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August 2014

The Courage to Hope

The Courage to Hope

Matthew 6:25-33; Psalm 126

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 August 2014



    The United Church of Christ does have a Book of Worship that we ministers can use as a reference when designing various worship services. The book contains all the things you would expect—orders for baptism, confirmation, marriage, death, and ordination. There are also services for renewing vows, adopting a child, or saying goodbye to someone who is moving away. You might be surprised that there is an order for making confession, and that I have used it. There is an order for footwashing and many other of the liturgical practices that some of you don't think are very UCC (though they've been in our Book of Worship for decades). There is also a service of divorce.

    This to me is the most surprising thing in the Book of Worship, though, if you think about it for even a little bit, it makes sense. When a couple marries, they usually do it in a religious ceremony and then file the papers with the state. Marriage is both a religious and a civil institution. But when couples divorces, they usually dissolve the legal contract in a court of law and never take any steps to dissolve the religious bond. It makes sense, then, that there would be a religious ceremony for ending a marriage.

    I have never used this order of worship, and I can't imagine many divorces where the couple is on good enough terms to choose to use this service, but I do think it would be interesting to use sometime. It might, in some circumstances, be helpful.

    The introduction to the service explains its purpose: it is for a couple to "acknowledge responsibility for their separation, affirm the good that continues from the previous relationship, and promise in the presence of God, family, and supportive friends to begin a new relationship." The introduction does warn that this service should be done with sensitivity and with advance preparation (Which I think is something of an understatement). The introduction also points out that this service can be particularly helpful if there are children from the marriage, as the couple can commit to their continued care of the children, even as the marriage is being dissolved.

    The prayer time in this service, begins with these words:


O God, make us aware of your presence. You have blessed us in all our moments: of joining, of relating, of intending, and of beginning. Be with us in our times of separating and of ending, releasing us from those vows we can no longer keep; we ask in Christ's name. Amen.


That, I think, is a very appropriate and lovely prayer. It reminds us that God is with us in our beginnings and our endings.


    Our closest relationships often bring us pain. Broken friendships, harsh treatment by a loved one, fighting within the family—all of these deeply affect us. This summer we've been talking about relationships, and as we draw this series, entitled "The Work of Love," to a close, today I want to focus on what happens when those relationships go through difficulties or even come to an end.

    Love hurts. I can think back over my career to so many different people hurting because they love. The lovesick sixteen year olds. The college student trying to figure out if their first relationship is over. The widow in deep grief over the loss of her husband. The newly divorced who wonder what comes next. The senior adult man who is afraid that he is marrying again too soon after the death of his wife. The twenty-something who attempted suicide because of his loneliness. The person coping with being HIV-positive and how that affects his dating life. And so many more.

    Loving another person makes us vulnerable. Loving another person is risky. We open ourselves up and allow another person to share a part of who we are. When we lose that person through death or breaking up, the pain cuts deeply.

    What, then, are the Christian practices that can help to sustain us when our relationships come to an end?


    Back in 2004, my very first relationship with another man came to a painful end. I had risked everything for this relationship—my career, my family, my friendships. In the first few months it was filled with such joy and excitement, and I was newly confident as I was finally exploring my own identity. So, when the relationship suddenly came crashing down, it was more than just a break-up, it felt as if my whole world was falling apart.

    Ten years later, I can see much more clearly what I did wrong in the situation, something that I could not understand at the time. At the time, I was deeply depressed, the worst depression I've ever experienced.

    At the end of June 2004, I went to Birmingham, Alabama for the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. As I did every year, I bought a bunch of books and went back to the hotel room to peruse them. One of the books I bought was Jurgen Moltmann's In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope. I had not read any Moltmann before, so I was merely anticipating that this little book would give me a good introduction to his thought. Sitting on my hotel bed I began reading the introduction, and I pretty much didn't put the book down until I had finished it two days later. I didn't attend any workshops or breakout sessions during the conference; I spent almost the entire time reading that book. Its message about resurrection was what I needed in that moment.

