The Books of Jacob

The Books of JacobThe Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yes, it is long. Yes, it took me a long time to read (I took breaks and read other things). Yes, there were times, particularly in the long middle, where it was less engaging and I sometimes felt lost in the thicket of characters.

But the book was enchanting in the beginning and held my attention for quick reading in the final two hundred plus pages. And I love Tokarczuk's style of using multiple voices to narrate a story.

And what the book seems to do is reveal how modern Europe also contained strange, mystical strands that also contributed to its growing cosmopolitanism. Clearly Tokarczuk's novel was a challenge to the current dominant narrative in Polish nationalism.

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Far Down Stream

Far Down StreamFar Down Stream by Philip W. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phil's career was as an infectious disease physician. He founded and ran the biopreparedness unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center which distinguished itself during the Ebola epidemic and has expanded its leadership during Covid. As he pastor, he shared with me the spirituality of being a doctor. Much of that feeling and reflection appears here in a lifetime of poetry.

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The Shepherd's Life

The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient LandscapeThe Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"This is an ancient, hard-earned, local kind of freedom, that was stolen from people elsewhere."

I highly recommend this book. It is "bloody marvelous" as the cover says. And read it slowly. I've taken my time with it over months, reading a few pages most mornings, almost like a devotional.

Rebanks describes a hyper-local way of life. Which reveals the deep ethical and spiritual connections of such good, hard work. Here is an example of a life lived in intimate knowledge of all that is difficult and struggle and, yet, how to find enjoyment, meaning, and reward in life.

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            We have a bunch of kids in this congregation who love to run.  And here, on the most sacred day of the year, we’ve got a story about running.  Mary running.  Peter and the other disciple racing.  The action moves with speed.

            This story and the others that follow it in the Gospel of John have a cinematic quality, they are like watching a movie of the reactions and responses of the various followers of Jesus to the news of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection.

            But we don’t just watch the action—we can feel it.  There’s a physical immediacy and urgency to the stories, starting here with running disciples.  Later we’ll have Mary’s weeping and Thomas’s touching and Peter walking on the sand and John eating beside the fire.

            These stories are vivid and powerful and intimate.  They are stories that reveal the deep relationships Jesus had with his friends and those he loved.  Ted Jennings, one of Katie’s seminary profs and who spoke and preached here a few years ago, describes these stories as depicting love through “physical closeness and bodily intimacy.”

            He elaborates, “This love is expressed in intimate fellowship, mutual service, friendship, shared understanding, a common fate, and destiny, which together characterize Jesus’ relationships to all these disciples.”

            And it is this intimacy that draws us in.

            Eugene Peterson, the New Testament scholar, points out that these stories describe action that even a five year old can comprehend.  These stories aren’t alien, abstract, intellectual—they are exciting and vivid and resonate.

            Peterson, too, indicates that intimacy is a key aspect of the stories.  He writes, “Jesus by means of John’s story, invites us into his life, God’s life, in terms and in circumstances that are immediately accessible.”

            And, so, we get Mary running from the empty tomb, and Peter and the other disciple running back to see what’s up.  Running is something we understand.  Running in fear, running in worry, running in joy, running for exercise, running to play, running just because we can.

            The very best recess of my childhood was one afternoon in sixth grade.  I had been reading, for the first time, C. S. Lewis’s final novel in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.  I’d read the chapter “Farther Up, and Farther In.”  The characters in the story have survived the final battle and have watched the ending of the world, and now they are in Aslan’s world where they will experience the full abundance and fecundity of God’s goodness.  They start by traveling through this new landscape in sorrow and bewilderment until they begin to recognize what is around them, but seeing familiar places in new, richer ways, seeing a deeper and truer reality.  And so they become joyful and, then, they start running and running.  And those who couldn’t run before can run now and they run fast and they don’t get tired.  And they begin to call to one another, “farther up, and farther in” as they run to explore this new world and its goodness.

