Shifting the Center of Our Lives

Shifting the Center of Our Lives

I Corinthians 13:4-7; Genesis 3:19-24

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

25 February 2024

            How did you spend St. Valentine’s Day?

            Some people really enjoy that holiday, others completely loathe it. 

            Back in my twenties, when I lived in Shawnee, Oklahoma, I hosted an annual party on Valentine’s Day for folks who didn’t have a date.  It became a very popular annual event.

            This year I was at home with a sick kid, who was upset to be missing the Valentine’s Day party at school.  He had stickers he was going to give out to his friends and was excited to see what he’d get in return.  I spent much of the day enjoying the memes on Facebook, particularly those that connected Valentine’s Day with Ash Wednesday.  And then in the evening I watched Casablanca for the umpteenth time.  It, of course, never disappoints.

            The combination of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday makes for a quirky mixture of Love and Death.  But, then, those themes are so often combined in the great love literature, from Achilles mourning over the body of Patroclus to Jack freezing in the water beside Rose. 

            The combination of these days affords fun liturgical exploration.  When it happened in 2018, our Ash Wednesday service was decorated with roses and Katie Miller sang the Bette Midler hit “The Rose.”  Our Lenten theme that year was “Passion.”

            This year, we decided to explore a Lenten theme of “Love.”

            The late African American scholar bell hooks, in her marvelous book All About Love, writes “To open our hearts more fully to love’s power and grace we must dare to acknowledge how little we know of love in both theory and practice.”

            On the one hand, that claim seems rather surprising.  Love, and its close relations, dominate our religious discourse, our popular culture, our classical music, and our greatest literature.  And it’s something all of us have at least some experience with, through love of parents, family, friends, a beloved, a child.

            But hooks contends, the human track record is pretty clear that we’ve never actually centered love, never created a culture of true, healthy love.  Also, so many people have loved and been loved poorly, often leading to serious wounding.  She wrote that this occurs, partially, because we don’t actually know what to do when we love.

            According to hooks, we settle too often.  We settle for affection and care, because those are safe, and don’t really take the risk of actually loving.  Seeing her make that distinction may be startling.  Affection and care are clearly aspects of love, but she contends those can be present in relationships that aren’t actually loving. 

            To love, hooks writes, is “the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth.”  Of extending ourselves in order to achieve this growth.

            So, this Lent, bell hooks will be one of our guides as we explore what love asks of us, if we are truly to make it central to our lives.

            Let’s start by exploring what is at the root of love.  According to the philosopher Simon May, we can discover that in the story from Genesis when Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and are cast out of the Garden of Eden by God.  What, you might be wondering, does this story have to do with it? 

            Now, the story of Eve, Adam, and the Serpent is probably the most influential in the world.  It has shaped our understanding of human nature and God, of sexuality and gender, even our fear of snakes.  Last week I read an article in The New Yorker that used this story in order to make a point about humanity’s current relationship with Artificial Intelligence.  But why start here, with this ancient story, in an exploration of love?

            In the contemporary lesson read earlier, philosopher Simon May writes that the banishment from the garden is what creates the possibility for love.  And the possibility that love becomes the central virtue of a well-lived human life. 

            He points out that love itself doesn’t seem to exist in Eden prior to the Fall.  The word never appears.  Whatever relationship the characters Adam and Eve have in the story, love is never used to describe it. 

            And, according to May, that’s because Eden is the place of abundance, where every need is met.  Only when the humans are sent into exile, where they must struggle to meet their needs, does the possibility of love actually exist.  For then we actually need each other.  Need one another for companionship, support, survival, to live well. 

            Longing, then, is at the root of love.  A desire, need, search, to find connection with others that help us to feel rooted and to flourish.

            The reason this ancient story resonates is because it describes what May calls a universal human experience of exile.  All of us experience forms of exile.  The are the rather direct ways, like leaving home, having our heart broken, the grief at the loss of a person significant to us.  But Simon May also points out that every newborn child experiences a form of exile.  Here’s how he states it: “We are born into a world not of our making at a time not of our choosing.  It will gradually dawn on us that we are strangers in the land where we must eventually make our home.”

            And, he believes this basic need from infancy stays with us.  Even when we aren’t aware of it.  He writes that the desire to feel at home “inevitably pervades our lives.”  We are always longing and searching for a place to be rooted.

            So Simon May defines love as “the joy inspired by whomever or whatever we experience as rooting . . . our life.”  Love is “a promise of home in the world.”

May also argues that this way of understanding love is far more beneficial to us than the way we’ve understood it in the last few centuries, because that way has inevitably led to failure and disappointment.  What does he mean?

            He argues that for a couple of centuries, we humans have been trying to secularize divine love—an effort that, he explains, was always going to fail.  We took an image of divine love that is unconditional, perfect, eternal, and needs nothing, and insisted that authentic human love had to aspire to that.  Which is to set humanity up for failure.  One simple reason—we aren’t God.  We can’t love like God does.  He says it was hubris, in fact, to think that we could.  Hubris that led to disappointment. 

