When Life is a Game

When Life is a Game
David Weiss, October 19, 2018

I don’t reflect on my Mom’s “descent” to be morbid or melancholy … and surely not to be voyeuristic. If you feel discomforted, turn away. I do it because it’s what I do: wrap life in words as carefully and compassionately as I can. From what I see and hear—and feel—I could write a book, but I can only bear to write brief glimpses. You won’t catch the whole story here, just a moment.

I’m in town for a visit that happens to coincide with my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary, but I came less to celebrate than to keep company. “Festive” is overstatement. Quiet accompaniment with rare moments of bright joy is more accurate. And more than enough.

Mom’s dementia creeps. No precipitous decline, just a slow unraveling of self, thread by thread, row by row, the fabric of her life coming undone. Like Bansky’s recent self-shredding art prank happening in the slowest motion possible, but inexorably self-consuming nonetheless.

In Mom’s case her energy remains painfully unfocused during the day. She’ll describe herself to me as “a lazy woman,” with a mix of resignation and contempt. “No oomph,” she says almost apologetically, but with no capacity to marshal any fresh oomph from anywhere.

She used to comment to me on knick-knacks and pictures around the house all day long during my visits. Like memories shooting out of the past from one item after another. This time there’s hardly any of that until just before bedtime, when, like a child with frantic energy at the end of recess, she flits from a plant to a little crocheted trinket to another plant, to a book, to a photo—each time pointing it out to me as though I need to know this right now. As though desperate to delay the bedtime she knows is here.

I suspect this is at least partly because she never sleeps with just Dad and herself anymore. Her hearing has become so acute that at bedtime she sleeps—or tries to—with every heart beat echoing in her head. A little too much “me time” for her own comfort. It may be that thoughts, as well as heart beats, crowd in at the end of the day. I don’t know. But I wonder.

This visit I also notice her waning interest in interaction. People sometimes measure their social energy in “spoons,” saying, “I only have so many spoons (of energy) to use in a day, and I have to spread them around.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I’m all out of spoons, and if I don’t get some alone time, I’ll crash and burn.” My mom seems down to her last spoons for interaction. Yes, she still enjoys interaction over cribbage or Scrabble, and occasional bursts of conversation (especially at bedtime), but once those spoons are spent, she’s in her own world.

Which is mostly word puzzles or solitaire—both of which she castigates herself for. “I play too much of this game (solitaire) … it bothers my arthritis, but I just try to go slowly.” And “I don’t know why I let myself get caught up in these word puzzles, but I do. Yes, that’s you, Carol. That’s you.” I think she finds both activities self-soothing because her memory doesn’t play hide-and-seek there. But beneath the level of her conscious thoughts she wishes it were otherwise.

Conversation, I think, simply requires too much effort to do for very long. And most tasks—even pretty basic ones—require a sense of purposeful energy that escapes her. But these simple games can still challenge her within a framework of predictability. As do cribbage and Scrabble, where the interaction is made “manageable” by the rules and rhythm of the games. Plus, they let her use the part of her mind that’s still pretty reliable.

Even during mealtimes this week, with just three of us at the table—me, Dad, Mom—she brought her crossword to the table one day, and worked silently on words while eating with us … but in a place quite her own. Twice at supper she finished her food and cleared her place to play solitaire while Dad and I still ate and talked. As though she could not bear the effort of tracking a conversation (let alone joining it), and so it was more comforting to retreat into the familiar patterns of her games.

These games, they are … a bit … like a stuffed animal to cling to. I don’t mean that pejoratively. I mean somehow these patterned activities give her a foothold in a world that seems increasingly off kilter. You can almost see it on her face when she becomes absorbed in them. It is calmness on the far side of disquiet, but not quite as far on the far side as she would prefer.

For Mom, these days, life is a game. And in an imperfect world, unraveling thread by thread, perhaps a game is enough.

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Pulling ‘little Jimmy’ out of the fire

Pulling ‘little Jimmy’ out of the fire: on faith, works, and the unsafe goodness of God
David R. Weiss – Pilgrim Lutheran Church (St. Paul, MN) – September 2, 2018

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 2: 1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

At Pilgrim, each week the preacher selects a short contemporary quote that highlights a theme in their sermon. This was my bulletin quote: “If Jesus did in fact say that [“The poor you always have with you” John 12:8], it is a divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.” ~Kurt Vonnegut, “Palm Sunday Sermon” in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981).

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Lutherans tend to look the other way when James shows up in the lectionary. After today’s reading, you can understand why. We just heard James ask, “What good is it, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (2:14) And he immediately answers his own question: NO, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17)

Such words sit very uncomfortably alongside Luther’s claim that we are reconciled to God by grace through faith, as a free gift apart from anything we do, a claim that is at the very heart of the Reformation. No surprise then that James was not among Luther’s favorite books. In fact, he called it an “epistle of straw” and questioned its place in the New Testament canon.

Imagine this fanciful scene, some version of which really did happen; the words go back to Luther himself: Luther and a circle of students and colleagues are gathered around a table in his home (as was his habit) discussing theology over snacks and beer. Tonight they turn to James and the conversation grows animated as they catalog the theological mischief sown by this epistle. There’s a fire in the hearth at the edge of the room, and suddenly Luther opens his Bible to the book of James itself—just a few pages. He grabs them, as though to yank them out of the book, and utters in a tone that carries both humor and honest anger, “Were it up to me, why I’d throw little Jimmy into the fire!”

He said that.

Well, my life sits on the floor in that room near the edge of the hearth. My thirty-plus years as student-scholar-teacher-practitioner of theology are an attempt to say, YES, it’s possible—as a Lutheran—to be a “Jamesian Christian.”

I heard that phrase—Jamesian Christian—for the first time just this past summer, but it captures the intuition of my own faith as far back as Wartburg Seminary in the early 80’s. Somewhere, boxed up in my basement, I have a paper I wrote for a first-year Theology class. I poured the passion of my heart and mind into it. I received high marks for the clarity of my thought and writing—and an underlined note of caution about my “tendency to flirt with ‘works righteousness’.” It was a polite but real warning that, if I wasn’t careful, Luther would be casting metoward the fire next.

I thought—way back then … and for every year since—that my professor misread my passion for gospel-driven justice as somehow threatening the primacy of grace. Perhaps Luther would think so, too. But my own lived experience—intuited in thought, announced in words, embodied in deeds—is that the gospel drives justice so inexorablythat any attempt to draw a line between the two, even if theoretically possible, is unfaithful to the single sweeping movement of God in the world.

