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April 2015

A Buckley comes out

A member of the Buckley family (as in William F., God and Man at Yale) has come out and given his conservative argument for marriage equality, which includes this good paragraph:

Most people would agree that the shift from marriage focused on political considerations to marriage built on love was for the best. What they may not consider is that at its core, this shift was in recognition of a universal right to follow one’s heart. In this, granting the freedom to marry to all loving couples is not a shift from the central tenet of marriage, but instead a fulfillment of its most basic ideals.

"A last fair deal"

The 38th post in this series, listening to my cd collection in alphabetical order.

It is difficult for me to listen to Kate Campbell's "New South."  Watching the reaction to marriage equality in Alabama reminds one of how little the South has changed.

 Growing up in northeastern Oklahoma, I always considered myself a Southerner and resented the notion of outsiders that we were all like those of the past--prejudiced hicks.  Sadly, that stereotype does remain too true.

Of course watching police violence against black men across the country, one realizes that many of our old problems remain. 

With some preparation through my friendship with Tim Youmans, it was while I was living in Fayetteville, Arkansas that I drifted into listening to more folk and that genre of American music that combines the best elements of rock, blues, folk, country, and gospel (think Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams).  David Breckenridge (the pastor I was associate for) and John Meadors (the husband of the other associate pastor) helped those interests along.  

I'm drawn to this music that explores the American story, often expressing our longing for something better (more on that in a moment).  It is usually music of the people, with a grassroots, populist feel.

I think it was David, who was from Mississippi, who gave me Kate Campbell's MonumentsCampbell's songs are narrative windows into the South.  Her Wikipedia article says "Her story-filled songs feature quirky characters and often deal with the region's complex issues."  The bio on her own website notes that her "eloquent gift for storytelling . . . has drawn repeated comparisons to such bastions of the Southern writing tradition as Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner."  High praise indeed. 

Heard about a man
From Birmingham
Went down to Selma
To take a stand
How much
Can one heart hold
He sang some songs
About peace and love
And took a beatin'
From a billy club
How much
Can one heart hold


It was the Sunday morning of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in September 2004, and I was driving over to the festival that morning listening to the radio where they were discussing the bands and recommended that everyone go see the group Calexico.  Here's what I wrote later:

They were fantastic. I thought their mix of sounds was unique. I rushed right over to the Waterloo Records tent and bought their album, Feast of Wire. And the cd is great too. It is more mellow than the live performances, which really got you moving. I highly recommend this band if you haven't heard them.

Feast of wire

"Their musical style is influenced by traditional Latin sounds of mariachi / conjunto / cumbia / Tejano music and also the Southwestern United States country music as well as '50s-'60s jazz and '90s-'00s post-rock," according to their Wikipedia article.  

They remind me of Woody Guthrie.  They eloquently sing of the longing for a better country.  Here are the lyrics for the song "Sunken Waltz:"

Washed my face in the rivers of empire
Made my bed from a cardboard crate
Down in the city of quartz
No news, no new regrets
Tossed a susan b. over my shoulder
And prayed it would rain and rain
Submerge the whole western states
Call it a last fair deal
With an american seal
And corporate hand shake


ArrowsmithArrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An engaging story about a young midwestern man who goes off to college to become a doctor and gets drawn into the world of scientific research. The story follows his love interests and career as he tries to fulfill his grand ambitions in a world populated with greedy, stupid people. There is a fun cast of characters.

The book is a little long with some excess that could be trimmed, but it is also entertaining and an opening into the world of medicine and public health in the early 20th century.

View all my reviews

Daily Gifts

Daily Gifts

Psalms 8 & 104

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

19 April 2015



    I want to tell you a story about one of the churches I preached in as a teenager, I first have to tell you something about northeastern Oklahoma—it is not flat.