            We humans can’t love uninterestedly, without need.  The very idea is “unintelligible,” he says, and undermines the very thing we value.  Instead, we should understand that in love, we are searching for something we need.  Love can’t be uninterested.  For with love, we are seeking to be rooted, to find a home in the world. 

            Also tied to the failed notion of love, was the concept that we must sacrifice ourselves for such a love.  That too is unintelligible.  Instead, when we love, we are trying to find ourselves—to live well, to flourish.  Yes, giving of the self is involved in loving, but not sacrificing or giving up the self. 

The kind of giving that is involved in genuine love is that the beloved becomes the person we can give our full self too.  Or, as May describes it “the loved one can flood their lover with who they are: with the force of their presence.”  Genuine love is where we can be our full, authentic, honest selves and still be at home, with each other.

“The meaning and worth of love,” according to the 19th century Russian Vladimir Solovyov, “is that it really forces us, with all our being, to acknowledge” for another person the same significance that we do for ourselves.  “Love is important . . . as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very center of our personal  lives.”

How do we begin to do this, then?  To pursue this longing for home, to shift the center of our lives, to find ourselves in another?

According to Simon May, love’s primary virtue is “Attentiveness.”  Which he describes as “ a resolute and unequivocating openness to the loved one.”  We approach another person with our full attention and wonder and give “joyful recognition and affirmation of [their] existence.”  With true attentiveness, we are curious about the other and are patient to discover everything we can about them.

This sort of devotion to another is the complete opposite of the sin of pride.  Pride closes us off to the full reality of anyone else.  But attentiveness is opening ourselves fully to another.  And finding there our sense of joy and home.

This sort of attention overcomes our egoism, but it is never “selfless.”  As Simon May points out, true attention “demands the fully engaged presence of our self.”  Being attentive to another is intentional and willful.  Never some passive experience.  Attention is animated by desire and longing.

The week of St. Valentine’s Day, the New York Times re-ran an old article “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.”  A scientific study revealed that intimacy can be accelerated by what sorts of questions we ask each other when we are getting to know each other.  According to the article,

The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. To quote the study’s authors, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue.

            Here are a few of the questions:

  • Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  • When did you last sing to yourself?
  • What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  • What is your most terrible memory?
  • How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
  • When did you last cry in front of another person?
  • What’s the one thing, besides people and pets, that you would save if your house was on fire?

I sent that article with all of its questions to one my friends who is currently in the start of a new relationship, and she said they did explore the questions together.

The impulse behind the exercise fits well with this idea that love is fostered by attention—curiously, and with wonder and vulnerability, exploring another person and sharing ourselves with them at the same time.  In doing this we fill our longing, and shift the center of our lives.

            Finding home, a person to root us, is what humanity longs for.  Love overcomes the universal human experience of exile. 

            Which is why love became the central virtue of the religious traditions stemming from the ancient Hebrews, because exile was central to their experience of history.  Simon May describes it this way:

Were not the Hebrews forced to recognize love as the supreme virtue precisely because they could never take a home in the world for granted, but had to earn it anew again and again?  Was it not the depth of their experience of exile, and so the inextinguishable urgency of their search for a promise of ontological rootedness, that made it possible for them to hear the call for love to be not merely one virtue among others, but the highest virtue of all?

            And it is the exploration of that highest virtue of all, to which we will turn our focus this Lenten season.  Love that begins in exile, in longing, in the search for a home that will root us.  And that we find when we give our attention fully and openly to another.  We’ll have more to say about these ideas, and how they relate to our spiritual growth.  Our goal, as we move toward Easter, is to hear the call to new life.  That helps us to shift the center of our lives.

            So, spiritual growth to new life through a richer understanding of the central and highest virtue of our lives.  A good journey for this season. 


Emerson's Essays

Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo EmersonSelected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph Waldo Emerson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read a few of these essays when I was a sophomore, which seems like the perfect age to do so. When life is full of newness and potential, and we are making choices as to who we are going to become.

I read a little Emerson again a few years later during one of the anniversaries, when there was some Emerson focused events go on.

This reading comes in my very long project of re-reading through the canon in chronological order. And, this time, some resonated and some didn't. You can't accuse him of consistency. Some ideas seemed immature or disproven by the subsequent centuries, while others remain intoxicating. Clearly reading Emerson is still essential to understanding the American character.

One line that really resonated in my reading today was that there are always folks who think they know better how to do your job. Since he was clergy, that really connected with my own experience.

View all my reviews

The Deep Blue Good-By

The Deep Blue Good-By (Travis McGee, #1)The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

MacDonald was recommended to me by a new friend. Not my usual reading, but I did enjoy it. I did not expect the intense ending. So the story held some surprises that made me respect it more. I really loved his descriptions of various things. For instance, the scene when Lois crawls into Travis's bed was SO well written. And sexy.

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The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of ChristianityThe Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity by Cynthia Bourgeault
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fascinating and wonderful book, that I wish I had read earlier. Not only does it go a long way to recovering the role of Mary Magdalene, but it opens up fabulous new ways of looking at key Christian ideas and practices, and has many helpful practical suggestions for liturgy and ministry.

