Advent, Anticipation … and Climate Change

Advent, Anticipation … and Climate Change
David R. Weiss – December 11, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #2 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

As a child Advent taught me the meaning of anticipation.

Yes, presents were part of that—though far from the whole of it. I remember the excitement that my siblings and I shared when the Sears and Penney’s Christmas catalogs arrived. But more than this, Advent meant evening family devotions: with each child taking a turn reading the message, lighting the candles on our family Advent wreath, or extinguishing them afterwards. It meant Saturday practice for the Sunday school Christmas Eve pageant. Each year we went out to a local tree farm to find, then tag, our chosen Christmas tree, and—during Advent—we went back to cut it down, bring it home, and trim it with favorite ornaments, decorating the rest of the house as well.

I particularly recall Pastor Knappe explaining that, because several of the prayers of the day during Advent begin with the phrase “Stir up, O God …”, these prayers always reminded him that Advent was time to stir up the batter for Christmas cookies. And, sure enough, my Advent didmean not just stirring the batter with my Mom but also smelling the Christmas cookies as they baked.

Years later in seminary—courtesy a talk by Jürgen Moltmann—I came to understand the full power intended in the word Advent: that Christmas comes to us. Although the calendar suggests wemarch toward Christmas, the theological truth of incarnation is that what happens in Christmas is not the sum of ouractions but the sum of God’s.

Thus, Advent is less “preparation” (as though our deeds “make” Christmas happen) than holy waiting, reverent anticipation of what comes to us from beyond our reach.

It’s disorienting, counterintuitive, and uncomfortably insightful to consider climate change from the vantage of Advent. The climate change we’re currently experiencing unquestionably has been made by our deeds. Beginning around 1850 and accelerating dramatically since 1950, we’ve been loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gasses, largely through the use of fossil fuels. Unlike Christmas, then, the approach of climate change IS the direct result of human activity.

But, while the cause-effect link between human industrial activity, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change is supremely clear at the scientific level, it’s much less clear on the experiential level. Sure, we occasionally see factories belching smoke, but the exhaust coming out of my car is barely visible and yet adds to the 28% of emissions that come from transportation. The CD player filling my home with Christmas music, the LED Christmas lights on my tree, the street lights lining my street, and the brightly lit malls and skyscrapers give off no green houses gases at all … except that generating the electricity needed to power them all accounts for another 28% of emissions. Unlike cookie-baking, present-wrapping, or tree-decorating, there is no obvious and immediate link between our daily choices and our warming planet.

Moreover, the time lag between what we put in the atmosphere by way of emissions and when we experience those emissions aschanging climate is large enough that it escapes our logic. How can gasses given off when I was a child be impacting the weather events I experience today? Perhaps most unsettling of all, we can barely imagine the cascading consequences as changing climate impacts multiply each other, creating feedback loops that drive both the speed and the extent of climate change. Admittedly, the models here are uncertain—testament to the complexity of these relationships, but not to the consensus that feedbacks loop will escalate the stakes considerably.

This is where we are today. An atmosphere recklessly and relentlessly loaded with carbon for more than a century. Wound up like a tightly coiled spring. The extreme weather eventswe notice today—storms, heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires—are noteworthy not because we have them, but because we’re having them so frequently and so fiercely. But this is hardly “Christmas” yet as far as climate change goes. The full force of the carbon already loaded … hasn’t even begun to be felt.

And this is where climate change becomes too muchlike Christmas. Because even if we stopped adding more emissions tomorrow—both a technological and political impossibility—there is very little we can do to unwind the spring. (Yes, there are nascent—not yet practical—technologies for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, but to imagine they’ll come on line in a cost effective way in time to significantly lessen the tension in a spring more tightly coiled each and every day, well, hopeful as that sounds, it’ll be about as effective as Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug” was in delaying the coming of Christmas.)

We are in Advent for climate change. There is indeed plentywe can do to “brace” ourselves, to increase our resilience: break habits, learn skills, link arms and weave the communal networks that can support us as climate change unravels many of the networks we’ve come to take for granted. Still, just like Christmas, there is nothing we can do to actually prevent its arrival.