            And I read that chapter, and went out to recess, and I ran and ran and ran.  With abandon and enthusiasm and joy.   And I’d never quite realized until that moment that running could be a spiritual practice, a way to connect to God, through playfulness.  And I’m grateful to C. S. Lewis for revealing that to me, but his source was probably here in the Gospel of John, where on the most sacred and holy of days, we are met first with running.

            And it’s somewhat of a funny scene too, this race between Peter and the one whom Jesus loved.  It is traditional to identify the other disciple as John, the author of the story, though that’s only tradition and not actually in the Gospel itself.  In fact, some scholars think there’s a lot better evidence for it to be Andrew or some other follower of Jesus.  But the who isn’t too relevant to us today, and I’ll probably just say John on occasion just because that’s familiar and easy.

            Peter and John run to see what Mary saw first. 

            Ted Jennings points out why these two might have been hanging out together.  Peter had denied Jesus the night before and was full of shame and guilt and might have needed to unburden himself of his failures.  And the one whom Jesus loved had been there are the crucifixion, watching the horrible, violent death of the one he had loved.  Maybe he was seeking comfort too?  Were they consoling one another in their grief?

            And so they run to see what happened and the one whom Jesus loved gets there first and stops and looks and can’t go in.  I like what Ted Jennings writes, “One may suppose that the loved one hesitates also because he is still traumatized by the sight of the mangled bleeding corpse of his lover only some hours before.”

            But Peter rushes in, as impetuous Peter is wont to do.  And is then followed by the other,  beloved disciple.  And we are told that the beloved immediately believes. 

            Maybe what the beloved immediately believes is that life has defeated death?  Warren Carter points out that life versus death has been one of the dominant themes of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John.  “I am come that you may have life and have it more abundantly,” he tells them.  Jesus is repeatedly inviting people into new life.  Inviting them to engage in activities that are life-giving and life-affirming.  And a kind of life that is eternal—that transcends time and all the constraints of our human lives.

            “Eternal livingness” is how the great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes the teaching of Jesus.  Which he points out is not about length of life but is, instead, “depth of experience in the moment.”  He writes beautifully,

But it is at the same time a life that begins every moment, and an awakening vitality, provided that we look to the future and welcome the possibilities of the new morning.

            The kind of life Jesus offers us is also “infectious livingness,” which, Moltmann points out, results in a “new courage for living.”  This is power that kindles within us the sense of life beyond death, that every moment of every day is ripe with possibilities for new beginnings. 

            Warren Carter then says “Those who believe in [or] entrust themselves to Jesus already have eternal life.  Already now they participate in a life free from what is contrary to and opposes God’s purposes.”

            To believe, in this case, isn’t to affirm a proposition, but is to embrace the fullness of life offered by Jesus.  Is to entrust oneself to what Jesus has taught and witnessed to.  To live with courage and hope in the possibilities of a new and better future that transcends all human constraints and defeats the forces of death.

            That’s why the characters in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle ran with joy and abandon at the end of one world and the beginning of a new and better one.

            Our response to the empty tomb of Easter ought to also be one of joy and courage and hope.  This is our reminder that we too can be a part of God’s great and good work in the world.  Our takeaway should be—to look every day for the ways we can participate in God’s life-giving work.

            Warren Carter summarizes our task this way, whatever “manifests God’s life-giving, loving, and liberating purposes should guide our thinking and shape our practices.”

            And when we see and embrace God’s life-giving work, then we experience that infectious livingness, we get our moment of eternal life.  That is when we find ourselves in intimate union with God.

            These stories invite us to participate in God’s life, they are invitations to intimacy.

            And, so, this Easter Sunday I invite you to find some way this afternoon to experience the joy of living fully.  If that’s playing or listening to music, taking a walk on this beautiful day, laughing with friends and family, or maybe, for you, it is running. 

Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism

Christianity and the New Spirit of CapitalismChristianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tanner brings a profound Christian critique to current finance-based capitalism. And it's not at the points where such a critique would be most obvious (such as exploitation of workers or the Earth). Rather, she takes issue with fundamental ideas that underpin contemporary capitalism--how it marks time, how it views the past and the future, how it views individuals and their relationships to the whole--and in each case demonstrates how contemporary capitalism runs counter to what Christianity believes on each of these points. A worthy read that will prompt deep thought.