    One of the annoying things about growing up in Oklahoma is that when you meet people from other places they assume that you come from a place where the land is flat. As Nebraskans you understand that. I must confess that when Michael and I landed at Eppley Airfield in March 2010 on our first visit to Omaha in order to interview for this job, we were pleasantly surprised to look out the terminal window and see wooded hills rising up before us. Michael said, "Is this Nebraska?" "I guess so," I answered. Later we would learn that it was in fact Iowa we were looking at. Nonetheless, there are wooded hills on the Nebraska side of the river.

    As an Oklahoman I learned to explain to people that though we had portions of the state that were flat, they were mistaken to assume that we looked like Kansas. Oklahoma in fact has 13 ecological zones, more than any other state, from mesas in the northwest where antelope roam to cypress swamps in the southeast where you can find alligators. Oklahoma even has a few ancient mountain ranges, now long worn down by erosion. And northeastern Oklahoma lies at the foothills of the Ozarks, so there are heavily wooded valleys and remote regions in the hills away from towns and highways. And it is this which is important to my story.

    One day when I was in high school the Director of Missions of the Grand Lake Baptist Association called me, as he did on occasion, to ask if I would preach for a pastor who was away. He said, "Scott, can you preach this weekend at Poynor Baptist Church?"

    "Where's that?" I asked, surprised to hear the name of a church that I'd never heard of before. Having grown up in that Association I thought I knew all the churches.

    "It's past Whitewater Baptist Church."

    "Really, there's something past Whitewater? That's about as backwoods as it gets," I thought. He gave me directions, and on the appointed Sunday, Mom and I left home to drive to this mysterious, backwoods church.

    If you head south on Highway 10 out of the lake town of Grove, Oklahoma, you are in a rural area of small farms nestled in the hills and along the creeks. In order to make the turn to Whitewater Baptist Church, you have to look for the granite monument to General Stand Watie, the Cherokee leader who was also the last surrendering Confederate General. The granite monument marks his burial spot. We turned east at the monument and soon the county road entered the dark woods that run along Whitewater Creek. Eventually we passed the tiny Whitewater Baptist Church and continued farther east into even deeper woods, not far from the border with Arkansas.

    Soon, there was a break in the trees to our left, and there was a tiny stone church. There were no houses or buildings anywhere around. Mom and I parked and entered and were greeted warmly by the few folks there setting up. Eventually, there would be eight people in attendance that day. We would learn that only one of them lived nearby. The others all drove in from other places, because this was the church where they'd grown up. There was one young child. I was surprised to learn that the nursery was the open spot at the back of the sanctuary and that one of the adults would sit back there and watch the toddler while he played during the service.

    When worship began the song leader stood at the pulpit and encouraged everyone, but I noticed, oddly, that he turned with his right side toward the congregation, rested his elbow on the top of the pulpit, and stuck his finger in his ear. Then everyone began to sing. And suddenly two truths were revealed. The first was that this small congregation of eight people loved to sing. They all sang out loudly and strongly and with much joy. The second truth was that not a one of them could carry a tune. Which explained why the song leader stuck his finger in his ear.

    In the twenty-seven years that I've been preaching (yes, it is surprisingly that long) I've often heard far more harmonious singing, but I must confess that I have never witnessed such exuberant praise as I did that day in the tiny, out-of-tune congregation of that backwoods church.


    Song inspires us, connecting us to spiritual realm. In her book The Great Awakening Karen Armstrong writes about the very first Indo-Europeans living on the steppes of what is now southern Russia. As far back as 6,000 years ago these people developed religious practices that included sacrifice, a shared meal, and song. She describes the scene,


Sacrifice was offered in the open air on a small, level piece of land, marked off from the rest of the settlement by a furrow. The seven original creations were all symbolically represented in this arena. . . . The priest, expert in the liturgical chant, would sing a hymn to summon devas to the feast. . . . Since the sound of these inspired syllables was itself a god, as the song filled the air and entered their consciousness, the congregation felt surrounded by and infused with divinity.


    The forms may have developed over the millennia, the words and concepts altered, but the basic emotional connection has remained. Song connects us to the spirit. It helps to orient us and make sense of our world.

