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October 2023

How to Know a Person

How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply SeenHow to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen by David Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a wonderful book. Full of insights and practical tools on how to live well. Brooks does a great job of balancing psychological research with insights from other fields, stories of real people, contributions from literature, and his own efforts to grow as a person. I look forward to opportunities to teach this book in classes at church.

View all my reviews

A Rhetoric of Desire

A Rhetoric of Desire

Acts 17:16-32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 October 2023

               I’ve not yet made it to Athens.  So, I haven’t stood in the Areopagus where Paul delivered this sermon.  Where Socrates questioned his interlocutors.  Where the great philosophers and sages of Ancient Greece engaged in their discourses about all the great ideas.

            But a couple of weeks ago I was in the ancient Greek city of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily.  As I sat on the ancient temple steps that are now part of the wall of the cathedral, I wondered if Paul or Plato or Aeschylus or Archimedes had sat there too, as all of them had lived in or traveled through that city.

            I delight in being in such places, with deep and rich ancient histories.  Such travel helps to make the stories and the ideas come alive.

            One of these days, hopefully, I’ll be in Athens and stand in the Areopagus and remember Paul’s sermon.

            The theologian Willie James Jennings writes of this story and sermon in Acts 17, “Here we witness a rhetoric of desire.”  What does he mean?

            For Jennings the desire being illustrated in this moment is actually God’s.  He writes, “God wants the Gentiles.  God desires those who desire idols. . . . This speech is driven by the irrepressible longing of God to embrace wayward creatures by every means possible.” 

            And because God desires these Gentiles, Paul also turns towards them.  He won’t turn away from these folks who believe differently from him and practice a very different faith.  Idol worship, of course, was anathema to a faithful Jew like Paul.  But rather then turn away in disgust, he turns towards these pagans and engages them, on their own terms, and in their own language, and with their own thoughts and ideas.  

            Jennings points out how radical this is.  He writes, “Luke performs a new human in these words given to Paul.” 

            I’ve been saying throughout this sermon series  that Paul believes Jesus has inaugurated a new age and with it a new humanity.  The network of new, small gatherings that will become the Christian churches are themselves experiments in new ways of living—a new family, a new society, a new culture, even a new politics and economics.  And the people drawn to these assemblies are becoming new people, new creatures, focused on the radical love of God, intent on breaking down every barrier and setting humanity free.  This is Paul’s witness to the world and the witness to the world that each of these churches is becoming.

            And, so, even here, Paul is modeling this new humanity that turns towards those different from him.

            God’s desire is for all of God’s children.  And the story identifies that those children also have a desire for God, even if they don’t fully understood it or have gone about it in misguided ways.  For both the worship of the idols and the philosophical discourse are evidence of human longing.

            But the idols are a problem—no matter how beautiful ancient Greek sculpture remains even to us 2500 years later.  Jennings writes, “The idol is a collective self-deception, a point of facilitation where human fantasy and wish, circulating around material realities, generate distorted hope.  The idol facilitates a hope of control of both my life and the life of the gods.”

            An idolatry of control is ultimately a culture of death, devoid of meaning, robbing us of our full humanity.

            But the God of Israel is offering something better.  Something good, true, and beautiful.  A life of freedom, joy, and love.  For a new age has dawned in the resurrection of Jesus.  And the fullness of God is given to everyone.  This is a new time of possibilities.

            In our own time one trend has been the increase in people, particularly younger people, identifying as or being attracted to nihilism.  You see it in popular culture—in the popularity of zombie stories, doomer memes, and the ubiquity of the image of staring into the abyss.

            In its harshest form, nihilism believes there is no meaning, no truth, no right, sometimes even no clarity on what is real.  What’s been on the rise in this century is usually softer forms and generally as a response to all of the bad things that have occurred in the last twenty years.  A 2021 study of 10,000 young people in ten countries found that 56% of them believe that humanity is doomed.  A whopping 75% said they view the future as frightening.  And “45 percent of 16-25-year-olds said climate-related anxiety and distress is affecting their daily lives and ability to function normally.”  In another study, “one-fourth of 16-25-year-olds . . . feel they will ‘never recover’ emotionally” from the pandemic.

            An NPR show discussing the popularity of nihilism included this comment that helps us to understand: “At a certain moment, a culture discovers that its most esteemed values are for nothing. Nihilism is that moment where the rug’s pulled out from under you and nothing takes its place.”  Which is what the last two decades have felt like for many people.