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Ecclesiastes 4:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 March 2023

Today we conclude our Lenten worship series Words of Wisdom.  Each week we’ve drawn from a different Wisdom Book in the Bible.  Looking in each for what theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw describes as rhythms of the spiritual life. 

Today finds us in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is one of the strangest books in the Bible.  The author takes an often negative, even cynical view, counter to the testimony recorded in many other books. 

First, a note about the title of the book.  “Ecclesiastes” is a strange English translation of the Hebrew title, which is the word Qohelet.  That word is sometimes translated “teacher” or “preacher.”  But if we were to use the most literal translation it would be “She who assembles.”  Yes, it is, in fact, a feminine word in the Hebrew.  Creating the tantalizing possibility that this book just might be written by a female sage.

Today I will be reading from the magisterial translation of the book by the great Hebrew scholar Robert Alter:

Back in the now faraway summer of 1980, the workers in the Gdansk, Poland shipyard had had enough.  Enough of forty years of political oppression.  Enough of a stalled economy.  Enough of the boredom of life under the Communist regime.  The workers were inspired by the visit the year before of John Paul II, the new Polish pope. The Pope's ability to move the people demonstrated the irrelevance of the government.  And so the Gdansk shipyard strike began.

The strike spread to other workers in Gdansk and then all over Poland.  A national strike was building.  One electrician, a devout Catholic named Lech Walesa, scaled the shipyard walls in order to become part of the strike.

The Communist regime responded.  It first tried to end the original strike by offering conditions to the workers that the workers might accept.  But the government was caught off guard when the local strikers rejected the offer.  Even if their original demands were met, now the strike had expanded and was bigger than them.  Now those shipyard workers were standing in solidarity with those on strike around the nation.  All the workers’s needs should be met.

So, a movement was born -- an independent trade union with a long official name but the nickname of “Solidarity.”  The new movement claimed that the people should "carry each other's burdens."  Altars and crosses were erected.  Father Jerzy Popieluszko became chaplain for the union, holding masses in the shipyard.  [some information from Secrets of Solidarity by Patricia B. Bozell, National Review, 19 February 1988 and Wikipedia].  

On December 13, 1981 at 2 a.m. the secret police arrested thousands of Solidarity activists.  The military secured the borders, declared martial law, and proceeded to invade their own country.  The regime took over the media and declared a "state of war" in which the government was acting for "national salvation." [David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb].

In the years that followed the crackdown, Solidarity went underground with its own press, universities, and plays.  Many of the leaders were jailed.  Father Popieluszko, who continued to preach against the human rights abuses of the government, was kidnapped and brutally murdered.

Finally, in 1989, the government began to negotiate again with Solidarity.  By August a power-sharing deal was in place.  And you might know what happened from there.  The winds of change blew from Warsaw throughout Eastern Europe.  By November of that year the Berlin Wall came down.  In December, Lech Walesa, the electrician and former political prisoner, became President of a democratic Poland, and within two more years the Soviet Union would cease to exist.

This world-changing movement for liberty and democracy was deeply rooted in a theological notion of solidarity.  A central Christian idea that God has invited us to share in the very life of God and along with that, to live in solidarity with all creation.

The laborers of the Gdansk shipyard succeeded in a world-wide revolution because of their faith and their commitment to one another.  Their insistence on sharing burdens and seeking the good of the larger movement of the people.  Father Popieluszko may have been martyred, but his death was part of something far larger.  He proved that solidarity is more powerful than death itself.

According to theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw, the Book of Ecclesiastes reflects a time when traditional institutions are breaking down, when people are skeptical of government and society.  It was also a period of economic insecurity, when people felt like even if they worked hard, they could never get ahead. It was a time of uncertainty and disillusionment.  Sounds timely, right?

I just happened to be teaching Ecclesiastes in our Wednesday night class back in the spring of 2020.  We completed the study over Zoom.  It was pretty much the perfect book to be reading and discussing at that time.

