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April 2017

Turn and Live

Turn and Live

Ezekiel 18:30-32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

9 April 2017



    "We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life," writes David Brooks in The Road to Character.

    To develop moral character we must acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses and struggle to overcome them. A culture built on ambition and success is unlikely to train people to acknowledge their failures.

    We also live in a competitive culture, and the development of moral character is not competitive. First, because we are struggling against our own weaknesses and not against other people. And second because developing character takes cooperation with others.

    On the first point, David Brooks writes that we develop character by "being better than [we] used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones."

    On the second point—that cooperation with others is necessary—he writes, "The struggle against the weaknesses in yourself is never a solitary struggle. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside."


    I've told you this story before, but I'm going to tell it again, because it's one of my good stories. Just ask Michael. I like to tell the same stories repeatedly.

    When I was five years old and in the kindergarten Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church of Grove, Oklahoma I stole some booklets from the Sunday school room.

    Of course, I'm sure they would have let me borrow the books if I had asked. But that's not the point. The point is I knew I was doing something wrong and did it anyway. I didn't ask, but hid them under my shirt.

    By the afternoon, the guilt and shame had overcome me, so I confessed to my parents, who then horrified me by saying that we were going to take them right then to my Sunday school teacher Ruth Robinson. They wouldn't let me wait until the next time we were in church.

    Now, I've mentioned Ruth many times, because I believe her to be the single biggest influence on my development, outside my own parents. Ruth was the stereotypical kindergarten Sunday school teacher—she was short, elderly, with thick glasses, and bright, white hair. She was also very kind and gentle.

    So, I was overcome by dread at the idea of confessing my sin to Ruth and disappointing her.

    When Ruth came to her door, she was surprised to see us. My parents said that I had something to tell her. So, I told Ruth what I had done and handed her the books. Her confused look gave way to a tender smile. Ruth sat down on her couch and took me in her arms. She sat me on her lap and hugged me while she told me that she forgave me and that everything was going to be alright. She praised my curiosity and told me I could borrow things anytime, all I had to do was ask.

    I've always been grateful to my parents for what may seem a strong response to a childish action, because in that moment I learned important moral lessons about my own weaknesses, about the consequences of actions, about confession and forgiveness, and most importantly about grace and unconditional love.


    The prophet Ezekiel reminds the people that if they are going to enjoy abundant life, then they must first repent of their sins. This, of course, is one of the key themes of any Lenten season. As part of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter we are supposed to examine ourselves and work at improving ourselves.

    David Brooks writes that "Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair . . . . If you take away the concept of sin, then you take away the thing the good person struggles against."

    I appreciated his book for exploring the wide variety of sins and the moral language that describes them. He argues in the book that "people in earlier times inherited a vast moral vocabulary and set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation . . . which people could use to engage their own moral struggles." In the book he calls for a recovery of such an understanding.

    Here is one paragraph where he beautifully summarizes the wide variety of sins and how to combat them:


Some sins, such as anger and lust, are like wild beasts. They have to be fought through habits of restraint. Other sins, such as mockery and disrespect, are like stains. They can be expunged only by absolution, by apology, remorse, restitution, and cleansing. Still others, such as stealing, are like a debt. They can be rectified only by repaying what you owe to society. Sins such as adultery, bribery, and betrayal are more like treason than like crime; they damage the social order. Social harmony can be rewoven only by slowly recommitting to relationships and rebuilding trust. The sins of arrogance and pride arise from a perverse desire for status and superiority. The only remedy for them is to humble oneself before others.


    We are all flawed, and those flaws work to alienate us. The person of good character works to become better by struggling against those flaws. The person of good character also knows that we cannot do it alone—we need each other and we need the grace of God.

    This Lent we have focused on covenant under the theme Ties that Bind. This cross has represented the way God works to turn our messes into something beautiful, by weaving them together.

    Our connections with each other aren't just a nice metaphor, but are a biological necessity. This week I read an essay by the biologist David George Haskell in which he studies a maple leaf. The maple leaf actually contains hundreds of different species, and he wasn't talking about species that might be living on the outside of the leaf. No, he meant on the inside, within the cellular structure of the leaf itself. Within the cells of the maple leaf are hundreds of species. He proclaims, "A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship."

    What a beautiful sentence.

    We are made from relationships. Therefore if we are to live and live well, we must strengthen the ties that bind us together. Strengthen our families and workplaces, our schools and neighborhoods, our cities and states, even our nation and the world. A chemical weapons attack in Syria does affect us.

    Weaving the social fabric is a moral and existential necessity. And healing our relationships begins with acknowledging and struggling against our own sins.


    Hear one more passage from David Brooks' excellent book:


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.


The prophet Ezekiel offered the people a choice—they could choose the path of righteousness, which leads to life, or the path of wickedness, which leads to death. God implores the people to repent, to turn and live. That choice is also ours.

Democracy and Social Ethics

Democracy and Social EthicsDemocracy and Social Ethics by Jane Addams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading more about Jane Addams in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy (see that post here), I was determined to read her writing. She's a good and perceptive writer. I'm puzzled why this work is not more seriously part of the canon.

Though the contemporary issues she grapples with are dated (aren't they in most of the great ethical works?) they contain universal ideas applicable to current problems.

