Previous month:
November 2013
Next month:
January 2014

December 2013

Road Signs

Road Signs

Isaiah 11:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

8 December 2013



    "Isaiah's declaration stands in direct contrast to the terror and brutality that pervade our world." So wrote, pastor Stacey Simpson Duke. Let's take a moment to realize that. Predators co-existing peacefully with their prey. An innocent child in charge of the wild menagerie. A righteous and faithful king who rules with justice for the poor and the meek. Who seeks wisdom and understanding from the spirit of God.

    This isn't what we experience in something called "the real world." Here, even our best rulers have significant failings and shortcomings. It is too dangerous to let our children roam around like we did growing up. Creation is a survival of the fittest, "red in tooth and claw." The poor are routinely denied justice. And who even notices the meek. Wisdom and understanding have been sacrificed to ideological purity. And violence and pain surround us—domestic abuse, child abuse, rape, sex trafficking, bullying—just to name a few of the evils we encounter.

    Yet, Isaiah is not ignorant of the real world. Notice the metaphor he uses—a branch growing from a stump. Stacey Simpson Duke writes, "Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life—a green sprig. This is how hope gets its start—it emerges as a tiny tendril in an unexpected place." She then asks, "Where are the stumps in our lives?"

    For Isaiah's vision is not merely a hope for the ancient people of Israel. It is a word to us today, that in our lives, in our own time and place, when everything appears worn out and finished, something new can be born. This tiny spring of green leaves is a sign of God's work. To mix metaphors with our own Advent theme this season, it is a road sign, pointing us along the pathways of God.

    But, as Paul Simpson Duke, Stacey's husband writes in his commentary on this passage, "Such visions are not easy to trust."


    Did you see the article in Monday's paper, or maybe through some other news outlet, about the lack of trust we Americans have in each other? In its opening line, the story simply stated, "Americans don't trust each other anymore." Only 1/3 of Americans feel that most people can be trusted, down from forty years ago when half of us trusted most people. According to the story, 2/3 of Americans say "you can't be too careful" when dealing with others.

    Social scientists were alarmed by these results. They paper stated, "Distrust . . . seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts, and building gated communities." What a healthy society really needs is social trust. The story said that social trust "brings good things. A society where it's easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good." Trust also seems to promote economic growth.

    Given these findings, the statement that Isaiah's vision is hard to trust is quite an understatement.


    So, what are we to do?

    I think that the only option for the church, for all people of faith, is to be counter-cultural. We have to start trusting—trusting ourselves, trusting each other, building networks and communities of trust, and then ultimately taking some risks in trusting outsiders and strangers. But it begins, I think, by opening our eyes to see the signs from God. The signs that give us direction, the signs that give us hope, the signs that we can trust.

    Where do we look for the road signs?


    Over Thanksgiving weekend I finished reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Having never read it before, I didn't think I could preach a sermon series entitled "Travelers on the Road" without having read it. This novel has been influential and inspiring to millions and is considered by many to help define an entire generation that came of age in the 1950's.

    Maybe I'm too young. I just didn't get it. The book has some really beautiful portions, but, overall, it didn't do much for me. That personal appraisal is in no way an attempt to criticize anyone who has found the novel compelling, for obviously, many people have.

    The novel is filled with semi-autobiographical stories of wild excess—sex, drugs, drinking, fast driving, hitch-hiking, rule-breaking, refusing responsibility. All while crisscrossing the United States and Mexico on the open road. Many see in it a search for meaning.

    Critic Meghan O'Rourke published an article entitled "The American Sacrament that is On the Road." She wrote,


This isn't just a jolly quest for "kicks" and beautiful girls and good times to be had at cheap prices. It's a book about death and the search for something meaningful to hold on to—the famous search for "IT," a truth larger than the self, which, of course, is never found.


Carolyn Cassady, who was the model for one of the characters in the novel, said,


So what they were really trying to do, both of them, in their living and reading about things, was to find out, Why are we all here? What is life all about? They were looking for "it." There were an awful lot of people concerned about that. That was their big quest, all of ours, really.