The theme of the book is that the central tenet of the Christian faith is that with every end there is a new beginning. Ours is a faith of hope, a faith that looks to the future. Here's an excerpt from the paragraph that first grabbed my attention:


No one is perfect, and few people succeed in achieving an unbroken continuity in their lives. Again and again we come up against limits, and experience the failure of our plans for life, the fragmentary nature of our good beginnings and, not least, the guilt which makes life impossible for us. The essential thing in experiences of life like this is the new beginning. If a child falls over it is no bad thing, because it then learns to get up again. Christian faith is faith in the resurrection, and the resurrection is literally just that: rising up again. It gives us the strength to get up, and the creative freedom to begin something once more in the midst of our on-going history, something fresh. . . . 'Christians are the eternal beginners', . . . that is the best thing that can ever be said about believers, lovers and the hopeful.


The Christian story rallies us to rise up, look to the future, and begin again. For each day is a new beginning, each day is a resurrection.


    In today's gospel passage, Jesus warns us not to worry. Instead, we should trust that God will provide for us. When a relationship ends, we can spend much of our time focused backwards, on the loss. One way to interpret Jesus' message in today's gospel is that we shouldn't waste our time and energy worrying over the past. The past cannot be undone and relived. It is settled. To remain focused on the past is to sink through regret into despair. Much like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, we can sink into the "Slough of Despond" composed of "many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions.

    Jesus encourages us not to worry, but instead to strive for the kingdom of God, which is a vision of life filled with abundance provided by God's blessing.

    To quit worrying and to quit looking backward, and instead to move forward into a new beginning takes courage.

I am convinced that courage is the most important virtue necessary for living the Christian life. I think it's courage that sustains us on the journey when everything looks difficult. It is courage that overcomes fear, anxiety, and despair. It's courage that nurtures our joy, our faith, and our love.

It's easy to be a cynic in our world. The news, especially in recent weeks, has been filled with foreboding. It's easy for us to see the negative, to focus on the bad, and to become overwhelmed by evil and suffering. For us to live as people of hope takes courage, because the world wants us to be cynical, skeptical, and ironic. With courage we can look beyond the bad things in our own lives and the bad things in the world around us and focus instead on those small signs of hope and joy.

We cannot sustain our love relationships or begin again when they have ended without hope. The task is too difficult. Negativity will destroy God's work and our work of love. Look at today's Psalm. Here is a song written by people whose fortunes have not yet been restored, but they dream of that day, a day when their mouths will be filled with laughter and on their tongues will be shouts of joy. Though that day has not arrived, they are already acting like it has.

How can we be like the people in today's Psalm? How can we quit worrying and looking to the past, but instead rely upon God and look to the future, beginning again? How do we become hopeful in the midst of pain? How do we muster courage when we are sinking into despair?


I believe that the work of love rests upon spiritual practices that both sustain our Christian faith and our relationships. That's one reason this sermon series has focused on some of the skills we must learn as Christians—celebrating with our friends, practicing humility, forgiving one another, giving and receiving in marriage.

When I am hurting, I retreat to the spiritual practices that sustain me—things like prayer and meditation, a morning walk, yoga, deep breathing. Sometimes I lie on the ground and focus my breath and pray the ancient Jesus prayer, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."

I also enjoy reading poetry, listening to my favourite music, and eating chocolate. Michael learned soon after he first moved in with me, that if he came home and found me curled in a chair reading Wendell Berry, while R. E. M. was blasting on the stereo, and a few different bars of dark chocolate were on the end table beside me, then I had clearly had a very stressful day.

Friends are also important. Colleagues, mentors, church members, all those people who form my spiritual community. All those people who provide comfort, encouragement, and wisdom when I need it. Cultivating those relationships is essential, because sometimes you need to draw upon them for any new beginning.

After that first relationship with another guy ended, and I was in my depression, a tight social circle formed around me of other people in my church. They had me over for lunch and dinner, took me out drinking, invited me to pool parties, and were willing to sit and listen to my long, sad, and I now must admit sometimes pathetic, ramblings. Those friends prodded me back to life.