Last year, during Omaha’s Fringe Festival, I attended a performance of Ecclesiastes at the Blackstone Theatre, just a couple of blocks from here.  It was a one man show, in which he acted out the entire book.  It was marvelous, thought-provoking theatre.  At times hilarious.  Watching it performed live made me think that’s probably the best way to encounter this book.

Ecclesiastes is the most cynical and skeptical book in the Bible, as if it was written by an existentialist philosopher.  And one with an absurdist, comic streak.

The main point of the entire book is that pretty much everything we humans try to do is vanity.  Not vanity as in an over-confident sense of how pretty we are, but vanity as in futile.  The Hebrew word is hevel and conveys a cluster of English concepts, among them absurdity, insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness.  The great translator Robert Alter translates the word “mere breath” and clarifies that this isn’t the life-breath identified with the spirit, but the “waste-product of breathing.”  He describes it as “the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day.”

Alter uses the phrase “herding the wind” to convey the futility of the notion “everything is vanity.”  The Book of Ecclesiastes marches through most human pursuits—riches, fame, power, education, work—and finds each of them meaningless, futile, like trying to herd the wind.

So, what do we do?  If pretty much everything is futile, what wisdom does Ecclesiastes offer us for how to live?

Elsewhere in the book she emphasizes enjoying life the best we can, particularly the little and everyday things like a good meal and a good drink.  But in this passage we’ve read today, Ecclesiastes offers “modest forms of creaturely solidarity.”  Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, Ecclesiastes’ “response to oppression, envy, and selfishness is to commend concrete forms of human solidarity: working together, lifting one another up, keeping one another warm, defending one another.”  We are called to comfort people, to advocate on their behalf, to relieve suffering. 

Whereas the Hebrew prophets loudly and publicly denounced the social, political, and economic injustices of their day, Ecclesiastes offers instead what Pauw calls “quiet resilience.”  She suggests that Ecclesiastes might be the perfect book for contemporary Christian communities who find themselves dealing with broken political institutions and threatening laws.  Ecclesiastes shows how we continue to resist, by fostering solidarity.

This is Holy Week.  We begin with children singing and palms waving and then move through a challenge to the political powers that be, their violent reaction, betrayal, through pain to death, then darkness and silence, all before we rise again in glory on Easter morning.

The movements of this week, and our emotional responses to them, parallel experiences in our own lives.  The yearly activity of moving through these stories is part of our formation as faithful followers of Jesus, so that we can learn how to respond to the parallel moments in our own lives with faith.

And another thing we learn as we worship together over these days is that we support one another through the darkness and celebrate with one another through the joys.  That we make this journey by joining together.

And so the sixth and final rhythm of life attuned to the Spirit is joining, in particular how we join hands with one another in solidarity and support.  As Pauw writes, “Life in the Spirit is life that is opened toward the other.”

One way to view the entire Biblical story is that it is about joining—about bringing people together, about creating community, about bridging human divisions. 

And so the six rhythms of the wise life we’ve explored—making do and making new, giving, longing, suffering, rejoicing, and joining are all practices that attune us to God and help us to lead rich and full human lives.

Amy Plantinga Pauw summarizes what we’ve learned this Lent:

As creator, God gives human creatures a lifelong vocation to pursue wisdom.  Human wisdom is patient, attentive discernment of the character and quality of life as God has given it.  Human beings flourish not by evading or overcoming the ambiguities of their finite and contingent life as creatures, but by recognizing and coming to terms with them and by seeing the opportunities of this creaturely life as God’s gracious gift.

Beowulf: A New Translation

Beowulf: A New TranslationBeowulf: A New Translation by Unknown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe the best paragraph in this whole translation comes near the very end:

Then another dirge rose, woven uninvited
by a Geatish woman, louder than the rest.
She tore her hair and screamed her horror
at the hell that was to come: more of the same.
Reaping, raping, feasts of blood, iron fortunes
marching across her country, claiming her body.
The sky sipped the smoke and smiled.

