My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Thanks for this Mike. As usual with your insights, they have renewed some of my energy, gotten my ideas and creative juices flowing, and otherwise been the jolt I needed.
View all my reviews
One of the virtues of a small liberal arts college is that there is a greater chance for direct, personal relationships with senior faculty even when you are an undergrad. For example, the first semester of my freshman year I had been in the Wester home, which was an inspiration. Don and Janie had built a home that with the best available technology of the 1980's was energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. It was filled with Janie's art and Don's books. Books everywhere, but well organized, in wooden shelves with glass doors.
My sophomore year I began working with Don as one of his graders, a job I kept for three years. As his student employee, I grew personally close to Don and benefited from the many conversations.
One day he mentioned reading a book that week, which to me was shocking, that he could read the entire book in one week. When I said as much, he said he did that all the time and assured me I would one day too. He was correct, of course, as I now read 70-80 books a year.
Working for him, I also became the tutor for Intro to Philosophy, hosting a weekly session with students reviewing what they were doing in the class and answering their questions. This was my first opportunity for teaching philosophy.
I remained living in Shawnee the five years I commuted to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to work on my Masters and Ph. D. During those years I was an active member of the First Baptist Church of Shawnee where the Westers were members. So through those years of grad school at OU, my friendship with Don deepened.
And we live in a small world, as my connections to the Wester family have grown. Son Mike and I served as deacons at First Baptist Shawnee. When I moved to Oklahoma City in 2005 to pastor at Cathedral of Hope, Tom Wester attended the church. And then I was very surprised when I moved to Omaha in 2010 and son Donald Junior was a member of First Central. Donald and I became good friends as well, initially bonding over stories of his dad. I got to participate in Donald’s ordination, and he even served on the staff of First Central for a while, before moving to Arkansas to pastor. Don, Sr. participated in the ordination service for his son, a fun moment for me.
This week so many messages have been shared by former students and colleagues about Don and his impact. Today we will celebrate and honor a great legacy.
The weather report indicated that there was a chance I was going to drive into a snowstorm. I didn't relish the thought. Obviously. But I still left my house at 5:30 a.m. Friday planning to drive almost 300 miles into north central Nebraska ranching country to attend a funeral of a woman I'd met twice.
Agatha Forsyth was the wife of one of my United Church of Christ clergy colleagues, the licensed lay pastor Diana Jahn. Diana I have interacted with numerous times over the years at denominational meetings, always enjoying my conversations with her. My fascination has always been that she was serving as an openly gay clergy person in a tiny country church. There was a time when she and I were the only openly gay UCC clergy in the state. I deeply admired in 2015 when she signed our Ready-To-Marry statement and the Lincoln Journal-Star focused on how even this small rural church was gay welcoming.
So, to honor my colleague, in more ways than one, I wanted to travel those hundreds of miles into a snowstorm for her wife's funeral.
Purdum, Nebraska lies deep in the Sandhills, far from any major towns or highways. The Sandhills are one of North America's most interesting and unique landscapes, though often overlooked for more dramatic mountain vistas. The grass covered hills and small lakes and ponds make this ideal ranching country.
A few years ago Diana and Agatha were already living and ranching in Purdum, having moved there 13 years ago from Maine, when the church needed a new pastor. The congregation itself asked Diana to become their pastor. She received the training and was licensed to the church.
The forecast had predicted rain changing to wintry mix for most of my drive, but that held off. Because of flooding and washed out roads and bridges, the quickest route wasn't the most direct. I traveled west along I-80 to Grand Island, Nebraska and then turned northwest for more than two hours along the Sandhills Scenic Byway of Highway 2.
In Broken Bow, Nebraska, almost four hours into my journey, sleet changing to snow began to fall. It quickly became very thick, covering the road, and making travel slippery. I began to contemplate turning around. I feared driving into more remote country (and spotty cell coverage) with bad weather. Plus, the snow was slowing me down such I feared I wouldn't make it on time, but I only had a little more than an hour left to travel, so I continued forward wondering what to do, when suddenly the heavy snow let up and the road became easily traversable again.
