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May 2022

On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times

On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark TimesOn Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"To be reconciled we must first make peace with our losses, defeats, and failures. To be consoled is to accept these losses, to accept what they have done to us and to believe, despite everything, that they need not haunt our future or blight our remaining possibilities."

I got a head start on my sabbatical reading with Michael Ignatieff's latest book. I felt after two years of pandemic and divorce that this would be a good place to start as I begin this season. Months ago I had read an excerpt of the book and was impressed, plus I really liked his previous book, Ordinary Virtue, which I read near the beginning of the pandemic.

Ignatieff is not a religious believer, so he searches the intellectual and literary tradition for consolation, sharing the stories of key individuals who coped with the various crises of their lives. People like Paul, Cicero, Montaigne, Lincoln, etc. One goal of these stories is to realize that we are not alone in our distress, that our suffering is part of the human condition.

The book is a rich exploration of the theme with profound and helpful thoughts drawn from each story (I'll have more to write about individual chapters and ideas when the sabbatical free time truly kicks in next week). Plus, Ignatieff is a very engaging, eloquent writer.

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Rosemary Radford Ruether Quotes

Sexism and god talk

With the death this weekend of Rosemary Radford Ruether, I pulled my copy of Sexism and God-Talk off of the shelf to review.  Here are some choice quotes:

We have not choice but to go forward into a global community and shape a sustainable world together, if the human project is not to choke on its own toxic waste and bury itself by its own destructiveness.

The expansion of the Biblical message to include the unincluded rests on the assumption that the point of reference for Biblical faith is not past texts, with their sociological limitations, but rather the liberated future.

The liberating encounter with God/ess is always an encounter with our authentic selves resurrected from underneath the alienated self.  It is not experienced against, but in and through relationships, healing our broken relations with our bodies, with other people, with nature.

To encapsulate Jesus himself as God's "last word" and "once-for-all" disclosure of God, located in a remote past and institutionalized in a cast of Christian teachers, is to repudiate the spirit of Jesus and to recapitulate the position against which he himself protests.

Redemptive humanity goes ahead of us, calling us to yet incompleted dimensions of human liberation.

Those who are afraid of anger and alienation always have a tendency to hurry women on to another stage where they become 'reasonable' and 'gain perspective.'  But one cannot do that with integrity until one has genuinely faced up to sexism as a massive historical system of victimization of women and allowed oneself to enter into one's anger and alienation.  To skip over this experience is to become "reconciling" in a way that is basically timid and accommodating and not really an expression of personal freedom.



Matthew 18:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 May 2022

            Back in February of 2012, a full decade ago now, I traveled to the Claremont School o Religion in Claremont, California  for a conference about how folks who were imagining and embodying new ways of being church for the 21st century might engage in conversation with Process theology.  At the conference I led a breakout session entitled “Blogging, Social Networking, and Process: Adventures in Ministry.” 

In the early years of my ministry, I was often a pioneer, engaging new internet communication tools to connect with people and carry out ministry.  For example, I remember the days of using AOL instant messenger to chat with my youth.

            In my breakout session, I highlighted these positive for the church’s use of the new technologies:

  • The internet was Open-ended, adventurous, and egalitarian.
  • You could easily share your stories, reflect upon them, and watch them develop over time.  And this was true both as an individual and in telling the story of the church community.
  • I said we were able to be present with people, because we were understanding that presence is not limited to physical location.

I felt that these new technologies presented opportunities to advance theological and ministry goals.  My model of pastoral leadership has always been to use persuasive power through the presentation of possibilities to excite people's sense of adventure, so that through their free agency, together we will choose how to move forward.  I felt these new technologies enabled and expanded that.

