My Mother's Curse: A Journey Beyond Childhood Trauma

My Mother's Curse: A Journey Beyond Childhood TraumaMy Mother's Curse: A Journey Beyond Childhood Trauma by Christine Nicolette-Gonzalez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I met Christine in 2003 during my first week as a youth minister at Royal Lane Baptist Church. She was a parent with two children in my youth group. I vividly remember the first time I met her, she was excited for my arrival, and greeted me with a big smile, warmth, and curiosity. She was a devoted and proud mother. As a teacher she set for herself high professional expectations, and I felt she expected the same of others who worked with teenagers and kids. I remember when she praised a program I had created, and I received it as a great stamp of approval.

And of course I had no clue of the childhood trauma she was carrying. As a pastor I have learned that everyone is carrying some pain, often privately, which is one reason we should be kind and charitable to one another.

In this brave memoir, Christine provides details of her mother's severe mental illness and how it deeply affected her childhood. But the memoir also contains the story of how Christine built a different life as an adult, as a wife, mother, and school teacher, and the emotional and spiritual work of dealing with her own anxiety.

I recommend the book to everyone developing resilience in the face of trauma. Or those trying to better to relate to those who are.

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Say Nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern IrelandSay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Troubles was such a dominant news story for much of my life until suddenly it wasn't. The American press definitely dropped it after the Good Friday agreement, so I was most intrigued by all the developments and lack of developments in the decades since.

Keefe tells a good story, but with lots of questions and gaps still remaining. There were times when I thought the structure could have made better sense.

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Christ the Heart of Creation

Christ the Heart of CreationChrist the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Despite philosophical training in metaphysics, I'm not all that interested in theological metaphysics. My basic metaphysical approach is the organic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the traditions of Process philosophy and American pragmatism. But when it comes to theology I approach the language as metaphorical and shrouded in mystery and have no real impulse for the sort of nuanced language that can occupy theological metaphysics.

Which means this book was a serious stretch for me. Because Williams is very interested in the very nuanced and complex metaphysical Christological language in the church's tradition. I stuck with the book and found a few interesting points and gems here and there (the appendix on Wittgenstein was maybe the most interesting). But really I just spent most of the time unconvinced that anyone should spend time caring about these details.

It was also a stretch because my process/pragmatic worldview begins with a very different set of premises than Williams. Things he assumes again and again as starting points were to me the very things that needed to be argued for, for I often disagreed.

And Williams is not an engaging writer at all. I have enjoyed the theological metaphysics of John Zizioulas for instance, but his writing is very engaging. The same cannot be said for the former archbishop. Though this phrase did make me cackle (and text a Lutheran friend): "Luther was not exactly a monophysite."

So, the benefit of reading this book was stretching myself and reading a very different approach and style than my own.

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To Live in Christ

To Live in Christ

Ephesians 1:3-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 January 2020

 

 

            On this Second Sunday of the Christmas season, the final and twelfth day of Christmas, I’ve chosen for our text today’s epistle lesson, which comes from the Letter to the Ephesians.  Writing in the commentary Feasting on the Word Episcopal minister Lisa Fischbeck sets the scene for us:

 

In these opening verses of Ephesians we are taken far from the narrative of the nativity, and beyond the cosmic comfort of the “God with us” aspects of the incarnation.  In these verses it is as if the camera lens is backing up and lifting up, until now we are high above the earth, high above the galaxy even, and now we can see that in Christ we have been given a part in God’s eternal plan, and we are swept up in a hymn of praise to the glory and wonder of it all.

 

Hear now, these words from the Letter to the Ephesians:

 

            Ephesians 1:3-14

 

Praised be the Maker of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has bestowed on us in Christ every spiritual blessing in the heavens!  Before the world began, God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless and to be full of love; God like-wise predestined us through Christ Jesus to be adopted children—such was God’s pleasure and will—that everyone might praise the glory of God’s grace which was freely bestowed on us in God’s beloved, Jesus Christ.

