Previous month:
October 2021
Next month:
December 2021

November 2021

The Love that Is God

The Love That Is God: An Invitation to Christian FaithThe Love That Is God: An Invitation to Christian Faith by Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An eloquent and literary reflection on key elements of the Christian faith, primarily focused on love. Here is an example, "To love our enemies is to renounce the idea that we have it in our power to make history turn out right, to end all suffering, to banish all evil. To love our enemies is, in the end, to disarm ourselves of any weapons except the cross and the Spirit's gifts of faith, hope, and love."

View all my reviews

The Topeka School

The Topeka SchoolThe Topeka School by Ben Lerner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I didn't like this one as much as I thought I would, especially being a high school debater and extemper from the 1990's who did compete at the national tournament, like the central character of the book (and who came very close to a national championship in one of my events and still feels a little robbed thirty years later).

Given how well reviewed the book was and the awards it won, I found it just too disjointed and not as well-written as I expected.

What hangs with me though, and might ultimately lead to me giving it one more star, is the various reflections on the use of language.

View all my reviews

One of the Butterflies

One of the Butterflies
by W. S. Merwin

The trouble with pleasure is the timing
it can overtake me without warning
and be gone before I know it is here
it can stand facing me unrecognized
while I am remembering somewhere else
in another age or someone not seen
for years and never to be seen again
in this world and it seems that I cherish
only now  a joy I was not aware of
when it was here although it remains
out of reach and will not be caught or named
or called back and if I could make it stay
as I want to it would turn into pain

The Heroine with 1,001 Faces

The Heroine with 1001 FacesThe Heroine with 1001 Faces by Maria Tatar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun and fascinating exploration of heroines, written in response to Joseph Campbell's mapping of the heroes journey, highlighting what is different and unique in the stories of women who are heroes.

What Tatar reveals is an understanding of heroism focused on "attentive care, an affect that is triggered by openness to the world, followed by curiosity and concern about those who inhabit it. Lack of curiosity becomes, then, the greatest sin, a failure to acknowledge the presence of others and to care about the circumstances and conditions of their lives."

View all my reviews

Reconstructing Thanksgiving

Reconstructing Thanksgiving

Matthew 6:25-33

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 November 2021

            Six ancestors of mine traveled on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620.  Four of them died in the first winter.  The teenager Elizabeth Tilley lost her parents, aunt, and uncle.  The adolescent John Howland, who arrived as an indentured servant to the colony’s governor John Carver, survived the winter, but his master and mistress did not.  John and Elizabeth later wed and lived long lives in which they produced a large family and gained wealth and status.  I am rightly proud of my ancestors and draw strength from their example of endurance, courage, resilience, and faith. 

            Wanting to know more about these family heroes, I’ve read a lot in the history of the colony.  I’ve gained a better understanding of the theology that animated them, of the great risks they encountered and overcame, of their roles in forming the values of democracy, representative government, and religious freedom. 

            But any reading of that history also informs one of the colony’s relations with the indigenous people and how that relationship was far more complex and ultimately violent and unjust than the Thanksgiving myth we learned as kids presented the relationship as being.  Last week in our worship, we explored those critical questions and deconstructed the myth.  Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us?  For me it is very personal—how to look at my ancestors with honesty—to value what there is to value, to honor what there is to honor, and to regret what deserves regret and remorse.

            In biblical studies, in the study of how we interpret scripture, there is an understanding that we humans take three broad approaches to scripture, and these somewhat align with developmental stages.  We first approach scripture with naiveté, accepting the stories at face value.  Then, usually beginning in adolescence or young adulthood, we realize that there are critical questions we want to raise about the text.  For some people, of course, these critical questions lead to a deconstruction of belief that results in disbelief.  For others, the asking of critical questions can lead to no longer taking the stories at face value, but continuing to find some value and truth in them.  Those folks then usually advance to the third broad approach, which is called post-critical naiveté.  In this phase, we are aware of the critical problems and continue to interrogate the text with them, but we don’t get stuck in the critical mindset.  We move on to embrace the stories again looking for what truths they tell, what values they hold, what meaning they might have for us. 