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Job 3:20-26

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 March 2023

Titling a sermon “Suffering” doesn’t exact spark excitement and anticipation, I’m sure.  Nor was I prescient in knowing that winter would return this weekend.  Rather, suffering is one of the six rhythms of the Spirit that we are exploring this Lent, ways we connect with God spiritually.

Of course, consoling suffering people is a significant part of pastoral care.  Of what I and Jim and Katie do every week.  When people are anxious, uncertain, afraid, worried, troubled, sad, in pain, they reach out to talk, to vent, sometimes to rage, sometimes to problem-solve, sometimes just to be heard.

               Like, the person who had an accident, and the recovery is taking so much longer than expected, and they miss their active life.

               The person going into surgery frightened about possible scenarios that would radically alter their happiness.

               The person still trying to recover from all the impacts of the pandemic isolation on their mental, emotional, and social well-being.

               Of course, sometimes the concern is also directed to issues of the what’s going on in the wider world.

               The expecting mother deeply troubled by what it means to bring a child into the world at this time.

               The grandfather concerned about his children who he says seem to take only an apocalyptic view on things anymore.

               The mom deeply worried about her trans daughter amidst all the anti-trans activities being taken by our and other state legislatures.  Worried not only for her daughter but all trans people.

               In moments of suffering, we seek consolation.  But we also search for wisdom--wisdom for how to live through these life circumstances, how to cope with a world that isn’t what we expected and is often out of our control.

               This Lent we are exploring the Words of Wisdom, the parts of the Bible where we receive practical advice on how to live, where God speaks to us about our daily, ordinary lives.  Where we are reminded that God is present with us, helping us and guiding us.

               Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw describes six rhythms of life in the spirit that we’ve been exploring.  And one of those is suffering.  In suffering we can become attuned to God and to one another.  We can sense a connection between our own suffering and the sufferings of Christ.  We can feel God present with us in our suffering, sharing in it, comforting and consoling us, and working for our deliverance and healing.  

Last May, as I was preparing for my sabbatical, the first book I read was Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.  After two really stressful years personally and professionally, I was looking forward to the sabbatical as a chance to take a break, to rest, to recharge.  And Ignatieff’s book seemed a good way to transition from the stress to the break. 

Because we are living in difficult times, Ignatieff wants us to draw upon the received wisdom of humanity and the ways that others before us dealt with their difficulties and found resilience and solace.  So, the first place he goes is to the Book of Job.  This ancient Hebrew text is the source of much wisdom on how we can respond to our suffering. 

What Michael Ignatieff admires in Job is that Job demanded to be heard.  He insisted on the validation of his own experience.  This is an important lesson for us to learn.  So often we’ve been trained to minimize our hurt, to swallow our feelings, to avoid dealing directly with them.  This we know is unhealthy and can cause lasting damage.  A key first step to growth and healing is to take a lesson from Job and share our hurt and insist on its being seen and heard.

Job also refused to accept false consolation, even from the friends who showed up with the intention of trying to comfort him.  Their words were not comforting, not validating.  Job refused their advice and instead insisted that his suffering mattered.  He demanded that God respond.  Ignatieff writes, “His very despair is a way of insisting, despite everything, on his own importance in the ultimate scheme of things.” 

Of course, even when Job does finally hear from God and the end of the book, he never truly receives the explanations and the answers that he wants.  But, even then, Job refuses to resign himself to his suffering.

Here is how Ignatieff summarizes the story of Job and the lessons we can take from him:

Job’s story tells us we are fated to endure sorrow and suffering that have no apparent meaning, moments when existence is a torment, when we know what it is to be truly inconsolable.  But like Job, we must learn to endure, we must hold on to the truth of what we have lived and refuse false consolations . . .   We should . . . struggle as best we can to understand the meaning of our lives.

He then adds: “to find the answer that is true for us we will have to be as courageous as the man in rags who dared raise his fist to the sky.”