    Thus the importance of the ancient Hebrew songbook, the Psalms, to the biblical tradition.


    Part of the beauty of the Psalms is how they convey the wide range of human emotion. They contain exultant praise, passionate longing, painful lament, angry invective, profound doubt, stately anthems, and everything in between. Thus their continued appeal, thousands of years after composition. We continue to read and to sing them for devotional encouragement, the beauty of their words, the depth of their thinking. Walter Brueggemann wrote that "the Psalms permit the faithful to enter at whatever level they are able—in ways primitive or sophisticated, limited or comprehensive, candid or guarded." This book is available to everyone.

    I'm going to preach a series on the Psalms, exploring a variety of different types of psalms and how they speak to our spirits today. Since I'm about to go on paternity leave, the bulk of this series won't occur until late June and July.

    Brueggemann has a very helpful book on the Psalms in which he has grouped them according to a three-part movement—psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. The two psalms we've looked at today are psalms of orientation. They are, in fact, more specifically psalms of creation.

    Brueggemann writes that "the most foundational experience of orientation is the daily experience of life's regularities." These songs are the grateful expressions of a people who are happy and blessed.

    These creation psalms, like psalms 8 and 104, describe a world that is orderly and reliable and made so by God; "all of that is daily gift," Brueggemann wrote. These psalms, then, are expressions of a satisfied and grateful people, thankful to God for making a world that we can rely upon.

    Psalm 104, in particular, conveys the idea that we live in protected space, that Creation is governed by a kind, loving, and generous God. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin thought that this psalm conveyed the idea that creation is well-parented. Our divine parent's care and concern help us to avoid chaos and uncertainty. Because we live in this cared for and protected order, we can feel confident, safe, and free.

    Now, all of this may sound a little unrealistic, right? We often experience the world as chaotic, not orderly, dangerous, not safe. There will be psalms that express those disorienting emotions.

    I must also include a word of caution. Songs celebrating a reliable, satisfied order can also be written by people who are well off. And it appears that these two particular hymns might come from the royal court. It is much easier for the rich and powerful to be happy with the existing order than it is for the poor and disenfranchised.

    But with those caveats, there are also times in our lives when everything feels good and right with the world, at least our small portion of it. These psalms are for those sorts of moments. These are the songs we sing when we are happy, confident, and grateful.

    Another feature of these psalms is that they remind us that creation is on-going. It is not simply the work of the dawn of time. The universe continues to expand and evolve. New worlds are born. Life develops. God is still active in creating. That evokes in us the emotions of wonder and praise.

    But also expectation. Even when we acknowledge that everything right now is not as orderly and as safe as we hope it will be, we can still trust in the promise that everything will turn out well. Brueggemann writes, "There moves in these psalms a deep conviction that God's purpose for the world is resilient. That purpose will not yield until creation is brought to fullness."

    And Psalm 8 makes it quite clear that we have a role to play in bringing those promises to fullness. Humanity is crowned with glory and honor and given dominion over the work of God's hands. It is our role to be regents of God's reign upon the earth. It is our mission to be stewards of the creation, contributing to its growth and development, its safety and reliability.

    There is a powerful moral message in these songs—we are responsible to God and to the rest of creation for the way we live. This should compel us to be kind and loving to other people. It should inspire us to work for a world order that is safe and reliable and that benefits everyone. It should drive us to care for the environment, to make it a protected space that evokes our wonder and praise.


    And all of that from a couple of ancient songs.


    My thoughts return to that tiny congregation in the backwoods of Oklahoma. They gathered every week and sang with joy and gusto. Despite their lack of harmony, they expressed faith and hope that God was in control, that God's promises would come true, that they would be blessed.

    The power of song is that it helps us to create the world of which we sing. So, let us join in thanks and praise.

