VirtueVirtue by Heather D Battaly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last spring I picked this book as a text for my sophomore ethics class this semester. I had not read it all the way through until we got to it in class. Battaly gives a nice summary of the current state of virtue theory (both in ethics and epistemology) and presents the theory with contemporary examples that engaged my students. I found it easy to supplement with more content about the various thinkers and ideas she discusses.

She also makes her own arguments in the book, which gave our class opportunities to discuss and critique. For example, Battaly believes that virtue is neither sufficient nor necessary for living well.

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The Ultimate Meaning of Life

The Ultimate Meaning of Life

Malachi 3:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

8 November 2015



    The refiner's fire.

    Well, I haven't been to a refinery lately, or maybe ever, but in September I was at the Crystal Forge in the Hot Shops with a handful of other church members as we watched our new baptismal bowl being made. I am fascinated that this vessel of water that will most often touch the brows of babies was born in fire. 2,500 degrees, I believe.

    At one point the bowl was a glowing orb, before the top was opened up. Watching that orb rotate in the forge with its blue and green colors, it looked like the planet Earth seen from outer space, radiating with life and beauty.

As the artist Ed Fennell shaped our bowl sometimes flames would burst forth from the friction of the shaping tools applied to the hot glass. "Wow!," I thought, "flames shooting from our baptismal bowl." The image gave new meaning to the words of John the Baptist that he was baptizing with water but one would come, meaning Jesus, who would baptize with fire and the Spirit.

There is fire in this bowl. This lovely bowl was born of heat and flame and will carry that legacy into its life as a sacred implement of worship. In some small, symbolic way, every child we baptize will be touched by the flame. There will be a little bit of that refining, purifying fire in the waters of baptism.


Then a few weeks ago we returned to the Hot Shops, this time to the studio of potter Tim Barry. Tim began his demonstration by grabbing large hunks of indistinct light brown clay from a big mound of it in the corner of his shop. "Every day we come in here and try to figure out what to do with this lump of clay," Tim said.

I thought, "Every day we're also trying to figure out what to do with this [pointing to myself] lump of clay.

And I also thought, "Our communion pieces will begin their life as this—a formless hunk of clay." The words of Genesis chapter 1 leapt to mind--"In the beginning was when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void."

Then, Tim mentioned how clay is the most ordinary of materials. "It can be found anywhere in the world, if you first remove the topsoil. Clay is underneath all our ground." Then I thought of the medieval thinker Meister Eckhart and his "mysticism of the ground." Eckhart wrote, "God's ground and my ground is the same ground." And "Go into your ground and there act, and the works that you do there will all be living." Ground, for Eckhart, has many reach meanings. Ground is the essence, the inmost, hidden part of any being. Ground is also pure possibility. Ground is the activity of being in relation with everything else. And ground, common clay, will hold the food and the drink that nourishes our souls, our communion, our connection with God.

Then, as he worked at the potter's wheel (itself a rich biblical metaphor deeply connected to, among other things, the poems and prophecies of Jeremiah), the artist Tim Barry said, "The material takes on the spirit of the maker." Wow! What a profoundly rich spiritual concept. That we, as the creations of God, take on part of God's Spirit as we are shaped and molded.

Tim went on to add that he teaches his apprentices and students that they must be in a good place in order to create, that if they are in a bad mood then their negativity will appear in and mar the work they are molding. What life lessons there!

Later, Tim was showing us some of his finished work and one of our church members asked about the variations in color and texture. "It matters where the piece was in the kiln. How close it was to the fire. How much of the salt it got. Also, the trees pull up the minerals from the ground and as the wood is burned, the minerals are released into the smoke where they settle upon the pottery and so some of this color is from the minerals as they leave their mark."

Both of these experiences—being at the glass forge and the potter's wheel—were deeply worshipful, theological, spiritual experiences. Now I want more opportunities like this. More opportunities to watch artists and makers and gardeners at their work in order to experience the concrete, physical aspects of our Christian teaching.


The prophet Malachi is full of questions. He poses 22 questions in only 55 verses. Pope Francis also poses a number of questions including "What is the purpose of our life in this world?" Now, that's a big question. What exactly is the meaning of life?

I think fondly of Billy Crystal in the film City Slickers asking Curly, the old cowboy played by George Palance, that question. You remember Curly's answer. He holds up one finger and Billy Crystal says, "The meaning of life if your finger?" Curly says, "It's one thing." But then he doesn't give much more guidance. You've got to figure that one thing out for yourself.

Does Pope Francis answer his question? Indirectly he does. Our human dignity is tied up with intergenerational solidarity. What we do for our children and coming generations is essential to determining the meaning and purpose of our own lives. So, the good life for us is a life lived in solidarity with future generations. A life that looks out for their good. Therefore environmental and economic exploitation, the ruin of human society and the earth, violate our own dignity precisely because they harm future generations. A meaningful life, then, is a life that looks out for those who come after us.


