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January 2008

The Dynasty Issue

Nicholas Kristof in the NYTimes writes a good, and I think important, piece on the issue of creating political dynasties in America and whether that is good for us. It is worth reading and considering.

We Americans snicker patronizingly as “democratic” Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, India and Argentina hand over power to a wife or child of a former leader. Yet I can’t find any example of even the most rinky-dink “democracy” confining power continuously for seven terms over 28 years to four people from two families. (And that’s not counting George H.W. Bush’s eight years as vice president.). . . [Read more]

A brief note to say thank you . . .

A couple of weeks ago, I called one of my church members simply to express my appreciation for her. In return she sent me a thank you note:

Just a brief note to thank you for the phone call yesterday morning. It made my day and put a lift to my step.

She went on to say nice things about me, which I appreciated. Her note was a wonderful pick-me-up for me on a weekend when I really needed one.

There is nothing all that exciting or dramatic about two folk exchanging thank yous.

This week as I was sitting here trying to decide what to write for my column, I debated various political or cultural topics. Then I looked over and saw Judith’s note and realized that that’s what I wanted to write about. . . . [Read more of my column]


I'm SO glad that this morning the weather folk pre-empted national news for live shots of snow falling. It was SO important for me to know it was snowing. It was much easier to lie in bed and watch it on tv than to look outside my window. And I was glad for all the warnings that snow can be difficult to drive on. And that it was only going to get worse all day. As I look out my window right now there is such a blizzard. . . . wait, right now there's nothing falling, and wait, it looks like everything that was on the ground has already melted. Oh.

Toni Morrison endorses Obama

This might get missed in the news of the Kennedy family endorsements, but Toni Morrison has endorsed Obama.

In addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don’t see in other candidates. That something is a creative imagination which, coupled with brilliance, equals wisdom. . . [Read more]

Darkness Buries All!

Yesterday I was suffering from depression and after a day of errands, I elected to sit in the billiard room, which faces the evening sun, and read some poetry while listening to R.E.M. and eating chocolate. Michael said that this was like a junior high girl. I corrected that the junior high girl would be writing the poety, not reading it.

Plus, I was reading Pope and Johnson. Not your normal junior high girl fare.

I'm very much enjoying Bloom's anthology. I am learning much and am arriving at appreciations for poets that previously I had not cared for as much. Plus, I'm gaining an even greater sense of the power and depth of the language.

One poem that Bloom excerpts from is Pope's Dunciad, in which he bemoans the end of western culture as it is take over by fools and dunces. Regarding this Bloom writes, "This may have been justified in 1743; in 2003 it is simply the way things are."

Here is the final section of the Dunciad, when the Queen of Dulness approaches:

In vain, in vain -- the all-composing hour
Resistless falls: the Muse obeys the power.
She comes! she comes! the sable throne behold
Of Night pirmeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying rainbows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea's strain,
The sickening stars fade off the ethereal plain;
As Argus' eyes by Hermes' wand opprest,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is night.
See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of casuistry heaped o'er her head!
Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, CHAOS! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.

Wow! That's fantastically well written. It is, of course, the paradox of art like that that if what is says is true, then the thing itself could not be created.

But I do find its warning and Bloom's indication of its current reality to be apt. In an age where Britney's every move is covered, we surely have lost many significant aspects of our culture.

I feel that what is most missing in today's America is a sense of beauty. And with that goes the good and true, since we know they are intimately connected. Few people seem to cultivate their aesthetic sense, finding pleasure only in the common pleasures. The common pleasures are not bad -- they are pleasurable and valuable. But they are not all there is.

A sense of beauty must be cultivated. There is a natural appreciation, but the skills to really appreciate the richness of the visual arts, nature, the written and spoken word, the human body, food, etc., must be cultivated.

And so I find immense joy in these phrasings:

See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of casuistry heaped o'er her head!

In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.