            I was drawn to these paragraphs in an article on the website Huck about the popularity of nihilism:

In her book, The Sunny Nihilist: How a Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy (2021), Wendy [Syfret] argues that nihilism can provide a balm for modern hyper-individualism and an obsession with finding meaning in everything, from our jobs to our skincare routine. The philosophy of ‘sunny nihilism’, she wrote, offers “a blank page; a chance to enjoy the moment, the present, the chaos and luck of being alive at all”. 

Wendy thinks that, rather than surrendering to nihilism, we should focus on Nietzche’s view that rules, laws, and morals are social constructs. “That can be a very liberating idea, because you can ask, well, why do we take capitalism to be the absolute truth?” Wendy says. “The reality is, the world is total chaos, and everything you think you know is a construct that someone created, and can be dismantled.” This has helped Wendy break out of productivity culture. “[Sunny nihilism] gives me a framework to pause and ask: do I actually want to be doing these things? Or am I just absorbing a narrative of success that’s ultimately treating me like a worker drone?”

Syfret argues that the collapse of institutions and systems that brought meaning actually opens up an opportunity for us to create something new.

            There is a sense in which the Christian good news agrees.  Institutions do fail us.  Attempts to exercise control bring harms.  Much of the way we live is a social construct that can and should change. The resurrection inaugurates a new time of possibilities.  Paul has turned towards the Athenians and is offering them a chance for something new.  God turns towards us and offers us the same.  So what do we desire? What does God desire for us?

            Paul viewed the Christian proclamation as offering a counter to the culture of death and negativity in his time.  For Paul the resurrection of Jesus is the source of a universal yes to life.  The radical French philosopher Alain Badiou states that this is centrally what Paul’s message is all about—a yes to life to counter nihilism’s no.  Paul wants to eradicate negativity with the grace of God.

            For grace is pure giving that affirms all that is good and opens up possibilities.  And this yes to life is made available to all of us because God’s Spirit has been shared with all of us.  We are invited into the fulsomeness of God.

            The Greek Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes that the Holy Spirit is “fruition, love, rejoicing, delight, felicity, and beatitude.”  God has given all of that to all of God’s creatures, filling them with God’s own bounty.  Such that we can become “radiant mirrors of divine beauty.”

            God is the actuality on which all possibilities depend.  Hart says, “God shines forth in human longing.”  There’s desire again.  In our longing, God is present.  God graciously offers us the chance to become all that we are and can be and desire to be.  We can flourish and live in delight.  For, as Hart says, God is “the infinite treasure of delight glimpsed within every delight.”  Every joy, every excitement, every beautiful moment, every good and delightful thing is a glimpse of God. 

            Quite poetically, Hart writes, “One cannot contemplate a flower, watch a play, or pluck a strawberry from a [basket] without being situated within an [unbreakable] intentional continuum that extends all the way to God in [God’s] fullness.”

            In every moment of delight, we experience part of the fullness of God.  Which is why we can live with complete freedom and joy and generosity.  Hart writes that the law of love is “a kind of anarchic escape from all such rules.”  Instead we live directly in relationship to the fullness of God.

            Which is what gives us the freedom to turn towards those who are different from us, who don’t meet our expectations, even who disgust us.  Like Paul did to the Athenians.  Modelling a new humanity.  Because we are not trying to control one another, we can witness to the world by inviting and inspiring others to relax, to let it go, do not fear, but join us in the fullness of God.  We can let it be.

            The Church Father Maximus the Confessor described God as “delight and affection and joy” and said that what God is is what God desires for all of God’s creatures.  This winsome, gracious God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

            So what Paul offered the Athenians that day was a chance to break free from everything that had constrained them, especially a culture of death and control, and to live fully and graciously into the freedom and love of God, which calls them to a life of joy, delight, and affection.

            That is Paul’s witness to the world.

            And our invitation too. 

            Because of the fulsomeness of God’s grace, we can live with winsomeness and delight.  The best human life isn’t about meeting expectations, enforcing rules, criticizing others, being judgmental or negative.  It is about joy, affection, and delight.  Turning towards one another in love.  This is what God desires.

So, living as God intends us to live ought to be easy.  But, being human is so often hard.  Why?  I believe the difficulties are quite often a result of us humans getting in our own way, and getting in the way of others. 

Let’s think about those times when we mess up, when we aren’t saying yes to life.  Like when we erect barriers and divisions.  Maybe when we try to compel others to meet our expectations, or are critical and negative.  In those moments, we can give ourselves the grace of forgiving ourselves, because we understand that we are pushing hard against flawed social programming.  And a whole culture of control, negativity, nihilism, and death.

But while giving ourselves a break, we should also be clear that when we fail, we aren’t being our best, we aren’t living as God desires us to.  Because God desires a new humanity that lives fully into the joy, affection, and delight that is God.

