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June 2014

The Crux of Ginsburg's Dissent

Ginsburg's dissent is, to me, a far more persuasive and compelling set of arguments than those promulgated by the majority in the Hobby Lobby case.  The crux of Ginsburg's argument is a point that the majority, as far as I can tell, basically ignored:

Importantly, the decisions whether to claim benefits under the plans are made not by Hobby Lobby or Conestoga, but by the covered employees and dependents, in consultation with their health care providers.  Should an employee of Hobby Lobby or Conestoga share the religious beliefs of the Greens and Hahns, she is of course under no compulsion to use the contraceptives in question.  But “[n]o individual decision by an employee and her physician—be it to use contraception, treat an infection, or have a hip replaced--is in any meaningful sense [her employer’s] decision or action.”  Grote v. Sebelius, 708 F. 3d 850, 865 (CA7 2013) (Rovner, J., dissenting).  It is doubtful that Congress, when it specified that burdens must be "substantial," had in mind a linkage thus interrupted by independent decisionmakers (the woman and her health counselor) standing between the challenged government action and the religious exercise claimed to be infringed.  Any decision to use contraceptives made by a woman covered under Hobby Lobby’s or Conestoga’s plan will not be propelled by the Government, it will be the woman’s autonomous choice, informed by the physician she consults.

The majority on the Court does not seem to comprehend how this part of the ACA was supposed to enhance the autonomy of women.


Today I continue my blog series on hymns.  The last post was June 4 on Thanksgiving.  I didn't pack hymnals along for my trip to Yale, so there was a hiatus while I was away.  This is the twenty-second post in the series.

It was also at Rolling Hills Baptist Church that I began participating in worship planning for the season of Advent.  Growing up at First Baptist Miami, the church did not observe Advent, though our family did, lighting the candles of an Advent wreath at home during Sunday dinner.  At First Baptst Church of Shawnee the church did observe the season.

David Breckenridge, the Senior Pastor at Rolling Hills, was big into Advent planning.  Months ahead of time the entire staff would meet and plan not only the overarching theme, but also the specific details of each Sunday, including the hymns.  Rolling Hills then produced a booklet every year for Advent, complete with all the orders of worship and daily devotional written by the church members.  At Royal Lane we would plan similarly, and also produced elaborate, beautiful Advent booklets.

At Rolling Hills we were very concerned with distinguishing between Advent and Christmas, though we were limited in what music to pick, as The Baptist Hymnal only included eight Advent hymns.  At subsequent churches I served, we had more to choose from and were even more diligent about saving Christmas carols until at least the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and sometimes here at First Central we've sung no Christmas carols until Christmas Eve.

The greatest Advent carol, and one I've occassionally found use for at other times of the year, is the ancient hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel:

O come, O come, Emmaneul, 
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

As the New Century Hymnal notes, "In the medieval Western church, seven "Great O" antiphons, the basis for this hymn, were sung consecutively on the seven days before Christmas, ending with what appears above as the first stanza."  A few years ago, here at First Central, we did a special Wednesday night worship during Advent focused on these antiphons and the names of God reflected in each one.  My favourite has always been:

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

Less beautiful, but still a standard is the Charles Wesley hymn, set to HYFRYDOL "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus."

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of ev'ry nation,
Joy of ev'ry longing heart.

Only at Rolling Hills, among the places I served, did "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" become a standard we sang every Advent (again, we only had eight choices in the hymnal).  In other churches it gets sung every now and then during the season.

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming
As men of old have sung.
It came, a flower bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half-gone was the night.

One of my favourite Advent hymns appears in the UCC's New Century Hymnal in the communion section.  It dates from the fourth century and the Antiochene or West Syrian church as part of the Liturgy of St. James.  In that liturgy it is the "Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn" and is sung as the communion elements are brought to the table.  It is commonly sung during Advent in many contemporary churches.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded.
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

At Rolling Hills I used this hymn effectively once during our annual lessons and carols service which we held on a Sunday evening out at the Belle Gable Chapel.  Our Advent theme that year had to do with light, and I picked some unconventional lessons but which worked well, including pairing this hymn with the passage from Ezekiel 1 where the prophet has the vision of the wheel within a wheel.

