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Ten lessons I’ve learned from being a minister in Omaha

Charge to the Pastor

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Countryside Community Church

5 May 2024

               Jenny, welcome to Omaha.

            Something strange happened to me in the last few years—suddenly I’m no longer one of the new guys, but am now one of the old farts.  I don’t feel like an old fart, but the reality speaks for itself.  Every local faith community we at First Central partner with, and almost every UCC church in the Living Waters Association, has a pastor, rabbi, or imam who has arrived here since I began my ministry in Omaha fourteen years ago.

            So, as the wizened old guy, I thought that for this charge to the pastor, I’d give you ten lessons I’ve learned from being a minister in Omaha, Nebraska.

  • Nebraskans are nice and they don’t coast. And those were actually slogans the city and the state used a few years ago in advertising campaigns.  You’ll discover the folks who hold such ideas with irony and those who don’t.
  • Sports is important. Which, you probably know already.  Sadly, football seems less important than it was fourteen years ago.  And I’ll make no further comment on that.  But volleyball, College World Series, and lately women’s basketball are HUGE.  And then we usually get cool Olympic trials every few years.  We even had Olympic curling not too long ago.
  • Fall is (usually) our best season. The morning sun shines with golden radiance.  We are most likely to have our perfect, top ten weather days (and there are only ten).  And then everyone puts on their flannel and goes apple picking.  You also have to go to Valla’s at least once every autumn.
  • Winter, however, is not our best season. Some aren’t too bad.  But some have repeat polar vortexes and fifty inches of snow.  Lately they’ve just been getting weirder and unpredictable.  But one rule of thumb is that at least once every winter you and your family have to go, at least for a few days, someplace warm, where the sun shines and nature still has some green in it. 
  • Omaha is really like a big small town. It won’t take you long to start running into people you know everywhere you go.  The best part of this reality is the quaint charm to so much that happens here.  One of my favorites is the Fourth of July.  There are all these little neighborhood parades and people throw parties in their backyards.  Front porches are hung with bunting.  It looks like a completely different time.  And it will charm you, and you’ll fall in love with it. 
  • You must have an opinion on the streetcar.
  • Natural disasters. Get ready for them.  We’ve had two 500-hundred-year floods in the time I’ve been pastor.  And I think we are about due again for the next one.  Blizzards, droughts, and, of course, tornados as well.  What will astound you are the responses.  The ways in which this community musters to help people in need.  Omaha is deeply philanthropic and generous.  Filled with excellent organizations who do the hard work well.  The capacities exists.  Omaha has wonderful community spirit.
  • Where we still have lots of work to do is in racial justice and class inequality, as we deal with the lasting effects of redlining and other unjust decisions from the past. The uprisings and reckonings of 2020 made all too visible our shortcomings and how much work remains.  Here too there are vibrant groups doing good, hard work.  And it’s our job to follow and partner so that we can manifest our Christian values on the ground.
  • Omaha is a place where you can make real change. This is a small enough city still that a few well-organized people can have a major impact.  For instance, twelve years ago the LGBTQ community, alongside the progressive congregations, and younger business people organized to pass our Equality Ordinance.  And then successfully defended it from challenges.  And in more recent years it has been expanded with no controversy and unanimous votes of the City Council.  Last year we did face new threats against bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, and LGBTQ rights in the state legislature.  The vast array of civil society that organized against it was a glory to behold.  We lost last year, but this year we prevented most of the evil bills.  So welcome to this fight.  It is one we where you Jenny, leading your congregation, can make a real difference, real lasting change, that imagines more and improves the lives of people.
  • And finally, number ten. As the demographic trends show that the world is undergoing deep, radical change when it comes to religion, church, and spirituality, you’ll discover that the most fun thing about being a pastor in Omaha, Nebraska is that here good preaching and dynamic pastoral leadership work. They are effective. They bear fruit. 

    And your setting, your congregation is just primed to take off.  To imagine more.  To cast a vision, organize your mission, manifest your commitments, engage with effective partners, and help to meet the needs of this community.  It’s fun.

