A Whole Constellation of Tipping Points

A Whole Constellation of Tipping Points
David R. Weiss – March 22, 2023

Further reflections on “giving up on church for my children.” Remember, I titled my blog, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Whether doing public theology or self-reflection, my goal is to write with as much insight and honesty as I can. Still, these are reflections on MY journey, not yours. I’m not asking anyone else to make the same choice I have. Over the years I’ve learned my writing is often insightful to others. But insight does not necessarily mean imitation, and I trust you to discern where any insight leads you.

Here we go …

The Big Dipper. Seven stars. Actually, eight! (That first twinkle in from the end of the handle is, in fact, two stars—Mizar and Alcor—that only the sharpest eyes can distinguish.) The two stars we rely on most are the “pointers”—the pair that line up to point to the North Star. But you wouldn’t recognize them without the other stars that form the Big Dipper. A whole constellation helps you find the North Star.

So it was for me. I began my last post, “Perhaps every decision has multiple forces, tiny and large, stretched out behind it.” These then are some of the multiple forces behind my decision to step back from the Christian church as the context for my work. Let’s say my North Star is my goal of pursuing my climate writing outside the church for the sake of my children. That’s the direction I want to go. But a whole constellation of tipping points helped direct me to that North Star. Today I want to identify seven (eight) of these tipping points: the stars in my own “Big Dipper” of sorts.

1. My restless sense of vocation. Since adolescence—for fifty years now—I’ve wrestled with my place in the church … and the church has returned the favor. I’ve had a deep and persistent sense of vocation …but never a deep and persistent sense of “fit.” Anywhere. Driven by a life-long hunger to understand and respond to this vocational longing (which has felt somehow linked to “God” or the Sacred), the simple truth is that none of my education, teaching, or church involvement ever fully met that hunger. (With one exception: my work alongside and on behalf of LGBTQ folks, on my own and through the Reconciling in Christ program. That was vocational in its fullest sense.) This is NOT to blame my education, teaching, or churches. In every setting I’ve had moments that were rewarding. But the restlessness has never subsided.

Thus, my connection to the Christian church has never been as “secure” as it may have appeared from the outside. Ultimately, the persistent “insecurity” of my place in the church became a tipping point to a call beyond the church.

2. Heterodoxy. That’s a nicer word than heresy or heretic, but it means something similar: to hold beliefs at odds with those accepted as the norm. I’ve been coloring outside (sometimes far outside) the lines of standard/orthodox Christian beliefs for a long time. I might explore this more fully in a future post, but in my last post, when I referred to “playing mental games of dodgeball and whack-a-mole” during church, here’s some of what I meant. I don’t view the Bible as divinely inspired. At all. I don’t believe in the Trinity (except as an imperfect metaphor for naming God as Being-in-Community). I don’t regard Jesus as God, or even the Son of God (not in any singular way). I don’t believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus (or anyone else). I don’t think Jesus’ death has anything to do with forgiveness of sin (in fact, the very notion grieves and angers me). I don’t believe Jesus performed any “miracles” that violated any of the laws of physics or biology. I could go on. You get the idea.

To be fair, I do regard Jesus as a mystic-prophet-teacher whose words and life are worthy of study, reverence, and emulation, but who never desired our worship. We—me and Jesus—remain on very good terms.

As a theologian, I could write several pages of nuance for each of those statements (and maybe I will). It’s true, there are plenty of Christians who quibble with many of these ideas. (And plenty more feminist, womanist, liberationist, black, queer, and ecological theological, as well as historical Jesus scholars, who quibble with exceptional and exciting insight!) Yet it’s equally true that, even in most liberal-progressive churches, it regularly requires a fair bit of theological contortionism (aka “dodgeball and whack-a-mole”) to engage with the weight of a tradition that remains reluctant to choose real change. Still, were it not for my kids, I might well have chosen to persist in seeking to foment change myself. However, in their absence, my own heterodoxy became one more tipping point in a constellation of stars directing me … beyond.

3. Unitarian Universalism on my radar. In March 2003 I gave a talk about themes in LGBTQ theology to a UU church in Davenport, Iowa. That invitation came thanks to a Luther College student who took my class on “LGBT Voices in Theology” the prior spring. It was my first time speaking to and worshipping with Unitarians, and it left a deep impression. I told Margaret afterwards that it was probably the most “at ease” I’d ever been in worship. That I felt like these were “my people.” And yet, my family, my heritage, and all my theological was Christian. So that’s where I stayed, even as I occasionally referred to myself as a “UU doing covert work” in the Lutheran tradition. For (almost exactly) twenty years, the UU tradition has been on my radar, a faint but constant blink on the screen.

Through my cousin, Katie, and her husband, Byron, I’ve had opportunity to visit their UU fellowship here in the Twin Cities several times. In fact, I’ve twice offered presentations there myself. Last fall, as I found my need for fuller transparency in my own faith life rising, I turned to them (and Margaret) for rich conversation. And just this past January, when I learned that Katie would be speaking on a Sunday morning, reflecting on her church’s journey in light of UU principles, I zoomed in to “support her.” But I was just as much checking the waters for myself. Whether you call it convenient or providential, it proved transformative. Something shifted for me that morning. Even though I wasn’t sure what to make of the shift.

Some tipping points can only be identified in hindsight. This one I felt as it tipped; disorienting, exciting, fearful, but undeniably tipped. That faint constant blink started to blaze.

4. Imaginary letters to my (very real) grandchildren. For twenty years I taught college religion. Even when I was cobbling teaching jobs together with side gigs, I was a teacher. If anyone asked any of my kids (biological, step-, in-law, or of the heart) what I did, they could easily answer, “He’s a college religion instructor.” Then in 2017 I left teaching for good. I was unemployed … self-employed … under-employed—who knew exactly what I was? Not me.

Eventually, after two semester-long seminars dealing with vocation, I embraced a new identity: public theologian. (My writing on LGBTQ issues had already been public theology, but at the time I still saw myself as a college instructor.) Now, my blog and an occasional adult ed forum at a local church was my “fulltime job.” But I fretted over how my children—or grandchildren—would understand what I was doing with my life now. As a result, in the second of those seminars, as my final project, I described my convictions and my work in a series of imaginary letters to my nine grandchildren.

These letters, written in the fall of 2018, became a tipping point because they marked the first time I tried to articulate the value and substance of my work to my grandchildren outside the church, from my place inside the church. The first time I imaginatively stepped into the painful space between our worlds of meaning—and fashioned my first words in that in between space

5. My climate alarm. It is so much more than climate, but rising temperatures and increasing weather extremes is how it most often enters the news. Really, it’s overshoot: living innocently, ignorantly, recklessly, wantonly beyond Earth’s capacity to renew itself. The fossil fuel emissions driving climate change are just one facet of overshoot. Destruction of wild habitat, pollution of land and water and air, abuse of domestic animals and extinction of wild animals. The list runs on in myriad directions—none of them good. We are not merely changing the climate, we are crashing the multiple systems that sustain our lives. We are actively rushing toward ecocide on a planetary scale. We run the very real risk of placing ourselves—homo sapiens—on the endangered species list. (We may already have.)

When I turned my focus as a theologian toward climate around 2015, I had no idea the depth of our crisis. By now I am persuaded there is no way we will sidestep ecological or societal catastrophe. Is it still “theoretically” possible to drop emissions fast enough to keep temperature rise to 1.5C? Maybe. But is it realistically, economically, politically, socially, culturally, or religiously feasible to do this? No, no, no, no, no, and no. Doesn’t mean we oughtn’t fight like hell. Because every fraction of a degree that we hold back will mean less suffering. But this crisis has so many moving parts, only one of which is carbon. The fabric of our lives is unraveling on all sides (and it’s because of us).

Listen carefully. In my mind, we—you, me, my children and grandchildren, and all those you love—are doomed to catastrophe. This is not the same as being doomed, period. Because there is human life pre-catastrophe, there will be human life mid-catastrophe, and there is likely to be human life on the far side of catastrophe. And my vocation, as near as I can tell, is to imagine, create, and present guidance that can assist us in preserving not simply our lives but our humanity as we move toward, into, and (hopefully) beyond catastrophe.

If you’re convinced the future is bright and full of promise, I’m probably not the person you want to invite to a party. But if you brood with anxiety over a future that seems FAR more perilous than you dreamed of, then I just might be your best friend. My climate alarm is a BIG tipping point. It drives the urgency that shapes nearly every choice I make these days.

6. The Revolution of Love. In December 2020 a friend on the West Coast invited me to check out an online gathering of The Revolution of Love, a ministry she was connected to. I joined a service by Zoom, with great trepidation; I am decidedly not a joiner. BUT—I found this group undeniably compelling. An interfaith-multipath movement founded by Rev. Felicia in 2012, ROL’s one defining core belief is in the transformative power of nonviolence in making justice and peace. For its first eight years ROL held in-person gatherings and community-solidarity actions in the L.A. area; with the pandemic it shifted to an online ministry in mid-2020.

Margaret and I only experienced the online expression of ROL, but for twenty months we rarely missed an online gathering. Our “services,” as they were called, never worshipped anyone or anything. They focused on understanding the dynamics that empowered us to be (or prevented us from becoming) change agents in the world. Our core commitments were to oppose violence and hatred in its many forms, to be actively anti-racist and pro-abolition (of police and prisons), to be vigorous in our solidarity with marginalized communities, and to committed to doing our own inner healing in order to deepen our capacity to be present to and for others. We were “just” a rag-tag group of several dozen folks scattered across the U.S.—atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Christian, and more—bringing both wounds and gifts into a community determined to reshape the world, beginning with ourselves.

