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November 2013

River Road

Looking up poems with road imagery for my Advent series, I discovered this beautiful poem:

River Road


Running off with the boy at the gas station,   
yellow-haired, clear-eyed, with a pair of hands   
nothing, you understand, would prove too much for,   
is, it seems, a simple enough solution.

Consequences never enter your thinking   
at the start. Whatever the implications
of the act, of the speed with which you act,   
all one knows, and all one chooses to know,

is summed in this: we are to be together.
On River Road, the great elms overhead
branch out to shape a tunnel which we race through   
as we make our escape, leaf-dappled, late,

the avenue to what is possible,
water on one side, deep woods on the other.   
The water’s depth goes down in feet and inches,   
but the depth of the woods is only guessed.

Driving all night, deeper into the country,   
we pause at dawn, finding a roadside shack
which serves us what we call a wedding breakfast,   
homemade raspberry tarts and lemon ices.

I remember that first glimpse of him, sprawled   
over the body of a green coupé,
feverish, rapt, all ardor, lean, committed,   
almost making love, it seemed, to the engine.

The yellow hair hung down across his eyes,
damp and limp with the sweat beading his forehead.   
Two arms lodged elbow-deep within the gearshaft,   
the hands, when you saw hands, the awesome gifts

not of a boy who haunted the gas station   
but of a man for whom one understands   
nothing, in time, will be impossible,   
motor, transmission, fan-belt, valves, a life.

Illumination from a single light bulb
beat down across the muscles of his back.
Beyond him, from the body shop, there leaked
darkness to match those woods whose depth one guesses.

Every night since then, since River Road
and the tunnel through which, quite late, we fled,   
I find him sprawled over another chassis   
left to his care in a garage with one bulb

by someone who knows what those hands can do,   
knows, or has heard, what can be worked with love,   
suspects (I am not able to say how)
nothing will not be possible for him,

passionate with attention, with concern,   
held by the task at hand as he is held
by nothing in this life here, here, together,   
yellow hair in his eyes, light on his back.

Knowing no longer what it is I want,   
flayed by the memory of what I wanted,   
the possible, the uses of the hands,   
the uses, later, deeper, of the body,

I think of River Road turning to moonlight   
beneath the lyric hissing of the tires,
moonlight becoming water, water woods,   
everything turning much too deep to guess,

fragrance on all sides pinning us beneath it,   
sweet avenue to the nights stretched before us.   
It may come down to this: one’s choice of route.   
It may be that, at dusk, when the moon rises,

when, for the thousandth time, the dark begins   
what it seems to know no end of beginning,   
the stars strung in the branches, River Road   
cut at an angle somehow penetrating

the countryside of all we dream and long for,   
the heart of our location, of romance,
two others, quite unknown to us, their crankcase   
worked to perfection, brakes fixed for endurance,

their tires aligned to yield both speed and distance,   
bearings retooled to make good their escape,   
engine fitted to lead them down that route   
almost without their need to steer, to choose,

set out this evening, late, on River Road,   
that avenue to what is possible,
water on one side, deep woods on the other   
lovelier for the depths they would withhold,

seeming to know precisely what the miles know,   
seeming to choose to go where the road goes.   
Knowing the risk involved now and the price   
of wild raspberry tarts and lemon ices,

the sting, at dawn, of sour and sweet at once   
exotic to the tongues of two so young,   
two who have driven all night, running off,   
the spill of moonlight drenching River Road,

the same fierce angle, the same penetration,
I need to think again how deep the woods run   
(what lies beyond, of course, a myth, a guess),   
I need to weigh the cost of staying home.

The Hope of the World

The Hope of the World

Letter from Birmingham Jail, Paragraphs 25-39

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 November 2013



    In the autumn of 2007, while I was still living in Oklahoma, I was asked to lead a session on the intersection between religion and bullying. It was for a conference entitled "Stop Hate in the Hallways" which was organized by the Cimarron Alliance Foundation to address bullying based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. That year in Oklahoma, there was particular concern that year for the mistreatment of Latino, Muslim, and LGBT kids because of the rhetoric in the political sphere targeting those populations.

