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November 2014

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, #3)A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best of the books yet. I'm still struck by the ways the show differs from the books. Some of the aspects of the show I prefer, but the books give such a richer tapestry, including so many supporting characters that are lacking from television, plus a deeper understanding of character motivations and plot developments.

Martin is such a good writer. These books don't read like other fantasy books I've read; everything is grounded in a gritty reality. Plus he imagines such delightfully fascinating characters.

View all my reviews

Over the River and through the Woods: A Journey Home for Thanksgiving through the Changing Legal Landscape of Same-Sex Marriage

"Over the river and through the woods." Our drive to my parents' house for Thanksgiving included both, but this year there was something very different—the changing legal status of our marriage as we drove.

Our route was south from Omaha, Nebraska to the small lake town of Grove in northeastern Oklahoma where my parents retired. We pass through five states along the way, and at each border the legal status of our relationship changes.

According to our home state of Nebraska, Michael and I are not legally married, so we have no state-recognized legal status for the first five miles of the drive to Mom's. Then we go over the river, the Missouri to be exact, and at the halfway point on the bridge it's as if some wind of equality blows through the car, altering our metaphysical status—we become a legally married couple with all the rights and privileges that affords.

We are now in the state of Iowa, which is where we held the ceremony legally recognizing our marriage in November 2012 (not our actual wedding, but more on that in a moment). The ceremony was a small affair—two witnesses and a Buddhist friend officiating. We held it on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge which spans the Missouri River from Omaha to Council Bluffs, Iowa. It's a popular spot for marriages of same-sex couples, as you can stand next to the line indicating the state border in order to represent the absurd notion that if you move an inch to the left, then you don't have equal civil rights.

Iowa has been legally recognizing same-sex marriages since a state Supreme Court ruling in 2009. For about an hour and a half we enjoy the privileges of full equality and the wedded bliss that comes with it as we travel south along I-29 as it parallels the course of the Missouri River, with the sandy Loess Hills rising abruptly east of the interstate. Before long, the highway rises up out of the river valley, and we enter the wooded hills of northwest Missouri.

A court ruling in Missouri this year required them to recognize same-sex marriages conducted legally in other states. However, Missouri does not yet grant legal recognition to same-sex marriages solemnized within its own borders (though this issue is working its way through the courts). For the short time we are in Missouri, we enjoy rights and privileges that are not shared by the gay and lesbian couples who are actual citizens of the state. Are we more equal than they are?

I-29 passes St. Joseph, the town that launched many pioneer wagon trains out across the central plains. We usually stop there for a bathroom break and to stretch our backs and legs. Less than an hour south of St. Jo, not far from Kansas City International Airport, we leave I-29 in order to take I-435 and bypass the metro area long the west side. It saves time, but it sends us into the complicated and legally murky territory of Kansas.

Kansas is in open rebellion against the 10th circuit which has ruled that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. Some counties in the state have begun granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, while others don't. It appears that Governor Sam Brownback has decided to become the George Wallace of the movement for marriage equality. He has ordered the state government not to recognize same-sex marriages, even those performed in his own state. This denies couples all the rights and privileges of legal status, including seemingly mundane things like changing your name on your driver's license. Not being local, I have no idea what counties we are driving though and whether at any given moment we are in a place that grants us equality or not.

As we drive out of the metro area heading south on US Highway 69 and past the National Historic Site at Fort Scott, I'm reminded of the history of the region. This is "Bleeding Kansas" where the Civil War really began as abolitionists and slave owners battled for control of the region. The struggle for human rights continues in this state.

So, I'm glad when we leave Kansas after a few hours, crossing into Oklahoma at the location of the former town of Picher. Picher is not the most welcoming entry point to any state: an old mining boom town, the landscape is dotted with strange, towering hills of refuse from the mines. These are called "chat piles." The area was already a Superfund site before an EF4 tornado wiped out Picher on May 10, 2008. The ruin of the town amidst the toxic chat piles makes a surreal landscape.

More surreal is the fact that in Oklahoma, what many consider the most conservative state in the Union, we are once again legally married. On October 6, 2014 the US Supreme Court refused to hear a set of appeals from three circuit courts dealing with the issue of marriage equality. The refusal to hear the cases let stand lower court rulings throwing out the bans in those circuits. One of the cases came from Oklahoma, which is in the Tenth Circuit. On October 6 legal marriages of same-sex couples began in Oklahoma.