April 19, 1995

It was a Wednesday morning.  The Wednesday morning of the annual Student Government chapel service at Oklahoma Baptist University during which the various candidates gave their speeches.  I was a candidate for SGA Vice President.  Right before the service began Matt Miles walked by and said, "A building in downtown Oklahoma City blew up."  I responded, "A gas main?"  He said, "No one knows."  "Oh," I said.  We went on with the service.

The Jazz Band was performing that morning, and they were to close the service.  Before they played the final song, Mr. Romero walked to the pulpit with a piece of paper, that I guess was handed to him by someone else during the service.  He read the note.  The federal building in downtown Oklahoma City had been bombed.  The room, filled with hundreds of people, got eerily still.  He asked for a moment of silence.

As Chapel ended, students rushed to televisions, many in the Geiger Center.  There was a luncheon after chapel for the candidates and administrators, so I went straight to that, not to the television.  As we were sitting and talking, knowing very little at this point, I suddenly said to Monica Mullins, setting across from me "We have to change the script of Spring Affair."

Spring Affair was the Campus Activities Board variety show scheduled for that weekend.  That year the show had a superhero theme and the plot was a bomb threat to Raley Chapel that the superheros solve.  It had been funny on April 18.  We changed the script to a computer virus attacking the Audix phone system.  But there was even some discussion of cancelling the show.

After lunch I returned to my apartment and spent all day watching television.  Our group of friends all came over, and we stayed there all day.  I don't know if classes were officially canceled, but no one went.

The next day I had Latter Prophets with Dr. Kevin Hall.  He came into class with a somber look on his face.  He opened his Bible and said, "Today I want to open class with a Psalm."  He then read one of the Psalms filled with invectives against the enemies of Israel.  He looked up, "Sometimes one feels this kind of anger.  It is natural emotion.  Yes, we must move beyond it, but let us express it and talk about it first."  Which is what we did.


Five years later when the Memorial opened, the anniversary fell during Holy Week.  I invited Marty Peercy and a few others over to my house to watch.  We had a Seder Supper together first.

The next week I went with my family to see the Memorial.  It was such a healing place.  And that day it had a park-like feel.  Children were playing in the water and running across the lawns.  Families were together.  People were crying on each other's shoulders.  In those early weeks you could walk among the chairs, and I know I cried as I walked along the tiny ones.

That day it began to sprinkle.  And everyone took shelter under the Survivor Tree.  

Equal Liberty of Conscience

Equal Liberty of Conscience

Galatians 5:1, 13-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

12 April 2015



    On October 31, 1948, Reformation Sunday, my predecessor in this pulpit, the Rev. Dr. Harold Janes, preached a sermon entitled "Why We Are Protestants." A couple of years ago the printed version of that sermon came into my possession, and I've cherished it as illustrative of the values that have long guided this congregation.

    Now, the sermon also has a weakness. It was written prior to the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church and the subsequent thawing of enmity between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Thus, there is much anti-Catholic bias evident in the sermon. So, one must filter out the bias.

    According to Dr. Janes there are four key Protestant values—salvation is by individual faith and not mediated through the church, religious liberty, the priesthood of all believers, and the holiness of ordinary life. These four values hang closely together, but today I want to talk about religious liberty.

    I'm drawn to the topic because it has been much in the news of late with the reactions to the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that various states have passed or tried to pass. The law in Indiana created an immediate backlash that was stunning in its scope with everyone from NCAA basketball coaches to Wal-Mart to religious denominations and human rights organizations opposing it because of the way it could be used to discriminate against LGBT people (and also because it opened the door for all sorts of other forms of discrimination). It was easy to conclude that this was a sea-change moment in which the broad mainstream opinion in America was revealed to be opposed to discrimination against LGBT persons. As a gay man, it was quite a shock to suddenly see Wal-Mart as an ally.

    At its core, however, the recent public debate is not solely about LGBT civil rights. It has been framed as a debate about religious freedom. So, I think it is important for us to explore this topic. What is religious freedom and how should we as people of faith understand this current debate? More on all of that in a moment. Let me first return to that 1948 sermon by Dr. Janes.

