Revive the Spirit

Revive the Spirit

Isaiah 57:11-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 January 2023

               In her book An American Sunrise, recent United States Poet Laureate, and member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation, Joy Harjo, includes this song:

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

               Harjo also includes this historical note about the song:

It is said that two beloved women sang this song as their band came over on the Trail of Tears.  One woman walked near the front of the people, and the other walked near the back with the small children.  When anyone faltered, they would sing this song to hold them up.

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

               As I was studying the passage from Isaiah this week, one of the themes that stood out is that we as people of faith and hope affirm life, even, and especially, in times of danger. 

               This oracle in Isaiah was spoken to a group of people who had come back to their national homeland, a place many of them knew only from the stories of their parents and grandparents.  A place they had been exiled from for decades, living instead in the foreign imperial cities of their captors.  But now God has fulfilled God’s great promises.  God created a way through the desert, and the people have returned home again.

               Only to discover that restoring and rebuilding their way of life is more difficult work than they realized.  For one thing, they can’t all agree on what their new society should look like.  They disagree about what they are building.  And they are encountering opposition and challenges.

               So, in the middle of these difficult circumstances, the prophet speaks “Build up, build up, prepare the way.”  And what will enable and empower the people to accomplish the work is the presence of God.  God, who is reviving their spirits and challenging the wicked.

               The contemporary theologian Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that the universe is “an open-ended adventure” and that God’s Spirit is what draws us into the adventurous life.  She writes, “The indwelling Spirit of God moves over the void, breathes into the chaos, quickens, warms, sets free, blesses, and continuously creates the world, empowering its evolutionary advance.”

               God is the one present with us in all of our difficulties, helping us to face them with courage and hope.  The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is the high and lofty one, but this high and lofty one, who inhabits eternity, is also with the lowly.  The high and holy one dwells with the lowly ones.  This is one of the key insights of our biblical faith, that God, the Creator of the universe, is present with us and in us.  And is in everything and everyone we encounter.

               And, so, Isaiah reminds the people, we draw strength and vision from the God who dwells in solidarity with us.  Because God is with us, we are revived.

               But, there are still the challenges, the difficulties, the obstructions.  Not least among those are the people who refuse to participate in God’s covenant.  Who reject God’s vision of the future.  Isaiah calls them “the wicked” and says that they are “like the tossing sea that cannot keep still,” making chaos for everyone else.  What will be done about them?

               This passage from Isaiah speaks of God’s anger.  Not a topic we generally spend much time on, preferring to speak of God’s love and mercy. 

               Recently I read an excellent book entitled The Angry Christian by Andrew Lester, a professor of pastoral care.  Lester includes a chapter of his book on the anger of God and Jesus, and he insists that we understand God’s anger as an expression of God’s love.  In fact, that even for us humans, we should realize that because we love, we get angry.  Lester writes of Jesus, “His experiences of irritation, frustration, indignation, and anger all arise when his values are threatened, and therefore, his anger is in the service of his love and God’s love.”

               Now, in the context of the Isaiah passage, God was once angry with the people for their covetousness, which Walter Brueggemann describes as “destructive acquisitiveness.” A greed that was not life affirming, but actually life destroying, and such was contrary to God’s vision for human life. 

               And God is, now, angry during the time of restoration because there are those who threaten the peace and well-being that God is working to create for people.  Because God loves the people and wants the best for them, God is upset when those dreams are thwarted by those whose values and actions don’t affirm life and well-being.

               I’m upset this week . . .

               But, Isaiah tells us, don’t worry too much about those folks, because God will take care of them.  Instead, you people who are affirming the values of life, who are participating in God’s dream of well-being for all creation, you folks will have your spirits revived and you will experience peace.

               Elizabeth Johnson declares that “the Creator Spirit dwells at the heart of the natural world, graciously energizing its evolution from within, compassionately holding all creatures in their finitude and death, and drawing the world forward toward an unimaginable future.”

               God is there, present with us and in us, compassionately holding us in our sufferings and losses, and working with us to move forward, to build a better future.

               “Build up, build up, prepare the way” the prophet declares.  People, peace, to the far and the near.”