            My presentation also talked about some of the concerns raised by these new technologies:

  • The danger of creating a community within the community that leaves out those not engaged in social media or who are not tech savvy
  • Wondering whether social media can violate our ministerial boundaries or whether it actually revealed that the ways we’d previously understood this was a mistaken notion, and that these new technologies were compelling ministers to live more openly without a facade or division between our private and professional lives?
  • And what about privacy anyway? 
  • And, presciently to this worship series we are currently engaged in, a decade ago in that presentation I talked about the challenge of keeping up with all of the constant changes in technology and wondered whether keeping up would be a distraction from other, important aspects of ministry?

Of course over the ensuing decade, with all we now know about social media and mobile technologies, the concerns often seem to outweigh the strengths.  I wasn’t sure what I thought anymore about those ideas from my presentation a decade ago.  Plus, the more I prepared for this worship series--about how the effort to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of change is negatively affecting us spiritually--the more anxious I became.  Clearly one aspect of the Time Fatigue we’ve been focused on this month in worship is the role that the internet, social media, and mobile devices has played in changing everything about our lives.

Given my enthusiasm, optimism, and hearty embrace of new technologies a decade ago, this spring I jumped at reading a new book The Internet is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin E. H. Smith.  Smith is a very insightful philosopher who teaches at the University of Paris. 

To my relief, on page 2 of his book, Smith affirmed my excitement of a decade ago.  He states, “As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, one could still sincerely hope that the internet might help ‘to bring people together and to strengthen the social fabric.’” 

According to Smith, the positive goals for the internet are rooted in three centuries of utopian dreams and technological and scientific achievements.  Those positive dreams are actually deeply rooted in our human nature and our hopes for the human future. 

Yes, in the last decade the internet has turned in a negative direction, but he keeps pointing out that it didn’t have to end up that way, and doesn’t have to remain that way.  We can shape it in that more utopian direction if we so desire and so act. 

How do these negative developments connect to the spiritual crisis we’ve been discussing the last few weeks?  Smith identifies four new problems with the internet that have become apparent in the last few years.

First, there exists a new form of exploitation.  Whereas once human labor might have been exploited by others for economic gain, now our very selves, our lives are the resource being exploited. 

Second, is that this new economy is an extractive one, but not in the sense of material resources, rather, it extracts our attention.  Smith writes that “the largest industry in the world now is quite literally the attention-seeking industry.”  Companies work to gain and keep our attention, using tools we have learned are actually addictive and compulsory.  He writes:

Most of our passions and frustrations, personal bonds and enmities, responsibilities and addictions, are now concentrated into our digital screens, along with our mundane work and daily errands, our bill-paying and our income tax spreadsheets.  It is not just that we have a device that is capable of doing several things, but that this device has largely swallowed up many of the things we used to do and transformed these things into various instances of that device’s universal imposition of itself.

            And this focusing our attention has moral implications.  It robs us of time and attention that should be focused on other things, particularly people.  This, he believes, has impacts on our empathy.  How often have you found yourself immersed in your phone when you should be interacting with the people, the nature, the things around you?  We’ve all done it to some degree. 

            The third new problem has already been hinted at—so much of our lives are not concentrated in a single device.  This was supposed to be about utility and efficiency and freeing us up.  And there is so much about the new technology that does make life easier.  But do we feel freed up from drudgery for more important things?  Or do we feel enmeshed in even more drudgery?

            The fourth problem is that “human beings are increasingly perceived and understood as sets of data points.”  This is how we are viewed by the big data companies.  And Smith believes it is inevitable that this type of thinking will permeate through every other aspect of our culture, and we will all be viewed as data points in algorithms instead of full human persons.  Remember what I said last week about the theological importance of personhood.

            So Smith warns that we have ended up in a dangerous place with unhealthy relationships to our new technologies.  But he reminds us that it didn’t have to be this way.  However, he thinks we can’t just stop, quit, or go back.  There are good things and benefits to these technologies.  As a society, we could make the choices and take the steps to bend the internet back towards those utopian hopes of humanity.

