Search Results for: as the turn of the world draws near

As the Turn of the World Draws Near

As the Turn of the World Draws Near
David R. Weiss – April 2021

In September 2019 I wrote a beautiful song text, “There’s a Blue Sky Over All of Us,” to accompany our initial offering of the Sacred Circle for Our Climate liturgy that I wrote. Unfortunately, I set those words alongside a beautiful, timeless (but copyrighted) refrain and tune from John Denver’s “It’s About Time.” We’ve used that song twice times in live liturgies that weren’t taped or livestreamed. But absent formal copyright permission, that song is can’t be shared. 😦 I’ve spent over a year wending my way through the “permission for adaptation” process with Kobalt Music, the licensing group that represents whoever holds the rights to Denver’s music today. Only to be told last week – a few days after our most recent Sacred Circle – that my request for an adaptation license has been denied – no further explanation offered.

The Spiral of Active Hope in The Work That Reconnects image by Dori Midnight / http://www.workthatreconnects.org

So, I’ve written a new song 🙂 that brings forward some of the imagery I really liked from “Blue Sky” and adds in new imagery that fits well with both the new tune and the themes from the liturgy itself. This text uses “Star of the County Down” an Irish folk tune in the public domain. The music echoes the urgency of turning, which made it a good choice for “Canticle of the Turning,” the hymn text based on Mary’s Magnificat that also uses this tune. Additionally, Joanna Macy (co-author of Active Hope and developer of the “Spiral of Active Hope,” which is the inspiration for the Sacred Circle) employs “The Great Turning” as the term for the entire paradigm shift needed to preserve and create a path toward a livable future.

This text will be premiered in worship (by a 4-person ensemble—no congregational singing yet) at St. Paul’s UCC as part of our Sacred Circle liturgy this coming Sunday, which is Integrity of Creation Sunday in the UCC calendar. You can find the bulletin with the complete liturgy here.)

NEW: You can now view the whole service – or just fast-forward to hear the new song at this link on vimeo. The song starts at 50:15. It’s worth HEARING the song!
AND: You can download a pdf version with musical notation all set for use in worship or community event!
AND: You can download a customizable template for creating your own Sacred Circle.

In the text below, the bolded syllables indicate the stress points in the meter.

As the Turn of the World Draws Near

From the diving loon with its haunting tune
to the frogs that are chirping shrill
while the walleye leap and the shy lynx creep
and the bears in their caves sleep still.
The tall pines sway and the foxes play
and the rice rises wild in lakes.
Fill our hearts with song, that we, too, belong
Rouse our souls so we’re wide awake

The day is bright, and the time is right as the dark of the night is clear
That we now uprise from the ground to the skies as the turn of the world draws near.

But the weather’s fraught and the climate caught
and the fabric of life’s undone.
As the earth cries out in an anguished shout
’neath the glare of a blist’ring sun.
The ocean spray voices loud dismay
and the heavens for mercy plead.
Give us hearts to hold all the pain now told
And to follow where it may lead.

The day is bright, and the time is right as the dark of the night is clear
That we now uprise from the ground to the skies as the turn of the world draws near.

As our children yearn for the world to turn
and the poor seek a just new day;
Though the time is late, let us turn back fate
Let our hope rise without delay.
To turn the world t’ward a day unfurled
Make a-mends with this fragile dome
Wrap our prayers in flesh, keep our courage fresh,
Give us hope for our only home.

The day is bright, and the time is right as the dark of the night is clear
That we now uprise from the ground to the skies as the turn of the world draws near.

The day is bright, and the time is right as the dark of the night is clear
That we now uprise from the ground to the skies as the turn of the world draws near.

David R. Weiss © 2021 / Tune: Star of the County Down

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on April 21, 2021. 1 Comment

There’s a Blue Sky

I wrote this song — an adaptation of a poignant song by John Denver almost 40 years ago — in September 2019 to be used with a Sacred Circle for Our Climate Liturgy. The liturgy (which I also wrote) was offered by a group in my congregation as a faith-based compliment to the Youth Climate Strike.

Please note: I’m still trying to get full permission to share this song adaptation. So while you can listen, you can’t reproduce this (yet). UPDATE (04/30/2021): Sadly, my request for an adaptation license for this song was denied by whoever holds the rights to John Denver’s music, so I’ve pulled the recording off this post. But check out my post about “As the Turn of the World Draws Near,” the song I wrote to replace this one in the liturgy.

In any case, these words are still haunting, poignant, inspiring:

There’s a Blue Sky

There’s a blue sky over all of us / a circle here below
The heavens and our hearts declare / this truth is what we know
And the earth, where we stand weary / is wearied now as well
For the air above is restless / with a tale of woe to tell

It’s about time we realize it / we’re all in this together
It’s about time we find out / it’s all of us or none
It’s about time we recognize it / these changes in the weather
It’s about time, it’s about changes and it’s about time

There’s a loon afloat and calling / a lynx afoot and still
As the pines sway at their highest / the frogs are chirping shrill
But the flora and the fauna fade / … before our very eyes
From our home to far off places / all nature groans and cries

It’s about time we start to see it / the Earth is our only home
It’s about time we start to face it / we can’t make it here all alone
It’s about time we start to listen / to the voices in the wind
It’s about time, it’s about changes and it’s about time

There are those beyond my fam’ly / both near and far away
And I know their hopes are real as mine / as well the prayers they pray
And the children, may they lead us / before our future dies
This time is our moment / in this moment may we rise.

It’s about time we begin it / to turn the world around
It’s about time we start to make it / the dream we’ve always known
It’s about time we start to live it / the family of Earth
It’s about time, it’s about changes and it’s about time
It’s about peace and it’s about plenty and it’s about time
It’s about you and me together and it’s about time


There’s a Blue Sky / It’s About Time
– original words (refrain) by John Denver © 1983; music by John Denver and Glen D. Hardin © 1983
– new verses (in italics) by David Weiss © 2019

This entry was posted on October 22, 2020.

ON EDGE: God-talk on the Cusp of Ecological Collapse

ON EDGE: God-talk on the Cusp of Ecological Collapse
David R. Weiss, February 26, 2022
Process and Faith Twin Cities Connection

NOTE: This is the background essay (8000 words!) for my presentation to the Process and Faith Twin Cities Connection group. My oral presentation will be quite a bit shorter than this. Here is the essay, with selected bibliography, as a PDF. For those of you who find 8000 words a bit much on the screen (I would!), you can download this to read.

Thank you for the invitation to share my thoughts on the challenge of “God-talk on the Cusp of Ecological Collapse.”

Several weeks ago I wrote a sweet poignant poem that I titled “Love Letter to my Church.” I have a complicated relationship to the church in general, so I was a bit surprised to find myself reaching for words to voice something close to gleeful joy.

I share that this morning because in a significant and perhaps unexpected way, this talk is an addendum to the poem. It is rooted in and shaped by my lived experience in a vibrant faith community. I have come here to say some hard things—but to speak them with love … and with hope for the promise of gleeful joy. And I can do that today because I have a faith community for which these things are profoundly true.

Just two weeks ago in church we heard this benediction, originally from William Sloane Coffin: “May God give you the grace not to sell yourself short, grace to risk something big for something good, grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but Love.”

That whole benediction is worth bearing in mind as I speak today, but the phrase—“too dangerous for anything but truth”—that’s where we begin.

photo: Paul J. Greene

You see, we are in a kairos moment regarding our relationship with the planet—and with one another. Kairos, you may know, is Greek for time. But not just any time. Chronos is Greek for chronological time: clock time, calendar time, ordinary time. Kairos is time in its most consequential mode. It means fraught time. Time that is swollen, pregnant, bulging with promise … or peril. Choosing to play it safe in a kairos moment is not simply unwise—it’s impossible. There is no safety. Everything is at risk. And there are wise risks, foolish risks, communal risks, selfish risks, generous risks, perhaps even evil risks. But safety? That’s off the table.

The kairos moment we face poses deep questions about the task of theology and the vocation of the church; indeed, about the very nature of the human enterprise. You know some of that, no doubt. But I’m going to “turn up the volume” today because these questions have an urgency that hasn’t yet been fully reckoned within the church.

I’ve arranged my presentation in two parts. First, I’ll set forth the existential stakes of ecological collapse: that is, the threat posed to human life itself by the conditions of this moment.  Then, I’ll lay out what I regard as some of the theological stakes of ecological collapse. This includes the responsibility to engage in strident … vigorous godtalk and to actively fashion our life together in faithful response to the threat of ecological collapse. Silence or inaction in this moment is an act of betrayal against our neighbor, our fellow creatures, and God.

You will, I suspect, find some of my presentation alarming. I provide references for some of the key articles and books that have shaped my perspective at the end of this essay. This morning, rather than debate the science, I want us to engage in hard theological conversation, and my presentation is pitched to provoke that. You’re welcome to approach it as a fanciful if dystopian thought experiment if you prefer.

I think all of us would like to meet our dismay over the climate crisis with one more round of resolute conviction, believing that if we all just try a bit harder—somehow summoning the personal and political will that has been lacking until now—we can still turn this thing around. But for the next two hours I want us to ask together, “What if we don’t? Indeed, what if we can’t turn it around any longer?” What THEN do we say of God? What form THEN ought the church take?

The existential stakes of ecological collapse

We begin with my family. Margaret and I have a blended family of six children, aged 26 to 40, four of whom have spouses, and we have nine grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 to 15.

You don’t need to know more than that, but you need to know that much: I have children and grandchildren. I have a family that I love dearly. And I do not envision them living with the looming threat of ecological collapse as we do. No, I envision them—in their lifetimes—experiencing ecological collapse in the world. And almost certainly not from afar, but on their own doorstep.

You need to know about my family because only so can you appropriately gauge the weight of what I will say today. There is no detached cynicism in my words. No misanthropic glee. Rather, there is a great yawning sadness … MATCHED by a dogged conviction that there are yet things that we—theologians, pastors, church members, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents—can do. Not to prevent the calamity that is soon upon us, but to preserve the humanity that is in us … even as we face the collapse of the very ecological and societal systems in which we “live and move and have our being.”

Now, as you start shifting uneasily in your seats, let me remind you of that love letter I wrote to my church. I am here to say hard things. Very hard things—because I am so deeply moved by the luring promise of gleeful joy.

I don’t know exactly how collapse will unfold or what exact conditions it will bring. You can imagine some of them yourselves. Wildfires, drought, melting ice, rising seas, bigger storms, crop failures, waves of refugees, and HEAT. All things we’ve experienced, just amplified beyond what our imaginations can easily imagine. The pandemic gave us the mildest foretaste of others. Empty store shelves, broken supply chains, overwhelmed health systems, economic dislocations, inward despair, pitched civil discord. Collapse will unfold in scattered waves with disparate impacts around the world, but no corner of the globe will be spared. And it will involve human suffering on a scale never before seen—even if the worst of it does not reach our shores immediately.

Here is one metric. We are on path to reach a global population of 9 billion in another decade or so. I imagine we will. But during active collapse, from 2040-2100, that is, in the latter half of this century, global human population will likely plummet from 9 billion to 3 or 4 billion—or less.

That is A LOT OF DEATH. Not even counting the animals, whose deaths will outpace ours by far. My children will behold at least the start of this. My grandchildren will experience much of it.

You are alarmed by now—and you should be. This type of talk doesn’t make the ten o’clock news, the Sunday talk shows, the front page of the newspaper, or the latest issue of Christian Century. Yet I am committed to speaking truth as clearly and eloquently as I can, in the conviction that despite the tumult that is headed their way, there ARE things that we can do today that will decisively shape their capacity to weather the years ahead. Today your willingness, as theologians, pastors, lay leaders, and congregants to hear me out and then engage my presentation may be crucial in determining whether theology has a vital voice in the decades ahead and whether churches can bear gospel without being swamped by the tumult to come.

You know something about climate, I’m sure. It paints a daunting scenario for tomorrow. Here are just four of the reasons why climate change, already more accurately framed as climate crisis, is likely to become climate mayhem.  

First, as much as we lay people track the rising CO2 count with a sort of abstract dread, the heat-trapping impact of that CO2 doesn’t reach its maximum until it’s been in the atmosphere for 10-15 years. That means that right now the climate tumult we’re experiencing is driven by CO2 emitted soon after the turn of the century. And the CO2 emissions that have risen consistently year by year since then have locked in heat increases—and all their accompanying effects—for at least the next decade or longer. Even with no further emissions, our temperatures will coast upward until the mid 2030’s, and there’s no way to stop that.

Of course, that reference to “even with no further emissions” is folly, because in the fifty years since understanding that putting CO2 in the air might have harmful effects—and in the thirty years of direct warnings about CO2 emissions—we have continued to burn fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Even on our best behavior, the situation will get significantly worse before it gets better. The pandemic was a tiny test case for what it would mean to act collectively on our best behavior; it has not been a promising result. And industry leaders and politicians continue to be pursue profits and economic growth rather than the science of climate.

Second, climate change and temperature rise don’t occur in a vacuum. Rising temperatures melt ice, exposing either land or water. In response, those surfaces absorb more new heat than the ice did, driving more warmth producing yet more melting in a feedback loop. Something similar happens when permafrost thaws in the far north. As it thaws because of increased global warmth, it releases both carbon and methane into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat unleashing more carbon and methane. Deforestation, driving by human activity in the Amazon threatens the rainforest’s self-sustaining integrity. That forest has already shifted from overall absorbing carbon to emitting it, fueling regional climate changes that further weaken the forest with global repercussions. There are multiple opportunities for climate change to set off self-reinforcing feedback loops like this.

If these feedback loops gain enough momentum, they become unstoppable and can act as tipping points in the overall climate, pushing regional or even global climate dynamics toward a new normal—and doing so with abrupt force. The IPCC initially believed—back in 2001—that tipping points were unlikely shy of a 5o Celsius increase in global temperature. But in three different reports from 2018-2021 the IPCC emphasized that new research indicates that some tipping points could occur anywhere between just a 1o and 2o Celsius rise in global temperature. We’re already at 1.1o; many climate scientists believe we’re already locked-in to a rise of 1.5o within the next decade or so based on current emissions; and likely to reach 2o by the middle of this century or soon after. In fact, if we simply meet the current national pledges by countries party to the Paris Accord, we’re on track for 2.7o by 2100. At any point from here on, we could pass a tipping point that could push us tumbling toward an abrupt change in the entire climate system that might not stabilize until 5o or warmer. That climate would be conclusively incompatible with organized global human society; it might well be incompatible with human existence altogether.

Third, as exciting as talk of Green Energy is—and we own a Prius Hybrid and have solar panels on the roof of our home—it brings with it a host of as yet intractable challenges. Under current technologies wind turbines—which thus far have only a several decade lifespan and no feasible means to recycle their components—cannot be manufactured without relying on fossil fuel; no other heat source generates temperatures high enough. Similarly, commitments to solar cells and batteries on a scale sufficient to power the planet, also commit us to intensive and ecologically destructive mining and exploitive human labor. Hydropower, except when very carefully designed, means reshaping ecosystems in ways that are destructive to virtually all but the human inhabitants in a region. And nuclear power, on a planet tilting toward collapse, is simply a ticking timebomb for millennia. Even something as simple as increasing energy efficiency is a problematic promise because historically EVERY increase in energy efficiency has been offset by a further increase in energy demand.

I don’t mean to be playing “Green-Grinch,” but while all these technologies are worth further development, NONE of them singularly or put together present a scalable realistic alternative to the amount of fossil fuel consumption that is heating our planet.

Fourth, in a bit of tragic irony, the industrial pollution created by burning fossil fuels has been BOTH warming and cooling the planet. While the CO2 and other greenhouse gasses released trap more of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, the particulates in pollution—anything that’s not a gas (think dust, smoke, soot) reflect sunlight back before it reaches Earth, lessening the amount of heat that can get trapped. As we slow the burning fossil fuel, the concentration of particulates in the atmosphere will steadily decrease (we saw this happen within weeks of the industrial slowdown early in the pandemic) but the greenhouse gasses linger for decades. So even when we finally do right by the atmosphere, it will make global warming worse in one final and possibly dangerously fierce series of temperature rises. We have put both the rock and hard place in position—and now we find ourselves caught between.

It’s true that climate scientists and others debate the details of all these things. But the indisputable bottom line is that our situation is far more precarious than we are acting like. If we were airline pilots and saw this amount of turbulence on our radar screens, we’d immediately flip the “fasten seat belt” sign on and give our passengers a heads up that a rough ride is just ahead. As theologians, pastors, and lay leaders we owe our communities no less.

Unfortunately, as serious as our climate situation is, it’s only one symptom of a much larger and more threatening predicament: overshoot.

Overshoot is what’s really going to crash the social and ecological systems we take for granted and drive human population backwards … with a vengeance … starting in twenty years or sooner. And as unprepared as we are for climate mayhem, we aren’t even thinking about overshoot. And overshoot is about to re-write human history. Or, more accurately, complete the story we’ve already written.

Overshoot is a simple concept. In a closed, finite but dynamic and self-renewing system—like planet Earth—life can persist indefinitely, so long as it remains within the limits of Earth’s “carrying capacity” … but we have chosen in a structural, systemic, even religious way to ignore those limits. We’ve built an entire global economy and culture on the idea that endless growth—beneath which lies endless extraction of finite resources and endless exploitation of ecosystems, fellow creatures, and human siblings—is not only possible, but necessary, destined and deserved.

Because we live on a such a bountiful planet, and because we’ve had access to plentiful and cheap oil, we’ve been able to sustain this ecocidal illusion for several centuries. Of course, the roots of what we regard as modern “civilization” go back several millennia. Spun out of anthropocentrism, patriarchy, and the advent of accumulative wealth and its accompanying socio-economic inequity, these expressions of human society have done immeasurable harm since they emerged. But only from around the sixteenth century onward—with the scientific revolution, followed by colonialism, industrialism, capitalism, and white supremacy—did a constellation of values and power arise … that could damage the planet as a whole.

And only last century did our numbers and the global reach of our technological power become such that we began to outstrip Earth’s ability to recover from our excess. With the beginning of the Anthropocene, often dated to the period known as the Great Acceleration, around 1950, the global capitalist expression of human society took off and became THE defining influence on planetary well-being.

We’re not, of course, the only influence. Earth System science has identified nine interacting “planetary life support systems” that play key roles in maintaining an Earth hospitable to human life. Together, these systems (including climate change, but also biosphere integrity, phosphorous-nitrogen flow, ocean well-being, atmospheric health, and more) give Earth its personality: a personality that for 12,000 years (known as the Holocene period) has held steady the conditions in which humanity has been able to flourish. You might imagine them as nine pairs of hands holding a trampoline taut so that there’s a sweet spot for humanity to bounce on.

But since the Anthropocene, human activity has started bumping these critical systems around, sort of like banging away on their fingers at the edge of that trampoline. Scientists estimate that we’ve clearly transgressed four of these boundaries and likely two more. That’s what overshoot does, and if it pushes these systems too far out of a safe range they might well snap into a whole new equilibrium … perhaps without any sweet spot left for us to bounce on.