    The session I organized was entitled "Religion: Both Cause and Cure." I assembled a diverse panel – a Conservative Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Sufi Muslim professor, a Baptist youth minister, and a Unitarian. And I framed the discussion around a paradox which baffled me. On the one hand, all the world's major religions teach respect, compassion, even love of other humans, particularly those who are different from us. As such, religious faith should help to cure our prejudices. Yet, on the other hand, religion is often the source of prejudice that leads to harassment, discrimination, and bullying of others. "How do you explain this paradox?" I asked the panelists.

    I don't remember any of the answers, but I remain bothered by this paradox.

    In recent years our brothers in the Roman Catholic hierarchy have taken a strange position on religious liberty, which further illustrates this paradox. They have argued repeatedly that it violates the religious freedom of a Catholic business person to make it illegal for him to discriminate, particularly against LGBT people. I've highlighted some of the danger of this view before, but one thing that puzzles me about it, something I've directly confronted some of my Catholic brothers with, is the question, "Isn't it your responsibility as the pastors to teach your parishoners compassion towards those who are different, rather than defending their mistreatment of others as a human right?"


    Dr. King was so troubled by the lack of support from the white churches, that in this Letter he dropped his diplomatic approach and moved to chastisement, powerfully articulated in those scathing questions, "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?"

    I have occasionally wondered the same thing about some religious people, even fellow Christians. Do they really practice the same religion I do? Do they really worship the same God I do?

    In this section of the Letter, King shames the white clergy. They are hypocritical. They are failing to follow the teachings of their own faith traditions. They are blind to the "colony of heaven" eminently visible before them.

    Their blindness, failures, and hypocrisies are signs that the church is weak, ineffectual, inauthentic, and irrelevant.

    This word of God to the churches is a scathing attack upon complacency and the status quo. An attack that I believe the followers of Jesus Christ must listen to in every age to come, so that we too do not fall back into the same complacency, irrelevance, and complicity with evil.


    This week we learned the sad news that T. Merton Rymph died in September. We were a little annoyed we had not heard before, but, more importantly, we were sad at the loss. Mert was the Senior Minister here from 1967-1975, a time of great cultural turmoil around the Vietnam War, race relations, the women's movement, and more.

    Mert was actively involved in race relations while he pastored in Wichita, Kansas and Manchester, New Hampshire before coming here. He was a member of the NAACP and participated in lobbying Congress on civil rights legislation. He had even met Martin Luther King once while they were in seminary.

His Greenwich, Connecticut obituary described his time pastoring in Omaha as follows:


Omaha was a place of tumult at the time, experiencing some of the worst segregation and unrest of any urban center in America. Here he was highly involved in integration efforts and outreach across boundaries.


    A couple of years ago I called Mert, retired in New Hampshire on his farm, Wit's End. We had the most wonderful conversation, which made it clear why he was so beloved by many of you. I had heard some tidbits about the racial issues he had encountered in Omaha, but I didn't know many details, so I asked him about them. His answer, "Well, Scott, that question can only be answered in person and over a glass of scotch."

    He then invited Michael and me to come to Wits End to visit him and Jackie. They would be happy to put us up for a few days. We just had to bring the scotch.

    I regret that we never took that trip. I intended to take him up on that offer, thinking I had more time. I guess this is a reminder that we shouldn't put things off.

    Mert Rymph helped to guide this church through the transformational time that was the 1960's and 1970's. He did so believing strongly that the church should be involved in service to the community. That we should be relevant. He preached that spiritual renewal was possible with "faith, imagination, hope, determination, love and reconciliation."


    Dr. King was angry at the failures of the Christian church. His criticisms cut deep. But they also came from one who served as a minister of the gospel, someone deeply in love with the church. Despite all its failures and sins, he still believed that the church could be "the hope of the world."