Kerouac himself confirmed that the novel is a quest for something significant. Unlike Meghan O'Rourke, however, he thought that they did find what they went looking for. Kerouac said, "It was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him." This is a fascinating appraisal. This wild, rebellious story is about the search for God? In what way is God discovered in this story?

Maybe Carolyn Cassady can help. She said, "Jack was unusual in that great celebration of all kinds of life. Whether it was rivers or mountains and Indian names or hobos. He was so unjudgmental and so thrilled by everything that was alive."

Did Kerouac discover God, then, in all those things and people he encountered on the road? Did he come to understand that all those things were signs for the great "It" he was searching for?


If so, then there is a sacramental grace to be discovered in this story. A grace that corresponds with things we learn in the biblical story. Where we don't expect it, when we don't understand what's happening, when meaning seems lost, and hope is absent, a small sign of God's work appears. When the widow of Zarephath goes to get the last grain and the last oil to make that last meal before she and her son starve to death, there is suddenly enough. When Hagar, lost in the wilderness, thirsty and near death, hides her child Ishmael so that she won't see him die, a spring of water appears. When the prophet goes in search of a new king, everyone is surprised that he selects the youngest son, whom no one had really paid all that much attention to before.

If in the midst of all the wildness of his journeys, Jack Kerouac saw the signs of God. Then surely we can see the road signs in our lives.


As the church staff conceived this series, Stephen proposed the question, "How has your road been this year?" Has it been a place of discovery and enjoyable adventure? Or has it been a place of exposure to danger, of toil and burden, of wandering lost, uncertain and unafraid?

Too many in this congregation have experienced the latter. Even as the economy seems to be growing again, we have members who are being laid off or who are still searching for quality employment years into the recession. On All Saints Sunday, we remembered our members who had died in the past year, and it was twice as many as what we usually have. Others of us have faced divorce, depression, lawsuits, trouble in our families or our marriages. And it seems that we are battling the demon of cancer. I use that word metaphorically, but sometimes this year it has felt like a malevolent force is attacking this congregational family. Way too many of you, it seems, are fighting cancer right now.

Yet, even on that dangerous, exposed road, the prophet informs us, there will be road signs. When the situation appears desperate, when the stump looks dead, just wait for the sign. Somewhere a new branch will arise, spreading its leaves. It is a sign. We can hope, we can trust. God is good, and God is able. God is with you and at work to guide you. And God will bring you home again.





This is quite wonderful: Tom Daley on love at first site

I find this whole episode of his coming out to be quite wonderful.  Not just because he is adorable, but because of the way he talks about love and the way others have responded and that he is an athlete in his prime.  I remember how when I finally fell for a guy, I felt the same way, that all the experiences I had had before were not as powerful as that one.


More on Mandela

I'm enjoying the many thoughtful essays being written upon the death of Nelson Mandela.  Rather than simply honor and celebrate his life, it seems that many people are using this as a moment to reflect upon the things he stood for in a way that could move us forward a little bit.

On the New Yorker website, Jelani Cobb has an essay entitled "Mandela and the Politics of Forgiveness," which I recommend.  

She writes, "When Mandela declined to press charges for the past, it was not just white South Africans he was absolving."  This comes during her discussion of all the connections between the apartheid government and the United States.

Later she writes, "Mandela has been praised in this country largely for the moral principles he calls to mind. A good part of that adoration, though, is owed to the moral felonies he allowed this country to forget."

Fiction on life and death

Yesterday I finished Lev Grossman's disturbing novel The Magicians.  It has generated an existential crisis for me in a way that Camus, Sartre, Kafka, or Dostoyevsky never have.

Early this morning I blogged about the crisis it poses: Instead of Rowling's theme, which seems to be "The story can get very painful and hard, but we are part of a story with meaning."  Grossman's novel largely presents the opposite.  It will be painful and hard, but there is no story, no meaning. 