An hour later there was a lovely moment as I rounded a bend in the road which lies in the river valley of the Middle Loup--the Burlington train was moving west along rails lying beside the highway, a lone cow was grazing in the foreground, the Sandhills were rising in the background, and Classical music was playing on the radio.
I arrived in Halsey with time to spare, so drove on past my turn to see the Nebraska National Forest. If you are puzzled by the idea of a national forest on the Great Plains know that the forest was hand planted. While driving through the forest, a massive hawk flew majestically overhead.
Purdum, an unicorporated village, lies 18 miles north of highway 2 at Halsey, and those 18 miles are directly through the abrupt rolling hills of the Sandhills. What a fascinating landscape with almost no trees or shrubs and only the occasional turnoff for a ranch. I wondered what the drive will be like in a few weeks with green grass and wildflowers.
And suddenly there's Purdum, with the church as the primary public building. The place was full, as it seems the surrounding community all turned out. Nine of Diana's clergy colleagues were in attendance, almost all from the eastern side of the state, so we shared our adventures in driving that early morning.
The music for the service included "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and closed with k. d. lang's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." One of Agatha's friends celebrated "this marvelous, crazy woman." The eulogy was delivered by a local woman who talked of how central Agatha and Diana have been not only to the church but the community. Near the close of her remarks she thanked Agatha and Diana for teaching the community "not to judge."
And I found myself crying after those words as Bette Midler sang on the recording. Here in the remote ranching country of the Sandhills was this wide, inclusive, gay-affirming embrace of the Christian church. In a place that stereotypically it would be least expected. And it was being honored and celebrated.
After a delicious country funeral lunch with multiple pasta and jello salads (maybe 7 of the latter?) and a smorgasboard of desserts (I limited myself to three), I got on the road for the return trip.
The radio kept warning about the snow in western and north central Nebraska, but I hadn't needed a coat in Purdum and there was very little precipitation until once again I neared Broken Bow where it started in almost the exact same place it had stopped for me en route almost four hours before. Now Broken Bow was covered in what looked like 3 inches of snow. It snowed until the other side of the town. In my entire 600 miles of driving it snowed only in Broken Bow, both coming and going. So odd.
In Grand Island I stopped for coffee with the Rev. Stephen Mitchell and his husband. Stephen has been pastoring our UCC church there since last year, but we hadn't yet had time to really sit down and get to know one another. I needed the stop, as I was beginning to tire, but the rest fortified me for the final leg home. Stephen and Paul have 30 grandchildren.
I told Stephen I had joked with Michael that morning, "I'm on my great gay clergy tour of Nebraska, seeing all three of us."
I arrived home around 6:30, 13 hours after leaving. Michael had fixed a delicious dinner of roast pork. After dinner it was my night for bedtime routine with our son.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
3 February 2019
One of the things I enjoy about pastoring this church, is its rich history. Fortunately, generations did a great job of archiving what they were doing and telling stories, so that you can learn about the past. I particularly like reading about the pastors who proceeded me, most of them gifted leaders with vision and innovative thinking.
Harold Janes was the pastor here from 1946-1958, in that post-World War II boom era for Mainline Christian churches. One of our history books describes his pastorate as “outstanding” and said, “It can hardly be questioned that during his ministry the church has never been busier. A great number of new organizations, projects and religious services have been inaugurated by him. It would be impossible to name all of them.” It then proceeds to list a bunch, at the conclusion of which the annual Jordan Festival.
What’s that you ask?
Then we are told, “This last originated in 1949 as a means of celebrating the baptism of Jesus, one of the most important and yet neglected events of the founder of the Christian Church. As a result of this annual observance, First Central Church has become known as the Church of the Jordan Festival.”
Now, see, this is the sort of tantalizing tidbit that sends me pouring through archives to learn more.
