My bathroom reading the last few months has been Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Yesterday I finished the section on Tiberius. He was awful! Reading these accounts put so much of the anti-imperial language of the New Testament into context, particularly where it relates to sexual issues.
I've finally joined Facebook.
Our church website has some new features.
Sermons are podcast here. You can subscrie to the iTunes feed and it will automatically update your iTunes. Soon I hope to begin podcasting other things, like a Thursday podcast to discuss the upcoming worship.
We have added a blog feature so team leaders can post updates on our various ministries and programs. It is only in the earliest stages, but you can see it here.
We are now going to start using our discussion forum feature. I've posted three topics to get us started. I plan on using this feature to discuss the weekly lectionary readings and issues that arise from them. This year we have all commited to read the texts together. Anyone can participate in this forum.
In the late '90's, as the various lists of the top books of the twentieth century were being published, I realized that despite being an avid reader from childhood, I had read very few of the books on the lists. I then made an effort to "catch up" and, a decade later, still have a long way to go. Now I view it as a life of reading that I have before me and there is still so much of it to be lived.
One writer I had read nothing of was John Updike. Shortly after those lists came out I had read my first Updike, Roth, Morrison, Rushdie -- and then spent the next few years reading a handful of work by each of those authors.
The first Updike I read was Rabbit, Run. I checked it out of the Shawnee library, and only later bought a copy when I realized that I wanted the four Rabbit novels in my collection.
I got that Rabbit, Run had been important when published, but I really didn't care much for it. I like Rabbit Redux even less. But by the time I read Rabbit is Rich, I had the rhythm. I understood that late twentienth century American life was being chronicled with insight, particularly the way the average American dealt with the powerful forces of religion and sex, which to me seem to be powerfully at play in all the Updike novels I've read. I loved Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit and Rest. I had come to feel affection for Harry Angstrom and was moved by his death. Writing in the NYTimes, Michiko Kakutani writes of these novels,
In fulfilling Stendhal’s classic definition of a novel as “a mirror that strolls along a highway,” reflecting both the “blue of the skies” and “the mud puddles underfoot,” the Rabbit novels captured four decades of middle-class American life.
The novella "Rabit Remembered," which appeared in the short story collection Licks of Love, was a nice way to catch up with familiar characters ten years after Harry's death, but was otherwise a forgettable addition to this four volume classic.
I have read seven (of over 50) Updike books. My favourite, and the first one I loved, is In the Beauty of the Lilies. Today I keep reading that it was underestimated, and I have to agree. It is a gorgeous epic of American life in the 20th century through four generations of one family. And faith is a major character. I have even preached a sermon on this novel. My mother is currently reading the copy which I gave her.
One thing I haven't seen much of yet, is Updike's importance as a Christian writer. I do think he was one of the most important voices writing about twentieth century American Christianity. I think other pastors get this, from what I've seen written about him before in various magazines and journals that mostly preachers read, but I don't think the general public has classified him as a Christian author.
James Wolcott at Vanity Fair wrote, "His death, even at the age of 76, seems abrupt, unjust." It felt that way to me, as well.
Not because Updike was my favourite novelist, but because his was such a wonderfully insightful take on American life in our times, a kind voice that we will miss.
In In the Beauty of the Lilies, the child Essie has just lost a beauty pageant, and Updike writes, "For flesh to feel like something good, your spirit has to be up." Before sitting down to write, I looked through the volumes of Updike I own, seeing what lines I had marked and indexed in the back (as is my custom), and this line was one. To me, this line captures much of what I've gotten out of Updike's novels and stories.
I've done a variety of things. We've cooked some good meals, having the time to really work on some things. I also got the usual three days worth of work done in only a day and a half, which has left me plenty of time to read. I've been waiting for a winter storm to curl up and read The Golden Compass, which I've been doing.
I've also watched bad tv. There is the usual making fun of the local weather people. This season I've been watching the Bachelor for the first time ever. The previews of Jason as single dad (hot, single dad) intrigued me and so I'm hooked, on a show that previously I couldn't have care less about. Last night was filled with drama, as Nikki, my favourite before last night's episode and her meltdown, left.
This was followed by True Beauty, which I've also been watching. A cool concept; poor in execution. Last night I actually sent a complaint to ABC for what I thought was racist content on the show. Michael and I won't be watching it anymore.
Today I chatted with family and hear about my uncle's partners wreck yesterday in which her car flipped. Then, the ambulance she was in became part of a pile up and was hit 5-6 times. She ended up not be admitted to the hospital, making it through all that physically okay, but terrified.
When I heard that John Updike had died, I went and pulled out all his books on my shelf, as an homage. Michael snickered at that. I told him that he was lucky to find me, I'm a diamond in the rough. :)
And tonight I read that scholars now think Goya didn't paint The Colossus.