            It is this broad interpretative approach that has guided my study of the Thanksgiving story as I prepared for this worship series to mark this 400th anniversary.  We can’t accept the Thanksgiving story that we once did with no exploration of the critical questions.  Our commitments to fairness, justice, honesty, integrity compel us to ask those questions.  But I don’t believe that means rejecting the story completely and disposing of it as having no meaning or value or importance to us.  It is more than a relic.  I believe we can still learn from and be inspired by it.  That’s my goal in today’s sermon.

            To help us in this exercise, I first want to turn to an idea from Hispanic theology.  That might seem a little surprising when we are basically concerned about the interactions between a group of English people and Wampanoag Indians.  But Mexican-American theology is derived from the colonial experience and the mixing of various races and ethnicities and the liminal spaces along national frontiers.  It can enrich our understanding of how theology intersects with culture and identity.

            And in particular I want to look at the concept of fiesta.  This summer I read the book Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise by Virgilio Elizondo.  Elizondo presents fiesta as one of the “symbols of new creation.”  He writes, “The tragedies of [Mexican-American] history have not obliterated laughter and joy, warm friendship and the capacity to love.”  He writes that in their culture there exists a “propensity for celebration.”  This is the fiesta, which he then describes as “the mystical celebration of a complex identity, the mystical affirmation that life is a gift and is worth living.”  And very importantly, this celebration comes in the midst of and acknowledging “the very contradictions that are of the essence of the mystery of human life.” 

            Elizondo then ties the concept of fiesta to some of Christianity’s oldest and deepest values.  He writes,

From the very beginning Christianity saw itself living out a new universal love that would not be limited by cultural or religious boundaries.  This new love came through many cultures but at the same time transcended them by opening them up to the wealth and riches of other cultures.

            Elizondo concludes that this is part of God’s “new creation.”  The new identities formed through the mixing of cultures represents the fullness of the kingdom of God which “bypasses human segregative barriers.”

            For three days in the autumn of 1621 a group of Wampanoag and English sat down to eat together.  They celebrated the harvest, which could only have come about from the Wampanoags helping the colonists learn how to farm in this new land.  They were also honoring an alliance which had formed for their mutual benefit.  They didn’t fully trust one another.  They weren’t close friends.  But, they were practicing the ancient rites of both people to honor one another with hospitality, generosity, and gratefulness. 

            And, so, that celebration we call “the First Thanksgiving” was an opening to a possible future.  It was the beginnings of a fiesta and might have led to more learning from one another and true friendship and cooperation.  And we know that for some English and Wampanoag it did.  There are stories of true friendship, of cooperation, of mutual respect, even if the atrocities of colonial history are far more dominant. 

            So, can we still honor that moment in time as a moment when possibilities crossed boundaries?  When a little of God’s plan for the world broke through fear and racism and skepticism, if just for a moment? 

            One reason I think we can is what Thanksgiving has come to mean across the centuries.  In every community I’ve ministered in, Thanksgiving is the one time a year when people of various faiths and ethnicities generally come to together for worship and fellowship.  Interfaith Thanksgiving services are common throughout this country.  Omaha’s is today at 5 at First Christian Church.  Why are those held this week?  If not because we contemporary Americans see in that past event an opportunity.  Maybe an opportunity that wasn’t fully taken then and still now isn’t fully taken, but we are trying.  And so I love that this is the week every year when I’m most likely to join in worship with Jews and Muslims and even sometimes Indigenous people. 

            This is also the time of year when even the most secular Americans generally focus, at least some of their attention and dollars, on helping other people.  Through this holiday and Christmas, Americans donate food and clothing and money and volunteer their time to help the poor and the hungry and unhoused.  And we have a record of being one of the most generous of nations.  Is that because we’ve spent centuries now practicing Thanksgiving?  Being grateful for our blessings and then from that, sharing those blessings with others?  Surely, the focus of this holiday has had a pedagogical effect upon us as a people.

            So, there is much in the Thanksgiving story that requires critical questions and compels our regret and remorse, but there are also ideals to value.  To pick up and develop and do an even better job of living into them.

            And maybe that’s how we Congregationalists, at our best, have used the story.  I mentioned last week that Margaret Bendroth, the longtime Congregational archivist, has claimed that the way we embraced the Pilgrim story is what helped us to avoid fundamentalism and to become the progressive denomination we have. 

