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January 2024

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of ChristianityThe Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity by Cynthia Bourgeault
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fascinating and wonderful book, that I wish I had read earlier. Not only does it go a long way to recovering the role of Mary Magdalene, but it opens up fabulous new ways of looking at key Christian ideas and practices, and has many helpful practical suggestions for liturgy and ministry.

View all my reviews

Speaking Truthfully

Speaking Truthfully

Psalm 51:6-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 January 2024

               What does it mean to remember truthfully?

            Especially given all we know about the fickleness of memory.  How easily we forget or elide details.  How often two people’s memories of the same moment are quite different from each other.  How our self-interest and biases can shade what we recall.  Even how trauma can deeply wound our memory. 

            Maybe we can start by thinking of ways we remember falsely?

            Like nostalgia.  I’m a deeply sentimental person who engages in a fair bit of nostalgia.  But nostalgia can be a problem.  Last week I quoted James K. A. Smith who wrote, “Sometimes the most faithful act of remembering requires a destruction of our nostalgias; sometimes the most creative act of remembering is to ruin the illusions we’ve learned to live with.”

            Nostalgia can traffic in illusions, making the past better than it actually was.

            In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown talks about how nostalgia was once considered a medical disease and psychiatric disorder.  That’s not the common perspective anymore, but she does warn that nostalgia can be an unhealthy coping strategy.

            Nostalgia, she writes, often arises from loneliness and when combined with rumination is a strong predictor for depression making us “more likely to pay attention to negative things, and [zapping] our motivation to do things that would improve how we feel.” 

            So, she generally comes down on the negative side in her evaluation of nostalgia, describing it as “a yearning for the way things used to be in our often idealized and self-protective version of the past.”

            Miroslav Volf writes that we can also remember unjustly.  And this violates what he considers to be our moral obligation to remember truthfully.  We are most likely to remember unjustly in the case of complex memories of wrongdoing.  We tend to be self-protective, of course, and in doing so, often frame the memory to put ourselves in the best light and see others at their worst.  This, he teaches, is unjust.  In our remembering we must be honest about our own role and accurate in how we judge other’s actions, not making them worse than they actually were.  We need to be very careful about how we assign blame and avoid making others a scapegoat. 

            Volf says this is a very difficult task, to remember wrongdoings truthfully and justly.  We are finite, our memories are always approximations with some mix of imaginative construction.  But doing the hard work of remembering truthfully and justly, he writes, is worth the effort because such hard work is more likely to result in healing and justice.

            S0, we can remember falsely in the way we assign blame to others . . .  and, also, ourselves.  One way false memories show up is through the emotion of shame.  James K. A. Smith calls shame “a nefarious enemy of grace that thrives on the backward glance.”  He goes on, “Shame teaches me to look at my past and see something hideous that makes me regret my existence.”

            Much of the best recent work on shame has been done by Brene Brown.  She is always clear in distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong, whereas shame is the feeling that we are bad.  The feeling of guilt can lead to accountability, making amends, healing, and growth.  Shame generally leads to disconnection and feelings of unworthiness.  It is the belief that we are flawed. 

            Interestingly, she writes that shame is often actually connected to narcissism and perfectionism.  A perfectionist views all their failures as personal defects and so avoids trying new things.  Narcissists have what she calls a “shame-based fear of being ordinary.” 

            Shame burdens us with a focus on something from our past.  It keeps us turned backwards, not fully enjoy the present or living with openness to the future.

            Brown writes that the antidote to shame is empathy.  Finding those you can share your shame with who will respond with care.  We can’t overcome our shame until we learn to speak about it.

            Smith teaches that shame is the opposite of grace. Whereas shame burdens us from the past, grace is God’s “good news of unfathomable possibility.”  He writes, “My personal history isn’t something to regret; it is something God can deploy in ways I never could have imagined.”  Instead, God sees our weaknesses as “openings for strength.”  “Grace,” he says, “wants to unleash our history for a future with God that could only be ours—living into the version of ourselves that the world needs.”  God’s grace opens up the possibilities that our pasts are the tools needed for God’s work to be done.

            So, from these teachers we learn that to remember truthfully, we must avoid the destructive forms of nostalgia, injustice in the way we view ourselves, and others, and the shame that robs us of the abundance of possibility that is God’s grace. 

            How, then, do we remember truthfully, especially if that’s a memory of our own wrong-doing? 

            A couple of years ago I read a small book entitled Regret: A Theology by Duke Divinity School professor Paul Griffiths.  In that book, Griffiths writes about what he calls the “otherwise emotions.”  The various emotions we feel when we wish that the world was other than what it is.  Or that we had done something other than what we have done. 