I understand Luther’s apprehension about James. Particularly, in the Reformation era—when “faith” had been largely reduced to a matter of obligatory works, some of them “good,” many of them little more than empty traditions—James was apparently invoked by church leaders to support a view of faith that everything to do with obedience to power and little if anything to do with Gospel.

I get that. But I worry nonetheless that Luther’s fiery dismissal of James misses the truth carried within his challenging words. So I intend to pull “Little Jimmy” out of the fire this morning. To do that we’ll give a nod to other readings today, but we’ll hear from Kurt Vonnegut, and a word about Aslan, the lion in Narnia. By the end, I’d like to think, if Luther were here today, he’d agree that—rightly understood—it’s only by keeping faith and works in a living relationship that we bear witness to the grace of God.

So here we go.

In Deuteronomy Moses charges the people of Israel to keep God’s commandments. He exhorts them to faithfully pass on these “statutes and ordinances” from one generation to the next. We Christians—Lutherans, in particular—have a hard time hearing the good news in Moses’ words. We hear the beginning of “the Law” under which people will only ever know the judgment of God for falling short.

But hearing it that way fails to remember that the God of Moses is also the God of Jesus. The covenant extended to Israel, while different in history and detail than the covenant extended to us through Jesus, is no less marked by grace. It also fails to listen carefully to those living within that first covenant still today. Jewish life, in all its theological and cultural diversity, is marked far more by reverence and joy than by burden.

Still, the early rabbis tallied them up at 613, these statutes and ordinances commended by Moses—and that does seem like a lot of rules. But in graduate school I heard a Jewish scholar liken them to “love notes” being passed between God and God’s people. All. Day. Long. Each action an embodied whisper of devotion spoken through the mundane rhythm of daily life. 613 love notes.

There are, of course, Ten “big ones”; we know them as the Ten Commandments. But, here, too, we miss something. In Hebrew, the verb form translated as “imperative”—as command—is actually the same as “future” tense. Only context—or perspective—determines whether it’s best to translate such words as a divine demand on the present … or a gracious promise for the future.

I find it … truthfully evocative …. to imagine the words of that covenant, offered at Sinai—to newly freed slaves—not as a new set of authoritarian rules but as a series of alluring, wedding-like promises.

“Now that I have brought you out of Egypt, let me—YAHWEH—tell you what our life together will be like …” And then, lovingly, God describes a future in which, through mutual love, the name of the God who liberated them will never be mis-used to harm others. In which killing and theft and deceit will be unknown because the depth of love between God and God’s people will empower a different type of life together. A promised life.

These are words of GRACE, my friends. And when the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others—rail against Israel for her shortcomings, it’s because their communal life is failing to echo the grace of that original covenant. The prophetic call to repentance is not a call back to a rigorous-but-doomed-to-fail obedience to the law. It’s a call back to grace. And it sounds a lot like the Epistle of James … and a lot like Jesus.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus at first seems to support our tendency to see Jewish “statutes and ordinances,” in these verses called “the traditions of the elders,” as empty actions. But Jesus quotes Isaiah—who is speaking for God—to explain what’s lacking: “their hearts are far from me.” Those 613 “love notes”—including the one about hand-washing—are being written in Jesus’ day … with no love in the heart.

Instead the religious leaders now cynically “manage” those “love notes” so as to consolidate and preserve their own power. In essence they mis-use words uttered with love to newly freed slaves … to re-enslave the children of Israel to a false, loveless, understanding of God.

That, of course, is exactly Luther’s Reformation declaration. He isn’t talking about empty Jewish traditions, but his claim is the same—that church leaders in his day have fashioned an abundance, a burden, of obligatory deeds in which faith is no longer the response of the heart to God’s gracious love, but a frantic, anxious attempt to earn what has already been freely offered. And, while Jesus is obviously not one of the Hebrew prophets, he stands in their lineage, announcing once again the scandalously unconditional love of God as the basis for human community. A love so dynamic, so powerful, that it cannot help but unleash waves of mercy, compassion, and justice in its wake.

Then, how do we read James’ words about faith, if NOT as a direct challenge to Luther’s conviction that the gospel is utterly free? I find the novelist and essayist Kurt Vonnegut helpful here. Hardly an esteemed biblical scholar—not even a self-identified Christian—he grew weary of hearing “good” Christians excuse the ongoing suffering caused by poverty by citing Jesus’ words in John 12, “the poor will be with you always.” As though Jesus is conveying God’s will about the way things will always be. Vonnegut countered that in John 12 Jesus is responding directly to Judas about his feigned concern over the costly ointment just used by a woman to lovingly anoint Jesus’ feet. For Vonnegut, the passage “says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.” In words fringed with prophetic sarcasm, Jesus is saying to Judas—and to the rest of us: “So as long as you lack genuine love in your life, your world will always include poor.” The persistence of poverty doesn’t reflect God’s priorities; it reflects our priorities.

So, following Vonnegut’s reading of John 12, does James really mean that faith will not save us? If you read, even the rest of the verses assigned for today, let alone the rest of the Epistle, it’s clear that James is writing to a community that believes it can claim faith in Jesus without addressing the deep inequities of wealth in its midst. A community that believes it can, in good “faith,” kiss the hand of the wealthy while treating the poor dismissively. James’ words have the same edge as Jesus’s words. He means: “Do you really think it’s the “gospel” you heard, if your own community is still so misshapen by injustice?! Do you really think it’s “faith” you have, if it isn’t leading you to care for the poor?!”

James isn’t interested in protecting some “pure” notion of faith from flirting with good works. No, he’s alarmed—angered—at the notion of “Christian faith” that thinks it can build walls between have and have-nots … while being Christian. With prophetic zeal, James says if you want to pat yourselves on the back for your “faith,” while ignoring the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the prisoners … or immigrants, Black lives, those who say #MeToo, or others targeted by social bias—well, whatever “faith” lets you ignore these persons is notsaving faith, is notgospel faith, is not faith in the scandalous graciousness of God who liberates slaves in the same motion as justifying sinners. Faith in that God cannot be kept back from chasing after mercy, compassion, and justice.

Finally, an image from C. S. Lewis’ tales of Narnia is instructive. When the four children first stumble into Narnia, they’re told they must meet Aslan, the King of Narnia. At first they’re excited, but upon learning that Aslan, who stands for Jesus in Lewis’ fantasy of Christian faith, is a Lion, they nervously ask, “But, then, is he safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

This is the truth of James’ epistle. The luring power of God’s gracious love—expressed both in the covenant with Israel and again in the ministry of Jesus—is not safe, but it is profoundly good.

