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.

 

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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.

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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.

Finding Joy While Seeking Justice

NOTE: I wrote this reflection in response to a reading for my Encore Impact seminar at United Theological Seminary. Thus it will feel a bit like an “insider’s conversation.” We are beginning to ask the question, “What Promise do you serve?” as part of our “next steps” discernment. This isn’t a fully polished essay–it’s more a simmering pot. But go ahead and try a spoonful. 🙂

Finding Joy While Seeking Justice
David R. Weiss, March 14, 2018

Frederick Buechner describes vocation (that sense of purposeful calling, perhaps “the promise we serve”) as that place where your own deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. Yet, in most of our lives vocation gets reduced to “career”—the skills we acquire and trade to earn the money to buy a life that at least tries to pass for “success” by society’s yardstick. As Nancy suggested in our second session, those of us feeling jaded about that yardstick (regardless of how much “success” we’ve notched on it) may be exactly the ones whose disorientation represents the birth pangs of a reorientation to purpose.

But here’s the rub. Because we’ve been socialized all (or most of) our lives to play the game set before us—and “socialization” is a nice way of saying we’ve been trained to serve powers and principalities rather than Promise—it’s easy, even as we “wake up,” to mistake obligation for purpose. I’m “supposed” to work for social justice. It’s my “obligation” to leave the planet (hopefully including our politics, or churches, and our society, too) in better shape for those coming after me. Well, yes. Sort of. But only in the shallowest—and usually self-defeating—way.

My experience in social justice work is that often those doing the organizing (usually those with an excess of extravert energy that eclipses my introvert leanings) are so damned eager to make change that they plug any body they can find into a task that needs doing without asking—or even seeming to care—whether doing that task will be life-giving, joy-bringing to the person doing it.

Thankfully, the George Lakey article (albeit too subtly if you ask me) acknowledges the folly of this. Near the bottom of page two he writes, “The organizer, on the other hand, experiences joy (emphasis mine) from collecting people . . .” That’s the key facet of discernment: joy.

There are a zillion things that must happen for a just world to become. But it is a supreme act of faith to affirm that we are diverse people precisely so that making justice might ring with joy for each of one of us—as though THIS is the divinely wrought warp and weave of the cosmos’ moral fabric. This is the heart and truth in Joseph Campbell’s encouragement to “Follow your bliss”: there is joy on the path to justice. That isn’t to say there won’t be grunt work along the way. But no one serves their Promise by merely being a grunt. We were made for more.

Two last thoughts.

First, on the nature of joy. Joy (in its vocational expression) is only rarely simple happiness. More accurately put: Joy is the profound inner awareness that one’s gifts—indeed one’s deepest self—is (even if only momentarily) in alignment with the universal longing of life to flourish. This alignment, which is more or less as unique as each of us is unique, is life-giving and joy-bringing, even in the midst of arduous work. Sometimes my joy is not about the smile on my face; in fact, more often it is the smile deep in my soul—a smile that bears meaning even when there’s a full fledge shit storm going on around me. 🙂

Second, on my particular role. I am nothing, if not a poet-writer: a word artist. Someone whose joy lies in using words artfully to provoke, inspire, imagine. At times to decry what is. At others to declare what might be. This is powerful, essential work in social change. So I was surprised/disappointed to find an absence of any direct recognition (in Lakey’s piece) of Artist as a key role. Yes, you can “smuggle” it in as an adjunct to any of the other four roles, but by now you know I have a spotty history with being adjunct. (On this point the Kaleo Center description of the eight dimensions of Social Transformation Praxis is more helpful as I can more easily see room for art-poetry-writing to shine across these dimensions in ways that respect its independence—its necessary surprise—rather than subsuming it to the utility of others. That’s dense, I know, but important to put into words, even if they’re muddy.)

So, the vocational question for me is Where does the joy I find in being surprised by what words can do find a welcome home in work to change the world for justice? Your question will almost certainly be different than mine, but make sure that JOY has a place in how you frame it.

