Vital Dihydrogen Monoxide

Goose Pond UMC
March 23, 2014

(Adapted from First UMC Shelbyville, March 27, 2011)

Are you familiar with dihydrogen monoxide? It’s widely used as an industrial solvent, in a number of different industries. In its liquid and solid forms, it’s powerful enough to damage asphalt, concrete or even stone. It can corrode metal. In its gaseous form, it’s been known to cause severe burns. Autopsies and biopsies have revealed that people suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses have dihydrogen monoxide in their systems. And yet, dihydrogen monoxide is used in the production of nearly every processed food. It’s even found in baby formula.
The chemical formula for dihydrogen monoxide, as its name implies, is two hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom – H2O. In other words, the chemical that can damage asphalt, corrode metal and cause severe burns is … water. You can find it in the bodies of sick people because you can find it in the body of every person.
The facts I read about “dihydrogen monoxide” were from a humorous web site. The site lists all sorts of alarming-sounding facts and pretty much leaves you to figure out on your own what dihydrogen monoxide actually is.

We know, however, that by whatever name, water is essential for any of us if we want to stay alive. Adult bodies are somewhere between 55 and 60 percent water. Depending on the temperature and the conditions, you can’t survive more than a few days without drinking water. When Aron Ralston, the hiker portrayed in the movie “127 Hours,” was trapped under a boulder, his concern wasn’t that he would die without food but that he would die without water.
But dihydrogen monoxide may not be the only kind of water. Water plays into two of our lectionary passages today:

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the wheel, un-reinvented

Well, after lay speaking this morning at Cannon UMC and Mt. Lebanon UMC, I went to look up next Sunday’s passages from the Revised Common Lectionary, so that I could start working on my sermon for Goose Pond UMC in Coffee County.

If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s sort of a schedule for the scriptures to be used in Sunday worship. The Catholic Church has its own lectionary; the Revised Common Lectionary is a Protestant version, for those denominations or preachers who believe in such a thing. These would tend to be the same churches that recognize some form of the liturgical calendar – seasons like Lent, Advent and what have you.

Each week, there are four basic scripture passages. There’s at least one Old Testament passage (other than the Psalms), at least one New Testament passage (other than the Gospels), a passage from the Psalms and a passage from the Gospels. Some weeks, there are more than that – especially if there are alternate ways to treat that Sunday within the liturgical calendar.

For example, some churches celebrate the Sunday before Easter as “Palm Sunday” and would want a Gospel passage about Jesus’ triumphal entry of Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. Those churches would typically recognize the crucifixion during a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. But churches that don’t have a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service might choose to observe “Passion Sunday” instead, treating the crucifixion one week so that they can concentrate on the resurrection the next. The lectionary includes passages for each of those two options.

The lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – if 2011 uses the calendar for Year A, and 2012 uses the calendar for Year B, and 2013 uses Year C, then in 2014 you go back to Year A again.

A pastor may pick only one of the week’s lectionary passages and focus on it exclusively. Often, though, there’s some sort of common theme or element, and the really skillful professionals can often weave two, three, or all four of the passages into a single sermon. I’m an amateur, and I usually just preach on one of the four passages.

United Methodism would in general be a church that uses the lectionary, although it’s enough of a big tent that there are pastors, especially at small churches, who don’t use it. There are also special occasions when a pastor might want to ignore that week’s lectionary because of some special occasion or situation which the pastor feels requires a different direction.

Lay speakers, especially if we’re called upon at the last moment, aren’t necessarily expected to go by the lectionary, but I do, whenever possible.

I recall a lay speaking class I took in which the class members had differing opinions about the lectionary. Some didn’t like it, feeling that in every case you should seek God’s inspiration rather than relying on some dusty man-made schedule. Others, and I am among them, find God’s inspiration within the lectionary, which sometimes forces us out of our comfort zones and requires us to look at passages we might ignore otherwise.