This week I read the book Imaginable by the futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, whose great book Reality is Broken I had read about a decade ago.  This latest books comes after the global pandemic and after we have all lived through situations we never imagined that we would.  In order for us to become more resilient and better able to manage such scenarios, McGonigal wants us to begin actively imagining various future scenarios and what we might do and think and feel in those situations.  She sights all sorts of scientific evidence for how engaging in such forward-thinking has positive mental and emotional benefits.

One of the ideas she suggested at the start of the book, and which I did, was to open up the digital calendar on your phone, go to the same date some years in the future—I chose to go a full ten years, the furthest out she said you might go, but maybe one or three or five years works for you.  And then, to schedule one thing you want to do that day.  What I decided to schedule in my 2033 calendar was to plan a sixtieth birthday trip to New Zealand.  And, truly, the very act of thinking about what I might do a decade from now and then imagining the trip, brought a smile to my face and a lightness to my being.

McGonigal writes that such future-oriented practices cultivate urgent optimism.  And optimism that is realistic about the challenges we face, but that also sees them as opportunities.  She writes, “Coming out of the darkness of the pandemic, we have the chance to grow into something new together.  But first, we have to grapple with the truth of what we’ve been through.”

She calls this post-traumatic growth.  It’s the sort of transformational change that might occur when a trauma opens up new possibilities through what had previously been unthinkable challenges.  She writes:

Post-traumatic growth can result in a better understanding of our own strengths, an openness to new possibilities and opportunities, an increase sense of connection with others who suffer, the courage to make dramatic changes in our lives that better reflect our hopes and dreams, and a newfound desire to serve a cause bigger than ourselves.

               And I think all of us have seen such changes in people we know.  People relocating, changing jobs and careers, taking up new habits and routines, spending more time with family and friends or on self-care, radically altering what they give their time and resources too.

               McGonigal believes that “the next decade will be the most significant opportunity most of us have in our lifetimes to create long-lasting positive change in society.”

Of course, a faithful life attuned to suffering must also turn its attention outward, beyond the needs of the self to the suffering of others and the wider world.

We respond to suffering by first grieving and lamenting our losses.  We should then examine ourselves to see when we might bear some responsibility.  And if we do, to make confession and seek reconciliation.  Then to get busy working to right the wrongs we can.  Working for healing and for justice.

Amy Plantinga Pauw points out that we can’t just sit around and wait for Easter to happen—we need to be actively involved in confronting the forces of suffering and death.

               And so we organize and advocate and serve.  We lobby and march and protest.  We lead and influence and inspire.

               Job insisted on being heard.  He demanded respect.  He wouldn’t resign himself to his situation.  Job was courageous, and so must we be.  If we are to be consoled.  If we are to be resilient in the face of the world’s difficulties.  If we are to live wisely.  Then we must take these ancient and recent lessons and apply them to our own lives.  When we do, we will be better attuned to God.  That is the path to well-being, to flourishing.

God’s wisdom isn’t to passively submit to fate.  No, God’s wisdom is to lament, grieve, console, then to heal, resist, and work to make the world better so that we all suffer less. 


VladimirVladimir by Julia May Jonas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fascinating, absorbing, titillating. This book had me in its grasp from the get-go, and I devoured it.

The book seemed to be the marriage of two others--Philip Roth's The Human Stain and Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plows Over the Bones of the Dead. Let me explain.

Roth writes a campus novel that, early on and presciently, explored the transition from old school academia and the changing moral landscape. Roth explored race, of course, though sex was also included (as it almost always was for him). He also seemed to explore the ways all humans are stained by sin. This campus novel, through gender and sex, explores similar themes, as older professors are caught in the changing moral dynamics of the university and are grappling with their own role and whether they should feel guilt and shame.

What I felt similar to Tokarczuk was the narrator's voice and how there's this sense of threat hanging over everything and the sense that there's much more to the narrator than what she initially reveals to us.

Spoiler alert:

For much of the novel, I expected it was going to get very dark, maybe even delving into the realm of gothic horror. However, it did not. It ended much more positively than I anticipated it would. But I still really enjoyed it and thought the ending quite beautiful.

This is a novel that will stay with me.

