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December 2022

Armageddon or Awesome

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2022

               What a year filled with wonders it has been!

               Just a couple of weeks ago humanity made a breakthrough that the Washington Post described as “the biggest news of the decade.”  And, yes, this is only the second year of the decade.

               That news was that we had achieved a fusion ignition and with that the first huge steps to maybe solving humanity’s clean energy problems.  Megan McArdle waxed poetic:

As you might already have heard, you are literally made of stardust. Most of the atoms in your body were forged in the core of some ancient sun, as lighter elements fused into heavier ones; you are the vicarious survivor of star fire and supernovas. Now your species is making stars — tiny ones to be sure, and very ephemeral, but nonetheless we are inching toward mastering the very process that made our world. This shift from product to producer would be wondrous even if it didn’t hold out hope for an energy revolution as profound as the shift from horsepower to fossil fuels.

               And that was just the biggest breakthrough of the year.  We also launched the James Webb Space Telescope and have already been overwhelmed with the beauty and detail of the images of our universe that it is sending back.

               There have been radical advances in Artificial Intelligence, battery storage capacity, and vaccines for all sorts of deadly diseases. 

               We’ve even proved that humanity can launch a spacecraft to deflect the orbit of an asteroid.

               When I read the science news, I am constantly excited at the abilities of humanity.  We are truly an amazing species.

               But, we also are a rather stupid species.  In 2022 Russia also launched a completely senseless and brutal war against Ukraine.  We’ve watched in horror as natural disasters around the globe have devastated communities and landscapes.  And we know that these horrors have been made worse by the changing climate that we had at least thirty years warning of and did very little to address. 

               It’s also been a year in which we can read the news and come away sad, frightened, angry.

               This is the paradox that it is to be a human being.

               The Guardian, early this fall, framed humanity’s future as a “race between Armageddon and awesome.”  Humanity is currently faced with a number of choices such that if we make the right ones, we create an awesome and amazing future for our descendants—a future that achieves many of humanity’s millennia-old dreams.  Or, if we make the wrong choices, then we might just live through a new Dark Age.  And it seems that there’s little chance for an outcome somewhere in between those options.  Armageddon or awesome.

               And so we end this year like we do every year, reading this ancient story about how God became a human being, born as a child to a teenage mother in a backwater town with animals and shepherds to celebrate this humble birth.

               The story of Jesus has always presented us a choice between Armageddon and awesome.  There is the way of the world, with its violence and poverty and injustice, or there is the way of Jesus, a life centered on love, grace, and service. 

               Jesus came to show us how humans can live.  What we are capable of.  That the divine image within us can lift us up to unimaginable glory. 

               This Christmas, let’s choose awesome. 

Virgil Wander

Virgil WanderVirgil Wander by Leif Enger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While in Minnesota to canoe and camp in the Boundary Waters, I picked up this local novel. And what a delightful, engaging story with rich characters. Set in a dying Lake Superior town, centered around the owner of the local cinema after he has survived a car accident and is now a changed man. Despite hard luck, life remains full of possibilities.

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Then They Came For Mine

Then They Came for Mine: Healing from the Trauma of Racial ViolenceThen They Came for Mine: Healing from the Trauma of Racial Violence by Lewis-Giggetts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Healing is always about liberation."

Lewis-Giggetts turns her own grief and pain from the death of a cousin to anti-Black violence into a reflection of what is needed if we as individuals and as a society are to heal from the trauma of racial violence.

I particularly liked the discussion in the final chapters of inherited trauma. She writes about how racial violence has damaged both Black and White people, and that we all have inherited the trauma of our ancestors. A deep uprooting is needed if we are to heal

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All of Our Seasons Come Mixed

Pastoral Prayer

18 December 2022—Fourth Sunday of Advent

Holy One,
We’ve spent these last four weeks in
Waiting and preparation and eager anticipation.
We’ve been busy baking and wrapping and shopping
And going to parties and preparing music
And doing all the things that we do in this season that we enjoy.

A season that also can be difficult—stressful, overwhelming,
Or particularly for those who are experiencing a loss or an illness or a change in life—
A season that can be particularly hard.

We think of this coming week and all of the excitement of the holiday,
But we also look at the weather forecast,
And we see how bitter cold it will be,
And wonder how difficult those days will be,
And how that might change our plans,
And then our minds wonder to those who are without a home,
The people or the animals, those who will be outside and exposed to these horrible temperatures.

And we realize that all of our seasons come mixed—
With joy and with despair,
With sadness and with glory.

And we hope during this time that we have learned
To cultivate our attention,
To be able to see you and hear you,
In all the ways that the little lights are shining in the darkness,
That the little tendrils are growing in what seems lifeless.

We hope
That wonder has filled our lives,
And given us a sense of hope and encouragement for the future.

The Wisdom of Your Body

The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied LivingThe Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied Living by Hillary L. McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent discussion of embodiment. McBride explores pain, disability, trauma, oppression, emotions, sex, etc. in well-written chapters that are insightful, moving, informative, and helpful. I've been recommending it to lots of people.

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Find the Wonder

Find the Wonder

Isaiah 11:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 December 2022

               George Bailey feels that his life has been wasted.  He hasn’t done the things he’d hoped to do.  His dreams have not come true.  He’s made sacrifice after sacrifice and toiled away at a job he’d rather not have, only to now be facing financial ruin.  Has it all been in vain?  He feels he has no future to look forward to.  And so he’s ready to jump from the bridge and end it all.

               When Clarence the Angel prevents him from destroying himself.  Then Clarence gives him a tour of what the world would have been like without George Bailey—a cruel place, robbed of joy and delight for the people he cares about. 

               Which finally leads George to see how wonderful his life has been, and he runs through the town excited at seeing all the old familiar things that long ago he had started taking for granted.