Anyway, I want to look at the passages for next Sunday and they looked familiar. I save all of my sermons to a folder on my computer, and it didn’t take me long to find a sermon I preached on the Third Sunday of Lent three years ago – remember, the lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – at my home church, First UMC Shelbyville. I looked at the sermon and remembered it immediately, and I recall being pleased with it. (Boy, that sounds egotistical.) And it incorporated two different lectionary passages — the OT passage and the Gospel passage.

Anyway, I decided that, rather than start from scratch, I would update and adapt  that sermon from three years ago and use it next Sunday.

It runs about a page or two longer than my usual sermon; it may need a bit of tightening. I’ll read it aloud some time in the next night or two and see if it really is longer time-wise. Then again, some of my sermons are on the short side so maybe this is just more of an average-length sermon.

Anyway, I won’t have to panic this week about whether or not I’ve written my sermon.

Regeneration

Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
March 16, 2014

John 3:1-17 (NRSV)
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the TV show “Doctor Who.” It celebrated its 50th anniversary last November, and It’s been one of my all-time favorites since I discovered it as a college student in the early 1980s. It’s a British science fiction TV show, about a mysterious alien, whose name is “The Doctor,” from a planet called Gallifrey. The main character has been played by 12 different actors over those five decades, and a 13th has just taken over the part and will start in new episodes later this year.
What happened was, the first man to play the part, in the mid-1960s, decided to quit. At that time, “Doctor Who” was considered a children’s show, and so the producers just made up a new plot point – something they might not have been able to get away with in a show aimed at grownups – and decided that the people of Gallifrey have the ability to “regenerate” – to heal themselves from some great trauma by transforming into an entirely new body.

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My podcast appearance

Last week, I visited Michael Hansen and my former castmate Brenden Taylor for a taping of their podcast “Finding Christ in Cinema,” which looks for religious allegories and talking points in secular films. My original intent was to interview them for a story, which I did, but they also invited me to sit in as a guest on the podcast, and I did that too. Logrolling? Maybe. But I enjoyed it, and think I got a good story out of it, too.

Being a guest on the podcast was fun — I probably should have leaped into the discussion more often than I did, but I was kind of feeling my way around. I have an invitation to come back some time, and I think I’ll probably be a little more comfortable and a little more vocal whenever I do. It will have to be the right movie, though.

Anyway, my episode can be found here. You can listen to it from that page or click for a little popout player that you can then minimize so that you don’t forget and close it by mistake.

I’ve said here in the past that I’d love to have some sort of podcast. But (except for the short-lived talk show I did on WLIJ some years back) it’s been nearly 30 years since my radio days, and last week reminded me that filling air time is harder than it looks. My experiments, such as the little pilot episode I did in 2011 for a faith-based interview podcast — have also been very low-tech. Michael has a nice home studio, and you can hear it in the quality of the product he produces. I’m not in a position to even pay for hosting right now, much less equipment.

I’ve also never really settled on what I want to do. The more marketable ideas are also more restrictive; what I really want is the freedom to play, but that quickly becomes self-indulgent and not interesting to other people, which sort of defeats the purpose. The podcasts I really enjoy listening to are hosted by comedians or other creative people who have good content, but even when they stray from the content they can make stream-of-consciousness interesting to someone other than themselves. They also have a lot of access to good guests, sidekicks or interview subjects to play off of.

But I can still dream. Maybe one of these days, I’ll come up with a format or premise that I can run with.

not a pilgrim

Is it heretical to say that I have no desire to tour the Holy Land?

The host of the daily Bible podcast to which I listen, and a different fellow who’s a former pastor of mine, are each (separately) in the Holy Land right now, beaming back reports through the podcast and through social media.

I’ve seen numerous slide shows and heard numerous accounts over the years, and I always have to bite my tongue and grit my teeth when I’m shown a photo and told that this is definitely, no question about it, the exact spot where such-and-such a Bible event took place.

