TDOR Message

TDOR

Psalm 35

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First United Methodist Church

20 November 2023

               Thank you for the invitation to speak tonight.  This opportunity is both an honor and a privilege.  Over the years I’ve attended some of these services and always felt it important, as a cisgender gay man, to be present and to listen.  I did not feel it was my place to speak.

            TJ invited me to speak this year, and I accepted her invitation, and am honored.

            On this Transgender Day of Remembrance and Resilience, I want to frame my words with the 35th Psalm, which opens:

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!

Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!

Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers; say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”

Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me.

This psalm is what we in the business call an “imprecatory psalm.”  Imprecatory psalms are ones that implore God to deliver us from evil.  And these psalms do that by calling down curses upon our enemies.  Asking God to give them what they deserve.

One of the greatest features of the psalms is that they contain every single human emotion and a poem or song to fit it.  There are plenty of psalms for when we are happy and joyful and celebrating.  There are lament psalms for when we are sad and grieving.  There are psalms to sing and pray when we are offering forgiveness and reconciling with those who have hurt us.  But there are also Psalms to sing and pray when we are angry at the injustices of those who have opposed us and hurt us. 

Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on.

Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.

For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life.

Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.

Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in God’s deliverance.

I was a university student in Oklahoma back in 1995 when the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed.  The next day, as we gathered for our class on the Old Testament prophets, we all were overwhelmed with so many emotions.  My professor, Dr. Kevin Hall, used the occasion to teach us about imprecatory psalms.  These psalms are full of emotional and spiritual value.  We need to pray them when we are hurt and angry.  Expressing these emotions and thoughts is powerful and healing.  Our faith and spirituality are big enough to hold space for our hurt and anger.  God is listening.

All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”

Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me about things I do not know.

They repay me evil for good; my soul is forlorn.

But as for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with head bowed on my bosom,

as though I grieved for a friend or a brother; I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning.

But at my stumbling they gathered in glee, they gathered together against me; ruffians whom I did not know tore at me without ceasing;

they impiously mocked more and more, gnashing at me with their teeth.

Sadly, the lesson that I learned that day after the Oklahoma City bombing, I’ve had plenty of occasions since to put into practice.  When violence has been visited upon the communities I’ve lived in and am a part of.  How many times have we gathered for vigils after a hate crime?  After a trans woman was beaten or killed?  After a drag queen was attacked?  After one of our clubs has been invaded and our siblings massacred?  Many years ago, after having attended and hosted so many, having sung We Shall Overcome and lit candles, I was just too drained.  I was tired of vigils and felt I had no more words to say.  And, yet, the evil doesn’t stop, and neither do we.  We must continue to remember and resist, for that is the source of our hope, the power of our deliverance.

How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions!

Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you.

Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye.

For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land.

They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.”

You have seen, O Lord; do not be silent! O Lord, do not be far from me!

Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense, for my cause, my God and my Lord!

Last May I found myself reading and praying this psalm often.  It was on repeat in my consciousness.  Our state legislature had failed in its responsibilities to its citizens and enacted a cruel and inhumane law against trans children and adolescents. 

Just like the psalm says, lies were told about us.  We were mocked and ridiculed.  In public we were called horrible things and had too many times to sit there quietly and endure the insults because that’s the protocol.  Then our governor called us minions of Lucifer.

We demand to be rescued from these lies and deceptions.  We insist upon our vindication. 

Vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me.

Do not let them say to themselves, “Aha, we have our heart’s desire.” Do not let them say, “We have swallowed you up.”

Let all those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion; let those who exalt themselves against me be clothed with shame and dishonor.

            After the vote last spring, I sent notes to the senators I had personally lobbied who ended up voting against us.  I used the notecards with our church printed on the cover, and then hand wrote inside them these words from this psalm, “Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me.”   I forcefully underlined the word “shame.”  That felt really good.

            And we will be vindicated.  Because we know that truth and right are on our side. 

            We don’t know when or how, but we have faith that our deliverance will come.  We will be rescued.  Justice will be done.  We will receive the honor and respect that we deserve.  Violence and hate crimes will no longer be visited upon our trans heroes.  Trans kids and adolescents will receive the care they are entitled.  Care!  We have to fight so hard for other people to be caring.

            And the reason we know we will be vindicated is precisely because we won’t quit fighting.  Each and every day we will remember, and we will resist.  Together, organized, powerful, unstoppable, we will not quit until justice is done and right is restored.

            For God is with us, on our side, as the very power of hope that drives us. 

            And so this psalm closes:

Let those who desire my vindication shout for joy and be glad, and say evermore, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of God’s servant.”

Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all day long.


Thanks

Thanks

Philippians 1:1-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 November 2023

In the summer of 2022, during my sabbatical, I set myself the task of reading about climate change resilience, particularly focused on what resources, skills, practices, and approaches we will need as a community of faith to navigate well through this crisis that is coming more and more to affect our daily lives and will be the major global challenge for most of us to face for the rest of our lives. 

Among the books I read was one entitled Words for a Dying World edited by Hannah Malcolm.  The subtitle is Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church.  Her contention is that a vital part of developing hope and resilience is to first face our grief over what we’ve lost and are losing.  She closes her introduction by inviting the reader to be softened, to grow more tender through caring.  She writes:

Adopting an orientation of grief means choosing to invest in things that are small, that are temporary, and celebrating them in the broken, fragile beauty they bear in the eyes of God.  It is soft, cruciform foolishness.

Which honestly doesn’t sound all that different than some of what Paul writes, identifying his own sufferings with those of Christ on the cross.

            One of the essays in Malcolm’s book is written by two South Africans, Peter Fox and Miles Giljam.  One is a Presbyterian minister and the other works in public affairs.  They write about how our listening to each other’s grief can turn us into witnesses:

As we listen, exposed to death and brokenness, we will feel anger, despair, frustration and rage.  If we face these hard emotions, letting them pass through us as a rupturing reality, we may become vulnerable witnesses, able to heal wounds and emerge into a new identity. 

They add that this process of being born into new life, will be painful.

            Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi is written somewhere near the end of his ministry, when he is imprisoned.  We aren’t sure if he wrote it from prison in Palestine or Rome or somewhere else (we know he was jailed many times).  He seems to be in a deeply reflective mood, remembering these folks and their faithfulness to him and the gospel.  The dominate mood of this letter is joyfulness—Paul rejoices in the Philippians, in his ministry, in the transformation wrought by the Gospel.  Yet, in the midst of his rejoicing, he also reflects on his own experiences of suffering, and how they have contributed to the advancement of the church, often doing the opposite of what was intended by those who have oppressed him.  In that, he feels a solidarity with and participation in the life and death of Jesus.  And for that he gives thanks.

            Christianity must be careful with how it handles the topic of suffering.  We know the abuses to which such discussions have often been put over the last two thousand years.  Particularly when the church has taught the poor, the enslaved, women, and children to accept their sufferings as part of their redemption.

            That was always bad theology and spiritual practices.  Fortunately, Christian theology has in the last seventy years come to terms with that toxic legacy and approached the topic differently.  Sadly, it was the shock of the Holocaust and the reaction to it which finally led the church to confront its sins in this regard.

            I like how the French radical philosopher Alain Badiou explains it.  Suffering can never be redemptive, for pain and death cannot be the operation of salvation, the yes to life that is the good news.

            I’ve mentioned before that the best class I took as an undergrad was “Evil and Suffering” with Professor Bob Clarke.  That class formed and transformed my thinking on so many issues.  And one of the blessings was that Wendy Farley’s book Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion was on the syllabus. 

            Farley identifies two types of suffering: meaningful and radical.  Radical suffering is identified as the kind from which meaning cannot be made.  It is affliction, in the worst, most painful, most soul-destroying way.  And is very often visited on people by unjust and abusive power.

            But she says that there is suffering from which meaning can be made, and that meaning is made through resistance, not endurance or acceptance.  And there are two types of resistance.  We resist suffering either by fighting it or refusing to let it dehumanize us.  The best response, if we can do it, is to fight, to organize, to work to alleviate it and prevent it from ever happening again to yourself or to others. 

            But sometimes, we cannot fight it, “no practical change can be anticipated.”  And so our resistance is manifested in refusing to lose our humanity.

            How do we do that?

            The queer biblical scholar Ted Jennings teaches us that Paul is repeatedly warning us that entering into the messianic life of the church means entering into distress.  Trying to create a new humanity, a new way of living, in the midst of violent and unjust empire will be difficult, risky, and dangerous, like we discussed last week.  Jennings says that the distress we experience is itself a sign pointing to the advent of the radically new.  Which is one reason Paul doesn’t let his imprisonment get him down.  He rejoices that even the jail time is a sign of God’s work, that even this is a witness to the world of the good news.

            And so Jennings encourages a mental toughness that will not be cowed, a resolute endurance, and undaunted determination, which is how he describes the virtue of hope.

            Which all sound like skill sets we need not only to face the climate crisis or war in the Middle East, but even the events of our own lives that try us—like unemployment, heartbreak, or cancer.

            The Taiwanese theologian Choan-Seng Song has written powerfully about the relationship between hope and suffering.  He characterizes hope as the affirmation of life, which echoes the yes to life of Badiou.  In good Christian teaching we don’t find a justification or excuse or explanation for our suffering, instead we find solidarity, compassion, and encouragement.  We find that God is with us, present in our suffering, suffering alongside us.  We encounter God as the power that helps us to transform our suffering into hope.  Song writes that a primary mission of the church is to spread the good news that hope is possible.

            I’m moved by this statement of Song’s: “The courage to hope, which is given to us through Jesus Christ, is the dynamics that enables us to create our future out of our present sufferings.  The future does not come to us, but we must go to the future.”

