Tuesday, October 30, 2007

God's Money by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts

I set forth several conditions about where I would live when I retired, one of which was that I would live at least one mile from any church. Like most of the other conditions, this primary one was not met. By a fortuitous arrangement with the congregation I last served, I live immediately across the street from the church – so near, in fact, that on a sunny morning the shadow of the steeple falls across my front lawn. None of the problems anticipated about living so near the church have materialized; but there is one unanticipated problem.

In order for you to understand that problem you would have to know that my lovely wife, Hilda, has always been the treasurer and bookkeeper in our household. She is, and always has been, the soul of frugality, which is a fortunate characteristic for a clergy family. Her insistence on frugality tends to extend to any institution we support, the main one of which is the church whose steeple shadow falls across our front lawn. From the front windows of our house you can see some window in most of the whole church plant. Hilda cannot stand to see a light on where light is not necessary. I can handle that in our house, but First Methodist Church is a big building and people sometimes fail to turn off the lights when they leave. Guess who gets nominated to get dressed and go across the street to turn off those lights. Moi!! Hilda insists that God’s money should not be wasted. (Finance Committee, you may write a note of appreciation at your leisure; and by the way, send one also to me.) My experience here puts me in mind of a story.

One Monday morning a pastor in Texas answered the knock on his study door to find the church treasurer standing there with a check in his hand. He said: "Pastor, we have a little problem here; this is a check for five hundred dollars." The pastor opined that he could live with a few more problems like that. The treasurer said: "No, you don’t understand! Look at the check." The pastor took the check and read across the top line: Pay to the Order of God. When the pastor raised his eyes, the treasurer asked: "Now, who is going to endorse that?" According to the legend, the pastor handed the check back and answered: "You are! I certainly would not want it to get out that this church received an offering intended for God and didn’t know what to do with it!"

Before he retired as pastor of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota several years ago, Dr. Rodney Wilmoth told of being at the church one Saturday morning. When the telephone rang he picked it up and said, "Hello" without identifying himself or the church. The voice on the other end of the line said: "I would like to order five pounds of barbecued ribs and five pounds of potato salad." Dr. Wilmoth said: "I believe you have the wrong number." The lady said: "You don’t have ribs and potato salad?" "No," said Dr. Wilmoth, "You have the wrong number." Then the woman said: "Well, what kind of business are you in?" Dr. Wilmoth said that question haunted him for a long time.

When you give your money to the church there are three things you should understand. First, it is no longer your money. It is now God’s money. The second thing you should understand is that it should be spent, not hoarded. The church is not First National Bank! The third thing is that it should be spent with great care. After all, it is God’s money!

OK, I’ll get dressed and go across the street and turn off the lights!! I not only feel responsible to God, I also have to live with the lady at my house who writes the check for our tithe on the first Sunday of every month!

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for September 20, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Living With Ambiguity by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts

One of the best signs of maturity is the ability to live creatively with ambiguity. People who feel unduly anxious about not knowing with certainty the answer to all the big questions of life tend to be drawn to people who think they know everything. Uncertainty makes us look around nervously for experts.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Holy Land. I wanted to stand in those special places where Jesus stood and remember what he said and did on certain important occasions. Every time we arrived at one of those sites and I was about to experience a moment of spiritual ecstacy knowing that I was standing where Jesus stood, our guide would inevitably destroy the moment by saying: "We are not really sure this is the exact spot where Jesus stood. It may have been ‘over yonder’ or it could have been some other place altogether. One of the traditions is that he stood here on that occasion." There was another group near us led by a minister with a thundering, authoritative voice who, when he came to the same place where we had been, would clutch his Bible over his heart and point the forefinger of his right hand to the heavens and pronounce with authority: "The Lord, Jesus, stood right here, on the very spot where I am standing and preached to the multitudes." I had sense enough to know that our guide was probably right, but I must confess there was something in me that made me want to be with that other group whose leader was absolutely certain. Do you understand that?

