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December 2014

Philip Roth at 80

I subscribe to the Library of America, and this week they sent us a free book.  It is  entitled "Philip Roth at 80" and is the collection of speeches given at Roth's 80th birthday party by Jonathan Lethem, Hermione Lee, Alain Finkielkraut, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Edna O'Brien, and Roth himself.

One learns nothing overwhelming in the speeches.  Some are more entertaining than others.  Generally, you can see their effort to be entertaining.  Roth's own speech is the best.  Most of it he reads an excerpt from Sabbath's Theater (a novel I didn't finish because I was tired of reading about a dirty old man's sexual escapades).

I have such a strange response to Roth.  I greatly enjoyed Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint when I first read them in the late 90's when I was in my mid-twenties.  They were my introduction to Roth.

But then I was mostly bored by The Human Stain and couldn't make it through Sabbath's Theater.

Later I read and deeply admired American Pastoral but found that The Plot Against America didn't live up to my expectations.

Recently I read, deeply enjoyed, and learned from The Counterlife.

At various points I wasn't sure I would read any more Roth.  Now I figure I'll read one every now and then, as I pick a volume up at a used book sale.

As an Atlantic subscriber I relished every time a new Roth novel emerged as Christopher Hitchens would give it a devastating review that was always a delight to read.  Hitchens was also tired of reading the next intsallment of the AARP version of the masturbatory fantasies of Portnoy's Complaint.

But I really admired the excerpt from Sabbath's Theater that Roth read in his speech.  It was from near the end of the book, which I never reached.

Endings & Beginnings

Endings & Beginnings

Revelation 20:11-21:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

21 December 2014



    We've skipped over a lot of material from the Book of Revelation this Advent season, mainly because I'm not preaching a series on the book itself. The church staff was drawn to Revelation during worship planning because of our theme "Be Not Afraid." Revelation is full of encouragement to persevere in the midst of dangerous and uncertain times. It is also filled with imagery of light in the darkness.

    We've skipped over all the battle scenes during which the forces of good and evil array against one another in cosmic battle over the meaning of history and the purpose of human existence. These are worthy passages that we will explore sometime in a future sermon series.

    Included is one version of Christ's birth. Everyone knows Luke 2: "And behold a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . ." or the visit of the Magi in Matthew's gospel. Most people don't realize that there is a third story about the birth of Jesus, found in Revelation 12 in which there is a dragon, a war in heaven, and a woman with eagles wings who can fly. (I've never found a nativity set that includes those things.)

Clearly, Revelation 12 is not a literal, historical rendition of what happened between Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. Instead its images are metaphors that reveal how the way of life incarnated by Jesus is a direct challenge to the powers-that-be, embodied here by the Roman Empire.

The Book of Revelation was written to encourage the early Christians to persevere in the midst of tribulation. Instead of succumbing to their fears, they were to hold out hope, believing that in the end they would be victorious.

The passage I read this morning is a glimpse of the end, when all creation gathers together to celebrate the victory of God over the forces of death. It is a story about the end of the world, but you will notice that it is also a beginning—"See, I am making all things new."


And so the Sunday before Christmas, in the midst of this service filled with beautiful carols, I want us to think about the end of the world. I guess I have a sick sense of humor.

But what is this "end-of-the-world?"

Brian McLaren wrote,


Yes, this is the end of the world—but not end in the sense of the discontinuation of our story; rather, it is the end in the sense of the goal toward which we move. Yes, it is the end of the world as we know it—a world dominated by suicidal machinery driven by a suicidal . . . story. But is the beginning of the world as God desires it, a new story, a new chapter, a new way.


    It may be the end of the world as we know it, but we contribute to this new world being born. Eugene Boring (not a great last name for a Bible scholar and author) wrote that this new world being born is "a world in which all that is human is taken up and transformed." Think about that. All of our work, all our effort, all our struggles, have meant something, as together they contribute to God's work of renewing creation. Boring explained it this way:


Every ditch dug, every brick laid, every vote cast, every committee decision that has contributed to the decency of human life is preserved, and built into the eternal city [envisioned here at the end of Revelation].


    But that isn't even the most powerful thing Dr. Boring wrote about this vision in Revelation. Get ready, for here is the most amazing thing. Boring wrote, "at the End we meet not an event but a Person. . . . God does not merely bring the End, God is the End."

    The "end-of-the-world" is not an event, but an encounter with God. The God who is making all things new. The God who is defeating Death and Hell. The God who loves us like a mother and a father. The God who will make a home for us and wipe away all our tears. The God who has told us again and again, "Be not afraid."

    Yes, then, I'm ready for that ending. Ready for that new beginning.


    I am drawn, once again, to those beautiful words that close C. S. Lewis' final Narnia story The Last Battle:


[The] things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them down. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.



Prosecute Torturers

I was disappointed in 2009 when Eric Holder said that there would be no investigation or prosecution of the crimes committed by the previous administration.  Now, after the Senate report, the NYTimes is calling for such investigations and prosecutions.  These need to occur.

