The Much More

Enjoyed this paragraph from John Cobb's Jesus' Abba in my reading today:

In these and many other instances people realize that the world contains possibilities that cannot be measured in terms of degrees of pleasure, enjoyment, or satisfaction.  There is something more, something much more, a treasure or many treasures that belong to a different dimension of experience.  These moments of blessedness feel like a gift.  It is natural to give thanks.

Rice, Obama, & the Long View

According to this article on Vox, Susan Rice believes that the world has never been better.  This is indicative of the long view that the Obama foreign policy team takes and which it struggles to communicate to the general public.  This paragraph is a good summary of the article:

The result is a sharp tension at the heart of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Team Obama tries to take the long view, and occasionally succeeds — see the Paris climate change agreement or the Iran nuclear deal. But the issues that command attention from both the American public and American allies often are more immediate, and require the Obama administration to divert resources toward daily crises that they would prefer to mostly ignore. These issues, like Syria, have come to define Team Obama’s time in office in the public eye.

In the Cross of Christ I Glory

In the Cross of Christ I Glory

Galatians 6:12-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

21 August 2016


    "In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o'er the wrecks of time" may be my favourite line in Christian hymnody. Not my favourite hymn mind you, but I delight in that image—the cross, an accursed symbol of torture and pain, a symbol of defeat really, standing victorious when all else has been wrecked.

    This week I did a little reading on this hymn, particularly its author, Sir John Bowring, who had a quite full life. Bowring knew 200 languages and could speak 100. Besides writing his own poems, he translated a vast quantity of world literature into English. He was also a political reformer, a friend of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and a supporter of liberal causes. He was also an early railroad man, succeeding in that business enterprise. He was a member of the English parliament and a diplomat, rising to serve as the Governor of the British colony of Hong Kong. He also knew adversity. While governor of Hong Kong, his household was poisoned by arsenic and his wife did not survive.

    "Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure, by the cross are sanctified," he wrote. Bowring was acquainted with both.

    This hymn imagines the cross as immediately relevant to pastoral care—"when the woes of life o'ertake me, hopes deceive, and fears annoy, never shall the cross forsake me: Lo! It glows with peace and joy." When you look at the cross during worship, do any of these emotions register with you?

    Today I want to talk about the cross, but not about atonement theories or Good Friday stories, but rather this symbol which stands here at the front of our worship every week. What is its meaning? What role does it play in worship? How is the cross part of God's shaping ordinary us into something holy and extraordinary?


    Let's begin by looking a little more closely at the text I've chosen for today from the closing verses of Paul's letter to the churches in Galatia.

    Now Paul the missionary apostle is writing to this early church in order to address a problem that has arisen around who exactly is part of the people of God. The issue here is particularly related to circumcision, the ancient Jewish practice first given by God to Abraham at the dawn of the biblical story. The question for Paul and his contemporaries is--Will God's command to Abraham still be relevant to the people of God in the first century?

    In some ways this early church grappling with this question is very similar to what contemporary churches do. All the time we must deal with questions about how the ancient commands relate to our time and place. Just in my lifetime churches have radically altered their views on marriage and divorce, the role of women, and the inclusion of LGBT people. We should be guided in how we address such questions by the way Paul and the early Christians handled their questions—with creativity and innovation listening to a Stillspeaking God.

    For Paul the practice of circumcision is no longer necessary to identify who is part of God's family and who isn't. Paul advocates for a broad and inclusive vision of the family of God. No one practice, like circumcision, identifies us. Our identity has been radically altered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus which has revealed God's cosmic plan to include all creation. According to scholar N. T. Wright, "the crucifixion of the Messiah means that everything has been turned inside out, not simply his own self, not simply Israel, but the entire cosmos."

    And so the issue is actually much bigger than the problem the Galatian church was having. God is changing the entire cosmos and we are all invited to become participants in that change.

    Paul, therefore, boasted in this letter in his new identity as one victorious over everything. He wrote, "From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body."


    But why the cross? Why would this symbol become the symbol of cosmic victory over all the forces that would trouble us?

    The cross is, prima facie, a symbol of pain, suffering, failure, and death. The Hebrew tradition was that anyone who died hanging upon a tree was cursed. The Romans used crucifixion as a means of terrorizing and controlling occupied populations. And cross imagery has remained constant as symbols of pain and death. For example, the poem "On the Cross" by the Polish writer Anna Kamienska imagines the hospital bed as a crucifixion:


He was dying on the cross
on a hospital bed
loneliness stood there by his side
the mother of sorrows


    And there are parallels with the cross in 20th century images of lynching. For instance the powerful song "Strange Fruit"


Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees


    Or Elton John's song "American Triangle" about the anti-gay hate crime murder of Matthew Shephard:


I've seen a scarecrow wrapped in wire

Left to die on a high ridge fence

It's a cold, cold wind


    And so we decorate our altar with a symbol of pain, death, terror, murder, and lynching.


    Yet we do so because the Christian story is that at the moment of deepest pain . . . death and suffering have been defeated by the compassion and grace of God. The cross is the symbol of hope and courage that we can and will defeat all that oppresses and troubles us by participating in God's new creation. We take a symbol meant for one thing and convert it into something else in a profound act of courage, creativity, and chutzpah.

    Let me give you another example to illustrate. I have a lot of what I call "activist bling"—pins, buttons, wristbands, etc. for all sorts of causes. Over the years as I've attended rallies and vigils, spoken before governmental bodies, participated in panels in classrooms, I've looked through my bling to see what to wear that fit that occasion. Sometimes I wear my God is Still Speaking red comma, for instance, or my gay pride rainbow wristband.