By now we’ve become culturally, psychically, socially, economically, politically, structurally, and perhaps even religiously addicted to overshoot—to the rush of stuff and the idol of growth—that we can’t really even imagine any other way of living on the planet. No other way than the one we’re seemingly locked into, which is undercutting the planet’s capacity to host humanity in its current expression … perhaps undercutting the planet’s capacity to host humanity at all. That’s a harsh irony. The period we’ve christened the “Anthropocene”—naming it after ourselves since we’re now the decisive planetary influence—may, in fact, become the period in which—under our own influence—Earth moves forward … without us.

Since 1970 we’ve been in active overshoot—consuming more resources than the planet can replace and jettisoning more waste that it can process. Each year since then we’ve been living at a planetary deficit … and carrying on as though that doesn’t matter. And each year, with few exceptions, we hit overshoot a little earlier than the year before. In 1970 we used up our year’s allotment of global resources on December 30. Last year we hit overshoot on July 29; every day beyond that for the next five months was deficit consumption.

Now think about that: not every country (or individual within a country) consumes at an equal rate. So, the fact that right now, as a whole, humanity is consuming 1.7 Earth’s of resources in a single calendar year means both that some of us are consuming resources that “belong” to others living right now—and also resources that belong to those who will live here tomorrow. Resources without which their future lives will be immeasurably poorer than ours today.

But it’s actually worse than that. Given U.S. consumption patterns, WE’LL hit overshoot for 2022 … in just 15 more days. By March 13 we will have consumed as much as Earth can annually provide for—were all humans to consume at our rate. We’re acting as though we can magically consume FIVE Earth’s worth of resources without somehow bankrupting the planet itself. We KNOW that’s not true, but we cannot imagine shrinking our consumption to one fifth of what it is as Americans. And yet, NOT TO DO THAT is to actively, willingly, make an ecocidal pact with the planet and a genocidal choice toward the next generations. It is sheer madness—and moral evil.

Overshoot means we are about to discover what it feels like when Earth chooses to exercise its own “stand your ground” moment. In the next twenty to thirty years—before some of children reach my age—overshoot will flip planet Earth from its illusory coast on fading abundance into a crashing collapse that will shake the foundations of human society and culture.

Of course, there are differing perspectives about our prospects. But this perspective, even if alarming and largely kept outside the mainstream, is grounded in well-reasoned science and in peer-reviewed literature. It is shared by a range of ecologists, climate scientists, engineers, as well as a growing number of philosophers and spiritual teachers.

They agree this is about much more than the climate. At the end of every IPCC report or news story about the climate crisis, there is inevitably this offering of a thin sliver of hope: “but there’s still a tiny window of opportunity for humanity to respond.” But it simply and entirely misses the point. It’s not just that we have abjectly failed to find the political will to address climate in all the decades it’s been clamoring for our attention. No, it’s that we are in active overshoot—driven partly by our sheer numbers on the planet, but much more so by the rapacious greed with which we ransack God’s good but oh so finite creation. We are presently stressing Earth systems on so many frontssimultaneously—that to focus only on reducing CO2 emissions so we can continue to plunder the planet through a “green growth economy” is a delusion that will cost future generations EVERYTHING. There is NO future on Earth for a humanity that doesn’t acknowledge and embrace the limits of this planet. NONE. Those are the existential stakes of ecological collapse.

The theological stakes of ecological collapse

That’s why I want to invite you to engage with the very real possibility (in my mind, the damning likelihood) that the people and communities which we love, guide, lead—and in which we also live and move and have our being—are in stark peril. Already now, but so much more so in the near future. If we are to exercise our gifts and skills and passions and love FAITHFULLY, we need to begin asking seriously and with urgency, what does it mean to do godtalk and to be church on the cusp of ecological collapse?

I’ve been thinking about climate change as a theologian for six years now, after having first considered it briefly 24 years ago in grad school. Over the last three years my learning has shaken me to the core. When I returned to this topic in 2015, I anticipated adding my voice and my creativity to the challenge of turning back climate change and averting crisis, even if only at the last moment. I must confess I no longer believe that is possible. Which is why I have begun to ask in earnest what role theology and churches might play in helping us meet this approaching collapse, the effects of which we might still lessen, but the totality of which we can no longer avert.

I am not trained in process theology, although my thinking often moves in similar directions. But I know that process theology leans willingly into hard questions, seeks to conceive of God in ways that cohere with a scientifically-informed worldview—whether that is comforting or discomforting—and recognizes vulnerability, solidarity, relationality, and compassion as primary features of God … and of those who live in the image of God.

I will offer some provisional thoughts that strike me as helpful as we seek a theological voice and a communal faith that hold promise in the face of such stark peril. They are “provisional” because my own thinking is unfolding in real time. And because the challenges before us require that we see theology and church as fully participatory enterprises. We will need to ALL be invested in real-time thinking and acting in response to the prospect of collapse. There is no time to waste and no place on the sidelines for spectators.

First, this is a matter of “both/and.” I am not saying that climate crisis or overshoot or collapse are the only concerns that matter anymore. I do think they necessarily ought to frame our entire context of theology and ministry. But everything else goes on. We will continue to baptize, confirm, teach, worship, marry, bury, and otherwise accompany people through life—and that will continue to be holy work. Indeed, that accompaniment will become all the more important as every stage of our lives is met with precarity from increasing angles.

And we will continue to work for justice in our churches and communities on every front—racial, economic, immigrant, sexual, gender, environmental, electoral, and more. Each of these issues will become more pitched and more polarized as the fabric of our supposed security frays on the forefront of collapse. I understand, few of us have free time on our agendas these days, but the truth is that in every era we do theology and we are the church amid the whole of life. And right now, the whole of life is under existential threat. So, whatever we do theologically and however we are as church … must take note of that whole. 

Second, six years ago when I first began this work, I chose to organize my thoughts around this overarching evocative theme: Becoming an apocalyptic, evangelical, prophetic church … at home on Earth. I selected the first three words both because they have such rich meanings in the biblical tradition and because they name ways of being church that liberal-mainstream churches have mostly been uneasy with. I wanted to ask whether there are neglected “postures” in our past that might be useful today. The last phrase “at home on Earth,” was my suggestion that we need to stop viewing this planet as merely a place we hang out until we reach “the real deal”: heaven. We need to stop regarding Earth as “beneath” us. We need to embrace it as home.

Today I still regard these three “postures”—apocalyptic, evangelical, and prophetic—as evocative. But I am less interested in neatly distinguishing between them, as though some ways of speaking or being fit neatly in one category versus another. These postures mutually inform one another and mutually shape our godtalk and our community.

Apocalyptic is that dynamic that unveils what must now be known; that declares the endings of worlds whose time is up; and that summons us to deep grief for all that is being lost. Evangelical is that dynamic that announces astonishingly good news when none seemed possible; that declares vulnerability and solidarity (and not in omnipotence) as constitutive of God; and that births a community that echoes God by choice even as creation echoes God by nature. Prophetic is that dynamic that reads these times against the Time that is God’s; that speaks truth to power on behalf of the voiceless; and that calls for repentance as the whole reorientation of our individual and communal lives away from death and toward life, even when life seems no longer possible. To speak of God and to be the church on the cusp of collapse will involve all these postures, often interwoven in novel ways to meet any given moment.

Besides these postures from within our tradition, there are ideas and practices beyond it that I’ve found insightful as well. I will mention SIX of them.

1.  The Spiral of Active Hope is the fruit of Joanna Macy’s decades-long honing of a process that provides personal and communal grounding and empowerment in the face of overwhelming situations. She presents it as a four-fold dynamic. It begins in the practice of gratitude, not as a moment of perfunctory thanksgiving, but as attentively opening ourselves to awe. Beguilingly simple, coming from gratitude shifts the very ground beneath our feet. From heart rate to breathing to mental and emotional openness, coming from gratitude bathes our being in grace.

From that place we open to and honor the world’s pain. This is daunting and overwhelming—because the cries of the world are so pitched in this moment. From the human family to our animal siblings to entire ecosystems, there is anguish asking to be known. And mostly our attention is put elsewhere. The pace of our lives, the press of media, the desire for inner calm, all conspire to tell us, “Nothing to see here; just move all along.” But Active Hope says that this pain calling out to us is the cosmic echo of our inter-relatedness. It speaks the truth of who we are. And when we dare to pause and be with it, we find a kinship just waiting to reclaim us, and we rekindle empathy as the power we were made to run on. There are apocalyptic, evangelical, and prophetic dynamics at play all at once in this act of opening to and honoring the world’s pain.

With empathy reanimated—more accurately re-animating, because it is an ongoing process—we begin to widen and deepen our perceptions. We feel the depth and strength of connections that stretch across place and time, to others near and far, past, present, and future. We touch in our deep awareness the communion of saints. Even more, we discover our place in the community of being. And we find, perhaps, that kairos time can be invoked in the midst of such deep communion. Time becomes molten—measured not by minutes or years but by yearning: God’s yearning joined to ours.

Finally Active Hope goes forth in action. It incarnates itself in speech, in deed, in news ways of being. It is called The SPIRAL of Active Hope because it is not a once-and-done process, but a cycle that begins again from wherever you find yourself.

Macy grew up Christian but her adult spiritual practice has been Buddhist and her academic training is in systems theory. Active Hope is grounded in the conviction that relatedness is THE truth of the cosmos—and that by practicing the spiral we can reconnect to ourselves, one another, our sibling creatures—and to a near mystical sense of Life itself. These connections then join us to an energy that can steady us in tumult and even empower us to live with “active hope.” I’ve used the book, Active Hope, which explains the spiral and teaches it through exercises, at my church and have even written a liturgy that seeks to ritualize it. I can attest to its transformative power. Active Hope has many powerful touchpoints with Christian faith. It could easily, fruitfully, and faithfully be an active partner in theological conversation and communal faith practice here on the cusp of collapse.

It is worth noting that Macy wrote Active Hope in 2012. The book discusses overshoot and collapse, but at the time she felt that the Spiral of Active Hope could play a role in bringing about The Great Turning, the transition to an ecological way of living, in time to prevent collapse. Over the past several years, Macy, now 92 years old, has come to believe that humanity has missed the window of opportunity to avoid collapse. She now says that what Great Turning there may be, will unfold through collapse, not prior to it. I would place my work in this context as well: fashioning a church that can hold out the possibility of a Great Turning even within a shattered, fractured world.

2.  The Transition Town Movement is another source of inspiration. Founded in 2005 as a community-based movement anticipating the end of cheap oil and recognizing that we are not at all prepared for a “post-carbon world,” Transition Towns operate by four key assumptions. (1) We are better off to plan for a less energy-intensive future than simply “hit the wall.” (2) We need to build communal and structural resilience among us to weather the host of disruptive shocks that will come our way. (3) We need to start acting collectively, practically—in concrete ways—and with deliberate intention now. And (4) when we release the “collective genius” within our communities in this cause, we will discover ways of living that are more locally rooted, authentically connected, deeply rewarding, AND in touch with the limits of our planet.

Transition is rooted in permaculture, a philosophy that looks to the wisdom of Earth’s evolved cycles and systems, initially for agricultural practices but soon for broader life ways as well. You might say permaculture is a non-theistic, “down-in-the-dirt” practical theology expression of biblical Wisdom hailed as the architect of creation. Transition seeks to be an urban implementation of permaculture practices. And Transition acknowledges that fundamentally it aspires to evoke an inner shift in thinking and desires.

When Transition describes—and indeed incarnates in actual communities—a deep sense of joy at connecting to our neighbors in full presence, this is a vision of community that any church would envy. Because Transition is specifically focused on the practical steps in building healthy life-giving communities that can weather a tumultuous future, it is a most worthy conversation partner for a church preparing to face collapse.

3.  Deep Adaptation as a concept was introduced in 2018 by Jem Bendell, at the time a professor of Sustainability Leadership in the UK. In an online essay that went viral—it’s been downloaded more than a million times—he reports on the growing body of evidence suggesting that we have crossed the threshold of stopping catastrophic climate change. He argues that a variety of systemic-structural-academic obstacles as well as psychic denial have delayed any coherent representation of this view at large. In his essay he concludes that it is time to engage in “deep adaptation,” which is to brace ourselves in creative, constructive, compassionate ways for what he calls “likely near-term societal collapse” driven by abrupt and widescale disruptions in both ecological and social systems in response to the climate crisis.

Deep Adaptation runs avowedly counter to an individualist or tribalist “prepper” mentality. It promotes a communally-grounded posture toward life framed by what are called “the 4 R’s,” paired with four questions. Resilience: What values and behaviors do you want to keep in our culture and your daily life? Relinquishment: What values and behaviors are you ready to let go of? Restoration: What are the values and behaviors that you used to have in your culture or another culture that you’d like to adopt? And Reconciliation: With whom do you want to make peace while you can? Over the past two years Deep Adaptation has become a movement in its own right, providing a framework for practical and philosophical-spiritual conversation as well as collaborative practice among a growing decentralized community that seeks to anchor humanity in hands-on compassion in the face of approaching ecological collapse.

4, 5, and 6 are all concepts that might help us “thicken” our understanding of what has gone so wrong that we find ourselves here on the cusp of collapse today. 

4.  Wetiko is a Native American word—specifically Cree—although the idea appears in other Native languages under slightly varied spellings. It literally means something like “cannibal,” but its full meaning is a person who lives life without regard for the community, who lives utterly at the expense of others, someone who consumes the world. Cannibalistic in that sense. It was viewed as a sickness of the soul—and a contagious one, such that persons regarded as wetiko must either be cured or driven from the community lest they “infect” others.

As Native peoples watched the way white men moved across the land—seeming to kill for the joy of killing—they came to view white people in general as wetikos: an entire society of cannibals afflicted with a soul-sickness that drove them to live with wanton disregard for balance, relatedness, or any life except their own. Wetiko is like socio-ecological amplification of Luther’s notion of sin as incurvatus se—the state of being curved inward upon oneself. Wetiko, viewed as a genuine madness—a disconnection from others and from the natural order that manifests in diabolical deeds—names the culture in which we find ourselves today. The notion of wetiko brings the non-Western wisdom of Native peoples into a crucial conversation about the roots of our predicament.

5.  Terror Management Theory offers another angle on this. Rooted in Ernest Becker’s 1970’s book, The Denial of Death, this theory argues that because human beings are uniquely (so far as we know) aware of our impending non-being—our death—we make enormous psychic and cultural investments in denying death. Becker viewed this inexorable existential dread—the seeming inescapable cost of self-consciousness—or more accurately our active efforts to suppress this as “the mainspring of all human activity.” We—at least some of us, maybe most of us—are driven by a relentless attempt to prove our worth and establish meaning in a universe that just as relentlessly erases us.

Becker suggested that entire cultures, religious beliefs, building projects, and even most of our mundane choices are motivated by the persistent awareness that we will die, an awareness we seek to submerge beneath every bit of civilization we can build over it. Except now, having exhausted the finite resources of the planet in an attempt to escape our own finitude, we have brought the planet itself to the edge of dying. And have likely hastened our own death in the process. Becker and those who have developed his theory more recently suggest that even though religious beliefs offer us comfort in the face of death, to the extent they portray death as unnatural, as divine punishment, as somehow offensive to the human spirit, they merely press this terror beneath the surface, where it multiplies and leaks out elsewhere in our lives.

Can we imagine, within our Christian tradition, ways to name and embrace death as a goodness within the order of life? Worthy of neither stoic acceptance, nor defiant resistance, but willing embrace of the wisdom of God who made a finite world and called it “very good”? Is it possible that the only true moral agency must necessarily be mortal agency—ethics on the far side of making peace with death?

In fact, psychologists working in Terror Management Theory report tests that demonstrate that practices of humility, gratitude, and authentic bonding make us less prone to existential anxiety. They help settle us into a sense of being at home on Earth. In other words, the very practices endorsed by Deep Adaptation, Transition Towns, and Active Hope actually work to endow us with mortal agency—a sense of empowerment even in the face of death. Churches, too, have claimed to do these things. But rarely as though our lives depended on them. Today they do.

6.  Moral injury names what happens when we find ourselves ordered or compelled to act in ways that fracture our own moral compass. Soldiers who find themselves doing things on the battlefield that constitute a very betrayal of their core self, experience moral injury. Employees required to operate in ways that put the bottom line or company loyalty above human decency or environmental respect experience moral injury. But ALSO: simply living in an extractive capitalistic system inflicts moral injury upon every member of society every day. We are compelled to meet our own daily needs at the expense of others around the globe and at the expense of the planet itself.

To find ourselves with no clear option except to live in contradiction to the values we claim, displaces us from our very moral identity and from our sense of what it means to belong to the human community to the story of humanity itself. Moral injury has been described as numbed living, living with a sense of being dead, or worse, living in the suspended awareness of one’s moral dying. It is to awaken to the terror of the world’s pain—and to recognize our complicity in that pain without knowing how to withdraw our consent. If we are honest, this is the damning predicament for every person of faith today (indeed for every human person)—we are caught living-dead in a system that we KNOW is genocidal toward the poor and ecocidal toward the planet and yet we have no way out.

The only adequate response to moral injury is to transform the systems that inflict it. And that is a big task. It may be that the extractive capitalist system is so thoroughly embedded in our culture and society today that only collapse will effect system transformation. But here, too, the practices modeled by Active Hope, Transition Towns, and Deep Adaptation work to link us more authentically to one another—seeking to honor finitude and to promote the flourishing of all. This does not change the world system directly, but it offers us access to a counter-system within the belly of the beast—a way to link our lives to a community that is life-giving, a community that may become the seeds of what can be NEXT … if we can endure collapse itself.

All three of these notions deepen the contemporary relevance of Paul’s talk of “principalities and powers” in Ephesians 6. Paul seems to have an awareness of human-made systems with an inertia that is greater than any individual person—an inertia that seemingly takes on a life of its own. Not a consciousness, per se, but an institutionalized energy that can will forward a set of assumptions backed up with power that can have dehumanizing, inhuman consequences. Are such systems are afflicted with wetiko? Were they first shaped by existential terror? Do they not mercilessly inflict moral injury? We must press ourselves to fathom the dynamics that disorder our world today.

To return to my initial themes:

Godtalk on the cusp of ecological collapse will have, at least at times, an apocalyptic tone. It will unveil the extent to which our way of living today is in fact dedicated to uncreating God’s creation. It will announce the ending of one world, declaring that our future is about to be radically disconnected from our past. The fact that we find such an apocalyptic tone disconcerting is, in fact, evidence that we’ve made quite a bit of peace with the oppressive world that is ending. And it will be apocalyptic in summoning us to sustained lament for the suffering playing out on the planet in this moment. It is the last thing we want to do. Right now, it is the ONLY thing that grounds the legitimacy of anything we do.