Errol Morris interviewed the heads of the photo divisions of the three wire services, asking them about the images from the Bush administration that they found most iconic. It is a fascinating piece which I encourage you to read, here.
Come With Me
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
25 January 2009
Diogenes Laertius tells the following story of the encounter between the philosopher Socrates and the young man Xenophon:
The story goes that Socrates met him in a narrow passage, and that he stretched out his stick to bar the way, while he inquired where every kind of food was sold. Upon receiving a reply, he put another question. "And where do men become good and honorable?" Xenophon was puzzled; "Then follow me," said Socrates, "and learn." From that time onward he was a pupil of Socrates.
Imagine yourselves in the same situation. Stopped by some random guy on the street who blocks your way and asks you this same question, "Where do people go to become good?" How would you answer that question?
Then imagine this same random guy saying, "Follow me." How would most of us respond to that question? Well, some of us would probably just consider the guy eccentric or a little crazy and try to move on. A few of us would probably fear that the situation was dangerous and pull out our pepper spray. The few who are more sexually adventurous would probably look the guy up and down before deciding how to respond. But I can imagine that almost none of us would simply follow.
And I can't imagine that people have changed all that much in this regard. Some fundamentals of human nature reasonably stay the same. So, what would compel a young man like Xenophon to follow Socrates? Maybe Xenophon was adventurous. Or, maybe he was a lost young man looking for something.
I imagine, though, that one would follow because there was something compelling about Socrates himself. Maybe some wisdom in his eyes? Maybe something inspiring about the way he spoke? Maybe his bearing conveyed confidence?
Maybe we have experienced something similar this last year as many people, particularly young people, found Barack Obama so compelling that they simply had to follow.
These stories of direct call and response are known in the ancient world, but they had particular strength in the biblical tradition. The paradigmatic example was the call of Abram. Abram was a successful, rich man living in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, one of the great cities of the world at that time. Actually, one of the few cities in the entire world at that time. Abram lived with his extended family; he worshipped the gods of his culture. He was probably comfortable and secure. Then, Abram received a call from the god Yahweh to leave his home, his family, and his traditional faith and to follow Yahweh to a land that Yahweh would show him. No explanation. No detailed description of where they were going, how they were going to get there, or what would happen when they arrived. But Abram packed everything up and followed.
And in doing so, he set a pattern that would echo down the ages through the biblical story. Moses, shepherding his flock of sheep, encounters a burning bush and a voice which calls him to lead his people. The boy Samuel is awakened from sleep by a voice calling in the night. Jonah receives the call to go to Nineveh, the capital of the enemy, the source of great oppression and violence against his people. Unlike the others, Jonah tries to escape God's call, but he finds out just how compelling God can be!
Maybe we can understand the immediate and silent responses of Andrew, Simon, James, and John in this context. Maybe their religious tradition had prepared them for the unexpected? Maybe they sensed the possibility that God was at work in this surprising call?
But that does not lessen the risk. We know that there were numerous messiah movements in Israel in the decades before and after Jesus. Many movements like Jesus' formed quickly, spread, and then dispersed, sometimes after violent persecution. And a couple of them led to insurrection, war, and in the second century the destruction of Jerusalem.
God might be at work. Or it might be another false prophet. Or this path might lead to our death and the deaths of our families and friends. All of this may have run through their minds in those few seconds, and still they followed. Jesus was that compelling.
I like what Mary Frances had to say last week in our discussion in the Formations class:
There is something terribly intimate about following someone.
She said it was more intimate than being family or friends. To follow someone means that we believe them, believe in them, place our faith and trust in them. In other words, we risk everything because of who we believe that person to be.
We love people and know that they will sooner or later hurt us and break our hearts. We often love someone despite their faults. But when it comes to following someone, we don't so easily overlook failures and faults. We want those we follow to be perfect. To do everything we expect them to do. And when they act differently than we expected, we feel betrayed.
To loyally follow someone is an act of great faith and great courage. It is a re-ordering of our lives. We call this re-ordering "repentance." To repent is not simply to feel sorry about something we have done. Repentance is not simply making our list of new year's resolutions as to what we will do differently this year. Repentance is to change direction. It is a dramatic break with our past, with the status quo. Again, the paradigm is Abram, to get up from one's comfortable life and venture bravely into the unknown. Or like James and John, to leave their father, their obligations to family, and the way of life they are good at, and follow this guy they've never met before. Repentance is the adventure of the unknown.
"I will make you fishers of people," Jesus says. Would it surprise you to know that this is not simply a convenient metaphor which relates to the profession of these four disciples? Would it surprise you to know that even this invitation has a cultural context and a rich meaning?
