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V. S. Naipaul

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"I did other work; and in this concrete way, out of work that came easily to me because it was so close to me, I defined myself, and saw that my subject was not my sensibility, my inward development, but the worlds I contained within myself, the worlds I lived in."--
The Enigma of Arrival

In the summer of 2006 I went to Borders bookstore to buy some books to take with me on my beach vacation to Sarasota, Florida (one of those was Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which no one probably considers a beach read).  I wanted to read a Naipaul novel.  Ever since he won the Nobel in 2001, he had been "on my list" and finally I thought I'd read one of his most oft-mentioned works, like A Bend in the River.  But, as I stood there looking over the various Naipaul novels, what attracted me was this line in one of the blurbs on the back cover of The Enigma of Arrival--"V. S. Naipaul is a man who can inspire readers to follow him through the Slough of Despond and beyond."

So, sitting on a beach in Florida, I read a novel about depression, set in Salisbury, England.  When I picked up my copy of this book last night after hearing of Naipaul's death, I sniffed it to see if the smell of the beach lingered a dozen years later.  Sadly, it does not.

From the blog review I wrote after that 2006 vacation, I was glad for the long, slow reading time to work through a slow novel.  I concluded, "This is a powerful, beautiful work that I highly recommend for anyone who desires a slow read that shows how a human being lives through depression."

The Enigma of Arrival is the best of the nine Naipaul books I've read (and I own 3 more I haven't gotten to yet).  Most often you hear of A House for Mister Biswas or A Bend in the River, but I didn't care as much for those (the links are the reviews I wrote about them).  I greatly enjoyed Guerillas.  I recommend Half a Life for anyone starting out with Naipaul--it is a short novel that contains many of his major themes, including "how a colonial shapes an identity in the midst of the collapse of colonialism."

I have admired Naipaul's novels because they engage you intellectually. They are conceptual; they grapple with ideas. He has an amazing command of language and crafts such beautiful sentences.  I wrote in 2017 that "He may be the best living writer in the English language."  Though I have also written that for all their admirable qualities, his novels "lack the magical, captivating charm of Gabriel Garcia Marquez."

I have also read two of his travel books, appreciating their "keen observational ability."  I felt his book Beyond Belief taught me much I did not know and helped shape my thinking on the geopolitical issues we have faced in the last two decades.  Of his book about the American South, I wrote, "He writes with a deep curiosity and desire to understand everyone."

In 2009 Patrick French wrote a highly praised biography entitled The World Is What It Is.  That year the biography made many end-of-the year lists of the best nonfiction books of the year.  Though I had only read two Naipaul books at the time, I bought and read the biography.  Naipaul had arranged for French to write an authorized biography, yet French's final work is highly critical of Naipaul the person, painting him as misogynist, ambitious, arrogant, and a user in a way that destroys the women in his life. Naipaul allowed the biography to go forward, but dismissed its portrayal of him.  It is maybe the most shocking authorized biography one could read.

And, yet, it made me even more interested in reading all of Naipaul's books, richly discussed in the biography.  It was at this point that I began picking them up in used bookstores and reading about one a year. 

The biography also meant I read the books more critically, worried about the misogyny in Guerillas or the way he makes fun of his own people in The Mystic Masseur.  Yet, as I pointed out when I read the latter in 2009, "Though, I must say, the very end seems to make even Naipaul's views somewhat comic."

I liked this paragraph from the NYTimes obit:

Yet Mr. Naipaul exempted neither colonizer nor colonized from his scrutiny. He wrote of the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers, yet exposed the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean in their wake. He brought to his work moral urgency and a novelist’s attentiveness to individual lives and triumphs.

Naipaul has his critics, though.  And for very good reason.  He does not seem to have been a very nice man.  And he has said and written things that Chinua Achebe rightly describes as "downright outrageous."  Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart is a far greater novel than anything written by Naipaul (in my opinion), wrote an outraged critique of A Bend in the River in his book Home and Exile, which contends that African voices must write about Africa to overcome four centuries of dispossession in which non-Africans wrote biased stories about Africa. Naipaul included.