ROL became a tipping point by showing me a spiritual/heartfelt community centered not on supernatural beliefs but on this worldly transformation. (ROL went on hiatus last August so Rev. Felicia could focus on a book project. The impact of ROL on our lives was such that, since then, Margaret and I have hosted a monthly online gathering for a handful of ROLers to sustain our fellowship and be mutually supportive to one another. Decidedly not a joiner, I joined.)

7. Therapy. For the past five years I’ve been working with a therapist off and on. For the past two years quite regularly. We’ve discussed a whole range of issues and experiences, and I’ve been fortunate to work with a therapist I’ve found compassionate, insightful, and challenging.

Mostly I’ve been processing trauma and depression (both have roots running back to my teen years, with fresh additions of both in adulthood) and exploring how the dynamics of my mostly happy childhood conspired to undermine some of my best hopes for adulthood. Oops. It’s a long, complicated tale. Ever so briefly: the course of my life has been shaped and misshaped by a dysfunctional dance between my academic-intellectual excellence and my unwittingly pattern of linking … knotting … chaining my self-esteem to the external approval that came easily and abundantly.

Not unlike Pavlov’s mouth-watering dogs, from the time I started school, my public performance was paired so consistently with positive reinforcement that the very (subconscious-unconscious) infrastructure of my sense of wellbeing became merged in a most unwell way with outward feedback. Too damned gifted to disappoint others very often, I eventually found myself imprisoned, as it were, in an invisible cell of “needing to please others” such that I was unable to effectively pursue the inner callings speaking to me.

I’m still working to disentangle myself from this pattern. But I am working on it. And as I have begun to understand and, bit by bit, undo this dynamic, therapy has become one of the pointer stars in this constellation of tipping points.

8. My mom’s death. As many of you know, my mom died last August after a long slow descent into dementia. Most of my grieving occurred during the final three or four years of her life, as her memories, habits, interactions, and character were all besieged by the disease without mercy. Her death brought fresh waves of sadness, but also a finality to her journey and an end to her diminishment.

Each of us grieves differently. And there are moments when I’m ambushed by sadness often sparked by a scent, a sight, a sound, a photograph. But mostly I grieve by way of gratitude and resolve. No one in my life—no one—accompanied me more steadfastly and for more years, across the terrain of my vocational wandering. From letters to late night conversations my mom cheered me on toward a wholeness I often fumbled away myself.

My final promise to her, as much a promise to myself, with the finality of life itself pressing in, was that I would not tarry any longer in becoming me. If I had any reservations about living into the insights I’d gained through therapy, the end of Mom’s life ended those reservations as well. Her death forms the other pointer star in the constellation.

The whole constellation. I could identify other tipping points, but these are the ones visible to the naked eye. My decision to “give up on church for my children” has roots running as far back as my adolescent inklings of vocation, as ground-shaking as my mom’s death, and as recent as my spontaneous decision to attend my cousin’s talk at her UU fellowship in January. When I step back and view them together, I can almost watch them arranging themselves into a Big Dipper, with the final pair of “pointer stars” giving me a clear sense of direction … toward that North Star.

About that North Star. Choosing to step outside the Christian tradition is not a decision made lightly or easily. Although there are glimmers of relief (no more liturgical-theological dodgeball or whack-a-mole), there are also real and significant losses. Some friendships will carry forward in other forms; many will not. There will be new theological notions to resonate with; but also, some older familiar ones that I’ll miss. But this is NOT about cost accounting. This is about love.

John Philip Newell writes in Christ of the Celts that Celtic spirituality, from the very beginning, had no use for the idea of the cross as a payment for human sin. From theological argument to mystical experience to rituals, sacred and mundane, Celtic Christians affirmed God’s boundless love reaching out to and through creation. So, to view the cross as payment for sin was not merely nonsensical, it was a betrayal of the God they knew. Yet the cross remains everywhere in Celtic art and spiritual imagery. Newell argues that this is because they understood the cross, in Julian of Norwich’s words, as a great “showing” of the heart of God. No payment tendered to a judging God, the cross underscores Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s love for humanity—a healing, wholing, community-birthing love. It cost him everything. But his faithfulness held.

Newell: “And so the cross, in addition to being a revelation of the nature of God, is a revelation of our true nature, made in the image of God. It reveals that we come closest to our true self when we pour ourselves out in love for one another, when we give the whole of our being.” (Christ of the Celts, 84-85) In this sense, my decision to leave the church, for the sake of my children and grandchildren—to go in search of new words than can speak to their hearts—is not at all the renunciation of my Christian faith. It is the fullness of it.

* * *

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.

Giving Up on Church for my Children

Giving Up on Church for my Children
David R. Weiss – March 8, 2023

Perhaps every decision has multiple forces, tiny and large, stretched out behind it. This one surely does. But the integrating force, the summoning surge of decision and voice … is my children. Whatever else I add in future posts, this is where I begin. I am giving up on church for my children.

The words are overfull. They hold sorrow and love, uncertainty and resolve, surrender and faith. They are layered as well. Let me tell you the first layer. I count six children in the blended family Margaret and I share—all of them busy adulting for themselves these days. But two I have been father to since their birth. This first layer is about them.

Me, Susanna, Ben – summer 1998(?)

I grew up attending church. I chose to continue doing so while away at college. After that I went on to seminary and later graduate school in theology. Alongside my academic studies, eventually alongside my teaching of theology and up to the present, I’ve maintained an active if often complicated relationship with the church. So, it was a forgone conclusion that I would raise my children in the church. Indeed, “forgone conclusion” is too passive, though; it was my chosen joy.

When Ben was three and four years old, we played church at home (in addition to attending it weekly). I have a videotape of him in church on Palm Sunday morning, perhaps age five. The pastor invites the congregation to shout, “Hosanna!” You can hear crickets, except for Ben who shouts “HOSANNA!” as though he’s been waiting for this cue all his life. Meanwhile, in graduate school, when I’d attend the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, I perused the book tables as fervently for quality children’s books for Ben as for the latest intriguing academic titles for me.

Once, when he was six or seven, we raised snails in a glass jar. One day, out of the seeming blue, Ben said, “You know, Dad, snails are kind of like God.” Unsure of his meaning, I asked, “Do you mean because they carry their home wherever they go?” “No, Dad, because they have both boy and girl parts!” Sure enough, a few days earlier, after discovering a cache of snail eggs through the glass, we’d read in a library book that snails are hermaphrodites: each snail has a set of both male and female parts. I’d also no doubt shared with him my conviction that God was neither simply male nor female, but somehow included both. An early eco-theologian, that one!

A few months shy of his fourteenth birthday Ben proudly joined me and thirty-plus Luther College students in driving two-and-a-half hours to be in solidarity with the church that was installing Anita Hill as their pastor. They were being picketed by Fred Phelps and his “God hates fags” troupe of protesters. Ben carried the large poster one of the students had made into church that day, a teenage apostle bearing gritty good news to others.

Susanna was born almost nine years after Ben. She also was in church weekly from her birth, at one point sparking a reflection on “Liturgy and Little Ones,” a reverent, insightful, and appreciative lament about having an active curious child in church. Her exuberance in saying our table prayer (at just twenty-one months) prompted an Advent reflection, “Table Grace at the Manger.” On regular long car rides we frequently improvised “angel stories,” in which we played angels helping God create various aspects of the world. One ride, it was fruits; another, holidays; another, seasons; and so forth. Participatory cosmology. My children’s book, When God was a Little Girl, was inspired by those years of telling tales together in the car.

By the time Susanna was school age, she lived most of the time with her mother, whose connection to church was much less than mine. I volunteered to teach Sunday School over Susanna’s 3rd grade to 6th grade years so I could maximize my otherwise minimal chances to foster her spiritual growth—and just as much to facilitate her making some friendships while with me. At my church, she was excited to acolyte, appear in the Christmas pageant, and participate in the puppet ministry (she was especially pleased with her puppet, which only incidentally was in a wheelchair—but wore glasses, on account of which Susanna said, “she looks like me!”). Representation matters.

Several summers she even looked forward to participating in Vacation Bible School and a summer musical at another local church. And when Susanna was twelve, she was an eager tag-along with St. Kate’s college students to volunteer packing up home-delivered meals at Open Arms: in her own way, a pre-teen apostle bearing good news to others.

As I said, it was my … chosen joy … to raise my children in the church. After all, my life actually aligned with my faith. No claim to perfection, just the honest testament that church involvement and religious conviction was never a Sunday-only “armchair” affair for me. My faith, however imperfectly, has always and passionately bled over from church pew to daily life. If anyone might’ve hoped church would pass from one generation to the next, I might’ve hoped for this. But it was not to be.

Ben’s defiance appeared several years before high school. No mere teenage antipathy to sitting through a “dull” service, he voiced principled disbelief, a precocious attraction to a scientific worldview that had no use for a traditionally imagined supernatural deity. Never mind that I had no use for that deity either. Ben didn’t so much reject the core convictions of my faith as he stalwartly rejected the supernatural, non-scientific beliefs of mainstream Christianity, which he assumed was the whole of it. (He might have credited me as an exception to the rule, but his teenage mind hadn’t yet much need for that level of nuance.)

In truth, every week in church I played mental games of dodgeball and whack-a-mole with a liturgy fraught with beliefs and assumptions I no longer held. My own interior “counter-liturgy” played out alongside the public worship going on around me. That worked for me … although some Sundays it exhausted or even angered me. But Ben saw no reason at all to join me in that game. It was a waste of energy he preferred to invest elsewhere. Sometime before he started high school (and on the far side of multiple Sunday morning arguments) his church attendance was reserved for special occasions, usually family events.

