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December 2012

Michael and Scott's 2012 Christmas Card

The tradition continues.  Here is the text.  The actual card has the pictures as well.

Last year we read an article that said you should give each year a name.  What would be this year’s name?  Here are some possibilities:

         “An Equal Omaha Year” — That was the name of our coalition and campaign which successfully passed an employment non-discrimination ordinance through the City Council.  When the Mayor signed the law into effect, we received one of the pens.

Or there is “The Year of Zoe” — for our beautiful new niece, Zoe Cich, who arrived this summer.

“Twentieth Reunion Year (for Scott)” would maybe be too limited a descriptor, though we did, both, have a really good time hanging out in Miami and learning how many of Scott’s classmates are either retired or already grandparents.

Or “The Year of Michael’s New Job” — as he began working as Director of Marketing and Development at the Urban League of Nebraska after working at the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

“The Year Michael Finally Made It to D. C. and Scott Returned to Paris” is simply too long.

“The Year Scott Got Michael to Kayak” would  fit.  Planning our trip to Michigan, Scott sat down one day and said, “I want to do something we’ve never done before.”  Michael said, “I’m not kayaking.”  “How did you know what I was going to ask?”  “I just did.”  But he became convinced when a family in our church, who has young children, kayaked at the same place on Lake Superior.  And then he had a blast and wants to do it again.

That entire trip to Michigan and Wisconsin was restful, beautiful, adventurous, and fun (the other highlight was the day we biked around Mackinac Island), though we can agree to never again cross into Canada at Sault Ste. Marie, making “The Year of Bad Experiences in Canada” one possible name.

“The Year of First Steps” is another strong contender.  Which first steps, you ask?  For children.  We pursued a license as foster and adoptive parents through the state system, including taking classes which taught us everything about being parents (isn’t that what the certificate we received at the end means?). 

But, truly, if this year has to have a name, it would be “The Year of the Stoop.”  Beginning in May, we tore down most of the deck out back in order to reconstruct a much smaller stoop.  It was the project that never ended.  In fact, it is still not completed.   Our inability to finish the project is because we get so few days when we are both off with nothing to do and can work together on projects that take two sets of hands.  Our lives really do complicate remodeling a 102-year-old home.  All the major structural items are in place and the first coat of paint is on most of it, but spring will bring renewed work to bring it to completion.  Meaning 2013 could also be “The Second Year of the Stoop,” though that would be simply crazy.  Let’s hope for “The Year of Children” instead.

Peace & Love,  Michael & Scott



The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over Thanksgiving weekend I visited Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas with Mom and Michael. While browsing the books, I saw this title from Michael Pollan. I had heard of it before, but had not considered it. This time it arrested me because I was about to begin a sermon series for Advent focused on desire. Hmm, would there be sermon illustration material in the book? I bought it.

And, yes, I used some of his stories of apples in my sermon the First Sunday of Advent. Clearly the illustration worked, as people talked to me about it through the following week, and even one church member posted on Facebook, "Am I the only one who has been thinking about apples all week?"

The main point of Pollan's book is that plants have evolved to match human desires and, thus, have succeeded at the evolutionary game. In other words, playing off of human desire has been good for some plants.

The book focuses on four desires and four plants, with interesting excursions and tangents in every chapter. Sweetness and apples; beauty and tulips; intoxication and marijuana; and control and potatoes. The book is one part exploration of human culture and one part exploration of botany. It is a joy, revelation, and delight.

Here is the story of Johnny Appleseed, tulipomania in Holland, and the potato famine in Ireland. There are excursions to Kazakhstan for the home of the apple and Peru the home of the potato. You learn about agri-business and the drug war and genetics.

Each chapter contained much of interest. I learned much about the development of marijuana and how the drug war has resulted in even more potent versions of the plant as growers have developed incredible new techniques. This chapter spoke about many of the hypocrisies of the drug war, often covered material, but within the context of a larger human desire. We need to be able to forget most of the information that we receive every day. There are natural processes built into the human brain to do this, but we can still become overloaded and have sought plant chemistry to help us with this. In fact, we use many different plants to alter our systems (caffeine, chocolate, chamomile, etc.). He also discusses how the plant-based high was perceived as a pagan threat by Christianity and connects the oppression of witches and sorcerers with their gardening abilities. Modern medicine is simply the controlled professionalization of this use of plants.