On June 6, 2009 Michael and I were married in Oklahoma City, where we lived at the time. We are both native Oklahomans and didn't want to go to some other state for our religious ceremony. Two hundred of our friends, family, and church members gathered in a city park near our home as one of our friends, a Baptist minister, consecrated our love.

When we left Oklahoma in 2010 one of the motivations was to go to a place that granted us more legal recognition, but my search for a new ministerial call took us to Omaha, Nebraska. The irony was not lost on us: had we stayed in Oklahoma, we would be legally married.

And now, as we pass through the ruins of Picher, we are legally married again. It is something to be thankful for as we sit around Mom's table and share our blessings.

Soon, we'll depart and make the reverse journey, some of the time being legally married and some of the time not.

The Work Is Blessed

The Work Is Blessed

Exodus 39:32-43

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

16 November 2014



    Harvest feasts of Thanksgiving were commonly celebrated in early America, but our current holiday stems most directly from the national day of Thanksgiving declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Here is the substance of that proclamation:


The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.


    In the midst of our nation's greatest conflict, a period of prolonged suffering, President Lincoln called for the country to seek forgiveness for its sins, pray for those in need, and to thank God for the blessings we have received. In the midst of war, destruction, and death, Lincoln wanted us to take time to consider the blessings God had given us. We are reminded that no time is too dark to be devoid of hope and the blessings of God.

    Our Pilgrim ancestors who celebrated that first harvest meal with our Wampanoag ancestors had themselves been through their own difficult time of pain and suffering. Their first winter had been quite severe; many of them had died of hunger. It was only after the natives taught them how to fish for eel and to grow corn that the Pilgrims were able to provide enough food to survive. So, after that first harvest, they celebrated together with the Wampanoag. Edward Winslow wrote that the purpose of that first feast was "so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor." (People forget that eel was on the menu that first Thanksgiving.)


    In Exodus 39 the people of Israel gather together to seek the Lord's blessing. They bring the fruits of their labor—all the artistic elements that when combined will create the Tabernacle of the Covenant. The list of items has something of a mesmerizing effect, inviting our imaginations to picture all the beautiful furnishings and vestments. Robert Alter writes that the language of this passage "has an incantatory or quasi-musical function . . . evoking in gorgeous syllables the sheer splendor and artisanal perfection of the sanctuary."

    These items are assembled together. We are told that this occurred on the first day of the first month of the new year. For the first time everyone can see the fruit of everyone else's giving and artistry. Together, they have created something of great beauty. Moses saw what the people had done, all of their work, and Moses blessed the people and their work.


    Scholars have pointed out that the construction of the Tabernacle models the story of the creation of the world in Genesis chapter one. For example, when God first gives the design plans to Moses, it is given in seven speeches that parallel the seven days of creation. The final speech is about observing the Sabbath, taking a day of rest from our work, as God had rested on the seventh day from God's work of creation.

    In the passage I read a moment ago, we can also see the parallels to the story of the creation of the world in Genesis. At the end of God's work of creation, we are told that God looked at all God had created and saw that it was very good. Now, after all the work of the people, Moses, God's prophet and agent, looks at what the people have done and blesses it.

    The Bible scholar Terence Fretheim points out that the emphasis upon creation does not cease here with the gathering and blessing of the work. Every time the people move about the wilderness, they must disassemble the Tabernacle and then put it all back together again at their new campsite. Every time they move, they once again enact the creation. They are recreating themselves and God's place in the world every time they assemble the Tabernacle.

    Plus, the worship that is carried out in the Tabernacle is another form of creation. Fretheim writes, "The worship of God at the tabernacle is a way for the community of faith to participate in the divine creational work. God's continuing work in and through the worship of Israel is creative of a new world for Israel."

    In the midst of the wilderness journey, after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the trials and temptations of the desert, the people recreate themselves by these acts of giving, imagining, building, and worshipping. In this way, they are transformed, awakening the image of God within themselves, as together they are shaped into God's people who will bring a message of salvation to all the world.


    Scholars tell us that these stories of the Tabernacle were written down many centuries after these events supposedly occurred. They were written down while the Jews were exiles, living in ancient Babylon, after the Babylonians had conquered the nation of Judah, destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, and took the people captive. In the midst of that era of suffering and displacement, the people tell these stories of transformation, of community building, of new creation. These stories worked to inspire that generation of Jews to survive their exile and to hope for a better future.

