The Buried Giant

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The day after Sebastian was released from the hospital we were killing time in Pittsburg, Kansas by walking around the campus of Pittsburg State University. We wondered into the bookstore and decided to get a book to read over the weekend while we were staying in a hotel waiting to get the news that we could take Sebastian home to Omaha. We picked Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, as we had both recently heard/read intriguing reviews.

Over the course of those first few days we would read a little bit together with newborn Sebastian. And we made a little progress in the first month or two of his life, but then our reading waned. So I decided recently to go ahead and finish the book. I'm glad we didn't end up reading the entire book together, as it is quite sad.

But mesmerizingly written. The novel is about memory, forgetfulness, and forgiveness set in a traumatized post-Arthurian Britain. From the beginning Michael and I were haunted by the story of an elderly couple of ancient Britons who realize a fog is stealing their memories and they set out to find their son running into a series of strange characters and scary creatures.

Captivating characters in a well-told story with depth and meaning. I recommend it.


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David Brooks is already missing Obama

David Brooks was one of those conservatives who embraced what he liked about Obama even back when the president was running for office.  Of course Brooks is very close to the kind of conservative I was when I used that term to describe myself.  

Today he has an elegaic piece on what he is already missing about Obama as he watches all the candidates to replace him.

But over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.

And I liked this section:

To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.


Listen to Him!

Listen to Him!

Luke 9:18-36

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

7 February 2016

 

 

    After all the stories of healings, exorcisms, and other miracles given to this point in the Gospel of Luke, the people are left puzzling "Who is this Jesus?" That's where today's stories pick up.

 

[Read Gospel]

 

    Our communion hymn today is one of the oldest hymns we sing. "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" was composed in the fourth century as part of the Divine Liturgy of Saint James—the liturgy of the Syriac and Indian Orthodox Churches. That knowledge always excites me a little when we do sing this hymn—Christians have been singing "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" for seventeen centuries, and mostly Asian Christians.

    The hymn was likely composed in Greek in the city of Jerusalem. Tradition held that the song was written by James, the brother of Jesus, but scholars think the song more likely comes from four centuries later.

    In the 19th century a movement arose in England seeking a return to ancient sources of Christian worship. So, in 1864 the Anglican priest Gerard Moultrie translated this hymn from Greek into the English text we are familiar with. Then, in 1906 the great composer Ralph Vaughn Williams paired the words with this tune Picardy, which is a French folk song. All of that I also find interesting—a fourth century Greek hymn, sung historically by Syrians and Indians, becomes an Episcopal hymn set to a French folk song and now we sing the hymn on the Great Plains of North America in the 21st century.

    In the Divine Liturgy of St. James "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" is sung as the Eucharistic elements are brought forward. The hymn conveys a sense of majesty, awe, and wonder. Maybe even the sublime. Yet the lyrics move from the heavenly throne room into ordinary earthly things – a teenage girl's womb, the body of an infant, blood, bread and wine.

    The hymn invites us into divine power and glory, by reminding us of the incarnation. That God became one of us. That God can appear in ordinary things like the food we eat. That we too are the presence of God. A fine hymn for Transfiguration Sunday.

 

    Luke Timothy Johnson writes, "The Word of God demands . . . a 'turning' of one's life." We are called to change our behavior in imitation of God.

    A few weeks ago when we explored the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness I said that Jesus is tempted with "the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires of all people," quoting theologian Willie James Jennings. Precisely he is tempted with self-sufficiency, authority, and the need to be safe and secure. The point of the temptations story was to make us aware that we could defeat these fears and enter into a new humanity. We can't be self-sufficient—we must learn to rely upon other people. We can't hold all the power, our vision is not the only one—we must share and work with others in a network of mutuality. And we cannot secure ourselves by walling ourselves off from people who are different from us. We must be vulnerable and open to the rich blessings of a diverse community.

    Jesus is God's agent of salvation pointing to these new possibilities and inviting us to follow, which is why the voice of God says "Listen to Him!" We are to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus in this new way because Jesus is the Messiah of God.

 

    What does Jesus mean, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me."

Let's begin with what the cross is not.

The beautiful hymn "Be Still My Soul" is quite wrong when it says "bear patiently the cross of grief or pain."

    The cross is not your personal burden. Aunt Myrtle might say of her rheumatism, "It's my cross to bear," but Aunt Myrtle is wrong. The cross as presented in the New Testament is not that.

