Unstuck

Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of DepressionUnstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression by James S. Gordon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In May I felt emotionally stuck as I coped with my divorce-induced depression. Strategies that had worked even a couple of months before were less effective. It also seemed that some of the deeper hurts were emerging as I worked at healing.

After I wrote a column in the church newsletter about ways I was dealing with my depression, a church member gave me this book and sometime in the summer I began reading it, a few pages every morning, working slowly through it.

There is much that is helpful in it, as the author focuses on non-pharmacological approaches to healing, including good nutrition, exercise, meditation, yoga, etc. I have shifted some of those practices and adopted some of his recommendations.

I think this could be a helpful book for many people dealing with depression.

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The Rock of Anzio

The Rock Of Anzio: From Sicily To Dachau, A History Of The U.S. 45th Infantry DivisionThe Rock Of Anzio: From Sicily To Dachau, A History Of The U.S. 45th Infantry Division by Flint Whitlock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While on vacation in July, my son and I visited the 45th Infantry Museum in Oklahoma City. I'd like known about it but had never stopped there. It's an excellent little museum.

My mother's father was in the 45th and seriously wounded at the Battle of Anzio, spending six months in the hospital and carrying shrapnel in his body near his spine the rest of his life. After touring the museum, I realized I wanted to know more details, so I bought this book in the gift shop.

While often harrowing in its details about combat, the book inspires with the stories of courage from ordinary fellows who are pushed to human extremes.

If you enjoy WWII or military history, I recommend it.

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Nature Poem

Nature PoemNature Poem by Tommy Pico
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"You can't be an NDN person in today's world/ and write a nature poem. I swore to myself I would never write a nature/poem. Let's be clear, I hate nature--hate its guts."

In this fun and provocative volume, contemporary queer, indigenous poet Tommy Pico reflects on his identity and the expectations for what an indigenous poet should write and the tensions and conflicts between the two. His poems are fun and irreverent and break the mold of what most people expect from poetry.

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Galatians Re-Imagined

Galatians Re-ImaginedGalatians Re-Imagined by Brigitte Kahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if we took seriously the idea that Paul's letter was written to the Galatians, in other words, the Gauls, the Celtic peoples who had been battling Rome for centuries from western Europe to Asia Minor? That's what Kahl does in her magnificent book.

As Rome built its empire it was constantly in battle with the Gauls, who had even sacked Rome in the early days of the republic. For the Romans (and Roman propaganda) the Gauls were the hated and despised enemy other. Public art was filled with images of defeated and dying Gauls.

Kahl argues that it is important to understand Paul, a Jew--another colonized people viewed as strange and other by the Romans--writing to these other colonized people. And writing to them about how in Jesus Christ a new, non-imperial identity and community is being formed among the defeated, colonized people.

Through this lens she reinterprets Paul's discussions of law and grace, justification and salvation, and markers of identity.

This is one of those books that opens up new vistas and radically shifts your understanding of something you thought you had a decent interpretative grasp of.

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Hearticulations

Hearticulations: On Love, Friendship, and HealingHearticulations: On Love, Friendship, and Healing by Jeff Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This year I've added to my morning reading books to help cope with divorce and depression. This particular book was recommended by a friend. She posted various excerpts on Facebook and I thought it would be helpful. It works well for that purpose--shortly daily insights on how to heal emotionally.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know I'm way late to the game in reading this book and saying that everyone needs to read it. Though I'm also glad that I read it just now, as we continue to go through the epistemic crisis related the epidemiological one. Last week it was particularly apt that I was reading the chapters on risk assessment as people were once again having to adjust their behaviors based on the surging Delta variant.

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Once Upon a Tar Creek

Once Upon A Tar Creek   Mining for VoicesOnce Upon A Tar Creek Mining for Voices by Maryann Hurtt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maryann Hurtt, despite not being from my home county, has portrayed it quite well in this volume of poems. She has captured the spirit of the place.

The book also contains detailed documentation, so there were facts and stories that I learned about my homeplace while reading this book.

