On Being Frederick

On Being Frederick
David R. Weiss – July 19, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #34 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

No, not that Frederick. (As some of you know, my father is named Frederick, but this post is not about finding myself becoming my dad.) I’m thinking about Frederick, the field mouse, in Leo Lionni’s simple picture book, Frederick.[1] It’s a sweetly told fable that reminds us the value of persons and their work is not always immediately apparent.

In the story a family of field mice are busily preparing for the coming winter: gatherings bits of food and bedding. They are nonstop activity. But Frederick, who spends his days staring across the meadow, seems to be doing nothing. When the other mice scold him for not working, Frederick replies that he is working: gathering sun rays, meadow colors, and words. The other mice, dedicated to more practical preparations, are skeptical.

Winter arrives and so long as the food is plentiful and the bedding plump the new season feels festive despite the barren fields outside. But as the winter drags on, the nuts and seeds grow scarce and the soft straw no longer buffers the cold. Spirits waver. Finally, the mice turn to Frederick and ask, “What about your supplies, Frederick?” And he delivers. Using his words to summon memories of the warm sun and the colorful meadow and the very rhythm of their lives, he weaves meaning back into the long bitter winter. For all of them. The worth of Frederick’s “work,” hard to see during the summer or fall, reveals itself in the moment most needed.

Thank goodness (for the sake of all the mice) that Frederick persisted in his own harvest activity even under the reproachful glances of his fellow mice. That’s a sense of vocation.

So, on being Frederick.

I’ve actually been Frederick for some time. A misfit in both the academy and the church, for decades now I’ve known the questioning glances of those who wonder why I’m not doing more “real” work. I have great respect for college and university professors who do their work well. That might have been my work had things played out differently earlier in my life, but at this point—relegated to the ranks of adjunct faculty—that work cannot be mine any longer. It offers a mere pittance for the knowledge and experience I have. Worse, it directly distracts with the pretense of respect and purpose, from the work that my “inner Frederick” feels called to do.

Similarly, I have great respect for pastors who do their work well. But it isn’t my work. (Although I would welcome a church that offered to “host” me as public theologian, providing a tiny bit of support, measure of collegiality, and the mutual embrace of community. I think my work could find a welcome home in the right parish—where we might make a learning lab for public faith in the face of climate crisis. But I have yet to find a “vocational dating site” for folks like me.)

Today, this year, these weekly essays—plus the background reading, listening, thinking, anguishing and imagining that I do alongside them—are my harvest activity. I’m NOT a climate scientist, but I read widely and deeply enough and take science seriously enough to sense what comes next for us. And even apart from the misplaced temperature reference, that long bitter winter the mice faced is nothing compared to what’s headed our way. No mere season of heat, but generations of disruption and collapse. How will we navigate those days—those decades, maybe centuries—ahead?

We already feel the upsurge in anxiety over extreme weather events—especially those that touch our country directly. Many coastlines—east, west, south—already show signs of sea level rise and erosion. Many farmers already wrestle with the way floods, drought, and a changing climate make farming an even more tenuous affair. And we already see the rise of refugees from famine and unrest around the world—including at our southern border.[2] This is climate crisis unfolding across our lands and our lives already now.

Meanwhile, political leaders in Washington and elsewhere prey on the anxiety creeping into our psyches and use it to fashion every “other” into a threat and an enemy. Before long we’ll be hemmed in by fear and mistrust on all sides. Just waiting for someone with twisted charisma to tell us whom to hate next. The anxiety fraying our social fabric is rooted in a multitude of things, but its taproot runs to the gnawing intuition that the lives we’ve built for ourselves by exploiting both people and planet (and everything in between) are wholly unsustainable. Those lives are starting to collapse—and as they do, they may well take us down with them. That anxiety is real. Something MUCH more challenging than winter is on the horizon.

Stoking xenophobia in response to this anxiety is one navigation strategy. It is utterly unchristian, inhumane, and will prove deadly even to most of those drawn in by it. But it has undeniable appeal because, for many, it is more palatable to raise our hate for others than to acknowledge how far we have travelled in the wrong direction … economically, industrially, ecologically, socially, culturally. Let that sink it: it’s easier to raise the level of hate than to consider correcting our course. This is the story of our politics across much of the world today—especially here at home.

Nonetheless, I’m working daily to harvest supplies for a different strategy. One that can re-tether us to the deepest life-giving roots of our past while responding to the life-altering needs of the present. I’m listening to biblical passages and liturgical seasons for ancient memories that offer fresh wisdom today. And I’m reading the latest news headlines with the Bible, theology, and the church year all percolating in the background, just waiting for touch points to emerge. I’ve “gathered” thirty-three essays of supplies so far, and there is much more yet to do.

Still, by most standards on most days, it looks like I’m not doing much of anything. Truthfully, some days I feel that way. But then I think of Frederick.

I believe my work—my gifts as writer, teacher, theologian, poet—can play an important role in aiding faith communities as they face the climate crisis. Unlike the field mice in the story, we won’t move into our “winter” with the same certainty of a changing season. Climate crisis will lurch across our planet unevenly—it already is. And my gifts are already useful. But in the days ahead they may become even more needed as other sources of meaning and security become strained to the breaking point. I believe there is meaning to be had no matter what. And I’m determined to do my own peculiar work, my unique gathering, even as some people wonder whether I’m doing any “real” work at all.

I am, after all, Frederick. (But you can call me David. Thanks.)


PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.

[1] Leo Lionni, Frederick (New York: dragonfly Books/Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1967).

[2] A recent study, analyzing migration data from 198 countries, found that the impacts of climate change are now the leading cause of migration, higher than either economic inequality or conflict. www.scidev.net/global/climate-change/news/climate-now-biggest-driver-of-migration-study-finds.html

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