               And so when our Spirits are revived, we are capable of building a new community of well-being and peace.  The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes, “Thanks to hope, we reach into the realm of that which does not yet exist and bring that which is future into the present.”  We draw inspiration from our dreams and visions of a better future and work right now to make the present more like that.

               I have to tell you that I feel very excited about our ministry here at First Central.  In my almost thirteen years, there have been many moments of excitement, full of vision and opportunity, and right now is at the top of that list.  Why?

               We’ve come through great challenges and difficulties, and we did so with integrity and care.  But those difficulties were also opportunities for growth and innovation and change.  And now there’s a vitality in the congregation that is palpable.  Worship attendance, in person and online, is very strong.  We’ve got so many children in Sunday school.  We draw and keep new visitors. 

               I’m excited by what our To Be More capital campaign envisions for our future.  Remodeling various spaces in our building so that we can improve our programs for kids and families, invite more people into the building to use it, and even hopefully generate income from rentals to help fund our programs. 

               I’m excited by the skills and vision of our young adults.  And feel that in the decades ahead, we will continue to be served by smart, capable, effective leaders. 

               I’m excited by all the children and their families and am confident that now is the time for us to focus our attention and resources on developing and strengthening the ministries and programs that help to nurture them.

               I’m excited by how the challenges of doing hybrid (on-line and in person) worship well has opened up new opportunities for creativity, for God is clearly doing a new thing in the life of Christianity.

               And while there are certainly new post-Covid challenges to how people want to volunteer and commit their time, I believe this too creates a chance for us to refocus on how we help people create and cultivate their spiritual path.

               I’m going to have more to say about all of these things in my State of the Church address next Sunday during the Annual Meeting and in the months to come.

               But the key takeaway is that God has been present with us, reviving our spirits, healing our hurts, and empowering us to move forward in courage and hope to create the community we’ve envisioned.

               God’s light has come and is shining upon us.  Let’s join God in the work of building the future we’ve dreamed of.

               And, so, I want to return to that Creek song I opened with, and let it be a rallying cry:

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

IRL: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World

Irl: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital WorldIrl: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World by Chris Stedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"At its best, our online play can give us the tools we need to become fuller, more complex versions of ourselves. To discover who we are and remember it."

This is simply one of the best books I've read on the internet and social media. The focus is whether our online selves are our "real selves," and Stedman thinks they are. Our use of social media allows us to explore and experiment with our identity. Yes, there are dangers, and we have to cultivate better online habits, but he reminds us that we are still in the early years of learning how to do all of this well.

I also appreciated the queer aspects of this reflection and analysis as well.

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The Angry Christian

The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and CounselingThe Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling by Andrew D. Lester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"I believe that our capacity for anger is one of God's good gifts, intentionally rooted in creation and serving important purposes in human life."

As a pastor, I've had quite a few congregants come to me over the years wanting help with their anger. And I too, especially in the couple of years after my divorce, have wrestled with the healthy expression of anger (my therapist and I were just discussing it yesterday even).

This book was excellent. Smart, well-researched, compassionate. You come away with both a better intellectual understanding of anger and tips for pastoral care and counseling. Now, I only wish there were a shorter, more popular-style version that I could recommend to laypeople.

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Armageddon or Awesome

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2022

               What a year filled with wonders it has been!

               Just a couple of weeks ago humanity made a breakthrough that the Washington Post described as “the biggest news of the decade.”  And, yes, this is only the second year of the decade.

               That news was that we had achieved a fusion ignition and with that the first huge steps to maybe solving humanity’s clean energy problems.  Megan McArdle waxed poetic:

As you might already have heard, you are literally made of stardust. Most of the atoms in your body were forged in the core of some ancient sun, as lighter elements fused into heavier ones; you are the vicarious survivor of star fire and supernovas. Now your species is making stars — tiny ones to be sure, and very ephemeral, but nonetheless we are inching toward mastering the very process that made our world. This shift from product to producer would be wondrous even if it didn’t hold out hope for an energy revolution as profound as the shift from horsepower to fossil fuels.

               And that was just the biggest breakthrough of the year.  We also launched the James Webb Space Telescope and have already been overwhelmed with the beauty and detail of the images of our universe that it is sending back.

               There have been radical advances in Artificial Intelligence, battery storage capacity, and vaccines for all sorts of deadly diseases. 