This Goodness claims each of us in love exactly as we are, and in the same breath that it claims us, this Goodness also beckons us to join in announcing and extending that love to others. Not only in words, but also in liberating deeds. And in this world—where walls rise up, where rhetoric demonizes, where structures impoverish, and where bias can kill—in this world that work—which is entirely bound up with hearing the gospel in the first place—is never safe. But it is profoundly, graciously good.

Which is why, from my place on the floor between Luther’s table and the blazing hearth, I snatch “Little Jimmy” out of the fire, before the first page even lights in flame, and I say to an astonished Luther, “Wait, friend, James isn’t arguing with you. He’s arguing for the power of the Gospel you’re so excited about. He’s insisting that it never be walled off from the unsafe goodness of God.”

And as we know, my friends, there are those in the world today still waiting to be touched by that Goodness. May we find ways to touch them. Amen.

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David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

 

It’s Treason! Reflections under a Dictatorship

It’s Treason! Reflections under a Dictatorship

By Bradley Christopher from inside Uganda, August 25, 2018

August 13, 2018, was the final campaign day for candidates vying for the Arua Municipality MP (Member of Parliament) slot in far NW Uganda. The post fell vacant after the assassination of theformer area MP, apparently for peddling Mr. Museveni’s “life presidency” project. National television networks in Uganda had camped in Arua for days, frequently airing live reports as the country followed every twist and turn in the hotly contested race with held breath.

As has become tradition in Ugandan politics, aspirants invite ‘bigwigs’ from Kampala to boost their ratings and amplify their message. The heavier the bigwig, the better. Contestants from theruling NRM typically invite Mr. Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 33 years and counting. But after three decades in power, he has run low on lies and characteristically reminds his audience “where he brought the country from,” promises a local youth or women’s group a few million shillings (couple thousand U.S. dollars) and warns them of faltering government services should they not vote his candidate of choice.

Opposition-leaning candidates on the other hand could count on Retired Colonel Dr. Kizza Besigye. He is the poster child of political opposition in Uganda having challenged Mr. Museveni 4 times for the presidency, losing each time in elections marred by intimidation and worse. Since his maiden run against Mr. Museveni in 2001, he has lived and experienced everything imaginable that an opponent can be subjected to under a dictatorship, including trumped up charges of rape and treason (the favorite pet charge), as well as countless grave assaults, detentions and imprisonment. He has endured deep personal loss—as when his younger brother was carted off to prison on hispolitical account under a phony charge of murder, assaulted in detention, denied medication, and ultimatelydied in prison. This lengthy CV has endeared Dr. Besigye to the Ugandan masses and a mere rumor that he will be in town easily raises huge crowds. Just so we are clear, this fact has not changed. But then enter Bobi Wine!

Bobi Wine shortly after being sworn in as a Member of Parliament in 2017. (AP)

Bobi Wine, until early last year, was just like any other Ugandan pop star. That he was successful in the realms of music and acting in Uganda is uncontested; I dare say he is an accomplished poet as well, although his poetry is more often interwoven in his music rather than stand-alone pieces of art. Born Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, 12 February 1982, Robert shot to the limelight in the early 2000s with a new version of Ugandan pop on a music scene that had been hitherto dominated by Congolese music. His songs, even from early days were songs of justice, frequently advocating for the betterment of the ghetto youth. That pattern remained consistent with the crowning moment in July 2017 when he was elected area Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East beating his opponents by the biggest margin by any current MP in Uganda, in an area barely 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Kampala City Center.

Again, just so we are clear, both NRM (National Resistance Movement), Mr. Museveni’s party, and FDC (Forum for Democratic Change), Dr Besigye’s party, fielded seasoned politicians against him, but he and his “people power” message sent his opponents to a crushing defeat. He has since delivered three more parliamentary victories to the “opposition” in a period spanning less than six months, throwing his “people power” support in turn behind the 2018 victories of Paul Mwiru, JinjaEast (March 14), Asuman Basalirwa, Bugiri Municipality (July 27), and Kasiano Wadri, Arua Municipality (August 15).

As the sun set on August 13, and Mr. Museveni’s armored convoy snaked out of Arua town, he knew his candidate of choice, an additional parliamentary rubber stamp to his dictatorship stood no chance. The voices of thousands of young men and women that came out and chanted “people power, our power” had not only thundered through the streets but also ripped through the heart of the dictator.

Bobi Wine in court after being badly beaten in custody. (Getty)

Under the cover of darkness, the army sealed off hotels where the opposition candidate and strategists were, brutalized journalists, stole their equipment and belongings, arrested scores of MPs and their staff, shot dead Bobi Wine’s driver, and released a photo-shopped picture of a shattered hind window of a presidential convoy SUV, apparently stoned by “people power” supporters. What a shame!

Almost a fortnight later, Bobi Wine’s driver is now buried; a widow and eleven orphans left behind, MP Francis Zaake, was brutalized and dumped at Nsambya Hospital, left for dead. He continues to receive treatment there. And Bobi Wine, due to the injuries he sustained while in custody, can’t walk unaided. After a short stint in the Court Martial, he has since joined 32 others atthe Gulu civil prison on charges of, guess what? Treason!

Bobi Wine after his court appearance. (Ghetto TV / GULU)

But as one born and raised in Uganda, awed by her natural beauty and cultural riches, yet troubled by the long history of political violence and corruption, I cannot help but ask, in these times is it treason to press for change? Or is the real treason to maintain one’s power and wealth at the expense of democracy, justice, and civil freedom? Many Ugandans are asking the same question. And the voices get louder each day.

 

Bradley Christopher is the pseudonym of a friend I met third-hand while in Uganda several years ago. Unsettled by recent events in his homeland, he reached out to me asking if I might help him offer an inside view to those on the outside. This is one such view. ~David

For further reading, these two articles provide helpful news reports of the recent events:

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/uganda-bobi-wine-arrested/568549/

http://vanguardafrica.com/africawatch/2018/8/16/ugandas-dictatorship-becomes-increasingly-brazen

 

On Joy, Junk, and Honey Pots

“On Joy, Junk, and Honey Pots – A Sermon in Three Acts”

UCC Focus Text and Theme: 2 Sam 6: 1-5, 12b-19 “God-inspired Joy”

David R. Weiss – July 15, 2018 – St. Paul’s UCC (St. Paul, MN)

Children’s Message:In today’s reading King David has a big box that he’s bringing into Jerusalem, the city where his palace is – and he’s pretty excited about it. Now our box (just a big cardboard box) here is just plain, pretty new, and empty. So you’ll need to use your imaginations because David’s box was very decorated, very old—about 300 years old!—and, most important, it had some really special things in it.

