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March 2022


1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had been intending to read this book for many years, but was waiting around till I picked up a copy at a book sale or used bookstore. And finally did this year. While I had high expectations for the book, it exceeded them and really blew me away. Not only was my understanding of pre-Columbian indigenous societies in the Americas limited, much was incorrect or ignorant.

What was most interesting was his emphasis on how indigenous people actively shaped and cultivated the landscape for thousands of years. Europeans did not find a wilderness, and the parts that appeared more wild had only recently become that way when the local populations had been destroyed by European diseases and had not continued their long maintenance of the land. The most surprising revelation of all in this theme of Mann's is the notion that the Amazon forest was an intentionally cultivated orchard and not a wild jungle.

I highly recommend this book.

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The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral SentimentsThe Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"And hence it is, that to feel much for others, and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent, affections constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety."

An enjoyable read--Smith is a clear thinker and good writer, even if he can go on too long about some points--mostly because it is a window on such a different age with quite different moral concerns. Propriety is the primary path to virtue. We should care deeply about how others think of us. The path to right behavior is to act in such a way that society approves of us. And while we should openly share our sentiments, we don't want to overreact because that is unseemly and unmanly. Reading this helps to explain aspects of the British character!

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Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday

Psalms 2 & 1

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 March 2022

            A number of global Christian leaders have called upon the Church to mark this Ash Wednesday by praying for the people of Ukraine, for the end of the Russian invasion, and for peace instead of war.  So, for our service this evening I have selected two psalms to read.  I begin with Psalm number 2:

Psalm 2

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying,

“Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,

“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling

kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.

We think of the Book of Psalms as songs in praise and celebration of God to be used in worship.  So, it probably surprises us to realize that the second psalm in the entire collection is this one, that takes a geopolitical vision.  A song for the faithful during a time of war, calamity, and violence.  A song condemning war and violence and the political leaders who inflict it upon the people.  Condemning them for believing they are sovereign, whereas God is the true sovereign.  And the singers of this psalm believe that God will enact justice upon those rulers who behave violently and unjustly.

The Archbishop of Canterbury as called this attack upon Ukraine “an act of great evil.”  Pope Francis has declared himself heartbroken and demanded that the weapons be silenced.  He called upon Christians around the world to fast today in solidarity with the suffering of the Ukrainian people.  The national officers of the United Church of Christ released these words of prayer:

Make us a people who love our children, all of our children, more than we love greed, power, and control. Overturn governments of tyranny wherever they are found. Disrupt the intentions of evil and give us power to stand against demonic forces of greed and control. Grant that peace and justice come to warring nations by the hands of those courageous enough to stand and study war no more. Let Thy kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven, we pray. 

            Epifaniy, the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church delivered a very direct condemnation, “There has been an unprovoked, insidious, cynical attack by Russia and Belarus on Ukraine.”  He added, “Those who have started and are waging an aggressive war against Ukraine should know that according to God’s law and human laws, they are murderers and criminals. And for their crime, they will speak before God and before humanity, without escaping condemnation and punishment.”

            Epifaniy then encouraged his people:

Our common mission is to repel the enemy, to protect our homeland, our future, and the future of the new generations from the tyranny that the attacker seeks to bring with his bayonets.

The truth is on our side. Therefore, the enemy, with the help of God and with the support of the whole civilized world, will be defeated.

Our task now is to unite, to withstand the first blow, not to panic. We believe in God’s providence and the victory of truth.

            The purpose of Ash Wednesday is to set aside time for reflection.  And in particular reflection upon our mortality.  A reminder that our lives are finite, fragile, and limited, and not fully in our control.  And from this reflection upon mortality to then take stock of our moral character, to examine ourselves, and in particular what sins we need to repent.  Ash Wednesday begins a forty day journey of Lenten fasting and spiritual practice that ends with Holy Week and the Feast of Resurrection.

            There was a time when 21st century Americans could and did avoid thinking about their mortality, and so Ash Wednesday had this vivid counter-cultural aspect.  A day in which we called attention to something people generally tried to avoid. 

            But the last few years our fragility, vulnerability, and mortality have been quite vivid.  Instead of this day calling our attention to it, this day has taken on a new emphasis—not reminding us of a hard truth but giving us some solace and comfort in the midst of reality.

            And here, just as we might be finally emerging from the most difficult days of this global pandemic, war.  Another reminder of danger, suffering, vulnerability. 

            Yet I’ve read a lot the last few days about the dramatic change in the world in the last week.  There is a measure of global unity and focus that we haven’t seen in decades.  We are seeing evil and its consequences.  But even more importantly, we are seeing courage.  We are watching people fight for liberty, freedom, independence, and democracy.  For their own agency and autonomy and dignity.  We are being reminded of the big values and why they matter and what sacrifices humans are willing to make to ensure them. 

            And so I want to read another Psalm, the first Psalm.  Most scholars believe it was quite intentionally placed at the opening of this hymn collection in order to paint a vivid image of the good life and the bad life and why we are called to follow the way of God and what benefits accrue to us when we do.  And that, in essence, all the other psalms fit within the rubric of this opening song. 

            As I read, use this psalm to reflect upon yourself, to examine yourself.  And in the context of this time in which we live in which so much has been made clear.  And let’s be sure that we are on the side of peace, of life, of love, of courage, so that we might enjoy the blessing and happiness of God.

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. I n all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.