Job 3:20-26

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 March 2023

Titling a sermon “Suffering” doesn’t exact spark excitement and anticipation, I’m sure.  Nor was I prescient in knowing that winter would return this weekend.  Rather, suffering is one of the six rhythms of the Spirit that we are exploring this Lent, ways we connect with God spiritually.

Of course, consoling suffering people is a significant part of pastoral care.  Of what I and Jim and Katie do every week.  When people are anxious, uncertain, afraid, worried, troubled, sad, in pain, they reach out to talk, to vent, sometimes to rage, sometimes to problem-solve, sometimes just to be heard.

               Like, the person who had an accident, and the recovery is taking so much longer than expected, and they miss their active life.

               The person going into surgery frightened about possible scenarios that would radically alter their happiness.

               The person still trying to recover from all the impacts of the pandemic isolation on their mental, emotional, and social well-being.

               Of course, sometimes the concern is also directed to issues of the what’s going on in the wider world.

               The expecting mother deeply troubled by what it means to bring a child into the world at this time.

               The grandfather concerned about his children who he says seem to take only an apocalyptic view on things anymore.

               The mom deeply worried about her trans daughter amidst all the anti-trans activities being taken by our and other state legislatures.  Worried not only for her daughter but all trans people.

               In moments of suffering, we seek consolation.  But we also search for wisdom--wisdom for how to live through these life circumstances, how to cope with a world that isn’t what we expected and is often out of our control.

               This Lent we are exploring the Words of Wisdom, the parts of the Bible where we receive practical advice on how to live, where God speaks to us about our daily, ordinary lives.  Where we are reminded that God is present with us, helping us and guiding us.

               Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw describes six rhythms of life in the spirit that we’ve been exploring.  And one of those is suffering.  In suffering we can become attuned to God and to one another.  We can sense a connection between our own suffering and the sufferings of Christ.  We can feel God present with us in our suffering, sharing in it, comforting and consoling us, and working for our deliverance and healing.  

Last May, as I was preparing for my sabbatical, the first book I read was Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.  After two really stressful years personally and professionally, I was looking forward to the sabbatical as a chance to take a break, to rest, to recharge.  And Ignatieff’s book seemed a good way to transition from the stress to the break. 

Because we are living in difficult times, Ignatieff wants us to draw upon the received wisdom of humanity and the ways that others before us dealt with their difficulties and found resilience and solace.  So, the first place he goes is to the Book of Job.  This ancient Hebrew text is the source of much wisdom on how we can respond to our suffering. 

What Michael Ignatieff admires in Job is that Job demanded to be heard.  He insisted on the validation of his own experience.  This is an important lesson for us to learn.  So often we’ve been trained to minimize our hurt, to swallow our feelings, to avoid dealing directly with them.  This we know is unhealthy and can cause lasting damage.  A key first step to growth and healing is to take a lesson from Job and share our hurt and insist on its being seen and heard.

Job also refused to accept false consolation, even from the friends who showed up with the intention of trying to comfort him.  Their words were not comforting, not validating.  Job refused their advice and instead insisted that his suffering mattered.  He demanded that God respond.  Ignatieff writes, “His very despair is a way of insisting, despite everything, on his own importance in the ultimate scheme of things.” 

Of course, even when Job does finally hear from God and the end of the book, he never truly receives the explanations and the answers that he wants.  But, even then, Job refuses to resign himself to his suffering.

Here is how Ignatieff summarizes the story of Job and the lessons we can take from him:

Job’s story tells us we are fated to endure sorrow and suffering that have no apparent meaning, moments when existence is a torment, when we know what it is to be truly inconsolable.  But like Job, we must learn to endure, we must hold on to the truth of what we have lived and refuse false consolations . . .   We should . . . struggle as best we can to understand the meaning of our lives.

He then adds: “to find the answer that is true for us we will have to be as courageous as the man in rags who dared raise his fist to the sky.”

This week I read the book Imaginable by the futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, whose great book Reality is Broken I had read about a decade ago.  This latest books comes after the global pandemic and after we have all lived through situations we never imagined that we would.  In order for us to become more resilient and better able to manage such scenarios, McGonigal wants us to begin actively imagining various future scenarios and what we might do and think and feel in those situations.  She sights all sorts of scientific evidence for how engaging in such forward-thinking has positive mental and emotional benefits.

One of the ideas she suggested at the start of the book, and which I did, was to open up the digital calendar on your phone, go to the same date some years in the future—I chose to go a full ten years, the furthest out she said you might go, but maybe one or three or five years works for you.  And then, to schedule one thing you want to do that day.  What I decided to schedule in my 2033 calendar was to plan a sixtieth birthday trip to New Zealand.  And, truly, the very act of thinking about what I might do a decade from now and then imagining the trip, brought a smile to my face and a lightness to my being.

McGonigal writes that such future-oriented practices cultivate urgent optimism.  And optimism that is realistic about the challenges we face, but that also sees them as opportunities.  She writes, “Coming out of the darkness of the pandemic, we have the chance to grow into something new together.  But first, we have to grapple with the truth of what we’ve been through.”

She calls this post-traumatic growth.  It’s the sort of transformational change that might occur when a trauma opens up new possibilities through what had previously been unthinkable challenges.  She writes:

Post-traumatic growth can result in a better understanding of our own strengths, an openness to new possibilities and opportunities, an increase sense of connection with others who suffer, the courage to make dramatic changes in our lives that better reflect our hopes and dreams, and a newfound desire to serve a cause bigger than ourselves.