    Walter Brueggemann writes that the worship in the Tabernacle and its visual images represent a "counterworld to Israel's lived experience, which is dangerous and disordered. The counterworld offered in the tabernacle holds out the gift of a well-ordered, joy-filled, peace-generating creation." He then says that this explains why the passages are so detailed. "No wonder Israel took such care to 'get it right'!" Brueggemann says.


    Again and again this week, as I explored the commentaries on this passage, the emphases were two-fold: that this is a story of people participating in God's work of creation and this is a story told in a time of difficulty in order to help the people carry on. So this ancient story fits so well with our American stories of Thanksgiving. In the midst of harsh life on the Massachusetts coast, after much death and suffering, the people gathered to share the fruits of their labor and give thanks to God for the blessings they had received. And in the dark days of the American Civil War, as every town and village and family experienced loss, President Lincoln invited the nation to reflect not on the darkness but on the good things that even then were being achieved.

    This year as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, let us be mindful of these examples. Let us look for the signs of blessing in our own lives and in our world. And let us bring the fruit of our labor so that it might join together in the worship of God with the work of our sisters and brothers.




Minimum wage, etc.

An interesting report on Bloomberg news suggesting that the Democratic party can achieve some of its policy aims by unbundling them and running them as initiatives, as this year's success of the minimum wage votes demonstrates.  

This report also informs you that, adjusted for cost of living, Nebraska will have the highest real minimum wage in the country!

The People Work

The People Work

Exodus 38:1-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

9 November 2014



    Moses was up on Mt. Sinai for a really, really long time, and the people felt they had waited long enough. They became impatient, and the impatience became anxiety. Where is he, already? What happened to Moses?

And their anxiety turned to fear. Maybe Moses is dead. Maybe we are out here in this wilderness without a leader. Maybe we shouldn't trust this Yahweh, after all, he is pretty scary.

And the fear turned into doubt. And the doubt led to betrayal.

Then the people assembled against Aaron, Moses' brother, and said, "Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him." Aaron instructed them to take off their jewelry so that he might mold it into a Golden Calf. And once it was done, the people worshipped it with sacrifices and orgiastic dancing.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain, God told Moses what was happening, and Moses rushed down the mountain, holding onto the tablets of the law which had been inscribed with God's own hand, and when Moses saw the calf and what the people were doing, in anger he threw down the tablets of the law, shattering them upon the rock. He destroyed the idol and punished the people. Many died.

The construction of the Tabernacle begins after the episode of the Golden Calf, though God had already given Moses the design plans for it before the people sinned.

Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim, who was one of Jim Harmon's professors, by the way, writes that through the Tabernacle God was doing something radically new and different. God was responding to the needs of the people to be present with them in a new way. God would come to dwell with them in a tabernacle and the furnishings and the rituals of worship. True, God was with them everywhere, just as God is with us everywhere, but God was also going to provide a special place where they could come to encounter God. Fretheim writes that God had chosen to enter time and space "to meet their need for the specific, the tangible, the personal, . . . [the] concrete and focused."


One third of the Book of Exodus is taken up with the description of the design and building of the tabernacle. This is one of those sections where people get bogged down when they are trying to read the Bible. Like the long lists of who begat whom in Genesis, and the details about the law codes and the rituals of sacrifice in Leviticus. There are parts of the Bible that are pretty boring. Exodus is full of so many exciting stories, then suddenly we get to these detailed descriptions about how to hang the curtains.

    Fretheim writes that in some ways the Tabernacle becomes God's physical body. A place for God to be immanent within the creation. In other words, an incarnation. But what's most revealing about these passages in Exodus is that they are not a celebration of the completed object, the finished Tabernacle. They are, in fact, a celebration of the process of designing and building. The creative and imaginative process. A celebration of art and craft. Of the work of the people.

    So, what begins to dawn upon us, is that God dwells not simply in the completed product, but in the work itself. God dwells within the people as they are designing, crafting, imagining, and creating. The stories about the construction of the Tabernacle are really about discovering the divine image within ourselves. In other words, the people didn't need to create the Golden Calf, an idol, what they needed to do was awaken to the realization that God was already within them. Creating the Tabernacle was an act of transformation, awakening the people to this spiritual truth. And telling the stories again, point us in that direction—finding the divine image within ourselves.


In verse 8, we read:


He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.


