Welcome to Mystery

Welcome to Mystery

Psalm 8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

25 September 2016

    I grew up in a religious tradition that did not value science, except on the rare occasion when it was felt that science in some way confirmed a tenant of conservative biblical interpretation.

    But I was a child and adolescent fascinated by science, and I benefited from an excellent high school chemistry and physics teacher, Ken Harvey. Like most kids, I thought I knew more than I actually did. Harvey was one of those people who revealed a wider world to me. When I'd state an opinion, he might offer a different way of looking at the topic. My many hours in conversation with Harvey both inside and outside the classroom opened my mind to new possibilities. He was one of the most influential persons in my life.

    As I entered college I had compartmentalized my intellect—religion was in one compartment and science in another—I couldn't see how to make them fit together, but I didn't want to cast either one aside.

    In college I encountered the historical-critical method of reading the bible and the rich diversity of theological interpretation. I abandoned the biblical literalism of my childhood and embraced a more open and inclusive faith.

    At the same time I began to study more in-depth the scientific advances of the twentieth century, particularly the developments around quantum mechanics, which seemed to open the door for more connections between science and religion.

    Somewhere along the way I read the book God and the New Physics by the physicist Paul Davies. In the introduction to that book, Davies makes the startling claim that "science offers a surer path to God than religion."

    I ended up reading most of the books Davies had written to that point. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on his concept of God, a concept derived not from theology but from the discoveries of physicists.

    Our culture has a mistaken notion that science and religion are in conflict with one another. There are of course those extreme religious fundamentalists who denounce many scientific conclusions, all the while benefiting from technological advances, of course. And there are the reductive materialist atheists who denounce all religion and with it all sense of mystery and awe.

    But most of us lie somewhere in the middle between these extremes. There are atheistic scientists who believe that science evokes wonder and awe, something akin to spirituality. And there have always been people of religious faith who have embraced scientific advances as revealing God's truths.

    In fact, a good reading of the history of science will reveal all the ways in which modern science was given birth by deeply religious people, like Sir Isaac Newton. What so often appear as conflicts between science and religion were often conflicts between competing value systems or new paradigms with religious people actually lining up on both sides of the conflict.

    In our day we seem to be living through another era in which scientific conclusions are dismissed by a wide segment of our society, and sometimes for religious reasons. I find it strange that in 2016 highlighting the continuities between science and spirituality remains a unique endeavor.

    Last year David Nichols came to me and said, "We need to be having more conversations about the connections between science and spirituality." As he and I talked he expressed more of what he meant. For him science reveals mysteries and wonders and for him exploring those mysteries is a spiritual experience.

    At the time the UCC's pastoral letter on religion and science was released—the letter an excerpt of which Barb read a moment ago--the Rev. Dr. John Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, was interviewed. Listen to this excerpt from the interview:

Science ultimately welcomes more mystery—not less—into the life of faith, Thomas believes. . . . the sight of seeing dividing cells through the aid of a microscope "encourages singing, not arguments" . . .

 

The outcome of scientific inquiry, therefore, is "a greater sacramental understanding of our life together," Thomas says.

    Thomas then asks an interesting question, "Isn't it exciting that God wants God's creatures to be curious creatures, exploring and imagining?" John Thomas, by the way, will be preaching here next month for Katie Miller's installation service.

    God wants us to be curious, to explore, to imagine. I believe this very sentiment is expressed by the psalmist. We humans are humble creatures, a fragile bit of matter, yet this lump of clay has the most amazing brain. We can reason and imagine, dream and create, make and fashion. This is the divine glory within us.

    Last year I stood in awe of our species as we watched the New Horizons probe beam back to us pictures of Pluto. Here were mountain ranges and icy plains revealed in stunning photographs—beauty that might have laid unrevealed through all eternity. Yet, our brains could design a satellite that traveled 3 billion miles away and take pictures and send them back to us. I've never been so in awe of what it means to be a human and to have our brains. Crowned with glory and honor, indeed.

    But that moment of revelation also inspired a greater sense of wonder. What all else exists in our cosmos unrevealed to us? We have so many more worlds to explore and millions, billions even that we will likely never reach in the entire history of species and our planet. And that, for me, is a mystery of deep spiritual import. For while God has lavished such honor and glory upon us in our obscure little corner of the cosmos, what other wonders has God created?

    The UCC's pastoral letter on science says, "God yearns for us to understand nature more fully and to love it more deeply. God speaks in many ways and through many voices. Today, one of God's many provocative voices is science. We listen and respond, grateful that our theology is enriched by new ideas."

    Let us listen to God speaking to us today. Let us be a people who embrace truth, open to new ideas, welcoming the mysteries.