The first place I learned more was in the booklet for the Capital Campaign that was launched in 1953 called “Program of Progress.” Joan Eddy gave me the book a few years ago when I approached her wanting to know more about Harold Janes and his pastorate. You might be interested in some of the things that were included in that capital campaign: Air conditioning, new choir robes, the antiphonal organ, remodeling the chancel of the sanctuary, supporting medical missionaries in Angola, supporting the camping program. Then there are a few others that never happened: completing the bell tower, ensuring there were adequate parking lots of the future, adding counselors to the church staff, establishing a senior care residential home, building a cloister to run along the north side of the sanctuary connecting what we call the South Patio Entrance with the Narthex, and then building a 125 seat chapel off of the northwest side of the narthex running along 36th Street where the patio currently is. Janes and the church leadership had ambitious, visionary goals.
Now, I said this document told me more about the Jordan Festival. That’s because fully funding it was the first item in the capital campaign. What had started as an annual worship service was supposed to grow to include weekend conferences, lecture series by visiting theologians, commissioning new choral and dramatic works, and producing those for the community.
Finally, they were going to install a quote “beautiful wood-carving of the baptism of Jesus” at the back of the chancel there where the table and cross now are to “be a source of constant inspiration to those who come within the sanctuary.”
Before this week, I knew all of that, but this week I pulled out seven years of church bulletins from the 40’s and 50’s and scanned through them to learn more about this Jordan Festival. The February 10, 1952 bulletin announces that year the expansion of the festival. It had begun in 1949 with three weeks of preaching culminating in a big worship service which gained national attention interestingly enough. Then in the following years, Martin Bush, who was this church’s organist and music director from 1906-1955 (Stephen, to beat that you’ll have to be here till at list 2048) . . . anyway Martin Bush composed a choral anthem for the festival entitled “In Those Days Came John the Baptist.” He composed the work because he realized there was a dearth of music about Jesus’ baptism. By the way, I went looking in the music library, and sure enough, that piece is still there in our collection. I couldn’t find another Martin Bush original piece “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” however. I was really interested in seeing that one.
Anyway, this festival was growing every year, and in 1952 they added an original one-act play to the many-week program. The play was entitled “He Came Seeing” by Mary P. Hamlin. Included in the choir performing that night was one Contralto Miss Joan Eddy and the part of Hilkiah, a Jewish aristocrat, was played by William Wiseman, Tracy and Wendy’s dad.
Why all this for the Baptism of Jesus? It appears that Harold Janes wanted this holiday to become as big as Christmas and Easter. He must have been nuts. I can’t imagine any sane clergy person wanting a third holiday as involved as the other two. And even more nuts for putting it in between them!
But he had his reasons, in that 1952 newsletter announcement, we read,
The inception of the festival was based on the idea that the baptism of Jesus was one of the most transforming, yet much neglected, events in His life. Its celebration, we thought, would remind us of the source of individual religious power, of the true basis of our democracy, and the nature of the church.
I really wish I could locate one of Harold Janes’s sermons about this so I could get more details, especially how he connects baptism to democracy.
Last summer our Worship Ministry read an essay by UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann entitled “Back to Basics,” and in the fourth section that essay, Brueggemann wrote that one of the ways our worship and preaching should get back to basics is “articulating and processing the profound either/or of our baptisms.” As we discussed this section of the essay, the Worship Ministry was persuaded, we needed to spend some time exploring the implications of our baptism for our understanding of our identity and our ethics. And that’s why this Epiphany Season we are doing that during this series we have called “Children of God.” What does it mean to be God’s children, marked in a special way, committed to following Jesus?
For Walter Brueggemann our baptism is a commitment to one way of life in direction opposition to another. The way of life we are rejecting is the dominant culture’s value system. In the time of Jesus this was the Roman Empire and its “predatory political economy” which specialized in “the desires of the flesh.” Brueggemann writes that these values “consisted in mean-spirited self-promotion and uncaring self-induldgence.” He adds, “The empire functioned to generate appetites that could be satisfied only by anti-neighborly action . . . that put the satiation of the self at the center of reality.”