I suspect there was another source of Ben’s disenchantment with church. For six or seven years before he openly rejected church, he was an innocent witness in an increasingly dysfunctional and eventually violent marriage (between me and his stepmother). In an irony likely driven by the simple rhythm of our week, the most volatile arguments almost always occurred on weekends, often on Sunday afternoons. As a child who was relentlessly observant and logical, it wouldn’t be difficult for Ben to decide that if church couldn’t keep Dad safe, it didn’t offer anything of value to him either.

In any case, at thirty-six now, he’s spent more than half his life outside the church. Initially he was an evangelical atheist (he delighted in poking holes in his classmates’ more traditional beliefs), and for a while in college he was a casual Buddhist. Today I’d describe him as a semi-principled humanist. Not that he’s partially unprincipled! I mean he lives by choice outside of any religious tradition (hence “humanist”), but he moves through life with a set of deeply held core principles: honesty, integrity, respect, fairness, justice, compassion (hence “principled”).

My sense is that these principles that define his character are largely drawn from the values he absorbed in childhood, now divorced from any supernatural or religious linkage, but embraced as part of his personal identity. I only add “semi-” because, absent any larger tradition, I don’t think Ben has explicitly mapped out an entire moral philosophy of his own (let’s be honest, very few of us have!). But he is more than a fine young man.

Susanna’s path away from church was less by defiance than by drift. She was quite invested in church for years after her older brother had vocally rejected it. I remember her telling me once, “Dad, Ben says he doesn’t believe in God.” I replied, “That’s fine, because God believes in Ben, and that’s what really matters.” And that satisfied her. For a while anyways.

I think several factors contributed to Susanna’s drift. Her mom sort of drifted away from church at some point, which meant that Susanna was only going to church on the handful of weekends she was with me. As she reached adolescence it became both more important (developmentally) and much more difficult (in reality) to sustain friendships with girls at my church because she was there so seldom. From 7th grade through high school, Susanna willingly made cameo appearances in church when she was with us, but her involvement was limited to sitting through the service and greeting people afterwards.

During high school she became enamored with science, ultimately settling on chemistry as her field of choice—she’s now nearing the completion of a Ph.D. in chemistry. I’ve always loved science myself—albeit at a level many notches below her understanding. So, I can hardly blame her for coming to choose science as the primary worldview in her life. She’s fashioned a character in which curiosity and wonder, patience and discipline, observation and insight—all scientific virtues—sit comfortably alongside kindness, justice, and compassion.

While she hasn’t explicitly rejected the notion of God, the science lab—and her fellow researchers, both those she knows personally and those who comprise “the academy”—have become the arena of her meaning-making. What semblance of God is left to her is not much more than a wisp of possibility. At twenty-seven, Susanna is barely a decade gone from church. And life is long, and things change. But I find no reason to think she will ever call church home again.

Susanna & Ben – spring 2021

For both of my children, then, it’s time for me to give up on church being a part of their lives. Thus far, the first layer.

But there is a second layer, too.

It’s equally clear that the church isn’t chasing after my children. It would, of course, welcome them back if they came. But by and large the church has not figured out how to hold onto kids who prize science and diversity-inclusion, and who won’t indulge a tradition that spends as much energy side-stepping as facing head-on a host of this-worldly challenges. It’s probably more accurate to say that the church hasn’t (yet?) mustered the resolve to fully embrace and thoughtfully address the things that would make it a compelling community for kids like mine.

I’m not saying there are no churches that do this. But as a whole, churches have come late to this work. And there remain wide (and loud) swaths of Christianity that continue to avoid or even dismiss these challenges. And between the tardiness of the first and the right-wing betrayal of the gospel by the second, my kids belong to a generation of bright, thoughtful, critically minded, and justice-oriented young adults for whom the church never quite managed to be the church.

As a teaching theologian I wanted for it to be otherwise. From essays and hymns, college classes and chancel dramas, sermons and lectures, I worked hard to help fashion a church that would welcome everyone … not least my own children. And yet, despite having done some very good work—both me, personally, and progressive churches, institutionally—over against the individual circumstances of my children’s lives, it has been too little and too late for them.

Thus, on this count, too, it is time for me to give up on church for my children. The church is not going to catch them as they walk away.

I have written all the words above with some real measure of sorrow—but with no fear for my children’s salvation. Even as I have found church a (mostly) life-giving community for me, I set aside any notion of hell years before Ben was born. Thus, amid my genuine “familial” sadness that many generations of faithful church-going will stop with them, I have never once worried about the fate of their souls after they die. It’s what’s coming their way before they die that scares me.

Which, finally, brings me to the third layer. This one is the hardest of all for me to voice. Would you believe I have a blank Word document on my laptop … with this same title, “Giving Up on Church for my Children,” dating from September 10, 2015?! (I also found some scribbles on notebook paper, dated 9/7/15 that begin to outline the first two thirds of this essay, though never typed up. But mostly that Word document is blank because the words that come next have been caught in my throat for seven-and-a-half years now. Today the words will come.

I am giving up on church … for my children. With sorrow and love, uncertainty and resolve, surrender and faith. I’m not simply giving up the hope that my children will choose church. I’m not simply giving up the hope that church will somehow go after my children. No, more than this—

I. Am. Leaving. Church. To. Go. After. My. Children. Myself.

I am giving up on church … for the sake of my children.

Over the next twenty to thirty years, likely the remaining years of my life, this world … my world … our world … their world will come apart at the seams. I have spent the better part of the past decade attempting to awaken the church to the socio-ecological tumult that is coming our way. Attempting to prompt a faith community response that is equal to the threat we face. Leveraging all the language and metaphor, doctrine and practice of my Christian tradition to sound an alarm and inspire action.

Not only has that language failed to appreciatively move the church, it is, of course, language that fails, by my very choice of fidelity to the church, to reach my children. So, this is how alarmed I am by the still mostly unseen unraveling that is already happening moment by moment in our midst: I will forsake my faith home to go find language that can reach my children.

I still “love” Jesus. (I put the word in quotes only because my relationship to this man whose life continues to haunt and hallow mine is far more complicated than any so loaded word can say.) I still believe faith communities WILL play a crucial role in shaping the sufficiency—or the insufficiency—of our response to the web of inter-related crises for which the climate crisis is merely shorthand. There IS really important work to be done in faith communities.

But it is no longer mine to do. Regardless of whether faith communities rise to this challenge, my children aren’t there. And it is time—past time, if you ask me (hell, I’ve been perched on this precipice at least since 2015!)—for me to find the language that can help prepare, ground, and safeguard their humanity in the years ahead.

I have frequently said that Christianity has no monopoly on insight into how to foster our best humanity or how to respond to the crises we face. Whenever I do so, I always explain that I choose to work in the Christian tradition because it is the language in which I am most conversant. All true. But if the language I know best does not reach those I love most dearly, how can I not set off in search of other words?

Altogether, of the six children I count in our family (I became father to the other four when they were already in their teens), five live outside the church. Of the nine grandchildren that Margaret and I share, eight are growing up with no active connection to the church. I suspect all of my children, as well as the older of my grandchildren, live with the gnawing worry that tomorrow holds far more foreboding than the future they imagined in their earlier years.

As for me, I expect the future—not some distant future, but their future—that is, in the lifetime of my children and grandchildren—to be tumultuous, even apocalyptic in the unraveling of our planet’s foundational life systems and the consequent unraveling of the socio-political structures of our human lives. Nothing I do at this point can prevent that. (There are surely things I—most especially WE, as communities and governments—can do to mitigate catastrophe. But not to prevent it. I’ve written that post before and will write it again. But not today.)

Then what can I do? I can search, within and beyond myself, for the words and images outside the Christian tradition that can perhaps not only awaken my own children, but might also strengthen them so that their very humanity has a fighting chance to endure … in an era when that may well leave what we quaintly call “civilization” in ruins.

Concretely, it means pulling back from placing my primary creative energy in—or seeking my primary faith sustenance from—a Christian congregation. It means giving up church. As noted at the very start, no choice like this is isolated from other influences, and I’ll address some of the other “tipping points” behind this choice in the future, but the seeking the welfare of my children is paramount. 

Because I continue to believe that some form of chosen community, bound together by shared moral convictions, will be essential in a fraying world, I will choose to sojourn with the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Whether my kids ever choose to affiliate with this tradition is up to them, of course—but they could, without needing to embrace any of the Christian mythology or theology that failed to hold their hearts or minds. Unitarian Universalist fellowships include explicit atheists, avowed agnostics, and a range of theists. What binds them together is a worldview that prizes science and the intellect alongside an ethic grounded in humility, justice, and care.

By continuing my work to fashion a deeply moral, deeply human response to socio-ecological crises we face in the context of such a community, I make three fundamental choices. I remain in community myself. I hone my choice of (nonChristian) language and metaphor such that it can (hopefully!) speak to my children. And I choose a community of conviction that might at some point appeal to them.

I can’t guarantee that, of course. But I can pretty much guarantee that the only hope for preserving human decency in the years ahead will be found among those who choose to join themselves to communities of common cause centered on an ecological and humanist ethic of humility, justice, and care. Such communities might come in a variety of religious faiths, including Christian faith. However, I am choosing now, from this day forward, to join myself to a nonChristian community that makes it more possible for me to forge a common language with my children. All of them.

While writing this essay, Walter Wangerin’s luminous short story Branta and the Golden Stone came suddenly to mind. Among the holiest tales I’ve known, I’ll not divulge the plot, in case you’re able to read it for yourself, but the quote at the close of this essay comes from that tale.

I have spent all my life as a Christian, all my adult years as a Christian theologian. I have held this faith dearly. The words of my confirmation verse (Romans 1:16)—“For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for healing and wholeness to everyone who has faith”—have fairly reverberated in my life. But today I am making a different choice.