Church History

I'm reading Margaret Bendroth's The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past which explores how Congregationalists have used their understandings of history to shape their identity and mission.  Here's an interesting paragraph from the second chapter:

    In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, and after considerable struggle and conflict, Congregationalists made the Pilgrim fathers their own.  This meant, first of all, wresting the memory from their denominational competitors, their Unitarian and Presbyterian cousins.  But it also meant something more: as Congregationalists took ownership of the Pilgrim story, local memories preserved in small church communities would begin to reside within a much longer past, populated by men and women who were, in a strict sense, outsiders to the inner circle of memory.  The individual historic events recorded in local Congregational churches began to join together into extended episodes, taking on grander meaning as they did.  Building this larger narrative was a complicated task, but the result was powerful: the more consciously Congregationalists rooted themselves in the past, the more they were able to contemplate their future.

I resonate with that final sentence.  It's one reason I've been so outspoken in sharing the stories of First Central's past--they help to explore our current mission.


Ted Cich

Three
Michael’s grandpa Ted Cich died last weekend.  He was 91 years old.  He could still bicycle ten miles.  He died at home in his own bed during his sleep.  In other words, the way most of us would like to die.  He was a good man who lived a good life.

Ted and Marion raised a family of six rambunctious kids in the Minneapolis suburb of New Brighton.  They were hard working and devout Roman Catholics.  Two of their sons attended seminary, though neither ultimately became a priest.  They owned property on Blue Lake where, over many years, they built a cabin that was the site of many family vacations and to which they retired and lived until Marion’s illnesses drew them back to the city.

I met Ted and Marion in May 2009 one month before I married Michael.  They were gracious in their welcome of me into the family.  Their welcome stood in stark contrast to my own grandfather who reacted poorly to my coming out and even more poorly to my relationship with Michael.  Though my grandfather ultimately improved, with the Ciches there was no need for improvement; they were fully welcoming from the moment they met me.

Ted attended our wedding (Marion was unable to make the trip from Minneapolis to Oklahoma City, though she was always disappointed and little angry about that).  Not only did he attend, he insisted that every one of his children were to be present so that there could be no question where the Cich family stood.  My grandfather made a point of not attending and most of my extended family was not present.

Last year Ted came to Omaha for Sebastian’s baptism, hopefully some of you met him.  In May we traveled to Minneapolis to visit him and Michael’s extended family there.  Ted delighted in Sebastian, and we are grateful for the time they had together and the pictures we can share with Sebastian of him with his great-grandpa.

Ted and Marion Cich are evidence that being welcoming and inclusive are not generational traits.  They are traits of good people.

Peace,

Scott


Open Road

Song of the Open Road, I

Walt Whitman


Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)



I like this poem.  The opening stanzas express some of the sentiment behind my memoir, which I entitled Open (hopefully coming soon).  


Look, Here Is Water!

Look, Here Is Water!

Acts 8:26-40

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

11 September 2016

 

 

    There are many stories about water in our scriptures—the Spirit hovering over the waters of creation, the angel revealing a spring to Hagar as she and her son Ishmael were dying of thirst, the parting of the Red Sea for the deliverance of the people, Jesus telling the Samaritan woman that he is living water, and so many more. Let all those other stories resonate with the one I have selected for today, one of my favourites from the Book of Acts about the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.

    Before I read the story, let me give some background. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, eunuchs were forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord, which was interpreted to mean that they were banned from the temple.

    But, the Prophet Isaiah had denounced this exclusive practice. Isaiah declared,

 

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

        who choose the things that please me

        and hold fast my covenant,

    I will give, in my house and within my walls,

        a monument and a name

        better than sons and daughters;

    I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

    

    And so we turn to our story in the Book of Acts where this eunuch is riding along, reading the scroll of Isaiah.

 

Acts 8:26-40

 

At the critical moment, the eunuch declares "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from begin baptized?" And the answer is "nothing." Everyone, including this person cut off both literally and figuratively, will be included within the new work that God is doing in Jesus Christ.

 

We are nearing the end of our late summer series "The Wonder of Worship" in which we are exploring ways that God uses worship to shape us and make us wonderful. We've looked at fire, song, words, and this week water. Water appears in our worship at baptism and the baptistery stands here every week as a prominent visual reminder of our baptismal identity. It is in our baptismal service that I utter the words which have shaped this worship series:

 

Water is a common and ordinary thing, yet without it, all life would perish. It is a perfect symbol for this event because it reminds us that the ordinary becomes holy in God's hands.

 

    So, the waters of baptism are the clearest visual reminder of this bold claim—that the ordinary can become extraordinary. But how does God use water to do that? What meaning should the water evoke for us?

Water is such a rich symbol that we could explore multiple different meanings. Taking our cue from this story in Acts today I'm going to focus on the healing nature of water. The waters of baptism are healing, saving waters because they restore wholeness to what has been broken apart. God takes ordinary us and makes us extraordinary.

 

    In baptism we are named, given an identity. The bible speaks of baptism as dying to our old selves and being born again, a new creation. In baptism, we are marked with Jesus and become part of the church. We become members of a body, to quote the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, "which transcends every exclusiveness."

In the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, nothing can prevent the eunuch from being baptized. What has been excluded will now be included. What was broken can be restored to wholeness. Every worship service should be a healing reminder that we are included. This is how God gives us a new life and makes us wonderful.