 

It is in Christ and through the blood of Christ that we have been redeemed and our sins forgiven, so immeasurably generous is God’s favor given to us with perfect wisdom and understanding.  God has taken pleasure in revealing the mystery of the plan through Christ, to be carried out in the fullness of time; namely, to bring all things—in heaven and on earth—together in Christ.

 

In Christ we were willed an inheritance; for in the decree of God—and everything is administered according to the divine will and counsel—we were predestined to praise the glory of the Most High by being the first to hope in Christ.  In Christ you too were chosen.  When you heard the Good News of salvation, the word of truth, and believe in it, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the pledge of our inheritance, the deposit paid against the full redemption of a people who are God’s own—to the praise of God’s glory.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

            What child is this?  What sort of human being is this Jesus?

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College in Cambridge University, writes that Jesus’ contemporaries and immediate followers described him in ways that went “well beyond what is normally ascribable to a human individual.”  In some ways, this wasn’t odd for the time, as Williams notes that in both pagan and Jewish society people believed that human beings could be agents of divine power.  But, he notes, the descriptions of Jesus go even beyond this.  Decades after his earthly life, Jesus is treated as a currently active agent, the spirit animating a community, the source of “an entirely new frame of reference for perceiving human agency and human hope.” 

            Yes, this goes far beyond what is normally said about a human being.  For in this one particular human life his friends and followers experienced something radically new and different and decided to reorient their lives around it, to build a community to sustain the movement, and even to spread what they had heard around the world. 

            It’s an amazing development.  How a few mostly illiterate peasants from a backwater of the empire turned into a worldwide and world-changing phenomenon all because of what they experienced in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

            But my goal today is not to recount that story, instead it is to focus on a question—“What does it mean to live in Jesus Christ?”  Given what was experienced in Jesus and how the original followers of Jesus describe him as the source and plan for their lives and communities, what does that mean and what does it mean for us? 

            That question was posed by the Presbyterian theologian Johnny B. Hill in his commentary on this passage, and I adopt that question and, in what follows, his basic structure for how to answer it.

What does it mean, for us, to live in Jesus Christ?

 

            Core to Christian belief is the claim that God has most fully revealed God’s self in the person of Jesus.  This claim, the doctrine of the incarnation, has a multitude of implications, one of the most important of which is that we encounter God in humanity, that divinity exists in solidarity with human experience.  Johnny Hill writes, “God meets us, even confronts us, in human history amid our daily lives.”

            God is not remote, strange, foreign, out there somewhere in the cosmos, hidden and obscure.  No, God is here.  In us and in our daily lives.  We encounter God in our pain and in our joy and in the boring routines of the day.  This is the great good news of Christmas—Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. 

            This central claim evokes our wonder and our praise.  For it means so much. 

For our care and comfort, we know that when we suffer, God suffers with us, for God knows what it is to suffer like we do. 

For our prayer and spiritual practices, we needn’t take an esoteric approach, we can connect to God in the most mundane of our daily routines.  We can even connect to God in our breath. 

For our church organization, we don’t require some priest to mediate between us and God, for we are all priests, able to connect directly to God no matter who we are, and freely able to interpret and practice our faith according to the dictates of our consciences. 

I could go on, with the myriad implications of this core claim that what it means to live in Jesus is that God meets us in our daily lives. 

 

            The second answer to what it means for us to live in Jesus is, as Johnny Hill writes, “To recognize that we do not walk alone.  The Christian life is intelligible only within the context of Christian community.”

            Americans like the myth of the lone individual, making his way in the world, overcoming obstacles.  We know it’s a myth, because we humans are social animals, and we only thrive when we are part of a network, a community.

            There is a tendency, particularly in American Christianity, to over-emphasize the individual.  To focus on personal salvation, a personal relationship with Jesus, self-help, individual improvement, or solitary spiritual practice.  We can become addicted to the notion that religion and spirituality exist for our comfort, to satisfy our needs.

