On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times

On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark TimesOn Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"To be reconciled we must first make peace with our losses, defeats, and failures. To be consoled is to accept these losses, to accept what they have done to us and to believe, despite everything, that they need not haunt our future or blight our remaining possibilities."

I got a head start on my sabbatical reading with Michael Ignatieff's latest book. I felt after two years of pandemic and divorce that this would be a good place to start as I begin this season. Months ago I had read an excerpt of the book and was impressed, plus I really liked his previous book, Ordinary Virtue, which I read near the beginning of the pandemic.

Ignatieff is not a religious believer, so he searches the intellectual and literary tradition for consolation, sharing the stories of key individuals who coped with the various crises of their lives. People like Paul, Cicero, Montaigne, Lincoln, etc. One goal of these stories is to realize that we are not alone in our distress, that our suffering is part of the human condition.

The book is a rich exploration of the theme with profound and helpful thoughts drawn from each story (I'll have more to write about individual chapters and ideas when the sabbatical free time truly kicks in next week). Plus, Ignatieff is a very engaging, eloquent writer.

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Rosemary Radford Ruether Quotes

Sexism and god talk

With the death this weekend of Rosemary Radford Ruether, I pulled my copy of Sexism and God-Talk off of the shelf to review.  Here are some choice quotes:

We have not choice but to go forward into a global community and shape a sustainable world together, if the human project is not to choke on its own toxic waste and bury itself by its own destructiveness.

The expansion of the Biblical message to include the unincluded rests on the assumption that the point of reference for Biblical faith is not past texts, with their sociological limitations, but rather the liberated future.

The liberating encounter with God/ess is always an encounter with our authentic selves resurrected from underneath the alienated self.  It is not experienced against, but in and through relationships, healing our broken relations with our bodies, with other people, with nature.

To encapsulate Jesus himself as God's "last word" and "once-for-all" disclosure of God, located in a remote past and institutionalized in a cast of Christian teachers, is to repudiate the spirit of Jesus and to recapitulate the position against which he himself protests.

Redemptive humanity goes ahead of us, calling us to yet incompleted dimensions of human liberation.

Those who are afraid of anger and alienation always have a tendency to hurry women on to another stage where they become 'reasonable' and 'gain perspective.'  But one cannot do that with integrity until one has genuinely faced up to sexism as a massive historical system of victimization of women and allowed oneself to enter into one's anger and alienation.  To skip over this experience is to become "reconciling" in a way that is basically timid and accommodating and not really an expression of personal freedom.



Matthew 18:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 May 2022

            Back in February of 2012, a full decade ago now, I traveled to the Claremont School o Religion in Claremont, California  for a conference about how folks who were imagining and embodying new ways of being church for the 21st century might engage in conversation with Process theology.  At the conference I led a breakout session entitled “Blogging, Social Networking, and Process: Adventures in Ministry.” 

In the early years of my ministry, I was often a pioneer, engaging new internet communication tools to connect with people and carry out ministry.  For example, I remember the days of using AOL instant messenger to chat with my youth.

            In my breakout session, I highlighted these positive for the church’s use of the new technologies:

  • The internet was Open-ended, adventurous, and egalitarian.
  • You could easily share your stories, reflect upon them, and watch them develop over time.  And this was true both as an individual and in telling the story of the church community.
  • I said we were able to be present with people, because we were understanding that presence is not limited to physical location.

I felt that these new technologies presented opportunities to advance theological and ministry goals.  My model of pastoral leadership has always been to use persuasive power through the presentation of possibilities to excite people's sense of adventure, so that through their free agency, together we will choose how to move forward.  I felt these new technologies enabled and expanded that.

            My presentation also talked about some of the concerns raised by these new technologies:

  • The danger of creating a community within the community that leaves out those not engaged in social media or who are not tech savvy
  • Wondering whether social media can violate our ministerial boundaries or whether it actually revealed that the ways we’d previously understood this was a mistaken notion, and that these new technologies were compelling ministers to live more openly without a facade or division between our private and professional lives?
  • And what about privacy anyway? 
  • And, presciently to this worship series we are currently engaged in, a decade ago in that presentation I talked about the challenge of keeping up with all of the constant changes in technology and wondered whether keeping up would be a distraction from other, important aspects of ministry?

Of course over the ensuing decade, with all we now know about social media and mobile technologies, the concerns often seem to outweigh the strengths.  I wasn’t sure what I thought anymore about those ideas from my presentation a decade ago.  Plus, the more I prepared for this worship series--about how the effort to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of change is negatively affecting us spiritually--the more anxious I became.  Clearly one aspect of the Time Fatigue we’ve been focused on this month in worship is the role that the internet, social media, and mobile devices has played in changing everything about our lives.

Given my enthusiasm, optimism, and hearty embrace of new technologies a decade ago, this spring I jumped at reading a new book The Internet is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin E. H. Smith.  Smith is a very insightful philosopher who teaches at the University of Paris. 

To my relief, on page 2 of his book, Smith affirmed my excitement of a decade ago.  He states, “As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, one could still sincerely hope that the internet might help ‘to bring people together and to strengthen the social fabric.’” 

According to Smith, the positive goals for the internet are rooted in three centuries of utopian dreams and technological and scientific achievements.  Those positive dreams are actually deeply rooted in our human nature and our hopes for the human future. 