View all my reviews

Speaking Truthfully

Speaking Truthfully

Psalm 51:6-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 January 2024

               What does it mean to remember truthfully?

            Especially given all we know about the fickleness of memory.  How easily we forget or elide details.  How often two people’s memories of the same moment are quite different from each other.  How our self-interest and biases can shade what we recall.  Even how trauma can deeply wound our memory. 

            Maybe we can start by thinking of ways we remember falsely?

            Like nostalgia.  I’m a deeply sentimental person who engages in a fair bit of nostalgia.  But nostalgia can be a problem.  Last week I quoted James K. A. Smith who wrote, “Sometimes the most faithful act of remembering requires a destruction of our nostalgias; sometimes the most creative act of remembering is to ruin the illusions we’ve learned to live with.”

            Nostalgia can traffic in illusions, making the past better than it actually was.

            In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown talks about how nostalgia was once considered a medical disease and psychiatric disorder.  That’s not the common perspective anymore, but she does warn that nostalgia can be an unhealthy coping strategy.

            Nostalgia, she writes, often arises from loneliness and when combined with rumination is a strong predictor for depression making us “more likely to pay attention to negative things, and [zapping] our motivation to do things that would improve how we feel.” 

            So, she generally comes down on the negative side in her evaluation of nostalgia, describing it as “a yearning for the way things used to be in our often idealized and self-protective version of the past.”

            Miroslav Volf writes that we can also remember unjustly.  And this violates what he considers to be our moral obligation to remember truthfully.  We are most likely to remember unjustly in the case of complex memories of wrongdoing.  We tend to be self-protective, of course, and in doing so, often frame the memory to put ourselves in the best light and see others at their worst.  This, he teaches, is unjust.  In our remembering we must be honest about our own role and accurate in how we judge other’s actions, not making them worse than they actually were.  We need to be very careful about how we assign blame and avoid making others a scapegoat. 

            Volf says this is a very difficult task, to remember wrongdoings truthfully and justly.  We are finite, our memories are always approximations with some mix of imaginative construction.  But doing the hard work of remembering truthfully and justly, he writes, is worth the effort because such hard work is more likely to result in healing and justice.

            S0, we can remember falsely in the way we assign blame to others . . .  and, also, ourselves.  One way false memories show up is through the emotion of shame.  James K. A. Smith calls shame “a nefarious enemy of grace that thrives on the backward glance.”  He goes on, “Shame teaches me to look at my past and see something hideous that makes me regret my existence.”

            Much of the best recent work on shame has been done by Brene Brown.  She is always clear in distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong, whereas shame is the feeling that we are bad.  The feeling of guilt can lead to accountability, making amends, healing, and growth.  Shame generally leads to disconnection and feelings of unworthiness.  It is the belief that we are flawed. 

            Interestingly, she writes that shame is often actually connected to narcissism and perfectionism.  A perfectionist views all their failures as personal defects and so avoids trying new things.  Narcissists have what she calls a “shame-based fear of being ordinary.” 

            Shame burdens us with a focus on something from our past.  It keeps us turned backwards, not fully enjoy the present or living with openness to the future.

            Brown writes that the antidote to shame is empathy.  Finding those you can share your shame with who will respond with care.  We can’t overcome our shame until we learn to speak about it.

            Smith teaches that shame is the opposite of grace. Whereas shame burdens us from the past, grace is God’s “good news of unfathomable possibility.”  He writes, “My personal history isn’t something to regret; it is something God can deploy in ways I never could have imagined.”  Instead, God sees our weaknesses as “openings for strength.”  “Grace,” he says, “wants to unleash our history for a future with God that could only be ours—living into the version of ourselves that the world needs.”  God’s grace opens up the possibilities that our pasts are the tools needed for God’s work to be done.

            So, from these teachers we learn that to remember truthfully, we must avoid the destructive forms of nostalgia, injustice in the way we view ourselves, and others, and the shame that robs us of the abundance of possibility that is God’s grace. 

            How, then, do we remember truthfully, especially if that’s a memory of our own wrong-doing? 

            A couple of years ago I read a small book entitled Regret: A Theology by Duke Divinity School professor Paul Griffiths.  In that book, Griffiths writes about what he calls the “otherwise emotions.”  The various emotions we feel when we wish that the world was other than what it is.  Or that we had done something other than what we have done. 

            I assume you’ve got a few—or more than a few—of these: moments or actions or decisions from the past that you wish were otherwise?

            Remorse is the emotion we feel when our past presses upon us, reminding us of what we have done.  Intriguingly, he writes that remorse itself reveals that our past is porous, that it can be redeemed, which we’ll get more into in a moment.  The feeling of remorse is itself part of the process of healing and reconciliation.  Even feeling or wishing that one had done otherwise is a step in the right direction.  A step that hopefully leads to further steps, to contrition, lament, making amends, etc. 