               And I think all of us have seen such changes in people we know.  People relocating, changing jobs and careers, taking up new habits and routines, spending more time with family and friends or on self-care, radically altering what they give their time and resources too.

               McGonigal believes that “the next decade will be the most significant opportunity most of us have in our lifetimes to create long-lasting positive change in society.”

Of course, a faithful life attuned to suffering must also turn its attention outward, beyond the needs of the self to the suffering of others and the wider world.

We respond to suffering by first grieving and lamenting our losses.  We should then examine ourselves to see when we might bear some responsibility.  And if we do, to make confession and seek reconciliation.  Then to get busy working to right the wrongs we can.  Working for healing and for justice.

Amy Plantinga Pauw points out that we can’t just sit around and wait for Easter to happen—we need to be actively involved in confronting the forces of suffering and death.

               And so we organize and advocate and serve.  We lobby and march and protest.  We lead and influence and inspire.

               Job insisted on being heard.  He demanded respect.  He wouldn’t resign himself to his situation.  Job was courageous, and so must we be.  If we are to be consoled.  If we are to be resilient in the face of the world’s difficulties.  If we are to live wisely.  Then we must take these ancient and recent lessons and apply them to our own lives.  When we do, we will be better attuned to God.  That is the path to well-being, to flourishing.

God’s wisdom isn’t to passively submit to fate.  No, God’s wisdom is to lament, grieve, console, then to heal, resist, and work to make the world better so that we all suffer less. 


VladimirVladimir by Julia May Jonas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fascinating, absorbing, titillating. This book had me in its grasp from the get-go, and I devoured it.

The book seemed to be the marriage of two others--Philip Roth's The Human Stain and Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plows Over the Bones of the Dead. Let me explain.

Roth writes a campus novel that, early on and presciently, explored the transition from old school academia and the changing moral landscape. Roth explored race, of course, though sex was also included (as it almost always was for him). He also seemed to explore the ways all humans are stained by sin. This campus novel, through gender and sex, explores similar themes, as older professors are caught in the changing moral dynamics of the university and are grappling with their own role and whether they should feel guilt and shame.

What I felt similar to Tokarczuk was the narrator's voice and how there's this sense of threat hanging over everything and the sense that there's much more to the narrator than what she initially reveals to us.

Spoiler alert:

For much of the novel, I expected it was going to get very dark, maybe even delving into the realm of gothic horror. However, it did not. It ended much more positively than I anticipated it would. But I still really enjoyed it and thought the ending quite beautiful.

This is a novel that will stay with me.

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Psalm 145:13-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 March 2023

               Last April, during a work trip to Boston, I scheduled a visit to the Congregational Archives, which are in a grand historic building on Beacon Street, just past Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House.  Deb Kirwan, Susan Fortina, and former First Central member and now resident of Maine, Ken Friedman-Fitch and I were welcomed into the beautiful reading room of the library and archive, with giant windows that overlook the cemetery where Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and others are buried.

               The helpful archivist had brought out for us a number of documents and books that I had requested to look at, and showed off some of the highlights of the historic collection.  He also said that the archives maintains a file on each of the churches across the nation, so he had ours to show us.  Inside were lots of pamphlets and orders of worship and postcards and such from throughout our history, most of which I’d seen already in our own archives.

               But there was one document which I hadn’t seen before—the program for the 1922 dedication of this building.  It’s a twelve page booklet with pictures, histories, and lists—some of which we’ve included for your enjoyment in an insert in today’s bulletin.  The dedication program also contains the orders of worship for the services held 101 years ago to commemorate the completion of this building.

               And, that’s right, I said “services” with an s.  The program began on Thursday, March 2 at six o’clock with a big fellowship dinner in the room we now call Memorial Hall.  The Pastor, Rev. Dr. Frank Smith, presided.  Unfortunately, the menu was not printed.  There were toasts and responses to the toasts from representatives of the state conference and other Congregational churches in Nebraska. 

               At 8 p.m., after the dinner, they moved into this sanctuary, which they called the “auditorium.”  Where they held a “Service of Worship and Inspiration” with the Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Kansas City preaching.  One of the hymns sung that evening was “Faith of Our Fathers,” which we will be singing shortly.  Another was “Day is Dying in the West.”  Here are the first two verses:

Day is dying in the west;

Heav'n is touching earth with rest;

Wait and worship while the night

Sets her evening lamps alight

Through all the sky.

Lord of life, beneath the dome

Of the universe, Thy home,

Gather us who seek Thy face

To the fold of Thy embrace,

For Thou art nigh.

               They gathered again the next night, Friday, March 3, at 8 p.m. for a Service of Music.  They opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and heard choirs, soloists, quartets, and organ.  The music was by Wagner, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and others.  The postlude was “March for a Church Festival.”

               On Saturday, they rested.  Apparently.  No programs in the booklet. 

               Sunday morning, March 5, began with an 11 o’clock Service of Dedication.  They opened with the hymn “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand,” which is about the church being gathered into paradise triumphantly at the end of history, but I’m guessing the second verse felt appropriate to the moment in which they were singing:

What rush of alleluias
Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps
Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day, for which creation
And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes,

A thousand-fold repaid!

               Mr. E. H. Benner, the Chair of the building committee, then gave the keys to Dr. J. P. Lord, the Chair of Trustees, and the church read the litany of dedication, which we will reprise later in this service.  These memorial stained glass windows were dedicated, and Dr. Ozora S. Davis, the President of Chicago Theological Seminary delivered a sermon.  The congregation sang “O God Beneath Thy Guiding Hand” which is about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock.  The final verse a stirring evocation on that day in 1922, I’m sure:

And here thy name, O God of love
Their children’s children shall adore,
Till these eternal hills remove,
And spring adorns the earth no more.

