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March 2014

But Now I See

But Now I See

John 9 & 10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

30 March 2014

    Back in February, Stephen and I were selecting hymns for that week's worship. It was going to be the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany and I was preaching on John 3:16-21, which includes that most famous of verses "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." That's the King James Version I memorized as a child.

    My sermon title was "Light in the Darkness," and the message of that sermon was that "in the midst of our darkness, Jesus proclaims that God is giving us light and life and love and that this is our salvation." We wanted the hymns to celebrate our personal experience of salvation. For the opening hymn, we selected "O splendor of God's glory bright," which opens with "O splendor of God's glory bright, from light eternal bringing light; O light of light, light's living spring, O day of days, illumining." The second hymn was the gospel anthem "I Am the Light of the World" based on a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman. The verses rejoice in the effects of the gospel, "To find the lost and lonely one, to heal the broken soul with love, to feed the hungry children with warmth and good food." And the refrain is the celebratory "I am the light of the world! You people come and follow me! If you follow and love, you'll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be."

    And for our final hymn, we selected the great Methodist anthem "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing." We then chose to sing it from the Red hymnal instead of the Black. In the black hymnal there are only four verses and we didn't, on this particular Sunday, care for the order in which they are listed. We wanted to end on the verse "My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim, and spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name." That sending forth would be a great way to conclude the service. We also liked that the Red hymnal included a couple of verses about salvation, healing, and wholeness that echoed themes of that week's service. I'll get to one of these in a moment, because it's the reason for this story, which I promised a month ago to share.

    But, first, let me say a little bit about this hymn. It was written by Charles Wesley in 1739, one of the over 6,500 hymns that Wesley wrote during his lifetime. Charles' brother John was the great founder and preacher of Methodism, and Charles' music probably played as much a role in this great revival movement as John's speaking and organizing. Plus, it is Charles' hymns which have been adopted by multiple denominations and beloved of millions of Christians.

    This particular hymn actually has eighteen verses, which you can find in the Methodist hymnal. The verse we usually begin with, "O for a thousand tongues to sin my dear Redeemer's praise" is actually the seventh verse of the eighteen. Both of our hymnals leave out such fun verses as these:

Harlots and publicans and thieves,
in holy triumph join!
Saved is the sinner that believes
from crimes as great as mine. 

Murderers and all ye hellish crew,
ye sons of lust and pride,
believe the Savior died for you;
for me the Savior died.

    There's a powerfully radical egalitarianism in those verses. All of us stand equally in need of God's grace, whether the most upright churchwoman or the most hellish rogue. And God's grace is equally loving and welcoming of all of us, no matter who we are or where we are in life's journey.

    It is this amazing grace of God which leads to the "passionate personal Christian experience," as one commentator calls it, that Wesley celebrates throughout the hymn. Another writer indicates that the hymn prompts us to ask questions such as:

What happens when God comes into a life and makes it his own? What difference does it make . . . ? Are we the same person inside? Do we think and feel the same way? . . . Are we different than we would have been?

Wesley most definitely thinks that we are different. The grace of God has changed us; we have become a new person, and the natural response is gratitude and praise.

    It was that sense which Stephen and I wanted to capture of that particularly Sunday by using this hymn. And, in particular, we wanted to sing the version printed in the Red hymnal was because of this verse:

Hear him, ye deaf:
is praise, ye dumb,
your loosened tongues employ;
ye blind, behold 
your Savior come;
and leap, ye lame,
for joy.

    Our reasons for selecting this verse were myriad: it's passionate celebration of the gospel, it's anticipation of our Lenten theme of healing, and what we took to be its inclusion of people with disabilities within the family of God. It also has metaphorical meanings that Stephen, in particular, was drawn to. "We are all spiritually deaf," Stephen said. "We are all spiritually blind. We are all spiritually lame." And, thus, equally in need of the saving love of God.