Yes, in the last decade the internet has turned in a negative direction, but he keeps pointing out that it didn’t have to end up that way, and doesn’t have to remain that way.  We can shape it in that more utopian direction if we so desire and so act. 

How do these negative developments connect to the spiritual crisis we’ve been discussing the last few weeks?  Smith identifies four new problems with the internet that have become apparent in the last few years.

First, there exists a new form of exploitation.  Whereas once human labor might have been exploited by others for economic gain, now our very selves, our lives are the resource being exploited. 

Second, is that this new economy is an extractive one, but not in the sense of material resources, rather, it extracts our attention.  Smith writes that “the largest industry in the world now is quite literally the attention-seeking industry.”  Companies work to gain and keep our attention, using tools we have learned are actually addictive and compulsory.  He writes:

Most of our passions and frustrations, personal bonds and enmities, responsibilities and addictions, are now concentrated into our digital screens, along with our mundane work and daily errands, our bill-paying and our income tax spreadsheets.  It is not just that we have a device that is capable of doing several things, but that this device has largely swallowed up many of the things we used to do and transformed these things into various instances of that device’s universal imposition of itself.

            And this focusing our attention has moral implications.  It robs us of time and attention that should be focused on other things, particularly people.  This, he believes, has impacts on our empathy.  How often have you found yourself immersed in your phone when you should be interacting with the people, the nature, the things around you?  We’ve all done it to some degree. 

            The third new problem has already been hinted at—so much of our lives are not concentrated in a single device.  This was supposed to be about utility and efficiency and freeing us up.  And there is so much about the new technology that does make life easier.  But do we feel freed up from drudgery for more important things?  Or do we feel enmeshed in even more drudgery?

            The fourth problem is that “human beings are increasingly perceived and understood as sets of data points.”  This is how we are viewed by the big data companies.  And Smith believes it is inevitable that this type of thinking will permeate through every other aspect of our culture, and we will all be viewed as data points in algorithms instead of full human persons.  Remember what I said last week about the theological importance of personhood.

            So Smith warns that we have ended up in a dangerous place with unhealthy relationships to our new technologies.  But he reminds us that it didn’t have to be this way.  However, he thinks we can’t just stop, quit, or go back.  There are good things and benefits to these technologies.  As a society, we could make the choices and take the steps to bend the internet back towards those utopian hopes of humanity.

            But, meanwhile, we live with this vital but dangerous tool that is a major culprit in our time fatigue and our growing sense of disorientation, disconnection, anxiety, and even depression.  All the topics we’ve been exploring the last four weeks in worship.

            So I return to the theologian Andrew Root’s quote that I used in my first sermon of this series to clarify our current spiritual crisis:

We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future, but more deeply into time itself.  We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity.  We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!

            Andrew Root, then, turns to this gospel story in Matthew 18 to help us understand how God is calling us to something different and better that transcends and heals our time fatigue.  Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

            Root draws a typical preacher’s three lessons from this passage.  First, it is “a direct call to humility.”  To quit comparing ourselves to others.  To quit focusing only on ourselves.  To open ourselves to other people.  To admit that we need other people.  To be vulnerable.

            Second, we are invited by Jesus into real relationships with real persons, giving of ourselves, receiving from the other.  And in this we experience Jesus.  Recall everything I said about loving relationships with persons in last week’s sermon.

            And third, Jesus calls us to be transformed.  To become like children.  Children are attentive to the world and therefore experience curiosity, wonder, delight, and affection.  They aren’t yet caught up in the ever-increasing rate of change in our social lives.  They aren’t yet part of the rat race.  Instead, their lives are full of the resonance we desire.  They become our mentors as we learn how to live a better life, how to experience time for everything.

            I ordered and started reading Andrew Root’s book because I thought it was going to be about what churches needed to do in our ministries in the twenty-first century.  Afterall, he’s a youth ministry professor at Princeton whose earlier work has focused on such things.  I was thoroughly surprised by the rich and revealing intellectual and theological creativity as he analyzed and discussed the underlying spiritual crises that churches and church people encounter.  Reading the book on my monastic retreat last December was an epiphany that led to fertile study and exploration of these themes over the last six months.

            Andrew Root does get to the practical things that the church needs to do to minister faithfully and effectively spiritual crisis.  What is the antidote to our time fatigue?  His answer-- to care for children. 

            Because to focus on children is to escape the focus on our current time and to take a long view.  As I said a few weeks ago, the youngest among us will live for another century or more.  What we do for them now—how we shape them and educate them and care for and love them will have lasting impacts long, long after most of us are gone.  And if they also grow up caring for children and furthering those lessons, the time horizon for our ministry lifts beyond even one century.

            To care for our children also means we are drawn into relationships of wonder, affection, and delight, relationships of resonance and fullness, the obvious antidote to the experience of alienation, time fatigue, and spiritual crisis.

            And Andrew Root believes that any congregational community which prioritizes caring for children is a congregation that will be shaped by humility, vulnerability, giving and receiving, transformation, and thus we will learn to prioritize loving relationships with persons in all aspects of our lives.  In other words, a congregation that prioritizes caring for children is one that becomes more caring towards everyone and everything.  We are spiritually shaped and transformed by our love of kids to become more loving people.