Today I am giving up on church … for my children. I am setting aside the word Christian (and all the words in its theological orbit) to find new words that can speak to those I love outside the church. No longer setting Christian at the core of my identity, I am choosing, perhaps more fully than ever before, to be simply “loving father” for my children. In the urgency of this moment, it is not possible for me to be both.

“And this was the truth of the Golden Stone, the length of love and the fullness of sacrifice: that whatever a person chose to become, they would stay that way forever.”

Now we discover what comes next.

* * *

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 March 8, 2023. 4 Comments

Lamar Johnson: Held for Naught

Lamar Johnson: Held for Naught
February 22, 2023 – David R. Weiss

“THEREFORE, for the reasons stated about, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion of the Circuit Attorney of the 22nd Judicial Court filed herein for the benefit of Lamar Johnson is GRANTED.

“The conviction of Lamar Johnson in State v. Lamar Johnson, Cause No. 22941-3706A-01 is hereby set aside and held for naught.”

so ordered: David C. Mason, Judge, February 14, 2023, Missouri Circuit Court, 22nd Judicial Circuit (City of St. Louis)
—Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order (sic)
[There really ought to be an Oxford comma here!
These are not “conclusions of ‘law and order’,” but
“conclusions of law,” followed by the judge’s “order.
Oh well.]

Screen capture – Fox 2 St. Louis News live courtroom camera – February 14, 2023. (https://fox2now.com)

The entire opinion runs 46 pages, but the words above were the only ones Judge Mason read aloud from the bench on February 14. Lamar let an enormous trembling sigh escape, then listened, his hands folded, his lips pressed against his thumbs, his cheeks twitching with the emotion racing through his entire frame. After these words the judge swiftly declared, “This hearing is adjourned.” And so it was.

“Held for naught.” The judge was referring to Lamar’s conviction. That, henceforth, his murder conviction should be considered as nothing. But in the sentence right before those words, the judge had written something even more: “this court finds that there is clear and convincing evidence of Lamar Johnson’s actual innocence.”

In other words, it is, IN FACT, Lamar Johnson who has been, for the past 28 years, “held for naught.” Held over nothing. Imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But also, considered as nothing: simply one more black man thrown behind bars. And if he wasn’t guilty of murder, well, he was surely guilty of being black.

I first wrote of my friendship with Lamar Johnson two years ago. We “met” about six years ago. Through a mutual friend; then through letters; eventually through a couple phone calls. You can read that story here (https://davidrweiss.com/2021/03/13/beginnings-on-lamar/). Sometime this spring we’ll meet in person. I can already imagine our arms trembling as we reach forward to hug. Our cheeks twitching with emotion. Our faces about to break in two for the width of our smiles.

But today I want to ask, how is it that a man can be held for naught—and for so long. In Lamar’s case, he was held for 28 of his 49 years. And while his freedom is surely cause for joy, there is no reset button to turn the clock back.

It’s true, Lamar was no “saint” at 21. A small-time drug dealer back then (to be fair, small time drug dealing was practically a “vo-tech track” for black youth systemically prevented from accessing the American Dream), he grew up in prison, adding not simply years, but maturity and the wisdom that comes by choosing life and hope in the face of persistent injustice. But sainthood ought not be the prerequisite for freedom. And to have 28 years of his life stolen by the state is hardly a fair price for the maturity and wisdom he’s coming out with. Would you take that deal?!

So, how did this happen? To answer that, I’ll draw on the judge’s own words. As he asked the bailiff to deliver two copies of his final opinion to each of the counsels’ respective tables, he said, “I urge each and every last one of you to take your time in reading the opinion.” I did. And, although there is much more to Lamar’s story than those 46 pages, they do lay bare an anatomy of injustice.

Here is Judge Mason’s opening observation (italics are mine): “Johnson was convicted of the murder of Markus Boyd (“Boyd”) that occurred on October 30, 1994. No physical evidence connected Johnson to the murder, and Johnson had an alibi. The State’s theory of the crime was that Johnson and Phillip Campbell committed the crime together. At trial, the State did not present evidence of a motive.” (Opinion, p. 2).

No evidence, no motive, and an alibi. Even when it’s a black man involved, it takes real intention to put him in prison on those terms.

Well, the State did have an eyewitness, James Elking. “Elking’s identification [of Johnson] was the State’s only direct evidence. During the evidentiary hearing [December 2022] in this matter, Dwight Warren, the trial prosecutor, described the case as ‘iffy’ without Elking’s identification. No other direct evidence linked Johnson to the crime.” (Opinion, p. 3) In fact, in that December hearing Warren “testified he would not have proceeded with the case if he did not have the testimony of Elking.” (Opinion, p. 11)

However, as Judge Mason details at length, Elking was—even by his own admission—hardly a star witness. There were multiple problems with his original testimony at the 1995 trial.

He failed to identify anyone linked to the crime in the three line-ups he was shown (two of which included Lamar; the other included Campbell, second suspect). In fact, he only managed to identify both suspects on a fourth attempt, after telling the detective he “wanted to be helpful, but needed to think about his family”—and after the detective indicated to him which two suspects the police had in mind. For that “helpfulness” he received an initial payment of $250 and subsequent payments totaling more than $4000 “to help take care of his family.” (Opinion, pp. 7-11) Neither his original inability to identify Lamar, nor the compensation he received in exchange for identifying Lamar were disclosed to Lamar’s defense attorney prior to the original trial—despite “the long-established duty of the prosecutor to fully disclose even impeaching evidence to the defense.” (Opinion, pp. 28, 45)

Even though both assailants were wearing dark clothes and full face-covering black ski-masks with only a slit for the eyes—and the fact that it was 9pm in late October (approximately three hours after sunset) on an unlit porch—Elking decided he could identify Lamar because of a “lazy eye,” a supposed feature that seemingly only he could see. Lamar Johnson does not have a “lazy eye.” None of the arresting officers reported it. No one with medical training attested to it. At the original trial no “universally accepted standard for what constitutes a lazy eye” was provided to the jury. Yet, without objection from Lamar’s defense, this was asserted as the basis of Elking’s confidence he was fingering the right man. Judge Mason himself confirmed that, having carefully observed Lamar throughout the 5-day hearing in December 2022, “there was nothing so distinctive about either eye” that it could be considered the basis of a reliable identification. (Opinion, pp. 12-13, 17-19)

Moreover, the Missouri Supreme Court has set very specific standards for jurors to consider in assessing the reliability of eyewitness testimony: seventeen of them. The judge goes through all seventeen, point-by-point, and identifies NINE standards by which Elking’s testimony could be found wanting. From poor lighting to angle of vision to the fact Elking didn’t know Lamar to racial difference (Elking is white) to stress, uncertainty, inconsistency, and several more. These official court instructions even specify that “the state has the burden of proving the accuracy of the identification of the defendant to you, the jury, beyond a reasonable doubt before you may find [him] [her] guilty.” Yet, with nine clear reasons to question his reliability as an witness, the jury still found him credible beyond a reasonable doubt. (Opinion, pp. 14-22)

Why would the jury have found such an eyewitness credible against these odds? In part because the State also had a jail house informant who testified that he heard Lamar implicitly confess to the murder in a nearby holding cell—although he could not see Lamar, did not know Lamar, and therefore could not have distinguished Lamar’s voice from anyone else’s. Once again, despite this assertion being nothing more than “hearsay”—it lacked any “foundation that the statement was in fact made by the defendant” and was therefore “inadmissible due to being speculative and unduly prejudicial”—Lamar’s counsel did not object. As a result, the judge writes, this bit of unsubstantiated and unchallenged jailhouse hearsay likely became “the brick of certainty that caused the jury to believe Elking beyond a reasonable doubt” (Opinion, pp. 25-26).

Here, too, the judge notes that this informant’s extensive criminal history was not disclosed to the defense, who could have used it to challenge his reliability. Worse, he reports “there were statements by Mock [the informant] that could have been used in cross-examination to effectively impeach Mock’s testimony” (Opinion, pp. 27-28). Not only was Lamar’s defense denied access to information it should have received, it also failed to use what it did have to raise an effective defense for Lamar.

Thus, Judge Mason determined that “the Due Process deficiencies set forth above cause this Court to find constitutional error that undermine the confidence in the judgment of conviction against Lamar Johnson.” (Opinion, p. 29) Summing up, near the end of his opinion, and after reviewing the multiple deficiencies one more time, he writes, “All of these problems are not merely evidentiary, but cut to the heart of Johnson’s right to a fair trial.” (Opinion, p. 45) This says nothing about Lamar’s “actual innocence” (a legal standard) yet. It simply says that even if he were guilty, because of multiple missteps by the police, the prosecution, and his own defense, he did not receive a fair trial.

This would have been sufficient for the judge to order the original conviction to be “set aside and held for naught.” But the judge was not done.

From December 12-16, 2022, Judge Mason had held a weeklong “evidentiary hearing.” This took place after Lamar, the Midwest Innocence Project (who had represented him since 2008), and the office of Kimberly Gardner, the Saint Louis Circuit Attorney (who had been seeking his release since establishing a Conviction Integrity Unit in 2018) finally managed to navigate a near-mythic series of obstacles over many years—its own infuriating saga. Once a black man is in prison, the entire system conspires to hold onto him. No matter what.

But the hearing, when it finally happened, was revelatory.

The judge heard Elking recant his 1995 testimony—something he’d actually done years earlier in writing and under oath. (Opinion, p. 3) Elking further testified that he had initially told the detective that the skin color of the man he later identified as Lamar was “dark in color … just as dark as Judge Mason.” Lamar’s skin is unmistakably lighter than Judge Mason’s. He described feeling “pressured,” “intimidated,” and “bullied” into identifying Lamar. He explained “that he has been living with the guilt of his false identification for almost 30 years … and I’m telling you I—I just wish[,] I just wish I could change time.” (Opinion, pp. 30-35) Oof. Elking recanted his 1995 testimony years ago, but the state of Missouri was not interested in hearing that.