It's core subject is the lead and zinc mining that has polluted Tar Creek. But she ranges through the history of the county, particularly the stories of Native American tribes relocated there.

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Galilean Journey

Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American PromiseGalilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise by Virgilio Elizondo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Fiesta is the mystical celebration of a complex identity, the mystical affirmation that life is a gift and is worth living."

In this powerful and innovative theology, Elizondo draws connections between the Mestizo experience of Mexican-Americans (being neither and both and something third) and Jesus being a Galileean. For him, Christianity creates the opportunity for a new humanity. The poor and the marginalized will lead us is into this new reality. And it will be universal and cosmopolitan, mixing together and drawing elements from various cultures, all in a spirit of celebration.

I found this liberation theology to speak powerfully to our present moment, despite it being forty years old. Its reflections on identity and culture could help to guide us in our present moment when those categories are dominating so much discourse and action.

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Remnant

Remnant

Zechariah 8:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

25 July 2021

            Last week when Stephen and I were selecting hymns for this Sunday, I mentioned that a good fit for this text from Zechariah would be the hymn “Marching to Zion.”  But then I couldn’t find it in either of our hymnals.  Of course it was under a different name in the New Century Hymnal—our opening hymn today, “Come, We Who Love God’s Name.” 

            Now, if you look, there are actually two settings of this hymn in our hymnal.  The one we sang, number 379 set to the tune St. Thomas and also number 382 set to the tune Marching to Zion.  I grew up with the second setting.  Stephen the first setting.  That we sang Stephen’s preferred setting may say something about our professional relationship.

            While we were selecting the hymns I sang the other version for him—“Don’t know it at all,” he said.  “Must be a regional thing.” 

            I happened to notice that the setting I’m used to is in the Disciples of Christ Chalice Hymnal which describes it as “lively” and “rhythmic” and “clearly for joyous Christians.”  So, I wish Stephen were here today so I could tell him that it’s not a regional thing.  One setting is for joyous Christians and the other setting is for the other type.

            Joy is what the prophet Zechariah wants to evoke.  His oracle celebrates with wonderful images the return of the people to life and land after the traumas of the exile.  There are images of fertility and agricultural plenty, of peace and justice, of prosperity and social strength.  I particularly enjoy the elderly people sitting in the streets watching the children play.  He imagines a time when no one will experience fear.

            Last year, only a few weeks into the pandemic, the great UCC bible scholar Walter Brueggemann published a book entitled Virus as a Summons to Faith in which he tried to draw upon the insights of the Old Testament to guide us in our moment of crisis.  In the foreword he wrote that “Humankind faces a pressing and daunting learning challenge.  We are called to learn how to peaceably relinquish the old world and how to imaginatively give birth to a new world in which all life can flourish.”

            He wrote about how catastrophes, particularly plagues, had impacted the writers of the Old Testament.  From the prophet Jeremiah he drew lessons on how to wait “until the dancing begins again.”  And from Isaiah about how to prepare for God’s new thing.  Brueggemann advised focusing on prayer and authored prayers to fit the moment.  He held out hope that despite the catastrophe, we might learn lessons about how to live better with one another and with creation.

            Zechariah’s vision of the joyful and peaceful remnant resonates with this hope we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic, that we will once again return to abundant life together.

            Yet, I can’t quite preach this text as I had planned to: we stand at a strange moment in this pandemic.  Many are vaccinated and have enjoyed returning to relatively normal life this summer.  As a society, we’ve looked forward to when enough people would be vaccinated and our kids will be, so that we could definitively move beyond the immediate crisis and into the longed-for future. 

            The efficacy of these vaccines and the speed of their development were such marvels.  Some people viewed getting the shot as a ticket to freedom and a return to life.  For others it is the fulfilment of a moral obligation, a way to demonstrate love of neighbor, a patriotic duty, or a civic good.  To me, it has been the excitement and adventure of being a part of one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human species. 

            Yet, just on the verge of fulfilling our desires for restoration, the news grows dim again.  Already this week I saw people canceling and postponing events, yet again.  Some people began wearing their masks again.  Parents were discussing what to do about kids and school this autumn.  And now there’s the added frustration—do we have to go backwards when we were so close to victory?