While serving at Royal Lane Baptist Church, I would acquire a new favourite Advent hymn, which I first learned there and have sung at the two subsequent churches.  Here is the version I first learned from the hymnal Worship & Rejoice.

Awake!  awake, and greet the new morn, for angels herald its dawning.
Sing out your joy, for soon he is born, behold! the Child of our longing.
Come as a baby weak and poor to bring all hearts together, 
He opens wide the heavenly door and lives now inside us forever.

The verse I like best is the third:

In darkest night his coming shall be, when all the world is despairing,
As morning light so quiet and free, so warm and gentle and caring.
Then shall the mute break forth in song, the lame shall leap in wonder,
The weak be raised above the strong, and weapons be broken asunder.

In the NCH the last part of that verse becomes:

One without voice breaks forth in song, a lame one leaps in wonder,
The weak are raise above the strong, and weapons are broken asunder.

The final part of the fourth verse is also nice:

Love be our song and love our prayer, and love, our endless story,
May God fill every day we share, and bring us at last into glory.

I really like that "Love, our endless story."

Other Worlds

This excerpted from a Wendell Berry poem I read this morning entitled "The Old Man Climbs a Tree:"

He perched there, ungravitied as a bird,
knotting his rope and looking about, worlded
in worlds on worlds, pleased, and unafraid.

There are no worlds but other worlds
and all the other worlds are here,
reached or almost reachable by the same
outstretching hand, as he, perched upon
his high branch, almost imagined flight.
And yet when he descended into this other
other world, he climbed down all the way.
He did not swing out from a lower limb
and drop, as once he would have done.

What Is Love?

What Is Love?

John 15:12-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

29 June 2014



    It is good to be back with you after three Sundays absenct. I was attending the Yale Writers' Conference and had a delightful time. One of the biggest surprises of the trip occurred on Pentecost Sunday, when I chose to attend worship at Center Church On-the-Green, the historic UCC congregation that sits in the middle of the New Haven green. Shortly after I sat down in the pew, as I was reading over the bulletin, a man walked up to shake my hand and say, "Welcome to New Haven." As I looked up, it was our own Bruce Garver. He and Karen had walked in behind me. It truly is a small world when you can cross half a continent and go to church with the same people you see every Sunday. Bruce and Karen had been members of that church forty years before, and Bruce had been the moderator. So, it makes sense that they would be there on their vacation, but it was a surprise that we were in the same place, because there were other UCC choices, including United Church which sits only about 100 yards away from Center Church. 300 years ago there was a fight in the congregation and those who left built their church right next door. Bruce was glad that I had sided with the right folk in my selection of which church to attend.

    The day I left town was actually my fifth wedding anniversary. I think Michael was okay with that because that evening he had his major annual fundraiser for work, so we wouldn't have been able to celebrate that night anyway. He may not have been too pleased with a seventeen day delay in our celebration, however.

    June, of course, is wedding season. I realize now that as a minister maybe I should have chosen another month to get married in, because sometimes I've had to celebrate someone else's wedding on the weekend that otherwise I'd be celebrating my own.

    June is a good time to think about marriage. And much has changed about marriage and relationships in recent decades, and not just the historic legal victories of same-sex couples. These days almost every couple I marry has lived together for years. Researchers point out that not only are more people marrying later, but that marriage rates are now higher among the more educated and the more affluent and that those marriages are more likely to last longer. Of course the high divorce rates in our culture have been a feature of the last thirty or forty years.

    A sexual revolution began in American culture in the 1960's, partially a factor of growing economic opportunity and political equality for women. Also the advent of the birth control pill and new antibiotics.

