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September 2014

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord BirdThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It was with much anticipation that I began this award-winning novel. However, it did not satisfy me.

This is the story of Onion, a young slave liberated by John Brown in Kansas. Brown thinks Onion is a girl and not a boy, so for three years Onion lives as a girl as he is carried along by Brown and his army, eventually being a witness of the revolt at Harper's Ferry. (I give away no crucial plot points below, but if there are things you don't want to know, quit reading).

The conceit is very exciting, as is the voice of Onion in which the novel is narrated. But there are serious flaws that dissatisfied me.

First, I think that it could have used some more editing. There were repetitive statements throughout the book. The story dragged in places in ways that were unnecessary. I don't think it needed to put its main character at all these historical moments involving John Brown; it would have been zippier and more enjoyable to have simply brought Onion into the story of John Brown near the end.

Second, there was much about it that was unconvincing, even giving the suspension of disbelief. Onion keeps talking about finding a way to get away from Brown and escape to freedom, and yet he never seriously attempts this, even when in Canada. Also at the very end, Onion intuits that Brown has always known he's a boy. If so, then what was the charade all about? That simply seemed ridiculous to me.

I think this could have been a much better book than it was.

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Life vs. Death

Life vs. Death

Exodus 12:1-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

28 September 2014



    This is the sort of passage that when describing it, I feel compelled to sound like a 19th century preacher:


Pharaoh has defied the blessings of God, threatened life, and, thereby, wrought havoc on creation. And now let Egypt reap what she has sown. Let ruin rain down. Let order be o'erturned, as even day becomes the darkest night.

    Pharaoh ordered that the sons of Israel be cast into the Nile River. So, in the first plague, the Nile turns to blood. The blood of the Israelites rises up as a sign to expose the guilt of the Egyptians and to foreshadow their own impending doom.

And then plague follows upon plague. Frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locust, and a darkness one can feel.


That heavy, Gothic language is fitting for this story. As scholar Terence Fretheim has written, "Pharaoh's antilife measures have unleashed chaotic powers that threaten the very creation that God intended." The plagues, which the Bible calls "signs," are the consequences of Pharaoh's policies. If you pursue a policy of death, then you will unleash chaos.

I'm reminded of the final lines of Alexander Pope's great poem The Dunciad, in which he imagines the return of primordial chaos as humanity goes mad:


In vain, in vain – the all-composing hour

Resistless falls: the Muse obeys the power.

She comes! she comes! the sable throne behold

Of Night primeval, and of Chaos old!

Before her, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,

And all its varying rainbows die away.

Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,

The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.

As one by one, at dread Medea's strain,

The sickening stars fade off the ethereal plain;

As Argus' eyes by Hermes' wand opprest,

Closed one by one to everlasting rest;

Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,

Art after Art goes out, and all is night.

See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,

Mountains of casuistry heaped o'er her head!

Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,

Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.

Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,

And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!

See Mystery to Mathematics fly!

In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.

Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,

And unawares Morality expires.

Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;

Light dies before thy uncreating word;

Thy hand, great anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And universal darkness buries all.


    Or there is chaos as envisioned in Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road. Some unidentified catastrophe has wrought havoc upon the world. All plant life has been burned and the ashes blanket everything. No animal life remains and only a few humans struggle to eke out a meager existence in what McCarthy describes as "Nights dark beyond darkness and . . . days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." I imagine Egypt, in the Exodus, story, looking very much like this post-apocalyptic landscape. These are images from our nightmares, made real.

    In the ninth and penultimate plague, darkness overwhelms light, and we are returned to the very first day of creation, when all was welter and waste, the formless void, and God's creating word had yet to breathe upon the Earth. This is what Pharaoh and his policies of death hath wrought.

    And now in one final plague, death will visit every house, as the sons of Egypt die so that the sons of Israel might go free.

Those who look for natural explanations to these plagues miss the point. The text itself presents them as natural events, not supernatural. They are, as Fretheim writes, "hypernatural." This is creation breaking its bounds and running amuck. This is creation turned upside down, creation become chaos, catching all in its snare.


I have a children's book entitled The Passover Journey which states, "In the Exodus story, God says, 'You are to remember what happens this night and celebrate it throughout the ages.'" It is this story, of the tenth plague leading to the freedom of the slaves, which is retold every year in the Jewish Passover feast and which Jesus and his disciples were commemorating that night in the Upper Room as the Lord's Supper was instituted, and which we then commemorate every time we gather around the communion table.

Why do we tell this story?