And what I most admired was her vision of democracy requiring a social ethic (instead of an individual one) in which we must honor the perspectives of a diverse people.

A sample line, "As democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community, however humble he may be."

I also think her work might be crucial in the progressive movement reconnecting with the working class.

View all my reviews

The Norse Myths

The Norse MythsThe Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What struck me most about these Norse myths was their darkness. There is a lightness to the fantasies of the Greeks and Romans and an enjoyable humor in the tales of Native Americans. But these myths contain a heaviness.

For example, in the description of Yggdrasill, the great tree which is the axis of the world. It is constantly being gnawed at by the dragon Nidhogg "trying to loosen what was firm and put an end to the eternal." We are told that "Parts of the huge trunk were peeling, parts were soft and rotten. Yggdrasill whispered and Yggdrasill groaned."

Strange to imagine this corruption and rot in the the very core of one's mythology. Plus, the constantly foreboding of the end of the age and the destruction that would come with it.

How strange that there was a time when these were the tales people told about those they worshiped.

View all my reviews

Lao She's existentialism

I recently read Lao She's classic Chinese novel Rickshaw Boy. Here's my review of the book.  One thing I enjoyed was his description.  Eloquent and beautiful descriptions of the weather and scene, but also vivid psychological detail that conveyed a certain existentialism.  Two samples:

The best he could come up with was self-pity, but even that seemed impossible, since his head was empty; he no sooner had thoughts about himself than he forgot them, like a dying candle that won't light.  Enveloped by darkness, he felt as if he were floating inside a black cloud.  Though he was aware of his existence and that he was walking forward, there was no evidence of where he was headed.  He was like a man tossed about on the open sea, no longer able to believe in himself.  Never in his life had he felt so bewildered, so downhearted, so very alone.


He could not shake the feeling that he'd never again be happy.  He swore off thinking, speaking, and losing his temper, and yet there was a heaviness in his chest that went away for a while when he was working but always returned when he had time on his hands--it was soft, but large; it had no definable taste, yet it choked him, like a sponge.  He's keep this suffocating something at bay by working himself half to death so he could fall into an exhausted sleep.  His nights he'd give over to his dreams, his days to his arms and legs.  He'd be like a working zombie: sweeping away snow, buying things, ordering kerosene lanterns, cleaning rickshaws, moving tables and chairs, eating the food Fourth Master supplied, and sleeping, all without knowing what was going on around him, or speaking, or even thinking, yet always dimly aware of the presence of that spongelike thing.

A Defense of Truth

The second essay in the LA Times series on Trump is a defense of truth and the methods of verification in the face of a President who threatens both.

Trump’s easy embrace of untruth can sometimes be entertaining, in the vein of a Moammar Kadafi speech to the United Nations or the self-serving blathering of a 6-year-old.

But he is not merely amusing. He is dangerous. His choice of falsehoods and his method of spewing them — often in tweets, as if he spent his days and nights glued to his bedside radio and was periodically set off by some drivel uttered by a talk show host who repeated something he’d read on some fringe blog — are a clue to Trump’s thought processes and perhaps his lack of agency. He gives every indication that he is as much the gullible tool of liars as he is the liar in chief.


His approach succeeds because of his preternaturally deft grasp of his audience. Though he is neither terribly articulate nor a seasoned politician, he has a remarkable instinct for discerning which conspiracy theories in which quasi-news source, or which of his own inner musings, will turn into ratings gold. He targets the darkness, anger and insecurity that hide in each of us and harnesses them for his own purposes. If one of his lies doesn’t work — well, then he lies about that.

These are all examples of moral and intellectual vices.

Our Dishonest President

The LA Times is running a powerful series this week exploring the vices of Trump.  Here is the first post, "Our Dishonest President."  An excerpt:

What is most worrisome about Trump is Trump himself. He is a man so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that it is impossible to know where his presidency will lead or how much damage he will do to our nation. His obsession with his own fame, wealth and success, his determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, his craving for adulation — these traits were, of course, at the very heart of his scorched-earth outsider campaign; indeed, some of them helped get him elected. But in a real presidency in which he wields unimaginable power, they are nothing short of disastrous.

My deepest concern has not been Trump's policies, like the L. A. Times I'm most worried by his assault upon moral and intellectual virtue.  

The Road Not Taken

Here, on the Poetry Foundation website, is an excellent interpretation of The Road Not Taken, one of the most misunderstood of poems.  An excerpt:

Through its progression, the poem suggests that our power to shape events comes not from choices made in the material world—in an autumn stand of birches—but from the mind’s ability to mold the past into a particular story. The roads were about the same, and the speaker’s decision was based on a vague impulse. The act of assigning meanings—more than the inherent significance of events themselves—defines our experience of the past. 

Also, this:

In a letter, Frost claimed, “My poems … are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.” The meaning of this poem has certainly tripped up many readers—from Edward Thomas to the iconic English teacher in Dead Poets Society. But the poem does not trip readers simply to tease them—instead it aims to launch them into the boundless, to launch them past spurious distinctions and into a vision of unbounded simultaneity.

There is a level of Sartrean existentialism to the poem.  Of course written decades before Sartre's work.