            But, meanwhile, we live with this vital but dangerous tool that is a major culprit in our time fatigue and our growing sense of disorientation, disconnection, anxiety, and even depression.  All the topics we’ve been exploring the last four weeks in worship.

            So I return to the theologian Andrew Root’s quote that I used in my first sermon of this series to clarify our current spiritual crisis:

We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future, but more deeply into time itself.  We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity.  We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!

            Andrew Root, then, turns to this gospel story in Matthew 18 to help us understand how God is calling us to something different and better that transcends and heals our time fatigue.  Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

            Root draws a typical preacher’s three lessons from this passage.  First, it is “a direct call to humility.”  To quit comparing ourselves to others.  To quit focusing only on ourselves.  To open ourselves to other people.  To admit that we need other people.  To be vulnerable.

            Second, we are invited by Jesus into real relationships with real persons, giving of ourselves, receiving from the other.  And in this we experience Jesus.  Recall everything I said about loving relationships with persons in last week’s sermon.

            And third, Jesus calls us to be transformed.  To become like children.  Children are attentive to the world and therefore experience curiosity, wonder, delight, and affection.  They aren’t yet caught up in the ever-increasing rate of change in our social lives.  They aren’t yet part of the rat race.  Instead, their lives are full of the resonance we desire.  They become our mentors as we learn how to live a better life, how to experience time for everything.

            I ordered and started reading Andrew Root’s book because I thought it was going to be about what churches needed to do in our ministries in the twenty-first century.  Afterall, he’s a youth ministry professor at Princeton whose earlier work has focused on such things.  I was thoroughly surprised by the rich and revealing intellectual and theological creativity as he analyzed and discussed the underlying spiritual crises that churches and church people encounter.  Reading the book on my monastic retreat last December was an epiphany that led to fertile study and exploration of these themes over the last six months.

            Andrew Root does get to the practical things that the church needs to do to minister faithfully and effectively spiritual crisis.  What is the antidote to our time fatigue?  His answer-- to care for children. 

            Because to focus on children is to escape the focus on our current time and to take a long view.  As I said a few weeks ago, the youngest among us will live for another century or more.  What we do for them now—how we shape them and educate them and care for and love them will have lasting impacts long, long after most of us are gone.  And if they also grow up caring for children and furthering those lessons, the time horizon for our ministry lifts beyond even one century.

            To care for our children also means we are drawn into relationships of wonder, affection, and delight, relationships of resonance and fullness, the obvious antidote to the experience of alienation, time fatigue, and spiritual crisis.

            And Andrew Root believes that any congregational community which prioritizes caring for children is a congregation that will be shaped by humility, vulnerability, giving and receiving, transformation, and thus we will learn to prioritize loving relationships with persons in all aspects of our lives.  In other words, a congregation that prioritizes caring for children is one that becomes more caring towards everyone and everything.  We are spiritually shaped and transformed by our love of kids to become more loving people.

            And so he concludes his book, “The ecstasy of witnessing eternity in time [in caring for children] will ignite the good life of giving and receiving ministry in the world.”

            To draw these four weeks together then.  In our struggle with time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—what we truly long for is a feeling of fullness, of being fully alive, of living the good life. 

            We get to that when we open ourselves to God to transform us, to make us new creatures.  That transformation occurs through loving relationships with persons.  We can open ourselves to love by practicing the spiritual gifts of wonder, curiosity, attention, delight, and affection.  The gifts of resonance.  Which our children have in abundance, and are willing to share, because “sharing is caring.”

            So, if you want to transcend your current time and feel fully alive, the best gift any congregation has to offer you is a chance to care for children.

I, Tituba

I, Tituba, Black Witch of SalemI, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An enjoyable imagining that fills in a life for Tituba, who should be more central in the story of the Salem Witch Trials. Instead of a focus on the Puritan angle, here we get a woman from the Caribbean, enslaved, and thus an exploration of gender, sexuality, race, and clashing cultures. And Conde imagines Tituba as a heroine for the modern world, a revolutionary spirit for our age that hasn't yet fully come to terms with the issues alive in the seventeenth century.