In fact, while David led the box—called “the Ark of the Covenant”—into the city, he was dancing like crazy he was so excited, so happy. But why? What was in this big box that could make a grown man—a king!—risk looking silly in front of all his people? Well, two big flat pieces of rock. But not just any rock, these rocks had writing on them.They held God’s Covenant: Ten Promises to the people of Israel.

Now this is really important, because it helps you understand why King David was so excited. (And besides, most of the gown-ups don’t even know this, so you might need to explain it to them later on.) Sometimes we call these the Ten Commandments, like they’re ten really important rules. Almost like God is wagging a great big finger at us each time and saying, “Now you better not do this, and you better not do that …”

No.These are “imagine-with-me-promises.”They’re ten things God said to the people of Israel as if to say, “Now listen, this is what our life together can look like … I will be your God, and you will be my people, and you will love me more than anything else in the world … And because my very name means freedom and good news, you’ll never even want to use my name to hurt anyone—I mean, how could you? … And each week we’ll set aside one day to just enjoy each other’s company—won’t that be great? And because we’ll build a whole life around love, your children will grow up loving their parents … and there won’t be any killing, or any cheating, or any stealing, or any lying, and nobody will get jealous.”

Those aren’t rules.Why would David be so excited about a box of rules? No, they’re promises: “imagine-with-me” promises spoken by God about what life can look like when we put LOVE first of all. King David was so excited—silly excited—because he was already carrying these promises in his heart, but now he knew that the big box carrying the flat rocks that these promises were first written on was going to be at home in his city. No wonder he danced with joy.

And whenever youremember the promises of what might be—what can be—when God loves us and we love God, you might also finding yourself dancing with joy.

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Message for adults:

First—a concluding word about my message to the children. Probably any of us who learned the Decalogue—the “Ten Words” of the covenant God made with Israel on Mount Sinai—learned them as “Ten Commandments.” I don’t mean to argue about that. Well, I suppose I do, a little bit. In Hebrew the verb form translated as “imperative”—as command—is actually the same as “future” tense. Only context—or perspective—determines whether it’s best to translate it as demand … or promise. I simply want us to remember that the God we recognize as still speaking today has alwaysbeen a God of gracious promises, even when our ears weren’t attuned to hear them as such. We have a mostly checkered relationship with the Ten Commandments. It might do us good to try relating to them as Promisesfor a while. And maybe the kids can help us learn how to do that.

Okay, on to my message: “On Joy, Junk, and Honey Pots – A Sermon in Three Acts”

Act One: The King’s Joy . . . and the King’s Junk

Sure, it was covered in gold, this big crate. But it was something like 300 years old. And it had seen better days. Been through sandstorms during the forty years that the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. Been through battles, too. Sometimes victorious, sometimes not—and at least once captured by a foreign army. It was, no doubt, showing its age by the time King David brought it to Jerusalem.

Nevertheless the Ark of the Covenant had been the stuff of legend from its very beginning. It held the stone tablets containing the ten covenantal promises God made to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was regarded as Israel’s most sacred objectand the tales associated with it, both miraculous and frightful, wrapped this box in a mix of wonder and dread. Besides holding the stone tablets, the Ark was seen as home to the very presence of God.

Now, after having been carried by these people to and fro for several centuries, the Ark was coming to Jerusalem, the capital city of David’s united kingdom. It was coming home.

David’s fascination with the Ark had less to do with itsmany legends and more to do with hissingular love for God.

David loved Israel’s God—Yahweh, their liberator, the Holy One who pledged a future framed by justice and mercy—with a pure passion that was unique among Israel’s kings. In fact, despite his failings and flaws—and there were some big ones!—David’s exuberantlove for God became the standard against which every other kingin Israel’s history was measured. And nearly all of them were found wanting.

Because David loved God so dearly—with something like a mystic’s zeal as can be heard in his many psalms—he was entirely overcome with joy at the prospect of bringing this ancient well-traveled mysterious box to rest in a tent specially built to be its home in the city that was also David’s home.

And it is this joy that brings us to the king’s junk. Sometimes the Bible is so honest it catches you short. We read that David was giddy at God’s presence. So much so that, wearing only a linen ephod, he leapt and danced with total joy before the Ark as it was brought into the city. Now that linen ephod was something like a cross between a loincloth, an apron, and a hospital gown.

And this was the measure of the king’s joy: that both the royal jewels and the king’s junk were on full display as he danced. That’swhy his wife Michal despiseshim when she glances out the window in verse 16. Right after ourreading ended, in verse 20, she accuses her husband, David, the king, of having“uncovered” himself in front of the palace maids as any vulgar fellow might. Unfazed, David replies in verses 21-22, “You can’t even imagine my joy at the presence of God, you have no idea.”

Sometimes showing your junk is the risk you take to be clear about your joy.

Act Two: A Different Kind of Junk . . . A Different Kind of Joy

My Grandma Belling—my maternal grandmother—was the type of grandma who—like the Ark of the Covenant—filled you with a mix of wonder and dread. She was a stiff, stoic, stern German Lutheran woman. Her lips were almost always pursed in something just short of a frown, even when she was happy. I would not call her “wistful.”

But it seems she hada wistful side in her younger years. In the 1920’s and 30’s, over a sixteen-year period, she gave birth to nine children, eight of whom lived into adulthood. She loved them all, with a stern quiet joy. But during those years I’m told she also spoke often—wistfully—ofher hope that she might have a Christmas baby. Just like Mary. She prayed for this. But it never happened. Not to her.

But at 4:28 a.m. on Christmas morning, 1959, my mother, the youngest of my grandma’s eight children, gave birth to me. Grandma Belling died when I was eleven years old, but for those eleven years this woman of wonder and dread regarded meas the answer to her prayer. It was a regard that rested upon me with its own mix of wonder and dread.

Moved by the timing of my birth, my parents gave me a “Christmas name.” They didn’t dare name me Jesus, of course. And they didn’t care for Joseph or Zechariah or Simeon. Thankfully, they steered clear of Herod as well. They named me David—after King David—because, in Luke’s Christmas story, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “the city of David.”

SoI’m named for this king who danced with such joy in today’s first reading. Maybe that makes me particularly well-suited to preach on this text, EXCEPT—… while I doshare David’s passionate, nearly all-consuming love for God … and I share with him, as well, some rather big flaws and failings, I have never been on such intimate terms with joy as King David was.