            And so he concludes his book, “The ecstasy of witnessing eternity in time [in caring for children] will ignite the good life of giving and receiving ministry in the world.”

            To draw these four weeks together then.  In our struggle with time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—what we truly long for is a feeling of fullness, of being fully alive, of living the good life. 

            We get to that when we open ourselves to God to transform us, to make us new creatures.  That transformation occurs through loving relationships with persons.  We can open ourselves to love by practicing the spiritual gifts of wonder, curiosity, attention, delight, and affection.  The gifts of resonance.  Which our children have in abundance, and are willing to share, because “sharing is caring.”

            So, if you want to transcend your current time and feel fully alive, the best gift any congregation has to offer you is a chance to care for children.

I, Tituba

I, Tituba, Black Witch of SalemI, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An enjoyable imagining that fills in a life for Tituba, who should be more central in the story of the Salem Witch Trials. Instead of a focus on the Puritan angle, here we get a woman from the Caribbean, enslaved, and thus an exploration of gender, sexuality, race, and clashing cultures. And Conde imagines Tituba as a heroine for the modern world, a revolutionary spirit for our age that hasn't yet fully come to terms with the issues alive in the seventeenth century.

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Sabbatical Head Start

On Consolation

I go on sabbatical beginning on June 1.  More in later post about this sabbatical, its development and delay over the past few years, and what the plans, themes, and goals are.

Knowing that the sabbatical was coming, back in March I ordered a bunch of books for it.  I also pulled out a few from my existing library I haven't yet read and plan to during this summer.

Yesterday afternoon, I wrapped up the religion book I was reading, N. T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, so rather than immerse myself in something else for the next couple of weeks, I decided to start on the sabbatical reading.

And first up I wanted to read Michael Ignatieff's On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.  Ignatieff's book seemed a good place to start after two years of navigating the church through the pandemic.  And the last two years of my marriage ending and getting divorced.  Since this sabbatical is in many ways a chance to rest and recenter and heal from those experiences, consolation is a good place to begin.  

Somewhere I'd read a review of the book that interested me.  Plus I had read his last book, Ordinary Virtues, near the beginning of the pandemic  and had really liked it.  

So, seeking consolation to get a head start on this period of sabbath, I began reading and these sentences from the introduction resonated with me, and may help to set a theme for this season of life:

To be reconciled we must first make peace with our losses, defeats, and failures. To be consoled is to accept these losses, to accept what they have done to us and to believe, despite everything, that they need not haunt our future or blight our remaining possibilities.

Great Plains Weather

Great Plains WeatherGreat Plains Weather by Kenneth F Dewey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun exploration of the crazy, extreme weather of the Great Plains. One thing I learned was that the wild swings of temperatures and conditions has always been a feature of this region. We all have our personal stories of weird changes of weather (like wearing shorts in the morning and snow boots in the evening), but the ones in this book are truly wild.

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Critique of Practical Reason

Critique of Practical ReasonCritique of Practical Reason by Immanuel Kant
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried reading this Critique a couple of decades ago and just couldn't finish it, even though it's not that long. I did make it to the end this time, where you get some payoff, as the final pages are the best, including this great line, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heaves above and the moral law within." But otherwise I found this particular work dense and unenjoyable with very little that was edifying or helpful.

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Time Fatigue

Time Fatigue

Ecclesiastes 3:1-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

1 May 2022

            Back in November I was having a rough time and my spiritual director said, “You need to a retreat.”  He advised that I come stay at the Incarnation Monastery, a Benedictine community of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska that is housed in North Omaha near Miller Park.  I responded, “Yes, that’s exactly what I need.” 

            And so arrangements were made for early December.  I felt decadent taking a little time in the middle of Advent for spiritual reflection and prayer.  Which is, of course, ironic, since that’s part of the point of Advent.  But preachers are often themselves so busy helping others with their spiritual lives that we don’t take the time for ours. 

            I only spent two days away, but it was exactly what I needed to rest, recharge, refocus, and spend time really thinking and praying about some things I needed to spend time really thinking and praying about.

            Now, the rhythm of a monastic retreat is unusual.  Waking very early for prayer.  Services of prayer and song throughout the day.  During some of those sitting in silence for twenty or thirty minutes.  A two hour period in the afternoon where no one is supposed to talk.  Going to bed early. 

            The strange marking of time compels you out of your routines.  You notice different things about your body, your spiritual energy.  It opens up vast time for reflection and contemplation.

            Completely unplanned, while I was away for those two days I read a book about how the church tells time.  The book is entitled The Congregation in a Secular Age by the Princeton theologian Andrew Root.  That book was the perfect read in that setting.  And I was struck by what Root had to say.

            Root identifies the core problem facing contemporary churches and church people to be time related.  Modern life moves at a speed and according to values that are at fundamental odds with the way the church keeps sacred time.  And modern uses of time have led to all sorts of problems for humans.  We long for something different, and he argues that the church’s approach to time is what people really need.

            He writes, “We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future time, but more deeply into time itself.  We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity.  We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!" 

            I read that sentence and thought “Yes!”  That is exactly what we long for.

