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December 2013

The Hilarious Story about the Painting

We were in downtown Miami, Oklahoma at the bookstore and coffee shop enjoying catching up with my longtime friend Juan Penalosa.  He needed to take a conference call, so Michael and I decided to walk up and down Main Street and browse the stores, something I haven't done in many decades.  Fortunately, most of the stores have something in them, unlike many years, though its nothing like the days of my childhood when they were filled with department, clothing, and shoe stores.

As we turned at one end of the street to walk back, I said to Michael, "Did you ever see the murals we painted in the public library?"  Michael said, "I don't think so, because I don't remember stifling laughter."

So, we walked over to the library.  The last time I saw them, they were on the second floor, in one of the rooms up there.  Note: I last saw them in the mid 1990's, when I took my college girlfriend Jennifer to see them.

We walked up the steps to the second floor, but all the doors were locked.  Then, we walked downstairs into the main entrance.  The man behind the desk, who we later learned was named Terry, asked, "Can I help you?"


I said, "My elementary class painted some murals that used to hang in one of the rooms on the second floor.  Are they still around?"

Terry: "No, there is nothing like that up there.  And I've worked here for seven years; I don't remember anything like that.  Sorry."

Me: "Well, that's too bad."

Terry: "Wait.  Were they on panels?"

Me:  "Yes."

Terry:  "And they were paintings of things that are around Miami?"

Me: Brightening. "Yes."

Terry:  "Oh, we did find those in the basement once.  No one knew anything about them or where they came from.  I'm note even sure if they are still down there.  Let me go and check."

He left and returned a few minutes later, beckoning us to the basement.  Another librarian, a woman, was down there and the two of them took us to a back corner (I was last in the basement when I worked at the library -- my first job as a fifteen-year-old; I was fired from that job, which is another story).  There were the three panels.  As we pulled them out to look at, I explained what they were.


Our Gifted and Talented class in fourth grade (I believe that was the year, if not it was fifth grade), met at the public library on the second floor.  During that year we created these paintings of aspects of Ottawa County.  Mrs. Geneva Rush, our teacher, broke us into three groups to research the paintings and create them.  One was significant buildings, another was Native influences, and one was mining.  That was my group.  Our county was a major source lead and zinc mining, which supplied the country during the First and Second World Wars.  And also left much environmental damage, though we didn't fully understand that when we did the painting.  These paintings and then hung in the library, at least for a decade afterwards.

Lori Helton-Bailey said that she thinks they were part of a statewide effort, where kids in every county produced paintings that then went to Oklahoma City to be displayed.  She remembers that they were displayed in the Murrah building, and she always thought they were destroyed in the bombing.

The painting had been vandalized at one point, and may be why they were taken down.  It is scratched, including having a cuss word scratched in it.

After I explained what I knew of the paintings (I learned Lori's recollections later in the day), the woman librarian said, "You want it?"

Surprised, I said, "Well, I would rather they be kept in Miami and used somewhere. . ." as I said this, she gave me a look like I was delusional, so I kept talking . . . "but if they are going to be thrown away or kept in a basement, then yes, I guess so."  I looked anxiously at Michael, who signalled that he was okay accepting it.  She then asked if we wanted the other two, but we declined.  They aren't as good as ours anyway (plus we weren't sure the one would fit in our vehicle).

She said, "Let me go check with my boss first.  They are City property."  She came back later and said, "It's alright.  Go ahead."

So, we took the painting.  As we were carrying it out, I commented that I was still Facebook friends with the three other kids in the group -- Lori Helton, Kim Baldwin, and Dustin Headlee--and that I couldn't wait to send them a message about the painting.


We went and got our car, and Juan, and came back to load the painting.  That took some work, but we got it in there.  I was giddy and jumped up and down, clapping my hands and laughing.

We went shopping to kill some time before dinner, and I sent Lori a message asking if she was in town and then explaining what had happened.  She was excited, saying she had been talking to her husband Will about the painting just recently.  So, we arranged to bring it by her house for her to see it.


She was pleased that the painting was better than she remembered it being.  Lori also sent Kim a message, because she thought Kim was in town.  She was, but wasn't able to arrange a meeting to see the painting.  

So, Michael and I hauled it back to Omaha.  Now, where should we hang it?


WTF Utah!

Now Utah?

And the monumental significance of this ruling is that the judge ruled that a state constitutional ban violated the federal constitution and the "fundamental right to marry."  Even New Mexico this week said that SCOTUS was unclear on that latter point.  Here is the summary of today's ruling:

Applying the law as it is required to do, the court holds that Utah's prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law.  The State's current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.  Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.

The judge declared that it was irrelevant whether the law passed by popular refernedum or legislative action or how large the margin of vote was.  An unconstitutional law is an unconstitutional law.

He writes that the law and the constitution have not changed, but the understanding of gay and lesbian people and that the court must adapt to the change in understanding.