    This is his description of religious liberty as understood by our Protestant tradition:


[The Protestant] is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God's truth. Each group sees a part of the truth. "We know in part," as Paul said. Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God's purpose for our lives. . . . Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty and echoes the words of Paul, "Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage."    


    There are key ideas here that I want to develop, but first I want to add a warning that Dr. Janes gave in 1948 that I think is relevant for us in this public debate in 2015. He said, "We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others."

    In order to better understand all these ideas, I want to return to the Epistle lesson for today, from Galatians, for it is also the passage that Dr. Janes quoted in his 1948 sermon. This passage comes as Paul is arguing for the freedom of grace as opposed to what he calls the slavery of the law. Followers of Jesus, according to Paul, do not need to be bound by obedience to the law because they live according to grace and love. We are free, not having to earn our salvation by work and effort. But our freedom is not license to do whatever we personally want. Our freedom is shaped by love, the kind of self-sacrificial love revealed in Jesus. The kind of love that respects and values our sisters and brothers.

    The great Scottish scholar William Barclay, commenting on this passage, wrote:


Now Christianity is [a] true democracy, because in a Christian state everyone would think as much of his neighbor as he does of himself. . . . The Christian is the man who through the indwelling Spirit of Christ is so purged of self that he loves his neighbor as himself.


Barclay then picks up on Paul's final statement:


In the end Paul adds a grim bit of advice. "Unless," he says, "you solve the problem of living together you will make life impossible and unlivable at all." Selfishness in the end does not exalt a man; it destroys him.


    As both Dr. Janes and William Barclay point out, our Christian tradition of liberty is rooted in the love of neighbor, the removal of selfishness, and humility about our own views. Liberty, then, is a form of love towards others that enables us to live together. This is the essential quality of religious freedom.


    When our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors came to this continent, it was to freely practice their faith. However, once they arrived, they weren't so good about passing along the same freedom to others. This was particularly a problem for the Puritans. They went to war with the Natives. Burned some they thought were witches. Tried to force Anne Hutchison to conform to the doctrines of the majority. And ran off Roger Williams, who then established Rhode Island, the first colony devoted to complete religious liberty.

    It took a while before our tradition fully embraced religious freedom and its attendant doctrines—disestablishment, separation, governmental neutrality. But once we did embrace these notions, they became central to who we are as a people. Our commitment to religious liberty is what underlies our commitment to human rights. Because we value the rights of conscience, even of those who are different from ourselves, we fought for abolition, Native American's rights, the equality of women, the full inclusion of persons with disabilities, and the equality of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and persons who are transgender.

    Roger Williams is the key early American person who promoted the equal liberty of conscience. Williams was kicked out of Massachusetts by the Congregationalists and went off to found Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in America. I had ancestors who took that journey with him and were founders of that first colony and that first church devoted to complete liberty of conscience. When, almost four hundred years later, I left the Baptist tradition in which I was raised and made the reverse journey of my ancestors, joining the United Church of Christ, it was for the same reason—freedom. Contemporary Baptists, particularly in the South, had largely abandoned their centuries-old commitments to separation of church and state and individual liberty and replaced those with an effort to assert conformity to established doctrine and to legislate their own particular views. This I could not abide, as my ancestors could not abide.

    Baptists abandoned their historic principles because they gained too much secular power, and power corrupts. But that should not mean we forget the essential role that Baptists historically played in the American democratic experiment. And should you want to read an inspiring call to religious freedom from a Baptist perspective, I recommend the great sermon "Baptists and Religious Liberty" preached on the steps of the U. S. Capitol in May 1920 by Dr. George W. Truett the legendary pastor of First Baptist Dallas.