Francis doesn't use the word stewardship, but that's the idea. And stewardship is explicitly discussed by the prophet Malachi. We are stewards of the blessings that God gave us. We aren't supposed to use them only for ourselves but steward them for the needy and for those who come after us.

Malachi thinks we've been bad stewards of God's blessings, harming the creation and human society. We've oppressed workers, indulged in sin and depravity, excluded the widows and orphans, and been inhospitable toward the immigrant. And God's passing judgment.

But not just judgment, God is also reaching out to heal and reconcile us. In fact, that's the kind of judgment God passes. God's judgment is a fire, but a purifying and refining fire that restores us.

In order to prepare the way, the prophet proclaims that God will send a messenger. We might say that God is continually sending messengers to warn us—John Muir, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, to name a few from America in the last century.

The prophet's message is that we have gone astray, wandering from the road of God's intention, and that we must return. As we repent, God is there to embrace us, to heal us, to restore us.

We need a little bit of that refining fire to purify us and restore us. The great reformer John Calvin wrote about this passage from Malachi, "The power of the fire . . . is twofold: for it burns and it purifies; it burns what is corrupt; but it purifies gold and silver from their dross."

Every day is a day of the Lord. Every day is an opportunity for true repentance on our part and salvation on God's part. So, let us heed the warnings of the prophets. Let humanity return to the right road and live a life of meaning and purpose, a life lived in solidarity with future generations, looking out for their good. That's a life that will bear fruit. A life that lives into the fullness and blessing of God our creator.

Every day let's consider what God can make from this lump of clay. In what ways can we take on the Spirit of our maker? Connect with our ground. Be touched by the fire?

I hope every Sunday you'll see this beautiful new baptismal font and consider those very questions. What is the ultimate meaning of your life?

The Evolution of a UCC Style

The Evolution of a Ucc Style: History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of ChristThe Evolution of a Ucc Style: History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of Christ by Randi Jones Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Refreshingly not a straightforward history, this is a series of theological reflections upon the history of the United Church of Christ arranged around a series of themes--the four-tradition origin myth, becoming a multiracial, multicultural church, the influences of the Reformation, Enlightenment, and Pietism, the development of a liberal style, and finally congregational polity.

Her main thesis is that the UCC has developed a particular style and that this is more important than any of the traditional central features, like polity or theology. This style is an attempt to hold all the various branches of the Reformation together in one body while also expanding to include postcolonial, African-American, Native Americans, feminist, postmodern, LGBT, and other voices/communities of critique.

She contends that this remains an ecumenical effort, but different from the vision of the denominations founders, who completed much of the difficult work of the union just as the civil rights, women's, and anti-war movements began to shake the foundations on which the union was based.

The two things I missed were more detailed discussions of those alternative communities and their influence on the church and the fact that the book is a decade old and thus doesn't discuss the more recent developments and trends--the God is still speaking campaign, the growing number of Pentecostals in the church, and our movement toward more environmental activism.

But I liked it so well I think I'll use it to teach a class here at church on UCC history next year as we begin preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

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The Mystery of the Universe

The Mystery of the Universe

Zephaniah 3:14-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

1 November 2015



    Becoming a father has made me even more sentimental than I usually am. For instance, many times over the last six months my thoughts have lingered over memories of my childhood, particularly the farm of my Grandparents Jones. I fondly recall climbing trees, exploring fields and hills and creeks, swinging on the tire swing, shooting off fireworks on Independence Day, making homemade ice cream with the hand crank, helping with the farm chores, and more. Part of me wishes I could share those same childhood experiences with Sebastian.

    Two weeks ago Michael, Sebastian, and I made a quick trip to Oklahoma to visit my mother. On our return, we stopped in my hometown of Miami and visited the gravesite where my father and all four grandparents are buried. I spared also visiting the graves of my great and great-great grandparents. You really know you are from someplace when four generations of your family are buried there.

    I've missed my Dad more this year than any time since he died 25 years ago. I wish he was here to experience his grandson. And every week I notice me doing something with Sebastian that's something my Dad would have done with me. The experience of fatherhood has made me realize how I'm more like him than I ever knew.

    So, I wanted to visit Dad's grave and to take Sebastian there. Of course I know Dad isn't there. And I've talked to Sebastian about his grandfather and showed him pictures many times these last six months. But I wanted to take my son to this special physical place that connects me powerfully with my father.

    The moment was tender. When we got out of the car Sebastian was craning his neck, like usual, wanting to take everything in around him, but when we stepped up to Dad's grave, Sebastian turned around and calmly looked down, his gaze lingering. I felt like Sebastian understood that this was a special moment.