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Psalm 145:13-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 March 2023

               Last April, during a work trip to Boston, I scheduled a visit to the Congregational Archives, which are in a grand historic building on Beacon Street, just past Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House.  Deb Kirwan, Susan Fortina, and former First Central member and now resident of Maine, Ken Friedman-Fitch and I were welcomed into the beautiful reading room of the library and archive, with giant windows that overlook the cemetery where Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and others are buried.

               The helpful archivist had brought out for us a number of documents and books that I had requested to look at, and showed off some of the highlights of the historic collection.  He also said that the archives maintains a file on each of the churches across the nation, so he had ours to show us.  Inside were lots of pamphlets and orders of worship and postcards and such from throughout our history, most of which I’d seen already in our own archives.

               But there was one document which I hadn’t seen before—the program for the 1922 dedication of this building.  It’s a twelve page booklet with pictures, histories, and lists—some of which we’ve included for your enjoyment in an insert in today’s bulletin.  The dedication program also contains the orders of worship for the services held 101 years ago to commemorate the completion of this building.

               And, that’s right, I said “services” with an s.  The program began on Thursday, March 2 at six o’clock with a big fellowship dinner in the room we now call Memorial Hall.  The Pastor, Rev. Dr. Frank Smith, presided.  Unfortunately, the menu was not printed.  There were toasts and responses to the toasts from representatives of the state conference and other Congregational churches in Nebraska. 

               At 8 p.m., after the dinner, they moved into this sanctuary, which they called the “auditorium.”  Where they held a “Service of Worship and Inspiration” with the Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Kansas City preaching.  One of the hymns sung that evening was “Faith of Our Fathers,” which we will be singing shortly.  Another was “Day is Dying in the West.”  Here are the first two verses:

Day is dying in the west;

Heav'n is touching earth with rest;

Wait and worship while the night

Sets her evening lamps alight

Through all the sky.

Lord of life, beneath the dome

Of the universe, Thy home,

Gather us who seek Thy face

To the fold of Thy embrace,

For Thou art nigh.

               They gathered again the next night, Friday, March 3, at 8 p.m. for a Service of Music.  They opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and heard choirs, soloists, quartets, and organ.  The music was by Wagner, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and others.  The postlude was “March for a Church Festival.”

               On Saturday, they rested.  Apparently.  No programs in the booklet. 

               Sunday morning, March 5, began with an 11 o’clock Service of Dedication.  They opened with the hymn “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand,” which is about the church being gathered into paradise triumphantly at the end of history, but I’m guessing the second verse felt appropriate to the moment in which they were singing:

What rush of alleluias
Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps
Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day, for which creation
And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes,

A thousand-fold repaid!

               Mr. E. H. Benner, the Chair of the building committee, then gave the keys to Dr. J. P. Lord, the Chair of Trustees, and the church read the litany of dedication, which we will reprise later in this service.  These memorial stained glass windows were dedicated, and Dr. Ozora S. Davis, the President of Chicago Theological Seminary delivered a sermon.  The congregation sang “O God Beneath Thy Guiding Hand” which is about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock.  The final verse a stirring evocation on that day in 1922, I’m sure:

And here thy name, O God of love
Their children’s children shall adore,
Till these eternal hills remove,
And spring adorns the earth no more.

               But, they weren’t finished.  At 3:30 p.m. they returned for a “Service of Fraternal Greetings” with messages brought by local ministers and bishops of other churches and denominations. 

               Then, at 8 p.m. they held the final “Service of Praise and Meditation” with Dr. Davis of the seminary preaching again, this time a sermon entitled “The Christian Church in the Modern City.”  The congregation sang “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.”

               A lot comes through in the program and the orders of worship.  Their pride, delight, and satisfaction in what they had accomplished.  They even express a triumphalism that sees their work as part of a great, centuries-old legacy, that will lead on into the future as part of God’s great work.  There is a sense of we did this—with our hard work and money.  They viewed it as a spiritual accomplishment.  And one that would be of benefit not just to them, but to the wider community, to the entire state, region, and nation, and even in benefit to ministry around the world.  As you can see in the excerpts we’ve included, they highlighted the congregation’s support of Anna Lane, missionary pastor in Beijing, China.

