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July 2015

Praise Be

Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis : On Care for Our Common HomeEncyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis : On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read a few papal encyclicals through the years, but none were as inspiring to me as this one. Francis is an easy and engaging writer. Benedict to craft intricate theological statements. And John Paul paradoxically combined the writing talents of a poet and playwright with the sometimes obscure philosophical speculations of a phenomenologist. Francis' writing is both clearer and more engaging to a wider readership.

And what he writes is challenging and inspiring. In many ways, there is nothing new here. The Roman Catholic Church has long criticized Western capitalism for its greed, consumption, and exploitation and/or neglect of the poor. But what Francis has accomplished is a beautiful, cheerful, and hopeful connection of the deep problems of our current society--ecology, economy, and quality of life. He has sought common ground with other faith groups and nonbelievers while also articulating specifically how a catholic, Trinitarian theology promotes engagement with the poor and radical changes in our lifestyles in order to live as better stewards of the earth.

I intend to look back through the letter (I've been reading it here and there over the last month during free time at work) in order to organize my thoughts more. I very likely will preach on topics from the encyclical this autumn.

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More on Coates

I read two good pieces responding to Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, of which I blogged over the weekend.

The first, by John McWorther on Daily Beast, discussed Antiracism as a religion.  The main premise is that educated white elites are part of an antiracist religion that has some benefits but also disallows certain questions and criticisms.  He takes Coates to be a prophet and writer of scripture in this religion.  McWorther's essay itself raises some provocative questions that should critique the way some progressive handle conversations about race.  "Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history."

That essay directed me to a David Brooks column on Coates' book.  Brooks respects the book and encourages everyone to read it.  But he wonders if, as a privileged white man, he can criticize or question anything.  I did like the acute analysis Brooks brought to the book, demonstrating that a determinism burdens it:

In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. America is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. African-American men are caught in a crushing logic, determined by the past, from which there is no escape.


The Darkness

The Darkness

Psalms 88 & 139

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

26 July 2015



    This summer we have been exploring the Psalms. Today we were going to complete the Psalms of Orientation—those that celebrate the goodness and the order of God's creation before next week moving on to the Psalms of Disorientation. This week, however, our congregation has experienced disorientation, and so today I want to read two psalms. One is a deeply painful lament, crying out to God for help. The second is a cry for deliverance and is more hopeful than the first psalm. One reason I love the psalms is that they express the full range of human emotions, including our deepest pains and griefs. Hear, now, these two psalms, written from the darkness.


[Psalms 88 and 139]


    This week our congregation was shocked and deeply grieved when one of our own, Felix Sihakom, killed himself. Felix was affected by a schizoaffective disorder. He died of a brain disease that he had struggled with for many years. Rick, Felix's husband, wants us to talk openly about Felix's disease, so that we all might learn and grow and thereby create some meaning after this horror.

Felix's psychosis affected him through six voices he heard speaking to him, though recently only two voices remained. One voice was named Cheryl. She was African and Felix described her as sleepy. Another was Yellow Mary. She was Laotian and was struggling to go to heaven. She was polite and sometimes gave him good advice. None of the other voices gave good advice however. One was an unnamed KKK member who was homophobic and spewed hatred at Felix. A fourth was an unnamed Black Panther who repeatedly told Felix that he was stupid, that he should go back to Laos, even that he should kill himself. The two dominant voices, the two who remained in recent months, were Bobby Jo and her mother. The mother was heavyset and naughty. Felix described Bobby Jo as a "ghetto superstar" who thought she was better than everyone else. She attacked his self-worth, his relationship with Rick and with other people. Bobby Jo told him he should die.

    As you can tell from the detailed descriptions, these voices were very real to Felix, which is typical of someone with a schizoaffective disorder. Every day he heard these voices in his head, tormenting him. That's one reason he would often get up and leave an event here at church. If you found him crying in a corner, he would say that the voices were bothering him again.

    At first, Felix didn't want to tell me the details of the voices. He was afraid that if he told me about them, that they would begin to attack me as well. He constantly feared that these voices would attack and harm his husband Rick. Felix shared these facts with me only because he believed that I was protected by a higher, divine power.

    In the ancient world before our modern medical and scientific knowledge, these voices would have been described as demons. That's how they felt to Felix—alien presences in his own mind and body tormenting him. After the horror of this week, I find it impossible to argue with Felix's subjective experience.

    Of course, these voices are not actual entities, they are symptoms of a terrible brain disease. A schizoaffective disorder shares some traits with schizophrenia and some traits with mood disorders like major depression and bipolar.

2.4 million Americans every year are affected by schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a form of psychosis, meaning "a mental health problem in which a person has lost some contact with reality." The word schizophrenia comes from the Greek and means "fractured mind." A common feature of this disease is that the person affected is unaware that they have a disease. For them the experience is quite real.

