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March 2017

For Our Lasting Good

For Our Lasting Good

Deuteronomy 6:20-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

5 March 2017

 

 

    Despite having grown up in church, having completed a degree in Bible, and having been ordained just a few years before, by the turn of the millennium I was growing a little disenchanted and disengaged with church and was wondering whether ministry really was in my future. I was living in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Sadly, there is a Confederate flag rally being held in Shawnee this weekend, so you might see it on the national news.

    Part of my disenchantment was a feeling that church was growing less relevant to my life and the issues that concerned me. I delighted in the beautiful worship and close relationships I had in the church I was attending and where I was an active layman—a deacon, college Sunday school teacher, and member of the missions committee. I was longing for something more, but wasn't quite sure what it was.

    Then Tim Youmans arrived as our youth minister. Tim was just a few years older than I, and we quickly connected in our shared generational perspective on music, literature, film, television, and religion. We were both Southern Baptist kids growing more progressive as a result of our education and life experiences. Tim is now an Episcopal priest, and I'm a UCC pastor.

Those trajectories are pretty common among my group of clergy friends. You'll meet Dan Morrow next week, as he's here to preach for the twentieth anniversary of my ordination. Dan was an Oklahoma Baptist University student around this same time and now he's also an Episcopal priest. In fact he's the Canon for the Ordinary in Pennsylvania. Episcopalians have such fun titles. You can ask him next week exactly what a "Canon for the Ordinary" is.

Anyway, back to my story.

As the friendship between Tim and me was growing, and our conversations were wrestling with theological and spiritual issues, he invited me to be a sponsor for the youth retreat over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

Now, I had never had any interest in youth ministry. What I said to people who asked was "I didn't understand teenagers when I was one, and I definitely don't understand them now."

But Tim persuaded me into grudgingly agreeing to go along.

On a cold Friday evening, I parked my car at the First Baptist Church and carried my luggage, sleeping bag, and pillow onto the church bus where I met a bunch of middle and high school kids who changed my life.

 

I'm standing here as your pastor today because of Will Sims and Matt Little and Adam Shepherd and Tyler Holland and a score of other Shawnee teenagers—well they were teenagers in 2000 but are now mostly thirtysomethings with their own kids. Because it was those kids who drew me back into the vitality of church and clarified my own vocation. It was because of them that I felt called into youth ministry for the first time. It was because of them that I chose to abandon the search for academic employment and life as a tenured professor and instead took a job as an associate pastor in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

How did those kids do it?

They pestered me with their questions.

They were unrelenting. Especially Will. I know what Jesus meant when he talked about fishing for men, because when I walked onto that bus, I was caught in a net I didn't know had been thrown to ensnare me.

Through the sheer force of their personalities, their curiosity about me and what I believed, and their insisting that I become their teacher and friend, the Holy Spirit worked to renew my sense of call.

 

We live in age of individualism, materialism, and consumerism which has ripped apart the social fabric and our sense of the common good. Our corrosive politics is merely a symptom of an underlying disease. I've been trying to grasp what that underlying issue is.

Earlier this year I was reading some essays by R. R. Reno who is the editor of the journal First Things. He is a former Creighton theology professor and a very conservative thinker, with whom I have much disagreement. But in his December 30 post he wrote that "what we need in 2017 is a renewal of covenant."

Back in 2009 my colleague and friend Robin Meyers, the pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a very outspoken liberal, published a book entitled Saving Jesus from the Church (which we studied once during Lent by the way) in which he argued that if our nation wanted to survive we needed "a renewed understanding of the meaning of covenant."

So, here's some common ground. And it is, in fact, the common ground. Covenant is the idea that we are bound together. Robin writes that covenant is "a collective expression of gratitude and mutuality."

 

 

 

When the staff got together months ago to plan Lent we decided to focus on this idea of covenant and chose as our theme "The Ties that Bind." We will be focused on the ways that God saves us from our sins by bonding us together in mission for the world.

At our worship brainstorming party, it was suggested that we begin with the messiness of our lives in order to show how God takes the messiness and weaves it into something beautiful. So, on Ash Wednesday I asked you to consider what the mess is in your life right now. What do you need help with?