            And, so, I returned from the retreat and said to the church staff, “How about a series on time for the season of Easter?”  And they agreed.  One reason this seemed timely is that we’ve all had our time-keeping screwed up in the last two years of the pandemic.  We don’t know what time it is, while also feeling that we’ve lost time or wasted time, that we were bored.  While others felt like they gained valuable and rich time to spend on themselves or with family or exploring new hobbies and interests, or learning new skills.  Plus, as more folks return to normal activities, they are contemplating whether they want to be as busy as they were before the virus or whether they want to build in more down time.  Time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—all of that is in the current stew of our lives, and so our worship for this Easter season will focus around these ideas and questions.

            So, to begin, let’s talk about time fatigue. 

            Andrew Root was talking to a local pastor who said, “I mean, these should be exciting times.  Everyone knows we need change.  But instead of creating energy, it creates depression.”  He began to notice that this was common in the churches he visited and spoke to.  He was hearing it from ministerial colleagues.  There’s a lot that needs to be done, people even know some of what it is, but they seem to lack the energy they once had for it.  Why is that?  And this was written even before a global pandemic, though it was published in the middle of it.

            What Root eventually diagnosed is that for individuals and even for institutions like churches, the problem is a “feeling that you just couldn’t find the energy to keep pace” with the speed that society now undergoes change. 

            If the twenty-first century world seems to be moving faster, that’s because it is.  One dimension that is rather obvious is the speed of technological change and how quickly a new technology becomes obsolete and is supplanted by another one, compelling folks to constantly get the newest and latest or fall behind in efficiency, skills, or even coolness.  Technology has, then, increased the speed of communication, transportation, and industrial production. 

            Which has, in turn, affected our social lives.  Even they can now move at a faster pace.  It’s a marvel and wonder to video chat with your grandchildren who live on another continent, when only a few decades ago you would have relied mostly upon mailing letters back and forth. 

            Social and fashion trends arise quickly and just as quickly are replaced.  Political debates are no longer in depth conversations occurring over months and years.  Through social media we can all keep up with hundreds or thousands of more friends and acquaintances than we once did, even knowing what they cooked for supper or the highlight of their vacation.  And we can all watch the livestream of the child’s first walk.

            I don’t need to belabor these points.  You are aware of them in your own lives.  And you’ve read articles, I’m sure, exploring both the good and bad outcomes of all these changes.  Instead, I want to focus in on one spiritual aspect of the new, faster pace of life. 

            Andrew Root calls it “the fatigue to be me.”  And he draws upon the work of the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg in his book The Weariness of the Self, which I read this winter after reading Root’s book.  Ehrenberg identifies that there has been a radical increase in the rise of depression diagnoses and treatments in the last fifty years.  He then sets about to understand why.  And the conclusion he comes to is that people are worn out trying to keep pace with modern life.  Particularly, they are worn out trying to be themselves.  Worn out trying to be the best version of themselves.

            Part of what happened by the end of the twentieth century is that for many people in the wealthy West, there was a radical expansion of freedom and choice.  This came about through the demise of traditional social roles and expectations and the revolutions brought about by movements for civil and human rights for various groups of people.  All of these, of course, are good developments in the history of humanity. 

            But where even in the mid-twentieth century the social role and expectations for many people were decided for them, now most people had the freedom to decide for themselves.  Who will they marry, and will they stay married?  Will they have kids or not?  What career will they explore?  Where will they live?  How often will they move or change jobs?  What religion or spirituality will the practice, if any? 

            And along with them came new emphases.  To be unique.  To have self-esteem.  To live an authentic life.  To live your best life.

            And, yet, that doesn’t work out quite for everyone.  Not everyone has the financial resources or social connections.  There are unforeseen circumstances like illness, divorce, financial setbacks, and more. 

            And the shadow side to all this freedom is that you might be constantly wondering if the life you’ve chosen is the best one?  You might constantly be wondering what would happen if you made other choices?  Would that life be better, richer, more enjoyable?  You might get plagued by the question, “Am I living my best life?”

            Ehrenberg writes that depression then rose as a result of more and more people running out of energy to keep up with the new expectations of choosing, curating, and creating a rich, full life.  Root summarizes this idea when he writes, “But I don’t have the energy to meet this demand.  If I had the energy, the openness of identity construction would be exciting.  But without it, the choice and openness is depressing.”

            This is one of the particular spiritual crises of our contemporary age.  A fatigue that sets in with the ever accelerating pace of life.  An inability to keep up.  A time fatigue that leads to weariness.

            But what we truly desire is a richness of time, a fullness of time.  Maybe that’s a chance for time to slow down and let us focus, like I was able to on that monastic retreat.  Maybe what we long for is a sense of time larger than ourselves and our own choices and actions?  A sacred time that is bigger and more mysterious and that extends through the ages?

            Last week I stood at the graves of ancestors who lived four hundred years ago.  My Pilgrim ancestors who had traveled on the Mayflower to Plymouth.  John and Jane Tilley, who died during that first winter, and whose remains are interred on top of Cole’s Hill in Plymouth with those of all the others who died of starvation, illness, and exposure.  The monument is engraved with these words:

History records no nobler venture for faith and freedom than that of this pilgrim band.  In weariness and painfulness . . . in hunger and cold, they laid the foundations of a state wherein every [person] through countless ages should have liberty to worship God in [their] own way.

