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February 2023


Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your LifeAwe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the NPR interviews I heard with him, so I ordered the book, which was good, but didn't, in my opinion, provide a lot more than what I had heard in the radio shows. Though there is some good material in here I'll use in teaching and preaching and pastoral care.

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Making New & Making Do

Making New & Making Do

James 3:13-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 February 2023

               The “Church shares in the call to cultivate wisdom for daily life,” writes theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw.  “Church life,” she adds, “is a site of training in wisdom.”

               The Season of Lent is always a time for spiritual growth.  Through examination, reflection, and discernment we try to prepare ourselves for the new creation of Holy Week and Easter.  This season often involves coming to terms with our sins through confession, forgiveness, repentance, and mercy.  This season often involves giving something up, making sacrifices, engaging the spiritual disciplines, training our habits.  This season sometimes involves taking something on—exploring something new, learning, and growing. 

               This Lent, our worship life will focus on the words of wisdom—the various books of the Bible that are called wisdom books and the advice that they give us for living.  I’ll be guided by this idea of Amy Plantinga Pauw’s that the church is a school for wisdom.  That in church we should be learning practical ideas for how to live well and faithfully in the actual world.

               According to Pauw, the church’s wisdom is not some ethereal, spiritual advice, but is earthy and practical.  Grounded in our experiences of the world we actually live in.  She writes, “Our understandings . . . should be earthy, rooted in and attuned to the patterns and cycles, the vulnerabilities and resilience, of our planet.”

               And there are a few key points she highlights about the church’s wisdom.  Among those are:

               That this wisdom is practical—we are learning about real, ordinary, daily life.

               This wisdom is about our bodies.  We are embodied creatures and all of our spirituality, all of our morality, takes places in these fragile, vulnerable, beautiful human bodies.

               The church cultivates wisdom not just for our own good, but for the world.  She writes that the pursuit of wisdom “propels [the] church beyond itself into the world.”  And that God calls us to be wise on behalf of “creaturely well-being.”

               Which means that our wisdom is also ecumenical.  We live in a world of diverse cultures and faiths, and so the practical wisdom for living well in our world means that we have to learn from each other.  She points out that significant bits of the material in Old Testament wisdom books like Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes comes from other cultures and other faith traditions.  And here in the 21st century, we have much to learn from one another.  So, our the church’s wisdom is not limited only to our own faith tradition, but should draw upon what is wise in the teachings of others.

               Which means that our wisdom also is filled with ambiguity and contingency and even uncertainty.  We only ever have partial answers to life’s vexing problems.  We are trying to do our best within the limitations of the human body and the complexities of the world.

               And maybe most importantly, she emphasizes that the church’s wisdom “lives in the gap between the resurrection of Jesus and the last things.”  We are to carry out God’s work, but ours is not the final word on creation.  Nor are we Jesus.  But we are responsible for living well and faithfully in the mean time.

               So, guided by those values, this Lent we will examine what we can learn from the wisdom teachings of our scriptural tradition that will help us to live better, more faithful lives as God’s agents in this complicated world.

               Amy Plantinga Pauw focuses on six themes that she calls “communal orientations of the heart.”  They are making new and making do, longing, giving, suffering, rejoicing, and joining hands.  Those will be our weekly worship themes for Lent.  She claims that these are “the rhythms of life lived in God’s presence,” and we are called to attune ourselves to these rhythms.

               So, this week, then, Making New & Making Do.

               If we are “called to live faithfully within the opportunities and constraints of the present,” how do we do that?  God has proclaimed that all things will be made new.  Yet, we don’t seem to be living in the time when the fullness of God’s reign has come upon the earth.  We are living in the mean time, in ordinary, complex, sometimes even quite weird, times.

               She begins by emphasizing that the church is “a place of lifelong embodied learning.”  The training in wisdom we do here doesn’t stop in Sunday school or confirmation, but fills the life of a congregation.  Such that one of our central, ongoing tasks is helping people learn what they need to live well and faithfully, at every stage of life, and no matter what happens to them or in the wider world.