            Bendroth writes that Congregationalists used history to unite them, rather than shared doctrine, biblical interpretation, or denominational structure.  And all along they edited out aspects of that history and embraced others.  The values they embraced from the Pilgrims were adventure, freedom, and an openness to possibilities.  Obviously that romanticizes and maybe even white-washes a group that was rather dogmatic.  But it’s not like those values are absent from the Pilgrim story, they are present. 

            She writes that Congregationalists at their best learned to study and reflect on their history and to ask questions about it.  Which led to living with ambiguity and embracing the new.  That enabled Congregationalists to be more open to liberal interpretations of scripture when those arose and to embrace modern advances more easily. 

            She writes that the focus on history also meant that Congregationalists understood that there’s wasn’t only one story, one perspective.  That there were others.  Which led to Congregationalists being at the forefront of ecumenical developments. 

            And in recent decades the UCC has been open about embracing the moral complexity of its past and trying to learn from it in order to create a more just world and a better future.  Bendroth concludes her book by writing:

The past is as real and as consistently challenging as the people who created it, and its demands are not easily satisfied.  The most important work of any religious tradition is to recognize—sometimes to celebrate and other times to fiercely mourn—its enduring power.

            What, then, does this 400th anniversary mean for us? 

            It’s a chance to examine our story, to ask questions about it, to realize the ways it has shaped us for good and bad.  And to then learn from it. 

            To learn what was wrong.  What we don’t want to embrace.  What we don’t want to follow.  What we want to repent for.

            But also to learn what was of value.  What can inspire us and make us better.

            To learn what opportunities and possibilities it did present.  And how we can emulate those in our time and our place.  And do better.

            So, we need a fiesta—a celebration, that crosses the boundaries of identity and culture, and helps to imagine and embody the kingdom of God. 

            400 years after that meal between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we can do that.  And what better holiday than this one?  Happy Thanksgiving.

Deconstructing Thanksgiving

Deconstructing Thanksgiving

Joel 2:21-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 November 2021

            This autumn marks the 400th anniversary of the event that later was called “The First Thanksgiving”—the day of feasting when a group of Wampanoag warriors joined with the Plymouth Pilgrims to eat their harvest.

            This event has not only taken on a mythic role in the wider American consciousness, it is a significant story to us as Congregationalists, who are among the direct religious descendants of those Pilgrims.  This congregation normally holds a huge Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition we can date to at least the late 19th century, with some stops and starts.  While the pandemic has prevented us from once again holding the turkey dinner, we do look forward to hopefully gathering again in a crowded parlor next year to celebrate family and friends and give thanks to God in an event that harkens back in some ways to that meal in the autumn of 1621. 

            But this is 2021, and we have learned that some parts of our history don’t sit as comfortably with us as they once did.  What critical questions should we ask about that history and how it’s been used?  What meaning should this event hold for us now, as we want to honor our heritage but address a history of colonialism, conquest, and racism? 

            So, we are not going to simply celebrate the 400th anniversary of that meal, but intentionally explore the difficult questions and look for what approach is best for us in 2021.  This week, then, I’ll be preaching on the theme “Deconstructing Thanksgiving” and next Sunday “Reconstructing Thanksgiving.”

            Let’s begin with Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s description of that harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony:

Our harvest being collected our governor sent four men fowling together so we might rejoice together in a more special way after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. In just one day the hunters killed as much fowl as if their hunting party had been larger. The fowl fed the company almost a week at which time, among other recreations, we drilled with our fire arms. Many of the Indians joined us including Massasoit, the greatest king, and some ninety of his men. We all entertained and feasted together for three days. The Indians went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, the captain, and others. And although it is not always as plentiful as it was at that time, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want that we often wish you could partake of our plenty.

            The Pilgrims disembarked on December 22, 1620 in the midst of a harsh New England winter.  Disease, starvation, and exposure to the cold killed half of them that winter.  In the familiar parts of the story, that spring they finally made direct contact with the local Wampanoag Indians and were helped by Samoset and Squanto, who we more appropriately should call by his name Tisquantum, and the local paramount sachem Ousamequin, whom we are more likely to recognize as Massosoit, which was actually his title and not his name. 

            The Wampanoags formed a mutual-self-defense alliance with the Pilgrims and then taught them how to survive—where to hunt and fish and how to grow their crops.  And so at the end of the growing season, the Pilgrims did as so many human societies have done throughout history, and held a harvest celebration.