Sometime this season, today or another Sunday, I invite you to take one of the ribbons or strings or scraps of material which is in this basket here at the foot of the cross and tie it to the wire or weave it through. Let that scrap represent the thing in your life you need help with. And over the course of this season we'll watch as the messes are woven into something new.

 

 

In our moments of uncertainty and distress, God is with us—working to deliver us, and bring us to safety and abundance.

 

Central to the biblical story is this idea that we are offered a choice. We can follow our own path and accept the consequences. Or we can choose to be part of the covenant community by doing what is right and good. And God promises that that path leads to new life and blessing.

That path is "for our lasting good."

Those Shawnee kids drew me into relationship with them. And through their friendship I better understood myself and what God was calling me to do.

    This Lent, let's allow God to take the messiness of our lives and weave it into a beautiful pattern that binds us together.


The Humility Code

Brooks_New-videoLarge

"The humble path to the beautiful life," is what David Brooks summarizes at the conclusion of The Road to Character.  Here are the fifteen points of the Humility Code.

  1. "The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle."
  2. "The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures."
  3. "We are also splendidly endowed."
  4. "Humility is the greatest virtue."
  5. "Pride is the central vice."
  6. "The struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life."
  7. "Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation."
  8. "The things that lead us astray are short term . . . The things we call character endure over the long term."
  9. "Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside."
  10. "We are all ultimately saved by grace."
  11. "Defeating weakness often means quieting the self."
  12. "Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty."
  13. "No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation."
  14. "The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it."
  15. "A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose."

This section is filled with much rich material, wonderful quotes, and deep allusions to our moral tradition.  I will be mining it for sermons, etc., for years.

I hope this series of blog posts on moral character in the midst of our current national catastrophe has been helpful in grasping what we must do in order to reweave the social fabric and restore the moral order.

"Out of Balance" was the previous post in this blog series.


Out of Balance

Tolstoy-List-Main

David Brooks uses Leo Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich to comment on how the pendulum has swung too far with the change in moral climate.  He writes, "Many of us are in Ivan Ilyich's position, recognizing that the social system we are part of pushes us to live out one sort of insufficient external life. . . .  The answer must be to stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture."

So, what's wrong with the current moral climate?  He lists some overarching problems and focuses on a few areas of society.  First, the overarching problems.

We have become "less morally articulate."  We are more materialistic.  More individualistic.  Less empathetic.  

We have become "a more competitive meritocracy."  He writes:

You have, like me, spent your life trying to make something of yourself, trying to have an impact, trying to be reasonably successful in this world.  That's meant a lot of competition and a lot of emphasis on individual achievement--doing reasonably well in school, getting into the right college, landing the right job, moving toward success and status.

 What results is a culture of busyness where we fail to take the time to cultivate our moral and spiritual sides.  I thought of Richard Rohr's writing while reading this section.

The meaning of the term character itself has changed, away from an embodiment of the traditional virtues to now "describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity."  

Brooks does not think that social media has ruined us, as the damage was largely already done, but it has had "three effects on the moral ecology."  First, "It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths."  Second, "Social media allow a more self-referential information environment."  And finally, it "encourages a broadcasting personality."

He spends a few pages on changes in parenting that he dislikes, but I thought those arguments were overwrought.

In the final post of this series on his book, we'll look at what he calls "the humble path to the beautiful life."

The previous post in this series discussed self-actualization by looking at Katherine Graham.  And the post before that reviewed this change in moral culture.


Exploring an individual's metaphysical sensitivity

This weekend I began reading a collection of poems by Adonis, who is often mentioned as a contender for a Nobel prize.  And being a Syrian in exile who is in his late 80's, I've been surprised that he hasn't won in recent years.

In the introduction the translator summarizes Adonis' view of poetry.