    According to some studies, young adults date less often now, but are having more sex. Though other researchers have disputed those findings.

    But it isn't just marriage and sex which have changed, so have families. The nuclear family of the middle twentieth century was always something of an historical aberration. These days families are incredibly diverse, spread out geographically, and often inclusive of folk not genetically related to you. It was the gay community which developed the concept of "families of choice," which has been adopted more broadly. These days many people will count as family their closest friends, an elderly neighbor, or people they go to church with. It's likely that many of us spend our holidays with people who don't share our genes.

    What does the contemporary Christian church, then, have to say about things like sex, marriage, family, and friendship? And about the practices, the disciplines, and the virtues that sustain and strengthen our relationships, things like celebration, humility, forgiveness, generosity, delight, and courage? Responding to those questions is the task I've set myself for this summer, and I'm calling this series "The Work of Love."


    The title comes to me from a Wendell Berry poem, the one read earlier in the service. Berry, you'll remember, is my favourite poet. He is also a Kentucky farmer, farming the same land that his father and his grandfather farmed before him.

    This particular poem comes from his book A Timbered Choir. That book is a collection of poems he wrote on Sunday mornings after walking through the woods and over the fields on and near his farm. It was his communion with God in nature that spurred his thinking and inspired his writing. Often the poems reflect on his marriage, as this one does, recognizing his 35th anniversary. In the closing lines of the poem, we read:


where we know
we are, even as we do,

the work of love.


    It seems to me that this "work of love" he speaks of is threefold. First, it is the work of farming. Berry farms in the old ways of his father and grandfather, believing that it is his responsibility to God, nature, and other people to be a good steward of the land he has been given responsibility for. Therefore he tends the soil, wanting to leave it better and richer than he found it. He nurtures the woods and the native flora and fauna. He works to keep the creek water clean and pure.

    These old ways of farming are difficult work, but they are also loving work. And Berry understands that they are metaphors for the other work he must do in his life, including the work of his marriage, which is the second meaning of the "work of love." One of the biggest surprises to me, after five years of marriage, is how much work marriage is. I'm a rather independent and even stubborn person, so adjusting everything to accommodate another person is still something I'm working on. Some of you who have been married far longer than me, inform me that it remains hard work.

    But just as with the farming, this work of love is also good work and holy work, bearing much fruit.

    The final way that Berry means the "work of love," is about God and God's role in nature. As Berry meanders through fields and leaps across creeks, he hears the birds singing and the frogs croaking and watches the leaves changing colors with the season. In all of this he sees the love of God at work, and that love becomes the source from which Berry draws in order to carry out his own work—on the farm and in his marriage.

    So, this work of love isn't just what we do, it is what we are, who we are becoming. This work is the result, as he says at the opening of the poem, of a choice, a decision, made without foresight but rooted in our love for another. It is a commitment that we make to one another, a commitment that we hope will be sustained. It flows from our central being, who we are. And it is this territory which we will be inhabiting the rest of this summer.


    The best place to begin, it seems to me, is with the big question, "What is Love?"

    And, yes, all week the Haddaway song of the same name has been stuck in my head:


What is love?

Baby, don't hurt me

Don't hurt me no more


    But that lyric doesn't have much of an answer for us. Instead, I turned to my favourite theologian, James McClendon, who answers this question in his systematic theology. Love is three different, interrelated things. Before I get to all of those, I first want to say something about a misunderstanding that the church has often promulgated. Much has been made of the different Greek words for love—agape, eros, philia, and I can never remember the fourth one. Some theologians in the twentieth century, including C. S. Lewis, made clear distinctions between those saying that there were four different types of love. However, more recently many scholars have disagreed with those distinctions. In the ancient Greek there may be nuances to certain words, but they can be used interchangeably and fade into one another. Even agape is used in Greek to describe sexual love, not just divine love. In Greek as in English and also in Hebrew the term love is broad and inclusive of many different kinds of loving. Back, then to McClendon's three things that answer the question, "What is love?"