I don’t “celebrate” that. Not by a long shot. Nonetheless, it’s time to embrace a long season of Advent for climate change. For there is a manner of anticipation that can seed hope in this unfamiliar season. Advent is a season that reminds us: we know (or we used to know—and can remember if we set ourselves to the task) what it is like to prepare-by-waiting for the arrival of something that comes unbidden to our world. And that posture—if we can reclaim it—may be a life-saving posture for ourselves and for our children.

The images coexist uneasily. Climate change as a type of Christmas? Advent as holy longing; now Advent as near-holy dread? On this one point they coalesce: central (for Christians) to both Christmas and climate change is the whispered presence of Emmanuel—God with us.

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). Thanks for reading and see you next week!.

PS: I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Watch for details soon.

 

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The Gospel in Transition

The Gospel in Transition – A Year of Weekly Reflections on Facing Climate Change, Finding Hope, and the Alchemy of Christian Community
David R. Weiss, December 3, 2018

It was just an innocent-looking list of years, but it turned my life upside down.

Sitting on the sofa or at the dining table, flipping through the newspaper, I’d seen plenty of headlines about climate change. I’d scan the stories. Catch an unsettling scenario here … a frightening-looking chart there. I suppose I knew just enough to know I didn’t really want to know more.

Full disclosure: twenty-two years ago (in November 1996, to be exact) I actually made my first academic presentation[1] as a Ph.D. student—on the fragility of our eco-system. A year-and-a-half later (April 1998) I gave a public talk[2] at Notre Dame’s Earth Day celebration in which I first addressed global warming. So climate change has been on my radar for a couple decades. However, alongside that interest, I was also finding my voice in support of a faith-based welcome to LGBTQ persons, and, in the Fall of 1998, a whole cascade of circumstances led me to focus—in my teaching, writing, and activism—on LGBTQ theology and welcome for nearly the next twenty years. Ecology was present in my personal ethics and climate change was there in the background of my awareness. But my best energy (fruitfully so) was invested elsewhere.

But about this list of years. Sparked by some news article in the spring of 2016 I googled “hottest years on record” and up popped a list that showed the 16 warmest years since 1880.[3] The list used 1880 as its starting point because that’s the first year we had enough accurate temperate records from across the globe to calculate an accurate global surface temperature. And since then we’ve been keeping really precise records. They were listed—these sixteen hottest years—in order of heat, so they looked like a pretty random set of years.

But when I looked closer I saw that, from 1880-2015, out of the last 136 years—all sixteen of the hottest ones occurred during my daughter’s lifetime—in fact, since she was just a toddler. Today she’s 22, and all eighteen of the hottest years on record have been since she turned two. She’s growing up on an altogether different planet than I did.

Now: not knowing … not acting … is NOT AN OPTION. Now Susanna’s face—is the face of climate change for me. Susanna’s future—is the shape of my work for the coming years. And I wrestle, like Jacob with the angel, determined that I will not let go until I receive a blessing of some sort that I can pass on … to help Susanna—and so many others—find a way forward on this strange new planet.

Hence, this blog. It’s only one small piece of that work, but it’s a place where I can offer others (that’s you!) a weekly glimpse at my thinking as it unfolds.

Addressing climate change will require responses from multiple arenas. Science, technology, public policy, news media, industry-business, arts, local communities, individuals—acting as both consumers and citizens, and more. My particular entry point is theology. That might seem far removed from the dynamics of a warming planet, but I suggest otherwise. The way we think about God impacts—often decisively—the way we think about ourselves. It establishes the points on our moral compass and grounds our conviction in making hard choices. Theology (and faith) tethers us to Something Bigger than ourselves as we plumb the coming tumult.

Tumult. I do not choose the word lightly. As I have read more and more about climate change over the past three years my alarm has grown and my hope has been schooled in humility. The news reports[4] this fall are perhaps most sobering because they represent “committee voices,” which, by their nature tend to be moderate in their tone, and even these moderate voices now report predictions and conclusions that sit at the edge of panic.