            We must go to the future.  What an uplifting, exciting, adventurous, inspiring idea!  And we do that through cultivating these skills of resistance, and living with compassion, hope, gratitude, and joy.

            Sometimes the problems of the world, much less of our daily lives, seem so daunting that we likely to despair, rather than to hope or to rejoice.  But to succumb to that despair is to surrender our greatest strengths.  Instead, we should be like Paul, who even in the midst of prison finds reasons to rejoice and give thanks.

            Another book I read in the summer of 2022 was by the English theologian Timothy Gorringe and is entitled The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World.  His book is precisely about what we must do in the mist of the climate crisis, and what tools Christian theology can bring to politics, economics, social services, and more.

            In one chapter he draws upon the work of Rob Hopkins, who is active in an English movement called Transition Town that works to create resilient communities.  Hopkins describes the work of climate resilience as “a creative, engaging, playful process” that helps us through our losses and inspires us to do new things.  Hopkins adds that he “hopes to sketch ‘a picture of the future so enticing people instinctively feel drawn towards it.’”

            I love this idea, that in the midst of crisis, instead of despair, we engage in creative, engaging, playful processes that inspire and encourage us.

            In his own context, that’s what Paul was doing.  Despite the difficulties, risks, and dangers that led to imprisonment and suffering, he focused on giving thanks and rejoicing, because he was part of God’s great mission to do something new, to create a new way of being human and living together.

            And in our own time that challenge remains, even while it faces fresh and different crises.  May we continue the work of Paul and our predecessors to be witnesses to the world that something better is possible— for "The future does not come to us, but we must go to the future.”


The World As Will and Idea

The World as Will and Idea: Abridged in 1 VolThe World as Will and Idea: Abridged in 1 Vol by Arthur Schopenhauer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thirty years ago as an undergrad in a modern philosophy class, I first read some Schopenhauer. And despite him being a pessimist, I find the writing beautiful and the ideas exhilarating, even if I didn't fully agree with them.

All these decades later, I feel the same, now having read more fully his major work.

View all my reviews

How to Know a Person

How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply SeenHow to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen by David Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a wonderful book. Full of insights and practical tools on how to live well. Brooks does a great job of balancing psychological research with insights from other fields, stories of real people, contributions from literature, and his own efforts to grow as a person. I look forward to opportunities to teach this book in classes at church.

View all my reviews

A Rhetoric of Desire

A Rhetoric of Desire

Acts 17:16-32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 October 2023

               I’ve not yet made it to Athens.  So, I haven’t stood in the Areopagus where Paul delivered this sermon.  Where Socrates questioned his interlocutors.  Where the great philosophers and sages of Ancient Greece engaged in their discourses about all the great ideas.

            But a couple of weeks ago I was in the ancient Greek city of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily.  As I sat on the ancient temple steps that are now part of the wall of the cathedral, I wondered if Paul or Plato or Aeschylus or Archimedes had sat there too, as all of them had lived in or traveled through that city.

            I delight in being in such places, with deep and rich ancient histories.  Such travel helps to make the stories and the ideas come alive.

            One of these days, hopefully, I’ll be in Athens and stand in the Areopagus and remember Paul’s sermon.

            The theologian Willie James Jennings writes of this story and sermon in Acts 17, “Here we witness a rhetoric of desire.”  What does he mean?

            For Jennings the desire being illustrated in this moment is actually God’s.  He writes, “God wants the Gentiles.  God desires those who desire idols. . . . This speech is driven by the irrepressible longing of God to embrace wayward creatures by every means possible.” 

            And because God desires these Gentiles, Paul also turns towards them.  He won’t turn away from these folks who believe differently from him and practice a very different faith.  Idol worship, of course, was anathema to a faithful Jew like Paul.  But rather then turn away in disgust, he turns towards these pagans and engages them, on their own terms, and in their own language, and with their own thoughts and ideas.  

            Jennings points out how radical this is.  He writes, “Luke performs a new human in these words given to Paul.” 

            I’ve been saying throughout this sermon series  that Paul believes Jesus has inaugurated a new age and with it a new humanity.  The network of new, small gatherings that will become the Christian churches are themselves experiments in new ways of living—a new family, a new society, a new culture, even a new politics and economics.  And the people drawn to these assemblies are becoming new people, new creatures, focused on the radical love of God, intent on breaking down every barrier and setting humanity free.  This is Paul’s witness to the world and the witness to the world that each of these churches is becoming.

            And, so, even here, Paul is modeling this new humanity that turns towards those different from him.

            God’s desire is for all of God’s children.  And the story identifies that those children also have a desire for God, even if they don’t fully understood it or have gone about it in misguided ways.  For both the worship of the idols and the philosophical discourse are evidence of human longing.

            But the idols are a problem—no matter how beautiful ancient Greek sculpture remains even to us 2500 years later.  Jennings writes, “The idol is a collective self-deception, a point of facilitation where human fantasy and wish, circulating around material realities, generate distorted hope.  The idol facilitates a hope of control of both my life and the life of the gods.”

            An idolatry of control is ultimately a culture of death, devoid of meaning, robbing us of our full humanity.

            But the God of Israel is offering something better.  Something good, true, and beautiful.  A life of freedom, joy, and love.  For a new age has dawned in the resurrection of Jesus.  And the fullness of God is given to everyone.  This is a new time of possibilities.

            In our own time one trend has been the increase in people, particularly younger people, identifying as or being attracted to nihilism.  You see it in popular culture—in the popularity of zombie stories, doomer memes, and the ubiquity of the image of staring into the abyss.

            In its harshest form, nihilism believes there is no meaning, no truth, no right, sometimes even no clarity on what is real.  What’s been on the rise in this century is usually softer forms and generally as a response to all of the bad things that have occurred in the last twenty years.  A 2021 study of 10,000 young people in ten countries found that 56% of them believe that humanity is doomed.  A whopping 75% said they view the future as frightening.  And “45 percent of 16-25-year-olds said climate-related anxiety and distress is affecting their daily lives and ability to function normally.”  In another study, “one-fourth of 16-25-year-olds . . . feel they will ‘never recover’ emotionally” from the pandemic.

            An NPR show discussing the popularity of nihilism included this comment that helps us to understand: “At a certain moment, a culture discovers that its most esteemed values are for nothing. Nihilism is that moment where the rug’s pulled out from under you and nothing takes its place.”  Which is what the last two decades have felt like for many people.

            I was drawn to these paragraphs in an article on the website Huck about the popularity of nihilism:

In her book, The Sunny Nihilist: How a Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy (2021), Wendy [Syfret] argues that nihilism can provide a balm for modern hyper-individualism and an obsession with finding meaning in everything, from our jobs to our skincare routine. The philosophy of ‘sunny nihilism’, she wrote, offers “a blank page; a chance to enjoy the moment, the present, the chaos and luck of being alive at all”. 

Wendy thinks that, rather than surrendering to nihilism, we should focus on Nietzche’s view that rules, laws, and morals are social constructs. “That can be a very liberating idea, because you can ask, well, why do we take capitalism to be the absolute truth?” Wendy says. “The reality is, the world is total chaos, and everything you think you know is a construct that someone created, and can be dismantled.” This has helped Wendy break out of productivity culture. “[Sunny nihilism] gives me a framework to pause and ask: do I actually want to be doing these things? Or am I just absorbing a narrative of success that’s ultimately treating me like a worker drone?”

Syfret argues that the collapse of institutions and systems that brought meaning actually opens up an opportunity for us to create something new.

            There is a sense in which the Christian good news agrees.  Institutions do fail us.  Attempts to exercise control bring harms.  Much of the way we live is a social construct that can and should change. The resurrection inaugurates a new time of possibilities.  Paul has turned towards the Athenians and is offering them a chance for something new.  God turns towards us and offers us the same.  So what do we desire? What does God desire for us?

            Paul viewed the Christian proclamation as offering a counter to the culture of death and negativity in his time.  For Paul the resurrection of Jesus is the source of a universal yes to life.  The radical French philosopher Alain Badiou states that this is centrally what Paul’s message is all about—a yes to life to counter nihilism’s no.  Paul wants to eradicate negativity with the grace of God.

            For grace is pure giving that affirms all that is good and opens up possibilities.  And this yes to life is made available to all of us because God’s Spirit has been shared with all of us.  We are invited into the fulsomeness of God.

            The Greek Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes that the Holy Spirit is “fruition, love, rejoicing, delight, felicity, and beatitude.”  God has given all of that to all of God’s creatures, filling them with God’s own bounty.  Such that we can become “radiant mirrors of divine beauty.”

            God is the actuality on which all possibilities depend.  Hart says, “God shines forth in human longing.”  There’s desire again.  In our longing, God is present.  God graciously offers us the chance to become all that we are and can be and desire to be.  We can flourish and live in delight.  For, as Hart says, God is “the infinite treasure of delight glimpsed within every delight.”  Every joy, every excitement, every beautiful moment, every good and delightful thing is a glimpse of God. 

            Quite poetically, Hart writes, “One cannot contemplate a flower, watch a play, or pluck a strawberry from a [basket] without being situated within an [unbreakable] intentional continuum that extends all the way to God in [God’s] fullness.”

            In every moment of delight, we experience part of the fullness of God.  Which is why we can live with complete freedom and joy and generosity.  Hart writes that the law of love is “a kind of anarchic escape from all such rules.”  Instead we live directly in relationship to the fullness of God.

            Which is what gives us the freedom to turn towards those who are different from us, who don’t meet our expectations, even who disgust us.  Like Paul did to the Athenians.  Modelling a new humanity.  Because we are not trying to control one another, we can witness to the world by inviting and inspiring others to relax, to let it go, do not fear, but join us in the fullness of God.  We can let it be.