So, again, welcome.  There’s lots of good, difficult, and rewarding work to do.  And you’re going to enjoy it.


Emotional Overload

Emotional Overload

John 21:1-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 May 2023

            I almost entitled this sermon “Gone Fishin’,” thinking of the Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby duet.  Reflecting on this text, I thought about my Dad going fishing.  He was a high school principal and a work-aholic, a type A personality (which is one reason he died of a heart attack at 41).  One of the few times he took for himself away from all his responsibilities was to go fishing with his friends, and drink a few beers, and relax.

            But I decided on “Emotional Overload” instead for the title.  This Easter season I’ve been focused on the reactions of the disciples to their experiences of Jesus’s death and resurrection—the running of Peter and the beloved disciple, the weeping of Mary, the fear of those gathered in the upper room that eventually led to their empowerment, the doubting and then believing of Thomas.  In this final, poignant story from the Gospel of John, we encounter a few of the disciples who’ve gotten away from Jerusalem and everything that has happened to them.  They’ve gone to the lake, to fish, and build a campfire on the beach.  This is a story that resonates easily with us, because we can identify with this act of getting away from it all, the act of rest and recreation, embodied in a fishing trip with friends.

            The title I did choose came from Gary D. Jones’s commentary on this passage when he says, of the disciple’s fishing trip, “This is how human beings often respond to emotional overload.”

            Think about it.  Their friend they spent pretty much every day with for the last three years was assaulted, arrested, tortured, and brutally murdered, and they were eyewitnesses to some of that.  They feared the same would happen to them.  Surely they have some PTSD? 

            And after all that horror, they then have a series of encounters with a living, resurrected Jesus.  How overwhelming must that have been?  I’m certain that they couldn’t wrap their brains around it.  I’m sure they were feeling all the feels—such a swirl of emotions that they couldn’t figure out which ones they were feeling at any given moment. 

            And, so, they just got away from it all.  Tried to take a break, have some rest, do something familiar.  They went fishing, as a way of coping with their emotional overload.

            And emotional overload didn’t seem to just be a great lens for examining this story, but also timely and appropriate for us. 

            For one thing, this is Mental Health Sunday.  We are a WISE congregation.  Which is an official designation of our denomination, the United Church of Christ.  This congregation has committed to be welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged for mental health and wellbeing.  And, a point of pride, we were the second WISE church in the entire denomination and the hosts of the very first WISE Conference.

One of the ways we are living into our WISE commitment today is through the town hall following worship to discuss and brainstorm about the current public health crisis in adolescent mental health.  I hope you’ll join us in Memorial Hall if this issue is of concern to you, or you are a parent, or you are part of the ministries of this church that care for, educate, or support our teens.

So, emotional overload seemed fitting for Mental Health Awareness.

But, then, it also became an emotionally overwhelming week for thousands of us. It was particularly a rough week for the local LGBTQ community and those of us who’ve spent much time and energy this year trying to thwart legislative attempts to rob us of our freedom of conscience and bodily autonomy.  Please check in with your queer and trans family and friends, for they are under assault, and they need you to be loudly and vigorously defending them right now.  This is a struggle for the survival and autonomy of queer bodies.

            And once I leaned into this idea of emotional overload, a number of serendipities occurred this week.  And I delight in serendipities.  Especially during an emotionally difficult week.

The first serendipity occurred on Tuesday—that rough and difficult Tuesday.  One of my Facebook memories that day was a post Kerrie Kleppin-Winn had shared on my timeline two years ago of “tiny sermons by tiny people.”   It was a post that she’d seen somewhere else on Facebook and then shared with me and Katie Miller. 

These tiny sermons were one sentence comments by children that resonate with profound meaning and humor.  Kerrie had originally shared them on May 16, 2020, right around that moment when we all knew for certain that the Covid isolation wasn’t going away soon.  The children’s comments resonated deeply in May of 2020.