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Postcard from a Dislocated Life

Postcard from a Dislocated Life
David R. Weiss, March 3, 2018

I’m in an unfamiliar place these days. Truth is, I’ve wandered my way here over the past decade or longer. Partly through choices I’ve made. Partly through choices made by others that have impacted me. Only in the past two years has the awareness become all-encompassing. Yet here I am. Quite dislocated. Knocked off balance. Okay, knocked on my ass.

I suspect—no, I desperately hope—that the way forward lies through this muck. And that writing about it (because writing is what I do) may help ground and guide me, enlighten (or simply entertain) others, and perhaps collect a nugget of insight along the way.

So this is a postcard from a dislocated life. And, no, it doesn’t read: “Wish you were here.”

Over the past decade I’ve lost track of how much I’ve “lost.” Of course, every loss is relative, but there are a handful that have rocked me to my core. Like a yawning abyss, they’ve threatened to swallow me whole. At times, they have. Succinctly, these losses involve my children, my sense of self, my work, my vocation, and my church.

I’ve lost the future I hoped for with my children. I’ll say quickly that I haven’t lost the future per se. But the future in front of us now is wholly different than the one I had hoped for, the one I had actually laid a foundation for.

Going back twenty years, as my second marriage was twisted by emotional and then physical violence, my whole sense of self collapsed. That’s not quite true. I maintained just enough of a sense of self to function pretty well in the outside world, but not enough to function well in my inner world. It was a deceptive combination that’s proven toxic as the years wore on.

My parenting became a game of emotional dodgeball. At times a matter of physical dodgeball. Both kids may have intuited my best intentions and my deep love. But both also saw me fail them, sometimes due to finite time and energy, sometimes to fear, and sometimes to folly. No one parents perfectly. I get that. But I parented across a battlefield, and I regret the years I “agreed” to do that because it lessened the joy and weakened the trust that should have been there.

In those years my own self-care rarely reached the front of triage. I gave one of my first public talks on welcome to LGBT persons while living in daily fear of the woman I slept with each night. I taught feminist theology in a long-sleeved shirt to hide the bruises on my arms left by the violence in my home while I tried so hard to impart insight and hope to others. That’s an abyss. And even when I finally crawled out of it, the damned thing chased after me.

Starting fifteen years ago, my time with my daughter came under siege—the seeds of our bright future framed by laughter, wonder, and trust, were unsown by a series of legal and barely legal maneuvers by my ex-wife and then utterly scattered to the winds by a series of court orders that dismissed my standing as father and sought to reduce me to a bit role in her life. This lasted for more than a decade, from her fifth birthday through her eighteenth. I lived ten years and more under the terror of having my parenting proscribed by decisions that derided my love and demeaned my personhood. To say that takes a toll is understatement. It unravels you. And sometimes it doesn’t even wait to unravel; it tears whole pieces from the fabric of your self.

Did I teach and write and work well enough during those years? Perhaps. (Occasionally I’d add an emphatic Yes!) But did I have nights of rest-full sleep? Or draw breath that truly filled my lungs with life? Or hold her tightly in joy not fringed by fear? Hardly ever. And more than once—indeed more times than I can count—I was gut-punched by events that left me psychically traumatized. There is no other way to describe it. Most of what I battle today is the ongoing echo of those years: ugly scars, gaping wounds mis-healed, landmines still live and buried, just waiting for a single misstep. That type of trauma, left untended, becomes gangrenous.

Against this backdrop—over-extended and inwardly exhausted—I cobbled together a work life with a fair measure of vocation to it. By “cobble” I don’t mean to disparage the work itself. The writing and speaking (and some of the teaching) that I did over these years was undeniably passionate, frequently creative and insightful, occasionally even visionary. And up until just a couple years ago that cobbled career kept me busy enough in each present moment that I was able to avoid inquiring about its sustainability. Until suddenly it wasn’t. Now, with miles (and years!) to go before I sleep (and promises I hope to keep!), I find myself feeling altogether worn out, used up.

Over the past fifteen years as an adjunct professor—particularly over the last seven—I’ve lost any predictable sense of work as a teacher, never knowing what or whether I’d be teaching. As a direct result of that, I’ve lost far too much of my skill as a teacher. Both intuition and instinct, as well as actual subject knowledge, get rusty without practice. I am a shadow of my former classroom self. Less than once in a blue moon do I have any real choice in teaching courses fully aligned with my interests. My theology used to be in direct conversation with my teaching; nowadays the two rarely even speak to each other. In fact, nowadays I teach very little. The phrase “never again” is in the wind.