            I stood at the gravestone of their daughter, Elizabeth Tilley Howland, who survived that winter and lived to a ripe old age.  Her epitaph reads, “It is my will and charge to all my Children that they walk in the fear of the Lord and in Love and Peace toward each other.”  Those are words I quoted at my own ordination 25 years ago.

            And I found the grave of John Howland, her husband, and the young man who came to the colony as an indentured servant, almost died when he fell off the boat during a storm, and yet lived to be the last man of the original group of pilgrims, raising a large family and rising to wealth and prominence.

            This sacred connection through the ages is a different way of marking time than the fast pace of our contemporary age.  The whole purpose of our trip to New England last week was to explore the past, our history, our story, in order to gain a richer understanding of ourselves.

            Today we celebrate the 166th anniversary of the founding of the First Congregational Church, when Omaha was only a small settlement on the Missouri River and no one knew for certain what would become of this village or this congregation.  And, yet, here we are.  Because of the faith and vision of those founders and the generations that followed them in the work and ministry.

            A highlight of our trip was a visit to the Congregational Archives in Boston, where we found documents and information that were lacking in our own vast archives.  The great reading room looked out over the old Boston graveyard that contains such luminaries as John Hancock.  The room was decorated with the portraits of great pastors and thinkers of our movement.  It was not hard in such a space to feel a deep and abiding connection, a communion even, through time and space. 

            I was delighted that the archives had a copy of the 50th anniversary program of the congregation, celebrated in 1906.  I had not seen this booklet before.  And it’s closing paragraph resonated with me and Susan and Deb:

The church has passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and of hope, during its history.  In them all it has endeavored to maintain its witness for [the One] who is the Light of the World.  And now as the shadows fall on its first half century, it is girding itself for the years to come, praying for grace to keep the faith and to commend it to [humanity] by word and life.

            This paragraph resonated because it felt so true of us in 2022.  That we too have “passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and hope” and yet despite it all we too endeavor “to maintain [our] witness” to God “who is the Light of the World.”

            These deep connections help us to tell time in a different way.  To transcend the pace of contemporary life.  To step away from busyness towards fullness.  To focus on transformation, rather than change.  To seek resonance, rather than relevance. 

            And these are the ideas we’ll explore in the coming weeks of this series, “A Time for Everything.” 


ParadiseParadise by Abdulrazak Gurnah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was unfamiliar with Gurnah when he won the Nobel last autumn. Then when I tried to order one of his novels, they weren't available. And didn't become so until this spring. Glad to have now read one.

This is a rich story. A coming-of-age story in the midst of turbulent social change, exploring questions of identity and existential meaning. No didacticism, simply rich characters and compelling narratives and settings.

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The Last Enemy

The Last Enemy

1 Corinthians 15:1-26

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 April 2022

            “The last enemy to be defeated is death,” writes Saint Paul at the close of this proclamation of the resurrection.  In all of his writings Paul viewed death as a malevolent power.  Death was a force, often personified, which struck randomly and with abandon.

            Seven years ago in my Easter sermon, I contrasted the ancient view of death with our own.  I preached,

We do not share the ignorance of our forbearers that led to their fear of death as a malevolent power. Death is no longer such a mystery to us. We have a better grasp of biology and understand death as part of the life cycle of a biological organism. For many of us in the developed West, life itself is no longer "nasty, brutish, and short."

            Those sentences felt right seven years ago.  But they don’t feel quite right to me anymore.  Six million people have died in the last two years of a novel coronavirus.  We watch with horror the atrocities being committed in Ukrainian cities.  We are more attuned to the violence in our own nation.  Last year, 2021, was the deadliest in American history, it was just reported this week.  So, I believe we now understand our ancient forebearers better, and why they viewed death as a malevolent force and not simply as a biological fact. 

            In the spring of 2020, before the pandemic, the economists Anne Case and Agnus Deaton released their book Deaths of Despair detailing how the United States was already in the midst of a epidemic of death.  Our life expectancies were declining, after more than a century of dramatic increases.  Why, in our advanced society, was death on the rise?  The kinds of deaths on the increase were related to suicide, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse.  These were self-inflicted, preventable deaths.  And yet they were dramatically on the rise.  Their book was an attempt to explore and explain this shocking phenomenon.

            And what they identified was a rise in despair.  These sorts of deaths followed from unhappiness, depression, a lack of meaningful work, a lack of purpose, feeling left out and left behind by society.  They revealed that we have a serious social problem that we need to be aggressively addressing.  Unfortunately this revelation came just as the world shut down for the pandemic and focused our attention elsewhere.

            But their analysis is a wake-up call to us that we were already experiencing an epidemic of death, resulting from a epidemic of despair.  And so we have been living through a shift in our society and now, I can’t say the same things about our understanding of death that I did seven years ago.  Now I feel much closer to Saint Paul and the ancient writers of the Bible—death feels like a malevolent force, an enemy, and not simply a biological fact.

            So I turn to ancient wisdom.  Some of the most ancient wisdom we have—The Epic of Gilgamesh, that ancient Mesopotamian story that is in many ways the fountainhead of our literary tradition.   The Epic of Gilgamesh deals profoundly with issues of death and grief.

