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August 2015

Didion on Grief

This paragraph from Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking called for being shared:

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.  We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.  We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks.  We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock.  We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.  We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss.  We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.  In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be "healing."  A certain forward movement will prevail.  The worst days will be the earliest days.  We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place.  When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to "get through it," rise to the occasion, exhibit the "strength" that invariably get mentioned as the correct response to death.  We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day?  We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.  Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence of what follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it." I found Joan Didion's story of the year after her husband's death to be a powerful discussion of grief. Many of her experiences I could identify as having been part of my own experiences of grief. Yet, because she is such a gifted writer she can capture the experience in articulate detail.

I was also impressed by the thorough research she did into the medical and psychological issues involved. This information is presented throughout the book, but always embedded within a story.

Yes, there is an elitism to the story because of who she is, but I think the universality of the experience makes the book accessible. I will be referring grieving congregants to this book.

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Dance, Then

Dance, Then

Psalm 30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

30 August 2015



    "You have turned my mourning into dancing," the Psalmist writes. This is a sign that we have now entered into the final type of Psalms that we will explore this summer. The psalms of new orientation. First were the psalms of orientation, those that celebrated the goodness and the order of creation and praised God for God's faithfulness. Second were the psalms of disorientation—psalms of lament, confession, and complaint—written in the midst of some difficulty or need. Some of those were profound cries from the darkness.

    And Psalm 30 is not without disorientation. This poet has been in the Pit, but this poet has also been rescued, giving testimony to a new orientation arising from the experience of pain and suffering. Psalm 30 is a typical Thanksgiving Psalm. One of the most interesting features of Hebrew thanksgiving psalms is that embedded within them is a lament. Here we read in verse eight "To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication." The poet pleads for God to hear the cry and to help. God does, evoking thanksgiving.

    We shouldn't be surprised that thanksgiving comes after suffering. In the great story of the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock the Thanksgiving meal is a celebration that they have survived the first winter which killed so many of them and they have now learned to grow crops and hunt food that will sustain them through the second winter. Joy comes in the morning, after the troubles of the night.

    And to express this new found joy the poet writes, "You have turned my mourning into dancing."


    In a moment we will sing the hymn "Lord of the Dance," set to the familiar Shaker tune "Simple Gifts." Now, let me assure you that this hymn is not a celebration of a particular Celtic dance troupe. The hymn is an Easter song, celebrating the victory of Jesus over the forces of evil that crucified him--


They cut me down and I leapt up high
I am the life that'll never, never die.


The lyricist, Sydney Carter, drew upon an old English Christmas Carol entitled "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day." Here's the most fun verse from that carol:


In a manger laid, and wrapped I was

So very poor, this was my chance

Between an ox and a silly poor ass

To call my true love to my dance.


One of the interesting features of both hymns is that they are written from the first person perspective of Jesus and no matter what happens to him, Jesus sees it all as part of the dance and he invites us to share in the dance with him.

    Carter, the lyricist, said of his hymn "Lord of the Dance"


I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.


    Despite the similarities, it doesn't appear that Carter was familiar with the "Hymn of Jesus" from the Gnostic text Acts of John which Pat read a moment ago. That is a story of Jesus leading his disciples in a dance and proclaiming "Grace danceth. I would pipe; dance ye all."

    That Gnostic story is quite a fun one. Jesus knows this is his last night, his last supper with his friends. Both to celebrate that moment and to prepare for his impending arrest, torture, and crucifixion, he sings and dances. We are reminded once again of the intimate connection between suffering and joy, between lament and thanksgiving.

    Sydney Carter, the lyricist, said of his hymn "Lord of the Dance" "I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord ... Anyway, it's the sort of Christianity I believe in."

    His worry was because many Christians don't picture Jesus being so exuberant. Plus, many traditions, like my own Baptist tradition, look askance at dancing, because dancing can lead too easily to sexual temptation.

    Another reason Sydney Carter thought churches might not like his hymn is because he

drew inspiration for the hymn from a particular statue of the Hindu god Shiva.

    Friday night I attended the Choir Party at Alice Love and Dave Nichols house, and behold, in their garden, was Shiva, Lord of the Dance. Which makes sense since Alive and Dave are dancers. She loaned me the statue so I could use it for the sermon today.

