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.

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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.

*           *           *

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.”

 

 

 

All. The. Time. A fond remembrance of Katie, 1921-2018.

All. The. Time. A fond remembrance of Katie, 1921-2018.
David Weiss, January 24, 2018

Of course, I like all my clients. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have favorites. And Katie was a favorite. We’d only just met a few eye blinks ago by her standards: she was already 94 years old when I started delivering her groceries.

But for nearly the past two years I was at her doorstep like clockwork every other week. If the weather was good she’d have the inside door propped open so she could watch for me. As I unloaded her groceries to the near counter and the stovetop she shuttled them over to the far counter and into the freezer, remarking with a chuckle, “I don’t know if I’m helping or hindering.” She said that every single time. She was helping, but her meaning, carried more by the chuckle than the words themselves was simply, “I’m happy to see you.”

She was also happy to feed me: there were always homemade cookies or bars waiting on a plate on the counter underneath a paper napkin. “Take several,” she’d insist. “I don’t know if they’re edible or not. I haven’t quite figured out this new oven!” They were always edible. And delicious. Occasionally I brought her treats as well—things I’d written. She took particular delight in a set of family stories and thanked me several times for sharing them.

Once the groceries were all unloaded, she’d survey the bounty and announce, “I just hope I live long enough to eat all this!” Bright-eyed, quick-witted, and upbeat, at age 96 those words reflected a cheerful recognition of her own mortality. And they finally caught up with her. She died January 9, exactly in between deliveries, leaving about half her last set of groceries uneaten.

As soon as the office notified me of her death, I knew I wanted to get to the funeral if possible. It was scheduled for January 16, which would have been her next delivery day. So long as everything on my route went smoothly, I’d have just enough time to complete my deliveries, park my van back at the Cub Foods on Lyndale, hop into my car and drive over to the church for the 1p.m. funeral. I’d still be in my delivery clothes—a bit under-dressed for most funerals, but exactly right for Katie’s.

That morning I drove by her home one last time on my way to my first stop. I offered a silent wave and blinked away an unexpected tear. Even at 96, death still stings.

Far from going smoothly, my route held a mess of wrinkles that day. No major problems, just a bunch of little delays—most of them related to providing cheerful patient service to my still-living clients. And Katie wouldn’t have wanted me to rush any of them just because she’d died. Still, as the day went on, I began to worry that I’d miss the funeral. As I neared the end of my deliveries it became clear the only way I’d make it by 1p.m. was if I drove directly there in my van. So I did.

At 1:05 I slipped into the church as the congregation was singing the first hymn. I handed my sympathy card to the funeral home attendant who promised to put it with the others while doing his best not to stare at my delivery outfit. I slid into a pew behind a row of Katie’s church mates. It was an almost merry funeral, if that’s possible. Plenty of stories shared and more than a few peals of laughter rang out. Katie was well-known and well-loved by family and friends both. When we reached the final hymn the pastor remarked that Katie’s notes were clear: this was to be a “cheerful and happy” rendition of “Soon and Very Soon.” We did our best, with moist eyes and smiles on our faces.

Afterwards I made my way to each of Katie’s three children—all in their mid-60’s or older themselves—to introduce myself and tell them what a joy it had been to bring Katie’s groceries. Each of them beamed with recognition and told me how much Katie appreciated me, too. When I sat down next to the third one and introduced myself she instinctively leaned forward to put a hand on my leg and tell me how much her mother had enjoyed my deliveries—that they were the highlight of her week. When I replied that the delight was mutual, I was surprised to hear my voice break—and just as surprised to feel myself wrapped in a hug.

But it was a pair of young adult granddaughters who really drove that home. I caught them out of the corner of my eye, smiling and whispering to each other as I spoke with Katie’s son. I imagined them noticing my wild wind-blown hair and dark green delivery jacket. I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb in a crowd of people clearly dressed for a church event.

I turned to them and asked, “Are you some of Katie’s grandchildren.” “Yes!” they glowed with joy. “And just so you know,” one of them volunteered, smiling widely, “she talked about you all the time.” And, in case I hadn’t caught that, the other chimed in and punctuated it for me. “All. The. Time.”