It is not because we have confirmation that it is an historical event. In fact, we have no such evidence. There is nothing in the historical or archaeological record that confirms that this particular exodus story contained in the Hebrew Bible is an historical event. Acknowledging this frees us to see the story as a narrative about the contest between the forces of life and creation and the forces of death and chaos and how our liberation is achieved.

This children's book says that after telling the story, "We feel different, free, at times uncertain, but we are ready to leave our old ways behind and search for new ways to live our lives."

In the on-going contest between life and death, life will be found in telling the story.


Really? Are stories that powerful? And telling this nightmare brings life?

I want you to notice something about the passage I read earlier. What I read was God's instruction to the people on how they were supposed to remember the tenth plague, and this is before the tenth plague has even occurred. God is commanding the telling of the story as part of the people's worship and liturgy, even before the event itself has happened. It is the telling of the story, the enacting of it in worship, which creates the moment of liberation.

In her stunning commentary on Exodus, Avivah Zornberg writes,


For the characteristic of stories is that that they have endless facets of meaning; they gain admission to our inner world because they are polymorphous, plastic, familiar and strange at the same time. Once within, they begin their work, turning around and around, inviting us to play with their meanings. They are the scrolls of redemption, light, subversive, generating life.


So, what happens when we tell this story? At first we might cheer that the bad guys get their comeuppance. We are thrilled by the demonstration of God's power on the part of the oppressed.

But the more we read it, the more we tell it, the more we begin to think about it and the questions come. "Is this the cost of liberation?" "Is the God who can do this worthy of our worship?" "If God saved the people so dramatically then, why has God not saved us now?"

We are commanded to tell this story, yet when we tell it, and tell it, and tell it, it makes us think and thinking generates questions. In the yearly observance of the Passover meal, Jewish families ask questions. The asking of questions is essential to the telling of the story and the act of worship.

The questions bring us to that place of anxiety, that murky line between faith and doubt, the edge where belief and unbelief come into contact. God commanded us to tell this story and yet if we tell it we might end up concluding that God does not exist, or if God exists, that God does not care, or if God cares, the way God demonstrates that care is too terrifying to deserve our worship.

And herein lies the irony of this story.

God has commanded us into this space of questioning, doubting, and anxiety. But why? Why should God want his people to question these core ideas of faith?

Let me quote Avivah Zornberg again:


God's message presses for hearing and response, for an acknowledged vulnerability, insecurity, anxiety. "Neurosis . . . is . . . the obstinate refusal to face anxiety openly and explore its quality and source." Therapeutic openness, on the other hand, is expressed in a willingness to face the unknown.


    Pharaoh is neurotic because he will not face his anxiety and fears; he will not be moved by them. He is untouched by the experience around him. He cannot hear the cries of the oppressed people. He cannot know their pain. He cannot act for justice and liberation. And so his heart is hardened. It is hardened to the point that he becomes incapable of hearing and seeing. He cannot be compassionate; his soul is corrupted.

    Do you remember last October, when the children presented a drama based upon this story on Children's Sabbath? They were all decked out in biblical costumes and re-enacted the crossing of the Red Sea and before that Moses demanding that Pharaoh "Let my people go." Sophia Rudd was Pharaoh. And every time Moses, played by Clair Bouma, said, "Let my people go." Sophia would pause for a moment and then go "No!" Her emphatic "no-s," one right after the other, became the hit of the presentation.

    And though humourous, a good representation of what Pharaoh is in the story—the person who lacks compassion and does not see nor hear the needs of his people. Pharaoh cannot be moved.

But the healthy person can be moved. That person faces her anxieties, fears, and doubts. She is open to questions, and by being open to questions, she is capable of seeing and hearing when others are hurting. The healthy person explores her doubts, learns from her fears, grows from her anxieties. This is the purpose of therapy.

    God commands us to tell this story over and over again, because the telling of it is our therapy. It shakes us out of our comfort zones. It gets us thinking and questioning and feeling. And that is our liberation.

    God wants to liberate the divine spark within each one of us. God wants us to become fully human. And in order to do that, God risks rejection, because our liberation from emotional, mental, and spiritual slavery is in telling this story over and over and over again. We become agents in our own liberation.

    That children's book on Passover states this idea simply, "Perhaps talking about our slavery and what it means to be free will help us appreciate our freedom and encourage us to work toward freedom for all peoples."


    We are engaged in a battle between life and death, between chaos and creation. The way of Pharaoh—of not seeing, not hearing, not responding to the cries of the people—that is the policy of death, that will undo the creation and unleash the powers of chaos.

