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February 2013

A Strange Place to Call Home

A Strange Place to Call Home: The World's Most Dangerous Habitats & the Animals That Call Them HomeA Strange Place to Call Home: The World's Most Dangerous Habitats & the Animals That Call Them Home by Marilyn Singer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another beautiful children's book I picked up at the museum store. This one combines poetry, biology, and beautiful collage to talk about animals which live in strange and dangerous habitats. The scientific details about the animals are at the back of the book, but each page is a beautiful work of art with a poem. The poems are also in various forms, which the poet discusses at the close of the book. So it is also a way to teach about poetry. Science, poetry, art, all together. Very nice.

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Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry

Braided Creek: A Conversation in PoetryBraided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, simple book of aphorisms and small poems that Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser wrote to one another when Kooser was ill. They don't attribute specific lines to one another.

Some lines made me laugh out loud, some were sentimental, some reminded you of the joys and burdens of the mundane, and a handful were on aging. Very little was inspiring or awed me with beauty, but I don't think those were the purpose of this book.

A quick, easy, enjoyable read.

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Many Gifts, One Spirit

Many Gifts, One Spirit

I Corinthians 12:4-31

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 February 2013



    The forty-fourth stanza of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself begins:


It is time to explain myself—let us stand up.


    A few lines later he sings:


Births have brought us richness and variety,
And other births will bring us richness and variety.


I do not call one greater and one smaller,

That which fills its period and place is equal to any.


    Whitman's poetry is filled with this democratic spirit, imagining each of us to be a part of each other, each of us drawing strength and power from one another. This idea has entered into our American consciousness and continues to work itself out. It resonated in the poem "One Today" by Richard Blanco which we heard at the Inauguration:


My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:


All of us as vital as the one light we move through,

The same light . . .

. . . Many prayers, but one light


    I am sure I am not the only one who hears in this American ideal a similarity to the words of St. Paul:


For just as the body is one and has many members,
and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,
so it is with Christ.
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--
Jews or Greeks, slave or free --
and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.


Scholar Troy Miller writes that the metaphor of the body applied to a group of people was common enough in ancient sources. But before Paul it "was often employed . . . as a reminder to those of low social and/or political status of their place in society, namely in a position of subservience to those of higher standing." So, what Paul wrote was unique and powerful, "Those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect."

    If we are to spend a few weeks examine calling and vocation and spiritual gifts, let us remember this crucial point. Each of us requires the other if we are to come to the fullness of Christ. What Paul begins here is an egalitarian vision of mutuality that continues to work itself out -- far beyond the doctrines of the Christian church. Unless we are deeply cynical or afraid, we recognize the beauty and the joy in this idea that we are all interconnected, that we all rely upon other another, that we are even part of each other, especially in our difference. And that because we are all part of one whole, those which might sometimes be looked down upon become those who are honored and repsected.


    Paul was writing to the church in Corinth because there was a group in the church that viewed themselves as a spiritual elite, having greater access to the spirit than anyone else. They appear to have been lording it over others and disrupting the worship and fellowship of the church.

    This attitude Paul condemns, in no uncertain terms. Yes, he admits, there are varieties of gifts, but each one is valuable in its own way. Even leaders and preachers are no better than anyone else. They don't have any special access to the Spirit. Life in Christ is available equally and mutually to everyone.

    In condemning these spiritual elites, Paul emphasizes that the purpose of our spiritual gifts is not what benefit they bring to us individually, but what value they bring to the whole. Theology professor Lee C. Barrett writes, "Genuine spirituality is not the cultivation of private emotional highs, mystical thrills, or an exclusively individual serenity. Christianity is not a religion of spiritual Lone Rangers or narcissists."

    At least, it shouldn't be.

    We are given gifts so that we might care for other another. Let me share a story as an example.

    In the autumn of 2011 Ryder Richards, the very young grandson of Rick Richards and Steve Jackson died, after a terrifying illness. I was called upon to arrange the funeral. I had never spoken at the funeral of one so young before. I struggled with what to say. When someone has lived a long or full life, there are wonderful stories to share of how they have influenced others and passed along their love and their values. I didn't know what to say at Ryder's funeral.

    That week I came into the office on a Friday morning, when I usually am not here. I spent hours writing a draft of the funeral service. At the conclusion of all that work, I thought it was the best that I could do. I packed up my laptop and walked down the hall, and Edie Godfrey was sitting at the desk in the main office. I stopped to chat with Edie.