Yes, we know where the temple was, and some other landmarks like that. I’d love to be able to see the Sea of Galilee even if I didn’t know the exact spot on its shores where Jesus stepped onto or off of a boat. But anyone who tells you that this is the exact field where Ruth gleaned Boaz’s grain is selling you something. I think about how many times control of Jerusalem has changed hands over the milliennia. I think about how many events in the Gospels were private, intimate events, the full significance of which might not be known until they were recalled much later, in the light of subsequent events. The idea that the exact locations where all of these various events happened have been known and preserved through the ages – especially during the medieval era – seems absurd to me. I don’t know how much of it is backed up by scholarly research and how much of it is just informal claims by individuals. And that doesn’t even get to all of the other various claims and artifacts and what not that I see on those slideshows and Facebook posts.

I have no problem with those who have been moved and inspired by trips to the Holy Land; I just don’t have any interest myself. Maybe there’s more scholarly research than I’m assuming, and I’m just being cynical. But I really don’t have an interest in going.

Ready to ring

Well, even though we missed a practice last week we’re moving ahead with our scheduled performance of the First United Methodist handbell choir this Sunday morning during the 10 a.m. service. I must say, I’m looking forward to it.

We’re going to get together during the Sunday School hour for one last practice.

I wondered if we were going to keep going after this performance, and apparently we are – Dulcie gave us two new pieces of music last night which we’ll start practicing next week. We may even go to one or two of the local nursing homes or another church or something of that sort.

We’ll probably take a break from practicing over the summer (as do many of FUMC’s Wednesday night activities), but Dulcie is already talking about us working on Christmas music next fall and performing over the holidays.

As someone with no real musical talent, I’m excited about this.

my happy place

Here’s a little thought experiment to try to warm myself up. Feel free to come along as I try to escape the polar vortex.

The temperature is not in single digits, because it’s not January. It’s July, and I’m at Camp Cumberland Pines, volunteering with Summer Plus. We’ve just ended a good, satisfying day of working with the teenagers. My creative writing workshop is going well in the afternoons, and I’m having fun helping out in another workshop — let’s say, cooking — in the mornings.

I’m a co-pilot on one of the transportation routes, but not today — one of my fellow volunteers who hasn’t been involved in transportation wanted to get out into the county and see where the teens come from, so she offered to swap with me this afternoon. I watch the last of the vehicles pull out of the front entrance to Cumberland Pines. I slip on my backpack and begin walking across the big field from the Wingo Pavilion to the dining hall, beyond which lies Friends Cabin.

The warm sun feels wonderful. I’m wearing shorts and a tie-dyed t-shirt, and I throw on my Mountain T.O.P. ball cap to shade my face. The home repair volunteers have to wear long pants at the work site – it’s an insurance thing – but I can, and do, wear shorts almost all week. I usually arrive in camp wearing long pants, and sometimes I’ll put on long pants on Friday for our Summer Plus celebration, which the teens’ parents come for. But the rest of the time, I’m in shorts. I’m a volunteer, and Summer Plus is a good day’s work, but it’s also a form of vacation.

I walk past Guido. Guido is a tree located near the dining hall, with benches arranged around it in a circle. I have no idea why it’s called Guido. At this point, nobody else may know either.

One or two other volunteers who didn’t have to do transportation are in the lobby of Friends Cabin. We exchange pleasantries about how the day went. I stop by my room in Friends Cabin, take off my shoes and socks and put on flip-flops. I sit out on the deck for a few moments. I look over at Three Crosses, an outdoor worship area nearby, and down at the AIM pavilion. I decide to go in and take a shower. Most of the other Summer Plus volunteers are women, and most are on their transportation routes, so I have the men’s shower room all to myself. Later, about 5 or so, the home repair teams will start rolling into camp, and all three shower stalls will be busy at once, with people waiting their turn. But for now, it’s just me, and a hot shower feels good.