 

But not only are we included, with our new identity comes a call to a healing mission.

Baptism in our tradition is part of worship, not done privately. And like all worship it is "a call to be(come) . . . fully and authentically human, and to be a community and people who image God to the world" (to quote Evangelical scholar James K. A. Smith). We are called to something extraordinary, to become part of God's work in the world, caring for creation, bringing hope to the lost and broken.

In the story, Philip has the moral imagination to realize that there is nothing to prevent the eunuch from being baptized. We must be like Philip, using our moral imagination's to bring God's healing love to those who are cut off.

 

The waters of worship heal us because they include us and they give us a purpose.

    

    In my baptismal order for a child I give these words of blessing, words that are not my own but borrowed from others:

 

Little sister, by this act of baptism, we welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life. This isn't the end. It's the beginning of God's adventure with your life. What God will make of you, we know not. Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know and this we say. God is with you.

 

    Every Sunday when you see this baptistery I hope that you will remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember that no thing or nor one can exclude you. God has loved you and welcomed you into God's own family. No matter what transpires in your life, what happens to you, or whatever things you do, God will be always with you.

    And also remember, that you always have a purpose. Your life means something. Your life is part of the great adventure story of God.

 

    Look, here is water!


The Damn E-mails

Like many (and I hope most people) I've been puzzled all along as to what the supposed Clinton e-mail scandal was supposed to be about other than a bad information technology decision and the type of mess that almost any professional can get into.  Haven't all of us had e-mails that should have gone one place go another place or that should have been saved somehow disappear?  And we aren't working with all the record-keeping rules of the federal bureaucracy.  

So, I was glad to see this column from the Washington Post summarizing the new FBI report (which I haven't read).  Here is the essential, summary paragraph:

One doesn’t come away from this memo feeling that one has spotted any effort on the part of Clinton to deceive. She sought convenience and delegated to others the project of producing an efficient and easily usable communications system. Her mistake was in failing to recognize that her communications also needed to fulfill other functions. Clinton forgot that she needed to ask for sound records management.

And, then, this conclusion:

But what does this memo mean for voting Americans? I think it’s basically this: If you’re trying to weigh Donald Trump’s and Clinton’s characters against one another, look elsewhere than this email scandal. No deep Clinton character flaws are in evidence here. This is a story about a moment when Clinton failed to recognize that professional expertise was necessary, in a rapidly evolving area where many are struggling.

Now, can we please finally take Bernie Sanders' advice and move on from the damn e-mails to actual issues?


Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of GodStand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A searing read, this theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin with an analysis of America's founding myth of Angl0-Saxon exceptionalism and supremacy and how the black faith tradition points to a future beyond this violent myth.

There were times in part one, the analysis of the myth, that I disagreed with nuances of the historical interpretation, but the book soars in the second part as it engages the black faith tradition both as critique and as hope.

View all my reviews

Possession

PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I enjoyed The Children's Book and like Byatt's wordplay, but after reading more than a hundred pages in this novel I wasn't caught up by the story or the characters and have decided to quit reading.

I was reading a used copy and the person who read it first had written the meanings of words they did not know in the margins. Often this was the most enjoyable part of reading.

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Two Good Lines

Two good lines from Rebecca West's novel The Return of the Soldier.

Strangeness had come into the house, and everything was appalled by it, even time.

***

All the dear life that makes the bland English country-side secretly adventurous.


The Freedom of God

An excerpt from Kelly Brown Douglas' Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, a theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and other young African-Americans.

The transcendent freedom of God is essential for a black faith born on the soil of the oppressor's faith, directed presumably to the same God.  It was an awareness of God's transcendent freedom that enabled enslaved men and women to know that the God their enslavers spoke of was not truly God.  They recognized that their enslaver's God was as bound to the whips and chains of slavery as were their own black bodies.  Their enslaver's God was for all intents and purposes a white slave master sitting on a throne in heaven keeping black people in their place as chattel.  The black enslaved knew that this was not the God who encountered them in their free African lives.  They were certain, furthermore, that this was not the God they encountered in the Bible.  The God of their enslavers simply was not free.  The God of the enslaved, which they soon understood to be the God of the Bible, was free.  Doubtless, it was the African religious heritage of the enslaved that facilitated their profound understanding of God's freedom and transcendence.


The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the SoldierThe Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A soldier returns home with amnesia thinking it is fifteen years earlier, before he met his wife and was in love with another woman. This story ultimately raises the questions of which is more important, the truth or happiness and how these relate to our obligations. A short novel, well written, engaging, and provocative.

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Parting the Waters

Parting the WatersParting the Waters by Taylor Branch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Among the greatest books I've ever read. I don't think I've ever been so moved reading a work of history. Branch is a marvelous writer. I felt as if I was reading the story of the founding of the country and that this story and these leaders should be as familiar to us as our abiding fascination with the 18th century founders. He doesn't appear to pull any punches in describing the scenes of horror. The sequence of the first Freedom Ride bus is tense and harrowing, even when you already know the basic contours of the story. Everyone should read this volume.

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