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July 2018

The Three-Day Feast

The Three-Day Feast: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and EasterThe Three-Day Feast: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter by Gail Ramshaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last spring a sudden, last minute change in our Holy Week plans resulted in some upset feelings on the part of a few congregants. Frankly, I have struggled with Holy Week here at First Central where (until the last couple of years) there was reluctance to experience Good Friday and the Maundy Thursday services never have quite gelled.

The resulting conversations made us realize how many different expectations there are (based upon a wide variety of previous experiences and theological, spiritual, and psychological needs) for what worship will entail that week. So, our Worship Ministry set out on a project of studying the issue in order to gain a better perspective and hopefully before next year arrive at a clearer since of what this church wants to do for Holy Week.

Note: in my conversations with other clergy I have learned that many of them also experience a lack alignment between what their training teaches them should happen and what their congregants actually want, expect, and will participate in.

This handy little book was recommended by a Lutheran minister friend. This gives a good explanation of the basic aims of liturgical renewal and some helpful comments on the various services one might hold. It lacked a little of what I am still hoping for on the practical question of how to reconcile what people want with with the tradition recommends.

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Democrats, Democrats

In the wake of Donald Trump's inauguration, I decided to take a moderate position.  It seemed to me that what was most essential in this crisis was reweaving the social fabric and committing to core ideals and virtues.  I even for a while had a podcast making this point.  

I came to this conclusion because Trump, to me, appeared to be a symptom not a cause, so focusing on him and his daily outrages was not going to be long-term helpful.

This also meant that I should set aside some things that matter deeply to me in order to build alliances in a moment when the survival of the republic and the moral order mattered more.  So, for instance, Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics Commission for the SBC, has been a Trump opponent.  I had long viewed Moore as an antagonist to my well-being as gay man, but our shared opposition to Trump matters more in this moment.

But it seems that the Democratic Party and many of the progressive activist folk I've worked closely with for the last couple of decades largely made other choices.  One could see this split occurring even during the 2016 election.  

Back in 2009 I was angered that the Democrats, when they did have power, didn't use it more effectively to achieve longterm goals.  I have also complained many times that the Democrats have failed to play the political game as effectively as the Republicans.  So, I do understand the position of those who think now is a time to fight more earnestly for longterm goals.

But I do worry that it is a failed strategy to solve the immediate needs of the country.  I do hear those that say the leftward tilt of the Democrats will work because it will mobilize more voters who have otherwise stayed home.  Maybe they are right, and some elections so far give evidence of that.  This is an empirical claim that will be answered in time.

Today I read two things that sent me into pondering these questions in more detail.  The first is an article in The Guardian about how Democrats are misunderstanding the moment and how their daily outrage is actually strengthening the Trump coalition.

The second is a good column from David Brooks about how the Democrats needs to decide on a compelling narrative.  I happen to like the one he suggests.  He writes:

Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.

This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented. It points to a task that we urgently need to undertake. 

What are your thoughts on these vital questions?

Personal History

Personal  HistoryPersonal History by Katharine Graham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Katharine Graham's autobiography. In fact, I wish she had instead written a series of more focused memoirs so that you could get more in-depth to some of the key, historic moments of her life.

The autobiography serves also as a personal view on American history in the 20th century, as her parents, husband, herself, and kids, played significant roles and knew very important people throughout the century. The one serious surprise is how much the Civil Rights Movement and racial issues are mostly absent in the story. She does not appear to have had any close relationships with people of other races.

At times reading the book I was nostalgic for another age, when politics and journalism and the wider society functioned by a set of mores and standards that seem to be missing now. One reason Watergate was such a shock, and ultimately the parties united against Nixon, was the way he flouted the traditions.

In this strange time we live in, it was good to read a book lionizing the importance of journalism.

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How Long?

How Long?

Habakkuk 1:1-4

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

15 July 2018



    The Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the armies of the Assyrian Empire. The prophet Hosea claimed this was a result of Israel's unfaithfulness to the covenant with God. In response the Southern Kingdom of Judah entered into a period of reform, renewing the covenant, in the belief that this would protect them from outside empires.

    Alas, though the Assyrian Empire declined and fell, a new empire, the Chaldeans, the Neo-Babylonians ruled by Nebuchadnezzar, arose in the east and spread across the Levant and soon Judah was threatened again.

    So, the prophet Habakkuk spoke to God:

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.


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.


    "To be traumatized is to be slashed or struck down by a hostile external force that threatens to destroy you." So writes theologian Serene Jones in her marvelous book Trauma and Grace.

    Trauma is a "threat of annihilation" that "overwhelms [the] capacity to cope." She writes,

Traumatic events are "overwhelming" insofar as they are experienced as inescapable and unmanageable. . . . Like the wave of a tsunami, they drown you and disable your normal strategies for dealing with difficulties. You lose a sense of yourself as someone who can take effective action against an attacking agent, because at a literal level, either you cannot fight back, or if you do, you fail.