Judge Mason also heard testimony from James “BA” Howard. Of that he writes, “Simply put, Howard testified at the hearing that he and Phillip Campbell shot Boyd.” (Opinion, p. 36.) In fact, as the judge acknowledges, in years past both Howard and Campbell had already “come forward through letters and signed affidavits confessing that they were the two assailants who shot and killed Boyd. Both Howard and Campbell have confirmed that Johnson was not involved in the crime. Howard testified before the Court under oath as to his involvement. Campbell, who is now deceased, affirmed in multiple letters dating back to 1995 that he and Howard killed Boyd and that Johnson is innocent.” (Opinion, p. 4) I could have put that entire quote in italics for emphasis. Two men. Confessed. Multiple times. And called Lamar innocent. Beginning TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO.

The judge described how the details of the murder, contained in a letter Campbell wrote to Lamar in September 1995 were “consistent with” and “corroborate” details in Howard’s testimony in December 2022. He also cited this passage from Campbell’s 1995 letter to Lamar: “I don’t care if you didn’t have anything to do with killing Markus. You locked up for B.A. [Howard]. I’m just saying we were in the game [dealing drugs] and you know how the game go. B.A. just got lucky and didn’t get caught.” The judge interpreted this passage as “consistent with Howard testifying essentially that Johnson was locked up for Howard’s criminal act.” (Opinion, pp. 42-43)

Finally, based on the evidence of Elking’s and Howard’s testimony in December 2022 and the submission of Campbell’s letters, Judge Mason writes, “this Court finds there is clear and convincing evidence of Lamar Johnson’s actual innocence.” Actual. Innocence.

And there we arrive at the second “naught.” Not only should Lamar’s conviction be “held for naught.” In fact, for twenty-eight long years, Lamar himself was “held—incarcerated—for naught.” For nothing.

But there is also the third “naught.” It took Lamar, who stalwartly, consistently—incessantly—proclaimed his innocence from day one, it took him twenty-eight years to even get a hearing to consider these matters. Because as a black man, from the moment he was was picked up by the police he was himself “held for naught”: regarded as nothing.

I am overjoyed at Lamar’s release. But this is the most damning truth. Lamar Johnson happened to be innocent. And lest you imagine that I’ve just provided a litany of all the things that “went wrong” in a system otherwise geared for justice, I have to tell you plainly: the police-prison-“justice” system is designed to deliver injustice and cloak it in the language of ideals. It was built to oppress the poor. That’s its job.

What I have described here is the system working exactly as intended. Locking up those deemed “less than.” Erasing lives. Holding persons “for naught.” Oh, sometimes, the system has the “benefit” of a person’s guilt, but even then, the goal is the erasure of humanity—usually, black or brown, and almost always poor humanity.

It is undeniably important to work for and then celebrate the exoneration and release of those who are innocent. But when Jesus announced the beginning of his ministry, he did not say, “I have been anointed [made Christ] to proclaim release to the innocent.” No, he declared that his anointing involved good news—gospel—for the poor, release for the captives, daylight for those imprisoned, and freedom for those oppressed. Lamar checks every one of those boxes—without even dragging his innocence into the picture.

Our entire carceral system is about social vengeance (so-called “punishment”) and social power. It is about dehumanizing others rather than humanizing them. Amplifying harm rather than restoring relationship. And it does not make us safe—it merely kicks the bucket of someone’s wounded humanity down the road for a while, often inflicting new wounds with every kick. We can—and must—do better.

I can’t wait to hug Lamar.

But I won’t be satisfied until no one … is held for naught.

* * *

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.

Ethics for a Mystery: Meeting Sexuality with Grace

Ethics for a Mystery: Meeting Sexuality with Grace
David R. Weiss – February 20, 2023

This post is a lightly edited pair of essays I wrote back in 2009. Fourteen years ago. Even at that time, these thoughts had been percolating and making cameo appearances in my writing since around 2003. Twenty years ago. These are still conversations we need to have today—with grace. And they are conversations we continue to have with reckless harm instead.

As a straight man, I share these thoughts foremost with other straight persons of faith. It is, after all, mostly our assumptions and biases (as straight people), reflected in personal attitudes and institutional policies and practices, that foment so much harm. Still today. I remain committed to being a faithful, humble, gracious participant in these conversations. May they bear fruit.

Removing the training wheels on sexual ethics (originally, April 2009)

As churches, locally and nationally, make slow but sure strides in welcoming LGBTQ+ persons of faith, there looms a conversation that many wish could remain quietly hidden in the corner but is sure to become the elephant that crowds the entire room.

You can sum it up in a single word: monogamy, but in truth it’s much broader, concerning the “acceptable” variety of sexual expression. Bluntly put, the question is whether churches will welcome LGBTQ+ persons of faith (including LGBTQ+ pastors) … only so long as they can fit their sexual expression within the approved norms of straight sexuality. And whether LGBTQ persons of faith are willing to accept these terms … and what if they don’t?

This conversation won’t happen quickly or easily. But, as is true of most crises, it represents at least as much opportunity as peril—and much hinges on whether we move forward with confidence or wait with trepidation as it approaches us. Between this month [April 2009] and next, I want to highlight several convictions that can help persons of faith move forward with confidence toward a new, more whole understanding of sexuality.

I’ll start with three observations that can help us frame the conversation so that it’s possible to say and hear some genuinely new things. Genuinely good things. In church that’s called gospel.

(1) It’s time we acknowledge that human sexuality is simply, profoundly, and mysteriously part of the fabric of who we are. It is not, as Christian tradition has often been tempted to regard it, some alien and untrustworthy force ever tempting us to sin. But it is much more than merely the psycho-biological means of attraction-mating-reproduction.

Ultimately, human sexuality is far more complex than either the puritanical strands of Christianity or the mechanistic descriptions of science have suggested. There are some things sexual we can “measure” objectively, but sexuality itself is one facet of the human eco-system in which we dwell. We discuss sexual ethics from the same vantage point as which we study it, reflect on it, and experience it—as participants in its mystery.

(2) It’s time to grow up and kiss the rules good-bye. Adults—real, mature, self-directed adults—don’t live by rules. I’m not saying, “anything goes.” Rather, as we mature into real adults in every area of our lives we learn to navigate more by principles or virtues than by rules. That’s part of what it means to grow up. And it’s time for straight Christians to realize that. It may not be easy, because for most of us who are straight the “rules” have largely reflected our experience (they were, after all, developed mostly by straight men).

But life beyond rules can be exhilarating—even for straight people—and not because it’s breaking rules but because this is how life is meant to be lived. Rules may have some value as “training wheels” on the bicycle of sexual ethics (appropriate as we enter adolescence), but we all know that to ride a bike the way it’s ultimately intended to be ridden, you take the training wheels off.

(3) Finally, it’s time to recognize, however uncomfortable it may be, that sex, like light, seems to be fundamentally paradoxical in nature. Light doesn’t behave neatly as either a wave or a particle; instead, it sometimes acts like one and sometimes acts like the other. And it seems that whether it is wave-like or particle-like in any given setting is determined at least in part by the expectations we bring to it (that is, the experiment we use). Many of us find this bewildering and frustrating. We want light to be neatly one or the other. That’s the way we like our world. But physicists, who find light’s ambiguity more intriguing than threatening, tell us that light simply doesn’t fit into the neat categories we’d prefer.

And, if we turn off our moral filters long enough to just listen to the voice of sexual experience, we hear something similar. For some persons sex has a sacred, creative, unitive character to it. For others, it is a deeply human, immensely satisfying, but not at all mystical experience. For others, it has a quality of ecstatic pleasure that is not necessarily tethered to marriage or monogamy. Bottom line: at the level of honest observation, of sincere listening to others, it simply doesn’t matter whether I “approve” or not. Sometimes sex is wave-like. Sometimes it’s particle-like. That’s just the way it is.

This is not a huge leap for us. Sometimes bread and wine and water are holy for Christians. And sometimes they’re not. But we don’t consider them sinful whenever they’re not holy. It’s possible for something to be wonderfully mundane. And even mundane fresh-baked bread is a delicacy. Even a fine glass of wine by sunset or candlelight can be transcendent. Even a waterfall can be awe-inspiring. And even sex that doesn’t aspire to be sacred can be beautiful.

All of us—straight and gay—stand to gain by speaking with clarity and convictions about the values that guide “the diversity and dances” of our sexual lives. Might we not be intrigued, like the physicist, by the rich and multifaceted ways that people testify to experiencing sexuality? That way, when we do turn to the task of making choices about what types of sexual expression are healthy and whole, we don’t do so by first silencing a whole range of voices even before they speak.

Discussing sexual ethics … or trading recipes for hot dish (originally, May 2009)

Sooner or later churches that genuinely welcome LGBTQ+ persons of faith will need to talk about sexual ethics. We’re hardly ready for this, but we stand before a rare moment, with an opportunity to reconsider the nature and place of sexuality in the whole of our lives—both gay and straight. That makes this moment both daunting and exciting. How might we frame a conversation for LGBTQ+ persons of faith that is sufficiently expansive to weigh openly and honestly the range of sexual behaviors and relationships before us while remaining recognizably rooted in a posture of faith?