    The most powerful piece of bling I own this small lapel pin—a pink triangle on top of a golden cross. The pink triangle is the badge that the Nazis compelled gay men to wear during the Third Reich, similar to the yellow star of David worn by Jews. But in the era of gay liberation the pink triangle was reclaimed as symbol of identity and the struggle for freedom. Out of a painful past a new age would be born.

    I find the cross and pink triangle combination to be particularly poignant. Two symbols of imperial injustice, two symbols of torture, two symbols of affliction creatively and courageously reclaimed as symbols of liberation. I am a Christian and I am a gay man and remembering the pains of the past I look forward in hope to a new creation. To quote Paul again, "Let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body."


Every Sunday, then, this cross sits here as a reminder of pain, yes, but also of pain's defeat and our hope.

Worship is the place where God calls us to become fully human, to become holy, and extraordinary. For this hour, at least, let us taste of that victory and experience our fullness in the people of God, so that we might carry our triumph with us every day.

Trump & the Olympics

An interesting point being made on how the Olympics has hurt the Trump campaign:

The Olympics is about the worst thing that could have happened to the Trump train. Here’s a candidate whose message depends entirely on convincing Americans that they’re living in a failing nation overrun by criminal immigrants. And for the past two weeks, tens of millions of Americans have been glued to a multi-ethnic parade of athletes, winning easily. “Make America Great Again” has never felt more out-of-touch than it does against the backdrop of tenacious, over-achieving American athletes driven by their own journeys in pursuit of the American Dream.

Read more:
Follow us: @politico on Twitter | Politico on Facebook

John McLaughlin

Eleanor Clift delivered a fine eulogy to McLaughlin.  

Particularly in the Nineties and early Aughts I watched the show avidly.  In places I lived, primarily Oklahoma, the show aired at 2 p. m. on Sunday afternoon.  I would come home from lunch and watch just before taking my Sunday afternoon nap.

Though McLaughlin pioneered the entertaining, combative talking head show that has become such a sad fixture of American discourse, his show was always smarter and the combat was between intellects and their ideas.

Top writers choose books to make sense of the US election

An interesting selection of observations in the Guardian by authors on the U. S. election, primarily focusing on explaining Donald Trump.  Sinclair Lewis novels are the most suggested.  Is Lewis' stature on the rise again?

Most interesting to me was Oliver Burkeman's reflection on the role of death in explaining the Trump campaign.  "Trump’s popularity has been variously attributed to racism, misogyny and economic insecurity; but the authors show how all these only get their urgency from the unspoken, underlying fear of literal demise."

1996 and the death of alternative rock

1996 I graduated from college and that summer I neither worked nor went to school, wanting a break before graduate school--it was the last long break before this summer's sabbatical.  Derrek, Ben, and I moved into our Dorothy Street house and most days I mixed reading and housekeeping with hanging out with our wide circle of friends.  It was a fun summer.

And according to this brilliant article 1996 was the year that alternative rock died.  I, in somewhat of a hyperbolic joke, stated on Facebook that this article made sense of my life in a way nothing else ever had.

A few comments on some of the contents of the article.

My own musical tastes were evolving at this time.  I was surrounded by a number of friends with great tastes and broad collections, and they have continued over the decades to influence me.

R. E. M. had been my favourite band since high school, and still is.  Though I must admit that in 1996 New Adventures in Hi-Fi wasn't something I rushed out to get.

I was behind-the-curve on grunge and much of the early 90's alternative music.  When I was in high school in Miami, Oklahoma it was the era when country stars like Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, and Clint Black were on top.  That's what most folk in my high school were listening to.  Or, alternatively, Boyz II Men.  Only a few odd folks were listening to the stuff from Seattle.  It was really in my mid-late twenties that I finally embraced the great music of my adolescence (isn't part of the fun of the 20's those epiphanic moments of discovery or rediscovery?).  

In 1996 my roommates were listening to an inordinate amount of The Counting Crows.  Because of that I didn't get into them because I was burned out on them.  It was years later when I collected their albums, long after I was living alone.  And I've got touching memories of "Round Here" and "Mr. Jones" from the turn of the century.

Dave Matthews Band seemed to be the most popular band among the teens I was working with at the turn of the century in Shawnee, Oklahoma.  I was into them as well, though I summarily abandoned the ban with the release of Busted Stuff and have rarely since listened to music I listened to often once upon a time.

I didn't fully embrace The Smashing Pumpkins until the early Aughts, when to do so was somewhat sentimental.  As I was in full-time ministry the spiritual aspects of the songs resonated with me.

Near the end of the article he discusses the emerging Indie Rock of the late 90's that ultimately replaced the alternative season and fortunately never became mainstream.  Tim Youmans introduced me first to Wilco about this time and living in Fayetteville, Arkansas in the early Aughts and working with David Breckenridge (who came there from Austin) acquainted me with the rich indie rock tradition that basically became my favourite genre of music and has persisted so ever since.

Evangelicals should apologize to Bill

A powerful piece in the Atlantic calls out the hypocrisy of many evangelical leaders who denounced Bill Clinton in the 1990's for supposedly moral instead of partisan reasons and yet embrace Donald Trump who has so often violated those moral principles.  The article further makes this poignant and accurate point:

Although both Bill Clinton and Trump have a morally checkered past, only one of them has apologized for his failings. In September of 1998, a solemn Bill Clinton asked that the country, his family, and God to forgive him, saying, “I have sinned.” Evangelical leaders largely dismissed his apology and continued their calls for impeachment. By contrast, Trump says he has never asked God for forgiveness. Conservative Christians were unwilling to extend mercy to a Democrat who asked for it but have offered it freely to a Republican who doesn’t want it.

The conclusion, which I hope is true:

All of this signals something bigger: an end to meaningful evangelical power and influence.