Worse, I mislaid somewhere along the way of doing other good work (most notably building a union for adjunct faculty), my very best and most important work: theology. These days I ransack my mind and I know it’s still there, buried beneath the ungodly amount of mental-emotional clutter that finds material expression in my office as well. (This is not the clutter of a creative mind; it’s the clutter of a fractured self. Trust me, I know the difference.)

This past week I attended a conference at United Theological Seminary. Checking in at the registration table, Mark (who knew an earlier me) said, “Hello, David!” then reached for the wrong set of nametags, saying, “You must be here to present.” Because at an earlier point in my life, I might’ve been. Not today. Moments later, as I took my seat for the opening session, Kathleen (who also knew that earlier me) greeted me in the exact same way: “Oh, David! Are you here to present?” She then introduced me to her wife, describing me as “an amazing theologian-poet-ally,” while I silently switched all her glowing words into past tense.

Then, after one of the panel discussions I went up to greet one of the panelists, Emmy, a young queer pastor that my earlier me knew, though only in passing. During our brief exchange, she shared with me that back in 2004-2005 my writing on the Book of Acts and LGBT welcome—writing that she still has in its pre-publication 3-hole punched blue binder on her office shelf right alongside her published copy of To the Tune of a Welcoming God—played a singular role in giving her the strength to remain in the church during the years before the church had found the wisdom to welcome her. Emmy’s words of gratitude were so specific (and so unexpected) that they caught me so off guard and before I could flip anything into past tense, I was teary-eyed. The sheer power of theology I once wrote whispered to me through the tears, that just maybe there is more yet to come. Though perhaps it was only a wishful whisper.

Finally, over the past year I lost my church. For someone whose theology has always been driven by the church’s life rather than by academic debates, this last loss has been both spiritual and vocational. I dedicated my book, To the Tune of a Welcoming God, to this congregation, declaring, “The manner of our life together, imperfectly but passionately seeking justice, fills me with hope. Within our walls the tune of a welcoming God is always in the air.” But today I am no longer myself welcome within those walls. Informed by official edict (that is, on church letterhead) that my welcome was henceforth conditioned on leaving my words at the door, on silencing my voice as theologian in this congregation. Bereft is not hyperbole.

Since September I’ve been settling into a new congregation. But the anguish remains, not least because Margaret and I, who in college drove forty miles round trip each week so we could sit side by side in a church where we both felt welcome and at ease, now we worship six blocks (or is it six thousand miles?) apart. She affirms my pain but is, for the time being at least, committed to maintaining relationships in the church that was once so life-giving to both of us, but which now welcomes me only on terms that would rupture my vocation and my faith each week.

Thus, from my hopes, my work, my vocation as writer-teacher-theologian, and my own church: DISLOCATED.

So what’s next? Whoa—not so fast. Something is next. Most days I believe that—though my confidence ebbs and flows like the tide. But disruptive as it is, this dislocation (damn it!) has work to do. If only by way of undoing. By stripping away almost everything before starting afresh. Believe me, I’m as impatient as the next person to get on with this. Likely more impatient than the next person since its my getting on that’s at stake. And yet, here I am. Right now. Feeling quite dislocated on too many counts to count. Certain there is a way forward. Not at all certain that it’s anywhere close to “soon.” On my good days I regard dislocation as that long season that precedes resurrection.

But whether this is truly so remains to be discovered.

*     *     *

 

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.”

This entry was posted on March 5, 2018. 5 Comments

You are the Christ—the Oiled One of God

Sermon for St. Paul Lutheran Church – Michigan City, Indiana
February 24-25, David R. Weiss

Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV). 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

 

Call me Peter if you like, but that day I was just Simon all over again. Hardly “the Rock” as Jesus had re-named me only the day before.