So this is a glimpse at MY junk: I livewith anxiety and depression. Some of it is just my temperament: in spiritual terms I have melancholy. Some of it is connected to trauma earlier in my life. On my better days I live with an understated inner quietness, knowing with cheerful irony that much of the time what strikes people around me as inner peace is just my exhaustion at simply being alive. But there are occasional days when a sense of nothingness swallows me whole and I prefer not even to come downstairs. Maybe thatmakes me uniquely UNqualified to preach about a text on joy. But listen to these words, which I wrote just over a decade ago:

For most of my intensely spiritual journey, I have felt nothing, or better said, Nothing[with a capital N]. No warm feeling in my heart. No soothing sense of peace. No creed held with calm (or fierce) conviction. I have lived in stillness—and yet I have known all along that it was a BreezeI longed for. I have always sensed, in a way just beyond the reach of words, that it was the Wind of Godthat stopped just short of touching me. I have felt the absence of God to such an unmistakable degree that God’s absence has been an unmistakable presence in my life.

Growing up in the Midwest, framed by forested hills and rich farmland, I spent years yearning for a lush, green spirituality, one full with palpable and obvious evidence of life. I felt nothing. I looked around inside myself, and where I hoped to see verdant fields or deep woods, I saw only vast stretches of barren land, sand that occasionally shifted in the Wind, but showed no sign of life, except for a cactus here or there, which only seemed to highlight the inhospitality of my inner terrain.

But what I came to learn is that the desert literally teems with life. Certainly not as lush as other places, not as crowded in green. But if you are Still. If you sit in Silence, in that place where the Wind Itself rests, you begin to see a landscape with life enough to fill a heart with wonder.

That was a decade ago. You see, mine has been a long meandering path. And I have neverdanced with wild abandon like King David did. I doubt I ever will. But not every instance of Joy comes as exuberance. And unless I let you see my junk, you can’t fathom my joy.

Act Three: Winnie the Pooh and his Honey Pots, too.

I’m going to close with a few words about Winnie the Pooh. And by now, I trust you recognize I’m not merely trying to be cute.

There is a tale in which Pooh and his friends are out adventuring and realize they are lost. If I remember, right, Tigger is mostly unfazed, but also mostly frenetically unhelpful. Fear sets in with Piglet; panic begins with Rabbit; and resignation is voiced by Eyeore. But it is Pooh who finally leads them home. Here’s how the scene plays out:

Pooh’s tummy rumbles. Piglet asks in a trembling voice, “W-w-what was that, Pooh?” Laughing Pooh replies, “My tummy rumbled. Now then – come on, let’s go home.” Piglet asks, “But Pooh, do you know the way?”And Pooh responds calmly, “No, Piglet, but I’ve got twelve pots of honey in my cupboard, and they’ve been calling to my tummy.” “They have?” Piglet asks incredulously. “Yes, Piglet.” Pooh announces. “I couldn’t hear them before because Rabbit was talking so much. I think I know where they’re calling from now, so come on. We’ll just follow my tummy.”

As for me, do I know the way to Joy? No, I don’t. There are days when my anxiety prattles away like Rabbit, or my depression sounds a lot like Eyeore’s resignation—only not nearly so cute. I don’t know the way. But I know this. Like Pooh, my tummy rumbles. And that rumbling bears witness to a truth deeper than anxiety or depression—or anything else in life.

That rumbling whispers, “justice is possible—and if not perfectly so, then dammit chase after it imperfectly.” It reminds me, “every instance of suffering is held in the heart of God—if you would find God, then go to where the suffering is and meet God there.” It declares with quiet resolve, “peace is the fruit of love—so love one another, that you might know peace.”

And, yes, my friends, that rumbling—though I can barely imagine it myself—sometimes dances with a joy far beyond words, its exuberant movementproclaiming, “God loves YOU, and you have no idea how much.”

Like Pooh, we have Honey Pots that call out to us. Our Honey Pots include the stories we tell from Scripture. The bread and the wine we share in Holy Communion. The water we sprinkle in baptism. The music that fills this space during worship.

But, just as much as these, our Honey Pots alsoinclude the stories of our lives shared with one another. The fair trade coffee hour as well as other meals we gather for. The restless longing we have for a world that truly reflects God’slonging for justice. And even the simple warmth with which we greet each other.Those, too, are Honey Pots.

And if we, too, listen to the rumbling in our tummy, it will lead us unfailingly to Joy. And that’s gospel—good news—for each of us.

So I hope you leave today with a deeper appreciation of King David’s joy—and perhaps a quiet smirk at his junk. With the recognition that there are other types of joy and other types of junk. And with a keener awareness of the rumbling in your own tummy—and a fresh attentiveness to the Honey Pots in our midst.

Amen.

drw59mn@gmail.com

This entry was posted on July 15, 2018. 1 Comment

For Just Such a Time as This

“For Just Such a Time as This” (Esther 4:14)
David R. Weiss – June 10, 2018 – St. Paul’s UCC

(Esther 4:1-17 was the text for the day, chosen by the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ as the theme for their annual meeting. St. Paul’s UCC clergy were at the weekend conference, which is why I preached in church today. I wrote up this short version to share with the children during their time up front; it’s also helpful to set the context for my message.)

A short version of the Story of Esther

The story of Esther happened long ago—several hundred years even before Jesus was born. Esther and all of her relatives—the Jewish people—were living in another land, called Persia. While she was just a teenager, Esther was chosen by the King of Persia, to be his queen. No one expected this. It was a big surprise. But the king liked Esther very much. However, no one in the palace, not even the king himself, knew she was Jewish.

One day, one of the King’s friends got very angry at a Jewish man named Mordecai. Now Mordecai was a good man; he was also Esther’s cousin, but nobody knew that. Well, the king’s friend was so angry that he tricked the King into making a new law to kill Mordecai—and ALL the Jews—everywhere throughout Persia. Can you believe that?

When Mordecai heard this, he was sad, and he was scared—not just for himself, but for ALL the Jews. So, he sent a message to his cousin Esther. He told her that all the Jews were in danger, and that she must try to change the King’s mind. She was the queen, after all.

But Esther said, “I can’t do that. The King has a very strong rule: No one—not even the queen—can go see him unless he asks them to. If I break that rule, I might get killed myself, even though I’m queen.” Then Mordecai replied, “Listen, Esther, all the Jews are in danger. You might be the ONLY person who can save us.” And he added, “Esther, maybe God you made you a queen for this very moment.”

So Esther agreed to go the king. But first she asked Mordecai to have all the Jewish people pray for her, that she would be both brave and wise before the King.

Well, she went to the King, and she changed his mind. All the Jewish people were saved. And still today the Jewish people celebrate the bravery of this teenage girl who dared to ask herself, “is it possible that God made me for this very moment?”

“For Just Such a Time as This” (Esther 4:14)
David R. Weiss – June 10, 2018 – St. Paul’s UCC

This morning I’m going to sharemy“Mordecai moment.” I don’t claim to be as daring as Esther. But the day Mordecai spoke to me changed my life.

