Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy

Continuing blogging about James K. A. Smith's Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyHere's the last post.  

Smith contends that the political is "a way of life, a constellation of loves and longing and beliefs bundled up in communal rhythms, routines, and rituals."

Drawing upon Augustine, he contends that earthly politics is a penultimate concern, but it has a way of trying to be an ultimate concern.  I do find this refreshing in this particularly difficult political age, a good reminder that my faith and values are my ultimate concern.

Similar to the criticisms of Michael Sandel (who is not quoted) he believes we need a vision of the good life, which is lacking in much liberal democracy (or has been lost, as it was part of the tradition).  

This chapter furthers his analysis that politics is already religious, a liturgy that is shaping and often misshaping us.

He references the work of Jeffrey Stout that "pragmatism is democratic traditionalism."  I want to read this work.

Christians cannot be separated from contemporary political concerns.  He writes, "to seek the welfare of the city precisely because we are called to cultivate creation."

Loss of a Nebraska Legacy

The Nation details how the current governor of Nebraska, billionaire scion Pete Ricketts, is dismantling the unique legacy of Nebraska state politics--its bipartisanship as embodied in the unicameral Senate.  

It didn't take long after Michael and I moved here for me to begin expressing my regard and admiration for this system.  Particularly coming from the dysfunctions of Oklahoma politics, which have worsened since 2010.  In Nebraska crazy bills generally never made it into serious contention, must less passed.  All Senators of all parties could hold leadership positions and have say in legislation.  Pragmatic rather than ideological solutions to problems were the pursued.  Bills killed in committee weren't surprisingly brought back to life the final day of the session.  Citizens were actively engaged in the hearing process and were fully informed of a bill's progress through the legislature.  And there was a spirit of working together.

I've often spoken highly of this system, as a committed convert, to people living elsewhere.  So sad to see it endangered.

The Optimist's Daughter

The Optimist's DaughterThe Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is difficult for me to understand this novel as a Pulitzer Prize Winner. Yes, Welty writes beautiful sentences and paragraphs. The dialogue of small town Southerners at a funeral is quite good. And the exploration of the main character, Laurel, has depth and insight. But her foil, Fay the stepmother, is so one dimensional that it robs the story of real depth. Fay needed to be a complete character herself for this story to completely work.

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Being Reconciled

Being Reconciled

Matthew 18:15-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 May 2018



    Shortly before he died Lenoard Cohen released his final album entitled You Want It Darker. The album is about the preparation for death. Its lyrics are rich and solemn and soulful.

    One song that has captured my attention since I first heard it is entitled "Treaty." The lyrics of the refrain are:


I wish there was a treaty we could sign

I do not care who takes this bloody hill

I'm angry and I'm tired all the time

I wish there was a treaty

I wish there was a treaty

Between your love and mine


    The rest of the lyrics include a strange mix of allusions to God and Jesus and more intimate references. One reviewer, awed by this song, described it as blurring "prayer and love song, spiritual meditation and erotic lament." The reviewer continued that the song "doesn't so much blur them as speak from that deep place where the agonies of love and the insoluble questions of the spirit are inherently one and the same."

    He senses that the song recognizes the "simultaneous miracle and impossibility of a particular relationship."

    When I hear the song I hear someone, facing the end of his life, who is struggling to reconcile a relationship. The relationship has meant a lot to him, brought him joy and love and intimacy. Yet it has been damaged, and he wants to find some means of repairing it. He doesn't want to be angry anymore. He wants peace.


    Leonard Cohen longs for a peace treaty that will repair his damaged relationship. And in today's Gospel passage Jesus lays out for us a very specific procedure that we are to follow to heal the broken relationships in our lives. Rarely is the New Testament so specific and detailed in the advice that it gives. And this particular advice doesn't seem to be conditioned by cultural context—it is advice that we could and should still apply in the twenty-first century.

    This is more than practical advice, it is also a spiritual practice which is essential to us being the church God has called us to be. The church is supposed to be a community who are friends to one another – genuine friends who trust each other and can be honest with one another. We are to love each other and work together in the unity of the Body of Christ. How do we embody peace, harmony, and unity? We must learn the practices of forgiveness and reconciliation.

    But we aren't very good at it because it is genuinely difficult. To become good at forgiveness and reconciliation means that we must unlearn many bad habits. We must unlearn taking offense easily. We must unlearn defensiveness and selfishness. We must quit gossiping. We have to develop patience and self-control and humility. We have to learn to be honest, tactful, and compassionate all at the same time. We have to learn to listen. We have to try to understand something from a different person's perspective. It means developing a sense of fairness and mercy.