            The Church Father Maximus the Confessor described God as “delight and affection and joy” and said that what God is is what God desires for all of God’s creatures.  This winsome, gracious God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

            So what Paul offered the Athenians that day was a chance to break free from everything that had constrained them, especially a culture of death and control, and to live fully and graciously into the freedom and love of God, which calls them to a life of joy, delight, and affection.

            That is Paul’s witness to the world.

            And our invitation too. 

            Because of the fulsomeness of God’s grace, we can live with winsomeness and delight.  The best human life isn’t about meeting expectations, enforcing rules, criticizing others, being judgmental or negative.  It is about joy, affection, and delight.  Turning towards one another in love.  This is what God desires.

So, living as God intends us to live ought to be easy.  But, being human is so often hard.  Why?  I believe the difficulties are quite often a result of us humans getting in our own way, and getting in the way of others. 

Let’s think about those times when we mess up, when we aren’t saying yes to life.  Like when we erect barriers and divisions.  Maybe when we try to compel others to meet our expectations, or are critical and negative.  In those moments, we can give ourselves the grace of forgiving ourselves, because we understand that we are pushing hard against flawed social programming.  And a whole culture of control, negativity, nihilism, and death.

But while giving ourselves a break, we should also be clear that when we fail, we aren’t being our best, we aren’t living as God desires us to.  Because God desires a new humanity that lives fully into the joy, affection, and delight that is God.

And, so, we should make clear that our aim, the goal of our spiritual growth and maturation, is to say yes to life.  To fill ourselves with joy and freedom and love.   Let us live felicitously.  Let us live winsomely.  Let us live delightfully.  For that is God’s desire for us.


Abound in Love

Abound in Love

First Thessalonians 3

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

15 October 2023

            Let me begin today with a quote from the contemporary philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Appiah is currently the President of the American Academy of Letters.  He has written extensively about the ways in which we are shaped by our various identity categories and also about how we learn to live together despite those differences, as part of a cosmopolitan world.

            And it makes sense that these are among Appiah’s concerns.  He embodies the history of the modern age and the complex ways our identities interact.  Appiah is a married gay man living in New York, who became a United States citizen in 1997.  He grew up in Kumasi, Ghana and was educated in Britain, taking his degrees from Cambridge University.  On his father’s side he is descended from Osei Tutu, the pre-colonial emperor of Ghana.  Ghanaian royalty on one side, and British statesmen on the other.  His mother’s father was the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  His great-grandfather was the leader of the Labor Party.  His mother’s side is also descended from John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of Massachusetts.

            So, like I said Appiah embodies in his very person the issues of identity and cosmopolitanism.  Here’s the quote:

Each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is just to affirm the very idea of morality.  The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.

            Appiah argues that identity categories are important ways we interact with the world, helping us to find belonging and meaning.  We can’t simply do away with them and find some homogeneous, universal humanity.  Which would also be boring, even if we could. 

            Nor does he think we have complete freedom when it comes to identity.  Our identities make sense within communities, within social groups.  Their meaning shaped by the collective, not just by us.  

            He’s also aware of the ways that identities can become unhealthy and pull us apart into competing groups.  Which simply will not work in the 21st century world.  We all live too interconnected and integrated with one another.  One of the moral imperatives of our time is to foster cosmopolitanism—being citizens of the world. 

            So, the challenge is to find meaning and purpose in our identity groups, while also learning how to live in friendship and intimacy across all those categories in our pluralistic, multi-cultural age.

            Reading Appiah wrestling with and providing ethical advice for this very contemporary set of issues, I can’t also help but draw a connection to the apostle Paul in the first century, wrestling with the same sorts of topics.  As I’ve pointed out the last few weeks, Paul was trying to foster multi-cultural communities that overcame various barriers of ethnicity and culture in order to model a new and better way of being human, all as part of God’s global mission to rescue the world.

            Paul traveled through the cities of the Roman empire, setting up little gatherings of people.  Through preaching, prayer, and service, he would inspire Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freepersons, women and men, to join up in this new Jesus movement.  And these groups would start to assemble together.  They called themselves by the Greek word ecclesia, which was the same word used to describe the local government assemblies of the Roman Empire.  In this way, they were an alternative to the politics of the day. 

They also became alternative families to one another, as many converts would have been excluded by their families of origin.  These new Christian gatherings became places where people met their significant other, raised their children, and celebrated their life events.  They were forming a new, alternative social life.

            And Paul was nurturing all of that.  Through his preaching, prayer, and pastoral care.  We find evidence of his pastoring in the stories told, but especially in the letters he wrote back to the churches he had founded.  He sometimes wrote in anger, sometimes in joy, always in love, with the intention of directing and shaping these nascent assemblies.

            One of the more fascinating books on Paul is Our Mother Saint Paul by Beverly Roberts Gaventa.  She draws attention to how often Paul uses maternal imagery to highlight his role pastoring congregations.  He uses images of birthing pangs and giving birth, of nursing an infant, of motherly nurture and care. 

            Gaventa also notices that Paul’s use of these metaphors often seems to confuse us for a moment, in order to draw our imaginations in new directions.

           

            Here, in First Thessalonians, we get an example of Paul’s leadership and care for this congregation, including his deep and abiding affection for them.

            First Thessalonians is probably the first of Paul’s letters to churches that we have passed down to us in the New Testament.  I read one scholar who said that the moment this letter was read in public to the church the first time is the beginning of the New Testament. 

            The scholar Victor Paul Furnish writes in his commentary that the letter “reflects the apostle’s eagerness to affirm and deepen the bonds of friendship.”  In doing so, Paul expands their hope, encourages their faith, and calls for them to let love inform everything that they do.  The love that they have for one another should overflow in ministry to others.  In this way, they form harmonious community, and bear witness to the world of this new way of being human shaped by Jesus and the Spirit.  Now is the time for abounding in love, in order to carry out the work God has given to the congregation.

            This love they are to abound isn’t just warm feelings of regard, however.  N. T. Wright, the Bible scholar and Anglican bishop, writes:


he doesn’t mean that he hopes that, as they already have warm fuzzy feelings about one another, those feelings will become yet warmer and fuzzier.  He means that as they are already exploring practical ways of supporting one another as though they were part of a single family or business . . . they should work out in practical terms how to do so more and more.

            What will bear witness to the world isn’t their warm regard, but their effective measures for supporting and caring for each other.

            And as you read Paul’s letters, you discover how often he gets very practical, as these congregations struggle with financial concerns, outside challenges, the burdens of effectively caring for each other, finding qualified leaders, what they should and shouldn’t do in worship, and more.  It becomes very apparent that most of the challenges the church faces now have their antecedents in the early church too.

            And all of this was in service to the mission to create a worldwide network of congregations who abolished ethnic divisions and found unity despite their differences.  Which also remains our challenge in the 21st century.

            Paul is nurturing these small, local congregations because he believes they have significant, global, even cosmic work to do on behalf of God’s mission.  And that’s why we keep at it too.  Here in the third decade of this century, congregations are facing all sorts of issues.  From very practical ones like the rising costs of goods and services or the shortage of clergy confronting most denominations.  And there are the big issues our entire culture is facing that also impact the church, such as climate change, natural disasters, polarized politics, changing gender norms, reckoning with our racial past, and more.  Plus, more and more people are electing not to attend or participate in churches.  Some because they’ve lost or changed beliefs, but many because they let go of the habit, a trend hastened by the pandemic lockdowns.  We live in an age of growing secularization, but also growing non-participation in various social groups, not just churches.  The lack of involvement has played a role, along with other factors, in the growing epidemic of loneliness and the rise in mental health needs.  All concerns the church must deal with as well.

            But we keep at it because we believe even our congregation has significant work to do on behalf of God’s mission.

            At the close of his book on Paul, N. T. Wright declares, “I believe that part of the task of the church in our own day is to pioneer a way through postmodernity and out the other side . . . into a new world, a new culture . . . [and] Paul has a vital role to play in that task.”

            Wright then enumerates three aspects of how the church can lead in the 21st century.  First, is “the reconstruction of the self.”  He writes that the proud, self-reliant self of modernity has given way to a “mass of floating signifiers.”  All those competing and intersecting identity categories.  All that push from globalism to rise above them at the same time.  All of which is also connected to the epidemic of loneliness and deaths of despair. 

            Wright argues that Paul, and the church, have a path forward.  He writes, “there is a way through, not to a reconstruction of an arrogant modernist Self, but to a new way of being human, a way that is rooted, through baptism, in the Messiah, or more particularly in the love of the one God revealed in him.”  Wright summarizes the point as “I am loved, therefore I am.”

            And this Christian love remains central to the other two aspects Wright enumerates of ways the church can lead humanity in the 21st century.  The second affects the way we know things.  The Enlightenment imagined one, universal, objective truth available to all, and postmodernity revealed that to be a fiction.  What we’ve been left with is alternative facts and post-truth, where knowledge becomes a power-play.  Instead, Wright says, “the basic Christian mode of knowing is love.”  He continues, “In love, the person who is loving is simultaneously affirming the Otherness of that which is loved and their own deep involvement wit that Other.”  By giving of our attention, in a way that respects and acknowledges the dignity and integrity of the other.  Or as my favorite poet Wendell Berry says, “It all turns on affection.”

            Finally, the church has a great story.  A good story.  An inspiring, encouraging story.  And it’s not a story about power but is a story about love.  The greatest love is revealed in the sacrifice of Christ, that disrupts the power-plays of the empire.  Every attempt to construct a world order contrary to love stands exposed as weak and wrong in the shadow of the cross and the dawn of Easter. 

