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September 2015


UtilitarianismUtilitarianism by John Stuart Mill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I last read Mill's Utilitarianism in 1997. I re-read this month for my Ethics class. I liked the book better this time around, and have moved it from 2 to 3 stars.

What most impressed me this time about Mill was his optimism that humanity can and was improving. Also, applying a pragmatic criterion, I can judge that Mill's ethical and political emphases have done much good in the world.

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The Most Good You Can Do

The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living EthicallyThe Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically by Peter Singer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this latest of Singer's books to read in my Ethics class for the utilitarianism requirement of the university's curriculum. The book has worked at generating interesting conversation among the students.

Singer's stories of effective altruists and his concrete examples are interesting, some inspiring. The philosophical ideas come in reflection on real life issues.

I have two criticisms (of the book). One, I'm not convinced by the structure. Some of the chapters seem misordered to me. Also, the basic argument is rather straightforward--that we should do the most good we can and that means saving as many lives as possible through our giving which can only be determined by adequate research into effective strategies--and yet the arguments get repeated. At times the reading felt redundant.

As to the ideas, I'm torn. Yes, I am persuaded that my own charitable giving could be more effective at saving lives. I will likely change some of my giving patterns.

But I can't support the fundamental utilitarian thesis that our moral decisions should be rooted in rational thought devoid of sentiment. After finishing the book I skimmed back through Wendell Berry's Jefferson Lecture "It All Turns on Affection" and kept thinking "Yes, yes it does."

As a college freshman we read an essay by Berry in which he argued that we can do the most good when we work locally. I argued against this notion and felt we needed to work on big global issues. Over the decades of my adulthood I have been more convinced by Berry and, thus, much of my own focus is on local issues based upon actual relationships and communities. Singer's ideas push against this in an effective way. But, I'm still persuaded by Berry--affection and imagination and local focus.

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A Handful of Dust

A Handful of DustA Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Waugh's novel begins simple enough. With sharp wit he portrays the English upper class of the 1930's. Sharper than Galsworthy, but in largely the same vein.

***Spoiler Alert***

Then, tragedy strikes, which surprises the read, even if you expected something from the mild foreshadowing. Then you realize that the novel is weightier than your first estimation.

In its final third the story takes a radical turn, as one of the main characters goes off on a journey to South America with an incompetent explorer. "What's going on here?" you wonder.

The novel concludes in horror.

All these shifts are thoroughly satisfying and masterfully accomplished. That one author in a single novel could write in a consistent voice across such shifts in town is a work to delight in.

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Lovely little love poem

Darling Coffee

Meena Alexander, 1951

The periodic pleasure
of small happenings
is upon us—
behind the stalls
at the farmer’s market
snow glinting in heaps,
a cardinal its chest
puffed out, bloodshod
above the piles of awnings,
passion’s proclivities;
you picking up a sweet potato
turning to me  ‘This too?’—
query of tenderness
under the blown red wing.
Remember the brazen world?
Let’s find a room
with a window onto elms
strung with sunlight,
a cafe with polished cups,
darling coffee they call it,
may our bed be stoked
with fresh cut rosemary
and glinting thyme,
all herbs in due season
tucked under wild sheets:
fit for the conjugation of joy.

For You Are With Me

For You Are With Me

Psalm 23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

13 September 2015



    Today we arrive in our sermon series on the Psalms at Psalm 23. Of this psalm Walter Brueggemann writes, "It is almost pretentious to comment on this psalm. The grip it has on biblical spirituality is deep and genuine. It is such a simple statement that it can bear its own witness without comment."

    From the Feasting on the Word series, in his advice for how to preach this passage, pastor David Burns writes, "One way to approach preaching Psalm 23 is not to preach it. Just read it slowly—preferably in the King James Version—and then sit down."

    Tempting, but I'm not going to do quite that.

    Instead, I'm going to follow some advice I read some years ago and offer this most familiar of biblical passages in multiple translations with the help of Fred Nielsen. I'll do so with a few comments and questions. But as you listen to these words, especially unfamiliar versions, listen for the unfamiliar, listen for what stands out to you. Let this psalm speak a new word to you today.


    Hear now, first from the King James Version, the 23rd Psalm:


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil; for thou art with me:

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:

Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


    More than one commentary I read noted that the term "shepherd" was used in the ancient world to refer to the ruler and the ruler's responsibility to care for the people. Clinton McCann wrote, "it would never occur to the huge majority of North American Christians to hear Psalm 23 as a 'political tract' that 'condemns . . . forces of tyranny.'" McCann is referencing the church historian Philip Jenkins who points out that this political reading is precisely how most African and Asian Christians read the text—"For Africans and Asians the psalm offers a stark rebuttal to claims by unjust states that they care lovingly for their subjects."


FRED: From Kol Haneshama: Prayers for a House of Mourning, a Jewish translation of the Psalm.


The Eternal is my shepherd; I shall never be in need.

Amid the choicest grasses does God set me down.

God leads me by the calmest waters,

and restores my soul.

God takes me along paths of righteousness,

in keeping with the honor of God's name.

Even should I wander in a valley of the darkest shadows,

I will fear no evil,

You are with me, God. Your power and support

are there to comfort me.

You set in front of me a table

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup is overflowing.

Surely, good and loving-kindness will pursue me

all the days of my life,

and I shall come to dwell inside the house

of The Eternal for a length of days.