Godtalk on the cusp of ecological collapse will have, at least at times, an evangelical tone. It will whisper a humble but defiant “nevertheless” of good news. It will remind us of a truth always easier to offer to others: that even in the worst of times, God’s daring choice is to be vulnerably present alongside us—a choice written across the cosmos. From the forests that feed us oxygen to the microbes in our guts that enable us to feed ourselves, radical relationality is the truth of the universe. And it will invite us to gather in communities that creatively foster mutual relationship as the expression of imago Dei, both in how we be church to one another and to the world.

Godtalk on the cusp of ecological collapse will have, at least at times, a prophetic tone. It will not shrink from reading the signs of these times for the people who look to it for guidance. It will speak for those whose speech goes unheard—the poor, the animals, the ecosystems. It will call out—even by name—those particular institutions, corporations, and individuals whose agendas and actions represent crimes against creation and crimes against the future. And it will not only call us to repent and to change our ways, but will also dare to imagine a way forward where none seems possible.

And godtalk on the cusp of ecological collapse will teach us—perhaps for the first time—that we are at home on Earth. This will mean telling stories and fashioning rituals that exercise our imaginations in powerful ways regarding the blessing of finitude. Other traditions have found ways to do this. We are late to this game, but the planet is waiting for us to embrace it as home. Whatever other worlds or lives might be, in this world and in this life, it is a deep goodness to be at home on a pale blue dot. More than enough, it is grounds for awe and joy.

Finally, being at home on Earth is profoundly practical theology. In light of overshoot, we must explore what “One-Earth living” might mean—that is, to live as people who annually take no more than what one Earth can offer and renew in one year. This implies two uncomfortable but non-negotiable ecological truths. Simplicity is neither an optional virtue nor something we must resign ourselves to: simplicity is the very essence of love on a finite planet. Second, choosing to thoughtfully restrain our population is a undeniable corollary. Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on care for creation, Laudato Si, is remarkably insightful on many fronts, but its complete silence on the moral imperative of responsible reproduction renders the rest of its wisdom “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol”—that is, wisdom far short of ecological love.

I’ll close with one final thought.

Sometime last fall I was in a group discussing the role the church could play in addressing the climate crisis. I said that I expected congregations could play an important role … “as the world unraveled.” The tone of my words did NOT carry any upbeat cheer or hint at expectation of any late-in-the-game rally on our part. A friend asked me, with quiet alarm, “You haven’t given up hope, have you?”

I was not quick to respond. Partly because she has young children. So, she ought to have a vested interest in hope. Then again, I have children and grandchildren of my own. But I also hesitated because that’s such a complicated question for me right now.

I have a near heretical degree of faith in the potential of human beings for good. Tangled as we are in forces that oppress us, and prone as we can be to selfish impulses, and ambiguous as we can be in our inner worlds, I remain persuaded that the “very good” God uttered over creation lingers still, even if worn and tattered a bit. Perhaps on account of our own theological missteps we have been quick to think too little of our capacities for good, and have played into the hands of forces all too willing to twist them for ill. I continue to believe that Christians and Christian communities can bear good news and embody gospel in our shared living still today. Even as the world collapses. (I actually think this is true of humans and human communities as well.)

And I have near absolute conviction that in every moment God offers us the chance to do what is right. Even as those chances get twisted by circumstance and choice and outside forces, the activity of God in the world is perhaps nothing more and nothing less than the presentation of freedom yet again in this moment and then the next.

I have uncommonly high expectations for human beings and for God. But here’s where it gets complicated: I also have high expectations for the reliability and dependability of the laws of nature. I believe, even at the last minute, we might see the error of our ways and that wide swaths of human society might choose a different course. I don’t know that that’s likely, but I think it’s possible. Because God meets each and every human being with that offer of freedom in each and every moment of their lives. So, absolutely possible, even if unlikely.

But that carbon dioxide and methane will act differently in the atmosphere? Or that Earth will somehow magically generate infinite resources for our absurdly inflated population? Or that the planetary system will be “sympathetic” to our anguish, even if expressed too late? Not a chance.

Our future will play out under the same laws of nature that it has in the past. And that means, as far as I can tell—and sweet Jesus, I wish it was otherwise—that collapse is coming. And I’m not at all convinced that we have any chance any longer to avert it.

Fifty years ago? Perhaps. A hundred or two hundred years ago? Yeah, theoretically so. Though, truth be told, the cultural and religious distortions that we wed ourselves to millennia ago have chased us across history. But, YES, there have been times when multiple futures were possible.

Even today, multiple futures are possible. I simply believe that now every one of those multiple futures includes some version of collapse. What makes these futures multiple is our response to collapse. So, Yes, I have “given up hope” for a future that does not include collapse. Because physics doesn’t grade on a curve.

But to my dear friend, and to you, I would also say, I hold out vibrant hope that even in collapse there can be communities worthy of gleeful joy. Because compassion, mutuality, solidarity, vulnerability, radical relationality—these truths can be embraced, even under the most trying conditions—and when they are, the result is always gospel. Good news. The presence of God erupting in human life.

I suppose you could say my hope these days is in a different key. But it is hope, nonetheless. And I continue to nurture it for the sake of my children and grandchildren and so many others. And I’m eager to help build communities where gleeful joy shines brightly … and the tumult has not overcome it.

*           *           *

drw 2022.02.26

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Selected Bibliography

Related writings by me

Weiss, David R. “AT HOME ON EARTH—Christian Spirituality in a Time of Climate Change. On becoming an apocalyptic evangelical prophetic church.” Lectures at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, March 2017. (Presented in an earlier version to Grace Lutheran Church, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, September-October 2016.) https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/htlc-on-climate-complete.pdf.

—. The Gospel in Transition: 52 weekly essays at the intersection of faith and climate, December 2018-November 2019. https://davidrweiss.com/essays/the-gospel-in-transition.

—. “Dark Hope: a series of essays on ‘dark hope’ in the midst of collapse,” July-August, 2021. https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/2021-dark-hope-set.pdf.

—. “Sacred Circle Liturgy.” (Liturgy fashioned around Active Hope themes; customizable template provided.)
https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/sacred-circle-template-read-only.docx.

—. “As the Dawn of the World Draws Near.” (Hymn fashioned around Active Hope themes.) https://davidrweiss.com/2021/04/21/as-the-turn-of-the-world-draws-near. https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2021/05/as-the-turn-of-the-world-draws-near-permission.pdf.   

Weiss, David R. and Tracy Kugler. Active Hope Reader’s Guide for Small Groups, 2020. https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/active-hope-readers-guide-read-only.docx.

Climate

Bell, Alice. “Sixty years of climate change warnings: the signs that were missed (and ignored).” The Guardian, July 5, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/jul/05/sixty-years-of-climate-change-warnings-the-signs-that-were-missed-and-ignored. Accessed July 5, 2021.

Bradshaw Corey J.A., et al. (2021) “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.” Frontiers in Conservation Science, vol. 1, article 615419. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419.  

Carrington, Damian. “Climate crisis: greenhouse gas levels hit new record despite lockdowns, UN reports.” The Guardian, October 25, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/25/climate-crisis-greenhouse-gas-levels-hit-new-record-un-reports. Accessed October 25, 2021.

—. “Human destruction of nature is ‘senseless and suicidal’, warns UN chief.” The Guardian, February 18, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/18/human-destruction-of-nature-is-senseless-and-suicidal-warns-un-chief. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Harvey, Fiona. “Cop26 climate talks will not fulfil aims of Paris agreement, key players warn.” The Guardian, September 27, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/27/cop26-climate-talks-will-not-fulfil-aims-of-paris-agreement-key-players-warn. Accessed September 27, 2021.

—. “IPCC steps up warning on climate tipping points in leaked draft report.” The Guardian, June 20, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/23/climate-change-dangerous-thresholds-un-report. Accessed June 24, 2021.

Hood, Marlowe, et al. “Crushing climate impacts to hit sooner than feared: draft UN report.” Science X, June 23, 2021. https://phys.org/news/2021-06-climate-impacts-sooner.html. Accessed June 24, 2021.

Hu, Caitlin. “A new UN report urges a radical shift in the way we think about nature.” CNN: Project Planet reporting, February 18, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/18/americas/un-report-climate-making-peace-intl/index.html. Accessed February 18, 2021.

New, Mark, et al. “Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, number 369, (2011), pp. 6-19. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsta.2010.0303.

Salamon, Margaret Klein. “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode.” Medium, 27 June 27, 2019. https://margaretkleinsalamon.medium.com/leading-the-public-into-emergency-mode-b96740475b8f. Accessed July 15. 2022.

“UN draft climate report: Impacts on nature.” Science X, June 23, 2021. https://phys.org/news/2021-06-climate-impacts-nature.html. Accessed June 24, 2021.

Watts, Jonathan. “Interview – Johan Rockström: ‘We need bankers as well as activists… we have 10 years to cut emissions by half’.” The Guardian, May 29, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/29/johan-rockstrom-interview-breaking-boundaries-attenborough-biden. Accessed June 15, 2021

The Limits of Green Energy

Siebert, Megan K. and William E. Rees. “Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition.” Energies, vol. 14, no. 15, July 2021, article number 4508, https://doi.org/10.3390/en14154508.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. “Are Electric Cars the Solution?” The Tyee, 25 Jan. 2022. https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2022/01/25/Are-Electric-Cars-Solution. Accessed February 1, 2022.

Planetary Boundaries

Steffen, Will and Jamie Morgan. “From the Paris Agreement to the Anthropocene and Planetary Boundaries Framework: an interview with Will Steffen.” Globalizations, 18:7 (2021), 1298-1310. https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2021.1940070.

“The nine planetary Boundaries.” Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. https://stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html. Accessed July 22, 2021.

Rockström, Johan. “Bounding the Planetary Future: Why We Need a Great Transition.” Great Transition Initiative, April 2015. https://greattransition.org/images/Rockstrom-Bounding-Planetary-Future.pdf

Overshoot and Collapse

Ahmed, Nafeez. “MIT Predicted in 1972 That Society Will Collapse This Century. New Research Shows We’re on Schedule.” Motherboard, July 14, 2021. https://www.vice.com/en/article/z3xw3x/new-research-vindicates-1972-mit-prediction-that-society-will-collapse-soon. Accessed July 28, 2021.

Bologna, Mauro, and Gerardo Aquino. “Deforestation and world population sustainability: a quantitative analysis.” Nature: Scientific Reports, vol. 10, article number 7631 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-63657-6.

Catton, William R., Jr. Overshoot. University Of Illinois Press, 1980.

Collins, Craig. “Four Reasons Civilization Won’t Decline: It Will Collapse.” CounterPunch.org, March 13, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/03/13/four-reasons-civilization-wont-decline-it-will-collapse. Accessed August 10, 2021.

Dowd, Michael. “Collapse in a Nutshell” and “Overshoot in a Nutshell,” online presentations, November 2021. https://postdoom.com/resources.

Helmore, Edward. “Yep, it’s bleak, says expert who tested 1970s end-of-the-world prediction.” The Guardian, July 25, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/25/gaya-herrington-mit-study-the-limits-to-growth. Accessed July 28, 2021.

How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times. Book Review by David Holmgren. February 9, 2021. https://holmgren.com.au/writing/book-review-how-everything-can-collapse-a-manual-for-our-times. Accessed October 25, 2022.

Ingram, Catherine. “Facing Extinction.” (Online essay, 2019.) https://www.catherineingram.com/facingextinction. Accessed August 3, 2021.

Living in the Time of Dying. Directed by Michael Shaw, 2020. https://www.livinginthetimeofdying.com.

Moses, Asher. “‘Collapse of Civilisation is the Most Likely Outcome’: Top Climate Scientists.” Resilence.org, June 8, 2020. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-06-08/collapse-of-civilisation-is-the-most-likely-outcome-top-climate-scientists. Accessed July 22, 2021.

Once You Know. Directed by Emmanuel Cappellin in collaboration with Anne-Marie Sangla, original title Une fois que tu sais, Pulp Films, 2020. https://www.videoproject.org/once-you-know.html.

Servigne, Pablo. How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times. Polity Press, 2020. [First published in French, 2015.]

Servigne, Pablo, et al. Another End of the World Is Possible: Living the Collapse (and Not Merely Surviving It). Medford, Polity Press, 2020. [First published in French, 2018.]

Wiedmann, Thomas, et al. “Scientists’ warning on affluence.” Nature Communications, vol. 11, no. 3107 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16941-y.

Active Hope

Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. Novato, Calif. New World Library, 2012.

Macy, Joanna. “Entering the Bardo.” Emergence Magazine, July 20, 2020. https://emergencemagazine.org/op_ed/entering-the-bardo. Accessed August 10, 2021.

JOANNA MACY: Climate Crisis as a Spiritual Path. Directed by Anne Macksoud and John Ankele, Old Dog Documentaries, 2021. https://vimeo.com/588455489
Transcript: https://www.kosmosjournal.org/kj_article/joanna-macy.

“To Collapse Well.” Interview with Joanna Macy by Michael Dowd, Post-Doom Conversations, February 2021. https://postdoom.com.

Transition Town Movement

Gorringe, Timothy, and Rosie Beckham. Transition Movement for Churches. Norwich, Canterbury, 2013.

Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Green Books, 2008.

Ruah Swennerfelt, et al. Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith. Caye Caulker, Belize, Producciones De La Hamaca, 2016.

The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilization? Directed by Peter Armstrong, Bullfrog Films and Empathy Media, 2021. (Profile of David Fleming.) https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesequel.

Deep Adaptation

Bendell, Jem. “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” Online essay; originally published July 27, 2018; revised and updated July 27, 2020. https://lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf. https://jembendell.com/2019/05/15/deep-adaptation-versions.

Wétiko

Forbes, Jack D., and Derrick Jensen. Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism. Seven Stories Press, 2008.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Levy, Paul. Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil. North Atlantic Books, 2013.

Levy, Paul. Wetiko: Healing the Mind-Virus That Plagues Our World. Rochester, Vermont, Inner Traditions, 2021.

Terror Management Theory

Alecson, Deborah Golden. “This Mortal Coil: Sheldon Solomon On How Fear Of Death Affects Our Lives.” The Sun Magazine, no. 544, April 2021, pp. 5-13.” https://thesunmagazine.org/issues/544/this-mortal-coil.

Moral Injury

Stout, Brian. “Wounds want to be healed: ‘Moral Injury’ and belonging.” (Online essay, February 21, 2022.) https://citizenstout.substack.com/p/wounds-want-to-be-healed. Accessed February 24, 2022.

Reprise: Christmas Pageant Pandemonium

Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: Untangling—and Untaming Christmas
David R. Weiss – December 1, 2020 / revised December 5, 2021

You can access — either to read online or to download — a pdf version of this essay (it runs 14 pages, 9000 words) HERE.

NOTE: I originally presented a summary of this essay via Zoom for Journey of Faith on December 16, 2020. This year, on December 8, I’ll reprise that presentation. I’ve only very slightly tweaked the essay – caught a couple typos, smoothed out a few sentences, and reworked a few time-dated references. In my Journey of Faith presentation

Some of my best childhood church memories are of Christmas Eve Sunday School pageants. “Best” because in the pageant as on few other occasions we kids became church. Sure, our parents and grandparents and pretty much everyone else in church knew the story, but we brought it to life for them each year with our earnest reenactment. We made it real all over again—only cuter. The Christmas pageant is a participatory catechism through which kids act out the cuteness that marks the Gospel.

Except.

Here is the sad truth. In a world that needs the transformative power of Jesus’ teachings more than ever, the standard Christmas pageant doesn’t deliver. Whether retelling the Bible story or telling a more contemporary tale, pageants are often the first and most effective step by which we inoculate our children against ever accessing the power inside Christmas. And, tragically, we do so with love.

Someday I’d like to write a Christmas Pageant that does the opposite: introducing children to the real power of Jesus that is foreshadowed in the tales of his birth. And then harnessing the cuteness of these kids to introduce their parents and grandparents and pretty much everyone else in church to the Jesus they’ve likely never met, but whose wisdom and faith they—and the rest of the world—need more than ever today.

Let me explain what I mean.

The two birth tales we have for Jesus—found in Matthew and Luke—are just that: two and tales. “Two,” in that they’re quite distinct, having far less in common than most Christmas pageants (or Christmas carols) suggest. And “tales,” in that they’re not history. Each one is a unique imaginative account that serves as something like a musical overture, introducing themes to be developed in the chapters that follow in each specific gospel.

These tales didn’t appear until about fifty years after Jesus died … and about eighty years after his birth. Much as we might wish otherwise, they’re not newspaper accounts of actual events. But that doesn’t at all render them worthless. In fact, I’ll argue that recognizing them as primarily symbolic tales helps us access their worth. And their worth is a lot.

We know Jesus was born sometime around 4 BCE and died around 30 CE. Neither date is certain, in large part because both at the start and end of his life Jesus was simply too inconsequential for his birth or death to be noted in any detail by those who recorded the history of the day. And even though the resurrection (whatever reality that word names) was clearly a transformative event among Jesus’ followers, it also didn’t make it into any history recorded outside the Bible.

The first written mention of Jesus within the church is found in Paul’s letters to early Christian communities. Dating from roughly 48-62 CE, these letters never mention anything about Jesus’ birth (and very little about his ministry either for that matter). A bit later—sometime between 65-70 CE—Mark brings the first collected set of traditions about Jesus together in the written form we know as gospel. Many of these snippets of teachings, miracles, and crucifixion have already been circulating for decades by now, but Mark puts his own theological stamp on them as he arranges them. (None of the gospels identify their author by name—the names are provided by tradition decades later. I’ll use these names as a shorthand convenience.) As the first to be written, Mark’s Gospel is noteworthy in a couple of ways. It barely has a resurrection: it records a tale of an empty grave, but no description of a risen Jesus. And it includes nothing at all about Jesus’ birth.

Given the importance Mark places on Jesus—his opening verse (Mk 1:1) reads, “The beginning of the Gospel (“good news”/“glad tidings”) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”—it seems likely that had he known of resurrection appearances or birth stories featuring angels or stars, he would’ve included them to support his claim. That he doesn’t, is strong evidence that he wasn’t aware of them and suggests that neither Easter appearances nor Christmas tales developed until after 70 CE.

The fact that stories about both the very start and the very end of Jesus’ life “developed” decades after he lived is helpful to bear in mind. Both Christmas and Easter as we know them today began with the early church’s efforts to make sense of Jesus’ life and death.

Between his relatively brief public ministry (just a couple years at most), the manner of his death (crucified by Rome as a threat to public order) and the miraculous persistence of his followers after his death (the very antithesis of crucifixion’s intent), the church found itself compelled to be audaciously creative in fashioning stories that aimed to mediate good news to the people who encountered them. Indeed, that’s the defining purpose of “gospel” as a genre. The word itself literally means “good news” or “glad tidings” in Greek. But as a literary genre it doesn’t mean this in any abstract sense. It means good news that YOU experience as you encounter it. It DOES the thing it communicates—to you.