The first one is splendid. Not only is it filled with a clear moral critique, the language used to make the point is so evocative. The crispness of the "k"s in "skulking," for instance. And "mountains of cauistry," sound o'erwhelming.

And thes second line is filled with movement. The "rave" is the most important beat, I think. The "turn giddy" and the "rave" seem like a party, not an moment of agony, yet in the moment the outburst of meaningless enthusiasm seems appropriate.

Well, anyway. I'm going to take some peptol bismol and nap. My physician has me on a new medical regimen to see if we can tackle the inflammation that bothered me all week.

Trusting God

Trusting God

Psalm 40

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

20 January 2008



    The third step to spiritual health and wholeness is to "make a decision to turn your will and your life over to God." We've already admitted our own weakness, that we are unable to go it alone. We've already had faith in something larger than ourselves. Now we come to the point of action, which is developing the willingness that is not our self-will, but is God's will. It is bringing our own will in line with God's. It is sincerely praying the prayer, "not my will, but thine be done."

    Today's psalm opens with the lines


    I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined to me and heard my cry.

    He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,

    and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

    He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to God.

    Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.


    The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, whom I quote more often than almost anyone, has the handiest analysis of the Psalms. He divides the psalms not into their classic literary type, but according to their overall orientation. He finds three kinds psalms. The first are psalms of orientation. They reflect a stable, reliable world. Then there are psalms of disorientation, when life is in chaos. Not only do these two types exists, there is a movement from one group to the other. He writes, "a major move of the Psalms is the move from an ordered, reliable life to an existence that somehow has run amok."

    Whenever people come to me seeking pastoral guidance, I generally recommend reading the psalms. The reason is that every human emotion is contained in them somewhere. That includes all of the emotions that come from the pit, the depths, the darkness. We think of this collection of hymns as a praise book, but the truth is that there are more psalms of the second type, songs of disorientation, more lament psalms than there are any other type. The funny thing is how different a contemporary hymnal is from the ancient Jewish hymnal. I once looked in about half a dozen contemporary hymnals and only found one of them that even included the category "lament," and it had maybe two songs.

    The second reason that I recommend that people read the psalms is that just as there is a move from orientation to disorientation, there is also a move out of disorientation to the third type of psalm, which is a psalm of new orientation. The psalms of new orientation are filled with spontaneity and surprise, the joy that comes from an unexpected rescue. They are more psalms of salvation than they are psalms of order and reliability.

These psalms are not a return to the ordered bliss of the first category. No, the psalm writers respect human experience. They know that once you've been to the pit, it remains with you. And even if you get lifted out of it and have a new song in your mouth, the memories of the pit stay with you. Brueggemann writes that with psalms of new orientation, even if they are psalms of praise or thanksgiving, at root they share the same form as the lament. A hymn of victory or song of thanksgiving is thanksgiving for overcoming some trouble or victory won from "a situation that could have ended in defeat but did not."

The most familiar of contemporary hymns that fits this description is the favourite of many, "It is Well with My Soul." This hymn was composed by Horatio G. Spafford after a series of tragedies. In 1871 he suffered great financial losses during the great Chicago fire. Then, in 1873 a ship carrying his wife and four daughters sank, and only his wife survived. Spafford wrote the lyrics after he had later sailed past the very spot where the girls had died.


When peace , like a river, attendeth my way,

when sorrows like sea billows roll;

whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say,

it is well, it is well with my soul.


    Psalm 40, which we read to day is a proposal for what the newly oriented life looks like. For example, if you want a description of the essence of our faith, you need look no further than verses 9 and 10:


    I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;

    see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.

    I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,

    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.


    Because of God's faithfulness and love, the rescued person can now delight in God's will, as in verse 8:


    I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.


Obedience to God's will is not a burden, but fulfills the desires of the rescued person's heart, because now her desires are attuned with God's desires.