               But, they weren’t finished.  At 3:30 p.m. they returned for a “Service of Fraternal Greetings” with messages brought by local ministers and bishops of other churches and denominations. 

               Then, at 8 p.m. they held the final “Service of Praise and Meditation” with Dr. Davis of the seminary preaching again, this time a sermon entitled “The Christian Church in the Modern City.”  The congregation sang “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.”

               A lot comes through in the program and the orders of worship.  Their pride, delight, and satisfaction in what they had accomplished.  They even express a triumphalism that sees their work as part of a great, centuries-old legacy, that will lead on into the future as part of God’s great work.  There is a sense of we did this—with our hard work and money.  They viewed it as a spiritual accomplishment.  And one that would be of benefit not just to them, but to the wider community, to the entire state, region, and nation, and even in benefit to ministry around the world.  As you can see in the excerpts we’ve included, they highlighted the congregation’s support of Anna Lane, missionary pastor in Beijing, China.

               If we are wise, we should also examine all of this with a critical interpretative lens as well. This was a settler congregation building on land once inhabited by the Omaha people.  The triumphalism of the hymns can be a little off-putting, such as the third verse of “O God, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand” which was about the Pilgrims. 

Laws, freedom, truth, and faith in God

Came with those exiles o’er the waves

As if such things did not already exist on this continent among the indigenous people who lived here.

               We are the heirs of this building, this legacy, this history.  We are the recipients of a great gift.  The heirs of their generosity.

               Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw reminds us that the church is part of a “complex, intergenerational web” of giving.  There is no way, of course, to reciprocate the gifts, instead the concern for us becomes how do we “use their gifts well and pass them on to others.”

               This Lenten season our worship series is focused on words of wisdom and the six “rhythms of life lived in God’s presence” that Pauw identifies.  Giving is one of those.

               Giving is central to who God is in our tradition, as this Psalm 145 reminds us.  God’s hands are always open, trying to satisfy the desires of every living thing.  God’s giving is so extravagant, that it can be overwhelming.  Of course, God’s greatest gift is Jesus himself.  The story of Christmas is the story of the greatest gift—God’s child born in human flesh to live our life and die our death and rise again so that we too might fulfill the image of God inside each of us. 

               Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “There is an indispensable generosity to creaturely life.  We respond to God’s manifold gifts to us by becoming mediators of God’s gifts to others.”  The best way for us to respond to God’s graciousness and generosity is to become generous ourselves.  The best way for us to receive the gifts of our ancestors, including this building, is to use the gift well, to share it, and to pass it along to others. 

               The goals of our Christian living are to sustain life, to help all people and all creation to flourish.  To create a community of sharing and service that benefits and cares for one another.  To bear witness to alternative and better ways of being human.  She writes, “In its giving, [the church] leans into [a] vision of universal communion in which all creation rejoices in God’s boundless generosity.”  The church “aims to be a community whose life gives life to others.”

               At its best, that’s what I see in the dedication of this building 101 years ago and the legacy that it left in this community—of care, service, and prophetic witness.  They had a vision for what this great gift could do not just for them but for the world.  Our task is to forge our own vision for the second century of this gift.  To share this building to the service of humanity and the renewal of creation so that God’s mission in our time is accomplished.  And to pass this gift along to those who come after us, so that they can use it in the ways God calls them in their time, even if that means changing the things we have done or that we cherish.

               How do we use it, share it, give it in a way that fulfills God’s purpose and mission? 

               I recently read a book that said churches should be guided in these sorts of decisions by three over-arching values—how we create a common life together, how we repair the damages done in the past that are part of our legacy, and how we use our resources to set people free. 

               Here is a place where we baptize babies, educate children, grow spiritually, emotionally, and physically, celebrate marriages, care for one another in illness and loss, join in fellowship and worship, and grieve our dead.  And we want to do these holy things in a space that is beautiful, accessible, hospitable, fun, and sacred. 

               Here is a place where the prophetic word is spoken, where we listen to the still-speaking God and work for justice and peace.  Here we create a community where all are welcome and included.  Where we work to break down stigma and try to right past wrongs.  We opened this space for the Omaha people when they first started teaching language classes in order to preserve their culture.  Father back we hosted the first integrated head start in the city.  We host baby showers for refugees. 

               And from this place we work to set people free.  We feed the hungry and clothe the needy and visit prisoners and build houses for the homeless and forgive medical debt.

               But, we can do more.  Be more, in the second century in this place.  For this is also a place where we can imagine more ways in which our resources and our gifts could be used to fulfill God’s mission to set people free, right what is wrong, and create a common life together.  To craft a vision for what this great gift could do not just for us but for the world.  Let’s be inspired by our history not just to honor a legacy, but to live into the future with vision and mission.

               So, like those a century and one years ago, let God’s generosity flow through us, shining with glory.  We too can give, serve, and share.  So that this gift is one we pass on into its second century.

Love: A New Understanding of an Ancient Emotion

Love: A New Understanding of an Ancient EmotionLove: A New Understanding of an Ancient Emotion by Simon May
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love is "the joy inspired by whomever or whatever we experience as rooting, or as promising to root, our life."

May has numerous goals in this book. He reviews the traditional accounts of love in Western culture and finds them to be incoherent or inadequate to our time. He also shows how the modern development of romantic love tried to turn that love into a secularized version of divine love in a way that is impossible for humans and could only lead to disappointment.

He then develops his own rich account of love, as this idea of someone who roots us in life. 21 short chapters develop this idea fully. He then demonstrates how he arises in foundational texts of the Western tradition--Genesis and the Odyssey.