    You might have seen these images--Shiva has many arms, one leg is kicked up into the air, his hair is blowing with the movement, and he is surrounded by a ring of fire. In one hadn is the drum that made the first sound of creation and continues to mark time. In the other hand is agni, the fire that will destroy the universe. With his other two hands he makes gestures dispelling fear and promising refuge. With his feet he tramples upon ignorance and illusion, which hold humanity back from enlightenment.

The Sanskrit word Nataraja translates to Lord of the Dance and is used of Shiva to represent his Dance of Bliss when he becomes the cosmic dancer, destroying a weary universe and making preparations for a new creation. The Hindu Lord of the Dance is a symbol of salvation, as illusion and ignorance are defeated and humankind is liberated.

    "O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you faithful ones, and give thanks to God's holy name."


    So, repeatedly this connection is being made in Hindu sculpture and Hebrew poetry and contemporary music that joy is born in the morning after the dark of night, that dancing comes after mourning, that creation results from destruction, that thanksgiving arises from lament.

    When we are in need, we call to God for rescue, and when God rescues us, we erupt in praise and thanksgiving. Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that "the Psalms regularly bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected." Or again "the hymn in its primal assertion is a statement of victory that has happened in a situation that could have ended in defeat but did not."

    The task of thanksgiving, then, is to acknowledge our life, our joy, our blessings as gifts that might not have been, and, thus, are all that more to be treasured.

    And not to stop simply with words of praise and celebration. God has rescued us, now let's do something with ourselves. Let's share that gift and bless other people. To give thanks is to make a commitment to be good stewards of the gift God has given to us.


    This is Homecoming Sunday, when we gather together to picnic on the patio, fellowship with friends, and launch into the activities of a new school year. Today is a day of goodness and celebration.

    So, dance, then, for God has drawn us up from the pit and clothed us in joy.

Caputo on Whiteness

Philosopher John Caputo discussses whiteness, the value of postmodern philosophy, and the role of prophets in this fascinating interview.

That is the attraction of postmodern philosophy to me, which is a philosophy of radical pluralism. It theorizes alterity, calls for unrelenting sensitivity to difference, and teaches us about the danger of our own power, our freedom, our “we.” I think that philosophy is not only a work of the mind but also of the heart, and it deals with ultimate matters about which we cannot be disinterested observers. So at a certain point in my career I decided to let my heart have a word, to write in a more heartfelt way

Commodity or Communion

Commodity or Communion

Psalm 73

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

23 August 2015



    Near the beginning of this sermon series on the Psalms we looked at Psalm 1, which is an introduction to the entire Book of Psalms. That poem tells us that the happy person is the one who follows in the way of God. These folk are "like trees planted by streams of water . . . [and] in all that they do, they prosper." That poem also tells us that "The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away."

    Psalm 1 is a psalm of orientation, celebrating a fundamental order and fairness to creation. But, as I said at the time, we know reality is more complicated than that. And the Book of Psalms knows reality is more complicated than that. Sometimes the good people suffer and are not happy. Sometimes the wicked prosper.

    Which sets the stage for today's Psalm, number 73, of which the great bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says "We come now to what may be the most remarkable and satisfying of all the psalms." [Read Psalm 73]



    Children generally reach a point in their development when they realize that the world is not fair. This realization using comes with some crying and foot stomping. That children insist upon fairness may reveal something basic about our human search for meaning and purpose. On the most basic level, we expect things to be orderly and just.

    But, reality isn't like that our parents tell us. "Life is not fair." Part of maturing is learning that the universe isn't orderly, that there isn't a meaning or purpose to every thing that happens to us. I suspect that even as adults this realization still ticks us off. We've just learned to cope with a world that isn't as good and right as we think the world should be.

    People's driving habits really annoy me. I think Omaha has worse drivers than anywhere I've ever lived. Of course it may be that the entire society has simply gotten to be bad drivers over the last few years, I don't know. But on any given day on Omaha's streets you'll see a huge number of people running red lights, speeding on residential roads, pulling out in front of other people, etc. Now that I have an infant in the car, I'm even more aware of what other drivers are doing, so I'm even more annoyed than usual.