            So, Zechariah’s vision of the future remains that—a vision of the future.  We aren’t quite yet at the joyful restoration of the remnant, when we no longer need to fear.

            This week, while remote working from Lake Okoboji, I read the book Radical Sacrifice by the English literary critic Terry Eagleton.  The book is about the concept of sacrifice and it’s meaning in the contemporary world, but along the way, he explores a handful of other, related topics.  For instance, in a discussion of love, he writes, “Mutual love has something of the contagiousness of mutual laughter, as the other’s delighted response serves only to enhance one’s own.”

            I thought about my excitement last January when I got my first shot.  It was like a year’s worth of anxiety and fear physically lifted off of my shoulders.  I did a lot of laughing.  And dancing.  And I went for a walk along the Field Club Trail listening to music by the Scissor Sisters and I couldn’t stop smiling.  Joy and love and excitement are contagious.

            From this discussion of love, Terry Eagleton moves on to the topic of giving and generosity.  He writes, “It is of the nature of God to be prodigal, ecstatic, overbrimming, one for whom excess is no more than the norm.”  He writes about how God’s squandering of God’s self creates a different and deeper economy. 

            Zechariah’s vision is about that.  Abundance, peace, joy, justice, faithfulness, prosperity, and playfulness.  God’s dream for God’s people is one of wild generosity, where we all get to join together in something new and wonderful.

            Eagleton goes on to describe how when we give each other a gift, we make meaning in the process.  We take some object and invest it with purpose and intention and meaning when we give it to someone else.

            That made me think of one of the gifts in my office.  It was given to me by some church members in Oklahoma City when I was leaving that congregation to come here eleven years ago.  This couple traveled around Oklahoma City and collected dirt in various shades of red and layered them in a jar so that I could take a little bit of Oklahoma with me.  In that way, they invested dirt with meaning.  And I can look at this jar with fondness and appreciation.  Love and joy are contagious.

            Zechariah encourages us to be strong, not to fear, to be faithful, for God is still at work, drawing us through this period of crisis, with a joyful and peaceful vision of what is yet to come.

            At the close of today’s worship we will sing the hymn “O Day of God, Draw Near.”  The biblical Day of the Lord brings judgement, but also peace and light.  We will sing, “Bring to our troubled minds, uncertain and afraid, the quiet of a steadfast faith, calm of a call obeyed.”

            And in the hymn we will sing in a minute, “O Holy City, Seen of John,” pay attention particularly to that third verse, “Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that has stayed, too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose ways are your own ways.”

            May we travel through our time of plague and crisis with vision, courage, and most importantly, joy.  Let us not become discouraged, so close to our goals.  Let us be faithful to the exciting and adventurous call of God to create a new and better world.


Seeing

Seeing

Zechariah 1:1-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 July 2021

            This summer our worship theme has been “Restore.”  After all the events of the last year and a half, we—as individuals, families, a congregation, and the wider society—are in a period of restoration and transformation.  And to aid us in our spiritual reflection upon this experience, we’ve turned to the stories of the ancient Judeans as they returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their society and culture. 

            Today we hear from the prophet Zechariah, who along with the prophet Haggai, encouraged the people in the building of the Temple.  Hear, now, the word of the Lord:

Zechariah 1:1-17

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, saying: The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.  Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me . . . and I will return to you . . .  Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.”  But they did not hear or heed me.  Your ancestors, where are they?  And the prophets, do they live forever?  But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your ancestors?  

So they repented and said, “The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as God planned to do.”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah: In the night I saw a man riding on a red horse!  He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.  Then I said, “What are these, my lord?”  The angel who talked with me said to me, “I will show you what they are.”  So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, “They are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.”  Then they spoke to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have patrolled the earth, and lo, the whole earth remains at peace.”  Then the angel of the Lord said, “O Lord of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?”  Then the Lord replied with gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.  . . .  Proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of hosts; I am very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.  And I am extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.  Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.  Proclaim further: Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

            Back in 2012, the youth group was on a mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Pat Lange, Emma Ferber, John Hodgson, and myself were the adult sponsors.  One day that week, our group went for lunch at Bette’s Kitchen, near Manderson, where we sat under the arbor and enjoyed our meal while looking out at the beautiful hills. 