"A person with schizoaffective disorder [also] has severe changes in mood" between depressive and manic. Nikki Zimmerman explained the difference to me this way, "One way of thinking about the difference between schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia is that the schizophrenic person has dulled affect and would never be the fun-loving, emotionally responsive person that Felix was."

    These disorders are more common among men, among those who grew up in urban areas, among those who experience social stress (as Felix would have experienced as a person of color and a gay man), and even more common among immigrants, which Felix was. Scientists do not fully understand why these are risk factors for the disease.


    Felix was in the care of a psychiatrist. He was in therapy and was prescribed medication. Unfortunately we learned too late that he had quit taking his medication in May.

A few times this week I have heard the question "What more could we have done?" I even pondered the question myself for a while.

    But then I realized that we do not ask the question "What more could we have done?" when someone dies of liver cancer. We do not even ask the question "What more could we have done?" when someone dies of heart disease, when in fact we might have done something by serving more heart healthy meals for instance.

    In these cases we do not ask the question "What more could we have done?" because we know that unless we are oncologists or cardiologists there's really nothing we could do. And, yet, with a brain disease like schizoaffective disorder we for some reason think that we could have done something.

    Even asking this question is a reminder that we have not overcome the way we used to think about mental illness. Schizoaffective disorder is not a result of moral weakness, spiritual failure, or a character flaw. Schizoaffective disorder is a disease of the brain.

    This congregation has worked diligently to overcome the stigma that traditionally has surrounded mental illness. We've held educational forms, recognized the day of prayer for mental illness awareness with special services, even made mental illness the focus of Sunday morning worship services. A few years ago the entire staff and some Thrift Shop volunteers attended a seminar on the church and mental illness so that we might be better trained. Some members of this congregation have also shared openly about their depression and anxiety, about bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder, about eating disorders and suicide. Others, of course, maintain privacy and we respect that in the same way that some of you don't share your cancer diagnoses with everyone. I have even spoken on occasion of my own periods of anxiety and depression. My physician has prescribed me an anti-anxiety medication which I take as needed. I took two this week.

    Could we be even more open in talking about mental illness, about trauma and its effects, about the wide spectrum of brain diseases? Sure, we could. Could we hold more forums and make mental health a focus more often? Again, yes. Will we continue working for a world that better supports people with mental illness, a world free of stigma and prejudice? Of course we will.

    But I do not believe that there was more we could have done for Felix. I believe we did the right things for him. Experts advise that a person affected by psychosis should have a network of support. This community should listen without judging, be encouraging, reduce stress, check on the person, and provide the same sorts of support they might provide to any sick person.

    This congregation was that community for Felix. We welcomed him and enjoyed the brightness of his smile. We listened when he needed to talk. I don't know how many times I saw Felix talking one-on-one with one of you when he was crying. We enjoyed his cooking, even if it could be too spicy at times. We enjoyed his laugh and his stories and his bright personality. We celebrated with him. I remember how full this sanctuary was on the day he and Rick were married, filled with members of this congregation. We cared for him. We will miss him.

    So, I do not believe that there was "more that we could have done." But what can we do now?

    We can grieve. We can pull together as a community and work through our pain together. We can support Rick. We can call upon one another when we are hurting. We can continue to be welcoming, compassionate, encouraging people. We can continue to hope.

    And we can say once again that if you need someone to talk to, your church friends are here for you. You also have an insert in your bulletin which lists a few resources and warning signs for suicide.

    I reached out to three different therapists to help me shape my thoughts and words this week. Bonnie Sarton-Mireau wrote the following to me in an e-mail:


When I work with those in the depths who have suicidal thoughts or plans - so much of the important work is "feelings come and feelings go" & reinforcing the impermanence of all feelings, of all thoughts, working to build a tool box of memories of when these suicidal thoughts and feelings have surged forward and receded in the past & creating an internal movie of the life that gets lived after the crises pass - creating hope and reason to continue. . . . Most of those who struggle and fight through acute times of suicide ideation can look forward to times of remission, of peace.    


    Sometimes we experience the darkness. But even there, deep within the pit of our despair, God is present. The Psalmist reminds us "even the darkness will not be dark to you [O God]; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you."

The Sea

The SeaThe Sea by John Banville
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Sea is the first Booker Prize Winning novel that I've not cared for. I wasn't engaged by the characters or the story, nor did I particularly care for the writing.

There were some exceptions. For example, this paragraph is quite well-written:

"There was another reason why she must be kept inviolate, unpolluted by too much self-knowledge or, indeed, too sharp a knowledge of me. This was her difference. In her I had my first experience of the absolute otherness of other people. It is not too much to say--well, it is, but I shall say it anyway--that in Chloe the world was first manifest for me as an objective entity. Not my father and mother, my teachers, other children, not Connie Grace herself, no one had yet been real in the way that Chloe was. And if she was real, so, suddenly, was I. She was I believe the true origin in me of self-consciousness. Before, there had been one thing and I was part of it, now there was me and all that was not me. But here too there is a torsion, a kink of complexity. In severing me from the world and making me realise myself in being thus severed, she expelled me from that sense of the immanence of all things, the all things that had included me, in which up to then I had dwelt, in more or less blissful ignorance. Before, I had been housed, now I was in the open, in the clearing, with no shelter in sight. I did not know that I would not get inside again, through that ever straitening gate."