    Last week I was sitting waiting on a friend, parked alongside the street at 50th and Blondo. In a fifteen minute timeframe about 25 cars drove through my line of sight. And only five of them didn't break some traffic law. Cars didn't stop properly at the intersection, one dangerously pulled out in front of another car, a number of them took the turn too sharply, a huge number weren't even driving in their lane, somehow thinking parked cars meant they could drive entirely within the opposing lane of traffic, when the street is actually wide enough for two cars to pass one another even with a car parked along the curb.

    By the time my friend arrived, my hackles were raised, and I was in full dudgeon. Yes, I am fully aware that as I age I'm becoming more and more of a curmudgeon. No telling how insufferable I will be when I'm seventy.

    What annoys you about contemporary society? Is it the ubiquity of bad cell phone manners? Is it the annoying presence of television screens in restaurants that aren't sports bars? Is it people who don't put their shopping carts in the bins conveniently provided by the grocery store? Is it the epidemic of narcissism or its cousin--self-involved cluelessness that makes people discourteous?

    Frankly, I can say yes to all of those. They annoy me.

    Why do all of those things annoy me? Because I was raised right. I was raised to be kind and courteous, to follow the driving rules, to be considerate of other people. And it seems that all of the growing number of people who behave differently think they are entitled to lead undisciplined lives, that they are the exceptions. I think they are corroding society, and they probably would think I'm being uptight.

    Psalm 73 is written for me. For this poet expresses indignation that the wicked seem to be prospering. Oh, I know he is being more serious than quibbling about shopping carts and traffic rules. He really means the polluters who ruin rivers or the corporate raiders who devastate communities when factories close or the bankers who lose billions of other people's dollars and still get bonuses or the politicians who make decisions that wreck other people's lives.

    But I believe that a lack of consideration and discipline in the little things is one reason the wicked get away with all the big things. If someone learns that following the little rules is inconvenient and that they can get away, maybe even get ahead, with breaking them, then that person will usually begin to break the bigger rules as well.

    This psalmist is angry and complaining to God—the people who break the rules seem to be getting ahead of those of us who are doing the right thing, leading disciplined lives.

    The psalmist confesses, "I too have considered making the change. Why should I live a righteous life if other people are getting away with and succeeding while breaking all the rules?"


    Yet, the psalmist doesn't throw his heritage away and embrace the undisciplined life. Why? "I would have been untrue to the circle of your children," the psalmist writes. Living according to the law of God wasn't something the psalmist did in isolation, God's way is a life lived in communion with other people. And not just those around us right now. The community of God's people extends across the generations. The psalmist realizes that to live wantonly would have defied the community and broken the circle, harming society now and harming future generations.


    Walter Brueggemann points out that this psalm is about the basic choice between commodity and communion. He writes:


Covenantal faith teaches that communion with God—and derivatively solidarity with one's neighbor—constitutes the true goal of human existence. The alternative, now offered among us in the market economy, is the endless pursuit of commodities that promise to make us safe and happy.


    This basic life choice is also what animates the recent encyclical by Pope Francis. He writes that a worldview has taken hold of society, a worldview that sees and treats the earth and other people as objects to be used for our own benefit. That worldview has led to violence, exploitation, corruption, and pollution that are damaging the common good. What we need, he proclaims, is a change in humanity, drawing upon ancient and deep spiritual teachings of all the faith traditions, so that we see ourselves intimately connected with everyone and everything else in a universal communion.

    I've been so deeply moved by his encyclical, in which he invites every person on the planet to enter into dialogue about the issues he raises, that I'll be preaching on some of those themes in October and November.

    So the teaching of our faith tradition—in the ancient poet and contemporary priest—is that there is a basic choice—we can follow the way of God, the way of communion with all creation OR we can indulge the self, pursuing our own interests, and treat everything else as a commodity that exists for our own use.

    Sure, the psalmist writes, people who choose the self do often seem to get ahead. But at what long term cost to the fabric of society and to creation and ultimately to themselves?


    Psalm 73 begins with the statement of the traditional worldview of the way of God—that the good and upright person will be blessed. The psalm then states the problem—but that doesn't seem to be what happens in reality. Which lead to the author's temptation to forego the way of God and live the way of self. But, then the poet realizes the damage such a life causes.

    By verse sixteen the psalmist knows that he should continue in the disciplined life of God's community, but writes that this "seemed to me a wearisome task." How often have you known the right and good thing to do, but found it wearisome, when maybe breaking the rules would have been so much easier and faster?