It was February 1997. I was a Lutheran graduate student in Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. But we need to start before that.

In the mid-80’s I was a student at Wartburg Seminary, in Dubuque, Iowa. While there, the “question of homosexuality” took on flesh in the lives of classmates who felt God’s call to ministry, but found that call unambiguously rejected by Lutheran policy.

I didn’t work through the biblical or theological questions back then. But I did the emotional work. I listened.I heard their ache and fear. Their longing, their love, their joy. Quite beyond any societal stereotype or religious teaching, I came to know their full God-beloved humanity.

A decade later, at Notre Dame, I took up the biblical and theological questions. The ELCA (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) was wrestling, rather begrudgingly, with the place of gay and lesbian persons in its pews—and potentially in its pulpits. In a graduate seminar paper I did my first careful study of biblical texts and theological perspectives alongside the ELCA study. I began to do my own thinking. Humbly, cautiously, quietly.

The following summer, my Lutheran congregation met to discuss the ELCA’s draft statement on sexuality. I don’t know if there were any gay or lesbian people in the room that day. I do know the room had plenty of half-truths, stereotypes, outright prejudice … and very little grace.

I listened, and finally, my knees trembling, I stood up. I spoke about my friendships with faithful gay and lesbian Christians. I was hardly eloquent, but I managed a rambling witness to the goodness of persons too easily and too often dehumanized.

Afterwards, several persons thanked me for my words. Mostly I breathed a sigh of relief—and resumed my quiet diligence as a grad student. That was June 1994. It would still be more than two years before I heard Mordecai’s voice.

But other pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.

The Notre Dame student newspaper published every day but Sunday. It always featured a lot of opinions. Letters to the editor and entire columns regularly focused on homosexuality. Often in response to current events on campus, in the news, or in the Catholic world, they were overwhelmingly negative.

I’d read them and cringe. But I held my tongue. I was there to do graduate work, not change the world. I didn’t know a single undergraduate student. And I was Lutheran, anyway, on a very Catholic campus. It wasn’t really my argument to get involved in.

That fall, one of the friends I’d mentioned in church—a gay man who’d been my junior high Sunday School teacher—suffered a massive stroke. He’d spent most of his adult life heart-broken, bereft because he’d been kicked out of seminary for being gay. Dale buried his sorrow in drink and food, and at forty-three his body just gave out. He lingered, half-paralyzed, in a nursing home for another year-and-a-half. He was just thirty miles away, so I visited him about every three weeks for the rest of his life.

In spring 1996 I taught my first undergraduate class at Notre Dame. These students, at least, became real to me. They had names; but also thoughts, ideas, academic struggles and successes. And at the edges I also saw hopes, dreams, sorrows, lives. They were so fully human.

Suddenly when I saw gay-bashing letters in the student newspaper I shifted uneasily while reading them. I didn’t know whether any of the eighty students in my two classes were gay, but I knew the odds. And I knew—inescapably—that whichever students found themselves in the crosshairs of those letters, they were fully human, just like mine.

Midway through that semester Dale died. He had asked me to preach at his funeral, and I did. He’d never come out to his family—but wasout to his circle of un-churched friends. So I gave a sermon that carefully held the tragic truth of his life, still largely hidden from his family, in words that comforted people listening from very different places. I spoke unremittingly of God’s love.

But I still hadn’t heard Mordecai speak to me. So, here’s one thing to note. In the Book of Esther, the moment of decision builds quickly, compressed into a few months over just a few chapters. Usually these moments have roots that reach far back and meander on the way to their culmination.

It was ten months after Death’s death that Mordecai met me in my upstairs apartment on Marquette Avenue in South Bend, Indiana.

Earlier that day I’d picked up a copy of Scholastic, a Notre Dame student literary magazine. I usually scanned it with mild interest. The February 20thissue changed the course of my life.

In a short prose-poem titled “Living in Fear,” a gay senior described coming to Notre Dame four years earlier, already knowing he was gay—and lamented that he would graduate … without having told a single person the truth of his life. He’d spent his entire college experience “living in fear.”

He recounted wondering almost daily whether perhaps thiswould be the day he dared to tell someone he was gay. But so far that day had never come. He ended the poem voicing his desperate hope that at least God loved him “anyway”—despite his being gay.

That’s when Mordecai spoke to me.Unmistakably, in the stillness of that night, I heard—not so much as words spoken, but as breath sucked out of me: “Perhaps you—David—are here … for just such a time as this.”

Scholasticpublished his piece anonymously. To this day, don’t know who he was. But long into that night, as I read and re-read his words, I knew—because I found myself shaking and sobbing over the words of a complete stranger—I knew THIS was my moment to speak.

Behind me were my seminary friendships, my childhood connection to Dale and my months of visiting him in the nursing home. My graduate seminar paper, my testimony at my church, my sermon at Dale’s funeral. But it was on thisnight that I poured out my passion for a welcoming God with nothing held back.

I wrote a prose-poem letter directly back to him. I titled it, “Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.” It ran in the next issue of Scholastic.

In it I ransacked the Bible for images—there is no shortage of them!—that bear witness to a God who persistently welcomes those that society prefers to exclude. I wanted him to see—to feel in his very heart—that the Biblical story of welcome held a place for him, too.

Among the first words tumbling forth through my tears were these: “I see now that if God keeps silent in the face of your anguish, it is only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words. Well here they are.”

Unlike Esther, I had no royal dignity to leverage. But I had words.And that night I opened a floodgate, and God’s grace and welcome came spilling out onto page after page after page. I went on to write essays, plays, hymns. I’ve published a book, taught college classes, spoken at churches and on college campuses all across the country.

I didn’t planto be such a strident ally for LGBTQ persons. And while there are certainly deep and winding roots to this, it truly all turned decisively that February night in 1997 when an echo of Mordecai’s voice summoned my gifts and my passioninto action.

I’ve had a few other “Mordecai-moments,” including my recent pull to think and write and speak around climate change. But nothing has so reshaped my entire life as that night twenty-one years ago.

And yet, while my story may be compelling, it’s YOUR story that matters most to you.

This weekend leaders from UCC congregations across Minnesota have gathered … precisely to ask where Mordecai might be directing our attention today.

Surely still toward LGBTQ persons. But also Black … brown … and Native Lives. Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers. A nation entangled in white supremacy … and imperiled by gun violence. Those who say, “Me, Too.” Those plagued by anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide. Those left behind or excluded from economic security. People and places threatened by climate change. And more.