Sharyn Dowd, professor at Baylor, records that in Greek culture there was a popular image of being caught in the nets of the gods. This was an image of personal salvation. According to the popular metaphor, both the gods and demons would cast their nets, fishing for people.
In Jewish tradition fishers of people were God's agents. This image is found in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and was even in the popular fiction of the period. In a novella entitled Joseph and Aseneth, Aseneth, an Egyptian princess is converted through the witness of Joseph, of whom she says, "by his wisdom he grasped me like a fish on a hook, and by his spirit, as by bait of life, he ensnared me."
The invitation to become "fishers of people" was an invitation to become an agent of God, to take on a divine role in the salvation of people.
What sort of follower should we be?
This week Bruce Wilson wrote on the Huffington Post about a rally which Rick Warren held in a Los Angeles sports stadium for the members of Saddleback Church. Here is Wilson's account of the sermon:
Calling for "total mobilization of this church" and "radical devotion" to the cause, Pastor Warren sketched out his vision, which he declared was from God, of a "revolution", launched through Warren's "Purpose Driven" network of hundreds of thousands [of] pastors globally, to create a Christian world regime.
Though Warren's speech was in the idiom of Christianity, he did not seek to inspire his Saddleback audience with examples of great religious leaders who have changed history through persuasion or other nonviolent approaches. Rick Warren looked to 20th century exemplars of vision and dedication but not to Mohatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or any other religious leaders.
With more than a hint of admiration in his voice, pastor Warren described how in 1939 in a packed Munich Stadium before the leader of the Third Reich, young brown-shirted men and women spelled out in formation, with their bodies, words in German which read "Hitler, we are yours."
"And they nearly took the world, " pastor Rick told the stadium crowd. He moved on to quote another inspirational example from the 20th Century, Lenin, who said 'give me 100 committed, totally committed men and I'll change the world.' Once again Warren observed, "They nearly did."
Having cited dedication and zeal of young Nazis and the efficacy of Bolshevik Revolutionaries, Warren moved on to describe how the sayings of Chairman Mao, printed up in the "Little Red Book", had helped propel the revolutionary fervor of the Chinese Red Guard who had carried out the violent, anarchic revolutionary spasm known as the Cultural Revolution.
With those examples fresh in his audience's mind, Rick Warren instructed the crowd of his thirty thousand to hold up pre-printed signs, within their programs, white letters against a red background, that said "Whatever it takes."
Looking out at the crowd Warren enthused, "I'm looking at a stadium full of people who are saying, 'whatever it takes, God'.
I do not believe that we are called to a blind devotion. I believe that God wants to engage us as free and beautiful individuals, not as fanatics. I reject these comparisons of Christianity to the Nazi youth, the Bolsheviks, and Cultural Revolution. These are not models for Christian discipleship.
Maurice Fetty worries that in our effort to avoid Rick Warren-style fanaticism, we have gone too far to the other extreme. He writes, "We want a Reader Digest Bible where Adam and Eve goofed, Noah cruised on a rainy weekend, and God gave two or three suggestions. . . . Fearful of fanaticism, we founder on nihilism – nothing."
One reason we celebrated the life of our martyred brother Martin Luther King, Jr. last week is that he and his movement do serve as examples of Christian discipleship. Christian discipleship is modeled in the courage of those who marched on the Edmund Pettis bridge; those who became the victims of the violence of an oppressive regime. Their Bloody Sunday was actually a Good Friday. And Christian Good Fridays move to Easter Sundays. Because of the sacrifice of those freedom marchers, Jim Crow ended, and this week we moved one step closer to the beloved community.
When we follow, the results may not be immediate, but we can trust God to work through us and others like us to achieve our dreams.
Let's go back to Mary Frances again,
There is something terribly intimate about following someone.
God interrupts our normalcy, surprising us with an invitation. Come with me, and I will share divine power with you which you can use in the service of others. This adventure calls you to repent, to change direction and enter the unknown. Despite the risk, it is an invitation you can trust, because you are invited into an intimate relationship with God.
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from God,
God alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
Jesus cals, "Come with me." Let us follow.
Four schismatic bishops who were excommunicated by John Paul II have been reinstated to the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Benedict. They have not yet been accepted as bishops, but they were referred to with that title by the Vatican. These bishops reject Vatican II and one of them is a Holocaust denier. This is disturbing news. Read the full story here.
It is fun to see this list now posted on the White House website.
What we should really be afraid of is those who support governmental control of our bodies. Don’t be fooled, because that’s what many of the falsely called “pro-life” members of our legislature are after. It is their ideology that government can dictate to a person what they can and cannot do in matters of their own health. . . . [Read the rest of my Oklahoma Gazette column here]