But I also found the wisdom of these kids was helpful for me this week of emotional overload.  So, I was quite glad that they came to my notice again in my Facebook memories.  Here’s what these children preached:

2-year-old Henry said, “Don’t wipe my tears away; I want to feel them on my face.”

6-year-old Ezra remarked, “I know two things that are permanent: love and sharpies.”

An anonymous six-year-old commented, “Sometimes I fall down on purpose so that I can take a break.”

Gideon, 7-years-old said, “Sometimes when my feelings are big, I like to sing them.”

Keira, also seven, advised, “I’ll just take a nap.  That’s how you solve that.”

2-year-old Jameson wisely proclaimed, “I’m too sad for pants.”

And one 4-year-old cut to the chase and simply said, “This is an F word day.”

            I feel that 4-year-old.  I feel them all actually.  And what wonderful advice.  There’s something in those seven comments for most people, most days—taking breaks, singing, napping, cursing, crying, loving, etc. 

            Another serendipity occurred Wednesday morning.  It was the children’s spring concert at Field Club Elementary where Ashley Lidgett is the music teacher.  The theme of the concert was “Rules for Living” and included a series of songs filled with advice on how to live well.  I’m grateful to Miss Lidgett for sharing the lyrics with me so I could quote them in today’s sermon.

            Mrs. Riha and Mr. Jackman’s second grade classes sang “Positive,” which includes these words,

I can close my eyes and picture how I want my world to be.

I deserve and affirm, my happy thoughts are good for me.

I believe in who I am, I know my thoughts are mine.

I can change the script I write and positively shine!

            Ms. Noon and Ms. Head’s second grade classes sang a couple of songs that I really liked, and not just because Sebastian, my son, was singing them.  Though I’m sure that helped.  The song “Rules for Living” included this advice:

Laugh a lot.  Smile a log.

Eat your veggies and fruit a lot.

Work and play well today.

And say nice things a lot.

Read a lot.  Rest a lot.

Wash your hands a face a lot.

Miss Ropp and Mrs. Kerwin’s fourth grade class opened the concert with “Responsible.”

No matter what the outside throws at me,
I’m choosin’ to react responsibly with

Decency, fairness, honesty, respect.

Discipline, justice, courage, and respect.

Integrity, compassion, morality, respect.

Humility, kindness,

And did I say respect?

Those fourth graders also sang “Do the Good You Know” with this advice:

We all have sorrow.  We all have pain.

Sometimes our sunshine turns into rain.

When someone falls right next to you,

Then you must do what you can do.

Do the good you know.  Let compassion show.

You can’t save the world alone, but you can do the good you know.

            In a moment of emotional overload, the wisdom of children, singing, reminding us of all the most important things that truly matter, if we but listen. 

These disciples had had too much.  They’d felt all the feels.  And, now, they just needed a break.  And so they took it.

            Maybe we should also understand Jesus’s conversation with Peter differently than we often do?  Maybe Jesus isn’t shaming Peter.  Maybe Jesus simply wants Peter to realize that it is from an honest embrace of his own vulnerability and his failings that he’s going to be the best and most effective pastor and leader that he can be?

            I’m guessing Jesus was deeply aware of all the feelings that Peter was feeling, and Jesus is reminding him that it is those feelings which give us our power.

            The emotions that overwhelm and overload us are the source of our compassion, our agency, our strength.

            The other serendipity this week was that the next book up on my to-read stack was Tricia Hersey’s Rest Is Resistance.   I began reading it on Wednesday while eating lunch at the Crescent Moon, and it was also exactly what I needed in the moment.  It’s like the Spirit knows!

I’m still reading this one so I’m likely to have more insights from it in the future, but early on she writes:

We must see our bodies as a miracle, and a place of reverence where existing in exhaustion is not normal or acceptable.  The beauty of resting knows that we are blessed to have a body, to be chosen to be alive, to breathe, to make choices, and to proclaim that our bodies are our own, is a deep practice in care.  It is the beginning of a revolution, radical, and a resistance.