            Remorse also involves our ability to imagine a different future, a future where our past and our feelings of guilt no longer weigh heavily upon us. 

            Brene Brown writes about the healthy power of regret.  She’s very critical of those who say that they live “with no regrets.”  Such people, her research has revealed, are really people who live with no reflection.  Healthy, mature people do reflect, and in their reflecting, they regret what they’ve done wrong.  But they don’t let that remorse develop into shame, because they do something about it.

            Brown writes, “I firmly believe that regret is one of our most powerful emotional reminders that reflection, change, and growth are necessary.”  She goes on, “In our research, regret emerged as a function of empathy.  And, when used constructively, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.”

            The reason Miroslav Volf is so insistent on the moral obligation to remember truthfully, is because he believes this is integral to the redemption of the past.  And that’s probably a notion we don’t think of very often.  How can the past, which is settled and finished, be redeemed?

            Volf writes,

What we have suffered weighs us down like a heavy load we long to have lifted: like an indefatigable enemy, it assails us relentlessly.  The wreckage of history—a trail of shattered beauty, defiled goodness, twisted truths, streams of tears, rivers of blood, mountains of corpses—must somehow be mended.  That the past must and will be redeemed is a conviction essential to the Christian notion of redemption.

            God will acknowledge and take account of this history.  Rightly assigning blame and enacting justice.  Victims will be acknowledged, and amends will be made.  Perpetrators will be called to account and their sins forgiven and atoned for.  And, of course, all of us are both victims and perpetrators.

            God’s grace, then, opens up fresh and new possibilities.  Grace can’t go back and change the past, but it can change how we use it to create a better future, to become our best selves. 

            I like how Paul Griffiths describes it, “Regret sometimes permits a transfiguration of the past by an opening up of the future.  The past is never simply given, unchangeable; its presence to and in the present and the future belongs to it, and when the mode of that presence changes, so too does the past.”

            We might not be able to alter what we have done in the past, but we can alter its meaning and impact for us now and in the future.  We can even, sometimes, forget altogether. 

            What allows us to remember truthfully, in a way that leads to justice, healing, hope, and love, is the abundance of God’s grace.  Reaching out to envelop us, and all that we are, and have been and will be.  Constantly opening up new possibilities and providing for us the resources we need to live well and faithfully now. 

            Hear, again, the joyful words of the 51st Psalm:

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.


To Remember

To Remember

Ecclesiastes 3:9-22

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 January 2024

               In 1984 Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian and now professor at Yale, was interrogated by the Yugoslavian secret police.  The previous fall he had been summoned to compulsory military service, having to leave his family and the writing of his dissertation.  And immediately he realized that he’d been drawn into the military so that he could be spied upon.  Volf was suspect by the Communist authorities for a variety of reasons—he was married to an American woman, he was a Christian theologian in an officially atheist country, he had studied in the democratic West, and his own father, a pastor, had almost been killed once by the Communists on suspicion of sedition.

            And so the interrogations went on for months.  They never involved torture, but they did include threats, so much so that the interrogator colonized his interior life, as Volf describes it.  He wrote, “Even afterward, my mind was enslaved by the abuse I had suffered.”

            Decades later, still haunted by these memories, and particularly his interrogator Captain G, Volf began to wonder “How should I remember him and what he had done to me?”  Eventually the question prompted a book entitled The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.

            Volf has spent much of his academic career as a theologian writing and teaching about forgiveness.  His work in that area is profound, ground-breaking, and deeply influential.  And that led him to think even more deeply and theologically about memory, and particularly his memories of this wrongdoing.  How should he remember those events and the perpetrators in a way that is faithful to his commitment to Christian love and forgiveness?  How to remember truthfully, in a way that condemns injustice and abuse but doesn’t heighten the trauma?  How to remember in such a way that the memories don’t overtake his identity and everything else about his past?  He was even worried about what he called “this dangerous moral fickleness of memory.”

            These questions prompted deep thinking.  Volf wrote, “How much of my projected future would Captain G. colonize, given that the memory of abuse kept projecting itself into my anticipated future?  Would he define the horizon of my possibilities, or would he and his dirty work shrink to just one dark dot on that horizon and possibly even disappear from it entirely?”

            He worried that if he focused on this memory too much, it would forever alter him.  Volf wrote, “Would I have remembered wrongly by first focusing on the negative and then allowing it to color the whole surrounding landscape?  Would I be allowing the abuse to whirl me down into the dark netherworld?”

            As he grappled with his personal stories, Miroslav Volf identifies for us how memory is connected to identity, forgiveness, justice, truthfulness, well-being, and our hopes for the future.  Remembering well and rightly, then, has a rich spiritual meaning for us.

            And it is that theme to which we will turn our worship focus in this season of Epiphany. 

            Remembering, itself, fits within a bigger and broader spiritual practice of timekeeping.  How we mark time spiritually and theologically has long been of interest to me and a staple in my preaching.  A couple of years ago we had an Easter season worship series on how we mark time.  That series was guided by the teachings of Princeton professor Andrew Root, and I’ve often since drawn us back to this quote from him:

We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future, but more deeply into time itself.  We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity.  We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!