He also said that even if marriage law is a state's area of interest, the state can still not violate the federal constitution.

This is powerful.  When address the fundamental right to marry he says that the State claims it is not violating that right, because they can still marry someone of the opposite sex.  The judge ruled that this violates the very idea of liberty, which includes choice: 

the State focuses on the outward manifestations of the right to marry, and not the inner attributes of marriage that form the core justifications for why the Constitution protects this fundamental human right.

The judge firmly rejects an argument the State made that this is a "new right," the "right to same-sex marriage."  The judge concluded that, in parallel to the Loving case, it is not a new right, but the fundamental right to marry, and the point at issue is whether the State can prohibit them from exercising this existing right based upon the sex of the partner they choose.  He writes that same-sex and opposite-sex marriages are both manifestations of the same fundamental right.

 The judge also, rightly, points out that the ruling will expand religious freedom, because it will allow denominations that support same-sex marriage to perform legal ceremonies that they are currently unable to.  I've been making this point for years, and am glad to see it appear in case law.  He even mentions the United Church of Christ in the ruling!

He believes that the desire of the plaintiffs to marriage is a sign of marriage's strength, not its collapse.


Pamuk on Cavafy

An interesting essay in the NYTimes in which Orhan Pamuk writes about Constantin Cavafy.

For those who lead a provincial life, life and happiness are always to be found elsewhere, in another city, in another country. But for us provincials, this other place is perpetually out of reach. Cavafy’s wisdom is in the dignity and introspective sensibility with which he approaches this sad truth. And finally, with the same linguistic restraint and philosophical simplicity, he concludes by revealing that we have wasted our lives in that city. We come to realize that we have all been wasting our lives, and that the problem lies not in being provincial, but in the very nature of life itself. 

New Mexico Ruling

I'm reading the New Mexico ruling right now.  It is very succint and to the point, dealing with each point at issue in the case.  

I really liked this conclusion as they dismissed the opponents argument against same-gender marriage based upon the supposed state interest in "responsible procreation."

We fail to see how depriving committed same-gender couples, who want to marry and raise families, of federal and state marital benefits and protections will result in responsible child-rearing by heterosexual married couples.  In the final analysis, child-rearing for same-gender couples is made more difficult by denying them the status of being married and depriving them of the rights, protections, and responsibilities that come with civil marriage.

One of the great turning points of the last year or so is that finally the issue of raising and protecting children has swung for LGBT families.  Mainstream culture recognizes that protecting our families and our kids is the issue.

The Holy Highway

The Holy Highway

Isaiah 35:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

15 December 2013



    Nine years ago, the rock band Green Day had a huge hit with the song "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." The song is a powerful expression of loneliness, doubt, and despair in a world lacking coherence and meaning.


I walk a lonely road

The only one that I have ever known

Don't know where it goes

But it's home to me and I walk alone


I walk this empty street

On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Where the city sleeps

And I'm the only one and I walk alone


My shadow's the only one that walks beside me

My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating

Sometimes I wish someone up there will find me

'til then I walk alone


    This is a far cry from the Holy Highway of the prophet Isaiah. Yet, I believe it does express the authentic feelings of millions of people. Life isn't easy, and many are lost or broken down along the road. They need someone to drive out and find them. Someone to rescue them. They are sighing, longing for deliverance and with it great joy.

    It is my firm conviction that Advent and Christmas are meaningless if we only believe they celebrate some past, historical events. I believe these seasons and our worship only have meaning and relevance for us today when they reveal something to us--when they help us to become better people, when they open us to a wider world, when they change us and change the world.

    This Advent our worship has been designed around the conceit of the road. That we are all travelers on this road, helping each other along, and discovering the ways the God. The prophet Isaiah suggested this theme to us, for the liturgical texts from his proclamations have included images of roads, journeys, and signs from God to point the way.

    They have also been wild, wonderful, exuberant dreams of a better world, filled with justice, peace, and joy.

    Today's passage is particularly celebratory. In it, Isaiah imagines the exiles returning home again, making a way through the desert, which will blossom. The dry and barren landscape will become verdant and hospitable, a beautiful scene for God's people to travel through. Along the way, God will bring healing to the people. From illness and disability, they will be restored to wholeness. It is a grand vision.

    And it expresses a profound faith in God. Walter Brueggemann wrote, "The poet voices an active, insurgent, powerful God who comes with a great intention. God now comes . . . to right wrong, to order chaos, to heal sickness, to restore life to its rightful order."

    In Advent, this is what we are waiting for: we long to be made whole. So, our worship and our study instruct us to prepare, once again, for this God to arrive. We prepare ourselves through prayer, reflection, confession, and thanksgiving. We charitably do our part to help others, as a sign of our own hopeful and faithful expectation.