            Bette, the owner of the restaurant, is a descendant of the Lakota holy man Black Elk.  I asked our guide if this was in fact Black Elk’s land, as I knew he had lived near Manderson.  The guide said that it was, and that Black Elk’s cabin still stood downhill from where we were sitting, in a grove of trees.  He pointed out the trail and invited me and others to walk down there.  A small handful of us did.

            When I moved here to Omaha eleven years ago, Bud Cassiday recommended that I read Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt.  When I did, I was immediately struck by its power, beauty, and wisdom.  I’ve been something of a Black Elk fan ever since.  So I jumped at the chance to see the holy man’s cabin.

            The cabin was old and not maintained.  Inside, the walls were covered with graffiti.  I wish it were a preserved historical site like the homes of so many prominent persons.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed visiting the cabin, taking in the view, and imagining the wise old man sharing his vision in this very spot.

            Black Elk’s Great Vision began with two men coming from the clouds carrying long spears from which lightning flashed.  He is summoned on a journey to meet the Grandfathers who are the Powers of the World.  They tell him that he will receive power from the thunder beings and that they shall take him to the center of the world where he will see, and the sun will shine, and he will understand. 

On his journey, Black Elk defeats drought, who is a blue giant.  This victory brings rain upon the earth.  Black Elk plunges his red lightning stick into the ground and it becomes a tree of life in the center of the nation's hoop, bringing peace and abundance to the people.  The people chant and shout with joy.

Near the end of his great vision, he has this moment of epiphany:

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.  And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.  And I saw that it was holy.

This is a great, holy, eschatological vision that we have not yet achieved—many hoops making one circle, humanity living in solidarity with creation, everyone being sheltered and provided for.

In their commentary on the book of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, Carol and Eric Meyers write,

The prophet ‘sees’ in the objects or persons around him meanings that transcend the normal qualities of those figures.  The prophet’s perception of reality is extraordinary.  The conventional properties of realia are transformed.

            Because the prophet sees things that others don’t, the prophet’s role is “to clarify in visions and oracles the world about him and to articulate a hopeful vision of the future.”

            Through new perception and insight, the prophet makes sense of the world and inspires future possibilities.  That’s what people need after a trauma, during a time of restoration.  This new perception is what Black Elk offers to the Lakota, what Zechariah offered to the Hebrew exiles, and what we in our own way require now in our own season of restoration.

            Zechariah’s visions may, when we initially read them, sound strange to us.  But that strangeness can evoke our sense of wonder, leading us to search for deeper understanding.  What do all these images mean?  Well, we honestly lack the ability to see and understand without a little expert guidance, so I’m thankful for the scholars who help us to figure things out.  

            Maybe the first aspect of the vision we notice is the nighttime setting.  It’s dark and the foliage would make it even darker.  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that myrtles are “dense shade-creating shrubbery.”  This is a “setting of darkness,” they write, in which it should be very difficult, if not impossible, to make out the color of horses or to see clearly what’s happening.  Yet, Zechariah does see.  That’s the significant thing—he does see in the dark. 

            Sometimes our life situations are too dark and difficult for us to see.  We wonder where God is?  If we can ever hope or love or rejoice again?  If there is any path forward?  If anything makes sense anymore? 

            In those moments we need the help of others who can see for us and who can help us to gain our own insight and perception.  There, even in the darkness, is something to draw our attention, that can help us move forward, that can restore us.

            So the first important lesson from the vision is gaining the ability to see in the dark.  But what is it that Zechariah sees?  First, a glen of myrtle trees.  In his commentary on this vision, Marvin Sweeney draws out the importance of the myrtle.  He writes that “Myrtles play a role in ancient mythologies” because of “their evergreen character.”  People believed that “their long roots reach to the depths of the subterranean waters.” 