And, yes, that quote ends with an exclamation mark.

            The theologian Kathryn Tanner approaches the spirituality of timekeeping and remembering our past from a different angle—that of her Christian critique of contemporary finance-based capitalism, which she argues tries to malform us with its false and destructive models of time-keeping.  One of the worst ways that the past enslaves us in contemporary capitalism is through debt, which limits our future horizons and binds us in the present. 

            Instead, Tanner wants humanity to live into the fulsomeness of God’s grace, understanding that “one has all one needs now to meet the present challenge,” whatever that challenge is.  She encourages that “there is no point in harping on the past or worrying about the future” because “no failings in the past or present can disrupt the efficacy” of God’s saving grace. 

            Tanner’s thoughts resonate with those of the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, the most philosophical of biblical writers.  Ecclesiastes teaches that we have all we need.  That God desires of us not toil but living in harmony—to eat, drink, and find fulfilment in what we do.  Ecclesiastes encourages us not to dwell upon the past or worry about the future.  What has been, has been, and what will be, will be.  We should enjoy the life that God has given to us.

            The best book I’ve read recently about the spiritual practice of time-keeping is James K. A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now.  We’ll be using Smith’s book to prompt our Wednesday night family night discussions this month.

            Smith reminds us that we are temporal beings, and to be temporal, he writes, “is to be indebted to a past and oriented toward a future.”  But how to inhabit this well, truthfully, faithfully? 

            We are shaped by our pasts, our history, and the larger histories we are embedded in.  Right now in the United States, how we remember our history and tell our stories has gotten caught up in the culture wars and partisan political battles.  Reminding us how significant the past itself is in shaping our identity, our sense of what is possible now, and our visions for the future. 

            On this point, Smith writes, “Sometimes the most faithful act of remembering requires a destruction of our nostalgias; sometimes the most creative act of remembering is to ruin the illusions we’ve learned to live with.”

            Which resonates with Miroslav Volf’s contention that we shouldn’t only remember truthfully, but also rightly, faithfully, lovingly.  Some memories are best forgotten.

            James K. A. Smith describes “four fundamental convictions” of “the art of spiritual timekeeping.”  The first is that we are finite, temporal creatures.  He writes, “For every creature, to be is to become; to exist is to change; to have and to hold is to lose and to mourn; to awake is to hope.”

            I know we often struggle with this reality.  That we must live with constant change, learning how to let go, to grieve, to move nimbly into the future.  At the conference I attended in Florida this week, one of my colleagues reminded us that Darwin taught that adaptability is the most important asset in the evolutionary struggle.  In our personal and our collective lives we must hone our adaptative skills, responding to constant change with flexibility and grace.

            Smith’s second conviction of the art of spiritual time-keeping is our belief that time is shaped by covenant.  Our time is shaped by the promises God has made to God’s people.  The history of God with God’s people matters in forming who we are.  We must live faithfully those promises through the reality of constant change.

            The third conviction is somewhat in tension with the second.  It is our belief that God’s Spirit is still guiding us and speaking to us, leading us into new directions.  I like this sentence of Smith’s—“Listening to the Spirit is not an archaeological dig for some original deposit but rather an attunement to a God with us, still speaking, still surprising, still revealing.” 

            Hopefully you’ve been reading my columns in the church newsletter about the State of the Church in 2024, where I’m writing about the era of deep change we are living in, and what those changes mean for Christianity writ large and for us as one congregation adapting and responding faithfully.  Our task is to discern where the Spirit is leading us in our time, and our time is one of radical and deep change.

            Smith’s fourth and final fundamental conviction about the art of spiritual timekeeping is that we Christians are “animated by the future.”  Hope is central to who we are. 

            Central to my own spirituality, and my preaching, has been the teaching of the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann that we Christians are the “eternal beginners.”  The life of hope is one in which we live into the resurrection promise that at every moment there is an indefinite set of possible futures, that no matter how our past shapes us, there is no set, inevitable future.  We can begin anew every moment of our lives. 

            I like the way Smith then describes our spiritual discernment.  He writes, “Keeping time with the Spirit is less a regimental march and more like a subtle dance, a responsive feel for what comes next.”

            So, our remembering is situated as a spiritual practice within this deeper spiritual practice of timekeeping.  To remember rightly, faithfully, truthfully, and lovingly is part of our rich spiritual life of dancing with God’s Spirit in attunement and discernment, embracing the fulsomeness of God’s grace, and practicing resurrection hope.

            Let’s return now to Miroslav Volf and what conclusions he came to about remembering rightly.  He writes:

To return to my own experience in the Yugoslavian army, I can view myself primarily as a person who was terrorized by powerful people against whom I was helpless and whose intentions I could not discern.  Or I can see myself primarily as a person who, after some suffering, has been delivered by God and given a new life . . . .  I can be angry about suffering.  I can be thankful for deliverance.  I can be both.  I can also let that year of suffering recede somewhere into a distant background and stretch myself toward the future.