The sources of suffering are many. They can be overwhelming. Which is Mordecai’s voice matters so much. Because God doesn’t ask you to be Esther—or to be me. God asks you … to be you.

It happens somewhere. Some when. You may or not see it coming. But the needs of the world cross the path ofyourlife where and when yourgifts, passions, and skills—maybe even your own wounds—have all conspired to make YOU ready for just such a time as this.

And in that “Mordecai moment,” God nudges you toward becoming the YOU that is truly gospel—good news—for God’s world.

We might encounter such moments as individuals, but there is particular power when we encounter them—and respond—as whole communities, through our interwoven gifts.

I expect Norma Rae, Clare, Kay, Bob, Becky, Anna, Brien, and Jacquelynn will come back from the Minnesota Conference Meeting ready to wonder where Mordecai is nudging us, not simply as individual persons of faith but as a deeply gifted faith community.

My prayer—for you, for me, for us as a church, is that when Mordecai speaks, like Esther, we will be ready to respond. AMEN.

 

This entry was posted on June 10, 2018. 1 Comment

Called to vulnerability – Intended for intimacy

Called to vulnerability – Intended for intimacy
Sermon for Earth Day / Integrity of Creation Sunday
David R. Weiss – April 22, 2018 (Earth Day) – St. Paul’s UCC
 

It’s not my parents’ world anymore. They’re both still alive—in their early 80’s. But this is no longer the world they grew up in. It’s barely my world anymore, for that matter. People my age and older, we live on a planet increasingly unlike the one of our youth.

But my daughter, Susanna, was born into a world altogether different than the one my parents knew. She 22, and within her lifetime—in fact, just since she was a toddler, she’s lived through all eighteen of the hottest years on this planet since 1880.

Why “since 1880”? That’s the year there were finally enough accurate temperature reports from around the world to calculate a true “average global temperature.” Since then we’ve kept very precise records. And according to those records, out of the past 138 years, every one of the hottest eighteen years has happened during Susanna’s lifetime.

I’ll read them off, because I want you to FEEL the weight of this heat. Susanna was born in 1996. The hottest 18 years since 1880 have been 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. It’s possible—in fact, it’s likelythat for the rest of her life, she’ll only ever add to that collection, year by year.

I’m going to be blunt. We face an APOCALYPSE. Not the once-and-for-all “end of the world,” but, true to its biblical meaning, the ending of oneworld—and the beginning of another. The world that we will bequeath to our children is notthe world we were born into. That worldis no more.

And while we measure the threat in temperature degrees, it isn’t just the heat. It’s the whole set of cascading consequences. Here’s just a small sampling:

As polar ice melts, sea levels rise, permanently flooding many coastlines, displacing tens of millions of people, as well as the industries, economies, and ecosystems found there.

Increasing carbon dioxide in the air drives ocean acidification, which, in turn, harms coral, shellfish, and plankton—the very infrastructure of the ocean ecosystem.

And warming oceans make stronger hurricanes, greater storm intensity, more flooding in some areas and increased drought and wildfires in others.

The ripple effects will fan out through human societies and wildlife communities. Some regions will see gains in agriculture, but overall crop yields will drop—even as population continues to rise. Whole ecosystems will shift . . . and sometimes shatter. By the time my grandchildren reach my age up to one third of all plant and animals species alive today will face extinction.

And nearly all the consequences of climate change will fall first and hardest on those least able to adapt: the poor. Well, animals, plants, ecosystems—and the poor.

The more I learn about this, the more I want to say to my own daughter, to all of my six children and nine grandchildren, I AM SO SORRY. Because we did this.

Not me, personally. And not my generation alone. But we humans, mostly in the West (although the rest of the world is rushing to emulate us . . . with a vengeance)—we humans did this.

Our economic systems and industrial structures were put in place over the last couple of centuries, but the impact of our unrelentingly acquisitive human society is spiraling upward. Scientists report that in just the last 50 years—less than my lifetime—human activity has warmed the planet morein these past five decades!—than in any … 1000-year period … since the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.

I’m not exaggerating when I say we face an apocalypse.

So on this Integrity of Creation Sunday, I ask, how do we do theology—how do we think about God (and ourselves)—on a dangerously warming planet …in a time of apocalypse? And how does that spur faithful action in response to climate change?

These are—quite honestly—the pressing questions of our lifetimes.

We’ll die before we have fully answered them. But the welfare of coming generations—that’s our children and grandchildren and beyond—and the welfare of all beings for whom Earth is home, hinges on our answering them as faithfully as we can.

I’ll offer three guiding insights and briefly suggest how they can frame our actions.

First,imago Dei.

The Genesis creation accounts are notpoor (or even primitive) attempts at science; they’re profound attempts at truth, which is why they’re worth our attention still today. The Latin phrase imago Dei comes from the tale in Genesis 1, where, as we just heard, God fashions us—human beings—in God’s own image.

People have debated for ages exactly what constitutes this “image of God,” whether our capacity for tool-making or language or reason or something else.

But the core Truth in the tale is this: somehow the creative impulse of the universe is reflected in us. Whether you conceive of that Impulse as a supernatural personal God or as the purposeful energy behind the primeval fireball, the creation story tells us that we carry an echo of That which birthed the cosmos in our souls. And in this moment of impending apocalyptic climate chaos, that truth is worth holding onto.

And yet, just how we understand imago Dei does make all the difference. How we imagine the God whose image we bear undeniably shapes how we relate to the planet. Across history we’ve tended to presume we image God by exercising power over the world around us—often over each other as well.

As my second insight, I propose that imago Dei is about Vulnerability.

We often look right past it, but the Bible portrays a vulnerable God. Yes, God certainly exercises power at times, but God chooses vulnerability—again and again. Look at the company God chooses to keep: second-born sons, enslaved people, slow-tongued leaders, women, Gentiles, and awkwardly outcast prophets.

These choices open God to a depth of emotion we rarely connect with divinity: God feels anguish at the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt; later, betrayal by their infidelity; then sorrow at their exile in Babylon. God even feels compassion for the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah. It might overstate it to call God an emotional wreck, but the God of the Hebrew Bible chooses to be whole not by avoiding vulnerability but by embracing it.

Jesus continues that pattern; he incarnates it. It culminates on the cross, where the vulnerability of both Jesus and God reaches a crescendo, but it’s at the very heart of his ministry all along. In daring to touch lepers and others whose illness has set them apart, Jesus heals by stepping into the vulnerability of others. By eating with outcasts in a society where table companions were carefully monitored and could cost you your reputation, Jesus’ mealtimes are choices to be vulnerable.