By the time Matthew and Luke write their gospels, ten to fifteen years after Mark, it’s possible that some birth traditions have begun to circulate in certain regions; it’s also possible these two writers chose to fashion their own. Regardless of how much is original with them (regardless of how much of each tale they made up themselves), they clearly spun the final versions so that they aligned with their respective gospels.

That’s a long introduction, but you need at least that much to appreciate my central claim: the real power—the real truth … the JOY TO THE WORLD—in these two Christmas tales is not about miraculous things that occurred in conjunction with Jesus’ birth.

If there’d really been a star and Magi and a massacre of infants or angels and shepherds … why does no one remember any of this when Jesus begins his public ministry? The locals know he’s Mary’s son and that his father was a carpenter—a landless and therefore lower class worker—but not a single person says, “Oh, he’s the guy the Magi visited … the one who sparked that massacre … the kid the angels sang about.” Such events would not be quickly forgotten, but in all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ adult life, it’s like these things never happened when he was a kid … almost certainly because they never did.

But once we stop trying to make them into historical events, we can instead discover the real joy in these tales—AND IT IS INDEED JOY ABOUT WHICH HEAVEN AND NATURE OUGHT TO SING—because they prefigure Jesus’ ministry. And because they beckon us to extend the echo of Jesus in our own lives.

So I invite you to experience the wonder of Christmas not via “historical” accounts that strain credulity but via two audaciously imaginative tales that prime you to hear the whole gospel—and that hope to reverberate so thoroughly in your own heart as to render you a whole new (reborn) person committed to making a new world.

Both Christmas stories are shaped as much by the era in which they were written as the era eighty years earlier in which they’re set—and also by everything that occurs in between. Matthew and Luke write with the benefit of hindsight. We need to read their stories that way, too. Let’s look at Matthew first.

Matthew writes for a community of Jewish believers who’ve chosen to follow Jesus’ teachings (unlike the majority of Jews who seem to ignore or dismiss him). Knowing this, and thinking about Matthew’s birth tale as an “overture” to the rest of his gospel, three themes appear that are developed throughout his gospel.

(1) Jesus is the “fulfillment” of Jewish Scripture; not necessarily as predictions coming true, but as culminations that can be recognized as they happen. This is part of Matthew’s overall strategy to aid his audience in justifying their fidelity to Jesus over against the disapproval of their Jewish peers (no doubt including family and friends). Matthew includes well over one hundred allusions to the Hebrew Bible and often uses a formulaic expression about fulfillment of Scripture.

(2) Jesus is portrayed as a successor to Moses, almost like a new Moses—a crucial link for these first Jewish Christian who did NOT see themselves as part of a new religion, but as part of a Jewish renewal movement. Mark and Luke spread Jesus’ teachings out across a multitude of short exchanges, but Matthew collects them into long discourses—five of them, mirroring Moses’ five books of Torah. In another echo of Moses, Matthew places Jesus’ most famous “discourse” as the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7; Luke sets it on a plain, Lk 6:17-49).

(3) Jesus fulfills/completes both the Abrahamic covenant (blessing to all nations) and the Mosaic covenant (to embody a godly way of life) in ways that reach out to the Gentiles. This is seen clearly in the “Great Commission” at the very conclusion of his gospel where the disciples are instructed to go to all nations (Mt 28:19).

Matthew draws on each of these themes in crafting his story of Jesus’ birth—some eighty years after Jesus was born in relative obscurity. His purpose was NOT to fashion a false narrative of Jesus’ birth but rather a fitting introduction to his gospel.

Besides these Matthean themes, there are two last bits of context we need. First is the religious-political-economic context, which in the ancient world were always overlapping realities. (These realms still overlap today, but by now our “formal” religion has been so domesticated that it rarely speaks to political-economic concerns, while our “informal” religion IS the faith that places consumer capitalism and national pride at the center of our meaning-making, but that’s a whole other discussion …) In Matthew’s case, his birth story “happens” around 4 BCE—shortly before Herod the Great dies. Just as anyone hoping to understand our era must know something about the 2020 pandemic or the Trump presidency, WE need to know something about the decades before and after Herod’s death to understand the difference it makes that Jesus was born at the end of Herod’s reign.

Herod (who was himself a Jew since birth because his father converted before he was born), ruled Judea, as Caesar’s appointed king, with ruthless paranoia and fearsome exploitation. He taxed his fellow Jews to the breaking point in order to expand the Temple and build other ostentatious monuments while people went hungry. And he was so paranoid about people plotting against him that he had scores of people executed to protect his throne—including his wife, mother-in-law, and three of his own sons. He was despised and feared—equally. After he died a whole series of movements, some armed and some nonviolent, sought unsuccessfully to reclaim independence from Roman rule. Matthew and his readers have lived that history, and his birth tale expects us to know this.

The other bit of “cultural trivia” we need to be aware of concerns Moses and the popular imagination of the era in which Matthew wrote. Most of us know in broad strokes the tale of Moses’ birth: Pharaoh had grown alarmed at the rising number of Hebrew slaves, issued an order for all baby boys to be killed at birth, and Moses was rescued from the reeds by a princess who raised him safely right there in Egypt until he was called to lead God’s people to in the Exodus.

We know that movies like The Ten Commandments and Disney’s Prince of Egypt take artistic license in filling out the story for popular consumption. So did Jewish lore in Matthew’s day. In the decade just before he wrote his gospel there was popular expansion of the Moses’ story (dating from 70-80 CE) that embellished the biblical account. In this popularized tale, Egypt’s “sacred scribes” (another word for sacred scribe is Magi!) warn Pharaoh that a boy child will soon be born who will be Pharaoh’s downfall. In this version, it’s the prediction of these Magi that sparks Pharaoh’s edict to kill the boy children. Hmm …

NOW, keeping all of this in mind—and I realize it’s a lot, but we’re talking about Holy Scripture: who ever said this was supposed to be uncomplicated?—we’re finally set to hear Matthew’s tale on something close to Matthew’s terms.

Matthew opens with a genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) that traces Jesus back to Abraham—thus, he is a “true” Jew; and through David—thus, also legitimate contender to be a messianic king. Because he’s writing for a people who’ve seen their national fortunes wane far more than wax, he arranges Jewish history in three neat sets of fourteen generations (albeit collapsing generations here and there—sometimes telling the truth is more important than hewing to mere fact). From Abraham to David (Israel’s pinnacle); then from David to Exile (Israel’s collapse); and then from Exile to Jesus (a long stretch of stumbling toward a renewal never fully realized), but now in this fourteenth generation something great must surely transpire. A renewal like under David: throwing off oppression and reclaiming inward identity. Matthew’s genealogy itself sows hope.

His genealogy also comes with an unexpected bit of gynecology thrown in. Alongside forty-two generations of men begetting men, four women’s names appear. Tamar, twice widowed, ultimately tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her so that she could bear a child. Rahab, a prostitute-innkeeper, sheltered Hebrew spies at the edge of Canaan. Ruth, a Moabite widow seduced Boaz to marry her. And Bathsheba, raped by King David. Each woman is Gentile—a sort of holy footnote in Matthew’s genealogy that foreshadows how the Great Commission (Mt 28:16-20) brings full circle the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan, begun long ago through these women.

Besides that, each woman bears testament to God’s ability, by now long acclaimed by the Jews themselves (after all, they’ve claimed these women’s stories as part of their own prized heritage), to take scandal and use it for holy good. Thus, perhaps these women also appear in order to set Mary’s scandalous pre-marital pregnancy (if that was historically the case) in perspective. Or perhaps they stand as counterpoint to the notion of a virgin birth created by Matthew (or someone else) to heighten Jesus’ status. We cannot say for sure—but we can be sure they are not there merely by accident.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 1:18-25) several things are noteworthy, but NOT the observation that in this tale Mary says nothing and does little. Here, Joseph is the one visited by an angel (in a dream) three times. Mary remains in the background, carrying Jesus, first in her womb then on her shoulder. In a patriarchal culture that’s exactly the way you’d expect things to be. (That makes it all the more striking when, in Luke’s story, Mary gains both her own agency and her own angelic visitor, leaving Joseph in the background.)

Three things in Matthew’s story merit special mention.

First, the link to Moses. Matthews tells us that Joseph initially plans to (a) divorce Mary quietly (to break their betrothal) until being (b) reassured through a dream that he should (c) not fear to take her for his wife because (d) the child to be born will save the people. We know that story. But what we don’t realize is that virtually this same scene plays out in the popularized tale of Moses’ birth that appeared just before Matthew’s gospel. In that tale all the Jewish men decide to (a) divorce their wives (to no longer have sex with them, lest they father children that would be killed by Pharaoh), until one of the men, Amram, is (b) reassured through a dream relayed to him by his daughter Miriam that he should (c) not fear to take his wife (have sex with her) because (d) the child to be born will save the people.

It turns out we don’t know really this scene at all. Each of the italicized phrases (a) through (d) is found in the popularized Moses tale of 70-80 CE and then repeated in Matthew’s birth story of Jesus. In these verses Matthew is already setting up the next scene (with the Magi), putting in place the pieces necessary for Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience to hear a tale of liberation as significant as the Exodus itself. And we never knew!

Second, more Exodus echoes. The child to be born is to be named “Jesus,” which in Hebrew is “Joshua”—the name of the person who took up and carried on the work of liberation begun by Moses. And we are told Jesus will be known as “Emmanuel”—meaning “God with us.” We’ve heard—and sung—Emmanuel for so long that it strikes us as a “but-of-course” moment. But during the Exodus God’s presence among the Hebrews leading them out of bondage, through the wilderness, and toward freedom was nothing less than a divine declaration that God is “all in” against oppression. For Matthew’s readers—first century Jews living (groaning!) under oppression by Caesar and Herod, the name Emmanuel would be no word of warm comfort sung soothingly in a carol, but more a resounding call to be ready for a new Exodus out of bondage and into beloved community.

Third, Matthew borrows a prophetic text originally uttered by Isaiah (Is. 7:14) seven centuries earlier as a warning and flips it into a promise of hope. But in doing so he takes a Hebrew word that meant “young woman” for Isaiah and translates it with a Greek word that can mean either “young woman” or “virgin.” And then clearly uses it to mean “virgin,” thereby doing his part to shape the tradition of the virgin birth. We tend to hear it as “proof” of Jesus’ one-of-a-kind divine origin, but the Jews of Jesus’ day were familiar with claims of virginal birth: such were regularly ascribed—usually retroactively after the deaths—to Roman emperors as signs that the gods had approved of their lives.

There were no tales of virgin birth about Jesus that circulated prior to Matthew’s gospel around 80 CE. But by the time Matthew created or amplified this tradition—Jesus had been ruled a traitor to the Emperor and crucified under Rome’s authority. So, what better way to retroactively assert that Jesus’ liberating life had, in point of divine fact, been blessed by God, than to take this Roman method of ultimate endorsement and rest it over Jesus’ birth? The virgin birth is hardly interested in asserting a biological miracle; it asserts something much greater—a political-religious miracle: that one nailed to a tree in disgrace was, in truth, blessed by God to liberate God’s people.

By the time we turn to the familiar tale of the Magi (2:1-18)—sacred scribes who advised political rulers, astrologers, wise men (but not kings!)—from the East, we might’ve started to suspect there’s more to this scene than we previously thought. And we’d be right.

Besides the now obvious echoes of the Moses birth tale, the scene has almost a farcical quality to it. These Magi (regarded as the savviest advisers around) are so naïve as to ask Herod if he’d heard of a child born to assume Herod’s throne. Really? Herod was so renowned for his brutal paranoia that Caesar once said of him “Better to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios)”—the wordplay in Greek implying that the Jewish prohibition against eating pork at least gave Herod’s pigs a measure of protection that even his own children lacked.  Next, when asked, the Jewish religious advisors (Herod’s own palace version of “magi”) know immediately where this messianic baby is to be born: Bethlehem. Yet they show no interest in going to find the newborn messiah themselves. Only the pagan Magi do that. Really?! Herod then convinces the Magi to find the child and send word back to him so can go and honor it as well. Really?! And the Magi seem taken in by Herod’s fawning sincerity; it takes an angelic dream to prevent them from notifying Herod. Really?! Finally, after all these echoes of Moses’ birth, where must Joseph take Jesus to keep him safe? Egypt! Really?!

The story drips with irony, as though for Matthew’s first readers it’s not even trying to be taken literally because it carries truth so much deeper than fact. (It’s reminiscent of the Book of Jonah, a story that also “broadcasts” fictional irony to amplify its daring truth.)

Christians often interpret the three gifts brought by the Magi as signifying that Jesus is king (gold); priest (frankincense); and prophet-martyr (myrrh). But, given how much Matthew’s narrative is built on images from the Exodus, it’s at least as likely that the gifts are chosen to recall key things associated with the Tabernacle that “held” the presence of God as the people of Israel journeyed through the wilderness (Ex 30:1-10; 22-25; 34-38). In that case, serving like a bookend to the four Gentile women named in his genealogy, these Gentile Magi provide the three gifts that will allow this babe—more specifically the man he grew into—to be a Tabernacle of God’s presence that will once again lead the children of Abraham out of bondage.

Each year the retelling of the Passover story heightened Jewish hunger for liberation and freedom so much so that Rome always sent its “national guard” troops out in force around Jerusalem during the Passover festival. In the same way, Matthew’s birth tale, offered to his Jewish Christian audience, is no tame story of a baby’s birth. It is the opening salvo in a gospel that says God’s promise of liberation remains true even under Herod’s paranoia, even under Rome’s watchfulness, even AFTER the crucifixion … even still today.

Now, Luke.

Here are three themes. (1) Luke uses a larger canvas than Matthew. His story of Jesus, still very much grounded in Jewish origins, is pitched to a Gentile Christian audience. While Matthew ends his gospel with the Great Commission, Luke adds an entire sequel—the Book of Acts—in which he chronicles the great commission being carried out. (2) Luke also has a noteworthy emphasis on women as persons with agency throughout his gospel. (3) He also lifts up prayer as the lifeblood of faith, both for Jesus and for the early church. Each theme makes its initial appearance in his birth story.

Luke’s genealogy (Lk 3:23-38) doesn’t match the biblical chronology exactly. (Neither does Matthew’s.) But, while he follows Matthew in including both David and Abraham, because he’s additionally committed to pitch the story of Jesus as a story for everyone, he traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. Luke’s Jesus is Jewish, but most of all human. For the same reason, while Matthew set his Jesus over against Herod, the king of the Jews, Luke sets his Jesus over against Caesar himself, the emperor of the entire Roman Empire. We’ll come back to that theme.

While Matthew sets Jesus alongside Moses, Luke uses the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:5-25; 57-80) to sum up all the Hebrew prophets and then make clear that with Jesus something far greater than John has come to pass. Both of these stories—John’s birth and Jesus’ birth—involve angelic announcements of special births; telling others about the birth; naming the child; a prophecy about the child; and a reference to the child growing up. It’s a pattern done with intent to show that with John one chapter of God’s salvation history is brought to completion and with Jesus a new chapter is beginning.

But there are a couple pieces of Luke’s tale of Jesus’ birth that require special attention: the annunciation by Gabriel; Mary’s visit to Elizabeth; and the birth itself, including the announcement to the shepherds. Each vignette is brimful of imagery that symbolically challenges the world into which Jesus was born—foreshadowing that Jesus himself would challenge that world as an adult … and suggesting that any pageant hoping to do justice to his birth would make clear that he challenges our world today just as much.

With Gabriel’s angelic announcement to Mary (Lk 1:26-38) we encounter Luke’s choice to make women active agents in the salvation-liberation of God’s people. We hear Gabriel’s announcement: “Son of the Most High … throne of David … a kingdom with no end,” and we nod in polite recognition. But for Luke’s audience Caesar was “Son of the Most High” and his rule seemed to have no end. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

Moreover, when Mary responds, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke isn’t recording those words as if he were an on-the-scene reporter. He’s crafting words he hopes his readers will echo in response to his tale.

Soon after, Mary, newly pregnant, goes to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Lk 1:39-56). Elizabeth greets Mary with the exclamation, “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The words are explosive for anyone with a knowledge of Jewish stories, and for those who don’t, they lie in waiting to be revealed. Most of us are waiting still.

The phrase “Blessed are you among women”—these words exactly—appear just twice in Hebrew Scriptures (Judges 5:24/Judith 13:18). Both times they’re offered in acclamation to a woman whose heroic fidelity to God has been decisive to saving God’s people. In the Book of Judges, Jael drives a tent peg through the head of an enemy general. Judith decapitates a general and carries his head back to her village in a basket. In both cases women take up a weapon and wield it successfully on behalf of liberation and freedom. Mary’s “weapon,” as the second part of Elizabeth’s greeting clarifies, is the fruit of her womb. As noted above, the decades before Jesus’ ministry and after his death were crowded with movements seeking to renew and liberate the Jewish people. Some by violence, others by nonviolence. Luke uses Elizabeth’s greeting to set his story of Jesus smack in the middle of these efforts.

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with the prayer-song we’ve come to know as the Magnificat. Here she confirms explicitly what Elizabeth has hinted at. Remember, this isn’t a transcript of an actual exchange, this is Luke’s carefully crafted tale. He places these words (drawn in part from Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving in I Sam 2:1-10) on Mary’s lips. And he does so, not for Mary’s benefit, but for that of his audience—and us.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” sings Mary. Her praise is grounded in jubilation and joy … on account of being loved by God and beholding God’s activity to bring about justice. The first ground for this joy is that God reaches out to uplift Mary, a lowly peasant—the word translated as “handmaiden” (Lk 1:48) can also mean slave. And if God is lifting up slaves now, then the world is about to shift on its axis. The rest of Mary’s song sings that shift, rippling from her person across the world. The very structures of the world that secure the rich and mighty on top and maintain the poor and the hungry on the bottom are tilted sideways—and then altogether flipped. Mary’s song has been set to music more than any other Scriptural passage, but only because we reduce it to pious wistful imagery. For Mary, and for the first Christians, her song anticipated a truly transformed world. It was—IT IS—a song seeking to seed a revolution.

Finally, Luke introduces the birth itself (Lk 2:1-20)—against the backdrop of Roman tribute. There is no historical record of this particular census and while some scholars try to find it “between the lines” of history, many regard it as merely a literary device used by Luke to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth (as likely to sync with a couple prophetic texts regardless of whether Jesus was actually born there). But the census carries much more literary weight than that. Tribute (plus Rome’s endless military conquests) fueled the Roman Empire materially, and religious language honoring the Emperor held the empire together culturally-religiously. And Luke wants his audience to have both in mind.

The manger scene—the height of most Christmas pageants—has its own importance, but probably not the importance we typically attach to it. We hear “no room in the inn,” and we picture Joseph trudging from one little inn to the next with no luck (Lk 2:7). Until finally some kind-hearted innkeeper offers up a stable, with a manger.