After showering and putting on clean clothes, I wander over to the dining hall — to use the wi-fi and to set one of the tables (I’m co-hosting a table for dinner tonight). As I finish putting out napkins and silverware, I hear a couple of cars driving back into camp. It’s too early for the home repair folks to be back, so I know it’s probably my fellow Summer Plus volunteers, probably some who were dropping off teens relatively near the camp. I wander back over to Friends Cabin.

I pick up the deck of cards on the table in the lobby. “Are you going to play ‘Screw The Dealer’ tonight?” I ask someone.

“Oh, yes. I can’t do any worse than I did last night.”

I walk over to the fridge, put 75 cents in the cash box, and pull out a Diet Coke. Then I think about it for a second, put the Diet Coke back, put 50 more cents in the cash box, and get an IBC black cherry instead. I’ve earned it.

I look at my “mailbox,” a black cylinder marked with my name sitting on the mailbox table. Some people have hand-made mailboxes they’ve been bringing to camp for years; others didn’t bring a mailbox and have brown paper lunch sacks with their name scrawled on them in magic marker. There’s a note of thanks and encouragement in my mailbox from one of my fellow volunteers. I realize I’ve been delinquent in my own note-writing and I sit down at the table, where there are little squares of paper and pens strewn about.

After writing a few notes and depositing them in the appropriate mailboxes, I wander back out to the deck. Dinner will come up at 6 p.m., and then sharing. Sharing is a chance to talk about the day, and if I get the chance I’ll have a moving story about something one of my creative writing kids said during my workshop. Worship will follow a few minutes after sharing breaks up. It will be brief and creative. By 8:45 or so, we’ll all be free for the evening, and that card game is likely to crank up.

Right now, though, I’m just sitting on the Friends Cabin deck, enjoying the warm weather and waiting for my friends to get back from their transportation routes and home repair sites.

God is good.

Do you feel warmer now?  If you’d like to make this trip for real, you can find out more here.

A daily dose

We’re approaching the first of the year, so it’s time for me to encourage you to try out the Daily Audio Bible, which will of course start a new cycle on Jan. 1.

You may have used various Bible-in-a-year reading plans or listened to various audio Bible products. But DAB is something unique, and I think it’s worth checking out. It’s a daily podcast hosted by Brian Hardin, who lives in Spring Hill (although he seems to be on the road constantly with various speaking engagements). You can listen to it for free using podcast software like iTunes, at the dailyaudiobible.com website, or you can make a one-time purchase of a very inexpensive smartphone or tablet app.

Brian takes you through the entire Bible in a year (and actually takes you through Psalms and Proverbs more than once). Bible-on-CD products usually rely on people with deep, dramatic voices, but Brian’s reading style is warm and casual, and very listenable. Each day, there’s an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a reading from Psalms and a reading from Proverbs. The reading itself takes maybe 15-20 minutes. Brian then usually briefly discusses one of the day’s passages, leads a prayer, talks about his upcoming schedule. The podcast is then closed out by playing various prayer requests (or messages in response to other people’s prayer requests) exactly as they were left on the ministry’s prayer hotline. You can decide how much of this you want to listen to; you can stop right after the reading, or right after Brian’s remarks and the prayer, or you can listen to the whole thing.

The podcast rotates through various Bible versions, changing to a different one each week. That probably helps keep them on the good side of the various rights holders (if they were to always use the same version, it might compete with that version’s audio Bible CDs, or what have you). A couple of years ago, when a special edition of the NIV was published using the DAB reading schedule, Brian proposed sticking to the NIV so that people could follow along. I would have liked that, if only because I don’t like a couple of the paraphrases that are in the DAB’s regular rotation. But a poll of the listeners revealed strong support for keeping the different-version-each-week policy.

DAB tries to encourage interaction and a community feel, although of course you don’t have to participate in any of that to listen to the podcast. There are various message boards at the web site, and for the past  year there were DAB “family gatherings” held in various cities where Brian was traveling.