I suspect this conversation needs to happen in a whole bunch of places, but as a church-going Ally, I am most invested in helping it happen well in churches. Also, because this conversation isn’t likely to go far at the generic level, the best I can do is offer principles that will resonate with other church-going folks. I surely don’t mean to suggest that the only “ethical” sex happens among Christians! I’m simply being honest to say I think these principles can help progressive Christians have thoughtful and respectful conversations about sexual ethics. Other communities may find other principles more helpful … and that’s okay.

When it comes to ethical principles, less is more. A well-chosen few will carry us further than a whole bunch that function more and more like rules. I’ll name just five.

I begin with three mentioned famously by the Hebrew prophet Micah (Micah 6:8) some 2500 years ago: do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly. Micah is talking about how to live a God-pleasing life in general, but his wisdom is pretty far-reaching.

Justice suggests that healthy, whole sex is not exploitive of power differences, whether based in money, age, race, gender, or social role. It raises real doubts about sex that eroticizes the dynamic of domination. But because this is a principle, not a rule, it doesn’t absolutely forbid anything. It simply says, “make the case that this (or any) particular sexual expression doesn’t transgress justice.”

Mercy is not pity but compassion. Healthy, whole sex involves mutuality, a genuine care for the other’s joy, comfort, and pleasure. It invites trust in moments of deep vulnerability. Part of the power of sexual intimacy is its capacity—its alchemy—whereby vulnerability becomes transcendence. Absent either justice or mercy, such vulnerability is neither wise nor safe. This implies fidelity as a corollary of mercy. But, and listen carefully: fidelity is about promised faithfulness that is honest and clear. It may not always be life-long. It may not always be exclusive. But it ought to be honest and clear in its terms. Fidelity is not a single cookie-cutter; I suspect it is a tin full of different patterns.

Humility offers two words of wisdom. First, to be patient with ourselves and others. Sexual intimacy is an unfolding mystery better paced by our own deepest intuitions than by the messages of the marketplace or the pressures of our peers. Second, that as we encounter persons—whether in our intimate relations or in our public communities—whose sexual practices and preferences differ markedly from our own, we begin by listening carefully, curiously, and graciously for the truth of their experience. We need not affirm everything we hear, but we are fools when we think we have nothing new to learn.

To these three I add two others: whole and healthy sex should be procreative and joyful.

Procreative does not mean relationships in which physical reproduction is not a biological option (or desire) are somehow deficient. But because this term is so often wielded against LGBTQ+ persons, it seems worthwhile to reclaim it in a broader—and truer—meaning. To be procreative is to care for this world, from natural eco-systems to familial and civic communities. This is a human vocation, quite independent of sexual activity. But given that sex is one powerful way we generate and share energy, it seems fair to ask that energy so deliciously brought forth between lovers also spill outward into the world and the relationships around us.

Joyful. Well, good sex ought to be fun. And if it’s clouded by shame, disgust, obligation, fear, etc., that’s pretty good evidence that the sex in question is somehow less than healthy and whole. For Christians this will be a real challenge because most of us have been taught either that sex is the primal temptation that turns us from God or at least that it is deserving of near total discretion in polite conversation. Good sex is neither. Where else in our lives are we so mistrusting or quiet about that which brings such joy? Learning to embrace and name the joy of our sex is what will make the rest of the conversation worth the challenges involved. It might be (to acknowledge my Minnesota-Lutheran context) as exciting as trading recipes for hot dish!

Naming these principles hardly settles every ethical question in advance by producing a fixed rule. But that isn’t how ethics works! It isn’t how adults operate. It isn’t how life is lived. Integrity—which is the goal here—is not rote repetition; it is improvisation grounded in creativity and character, framed by trust and mutuality. Ethics, then, is the fruit of good conversation, in which ideas and practices can be compassionately and appreciatively encountered and considered. Occasionally, contested, yes. Because ethics is about both individual and communal well-being. But sexual ethics, as an ethics for our participatory engagement in human mystery, is equally grounded in bearing witness to the good news we have known—and in welcoming the witness of others. There are so many gifts of the Spirit. Why would we imagine that they would find only one “standard” expression across the beautiful diversity of our flesh?

The principles suggested above are hardly the final word. Surely my own learning is as yet incomplete! But these principles may offer some helpful touchpoints as we navigate conversations long overdue. Conversations aimed at eliminating harms through gracious listening. And conversations aspiring to hear fresh truths shared in ways that might offer greater healing and wholeness to all of us.

* * *

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.

Abolition! – Because Words Matter

Abolition! – Because Words Matter
David R. Weiss – February 15, 2023

[I’m not looking to pick a fight here, least of all with my friends on the left. I’m just grasping for words to say something that strikes me as absolutely essential … and yet almost unimaginable for most of us. Plus, these are ongoing reflections, fed in part by an Abolition reflection group I’m in right now. I will have more to say.]

During the summer of 2020 I rather unexpectedly became an aspiring abolitionist. Initially, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by the police, I was empathetic toward, but also uneasy with calls for Abolition or to Defund the Police. I sympathized with the rage (although, for a white man, that sympathy admittingly came cheap), even as I wrestled with the choice of words.

Image: Moon Palace Books, Minneapolis, June 2020
Renoir Gaither/ Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Then two things happened. No, three.

First, my conservative friends began to openly mock these calls in comments that ranged from “merely” dismissive to thinly veiled racism. Second, even my liberal friends began to characterize the phrases as unrealistic and counterproductive.

Third, I began to read abolitionist writers for myself. They told the history of policing and incarceration and explained how that history was intertwined—by intent and design—with the oppression and outright decimation of black communities. They called for a future without police or prisons, in part because they knew that a future with them was unlivable for their communities. But also, because in their longing for a world in which the well-being of their communities (of all communities, really) was truly centered, there was no place for police or prisons.

Not that they assumed there would be no more need for public safety. No, even in the society they envision, public safety needs are still real and “still” met. (Indeed, they would assert that it is only in a world without police or prisons that public safety needs are actually met.) Abolitionists argue that in our present society, “public safety” is, in fact, the management through coercive force of the inevitable conditions of inequity and impoverishment created by white supremacy. (Go back and read that sentence again. In fact, write it out for yourself. Ten times.)

Still, if “Abolition” isn’t a rallying cry that captures the general public’s imagination, shouldn’t the movement, if only for sake of strategic appeal, seek a more inviting phrase, a more moderate “brand”? I can admit that I understand that position. And I can also say, NO.

True, an abolitionist vision reaches far beyond simply dissolving police forces and closing prisons. So, literally, “abolition”—the erasure of the police-prison system—is not the whole of it. But the honest and essential bottom line is that abolition does not settle for less than this. Any future without abolition is a false future. In that sense, even though not the whole of that future, abolition is the goal.

A simple example helps explains why. When a police officer’s knee is on a black man’s neck, the gasping cry, “I can’t breathe,” is not an invitation to abstract civil discourse about police reform. It is an urgent call to remove the knee.

For those of us who live largely (almost entirely) insulated from both the legacy and the immediacy of police violence or incarceration, every discussion of policing or prisons IS abstract. But when you live and move and breathe in black communities—in black skin—every genuine conversation about policing and prisons BEGINS with the knee of your neck. And that’s true whether it’s an actual knee or a whole racist system that functions like a knee over a lifetime. Over lifetimes.

Racism has proven its ability to reinvent itself time and again, from slavery to Jim Crow to segregation to redlining to criminalized poverty and mass incarceration. And the history of police violence against communities of color has been uninterrupted and demonstrably unreformable. To pretend that another round of proposed reforms is going to truly change anything is to ignore the character of the system itself. IT IS THE KNEE.

This isn’t about attacking the character of individual police officers, although there are surely more officers than we’d like to admit for whom the badge is about racialized power. The harder truth, however, is that, from its inception, policing has been about “keeping the peace” in a world made unequal through racialized injustice. Policing was conceived to preserve safety for the haves by enforcing laws on the have nots, whose desperate living conditions predictably fomented unrest.

It doesn’t matter that more “legitimate” roles have been added into policing over the years. So long as the conditions of racialized inequity have not been addressed, the core function of police and prisons in our society continues to be the preservation of order by force on a population that is, by design, kept desperate. When that knee has been—and continues to be—on the neck of your communal life nonstop for generations, there are no added roles that can convey legitimacy. The entire system needs to be abolished so that something wholly new can be brought forth. 

But—and this is where it becomes untenable for most white people—abolition is emergent. It will not suddenly appear as a finished project. Rather, it will unfold across years. It will necessarily involve equitable education, accessible housing, living wage and career-growth job opportunities, fully funded healthcare, tending to generational trauma, reparations for past injustice, restorative justice practices for the present, and more. All of that is fundamental to an abolitionist vision. Because all of it is critical to fostering the well-being of communities of color. (It’s critical to the well-being of all communities, but it’s in communities of color that these conditions have been systemically and intentionally suppressed.)

By investing proactively in these things, we work toward eliminating the desperation that seeds the harm that can become crime in communities. Tragically—foolishly and reprehensibly—we have spent generations investing in the very desperation that serves to “justify” police and prison. We have been feverishly busy making a just humane society harder to achieve. Abolition calls on us to deploy the wealth of our public funds toward the flourishing of communities rather than their policing. In doing this we create the conditions where we can finally discover together how to address the remaining challenges of our civic life in nonviolent ways.

Is this an idyllic vision? Yes. And No. It is, ultimately, merely honest about the linkage between injustice and social unrest—and simply aspirational enough to believe we can do better. Besides which our current vision is racist, punitive, and a purposeful failure compared to other societies.

Abolition is not simply about the erasure of police and prisons. It is also and ultimately about the wellbeing of communities, but to second-guess the cry of abolition is, in fact, to change the subject entirely. More than absence? Yes. But less than that? NO.