            But that’s not biblical wisdom or the great teaching of our tradition.  The Christian life is not an individual life; it is a communal life.  Our faith provide us meaning and purpose by giving us a mission.  It’s not focused on our personal comfort, but calling us to service on behalf of God’s plan to change the world. 

            Even I talk often about becoming our best selves and becoming who God has always dreamed for us to be.  But I understand that as a communal identity.  We can’t learn or practice the virtues without other good people to mentor us and work with us.  Our flourishing depends upon the wider community.  As Hill writes, “Understanding our lives as believers as members of a grand, historic, and holy community is essential to what it means to flourish and thrive in all of life.”

            We are part of something—a movement, a story, a grand adventure—that is ancient and global and always moving forward into the future, a rich and varied tradition, with glorious music, beautiful art, challenging prophetic voices, courageous social justice action, deep thinking, and profound witnesses to human good.  And this, this movement centered on Christ, gives shape to our lives and inspires us to be and do our very best.

To live in Jesus is to be a part of this great, ongoing, work of God.

 

But there’s more.

This passage in Ephesians takes a cosmic perspective about the work of Jesus Christ.  These are among the boldest of claims made for Jesus by those who knew him.  In Jesus God is revealing God’s plans, the plan of the universe, God’s purpose for all creation.  And, most excitingly, we are part of it.

Rowan Williams writes that Christ is the divine agency that sustains the coherence of the cosmos.  “Where he is active, creation itself is brought closer to its ideal convergence.”  “The life that lives in Jesus is the active source of all relations in the finite world.” 

Ephesians proclaims that the unity of all things is in Christ.  What does that mean?  The Christ incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is the source and harmony of all connections, all relationships.  Jesus is at the center of God’s plan for the universe, holding everything together.

Yes, as I said before, God meets us in our daily, ordinary lives, but God also calls us to a cosmic quest, to participate in the very plan of the universe.  And what is that plan?  What is the goal of all creation?  The communion of all things together in an ecstatic fellowship of love. 

To live in Jesus is to be part of the unity of all things in love.  This is the meaning and purpose of our lives. The true understanding of our identity and our call.  Everything we do ought to be aimed forward in hope to God’s grand goal and work for the cosmos.  Everything we do ought to about expanding love and unity within the world.  That is a high and challenging calling indeed.

Because we have been given this role to play in the cosmic project, we can burst forth in joyful praise and celebration, wonder and awe.  For our lives have a profound meaning and purpose.

 

On this Second Sunday of the Christmas season, then, as we continue to contemplate the Christ who is born anew in us and for us, we begin to grasp the revelation of what this means for us.  We are God’s children, chosen and loved, and given a role in God’s plan and work. 

And so the Christmas story is an inspiration, a challenge, an invitation, and a call.  How do we respond?

Rowan Williams writes that our response should be “an act full of openness to divine purpose and divine love.” 

As this new year begins, let us resolve to be open to love, open to possibilities, open to the work God has for us to do. 

 


Radiant Joy

Radiant Joy

Matthew 1:18-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 December 2019

 

 

            Matthew 1:18-25

 

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

            What’s the first thing the angel says when he appears to Joseph?  It’s what angels usually say when they appear to human beings in the Bible.  I assume it’s what any  human being seeing an angel would need to hear first—“Don’t be afraid.”

            We preachers spend days thinking about and studying the biblical texts we preach on.  Sometimes the story is one we’ve already studied and preached on numerous times before.  That’s the case with this story in Matthew.  When I preached on it for you in 2010 I focused on the scandalous aspects of the story.  The young woman is pregnant, and her soon-to-be husband is about to set her aside.  Though for progressive thinkers in the 21st century the scandal lies in the statement from the angel that “the child conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit.”  Social scandal, theological scandal.  But, of course these days, scandals are routine, daily, and banal. 