    The psalmist knows what should be done, but lacks the motivation and will to do right, until, in verse 17, the psalmist "went into the sanctuary." There, in worship with the people of God, this poet discovers the inspiration to live the good and faithful life of communion. There, in worship, the poet experiences the accompanying presence of God and realizes that the true meaning and purpose of life is to draw nearer to God.

    The psalmist has moved from the naiveté of the basic worldview that everything should be fair, through the disorientation of reality and temptation, and now into a new orientation. In the long run of time, in the big picture of the cosmos, it is a life lived in communion, obedient to the way of God, that finds fullness. The self-interested and self-involved life that treats everyone and everything else as commodities might succeed in the short term, but those lives will ultimately perish from the earth.

    So, our work as the people of God is to build community, to strengthen social bonds, to leave the world a better place for our children. That kind of life is never lived in vain. That kind of life is immortal, for that life is absorbed into the unbroken circle of God's children.

A Little Life

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am perfectly aware that I'm going to be a dissenting voice, as this novel has already appeared on many people's lists as one of the best novels of 2015. I did not like it.

After reading the first chapter, I would have put the book down if it hadn't been so well-regarded. To me there was nothing in that chapter that captured my interest, and I thought, "Another novel about beautiful, talented, young New Yorkers [sigh]." For about half the book, I would have put it down if not for the reputation. The reputation compelled me to keep going, wondering if I was missing something or at least determined to discover what others like so much about it.

Maybe "Dear Comrade?" That section I found well-written and compelling.

Otherwise I have a host of negative responses to the book. For one, I thought the structure was often awkward. I enjoy non-linear storytelling, but there were unnecessary and awkward flashbacks and use of time. Here, for instance, is the start of a chapter "The first time Willem left him--this was some twenty months ago, two Januarys ago--everything went wrong. Within two weeks of Willem's departure. . ." So, we learn from that awkward beginning that we have now jumped almost two years since the last chapter (a feeling which disappoints us given what had just transpired) and from that future vantage point are looking back 20 months and then immediately two weeks forward. I was so dizzy and annoyed by this I read the sentences aloud to my husband, one of many times I griped to him about the book while reading it, and he returned a bemused look, unclear what I was talking about.

Near the end there is a scene, a significant scene, between the main character Jude and one of his best friends JB. Yet, nothing after that scene references it. Their relationship appears unaltered, as if this huge moment is forgotten, hanging out there.

Speaking of JB, I wanted to know him so much better. In the very beginning of the book I found the introduction of him to be the most compelling of the four friends at the center of the story, and yet we don't ever really get to know JB. Malcolm, one of the four friends, is a virtual non-character.

My second big complaint, then, is that characters go undeveloped. The story is supposed to be about the friendship of Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB, with Jude as the central character. And, yet, neither Malcolm nor JB are well-developed. Instead, some other supporting characters, such as the physician Andy and the artist Richard, are slightly more developed. The novel includes a dizzying host of supporting characters who most often appear as names in a list of people invited to a party or holiday dinner but never receive any serious character development. If you are going to write an epic story covering decades with scores of characters, then like Trollope or Galsworthy, you should spend some time actually developing your minor characters into real people.

Yet, my biggest complaint is that the plot defies all credulity. These friendships are incredible (in the strict sense of the word). They are catastrophically bad friends. ****Spoiler Alert***

I cannot imagine any group of friends living over the past thirty years who would go decades before seriously confronting their friends illness, suicide attempts, cutting, etc. Their motivation seems to be "If I confront him about this, then I may loose him." Well, no shit. The moral responsibility of the friends (and family) is to confront him about his destructive behaviour, whatever the costs to them or their relationship. So, throughout the novel I kept exclaiming, "No group of friends would act this way (or not act in his catastrophically bad way)."

Finally, the author appears to be a sadist, throwing every imaginable evil, horror, and suffering at Jude that an author could throw at any character. The stories often repulsed me and, as far as I can tell, for no good reason. In some ways the plot felt like porn in always having to go one step further in order to titilate--"That disgusted and horrified you, then listen to this even worse thing." Supposedly the book's power is that the story delves into this darkness, I found this delving-into-darkness to be peurile in its obscenity and sadism.

In other words, I recommend the novel to no one and wish I had never read it.

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