Achebe wrote, "Naipaul's forte is to browbeat his reader by such pontifical high writing."  Achebe points out the ways in which A Bend in the River ridicules and holds in contempt Africans (he demonstrates how Naipaul does the same for Indians and his native Trinidadians).  Naipaul has also defended Western civilization as the universal civilization, and Achebe criticizes this.  His own observation is thus, "To suggest that the universal civilization is in place already is to be willfully blind to our present reality and, even worse, to trivialize the goal and hinder the materialization of a genuine universality in the future."

So, reading Naipaul is very complicated.  The well-crafted books don't exist within a vacuum apart from the man.  Or the larger geopolitical issues.  Yet even these complexities seem to reflect the traumas of colonialism.  

The author narrator of The Enigma of Arrival returns to Trinidad and realizes that it has changed.  He writes, "So, as soon as I had arrived at a new idea about the place, it had ceased to be mine."  Then, we read, "Through writing--knowledge and curiosity feeding off one another--I had arrived at a new idea of myself and my world.  But the world had not stood still."


The Three-Day Feast

The Three-Day Feast: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and EasterThe Three-Day Feast: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter by Gail Ramshaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last spring a sudden, last minute change in our Holy Week plans resulted in some upset feelings on the part of a few congregants. Frankly, I have struggled with Holy Week here at First Central where (until the last couple of years) there was reluctance to experience Good Friday and the Maundy Thursday services never have quite gelled.

The resulting conversations made us realize how many different expectations there are (based upon a wide variety of previous experiences and theological, spiritual, and psychological needs) for what worship will entail that week. So, our Worship Ministry set out on a project of studying the issue in order to gain a better perspective and hopefully before next year arrive at a clearer since of what this church wants to do for Holy Week.

Note: in my conversations with other clergy I have learned that many of them also experience a lack alignment between what their training teaches them should happen and what their congregants actually want, expect, and will participate in.

This handy little book was recommended by a Lutheran minister friend. This gives a good explanation of the basic aims of liturgical renewal and some helpful comments on the various services one might hold. It lacked a little of what I am still hoping for on the practical question of how to reconcile what people want with with the tradition recommends.

View all my reviews

Pastoral Prayer upon the death of James Cone

This morning's pastoral prayer at First Central Congregational UCC of Omaha:

Yesterday our brother James Cone died. Cone was one of the greatest American theologians. He was born and raised in Arkansas during segregation, and became the founder of Black Liberation Theology, a longtime professor at Union Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Cone formulated a theology of liberation from within the context of the Black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus' identification with the poor and oppressed, and the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation. He has deeply influenced my theology.

In his masterwork, God of the Oppressed, he wrote, "Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom." That understanding helped to empower my own work on equal rights for LGBT people.

And in his late great book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which our Theology Brunch discussed in March, he wrote,

The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the "cost of discipleship," it has become a form of "cheap grace," an easy way to salvation that doesn't force us to confront the power of Christ's message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with the "recrucified" black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

And his work convicts me of my sin, opening new paths for redemption and reconciliation.

Let us begin our time of pastoral prayer with a moment of silent reflection.

Silence

Gracious God. Thank you for sending us James Cone to be our teacher.

He taught us who Jesus was and is.

He taught us what the cross means. And the resurrection means.

He taught us how to be saved and liberated.

And how worship can empower us for the struggle of life.

He taught us who you are, God. That you are the God of the oppressed.

Without his teaching we might still be mired in misunderstanding and sin because of our racism and sexism and homophobia.

We might still be worshipping an idol.

As he is welcomed into your peace,

May his spirit ever live,

In power and glory.

And now we pray, as Jesus has taught us,

Our Father who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power

and the glory, forever. Amen.


Pastoral Prayer upon Stephen Hawking’s Death

This is more than a month old, but I wanted to share it.

Physicist Stephen Hawking died this week. Hawking inspired us to ask questions such as:

What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end?

He believed that one day science would develop a complete unified theory and then all humanity would be capable of discussing "the question of why it is that we and the universe exist." He wrote, "If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God."

Hawking of course was an atheist, so he was writing in metaphor when he spoke of God. But I've always been intrigued by how even science, when pushed to the outer limits of theoretical physics, sounds deeply spiritual and mystical.

And so today, as we enter our time of prayer, let's do so in awe and wonder at the marvels of our universe and our human ability to understand them.

Let us begin with a moment of silent reflection.

Silence.