    Paul Simpson Duke encapsulates the problem that Isaiah's vision has for us. The problem that even the original poet was grappling with is "the problem of connecting old hopes with the need for new ones . . . [of] claiming old texts for new situations." He writes, "The promised Immanuel already came and is surely still among us—so why on earth are we singing 'O come, O come, Immanuel'?"

    Because it is a beautiful dream that awaits fulfillment. Or, as Duke writes, "This vision wants an incarnation."

    We have heard this in previous Advents, but it must be repeated every year. There is both a divine and a human element to this vision. We cannot stand idly by and wait for supernatural deliverance. As we learn at Christmas, God works in flesh and blood. Through an adolescent womb, a crying baby, a dirty stable. Through us. We await Christ's birth, for Christ must be born, anew, in us. God will be revealed in us. Our journey lead us inward, to discover the Christ child in ourselves, to discover the power and glory of God that radiates through us. When we become our true and best selves, then we help to make Isaiah's vision a reality.

    As the world was reminded this week in the memorials to Nelson Mandela. We had the great opportunity to experience how one life can change the world. I love what President Obama said of Mandela this week, "For nothing he achieved was inevitable." Of course thousands, maybe millions of others, participated in the great achievements of Mandela, as he would be the first to claim. But if ever we needed a sign of light in the darkness, of hope in the midst of despair, of the truth of Isaiah's dreams that one day peace, justice, and joy will arrive, then surely this man's life and work are that sign for our time.

    Fortunately, we don't have to measure up to Nelson Mandela. But we do long to be made whole, knowing that when we are whole we will be powerfully effective, gloriously beautiful, and ecstatically joyful.


    Frederick Buechner provides us some wisdom for our journey, in his book Longing for Home. He writes about a road trip he was on once, driving to Pennsylvania to give a speech.


It was a beautiful day, and I wanted to make the most of the long trip by myself, wanted to be as fully present in it as I could without letting my mind go off on a thousand different tangents. Hard as I tried to center myself, however, it didn't work very well. My scattered thoughts kept jerking me now this way, not that way, like a dog on a leash. . . . And then suddenly I started noticing the trees.

    They were in full summer foliage. They were greener than I could remember ever having seen trees before. The sun was in them. The air was stirring them. As I drove by, they waved their leafy branches at me . . . . [They were] glad to see [me]. . . . They waved their branches like flags in a parade, haling me as I passed by as though I was some mighty spirit. . . . after a while I started waving back at them from time to time as if they too were mighty spirits and it was I who was greeting them. I believe I was not just being eccentric. I believe that for a little while I saw those trees as so real that I was myself made real by them.


    He writes that on that drive he felt fully present in the moment, and fully present to the world around him. He felt whole and holy. This road trip reminded him that to become whole, we must learn to experience the holiness around us. He wrote,


It is our business, as we journey, to keep our hearts open to the bright-winged presence of the Holy Ghost within us and the Kingdom of God among us until little by little compassionate love begins to change from a moral exercise . . . into a joyous, spontaneous, self-forgetting response to the most real aspect of all reality, which is that the world is holy because God made it and so is every one of us as well. To live as though that reality does not exist is to be a stranger in a world of strangers. To live out of and toward that reality is little by little to become whole.


    And when we learn how to do this, then we arrive home, where we belong. And that place is joy itself. Buechner concludes:


Joy is home. . . . God created us in joy and created us for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us finally from that joy, because whatever else it means to say that God created us in [God's] image, I think it means that even when we cannot believe in [God], even when we feel spiritually bankrupt and deserted by [God], [God's] mark is deep within us. We have God's joy in our blood.


    This Advent may our Boulevard of Broken Dreams be transformed into the Holy Highway of our God. We shall be whole. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Joy and gladness will be ours. For we are coming home again.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeFalling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first book of Rohr's which I have read. It received a lot of notice when it came out, so I had high expectations.

And for the longest time, they were not met. The opening chapters seemed trite, uninteresting, even somewhat cloying at times. I moved very slowly through them, wondering whether I should not read anymore of the book.

In late October I put it aside to read a couple of books for my sermon series on the Letter from Birmingham Jail. I seriously considered not reading anymore of it after I finished those. But, I decided to go ahead and try. It was better going when I picked it back up.

And then today I got to good parts and read more than half the book today, in the midst of lots of other work (I can read a lot while I'm waiting for my slow computer to do things).

The message of the book is that there is a second part of life that instead of a loss is really a gain. Early in life we are ego-driven, ambitious, concerned with our identity, rules, etc. This is necessary work, he says, as we are creating our identity and shaping the "container" for what comes later.

The spiritual task of the second half of life is to fill the container. To broaden our perspective, quit being concerned about getting ahead, abandon our ego, gain wisdom and peace. We have learned from suffering and now it affects us less.

Though some of the spiritual advice is not new, I liked the way he discussed various things, including desire, the role of religious belief, and becoming our true self.

I will use some of his material in my sermon series for Epiphany and Lent.

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