               We’ve even proved that humanity can launch a spacecraft to deflect the orbit of an asteroid.

               When I read the science news, I am constantly excited at the abilities of humanity.  We are truly an amazing species.

               But, we also are a rather stupid species.  In 2022 Russia also launched a completely senseless and brutal war against Ukraine.  We’ve watched in horror as natural disasters around the globe have devastated communities and landscapes.  And we know that these horrors have been made worse by the changing climate that we had at least thirty years warning of and did very little to address. 

               It’s also been a year in which we can read the news and come away sad, frightened, angry.

               This is the paradox that it is to be a human being.

               The Guardian, early this fall, framed humanity’s future as a “race between Armageddon and awesome.”  Humanity is currently faced with a number of choices such that if we make the right ones, we create an awesome and amazing future for our descendants—a future that achieves many of humanity’s millennia-old dreams.  Or, if we make the wrong choices, then we might just live through a new Dark Age.  And it seems that there’s little chance for an outcome somewhere in between those options.  Armageddon or awesome.

               And so we end this year like we do every year, reading this ancient story about how God became a human being, born as a child to a teenage mother in a backwater town with animals and shepherds to celebrate this humble birth.

               The story of Jesus has always presented us a choice between Armageddon and awesome.  There is the way of the world, with its violence and poverty and injustice, or there is the way of Jesus, a life centered on love, grace, and service. 

               Jesus came to show us how humans can live.  What we are capable of.  That the divine image within us can lift us up to unimaginable glory. 

               This Christmas, let’s choose awesome. 

Virgil Wander

Virgil WanderVirgil Wander by Leif Enger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While in Minnesota to canoe and camp in the Boundary Waters, I picked up this local novel. And what a delightful, engaging story with rich characters. Set in a dying Lake Superior town, centered around the owner of the local cinema after he has survived a car accident and is now a changed man. Despite hard luck, life remains full of possibilities.

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Then They Came For Mine

Then They Came for Mine: Healing from the Trauma of Racial ViolenceThen They Came for Mine: Healing from the Trauma of Racial Violence by Lewis-Giggetts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Healing is always about liberation."

Lewis-Giggetts turns her own grief and pain from the death of a cousin to anti-Black violence into a reflection of what is needed if we as individuals and as a society are to heal from the trauma of racial violence.

I particularly liked the discussion in the final chapters of inherited trauma. She writes about how racial violence has damaged both Black and White people, and that we all have inherited the trauma of our ancestors. A deep uprooting is needed if we are to heal

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All of Our Seasons Come Mixed

Pastoral Prayer

18 December 2022—Fourth Sunday of Advent

Holy One,
We’ve spent these last four weeks in
Waiting and preparation and eager anticipation.
We’ve been busy baking and wrapping and shopping
And going to parties and preparing music
And doing all the things that we do in this season that we enjoy.

A season that also can be difficult—stressful, overwhelming,
Or particularly for those who are experiencing a loss or an illness or a change in life—
A season that can be particularly hard.

We think of this coming week and all of the excitement of the holiday,
But we also look at the weather forecast,
And we see how bitter cold it will be,
And wonder how difficult those days will be,
And how that might change our plans,
And then our minds wonder to those who are without a home,
The people or the animals, those who will be outside and exposed to these horrible temperatures.

And we realize that all of our seasons come mixed—
With joy and with despair,
With sadness and with glory.

And we hope during this time that we have learned
To cultivate our attention,
To be able to see you and hear you,
In all the ways that the little lights are shining in the darkness,
That the little tendrils are growing in what seems lifeless.

We hope
That wonder has filled our lives,
And given us a sense of hope and encouragement for the future.

The Wisdom of Your Body

The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied LivingThe Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied Living by Hillary L. McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent discussion of embodiment. McBride explores pain, disability, trauma, oppression, emotions, sex, etc. in well-written chapters that are insightful, moving, informative, and helpful. I've been recommending it to lots of people.

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Find the Wonder

Find the Wonder

Isaiah 11:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 December 2022

               George Bailey feels that his life has been wasted.  He hasn’t done the things he’d hoped to do.  His dreams have not come true.  He’s made sacrifice after sacrifice and toiled away at a job he’d rather not have, only to now be facing financial ruin.  Has it all been in vain?  He feels he has no future to look forward to.  And so he’s ready to jump from the bridge and end it all.