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Sabbatical Head Start

On Consolation

I go on sabbatical beginning on June 1.  More in later post about this sabbatical, its development and delay over the past few years, and what the plans, themes, and goals are.

Knowing that the sabbatical was coming, back in March I ordered a bunch of books for it.  I also pulled out a few from my existing library I haven't yet read and plan to during this summer.

Yesterday afternoon, I wrapped up the religion book I was reading, N. T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, so rather than immerse myself in something else for the next couple of weeks, I decided to start on the sabbatical reading.

And first up I wanted to read Michael Ignatieff's On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.  Ignatieff's book seemed a good place to start after two years of navigating the church through the pandemic.  And the last two years of my marriage ending and getting divorced.  Since this sabbatical is in many ways a chance to rest and recenter and heal from those experiences, consolation is a good place to begin.  

Somewhere I'd read a review of the book that interested me.  Plus I had read his last book, Ordinary Virtues, near the beginning of the pandemic  and had really liked it.  

So, seeking consolation to get a head start on this period of sabbath, I began reading and these sentences from the introduction resonated with me, and may help to set a theme for this season of life:

To be reconciled we must first make peace with our losses, defeats, and failures. To be consoled is to accept these losses, to accept what they have done to us and to believe, despite everything, that they need not haunt our future or blight our remaining possibilities.

Great Plains Weather

Great Plains WeatherGreat Plains Weather by Kenneth F Dewey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun exploration of the crazy, extreme weather of the Great Plains. One thing I learned was that the wild swings of temperatures and conditions has always been a feature of this region. We all have our personal stories of weird changes of weather (like wearing shorts in the morning and snow boots in the evening), but the ones in this book are truly wild.

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Critique of Practical Reason

Critique of Practical ReasonCritique of Practical Reason by Immanuel Kant
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried reading this Critique a couple of decades ago and just couldn't finish it, even though it's not that long. I did make it to the end this time, where you get some payoff, as the final pages are the best, including this great line, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heaves above and the moral law within." But otherwise I found this particular work dense and unenjoyable with very little that was edifying or helpful.

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Time Fatigue

Time Fatigue

Ecclesiastes 3:1-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

1 May 2022

            Back in November I was having a rough time and my spiritual director said, “You need to a retreat.”  He advised that I come stay at the Incarnation Monastery, a Benedictine community of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska that is housed in North Omaha near Miller Park.  I responded, “Yes, that’s exactly what I need.” 

            And so arrangements were made for early December.  I felt decadent taking a little time in the middle of Advent for spiritual reflection and prayer.  Which is, of course, ironic, since that’s part of the point of Advent.  But preachers are often themselves so busy helping others with their spiritual lives that we don’t take the time for ours. 

            I only spent two days away, but it was exactly what I needed to rest, recharge, refocus, and spend time really thinking and praying about some things I needed to spend time really thinking and praying about.

            Now, the rhythm of a monastic retreat is unusual.  Waking very early for prayer.  Services of prayer and song throughout the day.  During some of those sitting in silence for twenty or thirty minutes.  A two hour period in the afternoon where no one is supposed to talk.  Going to bed early. 

            The strange marking of time compels you out of your routines.  You notice different things about your body, your spiritual energy.  It opens up vast time for reflection and contemplation.

            Completely unplanned, while I was away for those two days I read a book about how the church tells time.  The book is entitled The Congregation in a Secular Age by the Princeton theologian Andrew Root.  That book was the perfect read in that setting.  And I was struck by what Root had to say.

            Root identifies the core problem facing contemporary churches and church people to be time related.  Modern life moves at a speed and according to values that are at fundamental odds with the way the church keeps sacred time.  And modern uses of time have led to all sorts of problems for humans.  We long for something different, and he argues that the church’s approach to time is what people really need.

