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November 2016

The Angel of History

The Angel of HistoryThe Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I heard an interview with the author on All Things Considered and ordered the book immediately. Our church's Advent theme is remember and dream and the interview was about the roles of remembering and forgetting (represented in the novel by the characters of Satan and Death). The book is an imaginative exploration of the AIDS era with Satan, Death, and 14 Christian Saints appearing as characters helping the main character Jacob cope with his grief.

I found the story compelling. Some of the writing is beautiful while some of the sentence and paragraph structures must have survived only by long arguments with editors, as many don't follow anything like the standard rules. The closing pages are quite lovely.

I wasn't sure that all the anecdotes are necessary. I also felt that some plots and characters needed more story than they received.

View all my reviews



2 Corinthians 13:11-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

13 November 2016

The Christian church in the city of Corinth was rent asunder by conflict. Conflict arising from the members following various leaders with differing interpretations of the Gospel. Paul, as the founding pastor of the church, wrote a series of letters to the congregation in hopes of ending the conflict. But he didn't write in platitudes. The letters to the Corinthians that have been included within the New Testament express Paul's grief and anger, his doubts about the effectiveness of his pastoring if they have so sorely misunderstood his teaching, and multiple moments where he challenges them when they are wrong. Then he ends one of the letters with a series of imperatives. We hear for ourselves St. Paul's words to the followers of Jesus:

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.


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.

    In August I planned, in discussion with the church staff, the worship for this autumn. As we always do, we try to respond to what we perceive as the needs of the congregation. Good worship arises from the thoughts, ideas, talents, and needs of the people.

    Everyone seemed troubled by a rancorous, even frightening, election. And so I decided that in the weeks leading up to the vote our worship series would explore the topic "Who Are We," reminding us of core values of our faith. This was also an easy way to make sense of the variety of special recognitions that come in the autumn calendar—World Communion Sunday in which we remind ourselves of our intimate connections with all people, Access Sunday in which we remind ourselves of our concern and advocacy for persons with disabilities, Children's Sabbath in which we are reminded of the needs of children, not just our own children, but poor and disadvantaged children, Reformation Sunday in which I proclaimed what for me are the most basic truths of the gospel—our sinfulness and our salvation—,and All Saints Sunday in which we honor our dead and remind ourselves of our eternal hope.

    But looking ahead at the calendar, this Sunday was the only one without a special emphasis. It was also the Sunday after the rancorous election. What to do that Sunday? And at my recommendation we chose this text from 2 Corinthians and decided to call today "Civility Sunday," so that we could remind ourselves, whatever the election outcome, that we, as followers of Jesus are called to lives of grace, love, and fellowship with one another.

    A month ago we chose the music. We had a long conversation about our final hymn. When we sing a patriotic hymn much thought goes into it. "America the Beautiful" was written by Katherine Lee Bates, a Congregationalist. And like many Congregationalists of the late 19th century she was animated by a concern for the social gospel, the idea that the gospel message isn't only about the afterlife but about this life and about our work to make this world more just and peaceful. What people often fail to notice is that this is a social gospel hymn. She prays for God's grace because the nation needs it. She prays for God to mend the nation's flaws. She mentions the tears of the hurting that need to be assuaged. This patriotic song is not a triumphalist song. Rather, it expresses the best of our faith tradition and its hopes for society.

    And on one tangential note, Bates may have been a lesbian. She lived most of her adult life with another woman.

    So the hymns were picked weeks ago. The prayers were also written before election day. This worship service, then was fully designed before anyone knew what the results of the vote count would be.

    My task today as your pastor is in some ways quite easy. I have only to remind you of basic moral values. We should be kind to one another. We should be gracious to one another. We should live in peace. And when we find this difficult, we should remember that the power of a loving God works through us to make this fellowship possible.

    Those few sentences are the main goal of this sermon. But they aren't sufficient. If they were, I'd read the text, that paragraph, and then sit down. However, my task today is actually quite difficult. I've been preaching for 28 years and my preaching responsibility today is one of the most difficult of my ministry. The reason being that a significant portion of my congregation is grieving and afraid, while others are not. And I have puzzled this week with how to thread that needle of vastly differing emotions. I have spent days reflecting and praying on what were the proper and best words to proclaim this morning.