               And we must remind ourselves, that this life isn’t something we do alone.  We are in this together.  Our pursuit of wisdom, of living well, occurs in a shared life.

               This is true, even when we aren’t being intentional about it.  We learn how to live through the messages we receive from our wider culture, through the ways other people treat us, and by copying what we see others doing. 

               And we know that the wider culture and society aren’t always giving us messages that are wise and lead to well-being.  Think of all the body issues that arise because of the limited range of beautiful bodies we see.  Or the toxic masculinity that boys can absorb.  Or the violence inherent in so much entertainment.  I’ve been focused a lot on trans kids in the last couple of months, and the negative messages they are receiving from the anti-trans bills currently before our state legislature.  And this was already a group highly prone to thoughts of suicide.

               In recent weeks there’s been much reaction to the new study that revealed the tragic state of adolescent mental health coming out of the pandemic, particularly the effects on girls.  I was drawn to one article that said our children are sick because our society is sick. 

               Listen—if you need help, if you need someone to talk to, please know that I’m here, Katie’s here, Jim’s here, so many of the people in this room are here to listen, to see you, to care for you.  And also to work together to get us all safely through this thing called life.

               We in the church believe in sanctification—that we can be transformed into wise, whole, and holy people.  That all of our vulnerability, fragility, wrongheadedness can be transformed.  That we can become a new creation.  We even believe that we can overcome the negative images of the society and culture, that we can defeat sin and temptation, that we can leave the toxic behind and take what is good and helpful and safe and turn it into something beautiful and good.

               We are creatures of dust and ashes, as we are reminded at the beginning of Lent.  We are made up of all the same stuff as everyone else—both good and bad.  There’s good news.  This earthy stuff can embody joy and well-being and courage and hope. 

               This is our belief in “making new.”  A new creation, new and transformed selves, everything made new.  This we believe.

               And so, as Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “Christian practices [such as healing, worship, and forgiveness] aim at embodied wisdom for a way of life that lives in gratitude to God and is aligned with God’s purposes for all creation.”

               And we do that, we make new, by also making do.  Making do with our own limitations as embodied creatures.  Making do during the times and in the spaces and communities in which we live.  She adds, “Making do is also an acknowledgement  of creaturely limits—limits of time, energy, knowledge, and control over the . . . forces around us.”  So, together as a worshipping community we admit that “we are not whole, that we are not at peace, that we need healing and nourishment only God can provide.”  

               What helps us to make do then? 

               Honest awareness about ourselves and our situations.  Discernment over what is around us that affirms life and well-being and what doesn’t.  Humility about our own limitations.  Patience that our own individual growth, much less a wider transformation, can and does take time.  

               Honesty, discernment, humility, patience—these are aspects of practical wisdom.

               Pauw writes, “Church does not pretend to have already realized the full hope of the Spirit in its own life, nor to have the capacity to bring this hope to fruition by its own actions.”  But we are called to do our best.  We are responsible for living as faithfully and effectively and as well as we can—not only for ourselves and our families, but on behalf of God’s mission to the whole world.

               This Lent I invite you to a season of exploration and growth, as we listen to these ancient words of wisdom, as we discern how to live well and faithfully in our time and our place.

The Therapy of Desire

The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic EthicsThe Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics by Martha C. Nussbaum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I have read a number of Nussbaum's books over the last twenty years, I have in the last couple made sure to go back and work through her major texts that I hadn't yet read. This one is yet another excellent book. What a clear thinker, who writes with precision and elegance.

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Everlasting Joy

Everlasting Joy

Isaiah 61:1-11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 February 2023

               “It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God,” writes Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann.  The poet in Third Isaiah promises “everlasting joy” accomplished through a vision of the future that is filled with justice, righteousness, peace, comfort, liberty, and abundance.  Here is a vision, as one commentary said, of the world as it should be.

