souls is accomplished by forcing people to accept your notion of salvation and your notion that the only path to salvation passes through the doors of your church. This says to me that you are more interested in putting more bodies in the building than you are seeing that they enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I am sorry if that upsets you but I have observed many people walk the path of righteousness who do not believe as I do but who believe in God and live a life in accordance with the same precepts that I hold true. Are they to be denied access to heaven because they do not believe as I do? How do I even know that I hold the right answers in my life; perhaps I am the one to be denied and they are the ones who will be allowed entrance?

You see, the problem is that we think it is more important to count the bodies here on earth and proclaim victory than waiting until that time when we will truly know the truth. I think we are sort of afraid of that moment so we focus on the here and now. Then again, we are a society that wants everything right now and we are unwilling to wait until later to find out the true effectiveness of our work (and if this bears a remarkable similarity to some of my thoughts about the present nature of the educational process, so be it because it is the same).

We, as a denomination and as a church, have applied the business model of the bottom line to church development.  The only true way to know if a pastor is successful or if a local church is successful comes a long time after the pastor and the congregation are gone.  We are in the business of saving souls and there is only one way to know if we did our job right.  It cannot be measured with a bottom line mentality. But that is what we do and it is beginning to show.

The problem is that we have applied the Peter Principle to the appointment process. We reward pastors with upward movement, to a bigger church. Some of this can’t be help; after a period of time, a smaller church does not have the resources to pay the pastor the appropriate salary. But successful pastors are successful as much for where they are as for what they do. And unless the new church congregation is willing to undertake the same efforts that the old church congregation undertook, the pastor may not necessarily be successful in his new assignment.

A model which places a pastor in a church because of seniority and time of service can do more harm than good. It is a model that places the beginning pastors (local, student, or otherwise) in situations where an experienced pastor can perhaps do better. I am not saying that a beginning pastor can’t be successful in such settings but there are only 168 hours in a week and the beginning pastor is often faced with other tasks beside running and building a church. (This is also analogous in education where the least experienced teachers are put in the schools with the most problems.)

As we have made the support of the pastor a local issue, we are stuck with a model that puts the beginning pastor at the smaller churches without the resources and support they need and the more experienced pastors in positions where the support is far greater than is needed. There is an imbalance in this system and it is beginning to affect what we do as a church.

There are solutions to this problem but they are not necessarily the ones that people want to implement. It brings into question part of what I said last week at Gardnertown UMC (“Should We Explain This?”).

Faced with their destruction, the people of Athens turned to the Oracle at Delphi for the answer as to how to defeat the Persians threatening the city. The answer was that “the wooden wall would save you and your children.” As history will note, the Athenians took this as a sign to conduct a naval battle rather than a land battle.

We see solutions to the problems but they may not necessarily be the right solutions simply because we are seeing them through traditional approaches and the way we view the world. There are some who see technology as the solution, when in fact it is the mechanism by which the solution will be determined.

Technology and the Church

Someone once said that technology was a two-edged sward. And though I am not quite sure of the analogy other than it can cut coming or going, technology is proving to be both the curse and the solution for many churches.

Recently my church sent out an e-mail announcement about something happening at the church. This was good; it happens to be a quick and efficient way of doing things and perhaps cheaper. But not everyone in the church has e-mail and not everyone who has e-mail is going to read their e-mail on a regular basis (as one person told me, if you spend your entire work day on the computer, the last thing you want to do is spend your home life on the computer as well). As a result, a good portion of the congregation did not receive notice of a very important event in the life of the church.

On a broader note, I am a preparing a list of United Methodist Churches within a particular radius of my home church. This was very easy to do because we have a zip code search function on the “find-a-church” part of the umc.org website. This allows me to get contact information for the various churches I want to contact. What is interesting is the number of churches listed whose contact information is minimal, incomplete, or incorrect.

Now, the “find-a-church” function is an important one, though I am not sure how someone not familiar with the United Methodist page would find it. But if I found it and used it and found a church that only listed its street address (which may or may not be correct) and listed no web page or had an e-mail address, I may not be interested in that church. Personally, I want to go to the church and meet the people before making a decision but it tells me something when the church’s web page information is limited. It may be a sign that they want people to think that the church is “with it (hey, we are on the web)” but they don’t necessarily want people visiting.