    On Thursday I called the Rev. Dr. David Breckenridge, the Senior Minister of First Baptist Church of Memphis. David was my boss in my first ministry job, where I worked as his associate. He remains a dear friend and a trusted mentor. What was his advice? Well, first he told me that he wasn't preaching this Sunday, and I told him he was lucky. Then, he gave me two good bits of advice.

    First. Not everyone is grieving, but some people are grieving. And we church people know that when our friends are grieving, we care for them. We listen to them. We bring them food and hold their hands. We feel for them and with them. And so if any portion of a congregation is grieving the entire congregation ought to do what they normally do when they are expressing sympathy.

    His other advice was this. As a preacher you generally do your best to try to speak for everyone. Today you can't do that, because not everyone is feeling the same thing. Therefore, speak for yourself. Share your own testimony, what you are feeling and why. "No one can fault a word a personal testimony," he said.

    I thanked him for his advice and told him if anyone disliked the sermon then I'd give them his phone number.

    I am a gay man married to a biracial man. Michael is the son of a Filipino immigrant mother. Michael works in the African-American community, and together we are raising an adopted son of Mexican descent.

    For years I hid in the closet. Lacking the courage and the integrity to be open about my own sexuality, fearing for my livelihood and whether I could ever realize my hopes and dreams. My story is a triumphant one. I came out. I remained a minister. I fell in love. God blessed us with a son. And we've done all of that while living in very conservative states, as we viewed our calling to be to remain in places where life was more difficult for us in order that we might do the hard work of changing the world.

    And we succeeded. We have lived in the last few years in the euphoria of victory. We had finally changed the hearts and minds of the majority of the American public. We had won most of our civil rights and viewed it as inevitable that we would complete the task in short order. And more importantly we finally lived as free people. Let me explain what I mean.

    Michael and I began dating in Oklahoma. A place where elected officials and prominent pastors routinely speak evil of gay people. Some call us worse than cancer, worse than terrorists, some call for our execution. And while we lived there the Aryan Brotherhood, in an initiation rite, kidnapped and horrifically murdered a gay man who happened to be a faithful and active member of the Presbyterian Church.

    Do you know the courage that it takes to hold the hand of the person you love, in public, in a place like that? No, most of you have no clue what kind of courage that takes. But I do. My life required that courage every single day.

    But the last few years have been different. I haven't looked cautiously around me before first taking Michael's hand. I quit worrying about my physical safety. I had begun to live normally, as a free person. I didn't wake up one day and decide to do that, this new normal just slowly materialized. In fact, I'd never even thought about it till this week. This week, when I found myself looking around cautiously again before taking Michael's hand.

    On September 11, 2001 as sad as I was, I never feared for my own physical safety or well-being, but this week I did. This week I have been inconsolably sad and unimaginably terrified.

    Not because my candidate didn't win and another candidate did. That's par for the course and largely irrelevant to what I'm talking about. Politics is not what I'm talking about. I was a Republican for half of my adulthood and still think George Herbert Walker Bush was the best president of my lifetime.

    What frightened me in this election is that extreme elements of our society felt empowered. I mean the actual racists and bigots and homophobes. I know everyone who voted for Donald Trump isn't a racist and bigot and homophobe, so I'm not painting with a broad brush. But those folk have felt empowered and this week those folk felt that their hatred was vindicated. This is a consequence my family must now live with.

    And then my own pain became greater as I did my job of pastoring and began to hear from you and colleagues and friends about your pain. I will limit myself to four examples.

    On Wednesday I spoke with an HIV positive man afraid for his own life, because the Affordable Care Act is what finally provided affordable health insurance for people who are HIV positive. He could not comprehend why some people had chosen to endanger his life.

    On Thursday I provided pastoral care for a young woman, a survivor of sexual assault, for whom the campaign resurfaced all her trauma and who began having panic attacks on Tuesday night, which continued through the week, because, as she said, "I fear that sexual assault will become the new normal."

    On Thursday Jim Harmon provided pastoral care for a grandmother whose son married a Muslim woman and is raising two Muslim grandkids, both of whom have been bullied by fellow students and who now fear going to school or playing in the park in their neighborhood.

    And that same day Katie Miller had a friend, a preschool teacher who said that in her preschool classroom a white boy went up to a Muslim kid and said, "You need to leave our country."

    These are the horrors I have encountered as a pastor this week.

    And, so, I need the things St. Paul is writing about. Peace, harmony, grace, love, fellowship. I need people to sympathize with my grief and my pain. I need that. And I'm not the only one here who does. The Hebrew prophets teach us that the path to hope actually runs through lament. Laments that must be expressed publicly, as the great bible scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us.