What, then, is the alternative way-of-life that we commit ourselves to in our baptism? “Covenantal neighborliness” is what he calls it. Particularly as that is directed toward “the poor, the immigrant, and the enemy.” And this neighborliness finds expression in the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” All of these virtues are alternatives to the dominant value system.
In today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus angers his hometown crowd by reminding them that God does not show favorites, but includes within God’s care and God’s family, those outsiders and aliens, even the enemies of the people, like the Syrian general Naaman.
The hometown crowd apparently didn’t like hearing the truth about God, so they wanted to throw Jesus off of a cliff and kill him. A rather violent reaction.
This story is a reminder that living as a child of God is not easy, that living the truth can generate opposition, particularly opposition in defense of the dominant value system which attempts to divide and exclude people rather than build an ever growing neighborhood of kindness and compassion.
My predecessor, Harold Janes, was onto something then. We do need to be reminded of what we are committing ourselves to in our baptism. We need to be reminded because the dominant value systems are so powerful. But we are more powerful. We have the Creator of the Universe on our side, filling with us the Holy Spirit.
And maybe there’s something to this connection between democracy and our baptism. I don’t know what connection Harold Janes made, but here’s the connection I will make. Our democratic society can only thrive and endure when we live together in covenant as neighbors, expressing kindness, generosity, and faithfulness to one another. So, if the reality of our baptism reminds us to live a more spiritual life, then maybe it will also help us to be better citizens.
"I did other work; and in this concrete way, out of work that came easily to me because it was so close to me, I defined myself, and saw that my subject was not my sensibility, my inward development, but the worlds I contained within myself, the worlds I lived in."--The Enigma of Arrival
In the summer of 2006 I went to Borders bookstore to buy some books to take with me on my beach vacation to Sarasota, Florida (one of those was Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which no one probably considers a beach read). I wanted to read a Naipaul novel. Ever since he won the Nobel in 2001, he had been "on my list" and finally I thought I'd read one of his most oft-mentioned works, like A Bend in the River. But, as I stood there looking over the various Naipaul novels, what attracted me was this line in one of the blurbs on the back cover of The Enigma of Arrival--"V. S. Naipaul is a man who can inspire readers to follow him through the Slough of Despond and beyond."
So, sitting on a beach in Florida, I read a novel about depression, set in Salisbury, England. When I picked up my copy of this book last night after hearing of Naipaul's death, I sniffed it to see if the smell of the beach lingered a dozen years later. Sadly, it does not.
From the blog review I wrote after that 2006 vacation, I was glad for the long, slow reading time to work through a slow novel. I concluded, "This is a powerful, beautiful work that I highly recommend for anyone who desires a slow read that shows how a human being lives through depression."
The Enigma of Arrival is the best of the nine Naipaul books I've read (and I own 3 more I haven't gotten to yet). Most often you hear of A House for Mister Biswas or A Bend in the River, but I didn't care as much for those (the links are the reviews I wrote about them). I greatly enjoyed Guerillas. I recommend Half a Life for anyone starting out with Naipaul--it is a short novel that contains many of his major themes, including "how a colonial shapes an identity in the midst of the collapse of colonialism."
I have admired Naipaul's novels because they engage you intellectually. They are conceptual; they grapple with ideas. He has an amazing command of language and crafts such beautiful sentences. I wrote in 2017 that "He may be the best living writer in the English language." Though I have also written that for all their admirable qualities, his novels "lack the magical, captivating charm of Gabriel Garcia Marquez."
I have also read two of his travel books, appreciating their "keen observational ability." I felt his book Beyond Belief taught me much I did not know and helped shape my thinking on the geopolitical issues we have faced in the last two decades. Of his book about the American South, I wrote, "He writes with a deep curiosity and desire to understand everyone."
