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February 2018

The Cooking Gene

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old SouthThe Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I read/heard about this book last autumn, I recommended it to our church book club. They adopted it for our March gathering, so last weekend while traveling I read it.

I really liked the book in that I learned a lot from it, even feeling better informed about food I grew up on. For instance, learning that the annual New Year's tradition of eating black-eyed peas goes back to the Yoruba people. Now in future years I will know that I'm participating in an ancient African tradition that has long been a part of my white Oklahoma background.

The book has also inspired me to write a blog series on food and to be more intentional in the kitchen and at the table with our son to discuss food traditions and culture.

What I didn't like about the book was its odd and at times rambling and repetitive structure. I felt it could have used some further editing.

View all my reviews

Something to Die For

Something to Die For

Mark 8:27-9:1

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

18 February 2018



    This being the First Sunday in Lent, we have begun a new worship series—"Practicing Passion." But there is continuity with our worship since Advent, in that we are continuing in the Gospel of Mark. With today's story, we arrive at a new section in Mark's gospel. We have ended the "way through the wilderness" and now begin "the way to Jerusalem" and the cross. Here is how scholar Ched Myers introduces today's reading:


    We have arrived at the midpoint of the story. Once again, Mark's Jesus turns to challenge the disciples/reader. "Who do you say that I am?" This question is the fulcrum upon which the gospel narrative balances. Not only that: upon our answer hangs the character of Christianity in the world. Do we know who it is we are following, and what he is about?


    Hear now the words of the Gospel:


Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.


Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man [or this title is better understood as the Truly Human One or the New Human Being, as I have often described it in this series of sermons] (The New Human Being) must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."


He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."



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.



    This year Ash Wednesday fell on St. Valentine's Day. Months ago as the staff gathered to brainstorm worship themes for this season, we quickly settled upon "Passion" in order to take advantage of the strange alignment on the calendar. As we talked further, I went to my shelves and grabbed a book entitled Practicing Passion, which gave us our theme for the season.

    The full title of the book is Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. It is a youth ministry book, written by Kenda Creasy Dean, who has become one of the current experts on youth ministry. I read the book when I was a youth minister, and it helped to shape my approach to ministry. But the points made in the book can be more broadly applied to the entire church, not just one division of our ministry.

    She begins with the acknowledgment that adolescents are passionate beings. They feel their emotions intensely. They long for love. They desire fidelity, ecstasy, and intimacy. Often their search for their desires is adventurous and reckless and all-consuming.

But don't many of us adults "spend our lives looking for ways to rekindle the passion of youth," she writes. "The burning desire to be engulfed by love, to be ignited by a purpose, to radiate light because the love of another shines within us."

The psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that adolescents are searching for something or someone "to die for." Dean explains that this is "a cause worthy of their suffering, a love worthy of a life-time."

And so she is critical of youth ministry that fails to present a passionate faith and a passionate church worthy of the passions of teenagers.

But she's also critical of a church that doesn't provide that for everyone. She writes, "Do we practice passion, transformed by a Love who never disappoints, and live by a faith so convincing that we stake our lives on it?"


Look up the definition of "passion" in Merriam-Webster's dictionary and you find five major definitions, some with subordinate meanings.

The first definition is "the sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death." The second definition of passion is "suffering," which the dictionary explains is now obsolete. The third is "the state or capacity of being acted on by external agents or forces."

With the fourth we arrive at emotion, which has some subordinate definitions: "the emotions as distinguished from reason," "intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction," and "an outbreak of anger."

Finally, the fifth definition arrives at what might be our more common contemporary usage, "ardent affection : love." With the subordinate definitions of "a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept," "sexual desire," and "an object of desire or deep interest."

Of course, when we pick these worship themes, we often choose a word that has multiple, sometimes even ambiguous, meanings. This allows us to play with those various meanings in our worship.

To practice passion might mean to practice an ardent affection or strong desire for some activity of deep interest. It can also mean our desire for our beloved. It can also mean to participate in the suffering and death of Christ. Which is clearly the meaning of today's story in the Gospel of Mark.

We long for something worthy of our commitment, and Jesus offers us a mission that, while costly, will save.


Jesus rebukes Peter for Peter has misunderstood who Jesus is and what he is doing. He isn't the Messiah, as that figure had been anticipated—a military leader who will reestablish the Davidic state. No, Jesus is the Son of Man, the Truly Human One, the New Human Being, prophesied by Daniel, who will experience great suffering as he challenges the status quo and creates a new social order. When Peter still doesn't get it, Jesus calls him Satan.