You remember, I’m sure. As we were walking, Jesus asked us—his disciples—“Who do the people say that I am?” We told him what we’d heard from the crowds. Some thought he was John the Baptist come back to life. Others saw the spirit of Elijah or one of the other prophets alive in him.

I don’t think he was surprised. I mean, he had to know he’d stirred up more than his share of curiosity and wonder. You don’t cast out demons, restore sight to the blind, or heal the lame without people beginning to speculate about where that type of power comes from. No, he wasn’t surprised, but in the silence that followed he seemed . . . disappointed. As though he’d hoped that the people had connected a few more dots than that.

We disciples—we’d also been speculating. Out of his earshot, of course, but we’d kept company with him over the past months of his public teaching. How could we not wonder for ourselves, who is this man?—this peasant carpenter turned miracle worker and sage? This man who’d called us right out of our lives and into his.

So, sure, we’d traded our own notions. And when we’d walked a bit further in silence, and Jesus asked us who WE said that he was, I spoke up. I said out loud for the first time, what we disciples had only been whispering to each other: “You are the Christ.”

Now, let me tell you what I meant.

“Christ” is a Greek word that matches the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” Both words are . . . oily. They echo an ancient Hebrew tradition: when God selects a person to do special work—to be a priest, or a prophet, or a king—that person is anointed, drizzled with oil. So Christ and Messiah both mean, more or less literally, “Oiled One.”

The pages of the Hebrew Scriptures practically drip with messiahs: priests, prophets, and kings chosen by God for special purposes. But we longed for one particular Messiah. Someone chosen by God who would not simply leave their mark on our history; but someone . . . on whose holy life history itself would turn.

We believed this Messiah, this Christ—perhaps by recruiting our best warriors or maybe by calling down legions of angels—would somehow overthrow Rome’s oppressive rule. And then establish a Jewish kingdom where we’d live in freedom, peace, and prosperity for all generations.

So when I said, “You are the Christ—the Oiled One of God,” that’s what I meant. Speaking for all the disciples, I named our hope, our growing conviction, that Jesus’ words and deeds were dripping with oil, that we believed him to be this Messiah, God’s final Chosen One.

That’s when he called me “Peter”—the Rock. So when he commanded us to tell no one, we felt confident we were right. Like we’d been invited into some grand conspiracy alongside him, and had simply been told to keep quiet until we heard him summon the angels.

For twenty-four hours it seems we both misunderstood each other. We thought we were on the common ground of Messiah, Christ, God’s Chosen One. But the very next day we found out how far apart we were in our understanding.

As we were walking again, Jesus began to explain what it meant for him to be Christ. He spoke of rejection, suffering, even death. True, he mentioned being raised again on the third day—but who could hear that? I mean, listen: Rejection . . . Suffering . . . Death—these were NOT part of being God’s Chosen One. How could he—how could we—possibly overthrow Rome this way?

We reeled at his words. As we walked we felt like men who’d been spun in circles until our dizziness made us stumble this way and that. All the weight of generations of expectation for the Messiah were being unsettled inside us. Did we really know anything at all about Jesus’ God?

For all of us, I rebuked him: “God forbid that this should happen to you.” I basically said, “Jesus, find some other way to be God’s Chosen.”

Then it was his turn to reel. He looked like he’d been sucker-punched . . . by a friend. Caught short by my words, stung by the depth of misunderstanding in them. He turned to me, with the other disciples nearby, and he said, “Get behind me, Satan! For in your words you become the very adversary of God.”

No more Rock in that moment, I was mere gravel. Dust to be shaken off his messianic feet as he turned toward Jerusalem.

He used it as a “teachable moment.” He called the crowds together and made clear that following him would mean shouldering risk . . . not seeking reward. That the only way to gain your life was to be ready to lose it—for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.

If you know the rest of the story, you know I didn’t “get it” right then and there. Weeks later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, I pulled out a sword, still hoping for armed angels to swarm from the skies. And the day after his arrest, I denied even knowing him—three times! Still more concerned to save my own skin than to bear witness to my friend, this oiled man of God.

I suppose if there’s merit to my story it’s that most of us—maybe most of you—meet this man, this Christ, with our own mixed up set of expectations about how God works in the world. And if God can manage to right a fool as great as me, then there’s hope for anyone, for any of you as well.