            But is this event properly called “The First Thanksgiving?”  Not really.  For one thing, the Pilgrims themselves did not call it a “day of thanksgiving.”  When the Pilgrims did hold days of thanksgiving those were days of fasting, prayer, and spiritual discipline, usually to address an immediate need or concern in the life of the community.  Our Pilgrim ancestors wouldn’t recognize what we do on the fourth Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving, but would recognize it as a harvest celebration.

            Only about a century later were days of Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations combined in some of the colonies.  The first national day of Thanksgiving was declared by President George Washington, though some in Congress at the time complained that this was executive overreach and something best left to the states. 

            The tradition of various local communities and states holding celebrations developed through the 19th century, but with little connection to the Pilgrims.  The holiday for honoring the Pilgrims was Forefather’s Day, which fell on December 22 and marked the landing on Plymouth Rock. 

            In 1827, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale began advocating for a national day of Thanksgiving.  Her efforts eventually resulted in Abraham Lincoln declaring the second national day of Thanksgiving during the Civil War.  After that time it became a regular event.  FDR tried to move the date from the fourth Thursday in November to the third, causing great controversy.  It was only in the mid-twentieth century that Congress officially made the fourth Thursday in November a permanent federal holiday. 

            The connection of this day with the Pilgrims and their meal became more prominent around the Pilgrim anniversary year of 1870, and Congregational churches played an important role in that development.  There’s an insightful book entitled The Last Puritans by Margaret Bendroth, who was the longtime archivist of the Congregationalist archives.  That book discusses how Congregationalists have used our history, and particularly stories about the Pilgrims to shape our identity and mission.

            Because Congregationalists were a non-creedal people, they had no core doctrine to unite them.  Because they believed in the freedom of local churches and individual Christians, they did not have a tightly developed denominational structure.  So, what drew them together and kept them united was a shared origin story, from which they derived identity and mission.  She writes that as Congregationalism moved out of its New England home into the vast stretches of this continent in the late nineteenth century and began to compete more in new towns and cities with various denominations, that Congregationalists drew upon their Pilgrim heritage in a form of branding, to identify who they were as distinct from Presbyterians and Baptists and such. 

            She also ties these developments with the trauma of the Civil War.  She writes, “The post-Civil War decades were a time of general yearning for public ceremonies of memory, especially in the wake of epic personal loss on both sides of the conflict.”  We who have experienced this devastating pandemic recognize that yearning.

            Reading her book, you realize why Congregationalists in early Omaha, Nebraska, out here on the frontier, invested so much in celebrating an annual Thanksgiving dinner. 

            Margaret Bendroth also argues that our focus on the Pilgrim past helped us to avoid fundamentalism and turned us into the progressive denomination we’ve become, but I’ll talk about that in next week’s sermon.

            So, a study of the history reveals that the conventional understanding of this holiday and its ties to the Pilgrim past, are not exactly what we thought it was.  What we do on the fourth Thursday of November is not really a direct descendant of what the Pilgrims did in 1621-- the history is more complicated than that. 

            And so far we’ve only discussed the white European descendant aspects of the history.  There is, of course, far more to the story.  There is the perspective of the Wampanoags who joined in the harvest meal. 

            Beginning in the 1970’s, some Native Americans began recognizing the Fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning.  And in subsequent decades more attention has been paid to understanding their story and the impacts upon them of the Thanksgiving myth many of us learned and enacted in grade school. 

One of the simplest points to grasp is how often around this time of year school kids make pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses to wear.  The Indian headdresses are usually a circle of brown construction paper to which was attached a feather shaped piece of construction paper that the kids color.  But, these types of headdresses were worn by Plains Indians and are not remotely authentic to the headdresses of the indigenous people of New England.  In this simple way authentic Wampanoag culture gets erased from our collective memory.

So often, the way the story was told and used, has represented a form of white supremacy.  The local tribes helped the Pilgrims, gave them their land, and then disappeared.  Of course it was always more complicated than that, but so many children’s story books do present something like that.

In our Facebook group this week I posted a Washington Post article that briefly summarizes some of the Wampanoag perspective.  If you want to delve further, I recommend the book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman.