    David M. Burns writes, "Psalm 23 is so often used in funerals because, in the moment when we reach for our best and truest words about the sum of life, we go here. . . . The one giving testimony in Psalm 23 says that to belong to God in life and in death, today and tomorrow, is a good thing indeed."


    From the New Revised Standard Version:


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff—

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy

shall follow me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

my whole life long.


    Walter Brueggemann writes "It is likely that the psalm is not idyllic and romantic as is often interpreted; rather, the psalmist speaks out of a context of deep danger and articulates confidence in YHWH as the one who will keep the flock safe and protected in the face of every danger."


FRED:     Robert Alter's translation:


The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name's sake.

Though I walk in the vale of death's shadow,
I fear no harm,
for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff--
it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.


    David M. Burns writes, "[Psalm 23] invites us to pause and find our own language for confessing what we have come to believe about life under God's care. . . What language would you use to speak of God's provision in your life?"


FRED:     By Phyllis Bass Psalm 23: A Feminist Version


The Schechinah, a sheltering presence, makes me whole as a woman:

Causing me to rest in green fields, Leading me to calming waters, Replenishing my soul,

And empowering me to make life affirming choices In celebration of God's name.

Even though I have walked in darkness and known loss, I have not despaired for you are with me.

Your guidance and your nurturing spirit have sustained me.

You have set a full table for me when I have been hurt and alienated.

You have conferred upon me unique potential, which I strive to realize.

From the deep core of my being I am overflowing with gratitude.

I know that your goodness and loving kindness will continue to abide within me,

And I will live out my days in God's house.


    The Psalm reminds us, as Brueggemann writes, that "life with Yahweh is a life of well-being and satisfaction."


    From The Message by Eugene Peterson:


GOD, my shepherd!

I don't need a thing.

You have bedded me down in lush meadows,

you find me quiet pools to drink from.

True to your word,

you let me catch my breath

and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through

Death Valley,

I'm not afraid

when you walk at my side.

Your trusty shepherd's crook

makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner

right in front of my enemies.

You revive my drooping head;

my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me

every day of my life.

I'm back home in the house of GOD

for the rest of my life.


    "Beauty and love chase after me?" Yes, the goodness and mercy that follow us are pursuing us. The New Cambridge Bible Commentary says "The subject [of the poem] experiences luxurious extravagance in a context of threat, danger, and death."


FRED:     From the New English Bible:


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall want nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

and leads me beside the waters of peace;

he renews life within me,

and for his name's sake guides me in the right path.

Even though I walk through a valley dark as death

I fear no evil, for thou art with me,

thy staff and thy crook are my comfort.

Thou spreadest a table for me in the sight of my enemies;

thou hast richly bathed my head with oil,

and my cup runs over.

Goodness and love unfailing, these will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

my whole life long.


    More than one commentator pointed out that in the poem the shepherd image is replaced by the image of God as host. The emphasis is upon God's hospitality. David Burns asks "Where has God led you to find rest, refreshment, and restoration?"


    From the Contemporary English Version:


You, LORD, are my shepherd.

I will never be in need.

You let me rest in fields

of green grass.

You lead me to streams

of peaceful water,

and you refresh my life.

You are true to your name,

and you lead me

along the right paths.

I may walk through valleys

as dark as death,

but I won't be afraid.

You are with me,

and your shepherd's rod

makes me feel safe.

You treat me to a feast,

while my enemies watch.

You honor me as your guest,

and you fill my cup

until it overflows.

Your kindness and love

will always be with me

each day of my life,

and I will live forever

in your house, LORD.


    We arrive at this place of abundant hospitality after a difficult journey through dark and dangerous places. Walter Brueggemann writes, "It is God's companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean there are no deathly valleys, no enemies. But they are not capable of hurt, and so the powerful loyalty and solidarity of Yahweh comfort, precisely in situations of threat."


FRED:     By Rabbi Brant Rosen


The Holy one is my Guide;

my life is whole.

We journey together

over fertile hillsides

and rest

beside nourishing springs.

This is my spirit

ever renewed,

for my Guide leads me

down paths of fullness.

Even when my steps lead

into the kingdom of death

I do not fear

for I know you are with me.

Your presence

your shelter

is a comfort to me.

With you I can set myself aright

in the face of

deepest sorrow;

and soon my joy is filled to overflowing.

As I journey on,

nothing but kindness and love

shall follow

until the day I finally return.

To my Source,

my destination.


    So, finally, this is a psalm of confidence that God, You are always with us, and that no matter what happens in our lives, in times of darkness, in times of joy, you are there, walking with us, leading us forward, protecting and caring for us, and then welcoming us home with abundance.


    From the TANAKH


The LORD is my shepherd;

I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me to water in places of repose;

He renews my life;

He guides me in right paths

as befits His name.

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness

I fear no harm, for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.

You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

my drink is abundant.

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

for many long years.


For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.

Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World

Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern WorldBeyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Beyond Resistance is a newly published book by the brand new General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. I ordered the book in hopes to understand him and his vision better. The book was mentioned in the midst of an article about his radical vision to focus the church on ending white privilege. Oddly, nothing about that topic appears in the book.

The content is derivative and seems aimed for an audience that has read nothing for the last twenty years about current trends in the church. I kept wondering if such an audience even exists, but then I run into clergy who seem to be in that audience.

As with any book about ministry, I can always find one or two suggestions that feed my imagination and give me ideas for use in my own setting, and that occurred here for a couple of practices he discusses.

But otherwise reading the book left me unimpressed.

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