    But it is not only agency which is robbed, so is imagination. Jones writes, "These events also overwhelm your capacity to make intelligible sense of them because they are stronger and more intense than the best meaning-making strategy you have. In this regard, they override your powers of both action and imagination."

    And so faced with impending annihilation, Habakkuk cries out, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?"


    The promises embodied in the stories and the rituals that were supposed to make sense of Habakkuk's world are threatened. His world doesn't make sense anymore. The wicked are triumphant. The good people are suffering. Violence is everywhere. Injustice reigns. How could you let this happen, God?

    This summer we are building Holy Resilience, using these ancient stories of trauma to reflect upon the attributes and skills that heal us, give us strength, and increase our perseverance. We've already explored the importance of safety and security—the trusting, compassionate relationships necessary for us to heal. The importance of our vulnerability and opening ourselves, rather than closing ourselves off. The power of telling our story, of having it heard by a caring person, who then helps us to write a new story.

    Now, what do we learn from Habakkuk? With catastrophe on the way, he cries out to God. He is not passive, he asks questions. He demands justice. He questions the providence of God.

    So, we too must learn to question and criticize and demand, if we are to develop strength and build our holy resilience.


    Preparing for this series, I read a handful of books. The intersection of trauma studies and religion is a hot trend in recent years.

    The most difficult book I read was Embracing Hopelessness by Miguel De La Torre. De La Torre is an ethicist at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he was one of the professors of Clyde McNeal, who was our pastoral intern five years ago.

    The book was difficult because hope is one of the key elements of my theological worldview. Heck, the church I pastored before coming here was even named "Hope."

    But De La Torre is critical of theologies of hope. He thinks they are the theologies of the privileged. Primarily the theologies of middle class white people. Only the privileged can be optimistic that everything will improve, that progress is inevitable, that good and right will triumph in the end. Because, plenty of examples from history point otherwise. So theologies of hope end up maintaining current oppressive social structures.

Hope [he writes], as a middle-class privilege, soothes the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted and every tear wiped away, while numbing themselves to the pain of those oppressed, lest that pain motivate them to take radical action.




Instead, he is concerned about those oppressed by the traumas of history, those with no hope that their situation will ever improve because they lack the political or economic power to save themselves or their children. He writes from the perspectives of victims of genocide, the extremely poor, the refugees.

    For example, "Hope becomes a distraction from the reality of the massacre about to unfold, an illusion obscuring what persecution demands of us. To hope is to bury one's head in the sands of peace, making us useless to meet the inevitable struggle that is coming."

    But what does he offer instead? For surely to abandon hope is to despair. De La Torre does not think so. He declares, "So do not offer me your words of hope; offer me your praxis for justice."

    He offers a "theology of desperation" for those who have no choice but to act. Though they act with no illusion of hopefulness that everything will turn out okay. They act for justice because they have to in order to survive.

    "Hopelnessness engenders desperation and doubt," he writes. And these two emotions he says "serve as the basis for faith."

    And so one of the acts of desperation that De La Torre offers is to challenge God.


To challenge God, to yell out in protest, to place God on trial is not the ultimate act of arrogance; rather, it is to take God seriously by crucifying our Christian-based idols for an honest appraisal . . . . And maybe this is the ultimate beauty of faith—to doubt, to wrestle, to curse, to question, to disbelieve, to oppose, . . . and to hold accountable God in defense of God's creation.


    Habakkuk cries, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?"


    I find De La Torre's book difficult because it challenges some of my deepest theological beliefs. But I respect it as a critique I must listen to and take account of, so that my theology of hope is not a theology of privilege, of the status quo, of white supremacy.

    For it must be a hope that demands, questions, criticizes, and acts for justice. Like Habakkuk did, in the face of impending annihilation.


    As I prepared my sermon this week I read an article in The Christian Century about the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama—the new monument commemorating the African American victims of lynching. Every known lynching victim is commemorated with their name cut in metal slabs, with each slab representing a county, so that we might see the institutional and structural aspects of this horrible part of American history. I suspect Douglas County has its slab, because of the infamous lynching of Will Brown here in 1919.

    The Christian Century article described the new museum as an act of nonviolent protest but "in this case the protest is not for rights but for memory." The article's author, Pete Candler, describes a visit to the memorial as a "confrontation"—"a slow initiation into a subject that everyone and no one knows about, that is rarely explored in depth and at best tacitly taken for granted." Candler adds, "Confrontation with truth—like the lifted burden of a secret, no matter how disorientingly painful—is always a gift."

    Reading this description of the memorial, I felt that it must serve as an example of how to build resilience in the wake of trauma. How to question, criticize, demand, and act, like Habakkuk.