    What are these mirrors?

    I had never noticed this verse, probably skimming over it. But the Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg makes this verse key to her interpretation of the entire Book of Exodus in her commentary The Particulars of Rapture. [I love stuff like this. A little obscure verse opens up new possibilities for interpretation.]

The piece of furniture being built here is the basin for water which would stand in the outer court of the tabernacle near the altar. It was used by the priests to wash their hands and thus to purify themselves. Its function is described in Exodus 30 this way:


When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die.


    You can imagine the sign in the employees' bathroom: "Employees must wash hands before returning to work OR THEY WILL DIE!"

    So, this basin, important to the worship rituals of the people, is made of the mirrors of the women. Now, these are not modern, glass mirrors. These are highly polished bronze.

Philo of Alexandria, who was a Jewish scholar living about the same time as Jesus, wrote that the purpose of these mirrors was so that the priest, while washing himself, could examine himself. Could see himself in the reflection. Since the washing symbolized purification, there is an implication that the priest also had to examine himself, to "look into his own mind" and see if he was pure.

Philo also writes that the mirrors are connected with desire and prompt reflection on the question, "What do you desire?" According to Philo the priest should not desire "the pursuit of present pleasure" but "only that beauty which is genuine and unadulterated," which Philo goes on to describe as the beauty of a virtuous life which brings "fresh vigour and renewed youth."

    Fascinating ideas, that should also prompt us to reflect and examine ourselves. What do we desire? Are we our best selves?

    But, there's even more to say about these mirrors. The Bible tells us that these are the mirrors of the women, but what purpose had they originally served?

    Well, what do you use mirrors for? To see how you look. Most importantly to see if you look good, right? Because you want people to be drawn to you, attracted to you, to desire you? Well, that hasn't changed. The ancient Israelites wanted the same thing. To see their image in order to look their best and to be desired.

    Way back in Exodus chapter 1, we read, "the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them." You see, God blessed the Israelites with great fertility, with the power of new and abundant life, in face of Pharaoh's policies of death and destruction. The fertility of the Hebrew slaves was rapid and alarmed the Egyptians. Remember, they tried to kill all the firstborn boys in order to slow down the growth rate, but that backfired. Every scheme Pharaoh tried back-fired. Whenever the Egyptians tried to impose death, God's blessing of life would grow even stronger.

    There is a longstanding Jewish midrash—you know, the stories that Jews tell to fill in the gaps of the Biblical story—which says that it was the mirrors of the women which accounted for the high birth rate. With the mirrors the women made themselves desirable, the men slept with them, and they kept having babies.

The mirrors, then, are connected with God's blessing of fertility and life. According to the rabbi Rashi, these mirrors were more precious to God than any other gift given to create the Tabernacle, because it was these mirrors which created the nation of Israel.

What a beautiful image is created here! These instruments of sexual desire now become the means for purification. These instruments for new life, become central to the people's worship.

According to Avivah Zornberg, the mirrors awaken desire and open us to unexpected possibilities. They even help us to imagine ourselves in different ways. Thus, they are instruments of transformation, inviting us into the creative process by which we become our best selves.

The person who took these mirrors and fashioned them into the wash basin, was Bezalel. According to the Bible, Bezalel was called and inspired by God to become the master craftsman and to teach the people the skills they would need. His gifts of imagination, creativity, and artistic skill would help to prepare the way for God's presence.

Bezalel is one of the few people in the Old Testament who is described as being filled with the spirit. Normally this is reserved for prophets and judges. Here God's spirit comes upon a craftsman, a laborer, an artist in order to guide his skills for the work of the Lord.

Bezalel's name means "in the shadow of God." It's also connected to the same Hebrew word which is used in Genesis 1 when we are told that humanity is created in the image of God. There is the sense, then, that Bezalel himself represents the image of God. Bezalel's craftsmanship is part of God's revelation of God's self to the people. God is revealed in Bezalel's talents, in his work, in his art. When we use our imaginations and our creativity, we embody the presence of God.


So, today, let these stories of the Tabernacle remind us that our work is really about preparing ourselves, awakening the divine image within us. Let these stories invite us to reflect and examine ourselves. "What do we desire? Are we our best selves?" And let these stories invite us to imagine new possibilities. And call us to new levels of creativity.

In this way we will be transformed, as we awaken to the realization that God is already within us. Our personal work of transformation is how God works in this world.