            These are only quick hints at the larger, significant task of the church, that Paul was nurturing in his own day, and that we are called to in ours.  More can be said about each of these.  And, I think in this congregation, is being said multiple times every week in our programs and ministries and worship.  As we engage the big questions and concerns and seek helpful, practical tools for living well and flourishing.

            Paul invites us to abound in love for one another so that the entire world might see that there is a new and better way of being human.  His task as an apostle is to create the communities that will do that.  His work as a pastor is to nurture them towards those ends. 

  1. T. Wright closes his book on Paul by saying that Paul invites and encourages us “to stand as ourselves new creatures, called, justified and glorified, from which we go to the dangerous and exhilarating task of being, knowing, and telling.” For the world needs what we nurture.  Let us take courage, and abound in love.

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

Galatians 2

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 September 2023

In March of 1939 the German passenger ship the St. Louis left Europe with some nine hundred German and Austrian Jewish refugees on board, hoping to escape the Nazis.  They initially sailed to Cuba, where they were denied entry, told that their visas were invalid.  They sought refuge someplace else.  Any place else, in fact.  They sailed up and down the Atlantic, but no nation would receive them.  Finally, the ship had to turn back and head for Europe.

The captain of the ship ordered that the ship sail as slowly as she possibly could, holding out hope that someone would come to the rescue of these people.  Finally, the captain decided that if he must, he would wreck his ship rather than take these victims back to face concentration camps, torture, and inhumane death.

In the end, a few European countries took in these refugees.  For many unlucky enough to end up in the Netherlands, Belgium, or France, they were subsequently caught and murdered after the Nazis invaded those countries a few months later.

We must remember that not only did the Allies abandon the Jews on board the St. Louis, no Allied country bombed the railways to the camps or the camps themselves.  History has proven that this wasn’t out of ignorance or infeasibility.  As the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote “never in all human history was a people as radically abandoned.”

Fackenheim invites us to use our imaginations to conduct an experiment.  He wants us to imagine that the State of Israel had come into existence in March of 1939, while the St. Louis was traveling up and down the Atlantic Coast.  Receiving the news, the ship’s captain now shouts “full steam ahead.”  Fackenheim writes, “Their anguish turned into sudden gladness, his passengers break out into dance and song, and do not cease dancing and singing until they reach the beaches of Netanya and Naharia, where joyful, tearful Jews await them by the thousands.”

This, beautiful, historical “what-if” captures what Judaism means by “salvation.”  Salvation isn’t the rescue of individual souls.  Salvation is, according to Emil Fackenheim, “the sudden removal of a radical threat – a removal so astonishing that the more it is explained the deeper the astonishment becomes.”

And it is this idea of salvation that I believe captured the imagination of Paul, the apostle.  This “sudden removal of a radical threat” he had experienced in Jesus on the Damascus Road, and the experience forever changed him.  And it is why he is so angry in this letter to the Galatian Christians. 

Paul is angry because he realizes that people have misunderstood the gospel.   And in their misunderstanding they are about to undo the astonishing act of rescue that God has brought about.  These misunderstandings are threatening the very salvation of humanity that God has given to us.

So, what exactly is going on?  What has gotten Paul so upset that he perceives the possible ruin of the Christian movement?

Using our imaginations, I’m going to construct a story that will help us to perceive what’s going on with Paul and the Galatian Christian.

So, imagine with me if you will, two loyal and faithful members of the new church in Lystra, Urbanus and his wife Olympas. When Paul came through Lystra, he stayed in their home, and they became good friends.  During his time there, they had learned much from him about Jesus and the apostles and had celebrated the freedom they found in their new faith.

But recently an issue had arisen in the local church, well after Paul had moved on to other places of mission.  This new issue arose because of one of the legal realities of the Roman Empire—that all citizens are supposed to worship Caesar.  Only the Jews, of all the citizens of the Empire, were exempt from this requirement.

Now, some troublemaker had gone to the city magistrate and asked him about these new Christians.  These new Christians were not worshipping the emperor.  Some of them were Jews, but some of them weren’t.  Nor did it seem that these Gentile Christians had converted to Judaism— they seemed to be participating in some new religion.  They didn’t follow the Jewish teachings and rituals.  And most tellingly, these Gentile Christians had not been circumcised.  

Thus, a debate arose centering on the question—were these Christians a new branch of Judaism or not?

Let’s imagine Rufus, an elder of the church, known for his gentle spirit.  Let’s imagine that one day in the church council meeting he proposed a solution.  He said,

Now some of the people in this church are Jews. As such, they are circumcised and continue many Jewish practices, while they are also believers in Jesus Christ. 

Many others of us are Gentiles, for whom these Jewish traditions are alien.  We respect and admire the roots of our faith and respect and admire those who continue to practice the rituals of their traditions.  Paul taught us that we Gentiles did not have to first become Jews in order to become Christians.

If the government authorities determine that we are not exempt from worshipping Caesar, then this church and our very lives will be in danger.  We will have to choose between execution or doing something that runs contrary to our faith.  We would place each other, our families, even the future of this church at risk.

Therefore, I propose that those of us who are Gentiles undergo circumcision.  Doing so will be a sign of respect and solidarity with our Jewish members and the faith tradition of Jesus himself.  It will also spare us the danger posed by the civil authorities.  I propose this as a compromise solution to the situation we find ourselves in.

Imagine, that while on their way home from this meeting, Urbanus and Olympas discussed what Rufus said.  There appeared to be great wisdom in his proposal.  What he suggested seemed to be an acceptable compromise that would ensure everyone’s safety and keep everyone in the church happy.  After all, whether one was circumcised or not wasn’t really that big a deal.  In the spiritual sense, of course.  It wouldn’t affect one’s beliefs.  And seemed like a simple solution that would avoid the possibility of greater problems down the road.  A potential conflict had arisen and had been quickly and easily avoided with a reasonable compromise.

Now, imagine, that a couple of weeks later, Olympas wrote a letter to Paul, just like she did every month or so.  She would write to keep him up-to-date on the church and its ministries.  In this letter, she recounted that Phoebus had joined the church, that Junia’s daughter had been born, that Rachel was getting married, that the new program to help feed the people over on the bad side of town was really going well, and she recounted the church council meeting and Rufus’ speech.  

Olympas did not expect the letter she received in response.  And this letter was addressed not only to her and Urbanus, but to the entire congregation, and also to all the churches throughout Galatia.  “What is this all about?” she wondered.

After a brief and hurriedly scribbled greeting, the letter began:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. . . there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

Needless to say, Olympas was herself astonished.  Paul was in a tirade, one rant after another: about his authority as an apostle, recounting his life story (which she had heard before), attacking other leaders of the church, calling people hypocrites, attacking her and others for abandoning the faith, going on and on about what it meant to be a Jew, and strange tangents about law and faith and all sorts of topics.  She was puzzled.  What in the world could this be in reference to?  What had she said in her last letter that so angered Paul, her dear friend and teacher?

Then, finally she got to it,

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.

Oh!  That’s what he’s angry about.  Rufus’s solution to the problem of our exemption from worshipping Caesar.  Now, she was puzzled as to why Paul would make such a big issue of this? Why did he think that this idea had the potential of destroying the church?

            In the letter Paul says it is better to face the possibilities of persecution and hostility, because that is what Jesus himself did in going to the cross.  And, it is through Jesus’ suffering that we truly overcome the powers of this world, he writes.  True freedom comes from the cross, not from avoiding persecution through compromise.

So, Paul’s saying that circumcision itself is not the central issue.  Circumcision is, actually, irrelevant to God’s grace.  You are not excluded or included from God’s grace based on whether or not you’ve been circumcised.  What’s really at issue is that if they take this course of action, then they risk the new creation found in Jesus.  They will be throwing away the grace of God. 

So, what is this grace that Paul is writing about?  

Let’s go back to the story I opened with -- the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis waiting for an astonishing rescue. In other words, waiting for salvation.

Paul preached that without Jesus we are ourselves refugees.  We are exiles living under a curse.  We are exiled from our authentic selves.  We are exiled from genuine relationships and true human community.  We are estranged from God’s will for the creation.  We are abandoned, and stand in need of an astonishing rescue.

Paul believed that that astonishing rescue came in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The one he believed to be the long awaited Jewish Messiah.  Jesus signaled that God was breaking into the world in a new way, bringing about a new creation.  And in that new creation all would be free, and all would live according to righteousness and peace.  God’s new creation is people, people living together in genuine and loving human community.

So, what is at issue, according to Paul, is how you become one of those people, how you become part of God’s chosen people.  Some thought you were only part of God’s chosen people if you followed certain rules.  Some argued that only the circumcised were God’s chosen people.  Others thought it was based upon culture or ethnicity.

But Paul was a radical, with a universal, maybe even somewhat pluralistic view.  Paul said God’s chosen people are simply everyone who has faith.  You aren’t required to do anything, or follow any set of rules, or be a certain race, to be part of God’s people.  All you have to do is have faith.

So Jews can be Christians and remain Jewish, and Gentiles can be Christians and remain Gentiles.  In fact, it was vitally important for Paul that the church be big enough to include people from all these diverse cultural backgrounds.  Paul thought that this racially and culturally diverse community would itself be the great witness to God’s grace.  That this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural church was the sign that God’s new creation had been born.  The testimony that God’s dramatic rescue of the world had occurred.

Thus, if the Gentiles were circumcised, they would rob the church of its cultural and ethnic diversity.  They would rob it of its freedom.  They would thwart the freely given grace of God.  And they would be giving evidence that God’s great rescue of humanity had in fact failed. 

So, the lessons for us today are obvious.  Those who think Christian faith is all about following set of rules, are denying the Spirit and gratifying their own flesh.  Those who shun racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the church have fallen away from grace.  Those who deny women leadership roles have disobeyed the truth.  Those who exclude and threaten God’s LGBT children are teaching a false gospel. 