A future which, for him, included his work at Yale and the lives of his two sons.

            What Volf came to realize is that “we are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us.” 

Yes, our self-image is largely made up of what we remember about ourselves.  And, of course, what we remember about ourselves isn’t always exactly what happened.  I loved, for example, when the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote early in his memoir that the stories he was telling about his childhood were the stories he remembered, and he was making no claim as to whether they actually occurred that way or not.  For it was how he remembered them that had shaped him, whether or not they actually occurred that way.

            Volf contends that a healthy person is not inevitably shaped by their memories of the past.  A healthy person is able to freely respond to memories and, therefore, shape how they form the sense of self.  He writes, “A person with a healthy sense of identity living in freedom and security will let the future draw her out of the past and the present and will play with new possibilities and embark on new paths.” 

            That should be our goal.  A rich, healthy, flourishing human life, playing with new possibilities.

            Memory, then, is a component of our well-being.  And Volf contends that there are four distinct ways that memory contributes to well-being.

            First is that remembering rightly plays a role in personal healing.  All of the literature on trauma, for instance, teaches us that the trauma must be interpreted and integrated in ways that cease to dominate our psyches but instead become part of a larger sense of self and meaning.  If you’ve read The Body Keeps the Score, or any other of the bestsellers in this vein, then you know how this works.

            The second way that remembering rightly contributes to well-being is through acknowledging our past.  This is particularly relevant to memories of wrong-doing and injustice.  And not just our personal remembering, but social remembering.  Such remembering of past wrongs was part of what Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel emphasized throughout his life’s work.

            Acknowledging then leads to solidarity, as community forms among those who remember rightly.  And finally, the fourth way remembering rightly leads to well-being, is that a people who remember rightly should then protect past victims from future harm.  Again, this is part of Elie Wiesel’s teaching.  I’d encourage you to read or listen to his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.  In that speech he declares,

What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

            Remembering, then, is part of our well-being.  But not ours only.  The well-being of our families and society.  How we remember shapes our vision of justice, our hopes for the future, the values of the communities we form, and our spiritual vitality.

            We must learn to remember well as part of the broader spiritual practice of time-keeping.  Entering into that subtle dance with the Holy Spirit as she guides us through the present and into the vast open possibilities of the future.  That way we can live into the fulsomeness of God’s grace, the fullness of time, and the feeling of being fully alive.

            To remember rightly, then, frees us to live as God intended, as the author of Ecclesiastes teaches us: 

What I do know is that what is best for us is to be happy and enjoy life as long as we live.  And God’s gift to us is to eat and drink and find fulfillment in our work.


Varieties of Spiritual Experience

The Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century Research and PerspectivesThe Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century Research and Perspectives by David B Yaden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About fifteen years ago I remember reading an article about the use of brain science to study religious experiences and was fascinated. I thought then that if I ever went back to get another academic degree, it would be something in that field. But beyond that initial interest I never did follow up.

So it was good to read this review of all the current research and hear about promising ideas for the future.

View all my reviews

God Speaks in the Darkness

God Speaks in Darkness

1 Samuel 3:1-9

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 December 2023

               This Advent, we have been exploring God’s Holy Darkness.  Partly as a corrective to how often we limit our spirituality and worship to images of light.  And one reason we have been motivated to explore this theme is because of our commitment to be an anti-racist congregation.  Light supremacy in spirituality is dangerously connected to white supremacy.

               The theme of Holy Darkness has also drawn us into exploring several Biblical stories that occur in the dark—there are so many once you start paying attention to it.  And we’ve drawn from the rich well of the church’s mystical tradition, which has long emphasized the spiritual importance of darkness.

               This week I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  She writes that one of the reasons she left ministry when she did was the over-emphasis on light.  What she calls “full solar spirituality.”  She says “You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer.  Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”  And then she follows that up, “If you have ever belonged to such a community, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life.”  Because such full solar congregations are not equipped for dealing well with the realities of life.

               Instead, she encourages a “lunar spirituality” with all of its doubts, questions, ambiguities, and uncertainties.  Such a spirituality is far healthier.  Rather than avoiding “the primal energy of dark emotions” by cutting themselves off from the world, congregations with a lunar spirituality, like Jacob of old, are willing to wrestle angels in the dark.  A lunar spirituality recognizes that what we call the dark emotions are “conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act.”

               Darkness is so often the place where God speaks to us something we need to hear. 

               Taylor writes,

I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion.  I need darkness as much as I need light.

The Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg declares that “The night is indeed the time of redemption.”  There is a freedom and uncanniness to the night.  What happens in the night cannot be fully assimilated in the daylight. 

               How often God does speak in the darkness.

               From the Spirit hovering at the Creation calling the world into being.  Or Moses receiving the commandments in the clouds surrounding Mt. Sinai.  This story of the child Samuel, awakened to the mission that God had for his life.  Or the choirs of angels, appearing to sing their glorias to the startled shepherds below.  In so many of these vital stories, God speaks in the darkness.