To critique the cry for abolition, to say Republicans and the general public will never go for that (and therefore Democrats shouldn’t pursue it either) is not only to acknowledge how entrenched racialized inequity is in our society, it is to make common cause with injustice itself. Because no half-measures will suffice. Nothing less than the full-scale dismantling of police and prisons will allow for communal public safety that is truly just.

We dare not set the bounds of hope for those persistently imperiled by racism according to the comfort level of those who benefit (willingly, knowingly, or otherwise) from their peril. (Read that sentence again. It’s dense, but every phrase matters.) To limit our aspirations, our support, our solidarity to what strikes us as realistic is to be awkwardly, implicitly, undeniably in solidarity with the very forces that limit the imagination of justice.

Words matter. So, for all that it means, from first steps to final realization: Abolition! Now.

* * *

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.

Women Talking – The Agency of Imagination

Women Talking – The Agency of Imagination

David R. Weiss – February 11, 2023

Women Talking, the film by Sarah Polley adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same title, may be the most relevant movie you can watch this year.

Poster design by BLT Communications, LLC

NOTE: My reflections contain no spoilers beyond what you might easily surmise from the tailer. The film’s power is carried less by any plot twists than by the force of its deeply authentic performances that simply—and searingly—portray “women talking.”

Toews’ novel is inspired by true events that happened in an ultra-conservative Mennonite community in Bolivia between 2004 and 2009, where, it was revealed, well over a hundred women and girls were sexually assaulted by a group of men who were members of the same community. The men would covertly spray an airborne cattle tranquilizer into a home through open windows, rendering all the home’s occupants incapacitated and allowing intruders to do as they wished. Even if a victim came partially conscious during an attack, they found themselves unable to move or make sound and they slid back into unconsciousness.

In the morning they awoke, often bloodied and bruised, and filled with shame at mere fragments of recollection. Overwhelmingly reluctant to say anything because of the patriarchal and sexually repressed structure of the community, when some women did come forward, the men in the community dismissed their complaints as dreams, or worse, evidence of demons. Finally, in 2009, one women caught two men trying to enter her neighbor’s house, and the extent of the horror was revealed. Ultimately, eight men were identified as the rapists, one other man with supplying the tranquilizer. All were Mennonite; all but one were members of the same Mennonite colony as their victims. In total, 151 female victims, ranging in age from 5 to 65, came forward, although the actual number was no doubt higher—and appears to have included some men and boys, as well.

All nine men received prison sentences (although one escaped), and the horrific reality is that even years later women insisted that instances of “rape by spray” continued in the community. Less common on account of increased household security and greater care taken by the perpetrators, but many in the community acknowledge both rumors and their acceptance that the rumors harbor truth.

Altogether about 50,000 Mennonites live in 90 Mennonite colonies in Bolivia, playing an important agricultural role in the economy. Most are insular—often intentionally isolated, having negotiated large measures of political autonomy to safeguard their religious beliefs and cultural traditions. Not all of them are ultra-conservative, but in those that are, girls receive little schooling and typically only speak Low German, ensuring they cannot communicate with anyone outside the colony. These factors, combined with entrenched patriarchy and sexual repression, creates a perfect storm for unabated sexual violence. That’s the hard reality.

Both Toews’ novel and Polley’s film dare to imagine something different. Indeed, the film opens with the simple declaration, “What follows is an act of female imagination.” The meaning is triple. First, it counters the original dismissals of the women’s claims by the male leaders as coming from their “wild imaginations.” Second, it redresses the damning history in which the women achieved only very limited justice, by imagining a more far-reaching transformation of their future, by authoring for them an agency not yet accessible to them. And third, it invites us into the richly textured conversations between them by which their agency is unfurled.

Without recounting the plot of the film—all of which plays out over about 48 hours—or the flashbacks that fill in some pieces of the story, suffice to say that Toews and Polley are intent on setting these women free. But there are no superheroes coming to the rescue. There are simply “women talking”: that is, women speaking the truth and terror of their lives to one another. Women arguing their deepest convictions alongside their starkest fears. Women debating each other with their entire world at stake. But doing so less as adversaries (though at times, yes) than as persons wholly new to the notion of agency. As persons still testing their emerging power, both individually and collectively.

The miracle of the movie is what transpires as the women talk. It is “miracle” because it did not happen in the actual history. And it is “miracle,” because nothing less than stepping beyond history can truly open a future to them.

Or us. And therein lies the film’s relevance.

The women ultimately come to acknowledge the extent to which violence has shaped virtually every facet of their communal life. The forces and structures that undergird their suffering have taught assumptions, expectations, and behaviors to everyone in the community, such that victim, perpetrator, and enabler become blurred labels. And there is no neat path of exit. There is only the hard-won certainty that the status quo can no longer be left in place.

Whatever comes next is unknown—for the women, virtually unthinkable. Their lives up to this point have given them a world bounded by what is. The very act of imagination is less about what might be—nothing has prepared them to dream about that—than about the daring decision to leave what is behind.

And there we are. Too.

Our lives—if we dare be honest—are no less framed entirely by violence than theirs. No less. Our assumptions, expectations, and behavior no less structured by violence against one another, against the planet, against ourselves. To even imagine a world beyond oil, beyond police and prisons, beyond individualism, beyond accumulative wealth, beyond an extractive economy, beyond bias and abuse, beyond guns, beyond what is … is virtually unthinkable. Nothing has equipped us to consider a wholly other path forward.

There is no future—no livable future—accessible by merely tweaking and reforming the present. None. Indeed, to call our prospects grim, is naïve optimism. Our situation, like that of the women in the film, is cause for abject despair. Unless—

Unless by some miracle we choose to conjure up collectively—out of the thin air between us—the agency to forsake what is for what is as yet unthinkable. Unless we choose to leave the world we know, for a world we can’t yet even imagine. Except, perhaps, when we finally accept that the world as it is, can no longer be allowed to be. At any cost. The imagination we need in this moment may not be found until we turn from what is without knowing what’s next.

Women Talking manages to imagine the impossible. We need to do nothing less. I’d say we better start talking. Now.

On the history behind the film see:

“The rapes haunting a community that shuns the 21st Century,” May 16, 2019; www.bbc.com/news/stories-48265703. “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia,” December 22, 2013;www.vice.com/en/article/4w7gqj/the-ghost-rapes-of-bolivia-000300-v20n8. “A Verdict in Bolivia’s Shocking Case of the Mennonite Rapes,” August 17, 2011;https://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2087711,00.html



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 February 11, 2023. 2 Comments

There’s a Welcome in the Wooden

Photo by Árni Svanur Daníelsson on Unsplash

I wrote this Christmas Carol text 18 years ago. It’s not sung nearly often enough. Let’s face it, Christmas is a short, crowded season of old time favorites. But, seriously, we DO need carols that actually introduce the Jesus who lived, not simply the babe who laid in a manger. So have a listen. In these words set to a familiar carol tune I hint at the way Jesus’ birth foreshadows the welcome that will mark his ministry and suggest the irony of his manger-birth by linking it to the meal by which we remember his death.

HAVE A LISTEN. (When you click the link, the audio clip will open in a new tab and you can simply click back over to this tab to follow the lyrics.)
With gratitude to Sara Kay for the beautiful rendition.

There’s a Welcome in the Wooden (the manger)

There’s a welcome in the wooden out back of the inn,
A sweetness in swaddles like new-sewn wineskin,
And poorly strewn straw hints at ripe wheat rolled thin.
There’s a welcome in the wooden out back of the inn.

See Mary, wrapped in wonder, this baby to bear,
The fruit of her womb with the world now to share.
And Joseph in shadows with fatherly care
Soon making their ready to flee Herod’s snare.  

Here shepherds, oft outcast, an unlikely sight,
Now guests of this prince by angelic invite.
And sand dunes sing silently deep in the night
As Magi move westward wooed on by starlight.

Here cattle and donkey, here sheep and goats, too,
Are beckoned as creatures, this child to view;
And angels in glory now offer their due.
This wooden speaks a welcome both wondrous and true.

Consider, with me, friends, this daring design:
A manger, made for feeding, a most hungry sign—
Already this infant, holds wheat and holds wine.
There’s a welcome in the wooden that all come and dine.

And outside of the stable, those not yet called in,
Now come to the manger wherever you’ve been,
And hear, as the wooden will call you, too, kin.
There’s a welcome in the wooden out back of the inn.

Text: David Weiss, b. 1959, Christmas 2004
Tune: Appalachian folk tune, adapted by John Jacob Niles, 1892-1980, © G. Schirmer, Inc., admin. Harry Fox Agency, Inc. – (I WONDER)

Permission is given to photocopy There’s a Welcome in the Wooden for use in worship.

Christmas Pageant Pandemonium

Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: Untangling—and Untaming Christmas
David R. Weiss

(This is a reprise of an essay I’ve developed over the last 2-3 years; only slightly updated here. A good refresher during Advent!)

You can download a mini-booklet of this essay HERE. Note: it’s a PDF. If you print it double-sided in landscape (short-edge binding) on 6 pieces of paper, you can fold it in half to make a 24-page booklet. If you’d rather have an 8.5×11 full-page copy, you can find that HERE.

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. In essence, the Christmas pageant is a participatory catechism through which kids act out the cuteness that marks the Gospel.