God of Time and Space,

You have surrounded us with wonder

And we are in awe.

You have also given us amazing powers

To explore and study and theorize and understand.

Our brains can build rockets that send probes billions of miles from Earth

In order to send pictures back to us revealing unimagined beauty.

We can develop theorems that in simple mathematics grasp profound truths about how the universe works.

We can imagine and dream and hypothesize not only about the very beginning of time and space but what might even be outside our own universe.

May we always defy our earthly and physical limitations.

May we always be curious.

May we always look up at the stars and wonder why.

Now, as our Savior taught us, let us pray:


Loving Jesus

Sunday I preached a rousing sermon on the Gospel of Mark talking about Jesus' call to discipleship, and then the service ended with the hymn "I Love to Tell the Story," which reminded me of the good aspects of my childhood as a Baptist, and as the service concluded I felt the joy of loving Jesus and of having loved Jesus since I committed to follow him at the age of 5.


Soli Deo Gloria--Kid's version

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This fall our worship series is entitled Reformed as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation with a focus on various doctrines of the Reformation and what they might mean to us today.  First up this morning was Soli Deo Gloria--Glory to God Alone.  In my sermon prep I was reading about Johann Sebastian Bach, as he signed all his compositions Soli Deo Gloria.  When Katie, my Associate Minister, asked if I'd do the conversation with the children in worship, I said I would, "And I'm going to talk about Bach."  Here's how that went.

Kids are coming forward and sitting beside me on the chancel steps as I engage in some lively banter with them.  Before I can begin in earnest one of the older kids asks about the picture I'm holding, "Is that George Washington?"

"No. This is not George Washington."

"Thomas Jefferson?"

"No.  It is Johann Sebastian Bach. Have any of you ever heard of Johann Sebastian Bach?"

"My last name is Bock," says one of the kids.

"Yes, but he spells it differently.  He spells it B-a-c-h." This news is greeted by a grimace.  "How do you spell it?"

"B-o-c-k."

"See. It's spelled differently."  Then other kids start spelling their names.

"Here's another picture.  It's an action shot."

"He's playing the piano."

"Actually, it's the organ.  Bach composed music. He may be the greatest composer of music ever."

One kid shakes his head.  "No."

"Who do you think is the greatest?"

"Michael Jackson."

"Okay, I like Michael Jackson too.  Let's hear some Bach.  Stephen [the organist], can you play us a few lines of Bach?"

Stephen plays the opening of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.

"Did you like that?"

One girl, loudly, "No!"  A few yeses.

"Is it pretty?"  A few nods.

"It's often played at weddings.  Have you heard it at a wedding?"

Mr. Michael Jackson Fan says, "I went to a wedding last week."

"Did they play this music?"

"No."

"Did they play any Michael Jackson?"

"Yes."

"Okay then."

Stephen, the organist, interrupts.  "I have another piece they might like better."  Plays the opening of Toccato and Fugue, very loudly.  Some kids like it.  One says he recognizes it. Some laugh.  Some put their hands over their ears.  And one girl utters a loud, primal scream.

Pastor and congregation begin cackling.

Mr. Michael Jackson Fan, "That sounded like Dracula."

"Yes, that's sometimes played in scary movies.  Did you think it was scary?"

No Girl from earlier, "No."

Then I went on to talk about how Bach believed God inspired and spoke through his music and that people could experience God through music.

"What's experience?"  Then I tried to answer that.

Then I asked them what are ways they can show the beauty and joy of God in their lives, and they gave good answers.


A Prayer for Charlottesville

Yesterday I borrowed these words for my pastoral prayer.

Sweet Jesus, what has happened to your beloved world? What darkness is on the loose when those who hate their neighbors pray in your name and ask for your blessing?

You have told us, O Lord, what is good: to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with you, and yet there are those among us who wield machine guns to intimidate and chant vitriolic rhetoric to terrorize, and ram cars intentionally into crowds to kill.

Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. . . . [Keep reading the rest of the prayer]


Final Plenaries & Reflections

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On Independence Day we continued our work at the United Church of Christ General Synod, finishing early with our business sessions and spending much  of the time in plenary session recognizing leaders and volunteers and celebrating the synod.  The music in the closing worship inspired some dancing, and the preaching rallied our spirits.