Remember back a few weeks to some of my earlier sermons on Mark. In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about how the sower will plant the seed but that Satan will come and uproot it. Peter is pulling up the seeds of the new order which Jesus is sowing. Peter is trying to turn the Jesus movement into something other than what Jesus intends for it to be. And in doing so he has become like those opponents of Jesus who accused Jesus of being in league with Satan and whom Jesus turned the tables on saying they were actually in league with the forces of evil because they were working to oppose what God was doing in the world. Peter, part of the inner circle, is now arrayed with Jesus' opponents.

The disciples still aren't understanding Jesus after all this time, so he takes a moment to carefully explain to them and to the larger crowds what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We are to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow.

Now, to take up your cross would have been unambiguous to those who first heard it. The only people crucified were those viewed by the Romans as a political threat. Jesus is saying that his genuine followers are those willing to die at the hands of the state as they confront the state for its injustice.

If you aren't willing to risk your life, then your life won't be saved. Those unwilling to risk their lives fear death. The fear of death is used to control us and limit our freedom. The person afraid to die is a person who has already lost their life.

But those who risk their lives are those who have overcome the fear of death. They are truly free. They truly live.


Once again this week, we were reminded that every day we face life and death questions. Adolescents who lack a sense of meaning and purpose, whose lives are devoid of passion, can find that purpose in a distorted reality that endangers the lives of other people.


But at the same time, we witness the courage of teachers and students. Katie Miller told me of one friend of hers, a teacher, who said she understands that every single day when she goes to work, she is making the choice to risk her life on behalf of her students.


The only things worthy of our love and devotion are those things we are willing to risk everything for. Only the costly commitments provide true enjoyment and meaning.

Lest we be confused about who Jesus is and what he is doing, the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus call us to a costly discipleship—something to die for.

Strange Things

Strange Things

Mark 9:14-29

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

25 February 2018



    Last August many of us participated in the solar eclipse. Our family drove hours west in order to be in the center of the path of totality and to avoid the heavy clouds obscuring eastern Nebraska.

    Part of what I enjoyed that day was the shared experience. Not only was the eclipse itself sublime, but there was an extra joy in knowing that so many people were sharing it together and posting their stories and pictures for others to see.

    One of my favourites was something Colin Jones said. He was with his grandma and a few others. After the eclipse was over and the sun had returned to normal, he said, "The word awesome ought to be reserved for things like this."


    We humans crave experiences of awe and wonder. And fortunately they do surround us. We hike to the tops of mountains or to see a waterfall. We get up before dawn to see and hear the Sandhill cranes as they awaken. We experience moments of wonder before great art, dancing with our beloved, attending a concert of our favourite band, or watching our child take his or her first steps.

    We need to feel deeply, to be part of something wonderful. We long for transcendence. Kendra Creasy Dean writes that "Passion must feel like life and death—nothing less—or it is not passion."


    In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes down from the mountain after his transfiguration and the crowds are astounded, amazed, overcome with awe. The Greek word here is ekthambein—a word which no other New Testament writer uses. Some do use thambein, which is the normal word for wonder or amazement, though even it is sometimes associated with terror or being rendered immovable. Ekthambein is an even more intensive form which will appear again when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane wrestling with what awaits him and will be used the final time when the women appear at the empty tomb on Easter morning.

    So the crowds see Jesus and experience an even more intensive form of amazement and terror that overwhelms them. There is just something strange about Jesus.


    The television series Stranger Things has captivated audiences in recent years with its brilliant mix of 1980's nostalgia. The show is full of homages to 80's sci-fi and horror and is of course the story of a group of childhood friends who go searching for the one friend who has disappeared in strange circumstances. Alternative worlds and monsters and evil government agencies are all in the mix. Plus a mother so devoted she goes a little crazy.

    I am almost the same age as the characters in the story, and the series plays right into the myths that shaped my childhood world and my imagination ever since. Think of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and E. T. Or the role that Harry Potter plays for a more recent group of children. These childhood stories give us a feeling that life can be adventurous and can contain something greater.

    Then, most of us grow up and realize that life is generally more boring. Adolescents and young adults and sometimes even middle aged folk and older experience the boredom and despair of a life without passion and awe.

    And so you end up with angst and despair, maybe best expressed by the character Tyler Durden in Fight Club, "We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war... Our great depression is our lives."

    Or even more cynically by Trent Reznor in the song "Hurt,"


I hurt myself today

To see if I still feel

I focus on the pain

The only thing that's real


    Season one of Stranger Things ends rather typically with the lost child recovered and the monster defeated, but season two lets you see what you often missed in most stories from our childhood—what happens after the adventure is over?

    One blog I read this week writing about season two of the show said that the characters "seem to be carrying a burden, struggling to cope with the disturbances of their past. They are worn down by a fallen world and its harsh realities. . . . The horror of these characters' circumstances and the hurt they've suffered are beginning to take a toll. They are all just trying to get back to 'normal.'"