In my life it was the combination of friends, spiritual practices, and the hopeful message of the Christian faith which gave me the courage to begin again.


When you experience loss, I encourage you to spend time with the spiritual practices that bring you peace and rest. And with the people who nurture you. These activities will draw you into the presence and the power of God. I believe that from my own experience.

Jesus says "Do not worry." The Psalm looks forward with joy to when our fortunes will be restored. Christians are the eternal beginners. May your faith give you the courage to hope.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the last few months this has been my upstairs bathroom reading. The book worked quite well for that. I don't think I would have found it as engaging if I had sat down and tried to read it through.

It is really more a history of science than a science book, and that surprised me. Some of the chapters were filled with interesting characters and anecdotes and others bogged down. I had originally hoped it would give me a reasonably up-to-date understanding of various scientific theories. It did that, but only in the context of telling you the story of past theories and scientists, which isn't what I had expected when I picked up the book.

Bryson writes in an entertaining, non-academic style, so the book was both informative and enjoyable.

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Maha 2014


Of course the morning of the day at which I'm going to attend a rock festival, I read an essay by Chuck Klosterman on how rock and pop and hip-hop are really about teenagers and their tastes.  There can be great music that adults listen to, but whatever is relevant at any given time is what the kids are listening to.  Ouch.  Thanks for the reminder that I'm forty.

It had been nine years since I'd attended a festival.  That was the last time I attended the Austin City Limits Music Festival (when I saw this band I'd never heard of before called, at that time The Arcade Fire).  Attending ACL involves preparation.  For one thing, it is three days long.  Second, it is (or at least was when I attended) roasting hot.  So on Saturday morning, I kept having to remind myself that I was planning for a reasonably nice afternoon and evening Omaha, not an unpleasant (weather-wise) three days in Zilker Park.  

That said, my ACL training came in handy.  For one thing, I was surprised by how few Omahans wore hats.  Anyone without a hat at ACL would be pepto bismol pink by the end of the first day and peeling layers of skin halfway through the next.  Note: I did not wear my straw, beachcomber cowboy hat that I purchased in Galveston and generally wear to something like this.  That seemed to "Texan."  I was also wearing a longsleeve linen shirt.  Some guy in a sweat-soaked cotten t-shirt said, "That shirt looks too hot.  Is it?"  I looked incredulously at him, "It's linen and does much better in the heat than your cotton shirt."  Also essential--a bandana to protect the back of the neck from sunburn (bonus: it prevents the sweat from running down your neck).  And I had the umbrella that has been in my chair bag since I vowed after ACL 2004 never to attend one of these things again without that protection.  I did comment to more than one person that this Omaha crowd didn't seem adequately dressed or prepared for sitting outside all day.

And we missed the intense early heat.  I had a church gig and didn't arrive till around 4.  

Lack of preparation was made up for in overall politeness.  Nothing like the obnoxiousness of ACL 2005, about which I blogged here in my rules on Festival Etiquette (which, I must say, is one of the best blog posts I've written.  Glad to get a chance to highlight it again).  

Besides the polite people, the Maha Festival impressed with its bathrooms.  They were the nicest and cleanest port-o-potties I've ever experienced.  #NebraskaNice

I enjoyed the music too.  Here's who we saw: The Both (great to see Aimee Mann), The Envy Corps, Local Natives, Icky Blossoms, The Head and the Heart, and Death Cab for Cutie (which reading my ACL blogs, I'm reminded that I saw them in 2005).  I enjoyed at least a little bit from each of these performances.  The Envy Corps I was unfamiliar with; I want to explore their music a little further.  The Icky Blossoms set was a lot of fun.  I enjoyed singing along to The Head and the Heart songs I knew.  

This festival was filled with friends and acquaintances, so everytime I went for food or to the NebraskaNice port-o-potties, I ran into someone to chat with.

One more thing.  I do like that the beer guys walked around with backpacks serving beer.  That was new from a decade ago.  We are evolving as a species.