    First, love is a feeling. If I asked you to share the story of your first kiss, I'm sure you could. Remember the innocence and the thrill. Or how about some time when someone special told you that they loved you. Or you told them. How did you feel when your children were born? Or when you first held your adopted child? Or when you saw a friend whom you hadn't seen in many years?

    Love is feeling, but it is also an achievement, as philosopher Alva Noë wrote in an article for NPR's Cosmos and Culture blog in 2010, "Love is an achieved openness" and a learned behavior, much like learning to read. It requires that we come to see and to know another person, and that seeing and that knowing take time and work.

    McClendon calls this love as a virtue. If the feelings of love are to continue and to develop over time, then love must become a habit, part of our character, developed through deliberately chosen actions.

    Now, often in Western culture, in the romantic myth of love that has dominated our thinking for almost a thousand years, love is passion "understood as deprivation and yearning," which, once found, is often temporary and tragic. The greatest of loves often lead to death. Think of Tristan and Isolde or Rome and Juliet. And even in the romantic films we all enjoy, love is this longing for something that is difficult to find.

    The Christian love story, however, says something different. We believe that love is a gift. It is what Jesus tells us in today's gospel lesson. Here is McClendon's summary of the Christian love story:


A God who is the very Ground of Adventure, the Weaver of society's Web, the Holy Source of nature in its concreteness—the one and only God, who, when time began, began to be God for a world that in its orderly constitution finally came by his will and choice to include also—ourselves. We human beings, having our natural frame and basis, with our own (it seemed our own) penchant for community, and (it seemed) our own hankerings after adventure, found ourselves, before long, in trouble. Our very adventurousness led us astray; our drive to cohesion fostered monstrous imperial alternatives to the adventure and the sociality of the Way God had intended, while our continuity with nature became an excuse to despise ourselves and whatever was the cause of us. We sin. In his loving concern, God set among us, by every means infinite wisdom could propose, the foundations of a new human society; in his patience he sent messengers to recall the people of his Way to their way; in the first bright glimmers of opportunity he sent—himself, incognito, without splendor and fanfare, the Maker amid the things made, the fundamental Web as if a single fiber, the Ground of Adventure risking everything in this adventure. His purpose—sheer love; his means—pure faith; his promise—unquenchable hope. In that love he lived a life of love; by that faith he died a faithful death; from that death he rose to fructify hope for the people of his Way, newly gathered, newly equipped. The rest of the story is still his—yet it can also be ours, yours. That is the fundamental love story of the Christian faith.


And the central theme of that story is gift. God freely and graciously giving to the world and to us. Love isn't primarily a longing for what is difficult to achieve. It is giving of ourselves to others even as God has given to us. Let me read another quote from McClendon:


[Love] is God's gift, the gift that is ever present, breaking down our so carefully enacted barriers of race and class and caste, melting our resistance to the ongoing of the generations, overcoming (while life shall last) our destructive and self-destructive urges, welding us together in a unity that (if God's love be true) death itself cannot destroy. As gift it returns to the giver; God is love, and to the extent that we love (who would narrow the sense of the term here?), to that extent we abide in God, and [God] in us.


    What is love? Love is feeling, Love is virtue, Love is gift. And God is love. To the extent that we love, we become part of God. And so the work of love that we engage in—sex with our partners, nurturing our children, caring for our parents, celebrating with our friends—all of this is also the work of drawing closer to God, becoming more like God, being a part of God. For it is also God working through us, giving of God's self to us.


    All of this is what we will be exploring this summer, as we live out the teaching of Jesus in today's gospel "Love one another as I have loved you."

Bel Canto

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bel Canto is one of the more beautiful novels I've read recently. Both beautifully written and beautiful in story.