    The alternative is to see and to hear and to respond and that begins by telling the story and asking the questions, facing our fears, our anxieties, and our doubts. That is the path to liberation. That is the way of life.

    So, let's choose life.

Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup

Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup

Amy Gerstler

Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.

God Calls, We Respond

God Calls, We Respond

Exodus 3:1-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

21 September 2014



Moses is going about his normal business, tending the sheep of his father-in-law. He's probably dusty and sweaty. I figure that his muscles are a little fatigued. Walking among the rocks he suddenly sees something strange up ahead. He moves toward this flickering light and discovers a bush that is on fire. A bush that, though burning, is not consumed by the flames. And then God speaks.


    Journalist Bruce Feiler has written a delightful travel book entitled Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land through the Five Books of Moses. Feiler writes evocatively and entertainingly of his first-hand experiences in the holy lands. My favourite story occurs when he is staying at St. Catherine's monastery on Jebel Musa, which tradition considers to be the Mt. Sinai of the biblical story, the very place where today's story from the Book of Exodus occurred. Feiler arrived at St. Catherine's late in the evening and hadn't yet had a chance to look around, so even though it's getting dark, he decides to go exploring.


    Before going to bed I decided to go for a stroll and visit the burning bush. The bush, which grows alongside the chapel, is a rare mountain bramble akin to the raspberry that monks say is the actual shrub in which Moses first heard the words of God. I went from the third-floor perch where I was sitting, down across the roof of another building to a set of stairs that led to the base of the chapel. At the stairs a deep darkness seemed to reach out from below and I realized I was scared, that little boy afraid to go into the attic. Across the alley was a crypt with the bones of every monk who ever lived in Saint Catherine's, including a heaping mound of hundreds of hollow-eyed skulls that spill onto the floor like dry cereal from a box. How many creepy images could this place conjure up? I wondered. How many childhood anxieties? I opted to go back for my flashlight. . . .

    I retrieved my flashlight and retraced my steps, cursing the creaky floors that seemed to broadcast my every move. I tried an alternate route . . . but found myself in a dead end . . . . I backed away, tiptoed through the alley, and found the same stone steps as before. Even with the light they seemed bottomless. I hurried down and tried not to look in any window. On the ground level I exhaled and rounded a corner. A cat was digging in the flower bed like a squirrel. He looked up at me and meowed. I jumped, despite myself, then stopped to feel my heart. How silly.

    I took a few more steps and rounded the last corner of the alley. To the right was the back wall of the chapel, about twenty feet high. Directly across the walkway was a rounded stone wall about ten feet high that looked as if it were made of peanut brittle. Sprouting from the top was an enormous, fountaining bush. The plant was about six feet tall, with large, dangling branches like a weeping willow that sprouted from the center like a cheap wig. A white cat with a brown splotch around one eye was perched at the base of the bush, and off to the side was a slightly out-of-date fire extinguisher. A fire extinguisher?


    Can't you just picture it? God decides to speak once again from this bush and when it catches on fire, some hapless monk or tourist grabs the fire extinguisher and puts out the flame. I think that's a great metaphor for our insecurities when it comes to our encounters with God and with God's call. When God calls, we are shaken out of our complacency, and invited onto holy ground.

In all the great journey stories our hero is going about her normal life when a disruption occurs and she is summoned to the task that will define the rest of her life. This makes me think of J. R. R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo Baggins enjoys his good and simple life in the Shire—eating good food, drinking beer with friends, sleeping soundly and comfortably in his own bed. He really is a homebody. Yet, he is called forth on a great quest. He is on a journey to save the world. He bears the responsibility of carrying the ring of pure evil with the assignment to destroy it.

The scene that's at the heart of the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring occurs in the Mines of Moriah. Frodo sits talking with Gandalf the wizard. Frodo's bemoaning his fate in life, because He would rather be back in the Shire, enjoying his ordinary life. On this journey he has already faced great trials and great heartache and even worse is to come.

Gandalf tells Frodo that just as there is evil in the world, there is also a force for good. And it is this force that has brought the ring to Frodo. It has come to Frodo because he of all the creatures has the ability to carry this burden. Gandalf also says that we do not choose the times in which we live, but we are responsible for what we choose to do given those times. It's an unfortunate burden that has come upon Frodo, but it's a duty that he must fulfill.

Tolkein's theology here is subtle: God is helping good to defeat evil, but these characters are responsible for their own actions. Ultimately, the fate of the world is in Frodo's hands. Should he fall to temptation or draw back from his duty, evil will triumph.


Last week we began this series on the Book of Exodus and read the story in which the people cried out and God heard. Now God is responding.