            So, myrtles go deep, into the very depths of creation, where creation itself first overcame chaos. 

            After a time of trauma, when we are healing, we too must go deep into ourselves.  The healing begins by restoring our sense of self, by reconnecting with what’s important to us, by tapping into that higher power that helps us to transcend our current situation.

            There’s more to the myrtles.  They were also used in the Jewish festival of Tabernacles as part of the ritual.  Now, Tabernacles was the festival during which Solomon first dedicated the Temple and during which the restorers of Zechariah’s time will also rededicated their Temple.  During these religious celebrations, branches of the myrtle tree are used “to symbolize the rebirth of creation.” 

            So, according to Marvin Sweeney, the myrtles in Zechariah’s vision suggest going to the “center of creation and the cosmos” in order to experience “rebirth and new creation.”

            And then there are the horses Zechariah sees in his vision, inside the myrtle glen.  Horses who patrol the earth.  Carol and Eric Meyers write that “the horses with their riders go everywhere, see everything that needs to be seen.”  Horses, in the ancient world also conveyed the idea of speed.  That there are three horses represents totality.  So, the idea contained in this image is that God goes everywhere, is watching everything, sees all.  God has plans for the entire world.  The work that the Judeans are doing rebuilding the Temple is only a part of something much bigger than they realize.

            And what is God’s plan for the world? 

            Well, something that may unsettle us in the Book of Zechariah are the references to God’s anger.  When the Judeans were exiled in Babylon, they came to understand their history in this way—they had been disobedient and sinned, breaking the covenant, and that God had brought calamity upon them.  Now, we don’t usually share their interpretation of trauma and suffering, but we do understand how this is a narrative that a traumatized people might use in order to cope with their circumstances. 

            Let’s sit with their explanation for a moment to better understand it.  What did they think God was angry about?  What had their ancestors failed to do?  What was the disobedience that brought about the calamity?

            Well, for Zechariah, as it was for Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and so many of his predecessor prophets, God’s anger was directed at injustice.  In chapter seven of Zechariah, we read:

Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

            Breaking these rules is what angered God.  And what did God do?  First God sent prophets to appeal to the people and call them to change.  But when the people still didn’t listen, God acted to end the injustice.

            So, if we sit a while with the ancient Judean view of God’s anger, we might find that it does resonate with us.  We too want God to act against injustice.  We too want a world where there is no oppression, where truth and kindness and mercy are the order of the day.  Right?

            But, Zechariah doesn’t stop there.  In his nighttime vision there’s another vital piece.  God’s no longer angry; God is compassionate. 

So, even if these exiles used God’s anger to explain what had happened to them, they are by this time beginning to move beyond that explanation to a different understanding.  In their new understanding God is compassionate and God is comforting the people.

            The great bible scholar Phyllis Trible in her classic work God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, helped us all to understand that the Hebrew word for compassion originates in how a mother nurtures her baby.  So, when Zechariah declares that a compassionate God is comforting the people, you should picture God as divine mother, soothing her crying child. 

            So, now that we’ve followed some expert help, we can see and understand better.   Zechariah’s vision, when we initially read it, seemed strange to us.  But when we open our eyes, when we develop the ability to see, what is revealed is a wonderful vision of hope, healing, and future possibilities. 

            The vision began in darkness and rises up into comfort.  Here’s a lesson for us: When we are troubled, hurt, and traumatized, we can’t see the path forward, the world does not make sense, we are on the verge of losing our hope—

            But God is working in the darkness and the depths, seeing all, and transforming all, in order to bring about justice, compassion, and comfort.

            The theologian Serene Jones, in her writing on trauma, states that the ability to wonder is “the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.” 

            Zechariah and Black Elk both teach us to wonder at the strange things they see.  Wondering breaks us open to new possibilities, which is part of healing and restoration.  Serene Jones writes, “Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”

            So, even when it’s dark, let’s look at what is happening around us, and be open to what it might teach.