He also describes how Western culture has shifted to the child being the supreme object of love (instead of beauty, God, or our romantic partner). He argues that this is the first truly modern love and that parental love as developing seems free of the expectations of divine love, and thus has the chance to truly transform human loving in good ways.

There is so much in this book that one could spend years pondering and exploring it all.

On personal note: I did not read it for self-help purposes, but I found that the book was deeply revelatory, helping me to better understand myself, my former marriage, how it ended, developments in my divorce, experiences and emotions I've grappled with the last few years, including resentment, and also how I was able to finally let go and begin moving in directions. These theories gave new perspectives and language to my experiences.

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The Vocation of Man

The Vocation of ManThe Vocation of Man by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So, twenty years ago when I read this I really admired it and had previously given it four stars here on Goodreads.

This time I only felt it was okay and mediocre.

When I read it in 2001 I had recently finished my dissertation in a philosophy department that was predominately Analytical. I set about some free reading in Continental philosophy that I had not previously read, this book being the one I enjoyed the most. The writing felt fresh and vital and very different from what I had been working on.

Maybe in 2023 I'm more broadly and deeply read in philosophy than I was twenty years ago and the book doesn't then strike me as fresh and vital?

I also took some time to peruse the copy I own of his Addresses to the German Nation, but wasn't interested in actually reading it thoroughly.

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Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your LifeAwe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the NPR interviews I heard with him, so I ordered the book, which was good, but didn't, in my opinion, provide a lot more than what I had heard in the radio shows. Though there is some good material in here I'll use in teaching and preaching and pastoral care.

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Making New & Making Do

Making New & Making Do

James 3:13-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 February 2023

               The “Church shares in the call to cultivate wisdom for daily life,” writes theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw.  “Church life,” she adds, “is a site of training in wisdom.”

               The Season of Lent is always a time for spiritual growth.  Through examination, reflection, and discernment we try to prepare ourselves for the new creation of Holy Week and Easter.  This season often involves coming to terms with our sins through confession, forgiveness, repentance, and mercy.  This season often involves giving something up, making sacrifices, engaging the spiritual disciplines, training our habits.  This season sometimes involves taking something on—exploring something new, learning, and growing. 

               This Lent, our worship life will focus on the words of wisdom—the various books of the Bible that are called wisdom books and the advice that they give us for living.  I’ll be guided by this idea of Amy Plantinga Pauw’s that the church is a school for wisdom.  That in church we should be learning practical ideas for how to live well and faithfully in the actual world.

               According to Pauw, the church’s wisdom is not some ethereal, spiritual advice, but is earthy and practical.  Grounded in our experiences of the world we actually live in.  She writes, “Our understandings . . . should be earthy, rooted in and attuned to the patterns and cycles, the vulnerabilities and resilience, of our planet.”

               And there are a few key points she highlights about the church’s wisdom.  Among those are:

               That this wisdom is practical—we are learning about real, ordinary, daily life.

               This wisdom is about our bodies.  We are embodied creatures and all of our spirituality, all of our morality, takes places in these fragile, vulnerable, beautiful human bodies.

               The church cultivates wisdom not just for our own good, but for the world.  She writes that the pursuit of wisdom “propels [the] church beyond itself into the world.”  And that God calls us to be wise on behalf of “creaturely well-being.”

               Which means that our wisdom is also ecumenical.  We live in a world of diverse cultures and faiths, and so the practical wisdom for living well in our world means that we have to learn from each other.  She points out that significant bits of the material in Old Testament wisdom books like Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes comes from other cultures and other faith traditions.  And here in the 21st century, we have much to learn from one another.  So, our the church’s wisdom is not limited only to our own faith tradition, but should draw upon what is wise in the teachings of others.

               Which means that our wisdom also is filled with ambiguity and contingency and even uncertainty.  We only ever have partial answers to life’s vexing problems.  We are trying to do our best within the limitations of the human body and the complexities of the world.

               And maybe most importantly, she emphasizes that the church’s wisdom “lives in the gap between the resurrection of Jesus and the last things.”  We are to carry out God’s work, but ours is not the final word on creation.  Nor are we Jesus.  But we are responsible for living well and faithfully in the mean time.

               So, guided by those values, this Lent we will examine what we can learn from the wisdom teachings of our scriptural tradition that will help us to live better, more faithful lives as God’s agents in this complicated world.

               Amy Plantinga Pauw focuses on six themes that she calls “communal orientations of the heart.”  They are making new and making do, longing, giving, suffering, rejoicing, and joining hands.  Those will be our weekly worship themes for Lent.  She claims that these are “the rhythms of life lived in God’s presence,” and we are called to attune ourselves to these rhythms.

               So, this week, then, Making New & Making Do.

               If we are “called to live faithfully within the opportunities and constraints of the present,” how do we do that?  God has proclaimed that all things will be made new.  Yet, we don’t seem to be living in the time when the fullness of God’s reign has come upon the earth.  We are living in the mean time, in ordinary, complex, sometimes even quite weird, times.

               She begins by emphasizing that the church is “a place of lifelong embodied learning.”  The training in wisdom we do here doesn’t stop in Sunday school or confirmation, but fills the life of a congregation.  Such that one of our central, ongoing tasks is helping people learn what they need to live well and faithfully, at every stage of life, and no matter what happens to them or in the wider world.

               And we must remind ourselves, that this life isn’t something we do alone.  We are in this together.  Our pursuit of wisdom, of living well, occurs in a shared life.