I fully understand how for Aunt Myrtle viewing her rheumatism as her cross can be a helpful metaphor. Or for any number of people, viewing their personal burden as their cross to bear can give them comfort and courage. But that sort of piety is not what Jesus has in mind here in Luke chapter 9.

Also, carrying one's cross does not mean suffering silently at the hands of an abuser or oppressor. That misinterpretation has long been used to keep women, minorities, and the poor from claiming their rights and privileges. Jesus' cross is definitely not that.

In order to explain what Jesus does mean, I need to tell you a story.

 

My favorite theologian is the Baptist James McClendon. McClendon wrote a little book entitled Biography as Theology in which he explores the doctrine of the cross. McClendon thinks a teaching like this is only relevant to us if the teaching still has an effect on contemporary lives. Which means he isn't interested in the stories of Jesus if they are merely an historical artefact. He is interested in the stories of Jesus if those stories continue to change people's lives and change the world. If the stories aren't effective and relevant, then they are merely curiosities of a bygone age. So, does the story of the cross has any relevance or effectiveness for the contemporary world? Or, you can ask "Do lives that listen to Jesus and take up the cross daily work?"

McClendon thinks they do and in that little book he points to four lives—the composer Charles Ives, the diplomat Dag Hammarskjold, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Clarence Jordan.

Now Clarence Jordan is not a household name unless you were a liberal Baptist in the South. In 1942 Clarence Jordan and his wife and one other couple established Koinonia Farm outside Americus, Georgia. The word koinonia is Greek for communion. The goal of the farm was to create an interracial community in the midst of Southern segregation. According to the Wikipedia article, "The Koinonia partners bound themselves to the equality of all persons, rejection of violence, ecological stewardship, and common ownership of possessions."

As the Civil Rights Movement grew and developed, Koinonia Farm's way of life was perceived as a threat by its neighbors precisely because the farm demonstrated a way of life that worked and was contrary to Jim Crow.

Now, all of that was set up for my story. Here's the story, as recounted by Jim McClendon:

 

In the early fifties, it is told, Clarence approached his brother Robert Jordan, later a state senator and justice of the George Supreme Court, asking him to represent Koinonia Farm legally.

    "Clarence, I can't do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I've got."

    "We might lose everything too, Bob."

    "It's different for you."

    "Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, 'Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?' And I said, 'Yes.' What did you say?"

    "I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point."

    "Could that point by any chance be—the cross?"

    "That's right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I'm not getting myself crucified."

    "Then I don't believe you're a disciple. You're an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you're an admirer not a disciple."

    "Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn't have a church, would we?"

    "The question," Clarence said, "is, 'Do you have a church?'"

 

    Robert Jordan was true to his word. Later in his political career he defended segregation.

    Whereas Clarence Jordan affirmatively answers the question about the relevance of this story for contemporary life while at the same time answering our question—what Jesus means when he invites us to take up our crosses daily and follow him.

 

    A common theme of the great spiritual and philosophical teachings of this world is ridding ourselves of the control of the self. Our ego is the source of anxiety, hatred, violence, etc. The path to goodness is the path of "unselfing."

    Last semester in my Ethics class at Creighton University I concluded the semester with an essay written by the British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch in which she writes that the humble person is the one most likely to become good because the humble person has learned to see things as they are. But how has the humble person learned this? Murdoch says that beauty is the answer.

    People who care for potted plants or go bird-watching are learning the virtues, according to Murdoch. She says such people would probably be surprised that their enjoyable habit has anything to do with morality, but the surprise is one reason the habit is moral. Such habits draw us outside ourselves. But the kind of beauty she is most interested in is art. She writes, "the enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue."

    Last semester I surprised my students on the penultimate day of Ethics class by breaking them into groups and passing out to them a wide selection of paintings. I then instructed them to discover what was good in each of the paintings.

    To enjoy a great painting one usually must sit silently before the canvas. Which is one reason no one can enjoy the Mona Lisa anymore. The crowds and illegal camera flashes prevent any quiet sitting. When in Florence at the Uffizi Gallery in 2011 I sat before Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac for at least twenty minutes.

    And so this may not be Iris Murdoch's point, for she was an atheist, but I find a parallel with the wisdom of the stories we read today. The life of discipleship—of taking up our crosses daily and following Jesus—begins in listening. Did you notice that the story begins with Jesus praying alone, continues with Jesus taking the disciples up on the mountain to pray, and concludes with them keeping silent?

    The Syrian monk Isaac of Nineveh wrote, "If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God."