Gilgamesh is the king of great-walled Uruk.  His friend and companion is Enkidu. Together, they survive many dangerous adventures, only for Enkidu to die of some mysterious illness.  And Gilgamesh's grief overwhelms him.  He flees his city and his responsibilities and sets out on a journey around the world seeking immortality, an answer to the problem of death.  A way to defeat this enemy.

Near the end of his journey, Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim is the builder of the ark and the survivor of the great flood.  His story pre-dates the account of Noah in Genesis, and many scholars think that the Noah story is simply the Israelite retelling of this even more ancient story.

When Utnapishtim sees Gilgamesh, he asks him why he looks so bad:

Why are your cheeks so hollow?  Why is your face so ravaged, frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?  Why is there so much grief in your heart?  Why are you worn out and ready to collapse, like someone who has been on a long, hard journey?

Then Gilgamesh answers in one of the great laments in world literature:

Shouldn't my cheeks be hollow, shouldn't my face be ravaged, frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?  Shouldn't my heart be filled with grief?  Shouldn't I be worn out and ready to collapse?  My friend, my brother, whom I loved so dearly, who accompanied me through every danger—Enkidu, my brother, whom I loved so dearly . . . the fate of humankind has overwhelmed him.  For six days I would not let him be buried, thinking, "If my grief is violent enough, perhaps he will come back to life again."  For six days and seven nights I mourned him, until a maggot fell out of his nose.  Then I was frightened, I was terrified by death, and I set out to roam the wilderness.  I cannot bear what happened to my friend—I cannot bear what happened to Enkidu—so I roam the wilderness in my grief.  How can my mind have any rest?  My beloved friend has turned into clay—my beloved Enkidu has turned into clay.  And won't I too lie down in the dirt like him, and never rise again?

Utnapishtim responds to Gilgamesh, basically scolding him for his grief and lack of gratitude and then warning him that he must change his life:

You have worn yourself out through ceaseless striving, you have filled your muscles with pain and anguish.  And what have you achieved but to bring yourself one day nearer to the end of your days?

Yes: the gods took Enkidu's life.  But man's life is short, at any moment it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.  The handsome young man, the lovely young woman—in their prime, death comes and drags them away. . . . suddenly, savagely, death destroys us, all of us.

In this ancient story, we encounter death as the last enemy.  Death as the malevolent power.  The grief and anguish expressed by Gilgamesh, we understand.  The descriptions are vivid and remain true of us in our sorrow.  Their expressions of hope and longing for new life, resonate with us as well.  I read these ancient words and they speak to me even more powerfully after our experiences of the last few years.

            And, yet, Saint Paul tells us “The last enemy to be defeated is death.”  Death has been defeated.  Jesus the Christ died and rose again so that we might all rise again. 

Jesus himself told us “I am the resurrection and the life.”  We use those words to begin a Christian funeral service.  And at the close of that service, when we commit a body to the ground, we pray this prayer:

In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister or brother, and we commit her to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her, the Lord make his face to shine upon her and be gracious to her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon her and give her peace.

            This year it seemed fitting that on Good Friday afternoon we had a funeral.  For Mary Guin Knoll who died in February and wanted to wait for a spring funeral.  Mary Guin was 99 ½ years old and our eldest member at the time of her death.  Mary Guin was a school librarian, including at Bryan High School here in Omaha while some of our other members were students there.  I loved one story that her son Jeff told about her on Friday.  He said that every year when the list of most banned books was released, Mary Guin would doublecheck that all of them were in the school library and, if not, be sure to order them for her collection.

            Mary Guin lived a long and good life, and over her death and burial these ancient Christian words were spoken.  They were spoken because for us Christians, resurrection is our response to the power of death.  We proclaim a greater power, and so death has no ultimate power over us.  How can we comprehend this?

There are a couple of significant verbs in Paul’s opening remarks on resurrection.  He declares:

Now I remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

There is something revealing in this phrase, "which you in turn received."  The Scottish theologian William Barclay says, we do not have to invent the gospel for ourselves.  This good news is not something we have to discover.  We don't have to be like Gilgamesh and travel around the world, striving and enduring hardship, searching for good news.  The good news has been proclaimed to us, we only have to receive it.

We receive the good news because we have witnessed it enlivening other people.  We have observed how the gospel changed someone's life.  How a beloved mentor lived differently than other people because of their faith.  How an acquaintance from church faced their impending death with courage and hope.  How a catastrophic loss was faced with resilience and dignity.  We believe the gospel to be true because we have witnessed its effects in the world.  This is not belief in the abstract, in some intellectual sense.  It is belief built out of our relationships with other people.

And we have learned that we do not lose community when we die.  Ruth Robinson, my beloved kindergarten Sunday school teacher of whom I have often spoken, is long deceased.  But because she played a significant role in the formation of my own faith, Ruth is here with us now.  She continues to participate in the body of Christ, because of the faith I received from her.  She continues to influence the world for good because of what she taught me that I now try to pass on to others.

And I’ve now taught many children and teenagers.  Some of them are now in their thirties and have children of their own.  Those young people, who will outlive me, already live lives changed by their encounter with the gospel.  Long after my own death, I will continue to participate in their faith and witness.  The little ones here in this congregation will be alive a century from now, hopefully remembering us and telling our stories. 