    Thursday morning, February 13, I opened up my e-mail and read the following from Barb Switzer,

You may know that Stephen has us practice the hymns for the following Sunday at our choir rehearsals. As we started with "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing", I asked why we were using the "red hymnal" when I knew it was in the New Century Hymnal. Stephen told us that you really liked the theology of the 4th verse, in that it points out that all can worship God. 

I understand your reasoning for liking that verse, but frankly, I find the archaic language referring to persons with disabilities to be offensive. "Dumb" is no longer used in the disability community as a description of a person who cannot speak, as it implies an intellectual disability as well as no speech, or unintelligible speech. I realize that the verse will go by quickly, and people may not notice it, but I wanted to bring this to your attention. It seems to me that inclusive language is more than watching out for gender bias. If our goal is to be more inviting to those in the disability community, than this is something to consider in all aspects of our worship, not just in our physical surroundings or accomodations.

    And that's the moment when you realize that your good intentions can sometimes lead to the opposite message. We eliminated verse four when we sang the hymn that Sunday, and I told you then that I'd tell you the story later.

    On the one hand, it is a great story of how we do worship here. The word "liturgy" means "work of the people," so our worship, we hope, arises from you—from your pastoral concerns, your intellectual questions, your thoughts and ideas that we gather from conversations and classes. It is also drawn from your talents and gifts. I was pleased that the final form of that week's worship resulted from what was a three day dialogue via e-mail and direct conversations, first trying to make changes to the words of the verse, and ultimately choosing to eliminate it.

    I tell the story today, however, not simply in the context of explaining how we shape worship, but because it echoes with this wonderful story of Jesus healing the man born blind. And to understand fully how it does so, I have to point out that the gospel story really includes most of chapter 10 as well, though I chose not to read that extended a Gospel text today. What occurs in chapter 10? Jesus himself gives the explanation for what just happened in the healing of the blind man and the series of actions that others take in response.

    Notice, first, the conclusion of the action in chapter 9. After the religious authorities grill the man who has long been treated as an outcast and who now powerfully defends himself, they conclude by saying "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And, then, "they drove him out."

    After which Jesus goes searching for him, and after a short dialogue about sin and belief, Jesus, in chapter 10, gives a long speech about how he is the Good Shepherd. Here are some snippets from Jesus' monologue:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I know my own and my own know me. . . . I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

    What does this beautiful passage have to do with the healing of the blind man and the response of others to it? Karoline Lewis explains in her commentary on the story, "The blind man, having been cast out by the Pharisees, needs a community, a family, a place where he will be cared for, and loved."

    In this great story we encounter themes of disability, sinfulness, divine action, and religious rules and identity. But Jesus tells us that the central theme is about who is included within the family of God. It is the Pharisees, in this story who commit the sin because they are blind to God's desire that no one be excluded. Charles Wesley, thousands of years later, got it right. Everyone including harlots, thieves, murderers, the hellish crew, and all of the rest of us received the amazing, overwhelming love of God and are welcomed and included within God's family.

    One thing we must be very cautious of is how we talk about the connection between healing and persons with disabilities. Because we can come across as patronizing and condescending and reaffirming the idea that wholeness and health is someone who is, quote, "normal." And what Barb rightly pointed out about that particular verse in the hymn "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" is that it could reaffirm those dangerous ideas.

    The profoundly beautiful truth is that there is no such thing as "normal" when it comes to human beings. We all lie along various spectra of physical, mental, and emotional ability, and at various times in our lives, we move along that spectrum. We must get rid of the notion that labels define separate groups of people – "Here are the mentally ill people and here are the mentally well people. These are the physically disabled and those are the physically abled. Here are those with cognitive disabilities and here are those without." As if these were permanent and clearly defined categories. For they are not. These categories are fluid; we all move in and out of them through our lifetimes.