            I assume you’ve got a few—or more than a few—of these: moments or actions or decisions from the past that you wish were otherwise?

            Remorse is the emotion we feel when our past presses upon us, reminding us of what we have done.  Intriguingly, he writes that remorse itself reveals that our past is porous, that it can be redeemed, which we’ll get more into in a moment.  The feeling of remorse is itself part of the process of healing and reconciliation.  Even feeling or wishing that one had done otherwise is a step in the right direction.  A step that hopefully leads to further steps, to contrition, lament, making amends, etc. 

            Remorse also involves our ability to imagine a different future, a future where our past and our feelings of guilt no longer weigh heavily upon us. 

            Brene Brown writes about the healthy power of regret.  She’s very critical of those who say that they live “with no regrets.”  Such people, her research has revealed, are really people who live with no reflection.  Healthy, mature people do reflect, and in their reflecting, they regret what they’ve done wrong.  But they don’t let that remorse develop into shame, because they do something about it.

            Brown writes, “I firmly believe that regret is one of our most powerful emotional reminders that reflection, change, and growth are necessary.”  She goes on, “In our research, regret emerged as a function of empathy.  And, when used constructively, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.”

            The reason Miroslav Volf is so insistent on the moral obligation to remember truthfully, is because he believes this is integral to the redemption of the past.  And that’s probably a notion we don’t think of very often.  How can the past, which is settled and finished, be redeemed?

            Volf writes,

What we have suffered weighs us down like a heavy load we long to have lifted: like an indefatigable enemy, it assails us relentlessly.  The wreckage of history—a trail of shattered beauty, defiled goodness, twisted truths, streams of tears, rivers of blood, mountains of corpses—must somehow be mended.  That the past must and will be redeemed is a conviction essential to the Christian notion of redemption.

            God will acknowledge and take account of this history.  Rightly assigning blame and enacting justice.  Victims will be acknowledged, and amends will be made.  Perpetrators will be called to account and their sins forgiven and atoned for.  And, of course, all of us are both victims and perpetrators.

            God’s grace, then, opens up fresh and new possibilities.  Grace can’t go back and change the past, but it can change how we use it to create a better future, to become our best selves. 

            I like how Paul Griffiths describes it, “Regret sometimes permits a transfiguration of the past by an opening up of the future.  The past is never simply given, unchangeable; its presence to and in the present and the future belongs to it, and when the mode of that presence changes, so too does the past.”

            We might not be able to alter what we have done in the past, but we can alter its meaning and impact for us now and in the future.  We can even, sometimes, forget altogether. 

            What allows us to remember truthfully, in a way that leads to justice, healing, hope, and love, is the abundance of God’s grace.  Reaching out to envelop us, and all that we are, and have been and will be.  Constantly opening up new possibilities and providing for us the resources we need to live well and faithfully now. 

            Hear, again, the joyful words of the 51st Psalm:

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

To Remember

To Remember

Ecclesiastes 3:9-22

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 January 2024

               In 1984 Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian and now professor at Yale, was interrogated by the Yugoslavian secret police.  The previous fall he had been summoned to compulsory military service, having to leave his family and the writing of his dissertation.  And immediately he realized that he’d been drawn into the military so that he could be spied upon.  Volf was suspect by the Communist authorities for a variety of reasons—he was married to an American woman, he was a Christian theologian in an officially atheist country, he had studied in the democratic West, and his own father, a pastor, had almost been killed once by the Communists on suspicion of sedition.

            And so the interrogations went on for months.  They never involved torture, but they did include threats, so much so that the interrogator colonized his interior life, as Volf describes it.  He wrote, “Even afterward, my mind was enslaved by the abuse I had suffered.”

            Decades later, still haunted by these memories, and particularly his interrogator Captain G, Volf began to wonder “How should I remember him and what he had done to me?”  Eventually the question prompted a book entitled The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.

            Volf has spent much of his academic career as a theologian writing and teaching about forgiveness.  His work in that area is profound, ground-breaking, and deeply influential.  And that led him to think even more deeply and theologically about memory, and particularly his memories of this wrongdoing.  How should he remember those events and the perpetrators in a way that is faithful to his commitment to Christian love and forgiveness?  How to remember truthfully, in a way that condemns injustice and abuse but doesn’t heighten the trauma?  How to remember in such a way that the memories don’t overtake his identity and everything else about his past?  He was even worried about what he called “this dangerous moral fickleness of memory.”