In 2009 Patrick French wrote a highly praised biography entitled The World Is What It Is. That year the biography made many end-of-the year lists of the best nonfiction books of the year. Though I had only read two Naipaul books at the time, I bought and read the biography. Naipaul had arranged for French to write an authorized biography, yet French's final work is highly critical of Naipaul the person, painting him as misogynist, ambitious, arrogant, and a user in a way that destroys the women in his life. Naipaul allowed the biography to go forward, but dismissed its portrayal of him. It is maybe the most shocking authorized biography one could read.
And, yet, it made me even more interested in reading all of Naipaul's books, richly discussed in the biography. It was at this point that I began picking them up in used bookstores and reading about one a year.
The biography also meant I read the books more critically, worried about the misogyny in Guerillas or the way he makes fun of his own people in The Mystic Masseur. Yet, as I pointed out when I read the latter in 2009, "Though, I must say, the very end seems to make even Naipaul's views somewhat comic."
I liked this paragraph from the NYTimes obit:
Yet Mr. Naipaul exempted neither colonizer nor colonized from his scrutiny. He wrote of the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers, yet exposed the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean in their wake. He brought to his work moral urgency and a novelist’s attentiveness to individual lives and triumphs.
Naipaul has his critics, though. And for very good reason. He does not seem to have been a very nice man. And he has said and written things that Chinua Achebe rightly describes as "downright outrageous." Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart is a far greater novel than anything written by Naipaul (in my opinion), wrote an outraged critique of A Bend in the River in his book Home and Exile, which contends that African voices must write about Africa to overcome four centuries of dispossession in which non-Africans wrote biased stories about Africa. Naipaul included.
Achebe wrote, "Naipaul's forte is to browbeat his reader by such pontifical high writing." Achebe points out the ways in which A Bend in the River ridicules and holds in contempt Africans (he demonstrates how Naipaul does the same for Indians and his native Trinidadians). Naipaul has also defended Western civilization as the universal civilization, and Achebe criticizes this. His own observation is thus, "To suggest that the universal civilization is in place already is to be willfully blind to our present reality and, even worse, to trivialize the goal and hinder the materialization of a genuine universality in the future."
So, reading Naipaul is very complicated. The well-crafted books don't exist within a vacuum apart from the man. Or the larger geopolitical issues. Yet even these complexities seem to reflect the traumas of colonialism.
The author narrator of The Enigma of Arrival returns to Trinidad and realizes that it has changed. He writes, "So, as soon as I had arrived at a new idea about the place, it had ceased to be mine." Then, we read, "Through writing--knowledge and curiosity feeding off one another--I had arrived at a new idea of myself and my world. But the world had not stood still."
This morning's pastoral prayer at First Central Congregational UCC of Omaha:
Yesterday our brother James Cone died. Cone was one of the greatest American theologians. He was born and raised in Arkansas during segregation, and became the founder of Black Liberation Theology, a longtime professor at Union Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Cone formulated a theology of liberation from within the context of the Black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus' identification with the poor and oppressed, and the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation. He has deeply influenced my theology.
In his masterwork, God of the Oppressed, he wrote, "Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom." That understanding helped to empower my own work on equal rights for LGBT people.
And in his late great book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which our Theology Brunch discussed in March, he wrote,
The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the "cost of discipleship," it has become a form of "cheap grace," an easy way to salvation that doesn't force us to confront the power of Christ's message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with the "recrucified" black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.
And his work convicts me of my sin, opening new paths for redemption and reconciliation.
Let us begin our time of pastoral prayer with a moment of silent reflection.
Gracious God. Thank you for sending us James Cone to be our teacher.
He taught us who Jesus was and is.
He taught us what the cross means. And the resurrection means.
He taught us how to be saved and liberated.
And how worship can empower us for the struggle of life.
He taught us who you are, God. That you are the God of the oppressed.
Without his teaching we might still be mired in misunderstanding and sin because of our racism and sexism and homophobia.
We might still be worshipping an idol.
As he is welcomed into your peace,
May his spirit ever live,
In power and glory.