We may well survive this tumult. But we aren’t going to escape it. And the longer we focus on the most optimistic possibilities—as though we can still avert what will be the unmaking of the world as we know it, the more likely we are to be entirely unprepared when the worst of climate change hits. I am not without hope. But this blog and my work are rooted in my dawning awareness that only by acknowledging the depth of the crisis upon us can we take measure of the means that will serve us well in the days ahead.

For me, one source of hope is the Transition Town Movement.[5] Born a little over a decade ago in Ireland, Transition Towns use permaculture principles,[6] coupled with clear contextual commitment to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and simultaneously restore the strength of local communities: both economically and socially (and, I would add, spiritually). That’s an overly broad sweep, but over the coming year I’ll unpack these ideas further.

Right now it’s sufficient to say I find “gospel in transition”—and moving in both directions. I believe there is “good news” for this present moment in the Transition Town Movement. But I also believe that a host of fundamental principles and practices of transition resonate deeply with of the roots of vital Christian community. In other words, there is also Gospel hiding, as it were, in transition. Which is why I want to use this blog as a place to explore these resonances.[7] If the church aspires to be the church—the called and faithful people of God—in the midst of climate change, then listening to, learning from, and contributing toward the Transition Town Movement is an exercise of discipleship.

Finally, alchemy. Climate change will require more character, more conviction, more courage than perhaps any other socio-historical event since the Black Death of medieval Europe and Asia. If we are not scared, we are foolish. BUT—by choosing to make a regular practice of intentional communal acts of practical kindness, self-education, skill-sharing, localized-rootedness, and resilience-building we can transform fear and isolation into courage and hope. That’s the alchemy of Christian community. It is—absolutely—accessible in a host of other communities. It is not specifically Christian. But for those of us who express our faith through Christianity, there is an alchemy entirely ours. One that lifts up and embodies the best of Christian theology. And that’s where we’ll find hope.

My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). See you next week!

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of weekly reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. Thanks for reading.

 

 

[1]“Beyond Ecological Security: Intimacy and Risk. Imago Deias a Theological Resource for a More Creative Encounter with the Earth,” David R. Weiss. Presented at The Wisconsin Institute, Ripon College, November 1, 1996

[2]“Consuming the Earth In Search of Our Worth,” David R. Weiss. Earth Day Talk at the University of Notre Dame, April 18, 1998

[3]https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201513

[4]http://nymag.com/intelligencer/amp/2018/10/un-says-climate-genocide-coming-but-its-worse-than-that.html

[5]http://transitionus.org/home

[6]https://permacultureprinciples.com

[7]My thinking will be plenty original, but these two texts have been a helpful entry point for me. The Transition Movement for Churches: A Prophetic Imperative for Today, Timothy Gorridge & Rosie Beckham. London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013. Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith, Ruah Swennerfelt. Quaker Institute for the Future, 2016.

 

Advent Hymn: The Place Where Advent Starts

It’s one week until the beginning of Advent, so it seems like a good time to share this Advent hymn text which could be used on any Advent Sunday.

The words affirm the very real anguish in our world and make clear that God enters our world, our church, our lives in the midst of ache and anguish. In a world that remains deeply twisted by suffering in multiple ways, it’s honest, authentic, prayerful to enter Advent with hunger for hope for our lips. This hymn invites that, without forgetting that Advent invites us toward Christmas.

The “Listen” link lets you hear a recording of the hymn.

Note: I give you my permission to reprint the words for use in worship. I also have a pdf of the hymn in Finale with the text and the melody line. The music, however, is not mine; it’s Marty Haugen’s, copyright by GIA. I’m happy to share the pdf on email request–so long as you assure me that you will register your reprint of the music through OneLicense or another copyright service. In any case, if you use the hymn, I’d love to know that. Request the pdf or notify me of your plan to sing it at drw59mn(at)gmail(dot)com.