In calling us to love our enemies, to meet them with creative nonviolence rather than brute force, Jesus’ approach to social change is to become vulnerable. And in using his parables about the “kingdom of God” to turn our notions of kingship inside out and upside down, Jesus’ invites us to imagine a very different way of being imago Dei.

So I say, we image God in our willingness to be vulnerable. To be sure, vulnerability is one inescapable facet of our finitude. But when we embrace it as part of our vocation, we lean into it . . . with holy zeal. In the face of climate change—a fierce tutorial in vulnerability if there ever was one!—our readiness to embrace vulnerability as vocation will be crucial.

Which leads to my third insight: that truly, from Eden onward, we were—intended for Intimacy.

We have a kinship with creation that we have not yet fully acknowledged, but it’s been true for as long as long as human beings have been (and longer). We live thanks to the nearly countless creatures with whom we share an unimaginable intimacy. My relatively healthy human body is home to approximately 100 trillion microbes. These tiny critters are NOT ME. They live in and on me, aiding in digestion, supporting my immune system, and more. Some just call me home, keeping me company without ever making me sick. 100 trillion of them.

In fact, because their cells are so much smaller than human cells, right here, standing in front of you, there are more cells that are not David than cells that are David. Altogether, these intimate neighbors of mine weigh about seven pounds. That’s a lot of “not me” that is entirely interwoven with me.

I am my own ecosystem. And so are you. Both theologically and scientifically we are intended for intimacy. So I am convinced that the path forward for us, people of faith on a finite and fairly fragile planet, is by way of deepened intimacy: with each other, with our companion creatures, and with Earth itself.

To conclude: we stand on the precipice of a genuine apocalypse. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate and with such inertia that even the best technological gains will only mitigate the damage—and even then not soon enough for many of the least of these, our brothers and sisters and our companion creatures here on Earth.

So, as we face the prospect of life on this fundamentally different planet, as part of an ecosystem we’ve heated in ways that will ripple—and rip—through creation’s very fabric, HOW DO WE ACTas individuals and as communities of faithin a time of climate change? We can only really answer this question as we unfold our life … together.

But I believe if we remember that we carry the image of a vulnerable God in our very being, and that we were always intended for intimacy… across the whole web of creation, these insights can guide action that is faithful.

This will include opening ourselves to sacred lament. We won’t change the patterns of living that have wreaked havoc on our planet until we allow ourselves to feel—and grieve—deeply for the damage already done.

It will also include summoning forth sacred hope. We must lament, but we’ll only be able to endure that if we have hope that runs deeper even than our grief (and our grief must be nearly boundless).

Finally, faithful action, framed by vulnerability and intimacy, will include both mundane and daring innovation such as our Earthwise team has been pursuing for a decade now, . and ALSO prophetic resistance, as we seek new ways to honor the web of life—and bear new risks in defending it with love.

Called to vulnerability. Intended for intimacy. There is no work more worthy of our best faith and our best action. May we pursue it . . . with joy.

*     *     *

This entry was posted on April 22, 2018. 1 Comment

A PBS Easter

A PBS Easter (A 20th Anniversary Post)
originally March 23, 1998 – David R. Weiss

On April 6 and 7 PBS debuts a new entry among the annual Easter specials. Beginning the day after Palm Sunday, coincidentally the day Jesus cleansed the Temple (no doubt unnerving a few of his own fans), the PBS Frontline special, “From Jesus to Christ: The Story of the First Christians,” will surely unsettle its fair share of the faithful. [NOTE: you can find this and watch it online now–still worthwhile.]

Contrary to the usual Easter viewing fare, which retells the story of Jesus as though the Bible allows us to recreate it in all its detail, PBS will instead confront us with just how shadowy this man’s life was, and will suggest that from the very beginning the Jesus story was a contested narrative. Indeed, the documentary covers four centuries in the conviction that telling the life of Jesus requires telling the story of how that life, with all its historical gaps, came to be told, retold, and often argued about, already in the first Gospels and continuing on into the early church.

This might seem like nothing more than agnostic scholarship by historians determined to get at the truth in history no matter what. At best it might anger us in its arrogance to purportedly tell “our” history, minus “our” faith. At worst it might do such a good job of that as to unravel, or at least fray, that faith itself. And yet Christians are, after all, are convinced that the Truth has gotten at us–in history, and no matter what.

There are good reasons, both for Christians and non-Christians to tune in. Non-Christians, put off by endless intra-Christian disputes, may have the edifying insight that it’s always been like that: we’ve always argued about who this guy was. That’s not so much reason to discredit us as it is cause to be curious about why we remain so tenaciously fascinated with something that’s been unclear for 2000 years now. Meanwhile, despite the in-house squabbling, many Christians still believe that the Gospels record Jesus’ life purely, without the messiness associated with other historical sources. The PBS production will make painfully clear that whatever guarantees God might make, a crystal clear record of Jesus’ life is not among them.

That’s worth knowing. And it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just reading the Bible one senses that if this whole story, from Genesis through Revelation, is to be trusted at all, it involves trusting a God who thrives on working with messiness. From the chaos prior to creation to the cataclysms envisioned by John on Patmos, God is not shy about pressing historical messiness into divine purposes.

More importantly for Christians, given our claim that Jesus is God incarnate, the PBS documentary deepens the wonder of that. It’s somehow too easy to believe that God became human—but in a majestically humble way: born in a stable, yes, but heralded by angels and with his story preserved indelibly for future generations. Much more astounding—and biblical—is the PBS intimation that becoming human meant setting aside most of the divine PR apparatus we assume was kept in place.

Becoming human for this God, unlike the deified rulers of ancient Egypt or Greece, meant slipping into the world at the margins. And for the most part staying there. When Jesus sought to describe the Kingdom of God he chose images like mustard seeds, leaven, and salt, precisely because of their apparent insignificance. PBS will show that in many ways Jesus himself lived up to that billing: he was barely worth noticing … until suddenly he was so much worth noticing that everyone, from friend to foe, had to have a special slant on him.

That’s worth knowing, too. Because we so easily forget it. If PBS succeeds in presenting the ambiguity of Jesus in history, it does Christians a favor. For the first Christians, faith meant staking one’s life on the pretentious claims, almost always rendered second- or third-hand, about the decisive importance of a no-name preacher from a small town who eventually got crucified for, among others things, insisting that compassion was the way to live even in a society driven by values not all that unlike those that drive American capitalism today.

For the first Christians, the movement from Jesus to Christ, from history to faith, wasn’t guaranteed by the Gospel text or a Hollywood movie. It was purchased by individual discipleship and communal commitment in the midst of ambiguity. If PBS helps us recapture that chance, I say thank you, and God bless.