               This is true, even when we aren’t being intentional about it.  We learn how to live through the messages we receive from our wider culture, through the ways other people treat us, and by copying what we see others doing. 

               And we know that the wider culture and society aren’t always giving us messages that are wise and lead to well-being.  Think of all the body issues that arise because of the limited range of beautiful bodies we see.  Or the toxic masculinity that boys can absorb.  Or the violence inherent in so much entertainment.  I’ve been focused a lot on trans kids in the last couple of months, and the negative messages they are receiving from the anti-trans bills currently before our state legislature.  And this was already a group highly prone to thoughts of suicide.

               In recent weeks there’s been much reaction to the new study that revealed the tragic state of adolescent mental health coming out of the pandemic, particularly the effects on girls.  I was drawn to one article that said our children are sick because our society is sick. 

               Listen—if you need help, if you need someone to talk to, please know that I’m here, Katie’s here, Jim’s here, so many of the people in this room are here to listen, to see you, to care for you.  And also to work together to get us all safely through this thing called life.

               We in the church believe in sanctification—that we can be transformed into wise, whole, and holy people.  That all of our vulnerability, fragility, wrongheadedness can be transformed.  That we can become a new creation.  We even believe that we can overcome the negative images of the society and culture, that we can defeat sin and temptation, that we can leave the toxic behind and take what is good and helpful and safe and turn it into something beautiful and good.

               We are creatures of dust and ashes, as we are reminded at the beginning of Lent.  We are made up of all the same stuff as everyone else—both good and bad.  There’s good news.  This earthy stuff can embody joy and well-being and courage and hope. 

               This is our belief in “making new.”  A new creation, new and transformed selves, everything made new.  This we believe.

               And so, as Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “Christian practices [such as healing, worship, and forgiveness] aim at embodied wisdom for a way of life that lives in gratitude to God and is aligned with God’s purposes for all creation.”

               And we do that, we make new, by also making do.  Making do with our own limitations as embodied creatures.  Making do during the times and in the spaces and communities in which we live.  She adds, “Making do is also an acknowledgement  of creaturely limits—limits of time, energy, knowledge, and control over the . . . forces around us.”  So, together as a worshipping community we admit that “we are not whole, that we are not at peace, that we need healing and nourishment only God can provide.”  

               What helps us to make do then? 

               Honest awareness about ourselves and our situations.  Discernment over what is around us that affirms life and well-being and what doesn’t.  Humility about our own limitations.  Patience that our own individual growth, much less a wider transformation, can and does take time.  

               Honesty, discernment, humility, patience—these are aspects of practical wisdom.

               Pauw writes, “Church does not pretend to have already realized the full hope of the Spirit in its own life, nor to have the capacity to bring this hope to fruition by its own actions.”  But we are called to do our best.  We are responsible for living as faithfully and effectively and as well as we can—not only for ourselves and our families, but on behalf of God’s mission to the whole world.

               This Lent I invite you to a season of exploration and growth, as we listen to these ancient words of wisdom, as we discern how to live well and faithfully in our time and our place.

The Therapy of Desire

The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic EthicsThe Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics by Martha C. Nussbaum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I have read a number of Nussbaum's books over the last twenty years, I have in the last couple made sure to go back and work through her major texts that I hadn't yet read. This one is yet another excellent book. What a clear thinker, who writes with precision and elegance.

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Everlasting Joy

Everlasting Joy

Isaiah 61:1-11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 February 2023

               “It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God,” writes Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann.  The poet in Third Isaiah promises “everlasting joy” accomplished through a vision of the future that is filled with justice, righteousness, peace, comfort, liberty, and abundance.  Here is a vision, as one commentary said, of the world as it should be.

               Yet, we open up our phones in the morning and get the latest death toll from the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, hear about the latest American mass shooting, are alarmed at the toxic chemicals from the train derailment in Ohio, worry about what happens next in the war in Ukraine, and puzzle over balloons being shot down by fighter jets.

               Brueggemann declares that ministry must “bring people to engage the promise of newness.”  But he then immediately warns that “despairing people do not anticipate or receive newness.”  The challenge, despite the state of the world, is to maintain hope in this vision of the future, promised by God, the one in which justice leads to everlasting joy.

               Back in the Spring of 2020, when we were all still mostly stuck at home, living through a season of our lives we had never imagined (and still can’t quite grasp), I read the book The Ordinary Virtues by the academic and former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff. 

               In a chapter on the Fukushima disaster, he tells us that the unimaginable has consistently been occurring in the 21st century, from 9/11 to destructive natural disasters to financial collapses (this book was written and published before the Covid-19 pandemic).  All these experiences of the unimaginable, he writes, are eroding our trust in the institutions which keep failing us and are eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. Ignatieff writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management."

               A far cry from the vision of the poet Isaiah.

               So, how do we engage the promise of newness and aim for everlasting joy and avoid such a dismal view of the future that might lead us to despair?

               That seems to be a key challenge for people of faith and hope and courage here in the third decade of this century.

               Well, I think the ancient Isaiah poet gives us some clues, so we turn to this text for the details.

               The poet declares that God wants to comfort all who mourn, to provide for them, to garland them with flowers and anoint them with the oil of gladness.  To revive their spirits and build up their ruins.  To repair the ruined cities and cultivate the people like a beautiful and strong garden.

               William P. Brown in his commentary on this poem writes that “the expressed aim is to comfort” and that “it is the comfort of new creation.”  God is doing some new, out of the remains of the past.  He writes that the “garden of God’s glory” will be the birthplace and nursery of a new people.