    In other words—a lifetime of character formation and habituation in the virtues. The virtues, at root, are skills for successful living and human flourishing. The contemporary philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre puts it this way:


If a human life is understood as a progress through harms and dangers, moral and physical, which someone may encounter and overcome in better and worse ways and with a greater or lesser measure of success, the virtues will find their place as those qualities the possession and exercise of which generally tend to success in this enterprise and the vices as qualities which likewise tend to failure.


    Then how do we cultivate these basic life skills necessary for human flourishing? We have to practice them. When we are learning to play baseball, there are a set of skills that we have to develop. We have to work at throwing and catching and hitting. For most people, these don't come naturally but have to develop over time with lots of work. Plus, we don't generally develop these skills alone. We learn in the context of a group of people, and we learn from teachers. We can't learn to throw a ball well by ourselves. We generally begin in early childhood playing catch with our parents. And we continue to develop that skill with friends and coaches and teammates. And some of never become very good at it, myself included.

    There are many Christian spiritual practices that are all meant to shape and form us. Things like prayer and meditation, caring for the sick, tithing, congregational singing, celebrating communion, etc. These practices are the means of developing the skills and virtues required to live as Jesus did.

    And one of those sets of practices are detailed here in Matthew 18, a detailed procedure for how to forgive and find reconciliation.


    One of the best theological works on this topic is Embodying Forgiveness by L. Gregory Jones. He writes,


Most fundamentally, then, forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the Triune God and with others.


Jones goes on:


Habits and practices require discipline, patience, and skill, and they are central means for forming people in the virtues necessary for friendship with God; there are no easy techniques, no ways to bypass struggles through self-help manuals.


Because it is so difficult, Jones reminds us that "forgiveness involves the life-long process of learning a craft."


Near the end of his book, Jones summarizes several features that come together in the craft of forgiveness:


truthful judgment about what has happened or is happening, a willingness to acknowledge both the propriety of anger, resentment, or bitterness and a desire to overcome and be freed from it, a concern for the well-being of the others as children of God, recognition of the ways in which we have all needed to be forgiven, an acknowledgment that the truthful judgment requires accountability directed toward the grace of new life, and the hope for eventual reconciliation (though in extreme cases, this may be a matter of "hoping against hope").


Therefore, in order to be good at this process as outlined in Matthew, we've got to be working on other things – honesty, graciousness, patience, humility, compassion, controlling our anger, etc. I think that one way we do that is by engaging in the variety spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, worship, gardening, playing music, going for walks, etc., because these spiritual practices open us to God for transformation. I know that when I do those things I am calmed and gain new perspectives. I find that it is easier to control my anger, easier to be humble, easier to be patient. When I'm not regularly observing them, there is a difference in my attitude and interactions with other people. I'm more short-tempered, more direct and caustic, I'm just not as nice a person to be around.


So, let's explore the details of this procedure a little more.

It first reminds us of a simple truth--most issues can be resolved by a simple one-on-one conversation. Most of the time people didn't intend any harm. Or once they hear your story, then they will gain more perspective and feel differently. These are probably conversations that should occur, when they can, in person and not on the phone or via e-mail.

When you meet to talk, the goal is never to argue; the goal is reconciliation. Each side should tell their story and try to come to some sense of understanding. It may require talking numerous times. It may mean that you have to wait sometime before talking in order to let tempers settle down. I'm not wise enough to know how to work this out in each situation. I'm not very good at it myself. But I hope I'm getting better with each year. Just remember, always keep reconciliation in mind.

On rare occasions the situation will be so serious that reconciliation is not found by talking together, then it is time to seek help. The purpose of drawing others in is not to have a witness to advocate for your side, it is to find a mediator to help the situation. I wish that churches would actually work at training people in this specific task, people who could be called on to help in situations like this. Maybe that is something we need to consider – training some of our members to be conflict resolution experts.

Jesus says that if this step fails, then and only then should the conflict come to light in the larger church. But it should not come to light in order for it to be talked about behind people's backs; it should only come to light in order for reconciliation to be found. This is probably the step we are most uncomfortable with. It's simply not something we modern liberal people and reticent Midwesterners are very good at. But there are excellent and healthy examples from throughout Christian history of how this works. It only works well in close communities where trust and intimacy have already been cultivated.

You may think that the final step in this process Jesus describes is harsh. Could it be that you would actually have a situation where you would remove people from the fellowship of the church? I've actually encountered a few of those in my time in ministry. They are extreme cases where someone is unwilling to be reconciled to fellow church members and that becomes a cancer eating away at the community and its ministries.