Here’s what I finally came to see. It was there before my eyes—yours, too—all along. Covered over by other ideas and expectations, but hardly hidden. What did it mean for Jesus to be God’s Christ? God’s oil-drizzled Messiah? God’s Chosen One?

It meant (it means, still today!) that Jesus announced compassion as God’s signature move in the world.

It meant that his parables were always challenging the world as it was (as it still is!), turning assumptions upside down and inside out. Mustard seeds take over entire fields. The last guests get the seats of honor. A despised Samaritan becomes a hero. The hungry poor become our opportunity to feed Jesus himself.

It meant his healing miracles weren’t aimed to amaze us. They aimed to bring those deemed untouchable by their infirmity back into the arms of the community for which God made them. Likewise, children were blessed; women were heard and empowered—because in God’s kingdom every head is blessed, every voice is valued, every person bears the whole image of God.

It meant eating with outcasts. This was revolutionary. Our whole world (just like yours!) was marked off by race, religion, ethnicity, or social status into in-groups and out-groups. And those boundaries—those borders—were nowhere as clear as at our table when we ate. Except that Jesus kept a table where everyone—everyone!—was welcome.

Now, when I rattle all that off, it’s no wonder that he knew rejection, suffering, and death awaited him. Jesus’ message was a direct threat to the values embraced by the powerful in both Rome and Jerusalem. If we’re honest—if you’re honestJesus’ message remains a direct threat to the values often embraced by the powerful still today.

A community truly grounded in God’s unconditional grace, focused on pursuing compassion for those in need, and committed to extending welcome to the very least—why, even in its rag-tag infancy in my day, that community posed a real threat to Rome and to the Temple leaders—not by way of military overthrow, but by way of inner renewal: a revolution of the heart. And that type of community still today will challenge any political order, any religious system, any worldview that tries to play one set of people off against another.

In Jesus’ gospel community no one is expendable. No one is deplorable. No one is deportable. At Jesus’ table no one is excluded, and no one is deemed “less than.”

What I came to see—though only after his death—is that this bumbling, but also daring and loving bunch of people that followed Jesus, we were already the first sprouting seeds of God’s kingdom: the birth of a new community here on earth.

Then, in the days after Easter, as we struggled to become the church, God took that brief moment of resurrection and made it real—not simply for Jesus, but for all us. We became the Body of Christ: grace, compassion, and welcome active in this world . . . right now.

That day—in today’s gospel reading? I was just gravelly Simon all over again. But when I connect all the dots, when I help someone else see what it meant for Jesus to be Christ . . . and what it means for the rest of us—that’s the rest of you—to be the Body of Christ today—well, when I do that, then I am Peter, the Rock, the one who first spoke the truth on which Jesus built the church.

And today, my friends, that church, the very Body of Christ, is you. Amen.

David R. Weiss, drw59mn@gmail.com

Seeking a Circus on the Outskirts of Sixty

Seeking a Circus on the Outskirts of Sixty
David R. Weiss, February 4, 2018

It was a silly children’s book. A mix of whimsy and rhyme and rather stiff illustrations. No doubt there was a gentle deeper message intended all along, but I’m pretty sure that Robert Lopshire (the author) was not trying to map out my life. That just happened.

My copy, now with the binding starting to crack, still comes out for grandchildren on occasion. My name is neatly printed on the inside cover. First published in 1960, I suspect I got my copy of Put Me in the Zoo about five or six years later.

The story, in short (I’m sure most of you have read it; apparently it was a bestseller in the Beginner Books line) is about a creature of ambiguous pedigree—and magical spots—who meets a pair of kids and asks them repeatedly to “Put me in the zoo.” He longs for a place where he’ll belong, and he is certain the zoo, with its menagerie of well-cared for animals is the place for him.

Never mind the innocent naiveté about zoos (that’s a whole other issue), our mysterious creatures goes to great lengths—and heights—to show all the amazing things he can do with his spots as a way of demonstrating why the zoo should welcome him. He can change their color and size, indeed throw them onto other objects—even the children—all in a cheerful frenzy of self-expression. But if you read between the lines, something probably done more easily as I approach sixty, you can discern a more exhausting existential desperation to find a vocational home. Which is where my life maps onto this tale.