But it also says something when a church doesn’t have an e-mail address or if the e-mail address is wrong (like the address for a church which was another church’s address). It also says something if there is a web page for the church but the wrong thing when the web page is not up-to-date.

Our thinking cannot be determined by the technology because not everyone has the capability (or desire) to use the technology. The technology can help the church; however, it is not the solution but a mechanism for achieving the solution. And it requires an effort on the part of those who made the decision to keep the work up to date.

And by the way, church is not an event that can be done on-line. It can be streamed and pod-cast; it can be recorded and re-shown (I hope to have the video of my Palm Sunday and Easter messages posted but I am finding the size limitations daunting) but it cannot be done on-line. Church is something that must be done with others, be in it a building or in a garden or in a forest or on a mountaintop.

Rethinking the Church – Part 2

There are those today who are trying to find the original church and to revitalize Christianity. They are doing so by creating house churches, of bringing back the original meeting places. Some are even going so far as to learn Greek so they can read the Bible in its original language.

For whatever reason, these attempts have been labeled as post-modern and are being met with great resistance from the religious establishment and sometimes from church congregations. I have said, and will continue to say, that I find many parallels between the church establishment of today and it’s counterpart of two thousand years ago.

The establishment likes the way things are done today and many people, while looking around at their church and wondering what is happening, are reluctant to change the way things are being done. But unless we do that, unless we change our thinking, the existence of the church will be like that of the dinosaur, a relic of the past unable to adapt to the changes in its environment.

Some of the resistance comes from poor planning and lack of thought on the part of the reformers. There is clearly a need for the use of technology in the church today but a worship service with Power Point presentations and insipid praise music is not the answer. Find new music, yes! Use all sorts of presentation methodologies, yes! But don’t simply copy something someone else is doing and expect it to work unless the people you are presenting it to are just the people of the church whom you copied the idea from.

The Holy Spirit

Today is about the Holy Spirit and its presence in our lives. I think the state of the church today is due in part to the lack of the Holy Spirit. The people made the church what it is today and they have been going through the motions for so long that the Holy Spirit is no longer present. Each week the people say the words and expect that will be enough. But they say the words without spirit, without enthusiasm and without feeling; it is no wonder that there is no spirit.

If it is possible for the Holy Spirit to come upon a group of people and allow them to speak in such a way that everyone knows what they are saying, it is possible for the Holy Spirit to revitalize the church and renew its spirit. But the people must be prepared for that moment. The people had gathered together that first Pentecost Sunday and they gather together every Sunday; so the possibility exists.

There are some who look around and see no hope; I know many who feel this way and I see countless others who see the church as antiquated and out-of-touch with the realities of the world outside the church walls. But I also know that those who have turned from the church really don’t have the answer, either.

And I know that two thousand years ago, one man asked twelve others to follow Him. And the twelve followed as did others. And they saw the miracles and they heard the lessons and they took to heart all that they had seen and heard. And when that First Easter was over, they had a better understanding of what had happened in their lives.

And on that First Pentecost they received the Holy Spirit into their lives and then they went out into the world, far beyond the boundaries of their normal, everyday routine, and they changed the world.

And I know that John Wesley had a vision for this world and that on that night when he understood and received the Holy Spirit, his vision became alive and it too changed the world.

The vision is there and it is now our call to take the message into the world. We do have to rethink the ways in which we have done things but we do not and will not change the simple fact that Christ is our Savior and that we are to be his disciples, not merely telling people but showing them. It is a challenge but no greater challenge than the church has faced in the past.

If we open our hearts and minds to Christ and then allow the Holy Spirit to be a part of us, then we can revitalize the church and make it what it was and what it is to be.

This Day and This Weekend

Here are my thoughts for Pentecost Sunday and Memorial Day.
This is an interesting weekend. I don’t know how many times Pentecost and Memorial Day coincide but it probably occurs fairly often. But on this day and this weekend, we need to stop and think about what has transpired and what will happen in the coming days.