    I am at my core a courageous, optimistic, and hopeful person. I know where I will end up. Working with other people, including those I have political disagreements with. I respect democratic processes and believe progress is made through listening to one another and compromising.

    Civility is not about platitudes and ignoring hard truths. If we are to be the people the apostle Paul wants us to be, people who live in agreement and peace, people who demonstrate love, grace, and fellowship, then we must also listen to each other. I know I have a lot more listening I need to do. Hopefully you have heard me. This is my testimony.

I Know What To Do


I know what to do.  For all the people sharing what we need to do in the wake of the election, I know what to do, that was never in doubt.  I know it, because I've done it before.  

I lived as a very public gay man in the State of Oklahoma during a time when a state legislator said we were worse than terrorists and the Aryan Brotherhood murdered a gay man in a horrific hate crime.  I lived in a climate intended to terrorize me into silence and submission and I refused to be cowed.  And I had to interact with that legislator more than once, and always did so with kindness and grace.  In my public roles I encouraged people to not speak about her and others like her in the ways that they spoke about us. I encouraged the building of the beloved community, as Dr. King spoke about it.  

In that climate of intended terror I rarely was afraid.  I scoffed at the death threats I received, holding them as badges of honor.  When I was mistreated on the floor of the state House of Representatives, I thought it was silly.  When Westboro Baptist Church came to town to protest me, I felt I'd arrived as an activist and chose to celebrate that day.  When Michael and I were denounced in the state Republican Party platform (and I don't mean in some general sense, I mean specifically the two of us), we laughed and shared the news with our friends.  

And we got married in a public park so all the world could see.

Every day I lived with hope, courage, and integrity, refusing to let others define me or rob me of my power and my voice.  I insisted upon my right to be equal and free and worked tirelessly on behalf of my community, in the face of overwhelming opposition and a climate of terror and violence.  

And we won.  Not every battle, there was still work to be done, but the most difficult task of winning the hearts and minds of the American public, the mainstream culture, we won.  And we were winning more in the political arena and the courts.  In 2012 in Omaha, after a lot of really hard work, we passed an equal rights ordinance, and, then, fought multiple times, often behind the scenes, in the years since to secure that victory from attempts to overturn it.  We won handily every time.  

Along the way things changed.  I hadn't quite realized it till this week, but when I held Michael's hand I had quit looking around first to see if it was safe.  I don't know when I quit doing that.  I'd never thought about it.  But gone was the need every day to be courageous.  I felt most of the difficult work was in the past and that I could begin to focus my energy on other justice concerns.  Finally I was living as a free person.

In fact, I was living as a triumphant person.  I had achieved the goals I set for myself at 29.  I had come out and remained in both ministry and the conservative heartland.  I fell in love and got married.  God had blessed us with a son.  And I had played my part in securing my civil rights and equal treatment under the law.  I was living a victorious life.

So, I know what to do, because I've done it already.  I'm angry that I have to do it again.

On Being a Minister this Week

Scott in pulpit

I need to write a sermon, and I'm struggling with that.  Even yesterday, though the prospect seemed daunting, I felt up to it.  Not so much today.  Today I'm feeling inconsolable sadness and exceeding fear.  This is not who I normally am.  Even in the face of great difficulties, I am often the strong, positive, hopeful one.  That's one reason I'm good at my job.  Today I feel inadequate.

One reason is because of the sadness and fear of others.  Because I'm a pastor and normally a reasonable, thoughtful, and hopeful person, people are coming to me with their grief and horror.  Always we pastors carry the feelings of those who come to us.  Sometimes that burden gets to be quite heavy.  This is one of those weeks. 

My planned third reflection was to talk about ministry.  So, I'm going to do that, but this post is a little different than what I would have written yesterday.

A colleague said to me, "I don't understand how anyone could listen to any sermon I've ever preached and vote for Donald Trump.  I feel like a failure."

I must confess that I feel something similar.

In the mid-Aughts when the majority of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, almost every major faith group in America opposed it.  At the time I read one article which explored this fact and was troubled by it.  The author concluded that faith groups had ceased to be moral influences upon congregants.  This was a scary thought.