And, so, we should make clear that our aim, the goal of our spiritual growth and maturation, is to say yes to life.  To fill ourselves with joy and freedom and love.   Let us live felicitously.  Let us live winsomely.  Let us live delightfully.  For that is God’s desire for us.

Abound in Love

Abound in Love

First Thessalonians 3

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

15 October 2023

            Let me begin today with a quote from the contemporary philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Appiah is currently the President of the American Academy of Letters.  He has written extensively about the ways in which we are shaped by our various identity categories and also about how we learn to live together despite those differences, as part of a cosmopolitan world.

            And it makes sense that these are among Appiah’s concerns.  He embodies the history of the modern age and the complex ways our identities interact.  Appiah is a married gay man living in New York, who became a United States citizen in 1997.  He grew up in Kumasi, Ghana and was educated in Britain, taking his degrees from Cambridge University.  On his father’s side he is descended from Osei Tutu, the pre-colonial emperor of Ghana.  Ghanaian royalty on one side, and British statesmen on the other.  His mother’s father was the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  His great-grandfather was the leader of the Labor Party.  His mother’s side is also descended from John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of Massachusetts.

            So, like I said Appiah embodies in his very person the issues of identity and cosmopolitanism.  Here’s the quote:

Each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is just to affirm the very idea of morality.  The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.

            Appiah argues that identity categories are important ways we interact with the world, helping us to find belonging and meaning.  We can’t simply do away with them and find some homogeneous, universal humanity.  Which would also be boring, even if we could. 

            Nor does he think we have complete freedom when it comes to identity.  Our identities make sense within communities, within social groups.  Their meaning shaped by the collective, not just by us.  

            He’s also aware of the ways that identities can become unhealthy and pull us apart into competing groups.  Which simply will not work in the 21st century world.  We all live too interconnected and integrated with one another.  One of the moral imperatives of our time is to foster cosmopolitanism—being citizens of the world. 

            So, the challenge is to find meaning and purpose in our identity groups, while also learning how to live in friendship and intimacy across all those categories in our pluralistic, multi-cultural age.

            Reading Appiah wrestling with and providing ethical advice for this very contemporary set of issues, I can’t also help but draw a connection to the apostle Paul in the first century, wrestling with the same sorts of topics.  As I’ve pointed out the last few weeks, Paul was trying to foster multi-cultural communities that overcame various barriers of ethnicity and culture in order to model a new and better way of being human, all as part of God’s global mission to rescue the world.

            Paul traveled through the cities of the Roman empire, setting up little gatherings of people.  Through preaching, prayer, and service, he would inspire Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freepersons, women and men, to join up in this new Jesus movement.  And these groups would start to assemble together.  They called themselves by the Greek word ecclesia, which was the same word used to describe the local government assemblies of the Roman Empire.  In this way, they were an alternative to the politics of the day. 

They also became alternative families to one another, as many converts would have been excluded by their families of origin.  These new Christian gatherings became places where people met their significant other, raised their children, and celebrated their life events.  They were forming a new, alternative social life.

            And Paul was nurturing all of that.  Through his preaching, prayer, and pastoral care.  We find evidence of his pastoring in the stories told, but especially in the letters he wrote back to the churches he had founded.  He sometimes wrote in anger, sometimes in joy, always in love, with the intention of directing and shaping these nascent assemblies.

            One of the more fascinating books on Paul is Our Mother Saint Paul by Beverly Roberts Gaventa.  She draws attention to how often Paul uses maternal imagery to highlight his role pastoring congregations.  He uses images of birthing pangs and giving birth, of nursing an infant, of motherly nurture and care. 

            Gaventa also notices that Paul’s use of these metaphors often seems to confuse us for a moment, in order to draw our imaginations in new directions.


            Here, in First Thessalonians, we get an example of Paul’s leadership and care for this congregation, including his deep and abiding affection for them.

            First Thessalonians is probably the first of Paul’s letters to churches that we have passed down to us in the New Testament.  I read one scholar who said that the moment this letter was read in public to the church the first time is the beginning of the New Testament. 

            The scholar Victor Paul Furnish writes in his commentary that the letter “reflects the apostle’s eagerness to affirm and deepen the bonds of friendship.”  In doing so, Paul expands their hope, encourages their faith, and calls for them to let love inform everything that they do.  The love that they have for one another should overflow in ministry to others.  In this way, they form harmonious community, and bear witness to the world of this new way of being human shaped by Jesus and the Spirit.  Now is the time for abounding in love, in order to carry out the work God has given to the congregation.