               And God speaking, Eugene Peterson reminds us, is the fundamental conviction of our faith.  From Genesis to Revelation God keeps speaking.  Peterson writes:

God speaks—in creation and invitation, in judgement and salvation, in healing and guidance, in oracle and admonition, in rebuke and comfort.  The conspicuous feature in all of this speaking is that God speaks in personal address.  God does not speak grand general truths, huge billboard declarations of truth and morals; the Lord’s speaking is to persons, named persons.

               Like the child Samuel. 

               So we must beware of full solar spirituality for it might be closing us off from the word that God has just for us, in the darkness.

               We believe that God is still speaking.  Which means that in our darkness—whether literal, metaphorical, emotional, or existential—God comes to us and speaks to us a word that we need to hear. 

               May we listen.  Like the child Samuel learned to listen.

               As Barbara Brown Taylor beckons us, “Come outside now, it’s getting dark.”


God Dwells in Darkness

God Dwells in Darkness

Genesis 32:24-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 December 2023

               Last year I was fortunate to finally make a trip to the Boundary Waters.  That region along the Minnesota/Canada border where there’s no infrastructure, rarely a cell phone signal, about as pure a wilderness as one can experience near us. 

               My friend Robyn and I canoed, portaging along trails between bodies of water, setting up a campsite.  We packed in all of the food and supplies we needed for the weekend.

               We had fun, wonderful adventures on that trip—shooting rapids, swimming across the international border, seeing wildlife.  But what we both enjoyed and remember the most is the peace and tranquility, the chance to truly rest and restore.  One reason we traveled well together is that we are able to be silent with each other, not feeling the need to fill all the empty time and space with chatter.  We’d sit quietly every morning drinking our coffee, reading our books, and watching the fog lift off of the cove. 

               And one of the highlights of the trip was the darkness.  When night fell there was no artificial light, expect for the flashlights and lanterns we used.  The campfire, the moon, and the stars were the only real lights.  In the darkness we couldn’t see much around us, but the heavens opened up in all their glory, able to see the stars in a way we rarely get to anymore.

               I remembered being at a youth retreat twenty years ago with some of my teens from my church in Dallas.  We were at a retreat center in southeastern Oklahoma, and one night I was walking along talking with a couple of kids, only to realize that one of them wasn’t beside me anymore.  I turned and saw that he had stopped walking and was staring up at the sky.  For it was a clear night and the Milky Way was glorious.  I walked back to him, and he said, “Sorry, I happened to look up and had to stop.  I’ve never seen this before.”

               The deep darkness of night time, especially in the wilderness, presents risks, uncertainties, and dangers.  But, like all rich and multi-faceted experiences and symbols, that darkness is also full of rewards—beauty, stillness and silence, the chance for rest and restoration.

               One of my former congregants in Oklahoma City often shared about how much she enjoyed all of the “light Sundays”—Epiphany, Transfiguration, etc.  And our tradition is rich with metaphors of light, connecting us to spirituality, insight, and the divine.  I think of the line from the hymn “Immortal, Invisible” in which we sing “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”  The idea that God resides in light so bright it is blinding.

               But there is also a tradition that finds divinity in the darkness.  When King Solomon finished dedicating the temple in Jerusalem, the presence of God descends upon the building as a thick cloud, and so Solomon proclaims, “God dwells in darkness.”  And we are reminded of how often sanctuaries and sacred spaces can be more dark than light, with stained glass that filters and alters the light, all conveying a sense of mystery and awe.

               This familiar story from Genesis is another of those moments where the divine appears in the dark.  Jacob’s mysterious nighttime visitor, his wrestling with the holy, the wounding of the experience—have all animated the human imagination for centuries.  As we’ve pondered the meaning of this story and how this night-time wrestling match is an experience of seeing the face of God.

               This theme of Holy Darkness continues in the history of the church.  The Greek theologian Pseudo-Dionysius described God as “luminous darkness,” and talked of the depths of God that exceed our finite human abilities to understand. 

The Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart described God as the grunt, the ground, the dark soil in which we planted.  The grunt is “pure possibility,” and Eckhart teaches us to “Go into your own ground and there act, and the works that you do there will be living.”

The 20th century Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov wrote, “The roots of a person’s being are submerged in the bottomless ocean of divine life and get their nourishment from this life.”

               And the 21st century feminist theologian Catherine Keller encourages us that in “embracing the depths of life, in which are mingled the depths of divinity itself, we participate in an open-ended creativity.”

               Divine darkness is, in our biblical and spiritual tradition, the source of mystery, awe, wonder, possibility, creativity, nourishment, holiness.

               Maybe the greatest Christian writing about his Holy Darkness is by the sixteenth century Spaniard San Juan de la Cruz, known in English as St. John of the Cross.  For he wrote the great classic Dark Night of the Soul, an image and idea that itself has been used repeatedly by so many. 