For walks down memory lane:

  • Here is my blogpost on ACL 2004 "Wilco at Sunset."  Besides Wilco, the bands included Sheryl Crow, The Pixies, Elvis Costello, and Ben Harper.
  • Here is my post on ACL 2005 "Dust Bowl."  Among the bands were Coldplay, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Wilco (again), and Oasis.
  • Here, again, is the funny post on "Festival Etiquette."
  • And here is a 2011 post on the Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as part of my "Post 9/11 Music" series in which I remembered ths significance of the two Wilco performances at ACL.  



As we drove home from seeing Boyhood I told Michael that there was only one flaw I had noticed while watching the film.  Funny, I can't remember now what that was.  It has been eight days since we saw it, and whatever that particular flaw was, I've since forgotten it.

I was one of those people who fell in love with Before Sunrise because it seemed to authentically express many of my own ideas on life and love, lifting them to the level of generational thoughts, while doing it in an exotic, foreign setting.  It was the romance we all wished to have.  I'm not sure if originally or later I appreciated the craft of the film--the way a shot was held so much longer than most directors hold them now, the slow pacing of the conversation, the walking, the extras who appear (sometimes without dialogue) and add to the visuals, the sense of place.  When Before Sunset was announced, I encouraged younger folk to see the first film and then the second, and some of them became fans.  That film captured where we were in our late twenties, again authentically.  I decided I wanted a film from them every decade because it would be the chronicle of our generation's romantic life.  Then, Before Midnight did it a third time.  I don't know how many times in watching that film that I squirmed because one of the nasty things that Celine or Jesse said was close to something I'd said in an argument with Michael.  And along the way those aspects of Linklater's craft have continued to satisfy me.

And now Boyhood.  I was mesmerized and started regretting that the film was going to come to an end.  Here that craft is put to good use again--long meandering conversations, holding the shot longer, letting time flow, and rooting everything in place.  I've not seen a review that noted the use of place in this film.  We seem to begin somewhere near coastal Texas and move west, through Houston, to San Marcos and Austin, and then to the Big Bend area.  The young man is moving west.  Linklater pays attention to these spaces and lets them shape the shots and the flow of the conversations.

One thing that surprised Michael and I watching the film was how often we were on the edge of our seats expecting something catastrophic to happen.  And then it didn't.  For example, if a camera lingers that long on a family driving in a car, then usually that means there is going to be a car accident.  We've been programed by filmmakers to expect these sorts of things.  Just listening in on an ordinary conversation, then, becomes extraordinary.

I've seen so many cynical films lately.  Snowpiercer, for all its visual flair, was a glorification of violence and, ultimately, a cynical statement that revolution is futile.  Guardians of the Galaxy had its good moments, but could have been so much better than it was.  It largely lacked an human element, with sadly Groot the tree coming closest.  Planet of the Apes surprised me by how well done it was, but even it concludes that the demons of our nature can't be eradicated.

Here, in Boyhood, was finally a film about humanity.  It largely worked because these characters were not all that interesting.  They were, generally, quite ordinary.  And being ordinary, they were complex.  Watching we also were able to experience some nostalgia.  In that vein, I enjoyed the exploration of Austin as young lovers right before heading off to college.  The sentiments expressed there, more than the place or the actual words, resonated with my own memories of my late teen years.

What troubles me most about the film, is something that also may be authentic.  The dad is a jerk, especially in the early years, yet he ends up with the stable family life (the aging of Ethan Hawke wasn't very effective, but they had to do something because he has aged so little.  And NOW I remember the flaw I had forgotten.  That tie he was wearing at the end.  That character would not have been wearing that tie only a year or so ago).  Mom, who has worked hard, tried and failed at love, ends up alone and thinking her life is less than it should have been.

I left this Linklater film, as I have others, feeling that something of what it means to live in our time has been captured.  I left satisfied and grateful.  