            These questions prompted deep thinking.  Volf wrote, “How much of my projected future would Captain G. colonize, given that the memory of abuse kept projecting itself into my anticipated future?  Would he define the horizon of my possibilities, or would he and his dirty work shrink to just one dark dot on that horizon and possibly even disappear from it entirely?”

            He worried that if he focused on this memory too much, it would forever alter him.  Volf wrote, “Would I have remembered wrongly by first focusing on the negative and then allowing it to color the whole surrounding landscape?  Would I be allowing the abuse to whirl me down into the dark netherworld?”

            As he grappled with his personal stories, Miroslav Volf identifies for us how memory is connected to identity, forgiveness, justice, truthfulness, well-being, and our hopes for the future.  Remembering well and rightly, then, has a rich spiritual meaning for us.

            And it is that theme to which we will turn our worship focus in this season of Epiphany. 

            Remembering, itself, fits within a bigger and broader spiritual practice of timekeeping.  How we mark time spiritually and theologically has long been of interest to me and a staple in my preaching.  A couple of years ago we had an Easter season worship series on how we mark time.  That series was guided by the teachings of Princeton professor Andrew Root, and I’ve often since drawn us back to this quote from him:

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!

And, yes, that quote ends with an exclamation mark.

            The theologian Kathryn Tanner approaches the spirituality of timekeeping and remembering our past from a different angle—that of her Christian critique of contemporary finance-based capitalism, which she argues tries to malform us with its false and destructive models of time-keeping.  One of the worst ways that the past enslaves us in contemporary capitalism is through debt, which limits our future horizons and binds us in the present. 

            Instead, Tanner wants humanity to live into the fulsomeness of God’s grace, understanding that “one has all one needs now to meet the present challenge,” whatever that challenge is.  She encourages that “there is no point in harping on the past or worrying about the future” because “no failings in the past or present can disrupt the efficacy” of God’s saving grace. 

            Tanner’s thoughts resonate with those of the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, the most philosophical of biblical writers.  Ecclesiastes teaches that we have all we need.  That God desires of us not toil but living in harmony—to eat, drink, and find fulfilment in what we do.  Ecclesiastes encourages us not to dwell upon the past or worry about the future.  What has been, has been, and what will be, will be.  We should enjoy the life that God has given to us.

            The best book I’ve read recently about the spiritual practice of time-keeping is James K. A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now.  We’ll be using Smith’s book to prompt our Wednesday night family night discussions this month.

            Smith reminds us that we are temporal beings, and to be temporal, he writes, “is to be indebted to a past and oriented toward a future.”  But how to inhabit this well, truthfully, faithfully? 

            We are shaped by our pasts, our history, and the larger histories we are embedded in.  Right now in the United States, how we remember our history and tell our stories has gotten caught up in the culture wars and partisan political battles.  Reminding us how significant the past itself is in shaping our identity, our sense of what is possible now, and our visions for the future. 

            On this point, Smith writes, “Sometimes the most faithful act of remembering requires a destruction of our nostalgias; sometimes the most creative act of remembering is to ruin the illusions we’ve learned to live with.”

            Which resonates with Miroslav Volf’s contention that we shouldn’t only remember truthfully, but also rightly, faithfully, lovingly.  Some memories are best forgotten.

            James K. A. Smith describes “four fundamental convictions” of “the art of spiritual timekeeping.”  The first is that we are finite, temporal creatures.  He writes, “For every creature, to be is to become; to exist is to change; to have and to hold is to lose and to mourn; to awake is to hope.”

            I know we often struggle with this reality.  That we must live with constant change, learning how to let go, to grieve, to move nimbly into the future.  At the conference I attended in Florida this week, one of my colleagues reminded us that Darwin taught that adaptability is the most important asset in the evolutionary struggle.  In our personal and our collective lives we must hone our adaptative skills, responding to constant change with flexibility and grace.

            Smith’s second conviction of the art of spiritual time-keeping is our belief that time is shaped by covenant.  Our time is shaped by the promises God has made to God’s people.  The history of God with God’s people matters in forming who we are.  We must live faithfully those promises through the reality of constant change.

            The third conviction is somewhat in tension with the second.  It is our belief that God’s Spirit is still guiding us and speaking to us, leading us into new directions.  I like this sentence of Smith’s—“Listening to the Spirit is not an archaeological dig for some original deposit but rather an attunement to a God with us, still speaking, still surprising, still revealing.” 

            Hopefully you’ve been reading my columns in the church newsletter about the State of the Church in 2024, where I’m writing about the era of deep change we are living in, and what those changes mean for Christianity writ large and for us as one congregation adapting and responding faithfully.  Our task is to discern where the Spirit is leading us in our time, and our time is one of radical and deep change.