In the final chapter, on the potato, he discusses genetic engineering and modern agri-business. Wendell Berry is quoted a few times. It was also interesting to learn some of the history of the potato, particularly how it my be the one thing most responsible for the shift of power in Europe from the south to the north in the early modern era.

I recommend this book to all my friends interested in food, everyone who has read Wendell Berry, those who garden, and those who like history from the perspective that isn't focused on politics and government.

View all my reviews

Manifesto on Ars Poetica

Manifesto on Ars Poetica
by Frank Chipasula

My poetry is exacting a confession
from me: I will not keep the truth
from my song and the heartstringed instrument;
The voice undressed by the bees,
I will not bar the voice undressed by the bees
from entering the gourd of my bow-harp.
I will not wash the blood off the image
I will let it flow from the gullet
slit by the assassin's dagger through
the run-on line until it rages in the verbs of terror;
And I will distil life into the horrible adjectives;
I will not clean the poem to impress the tyrant
I will not bend my verses into the bow of a praise song.
I will put the symbols of murder hidden in high offices
in the center of my crude lines of accusations.
I will undress our raped land and expose her wounds.
I will pierce the silence around our land with sharp metaphors
And I will point the light of my poems into the dark
nooks where our people are pounded to pulp.
I will not coat my words in lumps of sugar
I will serve them to our people with the bitter quinine:
I will not keep the truth from my heartstringed guitar;
I will thread the voice from the broken lips
through my volatile verbs that burn the lies.
I will ask only that the poem watch the world closely;
I will ask only that the image put a lamp on the dark
ceiling in the dark sky of my land and light the dirt.
Today, my poetry has exacted a confession from me. 

I Draw Near

I Draw Near

Luke 3:7-18; Malachi 3:1-4

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

16 December 2012



    The crowds have come out into the wilderness. They've left the comfort of their homes and cities and walked along the rocky trails to the Jordan River there to hear the wild, hairy preacher proclaim repentance. A voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord."

    Do they come out of curiosity, for some afternoon entertainment, or because there is a longing, a desire for something more? What do they want this wild man to do for them? What experiences are they expecting? What's their wish?

    And John turns to them, "You brood of vipers!" You cannot trust in your heritage or your tradition or the faith of your mothers and fathers. You yourselves must bear fruit worthy of repentance. Yes, you are the children of Abraham, but that means nothing. What have you done? If you haven't born fruit, then you might as well be cast into the fire.

    And these seekers who have come desiring something from John now ask their question, "What then should we do?" They ask it three times, "What should we do?"


    "In our daily lives things don't go exactly as we had planned, as we had hoped. The car didn't run right this morning. We never seem to have enough time. We could stand to lose some weight, but it is so difficult. You know, we simply aren't as happy as we expected to be. We thought we had done all the things we needed to do to be content and happy, but we just aren't there yet. What then should we do?

    "Some of us thought that if we made just the right amount of money that we would be set. If we didn't have to worry every month about our finances then we'd have time to spend on all the 'good things.' But here we are, the things we've enjoyed and all the work we put in hasn't been enough, we aren't fulfilled. We really yearn for something more in our lives. What should we do?

"You know, some of us were raised with the idea that we had to get ahead in life. We spent years doing everything that would further our ambitions. Along the way we made decisions and set priorities. If at times we didn't stop to smell the roses, it was because we knew that the people who did that would be left behind. After all, you either "lead, follow, or get out of the way." We've reached our goals, but sometimes we wonder what all of it was for. What did our ambition gain us? What about those people we met along the road, what happened to them? What then should we do?"


Luke tells us in the gospel that all the people were filled with expectation. The one who is coming will be even more powerful than John. That one will winnow the chaff and burn with unquenchable fire. A fire that purifies and refines. It is the fire of the divine Spirit drawing near. Who can endure? Who can stand? What should we do?

This is the fiery Spirit at the heart of life which ignites our desire. It is the glory that evokes our awe and wonder. It is the affirmation of life that leads to human flourishing. It is the power of renewing love.

Wendy Farley writes, "We are light and we long for radiance." For we are children of God, born in the image and likeness of God. God calls to us, igniting the fiery Spirit within us. The 13th century teacher Hadewijch of Antwerp said, "O soul, creature, And noble image, Risk the adventure!"