    In order to defeat the new monsters of season two, the characters must overcome their burdens. To be victorious they must first defeat their own despair. Despair is not only the enemy of hope; it is also the enemy of awe and wonder. In so many of the great adventure stories, if we give in to our despair, then we fail our mission. The Nothing destroys Fantasia. Dory doesn't find her parents. Harry won't return from King's Cross Station. All of these good stories remind us that if we give in to despair, then we will never succeed at the adventure.


    In the Gospel of Mark we also encounter a frightening demon who has captured a little boy and the father who is trying to save him who utters the great words, "I believe; help my unbelief."

    The disciples have been unable to cast out this demon and save the child. Jesus is disappointed and frustrated, angry, they they've have proven themselves incapable. Their lack of faith has robbed them of the power they should be experiencing as children of God. When the disciples ask what went wrong, Jesus tells them that they lacked prayer.

    Commentators point out that this is a surprising conclusion to the story, given that prayer seems otherwise absent. Ben Witherington writes that maybe the disciples had believed the power to cast out demons, given to them chapters ago, relied upon their own ability and control rather than a continued reliance upon God. In that case, prayer is a reminder to quit looking to ourselves but to God. Witherington writes, true "discipleship does not result from the effectiveness of one's own piety but only from the action of God."

    But it was the commentary of Ched Myers I found most insightful. In this life and death scenario—a demon that would kill the boy and Jesus who gives him new life—the real issue is a struggle for belief. Myers then asks, "What is the meaning of 'resurrection?" And he proposes "Is it not the exorcism of crippling unbelief, which renders us dead in life rather than alive in our dying?"

    The real issue in this gospel story is the same as in the great stories of our childhood--the threat to life is the despair that robs us of awe and wonder.

    Myers goes on:


And what is prayer? . . . To pray is to learn to believe in a transformation of self and world, which seems empirically, impossible—as in "moving mountains." What is unbelief but the despair, dictated by the dominant powers, that nothing can really change, a despair that renders revolutionary vision and practice impotent. The disciples are instructed to battle this impotence, this temptation to resignation, through prayer.


    If we are to practice passion, then here's some spiritual wisdom. We must not give in to despair. We must cultivate our sense of awe and wonder. We must remain connected to God as our source of power. And we do that through prayer.    


    Our childhood stories remind us that we are long for transcendence, we need to feel deeply, and we desire to be a part of something wonderful and strange. Today's Gospel also reminds us that Jesus is strange. And the most exciting thing is that Jesus invites us to become part of that wonderful strangeness. "The word awesome ought to be reserved for things like this."

Fear Itself

Fear Itself

Mark 6:30-56

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

11 February 2018



    Fear is a theme that runs through the Gospel of Mark. And in this story the disciples' fear get in the way of their understanding who Jesus is and what he's doing.

    We've skipped over a few passages since last week's sermon, in those stories Jesus calmed the storm on the sea, cast demons into pigs, healed a woman of a twelve-year hemorrhage, and raised from apparent death a young girl. All of this witnessed by the disciples.

    Jesus also sent them out on their own mission. They went two-by-two, ordered to spread his message. They were also given power to heal and cast out demons. However, no stories are shared about their time away from Jesus and whether or not they were successful.

    You think after all of Jesus' teaching and all of his actions and even having sent them out on their internship, the disciples would be farther along in understanding who he is and what he's doing. But they aren't.

    First is this famous story of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus and his disciples went into the wilderness to get away from the crowds, but now the crowds have followed them even here, so Jesus teaches them. The disciples are anxious—they didn't plan to feed all of these people. But they are forgetting what Jesus has already taught them.

    When he sent them out on their own mission, he told them not to take any money or any bread and to rely upon the hospitality and generosity of the people they were ministering too. Jesus is creating a new social order rooted in a new family, a table fellowship of radical hospitality. The instructions for the mission are meant to teach the disciples to let go of their anxiety and to trust in the kindness of strangers and the grace of God.

    Apparently, they've failed. Because now they are anxious. They also seem to have some money and five loaves of bread. You might miss the irony of them possessing two things Jesus earlier had specifically told them not to have.

    But Jesus shows that you can trust in God's provision and the crowd's hospitality and generosity, as more than enough food is produced to feed the masses. The message—quit worrying.

    And then we get on a boat again. Jesus has already calmed a storm. In that story Jesus questioned the disciples, "Why are you afraid?" Yet, here they are, once again in the boat in a storm, facing the forces of chaos and disorder, and they are, once again, afraid. Afraid because they still fail to understand. Afraid because their hearts are hard. Even these closest to Jesus are incapable of understanding what he is doing.

    Which prompts us to ask, what keeps us from understanding Jesus? What are we afraid of?