               The Isaiah poet has declared that this will happen in the “year of the Lord’s favor,” which most scholars believe to be a reference to the ancient Jewish year of Jubilee, written about in the Book of Leviticus.  This was the year in which all debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and people who had lost their land to debt had it restored to them or their families.  The Jubilee was a socioeconomic reconfiguration.  A radical idea. 

               In the Gospel of Luke, the first sermon that Jesus preaches, back home in the synagogue in Nazareth, is based on this text of Isaiah 61.  Jesus proclaims that his movement is a new Jubliee, a fulfillment of this vision in Isaiah.

               And every week when we pray in the Lord’s prayer—“forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—we too are calling upon the Jubilee and the radical economic reordering it calls for.

               So, this is part of the answer to how we get to everlasting joy—embodying a vision of economic transformation that centers justice and flourishing for everyone.

               And when we look back here at the poem in Isaiah we begin to notice the key elements of God’s vision:

  • Good news to the oppressed
  • Healing the brokenhearted
  • Liberty for captives
  • Release of prisoners
  • Comfort for the mourners

Walter Brueggemann writes, “All of these actions are powerful ministries to the weak, the powerless, and the marginalized to restore them to full function in a community of well-being and joy.”  Aha!  That’s God’s vision.  A community of well-being and joy that allows everyone to function, even flourish.  And the way to get there is a new social order that centers justice and newness for everyone.

Brueggemann concludes his comments on this passage from Isaiah by declaring, “Thus in the end, the gospel powered by the spirit is a restoration of a viable economic community in a reorganized city, the redemption of public life.”

So, that’s it.  That’s how we get to “everlasting joy” according to the Isaiah poet—we redeem public life by a transformation of the social order.

So, that probably sounds daunting.  And it is, of course.  Fortunately, we have God on our side working with us and empowering.  We also have all the time in the world, as we over the centuries do our best to improve and grow, like with the expansion over the last two centuries of human rights as a new moral paradigm.

And our task is to focus on this community, our community, being the best embodiment of God’s design as we can be, so that we stand as a sign and witness to the wider world of what good human community can be—one that is loving, inclusive, just, and peaceful.

One reason I really liked Michael Ignatieff’s book that I read back in the spring of 2020 was that it was focused on “ordinary virtue.”  Written in the context of a world where unimaginable things keep happening that threaten our sense of hope, Ignatieff didn’t despair, he was actually quite encouraged by what he witnessed around the world. 

A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.  He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa.  In these places he dialogues with  all sorts of folks from poor women living in shanties to prominent public officials.  He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes.

And what he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share.  He writes,

The virtues we display are enduringly common because daily life throws up the same challenges: how much, if at all, to trust those who rule over us; how much, if at all, to tolerate those who are different; how much to forgive, if we can, those who have wronged us; and how to rebuild life when fate and misfortune sweep away what we have tried to accomplish.

He finds these same questions and struggles in the daily lives of people all over the globe.  We are all struggling to do these things and do them well and with goodness.

               Another thing Ignatieff argues for is the essential role that community plays in our ability to live out the ordinary virtues.  Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society.  We need a functioning community and civil society in order to practice these virtues.  He writes, “The test of public institutions is whether they make it possible for us to behave decently toward each other.” 

               Which sounds like a rather basic standard to achieve, write?  And maybe the first step to justice and fairness, to embodying the vision of the Isaiah poet?

               Now, Ignatieff is himself not a religious man.  But I believe his ethical understanding of our current global situation helps us to grasp this ancient prophetic vision and what we can do about. 

So, to return to my earlier question—how do we engage God’s promise of newness and aim for everlasting joy, while avoiding the dismal view of our common future that might lead us to despair?

Isaiah tells us we do that by redeeming public life through a transformation of the social order.  A tall order.  But our mission as God’s people, nonetheless.

That mission begins, I’m suggesting today, by living daily with the ordinary virtues, such as trust, forgiveness, tolerance, and resilience.  To show kindness and generosity and compassion. 

This is the path to everlasting joy—our own, our children’s, and all humanity’s. 

The Solace of Open Spaces

The Solace of Open SpacesThe Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons."

She traveled to Wyoming and was captivated by the place and stayed, experiencing the rough life on the Plains and in the Mountains with cowboys and Natives alike. She brings a poet's expression and both a roughness and a tenderness to the people, animals, landscapes, events, and weather. A beautiful book to read.

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Nebraska Poems

Nebraska: PoemsNebraska: Poems by Kwame Dawes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"This is my dream: that my
words may be a grand infection
turning and turning in a bare
studio, our bodies electrified
to passions each time we walk
across a ribbon of imagination;
a kind of holy beauty consuming body."

These poems are beautiful, and while I recommend them for any poetry reader, every Nebraskan ought to have this volume in their collection. Nebraska has such a rich literature and this volume adds to that legacy, while providing a new perspective. Nebraska is approached with humor and a skepticism that also grows into affection, if not a full embrace.

"Were I better at this, I would study almanacs,
chart the seasons, visit Ted Kooser on his farm
in midwinter, without invitation, and carry
his two-by-fours and barbwire rolls to the edge
of his land, and ask him the names of the birds
turning in the sky, or the yield of the corn crop,
or the number of people he has buried--farm people,
his people."

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Testimony Opposing LB574

LB574 would ban gender-affirming care.  The Nebraska Medical Association, physicians, social workers, mental health professionals, suicide prevention organizations, business and religious leaders joined with many trans youth and their parents to oppose this legislation.  Here is the testimony I delivered.  The second page I handed to the committee was the letter from the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ opposing this bill and two others that would harm trans youth.