But the word translated as “inn” here is NOT the Greek word reserved for a place that rented out rooms. In fact, it’s the same word translated as the “upper room” in which Jesus kept the Passover with his disciples. Elsewhere it’s rendered as “guest room.” And most Palestinian homes of Jesus’ day (and many peasant homes in present day Palestine) feature a manger—often a hole dug into the dirt floor and filled with straw—inside the house and right off the main living area. (The family’s most important animals would be brought inside at night, both to safeguard the animals and to add warmth to the family’s living area.)

The point of Luke’s description is most likely to report that Mary and Joseph lodged with family in Bethlehem (it was, after all, Joseph’s ancestral home), joined by other relatives who’d also traveled to Bethlehem to be taxed—to be economically exploited and politically humiliated—by Caesar. And because the “upper room/guest room” was already occupied by some of those other relatives, they stayed down on the main floor alongside the family—Mary no doubt attended to throughout her birth by female relatives—and then she laid her baby in a manger, a straw-filled hole right there in the main room, with animals on one side—and a whole bunch of relatives on the other.

Thus, in Luke’s telling, Jesus was born against the backdrop of oppression (the census) but squarely in the midst of his people: sheltered by family, fellow peasants. He was “just one of us” from the very start.

Presuming that “us” means primarily “the wretched of the Earth,” the lowly ones that Mary sang about. On the other hand, if “peasant” doesn’t describe us, well, no wonder we find it easier to make the manger scene the object of personal piety rather than the birthplace of revolutionary solidarity.

The shepherds, though, they were—as much as anyone in first century Palestine—the wretched of the Earth. To be a shepherd almost certainly meant that at some point in the past you or your family had “lost the farm” … and had almost certainly done so because of Herod’s or Caesar’s taxes. To be a shepherd meant you weren’t even a hired hand tilling someone else’s land; it meant you followed flocks while they grazed on land not even worth tilling. As marginal as the terrain under your feet, exactly that marginal was your standing in society. To be a shepherd was to be the edge of society.

And yet, as Luke continues, BAM! the angel appears right there at the edge to announce Jesus’ birth. Just as Mary sang, the world is tilting sideways and then some. The angel tells the shepherds, “I bring you good news / glad tidings (in Greek: “gospel”) of great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The angel choir adds, “who will bring peace on earth.” (Lk 2: 10-11; 14)

Luke isn’t plagiarizing, he’s intentionally echoing the words used to announce the birth of a new emperor. That announcement would be carried by messengers (in Greek: “angels”) across the empire, declaring in each town, “I bring you good news / glad tidings (“gospel”) of great joy to all the people; for to you is born this day a Savior, who will bring peace.”

Of course, for the wealthy, “peace” looks like Law and Order. For shepherds, peace looks a little more like Mary’s song. A lot more, actually. And as Luke’s gospel overture reaches its climax we have a “multitude of the heavenly host” filling the sky and singing praise to God. But the word for host … means army. Those aren’t angels with harps or trumpets; those are battle-hardened winged-warriors singing … with their swords drawn.

If we want a Christmas pageant that carries the truth of this scene, then let’s maybe give those haloed little angels battle axes to carry as they sing “Glory to God.” No, this isn’t ultimately a tale of violent revolution. And later on Luke is clear to present Jesus as choosing nonviolent resistance. But in this opening scene, he’s being overtly clear in proclaiming that this child will challenge the very foundation of Caesar’s realm. And, nonviolent though the challenge will be, the armies of Heaven will have his back—and ours. And a handful of cute but well-armed cherubs might help us remember that.

Luke concludes his tale with the shepherds—those most marginal of men—becoming the first evangelists, bearing to everyone they meet the glad tidings of a tiny peasant-born challenge to Caesar himself. Mary, meanwhile, ponders everything—holds it prayerfully—in her heart. I like to imagine Luke thinking about the reaction to his Christmas pageant. Some folks will no doubt be eager to animatedly share what they’ve heard. Others will want to let it percolate a bit.

Either response is fine. So long as Elizabeth’s acclamation has been shouted, Mary’s Magnificat has been sung, and the glad tidings of a God-child born to remake the world have been delivered to the edge—well, that’s a start. Time to sing Joy to the World. And mean it.

***

NOTE: After the list of sources, see my brief follow-up reflections, “Beyond Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: What Now? A Little Q & A.

SOURCES – I’ve chosen not to footnote this essay to keep it easier to read. However, for most of you (as for me initially!) this is new stuff. Here’s a brief annotated bibliography that tells you where my information came from.

Bailey, Kenneth, “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7,” Theological Review of the Near East School of Theology, 2:2 (11/1979), 33-44, accessed November 24, 2020, Associates for Biblical Research, https://biblearchaeology.org/new-testament-era-list/2803-the-manger-and-the-inn.

ABR describes itself as “A Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.” My focus is a little different. Nonetheless, this article, even while presuming the historicity of Luke’s account, was very helpful in my work to understand the manger and the inn.

Borg, Marcus: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, “The Meaning of the Birth Stories,” 179-186.

The subtitle says “two visions” because this book is co-authored by Borg and N.T. Wright, an Anglican scholar with a much more conservative perspective than Borg. (I don’t cite Wright’s chapter on the birth stories because, although I read it, I didn’t find it helpful. At all. Borg’s chapter was insightful. The image of these stories as “overtures” comes from Borg. As is his custom, he seeks to let his scholarship inform our personal faith.

Borg, Marcus: Meeting Jesus Again: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, 23-24.

This book is focused on “the Historical Jesus”—the human being, as best we can find him across the reach of history. Hence, Borg treats only very briefly the birth stories, since (in his view—and mine) they are not part of Jesus’ history, but part of the early church’s story about him. Borg asserts that the meaning of the birth stories is revealed when we free them from the constraints of history.

Brown, Robert McAfee: Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1984, “Mary’s Song: Whom Do We Hear,” 74-88.

Brown is my main guide into Mary’s Magnificat; several other authors treat this passage as well.

Byers, Gary A., “Away in a Manger, but Not in a Barn,” Bible and Spade 29:1 (2016), 5-9,  accessed November 24, 2020, Associates for Biblical Research, https://biblearchaeology.org/new-testament-era-list/4111-Away-In-a-Manger-But-Not-In-a-Barn; https://biblearchaeology.org/images/articles/Away-in-A-Manger.pdf.

ABR describes itself as “A Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.” My focus is a little different. Nonetheless, this article, even while presuming the historicity of Luke’s account, was very helpful in my work to understand the manger and the inn.

Crossan, John Dominic: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, “A Tale of Two Gods,” 1-28.

Although Crossan focuses primarily on the Historical Jesus, his initial chapter looks closely at the birth stories—not because he regards them as historical, but because he sees them as vibrant fictions that reflect the impact of Jesus’ adult ministry. He finds in both Matthew and Luke evidence for an adult Jesus that deeply challenged the power structures and dominant values of the day. He was helpful to me especially in the parallels between John’s birth and Jesus’ birth in Luke and in detailing the “crosstalk” between the first century Jewish elaboration of Moses’ birth and Matthew’s account, from Joseph through the Magi.

Ehrman, Bart D.: A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, New York: Oxford University Press,  2004, 82-87; 103-105.

Ehrman wasn’t a primary source for my thinking. But he contributed a handful of ideas such as the “order” Matthew offers by way of three neat sets of fourteen generations and one point of irony in the Magi account (which I develop much further, into the fivefold farcical set of “Really?!” and the comparison to Jonah, so I’ll take credit for all of that!).

Goldstein, Daniel, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh – Ki Tisa,” Jewels of Judaism, accessed November 29, 2020, https://www.jewelsofjudaism.com/gold-frankincense-myrrh-ki-tisa.

While writing the essay itself, largely due to my recognition of how much Matthew is using Moses and the Exodus tale as an inspiration for his birth story, I began to suspect that the gifts of the Magi were also drawn from this source. By googling “gold, frankincense, myrrh, exodus,” I found this article, which at least makes my suspicion quite plausible. But the way I frame the link between the gifts, the Tabernacle, and Jesus-as-Tabernacle in this essay is my own.

Horsley, Richard: “The Gospel of the Savior’s Birth” and “Messiah, Magi, and Model Imperial King,” in Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture, ed. by Richard Horsley and James Tracy, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001) 113-138; 139-161.

Horsley’s work was the primary source for me. His pieces are meticulously researched and he brings both a social/power analysis and a strong liberationist perspective to the text that resonates with my own inclinations. There is more Horsley reflected in this essay than anyone else.

© David R. Weiss | 2020.12.01 | drw59mn@gmail.com

Beyond Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: What Now? A Little Q & A

David R. Weiss – December 20, 2020

When I first gave the original presentation to my church the Q & A afterwards was good, though we were a bit pressed for time and Zoom can be a bit clunky for back-and-forth dialogue, so I’m sure there were some sincere questions left unasked. So I decided to address some of the likely unasked questions.

A presentation like the one I just made sits differently with different folks. For itinerant skeptics, it confirms years of suspicions about the Christmas tales: they’re almost certainly early examples of “fan fiction,” not real history. While for those who regard these tales with deep wonder and devotion—often cultivated lifelong—that same recognition comes as unsettling or worse. For persons just beginning to integrate their critical adult thinking with simpler lifelong faith convictions, it can be an exhilarating yet disorienting rush. And for those who’ve embraced the justice/compassion-centered message of the adult Jesus, the message in my presentation can ring deeply and ecstatically true.

Of course, these aren’t “fixed” categories. I’m sure there are folks who see themselves in one or more of them. Likewise, the unasked questions might come from any of these angles. So here are some brief thoughtful answers to unasked questions.

My goal, whether teaching in a college classroom or a church setting, is always to present knowledge in a way that can foster faith. Even when what I say challenges commonly held understandings, I offer it with the conviction that the healthiest faith we can hold is one grounded in the best understanding available to us. So, especially if you found your faith rattled by anything I said, I hope you’ll venture here to see if I address it further. One “spoiler” up front: I don’t think we should “cancel” Christmas or pack away our manger scenes; in fact, they’re more important than ever.

Here are the five questions I’ll respond to here:

  1. Are you really saying, No Magi bearing gifts, No Christmas Star, No Slaughter of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s Gospel?
  2. Are you really saying, No census, No trip to Bethlehem, No inn or manger, and no shepherds?
  3. But—if God IS God, couldn’t these stories have really happened the way they’re told?
  4. But why would the church have not taught us this sooner? Centuries—millennia!—of Christians have grown up taking them literally.
  5. So, what are we supposed to do with Christmas now?

Let’s get started.

Are you really saying, No Magi bearing gifts, No Christmas Star, No Slaughter of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s Gospel?

Short answer: Yes.

There were Magi in the ancient world. But, as I say, Matthew’s Magi tale borders on fantastical-farcical satire-tragedy. Had any Magi truly visited Herod and then Jesus, there were surely be more than one solitary record of it. In communities where oral memory flourished, this would have been remembered.

There were heavenly wonders in the ancient skies: meteor showers, shooting stars, super novae, and “wandering” stars (planets) that occasionally “met up” in the skies in striking conjunctions. Such wonders—anything other than the pinpoint stars that drifted lazily across the sky in fixed patterns each night—were naturally sources of curiosity and speculation. Throughout history people have sought to connect them to historical events. Almost every emperor’s birth tale mentioned some “heavenly portent” that “predicted” his birth. But the movements of the stars or the planets do not directly cause or predict earthly events. Not for emperors. And not for messiahs. It makes perfect sense for Matthew to feature a star in his story, even if there (almost certainly) was no super nova or planetary conjunction in the sky at the time of Jesus’ birth. Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s retroactively projecting the meaning of Jesus’ adult life back to his birth. And he does a masterful job of that.

And Herod was absolutely capable of slaughtering innocent children. His reputation for brutality helps make the symbolic connection with Pharaoh work, but it doesn’t make it fact. Enough tales of Herod’s terror-laden behavior have survived that it’s extremely unlikely that such a slaughter as this would’ve been covered up—certainly not in the memories of the Jewish people. But only Matthew knows this story—because it’s his creation.

So … no Magi, no Star, no Slaughter. But their historicity was never the point! Not for Matthew.

Are you really saying, No census, No trip to Bethlehem, No inn or manger, and no shepherds?

Short answer: Yes.

There were enrollments (censuses) in the Roman Empire; they were used to collect taxes and were often well documented. But there’s no record of this enrollment. Which suggests that Luke is using it for symbolic effect (its connection to oppressive taxes).

Bethlehem was known as the City of David, and there were a few Scripture passages that suggested a future messiah would come from Bethlehem. Because both Matthew and Luke share this notion of a Bethlehem birth it’s “possible” that Jesus was indeed born here, but it seems more likely that both of them (writing in the years 80-85 CE) chose to set Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because it linked him to David and the messianic hopes associated with David.

That means the inn (the upper/guest room) and the manger (Luke never mentions a stable) are almost incidental to the story. Far from making Jesus’ birth extraordinary, for Luke, they actually serve to say that Jesus was born in the most ordinary way: in a crowded home, packed with extended family because of that oppressive taxation strategy. To a first century Jewish (or almost any Middle Eastern) peasant, the story exudes normal.

Of course, shepherds were commonplace in the world into which Jesus was born. So they’re also very much “at home” in a tale like this. But their role in Luke’s story (written 80 years after the birth—and with the knowledge that Jesushad grown up to challenge Caesar) was to show that when this child was born, it was the most lowly who received first notice. That’s something much more than history. It’s theology. And it echoes Elizabeth’s greeting and Mary’s Magnificat in declaring that the God so active in Jesus’ adult life is the same God who has always championed the least of these.

But—if God IS God, couldn’t these stories have really happened the way they’re told?

Well, Yes … but—

This gets into some really thorny questions about how we understand God, and how God acts in the cosmos, but I’m going to leave those for another day and just address the “Yes … but—”

First, the “yes.” Well, there are conservative, and even some mainstream scholars who will reply “yes, absolutely!”

Now the “but.” But I’m writing for, speaking to, and thinking with progressive Christians. I’m trying to help all of us (myself included!) wrestle faithfully—using both heart and head—with the story of God who is still speaking. So I’m drawing on solid scholarship that I believe can help progressive Christians do this. I don’t find those conservative traditional arguments persuasive. More importantly, I think they end up missing the mark, distracting us from paying attention to what mattered most for Matthew, for Luke, and, indeed, for God.

To say that God could’ve done these things seems to miss the point. These stories were written to prepare us to learn about Jesus’ adult life of faithfulness to God and solidarity with God’s people, his miraculous compassion, and his determination to sow the seeds of a community that reflected his—God’s—vision for our life together. If THAT’S their purpose, then we may miss the point of Christmas altogether if we’re more interested in believing these tales as historical fact rather than receiving them as rich symbolic introductions to the Gospels themselves.

The irony is that once we recognize that, from the vantage point of history, nobody noticed when Jesus was born (and that’s why there are no historical accounts of his birth), THEN we can also recognize that Matthew and Luke have filled these birth tales, these Christmas overtures, with themes that help us meet the adult Jesus. And THAT’S the real miracle God is working at Christmas.

But why would the church have not taught us this sooner? Centuries—millennia!—of Christian have grown up taking them literally.

This is complicated. And I’m determined to be brief, so some of this answer will get filled out in future presentations. One part of it is that the early church, already by the end of the first century, was trying to reign in and “manage” the impact of Jesus’ ministry. His announcement of God’s kin-dom—God’s gracious embrace of the all of us—was shaping a new form of community. Yet we see efforts in some of the last Epistles written, to “roll back” Paul’s more radical notion of gospel equality and freedom for the early church.

A second part of the answer is that when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (312 CE) the church became a political tool used to unite the Roman Empire. Before long, from its now favored place within the corridors of power, the church became a sort of chaplain to the empire’s desire to secure order and maintain social relations blatantly at odds with Jesus’ message. This dynamic continued throughout Europe’s era of colonialism and the U.S. expansion westward. The American church played a central role in the cultural genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. Really, ever since Constantine—for the past 1700 years—the church has largely maintained its own access to power and privilege by “burying” Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, so that Christian charity is prized, but Christian pursuit of social justice is suppressed.

So this is about MUCH more than just Christmas. Why did (large portions) of the church cooperate with slavery right through the civil war? Why did the church effectively silence women for 1900 years? Why did it promote the condemnation and terrorization of LGBTQ persons for 2000 years? Why has the church consistently found it easier to endorse whatever war its home country is fighting than to stand alongside its “Prince of Peace”? Why did white evangelical Christians overwhelmingly support Donald Trump? I could go on, but this is plenty to make my point. First, if we’re honest, the church has been sorely mistaken about—no, it has betrayed the love of God on a whole bunch of issues over the past 2000 years. Second, in the big scheme of things, missing the mark on Christmas is a pretty small oversight compared to the other examples just mentioned.

BUT—going a step further, in some very real ways the church’s preference to treat Christmas as a tale of holy wonder rather than an audacious overture to God’s gracious-risky-daring-unexpected embrace of the least of these, THAT MISSTEP helped—and still helps—prepare Christians to MISS the very power of Jesus’ life.

Alongside many lonely voices in every age (sometimes acknowledged as saints, sometimes condemned as heretics)—it’s taken feminist and womanist voices, slave and black voices, queer and immigrant voices, poor and global voices, in recent years for us to begin to hear more clearly the power of Jesus’ life. This is why the UCC has chosen to affirm that “God is still speaking.” It’s the honest recognition that we STILL have much to learn as we seek to be the church. And with the stakes so high in the multiple crises facing us today, being the church as faithfully as we can is more important than ever. How we celebrate Christmas is one part of that … and a pretty big part, if you ask me.

So what are we supposed to do with Christmas now?

Of course, that’s not entirely up to me, but I do have some thoughts on this. Foremost, we should NOT put away our manger scenes or hide the shepherds and magi. Matthew and Luke gave us these stories and filled them with faith-nurturing images. Our task is to make sure we access them.

We can—and ought—to be more honest about the powerful social justice imagery in these stories. That ought to be reflected in adult forums like this, but also throughout our Advent worship season and right into our Christmas liturgy. We can—and ought—to “re-true” these tales to the powerful message of Jesus’ life. That’s absolutely possible, and our discomfort in changing the way it’s always been celebrated is a real—but insufficient reason not to. This would take some thoughtful work, but there are persons already doing it, so we’d have company on this journey.

I don’t think we’d need to “forsake” all our favorite Advent hymns and Christmas carols. In fact, by framing them in worship with prayers, readings, and sermons that help “untame” Christmas, these old familiar songs would find a new voice of their own. And we could balance them with other ones already in our hymnal, and some new ones as well, that help us sing the truth of Christmas yet more clearly.