            What captured my attention this week was that opening line of the angel—“Don’t be afraid.”  Let’s ponder for a moment what Joseph had reason to fear.  The most immediate thing was this heavenly creature.  We can imagine bright light, which no one likes to see in the middle of their sleep.  We can imagine some stature, authority, and strength which are likely intimidating.  What else?  Wings would be a little scary if there are wings like some have imagined.  Sometimes angels are pictured with swords, and that would be frightening.  We aren’t even sure that this angel is humanoid, if the angel looks like the cherubim or seraphim with their beastly appearances, then I can imagine being pretty frightened.

            But beyond the angelic visitation, what does Joseph have to fear?  The dishonor that could be done to his reputation?  The social stigma?  The loss of affection and love?  Shame, guilt, what else?  He’s once again been made aware of his human vulnerability, and we humans aren’t too keen on being reminded of our vulnerability.

            Fear, then, is a quite natural emotion for Joseph to be experiencing.  In fact, you can imagine him tossing and turning with anxiety, having trouble sleeping, and then his sleep is invaded by what would at first appear to be a nightmare.  Anyone ever had an experience like that when you were stressed out, anxious, and afraid?  Of course you have.  So, we get it. 

 

            I just recently read The Monarchy of Fear by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  It’s the book she wrote in the wake of the 2016 presidential election when she diagnosed that fear had become a dominant force in American politics, which is dangerous.  Nussbaum has spent her career studying the emotions and their intersections with political thought.  In the introduction to this book she wrote, “Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.” 

            Interestingly, in her first chapter she argues that fear is in fact the first human emotion.  It is the first emotion that newborns experience as they encounter a strange world and are incapable of providing for themselves and are reliant upon caregivers.  Fear is rooted in our extreme vulnerability and narcissism as infants.  Of course a healthy developmental process—where we are cared for, receive affection, attach to supportive adults, and learn coping skills—helps to mitigate the power of fear. 

But it can re-emerge.  She writes, “The narcissistic anxious world in which we began swells up again in time of need and fear, jeopardizing our halting steps toward moral adulthood and constructive citizenship.”  When we are afraid, it’s like the helpless, narcissistic infant inside of us takes over again.

            Nussbaum goes on in the book to document how fear feeds anger, disgust, and envy and together these negative emotions form a toxic brew.  Toxic for our individual moral character and happiness, and particularly toxic for society.  She identifies this toxic brew as affecting contemporary American life.  I would add to that some other negative emotions like cynicism and despair.

           

So, Nussbaum’s philosophical thoughts on fear resonated for me with the opening words of the angel to Joseph.  Here, then, is how I want to read the story from Matthew this year.

In the midst of Joseph’s fear, God sends a message—I am coming to be with you, I’m going to be born as a child, so don’t be afraid. 

I’m proposing that we read this message as spoken to us to.  Imagine that you are tossing and turning in your sleep with anxiety.  You are awakened by the blinding light of an angel appearing.  And then the angel delivers a message from God, “Anxious people of Omaha, don’t be afraid.  I’m being reborn.  I’m going to be with you.” 

That, I believe, is the message God has for us on the Fourth Sunday of Advent in 2019.

 

            Pretty much every year about this time, I remind you that the great fourteenth century German mystic Meister Eckhart proclaimed:

 

It would be of little value for me that 'the Word was made flesh' for man in Christ as a person distinct from me, unless he was also made flesh for me personally so that I too might be God's son.

 

Eckhart taught us to view the birth of Christ not solely as a past historical event, but as everlastingly present. The birth of Christ is on-going, in that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is born anew in us.  The ongoing importance of Christmas and the incarnation is that we become the newly born children of God as God is present with us.

            So, if we are going to be reborn this year, what do we want that to look like?  What is going to be different in our new selves? 

            Well, the answer we, your ministers are proposing, is that in our new birth we radiate with joy. 