Intersectionality

Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, HorizonsIntersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons by Anna Carastathis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A thorough, informative, and compelling discussion of intersectionality. Kimberle Crenshaw's original writings introducing the metaphor are carefully interpreted. They are also situated within a long tradition of Black feminist thought. Carastathis also considers a wide variety of criticisms and later developments of the idea. And she supplements it with decolonial ideas of Gloria Anzaldua, Andrea Smith, and Maria Lugones in ways that are really compelling. This is a heavy academic work, full of theory, but if you are interested in understanding this concept of Critical Race Theory more in-depth, I'd recommend the book.

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Called to Freedom

Called to Freedom

Galatians 5:1, 13-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones Royal Lane Baptist Church

4 July 2021

Hello friends.  It has been sixteen years since I preached from this pulpit and eleven since I consecrated Barrett and Jackie’s wedding here.  So it is good to be home today with you.

I bring you greetings from the First Central Congregational United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska, where I have pastored these last eleven years.  And from your fellow Christians in the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ.

This being Independence Day, I have selected for my text one of Saint Paul’s great proclamations of freedom, found in the letter to the Christians in Galatia.  Hear now the word of the Lord:

Galatians 5:1, 13-15

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

               So, the congregation I pastor in Omaha, First Central Congregational, is the oldest Protestant congregation in Omaha and one of the oldest in the State of Nebraska.  We were founded in 1856 by a small band of pioneers who imagined that someday Omaha would be a major city on key trade routes and that it needed the presence of good, faithful people.  Those early founders, besides being boosters for the new territory, were also abolitionists, who came to ensure that when the territory voted on whether it would be slave or free, that they would vote for it to be a place of freedom.  This pioneering, pilgrim, prophetic spirit has never left this old and venerable church.

            And that congregation, because of its rich history, has an extensive archive.  Occasionally I have a reason to look at the old ledge size membership books, which are kept in special boxes and you have to wear special white gloves when handling them.  As a history geek, I’ve relished exploring those archives and learning more about my congregation, its ministers, and prominent lay people.

            A few years ago I found the sermon that one of my predecessors, the Rev. Dr. Harold Janes preached at First Central on Reformation Sunday, October 31, 1948 entitled, “Why We Are Protestants.”  I’ve come to cherish that sermon and rely upon it to express some of the deep values of the congregation I serve, values I know Royal Lane shares as well. 

According to Dr. Janes there are four key Protestant values—salvation is by individual faith and not mediated through the church, the significance of religious liberty, the priesthood of all believers, and the holiness of ordinary life.  Of course, these four values hang closely together, but today, being Independence Day, I want to talk about religious liberty.

Religious liberty has become a controversial topic in our society.  In recent years, various segments of conservative Christianity have begun to defend their discriminatory actions by claiming their religious freedom.  Because of this, many younger people seem to view religious liberty as a problem, instead of a cherished value.  All of this alarms me. 

So, I think it is important for us to explore this topic.  What is religious freedom and how should we as people of faith understand this current debate?  

To begin answering that question, let me first return to that 1948 sermon by Dr. Harold Janes.  This is his description of religious liberty as understood by our Protestant tradition:

[The Protestant] is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God’s truth.  Each group sees a part of the truth.  “We know in part,” as Paul said.  Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God’s purpose for our lives.  Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty and echoes the words of Paul, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

This is a rich passage, and in order to better understand all these ideas, I want to return to the Epistle lesson for today, from Galatians, for it is also the passage that Dr. Janes quoted in his 1948 sermon.  This passage comes as Paul is arguing for the freedom of grace as opposed to what he calls the slavery of the law.  Followers of Jesus, according to Paul, do not need to be bound by obedience to the law because they live according to grace and love.  We are free, not having to earn our salvation by work and effort.  But our freedom is not license to do whatever we personally want.  Our freedom is shaped by love, the kind of self-sacrificial love revealed in Jesus.  The kind of love that respects and values our sisters and brothers.

The great Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay, commenting on this passage, wrote:

Now Christianity is [a] true democracy, because in a Christian state everyone would think as much of his neighbor as he does of himself.  The Christian is the [person] who through the indwelling Spirit of Christ is so purged of self that he [or she] loves . . . neighbor as . . . self.