The major faiths in Nebraska, and particularly the Roman Catholic Church which is the largest and politically most powerful of denominations, supported the repeal of the death penalty here.  When the returns came in the other day that two-thirds of Nebraskans voted for the death penalty, I was again disheartened on this very point--the church is supposed to be a place where we find ethical guidance.  Our denomination never tells people what to do, but you do hope for some moral suasion, particularly on fundamental issues.

The election of Trump suggests the defeat of the church as a moral influence in American culture.  Why?  Because so many of the things he has said and done are antithetical to basic moral teachings.  We proclaim personal sacrifice and generosity instead of greed.  We teach compassion and hospitality to strangers and victims of violence and oppression.  We try to help the poor, the sick, and the abused.  We pray for peace.  We teach the virtues.  These are not "liberal" Christian teachings, these are common teachings across the theological spectrum.

So, what appears to have defeated (at least for a moment) the moral influence of faith in our society is not left-wing secularism but an extreme right-wing populist nativism.  One good result may be that now we progressives can finally communicate clearly how faith, family, and virtue are our values?

Yesterday morning I feared for the church.  I was worried that its vitality would decline.  But then there were signs of encouragement.  The social workers who came to lunch in order to be uplifted in prayer on a day of uncertainty.  The atheist who showed up here and wanted to talk because he felt drawn to the church in the midst of his confusion and fear.  The people who were walking the labyrinth last evening praying.  The young woman who hasn't been to church in a long time but reached out this morning because the election has evoked the trauma of her sexual assault and she needs pastoral care.

Yes, we are often our best when we are working counter to the culture, so maybe we will have years of vitality ahead as we become a place where people come to deal with their confusion and find the encouragement to work toward the goals of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

But, I'm going to find it difficult to preach, knowing, as my colleague pointed out, that some have listened to my words about compassion, inclusion, generosity, peace, and justice and somehow drew the conclusion to vote for a candidate who I believe is antithetical to the core values of my faith.

What made me cry

This morning, after I dropped Sebastian off at daycare, I cried as I walked to the car, thinking of him and of the other toddlers eating their oatmeal and blueberries.  There's he Muslim girl whom Sebastian seems sweet on at the moment, the Jewish boy, the girl from Southeast Asia, plus the African-American boy and Indian boy who are gone right now, but were still in my mind.  His daycare room represents the rich diversity of American life.

At least my American life.  I find it strange in 2016 that this is not most American's life, so this entire campaign I was puzzled by the widespread attraction to a  candidate who spoke ill of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups.  

Why are so many people (fortunately not a majority of voters, as we learned today) willing to support exclusion?  What concerns them?  Are they anxious or afraid?  I don't comprehend it.  My multicultural experiences have only enriched my life.  

Today my thoughts roamed to many dear friends and colleagues.  The rabbi I stood beside as her synagogue was protested by Westboro Baptist Church.  The Vedic priestess who invited Michael and I to a special blessing as we departed Oklahoma City.  The Council on American-Islamic Relations leader always willing to show up for support of LGBT rights.  The Buddhist who performed the legal marriage ceremony for me and Michael.  The immigrant from Zimbabwe who is in our home twice a month.  The Liberian children I baptized in December.  The Burmese refugees our congregation has welcomed to America.  The Trans slam poet police officer who taught me a lot.  These and many, many more. 

I thought of the diversity of my own family.  My Filipino mother-in-law.  Our Filipin0-Chinese niece.  My Chinese step-cousins.  My son who is of Mexican descent.

And knowing how this diversity has enriched my life, I was moved to further sadness watching so many friends express their fear today.  Fear for their own physical safety.  Fear for their civil rights.  Fear for their children's safety and futures.  The HIV positive friends afraid they will lose their health insurance and ultimately their lives if the ACA is repealed.

In the lunch with social workers, one shared the fear of the children and families she works with, families of color.  A ministry colleague said this campaign had reminded her of all the times men had behaved sexually aggressive towards her, that she started keeping a list as she remembered, and the list has grown to a page long.  The Muslim friend for whom the campaign resurfaced the trauma of her rape.  The former youth from my church who shared publicly about her sexual assault to explain why the president-designate was unacceptable to her.

To me the beauty of America is its rich diversity.  And I cannot fathom why this is not so for others.  So, if you do not have a rich, diverse tapestry of friends and family, please seek that out.  And know firsthand from someone who does, that this America is not to be feared, but to be welcomed, embraced, and enjoyed.