            This love they are to abound isn’t just warm feelings of regard, however.  N. T. Wright, the Bible scholar and Anglican bishop, writes:

he doesn’t mean that he hopes that, as they already have warm fuzzy feelings about one another, those feelings will become yet warmer and fuzzier.  He means that as they are already exploring practical ways of supporting one another as though they were part of a single family or business . . . they should work out in practical terms how to do so more and more.

            What will bear witness to the world isn’t their warm regard, but their effective measures for supporting and caring for each other.

            And as you read Paul’s letters, you discover how often he gets very practical, as these congregations struggle with financial concerns, outside challenges, the burdens of effectively caring for each other, finding qualified leaders, what they should and shouldn’t do in worship, and more.  It becomes very apparent that most of the challenges the church faces now have their antecedents in the early church too.

            And all of this was in service to the mission to create a worldwide network of congregations who abolished ethnic divisions and found unity despite their differences.  Which also remains our challenge in the 21st century.

            Paul is nurturing these small, local congregations because he believes they have significant, global, even cosmic work to do on behalf of God’s mission.  And that’s why we keep at it too.  Here in the third decade of this century, congregations are facing all sorts of issues.  From very practical ones like the rising costs of goods and services or the shortage of clergy confronting most denominations.  And there are the big issues our entire culture is facing that also impact the church, such as climate change, natural disasters, polarized politics, changing gender norms, reckoning with our racial past, and more.  Plus, more and more people are electing not to attend or participate in churches.  Some because they’ve lost or changed beliefs, but many because they let go of the habit, a trend hastened by the pandemic lockdowns.  We live in an age of growing secularization, but also growing non-participation in various social groups, not just churches.  The lack of involvement has played a role, along with other factors, in the growing epidemic of loneliness and the rise in mental health needs.  All concerns the church must deal with as well.

            But we keep at it because we believe even our congregation has significant work to do on behalf of God’s mission.

            At the close of his book on Paul, N. T. Wright declares, “I believe that part of the task of the church in our own day is to pioneer a way through postmodernity and out the other side . . . into a new world, a new culture . . . [and] Paul has a vital role to play in that task.”

            Wright then enumerates three aspects of how the church can lead in the 21st century.  First, is “the reconstruction of the self.”  He writes that the proud, self-reliant self of modernity has given way to a “mass of floating signifiers.”  All those competing and intersecting identity categories.  All that push from globalism to rise above them at the same time.  All of which is also connected to the epidemic of loneliness and deaths of despair. 

            Wright argues that Paul, and the church, have a path forward.  He writes, “there is a way through, not to a reconstruction of an arrogant modernist Self, but to a new way of being human, a way that is rooted, through baptism, in the Messiah, or more particularly in the love of the one God revealed in him.”  Wright summarizes the point as “I am loved, therefore I am.”

            And this Christian love remains central to the other two aspects Wright enumerates of ways the church can lead humanity in the 21st century.  The second affects the way we know things.  The Enlightenment imagined one, universal, objective truth available to all, and postmodernity revealed that to be a fiction.  What we’ve been left with is alternative facts and post-truth, where knowledge becomes a power-play.  Instead, Wright says, “the basic Christian mode of knowing is love.”  He continues, “In love, the person who is loving is simultaneously affirming the Otherness of that which is loved and their own deep involvement wit that Other.”  By giving of our attention, in a way that respects and acknowledges the dignity and integrity of the other.  Or as my favorite poet Wendell Berry says, “It all turns on affection.”

            Finally, the church has a great story.  A good story.  An inspiring, encouraging story.  And it’s not a story about power but is a story about love.  The greatest love is revealed in the sacrifice of Christ, that disrupts the power-plays of the empire.  Every attempt to construct a world order contrary to love stands exposed as weak and wrong in the shadow of the cross and the dawn of Easter. 

            These are only quick hints at the larger, significant task of the church, that Paul was nurturing in his own day, and that we are called to in ours.  More can be said about each of these.  And, I think in this congregation, is being said multiple times every week in our programs and ministries and worship.  As we engage the big questions and concerns and seek helpful, practical tools for living well and flourishing.

            Paul invites us to abound in love for one another so that the entire world might see that there is a new and better way of being human.  His task as an apostle is to create the communities that will do that.  His work as a pastor is to nurture them towards those ends. 

  1. T. Wright closes his book on Paul by saying that Paul invites and encourages us “to stand as ourselves new creatures, called, justified and glorified, from which we go to the dangerous and exhilarating task of being, knowing, and telling.” For the world needs what we nurture.  Let us take courage, and abound in love.