    And this fluidity and diversity is not a flaw in our humanity. It is in fact the way God created us. I was reading this week about people who are deaf who resist cochlear implants and other attempts to "fix" them because they are whole and complete just the way they are and that their life experiences as deaf people enrich humanity. And I think, for instance, of the great blessings that Grant, Billy, and Katie have been to this congregation, just exactly the way they are.

    In this gospel story, Jesus may have miraculously healed a man born blind, but he did so to create an opportunity to teach everyone that those who really needed healing were all the people who didn't realize that the man was complete, whole, and valuable just the way that he was born. The ones who needed healing in this story were all the others, who were blind to the expansive and inclusive love of God.

    And, so, in last month's church Council meeting, we discussed our church's welcome of persons with special needs. There is a lot that we are doing well, including this chancel renovation, but there is even more that we can do. And just as the United Church of Christ has a designation for churches who are "Open and Affirming" of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, the UCC also has a designation for churches who are "Accessible to All." Just like that other designation, there is a process to go through and criteria to meet, and soon the Council will appoint a task force to guide us as we seek to formally become an "Accessible to All" congregation. This will be one of our new goals that should focus our attention in the coming year, and I'm quite excited about it.

    Because it is another opportunity for us to let the amazing grace of God work in our lives bringing us to health and wholeness. We who may have been lost and bind in ignorance, prejudice, or condescending paternalism, will find our salvation. For we will see one another as God sees us, welcome one another as God welcomes us, and love one another as God loves us.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see.

Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice

Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for JusticePolitical Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice by Martha C. Nussbaum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shortly before I read the review of this book which prompted me to order it, I had been thinking about national holidays. In particular (and prompted by the King holiday), I was wondering how the more pluralistic society that America is becoming would mark time and what moments would be celebrated. Many of the existing holidays, of course, have a very Christian tie, but surely some of that is changing (as we something like Super Bowl Sunday becoming more of a holiday and not simply an entertaining (to some) sporting event).

Nussbaum does not directly consider this question of holidays and the marking of time, but she does consider a broader question of how a liberal democratic nation promotes emotions, most importantly love. In this task she is providing something lacking in Rawlsian theory, which she otherwise presumes. Here is what she writes near the end:

In one way, the project attempted in this book is distinctly helpful to the goals of political liberalism, for it shows over and over again that, and how, real people of many different religions and other identities may be brought together around a common set of values through the power of art and symbol.

The book is very focused on the arts, as these sentences make clear:

How could the idea of e pluribus unum ever be real? The arts provide a large part of the answer. Their allure invites real people to join together, where without public poetry they might have remained apart.

Her book is about the sort of civil religion that a liberal democracy can and should create with art. This religion should promote patriotism, because sacrifice for national goals will be called for. It should also promote dissent, because it is a liberal democracy. It should encourage acceptance of the body and work to prevent disgust, envy, shame, and their negative effects. It should be rooted in human psychology and sensitive to the wide spectrum of human bodies (she has a very good discussion of "disability" and how it is a spectrum that we all enter at some times in our lives--which, interestinly enough, I wrote a sermon about for this Sunday before I read that section).

The least enjoyable portions of the book are here analyses of old philosophers like Comte and Mill. Most enjoyable were her philosophical analyses of art and speeches. I most liked the discussions of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (which grounds the book), Chicago's Millennium Park, and the Gettysburg Address. I also learned a lot in her chapter on child development and how parenting should assist the formation of healthy emotions.

Clearly, this is intended to be an important book and maybe something of a capstone to many of the ideas that Nussbaum has worked for her entire career.

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The Round House: A Novel

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years ago I read Joyce Carol Oates' novel We Were the Mulvaneys, about an idyllic family torn apart by the trauma of rape. At the time I didn't rate the novel very highly, but it is one that has stayed with me in a way that other novels I enjoy much more have not. Louise Erdrich's great novel covers similar ground. Except that this time there are two features that make it even more interesting.

First, it is set on an Indian reservation in North Dakota. The issues of Native American culture and history plus the complexities of American and tribal law add to the novel. They help to generate its plot and provide richness to the characters.