    Places matter to us. There are spots that are sacred in each of our lives—a childhood home, a tree we climbed, a university we attended, the place where our beloved proposed or where we met them. Think about the places that matter in your life. Do any of those places connect with a spiritual or religious memory or experience?

    Pope Francis writes that "The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of our true selves."

    Why is this so? Why do places matter so much to us?

    Francis writes that "Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God." He adds "God has written a precious book, 'whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe.'"


    Over the last month we've examined some of the major problems troubling humanity—environmental destruction, climate change, income and social inequalities, human society gone awry, a loss of ethics and spirituality in the place of an advancing technocratic paradigm. In the face of these massive problems, what are we to do? Does Christian teaching provide any hope for a solution to our problems?

    I believe it does, for Christianity teaches that creation is God's gift and that each of us is connected to everyone and everything else in a universal communion. This communion, Francis calls "the mystery of the universe."

    This mystery rests upon our understanding of God. We believe that God is love, which means that God loves every person, every creature, every thing that God has brought into being. Francis writes, "Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of [God's] love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with . . . affection."

    This is the parenting aspect of God. Pope Francis focuses on the image of God as Father, we would, of course, expand that image to include reflection on the mothering aspects of God. God as parent loves and embraces all of creation. This parental love reminds us that everyone and everything is worthy. Everyone and everything has value.

    Christianity also teaches that the earth and its creatures do not exist for us, for our use and exploitation. Francis writes, "The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ . . . the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in the transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things."

    Francis' reflections on the Cosmic Christ reminded me of a book I read twenty years ago, The Body of God by the ecofeminist theologian Sally McFague. McFague wrote that "the world . . . is the sacrament of God, the visible, physical, bodily presence of God."

    At the communion table we join together as the Body of Christ. We recognize that part of the spiritual power this ritual symbolizes and manifests is our connection and communion with all other Christians around the world and throughout time. We should also experience communion as a reminder that humans are not the only guests at God's feast. This sacrament reminds us that there is a universal communion with all creatures and all things that God has created. Together with the entire cosmos we join in giving thanks to God. Together with the entire cosmos we become the body of the risen Christ.


    If we understand our theology, then we couldn't possibly be okay with exploiting and damaging other people or the natural order. For when we do so, we damage ourselves, and we mar God's body. Our sins of exploitation and environmental damage are forms of crucifixion.

    McFague writes that sin "is living falsely, living contrary to reality, to the way things are." We must repent of the ways we have lived falsely, and we must embrace God's future, filled with possibilities.


    The prophet Zephaniah imagines for us the future of renewal brought about by God's love for us and for all creation. There will be joy and singing. Outcasts will be welcomed, included, and empowered. Our fear will be no more. Our enemies will be defeated. The wounded will be saved. Because God is bringing us home again, renewing our fortunes, and throwing a party to celebrate.

    On this communion Sunday and All Saints Day, let us remember and proclaim that God's love unites us with everyone and everything. And God's love holds out hope for our salvation.

Society Gone Awry

Society Gone Awry

Hosea 4:1-8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

25 October 2015



    Wednesday night, during our Confirmation: Phase One class with 4th-8th graders, the kids created a film of some scenes from the life of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation. We'll have that video playing during Coffee Hour after service so that you can see the entertaining job they did of bringing to life this significant moment in world history and in the heritage of the United Church of Christ.

    We do well to remember on this Reformation Sunday that one branch of the ecumenical movement that birthed our denomination was the Evangelical Synod, a group of German immigrants with roots in the Lutheran Reformation.

    2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, commemorating the moment when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg. By the way, I learned recently that he didn't hammer the theses to the door—he used wax to post them, a far less dramatic event than the way we've generally imagined it.

    Currently I'm serving on an ecumenical committee to organize how Omaha and Nebraska will commemorate the 500th anniversary. I'm serving as the representative of the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ. The organizing committee was called together by the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and, so far, includes representatives from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mennonites, the Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, and the United Methodist Church. We intend to include Jewish and Muslim neighbors in interfaith events recognizing the effects the Reformation had upon the peoples of all three faiths.

    Our committee is guided by four motivations when planning this anniversary.


  1. We are going to celebrate, but we are going to celebrate not the divisions and animosities of a half-millennium ago but the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to heal the those division, particularly the significant ecumenical cooperation and agreements of the last fifty years.
  2. We will remember and commemorate an event that changed all of us, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike.
  3. We will repent for the actions that have divided us, especially the ways in which we have born false witness against our Christian sisters and brothers of other denominations.
  4. And finally, we will use the anniversary to explore the continuing path to unity.