Just as this morning, at the close of our Easter Sunrise Service, we gathered around the grave of the Rev. Reuben Gaylord, who founded this congregation in 1856.  To honor his faith and legacy among us still.

We do not leave the body of Christ at our deaths, but continue to participate in the on-going life of the church.  We share in ecstatic fellowship with our fellow Christians, including all who came before us and all who will come after us.  The circle is unbroken.  And the circle continues to grow, reaching out farther and farther, spreading our life and our influence.  By participating in the life of Jesus, we are in communion with God and therefore with all of creation in an interrelated whole.  When this perishable body ceases to function anymore, this life will go on.

This truth of the resurrection, this good news, is something in which we stand.  That’s the other significant verb in Paul’s opening remarks.  We stand, we hold firm.  The good news we have received fills us with the hope . . . . and the courage . . . to live as Jesus lived.

Jesus lived a certain kind of life, which was very different from the way most people live.  Jesus lived in solidarity with the poor and the outcast, and he challenged the powers which enslave people: Things like purity codes used to exclude those who are different.  Religious practices that separated people from God rather than drawing them closer.  Economic practices which robbed people of land and the ability to provide for themselves.  Imperial policies which used violence to oppress.

So when the forces of domination crucified Jesus it was a challenge to the way Jesus had lived.  It would have been easy to interpret that the life Jesus lived was a waste and, therefore, no model for how anyone else should live.

But that is not how Paul and the other apostles interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus.  Instead, they saw the crucifixion itself as the moment which revealed God's victory and glory and love.  Why was this?  

Because they experienced Jesus as resurrected from the dead.  And we may not fully understand this experience, but it was clearly very real to them. 

And if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the life Jesus lived was vindicated.  Which is the more important point.  Jesus’ way of life received God's seal of approval.  In other words, God was saying, "this is the sort of life I desire all humanity to live."  This is the sort of life defeats the power of death.

Our Christian hope and our Christian faith is that if we stand firmly in the good news and live lives of justice, love, and peace, that we will not have lived in vain.  That our lives are part of God's on-going victory over the powers of sin and death.

Which means that the more we live the kind of life God wants us to live--lives of justice, love, and peace—the more we participate in defeating death.  Deaths of despair.  Deaths from violence and war.  The more we live with Christian faith and hope and love, the more those needless forms of death come to an end.  

Death, the malevolent power, the last enemy, is defeated because we have learned to live life the way Jesus did.

I do not know what awaits us when we die.  But I do know that my life has meaning.  That it will continue on even after this body ceases to function.  Why?

Because I have tried to live as Jesus lived.  And I know from the story of the resurrection that such a life is not lived in vain.

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a WarningThe Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning by Justin E.H. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fascinating exploration of the roots of the internet and how we use it to see and engage with our world. My only real criticism is that I wanted a coda, some final chapter or statement that drew everything together and advanced the argument.

View all my reviews

Works of Mercy

Works of Mercy

Matthew 25:34-40; Micah 6:6-8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 April 2022

            In sixth grade I played soccer.  We practiced on a field about a mile from my house that was part of the campus of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, close to the football stadium.  When soccer practice was finished, our legs would be covered with a sticky, orange dust.  When you showered at home, the orange would run off of your body in waves.  Also your soccer shoes and socks took on an orange stain regardless of how many times you washed and bleached them.

            We knew that the orange dust was the result of the field often being flooded by nearby Tar Creek.  Because the water in Tar Creek was a bright orange ribbon running through the landscape.  We knew it was stained orange because it flowed through an area of closed mines.  For in the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our county had provided much of the heavy metals that the US used in manufacturing and fighting two World Wars. 

            To me it was ironic that this polluted creek flowed through the richest neighborhood in town, for a long stretch bordering the estate of the Coleman family who had owned the mines. 

            We knew it was polluted.  But somehow, we never really thought about how toxic it was.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and read an article in Time Magazine that I had the epiphany that I had routinely been poisoned as a child by heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and magnesium.  I’ve long pondered how we didn’t know that, didn’t realize it, weren’t up-in-arms as a community about that?  Willful ignorance?  Corrupt and venal political leaders?  The effects of that lead on our brains?

            It wasn’t just the orange residue in the soccer fields.  The mine tailings, called chat, which is something like gravel, were/are piled in giant mounds that rise in northern Ottawa County near the Kansas border like small mountains, creating a weird and fascinating moonscape.  People went there to play, to climb the chatpiles, to ride dune buggies.  People also used the freely available chat for all sorts of things, in particular as gravel for roads and driveways.

            My grandparents driveway was gravel.  As a young kid I’d play in it much like a sand box, using tools to shape roads and hills and cityscapes to drive my cars and toys.  I don’t know that my grandparents gravel came from a chat pile, but it very likely did.  As did that along the county’s gravel roads.  Which means I played in the residue of heavy metals.  And every time a car drove down the county road and kicked up dust that blew in across the farm, dust so bad that my grandmother would clean her living room twice a day, we all were likely breathing toxins.