And, I will say that I fully believe we could imagine a children’s Christmas pageant in which we catechize our children in the deepest truth of our faith by inviting them to re-enact the story in ways that help surface the meanings that Matthew and Luke put there. It could be done with sensitivity and creativity alongside audacity. Audacity is what Matthew and Luke display in their telling. It’s time we let it speak in our re-telling. Children are more than up to that. (Which might be why Jesus suggested they could show us the way to the kingdom of God.) I’m betting they could become the church and offer us a Christmas pageant more poignant and powerful than any we have ever experienced in all of our lives.

Now I’m getting ahead of myself. Bottom line: we have an opportunity to meet Christmas … in the spirit of Jesus. Doing so will almost certainly put us at odds with the Herods and Caesars of the word today. And we may find ourselves uncomfortably close to those at the edge—today’s hungry, lowly, outcast, oppressed, shepherds. But we might also … in the voices of children and also in the unexpected gracious yearning within our hearts  … discover angels singing about glad tidings that promise to overturn the ways things are. And that song might sound like gospel as never before.

© David R. Weiss | 2020.12.19 | drw59mn@gmail.com

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Faith Fit for Collapse – Delivering Dark Hope #6

Faith Fit for Collapse – Delivering Dark Hope #6
David R. Weiss – August 3, 2021

NOTE: None of my writing is behind a pay wall. It’s all gift. Over the next decade it may be among the most important gifts you receive. Still, this is my work. Every monthly pledge (even $2-10/month!) via Patreon keeps me fed in body and spirit. If you can support me with a monthly gift I’m grateful. In any case, please read—and please subscribe.

This is #6 in an 8-essay series in which I’m thinking out loud and a bit on the run about what it means to be church (or any authentic human community) … in a time of approaching ecological-social collapse. I’ll develop many of these thoughts further in the future, but I want to set out an overview of sorts. (Here are links to essay #1, essay #2, essay #3, essay #4, and essay #5. While each essay treats a different facet of the larger project, there is a narrative arc to them. I encourage you to read them in order when possible.)

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In this essay I want to introduce some of the themes I think can guide churches in fostering a “faith fit for collapse.” That sounds underwhelming. As in, “Really? ‘Fit for collapse’? That’s all you got for us?!” Fair enough. But trust me, when collapse hits—and hits hard—this is the faith you want. This is incarnational faith absent the Hallelujah chorus, unassuming, cobbled together, stumbling in the dark, but stubbornly incarnational nonetheless.

We begin with a couple necessary asides.

One. I align myself with the faith community that draws its life out of the story of Jesus and the vision of justice-mercy-compassion-grace that forms the grand arc of God’s liberating love in the Bible. But I do NOT regard Christianity (or the Bible) as having a monopoly on sacred wisdom. I believe most long-standing religious and philosophical traditions harbor genuine truths in their teachings and practices. And no single tradition has it all “right.” I do my thinking alongside and with the church—specifically the progressive edge of the Christian tradition—because this is where I make my spiritual home, and this is the collection of language and imagery I know best. Because as yet this community has little inkling of what it can—and must—do to bear good news to a world in collapse. And because awakening this community is my vocation: that place where my deep passion and joy meet the world’s deep hunger and need.

Two. This is Christian faith … on edge. I’d argue that authentic Christian faith has always and everywhere been “on edge.” Placing compassion—active empathy-solidarity with the suffering—as a core Christian virtue, means that anytime the church is anywhere other than alongside those who suffer, seeking to undo the causes of their suffering and working to promote their ability to flourish, it’s being something other than the church. Usually that’s been as chaplain to empire (or culture or economy … or whiteness). Occasionally, as Inquisitor, by many different names. The Christian faith I suggest here moves against that current and is decidedly, unreservedly … on edge. It may seem vaguely familiar but uncomfortably disconcerting. Yet with all my heart and all my mind, I believe it is the path that beckons to those who follow Jesus. I’m sure my understanding will deepen as I write (and live!) my way into it. But I am convinced the path begins here. Now. So let’s.

Features of a Faith Fit for Collapse. These are just some of my intuitions. The challenge for the church is to reclaim ancient ideas and/or practices that cultivate features like these—or to create fresh ideas and practices to do so. None of them are uniquely Christian, but they will have a distinctively Christian expression in the context of our story and life.

Gratitude and awe. Obviously, there are deep roots for this in the biblical tradition, but Joanna Macy sets it as the foundation for her “Work that Reconnects.” She regards it not simply as a praiseworthy disposition; in our present context it’s the essential anchor for our work. Cultivating and then embodying practices that instill and strengthen gratitude and awe is a life-or-death proposition in a time of collapse.

Grief and lament. This is about honesty, but it goes further. It begins with confessing, recognizing, and feeling in our gut the anguish of all the horror we have wrought on the natural world, the many ways we’ve uncreated creation. Part of this is accountability. Adulting involves honest self-appraisal. But the deeper, near mystical part of this, is that ONLY authentic grief and lament before the suffering of the world can open a doorway forward. ONLY this. We are at a DEAD END until we grieve. And the sides are closing in. Fast. Holding onto gratitude and awe for dear life, we must fashion ways that open us to grief that has every right to swallow us whole. But it won’t.

Empathy-Solidarity. What we will discover, bathed in grief that is honest and overwhelming, is that we are IN FACT (not as warm fuzzy feeling, but IN FACT!) kin to all creation. Our capacity for grief is the echo of our original kinship, often recounted in myths and more recently confirmed by science. Interwoven and entangled are not nice metaphors. They are gritty descriptions for the blessed mystical-ecological messiness of nature. And this empathy-solidarity, rooted in the original fabric of the cosmos can tie us back into the energy of the universe: Love. But ONLY on the far side of grief, ONLY as empathy with ALL creation. Any attempt to “cheat” here, to be anything less than “all in,” will cost us everything. The church has become very good at making modest demands on its people. Today the God who created and loves the world we have so despoiled asks everything of us. It is time for the church to be a partner in that ask.

Compassion as Mutual Vulnerability. We idolize security. Insofar as “death is the cause of sin” (see essay #3), our desire for security in the face of finitude is among the most deeply ingrained self-defeating impulse we carry. The truth of this life is that we all die, and we’re all bound together, one living messy mass from tiny microbes to brilliant minds: one. Until death comes for us. Compassion is not a virtue by which the secure offer aid to the insecure; it is the revolutionary solidarity by which we own the truth that we are all vulnerable, and our best “protection” is to be vulnerable together. This means embracing the goodness of finitude, which will be a challenge for the church. This is a MUCH bigger project than a paragraph, but somehow, if we want to keep “heaven” as part of our faith, we must use it to bolster our commitment to the preciousness of this life (in which we die), lived in mutual vulnerability … and joy. For whatever years we have, here … is home.

The Liminal is Holy. But only if we make it so. We have learned (for example, in hospice) to accompany both patients and families as they hover (liminally—on the threshold) between worlds. We will dwell for years in the discomfort of a great inbetweenness. It may unleash chaos and terror. But if we learn how to hover within the liminal while holding one another close we can render it holy, pregnant with opportunity, even in the midst of collapse.

There is more to say. And other days to say it. The features named above (and more) will need to find expression in our theology and practice, prayers and hymnody, sacraments and social gatherings. Our faith-formation (for all ages) will involve developing the character that supports these features and sharing the skills that allow us to embody them. In every facet of our being church we must learn to manifest God’s liberatory love for creation. Not because such love can forestall collapse, but because it can endure collapse. That’s where we are. That’s what we need. God help us if we turn away.

But we’re not here alone. Besides countless persons in my own faith tradition, I’ve encountered “clarifying echoes” from outside it. These help me re-true my own inheritance, or recover pearls of great worth that have been neglected over the years. Joanna Macy’s Active Hope and The Work that Reconnects—steeped in her own experience of Buddhist teachings and systems theory—have been revelatory and have confirmed my own intuitions. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writings on Indigenous wisdom have been a treasure. And my readings in the Transition Town Movement, Permaculture, and Deep Adaptation have offered profound moments of common recognition. What I write on the page continues an unending conversation in my heart and mind … and with you.

Finally, in my last piece I admitted, “daunting” seems too small a word for what we face. But I also said it’s possible to imagine communities that might cultivate passions and joys that center our energy on tending the world. “Salvation” shares the same root as “salve,” a healing ointment. Rather than thinking we can save the world, perhaps it is enough help that we might salve the world: tend its wounds, and our own, as best we can. Perhaps that is the sacred wisdom we need most today.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on August 4, 2021. 3 Comments

Christmas Pageant Pandemonium

Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: Untangling—and Untaming Christmas
David R. Weiss – December 1, 2020

NOTE: this is the background essay for Session #3 in Approaching the Bible with Heart and Mind: An introduction to Scripture for those who affirm that “God is Still Speaking,” a series of talks/conversations I’m offering this year at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in St. Paul.
You can find a (ten-page) pdf of this essay HERE.
ALSO, see my rejoinder “Q & A” post written after my presentation HERE.
The actual event is on December 16, 6:30-7:30 via Zoom. Contact me if you’re interested in attending.

Some of my best childhood church memories are of Christmas Eve Sunday School pageants. “Best” because in the pageant as on few other occasions we—who were kids—became church. Sure, our parents and grandparents and pretty much everyone else in church knew the story, but we brought it to life for them each year with our earnest reenactment. We made it real all over again—only cuter. The Christmas pageant is a participatory catechism through which kids act out the cuteness that marks the Gospel.

Except.

Here is the sad truth. In a world that desperately needs the transformative power of Jesus’ teachings more than ever, the standard Christmas pageant doesn’t deliver. Whether retelling the Bible story or telling a more contemporary tale, pageants are often the first and most effective step by which we inoculate our children against ever accessing the power inside Christmas. And, tragically, we do so with love.

Someday I’d like to write a Christmas Pageant that does the opposite: introducing children to the real power of Jesus that is foreshadowed in the tales of his birth. And then harnessing the cuteness of these kids to introduce their parents and grandparents and pretty much everyone else in church to the Jesus they’ve likely never met but whose wisdom and faith they—and the rest of the world—need more than ever today.

Here’s what I mean.

The two birth tales we have for Jesus—found in Matthew and Luke—are just that: two and tales. Two, in that they’re quite distinct, having less in common than most Christmas pageants (or Christmas carols) suggest. And tales, in that they’re not history. Each one is a unique imaginative account that serves as something like a musical overture, introducing themes to be developed in the chapters that follow in each specific gospel.

These tales didn’t appear until about fifty years after Jesus died … and about eighty years after his birth. Thus, they’re not newspaper accounts of actual events. But that doesn’t at all render them worthless. In fact, I’ll argue that recognizing them as primarily symbolic tales helps us access their worth. And their worth is a lot.

But consider: Jesus was born sometime around 4 BCE and died around 30 CE. Neither date is certain, in large part because both at the start and end of his life Jesus was too inconsequential for his birth or death to be noted in any detail by those who recorded the history of the day. And even though the resurrection was clearly a transformative event among Jesus’ followers, it also didn’t make it into any history recorded outside the Bible.

The first written mention of Jesus within the church is found in Paul’s letters to early Christian communities. Dating from roughly 48-62 CE, these letters never mention anything about Jesus’ birth (and very little about his ministry either for that matter). Sometime between 65-70 CE Mark brings the first collected set of traditions about Jesus together in the written form we know as gospel. Many of these snippets of teachings, miracles, and crucifixion have been circulating for decades by now, but Mark puts his own theological stamp on them as he arranges them. (None of the gospels identify their author—the names are provided by tradition decades later. I’ll use these names as a shorthand convenience.) As the first to be written, Mark’s Gospel is noteworthy in a couple of ways. It barely has a resurrection: it records a tale of an empty grave, but no description of a risen Jesus. And it includes nothing at all about Jesus’ birth.

Given the importance Mark places on Jesus—his opening verse (Mk 1:1) reads, “The beginning of the Gospel (“good news”/“glad tidings”) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”—it seems likely that had he known of resurrection appearances or birth stories featuring angels or stars, he would’ve included them to support his claim. That he doesn’t is strong evidence that he wasn’t aware of them and suggests that neither Easter appearances nor Christmas tales developed until after 70 CE.

The fact that stories about both the very start and the very end of Jesus’ life “developed” decades after he lived is helpful to bear in mind. Both Christmas and Easter as we know them today began with the early church’s efforts to make sense of Jesus’ life and death.

Between his relatively brief public ministry (just a couple years at most), the manner of his death (crucified by Rome as a threat to public order) and the miraculous persistence of his followers after his death (the very antithesis of crucifixion’s intent), the church found itself called to be audaciously creative in fashioning stories that aimed to mediate good news to the people who encountered them. Indeed, that’s the defining purpose of “gospel” as a genre. The word itself literally means “good news” or “glad tidings” in Greek. But as a literary genre it doesn’t mean this in any abstract sense. It means good news YOU experience as you encounter it. It DOES the thing it communicates—to you.

By the time Matthew and Luke write their gospels, ten to fifteen years after Mark it’s possible that some birth traditions have begun to circulate in certain regions; it’s also possible they chose to fashion their own. Regardless of how much is original with them (regardless of how much of each tale they made up themselves), they clearly spun the final versions so that they aligned with their respective gospels.

Okay, that’s a long introduction, but you need that much to appreciate my central claim: the real power—the real truth … the JOY TO THE WORLD—in these two Christmas tales is not about miraculous things that occurred in conjunction with Jesus birth. If there’d been a star and Magi and a massacre of infants or angels and shepherds … why does no one remember any of this when Jesus begins his public ministry? The locals know he’s Mary’s son and that his father was a carpenter—a landless and therefore lower class worker—but not a single person says, “Oh, he’s the guy the Magi visited … the one who sparked that massacre … the kid the angels sang about.”

Such events would not be quickly forgotten, but in both gospels’ account of Jesus’ adult life, it’s like these things never happened when he was a kid … almost certainly because they never did. But once we stop trying to make them into historical events, we can instead discover the real joy in these tales—AND IT IS INDEED JOY ABOUT WHICH HEAVEN AND NATURE OUGHT TO SING—because they prefigure Jesus’ ministry. And because they beckon us to extend the echo of Jesus in our own lives.

So I invite you to experience the wonder of Christmas not via “historical” accounts that strain credulity but via two audaciously imaginative tales that prime you to hear the whole gospel—and that hope to reverberate so thoroughly in your own heart as to render you a new being committed to making a new world.

Both Christmas stories are shaped as much by the era in which they were written as the era eighty years earlier in which they’re set—and also by everything that occurs in between. Matthew and Luke write with the benefit of hindsight. We need to read their stories that way, too. Let’s look at Matthew first.

Matthew writes for a community of Jewish believers who’ve chosen to follow Jesus’ teachings—unlike the majority of Jews. Thinking about his birth tale as an “overture” to the rest of his gospel, three themes appear that are developed throughout his gospel.

(1) Jesus is the “fulfillment” of Jewish Scripture; not necessarily as predictions coming true but as culminations that can be recognized as they happen. This is part of Matthew’s overall strategy to aid his audience in justifying their fidelity to Jesus over against the disapproval of their Jewish peers (no doubt including family and friends). Matthew includes well over one hundred allusions to the Hebrew Bible and often uses a formulaic expression about fulfillment of Scripture.

(2) Jesus is portrayed as a successor to Moses, almost like a new Moses. While Mark and Luke spread Jesus’ teachings out across a multitude of short exchanges, Matthew collects them into long discourses—five of them, mirroring Moses’ five books of Torah. In another echo of Moses, Matthew places Jesus’ most famous “discourse” as the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7; Luke sets it on a plain, Lk 6:17-49).

(3) Jesus fulfills/completes both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants in ways that reach out to the Gentiles. This is seen clearly in the “Great Commission” at the very conclusion of his gospel where the disciples are instructed to go to all nations (Mt 28:19).

Matthew draws on each of these themes in crafting his story of Jesus’ birth—some eighty years after Jesus was born in relative obscurity. His purpose was not to fashion a false narrative of Jesus’ birth but rather a fitting introduction to his gospel.

Besides these Matthean themes, there are two last bits of context we need. First is the religious-political-economic context, which in the ancient world were always overlapping realities. (I’d argue they still are today, with the exception that our “formal” religion has been domesticated so that it rarely speaks to political-economic concerns, while our “informal” religion IS the faith that places consumer capitalism and national pride at the center of our meaning-making … but that’s a whole other discussion. ) In Matthew’s case, his birth story “happens” around 4 BCE—shortly before Herod the Great dies. Just as no one will fully understand our era if they know nothing of the 2020 pandemic, we need to know something about the decades before and after Herod’s death to understand the difference it makes that Jesus was born at the end of Herod’s reign.

Herod, himself a Jew since birth following his father’s conversion, ruled Judea (as appointed by Rome) with ruthless paranoia and fearsome exploitation. He taxed his fellow Jews to the breaking point in order to expand the Temple and build other ostentatious monuments while people went hungry. And he was so paranoid about people plotting against him that he had his wife, mother-in-law, and three of his own sons executed lest they betray him. As well as scores of others. He was despised and feared—equally. In the years after he died a whole series of movements, some armed and some nonviolent, sought unsuccessfully to reclaim independence from Roman rule. Matthew and his readers have lived that history, and his birth tale expects us to know at least this much.

The other bit of “cultural trivia” we need to be aware of concerns Moses and the popular imagination of the era in which Matthew wrote. Most of us know in broad strokes the tale of Moses’ birth: Pharaoh had grown alarmed at the rising number of Hebrew slaves, issued an order for all baby boys to be killed at birth, and Moses was rescued from the reeds by a princess who raised him safely right there in Egypt until he was called to lead God’s people to in the Exodus. Of course, movies like The Ten Commandments and Disney’s Prince of Egypt took artistic license in filling out the story for popular consumption. So did Jewish lore in Matthew’s day. In the decade just before he wrote his gospel there was popular expansion of the Moses’ story (dating from 70-80 CE) that embellished the biblical account. In it Egypt’s “sacred scribes” (another word for sacred scribe is Magi!) warn Pharaoh that a boy child will soon be born who will be Pharaoh’s downfall. In this popularized version, it’s the prediction of these Magi that sparks Pharaoh’s edict to kill the boy children. Hmmm …

NOW, keeping all this in mind—and I realize it’s a lot, but for God’s sake we’re talking about Holy Scripture: who ever said this was supposed to be uncomplicated?—we’re finally set to hear Matthew’s tale on something close to Matthew’s terms.

Matthew opens with a genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) that traces Jesus back to Abraham—thus, he is a “true” Jew; and through David—thus, also legitimate contender to be a messianic king. Because he’s writing for a people who’ve seen their national fortunes wane far more than wax, he arranges Jewish history in three neat sets of fourteen generations (albeit collapsing generations here and there—sometimes telling the truth is more important than hewing to mere fact). From Abraham to David (Israel’s pinnacle); then from David to Exile (Israel’s collapse); and then from Exile to Jesus (a long stretch of stumbling toward a renewal never fully realized), but now in this fourteenth generation something great must surely transpire. A renewal like under David; a throwing off of oppression; a reclaiming of inward identity. Matthew’s genealogy itself sows hope.