Testimony Opposing LB574

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Senior Minister, First Central Congregational United Church of Christ of Omaha

Just last week a mother in my congregation called me from the emergency room at Immanuel Hospital.  She was there with her trans daughter who had attempted to end her life.  The distraught mother kept talking about how awful society is to trans people.

I don’t know if the daughter was following the news and the debate over bills like this one.  I don’t know if the existence of this bill directly contributed to her suicide attempt.  But I do know that the climate of bigotry and discrimination to which a bill like this contributes was a factor.

So, I come to you today as a Christian pastor, who only last week cared for a family confronted by the need for gender-affirming care.  I’m asking you not to further burden good people of Christian faith with unnecessary obstacles and political controversy.  I’m asking you to uphold the dignity of the human person and to defend religious liberty and the freedom of conscience.

In my denomination, the United Church of Christ, descended from the Pilgrims and Puritans, we affirm that the beauty and blessedness of God's creation is present in all people.  We make a conscious and deliberate decision to celebrate the diversity of creation as uniquely embodied in people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+). We honor the sacredness of people's lives through extravagant welcome and unconditional affirmation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.   The mission statement of the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ proclaims: “to live into God’s extravagant welcome and advocate for justice. So that all know love, safety, belonging, and dignity.” 

In what I distributed you also have a letter from the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ stating our religious opposition to this bill and all the clergy, congregations, and lay people who have also added their names to the letter.

This bill violates our Christian faith.  It violates the sacredness of God’s creation.  It is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This bill discriminates against my denomination and my congregation, threatening our religious liberty and freedoms of conscience. 

Please oppose LB574.

Testimony Opposing LB277

The first hearing I testified at yesterday was LB277.  Half of this bill is great--it protects indigenous folks in wearing their regalia.  The other half is a RFRA that we know now from thirty years experience with such bills will be used by the Religious Right to seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

Testimony Opposing LB277

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Senior Minister, First Central Congregational United Church of Christ of Omaha

On October 31, 1948, my predecessor as Senior Minister at the First Central Congregational Church of Omaha, the Rev. Dr. Harold Jaynes, preached about the core principles of Protestantism and that sermon included this statement, which stands as a warning to us in 2023:

"We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others."

Essential to the American tradition is the idea of a public space in which everyone's views are allowed to interact. For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect. It does not mean that you have to agree with everyone else, quite the contrary. It means that in the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else. Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right. You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience. Religious liberty rests on the ancient principle: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

 And this, my friends, is why I'm so deeply troubled by the recent misuse of the concept "religious freedom." Let me state emphatically, and so that I am not misunderstood—in the public sphere no one has a religious right to discriminate against another human being.

Discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty. They are hostile to it.

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

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

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

I urge you, therefore, to oppose LB277.

Barriers to Justice

Barriers to Justice

Isaiah 59:1-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 February 2023

               “Something is deeply amiss in the community of faith,” writes Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on this passage in Isaiah.  He continues, “The covenant agreement between [God] and the community is not working.”  Injustice abounds, and is getting worse. 

Did you notice the image of the adder’s eggs?  It’s rather vivid.  Brueggemann points out that the eggs represent “the birth of more poison in the community.”  These are “killer eggs.”  They release into the community “fresh dimensions of deathly distortion.”

               What’s to be done? 

               According to Isaiah, God had assumed someone would step forward and do something about it.  But it seems that no one has.  And, so, the covenant is breaking down.  Which means that God must tear down the barriers to justice.  Brueggemann writes, “This is no benign God but a forceful agent who will powerfully defeat all those organized and mobilized against a right ordering of the world.”

               This week I read the book American Prophets by religious journalist Jack Jenkins.  In the book he outlines the growth of progressive religious activism in the 21st century, drawing together the religious connections that the media often has overlooked in moments like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Standing Rock, and more.  One of the chapters, for instance, focuses on the work of the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who leads Local Church and Justice Ministries for our denomination, the United Church of Christ. 

               Near the end of the book, Jenkins relates a conversation he had at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina with Melvin Graham, whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd, had been murdered by Dylan Roof during a Bible study at the church in 2015.  Graham said,

We don’t want ‘thoughts and prayers’ anymore—we want action.  God is good. God is great.  God can do all things.  But God gave you the power to do some things on your own.  Use that power [God’s] given you.  Use that authority [God’s] given you to make things better.  Don’t hold it back for yourself.  Take those talent’s [God’s] given you—don’t bury them in the sand.  Use them for good, for justice.  Power is yours not to hold on to exclusively.  Power is there for you to help people, to uplift people.

               Earlier in the book, Jenkins relates a sermon preached by the Los Angeles based rabbi Sharon Brous in which she proclaimed:

Faith is a rebellion against [the] world.  The goal is not to be quieted, to feel good, to get comfortable and settled while the palace burns.  It is to be awake and to fight—with love—for the courage we need, for the family we yearn for, for the beloved community we’re called to be, for the world we want our children to inherit.

               These are contemporary voices, echoing the call of the prophet Isaiah for us people of faith to confess our sins, speak the truth in the public square, run to good, and walk in the way of peace.

               My first full-time pastoral call was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I served as the Associate Pastor for Rolling Hills Baptist Church, which was a part of a group called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Whenever people look at me confused as to what type of Baptist that might be, I respond, “We were Jimmy Carter Baptists.”  And then people get it.

               I was primarily responsible for the youth and college ministries of the church, and so it fell to me to organize the mission trip—a daunting task the first time you have to be in charge of such a thing.  Of course, the first decision to make is where to go and what to do, as there are an indefinite number of options for good service work. 