Fast forward about ten years to my fifteenth year. Let’s say the fall of 1975. That’s just a guess, but I think it’s close. My brother, Don, was a senior in high school and I was a sophomore. One night at supper Dad asked us (in truth, probably mostly Don, but I was included since I was just two years behind), “What do you think you’d like to be when you grow up?” Parents might ask that question any number of times as their kids grow up, but the fact that this question came: over supper . . . from Dad . . . to Don . . . as he began his senior year in high school . . . gave it an added sense of seriousness.

Don responded, “I was thinking about studying pharmacy.” To which Dad (a mechanical engineer) replied with evident satisfaction, “That’s a fine field to enter. You’ll need a lot of math and science. But that’s a great choice.” (Eventually the numbers won out and Don went into accounting.) When it was my turn, I responded, thoughtfully and with near excitement, “I’d like to be a writer.” To which Dad (did I mention, he was a mechanical engineer?) replied—after a short but noted silence—“. . . Well, that would make for a . . . fine hobby. I was actually wondering what you might like to do for real work.” I don’t recall if I managed to generate a second choice. What I do recall, with searing emotional clarity, is that my first choice, my love for working with words was found wanting in Dad’s eyes.

Necessary side note: my dad and I have a very good relationship. It was a measure of the esteem I held for him that his words sent me second-guessing my own gut. And a measure of the esteem he’s come to hold for me, that he now steadfastly hopes I find better outlooks for my words.

In any event, as a result of that exchange (albeit with a plethora of other social-familial-academic forces adding their own thrust) I’ve spent the past forty-some years showing “off my spots,” all the while hoping to find my zoo, the place where I belong. Unlike the creature in my childhood book, most of my workplaces have been happy enough to have me on board. Although they’ve always either wanted to manage my spots for me or, on occasion, to tell me, “Just keep ’em in a box, while you’re on the clock.”

But I’ve never forgotten the voices of the two children who, after seeing all that he can do with his spots, finally speak the creature’s truth to him near the book’s end: “We like all the things you do. We like your spots, we like you, too. But you should not be in the zoo. No. You should NOT be in the zoo. With all the things that you can do, the circus is the place for you!”

So here I sit, on the outskirts of sixty (I just turned 58 two months ago), wondering if I will ever find my circus.

I can do a lot of things well. But the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do is write. I’ve taught college classes, processed mail, done campus ministry, sold books, worked in warehouses, preached sermons, done restaurant kitchen prep, graded tests, done public speaking, organized a union, delivered groceries. All good things. All very good things to have done. But at the end of the day—in my soul, at the outskirts of sixty—they’ve all been fine hobbies to have. None of them have been my life’s real work.

It’s time to find my circus.

I may still teach a class or two, and I hope to go on delivering groceries, but with the sun now on its noticeable westward trek in my life, if I’m going actually write—my own words, my own stories, my own thoughts, my own agenda—it’s now. Or never. And I’d rather it be now.

Foolishly perhaps, but honestly, too, I actually believe that the words waiting patiently (no, impatiently!) inside me all these years matter to more than just me. I say that partly based on people’s responses to the words that have managed to find their way out over the years. And partly based on the existential restlessness that tells me I’ve only just scratched the surface. And partly based on the still mostly innocent eyes of my grandchildren, for whose future I truly believe I have some things say.

I’m participating in a 4-month seminar at United Theological Seminary right now. Not quite a circus, but getting closer. It’s aimed at fifty-five-plus folks looking to reimagine where they fit in the workforce (or perhaps the volunteer-force if they’re retired). A chance to ask some piercing questions in the good company of others. I don’t know where it will lead.

Except that after thirty-five years of non-career mostly part-time work in a variety of fields, I’m done with zoos. I’m going to write (and gather together the things I’ve already written over the years). I’m going to write. If it’s the last thing I do. On my terms. After my own heart. Believing it will matter for us all.

I’m going to find my circus. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll see you sitting ringside someday.

***

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.”