               When Clarence the Angel prevents him from destroying himself.  Then Clarence gives him a tour of what the world would have been like without George Bailey—a cruel place, robbed of joy and delight for the people he cares about. 

               Which finally leads George to see how wonderful his life has been, and he runs through the town excited at seeing all the old familiar things that long ago he had started taking for granted.

               It seems that one thing George Bailey had lost, before his angelic encounter, was the capacity for wonder.  Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard, writes that “Wonder is a characteristic of human flourishing, without which we may be unable to survive in ways we would deem desirable.”  Yeah, that describes George Bailey, forlorn and lost, standing on the bridge in the snowstorm.  But once that capacity for wonder is restored, George doesn’t only survive, he flourishes.

               Early in the autumn as the staff met to consider Advent worship themes, we were pondering the idea of “what will come.”  What does the future hold?  And is the future threatening or not? 

               I had just finished reading a bunch of books about the changing climate and what we need to do to live faithfully and resiliently during this time of human history, and a theme in many of those books was how to retain our hope and joy despite the strong possibility that life will become harder in the decades ahead. 

               As the staff pondered these ideas, the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, and its conceit of an alternative future, entered into our conversation and eventually led to our Advent theme for this year “It’s a Wonder-filled Life.”  We decided to explore how wonder is crucial to our survival and how wonder can remind us that the future doesn’t have to be threatening. 

               Later in the autumn I read Cody Sanders’ essay “Feeling Our Way through an Apocalypse” in the book Doing Theology in Pandemics.  He writes about how the last few years have evoked many emotions in us, particularly fear, anger, and sadness.  These feelings are good and proper and correct given what we’ve experienced.  But his worry is when those feelings become moods and then persistent attitudes on life.  In particular, how sadness can lead to immobility and resignation such that we quit working for a better world.

               So he advises that we need to cultivate other experiences and emotions in order to learn how to feel our way through this season of our lives.  He writes about the importance of grieving in community as a way to address the losses we’ve encountered. He advocates for practices of gratitude that will help us to experience the world as gift, which can help us to dismantle injustices.  And he encourages us to direct our lives to wonder.

               Cody Sanders is concerned about the ways that fear can become the dominating way we interact with un uncertain and dangerous world.  Instead, he invites us to approach the world with wonder.  If we are constantly surprised by all the ordinary things around us, how does that reshape our lives?

               Sanders writes,

Wonder helps us suspend our habitual ways of looking at the world.  Wonder lures us into creative engagement with our surroundings.  Wonder induces receptivity and openness and connection to our environment.  Wonder prompts us to consider life from new perspectives.  Wonder entices us into relational aspects of reality, giving us a vision of our relatedness to the world, to other beings, and to sources of ultimacy, or the Divine.

               Wow!  That sounds like a super power.  More creativity, more connection and belonging, more openness.  Getting to see and experience the world in new ways.  Finding deeper relations with everything around us, including the source of meaning in our lives. 

               And isn’t this exactly what happens to George Bailey when Clarence the Angel intervenes to save his life?

               This week I asked Liz Loveday to help me find some poems about wonder and one she sent along was this by William Martin from The Parents Dao De Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents:


               One of the greatest works on human emotions is Upheavals of Thought by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  And in that over 700 page book, wonder plays a key role in our emotional and moral development.

               Nussbaum writes that we humans are born into a world we do not control, a world that can be alarming and frightening to a newborn.  The world can also be a place of delight.  The world, for most babies, is both at the same time.  Those first days and weeks and months and years of a human life are vital in shaping how we encounter the world.  There’s strong evidence that the more we are held as newborns, the more likely we are to view the world as worth living in.  And it falls to our earliest care givers to help us take delight in the world, to experience it with wonder, to cultivate our abilities to see and experience the good and the beautiful and the exciting.  Imaginative play becomes central to developing these early skills, as evidence shows that children who are more playful are more likely to be show love, inclusivity, and generosity. 