 

    So, the way to overcome our fears begins with prayer, with silence, with listening.


GOP's "Cancer" Diagnosis

A thoughtful, if predictable, essay on what Cruz and Trump reveal about the GOP.

The rise of Cruz and Trump are symptoms of a larger problem in the GOP, a problem of their own making. Because the Republican Party systematically purged its center-right, it doesn’t have the ballast to withstand Wingnuts anymore.

I'm one of those purged center-righters.


Life & Labors: Mormons, Railroad, Civil War, & Indian Raids

So, it appears that I sat aside Reuben Gaylord's Life and Letters for two years, as this was the last post. I plan on editing an abridged version and publishing it for our congregation's 160th anniversary this year.

In 1864 we catch up with the Gaylords still living in Omaha as they record their impressions of various events and daily life ministering on the frontier.

Seven hundred Mormons came up the other day on the boat.  They came on the deck, furnishing their own provisions.  But on their arrival their stores had failed them; they had exhausted the boat's supply, and scattered themselves over our town, begging food.  What must they suffer before they reach the Mormon paradise--Salt Lake City!  It is sad to think of what is before them.  Many of those that have come over from Europe this year are without means.  They are brought through by the church emigration fund.  Wagons have been sent down from Salt Lake to take out their baggage, while men, women, and children are compelled to walk the entire distance from here to Utah!  Surely, it is a pilgrimage.  Some have had their eyes open to see their error, and have concluded to go no farther.

Here's another of historical interest written by Mrs. Gaylord:

Mr. Gaylord was greatly interested in all public improvements and was especially happy over the advent of the Union Pacific railroad.  It was what had been long desired, expected, and waited for.  The very greatness of such a gigantic enterprise as this "world's highway" was uplifting and stimulating to thought and action. . . .  He looked at it in its local bearings upon us, so isolated and needy, but much more as an inestimable boon to our beloved country; and, both higher and deeper than all, as helping forward the progress of that Christianity which he longed should be hastened on, until multitudes more would yield joyful allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

And then this observation in Rev. Gaylord's hand:

Little, as yet, do we conceive of the wonderful changes that are to be wrought in the regions between us and the Pacific by this gigantic undertaking, or the work that is to be rolled upon the church, to give the Gospel to the future millions of the mighty West that is just springing into life.

Mrs. Gaylord opens a new chapter with this inauspicious paragraph:

The year 1864 opened with brightening prospects for our beloved country.  Through the smiles of a kind Providence upon the valor and heroism of our soldiers the dark clouds of war were being lifted, and the people saw with prophetic vision, the sunshine of peace beginning to dawn upon them.  Omaha, too, was feeling the inspiration of better times and of returning prosperity.  The prospect of peace in the near future, and work begun on the Union Pacific Railroad, stimulated a revival of business and gave our citizens courage to undertake new enterprises for the general welfare.  But early in the month of August this bow of promise was suddenly obscured, and Omaha intensely excited by a rumored invasion from guerrillas and Indians.  Roving bands of Sioux, said to be led by rebel white men disguised as savages, had been committing depredations in the Platte and Elkhorn valleys.  The remembrances of raids in Kansas by Quantrell's band, which had destroyed the city of Lawrence only a few months before, helped to increase the excitement.  But those fears were not realized, and before winter came on, the city had again settled down to the peaceful pursuit her wonted occupations.


Challenger

The only interest in the Challenger voyage was that a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was included.  Other than that, shuttle launches had become rather routine.  Back in Kindergarten we had gathered with all the other students in the school to watch the liftoff of Columbia, the first shuttle launch.  After that we continued to watch launches for the next few and then they ceased to be something that drew us out of the routine of a normal school day.  Now we were in sixth grade and only the first and second graders were going to be watching the launch as such things were still new and exciting to them.

We were in the middle of some classroom free time is Mrs. Astin's sixth grade.  In her class you could earn certain privileges to use during free time.  One was the ability to listen to music on your Walkman, which Angie Adams was doing that day.  Suddenly Angie, a tall blonde, stood up from her desk, pulled off her headphones, and said, "The shuttle just blew up."

Startled sixth grade faces all turned to Angie.  "Isn't that the one with the teacher?" someone who had been paying attention to their Weekly Reader asked.  Mrs. Astin looked alarmed.  She told us to wait a moment as she stepped outside into the media center which occupied the middle of Rockdale Elementary.  She quickly returned and told us that indeed the shuttle had exploded, and then our class went to sit in front of the television where the first and second graders had been watching, though they had already been ushered back to their classrooms.