            He writes, “We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future time, but more deeply into time itself.  We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity.  We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!" 

            I read that sentence and thought “Yes!”  That is exactly what we long for.

            And, so, I returned from the retreat and said to the church staff, “How about a series on time for the season of Easter?”  And they agreed.  One reason this seemed timely is that we’ve all had our time-keeping screwed up in the last two years of the pandemic.  We don’t know what time it is, while also feeling that we’ve lost time or wasted time, that we were bored.  While others felt like they gained valuable and rich time to spend on themselves or with family or exploring new hobbies and interests, or learning new skills.  Plus, as more folks return to normal activities, they are contemplating whether they want to be as busy as they were before the virus or whether they want to build in more down time.  Time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—all of that is in the current stew of our lives, and so our worship for this Easter season will focus around these ideas and questions.

            So, to begin, let’s talk about time fatigue. 

            Andrew Root was talking to a local pastor who said, “I mean, these should be exciting times.  Everyone knows we need change.  But instead of creating energy, it creates depression.”  He began to notice that this was common in the churches he visited and spoke to.  He was hearing it from ministerial colleagues.  There’s a lot that needs to be done, people even know some of what it is, but they seem to lack the energy they once had for it.  Why is that?  And this was written even before a global pandemic, though it was published in the middle of it.

            What Root eventually diagnosed is that for individuals and even for institutions like churches, the problem is a “feeling that you just couldn’t find the energy to keep pace” with the speed that society now undergoes change. 

            If the twenty-first century world seems to be moving faster, that’s because it is.  One dimension that is rather obvious is the speed of technological change and how quickly a new technology becomes obsolete and is supplanted by another one, compelling folks to constantly get the newest and latest or fall behind in efficiency, skills, or even coolness.  Technology has, then, increased the speed of communication, transportation, and industrial production. 

            Which has, in turn, affected our social lives.  Even they can now move at a faster pace.  It’s a marvel and wonder to video chat with your grandchildren who live on another continent, when only a few decades ago you would have relied mostly upon mailing letters back and forth. 

            Social and fashion trends arise quickly and just as quickly are replaced.  Political debates are no longer in depth conversations occurring over months and years.  Through social media we can all keep up with hundreds or thousands of more friends and acquaintances than we once did, even knowing what they cooked for supper or the highlight of their vacation.  And we can all watch the livestream of the child’s first walk.

            I don’t need to belabor these points.  You are aware of them in your own lives.  And you’ve read articles, I’m sure, exploring both the good and bad outcomes of all these changes.  Instead, I want to focus in on one spiritual aspect of the new, faster pace of life. 

            Andrew Root calls it “the fatigue to be me.”  And he draws upon the work of the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg in his book The Weariness of the Self, which I read this winter after reading Root’s book.  Ehrenberg identifies that there has been a radical increase in the rise of depression diagnoses and treatments in the last fifty years.  He then sets about to understand why.  And the conclusion he comes to is that people are worn out trying to keep pace with modern life.  Particularly, they are worn out trying to be themselves.  Worn out trying to be the best version of themselves.

            Part of what happened by the end of the twentieth century is that for many people in the wealthy West, there was a radical expansion of freedom and choice.  This came about through the demise of traditional social roles and expectations and the revolutions brought about by movements for civil and human rights for various groups of people.  All of these, of course, are good developments in the history of humanity. 

            But where even in the mid-twentieth century the social role and expectations for many people were decided for them, now most people had the freedom to decide for themselves.  Who will they marry, and will they stay married?  Will they have kids or not?  What career will they explore?  Where will they live?  How often will they move or change jobs?  What religion or spirituality will the practice, if any? 

            And along with them came new emphases.  To be unique.  To have self-esteem.  To live an authentic life.  To live your best life.

            And, yet, that doesn’t work out quite for everyone.  Not everyone has the financial resources or social connections.  There are unforeseen circumstances like illness, divorce, financial setbacks, and more. 