Second, is her decision to tell the story through the voice of a child who was only 12-13 at the time and is now sharing the story later as an adult. Erdrich vividly enters the mental world of boys in the midst of puberty as they explore their growing freedom, alcohol, drugs, and sex and grapple with the reality of evil and the complex moral issues of responding to it.

The book is at times funny and at times suspenseful and always engaging. Plus, it has one of the best endings of any novel I've ever read.

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The Spirit Inside

The Spirit Inside

John 7:37-44

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

23 March 2014



    Friday night the confirmation class took a retreat. We went to Elizabeth Wearin's farm in Red Oak, Iowa to learn about God, creation, and God's covenant with us to help care for the earth. Unfortunately, it was cold and windy while we were there, limiting the amount of time we could be outside enjoying nature.

    But I did have a lovely moment on Saturday morning. Only Elizabeth and I were awake and up. We were having our first cup of coffee. Standing in Elizabeth's kitchen pouring the coffee, I looked out the east-facing window just as the sun broke over the horizon, casting a tangerine-colored orange glow on the farm. Quite pretty. I pulled a chair up beside that window and drank that first cup of coffee in peace watching the sun rise and the birds playing in the trees.


    A moment ago Mark read the poem "At the River Clarion" by Mary Oliver. The poem comes from her book entitled Evidence, which I think is a most intriguing title. It makes one wonder--Evidence for what? For God? Meaning? Beauty? Goodness? Or all of the above?

    There is a quote at the beginning of the book from the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: "We create ourselves by our choices." Does Mary Oliver think that we have to choose to see evidence of love, goodness, and God?

    The book's first poem is entitled "Yellow" and is quite short.


There is the heaven we enter
through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle.


    We learn about grace from the doctrines of the church. And we experience it when we watch the birds. That's one reason we go to Elizabeth's farm for that particular series of lessons in the confirmation class. It is one thing to talk about God as creator and our role in caring for the earth. It is another thing to have a little experience of nature, to feed the horse, and to see the routines of the farm.

    In the poem Mark read, Mary Oliver can't tell you for certain who God is or even if God exists, but she does know something about the beauty and goodness of the river and how it contributes to the meaning of life. She does know that if God exists, then God is everywhere, and that this is important. She writes,


Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.


    In a similar line of thought, Jesus said,


Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,
and let the one who believes in me drink. . . .
Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.


And the author of the Gospel informs us that "he said this about the Spirit."

    Father Richard Rohr wrote, "The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that works largely from within and 'secretly,' at 'the deepest levels of our desiring.'" If we are thirsty, then we must drink from the living water that flows from out of our own hearts and this is the Spirit of God.


    Father Rohr is one of the bestselling spiritual writers today. He is a Franciscan priest who makes his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2011 he wrote a book entitled Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. The basic message of this book is that real spiritual growth and wisdom occur in what he calls "the second half of life." During the first half of life we are generally focused on giving shape to who we are. We pursue our education and our careers. We form intimate relationships that help to define us. We are often ambitious and driven. These, he says, are all good and necessary things.

    Common wisdom is that in the second half of life we diminish. Age slows us down physically and mentally, and we begin to retire from much that engaged us early in life. However, Father Rohr believes that the common wisdom is wrong. The true journey of the second half of life is not a diminishment but a broadening of perspective, a gaining of true insight and wisdom. Somewhere along the way, often after a real crisis in our lives, which brings us suffering, we begin a second journey. At least, spiritually healthy people begin a second journey. He calls it "falling upward."

    In the second half of life, we cease to focus our attention on what was good and necessary in the first half of life—career, ambition, and accomplishing goals. We aren't as concerned with following the rules, we care less about whether we get our way, we don't worry as much about what other people think of us, and we no longer want to waste time on the people and the things that don't enrich us. We begin to detach from things that used to concern us, and, instead, we focus on the deepest desires of our hearts, our True Self, our Home, which he believes in God's Spirit within us.