LISTEN

The Place Where Advent Starts

As the darkness stretches over / all the daylight, all our lives
In the depths of expectation / where the heart sees, you reside.
Dare we beckon to the hunger / fill our frame and feed our soul
In this dim-lit struggling world / that our feasting be made full.

As we wait with restless longing / for your kin-dom fully come
Rise the cries of warring nations / beats the pulse of terror’s drum.
“Comfort now, my people, comfort,” / spoke the prophet long ago.
“Still my peace comes to this world / midst its bombs, its spears and bows.”

As the earth cries out in anguish / less for birth than bitter toil;
As the poor, their fortunes falter / as the ill, their spirits spoil.
Steel our vision, so that we see / full the depth of broken hearts;
For in this place—hungry, hopeless / yes, in this place, Advent starts.

Hasten now, come quickly to us / ’fore our spirits faint with fear.
Be the light in deepest darkness / be the hope that draws us near.
In your advent, may we waken / live the life you call us to:
Every deed a Christmas manger / ready now to welcome you.

 

Text: David R. Weiss, b. 1959 (text, © 2011 David R. Weiss)
Tune: Marty Haugen, b. 1950, JOYOUS LIGHT, (Joyous Light of Heavenly Glory – © GIA Publication)
Alternate Tune: BEACH SPRING (The Sacred Harp, Philadelphia, Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service, Lutheran Book of Worship 423 – public domain)

Permission is given to photocopy The Place Where Advent Starts for use in worship.

Author’s Note: This hymn text took shape in December 2010, during a 14-day hunger strike, as I moved deeply into my own hunger. Advent is surely the season in which we “deck the halls” and “trim the tree” as we get ready for Christmas. Our homes are filled with Christmas Carols (even if we’re supposed to be waiting until Christmas) and (hopefully) the scent of fresh cookies. And YET, for so much of the world Advent is not merely the four weeks prior to Christmas, it is the gut-deep hunger for justice and for wholeness that swallows entire lives. Unless Advent begins in that place, Christmas is not a cause for joy.

This entry was posted on November 26, 2018. 1 Comment

For Christ the King Sunday …

The Queer Kingdom of God

I usually re-word the phrase “kingdom of God” as “kin-dom of God” because that play on words better captures for us the message and ministry of Jesus: that in God we are ALL kin. I hint at that here, but more directly I suggest that Jesus’ original phrase has a quality of deep irony to it. He uses “kingdom” NOT to draw on earthly kings as a metaphor of God; instead, the content of both his parables and his ministry actually use “kingdom” language to call into question all earthly manner of holding power. Indeed, given Webster’s definition of “queer” as a verb, it’s fair to say that Jesus’ QUEERS earthly modes of power — perhaps none more so than those running the world … and our country … today. And the worldly powers kill him for that. So the 3-part riddle in verse 3 is a sort of Zen koan, giving the disciples (and us) something to ponder after Jesus’ death—and a hint at where they (and we) will witness resurrection.

I invite you to think about where racial justice, universal health care, welcome to immigrants (and fully address the forces that drive refugee/immigration), caring for the planet with future generations in mind, and more find echoes in this poem.

 

The Queer Kingdom of God

Said Jesus to those gathered near, “The kingly deeds of God are queer—
They foul the plans of those whose more is but the spoils of the poor.
God’s kingly deeds intend to foil earth’s foolish dreams of what is royal.
The tales I tell are meant to free your ears to hear, your eyes to see
When God is king the rule of men is plain no rule at all, my friends.
When wealth and power go hand in hand, ‘tis tyranny that leads the land.

“Thus God does queer the very thing that earth imagines makes a king;
It isn’t wealth or might or name, not brutal force or far-flung fame.
The royalty of God begins by claiming every person kin.
When God is king and claiming kin, the outcast ones are gathered in.
No wonder then that under breath the pow’rs that be now whisper death
To One who dares to call their bluff, suggest they’ve ruled for long enough.