               Yet, we open up our phones in the morning and get the latest death toll from the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, hear about the latest American mass shooting, are alarmed at the toxic chemicals from the train derailment in Ohio, worry about what happens next in the war in Ukraine, and puzzle over balloons being shot down by fighter jets.

               Brueggemann declares that ministry must “bring people to engage the promise of newness.”  But he then immediately warns that “despairing people do not anticipate or receive newness.”  The challenge, despite the state of the world, is to maintain hope in this vision of the future, promised by God, the one in which justice leads to everlasting joy.

               Back in the Spring of 2020, when we were all still mostly stuck at home, living through a season of our lives we had never imagined (and still can’t quite grasp), I read the book The Ordinary Virtues by the academic and former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff. 

               In a chapter on the Fukushima disaster, he tells us that the unimaginable has consistently been occurring in the 21st century, from 9/11 to destructive natural disasters to financial collapses (this book was written and published before the Covid-19 pandemic).  All these experiences of the unimaginable, he writes, are eroding our trust in the institutions which keep failing us and are eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. Ignatieff writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management."

               A far cry from the vision of the poet Isaiah.

               So, how do we engage the promise of newness and aim for everlasting joy and avoid such a dismal view of the future that might lead us to despair?

               That seems to be a key challenge for people of faith and hope and courage here in the third decade of this century.

               Well, I think the ancient Isaiah poet gives us some clues, so we turn to this text for the details.

               The poet declares that God wants to comfort all who mourn, to provide for them, to garland them with flowers and anoint them with the oil of gladness.  To revive their spirits and build up their ruins.  To repair the ruined cities and cultivate the people like a beautiful and strong garden.

               William P. Brown in his commentary on this poem writes that “the expressed aim is to comfort” and that “it is the comfort of new creation.”  God is doing some new, out of the remains of the past.  He writes that the “garden of God’s glory” will be the birthplace and nursery of a new people.

               The Isaiah poet has declared that this will happen in the “year of the Lord’s favor,” which most scholars believe to be a reference to the ancient Jewish year of Jubilee, written about in the Book of Leviticus.  This was the year in which all debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and people who had lost their land to debt had it restored to them or their families.  The Jubilee was a socioeconomic reconfiguration.  A radical idea. 

               In the Gospel of Luke, the first sermon that Jesus preaches, back home in the synagogue in Nazareth, is based on this text of Isaiah 61.  Jesus proclaims that his movement is a new Jubliee, a fulfillment of this vision in Isaiah.

               And every week when we pray in the Lord’s prayer—“forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—we too are calling upon the Jubilee and the radical economic reordering it calls for.

               So, this is part of the answer to how we get to everlasting joy—embodying a vision of economic transformation that centers justice and flourishing for everyone.

               And when we look back here at the poem in Isaiah we begin to notice the key elements of God’s vision:

  • Good news to the oppressed
  • Healing the brokenhearted
  • Liberty for captives
  • Release of prisoners
  • Comfort for the mourners

Walter Brueggemann writes, “All of these actions are powerful ministries to the weak, the powerless, and the marginalized to restore them to full function in a community of well-being and joy.”  Aha!  That’s God’s vision.  A community of well-being and joy that allows everyone to function, even flourish.  And the way to get there is a new social order that centers justice and newness for everyone.

Brueggemann concludes his comments on this passage from Isaiah by declaring, “Thus in the end, the gospel powered by the spirit is a restoration of a viable economic community in a reorganized city, the redemption of public life.”

So, that’s it.  That’s how we get to “everlasting joy” according to the Isaiah poet—we redeem public life by a transformation of the social order.

So, that probably sounds daunting.  And it is, of course.  Fortunately, we have God on our side working with us and empowering.  We also have all the time in the world, as we over the centuries do our best to improve and grow, like with the expansion over the last two centuries of human rights as a new moral paradigm.