Then, I read a beautiful essay from this week's New Yorker by James Wood entitled "Why?  The fictions of life and death."  Wood writes about how fiction allows us to craft stories that are missing from our own lives.

The opening paragraph is powerful, especially that beautifully crafted final sentence:

Last year, I went to the memorial service of a man I had never met. He was the younger brother of a friend of mine, and had died suddenly, in the middle of things, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. The program bore a photograph of the man, above his compressed dates (1968-2012). He looked ridiculously young, blazing with life—squinting a bit in bright sunlight, smiling slightly, as if he were just beginning to get the point of someone’s joke. In some terrible way, his death was the notable, the heroic fact of his short life; all the rest was the usual joyous ordinariness, given form by various speakers. Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence. As is generally the case at such final celebrations, speakers struggled to expand and hold the beautifully banal instances of a life, to fill the space between 1968 and 2012, so that we might leave the church thinking not of the first and last dates but of the dateless minutes in between.


Lines I marked from The Magicians

I don't generally read novels, or anything I'm reading for fun, with a pencil in hand, the way I do philosophical and religious texts, which I mark for later reference and use.  I do, however, usually mark a few lines or paragraphs in most novels I read.  Either because it is a particularly beautiful, apt, clever, or smart use of language or because it gives a great insight to the novel or its themes and I want to come back and quote it later in a blog post or something.

That said, I had a pencil with me almost constantly while reading this novel.  I marked it up far more than most novels I read.  Maybe more than any novel I've ever read.

Here are the passages that stuck out to me:

In Brooklyn reality had been empty and meaningless--whatever inferior stuff it was made of, meaning had refused to adhere to it.  Brakebills was different.  It mattered.  Meaning--is that what magic was?--was everywhere here.

This was one of the early clues that the existential themes would dominate the novel.  I am intrigued by this idea of meaning adhering, and not, to places.  Are there places in your life like that?  

This next one I thought was so amusingly written, that I immediately read it out loud to Michael, who had no idea who these characters were.  

Quentin hadn't realized how hard-won Eliot's air of ludicrously exaggerated insouciance must be.  That facade of lofty indifference must be there to hide real problems.  Quentin liked to think of himself as a sort of regional champion of unhappiness, but he wondered if Eliot had him outclassed on that score, too.


. . . mundanity was epidemic.  It was like a coral reef with the living vital meaning bleached out of it, leaving nothing but an empty colored rock behind.


In a stark contrast with my first excerpt:

The world had become smaller and somehow lighter--nothing meant anything, but what was meaning anyway but a burden that weighed them down?

This comes at an interesting moment at the close of a dinner party when they have discussed the topic of God and right before a main character makes a huge mistake.  In the midst of coming to a realization of what he has done, he thinks the following, which are not his final thoughts on the subject, but revealing:

Magic wasn't going to solve everything.  Couldnt' she see that?  Couldn't she see that they were all dying, that everything was futile, that the only thing to do was to live and drink and fuck whatever and whomever while you still could?


Daylight was here, and with it had come the world of appearances and lies and acting like everything was fine.

When, suddenly, Quentin's greatest fantasy interrupts his lowest point, he begins to dream again:

Everything had been completely ruined and then completely redeemed in such rapid succession that he couldn't tell which state ultimately applied.  But if you looked at it a certain way, what happened between him and Janet wasn't about him and Janet at all, or even him and Alice.  It was a symptom of the sick, empty world they were all in together.  And now they had the medicine.  The sick world was about to be healed.


They were embarking on a grand adventure on the spur of the moment.  Isn't that what it means to be alive, Goddamn it?

Yet, he still has reservations.

"Sure, but real life's not actually like that," Quentin went on, fumbling after what he was sure was an important insight.  "You don't just go on fun adventures for good causes and have happy endings.  You're not going to be a character in a story, there's nobody arranging everything for you.  The real world just doesn't work like that."

There is some resonance here with one of the very first posts I ever wrote for this blog, "The Mythos of a Gen-X Male." 