               If we are wise, we should also examine all of this with a critical interpretative lens as well. This was a settler congregation building on land once inhabited by the Omaha people.  The triumphalism of the hymns can be a little off-putting, such as the third verse of “O God, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand” which was about the Pilgrims. 

Laws, freedom, truth, and faith in God

Came with those exiles o’er the waves

As if such things did not already exist on this continent among the indigenous people who lived here.

               We are the heirs of this building, this legacy, this history.  We are the recipients of a great gift.  The heirs of their generosity.

               Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw reminds us that the church is part of a “complex, intergenerational web” of giving.  There is no way, of course, to reciprocate the gifts, instead the concern for us becomes how do we “use their gifts well and pass them on to others.”

               This Lenten season our worship series is focused on words of wisdom and the six “rhythms of life lived in God’s presence” that Pauw identifies.  Giving is one of those.

               Giving is central to who God is in our tradition, as this Psalm 145 reminds us.  God’s hands are always open, trying to satisfy the desires of every living thing.  God’s giving is so extravagant, that it can be overwhelming.  Of course, God’s greatest gift is Jesus himself.  The story of Christmas is the story of the greatest gift—God’s child born in human flesh to live our life and die our death and rise again so that we too might fulfill the image of God inside each of us. 

               Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “There is an indispensable generosity to creaturely life.  We respond to God’s manifold gifts to us by becoming mediators of God’s gifts to others.”  The best way for us to respond to God’s graciousness and generosity is to become generous ourselves.  The best way for us to receive the gifts of our ancestors, including this building, is to use the gift well, to share it, and to pass it along to others. 

               The goals of our Christian living are to sustain life, to help all people and all creation to flourish.  To create a community of sharing and service that benefits and cares for one another.  To bear witness to alternative and better ways of being human.  She writes, “In its giving, [the church] leans into [a] vision of universal communion in which all creation rejoices in God’s boundless generosity.”  The church “aims to be a community whose life gives life to others.”

               At its best, that’s what I see in the dedication of this building 101 years ago and the legacy that it left in this community—of care, service, and prophetic witness.  They had a vision for what this great gift could do not just for them but for the world.  Our task is to forge our own vision for the second century of this gift.  To share this building to the service of humanity and the renewal of creation so that God’s mission in our time is accomplished.  And to pass this gift along to those who come after us, so that they can use it in the ways God calls them in their time, even if that means changing the things we have done or that we cherish.

               How do we use it, share it, give it in a way that fulfills God’s purpose and mission? 

               I recently read a book that said churches should be guided in these sorts of decisions by three over-arching values—how we create a common life together, how we repair the damages done in the past that are part of our legacy, and how we use our resources to set people free. 

               Here is a place where we baptize babies, educate children, grow spiritually, emotionally, and physically, celebrate marriages, care for one another in illness and loss, join in fellowship and worship, and grieve our dead.  And we want to do these holy things in a space that is beautiful, accessible, hospitable, fun, and sacred. 

               Here is a place where the prophetic word is spoken, where we listen to the still-speaking God and work for justice and peace.  Here we create a community where all are welcome and included.  Where we work to break down stigma and try to right past wrongs.  We opened this space for the Omaha people when they first started teaching language classes in order to preserve their culture.  Father back we hosted the first integrated head start in the city.  We host baby showers for refugees. 

               And from this place we work to set people free.  We feed the hungry and clothe the needy and visit prisoners and build houses for the homeless and forgive medical debt.

               But, we can do more.  Be more, in the second century in this place.  For this is also a place where we can imagine more ways in which our resources and our gifts could be used to fulfill God’s mission to set people free, right what is wrong, and create a common life together.  To craft a vision for what this great gift could do not just for us but for the world.  Let’s be inspired by our history not just to honor a legacy, but to live into the future with vision and mission.

               So, like those a century and one years ago, let God’s generosity flow through us, shining with glory.  We too can give, serve, and share.  So that this gift is one we pass on into its second century.