And our task is to focus on this community, our community, being the best embodiment of God’s design as we can be, so that we stand as a sign and witness to the wider world of what good human community can be—one that is loving, inclusive, just, and peaceful.

One reason I really liked Michael Ignatieff’s book that I read back in the spring of 2020 was that it was focused on “ordinary virtue.”  Written in the context of a world where unimaginable things keep happening that threaten our sense of hope, Ignatieff didn’t despair, he was actually quite encouraged by what he witnessed around the world. 

A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.  He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa.  In these places he dialogues with  all sorts of folks from poor women living in shanties to prominent public officials.  He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes.

And what he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share.  He writes,

The virtues we display are enduringly common because daily life throws up the same challenges: how much, if at all, to trust those who rule over us; how much, if at all, to tolerate those who are different; how much to forgive, if we can, those who have wronged us; and how to rebuild life when fate and misfortune sweep away what we have tried to accomplish.

He finds these same questions and struggles in the daily lives of people all over the globe.  We are all struggling to do these things and do them well and with goodness.

               Another thing Ignatieff argues for is the essential role that community plays in our ability to live out the ordinary virtues.  Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society.  We need a functioning community and civil society in order to practice these virtues.  He writes, “The test of public institutions is whether they make it possible for us to behave decently toward each other.” 

               Which sounds like a rather basic standard to achieve, write?  And maybe the first step to justice and fairness, to embodying the vision of the Isaiah poet?

               Now, Ignatieff is himself not a religious man.  But I believe his ethical understanding of our current global situation helps us to grasp this ancient prophetic vision and what we can do about. 

So, to return to my earlier question—how do we engage God’s promise of newness and aim for everlasting joy, while avoiding the dismal view of our common future that might lead us to despair?

Isaiah tells us we do that by redeeming public life through a transformation of the social order.  A tall order.  But our mission as God’s people, nonetheless.

That mission begins, I’m suggesting today, by living daily with the ordinary virtues, such as trust, forgiveness, tolerance, and resilience.  To show kindness and generosity and compassion. 

This is the path to everlasting joy—our own, our children’s, and all humanity’s. 

The Solace of Open Spaces

The Solace of Open SpacesThe Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons."

She traveled to Wyoming and was captivated by the place and stayed, experiencing the rough life on the Plains and in the Mountains with cowboys and Natives alike. She brings a poet's expression and both a roughness and a tenderness to the people, animals, landscapes, events, and weather. A beautiful book to read.

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Nebraska Poems

Nebraska: PoemsNebraska: Poems by Kwame Dawes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"This is my dream: that my
words may be a grand infection
turning and turning in a bare
studio, our bodies electrified
to passions each time we walk
across a ribbon of imagination;
a kind of holy beauty consuming body."

These poems are beautiful, and while I recommend them for any poetry reader, every Nebraskan ought to have this volume in their collection. Nebraska has such a rich literature and this volume adds to that legacy, while providing a new perspective. Nebraska is approached with humor and a skepticism that also grows into affection, if not a full embrace.

"Were I better at this, I would study almanacs,
chart the seasons, visit Ted Kooser on his farm
in midwinter, without invitation, and carry
his two-by-fours and barbwire rolls to the edge
of his land, and ask him the names of the birds
turning in the sky, or the yield of the corn crop,
or the number of people he has buried--farm people,
his people."

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Testimony Opposing LB574

LB574 would ban gender-affirming care.  The Nebraska Medical Association, physicians, social workers, mental health professionals, suicide prevention organizations, business and religious leaders joined with many trans youth and their parents to oppose this legislation.  Here is the testimony I delivered.  The second page I handed to the committee was the letter from the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ opposing this bill and two others that would harm trans youth.

