Being the Body of Christ: A Venture in Song and Grace
David R. Weiss
I was overwhelmed. Invited to lead a hymn sing at the Women of the ELCA Fall Gathering for the Florida-Bahamas Synod, I was alone on the stage listening to these women, nearly 300 strong, swell my verses into glorious song, in this case borrowing the tune of “I wonder as I wander”:
There’s a welcome in the wooden out back of the inn,
A sweetness in swaddles like new-sewn wineskin,
And poorly strewn straw hints at ripe wheat rolled thin.
There’s a welcome in the wooden out back of the inn.
These women had themselves wandered from every corner of the state—many driving hours to explore the theme, “Who is Our Neighbor?” I came almost 1500 miles from the Twin Cities to join them in central Florida. It was a venture marked by song and grace.
Among the women there that evening was my Aunt Cathy. Fifty-two years earlier, she cradled me in her arms at the font at St. Paul Lutheran, in Michigan City, Indiana, when the waters of grace first splashed on my forehead. Now, her body slowed considerably by a stroke, but her mind still clear and her spirit still bright, she beamed to hear all these sisters singing together the harvest of words from that child she first brought to the Word so many years ago.
O Christ who came in rushing Wind of Spirit
In Pentecost of welcome flaming bright
Unstop our ears that we might finally hear it;
Soften our hearts; as well, restore our sight.
O Calling God, whose voice is never ending,
Whose hope is strong, whose Spirit yet does roam;
O Christ who comes in all we are befriending
Your kin-dom come, your children welcome home.
Those words, set to the tune of “O Christ Who Came,” speak my ministry. The Central Florida chapter of Lutherans Concerned flew me down to lead a workshop on congregational welcome at this women’s event. When the Gathering leaders learned I was also a hymnist, they asked me to offer a hymn sing for all the women on Friday evening. I selected hymn texts that echoed their theme (“Who is my neighbor?”) without forcing the issue of GLBT welcome onto anyone. Instead, my chosen hymns simply lifted up the deep welcome present in the biblical story and invited them to sing that welcome into their own stories.
So, after singing verses recounting a whole series of persons who touch Jesus in the gospels, their voices owned these words (to the tune of “Precious Lord”):
Precious Lord, still your hands, bear your wounds, many lands:
Some are lost, some are least, some are hurt,
Let me touch you in deed, as I touch those in need;
Use my hands, Precious Lord, make them whole!
And after singing images of Jesus’ welcome to so many of the “least of these,” and the early church’s welcome to the Gentiles, their voices claimed these words (to the tune of “Thine the Amen”):
Now the wonders, now the signs, mark of God’s surprise designs
Now the mustard seed grown full, now the lamp atop the bowl
Now the thirsting, now the bursting, now the new wine spilling out
Now the welcome of our God hear us shout, hear us shout!
And they were nearly shouting. Later on, countless women sought me out and shared why one particular text or tune moved them. But there was a common theme as well. To a person they thanked me for matching fresh, eloquent, vibrant words with familiar tunes so they could feel their faith come alive in song.
I spent eleven days in Florida altogether, making seven more presentations around welcome to GLBT persons for Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal communities. I shared my journey as an Ally and the faith that grounds my work. At each stop I received warm words of special greeting. Many from Minnesotan transplants, pleased to greet a traveler from the north. But more poignantly, I received words of thanks from many parents—most old enough to be my parents—who told me they had a gay son or lesbian daughter who had left the church years ago. They spoke with cautious hope that perhaps today, for other parents and other children, it will be different.
This has been my work for almost three years now. I left my day job in July 2009 to become something of an itinerant apostle for welcome. I write. I speak. I travel. At times I fret when the income is too little to pay the bills. At one point, tallying the expenses of the Florida trip, I realized how far from sustainable my work is, based on honoraria alone.
Luckily, as I learned in Florida, my work is supported in other ways. One group bought my plane tickets. Another group, and a dozen different individuals provided my housing and meals. I traveled some 600 miles in Florida, all either in a borrowed car or through the generous driving of others. When I call myself an “apostle” for welcome, I use the metaphor humbly. My ministry moves, from song to song, from grace to grace. Sustained by saints along the way—from that first font in Michigan City to the last fall gathering in Florida. This is the church … being the Body of Christ.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at http://www.tothetune.com.