Let us, therefore, follow Paul, in proclaiming the radical, amazing grace of God. 


Being Real

Being Real

Acts 22:3-16

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 September 2023

            “Being a person is hard work; it is anxiety inducing and stressful.”  So writes religion professor Chris Stedman in his book IRL: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World.

            The book grapples with how the digital world shapes our identities, particularly how we struggle with being real online and how our online selves match up with our analog selves.  One of his key points is that we are still in the early years of living with these technologies, still figuring them out, still experimenting and learning from our mistakes.  Which is one of the reasons that being online can be difficult.

            But the main reason, he says, that being online is difficult, is because more fundamentally, being a human is difficult.  Regardless of whether we are online or not.

            Stedman’s book is a rich discussion of a lot of topics that I know many of us deal with in our personal and professional lives.  And the discussion is relevant to all we’ve been learning in recent years about the impacts of these new technologies on mental health, loneliness, and our need for belonging.  Which is one reason that we’ll be using his book as a prompt for conversation in the first unit of our revitalized Wednesday night program, which begins on September 13.

            But what does digital identity have to do with the story of Paul on the Damascus road?  I hope you’re asking yourself that question.

Chris Stedman argues that our struggles with these new technologies and the difficulties surrounding our digital selves actually have the potential to teach us some lessons in how to be human.  And one way it does that is through uncertainty.  He writes, “Uncertainty may thus be the greatest gift of the digital age.”  The internet is messy and it reveals the messiness of our lives and the lives of other people.  Which causes us discomfort and anxiety along with excitement and exploration.

And Stedman thinks all of this is a good thing.  Because we are learning how little we are in control of things, how vulnerable we really are, and how interconnected we are and everything is.  Which is causing anxiety and growing pains, but also creating the potential for real human growth and development. 

He writes,

If we put ourselves in situations in which we can be surprised by ourselves, we will continue to grow and change—a core aspect of what it means to be human. . . .  What’s important is an openness to surprise and to things uncharted, or we become unable to navigate life without a map.

            So, Saul of Tarsus was a religious zealot.  An extremist, who used violence against his opponents to enforce what we believed was the right way to live and worship God.  He modeled himself on those figures in Hebrew history who were religious warriors, fighting on God’s behalf against idolatry, foreign influence, and impiety.  Because this, he believed, was the way to righteousness.  This was holy living.  This was how you were justified before God.

            The Book of Acts tells the story of Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church and the first Christian martyr.  Stephen was basically lynched, taken by a mob and stoned to death.  And Saul of Tarsus was there.  A witness to it all.

            And then the next time we hear about Saul, the Book of Acts says, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  Which makes it rather clear how fanatical this man was.  The very worst kind of fundamentalist.  Sowing terror in his wake.

            Saul gets authorization to travel to Damascus so that he can round up the Christians there and drag them, bound, to Jerusalem.

            But, God intervenes, and on the Damascus Road everything changed for Saul, who became Paul.

            Many of us learned this story as the “conversion of Paul,” but scholars have begun to resist that description.  The Swedish Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl began to change our understanding of this story, and of Paul, with his groundbreaking book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. 

Stendahl argued that what Paul experienced was not a “conversion” but a new “call.”  A conversion generally means that one has changed one’s religion.  But Paul hasn’t done that.  For one thing, at this point there aren’t two religions Judaism and Christianity as we now understand them.  Those developments still lie in the future. 

Stendahl also points out that usually when there is a conversion, the person is having some inner spiritual experience that leads to the change.  But for Paul, that isn’t the case.  The Book Acts records no inner spiritual struggle Paul was experiencing.  And the various times Paul himself writes and talks about what happened, he never describes some inner spiritual struggle. 

So Paul wasn’t having any doubts about what he believed.  As Stendahl writes, “He experiences no troubles, no problems, no qualms of conscience, no feelings of shortcomings.”  He believed and practiced his faith with absolute conviction and certainty.

Until God intervened on the Damascus Road.

And the way Paul and the Book of Acts describe what happened is as a call by God for Paul to embrace a new mission.  Paul is struck blind—which probably also has metaphorical implications—and must begin to see again.  And see in new ways.  See differently. 

He doesn’t change his religion—Paul still is a faithful, law-abiding Jew, who believes in the same God, the same scriptures, the same religious tradition. 

But, boy, has what and how he believed changed. 

The French philosopher Alain Badiou writes that Paul’s Damascus Road experience is simply an event, that happened.  It can’t be fully explained or understood.  Nor are there any causes that lead up to it.  It is simply a new “founding event” that forever changed its subject, Paul.  And the event itself is the authority for all that changes and all that he does and teaches.  Paul, in his own telling in the Book of Galatians, went to no one to explain the event or give it a sign of authority.  He does not return to Jerusalem for three years, but instead goes into the deserts of Arabia.  About which we never learn any details. 

When he returns he claims to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, who met the resurrected Jesus face-to-face, and who has now been authorized by God to preach to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish nations, the salvation of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. 

The guy who persecuted and murdered Christians is now claiming to be one of their leaders.

The guy who believed that he could be justified before God by exercising violent extremism, is now preaching nonviolence and peace.

A guy who believed in killing your enemies, now says you should love them.

A guy who hunted pagans, now wants to welcome them into the fold.

And the guy who sought religious authority for what he did, now says he needs no other authorization than that given him by God, and he is going to go out into the world and fulfill God’s mission.

And, truth is, the other disciples and followers of Jesus do NOT know what to make of this.  He was their enemy, and now he says he isn’t.  And he doesn’t seem to want to follow any rules or structure or guidance, but he’s just going to do his own thing and that thing, is going to burst open this movement in ways that none of them really anticipated.

The Anglican bishop N T Wright tells us, “I think Paul even glimpsed something of the dark humour of God through which a fanatical right-wing nationalistic Jew should be the one to take to the pagans the news that the Jewish Messiah welcomed them on equal terms.”

And what exactly is that new mission God has sent Paul to be as apostle for?  The creation of a new, global, multi-ethnic, inclusive, loving and peaceful Jesus movement.  Here’s N T Wright again, “Paul believed that it was his task to call into being, by proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the worldwide community in which ethnic divisions would be abolished and a new family created as a sign to the watching world that Jesus was its rightful Lord and that new creation had been launched and would one day come to full flower.”

The French philosopher Alain Badiou and other contemporary European thinkers find in Paul the most radical political thinker of freedom.  Beverly Roberts Gaventa writes that “Paul’s theological horizon is nothing less than the cosmos itself.”  And the late Ted Jennings, who came here once to preach and teach us about Paul, claims that in him we discover “one who is seeking to illuminate the most basic issues of our common life as human beings who dwell together on a planet in peril.”

And all of this because of the event that occurred on the Damascus Road that forever changed a religious zealot into an apostle of openness.

So part of what happened to Paul is he learned how to be more human.  To be real.  And that to do so he had to give up certainty and embrace vulnerability, to be open to wherever God would lead and to possibilities he had never before imagined.  And that in this adventure through God’s grace is how one is saved.

Back to Chris Stedman and our current struggles with being human and being real in a digital age.  He writes:

I’ve come to believe that making more space for people to be messy, complicated, contradictory, imperfect—to feel real—is not just fundamentally important to ensuring that we live in a world of healthy individuals.  It’s important to society as a whole.  Allowing people to be more fully human changes the way we talk about difference and increases our ability to understand one another.  It helps us recognize that we all enter into these debates with biases and baggage, and that we’re going to screw up but also, hopefully, grow when we do.

            And that, I believe, is an essentially Pauline project.

            This autumn we will go on a journey through the life and work of Paul, as he bears witness to the world of how we can become real.


Late Forties: New Life

This is the fourth, and last, post in a series reflecting on my forties, as I near their end.

2021/47--A Transition Year

Vaccinated

Vaccination!  Much thanks to Darryl Brown for informing me that clergy were being inoculated along with social workers, therapist, chaplains, and others at the tail end of medical worker inoculations in January 2021.  What a blessed day that was, full of possibility and newness.  I went walking on the Field Club Trail afterwards and was almost dancing.  And by my birthday, at the end of February, I was fully inoculated.

By the end of February, Michael had moved out, and so began a period of creating something new.  First up was cleaning and reorganizing and redecorating the house, buying to replace the items that he had moved, filling the house with plants, finding new art for the walls, etc.  And while I was processing many emotions, there was also a sense of possibility and the fun of all these new things.  In the spring I had a few friends over for a house blessing.

47 birthday

Earlier I had invited a few of my straight, single, female friends over to explain online dating to me.  It seemed that pretty much everything about dating had changed in the fifteen years since I'd last done it.  Plus, it was still Covidy, so not a lot of social life going on.  I did not want a serious relationship that year.  Instead there were a few short term, casual relationships.  Including one that was particularly nurturing and healing for me.  

At the same time I was rebuilding my social life and friendships.  And on my days and weekends without Sebastian, creating new routines.

Most of the major milestones of that year were related to my grieving and healing process--books read, podcasts listened to, tears cried, conversations with friends, therapy sessions, meetings with my spiritual director, praying, meditating, and thinking while out for a walk, etc.  It was not a linear process.  I made mistakes, had second thoughts, and experienced moments of deep heartbreak and pain, but there is nothing about that journey that I now regret.  All of it, every step in the journey, was important and had to be gone through.

With Jason

Looking back through my 2021 photos, they are full of fun memories.  Sebastian, Mom, and I were often going and doing fun things.  We took trips together as well--back to Oklahoma for spring break and to Kansas City the weekend he got out of Kindergarten.