    And what does a church that is the hope of the world look like? King gives some indication in the letter with descriptions like "sublime courage, . . . willingness to suffer, and . . . amazing discipline."

    Reading this section of the Letter resonated with some things my friend, the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister has said in regards to the church and its response to global climate change. Two weeks ago, while he was presenting to our First Forum, via Skype, he talked about how people of faith are uniquely positioned to lead this environmental movement because our tradition teaches us about sacrifice and the common good. Jim has called for the American church to renew its understanding of and commitment to sacrifice.

    Last year, delivering the keynote address to the Annual Gathering of the Nebraska Conference, he said,


strategically speaking, I believe that the only hope we have for a redeemed earth is

the wholesale transformation of what it means to be religious. As we have learned from the major social change movements that have succeeded, people of faith have provided leadership without which the movement would have failed. As people of faith who are rooted in communities of faith, we bring to our engagement positive, transformative

qualities that are essential to re-direct society's momentum – qualities like resilience, hope, imagination, vision and courage.


    A committed and engaged church, which takes seriously the gospel of Jesus Christ – a church that is strong, courageous, and authentic, will be effective and relevant. It will be the hope of the world. I want to be part of a church like that.

    The last month, as I have preached this series, I have been excited to hear the feedback from many of you. In particular, I have enjoyed the stories that some of you have shared about your experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. Luther MacNaughton was a Freedom Rider. Ken Friedman-Fitch attended the March on Washington. John Beerling participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Others of you may have had similar experiences.

    When the church is obedient to the call of Jesus, we can be the hope of world. We can not only imagine that another world is possible, we can make it a reality. The "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and the Civil Rights Movement prove that.

    In June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy, whom we remember this weekend, gave his groundbreaking address to the nation on Civil Rights. Prompted by the Letter and the events in Birmingham, he declared for the movement and against a more moderate approach. He said, "Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise." Many experienced this as a tipping point, as the moderate conscience was now fully aroused.

    It did not mean that victory had been won. The next day Medgar Evers was murdered. On September 15 the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. Bloody Sunday was still two years away.

    Despite the reality of evil in this world, the tunnel of hope had been carved through the mountain of despair. In 1964 would come the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act the next year. And the Letter would go on to influence other campaigns for justice and human rights. It was used by leaders in the Solidarity Movement in Poland, in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, in the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, by dissidents in Argentina, and by Palestinian activists. The young Chinese students in Tiananmen Square wore shirts announcing "We shall overcome," and pro-democracy websites in Iran have translated the Letter into Farsi.

    Jonathan Rieder, near the conclusion of his book on the Letter, entitled The Gospel of Freedom, declares that those who struggled in this movement were a testimony that normal people can bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. That by "praying, working, and protesting together" they could "bring that day."

    He then declares that even Martin Luther King, with all his faith and hope, did not foresee what would come. I quote:


He did not even know what we know, the even-greater fruits that his labor would help to bring in the decades ahead: the overthrow of Jim Crow, the erosion of the most brutal forms of racism, the making of a black middle class, the achievement of cultural pride and recognition, the growth of black political power, the election of the nation's first black president, and the extension of rights and recognition to women, gays, children, prisoners, the mentally ill, the disabled, and immigrants.



    What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?

    Here, it is the God of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar who delivered the people out of slavery and established them in a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The God who proclaimed that justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a flowing stream. The God incarnate in Jesus Christ who invited us to love our enemies and who died to set us free.

    The people who worship here, we hope, are those kind of people – authentic, courageous, sacrificial, imaginative, loving, determined, effective, relevant. People who are not weary in doing what is right. A colony of heaven. The hope of the world.

Religion & politics in the South

In his book A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, David L. Chappell contends that it was religious faith which led to the victory of the Civil Rights Movement over segregation, as the latter was unable to draw on religion or use it as an organizing or motivating force, while being confronted with a movement that basically was the Third Great Awakening.