That day was a Tuesday and an election day in Oklahoma, school elections I believe.  Our elementary was a precinct, so just inside our front doors were the elderly women who usually staff polling places.  As citizens came in to vote many were startled to see the coverage of the explosion on the big screen television and would join us momentarily to watch.

One element of the coverage that day has also stayed with me.  It was reported that when Nancy Reagan saw the explosion she said, "Oh, God."  

Until September 11, 2001 this was the moment when Gen-Xers remembered precisely where they were when they heard the news (the JFK assassination had been that for Baby Boomers).

A coda.  My parents, both school teachers, had been among the many thousands of educators who had initially applied to the program that eventually selected Christa McAuliffe.


Good News

Good News

Luke 7:1-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 January 2016

 

 

    The season of Epiphany is focused on the stories from the Gospel which manifest the divine power and glory of Jesus. Listen in today's stories for those moments when Jesus is revealed.

 

[Read Gospel]

 

    The First Central Book Club met this week in order to discuss Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon from Boston who is also an accomplished writer. His writing has centered on the shortcomings in medicine and the exploration of ways to do it better. This particular book is about the end of life—nursing homes, assisted living, death, and the difficult conversations around those topics.

    A few years ago we held a series of classes in First Forum on end of life issues entitled quite bluntly "Before You Die." I believe that series and the conversations it sparked are among the best ministry we've accomplished at First Central in my time as pastor. In another year or so, we should repeat that series.

 

    Gawande's book emphasized many of the points we've emphasized before—that everyone needs to be talking with their loved ones about end-of-life issues so that everyone can make better choices. Here he states the core ideas of his book:

 

The betrayals of body and mind that threaten to erase our character and memory remain among our most awful tortures. The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one's life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. Sickness and old age make the struggle hard enough. The professionals and institutions we turn to should not make it worse.

 

    Gawande argues that modern hospitals and nursing homes had sacrificed autonomy, integrity, and well-being for safety and extending life. Fortunately he believes that the tide is changing and that medicine is now becoming more concerned with overall health and well-being that allows patients to determine their priorities, which may not be taking the safest course or the course that extends their life. Autonomy, he argues, is being able to write your own story, and so we should be able to write our own story at the end of our lives.

    From palliative caregivers Gawande learned a series of questions to ask patients as they are approaching critical decisions—What do you understand? What are your biggest fears and concerns? What goals are most important to you? What tradeoffs are you willing to make and which are you not willing to make?

    As someone who often sits with families as they hold these conversations, and as someone who's been part of a family making those decisions (and failing to make them), I found Gawande's discussion encouraging and helpful. I wish I had known those questions years ago. They will definitely become part of my toolbox now. I may even print them off on a piece of paper and stick them in my wallet so they are always handy.

    I encourage everyone to read this book.

 

    Of course medicine was once much more focused on overall well-being, as modern medicine arose in faith communities. Historian of science George Sarton pronounced quite clearly that the hospital "is very distinctly Christian," though he acknowledges that they built upon a Jewish idea of the "house consecrated to the needy."

The first hospitals were created by Constantine the Great and his mother St. Helena as "establishments where a collective hospitality could be proffered not only to the sick, but also to the aged, to the lame, [mute], deaf, and blind, to strangers, even to those whose souls were ailing." The number of hospitals greatly expanded during the Middle Ages, often founded by religious orders. And in our own lifetimes we can remember when most hospitals were not corporations but were run by the various Christian denominations as non-profit charities.

 

The health ministries of the United Church of Christ are rooted in the Evangelical side of our history among German immigrants to the Midwest. Louis Edward Nollau, pastor of St. Peter's Evangelical Church in St. Louis, started Good Samaritan Hospital in 1856 and opened an orphanage in the church basement in 1858 after a devastating cholera epidemic. In 1889 that church helped in organizing the Evangelical Deaconess Society with the aim "to nurse the sick and exercise care for the poor and aged." The first Deaconess was Katherine Haack. These women were among the first to be officially commissioned and given leadership roles in the Evangelical churches. The Deaconess movement spread around the country and the globe and across denominations as hospitals and care centers were opened.

These original, nineteenth century health ministries of the Evangelical Synod continue as part of the United Church of Christ's Council for Health and Human Services Ministries which oversees 363 health centers. According to the CHHSM website "These include acute health care services, services to persons with developmental disabilities, services to children, youth and families, and services to the aging."