On my days without Sebastian I took little excursions too--to Lake Okoboji, to our church campground in Burwell, and my first flight since April 2018 to the OU-Texas game that fall.  

Big Tex

Another highlight was that my hometown of Miami, Oklahoma hosted their first Pride, and I had to attend.  I enjoyed spending the day catching up with old friends.

Miami pride

The theme of the year was reconnecting with family and friends, and so the camera roll is filled with visits to and with all sorts of folks.  For me it was important to go back to my sources, of who I had been before my marriage, to help me find myself again.  And it seems that those plans worked.  That summer we spent time in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Mom's time living in Omaha ended that September, but her trips here, or ours there, have been quite regular ever since, as she has helped me be a single Dad.

Mom & Sebastian

At Christmas time, Sebastian and I performed our first duet on the piano.

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2022/48--A Good Year

In February, right before my birthday, I asked Michael for one last sit-down conversation to discuss whether divorce was really what we wanted to do, and it was clear it was.  From that moment I've had emotional clarity that I lacked before and was really able to fully turn toward the future.  We still had lots of legal and financial steps to complete.  There continued to be arguments, and warmer moments.  Custody issues would not be resolved fully for some time.  But these divorce-related moments became less the central narrative.  Now when someone asks me about my divorce I describe it in four statements: I didn't want it.  It was hell to go through.  I'm so glad it happened.  I'm a better version of myself.  Of course it took a lot of work to get to that point.

The central narrative was much more about Sebastian and the joyful, rich relationship we have with one another.  Everything else in life has, of course, been secondary to parenting him.  

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By the spring of 22 I was ready to try an actual relationship, but so far, no serious one has developed.  I have fallen for a couple of guys, but neither developed.  I spent many months dating a really sweet guy, even introducing him to Sebastian, but it just didn't develop for whatever reason.  Mostly dating these days is just difficult.  The Neil Patrick Harris mini-series Uncoupled did a fantastic job portraying what it is like to be gay, in your late forties, dating again after a long relationship.  

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2022 was a year of travel.  A spring break trip to Austin.  A work trip to New England.  And then all of my sabbatical trips last year--to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the grand adventure to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, home for my 30th high school reunion, and to the Boundary Waters with Robyn.  The three days Sebastian and I were at the Old Faithful Inn were among the very best time we've ever spent together, in our down time just playing board and card games together.

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2022 was also full of great shows and concerts, including the wonderfully fun Outlandia Music Festival, where I saw Wilco again and The National.

And I moved forward on a number of home improvement projects, completing some that had been in process for many years and doing some new ones of my own.  

2023/49--A Good Life

Florida

In January I traveled to St. Pete Beach for a clergy retreat where I connected with old friends, made new ones, experienced a time of refreshment, and came home with lots of good ideas for church.

First Central has come out of Covid even stronger and with more vitality than we had before.  Our attendance and participation have been excellent, and our programs for children and young families have experienced rapid growth.  It's an exciting time.

Easter

This spring was also hectic with work.  In the office we were experiencing staff transitions.  In 2021 my long-time Office Admin Sara Sharpe retired, and we had some bumps finding the right person then.  Which we did.  Only for her to depart this winter, and we had an even bumpier time finding the right person this time, which we've also done.  At the same time my Associate Pastor Katie Miller announced she was moving to Vermillion, South Dakota to become the pastor for First Congregational Church there.

Outside the office, I was running to Lincoln over and over again this legislative session to oppose vile and disgusting legislation that threatened bodily autonomy and the dignity of the human person.  With many shenanigans, those measures passed, which has been the dark shadow hanging over this year and giving a sense of foreboding for the future.  Apparently Nebraskans elected a Christian nationalist governor, and we have a difficult fight for democracy, liberty, and human rights ahead of us.  

Clergy at capitol
Clergy at capitol

I was rather exhausted by the time summer rolled around. 

With three parents of young kids now working in the office, we often had kids all over the place at work during the summer break.

Sebastian and I didn't travel as much this year, and so more of our attention was focused on activities here--attending shows, his participation in camps and classes, and lots of playdates with friends.  My life is now structured around the rhythms of being a full-time single dad.  While I miss some aspects of the weekends I had to myself for a couple of years, we're having a great time together.

Sisters

Over Memorial weekend, we visited his birth mother and sisters, for a fun time together.

And for our summer vacation, he wanted to return to the Upper Peninsula to see his friend Thomas.  We added a few other stops along the way there and back.  This year he has embraced kayaking, which has given us even more fun to have together.

Kayaking

49 isn't finished--there are six months left.  But as I wrote the other day on Facebook on the occasion of my half-birthday, "Today I am six months from turning fifty, and the most surprising realization, as I head into the final six months of my forties, is how young and sexy this age actually feels."

Sexy


Mid-Forties: The Momentous Years

This is the third post in a series reflecting on my forties.  The first is here and the second here.  This writing is prompted by my half-birthday last week and entering the final six months of my forties.  That day I posted on Facebook "Today I am six months from turning fifty, and the most surprising realization, as I head into the final six months of my forties, is how young and sexy this age actually feels. Never would have convinced me of that in my thirties, but a joy to discover."  So these posts should be taken with this context in mind.  And definitely read the last and final post, just so you don't make the mistake of thinking I don't have emotional distance now from the events described in this one.

2019/45--Setting the Stage

Birthday party

A highlight of that year was Sebastian's fourth birthday party.  He was in preschool, clearly not a toddler anymore, with a huge group of friends, and what a great time we all had.

The most notable event of the late winter was the massive blizzard and flooding that impacted the entire region.  As a member of the Advisory Board of the Salvation Army, our organization was on the front lines in response.  And I took some leadership in the response of the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ.

In June I began my term as Chairperson/President of the Board of Directors of the Nebraska Conference of the UCC.  I had been looking forward to this opportunity with the hope of moving forward with a number of initiatives, particularly to rally folks to more engagement.  The storm and response had also created an opportunity to build upon.  I'm quite proud of the work we did during my term--on climate change, anti-racism, and officially becoming open and affirming.  However, my time as chair was not what I expected it to be, and was instead filled with much stress, as we handled the pandemic and a very difficult situation with staff.

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In July our whole family attended the UCC General Synod in Milwaukee (even Mom and Nash!), followed by a camping trip in northeast Iowa (without Mom) in a beautiful location. 

Pikes peak

Late summer we experienced one of the best periods in our family life, and what to me felt like one of the best periods in our entire relationship.  Michael and I took a weekend away to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary (that had fallen earlier in the summer), and, a few weeks later, we had a great date night seeing Hamilton.  In those weeks we had some fun family excursions to the Iowa State Fair and to Pioneer Village. Plus, we really enjoyed the All Church Retreat together.

Bumper cars

And, then, late September, it all fell apart.  Michael left.  And we were separated.  This wasn't public, and we didn't even tell our families.  

An aside on pastoral ministry.  My husband walked out on a Saturday and the next morning I went ahead and led worship and preached.  I  warned my associate Katie that I might not be able to do it, so she was ready to take over.  I did do it, and felt so strong for having done so.  Only to have a church member come to me at the door and criticize the sermon for being too short. 

That fall I was preaching a sermon series on the Lord's Prayer, in the very traditional way of taking one phrase at a time and exploring it.  Which became for me a pretty powerful spiritual experience--to spend every week researching this prayer and preparing a sermon as I was wrestling with such profound personal emotional issues.  At the time I thought, "this would make an interesting book," though I had no extra energy to create it as I was going through the experience.

We decided to work on the marriage and entered counseling again (the fourth time actually).  Thanksgiving played a healing role in all of that, as we showed up in Oklahoma with our families and pretended everything was normal. But going through those motions and being in the place we had fallen in love, helped.

The actual separation ended, and by New Year's it left like we were on the road to recovery.

2020/46--Hell

Pandemic, of course. Which swallowed everything about that year. For everyone. 

I was doing the full-time childcare, while almost everything about how I do my work changed, and I needed to provide spiritual leadership and pastoral care for hundreds of other people. There were days I thought I was going insane (not a unique experience, of course). 

2020 garden

One of the best parts of being home was all the gardening and landscaping we did that spring.  And I've never enjoyed my front porch so much.

The highlight of 2020 was my team at work.  We were each other's "bubble," even before anyone was using that term.  Everyone rose to the occasion doing more and different and backing each other up.  Even Sebastian's fifth birthday "party" was put on by my staff.  We all became even closer than we were before.

Covid worship

Then, Omaha erupted in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and James Skurlock. And during one of the protests I was tear gassed and shot in the back of the neck by a pepper ball. I still feel that today in both my body and my soul. 

Protests 2

Eventually, we began to regather for church. It was small, with lots of safety protocols, but oh so good.

Fortunately Mom moved to Omaha in September to help with remote schooling and allow me more time for work. I started writing again--a book on moral vision. Weekends Mom, Sebastian, and I would go do fun outdoor activities.

Mummum school

Apple picking

Michael sometimes worked eighty hour weeks that election season. Finally in mid-November we had time to talk and acknowledged that we needed to restart the process of repairing the relationship. 

The day after Thanksgiving, Mom took Sebastian and Nash to give us some time together, and that's when he said he wanted a divorce. 

 


My Forties: Two Contrasting Years

43 and 44 offer two contrasting years.  2017 was the least eventful year of the decade, by which I mean lacking in major turning points and with few highlights.  While 2018 was chock full of them.  But both years were heavy with emotions, particularly grief, stress, and anxiety.

2017/43--A Grieving Year

I remember that winter as being one where I struggled to sleep, experiencing chronic insomnia.  