    But the perspective is different from De La Torre's, for Pete Candler interprets the lynching memorial as hopeful. He writes,

This is not a feel-good story. But the aim of the memorial is ultimately hope: a clear-eyed and unromantic hope, grounded in honesty about the harsh reality of white supremacy and its relentless stranglehold on African American lives. The overall effect of the memorial is immense sorrow but oriented toward the regeneration that comes only from genuine confrontation with horrific injustice, from the recognition that there is no reconciliation without truth.

Aztec Moral Philosophy

An interesting article on Aztec moral philosophy, which is a virtue ethics different from the Greek tradition.  

While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.

One reason the Aztec's had this difference view is because they viewed life on Earth as "slippery."  Which means that fortune will eventually turn against us, or we will fail.  So instead of exercising great worry over whether or not a virtue person can suffer misfortune or make any mistakes (the way Greek virtue theory has), they simply assumed this and developed a virtue ethics where we must rely upon one another because life is "slippery."

This article left me wanting to know more about this tradition.  I'll likely incorporate something from this in my philosophy classes.

Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel

Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient IsraelJacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel by Theodore W. Jennings Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this very well argued book Ted Jennings claims that "same-sex eroticism in Israel is inseparably connected to Israel's Yahwism. It is no extraneous import but something deeply and inextricably embedded in the religion of Israel."

Jennings begins in the obvious place--the sagas of David, Jonathan, and Saul--and from there considers stories of Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, elements of the prophetic tradition (particularly Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and then the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Jacob, before wrapping up with Ruth. In other words, here is a systematic overview of much of the Hebrew scriptures demonstrating the role that same-sex eroticism plays in the development of the biblical tradition. Jennings credits same-sex eroticism as being the key element that moves YHWH from a violent warrior God to a God of steadfast love and compassion. In other words, the key essence of the biblical tradition arises from the experience of homoeroticism.

Along the way, Jennings' interpretation makes sense of a wide range of passages, including some of the strangest in scripture. He makes far more sense of them than other interpretations I've read.

Also along the way, Jennings deals with a longstanding false idea in Western culture that Greece was the culture most accepting of homoeroticism while Israel forbade it. Instead, homoeroticism is key the Israelite religion predating its significant emergence in Greek culture. Plus, it is a homoeroticism based upon the desire of bottom rather than the activity of the top, which is how he characterizes Greek culture.

He shows how the Holiness Code in Leviticus is very late to the tradition and doesn't fit a wide range of stories from the sagas (not just those dealing with homoeroticism). He argues that the Holiness Code is borrowed from Zoroastrianism and should not be understood as reflective of Hebrew culture prior to exile.

This is an excellent book; I highly recommend it.

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Taking a Knee

A recent Christian Century editorial took a good theological perspective on the much discussed issue of NFL players taking a knee.  An excerpt:

one of the most vivid images of players’ humanity comes when they take a knee. During the game, this is one of several ways that players “down” the ball, avoiding being tackled by ending the play. Between plays and on the sidelines, players take a knee for various reasons. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer has traced the phrase back to a college team’s 1960 tribute to a deceased coach. It gained traction in reference to players stopping to rest. Later the posture came to signify solidarity—an expression of prayer or encouragement for the anxious or concern for the injured. In each case, taking a knee highlights the vulnerable humanity football teams are made of.

That’s what makes the NFL player protests against police brutality and racism—begun in 2016 by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid—so powerful. The sight of black players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem evokes solidarity, empathy, and remembrance of the dead. It’s a posture that represents a player stepping out of his role in the game and embracing his more fundamental identity as a person.

Exit West

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading this book during the nights when you can't sleep in Omaha because of the ridiculous noise from fireworks heightened the experience.

But I was not as impressed by this book as it seems most people have been. I found the writing style too spare. The conceit of the doors as a way to comment on the current global migration crisis was intriguing, but Saeed and Nadia's relationship ups and downs did not engage me.

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"Prudent Action"

George Packer's review of Ben Rhodes's memoir of time of his time as a foreign policy advisor to President Obama is a thoughtful discussion of the book and Obama's foreign policy strengths and weaknesses.  Here is the most important paragraph and the main reason to read the essay:

After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the burden of proof is on anyone who would make the case for military action as a force for good. But Obama, proudly defying political convention and confident in the larger forces of progress, was reluctant to acknowledge that inaction, too, is an action. We don’t know what a missile strike against Assad in 2013 might have achieved, but we do know what followed Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line: more Syrian government atrocities (including the repeated use of chemical weapons), millions more Syrian refugees, the shift of European politics to the populist right, an emboldened Russia intervening militarily in Syria. It turned out that prudent inaction didn’t necessarily further the cause of progress any more than a naïve confidence in overt action. When America sobered up under Obama, other powers saw not wisdom but a chance to fill the gap.

So, "Don't do stupid shit" may be preferable to the interventions of George W. Bush, but the practical outcomes in this particular case don't recommend that policy either.