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May 2014

A Bach prelude and an R. E. M. offertory

This is the seventeenth installment in this series on hymns.

Through the late nineties and into the turn-of-the-century I was attending First Baptist Church in Shawnee, Oklahoma, still singing many of the hymns I'd grown up with, yet with more emphasis on those that inspired reverence and awe.  This was the period in which I was pursuing my degrees, and I was an active layman.

Scott and Tim

When Tim Youmans came as our youth minister, he and I quickly formed a friendship and soon I was helping with the youth.  It was these experiences which led me back into full-time ministry.

Though Tim played a guitar, his music for the youth was not the contemporary choruses I had grown up on in the 1980's.  Sure, he still did some silly songs, though they weren't silly in the same way.  For instance, he used Sarah McLachlan's "Ice Cream" as a worship song.

Your love is better than ice cream
better than anything else that I've tried
and your love is better than ice cream
Everyone here knows how to fight

and it's a long way down
it's a long way down
it's a long way down to the place
where we started from
Your love is better than chocolate
better than anything else that I've tried
oh love is better than chocolate
everyone here knows how to cry
it's a long way down
it's a long way down
it's a long way down to the place
where we started from...

A Gen-Xer like myself, Tim's musical sensibilities were shaped more by alternative music.  Whereas 1980's praise music was often led by people in khaki's and polos, by the 1990's it looked more like a grunge rock band and played, generally, much higher quality music.  Unfortunately, I can't remember the lyrics to most of the choruses we sang at that time.  I guess I didn't participate long enough for them to become ingrained.

But Tim helped to expand my ideas of what worship could be.  He like many of us who became post-evangelicals and in some way part of the larger emergent movement, we were drawn to a richer spirituality and ancient practices, except in contemporary forms.  So, our youth worship had candles and crosses and other visual objects.  We began observing Ash Wednesday and other moments in the liturgical calendar.  The music and worship included times of silence and contemplation.

I began to long for a worship experience that might open with a Bach prelude and include an R. E. M. offertory.  Shortly before Tim came to town, I had attended my first Jazz liturgy.

Unfortunately, I've never yet been in a place with the resources of people to make exactly this happen, though I've done the best at it I could.  At First Central we've incorporated songs by Leonard Cohen, Pete Seeger, and U2 into our worship in the last couple of years.  I've yet to do an R. E. M. offertory with a Bach prelude, however.

So, yeah, this post isn't really about hymns I've sung, but is an essential piece of my develop which occurred in the years immediately before I became a full-time minister and began participating in worship planning instead of simply being a recipient and participant of someone else's planning.  From now on in this series, I will be one of those responsible for the hymns I've sung.

It Is Well with My Soul

This is the sixteenth installment in this series on the hymns I've sung.


In the eight years I was a member at Shawnee, First Baptist, surveys of the congregation always revealed that their favourite hymn was "It Is Well with My Soul."  Not "Amazing Grace" or some vibrant or stirring hymn, but always this reflective song born from sadness and death.  It was written by Horatio Spafford after his family died in a shipwreck.

I always thought its popularity at First Baptist instead of some more typical hymn was reflective that congregation's attitude toward worship and faith.

It was, of course, a hymn I was already deeply familiar with, but it seemed to gain in richness for me in those years at Shawnee, First.  Those were also years when acacemically I was often engaged in philosophical explorations of the problem of evil and suffering.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
"Even so," it is well with my soul.

I have a vivid recollection from Royal Lane, some years later.  Ben & Leland had just joined and were the first really visible gay couple.  They both sang tenor in the choir.  On this particular Sunday they were singing the special music, a duet of this song.  They sang the final verse with such stirring force that I don't think there was a person in that congregation who was not moved.

And it seemed to me, at least me who was finally beginning my own journey out, that there were new layers of meaning in the song that day, praying for God to hasten the day and that whatever might come it would be well with my soul.


Awe & Reverence

This is number fifteen in a series of posts on the hymns I've sung during my life.

Early in Western Civ my sophomore year Jim Farthing, our History Prof, mentioned "the music of the spheres."  When people didn't know what he was talking about he said, "You've been singing 'This is My Father's World' all your life and didn't know what it meant?"