 

Why this focus on health ministries in the Christian church? Because healing was central to the life and ministry of Jesus, and Jesus understood healing to be about overall well-being—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual, but also including economic and political well-being in a healthier society.

When John the Baptist wanted to know if Jesus was in fact the Messiah sent by God to bring salvation to the earth, Jesus' answer was "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them."

The great preacher Fred Craddock wrote of this story, "And now most pointedly the question arises, Can someone who gives time and attention to the dead, the very poor, the outcast, the acknowledged violator of the law, and the diseased be God's Messiah?"

These stories of Jesus healing are part of the revelation that he is God's agent and tells us something about who God is. These stories connect Jesus to the great prophetic tradition of Israel. Like Elisha, he heals a foreign soldier. Like Elijah, he shows compassion upon a widow and raises her son. Like Isaiah, he imagines a world where the outcasts are included. God is inclusive, merciful, and compassionate.

These are not simply miracles—signs and wonders. We readers of the biblical story learn that any time miracles appear they always serve as signs pointing to some truth God is revealing. The miracle serves the purpose of flashing neon lights or simply a person jumping up and down, waving their arms, and saying "Look over here. Pay attention."

And what deep truth do these miracles point to? The poor and the disabled and the excluded are receiving good news.

What is the good news?

God is visiting. God has come among the poor, the disabled, and the excluded. God knows their suffering and their pain. And God is working to bring them wholeness and new life.

To answer Fred Craddock's question, the Messiah is precisely the person who spends time with the poor and needy. Which is why the Christian church has so often dedicated itself to ministries of health and well-being.

 

 

The other night during the Book Club I sat and listened as those present shared very personal stories of how they dealt with difficult end-of-life questions with parents and other loved ones. And I shared my stories of my own family and some of the church members who I've assisted in making those decisions.

Part of the power of the Christian church is that we are simply present in those moments. And by our presence we are a reminder that God is present. The merciful, compassionate God is still visiting. God is with us in all the moments of our lives, the sorrows and the joys, working to bring wholeness and life. That is good news to remember.


Simon Critchley on Bowie

A personal eulogy and analysis from Simon Critchley, including this fabulous paragraph:

Within Bowie’s negativity, beneath his apparent naysaying and gloom, one can hear a clear Yes, an absolute and unconditional affirmation of life in all of its chaotic complexity, but also its moments of transport and delight. For Bowie, I think, it is only when we clear away all the fakery of social convention, the popery and jiggery-pokery of organized religion and the compulsory happiness that plagues our culture that we can hear the Yes that resounds across his music.


When Philosophy Lost Its Way

A provocative essay that I mostly agree with.

I'm glad when I teach philosophy I explicitly tell my students that the goal of the class is to make them a better person.  I explain that there is a difference between philosophy as the broad human endeavor to explore the big questions and the narrow academic discipline and that in our class we'll be more focused on the former.


Trump, Purity, & Disgust

A very interesting article explaining Trump's rise on his use of the concepts of purity and disgust.  Excerpt:

More than any other Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump has been appealing to a particular combination of in-group loyalty and moral purity concerns. On the purity side, he often expresses disgust, often toward women and women’s bodies (e.g., Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic debate). But his purity appeals are most commonly in the context of group boundaries, like building walls on our national borders to prevent contamination by outsiders, who are cast as murderers and rapists, both morally and physically dirty.


Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been intending to read this book for a while and was finally compelled to when the church's book club picked it as its January read. I wish I had read it earlier. As someone who often intersects with families while they are making end-of-life and treatment decisions, I resonate with much of what Gawande writes in way of criticism of the current medical profession and advice for how to do things better. I am also very drawn to the questions he has learned to use with patients. I will likely print those questions off and keep them in my wallet to use when I'm having those conversations with families.

The book also aroused my never fully dispelled anger over my Grandfather's final years.

The one thing lacking in the book is the role of faith communities. Gawande himself is not religious, as he admits, but I was surprised that in none of his stories was a rabbi, priest, minister, imam, etc. involved in the conversations with families. In my experience religious families usually have the informational conversations with physicians and the values and priorities conversations with faith leaders.

Also, similarly, was missing any history of medicine. The more corporate and fix-it model of medicine he criticizes was an historical aberration, for even in my lifetime hospitals were predominately religious-based non-profits. And the history of hospitals is largely a history of religious orders and denominations. Under that historical model overall well-being was part of the healing endeavor. So, what he is encouraging is a return to an older model.

I do think EVERYONE should read this book.

View all my reviews