    She asked me why I was here on a Friday morning, and I told her what I had been working on. She became emotional. You know Edie, so you know the look she was giving me, one filled with empathy. Then I said, "The first thing I had to admit was that I had nothing to say."

    At that Edie arose from the desk, clasped her hands together, and moved towards me crying, and she said, "Of course you have something to say." In that moment Edie appeared with all the force of an Old Testament visitation.

    I walked home and told Michael what had just happened. It was a reminder that I'm the one who has to say something. Michael said, "That's the best one line description of what you have to do and in lots of different settings and situations."

    And in the next couple of days what I had to say came to me, and it came filled with confidence and faith and hope.

    I tell you that story, not to make you sad, but because it is a good story. A good story about how God is present with us in all things. Though I may have the gift of being the one who has to say something, that week my connection was failing. What reconnected me was Edie Godfrey, with her gifts of mercy, hope, and healing. God's Spirit empowered Edie and she enabled me.

    This is what Paul means, "many gifts, one spirit," "for building up the body of Christ" "in love."


    Today the Matching Members to Ministry Committee invites you to fill out a spiritual gifts inventory that you can use to help identify your spiritual gift. In April the 3M Committee will host a series of workshops to explore the meaning of the various spiritual gifts and how they intersect with the current work of this congregation. I hope you will take the time this week or soon to participate, and I'll give you some more information a little later in the service.

    While identifying your spiritual gift can be helpful in determining what team or ministry in the church might be a good fit for you, it is far more than that. As I hope my story illustrates, the gifts are how God uses us to bring about the shared life of this community. We need others with different gifts and roles because they are the physical vessels God uses to care for us. God loves us through each other.


    For many people their gift, the thing they do best and enjoy doing, is probably identified with their job. In the book we are reading on Wednesday nights, the author John C. Knapp writes, "With a scope of influence that arguably exceeds that of the church, business is the primary locus of human interaction and relationships for millions of people." Our own Tracy Zaiss often reminds me that she and many other people draw their core identity from their work and that she perceives one of the issues for the church today is to remain relevant to people in their daily work life. John C. Knapp put it this way:


Many Christians believe their faith should be relevant to their daily work and are not content to leave their deepest values at the office door. . . . They wonder if it is possible to be spiritually whole in the place where they spend most of their waking hours and productive years.


    As I've prepared for this series, I've had to confess that I often know very little about your work lives, and so I have set a goal to get know more about what you do every day, why you do it, what you enjoy about it, what challenges you face at work.

    For there is this grand Christian teaching on vocation – that God calls each of us to some task, not just in the fellowship of the church, but in the wider society. So plumbers and lawyers businesspersons and homemakers, teachers and nurses are all called of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform their professions. We will explore these themes further as the season of Lent progresses, and I especially invite you to our Wednesday night classes where we eat good soup and talk more in-depth on these issues.


    As you explore your spiritual gift – as it relates to your participation in the church and your vocation in the wider world – there is one final point I want you to remember today. The gifts of the Spirit reveal God to us. Rev. David Ewart, who designed the spiritual gifts inventory that we will be using, wrote in the introduction of the leader's manual, "your gifts are the place where God is closest to you in your life. Go where your gifts are and you will be closer to the source of those gifts – God."

    Your gift is the Holy Spirit present in you, working through you. That is the place where the Spirit of God directly connects with your identity and personality. That may be why your profession is so important to many of you, because it is where you encounter the presence, the power, and the glory of God. Go to that part of yourself, and there you will encounter the divine.

What is your gift, your calling, your passion? How does God work through you to achieve the common good? During this season of Lent, I invite you to ponder how to make your work worthy.

Lucretius on mind & death

Book Three of On the Nature of Things explored mind, soul, and body, and closes with a discussion of why we should not fear death.  I found much that I agreed with in this section.

Lucretius seems to anticipate a form of panexperientialist physicalism, because he believes that soul and mind are tiny particles spread throughout the body -- "Thus soul entire must be of smallmost seeds,/Twined through the veins, the vitals, and the thews."

He persuasively argues that soul and mind cannot exist without the body and that the body cannont exist without the soul and mind -- "Again, the body's and the mind's live powers/Only in union prosper and enjoy;/For neither can nature of mind, alone of itself/ Sans body, give the vital motions forth;/ Nor, then, can body, wanting soul, endure/ And use the senses."

And persuasively why they are mortal.  One wonders why a distinct and immortal soul ever persisted in Western thinking or took such a drastically wrong turn with Descartes.

I enjoyed his humour here:  "Again, at parturitions of the wild/ And at the rites of Love, that sould should stand/ Ready hard by seems ludicrous enough."