"Doubt is not a pleasant condition," said Voltaire, "but certainty is an absurd one." Human beings are never more dangerous than when they are absolutely certain beyond a shadow of doubt that they are right, and everyone else is wrong. Life is strewn with uncertainties. The bridge we must cross to get from uncertainty to meaningful action is "Faith." When two people stand before the altar to be married it is not unusual for one or both of them to have some lingering doubt about what they are doing. What makes them get married anyway? Faith and Love. Without this no one would dare embark on such a risky venture as marriage.

The older we are the more likely we are to realize the extent to which we are really ignorant about so many things. My adult children still ask me profound philosophical questions, to which I often answer: "You should have asked me that question 30 years ago when I knew the answer." The Apostle Paul was so right when he opined, "Now we see through a glass darkly . . . Now I know in part . . ." (I Corinthians 13:12). Paul went on to suggest the remedy for such ambiguity is "Faith, hope, and love."

If we wait until we are absolutely sure, we will always be waiting. In his novel, "The Trial," Franz Kafka has the hero, Mr. K, wander into a church where he hears a priest tell a parable which is frightening to those of us who are prone to wait until we are absolutely sure. There is a man who was told to enter a kingdom through a certain gate. When he arrived, he found the gate but he noticed a sentinel guarding the entrance. So he sat down and waited for the sentinel to give him instructions, or to grant permission to enter. But the guard did nothing and said nothing. So the man continued to sit there waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to come. For a whole life he sat there. Then the guard closed the door. He said to the man, "The door was made for you, and for you alone. And because you chose not to enter it, it is being closed forever."

Don’t let your door to life close before you enter because you were not absolutely sure.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for August 30, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Do We Finally Know It All? by Dr. Thomas Butts

In a new biography titled "Einstein" Walter Isaacson refers to a remark made by the revered scientist, Lord Kelvin, when he was addressing the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900. He counseled young men not to go into the field of physics because: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurements." Hmmm.

Even as he spoke a fuzzy headed, non-conformist, 21 year old Jew by the name of Albert Einstein, who had just graduated near the bottom of his class at Zurich Polytechnic College had strange new ideas about the structure of reality buzzing in his brain. After two desperate years of looking for a job, he was finally hired as a 3rd class technician at the patent office in Bern Switzerland. While working 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, and juggling a chaotic personal life, he came up with a scientific theory of Special Relativity which turned the world of physics on its ear. The famous equation E=MC2 came from Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity. It overturned long-held concepts in Isaac Newton’s "Principia Mathematica," such as the idea of absolute time. Newton, who had reigned supreme for over 200 years, was no longer infallible.

Lord Kelvin’s pronouncement that no thing new remained to be discovered was a colossal misjudgment. Everything old had to be re-examined and a whole new world of physics was opened up. When Albert Einstein died 55 years after Lord Kelvin’s pronouncement that everything new had been discovered, the whole world tipped their hat to this strange, imaginative, impertinent patent clerk who had become "the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos and the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.

As the bright new age of the modern world dawned, Lord Kelvin was not the only person to think we knew just about all there was to know. In 1899, Charles Duell, Director of the U.S. Patent Office, urged President William McKinley to abolish the Patent Office. He told the President that "Everything that could be invented had been invented." But, even as he spoke two sons of a Methodist Bishop by the names of Wilbur and Orville Wright were toying with ideas of flight that would eventually revolutionize travel.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s my brother and I walked two miles on Saturday nights to hear the "Grand Ole Opry," being broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee, on a battery operated radio. In 1941, my father ordered a Silvertone radio from Sears Roebuck for $15.00 so we could listen to the "war news." As we listened to voices from thousands of miles away speak in our own living room, I thought this was as good as it gets. Surely there was nothing more that could be invented in the field of mass communication. Somebody, somewhere, said there was a strange new invention called television on the drawing board that could send real-time live pictures. What a crazy idea. I certainly did not believe it.

In this first decade of the 21st Century we have advanced instruments of technology that Lord Kelvin and Charles Duell would never believe possible. I scarcely believe it possible myself.
Surely by now "everything that can be invented has already been invented!" Shall we close the Patent Office? Hmmm.