I could honestly say that I couldn't remember ever singing that hymn, so I had to go look it up.  Sure enough it was in our hymnal and in the one I'd grown up with, but it was one of the many hymns that either we didn't sing at all or didn't sing often enough to become familiar.

This is my Father's world, 
And to my listening ears,
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.

This is my Father's world,
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hands the wonders wrought.

Yet this hymn is indicative of a change in the worship I experienced in young adulthood.  While attending Oklahoma Baptist University, I would encounter a wider range of music and after joining Shawnee, First Baptist the standards hymns I would sing would alter.

Though I had grown up in a relatively traditional Southern Baptist Church, First Baptist in Shawnee was a more formal church and being the main church near our denominational university it had a long focus on intellectual life and a rich appreciation for music.  Worship at Shawnee, First inspired one with awe and reverence.

And so hymns like "This Is My Father's World" suddenly became standards for me, while a significant number of hymns that I'd grown up singing began to fade, little used at Shawnee, First or at OBU.

"This Is My Father's World" would become a favourite, especially for its sympathies to ecology and its emphasis on the immanence of God.

This is my Father's world,
He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.

Though this hymn is filled with masculine words and pronouns, it does not participate as fully in the masculine imagery of warrior, lord, and king (though it does appear in the third verse).  I think that generally this is a good fatherly image that survives feminist critique.

Another hymn that also appeared in the hymnal during my childhood and which I do not remember singing, yet became a standard and a favourite in my adulthood is "Be Thou My Vision."

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me save that Thou art:
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord:
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son,
Thou in me dwelling , and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not, or man's empty praise,
Thou mine inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heaven's Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

I've always liked the way the opening of the fourth verse builds upon the close of the third verse and this Celtic image of the "High King of heaven."  Adaptations of that phrase lose the specific Celtic cultural reference in the image.

"Be Thou My Vision" has remained one of my favourite hymns, which I use quite often in worship.

Celt stone f

An interesting essay on gay marriage

Jay Michaelson writes for The Daily Beast on what to expect out of marrige equality.  Will conservative fears be realized?  Or are radical progressives right that marriage means domestication and assimilation and the end of liberation?  Or something else in between?

An excerpt:

If not, the future of marriage, in fact, may turn out to be a lot like the Christian Right’s nightmare: a sex-positive, body-affirming compact between two adults that allows for a wide range of intimate and emotional experience. Maybe no one will be the “husband” (as in, animal husbandry) and no one the chattel.  Maybe instead of jealousy, non-monogamous couples will cultivate “compersion” to take pleasure in their partners’ sexual delight. And most dangerously, maybe marriage will be only one of many forms of such a compact; maybe people will choose their own intimate futures without coercion from the state. The horror!

A New Hymnal

This is number fourteen in a series of posts I'm writing on the hymns I've sung during my life.


In 1991 the Southern Baptist Convention published a new hymnal now with a "the" in the title -- The Baptist Hymnal.  It has a much more formal setting and was more coherently organized into sections.  I'm assuming a more formal hymnal was published because many churches were no longer using hymnals so the churches that were were the more traditional ones?

Miami, First Baptist did buy the new hymnals, but I largely was familiarized to it while attending college.  This would be the primary hymnal during my years of theological growth and transformation from adolesence to young adulthood.

The hymnal, while being more formal, did select out some of the praise choruses that had gained popularity in the decade before.  In a way, this canonized them.  For example, "Shine, Jesus, Shine."

Lord, the light of Your love is shining,
In the midst of the darkness shining;
Jesus, Light of the world, shine upon us,
Set us free by the truth You now bring us;
Shine on me.
Shine on me.

Shine, Jesus shine, fill this land with the Father's glory;
Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire.
Flow, river flow, flood the nations with grace and mercy;
Send forth Your Word, Lord, and let there be light.

A quartet performed this song at my farewell service at Rolling Hills Baptist Church.

The hymnal also introduced us to new hymns.  One of my favourites was number 3, "Worthy of Worship."  (Note, while "Holy, Holy, Holy" remained the first hymn in the hymnal, it was now number 2.  Number one was a responsive reading, as each of the new sections opened with one.)