Testimony Opposing LB574

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Senior Minister, First Central Congregational United Church of Christ of Omaha

Just last week a mother in my congregation called me from the emergency room at Immanuel Hospital.  She was there with her trans daughter who had attempted to end her life.  The distraught mother kept talking about how awful society is to trans people.

I don’t know if the daughter was following the news and the debate over bills like this one.  I don’t know if the existence of this bill directly contributed to her suicide attempt.  But I do know that the climate of bigotry and discrimination to which a bill like this contributes was a factor.

So, I come to you today as a Christian pastor, who only last week cared for a family confronted by the need for gender-affirming care.  I’m asking you not to further burden good people of Christian faith with unnecessary obstacles and political controversy.  I’m asking you to uphold the dignity of the human person and to defend religious liberty and the freedom of conscience.

In my denomination, the United Church of Christ, descended from the Pilgrims and Puritans, we affirm that the beauty and blessedness of God's creation is present in all people.  We make a conscious and deliberate decision to celebrate the diversity of creation as uniquely embodied in people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+). We honor the sacredness of people's lives through extravagant welcome and unconditional affirmation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.   The mission statement of the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ proclaims: “to live into God’s extravagant welcome and advocate for justice. So that all know love, safety, belonging, and dignity.” 

In what I distributed you also have a letter from the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ stating our religious opposition to this bill and all the clergy, congregations, and lay people who have also added their names to the letter.

This bill violates our Christian faith.  It violates the sacredness of God’s creation.  It is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This bill discriminates against my denomination and my congregation, threatening our religious liberty and freedoms of conscience. 

Please oppose LB574.

Testimony Opposing LB277

The first hearing I testified at yesterday was LB277.  Half of this bill is great--it protects indigenous folks in wearing their regalia.  The other half is a RFRA that we know now from thirty years experience with such bills will be used by the Religious Right to seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

Testimony Opposing LB277

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Senior Minister, First Central Congregational United Church of Christ of Omaha

On October 31, 1948, my predecessor as Senior Minister at the First Central Congregational Church of Omaha, the Rev. Dr. Harold Jaynes, preached about the core principles of Protestantism and that sermon included this statement, which stands as a warning to us in 2023:

"We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others."

Essential to the American tradition is the idea of a public space in which everyone's views are allowed to interact. For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect. It does not mean that you have to agree with everyone else, quite the contrary. It means that in the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else. Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right. You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience. Religious liberty rests on the ancient principle: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

 And this, my friends, is why I'm so deeply troubled by the recent misuse of the concept "religious freedom." Let me state emphatically, and so that I am not misunderstood—in the public sphere no one has a religious right to discriminate against another human being.

Discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty. They are hostile to it.

It is brazen dishonesty to wrap your biases in the language of religious freedom. It risks substantial harm to the Republic. To the entire American democratic experiment. And even to the Christian gospel.

It is Orwellian to use a term to describe its exact opposite. This dishonesty must be resisted.

Religious liberty, as historically understood, as rooted in the biblical tradition, as enshrined in our Constitution, demands equality of all persons, demands mutual respect of all persons, demands that in the public sphere everyone be treated the same.

I urge you, therefore, to oppose LB277.

Barriers to Justice

Barriers to Justice

Isaiah 59:1-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 February 2023

               “Something is deeply amiss in the community of faith,” writes Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on this passage in Isaiah.  He continues, “The covenant agreement between [God] and the community is not working.”  Injustice abounds, and is getting worse. 

Did you notice the image of the adder’s eggs?  It’s rather vivid.  Brueggemann points out that the eggs represent “the birth of more poison in the community.”  These are “killer eggs.”  They release into the community “fresh dimensions of deathly distortion.”

               What’s to be done? 

               According to Isaiah, God had assumed someone would step forward and do something about it.  But it seems that no one has.  And, so, the covenant is breaking down.  Which means that God must tear down the barriers to justice.  Brueggemann writes, “This is no benign God but a forceful agent who will powerfully defeat all those organized and mobilized against a right ordering of the world.”