He had reached the outer limits of what Fun, capital F, could do for him.  The cost was way too high, the returns pitifully inadequate.

I think Rowling captured this well.  Prisoner of Azkaban startled you, because that series wasn't just going to be the fun and games of the first two books.  The danger was going to a deeper level, as I wrote in my review of the film in 2004.  Then, when Cedric Diggory died and Voldemort returned, you were confirmed in that fear.  The final books got darker.  And the closing volume was almost completely lacking in anything fun.

Then, the very moment that his fantasy is realized,

Looking back, in a philosophical frame of mind, it occurred to Quentin that he'd always thought this would be a happy day, the happiest day of his life.  Funny how life had its little ways of surprising you.  Little quirks of fate.


And now that he was here it would finally be all right.  He didn't see how yet, but it would.  It had to be.  Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but hot tears poured helplessly down his cheeks, leaving cold tracks behind them.  Against all his own wishes and instincts he got down on his knees and put his head in his hands and pushed his face into the cold leaves.  A sob clawed its way out of him.  For a minute he lost himself.  Somebody, he would never know who, not Alice, put their hand on his shoulder.  This was the place.  He would be picked up, cleaned off, and made to feel safe and happy and whole again here.  How had everything gone so wrong?  How could he and Alice have been so stupid?  It barely even mattered now.  This was his life now, the life he had always been waiting for.  It was finally here.


There was a time when this had been his most passionate hope, when it would have ravished him with happiness.  It was just so weird, he thought sadly.  Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted?  Its groping hands so clumsy?  He thought he'd left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How could it have followed him here, of all places?  How far did he have to run?  If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left!  A wave of frustration and panic surged through him.  


The danger would be going back, or staying still.  The only way out was through.  The past was ruins, but the present was still in play.

Jumping off this existential crisis in process, for a minute, there was a telling passage about a lovers' fight:

In a way fighting like this was just like using magic.  You said the words, and they altered the universe.  By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life worse.

Near the end, the characters encounter one of the gods of the fantasy world, basically a stand-in for Aslan.  Then, all their doubts and questions about the divine come out in a series of questions directed at the god.  The character Janet gets right to it:

"We human beings are unhappy all the time.  We hate ourselves and we hate each other and sometimes we wish You or Whoever had never created us or this shit-ass world or any other shit-ass world.  Do You realize that?  So next time You might think about not doing such a half-assed job."

Back to the existential crisis provoked by Quentin's sense of narrative:

They were so close.  They were almost home, they could still win it all if they could just figure out a way to push through to the end of the story.  If they could gut it out through one more scene.

The contrast between Grossman and Rowling's views of narrative interest me.  This quote is very much like her view.  The story can get very painful and hard, but we are part of a story with meaning.  Grossman's novel largely presents the opposite.  It will be painful and hard, but there is no story, no meaning.  He, of course, cops out at the end.  So, maybe that's not really his view?  Do the two sequels respond to this problem?

After much that disturbs in the novel, we are offered this one little bit of solace.  Is it enough?

And those nice, surprisingly Pottery Barn-y curtains, the color of the stems of plants.  They were coarse-woven, but it wasn't the familiar, depressing fake-authentic coarseness of high-end Earth housewares, which merely imitated the real coarseness of fabrics that were woven by hand out of genuine necessity.  As he lay there Quentin's uppermost thought was that these were authentically coarse-woven curtains, woven by people who  didn't know any other way of making curtains, who didn't even know that their way was special, and whose way was therefore not discounted and emptied of meaning in advance.  This made him very happy.  It was as if he'd been looking for these curtains forever, as if he'd been waiting his whole life to wake up one morning in a room in which those coarse-woven, stem-green curtains hung over the windows.

Real.  Genuine.  Authentic.

Later, he wishes he had never gone on adventure, never encountered magic.

Now he had answers, but they weren't doing what answers were supposed to do: they weren't making things simpler or easier.  They weren't helping. . . .  [He should never have done all the things in the story but should have remained mundane and depressed.]  He would never have known the horror of really getting waht he thought he wanted. . . .  Sure, you can live out your dreams, but it'll only turn you into a monster.