               For San Juan, the dark night of the soul is the path to mystical union with God.  He first uses beautiful poetic language to describe this ecstatic experience:

One dark night,

Fired with love’s urgent longings

--ah, the sheer grace!—

I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
Lover transformed in the beloved.

               In the rest of his book, though, there is less ecstasy and more agony.  For San Juan, the dark night is a spiritual experience wherein the soul is stripped of its desires and affections in a period of quietness.  For the individual experiencing this it can be felt as wasted time or more acutely as darkness.  A period of emptying and relinquishing can be felt as purging and annihilation.  One can find it difficult to focus, even to do simple things like pray.  He writes that the darkness can be “profound and horrible and most painful, for this darkness, being felt in the deepest substance of the spirit, seems to be substantial darkness.”

But for John, this is precisely the moment when God is most present with us.  Emptying ourselves of what normally captures our attention gives God a chance to fill that space.  It is through this experience that we can attain “the state of union with God” and “live that new and blessed life.”

               The contemporary theologian Wendy Farley helps us understand San Juan’s teaching.  She writes that the Dark Night of the Soul has two stages of darkness.  In the first we are released from our normal attachments, and in the second we are cleansed of egocentrism.  These experiences can be troubling and confusing, leaving us unsure what to do.  And often the things that we normally do to bring peace and joy don’t work.  She writes, “The healing itself is painful, and healing can require remedies that are, in the moment, suffering.” 

               San Juan and Wendy Farley seem to be describing the divine encounter in the darkness as being something like what Jacob experienced—a moment of wrestling, that leaves us wounded but transformed.  It is rather common for interpreters of Jacob’s story to point out that Jacob isn’t only wrestling with the mysterious divine being, but wrestling with a manifestation of all his past troubles, even wrestling with a manifestation of his very self. 

               Wrestling with the depths of our selves, our own shadow sides, is essential in emotional and spiritual health and well-being.  Often something we do as part of therapy, psychoanalysis, or spiritual direction. 

These teachings on the Dark Night of the Soul have also been helpful for centuries to Christians in moments of despair and struggle.  For this tradition teaches that even when we feel our spirituality to be lacking and God to be absent, that isn’t the case.  Even in those moments, God is present with us.  And how helpful to learn that even these experiences can be the path of spiritual growth and ultimate union with God.

               But finding God in the darkness isn’t only about wrestling and struggle and purgation and suffering.  There are also the experiences of beauty, awe, and wonder that come about in moments of stillness, rest, and quiet.

               Even San Juan writes about the dark night as a chance “to allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness” which gives an opportunity for “peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God.”  Wendy Farley writes that “darkness is a time for supreme gentleness” and encourages us “to do nothing, to relax, to be still and stop making so many demands on ourselves.”

               In this vein, of holy darkness as a chance for rest, we find some wisdom in other traditions.  For example, Karen Armstrong writes about the Daoist thinker Laozi and his teaching of “the rich darkness” where we return to the One.  According to Laozi, “Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.”   Armstrong adds:

The (stillness) that the myriad things enjoy is, therefore, a return to their original source.  It can be compared with the seasonal cycle of a plant that grows exuberantly in the spring, forming flowers or fruit, but in winter sends in energy down into its roots . . . it is a stillness infused with the vitality of the Dao which will spring to life again.

As such, it is a stillness full of creative energy.

               One of the good books I read this last year was Rest is Resistance by the African-American artist, poet, theologian, and community organizer Tricia Hersey.  She writes that we are too busy, working too hard, always on the go.  And we are this way because of the injustices of the capitalist system have made us this way.  Yet, when we are so busy we are exhausted and can’t dream, can’t flourish in our humanity.  We “lack clarity and the ability to see deeply.”  She adds, “Your intuition and imagination are stifled by a culture of overworking and disconnection.”

               And so she teaches that rest itself is essential for our humanity, rest becomes an act of resistance, pushing against the injustices of our current systems. 

               Once we rest, then we can dream, engage our imaginations, become more creative.  She teaches, “We connect with the deepest parts of ourselves when we are rested.”  Which, to me, resonates with this tradition of Holy Darkness as going into the ground, or sinking into the vast divine ocean, to connect our roots with God and experience unlimited possibility.

               Hersey declares, “You were not just born to center your entire existence on work and labor.  You were born to heal, to grow, to be of service to yourself and community, to practice, to experiment, to create, to have space, to dream, and to connect.”

               And we live into that human potential when we have quiet moments of rest.

               I return to my experience in the Boundary Waters.  A chance to disconnect from much of modern life.  To get away from all the light, power, and energy that normally surrounds us.  To go into the wilderness, where there is quiet, serenity, and darkness.  And there to find beauty, rest, and restoration.

               King Solomon told us that “God dwells in darkness.”  And in that darkness we can experience so many different faces and aspects of the divine—wrestling purgation, presence, mystery, possibility, awe, beauty, rest.

               This Advent, as the days grow shorter, and the nights grow longer.  As life slows down with the winter cold.  As you wait and prepare for the coming of Christ again at Christmas, enter into the darkness, there to encounter God, and be transformed.