And now we pray, as Jesus has taught us,
Our Father who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power
and the glory, forever. Amen.
This is more than a month old, but I wanted to share it.
Physicist Stephen Hawking died this week. Hawking inspired us to ask questions such as:
What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end?
He believed that one day science would develop a complete unified theory and then all humanity would be capable of discussing "the question of why it is that we and the universe exist." He wrote, "If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God."
Hawking of course was an atheist, so he was writing in metaphor when he spoke of God. But I've always been intrigued by how even science, when pushed to the outer limits of theoretical physics, sounds deeply spiritual and mystical.
And so today, as we enter our time of prayer, let's do so in awe and wonder at the marvels of our universe and our human ability to understand them.
Let us begin with a moment of silent reflection.
God of Time and Space,
You have surrounded us with wonder
And we are in awe.
You have also given us amazing powers
To explore and study and theorize and understand.
Our brains can build rockets that send probes billions of miles from Earth
In order to send pictures back to us revealing unimagined beauty.
We can develop theorems that in simple mathematics grasp profound truths about how the universe works.
We can imagine and dream and hypothesize not only about the very beginning of time and space but what might even be outside our own universe.
May we always defy our earthly and physical limitations.
May we always be curious.
May we always look up at the stars and wonder why.
Now, as our Savior taught us, let us pray:
Sunday I preached a rousing sermon on the Gospel of Mark talking about Jesus' call to discipleship, and then the service ended with the hymn "I Love to Tell the Story," which reminded me of the good aspects of my childhood as a Baptist, and as the service concluded I felt the joy of loving Jesus and of having loved Jesus since I committed to follow him at the age of 5.
This fall our worship series is entitled Reformed as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation with a focus on various doctrines of the Reformation and what they might mean to us today. First up this morning was Soli Deo Gloria--Glory to God Alone. In my sermon prep I was reading about Johann Sebastian Bach, as he signed all his compositions Soli Deo Gloria. When Katie, my Associate Minister, asked if I'd do the conversation with the children in worship, I said I would, "And I'm going to talk about Bach." Here's how that went.
Kids are coming forward and sitting beside me on the chancel steps as I engage in some lively banter with them. Before I can begin in earnest one of the older kids asks about the picture I'm holding, "Is that George Washington?"
"No. This is not George Washington."
"No. It is Johann Sebastian Bach. Have any of you ever heard of Johann Sebastian Bach?"
"My last name is Bock," says one of the kids.
"Yes, but he spells it differently. He spells it B-a-c-h." This news is greeted by a grimace. "How do you spell it?"
"See. It's spelled differently." Then other kids start spelling their names.
"Here's another picture. It's an action shot."
"He's playing the piano."
"Actually, it's the organ. Bach composed music. He may be the greatest composer of music ever."
One kid shakes his head. "No."
"Who do you think is the greatest?"
"Okay, I like Michael Jackson too. Let's hear some Bach. Stephen [the organist], can you play us a few lines of Bach?"
Stephen plays the opening of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.
"Did you like that?"
One girl, loudly, "No!" A few yeses.
"Is it pretty?" A few nods.
"It's often played at weddings. Have you heard it at a wedding?"
Mr. Michael Jackson Fan says, "I went to a wedding last week."
"Did they play this music?"
"Did they play any Michael Jackson?"
Stephen, the organist, interrupts. "I have another piece they might like better." Plays the opening of Toccato and Fugue, very loudly. Some kids like it. One says he recognizes it. Some laugh. Some put their hands over their ears. And one girl utters a loud, primal scream.
Pastor and congregation begin cackling.
Mr. Michael Jackson Fan, "That sounded like Dracula."
"Yes, that's sometimes played in scary movies. Did you think it was scary?"
No Girl from earlier, "No."
Then I went on to talk about how Bach believed God inspired and spoke through his music and that people could experience God through music.
"What's experience?" Then I tried to answer that.
Then I asked them what are ways they can show the beauty and joy of God in their lives, and they gave good answers.