               This week I read the book American Prophets by religious journalist Jack Jenkins.  In the book he outlines the growth of progressive religious activism in the 21st century, drawing together the religious connections that the media often has overlooked in moments like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Standing Rock, and more.  One of the chapters, for instance, focuses on the work of the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who leads Local Church and Justice Ministries for our denomination, the United Church of Christ. 

               Near the end of the book, Jenkins relates a conversation he had at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina with Melvin Graham, whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd, had been murdered by Dylan Roof during a Bible study at the church in 2015.  Graham said,

We don’t want ‘thoughts and prayers’ anymore—we want action.  God is good. God is great.  God can do all things.  But God gave you the power to do some things on your own.  Use that power [God’s] given you.  Use that authority [God’s] given you to make things better.  Don’t hold it back for yourself.  Take those talent’s [God’s] given you—don’t bury them in the sand.  Use them for good, for justice.  Power is yours not to hold on to exclusively.  Power is there for you to help people, to uplift people.

               Earlier in the book, Jenkins relates a sermon preached by the Los Angeles based rabbi Sharon Brous in which she proclaimed:

Faith is a rebellion against [the] world.  The goal is not to be quieted, to feel good, to get comfortable and settled while the palace burns.  It is to be awake and to fight—with love—for the courage we need, for the family we yearn for, for the beloved community we’re called to be, for the world we want our children to inherit.

               These are contemporary voices, echoing the call of the prophet Isaiah for us people of faith to confess our sins, speak the truth in the public square, run to good, and walk in the way of peace.

               My first full-time pastoral call was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I served as the Associate Pastor for Rolling Hills Baptist Church, which was a part of a group called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Whenever people look at me confused as to what type of Baptist that might be, I respond, “We were Jimmy Carter Baptists.”  And then people get it.

               I was primarily responsible for the youth and college ministries of the church, and so it fell to me to organize the mission trip—a daunting task the first time you have to be in charge of such a thing.  Of course, the first decision to make is where to go and what to do, as there are an indefinite number of options for good service work. 

               At the time the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship had just launched a project called the “Rural Poverty Initiative.”  They were going to focus domestic mission dollars and energy on the twenty poorest counties in the United States.  And those counties generally are grouped—in Appalachia, the Native American Reservations of the Great Plains, along the border with Mexico, and in the Cotton Belt of the South.  Which meant that Arkansas had one of those counties.

               So, I decided we’d work with this initiative.  Soon we were partnered with a local organization in Helena, Arkansas run by two women who were focused on addressing poverty and systemic racism, and cultivating deliberative democracy.

               I’ve told you bits of this story various times over the years, but I return to it because it was one of the key turning points in my life, when my eyes were opened, and I had the epiphany that changed the shape of my ministry and my life.

               One morning months ahead of our mission trip, I drove into Helena for a scouting and organizing meeting.  I drove through cotton fields listening to Mary J. Blige on my cd player, not aware of what I was going to encounter.

               Helena had once been a thriving town of around 40,000 people, but was now only about 8,000.  The massive decline in population was the result of decades of agricultural depression, but also white flight after integration, when thousands of white families moved to the suburbs of Little Rock, Memphis, and Jackson.  There had also been an African-American brain drain, as one of the unintended consequences of integration was the collapse of the Black business class.  All of this was information I learned and saw that day.

               Helena had vast blocks abandoned and blighted.  I saw people’s homes that were so derelict I wouldn’t have kept livestock in them.  I was shown one neighborhood, in town, that had no indoor plumbing, in the year 2002.  Folks, black folks, who lived in that neighborhood, were still carrying buckets to a central tap to get their water.

               Before that day I had intellectual knowledge of America’s racist history.  But that day I really saw it firsthand in a way I had never seen—or maybe just never taken the time to notice—before.  And I’ve never been the same since.