As I left to collect my van and head back to Cub Foods I reflected on what a privilege it is to do what I do. Sure, not all of my clients are as spirited or cheery as Katie was; heck, some of them have barely battled life to a draw—and it shows. But I meet each of them at the intersection of the simple human need for food and the deeper human hope for dignity. And I aim to deliver both. Sometimes, at the end of my deliveries, as I stacked my bins and folded my paperwork, Katie would declare earnestly, “I hope you know how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”

I climbed into the van and turned the key, blinking away another tear while her granddaughters’ words echoed in my mind. Why, yes, I do, Katie. Yes, I do.

*     *     *

David R. 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—in addition to his part-time job delivering groceries—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.”

Ursula K. Le Guin – In Memoriam

Ursula K. Le Guin – October 21, 1929-January 22, 2018 – In Memoriam
By David R. Weiss, January 23, 2018

I’ve not even come close to reading everything by Ursula K. Le Guin, but as a teenager she almost single-handedly reshaped my way of looking at the world. So I owe her a word of thanks upon hearing that she died yesterday.

It’s easy to think of science-fiction/fantasy literature as escapist (and some of it certainly is), but for Le Guin those genres were lenses through which to look outward and far away precisely to deepen our capacity to look inward and up close.

Perhaps best known for the Earthsea Trilogy and The Left Hand of Darkness, she wrote several dozen novels and many more short stories and essays, ranging across genres and audiences with ease. Le Guin is praised for interrogating the future—more aptly put, the possible—through a wide variety of evocative questions informed by her interests in feminism, sociology, psychology, anthropology, environmentalism, gender, sexuality, pacifism, and anarchism among others.

Sharply critical of most religion, Le Guin identified as Taoist, although not in a religious sense per se; she regarded it as the most truthful/insightful philosophical vantage point for life. Perhaps subconsciously she sowed in me the seeds that have led me to be so self-critical of my religious affiliations. But more than this, she invited me to think and feel the questions of human existence with uncanny clarity.

These are the handful of genuine treasures that I credit to her.

The Word for World is Forest (1972) was my introduction to Le Guin. From this otherworldly parable I discovered the apocalyptic (both world-shattering and revelatory) power of words. If your word for world is forest, what does it mean to see the forest logged to ruin? How would you react? More to the point, how would I? Additionally, I learned about the too often exploitive clash between cultures with different values and different ways of holding and exercising power. I encountered whole different ways of knowing reality. And I met the earthling-environmentalist waiting to be born inside myself.

In Rocannon’s World (1966) I came to know the full weight of radical empathy. Already intuitively (and perhaps ungainly) empathetic as a teen, this novella beckoned me to embrace it as gift . . . while also warning me of the cost. I do not recall the details of the story, but the lesson about empathy chases me to this day. Rocannon’s World was, for me, a powerful introduction to one profound facet of my vocational identity . . . and an alluring caveat about the cost of discipleship.

Finally, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975), a collection of short stories, I encountered a number of themes that still haunt me with insight. “April in Paris” is a meditation on the near-magical alchemy of loneliness. Not in a way that sparks pity, but one that evokes awe. “The Darkness Box” is about the value of courageous choices even—maybe precisely—in the face of uncertainty and irrevocable consequences. “The Stars Below” intimates that beauty might lie where we least think. “The Direction of the Road,” a disorienting tale about a car crash and a tree, asked me to trade places and perspectives in an utterly unexpected manner—to enter a viewpoint wholly other and see the world from there. And (the most famous of the bunch) “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” condemned me ever after (and gratefully so) to meet social conditions with a hermeneutic of suspicion (although I surely never learned the name for this until seminary) . . . and a commitment to walk away from every unjust “normal” myself.

At sixteen I was mostly a mess. Of vocational confusion, hormonal overdrive, and social shyness. Largely (not entirely) disconnected from my peers, and keenly aware of a world—both beyond me and inside me—that was frightfully vivid and chaotic. No writer gave me better tools to plumb the depths of both worlds than Ursula K. Le Guin. By many measures (at least those that use dogma or moralism), I’m a pretty marginal Christian. But thanks to the ways this Taoist-atheist science fiction author tutored my mind and heart, I am at the very least a Christian better able to exercise empathy and place it in the service of compassion.

I end with the closing lines of The Word for World is Forest. The character speaking in the book is Selver, but Le Guin wrote them and they are true of her: “Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.” Me neither. And for that, I give thanks.

*          *          *

drw59mn@gmail.com