His genealogy also comes with an unexpected bit of gynecology thrown in. Alongside forty-two generations of men begetting men, four women’s names appear. Tamar, twice widowed, ultimately tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her so that she could bear a child. Rahab, a prostitute-innkeeper, sheltered Hebrew spies at the edge of Canaan. Ruth, a Moabite widow seduced Boaz to marry her. And Bathsheba, raped by King David. Each woman is Gentile—a sort of holy footnote in Matthew’s genealogy that foreshadows how the Great Commission (Mt 28:16-20) brings full circle the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan, begun long ago through these women.

Besides that, each woman bears testament to God’s ability, by now long acclaimed by the Jews themselves (after all, they’ve claimed these women’s stories as part of their own prized heritage), to take scandal and use it for holy good. Thus, perhaps these women also appear in order to set Mary’s scandalous pre-marital pregnancy (if that was historically the case) in perspective. Or perhaps they stand as counterpoint to the notion of a virgin birth created by Matthew (or someone else) to heighten Jesus’ status. We cannot say for sure—but we can be sure they are not there merely by accident.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 1:18-25) several things are noteworthy, but while it may surprise you, it’s actually not surprising that in this tale Mary says nothing and does little. Joseph is the one visited by an angel (in a dream) three times. Mary remains in the background, carrying Jesus, first in her womb then on her shoulder. In a patriarchal culture there’s nothing unusual about that; it’s the way you’d expect things to be. (That makes it all the more striking when, in Luke’s story, Mary gains both her own agency and her own angelic visitor, leaving Joseph in the background.)

Three things merit special mention.

First, the link to Moses. Joseph initially plans to (a) divorce Mary quietly (to break their betrothal) until being (b) reassured through a dream that he should (c) not fear to take her for his wife because (d) the child to be born will save the people. We know that story. But what we don’t realize is that the same scene plays out in the popularized tale of Moses’ birth that appeared just before Matthew’s gospel. In that tale all the Jewish men decide to (a) divorce their wives (to no longer have sex with them, lest they father children that would be killed by Pharaoh), until one of the men, Amram, is (b) reassured through a dream relayed to him by his daughter Miriam that he should (c) not fear to take his wife (have sex with her) because (d) the child to be born will save the people. It turns out we don’t know really this scene at all. Each of the italicized phrases (a) through (d) is found in the popularized Moses tale of 70-80 CE and then repeated in Matthew’s birth story of Jesus. In these verses Matthew is already setting up the next scene (with the Magi), putting in place the pieces necessary for a tale of liberation as significant as the Exodus itself. And we never knew!

Second, more Exodus echoes. The child to be born is to be named “Jesus,” which in Hebrew is “Joshua”—the name of the person who took up and carried on the work of liberation begun by Moses. And we are told Jesus will be known as “Emmanuel”—meaning “God with us.” We’ve heard—and sung—Emmanuel for so long that it strikes us as a “but-of-course” moment. But during the Exodus God’s presence among the Hebrews leading them out of bondage, through the wilderness, and toward freedom was nothing less than a divine declaration that God is “all in” against oppression. For Matthew’s readers, first century Jews living—groaning—under oppression by Caesar and Herod, the name Emmanuel would be no word of warm comfort sung soothingly in a carol, but more a resounding call to a new Exodus out of bondage into beloved community.

Third, Matthew borrows a prophetic text originally uttered as a warning by Isaiah (Is 7:14) seven centuries earlier and flips it into a promise of hope. But in doing so he takes a Hebrew word that meant “young woman” in Isaiah and translates it with a Greek word that can mean either “young woman” or “virgin.” And then clearly uses it to mean “virgin,” thereby doing his part to shape the tradition of the virgin birth. We hear it as “proof” of Jesus’ one-of-a-kind divine origin, but the Jews of Jesus’ day were familiar with claims of virginal birth: such were regularly ascribed—usually retroactively after the deaths—to Roman emperors as signs that the gods had approved of their lives.

There were no tales of virgin birth about Jesus that circulated prior to Matthew’s gospel around 80 CE. But by the time Matthew created or amplified this tradition—Jesus had been ruled a traitor to the Emperor and crucified under Rome’s authority. So what better way to retroactively assert that Jesus’ liberating life had, in point of divine fact, been blessed by God, than to take this Roman method of ultimate endorsement and rest it over Jesus’ birth? The virgin birth is hardly interested in asserting a biological miracle; it asserts something much greater—a political-religious miracle: that one nailed to a tree in disgrace was, in truth, blessed by God to liberate God’s people.

By the time we turn to the familiar tale of the Magi (2:1-18)—wise men, astrologers, sacred scribes who advised political rulers (but not kings!)—from the East, we might’ve started to suspect there’s more to this scene than we previously thought. We’d be right.

Besides the now obvious echoes of the Moses birth tale, the scene has almost a farcical quality to it. These Magi (regarded as the most savvy advisers around) are so naïve as to ask Herod if he’d heard of a child born to assume Herod’s throne. Really? Herod was so renowned for his brutal paranoia that Caesar once said of him “Better to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios)”—the wordplay in Greek implying that the Jewish prohibition against eating pork at least gave Herod’s pigs a measure of protection that even his own children lacked.  Next, when asked, the Jewish religious advisors (Herod’s own palace version of “magi”) know immediately where this messianic baby is to be born: Bethlehem, of course. Yet they show no interest in going to find the newborn messiah themselves. Only the pagan Magi do that. Really?! Herod then convinces the Magi to find the child and send word back to him so can go and honor it as well. Really?! And the Magi seem taken in by Herod’s fawning sincerity; it takes an angelic dream to prevent them from notifying Herod. Really?!  Finally, after all these echoes of Moses’ birth, where must Joseph take Jesus to keep him safe? Egypt! Really?!

The story drips with irony, not even trying to be taken literally because it carries truth so much deeper than fact. (In that sense, it’s reminiscent of the Book of Jonah, a story that also “broadcasts” fictional irony to amplify its daring truth.)

Christians often interpret the three gifts brought by the Magi as signifying that Jesus is king (gold); priest (frankincense); and prophet-martyr (myrrh). But, given how much this narrative is built on images from the Exodus, it’s at least as likely that the gifts are chosen by Matthew to recall key things associated with the Tabernacle that “held” the presence of God as the people of Israel journeyed through the wilderness (Ex 30:1-10; 22-25; 34-38). Then, serving like a bookend to the four Gentile women named in his genealogy, Matthew uses these Gentile Magi to provide the three gifts that will allow this babe—more specifically the man he grew into—to be a Tabernacle of God’s presence that will once again lead the children of Abraham out of bondage.

Each year the retelling of the Passover story heightened Jewish hunger for liberation and freedom, so much so that Rome always sent its “national guard” troops out in force around Jerusalem during the Passover festival. In the same way Matthew’s birth tale, offered to his Jewish Christian audience, is no tame story of a baby’s birth. It is the opening salvo in a gospel that says God’s promise of liberation remains true even under Herod’s paranoia, even under Rome’s watchfulness, even AFTER the crucifixion … even still today.

Now, Luke.

Here are three themes. (1) Luke uses a larger canvas than Matthew. His story of Jesus, still very much grounded in Jewish origins, is pitched to a Gentile Christian audience. While Matthew ends his gospel with the Great Commission, Luke adds an entire sequel—the Book of Acts—in which he chronicles the great commission being carried out. (2) Luke also has a noteworthy emphasis on women as actors throughout his gospel. (3) He also lifts up prayer as the lifeblood of faith, both for Jesus and for the early church. Each theme makes its initial appearance in his birth story.

Luke’s genealogy (Lk 3:23-38) doesn’t match the biblical chronology exactly. (Neither does Matthew’s.) But while he follows Matthew in including both David and Abraham, because he’s additionally committed to pitch the story of Jesus as a story for everyone, he traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam … and then directly to God. Thus, his Jesus is Jewish, but most of all human. For the same reason, while Matthew set his Jesus over against Herod, the king of the Jews, Luke sets his Jesus over against Caesar himself, the emperor of the entire Roman Empire. We’ll come back to that theme.

While Matthew sets Jesus alongside Moses, Luke uses the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:5-25; 57-80) to sum up all the Hebrew prophets and then make clear that with Jesus something far greater than John has come to pass. Both of these stories involve angelic announcements of special births; telling others about the birth; naming the child; a prophecy about the child; and a reference to the child growing up. It’s a pattern done with intent to show that with John one chapter of God’s salvation history is brought to completion and with Jesus a new chapter is beginning.

But there are a couple pieces of Luke’s tale of Jesus’ birth that require special attention: The annunciation by Gabriel; Mary’s visit to Elizabeth; and the birth itself, including the announcement to the shepherds. Each vignette is brimful of imagery that challenges the world into which Jesus was born—intimating that Jesus himself would challenge that world … and suggesting that any pageant hoping to do justice to his birth would make clear that he challenges our world today just as much.

With Gabriel’s angelic announcement to Mary (Lk 1:26-38) we encounter Luke’s choice to make women active agents in the salvation-liberation of God’s people. We hear Gabriel’s announcement: “Son of the Most High … throne of David … a kingdom with no end,” and we nod in polite recognition. But for Luke’s audience Caesar was “Son of the Most High” and his rule seemed to have no end. Hold that thought … Moreover, when Mary responds, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke isn’t recording those words as if he were an on-the-scene reporter. He’s crafting words he hopes his readers will echo in response to his tale.

Soon after, Mary, newly pregnant, goes to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Lk 1:39-56). Elizabeth greets Mary with the exclamation, “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The words are explosive for anyone with a knowledge of Jewish stories, and for those who don’t they lie in waiting to be revealed. Most of us are waiting still.

The phrase “Blessed are you among women”—these words exactly—appear just twice in Hebrew Scriptures (Judges 5:24/Judith 13:18). Both times they’re offered in acclamation to a woman whose heroic fidelity to God has been decisive to saving God’s people. Jael drives a tent peg through the head of a general of an oppressing army. Judith decapitates a general and carries his head back to her village in a basket. In both cases women take up a weapon and wield it successfully on behalf of liberation and freedom. Mary’s “weapon,” as the second part of Elizabeth’s greeting clarifies, is the fruit of her womb. As noted above, the decades before Jesus ministry and after his death were crowded with movements seeking to renew and liberate the Jewish people. Some by violence, others by nonviolence. Luke uses Elizabeth’s greeting to set his story of Jesus smack in the middle of these efforts.

image – Ben Wildflower – https://benwildflower.com/

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with the prayer-song we’ve come to know as the Magnificat. Now she confirms explicitly what Elizabeth has hinted at. Remember, this isn’t a transcript of an actual exchange, this is Luke’s carefully crafted tale. He places these words (drawn in part from Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving; I Sam 2:1-10) on Mary’s lips. And he does so, not for Mary’s benefit, but for that of his audience—and us.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” sings Mary. Her praise is grounded in jubilation and joy … on account of being loved by God and beholding God’s activity to bring about justice. The song proposes that the proper response to—and the driving energy of—Luke’s entire gospel is joy. The first ground for this joy is that God reaches out to uplift Mary, a lowly peasant—the word translated as “handmaiden” (Lk 1:48) can also mean slave. And if God is lifting up slaves now, then the world is about to shift on its axis. The rest of Mary’s song sings that shift, rippling from her person across the world. The very structures of the world, those that secure the rich and mighty on top and maintain the poor and the hungry on the bottom are tilted sideways—and then altogether flipped. Mary’s song has been set to music more than any other Scriptural passage, but only because we reduce it to pious wistful imagery. For Mary, and for the first Christians, her song anticipated a transformed world. It was—IS—a song to seed a revolution.

Finally Luke introduces the birth itself (Lk 2:1-20)—against the backdrop of Roman tribute. There is no historical record of this particular census and while some scholars try to find it “between the lines” of history, many regard it as merely a literary device used by Luke to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth (because of a couple prophetic texts, not necessarily because Jesus was born there). But the census likely carries much more literary weight than that. Tribute fueled the Roman Empire materially (tribute and Rome’s endless military conquests) and religious language honoring the Emperor held the empire together culturally-religiously. And Luke wants his audience to have both in mind.

The manger scene—the height of most Christmas pageants—has its own importance, but probably not the importance we typically attach to it. We hear “no room in the inn” and picture Joseph trudging from one little inn to the next with no luck (Lk 2:7). Until finally some kind-hearted innkeeper offers up a stable, with a manger. But the word translated as “inn” here is NOT the Greek word reserved for a place that rented out rooms. In fact, it’s the same word translated as the “upper room” in which Jesus kept the Passover with his disciples. In other literature it’s rendered as “guest room.” And most Palestinian homes of Jesus’ day (indeed many peasant homes in present day Palestine) feature a manger—often a hole dug into the dirt floor and filled with straw—inside the house and right off the main living area. (The family’s most important animals would be brought inside at night, both to safeguard the animals and to add warmth to the family’s living area.)

The point of Luke’s description is most likely to relate that Mary and Joseph lodged with family in Bethlehem, perhaps alongside other relatives who’d also traveled to Bethlehem to be taxed—to be economically exploited and politically humiliated—by Caesar. And because the “upper room/guest room” was already full, they stayed down on the main floor alongside other family—Mary no doubt attended to throughout her birth by female relatives—and then she laid her baby in a manger, a straw-filled hole right there in the main room, with animals on one side and a bunch of relatives on the other.

Thus, in Luke’s telling, Jesus was born against the backdrop of oppression (the census) but squarely in the midst of his people: sheltered by family, fellow peasants. He was “just one of us” from the very start. Presuming that “us” means primarily “the wretched of the Earth,” the lowly ones that Mary sang about. On the other hand, if “peasant” doesn’t describe us, well, no wonder we find it easier to make the manger scene the object of personal piety rather than the birthplace of revolutionary solidarity.

The shepherds, though, they were—as much as anyone in first century Palestine—the wretched of the Earth. To be a shepherd almost certainly meant that at some point in the past you or your family had “lost the farm” … and had almost certainly done so on account of Herod’s or Caesar’s taxes. To be a shepherd meant you weren’t even a hired hand tilling someone else’s land; it meant you followed flocks while they grazed on land not even worth tilling. As marginal the terrain under your feet, exactly that marginal was your standing in society. To be a shepherd was to be the edge of society.

And yet, as Luke continues, BAM! the angel appears right here at the edge to announce Jesus’ birth. Mary’s world is tilting sideways and then some. The angel tells the shepherds, “I bring you good news / glad tidings (in Greek: “gospel”) of great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” To which the angelic choir adds “and who will bring peace on earth.” (Lk 2: 10-11; 14)

I won’t say Luke is plagiarizing here, but he is stealing almost exactly the wording used to announce the birth of a new emperor. That birth announcement would be carried by messengers (in Greek: “angels”) throughout the empire, declaring in each town, “I bring you good news / glad tidings (“gospel”) of great joy to all the people; for to you is born this day a Savior, who will bring peace.”

Of course, for the wealthy, “peace” looks like Law and Order. For shepherds, peace looks a little more like Mary’s song. A lot more, actually. At this point in Luke’s tale the overture has reached its climatic score as that “multitude of the heavenly host” fill the sky singing praise to God. But the word for host … means army. Those aren’t angels with harps or trumpets; those are battle-hardened winged-warriors singing … with their swords drawn.

If we want a Christmas pageant that carries the truth of this scene, then let’s give that haloed little angel a battle axe to carry as they sing “Glory to God.” No, this isn’t ultimately a tale of violent revolution. And Luke is clear later on to present Jesus as a strategist of nonviolent resistance. But in this opening scene, he is being overtly clear in proclaiming that this child will challenge the very foundation of Caesar’s realm—and nonviolent though the challenge will be, the armies of Heaven will have his back—and ours. And a handful of cute but well-armed cherubs might help us remember that.

Luke concludes his tale with the shepherds—those most marginal of men—becoming the first evangelists, bearing to everyone they meet the glad tidings of a tiny peasant-born challenge to Caesar himself. Mary, meanwhile, ponders everything—holds it prayerfully—in her heart. I like to imagine Luke thinking about the reaction to his Christmas pageant. Some folks will no doubt be eager to animatedly share what they’ve heard. Others will want to let it percolate a bit. Either response is fine. So long as Elizabeth’s acclamation has been shouted, Mary’s Magnificat has been sung, and the glad tidings of a God-child born to remake the world have been delivered to the edge—well, that’s a start. Time to sing Joy to the World. And mean it.

* * *

SOURCES – I’ve chosen not to footnote this essay to keep it easier to read. However, for most of you (as for me initially!) this is new stuff. Here’s a brief annotated bibliography that tells you where my information came from.

Bailey, Kenneth, “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7,” Theological Review of the Near East School of Theology, 2:2 (11/1979), 33-44, accessed November 24, 2020, Associates for Biblical Research, https://biblearchaeology.org/new-testament-era-list/2803-the-manger-and-the-inn.
ABR describes itself as “A Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.” My focus is a little different. Nonetheless, this article, even while presuming the historicity of Luke’s account, was very helpful in my work to understand the manger and the inn.

Borg, Marcus: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, “The Meaning of the Birth Stories,” 179-186.
The subtitle says “two visions” because this book is co-authored by Borg and N.T. Wright, an Anglican scholar with a much more conservative perspective than Borg. (I don’t cite Wright’s chapter on the birth stories because, although I read it, I didn’t find it helpful. At all. Borg’s chapter was insightful. The image of these stories as “overtures” comes from Borg. As is his custom, he seeks to let his scholarship inform our personal faith.

Borg, Marcus: Meeting Jesus Again: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, 23-24.
This book is focused on “the Historical Jesus”—the human being, as best we can find him across the reach of history. Hence, Borg treats only very briefly the birth stories, since (in his view—and mine) they are not part of Jesus’ history, but part of the early church’s story about him. Borg asserts that the meaning of the birth stories is revealed when we free them from the constraints of history.

Brown, Robert McAfee: Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1984, “Mary’s Song: Whom Do We Hear,” 74-88.
Brown is my main guide into Mary’s Magnificat, although several other authors treat this passage as well.

Byers, Gary A., “Away in a Manger, but Not in a Barn,” Bible and Spade 29:1 (2016), 5-9,  accessed November 24, 2020, Associates for Biblical Research, https://biblearchaeology.org/new-testament-era-list/4111-Away-In-a-Manger-But-Not-In-a-Barn; https://biblearchaeology.org/images/articles/Away-in-A-Manger.pdf.
ABR describes itself as “A Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.” My focus is a little different. Nonetheless, this article, even while presuming the historicity of Luke’s account, was very helpful in my work to understand the manger and the inn.

Crossan, John Dominic: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, “A Tale of Two Gods,” 1-28.
Although Crossan focuses primarily on the Historical Jesus, his initial chapter looks closely at the birth stories—not because he regards them as historical, but because he sees them as vibrant fictions that reflect the impact of Jesus’ adult ministry. He finds in both Matthew and Luke evidence for an adult Jesus that deeply challenged the power structures and dominant values of the day. He was helpful to me especially in the parallels between John’s birth and Jesus’ birth in Luke and in detailing the “crosstalk” between the first century Jewish elaboration of Moses’ birth and Matthew’s account, from Joseph through the Magi.