**Spoiler Alert**

It is something of a fairy tale, maybe even a little magical realism, as a number of distinguished international guests are taken hostage at a formal dinner in some unnamed Latin American country. And what develops is many months during which the hostages and the kidnappers develop ever deeper relationships. Adding to the story is the great soprano, Roxanne Coss, who was entertaining at the dinner. Her singing fills the book, creating a magical atmosphere among the characters and transforming them.

Ultimately, this is a sad book, leaving you longing for the beautiful, fantastical world it imagines rather than the reality we are confronted with.

View all my reviews

Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism

Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American ProtestantismQueer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism by R W Holmen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In Queer Clergy, Holmen tells the story of the path to ordination of lesbians and gays in the five mainline Protestant churches--the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Methodist Church. The final story, of course, has not come to conclusion as the UMC continues to resist the trend in the other denominations and even appears at times to be heading in the other direction. Since the UMC is the final section, the book ends on something of a sad note.

But included are many moments of triumph and celebration. The UCC portion made me proud of my own denomination, which first began ordaining lesbians and gays in 1972, though it was the late 1980's before gay and lesbian pastors began to occupy pulpits. Our national denominational structure also moved more quickly to embrace LGBT persons, creating official processes for becoming and open and affirming church and hiring openly LGBT persons to work in the national office. We also endorsed marriage equality first.

The book does begin with a discussion of pro-LGBT movements outside the mainline that began in the late 1960's, including the Metropolitan Community Church and pro-LGBT positions of the Unitarian-Universalist Association.

Holmen doesn't exactly write beautiful prose, but he is a good at covering major events and bringing some narrative arc to them. Otherwise all the study groups, national meetings, church trials, and policy pronouncements could get boring. He also examines the role of what he calls "gatekeeper" organizations, those anti-equality groups that sprang up in each denomination. Some of them coordinated with each other and some even coordinated with partisan political groups as part of a larger political battle during the culture wars. A feature of the Episcopalian and Methodist sections is the role of international groups.

The book informed me of many heroes I was not acquainted with--people who have made my ministry possible.

View all my reviews

The Golden Notebook: A Novel

The Golden NotebookThe Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is among the more difficult novels I've ever read and difficult to review. Parts of it I really liked a lot. Parts of it were intellectually stimulating, almost like reading philosophy. Parts of it were boring and repetitive. And ultimately the final 150 pages or so left me unsatisfied. I even began skimming through them.

The structure is experimental. The main character, Anna Wulf, keeps four notebooks in which she records various aspects of her life. In these she tells stories of her time in the Communist Party, being a young woman in Africa during the Second World War, and a novelized version of her own contemporary life, among other things. These are set within narratives of Ann's current life. Towards the end she has a breakdown and then determines to create one, golden notebook that will cease the categorization of her life.

The intellectual themes of the novel are many--colonialism, racism, feminism, Marxism (particularly the disenchanting impact on western Marxists of the evils of the Stalin era).

I did benefit from reading the novel, and Lessing can write sizzlingly powerful prose. But, as I said, the end of the reading experience left me lacking, thus the two stars.

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Many bars have competed for our attention this week and certain crowds seemed to gravitate to one more than any other.  Generally you could find faculty, for instance, at Mory's.  And the (mostly, but not exclusively) young, late night crowd at the Anchor.

We generally were at Ordinary.  Tasty cocktails.  Good service.  Dark paneled walls and a collegiate feel.

Last Monday, the final night of session one, the main room ended up completely packed with our people.  Yale Writers' Conference people.

Yale Writers' Workshop 4 039

Last night Tanya, Ploi, and I spent some of our final night there.  We recognized no one else in the packed room.  Being a Saturday night, I'm sure it was filled with locals.  And we don't know very many of the session two people anyway.  We were so tired we only had one drink.

At the table in the center of the room, as we walked in, a young gay couple were sitting.  They had their arms wrapped around each other.  Big, tender, sexy smiles on their faces.  They kissed.

Not a gay bar.  Just ordinary.