            The person who did finally take the lead on addressing this problem and both informing and mobilizing the community was Rebecca Jim, who was one of my high school counselors.  It was in her role as sponsor of the Indian Club at high school that she and a group of students began to raise awareness.  Eventually Rebecca retired as a school counselor in order to full-time lead the agency working on cleaning up this environmental disaster and restoring the waters.  Some people believe the problem is too big and that the creek will never be clean again, but Rebecca refuses to believe that.  She says, “We want swimmable, fishable, drinkable water. I’m still working for the day when we can say, ‘yes, meet me at the creek.’”

            This very familiar biblical passage in Matthew 25 includes a list of ministries that have collectively come to be called the “Works of Mercy.”  Feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison.  And most churches, regardless of their theology or politics, usually have ministries that try to address some or all of these needs.

            Ragan Sutterfield, whose article has guided our Lenten worship series, writes that “A world in the midst of ecological crisis is a world in need of mercy and compassion.”  And so as we contemplate what spiritual practices are required of us in order to living faithfully, sustainably, and resiliently at this time in the world’s history, Sutterfield believes that the Works of Mercy in Matthew 25 are a great place to begin. 

            And so he invites us to renew our imaginations and look again at this familiar list of ministries and see how we might embody them in the midst of an ecological crisis.  So, for example, if one of the teachings of Jesus is that we must give water to the thirsty, surely that means we must have fresh, clean, healthy water.  Which means that if Christians are to faithfully live into this work of mercy, we must also be concerned with the state of our waters.  Our work of mercy then means being concerned about a place like Tar Creek and the heavy metal pollution from discarded mines and its many impacts upon the landscape, the waters, and the health and well-being of humans, plants, and animals.  Our faithfulness to God expands our vision, our concern, and ultimately our work far beyond what we might have initially thought.

            As Ragan Sutterfield writes, any work we might do on a particular environmental issue actually must be seen within its wider connections to a host of other moral concerns, so we should seek to do our works of mercy “within a frame of healing the whole.”

            He was one of seven contributors to a booklet entitled Embodying Care: The Works of Mercy and Care of Creation that engages in this act of reimagining the teachings of Matthew 25 through this wider lens of creation care.

            If Love is the “center of creation,” which follows from our Christian teaching about the nature of God, God’s work in the world, and God’s expectations for human beings, then love will be at the center of our focus in spirituality and service.  The booklet reads:

Our work is to cultivate our affections for the gifts of creation, which includes our own lives.  When we begin to love the creation, giving our care and attention to it, we will begin to move into the life of the Creator, the community of God called Love.  Love binds together all.

            This being a communion Sunday, I was particularly drawn to the discussion of feeding the hungry by Episcopal priest Nadia Stefko.  She ties this work of mercy to communion.  She describes the communion table as “our fullest expression of covenant eating,” and points out that this “sacramental encounter must infuse and inform all of our eating throughout the weeks of our lives.”  So the lessons we embody at communion should be shared throughout our normal interactions.  How so?

            She asks us to consider what it means when Jesus talks about feeding the hungry. Who exactly is hungry?  Honestly, we all are.  She writes, “So when we talk about how best to feed the hungry, we are talking about how best to feed all of us—about how we humans take our life from the life of the world around us.”  And so our concern and our work of mercy should broaden to include how food is raised and prepared, the many issues related to the agricultural economy.  All of this enters into our covenant with God and with the world.

            Nadia Stefko provides six suggestions for how to reimagine this work of mercy, feeding the hungry.  First, we need to learn what we can about food and its production.  Second, we can’t just be passive consumers, but should be engaged in our food preparation through gardening, cooking, hunger relief efforts, and more.

            Third, we should do our best to eat locally.  Her fourth suggestion builds on this idea—we should also build local community around our food by getting to know people through food—eating together, cooking together, raising it together.

            Her fifth suggestion is very important—“acknowledge your limits.”  Our individual actions will not fix everything that’s wrong with our current food economy.  We cannot achieve a “morally pure diet.”

            And her final suggestion is to “remember always to say grace.”  She expands on this idea:

Giving thanks for food is a countercultural act in two ways: It speaks against the commodification of food by naming it as gift . . . and it articulates gratitude for what is present before us, over against the fear about what is absent—the fear that fuels the myth of scarcity that is embedded in our dominant food systems.

            So, these are just a few ideas connected to one of the works of mercy.  We could perform the same reimagining with each of the others.  I encourage you as part of our Lenten reflection and preparation to engage in this reimagining.  How might your spiritual practices, your acts of service and ministry, be conceived of through the lens of creation care and healing the whole?  What then are some specific new things you might do to continue to live, in this season of sustainability and resilience, as a faithful and effective disciple of Jesus?

            I want to close with another statement from Ragan Sutterfield.  He writes “Our call is to love and care for our neighbors within our limits.  This is work enough for those who engage it fully—and for some corners of creation, it can make all the difference.”

            I loved that statement.  Sometimes we get overwhelmed by all the issues of justice, peace, and morality that call for our attention and time.  But we each individually have limits.  We need to remind ourselves that the church universal and all people of goodwill are working together and collectively on these issues.  All we must do is our part.  Rebecca Jim was just a school counselor who got concerned and motivated about the polluted creek that flowed where she and her students live.

            So go and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  This is work enough for all of us.