“For regal claims of welcome wide the Christ of God is crucified.
But let this riddle hold you then, that kin-dom come might come again.
‘What is the sound of mustard seed growing wild like a weed?
What is the sound of leavened wheat, flour stretched for all to eat?
What is the sound of new made wine, bursting skins of old design?’

“To enemies, speak now as friends, and with the poor make full amends.
Let kindness be the name you chase so every stranger finds a place.
Let welcome be the wealth you keep, and keep it well, both wide and deep.
The doing of these holy deeds – this sounds like wine and wheat and seeds,
For resurrection will begin when you join God in making kin.”

 

drw – 07.22.05

On Steve Sabin, Child Pornography, and Grace

On Steve Sabin, Child Pornography, and Grace
David R. Weiss, November 21, 2018

There are no winners in this column. Not even me. I would’ve preferred to just go to bed.

It’s too soon to say much about the arrest of Pastor Steven Sabin for possessing and distributing child pornography (just reported on November 20). But because there will be a firestorm of commentary forthcoming, I’m going to say a few things right now.

Steve Sabin, 59, served as senior pastor at Christ Church Lutheran in San Francisco for the last 17 years. Ordained in 1985 he was first called as pastor to Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames, Iowa. In 1998 his clergy status was revoked after a church trial because he was in a committed same-sex relationship, but Lord of Life refused to fire him and he continued to serve as their pastor until being called by Christ Church Lutheran in 2001. His 1998 trial was covered in Call to Witness, a 2000 documentary film featuring the stories of several of the first openly gay and lesbian Lutheran pastors. His clergy standing was restored after the ELCA changed its policy on partnered gay and lesbian clergy in 2009.

This fall a San Francisco Police Internet Crimes Against Children Unit investigating an online social media source of child pornography identified Sabin as the individual hosting the images. Last Thursday (November 15) he was arrested after police searched his apartment and reported finding more than 600 files—both images and videos—“depicting juvenile minors being sexually abused.”

This is a ghastly revelation. All the more so because of Steve’s role as a pastor—and as a leading voice in the struggle for sexual justice in the church. There is nothing good to say. But there are a few things that mustbe said, lest they get lost as the vileness of his actions echoes around the internet. I will say them.

I do not know Steve Sabin. I’ve only met him in passing twice (most recently in the Twin Cities just a couple of years ago). I forget the exact event, but I gave him a copy of my book, To the Tune of Welcoming God, while quickly explaining the indirect role he played in fostering my work around welcome.

I came to Luther College (Decorah, Iowa) to teach religion in the fall of 1998, just months after Steve’s church trial. I knew nothing about him or the trial; I wasn’t even aware that he spoke at Luther during my first weeks there as part of student-driven Coming Out Day event. But his talk precipitated some anti-gay chalking and an anonymous letter challenging Luther’s religion professors to take a clear stand on homosexuality (hoping for words of condemnation). That led first to three classroom declarations of my support for gay and lesbian persons and a week later to a campus-wide forum where I offered an extended faith-based affirmation of homosexuality. Within a year I was teaching a course on GLBT Voices in Theology, beginning the work that would become my vocation for two decades. For not knowing him, Steve Sabin had a pretty big impact on my life.

I write tonight, not to defend him, but to be clear about the scope of grace.

Every child in every image or video of pornography is a beloved child of God. Their bodies and psyches have been assaulted in evil ways that will redound in their lives. But nothing done to them—nor anything they do as a result of the wounds inflicted on them—nothingseparates them from the love of God.

Apparently, Steve Sabin somehow—tragically, disastrously, horrifically—came to view only some children, those to whom he ministered, as beloved children of God, while viewing others as objects of an unhealthy and destructive desire altogether detached from the vows he took as a pastor.

His parishioners, both in Ames and in San Francisco must be reeling. We do not know how long Steve has been involved in viewing or sharing child pornography, but his arrest will raise all manner of questions among those who knew him as pastor. So a couple things need to be said here, too.