    Psalm 40 is rather unique in that the song of thanksgiving and praise runs through verse 10 and then the remainder of the psalm is a lament. This confuses the standard order, where lament comes before new orientation. What's going on here? Brueggemann writes that this psalm serves as a reminder to us that lives "moves in and out." That we are not rescued from the pit only once and forever, but may find ourselves there again and again. The rescued person needs God's care again.

    This is an important truth for us to remember as we embark upon these new ministries. We must remember that the caregiver themselves need care. For example, as we prepared for this Sunday the health of Neill's mother and my grandfather declined sharply, distracting our focus and making us ones who needed care rather than ones in a position to care for others.

    Yet, it is precisely this that makes us good care-givers. Notice that throughout this psalm the author says that because of what God has done for her, she must now proclaim God's faithfulness to others. What God does for us is not only for us, it bears witness to everyone that God is faithful. We have been cared for, now we must care for others.

    Sometimes it appears that things move slowly in church life, when in fact, they happen exactly when God would have them to happen. In October 2006 Michael Piazza led us in the prophetic renewal workshop, wherein he gave ideas and tools for how our church could live with faithfulness and vitality into our mission. In later council and other meetings, we formulated those ideas into plans. One of those ideas was a revitalization of our care ministries, which we included in our 2007 strategic plan for April. Well, when April rolled around, the time just didn't seem right to me. I made a few attempts at some things, but they didn't bear any fruit, so I did what I have learned many times in my church life – I waited and prayed. And low and behold, when God was ready, everything fell into place.

    First at the end of summer, Neill Spurgin came along and in a series of conversations he told me he could do whatever I needed him to do, but that what he really wanted to do was care ministry. About the same time, Judy Hey was exploring what new ministries she could engage in, given that her time as a congregational officer was soon coming to an end. One day I received an epiphany, why not see if Judy could be a parish nurse. That epiphany led to a series of conversations, both of us doing research, and within a couple of months, Judy went for a week of training with the Catholic Charities. And now she is filled with so many ideas that every time she and I talk I can't help but share her enthusiasm.

    But it isn't only Neill and Judy. Here are Judith and Dana, willing to use their medical knowledge to help. Nancy Sanders ready to revitalize the St. Luke's Team. And in the last few months Robin Dorner, Nance Cunningham, and Dan Mobley have all become part of our congregational family and each of them has knowledge and skills related to health and wellness.

    There is a move of God at work within us, leading us to new orientation, giving us a new song to sing. We have only to convert our wills to God's will and trust God in God's work, in God's time. And tonight we begin to sing that new song. It is our deep desire that many will feel the steadfast love of God through us and put their trust in God.

This Morning

This morning I awoke with abdominal discomfort and diarrhea. So, I'm back in bed again.

Yesterday was a good day. I walked in the MLK Parade, my first. Standing outside in the cold for over three hours was something. And this is the most exercise I've had since the surgery. But I had fun.

After the debate last night I used the internet for what is so great about it -- learning. I spent the time researching the foreign policy positions of Obama and his foreign policy advisors, including looking up their bios, research, and publications.

I need to hear more details on foreign policy from him and Clinton, before I solidify my switch back to Obama.

The Post-Debate

Well, the debate is over. Hmm. Each of them looked bad and unattractive at times. Annoying even.

I feel very strongly about Hillary's experience and ability.

But Obama grabbed me at a point near the end that will not be one of those played very much. Edwards had said that McCain would likely be the GOP nominee. Clinton responded by talking about her ability to face McCain in an election based on national security. It was a convincing point. But then Obama responded that that was part of the problem. That we can't run against McCain as GOP-lite (my term, not his). We have to redraw the political map. And on foreign policy we have to craft a completely new strategic approach.

I agree on this final point, that we do need a completely new strategic approach. One of the failures of the Clinton years was a inability to craft this new post-Cold War strategy.

Now, I'm not convinced that Obama can do it, but one of the clear differences between him and Clinton is that she doesn't even seem to be speaking about that sort of new strategic approach. I'd like to hear more specifics from him.