But there is something I want you to notice, a nuanced detail in this verse. Jesus says to treat such people as "a Gentile and a tax collector." Think for a moment what that means. How did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? Jesus hung out with tax collectors. He said that Gentiles and tax collectors were to be welcomed into the family of God. Jesus said that these were the people to whom we were to preach the gospel.

So, Jesus doesn't let us off the hook. If we reach the extreme circumstance of asking someone to leave the church, then we are to welcome them, spend time with them, and minister to them just like we welcome, spend time with, and minister to all those who are not members. They become potential members, candidates for evangelization.

Finally, Jesus tells us that he is with us in this process. Where even two or three are gathered together striving to embody the practices of forgiveness and reconciliation, Jesus is there.


Friends, what Jesus calls us to here in Matthew 18 isn't easy, but it is one of the few places where what Jesus expects of the church is expressly laid out. In order for us to be the church—living the life of the cross, assailing the powers of the hell, shining as the light of the world, being transformed into the Body of Christ—then we've got to start by learning how to practice forgiveness and reconciliation with each other.

There is a treaty we can sign. There is an opportunity for reconciliation. Thanks be to God.

The Cerebral Mystique

A good article criticizing the notion that "we are our brains."  An excerpt:

The brain is special because it does not distil us to an essence, it unites us to our surroundings in a way a soul never could. If we value our own experiences, we must protect and strengthen the many factors that enrich our lives from both inside and outside, so that as many people as possible can benefit from them now and in the time to come. We must realise that we are much more than our brains.

The Land of Green Plums

The Land of Green PlumsThe Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A dark, despairing novel about life in Romania under the Ceaușescu dictatorship. Based on some real life incidents Muller, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize, writes about a group of four college students who are targeted by the secret police and hounded. The novel focuses on the little things, the objects in life that provide consolation, reveal absurdity, or lead to despair. The overriding question of the novel seems to be: Is friendship really possible in a dictatorship?

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Public theology

"And what if the political is not just some procedural gambit to manage our mundane affairs but an expression of creational desire and need, a structural feature of creaturely life that signals something about the sociality of human nature?"

I've begun reading Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, the third volume in the Cultural Liturgies project of James K. A. Smith, and I found the Introduction to be quite good.  I'm looking forward to the rest.

He is writing about how politics is inherently religious and religious is inherently political and what is the best way for the church to do public theology.  A few highlights from the Intro.

"While we often speak of the public 'square,' the metaphor is antiquated and unhelpful. . . .  The political is less a space and more a way of life; the political is less a realm and more of a project."

"The polis is a formative community of solidarity . . . political participation requires and assumes . . . a citizenry with habits and practices for living in common and toward a certain end, oriented toward a telos."

"Politics is a repertoire of formative rites."

"What unites a 'people,' an 'us,' is a project, something we're after together.  We collaborate in a common life insofar as we find goods to pursue in common; and we establish institutions, systems, and rhythms that reinforce the pursuit of those goods."

"Worship is the 'civics' of the city of God."

He believes Christians need to cultivate "a sort of engaged but healthy distance rooted in our specifically eschatological hope, running counter to progressivist hubris, triumphalistic culture wars, and despairing cynicism."

The Need for Contemplation

A good blog post at Patheos on the need for Christian's to be grounded in contemplation, now more than ever.  The occasion is the release of a new biography of Phyllis Tickle who did much to promote the mystical within the church.  The author contends that our fractured politics calls for more contemplation and that our activism must be rooted in spirituality.

Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology

Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer TheologyRadical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cheng contends that "Christian theology is fundamentally a queer enterprise" what with doctrines like the Trinity, incarnation, etc. More than a simple overview or introduction to queer theologies, the book itself is a survey of all the traditional major doctrines of systematic theology around the organizing theme of radical love. He defines this as "a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries." Cheng writes that "Christian theology can be understood as a three-part drama about radical love." For example the Trinity is understood as an internal community of radical love, Jesus as the bearer of radical love, the church as the external community of radical love, etc. I appreciate some of these formulations and will incorporate them into my own rhetoric.

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O Sing Unto the Lord

O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church MusicO Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music by Andrew Gant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A delightfully witty and informative book on the history of English church music. Thanks to the book I've discovered some musical gems such as Wylkynson's 13 part harmony Jesus autem transiens


And Tallis's Spem in alium, a 40 voice motet.


I've been looking up the pieces he discusses on YouTube and creating a playlist, which I'm not finished with, but here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...

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Tears We Cannot Stop

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White AmericaTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

More hopeful than Ta-Nahesi Coates. But I was left wondering if the only people who will read this book are those already mostly sympathetic to it? The people that need to read it are probably less likely to actually read it.

The best chapter is the one on police violence.

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Pastoral Prayer upon the death of James Cone

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.