               It seems that one thing George Bailey had lost, before his angelic encounter, was the capacity for wonder.  Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard, writes that “Wonder is a characteristic of human flourishing, without which we may be unable to survive in ways we would deem desirable.”  Yeah, that describes George Bailey, forlorn and lost, standing on the bridge in the snowstorm.  But once that capacity for wonder is restored, George doesn’t only survive, he flourishes.

               Early in the autumn as the staff met to consider Advent worship themes, we were pondering the idea of “what will come.”  What does the future hold?  And is the future threatening or not? 

               I had just finished reading a bunch of books about the changing climate and what we need to do to live faithfully and resiliently during this time of human history, and a theme in many of those books was how to retain our hope and joy despite the strong possibility that life will become harder in the decades ahead. 

               As the staff pondered these ideas, the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, and its conceit of an alternative future, entered into our conversation and eventually led to our Advent theme for this year “It’s a Wonder-filled Life.”  We decided to explore how wonder is crucial to our survival and how wonder can remind us that the future doesn’t have to be threatening. 

               Later in the autumn I read Cody Sanders’ essay “Feeling Our Way through an Apocalypse” in the book Doing Theology in Pandemics.  He writes about how the last few years have evoked many emotions in us, particularly fear, anger, and sadness.  These feelings are good and proper and correct given what we’ve experienced.  But his worry is when those feelings become moods and then persistent attitudes on life.  In particular, how sadness can lead to immobility and resignation such that we quit working for a better world.

               So he advises that we need to cultivate other experiences and emotions in order to learn how to feel our way through this season of our lives.  He writes about the importance of grieving in community as a way to address the losses we’ve encountered. He advocates for practices of gratitude that will help us to experience the world as gift, which can help us to dismantle injustices.  And he encourages us to direct our lives to wonder.

               Cody Sanders is concerned about the ways that fear can become the dominating way we interact with un uncertain and dangerous world.  Instead, he invites us to approach the world with wonder.  If we are constantly surprised by all the ordinary things around us, how does that reshape our lives?

               Sanders writes,

Wonder helps us suspend our habitual ways of looking at the world.  Wonder lures us into creative engagement with our surroundings.  Wonder induces receptivity and openness and connection to our environment.  Wonder prompts us to consider life from new perspectives.  Wonder entices us into relational aspects of reality, giving us a vision of our relatedness to the world, to other beings, and to sources of ultimacy, or the Divine.

               Wow!  That sounds like a super power.  More creativity, more connection and belonging, more openness.  Getting to see and experience the world in new ways.  Finding deeper relations with everything around us, including the source of meaning in our lives. 

               And isn’t this exactly what happens to George Bailey when Clarence the Angel intervenes to save his life?

               This week I asked Liz Loveday to help me find some poems about wonder and one she sent along was this by William Martin from The Parents Dao De Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents:


               One of the greatest works on human emotions is Upheavals of Thought by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  And in that over 700 page book, wonder plays a key role in our emotional and moral development.

               Nussbaum writes that we humans are born into a world we do not control, a world that can be alarming and frightening to a newborn.  The world can also be a place of delight.  The world, for most babies, is both at the same time.  Those first days and weeks and months and years of a human life are vital in shaping how we encounter the world.  There’s strong evidence that the more we are held as newborns, the more likely we are to view the world as worth living in.  And it falls to our earliest care givers to help us take delight in the world, to experience it with wonder, to cultivate our abilities to see and experience the good and the beautiful and the exciting.  Imaginative play becomes central to developing these early skills, as evidence shows that children who are more playful are more likely to be show love, inclusivity, and generosity. 

According to Nussbaum, wonder becomes the key element in leading to compassion.  This is true developmentally—the better capacity we have developed for wonder as a child the more likely we are to be compassionate throughout life.  But it’s also true for the adult skill of compassion.  We are more likely to approach a person or situation with compassion if they or it evokes some of our wonder.

Wonder truly is a superpower that can save lives!

In her commentary on Isaiah’s vision, pastor Stacey Simpson Duke states, “Isaiah’s declaration stands in direct contrast to the terror and brutality that pervade our world.” 

When the world as we know it has ended and is starting anew, when things are uncertain, alarming, maybe even terrifying, Isaiah’s vision speaks, wonderfully, to God’s dream that the world can and will be a better, more peaceful, more just, more beautiful place. 

Yet, she acknowledges that it can be difficult for us to view this vision as applicable to us now.  Our lives are ravaged by lions.  Snakes coil hidden in our lives ready to strike.  Bears prowl.  Duke asks, “How is Isaiah’s word also a word of security for now, for people living in unstable and frightening times, and not just a word about a secure future?”

               The answer, she writes, is in the vision itself.  “According to Isaiah, the transformation from a culture of fear to a world at peace begins with a stump.  Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life—a green sprig.”  And this, she reminds us, is how hope starts “it emerges as tiny tendril in an unexpected place.” 

               Something we might fail to notice if we have not cultivated our capacity for wonder, right?  Something we might fail to notice if we aren’t looking with the eyes of a child delighted with the world.

               Just as George Bailey didn’t see how good his life was, how full of meaning, how significant its positive effects on other people, until Clarence the Angel evoked his capacity for wonder.

               So, one of the keys to human flourishing, to living a desirable to life, to becoming more compassionate, to feeling our ways through uncertain and alarming times, is to find the wonder.  As the poet said, “find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.”

               This Advent, as you decorate for the holidays, as you prepare your gifts for loved ones, as you celebrate with friends, as you drive around at night and look at the Christmas lights, as you bake cookies, and sing carols, and snuggle by the fire with a warm mug of apple cider, use this as a time to cultivate your wonder, for the kind of life you desire depends upon it.