            And the shadow side to all this freedom is that you might be constantly wondering if the life you’ve chosen is the best one?  You might constantly be wondering what would happen if you made other choices?  Would that life be better, richer, more enjoyable?  You might get plagued by the question, “Am I living my best life?”

            Ehrenberg writes that depression then rose as a result of more and more people running out of energy to keep up with the new expectations of choosing, curating, and creating a rich, full life.  Root summarizes this idea when he writes, “But I don’t have the energy to meet this demand.  If I had the energy, the openness of identity construction would be exciting.  But without it, the choice and openness is depressing.”

            This is one of the particular spiritual crises of our contemporary age.  A fatigue that sets in with the ever accelerating pace of life.  An inability to keep up.  A time fatigue that leads to weariness.

            But what we truly desire is a richness of time, a fullness of time.  Maybe that’s a chance for time to slow down and let us focus, like I was able to on that monastic retreat.  Maybe what we long for is a sense of time larger than ourselves and our own choices and actions?  A sacred time that is bigger and more mysterious and that extends through the ages?

            Last week I stood at the graves of ancestors who lived four hundred years ago.  My Pilgrim ancestors who had traveled on the Mayflower to Plymouth.  John and Jane Tilley, who died during that first winter, and whose remains are interred on top of Cole’s Hill in Plymouth with those of all the others who died of starvation, illness, and exposure.  The monument is engraved with these words:

History records no nobler venture for faith and freedom than that of this pilgrim band.  In weariness and painfulness . . . in hunger and cold, they laid the foundations of a state wherein every [person] through countless ages should have liberty to worship God in [their] own way.

            I stood at the gravestone of their daughter, Elizabeth Tilley Howland, who survived that winter and lived to a ripe old age.  Her epitaph reads, “It is my will and charge to all my Children that they walk in the fear of the Lord and in Love and Peace toward each other.”  Those are words I quoted at my own ordination 25 years ago.

            And I found the grave of John Howland, her husband, and the young man who came to the colony as an indentured servant, almost died when he fell off the boat during a storm, and yet lived to be the last man of the original group of pilgrims, raising a large family and rising to wealth and prominence.

            This sacred connection through the ages is a different way of marking time than the fast pace of our contemporary age.  The whole purpose of our trip to New England last week was to explore the past, our history, our story, in order to gain a richer understanding of ourselves.

            Today we celebrate the 166th anniversary of the founding of the First Congregational Church, when Omaha was only a small settlement on the Missouri River and no one knew for certain what would become of this village or this congregation.  And, yet, here we are.  Because of the faith and vision of those founders and the generations that followed them in the work and ministry.

            A highlight of our trip was a visit to the Congregational Archives in Boston, where we found documents and information that were lacking in our own vast archives.  The great reading room looked out over the old Boston graveyard that contains such luminaries as John Hancock.  The room was decorated with the portraits of great pastors and thinkers of our movement.  It was not hard in such a space to feel a deep and abiding connection, a communion even, through time and space. 

            I was delighted that the archives had a copy of the 50th anniversary program of the congregation, celebrated in 1906.  I had not seen this booklet before.  And it’s closing paragraph resonated with me and Susan and Deb:

The church has passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and of hope, during its history.  In them all it has endeavored to maintain its witness for [the One] who is the Light of the World.  And now as the shadows fall on its first half century, it is girding itself for the years to come, praying for grace to keep the faith and to commend it to [humanity] by word and life.

            This paragraph resonated because it felt so true of us in 2022.  That we too have “passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and hope” and yet despite it all we too endeavor “to maintain [our] witness” to God “who is the Light of the World.”

            These deep connections help us to tell time in a different way.  To transcend the pace of contemporary life.  To step away from busyness towards fullness.  To focus on transformation, rather than change.  To seek resonance, rather than relevance. 

            And these are the ideas we’ll explore in the coming weeks of this series, “A Time for Everything.”