Among the final business actions, we adopted a resolution calling for a $15 minimum wage, added new specifics in our support for disability justice, and called on clergy to undergo diversity training as part of their continuing education.

The morning session was deeply moved when three youth delegates from Trinity UCC in Chicago spoke of their personal experiences with gun violence, including the murders of friends and church members and their own daily fears.  This was a moving epilogue to the decision the day before calling for gun violence to be declared a public health emergency.

That morning I was walking along and started chatting with a woman I did not know who was walking near me.  She had family in the Omaha metro area and eventually mentioned Ken Evitts, a conservative UCC minister.  I said, "Ken and I are good friends."  Her jaw dropped.  She said, "I'm shocked by that.  He's part of Faithful and Welcoming," which is the conservative caucus in the UCC that has often voted against our pro-LGBT stances.

I told her that I thought our friendship often surprised people, but it is a genuine friendship.  She was very encouraged to hear about it and encouraged Ken and I to give a speak out on our friendship as an example of how in the church we can cross theological boundaries.  

When I approached Ken with the idea, he loved it, and we did just that in the final plenary session of the synod.

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One of the great joys of the last week for me was seeing three of my former youth, meaning they were teenagers in my youth groups at churches I once served.  In DC I had lunch with Chris Rempert who is now a successful consultant for progressive causes.  I was his youth minister from 2003-5 in Dallas, when he was in middle school.

Nathan Watts was attending Synod, as he is now in the process of transitioning from Baptist to UCC.  Nathan, who was in the same youth group in Dallas, now works for immigrant rights on the border in Arizona and has turned into a radical activist for Jesus.

Hannah Breckenridge and her husband took me to dinner after the close of Synod.  Her father was my senior minister in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Hannah was a sixth grader when I left that church in 2003.  She is close to completing her masters in social work and is a vibrant, passionate young adult.

What pride in the good lives the are leading.  What joy that I was a small part of their journey and that I can stay in contact with them.  And what irony that they are now the age I was when I was their youth minister.

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Hearing Voices

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"You lit the fuse of dynamic, inclusive environmental change that heard all voices.  This is the Lord's action," declared Aaron Mair, former president of the Sierra Club.  He was referencing the impact that the UCC's 1987 study Toxic Wastes and Race had upon the environmental movement.  This study coined term and first drew attention to the concept of environmental racism, the reality that there is "a direct correlation between the placement of toxic waste facilities and communities of poverty and/or color." 

Mair discussed how the conservationist movement of the early 20th century had ties with the eugenics movement and that modern environmentalism was largely a movement of white, privileged people.  The UCC's study not only drew attention to a vital problem but also laid the groundwork for transforming the environmental movement itself.  Thirty years later he celebrated the UCC's work and shared how he had used the study in his own work for environmental and racial justice.

In the afternoon there was an immigration march from the convention hall to the federal building which houses ICE offices.  In partnership with local faith communities and the Annapolis Sanctuary Network, we were demanding justice and freedom for an artist and father who had been detained in Annapolis.

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Today was largely a day of business, with occasional breaks to celebrate our ministry or launch new initiatives, such as a new Caribbean Initiative from Global Ministries, new fundraising campaigns, and the local church mission efforts of the Three Great Loves--Love of Children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Creation.

The business included passage of the Constitution and Bylaws changes to the way the board committees work and the portfolios of the officers of the church are determined.  I was one of only two to speak against the second part of those changes.  I have practical and governance concerns for streamlining our national leadership into a model where associate ministers report to the General Minister and their portfolios of ministry are not set by Synod, but my primary objection is theological.  I liked the Collegium of  Officers.  For much of my time in the UCC there were five co-equal ministers who deliberated together.  I believe this modeled a form of leadership that fit our ethos--conversation among a diverse group.  I believe it gave them unique authority when they issues pastoral letters to the church on topics of importance.  Now there will be one boss and a staff working for him.  I'm grieved to lose something that I believe was important to our character.

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But most of the day was taken up by the long series of resolutions on  a variety of topics--climate change, gun violence, survivors of abuse, diversity training, fair wages for farm workers, and more.  With generally harmonious debate though sometimes getting into the weeds of amendments and procedural motions and questions, we deliberated and decided on all these topics.  Some resolutions passed overwhelmingly, some failed narrowly (resolutions of witness require a two-thirds vote).