            Smith’s fourth and final fundamental conviction about the art of spiritual timekeeping is that we Christians are “animated by the future.”  Hope is central to who we are. 

            Central to my own spirituality, and my preaching, has been the teaching of the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann that we Christians are the “eternal beginners.”  The life of hope is one in which we live into the resurrection promise that at every moment there is an indefinite set of possible futures, that no matter how our past shapes us, there is no set, inevitable future.  We can begin anew every moment of our lives. 

            I like the way Smith then describes our spiritual discernment.  He writes, “Keeping time with the Spirit is less a regimental march and more like a subtle dance, a responsive feel for what comes next.”

            So, our remembering is situated as a spiritual practice within this deeper spiritual practice of timekeeping.  To remember rightly, faithfully, truthfully, and lovingly is part of our rich spiritual life of dancing with God’s Spirit in attunement and discernment, embracing the fulsomeness of God’s grace, and practicing resurrection hope.

            Let’s return now to Miroslav Volf and what conclusions he came to about remembering rightly.  He writes:

To return to my own experience in the Yugoslavian army, I can view myself primarily as a person who was terrorized by powerful people against whom I was helpless and whose intentions I could not discern.  Or I can see myself primarily as a person who, after some suffering, has been delivered by God and given a new life . . . .  I can be angry about suffering.  I can be thankful for deliverance.  I can be both.  I can also let that year of suffering recede somewhere into a distant background and stretch myself toward the future.

A future which, for him, included his work at Yale and the lives of his two sons.

            What Volf came to realize is that “we are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us.” 

Yes, our self-image is largely made up of what we remember about ourselves.  And, of course, what we remember about ourselves isn’t always exactly what happened.  I loved, for example, when the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote early in his memoir that the stories he was telling about his childhood were the stories he remembered, and he was making no claim as to whether they actually occurred that way or not.  For it was how he remembered them that had shaped him, whether or not they actually occurred that way.

            Volf contends that a healthy person is not inevitably shaped by their memories of the past.  A healthy person is able to freely respond to memories and, therefore, shape how they form the sense of self.  He writes, “A person with a healthy sense of identity living in freedom and security will let the future draw her out of the past and the present and will play with new possibilities and embark on new paths.” 

            That should be our goal.  A rich, healthy, flourishing human life, playing with new possibilities.

            Memory, then, is a component of our well-being.  And Volf contends that there are four distinct ways that memory contributes to well-being.

            First is that remembering rightly plays a role in personal healing.  All of the literature on trauma, for instance, teaches us that the trauma must be interpreted and integrated in ways that cease to dominate our psyches but instead become part of a larger sense of self and meaning.  If you’ve read The Body Keeps the Score, or any other of the bestsellers in this vein, then you know how this works.

            The second way that remembering rightly contributes to well-being is through acknowledging our past.  This is particularly relevant to memories of wrong-doing and injustice.  And not just our personal remembering, but social remembering.  Such remembering of past wrongs was part of what Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel emphasized throughout his life’s work.

            Acknowledging then leads to solidarity, as community forms among those who remember rightly.  And finally, the fourth way remembering rightly leads to well-being, is that a people who remember rightly should then protect past victims from future harm.  Again, this is part of Elie Wiesel’s teaching.  I’d encourage you to read or listen to his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.  In that speech he declares,

What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

            Remembering, then, is part of our well-being.  But not ours only.  The well-being of our families and society.  How we remember shapes our vision of justice, our hopes for the future, the values of the communities we form, and our spiritual vitality.

            We must learn to remember well as part of the broader spiritual practice of time-keeping.  Entering into that subtle dance with the Holy Spirit as she guides us through the present and into the vast open possibilities of the future.  That way we can live into the fulsomeness of God’s grace, the fullness of time, and the feeling of being fully alive.

            To remember rightly, then, frees us to live as God intended, as the author of Ecclesiastes teaches us: 

What I do know is that what is best for us is to be happy and enjoy life as long as we live.  And God’s gift to us is to eat and drink and find fulfillment in our work.

Varieties of Spiritual Experience

The Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century Research and PerspectivesThe Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century Research and Perspectives by David B Yaden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About fifteen years ago I remember reading an article about the use of brain science to study religious experiences and was fascinated. I thought then that if I ever went back to get another academic degree, it would be something in that field. But beyond that initial interest I never did follow up.

So it was good to read this review of all the current research and hear about promising ideas for the future.

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