On the fear of death, he was direct.  I too have never understood why people fear death.  I can understand why they might fear the process of dying, as for many this is painful and horrible.  But the state of death itself does not, to me, seem something to fear.  Lucretius writes, "Therefore death to us/ Is nothing, nor concerns us in the least,/ Since nature of mind is mortal evermore."  For him the only reason you would fear death is if you thought the soul was immortal, which has just disproven.  This is direct, "Nothing for us there is to dread in death,/ No wretchedness for him who is no more."

He also anticipates Locke's view of personal identity here, "And, even if time collected after death/ The matter of our frames and set it all/ Again in place as now, and if again/ To us the light of life were given, O yet/ That process too would not concern us aught,/ When once the self-succession of our sense/ Has been asunder broken."

Book Three closes with a denunciation of prolonging life:

Nor by prolonging life
Take we the least away from death's own time,
Nor can we pluck one moment off, whereby
To minish the aeons of our state of death.
Therefore, O man, by living on, fulfill
As many generations as thou may:
Eternal death shall there be waiting still;
And he who died with light of yesterday
Shall be no briefer time in death's No-more
Than he who perished months or years before.

A refreshingly straight-forward rationalism. 


A Bend in the River

A Bend in the RiverA Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Salim leaves his family's crumbling life on the east coast of Africa to run a shop at the interior town on the bend of the river. The town is just starting over again after the devastation of the war of independence. The threats of violence and chaos remain always in the background.

Over the years Salim interacts with an old family slave, a village magician, a young man trying to be part of the New Africa, an old friend trying to exploit the situation he finds himself in, a couple trying to make it in their little patch of the world, a priest lost in his dreams, a European intellectual lost in his thoughts, a housewife lost in her needs.

Naipaul's novels engage you intellectually. They are conceptual, for they grapple with ideas. Colonialism, post-colonialism, Africa, the modern global world, human nature -- all of these are themes that appear in the plots, characters, and conversations of this novel.

Naipaul is, of course, a master of English prose. I enjoy his sentences.

I only gave this novel three stars because I felt that his novel Guerillas covered many of the same themes (though not Africa) and did it better.

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Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power

Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic PowerJourneys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by Rita Nakashima Brock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally read Brock's classic 1988 work. It has been referenced in so many other books I've read, I'm glad I've finally read the original.

When I started the other day I skimmed a lot at the beginning, as she was arguing for certain elements of feminist methodology that one doesn't have to argue for anymore but have become standard elements of theology without the "feminist" qualifier. It was good to realize how much we've improved the discipline.

Little that appears in the book is completely new to me, but her arguments were good to read, especially as she discussed anger, child abuse, and Jesus' exorcisms.

Her core message is that salvation comes through erotic power arising from the relationships of community built around Christ. Salvation is not in the person, life, or death of the historical Jesus. As with other feminists and womanists, her vision of salvation is more holistic than that traditionally promulgated by Christian theology.

Two paragraphs from the Epilogue will summarize her perspective:

The power that gives and sustains life does not flow from a dead and resurrected savior to his followers. Rather, the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own brokenheartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all. In doing so, the community remains Christa/Community and participates in the life-giving flow of erotic power. No one person or group exclusively reveals it or incarnates it. In thinking that a single person, a savior, or even one group can save us, we mistake the crest of a wave for the vast sea churning beneath it.

No one else can help us avoid our own pain. No one else can stop the suffering of brokenheartedness in our world but our own courage and willingness to act in the midst of the awareness of our own fragility. No one else can die for us or bring justice, liberation, and healing. The refusal to give up on ourselves and our willingness to struggle with brokenheartedness, involve us in healing the powers of destruction, which must be taken into our circle of remembrance and healing if we are to understand and love the whole of life. Our heartfelt action, not alone, but in the fragile, resilient interconnections we share with others, generates the power that makes and sustains life. There, in the erotic power of heart, we find the sacred mystery that binds us in loving each other fiercely in the face of suffering and pain and that empowers our witness against all powers of oppression and destruction.

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AFER brief

AFER has submitted its brief to SCOTUS on the Prop 8 case.  It makes for inspiring reading.

The absence of any rational basis for Proposition 8—together with the evidence of anti-gay rhetoric in the Yes on 8 campaign—leads inexorably to the conclusion that Proposition 8 was enacted solely for the purpose of making gay men and lesbians unequal to everyone else.  Because a “bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest,” Romer, 517 U.S. at 634, Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.