Poetry, he argued, must remain a realm in which language and ideas are examined, reshaped, and refined, in which the poet refuses to descend to the level of daily expediencies.  Emerging as one of the most eloquent practitioners and defenders of this approach, Adonis wrote that the poet is a "metaphysical being who penetrates to the depths" and , in so doing, "keeps solidarity with others."  Poetry's function is to convey eternal human anxieties.  It is the exploration of an individual's metaphysical sensitivity, not a collective political or socially oriented vision.


No Picnic on Mount Kenya

No Picnic on Mount KenyaNo Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While browsing a book store in Dublin I came across this book and was intrigued.

Three Italians prisoners of war of the British in Kenya during the Second World War are tired of their confinement but do not believe they could escape to a neutral or friendly country. Instead, they decide to escape and climb Mount Kenya, which beckons from above their camp. And, there plan is to return to camp when finished. Just an excursion to spend some time in freedom and to accomplish something.

So, this is a wonderful adventure story about the power of the human spirit. And it's quite fun.

With none of the proper equip or recent training and no weapons to protect them from the wild animals of the jungle and savanna, the group (with the help of others in the camp) spends months fashioning crude implements, hiding them, and readying for the day of escape.

What follows is a daring nighttime run from the camp, days of trekking through the jungle and highlands, working to avoid people and wildlife, bitter cold nights spent on the rocks, hunger from lack of provisions, splendid beauty, and dangerous moments, all well told by one of the prisoner/mountaineers in a book he wrote after the war.

As the author summarizes near the conclusion, "Hadn't we, wretched prisoners that we were, also raised our hands toward the Mountain, to ask her to give us back to ourselves?"

View all my reviews

The Prelude

Wordsworth: The PreludeWordsworth: The Prelude by William Wordsworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My morning poetry reading has not been that consistent since Sebastian's birth, disappearing with most parts of my decades-long morning routine. Oh well.

So, it took me a long time to get through Wordsworth's Prelude. Part of that is because the poem itself bogs down in places. The opening and closing books are the best, filled with his experiences of nature.

I've long known (and even written on) Wordsworth's influence on Whitehead's philosophy of perception. Having now finally read all of the Prelude I believe that Wordsworth may be the most important influence for understanding Whitehead and the development of process philosophy.

View all my reviews

Self-actualization

  Katherine-graham-1

So, in the middle of the twentieth century the moral culture changed, according to David Brooks.  He writes, "Each moral climate is a collective response to the problems of the moment."  The new moral culture which prized self-esteem, authenticity, and expression "helped correct some deep social injustices."  To illustrate he chooses Katharine Graham.

She was raised in an era when girls were "expected to be quiet, reserved, and correct."  The Stepford Wife idea.  Her husband belittled her and had many affairs.  When he committed suicide in 1963 she was elected president of the Washington Post Company and assumed she'd hold the job for a season before handing it off to her children.  

But, she thrived in the job and led the Post to national prominence.  The same year she took over the Post, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.  

Graham illustrates why the moral culture needed to change.  Under the old culture it was too common that a woman like Graham would not have thrived.  Many people needed to develop a higher sense of self.  Brooks writes, "The emphasis on self-actualization and self-esteem gave millions of women a language to articulate and cultivate self-assertion, strength, and identity."

Last week I watched When We Rise on ABC (still marveling at that), a miniseries on the LGBT rights movement that focused on Cleve Jones and some of our other grassroots activists in San Francisco.  That show narrated the importance of our rise, our self-expression, our demands.  

Fortunately, Brooks does not fault either moral climate.  He thinks we need balance and to recover some of the value that was lost when moral realism was cast aside.  The main reason is that the old tradition gave us a longtested method for the formation of souls.

At its worst the new culture expresses something like these lyrics from High School Musical (which Brooks quotes): "The answers are all inside me/ All I've got to do is believe.

I've never liked that sort of idea, as much as I've embraced liberation and authenticity.  Maybe growing up in the more traditional heartland and remaining rooted in the church has helped to push against individualism?  My memoir, which I hope to publish this year, is about finding the courage to be my authentic self, but is a story contained within my culture, church, and family.  I have navigated a path to losing neither.

In the next post I'll write a little more about the ways he believes we've gotten out of balance.

The previous post in this series was about the change in moral culture that occurred in the 20th century.