The resolution I was most concerned about was one calling on the church to support the right to die.  I rose to speak in opposition to the resolution, but did not get a chance to speak, as a series of procedural questions and motions robbed much of the time and my effort to extend debate failed, though at least a dozen people were still in line to speak both pro and con.  So, let me state what I would have said.

As a pastor and an ethicist I believe we do have the right to choose death when we have a terminal, debilitating condition.  But I believe that before the church takes that position, we must engage in robust theology.  Previous significant theological steps have included study committees who met over many years to research a topic and then draft a thorough report that was received by Synod.  I believe we should do the same on this issue, and not simply pass a resolution of witness.  This is more than a social justice or civil rights issue, but a matter of clearly articulating a Christian theology.  I believe we owe a clear theology to our church members, to the wider community, and to our sisters and brothers in the church universal.

I did not get to say that.  But the opponents who did speak included an interesting coalition of some conservatives, some very liberal queer folk, and representatives of the disabilities ministries.  And the resolution failed, by less than 1 percentage point.

And so it was a day in which we heard many voices speak on many issues, trusting that we are also listening to the Stillspeaking God.

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The Work of the Church

Sunday morning began with hearings.  Though there was more than one topic I wanted to hear about, I am most curious about the proposed changes to the constitution and bylaws, particularly the proposal to eliminate the collegium of officers and go to a model where the President and the Board determine the portfolios of the executive ministers who will report directly to the president.  I have many thoughts on this topic which I will hopefully blog about in a separate post.

The hearing was not as well attended as I suspected but there were those of us who raised questions and objections to the proposals.  

Next was the Health and Wholeness lunch where First Central was one of seven recipients of the denomination's Mental Health Education Award.  We were the second WISE for Mental Health congregation in the denomination, after the WISE resolution passed last synod.  

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This luncheon featured the other health ministries of the church--parish nurses, disabilities ministries, HIV/AIDS ministries, health advocacy, and the Council for Health and Human Services Ministries, which coordinates all our senior adult facilities, youth facilities, and other health related local and regional agencies.  They talked about their increased role in advocacy as health care is currently under threat.

In the exhibit hall I joined in sending letters to our Senators objecting to the proposed cuts to Medicaid.

For the afternoon I enjoyed a visit to Fort McHenry which made me feel quite patriotic as I experienced the story of brave soldiers holding out during the horrifying bombardment.

The Open and Affirming Dinner was fun as always, though I missed being there with the Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson.  I believe this was the first time I wasn't sitting with her.  Four years ago this dinner was held the day of the Windsor ruling and two years ago the day of the Obergefell ruling.  Sadly, the times are different.

Andy Lang reported that 60%  of ONA churches are not adequate in their inclusion of trans persons.  I hope we aren't in that category.  What can we do to be sure we are not?

Rev. Naomi Leaphart delivered a powerful message on intersectionality and the work we must still do to expand our LGBT movement to be truly queer and truly inclusive.  Her most searing line was "Are we doing the same church in gay face?"  Also "When did we believe that queerness could erase whiteness?"  And "We should not be including people in the same church but constructing church anew."  I got her card as I want to bring her to Omaha to preach.

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The evening Plenary saw a range of business, including increased support for our historic missionary churches, electing Traci Blackmon as the Executive Minister for Justice and Witness, adopting constitutional changes related to our full communion agreement with the United Church of Canada, and declaring ourselves an immigrant welcoming church.  

The financial report was poorly handled this time, unlike other synod's I've attended, and generated some dissension from the floor.  Previous reports were sometimes mind-numbingly boring in their detail and this one was lacking in information. It passed with only 57% of the vote, which is very unusual.  I'll say more on this topic if you have a question about it.

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We also passed a resolution calling for strong advocacy on behalf of Palestinian children.  I morally agree with such actions, but also puzzle over some of these types of resolutions that call for us to do things like deliver a message to the Israeli government.  Plus we have previously condemned the treatment of Palestinians during the occupation.  

And we voted to set aside the existing giving plan and develop a new model.  A significant number of people voted against this resolution, though no one spoke against it on the floor, which is quite surprising, unlike the synod, and maybe an unhealthy sign that people feel their voice isn't being heard?  

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