               At the time the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship had just launched a project called the “Rural Poverty Initiative.”  They were going to focus domestic mission dollars and energy on the twenty poorest counties in the United States.  And those counties generally are grouped—in Appalachia, the Native American Reservations of the Great Plains, along the border with Mexico, and in the Cotton Belt of the South.  Which meant that Arkansas had one of those counties.

               So, I decided we’d work with this initiative.  Soon we were partnered with a local organization in Helena, Arkansas run by two women who were focused on addressing poverty and systemic racism, and cultivating deliberative democracy.

               I’ve told you bits of this story various times over the years, but I return to it because it was one of the key turning points in my life, when my eyes were opened, and I had the epiphany that changed the shape of my ministry and my life.

               One morning months ahead of our mission trip, I drove into Helena for a scouting and organizing meeting.  I drove through cotton fields listening to Mary J. Blige on my cd player, not aware of what I was going to encounter.

               Helena had once been a thriving town of around 40,000 people, but was now only about 8,000.  The massive decline in population was the result of decades of agricultural depression, but also white flight after integration, when thousands of white families moved to the suburbs of Little Rock, Memphis, and Jackson.  There had also been an African-American brain drain, as one of the unintended consequences of integration was the collapse of the Black business class.  All of this was information I learned and saw that day.

               Helena had vast blocks abandoned and blighted.  I saw people’s homes that were so derelict I wouldn’t have kept livestock in them.  I was shown one neighborhood, in town, that had no indoor plumbing, in the year 2002.  Folks, black folks, who lived in that neighborhood, were still carrying buckets to a central tap to get their water.

               Before that day I had intellectual knowledge of America’s racist history.  But that day I really saw it firsthand in a way I had never seen—or maybe just never taken the time to notice—before.  And I’ve never been the same since.

               From that moment, my ministry, and thus my life, took on a deeper commitment to justice work. In my next call, in Dallas, Texas, I was part of the Texas Faith Network.  A statewide organization of clergy who responded to unjust political activities in the state government.  We were particularly concerned with how the Religious Right was gaining power over the Texas State School Board and changing education standards and text books to reflect their worldview.  And so other religious voices were critical in presenting alternative perspectives on the relationship between faith and science or health standards.  My testimony before the State Board of Education about sex ed curriculum even appeared in a documentary about the topic.

               All of that was just training for the role I played in my next call, in Oklahoma City, as the Pastor of the Cathedral of Hope.  I was now an out gay man, leading a predominately LGBTQ+ congregation.  As part of the interview process for that call, I was explicitly asked and warned about what that would mean.  I would become a leading public figure in the gay community, a spokesperson and activist.  And, thus, a target. 

               In my first week as pastor of that church, I appeared at a meeting of the library board where some local religious leaders were trying to ban gay-themed books from the public library.  And that day was my first television interview that appeared on the nightly news.

               Those five years were filled with activism work, and not just on LGBT issues.  I appeared at the Reform Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to express solidarity with them when they were targeted with anti-Semitic violence during the High Holy Days.  I organized a vigil when a many was murdered by the Aryan Nation.  I trained social workers and educators on diversity.  I worked with the local Muslim community on hate crimes legislation.  I often appeared at the State Capitol as the official UCC representative for all sorts of issues from anti-war protests to health care advocacy to supporting reproductive justice.

               And I was a target.  I received death threats.  Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest me.  The Oklahoma State Republican Party’s platform condemned my wedding—not just gay marriage—my wedding. 

               Here, in Omaha, I helped lead the effort to pass this city’s employment non-discrimination ordinance—the thing in my life I’m second most proud of, after being a father.  And I’ve been involved in a wide range of issues from defending immigrants and refugees, speaking out on the true nature of religious liberty, challenging measures that set up barriers to voting, testifying against the Keystone XL pipeline, helping to organize our state conference’s response to climate change, and getting shot and pepper sprayed during the 2020 summer of racial uprising. 

               This week I spent nine hours at the State Capitol in defense of reproductive justice, wearing a stole that once belonged to our late member, the Rev. Dorothy Murdoch Hill, honoring her decades of work on that issue.  And this coming week I’ll be back fighting against the effort to ban gender-affirming care for children and adolescents.

               That day in Helena, Arkansas opened my eyes to injustice and how my call as a disciple and minister of the Good News of Jesus Christ included speaking truth in the public square and working, wherever my voice and power were going to be effective, in scaling and breaking down the barriers to justice.

               Isaiah challenges people of faith to confess our sins, to run to the good, and to walk in the way of peace. 

               What are the ways we have participated, intentionally and unintentionally, is systems of injustice?  What barriers to justice have we helped to erect?  What biases and prejudices might be holding us back from experiencing the wild, inclusive love of God?  How often is it simply that we fail to speak or act or respond, and that alone is the barrier?

               Isaiah implores us to be better, to do better.  To be God’s agents in breaking down the barriers to justice.  This is what it means to be a child of the God of Israel.  This work is part of the call of discipleship for those who take the name of Jesus at our baptism.  And we are reminded that we don’t do the work alone--the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers the church with courage in the struggle for justice and peace. 

Let us be God’s faithful servants, in the service of others, proclaiming Good News to all the world, resisting the powers of evil.

American Prophets

American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the CountryAmerican Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country by Jack Jenkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The Religious Left is the beating heart of modern progressivism; although rarely acknowledged by members of either political party, it is one of the Left's most secret of weapons and has the potential to impact US politics for years to come."

A revealing discussion of the role of faith in progressive politics in this century, connecting the religious threads of Ferguson, Charlottesville, Standing Rock, and more.

And full of encouragement for those of us involved in this work.

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