Giving in Marriage

Giving in Marriage

I John 3:23-24

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

17 August 2014



    Michael and I were married on June 6, 2009 in Oklahoma City in a city park a few blocks from our home. We held the ceremony beside a creek under a canopy of trees. Two hundred of our family, friends, and church members attended. Some came all the way from San Francisco, New York City, Minneapolis, and South Texas, and many points in between. Michael and I arrived for the ceremony sitting atop a classic, bright red, Thunderbird convertible. My former colleague, the Rev. Harry Wooten, a Baptist, performed the ceremony. A string quartet provided the music, and our friend Sara Salas, an opera singer, sang an incredibly moving and beautiful aria.

    The reception was at our home. Lights were strung over the back and side yards. Japanese lanterns were hung. Tables were decorated with white linens and bouquets of seasonal and native wildflowers and grasses. The blue thistle and the sunflower were the dominant images.

    Inside our pool table was covered with the buffet that reflected the ethnic traditions of our families. For my Oklahoma side of the family we had barbecue. For Michael's German side we had brats and sauerkraut. And for the Filipino side we had roast pig. Filipino tradition is that all big events include a roast pig. We had two. One was cut up and served in the buffet. The other was a whole pig, head and feet and everything, lying in the center of the table with a big sunflower in its mouth. Needless to say, our vegetarian friends were horrified when they walked into the buffet.

    Also Filipino tradition is to prepare enough food so that people can take some away. When the reception was only halfway through my mother-in-law, still in her beautiful, pale yellow, mother-of-the-groom dress, started butchering the pig and filling up Ziploc bags that she insisted every guest take with them. The smart ones did, because that roast pig was delicious. My mother-in-law expertly butchered that pig. Watching her wield a knife, I realized that I never wanted to make her angry.

    When it came time to cut the cake, I politely fed Michael his piece, but he purposely got frosting on my nose.

    The next morning, we had a big breakfast with all of Michael's extended family before they headed for home. His uncle Ken remarked on the irony that we were now married in the eyes of God and the church, but our marriage was not recognized by the state, which objected to our marriage on religious, not legal grounds. A local newspaper asked for a picture from the wedding to run on their front page. We declined.

    In November 2012, as we were preparing to become foster parents, we were told by the foster care agency that they need us to have a legal marriage certificate. They were very clear--they didn't legally recognize that certificate, to do so would violate the Nebraska constitution, but they needed it anyway. So, Michael and I had a legal ceremony in Council Bluffs. We actually held the ceremony on the pedestrian bridge, standing near that line that marks the state boundaries, signifying the absurdity of having rights on one side of an arbitrary boundary that we did not have on the other side. It is funny. Move one inch and you aren't legally married. That ceremony included three friends who were there to act as witnesses. The officiant was our good friend Niki Jordan, who is a Buddhist. So, we have the joy of having been married by a Baptist and a Buddhist.

    It just so happened that right before we began that simple ceremony, the wind picked up, and Niki could barely hold on to her papers. We all laughed and tried sheltering one another. I didn't expect to be emotional at this silly little ceremony, but as we said our vows a second time, we both cried.


    We've been married for five years now, and marriage has surprised me. One thing that has been surprising is how much work it takes. Our sermon series this summer is entitled "The Work of Love" and is borrowed from a line in a Wendell Berry poem that we read the first Sunday in this series. The poem was written by Berry to his wife on the occasion of their 35th wedding anniversary. He writes that they have kept to the way of love, even though they had little understanding of what that meant when they took their vows. Along the way have come many surprises requiring faithful commitment and good work. That work yielded beauty, growth, and delight. After 35 years they have arrived at a place, a place he describes as:


as the oldest dream, where we know
we are, even as we do,
the work of love.


    As I said, this work has surprised me. Marriage, while a gift, is also more of a challenging adventure than I anticipated. I have more rough edges than I realized I did. That's humbling. More sacrifice is called for than I expected. Forgiveness is essential.

    I have come to view marriage as a spiritual discipline. As with all the spiritual disciplines, the effort yields rewards. I am opened up to God and other people in new ways. I am, hopefully, growing and becoming a better person—more humble, more generous, more patient, more loving (though there are days when it does feel like I'm headed in the other direction. Just ask Michael).