According to Nussbaum, wonder becomes the key element in leading to compassion.  This is true developmentally—the better capacity we have developed for wonder as a child the more likely we are to be compassionate throughout life.  But it’s also true for the adult skill of compassion.  We are more likely to approach a person or situation with compassion if they or it evokes some of our wonder.

Wonder truly is a superpower that can save lives!

In her commentary on Isaiah’s vision, pastor Stacey Simpson Duke states, “Isaiah’s declaration stands in direct contrast to the terror and brutality that pervade our world.” 

When the world as we know it has ended and is starting anew, when things are uncertain, alarming, maybe even terrifying, Isaiah’s vision speaks, wonderfully, to God’s dream that the world can and will be a better, more peaceful, more just, more beautiful place. 

Yet, she acknowledges that it can be difficult for us to view this vision as applicable to us now.  Our lives are ravaged by lions.  Snakes coil hidden in our lives ready to strike.  Bears prowl.  Duke asks, “How is Isaiah’s word also a word of security for now, for people living in unstable and frightening times, and not just a word about a secure future?”

               The answer, she writes, is in the vision itself.  “According to Isaiah, the transformation from a culture of fear to a world at peace begins with a stump.  Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life—a green sprig.”  And this, she reminds us, is how hope starts “it emerges as tiny tendril in an unexpected place.” 

               Something we might fail to notice if we have not cultivated our capacity for wonder, right?  Something we might fail to notice if we aren’t looking with the eyes of a child delighted with the world.

               Just as George Bailey didn’t see how good his life was, how full of meaning, how significant its positive effects on other people, until Clarence the Angel evoked his capacity for wonder.

               So, one of the keys to human flourishing, to living a desirable to life, to becoming more compassionate, to feeling our ways through uncertain and alarming times, is to find the wonder.  As the poet said, “find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.”

               This Advent, as you decorate for the holidays, as you prepare your gifts for loved ones, as you celebrate with friends, as you drive around at night and look at the Christmas lights, as you bake cookies, and sing carols, and snuggle by the fire with a warm mug of apple cider, use this as a time to cultivate your wonder, for the kind of life you desire depends upon it.

An Ending & A Beginning

And Ending & A Beginning

Luke 21:5-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 November 2022

            Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is noticeably different from everything else we’ve read this autumn.  It isn’t a parable.  It isn’t really a story about Jesus.  It is Jesus giving answers to questions about end of the world.  Particularly here about the end of the Temple and how that relates to the end of time and the coming reign of God.

            This sort of discourse is known as “apocalyptic.”  The common understanding of the word apocalypse suggests catastrophes at the end of time.  But the literal translation of the Greek word into English is “unveiling.”  Apocalyptic discourse, then, lifts back the veil to expose what’s really going on—how history and the cosmos really function as a contest between good and evil.

            So, with those words of introduction, let’s listen to Jesus:

            Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”  And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’  Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”  Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.  This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

            A month ago Katie and I were in Sioux City, Iowa for the Joint Annual Meeting of the Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa Conferences of the United Church of Christ, our denomination.  This was our first in person gathering since June 2019, so there was much warmth, joy, and celebration as we actually saw people in the flesh, rather than a Zoom box.  We got to hug and shake hands and share meals and drinks and laughter.  And you could just feel the strengthening of connections, the relaxing of tensions, the sense that we had come through some difficult days together.

            As usual, a table with books for sale was there in the exhibit hall.  I’m a sucker for such a thing, of course.  And I walked away with a small stack of books, including some new children’s books for our children’s library here at church.

            One volume I was deeply interested in, and have already read, is a collection of essays by prominent theologians entitled Doing Theology in Pandemics: Facing Viruses, Violence, and Vitriol

            In her foreword for the book, Pamela Lightsey states, “This book makes clear that a pandemic is a kind of apocalypse—a revealing.” 

            As I reflected on this idea and the ways it is fleshed out in the book’s essays, it became clearer that we’ve lived through an apocalypse in both senses of that word—a major catastrophe that ended the world as we knew it and a moment when the veil is pulled away and hidden truths are revealed.

            Think of what all was revealed.  The failures of governments and health care systems.  The health impacts of systemic racism.  The way different socio-economic classes were impacted.  How refugee meat packers and minimum wage store clerks died so that others could be safe and comfortable at home. 