Barclay then picks up on Paul’s final statement:

In the end Paul adds a grim bit of advice.  “Unless,” he says, “you solve the problem of living together you will make life impossible and unlivable at all.”  Selfishness in the end does not exalt a [person]; it destroys him.

As both Dr. Janes and William Barclay point out, our Christian tradition of liberty is rooted in the love of neighbor, the removal of selfishness, and humility about our own views.  Liberty, then, is a form of love towards others that enables us to live together.  This is the essential quality of religious freedom.

When the Pilgrim and Puritans, the spiritual ancestors of my current denomination the United Church of Christ, came to this continent, it was to freely practice their faith.  However, once they arrived, they weren’t so good about passing along that same freedom to others.  This was particularly a problem for the Puritans.  They went to war with the Natives.  Burned some they thought were witches.  Tried to force Anne Hutchison to conform to the doctrines of the majority.  And ran off Roger Williams, who then established Rhode Island, the first colony devoted to complete religious liberty and the founder of the first Baptist congregation in America.  I’ve always been proud of my own ancestors who were on the Mayflower and those who left with Roger Williams because they believed in liberty.

            Roger Williams is the key early American person who promoted the equal liberty of conscience.  For Williams the core problem was the same as that which St. Paul referenced— how are we to live together in love.  Williams was troubled by the settlers’ treatment of the Native Americans and by the human tendency to impose the ideas of a majority upon a minority.  He was troubled by these things because they violated individual consciences, and he held individual consciences to be “infinitely precious” demanding respect from everyone.

Writing about Roger Williams, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, “Williams thinks of consciences as delicate, vulnerable, living things, things that need to breathe and not to be

imprisoned.”  Therefore, it is essential for consciences to have that breathing space.  In a just society, everyone will respect each other’s conscience, and give each other space.

From these Baptist ideas would develop the American tradition of religious liberty.   Should you want to read a history of the development of that tradition and all its complexities, I highly recommend Martha Nussbaum’s book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality.  In it she presents the six principles that have guided America’s complicated history balancing religion with the public life of a pluralistic democracy.

Essential to the American tradition derived from Roger Williams is the idea of a public space in which everyone’s views are allowed to interact.  For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect.  It does not mean that you have to agree with everyone else, quite the contrary.  It means that in the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else.  Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right.  You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience.  Or, as St. Paul put it in the letter to the Galatians, quoting an even more ancient text, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And this, my friends, is why I’m so deeply troubled by the recent misuse of the concept “religious freedom.”  Let me state emphatically, and so that I am not misunderstood—in the public sphere no one has a religious right to discriminate against another human being.  Discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty.  They are hostile to it.

It is brazen dishonesty to wrap biases in the language of religious freedom.  It risks substantial harm to the Republic.  To the entire American democratic experiment.  And even to the Christian gospel.

It is Orwellian to use a term to describe its exact opposite.  This dishonesty must be resisted.

Dr. Harold Janes warned in 1948, “We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others.”

Religious liberty, as historically understood, as rooted in the biblical tradition, as enshrined in our Constitution, demands equality of all persons, demands mutual respect of all persons, demands that in the public sphere everyone be treated the same.

Now, that does not mean that these issues are simple.  They are in fact quite complex, with broad gray zones that can be difficult to interpret.  Legislators and judges must constantly examine those areas where the values of our society create complexity and conflict.  They must examine and decide with reason and compassion, nuance and patience.

The task of ensuring the equal liberty of conscience for all falls not to our public officials, but to us.  It is a social practice.  It begins with overcoming selfishness and our human tendency to exclude those who are different from ourselves.  It manifests in kindness and hospitality.  It is guided by humility and generosity.  For it is rooted in the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And, as such, the equal liberty of conscience then develops into a robust defense of human and civil rights.  Because we value religious liberty and the rights of conscience, even of those who are different from ourselves, we fight to end racism, for Native American rights, the equality of women, the full inclusion of persons with disabilities, and the equality of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and persons who are transgender.

As Paul so clearly stated: You were called to freedom.  Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self- indulgence.  Love one another.