If those final two sentences I quoted are true, then I shudder with sorrow.  Are they true?

Or is only this simpler, less disturbing claim the truth?

To live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.

Completely unrelated to the existential crisis, I think, is this fun description of a glass of Scotch:

a bitter single malt Scotch that tasted like it had been decanted through the stump of an oak tree that had been killed by lightning.

I want me some of that.

Noe on the clash between science and religion

Alva Noe gives a concise presentation of exactly what is the clash between science and religion, and the role of philosophy in helping to police it.

My initial response, as a philosopher, is that science is not uncritically welcome to its ideology.  That's its ideology is limited.  It is also interesting that to see it so directly stated that science is unempirical.  For the average person (or even for other scientists not working on a particular issue) , then, the pronouncements of science must be taken on faith.

Also, I am less convinced that there is some sort of monolithic scientific ideology.  Post-Kuhn that seems like a strange thing  to insist upon.

The Character of Eliot

From Lev Grossman's The Magician, which I finished last night, my favourite character was Eliot.  He is a young magician a year older than Quentin, the main character, and Eliot is gay.  Note, the gay character is not always my favourite in any book, but Eliot was particularly interesting.  I wanted there to be more about him.  Elements of his story when undeveloped.  The entire story from his perspective would be interesting as well.

We have one fascinating glimpse into his story when Quentin, while they are at magic school, accidentally stumbles upon Eliot engaged in a sexual scene with another student.  In the scene, Eliot is role-playing a submissive to a student who is younger and not as smart or powerful as he is.  Grossman spends a good amount of time on this episode, and then does nothing with it later in the story.

If this is how he wants to inform us that Eliot was gay, there were simpler ways.  It informs us about much more than a sexual orientation, so I kept expecting it this side of Eliot's character to be developed or relevant to a later plot point.  It was not.

As can sometimes be the case with gay characters, his sexuality was left underdeveloped.  The straight characters in this gang of friends shag and have relationships with other people who we meet and who become part of the plot.  Not Eliot.  This is disappointing.  I kept thinking that at some point he'd have some guy attached to him and that guy would then be brought along on the adventure, opening up some interesting plot possibilities.  But no.  Only the straight characters got to bring girlfriends along.

When they make it to Fillory, the magical land of their fantasies, the story more than once says things like "Eliot needed this [the adventure] more than Quentin" and also comments that Eliot was better able to handle what transpires.  Why is all of this the case?  We are given little insight.

Zizek on Mandela

A short, but powerful, piece from Slavoj Zizek on how the socialist vision of Mandela was not achieved and how that remains for us to accomplish, if we honor his legacy.  

The final paragraph is quite strong:

If we want to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy, we should thus forget about celebratory crocodile tears and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to. We can safely surmise that, on account of his doubtless moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life also a bitter, old man, well aware how his very political triumph and his elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power.

"The Humanities Crisis"

Gary Gutting writes about the crisis facing the humanities; it is an economic one:

This talk of “a subject they love” brings us to the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural (or even moral). The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive. Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.

He then offers some ideas for helping to solve this--a K-12 education system which attracts the brightest from the humanities and pays them well, ending the reliance on adjuncts in the university system, and investing more of societies funds on the humanities, in the way we currently do with athletics.  On this final point:

Fair treatment for writers and artists is an even more difficult matter, which will ultimately require a major change in how we think about support for the arts. Fortunately, however, we already have an excellent model, in our support of athletics. Despite our general preference for capitalism, our support for sports is essentially socialist, with local and state governments providing enormous support for professional teams. To cite just one striking example, the Minnesota State Legislature recently appropriated over $500 million to help build the Vikings a new stadium. At the same time,the Minnesota Orchestra is close to financial disaster because it can’t erase a $6 million deficit. If the Legislature had diverted only 10 percent of its support for football, it would have covered that deficit for the next eight years.

Socialist athletics!  What a great point.