One reason was the Trump administration, which of course weighed heavily, bringing some ruin and devastation to pretty much every day.  Professionally we clergy were wrestling with how to do our jobs well in these troubled times.  In 2016 and 17 I attended the Festival of Homiletics and those worries dominated the presentations and conversations.

The one big new thing in 2017 was getting Nash!  We had planned a dog for Sebastian's big second birthday gift, and found Nash early, in March of that year.  

Nash

That year we also took a grand trip for our family vacation--the Black Hills.  It was our first big road trip with young child and dog, and so we invited Mom to come along with us.  Having three adults sure helped.  

Rushmore

Grief lay over everything that year, particularly all the holidays and big Sebastian moments, after having lost my mother-in-law at the end of the year before. In August, Michael became overwhelmed with it and spent a few days in the hospital.

That autumn we were frightened by the possibility of even more grief when Mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  At the time she was living in her lake home in Grove (my step-dad was already institutionalized for his Alzheimer's care).  Since the state-of-the-art Buffett Cancer Center had recently opened six blocks from my house, the decision was made that Mom would move in with us for her cancer treatment.  At the time we didn't know how long her residence might be or what all might be involved in her care.  We made the best of the holidays for Sebastian, but we were grieving one mother and anxious for the other one.  And, then, when she had her surgery, they discovered that it wasn't cancer!  Talk about a radical change in emotion.  And so after a few weeks recovering from surgery, she moved back home to Oklahoma.

New Year's

Through some of 2016 and most of 2017 I had been working with Literati Press getting the book ready for publication--editing, copy editing, cover design, and figuring out exactly when we wanted to release it.

2018/44--The Stressful Year

That winter I was home sick in bed, when Michael walked in in the middle of the work day and announced he had just quit his job.  While he had long been overworking and frustrated and burning out, he had talked about looking for something else but had never actually started a job search.  

Two weeks later we were to be in Oklahoma City to celebrate the pre-launch of my book.  A small number of advance copies were being printed, and the publisher would hold the first public event where I read from the book and discussed it, to begin the promotions for the full release that September.  

Cover--Open by Scott E. Jones

I ended up going alone for that event.  While Michael had planned to take those days off, when he turned in his notice, his final days of work conflicted with the event.

While driving home from the pre-release, when I was still about four hours away, I got a call from Michael that he was going to the emergency room.  He had experienced a series of seizures while home alone with Sebastian and had blacked out apparently, for how long, he wasn't sure.  This led to a battery of medical tests that never did find any underlying cause except the stress of his quitting his job, but created much worry since his medical insurance was soon ending.

Fortunately he was only two months unemployed, but his new job changed our lives more radically than we realized at the time.  He was now working for the County Election Commission and was making less money.  But the biggest changes were that he did not have flexible working hours and had half as much vacation as he had had before.  Whereas we had previously had a more equitable sharing of getting Sebastian to and from daycare, or staying home with him when he was sick, it suddenly fell almost completely on me.  Also, he no longer had the time off for the kinds of trips we had been used to taking.  And a final major change I didn't fully realize until a few years later--I became unable to take the time away I had been used to taking, including for work conferences.  And all of this was made even worse during election season, when the amount of overtime was incomprehensible.  

On the path

We had no family vacation in 2018, but took a handful of little excursions to places nearby.  Sebastian also began to travel with me to work events, and we added fun stops along the way, the first one coming that year when the Nebraska Conference of the UCC held its annual meeting in Ogallala.  And that was something new that started in 2018--me and Sebastian traveling together.

A huge part of that year's stress was potty training.

Grandpa Revis

At the end of August my step-dad Revis entered his final illness.  I had made one quick trip to Oklahoma as we expected he was dying.  While sitting in the hospital, Michael called to tell me that our former foster son had showed up at our front door, with luggage.  So, Alex re-entered our lives for a season.  He stayed with us for a bit, and we got him set up at college, I even went with him to do all the things--housing, financial aid, enrollment, buying books, etc. We helped him move into and decorate his dorm room.  And throughout the autumn he was in our lives again, until the next winter went he drifted away again.

Alex's dorm

Revis died a week after I had been in Oklahoma with him and Mom.  We didn't leave immediately to return to Oklahoma, as we already were scheduled to be there a week later for my book release.  The day we left town, we stopped at Alex's dorm to drop off something, and while sitting in the parking lot, Sebastian vomited all over himself.  We got him cleaned up and waited a while before driving again.  In Nebraska City, he did it again.  We had left our house three hours before, and weren't even an hour's distance from home, and clearly Sebastian was ill, so we turned around and went back home.  Michael would stay home with Sebastian and  I would travel to my book release alone.

Which I did the next day.  I made it for the first event Friday night, and we had another bigger event planned for Saturday.  But, before that big event could be held, Michael called to say Sebastian had appendicitis and was being rushed into surgery.  I told Mom that I couldn't drive back alone, so she threw a few things in a bag (remember her husband had just died too), and we rushed back to Omaha, where Sebastian spent six days in the hospital.  

Hospital

Think of everything that happened in less than a month's time--it was the most stressful weeks I've ever been through.

A few weeks later we had a fun book event here in Omaha that wasn't interrupted by a medical emergency.  And that October I went on a very limited book tour, and though it wasn't originally planned this way, I had to take Sebastian along with me, because it was election season, and Michael was working overtime and couldn't care for Sebastian.  And after all that had happened, I never even scheduled any of the other promotional trips I had planned to.


My Early Forties

I've been thinking this week of the highlights and turning points of each year of my forties (as I'm in my final six months of the decade).  So I decided to write about them.  

In this post My Early Forties which include some of the most significant years of my life.

2014/40--A Fresh Start

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My forties began on the Big Island of Hawaii, where we had traveled to celebrate the big occasion.  A wonderful trip that included hiking over the caldera of a volcano, exploring lava fields at night, kayaking in the ocean, swimming on beautiful beaches, and a stargazing trip up to the top of Mauna Kea.

With a pastoral excellence grant, that summer I attended the Yale Writer's Conference which was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had, renewing and invigorating.  The three weeks in New Haven (and a side trip to NYC) were the source of new friendships and spending some time with a couple of old friends.  But mostly importantly, that experience was the impetus I needed to finally finish the memoir I'd been working on off-and-on for almost a decade. And I worked diligently writing the rest of the year.

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While in New Haven, I got the call from Creighton University asking me to teach philosophy that autumn. I was thrilled, as I've always wanted to maintain my academic connection and hoped to teach while also engaged in ministry. So that year began six years of teaching, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It also benefited us the next year when Sebastian started daycare there, a place where he thrived (until the pandemic closed the preschool). He (we actually) made lasting friendships with some of the other families.

Some bad news that autumn sent us into couple's counseling to work on our marriage.  As I reflect, more of these moments stand out now.  Where we ended up may have felt surprising, but I realize now how long a road it was to that ending.  

2015/41--The Great Year

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Sebastian was born!  And so many of that year's highlights are connected to that, of course--the call from Jason that Kelsey had picked us, meeting Kelsey, the public announcement, the church shower, the outpouring of generosity from so many, including acquaintances, preparing the nursery, his actual birth, bringing him home, his first time meeting various people, the day we the adoption was final, getting the birth certificate, the wonderful baptism weekend, much less all those precious and first moments with a new born.

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And in the midst of all that celebration came the legal recognition of our marriage, with the Obergefell decision that June.

The pre-Sebastian highlights of the year were completing a first full draft of my memoir and our trip to Costa Rica for a friend's wedding, and what was ultimately our "babymoon."  

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And that autumn we took a wonderful family trip to New England for another wedding.

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When I was sixteen, my Dad died of a heart attack.  He was 41, so over the ensuing 25 years I had always expected 41 to be my weird year, and had told many people such.  Instead, 41 was the greatest year of my life. 

I did cry about Dad a lot that year as I became a dad, but they were good tears.  

But the best year of my life was to be followed by one that ended horribly.  

2016/42--Bizarro World

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On the one hand, 2016 was full of all the wonder and beauty of Sebastian turning one, learning to walk, talking more, and exploring the world. 

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That summer was my sabbatical, delayed from the year before because of Sebastian's birth, but because I had a one-year-old, the sabbatical lacked most of the travel and experiences I had hoped to have, instead staying close to home for much of it to care for him.  I did go hiking in Oregon with Dan Morrow, and it was sublime.

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That June Katie Miller began serving as my full-time Associate Pastor.  There was the sense of professional accomplishment--having spent six years growing the church, its programs, and its funding sources such that we needed and wanted and could afford a full-time associate pastor.  I also hired the person I wanted, having met her a few years before and wanting even then to work with her eventually.  And this relationship became not only one of the most rewarding of my professional partnerships, but she was a dear friend and pastor to me, essential to the years ahead.

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We did get our back patio installed, the conclusion of a multi-year project working on improving our backyard, and just in time for a kiddo who needed it to play.

That October my sister and I fulfilled a promise to take our Mom to Ireland.  A grand and wonderful trip full of so much fun and beauty (and the day I left the country, Hillary was ahead by 14 points).  The best day of that trip was our hike from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher, followed by dinner and live music in the pub in Doolin. 

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That autumn began with the death of Ted Cich, Michael's grandfather, and then the nightmare of my mother-in-law being killed in a car accident that November.  I loved, admired, and respected her.  With her death, it really felt like we entered bizarro world that November (Trump's election being part of that sense of an alternative timeline), and nothing was ever quite the same afterwards.

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Becoming Human

Becoming Human

Jonah 3:9-4:11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 August 2023

               On the Day of Atonement every year, Jews read the entire Book of Jonah at their worship service.  The reason is explained by Baruch Levine, “The story of Jonah epitomizes the power of repentance, and serves to reassure the worshipers that God’s arm is extended to receive them.”