New England’s indigenous people had been dealing with Europeans for a century.  They developed sophisticated trading relationships with them, but also learned to mistrust them.  The Europeans were known to attack at the slightest misunderstanding.  Even worse, they had a history of enslaving people.  Even Tisquantum, whom most of us know as Squanto, had been abducted decades before when he went to trade with a ship.  They captured him and sold him into slavery, and he spent years endeavoring to return to his homeland.  In the process he learned English and European ways and thus could facilitate the relationships between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags.  We are mistaken if we see his role as merely being generous and hospitable, for deep trauma and suspicion were clearly also part of Tisquantum’s motives.

The Europeans also brought new diseases.  From 1616-1619 a plague spread throughout the region wiping out whole villages.  The Wampanoag called it The Great Dying.  The area where the Pilgrims settled was vacant because Patuxet, the village that once stood there, had been destroyed in the plague years. 

An interesting point I learned in studying for this sermon—it wasn’t just the lack of contact with other humans that made the indigenous people susceptible to illnesses.  It was also their clean living.  They had existed for millennia with clear air and water, eating healthy, nutritious meals, and without the forms of agriculture and urban filth that brought most Europeans in contact with the great diseases that plague humanity.  The paradox was that the cleaner, healthier living of the indigenous people meant they didn’t have the immunities for the diseases the less healthy Europeans brought.

Why did Ousamequin and the Wampanoag welcome the Pilgrims?  According to David Silverman, we should try to understand his motive.  Many of his people had been killed by disease.  His power was diminished.  He and his people were a sitting target for rival groups, particularly the Narragansetts.  Along came a small and weak group of English people and Ousamequin gambled that he could develop a relationship that would be of mutual benefit.  The Plymouth colony would be a connection to European trading goods.  It would provide access to European medicine.  And the colonists had guns that would help in any battles with his rivals.  As David Silverman points out, it wasn’t friendliness that motivated Ousamequin, but desperation.

Ousamequin’s decision was not embraced, even by all the Wampanoag.  In the years that followed sachems who disagreed with him would at times try to unseat him.  Not all of them treated the Pilgrims as friends, many treated them as threats.  The Cape Wampanoags in particular had a lasting negative impression of the Pilgrims because they had stolen the native’s corn and desecrated their burial grounds. 

So, the relationship was more political and self-interested than the history we may have learned as kids.  Even the full story of that harvest dinner isn’t what we might have thought.  The Pilgrims didn’t initially invite the Wampanoags to join them.  In the midst of their celebrations the Pilgrims started firing weapons.  Because of their mutual defense agreement, Ousamequin and ninety warriors rushed to Plymouth thinking they were coming to a battle.  Only when all these armed warriors showed up, did the Pilgrims invite them to join the dinner and the natives went and hunted deer to add to the meal.

How did Ousamequin’s decision play out over time?  It did help him during his lifetime to remain paramount sachem and to hold off rivals.  It increased his wealth and power.  But with the longer term perspective we can only conclude it was a mistake.  Even Ousamequin’s sons Wamsutta and Pumetacom regretted their father’s decision.  As David Silverman writes, “Ingratitude was an especially repugnant quality in the tightly knit, kin-based Indian world in which people were expected to give without restraint and show appreciation to those who did.”  And over time the settlers not only failed to show gratitude to Ousamequin for saving them and protecting them, the settlers became demanding and aggressive and violent.  And so Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom, known to American history as Philip, went to war against the one-time allies in 1675 in what we know as King Philip’s War, which resulted in the destruction and enslavement of many Wampanoag’s.

But the Wampanoags were never eliminated.  The people remained, resilient and strong, particularly on the Cape and on Martha’s Vineyard and there has been a revival of their cultural life in recent decades and a growing focus on telling their story.

And so we ask the critical questions and recognize that the history is more complicated than many of us learned.  Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us?  Next Sunday we will continue this exploration. 

Today, I want to give the final word to Wampanoag elder Ramona Peters, “Gratitude is the most powerful Thanksgiving story, from my perspective as a Wampanoag.  When young children grasp gratitude in a real way, beyond ritual, our country will be greater.”

Rerun Era

Rerun EraRerun Era by Joanna Howard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My new office admin said she had a former teacher from the same hometown as me and that she had also written a memoir. What's most funny is that I can't place Joanna Howard, who appears to be only a couple years younger than I am and grew up in the same small town.

It was strange and fascinating to read perspective on some of the same places and influences that was only slightly skewed from my own and yet very different. One startling realization was how much it mattered which part of town you grew up in, even when the total size of the place isn't very big.

View all my reviews