               From that moment, my ministry, and thus my life, took on a deeper commitment to justice work. In my next call, in Dallas, Texas, I was part of the Texas Faith Network.  A statewide organization of clergy who responded to unjust political activities in the state government.  We were particularly concerned with how the Religious Right was gaining power over the Texas State School Board and changing education standards and text books to reflect their worldview.  And so other religious voices were critical in presenting alternative perspectives on the relationship between faith and science or health standards.  My testimony before the State Board of Education about sex ed curriculum even appeared in a documentary about the topic.

               All of that was just training for the role I played in my next call, in Oklahoma City, as the Pastor of the Cathedral of Hope.  I was now an out gay man, leading a predominately LGBTQ+ congregation.  As part of the interview process for that call, I was explicitly asked and warned about what that would mean.  I would become a leading public figure in the gay community, a spokesperson and activist.  And, thus, a target. 

               In my first week as pastor of that church, I appeared at a meeting of the library board where some local religious leaders were trying to ban gay-themed books from the public library.  And that day was my first television interview that appeared on the nightly news.

               Those five years were filled with activism work, and not just on LGBT issues.  I appeared at the Reform Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to express solidarity with them when they were targeted with anti-Semitic violence during the High Holy Days.  I organized a vigil when a many was murdered by the Aryan Nation.  I trained social workers and educators on diversity.  I worked with the local Muslim community on hate crimes legislation.  I often appeared at the State Capitol as the official UCC representative for all sorts of issues from anti-war protests to health care advocacy to supporting reproductive justice.

               And I was a target.  I received death threats.  Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest me.  The Oklahoma State Republican Party’s platform condemned my wedding—not just gay marriage—my wedding. 

               Here, in Omaha, I helped lead the effort to pass this city’s employment non-discrimination ordinance—the thing in my life I’m second most proud of, after being a father.  And I’ve been involved in a wide range of issues from defending immigrants and refugees, speaking out on the true nature of religious liberty, challenging measures that set up barriers to voting, testifying against the Keystone XL pipeline, helping to organize our state conference’s response to climate change, and getting shot and pepper sprayed during the 2020 summer of racial uprising. 

               This week I spent nine hours at the State Capitol in defense of reproductive justice, wearing a stole that once belonged to our late member, the Rev. Dorothy Murdoch Hill, honoring her decades of work on that issue.  And this coming week I’ll be back fighting against the effort to ban gender-affirming care for children and adolescents.

               That day in Helena, Arkansas opened my eyes to injustice and how my call as a disciple and minister of the Good News of Jesus Christ included speaking truth in the public square and working, wherever my voice and power were going to be effective, in scaling and breaking down the barriers to justice.

               Isaiah challenges people of faith to confess our sins, to run to the good, and to walk in the way of peace. 

               What are the ways we have participated, intentionally and unintentionally, is systems of injustice?  What barriers to justice have we helped to erect?  What biases and prejudices might be holding us back from experiencing the wild, inclusive love of God?  How often is it simply that we fail to speak or act or respond, and that alone is the barrier?

               Isaiah implores us to be better, to do better.  To be God’s agents in breaking down the barriers to justice.  This is what it means to be a child of the God of Israel.  This work is part of the call of discipleship for those who take the name of Jesus at our baptism.  And we are reminded that we don’t do the work alone--the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers the church with courage in the struggle for justice and peace. 

Let us be God’s faithful servants, in the service of others, proclaiming Good News to all the world, resisting the powers of evil.

American Prophets

American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the CountryAmerican Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country by Jack Jenkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The Religious Left is the beating heart of modern progressivism; although rarely acknowledged by members of either political party, it is one of the Left's most secret of weapons and has the potential to impact US politics for years to come."

A revealing discussion of the role of faith in progressive politics in this century, connecting the religious threads of Ferguson, Charlottesville, Standing Rock, and more.

And full of encouragement for those of us involved in this work.

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