Worthy of worship, worthy of praise, worthy of honor and glory;
Worthy of all the glad songs we can sing, worthy of all of the offerings we bring.

You are worthy, Father, Creator.
You are worthy, Savior, Sustainer.
You are worthy, worthy and wonderful;
Worthy of worship and praise.

I very much enjoyed the third verse:

Almighty Father, Master and Lord,
King of all kings and Redeemer,
Wonderful Counselor, Comforter, Friend,
Savior and Source of our life without end.

I adapted this for use once with these changes.  In the refrain change "Father" to "Spirit."  And in the third verse, change the first line to read "Mother and Father, Lover and Lord, Wellspring of Joy and Redeemer."  I would really enjoy for a a gender inclusive adaptation of this song to be available for my current use.

There was one great new hymn which was introduced to us Southern Baptists in this hymnal, but which other denominations already knew.  Our version was entitled "The Servant Song" and was set to the tune BEACH SPRING.

We are travelers on a journey,
Fellow pilgrims on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

Other variations of tune, specific words, and word order appear in other hymnals.  But in every church I've been in for the last twenty years, that is among the favourite hymns.  And isn't that phrase, "I will hold the Christ-light for you" simply among the best?

In the Cross of Christ I Glory

This is number thirteen in the series on hymns that I have sung in my lifetime.

While in high school and when home visiting from college, I was an Episcopalian during Holy Week.  Kay Boman, my French teacher and quiz bowl coach, and I got into lots of interesting religious conversations.  She was in the process of being ordained an Episcopal deacon and I was a young, Baptist preacher boy.  I was interested in what she described about their Seder Supper, so one year my Sunday school teacher Debbie Durham and I went.  My mother began going with me every year after that.  We were drawn to the symbolism and rich liturgies and over the years also began to participate in Good Friday services at All Saints as well.

So, one good Friday service Noel Dougherty, the rector, talked about the hymn we were about to sing, "In the Cross of Christ I Glory."  In Miami, Oklahoma every year the Ministerial Alliance hosted daily Holy Week services that rotated around among the churches.  That year Noel had been attending a service in our home church, First Baptist, and said that he had noticed this hymn also in our hymnal.  He was pleased that it was universally sung. 

Except, that neither Mom nor I had ever heard the hymn.  It was completely unfamiliar to us. When we got home, we did look it up, for it was in our Baptist Hymnal.  

Noel discussed the meaning of the hymn and the powerful image of its opening lines "In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o'er the wrecks of time."  All other empires collapse, but the cross moves forward.

It is a hymn commonly sung in the churches I've served as an adult, and I generally remark that it includes my favourite line in Christian hymnody:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o'er the wrecks of time,
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o'er-take me,
Hopes deceive and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me:
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.

When the sun of bliss is beaming
Light and love upon my way,
From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds new luster to the day.

Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,
By the cross are sanctified;
Peace is there that knows no measure,
Joys that tro' all time abide.

The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Boethius has lost his position of privilege within the empire and while in prison constructs this enjoyable dialogue. The character based upon himself is forlorn when suddenly he is visited by Philosophy--a quasi-divine manifestation of Philosophy herself. She comes to bring him consolation and the way to do that is to correct his thinking which has gotten askew during his troubles. And so, in a series of dialogues she leads him back to the proper understanding of human nature, good, evil, fortune, and God's plan. Toward the end they consider some higher philosophical problems like foreknowledge and free will.

I will show you the path that will bring you back home. I will give your mind wings on which to lift itself; all disquiet shall be driven away and you will be able to return safely to your homeland. I will be your guide, your path and your conveyance.

I find the basic idea delightful--that philosophy can bring consolation by helping us to think aright. And it is well written, with each chapter having a poem as well as the dialogue. The poems often draw from classical stories and some are very good.

The book is a theodicy, and as with most theodicies, I find it inadequate in answering its problem. This approach takes the view that evil is no thing, and I for one cannot accept any theodicy that begins with that premise, but only those which begin with the reality of evil.