Risk the adventure and let the divine Spirit burn within us, shaping our wishes and desires. For sin is the opposite of enjoyment and delight. According to theologian Belden Lane, the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin "defined sin on occasion as a matter of 'dullness,' a lack of imaginative insight, a pathetic failure in taking delight."

God, then, lures us away from dullness to enjoyment and imagination. Belden Lane continues, "From this perspective, redemption means being delivered from the banality of sin and summoned to true wildness," which he then defines as "a high-spirited celebration of God's presence in an astonishing world."

God's presence, or the Advent promise of Immanuel, God with us, invokes enjoyment, delight, and imagination and, thereby, saves us from our worst selves.

Remember the story that launched our Advent theme. Young Elliot Mitchell asked his Mom, "What's your wish?" Laura answered, "Purpose, work, and a challenge." Elliot replied, ""Yeah, but what else would you wish for? I mean something like flying or a superpower."

Elliot imagined something wonderful and longed for adventure. Laura also longed for adventure and meaning, something beyond the mundane. Though their perspectives differ as child and adult, each was responding to the divine lure, the fiery Spirit of God, which rescues us from dullness and banality and invites us to desire something more.

And so the fiery Spirit works within us, burning the chaff, renewing us in love, shaping our desires and wishes, and giving us a new perspective. For so much of the spiritual life is learning to see in a new way. To see and understand our neighbors and their joys and concerns. To see and understand the troubled systems of the world and respond by trying to improve them. To see and understand how God loves us and is working for us. To see and understand ourselves, who we are, and who we can yet be.

What we wish for this Advent must be more than a mere craving that fulfills some need of our ego. It must be participation in the glorious, powerful, loving work of God. We ask, as those who came to John so long ago also asked, "What, then, should we do?" The theologian Catherine Keller wrote, "Can we hear the voice of the beloved, the divine lure, promiscuously inviting us all, even now, to come, to 'come away'? To become who we did not know we could be?"

For that is what God desires of us. That is what we should do. Use our imagination. Awaken to our deep desire. Become who you did not know you could be.

We are waiting patiently and expectantly for God to draw near, for the Christ to be born, for the Spirit to ignite. In that waiting and longing, God is calling to us. Become your very best. Become who I created you to be. You are my child, my beloved. In you burns the holy fire. Become my glory. Be fully alive.

What's your wish? We have simply to respond.

Making moral judgments: A response to Justice Scalia


Recently Justice Scalia created quite a response when he said in answer to a question from a young gay man, "If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?"  Much of the response has not targeted the actual problem with what he said.

He did not equate homosexuality with murder.  His own defense was that he was making a reductio ad absurdum and that people should have realized that.  I'll be charitable and grant him that.  However, given that gay people are routinely murdered, it was an imprudent choice of words.  But that's not the actual problem with what he said.

The Justice makes a very important point -- we should be able to make moral judgments.  Actually, I'm expanding from his actual words here.  He spoke of moral feelings, but I think he was ultimately talking about moral judgments that arise from moral feelings and not simply the feelings themselves.  The Justice appears to be worried about relativism and a culture that fails to make moral judgments or respect those who do have moral feelings/make moral judgments.

The problem with the Justice's comments is that he fails to understand that those advocating for full equality of LGBT persons are making moral judgments.  Moral feelings (and judgments) arise in response to heterosexism and homophobia.  

There has been a cultural shift.  LGBT persons were the objects of moral judgment, condemned by the vast majority of society and most major cultural institutions.  LGBT persons and their allies set out over the last sixty years (much further if you go back to the Oscar Wilde days) to demonstrate that those moral judgments against LGBT persons were in fact wrong.  

In many ways we have succeeded.  Many institutions, from business, to churches, to government recognize the error of those earlier moral judgments.  Polls demonstrate that a majority of Americans now have radically different moral beliefs about LGBT persons than they once had.  An ever-increasing majority now condemn anti-gay laws which prevent equal protection and deny fundamental rights and basic benefits to LGBT persons.

Yes, Mr. Justice Scalia, we can have moral feelings against murder and make moral judgments against it.  We can also have moral feelings against heterosexism and homophobia, make moral judgments against them, and, as a society, change the law.