Toward the end of the book, he has an interesting couple of paragraphs that I wanted to share:

It would remain for a later conservative movement, one that sublimated the racism of the southern white masses and built its power within the churches, to hammer together a radical (and largely successful) conservative insurgency.  The more recent "Christian Right," led by such propagandists as Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, swept southern white society and much of the rest of the country.  What we see in the earlier failure of the segregationist movement is the failure of racism to solidify a conservative coalition.  The conservative masses today may well harbor as much racism in their hearts as they ever did.  But they learned the lesson of the civil rights struggle: racism does not work well as a force for overcoming social conflicts within the so-called white race.

Religion, apparently, works better:  that was a lesson that black southerner taught white southerners by using religion to overcome the social conflicts within their race (for a brief but crucial period of struggle from about 1955 to 1965).  A new church-supported conservatism now rarely mentions race.  The triumph in the 1970s and 1980s of that new, church-supported conservatism in the post-Jim Crow South is the measure of how well a new generation of conservatives has learned the lessons of history.  

Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation

Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a NationGospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation by Jonathan Rieder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fine book and an enjoyable read.

Rieder gives great background and context for the Birmingham campaign and the story of how and why King wrote the Letter. Then, there are two chapters of detailed commentary and examination of the Letter. Rieder spent much time reading and listening to various King sermons, so he gives examples of how the thoughts, words, and phrases of the Letter had developed out of King's preaching and writing. At times a thought has sharpened, at other times he softens it just a little from how he had presented it to a crowd of mostly civil rights participants. These chapters are fascinating.

He then concludes with what happened next. How the Birmingham campaign played out -- the attack dogs on children, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, etc. And how that campaign and the Letter influenced the nation, including President Kennedy who gave a turning point speech on Civil Rights that summer and began the legislative effort that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Also figuring in this history is the March on Washington, also from the summer of 1963.

Then he goes on with the rest of the story and how King's thought continued to develop and how the Letter was perceived, including where it had influence and where it did not. The final chapter discusses how the Letter and its ideas affected human rights struggles around the globe while achieving a canonical status in America's classrooms.

I have used this book extensively this month as I have preached a sermon series on the Letter.

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Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas

Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the OglalasCrazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mari Sandoz grew up in the Sandhills of northwestern Nebraska. Her father, Old Jules, was an original pioneer, who arrived in the area at the tail end of the wars with the Plains Indians (he rode to the Wounded Knee massacre site the day after when he heard the news He was appalled). Old Jules was acquainted with some of the Natives, and Mari grew up in a household hearing the old stories.

In this book, Sandoz tells the story of Crazy Horse, and she does so with great literary effect. In prose style, it reads more like a novel than most biographies. Crazy Horse is presented as a powerful and compelling person, doing his best in the most extreme of circumstances.

During his childhood and adolescence, there is much joy and vitality as he moves across the plains visiting relatives and friends of other tribes, but he has already witnessed some of the illogical, violent response of the whites that foreshadow the future.

The tribe has always thought he was a strange, and as he grows up he becomes a great hunter and warrior, with a powerful medicine which seems to protect him from the weapons of his enemies. We get more than just the story of battles, we learn of his love, his spiritual connection, his loyalty to friends, and his admiration for family and mentors. Crazy Horse is a fully-conceived person, not just the iconic figure.

Of course his warrior abilities are turned to the Indian Wars as he fights to maintain the old ways, struggling against those of his own people who would give everything up. It is, of course, ultimately a lost cause. Not only must he struggle against the loss of the bison and the repeated invasions of the whites, there are the internal politics of the tribe. Some other significant figures of the era, such as Red Cloud, are portrayed in a very negative light in this story.

The final chapters are sad, as the victory at Little Big Horn (or Greasy Grass, the Lakota name for the battle) does not translate to victory in the struggle, and he must come in to face his enemies and their jealousies and broken promises.

A magnificently well-told story and a beautifully written book.

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