While Memorial Day is a day that we are supposed to remember and honor those who died in service to our country, it seems to me that we see this day and this weekend as sort of the beginning of summer. Everything, it seems, is focused on summer-based sales and summer time activities. Very little is mentioned about what this day really means.

Oh, yes, there will be many speeches by many a politician about the honor, service and sacrifice of those whose death we honor with this weekend. But no matter what side of the political aisle the speaker may stand, the speeches will take on the aspect of glorifying war and how vigilant we must be in the protection of our countries.

Now, my wife and I and our families have three flags that were given to us “with the thanks of a grateful nation” and neither of us want the honor, service, or sacrifice of our family to be dishonored or forgotten. But I think that anyone who speaks of war in the present and future tense is doing just so. The context always seems to be how we must fight future wars in order to honor those who have fallen on battlefields in past and present wars.

Yet, no one speaks of removing war from the vocabulary of society. It is always about using war to combat war and terrorism; nothing is ever said about eliminating the need for war by eliminating the causes of war and terrorism. And on this weekend when the early church came together and spoke with a common voice, the church today seems remarkably silent on the topic of eliminating and preventing war and terrorism.

And while our churches are silent, the voices of parents who have lost children and children who have lost parents grow louder each day. We are reminded of the quote first attributed to the Greek philosopher, Herodotus, “in peace, children bury their parents; in war, parents bury their children.” But we are finding that while parents are burying their children, children are also burying their parents. We have finally achieved an equal-opportunity war, as if death ever needed an equal-opportunity program. What we will find is that in a few years, there will be no one left to bury the dead for we will have killed an entire generation. And yet the churches of today remain silent.

Our politicians offer only words of fear, claiming that we must fight terrorism now before it strikes again. And if there are those who speak out against such language, they are quickly labeled cowards and/or un-patriotic. Politicians today, and I speak of those on both sides of the aisle, speak to our fears and offer very little in the way of removing fear from our lives. Could it be that if fears are removed, they have very little to offer that would make this world a better place? When this church began, those who watched its birth were fearful because of the changes that came over the people gathered together. But, as Peter proclaimed, there was nothing to fear for it was the presence of the Holy Spirit that brought about the change. Yet, today the church is silent about such changes.

When Jesus began His ministry, he spoke of bringing comfort to the afflicted, healing the sick and bringing hope and freedom to the oppressed. Yet, in this day and age, when thousands die for both the causes and outcomes of war, when thousands are without adequate shelter and drinking water, when thousands languish in jails of the body and the mind, the church today remains remarkably silent.

This is Pentecost Sunday (or the weekend of Pentecost); this is the birth of the church. This was the time that countless Christians came together and the divisions between peoples and societies that began with the building of the Tower of Babel were erased by the presence of the Holy Spirit. People of different cultures and different languages were able to speak with others; the presence of the Holy Spirit removed the years of division. Yet today, the modern church seems intent on division and discourse, not unity and conversation.

Are we able to say today that we are centered on the same things that were the focus of the early church? Are we able to say that we are bringing people to the church, or are we saying that because of your race, color, creed, status, or lifestyle you are not welcome in this church? Are we able to say today and this weekend that the church we have reflects the early beginnings that are the basis for who we are and what we do?

The early church was a community of believers, united in one common belief and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It was a community that made sure that even the least of its members were not forgotten. It was a community of love and sharing. Are these the hallmarks of the church today?

When we say that we are Christians, we say that we identify with Christ. We say that we are committed to the mission that Jesus Christ first announced some two thousand years ago in the synagogue in Nazareth. On this day and this weekend, when we honor the service and sacrifice of many and we celebrate the birth of our church, can we say that we are carrying out that mission? Are we speaking out against those who see war as the only answer? Are we speaking out to insure that all who are sick can be healed, that all those without shelter or clothes are able to find adequate shelter and clothing?

On this day and on this weekend, we should honor those who have died by seeing that others need not die. And we can do that by carrying out the mission that Jesus Christ proclaimed to the world. On this day and on this weekend, we need not be silent anymore.