But the main problem with the book is not a judgement about how well it is written or how enjoyable it is to read. It is a fundamental difference of worldview. The arguments make sense within a late ancient/early medieval synthesis of classical thought with early Christianity, but they make little to no sense to those of us shaped by modernity.

For example, freedom is defined as contemplation of the mind of God rather than personal autonomy.

Finishing the Boethius, I was drawn to peruse again through Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor for a reminder of what a dramatically different conceptual world we live in and how we cannot grant the basic premises of Boethius, much less find consolation in its conclusions. In fact, we are inclined to withdraw from them in disgust or rebel in rage.

But it was an enjoyable read, and so much more fun than reading Augustine. It is also important to read and understand how different we view the world and our moral life within it.

View all my reviews

Glory and Love and Prayer

Glory and Love and Prayer

John 17:20-26

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

25 May 2014



    Jesus closes his Farewell Discourse, delivered at the Last Supper, when he is surrounded by his followers the evening before he is arrested, with prayer. Jesus asks for God to glorify him so that he might glorify God. Then he asks for God to protect those who have believed. Finally he asks for unity, "that they may all be one."

    This passage of scripture is familiar to us in the United Church of Christ, for it is our motto. It was the hope and the dream of those who founded this denomination that the divisions that separate Christians from one another might come to an end and that together we could bear witness to God's glory and love.

    Though it wasn't until 1957 that the merger between the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church was completed, creating the United Church of Christ, the movement to merge dates from decades before. And that movement was a powerful witness. In the midst of the Second World War, one denomination which was largely composed of the old WASP establishment committed to joining with another denomination composed primarily of German immigrants. And they took as their motto, in the midst of the worst war this world has ever seen, this prayer of Jesus "that they may all be one."


    My favourite theologian is the baptist James McClendon and at the close of the second volume of his systematic theology he discusses, with great exuberance, this unity. What is the purpose of creation? Why does everything exist? What is the mission of God? What is the goal of redemption? What is the work of the Holy Spirit? All of those questions can be answered by union, or what McClendon calls ecstatic fellowship. What the old hymn calls "what a fellowship, what a joy divine." It is the "bringing of the divine self and human selves [and the rest of the creation] into an unspeakable, ecstatic intimacy."

    And this is such a radically beautiful vision. The goal of the creation is not to judge between the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous. The end to which we are inexorably drawn is not a division of peoples. Salvation does not separate out those who are "in" from those who are "out." Rather, every single thing that God does and has ever done is working toward the ultimate goal of the ecstatic fellowship of all existence.

    According to Jesus' prayer the church is God's agent, given the responsibility and the joy of cooperating with God to bring that vision to fulfillment.


    And, yet . . .


    . . . As even McClendon himself writes:


If fellowship is the true genius of authentic Christian community, what reason have we to be hopeful even about our own churches? Is not one feature of all human existence on this planet, religious or other, the persistent enmity that not only divides human communities from one another but rends them within? And has the church been any different in this regard? Have not church folk rather persistently been part of the old quarrels between people and races and classes and sexes, been party to them, even been provokers of them?


    And, of course, we must answer, "Yes, she has."

    Jesus was astutely aware of human nature and the possibility that the church would not live up to its calling, that she would rend asunder in divisions and disagreements. If it did so, then God's entire creation project would be endangered. The work of the creation and the redemption could slip back into chaos. And so his prayer contains a few clues in how to make this unity work. It is not simply a beautiful dream; it is a challenging ethic that lures us into the grand adventure of God's mission on earth.


    Let us first be clear that the unity is not supposed to be imposed upon the world, which is what happened so often in the imperial and colonial missions of European Christianity. Rather, the world is supposed to be drawn to unity because they see in the church a radically different and wonderful way of living.

    And thus, attending to the community is an essential task of mission. In his commentary on this passage, William Herzog, New Testament professor at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, writes:


. . . the community itself is missional. Therefore, to attend to the well-being of the community is part of its mission to the world, and to nurture its unity is a form of witness to a divided world. Nurturing healthy communal life is an expression of an outgoing mission. The two imply each other.


    What shape must our community life take, then?