Every child (or adult) ever baptized by Steve was fully wrapped in the grace of God. And every Eucharist at which Steve presided likewise offered bread and wine that carried in-with-and-under them the full grace of Christ’s presence. The efficacy of the sacraments (add to that confirmations, marriages, funerals, and more) does not rest on the character of the pastor but on the power of God. And while, yes, Lutheran theology affirms this, it isn’t anything that can be “legislated” by denominational authority. It is simply the truth of God and the scope of grace.

The Bible is replete with instances of less than noble persons serving as conduits of God’s gracious and liberating power despite their human failing. Human beings are woefully fallible—at times (and in Steve’s case) treacherously so. But when Steve—or any other pastor—announces “the gifts of God for the people of God” that claim rests not on the integrity of the person speaking but on the integrity of God’s own Self. These are God’s gifts, not Steve’s, not mine, not yours. God’s.

That cannot make any less the anguished mystery, the horrific sense of betrayal, the appalling ambiguity of discovering how awfullysomeone we trusted can besimul justus et peccator—at once both saint and sinner. We want that phrase to be quaintly paradoxical, but as the news about Steve reminds us, Luther meant the words most viscerally.

By all accounts Steve was an exceptional preacher, a fine pastor, and a generous mentor. What do we make of the words he shared—now? Is every sermon, every essay, every word of pastoral or collegial wisdom suspect? Yes. We will need to interrogate his theology now that we know he kept company with evil impulses to such an extent. Those who are revealed to be leading such double lives often imagined they could successfully contain one identity here and another one there. But from our hearts and minds to our bodily members—for better and for worse—we are wholepersons. And when one identity becomes deeply distorted it inevitably distorts the rest of who we are. No imagined inner boundary is ever as secure as we delude ourselves, especially as the inner distortions increase.

But are his sermons, essays, or words of counsel now utterly voidof wisdom and grace? The hard answer is No. Much as we might prefer to see Steve’s legacy—now in tatters—as simply counterfeit (at least in recent years), the truth is more uncomfortable. The Spirit is not as limited in its capacity for faithfulness as Steve was. The reason we’ll need to “interrogate” rather than outright dismiss his work, is because we dare not presume that God is unable to bear wisdom and grace to us even through deeply broken vessels. That presumption is neat and tidy, but it is unfaithful to the God who trades recklessly in grace. Unfaithful to the God whose reckless grace might one day trade for us should we be the one so deeply broken.

It is absolutely right in this moment to be focused on freeing the children in the images and videos found in Steve’s possession and doing what can be done to mend the souls. They are beloved children of God. Any language that falls short of “moral atrocity” fails to take measure of Steve’s actions toward them.

And it is absolutely right to be focused on supporting the parishioners whose faith may be deeply shaken by this. As well as those who considered Steve a colleague or mentor in ministry or in LGBTQ advocacy work. These persons, too, are beloved children of God. Any language that falls short of “betrayal” fails to take measure of the impact of Steve’s actions on them (and on the causes they held in common).

But there is a final further truth that is hardest of all to speak in this moment. But perhaps most necessary. And that is that still today, Steve Sabin remains a beloved child of God. His actions condemned, but his self beloved by a weeping God. When Paul writes (Roman 8:38-39), “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” he is explicating the gospel. And that phrase “nor anything else” has to include “child pornography.”

This is the scope of grace. I do not know the soul of Steve Sabin. (Although I am willing to bet it is—and has been tortured for some time now.) I only know my soul, which has more than its share of awful ambiguities, even if they do not match the scale of Steve’s. But more than this, I know the grace of God. And if that grace is not sufficient to hold Steve, even while God rages and weeps, we are all in trouble.

I won’t ask anyone else to pray for Steve Sabin right now. But as someone whose was myself sexually abused as a juvenile by a pastor-figure (a former Sunday School teacher)—I will pray for him. Unapologetically. Because grace reaches every one of us. Or none of us at all.

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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 ecology, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. 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.comwhere he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

This entry was posted on November 22, 2018. 2 Comments

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.

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.”