    Even as a kid, I was fascinated by history and people's stories. At family gatherings I would ask my relatives about their experiences. My great-aunt Lavenia enjoyed telling stories. She talked about how when the Depression came her parents had loaded up the six kids and all their belongings on the Model T. "It was like The Grapes of Wrath or The Beverly Hillbillies," she said, laughing. They traveled the country looking for work, though they never made it to California. She told how once, when they were in Colorado, the car couldn't make it up the slopes loaded down with so many people and things, so they all had to get out and walk as the car sputtered its way to the top.

    Your family probably has their own Depression stories.

    By 1933 one-fourth of the American workforce was unemployed. Industrial production had dropped by fifty percent. The banking system was on the verge of complete collapse, and at least two million people were homeless. According to Wikipedia, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the newly elected president "saw the Depression as partly a matter of confidence – people had stopped spending, investing, and employing labor because they were afraid to do so. . . . He therefore set out to restore confidence through a series of dramatic gestures."

    Roosevelt was convinced that the most serious problem facing the country wasn't the economic crisis itself, but the fear that had resulted from it. So, in his famous first inaugural address, he rose to speak to the people with "candor" and "decision." He realized that this was a moment of opportunity from which the country could learn and be transformed. Roosevelt declared,


This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.


    Roosevelt went on to thank God that the difficulties the country faced concerned material things, but that together the people could face the situation. Yes, it was a dark time, but "Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for." [By that way, that quote is an allusion to Mark chapter 5 where Jesus says, "Do not fear, only believe."] Roosevelt claimed that the country's problems had originated in the unscrupulous practices of its economic leaders; they had been a "generation of self-seekers." These leaders "have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."

    Roosevelt challenged the people. "Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now." The situation called for "courage and devotion." Roosevelt intended to act boldly and called for the people's support.

    Facing a very complex economic and political crisis, President Roosevelt focused on one thing – unhealthy fear. Fear that was self-seeking. Fear that was paralyzing.

    Now, the Great Depression was one of the more frightening times in our history, so it is only healthy that one would be scared during such a crisis. Roosevelt's analysis was that the people had responded in unhealthy ways to their fear. What they must do is transform their fear into healthy action. They must pull together, take bold steps, and in the process they would be able to overcome this terrible situation.


    Herman Waetjen translates Jesus' statement to the disciples in the midst of the storm on the sea as "Keep on being courageous! I am. Stop being afraid!" What Jesus has been trying to teach them and show them is that God is creating a New Human Being which he, Jesus, is the first of but which is available to all of them as followers. Waetjen writes, "To be divine offspring means nothing less than full participation in the limitless possibilities of God." That's the meaning of walking on water and stilling storms, of casting out demons and raising the dead—this new way of God is an opportunity for us to share in God's power and glory to the benefit of all humanity. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ—all humanity is called to share in the power and glory of the children of God.

    The disciples' fear is holding them back from truly understanding this good news, from realizing their full potential as God's agents. Do we have the same problem?


    I was 29 when I began my journey out as a gay man. Part of what kept me in the closet for so long was fear. Fear that I'd lose my career as a minister. Fear that I'd lose my family. Fear that I'd never have children of my own.

    Finally, in the autumn of 2003, after much prayer and struggle, I had my epiphany, while watching the HBO film version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. When, at the close of the film, Prior Walter looks at the camera and blesses the audience with "More Life" and extends the call with the words "The Great Work Begins," I finally found the resolve, the integrity, and the courage to pursue the truth.

    This week I was looking back over a sermon I preached on fear in the Gospel of Mark back in 2006, less than a year into my pastorate at the Cathedral of Hope in Oklahoma City. Near the close of the sermon I said, "The way to authentic human existence, the way to create God's reign, is to grab hold of the power of Jesus." I then spoke of how in the months before I had experienced moments of overwhelming joy. Some of those were in worship, some were as I experienced life finally as a member of the gay community.

    In that sermon, I then closed:


I'm overwhelmed by a sense of elation, excitement, confidence, hope, and freedom. It is a joy born of transformation. A transformation that was not painless, but was healing. An opportunity to release fear and experience the power of God.


    Reading that more than a decade later, I remembered how the fear I once had melted away once I spoke the truth about myself and began to live freely as God intended me to live. To give up our fear and claim our power and glory is to experience moments of overwhelming joy.

    I then realized something else about that sermon. I met Michael Cich that week. So, it was the last sermon I ever preached before I met my future husband. With hindsight, I see that I was ready. I had undergone a transformation, I was optimistic and joyful, and my eyes were open to new possibilities. So, a few days later, when he walked into the restaurant where I was eating with friends, and I saw him come through the door looking so handsome and confident, I was ready.

    My story is one of success and blessing. I kept my calling and career. I kept my family. And I found love which ultimately led to our blessed child.


    We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Instead, let us overcome our fear and claim our birthright as the children of God—our share of divine power and glory. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.