    For Roger Williams the core problem was the same as that which St. Paul referenced—how are we to live together in love. Williams was troubled by the settlers' treatment of the Native Americans and by the human tendency to impose the ideas of a majority upon a minority. He was troubled by these things because they violated individual consciences, and he held individual consciences to be "infinitely precious" demanding respect from everyone. Writing about Roger Williams, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, "Williams thinks of consciences as delicate, vulnerable, living things, things that need to breathe and not to be imprisoned." Therefore it is essential for consciences to have that breathing space. In a just society, everyone will respect each other's conscience, and give each other space.

    From these ideas would develop the American tradition of religious liberty. And should you want to read a history of the development of that tradition and all its complexities, I highly recommend Martha Nussbaum's book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality. In it she presents the six principles that have guided America's complicated history balancing religion with the public life of a pluralistic democracy. There is much to say about that constitutional and legal tradition, but my focus today is upon the religious roots of liberty.

    Essential to the American tradition derived from Roger Williams is the idea of a public space in which everyone's views are allowed to interact. For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect. It does not mean that you have to agree with everyone else, quite the contrary. It means that in the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else. Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right. You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience. Or, as St. Paul put it in the letter to the Galatians, quoting an even more ancient text, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."


    And this, my friends, is why I'm so deeply troubled by the recent misuse of the concept "religious freedom." Let me state emphatically, and so that I am not misunderstood—in the public sphere no one has a religious right to discriminate against another human being.

    Discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty. They are hostile to it.

    It is brazen dishonesty to wrap your biases in the language of religious freedom. It risks substantial harm to the Republic. To the entire American democratic experiment. And even to the Christian gospel.

    It is Orwellian to use a term to describe its exact opposite. This dishonesty must be resisted.

    Religious liberty, as historically understood, as rooted in the biblical tradition, as enshrined in our Constitution, demands equality of all persons, demands mutual respect of all persons, demands that in the public sphere everyone be treated the same.


    Now, that does not mean that these issues are simple. They are in fact quite complex, with broad gray zones that can be difficult to interpret. Legislators and judges must constantly examine those areas where the values of our society create complexity and conflict. They must examine and decide with reason and compassion, nuance and patience.

    And there is a clear difference between the public sphere and the private spheres of religious practice. Essential to our American tradition of religious liberty is the idea that internally a group can establish its own doctrines and practices. Yet as we engage in the public sphere, we must accommodate one another. There is, therefore, a difference between the pizza place that wants to treat customers differently based upon religious beliefs and a religious school who only wants to hire those who align with their doctrines. We may disagree with the doctrines. We may encourage dialogue within and among religious traditions in hopes that those doctrines might change. But it is essential to religious freedom that the rights of religious institutions be understood as different from the rights of businesses engaging in the public sphere.

    The task of ensuring the equal liberty of conscience for all falls not to our public officials, but to us. It is a social practice. It begins with overcoming selfishness and our human tendency to exclude those who are different from ourselves. It manifests in kindness and hospitality. It is guided by humility and generosity. For it is rooted in the commandment "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

    You were called to freedom. Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Love one another.

"If you can't make your mind up, we'll never get started."

This is the 37th post in my cd collection series.

Bush and Cake stand next to each other in the alphabetical order of our cd collection.  They make me think of the 1990's and my roommates and friends

Michael brought the Bush album into the marriage.  Though I did listen to them because friends owned their albums.  At the time I was, of similar bands, more into Live.  Listening to Michael's Bush album makes me think of visits to the Dallas-Fort Worth area with Derrek Housewright when we'd be glad that our car radio finally picked up the alternative stations we couldn't get in Oklahoma.  Bush makes me think of driving around Dallas.  It was also when I went through my own obligatory period of shoulder length hair.  

Cake I loved.  They are a much better band, though the one time I saw them at ACL, I thought they phoned it in, which was mighty disappointing.  

Fashion nugget

There songs were fun, their lyrics were clever, and they recorded great covers, such a this one of "I Will Survive" which was never convincing.  By that I mean that you knew Gloria Gaynor was in fact going to survive.  Cake, you weren't quite so sure.  And that really fit our mood in our twenties.