            When we picked this year’s Advent theme “Radical Joy,” we knew were proposing something that seems counterintuitive.  How can we be joyful in a time such as this, when the toxic brew of fear, anger, hatred, division, and violence is such a part of our daily lives?  Wouldn’t it be a shirking of moral concern, of ethical responsibility, of realistic, rational response to current events?

            And yet there are a handful of voices calling us to be joyful in precisely such a time as this because we must.  It is times like this which require joy the most.

            These last four weeks we’ve explored this idea in word and song and a wildly entertaining radio play.  And what we’ve concluded is that Joy is renegade because our troubled times want us to be cynical and despairing, angry and fearful.  Joy is revolutionary because it imagines and insists upon a beautiful, wonderful vision of our future together upon this earth.  And runaway Joy is always already there, inside us, waiting to be shared with other people. 

 

            What would it mean, then, to let joy be born in us this year?  To radiate with joy? 

            The poet Derek Walcott records a conversation he had with fellow poet Adam Zagajewski, in which Walcott asked Zagajewski if Zagajewski believed in happiness.  Walcott records that Zagajewski answered that he did not, but that he did believe in joy.  And added “Joy is an illumination, a benediction, a visitation.  In the twentieth century, it required nothing less than a belief in angels.”

            Walcott then reflects upon this answer:

 

What does such a visitation of delight do but confirm the reality of the soul, the redemption of experience, the affections of hope, of gratitude to the light and to the unheard music that light contains . . . but most of all confirming a calling.

            Is this what will happen to us if we are visited by delight and joy?  It will confirm our souls, redeem our experience and hope, fill us gratitude, and confirm our calling?  Our calling to be fully human, to follow Christ, to be more like God, to be creatures of faith and love?  That seems to be what the poets are telling us.

            According to Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem “So Much Happiness” which was read earlier in the service, nothing, not even us, can contain joy, so it “flows out of [us] into everything [we] touch.”  In other words, it radiates from us.  Meaning that if joy is born in us, we alone can’t contain it.  It becomes viral and it spreads to other people.

            Our Reformed tradition has long taught that the chief end and purpose of human life is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.  Enjoyment is our primary purpose and calling.  To enjoy God and all that God has given to us.  An even more ancient Christian wisdom is that the glory of God is a humanity fully alive.  To enjoy life, to live abundantly, is what we are here for. 

Sometimes that is difficult.  Our traumas and pains make that difficult.  Our social circumstances, the injustices of the world, its violence and poverty, make that incredibly difficult.  And periods of social upheaval, such as this one, with its toxic brew of fear, anger, disgust, and envy, make that difficult. 

            But enjoyment still our work.  The work of being human.  Of finding those things, even if they are little and momentary, to delight in and celebrate. 

 

Let’s draw these threads together.  In the midst of our fear, God is speaking to us, “Anxious people of Omaha, don’t be afraid.  I’m being reborn.  I’m going to be with you.  I am going to be born anew in you this year.” 

Let’s make that a new birth of enjoyment.  Why?  Because I think joy can help conquer our fear.  Joy has a tendency to become viral.  Joy can spawn some hope and some faith and some love.  All those good things we need to live fully as God’s children and begin to set things aright.

Let’s radiate with God’s glory because we are fully alive, enjoying all the blessings of this world given to us by God. That, my friends, is the message of Advent and Christmas. 

            Rejoice, rejoice, for God is with us, Emmanuel, is coming.

             


Hope & Epistemology

An interesting post about how hope is an epistemological virtue. An excerpt:

To reason at all, we need assurance that we can know Truth-in-fact, but where does that assurance come from? It isn’t an axiom of logic or an inference from experience. Clark concludes thought can’t get off the ground unless we “believe that if we seek the truth in accordance with certain standing assumptions about probability, about what sort of world this is, we shall be rewarded.” Rational inquiry depends on faith that the world is susceptible to rational inquiry. To be reasonable, reason must be founded on something other than reason.