How fraught and fragile our systems of childcare and education are.  How unprepared each of us was.  How at risk we were for mental illness, and how little prepared society was to support those needs.

How supply chains do and don’t work and what the impacts of those disruptions would be on normal life.  How workers had had enough and quit.  How sectors of our economy are now rapidly adjusting.

How much we can and cannot trust our family, friends, neighbors, or fellow citizens to put the common interest above self-interest.

And without all the normal escapes and distractions to occupy our attention, we were able to watch when George Floyd was murdered and so there was a massive uprising against police brutality and systemic racism, a major reckoning impacting every sector of society, and the ensuing backlash.

And in these years we’ve been compelled to pay more attention to the effects of the changing climate and how we’ve come so close to the brink of catastrophe so stupidly.  How governments seem incapable of effectively dealing with all of the major dangers we face.

And piled on top of all of that a rise in autocracy, a senseless and brutal war in Europe, and threats of more war in the Pacific.

“Permacrisis” was picked as the word of the year by a British dictionary.  I’ve also seen the word “polycrisis” recently. 

So, this reading from Luke, which a few years ago would have seemed to us kind of crazy, doesn’t sound so crazy anymore.

This summer, while on my sabbatical, I read a lot on how we as a community can be faithful and resilient as the climate changes and impacts everything about lives.  It was sobering reading, some writers more hopeful and comforting, and some less so.  The theologian Timothy Gorringe opened his book with the question, Is a dark age coming? And came to the conclusion: “I think we have to say that civilizational collapse is likely.”  His subsequent chapters do lay out what we might do to prevent it and what we should do to survive it, as faithful followers of Jesus.  His main advice is a “rigorous return to the traditions, practices, and virtues that Christians have nourished for so many centuries.”  For the small communities of the church to focus on being the church and doing what we do best because that’s what we can do “to keep human beings human in the dark ages already upon us.” 

He sounds a lot like the final verse from today’s Gospel, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Vital to our faithfulness will be remaining grace, generous, hopeful, and joyful in these times.  That is the gift from God we give ourselves, our fellow congregants, and the wider world.

The great theologian Rita Nakashima Brock contends that what has happened to all of us is a form of moral injury.  Our moral consciences have become “ungrounded from our pre-catastrophe identities.”  And while she provides some insights in how to care for ourselves and heal from the trauma, she also believes this apocalypse is an opportunity to change things for the better, and we absolutely must take the opportunity.

“How do we feel our way through an apocalypse?” asks Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard.  Because we’ve been living through the end of the world as we knew it, Sanders says we have been overwhelmed by fear, anger, and sadness.  All of these are appropriate emotions, but he worries that they might become pervasive moods.  In order to avoid that, we need to care for ourselves and one another.  We need to care for these emotions.  How?

First, he gives us a dose of reality—this “Isn’t the first ending the world has faced, and there are many endings yet to come.”  Which is the value of reading this crazy passage from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus’s listeners did live through apocalyptic times, when the Temple was destroyed, and then a generation later Jerusalem itself was laid waste.  Christians lived through the fall of Rome and the sacking of Constantinople.  My grandparents and great-grandparents dealt with world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish flu. 

In other words, we’ve been through these times before.  And we can look to the past for wisdom and guidance.  And be reminded that the world can be made otherwise, that we can create a better world, that times like these are also vital opportunities, and, thus, periods of hope and growth.

So, we need to cultivate other emotions that care for the fear, anger, and sadness, we are feeling.  We need to grieve our losses, we need to practice gratitude for our blessings, we need to cultivate a sense of wonder at what is good and beautiful in the world.  And he recommends that these skills are best acquired in communities, like the church. 

Where does Jesus leave his questioners and listeners?  In typical biblical fashion he reminds them, “do not fear.”  Be aware and be realistic of what is happening.  Times will be difficult, but we can do difficult things.  And the reason is because God is with you.  Jesus says he will give us the words and the wisdom we need.  And “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

As faithful followers of Jesus, we have felt all the emotions, as we’ve lived through this apocalyptic time.  We’ve been afraid, angry, and sad.  And as faithful followers of Jesus, we aren’t going to get stuck there, are we?  We have been grieving our losses and are cultivating a rich emotional and spiritual life, full of gratitude, wonder, generosity, and joy.  This is a time of opportunities, a time for vision and mission.  This is a new beginning, and we Christians are the “eternal beginners.”  W are beloved children of God, called to serve, with gifts to give the world.   