A sign of growing ecumenism is my autumn sermon series, exploring the themes of Pope Francis' encyclical letter Praise Be. The irony is not lost on me that on Reformation Sunday, I'm preaching from a Roman Catholic text. But if we are a church that is always reforming, something we pride ourselves in, then part of that reform may be opening ourselves to voices we once ignored. Plus, Francis himself is calling for a reformation in this document, for a change in human society and culture. So, on this Reformation Sunday we can join in solidarity with our Christian brother as we continue the on-going effort of reforming ourselves, the church, and the world through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


Francis proclaims that "Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads." We have benefited from this technology in myriad ways, but we also seem to have lost something.

This week was Back to the Future Day, and many of us enjoyed how many of the movie's predictions of 2015 had come true and how many had not. Of course, we don't have flying cars, mass produced hover boards, or World Series Champion Cubs, but we do teleconference with one another, video glasses exist, cars run on alternative fuels, and drones are beginning to become common (unfortunately). The ubiquity of digital communications technologies has been most overwhelming. I've only had a cell phone for ten years, and yet I find it difficult to imagine how I did things before. Of course, these devices aren't phones, they are pocket computers that we can use to instantly contact people around the world and gather information which once took hours of research in a library.

I'm only 41 years old, but the technological advances of my own lifetime are stunning. In recent months I've admired the photos of Pluto that NASA has been releasing. The idea the human mind can create a probe, send it billions of miles away, and broadcast back to ourselves these amazing images astounds me. We are a brilliant species, capable of once unbelievable things.

But, with those adventures and advances also come losses and new concerns. One concern is what we do with all that power. Pope Francis writes that "our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values, and conscience." He adds, "Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used." Francis warns, "we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it." "Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence." He does sound like Hosea and the other Minor Prophets at times.

In response to this technocratic paradigm Francis offers a challenge and a call to action and reformation. "There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm." We need time for contemplation and wonder and discussions about the meaning and purpose of existence. We particularly must remind ourselves of the "intrinsic dignity of the world" and its creatures.

So, if we are going to heal the current climate change and environmental crisis, Francis believes we must begin by healing human relationships. We must be open to other people, engaging in dialogue that is respectful and loving. One only need watch the latest political news to see how much this is lacking, which is probably one reason that Francis, when he addressed a joint session of Congress, took so much time to school them on what the responsibilities of legislators are.

One area where Francis believes we need to change our focus is how we view work. I found this section of the encyclical letter to be very interesting, for one of the advances of the Lutheran Reformation was an appreciation of ordinary life and the theological concept that every person is called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to a vocation. Francis writes that "We were created with a vocation to work. . . . Work should be the setting for . . . rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, [and] giving glory to God." But, he warns that the meaning of work has lost this rich understanding as we focus on market forces and technological advances. His worry is that as technology replaces much ordinary labor we lose the very activity that brings meaning and purpose to most people's lives. "Work is a necessity," he writes, "part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment." What Francis advocates is business that invests in the real economy—the work of real people.


Recent human culture may have led us down a path that has resulted in environmental damage and huge inequalities, but we can reform ourselves. We can repent. We can change. And so next week we'll begin to look at what contributions Christian spirituality might make to transforming human culture and healing the problems of the world. Over the next few weeks we will explore the mystery of the universe, the ultimate meaning of life, the common good, and the path to renewal just in time for our season of Thanksgiving.

Last Sunday was most encouraging, as our children led us in worship, focusing on wisdom. They shared with us very concrete issues for which they need wisdom, including bullying and understanding the world. They also shared about how they've discovered wisdom in the bible, the church, and our spiritual tradition.

498 years after Luther changed the world, we are raising a new generation of children who may lead us into a new reformation, an era less focused on domination and exploitation, and one focused on wisdom, beauty, contemplation, respect, and dialogue. That is my prayer this Reformation Sunday.

A Milestone Passed

My father died when he was 41 years old.  Since I was sixteen I've said that 41 would be my "weird year."  A few years ago I got a complete cardiac workup and the cardiologist said that though he could give no guarantees, my heart was fine and I would most likely live past 41.  That day, as we drove away from the cardiologist's office, I began to cry and Michael said, "I don't understand.  You received good news."  I answered, "Knowing I will live longer than Dad is a good thing, but it also makes me sad."

But 41 has ended up being the best year--the year of our son's birth.  I've never been happier or more content.

Yesterday afternoon I realized that last Wednesday was the day I lived longer than my father did.  Yes, I cried when I realized that.  Earlier in the day we visited Dad's grave.  I know Dad isn't there and that I've talked to him (or, at least the idea of him) about Sebastian since my son was born, but I still wanted to "introduce" Sebastian to Dad.  The moment was tender.  Sebastian was craning his neck, like usual, wanting to take everything in around him, but when we stepped to Dad's grave, Sebastian turned around and calmly looked down, his gaze lingering.

I've missed Dad and cried more about his death this year than the last fifteen years combined.  But the grief is not because I'm forty-one.  I wish I could share this moment of being a father with him.