    Part of this journey is learning to let go of our ego and our desire to get everything right. He writes, "We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right." He explains:


If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it!


    We can choose to beat ourselves up over our limitations and our failings. Or we can choose to see that even in our imperfections, the grace of God indwells us. There is a Spirit inside of us, which can heal us.

    So, healing begins when we realize that the power to heal belongs to us already. It is that divine spark we all share. Once we realize that we are a tiny piece of God, then we can begin to accept ourselves and to forgive ourselves. Forgiveness removes shame and guilt. And we are released from some of our fears and anxieties. We are set free into a new peace and joy, a "delight beyond measure."


    Father Rohr describes this process as coming home. One important set of moral and health issues facing the United State is the homecoming of our veterans. We have seen alarming rates of veteran suicide and mental health issues in recent years. And we have a much greater appreciation for the role that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder plays in the lives of many veterans.

    While helping veterans coming home again, some theologians have begun to explore what is called "moral injury." As Rita Nakashima Brock explains it, "Moral injury is the result of reflection on memories of war . . . . It comes from having transgressed one's basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs." Veterans with moral injury "feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world." Now, moral injury and PTSD are not the same thing, as a person can suffer from one and not the other, but they are often linked.

    Most of our soldiers and sailors are motivated to enter the service because of their deeply held moral beliefs. Military service promotes the virtues of "integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and a commitment to the lives of others."

    Yet, combat veterans are also called upon to kill other human beings. Most report that in the moment, on the battlefield, there is not time to think and consider, one simply responds to one's training, and the need to defend one's self and one's friends. It is often later, especially when soldiers return home, that they have time to reflect and this reflection can lead to this feeling that one has violated core moral beliefs or that there has been a serious conflict between one's moral duties. This can be particularly difficult when one returns to a society in which the majority did not sacrifice during the war but continued living their lives as if nothing had happened. Veteran Mac Bica has written, "Healing and coming home from war are difficult, complex, and perilous journeys of introspection and understanding."

    Those who work with veterans now realize that we need to offer opportunities for soul repair. This is a new area in theological ethics, but already we have learned a little of what is required of us. The larger society needs to be aware of the issue and empathetic toward our veterans. We also need to take responsibility for our own actions and how war affects our lives and our morality. We should also learn to give veterans the space they need to work with each other in the healing process. One thing I've personally heard from many combat veterans is that they have to help each other, that they can't and don't want to open up to those of us who haven't served. But we should befriend them as they are on this journey.

    For veterans, coming home is a journey of healing that involves reconnecting with their deep moral core, their true self. They must nurture each other's humanity and offer each other grace. In this way the soul is repaired, and that tiny piece of God inside us all can become the source of delight.


    And what is true of our veterans is true for all of us. Healing begins when we realize that the power to heal belongs to us already. It is the Spirit inside us.

    Jesus said,


Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,
and let the one who believes in me drink. . . .
[For] out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.



Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays

Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative EssaysFacing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When this edition and its companion volume were first published in 2009, I checked them out of the Oklahoma City Public Library and read selections from them. Last year I finally purchased my own copy and began reading this one while I was on our recent vacation to Hawaii.

A few of these essays are as strong as the rest and there is a wide variation in style and length. Among some of the standouts:

"Shooting an Elephant" -- one of his classic works which reflects on the inherent problems in British colonialism.

"War Time Diary" -- an interesting window into London life during the Second World War.

"Looking Back on the Spanish War" -- from which I learned more about that major event and the failures of the democracies to understand what was happening and thereby confront Fascism.

"The Sporting Spirit" -- is a fun criticism of the modern cult of sport and the Olympica ideal that sport will bring international peace.

"How the Poor Die" -- a scary story about a stay in a French hospital for the poor.

"Such, Such Were the Joys" -- in which he tells about his school days. Even though we don't raise and educate our children in the same way that the British did a century ago, there is still good insight (and not just historical insight) in this story.

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