            One of the many voices this week saying “if you are emotionally overwhelmed, take a break, rest, relax.”  Breathe.  Go listen to birdsong (which the Washington Post recommended this week for its scientifically proven positive effects on mental health).  Taking a break when we are emotionally overloaded is one of the ways we love each other.  One of the ways we get in touch with the divine source of our strength.  Where we can meet Jesus, and find the sustenance we need.

            Rev. Sarah Lund, who spoke at this church many years ago when we hosted that first WISE Conference for mental health, has written a new resource for teens to support their mental and emotional health and well-being.  She entitled it the “Blessed Youth Survival Guide.”  And the prayer it ends with I’ve planned on using in our town hall today, but I realized that the prayer is also the best way to end this sermon on emotional overload:

You are amazing.
You are beautiful.

You are complex (in a good way).

You are a beloved human being.

Your brain is different and good.

The fact that you exist is a miracle and a dream come true.

You are here for a reason.

You may not know your reason yet, but trust me, it is a really good one.

Your life is important.

Getting better takes time.

Be patient and gentle with yourself.

You are more than your disability, disease, illness, or diagnosis.

It’s ok to be different.

It’s ok not to be ok for a while.

Your life matters to me.

Try your best.

Breathe.

Stay.


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.


Testimony Opposing LB626

Testimony Opposing LB626

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

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

A few years ago a family came to me for pastoral care.  The young mother, who had for a long time been hoping to become pregnant, finally had gotten pregnant, but her prenatal care had revealed that the child had severe deformities and defects.  Doctors told her that if the child was alive when born, then it would only live a short time unless a number of major surgeries were performed, and even if the surgeries were performed, the child would have likely live a very short time and with very little quality of life.

The family made the loving, parental decision that the most caring thing they could do was to terminate the pregnancy.  They were grieved about that decision, but felt it was right and good and loving.

What brought them into my pastoral office was their anger at what happened next.  When they made this parenting, health care decision, they were told by their physicians that they couldn’t provide the needed abortion, that they would have to seek abortion services from a different provider, and that they had a very short time in which to do so, otherwise Nebraska law would compel them to leave the state for this medical procedure. 

That’s why they were upset and angry.  What should have been their decision, weighing their moral values and parental care, and then making a health care choice, was instead a fraught, politicized controversy that added to their grief and pain.  That was a worse trauma.

So, I come to you today as a pastor, who has walked with families making these sorts of decisions, to ask you not to further burden good people with unnecessary obstacles and political controversy, but to instead trust and respect the dignity of the human person.  To grant parents the freedom to make moral, loving decisions, and not impose your political will upon them.  Violating their freedoms of conscience and religion.  Please oppose LB626.


Great Plains Weather

Great Plains WeatherGreat Plains Weather by Kenneth F Dewey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun exploration of the crazy, extreme weather of the Great Plains. One thing I learned was that the wild swings of temperatures and conditions has always been a feature of this region. We all have our personal stories of weird changes of weather (like wearing shorts in the morning and snow boots in the evening), but the ones in this book are truly wild.

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Framed: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO, and the Omaha Two Story

FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two storyFRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two story by Michael Richardson


One of Omaha's most notorious cases. Richardson argues, obviously from the title, that Poindexter and Rice were framed by the FBI for the murder of officer Minard.

This book is not an easy read because the other piles on the facts and long quotes from documents and testimony with little narrative structure. One wishes for this exhaustive research to be shaped with better skill into a story.

I did like learning more about my congregation's role in this story, as First Central had hosted a forum on police brutality directly before the murder and received much criticism for it.

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Cheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sandoz brings her eloquence and attention to detail to the story of the Cheyenne who in 1878 left Oklahoma Territory, where they had been sent, in order to return north, fleeing through soldiers and multiple attacks through a very harsh winter. This is a harrowing story, not for the faint of heart, with much injustice and sadness. There were moments where I questioned whether I could go on, but Sandoz's writing is so beautiful and compelling and she recounts this story with such attention and appreciation for the indigenous people from whom she collected oral accounts.

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