               Two weeks ago when I preached about the far more familiar story of Jonah and the whale, one of the themes we drew out of the book was God’s “lavish love.”  That God pursues Jonah out of affection for wanting the best for Jonah.  And that this book reveals the breadth of God’s mercy and grace, because God keeps offering opportunities for salvation to everyone in the story.

               Barbara Green, whose commentary is guiding me into a better understanding of the Book of Jonah, points out this theme of repentance.  She writes that for Judaism, repentance is understood to be “coded into the universe for our participation.”  Part of the very fabric of creation.

               In this book, Jonah first repents of running from God’s call to mission, and then, very dramatically, the entire city of Nineveh repents of their sins and is offered the mercy of God.

               Which then makes Jonah angry. 

               Why exactly is Jonah angry?  What is he angry about?  Is this anger tied to why he fled from God in the first place?  Did Jonah really not grow and transform that much during his three days in the belly of the whale?

               Barbara Green asks a provocative question—“If Nineveh is reprieved, is ‘Nineveh’ the issue, or ‘reprieve?’”  Is Jonah angry specifically that God has forgiven the Ninevites, those awful enemies of Israel?  Or is Jonah angry that mercy and forgiveness are aspects of who God is?

               The answer to those questions is not immediately clear.  Would Jonah prefer that the Ninevites get theirs or would Jonah prefer that God not be so nice?  Maybe he wants a more wrathful, warrior God? 

               Should this sound like something no one would want, did you see the report this week from Russell Moore?  Moore used to be the head of the ethical and political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, but had a major, public falling out with the SBC in recent years.  This week Moore told NPR that he has begun to encounter people on the Religious Right who have decided that Jesus is too weak and too liberal.  They especially don’t like the Sermon on the Mount.

               Is Jonah’s problem similar?  Maybe.  Again, the book isn’t fully clear, but we can ask our questions and explore the possibilities.

               Barbara Green draws attention to the way St. Jerome in the fifth century interpreted this story.  Jerome thought everyone in the story had some good intentions, so he wasn’t super hard on Jonah.  He believes Jonah’s flight from his call and subsequent anger are because Nineveh is the enemy of Israel, and he doesn’t want to be the agent of their salvation, because he knows ahead of time that God will be merciful, because God is just like that.  She imagines Jonah thinking:

I could have come to Nineveh preaching God’s views gently, and no one would have heeded;

And yet if I preached a God of harshness, it would not have been true!

St. Jerome’s conclusion, paraphrased by Barbara Green is that “Jonah feels angry at being made to look, or feel, like a liar.”

               Another interpretative insight she gains from St. Jerome is God’s handling of Jonah and his anger.  God is “gentle and pedagogic.”  Caring for Jonah.  When Jonah’s so upset, God doesn’t show up and scold him, God asks questions.  Barbara Green writes, “Jerome seems to understand that when one feels as bad as Jonah does and for the serious reasons he is sad, there is no need for reproof; to elicit insight is better.”

               What Jerome sees in the Book of Jonah is a generous economy of relationships.  And Barbara Green draws upon that theme in her own understanding of the book.  What seems to be happening is God’s constant pursuit of Jonah to allow Jonah opportunities for growth. 

               And here at the end God is actively engaging Jonah to examine his own feelings.  God asks a series of questions that provoke thoughts about the nature of relationships, what we feel entitled to, how wide we draw our circle of care.  Also, what is the source of your anger Jonah? 

Barbara Green writes, “In my reading God is prompting Jonah to locate more precisely the core of his frustration, more carefully to probe his desire.”  She points out that often when she is angry, and especially when she isn’t fully sure as to why she’s angry, that anger can get misdirected onto someone or something that does not deserve the anger.  Ever had that experience?  I’m sure we all have.  So probing the source of our anger is often a key step in integration and growth.

At the very end, Jonah is angry about the plant that shaded him and is now gone.  God seems to point out that Jonah didn’t have a deeply invested relationship with the plant, yet its absence has really ticked him off.  God wants Jonah to realize that God had a much deeper, longer, more invested and richer relationship with the city of Nineveh.  And God wanted the best for them, despite their flaws.  God also wants the best for Jonah, despite his flaws.  God even cared about the animals, which is the last word in the book. God’s lavish love is revealed.

And, yes, God’s love is merciful.  Even willing to change God’s mind about what was going to happen to the Ninevites.  God is more interested in the relationship than in sticking with any pronouncements.  The rules can be bent, broken, even discarded if they get in the way of relationships of love.  Green writes, “The key thing is relatedness.  If the creator loves all the creatures and longs for this company, then if and when they approach, God is happy to unbend from past pronouncements.  In fact, God winks, I was there first!”

Jonah does not seem to have fully understood this about God’s love.  Or at whatever level he did understand it, he doesn’t seem to have liked it.  Jonah needed to learn who God really is and why this gracious way of being is good and right. 

Barbara Green writes at length summarizing these points:

God has designed for Jonah a ministry the prophet needed to undertake.  God’s survey turned up evil in Nineveh, but not simply that.  The prophet and the pagans share a need for God’s gentle instruction, each distinctively.  Jonah, assigned, acts out his resistant reaction not once but a number of times.  But God persists, pursues, not in angry determination but in anxious love.  While God woos Jonah, others benefit as well.  There are plenty of God’s gifts to go around.  Care for one creature can splash over onto others.  Lavish love. . . . Jonah cries to God, who responds.  Jonah emerges changed from his experience.  But conversion is never really complete; there are always more possibilities to explore.  So Jonah, re-commissioned, preaches, effectively, successfully; but he is not satisfied.  As is now his integrity, he speaks up his feelings about God’s qualities that seem troublesome instead of comforting.  And God, attentive and patient, helps him push for additional insight.

               And, so, Barbara Green concludes that the central insight of the Book of Jonah is about how we are all related—God, people, whales, plants, etc.  And God is pursuing Jonah in order to teach him, to provide him opportunities to learn, to push him to new insights.  So she identifies that this story is about “the gradual and painful stages of humanization.”

               Which may also explain the abrupt and inconclusive ending.  Because the journey to our full and best humanity is on-going.  We always have more to learn, more changes to make, more realizations to repent for, more insights to probe.

               Around the same time I was reading Barbara Green’s commentary on the Book of Jonah, I also read Randy Woodley’s new book Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview in which he encourages a decolonization of Christian teaching and informing it instead with Native American values and wisdom.  Some of his themes aligned with Green’s take on Jonah.  Woodley writes:

We are all simply human beings, imperfect but learning from our mistakes.  Those mistakes make us human.  And being human by climbing out on a limb in order to reach others is the most spiritual state of being in which we may find ourselves.

               Woodley proclaims that in order to heal from the wounds of the colonial past we need to undergo a process of “rehumanizing.”  This process involves listening, gaining awareness, lamenting together, making restitution through reparations, and finally memorializing the past by telling the history.  This is a process of openness and vulnerability, both of which Woodley says we see modeled by Jesus and the Creator.  He calls the Creator “the most vulnerable being who exists.”  So if we are going to be more like the Creator, then we must open ourselves to vulnerability that brings healing.

               He adds to this that we must also learn to let go of control.  Part of the healing is letting go and not wanting to control everything.  It seems to me that Jonah had a problem just going with the flow of God’s grace.  Part of what he has to learn is that he isn’t able to control everything.

               A key principle of this rehumanizing, according to Randy Woodley, is to not treat people as objects in our own agenda.  If we love people, we must respect their dignity.

               I was struck by this way of framing a core ethical principle.  Woodley’s words resonate with what I’ve learned in my philosophical training, but I think with clarity he states it directly and simply—don’t treat other people as objects in our own agenda. 

               And it seems to me that’s part of what Jonah’s having to learn in his journey too.  The sailors, the Ninevites, the whale, the plant—all of these deserve their own dignity and respect, all of them have their own relationships with God, God cares for them, they don’t just exist as characters in Jonah’s story.

               As a second key principle Randy Woodley teaches us that our responsibility is to keep harmony.  Harmony is a key indigenous value, and Woodly believes it resonates with the Hebrew idea of shalom.  Our responsibility as the Creator’s human children is to keep harmony—inside ourselves, with other people, with the land around us, and with the animals.  While the dignity of each of us must be respected, we are also all interconnected, such that what one of us does affects others.  So we must be aware of this in our actions, so that we are always respectful, loving, balanced.

               This rehumanizing calls us to take risks, so that we might develop better and healthier relationships.  And together we will become more fully human.

               So, like Jonah and the Ninevites, we are being called to repentance by a merciful God, who pursues us, with lavish love, offering us more opportunities to become fully human.

               This summer we’ve gotten in some Good Trouble, as we explored these ancient stories of prophets, rulers, and God’s compassion and justice.  In these stories we’ve discovered teachings about courage, integrity, humility, and conviction.  They’ve lifted up the importance of critical questions, of listening to a myriad of voices, and also standing firm in the face of coercive power.  We’ve explored autonomy, agency, liberty, and dignity, and the ways those values intersect with contemporary concerns, especially the ways that abusive political power continues to threaten core aspects of our humanity.  We’ve learned that compassion is power, and words can change the world.  And we’ve talked about the meaning of history, how the way things turn out depends on the choices we make and the actions we take. 

               And, in all of this, God is on our side.  When the ruler is a tyrant.  When those in power are corrupt or incompetent or even insane.  When chaos seems unleashed, and terrible monsters are on the prowl.  With us in the fiery furnaces and lions’ dens.  With us when we are uncertain and afraid, stuck in the belly of a whale.

               God’s justice and God’s power and God’s compassion are on our side.  Pushing us to new insights, pursuing us in love, standing with us in danger.  And always working for our deliverance, salvation, and healing, so that we might be strong, courageous, and free.