I do want to point out the almost totally random (or at least it appears that way) use of the comma in that paragraph. Commas are missing in some of the places our junior high grammar teachers taught us to use them (which is fine, as punctuation is far more flexible and based on personality that those grammarians taught) but then the comma is used by Banville excessively in some other sentences. The comma also, in places is used where a semi-colon or a dash would more appropriately (according to those orthodox rules) be used. If I were to chat with him, I'd be curious about what internal rules guide his use of commas.

So, that excerpt is fine writing, but this one isn't

"Speaking of the television room, I realise suddenly, I cannot think why it did not strike me before now, so obvious is it, that what it reminds me of, what the whole house reminds me of, for that matter, and this must be the real reason I came here to hide in the first place, is the rented rooms my mother and I inhabited, were forced to inhabit, throughout my teenage years."

First, the transition is awkward and artificial, as if the writer needed to create a way to talk about his adolescence and made the discussion fit just here after a scene in the tv room. But I also dislike the way the clauses pile on one another. No personal objection to run-ons, but this particular run-on is quite awkward, even if the sentence is meant to represent a stream of consciousness.

Then, he used a similar awkward transition three pages later which really rubbed me raw seeing the transition a second time:

"Have I spoken already of my drinking? I drink like a fish. No, not like a fish, fishes do not drink, it is only breathing, their kind of breathing."

Plus that overuses cliches.

Ultimately I found the novel ponderous with its sense of philosophical importance, though to me there was nothing there.

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Coates on Poetry

One the many paragraphs in Between the World and Me which struck me was this one on poetry:

I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago--the craft of writing as the art of thinking.  Poetry aims for an economy of truth--loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.  Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions--beautiful writing rarely is.  I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations.  Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ordered Between the World and Me the same day I ordered Go, Set a Watchman.  I have yet to read the Harper Lee novel (I’ll likely get it read this coming week) but for all the discussion of Atticus and race, I can’t help but think that this is the more profound book and the one the culture should have been discussing the last two weeks.  I opened the book the evening it arrived and completed it almost 24 hours later, this despite one of the most difficult and consuming work weeks of my professional career.  The book is that engaging and profound. 

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son on being a black male in America, written in this year in which America has slaughtered so many black males.  I’ve appreciated Coates’ commentary and analysis since it first began appearing in the places I read almost a decade ago.  He is challenging, provocative, and eye-opening.  

I could quote gigantic sections of the book, but here are a few. 

The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise.  The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women.  I am not a cynic.  I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover.  But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.  Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.  And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements.  And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know.  You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie.  You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold. 


Black people love their children with a kind of obsession.  You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.  I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.  That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.  It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand.  She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine.  And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods.  The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed.  The typhoon will not bend under indictment.  They sent the killer of Prince Jones [a police man] back to his work, because he was not a killer at all.  He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws. 


And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life. 


                “We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,” writes Solzhenitsyn.  “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”  This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.  There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present.  The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight.  This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.  To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered vision of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.  It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.  But that is your work.  It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind. 


                There are already two people I’ve promised my copy of the book to read.  I’m going to recommend it directly to at least seven others.  I’m recommending the book, generally, to everyone.

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The Great Divorce

The Great DivorceThe Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book I think you've got Lewis at his best and worst. His worst is a very limited, non-critical, British academic view that caricatures the faults of various people. Too many entities in this novel are not characters but seem to be Lewis' making fun of people. I imagine he would sniff at my writing that.

But aside from these faults, there is much to enjoy in the book. Lewis crafts delightful sentences and the book is filled with theological insight.

What I have always appreciated most deeply about Lewis is that for him joy is central to theology. Almost everything else pales in comparison to whether or not one is participating in joy.

As a sixth grader I read the chapter "Farther Up and Further In" from The Last Battle and was filled with such exuberance that at recess I ran and ran and ran just like they did in the book.

I appreciate that in this novel, his vision of heaven and hell, the difference is joy. Even those souls which are in hell can make it to heaven if they fan even a small spark of joy. (I've always been surprised that American evangelicals are such fans of Lewis because his soteriology and eschatology are very different from theirs).

Here is a great excerpt from near the end of the book:

"The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven."

Every pastor knows the person who must be a victim and never find healing or transformation. Eventually one can do next to nothing for that person except tell them the truth about themselves, at which they usually get angry and accuse you of not being pastoral. I was glad to discover Lewis addressing this very point.

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