Right Wing Paranoia

Today my latest Library of America volume was delivered--two books and some collected essays by historian Richard Hofstadter.  I decided to read a short essay entitled "The American Right Wing and the Paranoid Style."  The title seemed timely, despite having been written in 1959.  It was an illuminating read, both for what has remained similar and for what has changed.

Hofstadter points out that the right wing is "organized into an extraordinarily large number of fanatical groups of indeterminable size," which seems to be mostly the same.  He adds that they sometimes will unite despite their differences, usually around a personality, like Senator McCarthy.  He states that it is between 10 and 15 percent of the population.

Two ideas seemed to be shared by right wing groups of the 1950's--"isolationism in foreign policy" and "a dogmatic insistence on laissez-faire liberalism in economic policy."  He adds that these are generally followed by "ethnic prejudice" and "a fanatically intense anti-Communism."  But what he thinks distinguishes the extreme right wing from its more intellectual members (like Bill Buckley) is the style of thought or frame of mind he calls "the paranoid style."

Intriguing to see what remains the same and what has altered on this list.  I'm sure he would be surprised to find pro-Putin apologists in the contemporary right wing, for instance.

The paranoid style has a number of features.  First is " the tendency to dwell upon the failures of the past rather than to work on programmatic proposals for the future."  Check.

Prejudice, is the second feature.  He lists anti-Black and anti-Jewish prejudice, noting that anti-Catholic prejudice was far less than it once had been given the common cause against communism by fundamentalist Protestants and fundamentalist Catholics.  Update some of the prejudices,  and check.

The third feature is that its spokespeople are "indignants."  He writes, "Their capacity for indignation is very high in proportion to their capacity for understanding of what is going on."  Check.

Next is "an awareness of their own victimization."  Check.

But the most important feature of the paranoid style is an emphasis on conspiracies.  Check, check, check.  He writes, "The imaginative artists of the right wing, who work in the paranoid style, never feel themselves to be in the grip of history: they are always in the grip of wicked persons."

In his final paragraph he says that they haven't had much political success apart from "making life miserable for thousands of their favorite scapegoats" and impairing "freedom of thought in America by their pressures on teachers, writers, and librarians."  Check those continuing negative outcomes, except for the fact that they did finally have electoral successes in the 21st century.  

He also says they are not fascists because they lack "the fascist determination or capacity to seize power."  Wrong about that one Hofstadter.  

And so he concludes, "For while they are unlikely to vault into a position from which they can govern, they are frequently in a position to hinder those who do govern from doing so with the wisdom and restraint that the times demand."

Doing Theology in Pandemics

Doing Theology in PandemicsDoing Theology in Pandemics by Zachary Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a profound essay that opens this volume, Rita Nakashima Brock contends that the pandemic "created the conditions for an apocalypse, an unveiling of moral truth in the midst of the collapse of powerful malevolent systems."

She goes on to write about how we have all experienced moral injury during the pandemic and confrontations against racial injustice and police brutality. Her essay is the best theological reflection I've read yet on the pandemic.

The other excellent essay in this collection is Cody Sanders's "Feeling Our Way through an Apocalypse." He grapples with the emotions elicited from the end of the world as we know it. We care for our anger, fear, and sadness by cultivating wonder, gratitude, and grief, in community.

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The Art of Gathering

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It MattersThe Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A ministry colleague recommended this one, and I'm glad I read it. The book helps us to understand how to better host various types of gathering from a dinner party to a large conference, first by clarifying what the purpose of gathering is. Though not focused on church ministry, I think it would be helpful to other colleagues as well.

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A Beautiful Ending

A Beautiful Ending: The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Making of the Modern WorldA Beautiful Ending: The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Making of the Modern World by John Jeffries Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Modernity is rooted in the Apocalypse."

Martin, an historian, recounts the vital role that the apocalyptic imagination played in early modernity, which still affects us today. A fascinating book I'd recommend to folks interested in history, the history of ideas, and religious thought.

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