But there is an alternative--a truth commission.  As has been demonstrated in many other nations, these can be very effective.  Set up a commission in which we invite the perpetrators to confess everything they did and to face their accusers (or representatives of their accusers).  If they fully confess and seek reconciliation, then they would not be prosecuted.  But if they failed to confess or seek reconciliation, then they would be prosecuted.

I realize this would be quite difficult for Vice President Cheney who clearly has no remores and feels he has no sins to confess and be absolved of.

Ornament Series: The OBU 1992 Handmade Ornament

1992 was my Fresman year at Oklahoma Baptist University.  Matt Cox was my roommate.  Matt and I decided to decorate our dorm room for Christmas.  We went out to Wal-Mart and bought a four foot artificial tree for $19.  We bought a few strings of lights and some cheap ornaments, but we mostly had to make our own.  We went searching for pine cones that we then dripped glue on and dusted with glitter (I still have a few of those I've kept as reminders).  

Also in December our hall had a Christmas party with gift exchange.  For that event Matt made everyone on the hall one of these wooden ornaments, with our name, the year, and OBU written on them.

Matt Cox's ornament

Ornament Series: The Grenadier

Why is a Grenadier of the Queen's Guard hanging on our Christmas tree?


In 1992, upon graduating from high school, I had planned to travel to Europe with a group going from my high school and led by our French teacher, Kay Boman.  But it seems that none of my classmates wanted to go, so the trip never made.

In 1995 KayBo mustered a group and asked me, now a junior in college, if I wanted to go along.  I said yes.  Then, Mom said she wanted to go to.  So, I spent two weeks traveling around Europe with my mother, right on the cusp of true adulthood.  We had a blast.  We climbed up the steps of Sacre Couer, picniced beside the lake in Lucerne, relaxed as we cruised down the Rhine.  And so much more.  One aspect of the trip was Mom decided to buy all the family's Christmas gifts, so we were always on the lookout for the perfect gift for each person.

The first stop of the trip was London.  As we left the Tower, we encountered a stall selling all sorts of touristy items, including an array of ornaments of different classic English characters.  We decided it would be fun to buy an ornament by which to remember this trip.  I selected the grenadier in his classic bearskin hat.

And, now, every year when I unwrap it and place it on the tree, I remember the grand adventure Mom and I enjoyed together twenty years ago.

Ornament Series: The Red Cup

As we decorated our tree on Monday, I got the idea of doing a blog series writing about some of our ornaments, as many of them have some sort of story or little tidbit that makes them interesting.  Part of the fun of decorating the tree, of course, is remembering those things and talking about them as you decorate.  This was similar in my family of origin.  My sister used to joke that we didn't need to have the conversation itself anymore, we should just be able to say something like "Conversation 17" and everyone nod in recognition.

First up: The Red Cup

The Red Cup Ornament

Like many families, Michael and I generally buy one new, special ornament every year.  We bought this handmade ornament in the late Aughts at the Red Cup Cafe in Oklahoma City.  That particular year The Red Cup hosted a holiday party at which local artists and craftspeople were selling their wares.  One person had made a bunch of ornaments, including red cups, the symbol of the host cafe.  Michael and I knew we needed to purchase one.  Why?

Well, not because this was a favourite spot of ours.  I did hang out there many days of the week; it was my virtual office.  A handful of ministry colleagues did the same.  It was highly usual to enter the Red Cup on a Thursday and encounter me, a Nazarene minister, a Greek Orthodox theologian, a rabbi, and maybe two other UCC ministers, all writing our sermons.  

But, as I said, that's not the reason.

The reason we purchased that ornament and place it prominently at the front of our tree every year, is that The Red Cup was the location of our first date in September 2006.

I had invited Michael to meet me for coffee on the Saturday afternoon of Labor Day weekend.  I then learned that Michael didn't drink coffee.  He ordered a hot chocolate.  We sat at one of the outside tables, under the canopy.  We had that "get to know each other better conversation."  I remember that we talked about film a lot.  I also remember what shirt he was wearing.

As we went to leave (I had a barbecue to  attend), Michael wanted to hug, but at just the moment he went to reach for me, a big, wet dog appeared out of nowhere and jumped up on him, getting him all muddy.  Michael then reached out with his hand so we shook hands goodbye.  We still laugh about that.

Military opposes "enhanced interrogation"

A good article on Stars & Stripes reminds everyone that a decade ago the military opposed "enhanced interrogation techniques" for many of the same reasons that the Senate report condemns the practice.

I really liked the final line of the article:  “We’ll go to extreme ends to defend the country, but we’re not going to put ourselves down in the gutter with the people we’re fighting to do that.”

The Rule of Law & Dick Cheney

The Meet the Press video with Dick Cheney merits these comments: 

1)  Ends do not justify means.  Fundamental principle of morality and the rule of law. He openly flaunts it.
2)  A core principle of our Anglo-American Common Law tradition is espoused in the Blackstone quote, "It is better for ten guilty men to go free than to hang an innocent man."  Again, Cheney openly flaunts.
There is no equivocating here:  he directly violated basic human moral principles and basic standards of the American tradition.  He admits to having done so.