And the Lord said, "I indeed have seen the abuse of My people that is in Egypt, and its outcry because of its taskmasters. I have heard, for I know its pain. And I have come down to rescue it from the hand of Egypt.


And how is God going to rescue the people? God says to Moses, "I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." When God hears the cries of the people, God calls us.



    And overwhelmed is probably the right description for how Moses feels. Moses asks, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" He then spends most of the chapter trying to talk God out of calling him. "What will I say? What name will I give them? Suppose they don't believe me? Or don't listen to me? What if they question whether God even appeared to me?" and finally, "I'm not an eloquent speaker, surely you need someone who speaks more eloquently than I do?" We probably have our own set of excuses when God's call comes.

    Moses' response can be contrasted with that of the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 6 Isaiah has a divine vision of God seated on God's throne, high and lifted up. The seraphim are swirling about singing praise to God, and when the divine voice asks "who will go for me?" Isaiah responds, "Here am I, send me."

    Where Moses is reluctant, Isaiah immediately responds in the affirmative. "Here am I, send me" is a lot more stirring than Moses' "Who am I?" As a young man, I too was caught up in the stirring words of Isaiah and understood my own call to ministry that way. But, with a little maturity, I realized that Isaiah's response is not very realistic. Moses' hesitation, his question "Who am I?" is a much more honest response. We like to keep those fire extinguishers close by.



In the midst of this sacred encounter, Moses asks God for a name and God's answer is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.

The ancient Hebrews held this word to be sacred and holy. So holy, in fact, that it would only be spoken once a year by the priest. Yet, even that word spoken only once a year by the priest wasn't this word. That holy word was "Yahweh." "Yahweh" is a third person form of the word used here. So, even a derivative word was so sacred it could not be pronounced except by a priest once a year.

The name spoken here was so set apart from the rest of the Hebrew language, that English translators really do not know how to translate it. Your Bible is probably like mine in that the footnote carries a variety of possible translations. It was traditionally "I AM THAT I AM," though other possibilities include:







Or my favorite: "I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE"


The very name of the God we worship remains a mystery to us: it has a variety of possible meanings, plus it's basically a verb, suggesting that God is always on the move, creating and challenging and calling us forth. And, you know what, I like it that way. We can't pin God down. God is always surprising us.

It also means that God is probably going to call us out of our comfort zones in order to respond to the needs of God's people. Just as God called Moses and just as Frodo was called.


It's unlikely that we will be given a challenge as great as Frodo's, in which it becomes our personal responsibility to save the entire world from the forces of evil destruction. Nor is it likely that we will be called to lead God's people from slavery into freedom. But I am certain that God will call us to respond to the needs of other people.

In the black hymnal, you can find the statement of faith of the United Church of Christ. It is near the back, number 885. After all of its statements about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit we read:


You call us into your church
to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world
and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.


You promise to all who trust you
forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.


    All of God's people are called to serve others, to proclaim the good news, to resist evil, to struggle for justice and peace. And when we are called, there is a cost, there will be trials. But there will also be joy and grace, victory and eternal life because God promises to be with us in this work.

    So, let's leave our fire extinguishers behind. Let's open our eyes and attune our ears. We don't want to miss it when God speaks to us, calling us out of our status quo, to become God's instruments, responding to a world in need.





The Meaning of Names

The Meaning of NamesThe Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a literary renaissance occuring in Nebraska, with the likes of best-selling authors Rainbow Rowell and Timothy Schaffert. Karen Shoemaker's novel is a worthy contribution to this lively literary community.

The Meaning of Names was selected for this year's Omaha Reads book. It is set in Nebraska, almost a century ago, after America enters World War One. The story focuses on Gerda Vogel and Dr. Ed Gannoway. Through Gerda we experience the life of a farmers wife living on the edge of the Sandhills, but, more importantly, we experience the discrimination faced by German-Americans from neighbors who once trusted them. Through Dr. Gannoway, we focus on his struggles as a man of science with the dominant Catholic faith in his community, embodied by the new priest Father Jungels, and then the doctor's fight against the influenza which ravages the county.

Shoemaker's story, setting, and characters are all engaging, including the rich supporting characters like the club-footed driver honored to assist the doctor, the German father who resists any emotion but anger, and the father grieving over the death of his soldier son. And I enjoyed Shoemaker's language. Here is an evocative example of life on the Plains: "'A lazy wind,' Miranda said when they stepped out onto the road. 'Too lazy to go around you so it goes right through you.'"

I recommend this well-written, engaging story, and not just to Nebraskans.

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