Ehrman, Bart D.: A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, New York: Oxford University Press,  2004, 82-87; 103-105.
Ehrman wasn’t a primary source for my thinking. But he contributed a handful of ideas such as the “order” Matthew offers by way of three neat sets of fourteen generations and one point of irony in the Magi account (which I develop much further, into the fivefold farcical set of “Really?!” and the comparison to Jonah, so I’ll take credit for all of that!).

Goldstein, Daniel, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh – Ki Tisa,” Jewels of Judaism, accessed November 29, 2020, https://www.jewelsofjudaism.com/gold-frankincense-myrrh-ki-tisa.
While writing the essay itself, largely due to my recognition of how much Matthew is using Moses and the Exodus tale as an inspiration for his birth story, I began to suspect that the gifts of the Magi were also drawn from this source. By googling “gold, frankincense, myrrh, exodus,” I found this article, which at least makes my suspicion quite plausible. But the way I frame the link between the gifts, the Tabernacle, and Jesus-as-Tabernacle in this essay is my own.

Horsley, Richard: “The Gospel of the Savior’s Birth” and “Messiah, Magi, and Model Imperial King,” in Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture, ed. by Richard Horsley and James Tracy, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001) 113-138; 139-161.
Horsley’s work was a primary source for me. His pieces are meticulously researched and he brings both a social/power analysis and a strong liberationist perspective to the text that resonates with my own inclinations. There is more Horsley reflected in this essay than anyone else.

© David R. Weiss | 2020.12.01 | drw59mn@gmail.com

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on December 1, 2020. 1 Comment

Hymn Texts

I’ve written a number of hymn texts that put contemporary words to familiar tunes. Here’s a list of them arranged by category. Each title links to a separate page with the hymn text. All of these texts are copyrighted. For the present time, I am extending open permission for anyone who wishes to photocopy them (or put them on powerpoint) for use in worship. No royalties must be paid. (This may change if these texts are published through a church publisher.)

Note that while I identify a tune to use with each set of lyrics, other tunes may fit them as well.

All that I ask is that whenever possible you notify me when you use a hymn.

NOW AVAILABLE: I have collected fifteen of my hymn texts and put them on a CD. Iowa City-based singer-song writer Sara Kay has recorded the vocals. The album was released in July 2013. To order a copy, go here. A pdf with the lyrics for all the hymns on the album is here. A little advance praise for To the Tune of a Welcoming God – Hymns for a Church Hungry for Welcome

“David Weiss has created a resource that yokes familiar hymns to his own original texts. Interpreted through Sara Kay’s clear and beautiful singing, these hymns offer a passionate voice of justice and inclusivity to Christian communities. The very recognizable tunes will make these pieces easy to introduce to congregations. In this collection we experience texts that broaden the circle of our vision and challenge us to a more complete vision of God’s reign. We will never cease to need such texts.” ~ Marty Haugen, Liturgical Composer & Musician

“This collection of new hymn lyrics is just the kind of grassroots creativity that other progressive Christians would do well to imitate. New images for a new era. The CD will be a helpful guide for congregations wanting to meet and sing these songs.” ~ Christopher Grundy, Singer/Songwriter, Assistant Professor of Preaching & Worship, Eden Theological Seminary

“David Weiss and Sara Kay’s intention is clear: to seed the church with grace. David’s ministry of celebrating people of all orientations comes through loud and clear in his texts. Consider this recording a demo for your congregation’s leaders as they lead open-hearted worship.” ~ Richard Bruxvoort Colligan, Musician & Liturgical Theologian, Author & Composer for The Psalm Project.

“It’s always fun to see what happens when a talented wordsmith breathes new life into old tunes with fresh language, images, and ideas. David Weiss is a gifted poet and a wonderfully inclusive theologian. ‘To the Tune of a Welcoming God’ will be a helpful resource for pastors and congregations who are looking for expansive language and theology to fit the melodies that have been part of the Church’s life for generations. Sara Kay does a nice job with her vocals of helping us to hear David’s words and to listen for the Word beyond the words. My favorite is track #6, ‘Now the Welcome’—very skillful use of inner rhyme and fine lyric-craft.” ~ Bryan Sirchio, Singer/Songwriter & Author of The 6 Marks of Progressive Christian Worship Music

“These beautiful hymns are a gift to progressive congregations who long for music that expresses their deepest values: the love of a welcoming and gracious God, the dream of a better world to be born, and the hunger for justice that draws us near to God and neighbor. By combining familiar, diverse, and treasured tunes of the church with lyrics that maintain theological integrity at every turn, David Weiss has given progressives a much-needed resource that will benefit the church for years to come.” ~ Phil Snider, pastor, activist, author of Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations

“These fifteen hymn texts make clear the universal scope of David Weiss’ interests, his biblical knowledge as a theologian, his poetic imagination as a writer, and his passion for justice as a prophetic activist. Singing these hymns myself, following along with the CD recording, and listening to the haunting clarity of Sara Kay’s solo voice, I came to appreciate fully what David Weiss has created. Not thinking the faith, or speaking the faith, or writing books about faith, all of which have been my lot, but singing the faith—that is the surest way to be caught up in what it means to follow in the Way set before us by the life of Jesus.”  ~ Lee Snook, Professor Emeritus, Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary

Hymns that employ biblical imagery to strengthen our welcome to GLBT persons:

We Are Your Soil uses a newer tune, “Du Är Helig” (“You are holy”) by Per Harling that appears in the new Lutheran hymnal. It’s a fast moving tune. In the text I liken all of us — specifically naming “gay and straight” and “bi and trans” as the “good soil” in which God sows seeds still today.

Hearts on Fire uses the tune for “Thine the Amen, Thine the Praise” by Carl Schalk. This text begins with the Emmaus phrase about “hearts on fire,” but becomes a strident anthem about GLBT Pride today, from its secular expression in Stonewall to its ecclesial expression in the struggle for same-sex blessings and ordinations.

Behold, I gather uses a traditional Peruvian folk melody, El condor pasa (“Flight of the Condor”), made familiar in the US by the Simon and Garfunkel song, “If I Could.” This song makes “welcome” the biblical theme from creation to Exodus to prophets to Jesus to Pentecost … to us. The verses are in the voice of the people; the refrain is in God’s voice.

Preserve Uganda’s Future Hope uses the tune from a familiar and moving patriotic hymn (America, the Beautiful) to lament the plight of GLBT persons in Uganda–especially as their situation has been worsened by ugly rhetoric from American fundamentalist preachers who have taken their homophobic message to Uganda.

Hymns that lift up the biblical theme of welcome in powerful imagery without being GLBT-specific:

Word of Welcome uses the tune for “Joyful, Joyful we adore thee.” This almost universally recognizable tune was originally written by Beethoven for a poem, “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller. My text borrows imagery both from Schiller’s poem and from the Bible.

Now the Welcome uses the tune for “Thine the Amen, Thine the Praise” by Carl Schalk. My text tells the story of Jesus’ ministry of welcome, then the tale of Pentecost, Peter’s vision in Acts 10, and a concluding verse that invites us to make that welcome real now.

Shall we Hearken to the Kin-dom uses the tune “Hanson Place” by Robert Lowry, known to church goers for its connection to the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River.” My words hold up Jesus’ healing miracles as instances of welcome because they restore outcasts to community. As always there are words that make us participants in the work of welcome.

It Was Upon a Moonlit Night uses the tune from the famous Christmas Carol, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Written for Maundy Thursday, this hymn text sets Jesus’ suffering and death within the context of his radical welcome, as the risk he took to bear witness to God.

Welcome in the Wooden uses the Appalachian folk tune adapted by John Jacob Niles for the Christmas Carol, “I wonder as I wander.” My texts remains in the Christmas Season, suggesting that the babe in the manger is the “welcome in the wooden.” A beautiful song for Christmas Eve.

Go Tell It – Epiphany uses the familiar Negro Spiritual tune (and refrain) to “go tell” epiphany themes: from the Magi’s visit, through Jesus’ baptism, to the miracle at Cana and into his public ministry; the hymn ends by calling forth these themes in our own lives.

O Christ Who Came uses the beautiful haunting tune called “Londonderry Air” (most well-known for the Irish Ballad, “Danny Boy,” but also for the hymn, “O Christ the Same”). This text is triune, in picturing Christ as present through the Hebrew prophets, in Jesus’ ministry, and in the activity of the Holy Spirit … from Pentecost to the present.

In the Shadow of Your Cross uses the tune from a beautiful Latin American hymn, Pescador de hombres (“You have come down to the lakeshore). In my text, suitable for Lent, I tell the story of Jesus’ life from from Mary’s Magnificat to Jesus’ ministry, concluding with the cross, as the story of one who lived and died for standing “with the least” — which is where we find him today.

Touching Jesus uses Tommy Dorsey’s famous tune, “Precious Lord.” Originally written for the Easter Season Sunday that features the gospel lesson about Doubting Thomas, this text honors the value of touch throughout the Gospel and invites us to touch Jesus still today as we touch others in healing and welcoming ways.

Hymns that have a place in the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany Season:

The Place Where Advent Starts uses a Marty Haugen tune (“Joyous Light”) to speak about Advent beginning in a place of darkness and hunger.

Hark! The Children Plead for Peace uses a tune by Felix Mendelssohn (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”). In my text the children of today plead for peace.

Welcome in the Wooden uses the Appalachian folk tune adapted by John Jacob Niles for the Christmas Carol, “I wonder as I wander.” My texts remains in the Christmas Season, suggested that the babe in the manger is the “welcome in the wooden.” A beautiful song for Christmas Eve.

Go Tell It – Epiphany uses the familiar Negro Spiritual tune (and refrain) to “go tell” epiphany themes: from the Magi’s visit, through Jesus’ baptism, to the miracle at Cana and into his public ministry; the hymn ends by calling forth these themes in our own lives.

Hymns that have a place in the Lent/Holy Week/Easter Season:

Now Let Us Follow Jesus uses borrows an already familiar Lenten tune (“Beneath the Cross of Jesus”), but pairs it with words that focus less on Jesus’ dying than on the vibrant life that he lived—and on the invitation that we follow after him in that living

In the Shadow of Your Cross uses the tune from a beautiful Latin American hymn, Pescador de hombres (“You have come down to the lakeshore). In my text, suitable for Lent, I tell the story of Jesus’ life from from Mary’s Magnificat to Jesus’ ministry, concluding with the cross, as the story of one who lived and died for standing “with the least” — which is where we find him today.

It Was Upon a Moonlit Night uses the tune from the famous Christmas Carol, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Written for Maundy Thursday, this hymn text sets Jesus’ suffering and death within the context of his radical welcome, as the risk he took to bear witness to God.

Touching Jesus uses Tommy Dorsey’s famous tune, “Precious Lord.” Originally written for the Easter Season Sunday that features the gospel lesson about Doubting Thomas, this text honors the value of touch throughout the Gospel and invites us to touch Jesus still today as we touch others in healing and welcoming ways.

Hymns that are for an ordination:

Our God’s a River blends water images with the tune of the “anthem of the Reformation” (A Mighty Fortress) to celebrate the 2004 extraordinary ordination of Jay Wiesner.

We Thus Acclaim uses a beautiful Irish tune (Star of the County Down) to celebrate the 2010 ordination of Jason Chesnut in imagery drawn from his chosen texts for the day.

Hymns for Creation/Earth Day:

God’s Wisdom Calls to Us uses the tune from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to fashion a “Battle Hymn for Creation” moves from biblical imagery to contemporary crises—in hopes of moving us to action.

The CD & Book

Case Pic

CD – STILL AVAILABLE! I’ve collected fifteen of my welcome/justice-themed hymn texts and put them on a CD. Iowa City-based singer-song writer Sara Kay has recorded the vocals–and they’re gorgeous! Released in July 2013, here’s my blog post announcing the project (note that my Kickstarter campaign is over — and it was a resounding success). An 8-page pdf with the lyrics for all the hymns on the album set on as a series of 8.5×11 half-sheets is here. A smaller 2-page pdf with all the lyrics down-sized to fit front/back on a single sheet of 8.5×14 paper is here.

You can hear one sample track from the album here: “Hearts on Fire.” (You can hear a short preview of each track on CD Baby at the link below.)

 Buy the CD here.

Digital download via CD Baby here.

A little advance praise for To the Tune of a Welcoming God – Hymns for a Church Hungry for Welcome –

“David Weiss has created a resource that yokes familiar hymns to his own original texts. Interpreted through Sara Kay’s clear and beautiful singing, these hymns offer a passionate voice of justice and inclusivity to Christian communities. The very recognizable tunes will make these pieces easy to introduce to congregations. In this collection we experience texts that broaden the circle of our vision and challenge us to a more complete vision of God’s reign. We will never cease to need such texts.” ~ Marty Haugen, Liturgical Composer & Musician

“This collection of new hymn lyrics is just the kind of grassroots creativity that other progressive Christians would do well to imitate. New images for a new era. The CD will be a helpful guide for congregations wanting to meet and sing these songs.” ~ Christopher Grundy, Singer/Songwriter, Assistant Professor of Preaching & Worship, Eden Theological Seminary

“David Weiss and Sara Kay’s intention is clear: to seed the church with grace. David’s ministry of celebrating people of all orientations comes through loud and clear in his texts. Consider this recording a demo for your congregation’s leaders as they lead open-hearted worship.” ~ Richard Bruxvoort Colligan, Musician & Liturgical Theologian, Author & Composer for The Psalm Project.

“It’s always fun to see what happens when a talented wordsmith breathes new life into old tunes with fresh language, images, and ideas. David Weiss is a gifted poet and a wonderfully inclusive theologian. ‘To the Tune of a Welcoming God’ will be a helpful resource for pastors and congregations who are looking for expansive language and theology to fit the melodies that have been part of the Church’s life for generations. Sara Kay does a nice job with her vocals of helping us to hear David’s words and to listen for the Word beyond the words. My favorite is track #6, ‘Now the Welcome’—very skillful use of inner rhyme and fine lyric-craft.” ~ Bryan Sirchio, Singer/Songwriter & Author of The 6 Marks of Progressive Christian Worship Music

“These beautiful hymns are a gift to progressive congregations who long for music that expresses their deepest values: the love of a welcoming and gracious God, the dream of a better world to be born, and the hunger for justice that draws us near to God and neighbor. By combining familiar, diverse, and treasured tunes of the church with lyrics that maintain theological integrity at every turn, David Weiss has given progressives a much-needed resource that will benefit the church for years to come.” ~ Phil Snider, pastor, activist, author of Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations

“These fifteen hymn texts make clear the universal scope of David Weiss’ interests, his biblical knowledge as a theologian, his poetic imagination as a writer, and his passion for justice as a prophetic activist. Singing these hymns myself, following along with the CD recording, and listening to the haunting clarity of Sara Kay’s solo voice, I came to appreciate fully what David Weiss has created. Not thinking the faith, or speaking the faith, or writing books about faith, all of which have been my lot, but singing the faith—that is the surest way to be caught up in what it means to follow in the Way set before us by the life of Jesus.”  ~ Lee Snook, Professor Emeritus, Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary

ABOUT THE BOOK

Crisp Cover Red Border

Selected for use in the University of Wisconsin System Institute on Race & Ethnicity, Campus Reading Seminar, 2010-2011.

A timely collection of essays and hymns eloquently calling for a Christian faith that extends an affirming welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons.

I sold about 3000 copies of the book from 2008-2018. The book is now out of print and I have no copies left. 

I continue to write and speak around spirituality, sexuality, and the wideness of God’s welcome.

I’ve created a Reader’s Companion with book groups in mind; You can download it here. (It’s a PDF file that is six pages long and all set up so that you can copy it double-sided on three pieces of paper and then either fold it in half as a little booklet or slice it down then middle and have six half-sheet handouts.)

*   *   *

From the publisher:

To the Tune of a Welcoming God, by poet, theologian, essayist, and activist David Weiss, explores the divisive questions of whether and how the church might welcome the GLBT Christians at its doorstep—and already in its pews. Writing with academic training, prophetic passion, and poetic insight, Weiss invites readers to revisit these questions through poems, essays, and hymns that are at once engaging and provocative. While rooted deeply in his own Lutheran context, Weiss’s words reach far beyond, challenging, encouraging, and empowering persons regardless of their particular tradition.

Teachers, students, pastors, and laypersons—whether gay or straight—will find these short texts worthy of long reflection and conversation. GLBT Christians will be empowered to speak with renewed dignity and conviction about their place in the church.  Pastors will be empowered to bring this issue more productively into parish conversation.  And straight persons, both allies and inquirers, will be empowered to consider the place of GLBT Christians in the church more thoughtfully and to act on their convictions with greater confidence.

Pastor Anita Hill, in her foreword, calls this book a “graceful force,” its words “shockingly beautiful.” For those whose own heart and mind have already been captivated by the tune of a welcoming God, these readings will help put clear words and images to the music already at play in their lives. At times whimsical, sobering, challenging, surprising, insightful, and subversive, To the Tune of a Welcoming God invites the church to sing a new song.

To the Tune of a Welcoming God was published in partnership with Wingspan Ministry of St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota. 25% of the profits from the sale of the book went to Wingspan Ministry (no longer active).

For more than twenty years Wingspan Ministry, a congregational ministry of St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, provided pastoral care, educational resources, and prophetic advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. It provided key leadership in St. Paul-Reformation’s journey to ordain Pastor Anita Hill in 2001. Later on, through resources like this book, Wingspan continued its work toward the full inclusion and affirmation of GLBT persons in faith communities, most especially in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As a congregational ministry driven by church members Wingspan helped St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church model a new way of being church that seeks to include all persons.

More …

I call the writings “lyrical” because, quite beyond the lyrics in the hymns, I write with a poet’s sensitivity to the way juxtaposed images can bring insight and  the way language, well-used, can lure us toward truth and understanding. My writing tries to put words to the “music of welcome” that I hear in my heart.

The Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, who directs the Institute for Welcoming Resources of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, says of my book: “Theological clarity meets poetic grace. In our work for a more just and extravagantly welcoming Church, there is no stronger ally and friend than David Weiss and no more artistic work than his.” I’m grateful for her words of praise (you can find more praise for the book here) but I write less for praise than for justice. Though, as a poet, I do believe the justice is beautiful. And I hope that the eloquence of my writings opens hearts and minds to the goodness and the justice for which we were made.

You can also download an excerpt to sample my writing.

Note: there is now a limited number of these books left. As of June 2013 it went officially “out of print” with the publisher. You can’t get it on Amazon or through a bookstore any longer. But I have the remaining inventory and will sell them for as long as supplies last.

Buy the CD here.

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This entry was posted on October 24, 2009. 3 Comments