    For one thing, it must participate in the glory of God as revealed in Jesus. Notice that in verse 22 Jesus says, "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one." The unity we are drawn to is achieved by sharing in the glory. But what is the glory?

    Generally in the Bible, God's glory is a radiant presence, but in the Gospel of John that radiant presence is equated with a very specific series of events. Whenever this gospel discusses the glorification of Jesus, it is referring to his death, burial, and rising again. And, so, the radiant, beautiful, powerful presence of God is beheld in the cross and the resurrection. Our community, therefore, is to be shaped by participating in this glory. Our community takes on a cruciform shape. Our ethics and identity are rooted in this narrative.

    And that has many implications—for how we treat other people, for how we treat the earth, for how we spend our money, and more. For we are a people who see victory not in military triumph but in sacrificial love. We are a people who challenge the powers-that-be by offering our bodies as witnesses. We are a people willing to suffer the costs in order to achieve the grander goal. And, for a specific example, we are a people who in the midst of war seek unity with those whom others might perceive as the enemy.

    The union that God desires for all creation is not political union. It is not economic union. It is definitely not racial or cultural or ethnic purification. It is not even religious or doctrinal union. In fact, I don't think the idea is even that all humans would become members of the Christian faith. As one commentator I studied wrote, "this prayer is for unity that grows out of the love of God, received and shared." Another pointed out that in these six verses Jesus says that love is "the bond within the Godhead, the divine gift to the disciples, the magnetic grace through which God seeks to attract the world, and the ingredient that the Lord prays will be within his followers." And a third commentator wrote that "The unity for which Jesus prays is founded in reciprocal love, the kind of self-giving love seen in the life of Jesus. This mutual and reciprocal love is the kind of love that is as much a decision and choice as it is a feeling."

    Authentic love that makes us vulnerable, that relies upon others, that gives of ourselves, that kind of love, Jesus kind of love, is what ultimately creates the divine fellowship. And that kind of love doesn't care about borders and boundaries. It doesn't require political agreement or doctrinal conformity. It even reaches out to enemies and those we dislike. And it isn't naïve or passive. It is active world-changing love of a Mahatma Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Nelson Mandela.


    But, we aren't always great at that kind of love. In fact, our human track record and the track record of the church simply stinks. And right now with conflict in the South China Sea, in the Ukraine, in Syria, and in Nigeria and all over the place really, can this, even in the very long term, work? Can we all be one?

    And so the final clue Jesus gives us in this prayer is the prayer itself. Yes, we must create a community shaped by the cruciform glory of Jesus. Yes, we must learn to practice an ethic of love. But even these goals will only be achieved if we pray. For there is some power in prayer. Maybe it invites divine action or maybe it changes us. Maybe it rewires our brains in such a way that we become different people—more empathetic, gentler, kinder, more loving and generous and bold. Surely the routine utterance of "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" at least provokes us to imagine what that reality might look like.


    Glory, love, and prayer. These can shape us as a local church and as a local church, we can bear witness to our community. And in fellowship with others shaped the same we can bear witness to the state and region and to the nation and to the world. Sure it's a dream, but don't you want to dream big.

    On Wednesday night, near midnight, one of my dearest high school friends, who was having a difficult week, e-mailed me "Man I hope there is still 'good' in this world."

    I responded, "There is. Omaha raised over $6 million dollars in one day on Wednesday for over 500 non-profits."

    And maybe, just maybe, this example also responds in its limited way to that question James McClendon posed --"What reason have we to be hopeful [that they may all be one]?" Maybe Wednesday's Omaha Gives campaign is reason to be hopeful. Sure, there wasn't religious, political, or cultural agreement expressed on that day. But, there doesn't have to be. Plurality and diversity and the pizzazz of difference are essential elements of the unity that God seeks. But maybe the overwhelming generosity revealed a deep feeling for one another. Maybe it's the kind of love that can bind a community together. Maybe, just maybe, it is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work.

    So, let's look for the signs, even the little signs of God at work in our world. And let's dream big, entering into the grand adventure of God's mission on earth. And let's claim this prayer of Jesus, as shaping our identity and our witness.


The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.