DAB also has several other daily podcasts – there’s a version just for kids, a Proverbs-only podcast, and a number of foreign-language versions.

Forcing yourself to go through the entire Bible isn’t always easy. There are Old Testament passages that we like to conveniently ignore, and Brian (without getting too sectarian – this is a non-denominational podcast) sometimes tries to address dissonance between what’s being described in the Old Testament history books and what we believe about God as God is described in the New Testament. But it’s all the Bible, and I think it’s a healthy process to push through it and make yourself think about what you believe. A daily dose of the Bible is a healthy thing for Christians, and DAB is a friendly, even comforting, way to meet your recommended daily allowance.

Time capsule

My father has been cleaning his house in preparation for the holidays. When I saw him at church tonight, he said he had something for me:

bible1

You no doubt recognize this as the type of pocket New Testament once given out by Gideons International in schools, and still, I believe, given out in other situations. I wonder who this one belonged to?

bible2

I was 10 years old in 1972. We had just moved to Bedford County that summer, and I was a fifth grader in Mrs. Carothers’ class at Wartrace Elementary School.

guilty at the waffle house

A year and a half ago, at three in the morning, I was sitting in a camp chair at Bedford County Agriculture and Education Center, nodding off.

It was the middle of the American Cancer Society Relay For Life – my second Relay ever, and my first as a member of the county organizing committee. I had not sat down with the intention of napping, but if I had nodded off at that point, it would not have been a bad thing. My services as a committee member weren’t in high demand at that hour of the morning, and a little bit of a nap might have helped me get my second wind.

The trouble was a man I’ve known since we worked together in high school. He saw me sitting there and came over to talk.

He talked, and talked, and talked. My end of the conversation consisted of the occasional “uh-huh.” I kept hoping he’d pick up on the fact that I wasn’t really interested in sparkling conversation at that point, but he’s apparently tone deaf in that way. He kept talking and talking and talking and I never did get my nap.

Today is Halloween. It’s been a busy week at work, and even more so today as I tried to make up for the vacation day I’m taking tomorrow. Because of severe weather which had been forecast for tonight, the city had recommended that trick-or-treaters be through and home by 6 p.m. I did not buy any Halloween candy; I don’t usually get many trick-or-treaters in a good year, and I didn’t want to be left with a big bag of excess candy. But I wasn’t completely sure how the unusual schedule might affect things. I decided that the best way to unwind after a long and busy day at work would be to go to Waffle House and enjoy a leisurely breakfast-for-dinner. I walked in, a copy of Wired magazine under my arm, sat down at the counter and ordered a cheesesteak omelet, hashbrowns scattered and smothered, and one of their new jalapeno cheddar biscuits.

A couple of stools down from me, there were some dirty dishes. I figured that whoever had been sitting there left just before I arrived.

I had just started reading the magazine, when the owner of those dirty dishes returned to his stool.

You guessed it: my talkative friend.

I hoped that maybe I’d just be in for a few pleasantries and then he’d head out, having finished his meal. No such luck. Again, he talked, and talked, and talked, and again, I sat there and grunted. Instead of the leisurely meal for which I’d hoped, I wolfed down my omelet, paid my check, and spent the remainder of my sentence up the street a bit at Walmart.

Once I was safely in my car, driving through the drizzle up Main Street, I felt appropriately guilty for having been rude. Surely, if I were half the Christian I pretend to be, I would have been genuinely interested. If I were a quarter of the Christian I pretend to be, I would have at least done a better job of feigning interest – not out of hypocrisy, but out of common courtesy. Instead, I just sat there and thought about how much I wanted to go back to reading my magazine.

I am a never-married 51-year-old man without children or a girlfriend. I am, frequently, a fifth wheel. I am absolutely certain that there are people in my life who have been every bit as annoyed with my presence as I was with my old co-worker’s presence. Most of them are a lot nicer to me than I was to him.

Regret, of course, is much cheaper than actual obedience.