"When despair for the world grows in me"

Let me begin with two Wendell Berry poems.  I read a handful this afternoon, a soothing exercise (this morning I was listening to Bach).

The Want of Peace

All goes back to earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman's silence
receiving the river's grace,
the gardener's musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


And so we begin with lament.  In his masterwork The Prophetic Imagination, Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann discussed the necessary role for lament if we are to imagine new things, to hope.  We must confront the horror of our experience so that we avoid numbness and denial.  We must bring our grief to public expression so that our fears and terrors are not suppressed.  We must "speak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us, and to speak neither in rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion."

This blog post entitled "Why We Grieve," sent to me by a friend, speaks to that process of lament.

It feels like living in enemy territory being here now, and there’s no way around that. We wake up today in a home we no longer recognize. We are grieving the loss of a place we used to love but no longer do. This may be America today but it is not the America we believe in or recognize or want.

This is not about a difference of political opinion, as that’s far too small to mourn over. It’s about a fundamental difference in how we view the worth of all people—not just those who look or talk or think or vote the way we do.

Grief always laments what might have been, the future we were robbed of, the tomorrow that we won’t get to see, and that is what we walk through today.


So you must grieve.  Take the time to do that.  Yet, if lament is not to become despair, it must energize praxis.  But what praxis?

Last night my thoughts turned to philosopher John Dewey who wrote passionately of democracy as a way of life and a method of social inquiry and problem-solving, but he didn't mean simply the organs of federal power.  He wrote,

I am inclined to believe that the heart and final guarantee of democracy is in free gatherings of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gatherings of friends in the living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another.

I must believe that the structures of the Republic will survive, though I know that they will only survive if we make them survive.  Following Dewey, I believe we must renew citizenship and to specifically engage in the rebuilding and renewal of civic institutions such as neighborhoods and faith communities, social groups and schools, the sorts of entities which give rise to our broader society.  We will need robust and vital civic institutions for democratic problem-solving.  

This task will be difficult.  A presidential campaign is easy in comparison.  The task requires charity, felicity, humility, generosity, and a number of other quaint virtues.  

I see this as the only good option, if we aren't to follow the nihilistic path.  So I spent the bulk of today in this work.

For a year now, a ministry colleague and I have been working on ways we can help address the crisis in the child welfare system.  One small project we've launched is a monthly lunch for front line social workers as an expression of gratitude, support, and encouragement.  And also as a way to lift them in prayer and hear their struggles so that we might work toward solutions.  This morning, while listening to Bach, I made chili for the November lunch.  Then I sat in a small room with a dozen child welfare workers and people of faith as we shared our fears and uncertainties.  Then we sang "Amazing Grace" and prayed the Lord's Prayer.

Clogher Head


The Dingle Peninsula possesses a rugged, spare beauty.  These are not lush valleys with quaint farms.  Instead there are stone buildings on steep hillsides overlooking the ocean and remote islands.  At lunch we overheard a woman, an Irish literature teacher telling a friend visiting from another country about the people who had lived on Great Blasket Island, just off the tip of the peninsula, "They didn't teach kids to swim, because better to die immediately than swim for a few hours or days in the rugged ocean and not be discovered."


Halfway or so along the Slea Head Drive, we stopped at a turn out at Clogher Head to enjoy the view.  A cloudburst kept us in our cars, but we determined to wait it out, as all day the rains, even when heavy, had been short-lived.  We lay back in our seat until the rain stopped and then Kelli and I hopped out to take the 15 minute walk through the mud up to the rocky point.  The wind-beaten rocks were covered with flowering plants, many still in bloom in mid-October, leaving me to wonder how lovely they must have been even a few weeks before.  The view from the point was one of the most beautiful of the trip--cliffs and island and villages and ocean and hills and farms.  And yet . . .

To farm the rough land the Irish had to remove the rocks, which they used to create the walls of the fields.  Then they had carried seaweed up onto the land to let it decompose and create farmable topsoil.  Sitting there I couldn't imagine the work required, but you can see the evidence in the line where green field gives way to rocky, brown hillside.

But from this particular spot you can see the remains of fields that are once again brown and not green.  Walled fields that aren't farmed anymore.  The guidebook said those fields were last planted during the potato famine and never again, as the population declined so precipitously that the people living there, pushed to the remote barren edge of their own island by the colonizers, never recovered sufficiently to require them to plant the highest fields.

So, here in this place of beauty, stark reminders of ethnic cleansing.