    The United Church of Christ has a neat little booklet for couples who are preparing for marriage. In it there are several handy tips, but also a few essays by some of our denomination's best writers reflecting on the meaning of marriage. I really like one of the essays by UCC pastor Anthony Robinson. That essay is about the vows we take in marriage. Here is what he wrote:


This promise asks and requires of us courage, character and commitment. Not only that, it gives these to us as well. [Note: I really like that. The very act of being married develops these virtues within us. Robinson continues:] In living this vow and these promises, our character shall be deepened and our courage shall grow. In all sorts of ways, marriage is a spiritual practice as demanding and rewarding as any.


We make these wild and bold promises in the presence of a holy God, in the presence of the power that called the worlds into being and set the moon and planets in their courses. Those who commit themselves to these bold promises shall know the help of this God, of a power not their own, of a love that upholds them and a grace that sustains them amid life's joys and sorrows.



    In preparation for this sermon, I read a lot on marriage—theological essays, articles on the current state of marriage in America, and one good new book that is a guide to Christian marriage. In this book, by Thomas Breidenthal, Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University, the emphasis is upon married romantic love as one aspect of how we love our neighbor, as commanded by God in holy scripture. I had never thought of it this way before. Breidenthal believes that many of us are called to intensely, intimately, and wholly love another person. We cannot love everyone, every neighbor fully and completely, but we can do it with our spouse.

    Entering into marriage, he writes, is a religious act requiring sacrificial self-giving:


When two people offer themselves to each other for life, they are witnessing to their belief that full human life is about service and other-centeredness. They are making a faith statement that the fundamental rules that govern human life demand that we share everything we are and everything we have with others, and that genuine personal happiness lies in [making that commitment].


    Truly committing ourselves to another person means that we believe they have value beyond how they satisfy our own needs and desires. It means that we are willing to make sacrifices of our own interests for theirs, even as they make the same commitment to us. True love then schools us in service to others. Our horizons ought to expand beyond the marriage, as we begin to put that service into practice in our relationships with other people. Marriage shouldn't be a refuge, but a place that draws us out of ourselves and into the wider world.

    And, so, in my wedding ceremonies I always remind the couple and the assembled witnesses that the marriage we are making in that moment is also a sign. "A sign of what God desires for humanity. A sign of the meaning of the creation. A sign of the character of God." And in the blessing that closes the ceremony, I pray that God will "give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others."


    There are days when all these beautiful spiritual things are not at the front of my mind. There are days when I am hurt, angry, distracted, or just plain being a jerk. Sometimes I wonder if being single would be easier. Sometimes I am attracted to other people.

    And in those moments of temptation and doubt, what always helps is remembering. Remembering how my mother-in-law wielded that knife. No, that's just a joke.

    What I remember is standing together in that park in Oklahoma City before two hundred other people who can still bear witness for me if I need them to.

I remember how we held our hands and took vows in which we gave ourselves completely to one another. I remember Michael's smile and the tear drops glistening in his eyes. And in remembering I realize that another human being gave himself to me. Entrusted himself to me. So it's my responsibility, my spiritual calling to receive that gift by caring for him.

And I remember that I also gave myself to him. Now I realize that every single day I must give myself to him. Every day I must receive his gift to me. That is my spiritual calling.

Giving in marriage. It's wild, it's bold, it's risky, it's adventurous, it's romantic.


May God give us the courage and the character to become your work of love.

Eating the Dinosaur

Eating the DinosaurEating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Klosterman was one of our faculty members at the Yale Writers' Conference, but I had never read any of his book. Thanks to Chris Gilson for giving me his extra copy of Eating the Dinosaur. It is interesting to note how many of my reading friends have read this book. I think I would have liked it even more had I read it five years ago when it first came out.

I like Klosterman's analysis. He takes random subjects--Chris Gaines, a PepsiCo press release, ABBA, Vertigo--and uses them to discuss interesting ethical and cultural issues such as truth, authenticity, and freedom.

The numbered sections in each essay work effectively in some but not as effectively in others, where simply an essay without the sections would work just fine. They work better when the essay is pulling lots of different, otherwise unrelated, topics together.

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