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: by 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; they were never intended to tell history. 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 gospel as a literary genre doesn’t refer to literature that merely delivers good news. It delivers 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 about Jesus have begun to circulate in certain regions, so perhaps Matthew and Luke are adapting traditions already out there. It’s also possible these two writers chose to fashion their own. Regardless of how much is original with them (i.e., how much of each tale they made up themselves), they clearly and carefully fashioned 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.” In a culture carried by oral history, 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 by 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. This doesn’t mean Matthew views Hebrew Scripture as “predicting the future”; rather, he regards Jesus’ life as offering a series of culminations of Scriptural “longings” 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 (e.g., “This happened in order to fulfill …” about the 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. For instance, 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 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 so directly challenges political-economic concerns, while our “informal” religion IS, in practice, 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 was himself a Jew, though he was hardly devoted to the Jewish people. Raised Jewish on account of his father’s conversion before he was born, his cultural-religious affiliation was driven more by political aspirations than any sense of piety. He 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 also know (and cheerfully accept) 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” (the Greek here 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. Perhaps 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 in her arms. 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, as Emmanuel, the God-with-us, 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 an image (“Behold a young woman shall conceive …” Is. 7:14) uttered by Isaiah seven centuries earlier as a word of assurance to one of Israel’s kings and flips it into a daring challenge to contemporary political power. In referencing Isaiah, 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. So, we tend to hear this as “proof” of Jesus’ one-of-a-kind divine origin, but the Jews of Jesus’ day were quite familiar with claims of virginal birth: they were regularly ascribed—usually retroactively after their deaths—to Roman emperors as signs that the gods had approved of their lives.

So far as we know, there were no tales of virgin birth about Jesus that 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? For Matthew, 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. This is political theater of the highest order.

By the time we turn to the familiar tale of the Magi from the East (2:1-18)—sacred scribes, astrologers, or wise men (but never kings!) who advised political rulers—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. (In this 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 Matthew’s narrative is built on images from Moses and the Exodus story, 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 (Emmanuel!) 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.) He follows Matthew in including both David and Abraham, but 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 still 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 (and all the Hebrew prophets) has come to pass. Both 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 choosing 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 (Jg 5:24/Jud 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 with her words of greeting/blessing. 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 sets 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—a census invented and—used by Luke to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth. (Bethlehem is mentioned in a couple prophetic texts about the messiah, so it’s a helpful detail in the story, regardless of whether Jesus was actually born there.) But the census carries much more literary weight than getting Mary and Joseph from point A to point B. The collection of tribute, alongside Rome’s endless military conquests, fueled the Roman Empire materially. Meanwhile religious language honoring the emperor held the empire together culturally and 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.)

Thus, Luke’s description most likely meant to suggest Mary and Joseph lodging with family in Bethlehem (it was, after all, Joseph’s ancestral home—he surely would have had family there), joined by other relatives who’d also traveled to there to be taxed—to be economically exploited and politically humiliated—by Caesar. Because the “upper room/guest room” was already occupied by some of those other relatives, Mary and Joseph stayed down on the main floor, crowded and cozy, alongside the family. In this scenario, Mary was 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 Gabriel had announced to Mary, and as she had sung in response to Elizabeth, right here 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, however, 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 clearly presents 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.

© 2020 – David R. Weiss | drw59mn@gmail.com

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

David R. Weiss

A presentation like this one sits differently with different folks. For itinerant skeptics, it confirms years of suspicions about the Christmas tales: they’re almost certainly not real history but early examples of “fan fiction.” 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 hard and fast categories. I’m sure there are folks who see themselves in more than one of them. So here are some brief thoughtful responses to some likely 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’ve shared, 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  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 well 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.

© 2020 – David R. Weiss | 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.

Percy is the World to Me

Percy is the World to Me
David R. Weiss – October 29, 2022

These days Percy is the world to me.

But wait. I’m not sure you grasp the complicated depth of that statement. Let me unpack it.

Percy is my cat. Our cat. He’s shared himself with Margaret and me for the past eight-plus years. But he was already ten when we took him in, so he’s well into his nineteenth circle around the sun. A ripe old age for a cat: around 90 years on a human scale.

“Shared” is a term he lived into at his own pace. Spent the first week or more “living” under Margaret’s dresser. Slinking out only to eat, drink, pee, poop. Eventually he warily explored our home … and, even more warily, us.

Indeed, Percy has been zealously guarded with his affection the entire time he’s been with us. It’s fair to say he warmed only to me, Margaret, and Susanna (who, despite her rather rare appearances in these parts had a cat-whisperer connection to Percy). Everyone else … he tolerated. At best. Our grandchildren desperately wanted Percy to warm to them. Standoffish would be generous. The unpredictable energy of kids terrified him.

But among the three us—Margaret, me, and our feline housemate—a felicitous rhythm emerged. Nightly he joined us for the 10 o’clock news. “Joined” is the operative word because he insisted on being in between us on the sofa, his body the bridge that joined us to one another. After the news he often led the way upstairs to bed, waiting on the near corner of the bed for his treats, which he chased down as they bounced across the bedspread.

Then as we crawled into bed Percy would often position himself on Margaret’s chest, his chin brushing her chin, their breath rising and falling in silent call-and-response until one of them (usually Margaret) fell sound asleep. Or he would crawl along my left side and pester me for pets and chin rubs until, satisfied, he’d curl up with his butt alongside my hip so that I could fall asleep with my hand resting on his back.

Beyond this, Percy was frugal—even to us—with his affection. He loved to supervise in the kitchen—by settling down in front of the cupboard or the sink so that we had to step around him to fix the meal. And he occasionally sought out pets and chin rubs while we were reading. But mostly he was content with—and deeply attached to—the rhythm of “family” that played out daily between 10pm and midnight.

Percy both begrudgingly and tenderly entwined himself into our lives.

Eight years of that, and now each day hints at an apocalypse. While he slowed considerably over the past half-year, in the past month he’s been making ready to die. In mid-September he lost his ability to find his treats. By early October he was ignoring his dry food, so we upped his wet food servings. A week ago, he stopped eating even the wet food, content to only licking the liquid off the top. So, for seven days now, he’s subsisted—no, he’s slowly withered—on a diet of food juice and water. He still makes his way to the litter box, often bumping gently into objects along the way. Except for these trips to pee or to sip a bit of water or juice, he sits. Sits and sleeps. All day long. Waiting for death. He is weary of life but in no apparent pain.

And so, as best we can, we keep watch with him. We carry him to the sofa for the 10 o’clock news. We carry him up to bed where he is still happy to settle in on Margaret’s chest. And we stiffen our muscles and joints sitting next to him where he lies on the kitchen floor.

All of this suggests HOW Percy became the world to me. And now his impending death sets the orbit of my days. His waning life directs the ebb and flow of my emotions.

But the WHY, that is a deeper darker heavier mystery.

It is my joyful sorrow to accompany him, to offer kindness as he wends his way toward his end. An end that I cannot stop. And while there is sorrow—of all creatures, we humans were designed to run on connection—I am adamant: if sorrow is the price of feeling connected, it is a modest price indeed. I am glad to be present in these waning moments of connection to a life that has never been less than mischievous mystery to me.

So, the WHY.

If you read the news, you know that my world—not Percy, but the socio-ecological fabric of the planet—is stumbling toward death as surely as my cat is. That world. Our world.

Maybe you don’t read the news. Well, just days ago the UN Environment Programme reported there is now “no credible pathway to 1.5 C [temperature rise] in place.” Our best hope for averting widespread catastrophic climate breakdown is now effectively foreclosed. The same report noted that under current policies we are on target for a 2.8 C rise by 2100. The Guardian editorial board opines (2022/10/28) that this “would—and probably will—mean destruction on a scale that is hard to imagine, even after what we have already witnessed.” Meanwhile some oil and gas companies have doubled their profits in the past quarter: taking a burning world to the bank.

I do not say this glibly, but all too seriously: our odds of avoiding all-out catastrophic climate change and socio-ecological collapse are about as good as Percy’s odds of making it through next week. And those odds are ZERO. Those odds are zero.

This is a very heavy WHY.

What do we do when the odds of happy (or even barely satisfactory) resolution are mere fancy? Do we despair? Or rage? Do we cower in fear? Arm ourselves against others? Do we double-down on denial so we can dance the night away until the lights go out?

Well, Percy is the world to me. Which is to say, I know from these very days that it is possible to choose to harbor an abundance of presence and kindness even when “hope” for anything like happy resolution is out of question.

That doesn’t mean nothing else matters. It does mean that cultivating kindness and presence to self and others matters more than anything else.

Yes, action matters, too! Eat a plant-based diet. Drive less. Go solar. And more. But the best ground of worthy action is to root oneself in kindness and presence—and the nearness of death. Thus, joyful sorrow is the paradox in which our lives find meaning. And outside that paradox whatever life offers us is merely masquerading as meaning. When death is so irrevocably near, then joyful sorrow—or sorrowful joy—is the loom on which we weave. We would like a bit (actually, a lot) of unmitigated joy. For ourselves. And our children. Especially our little ones.

But, as with Percy right now, unmitigated joy is not on the table. Not for him. Not for us.

Ultimately, then, it’s less that Percy is the world to me, than that the world is Percy to me.

I look out on the world, and I am glad to be present in these waning moments of connection to an entire world that has never been less than mischievous mystery to me.

There is so much to do. And time is short. But—I will write this in a million ways—what matters most is presence and kindness.

Just ask Percy.

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.

Remembrances for Mom at her Funeral

Remembrances for Mom at her Funeral
David Weiss (with Deon, Deb, and Dad) – August 29, 2022

The memories I’ll share come from Deon, Deb, Dad and myself. I’m sure I’ll miss many others. So, I hope during lunch today that you add a few more memories to the handful I share here.

Mom. Eighty-eight years and eight days. It’s a long stretch of life.

I think about Mom & Words

When we were kids, Mom read bedtime stories to us nightly. She’d sit in the hallway, at the corner where our two bedroom doors met and read books that stretched from one night to the next. The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Key to the Treasure. How Many Hills to Hillsboro. And countless others. Simple tales. They were children’s books, after all. But she instilled in each of us a lifelong love of reading. The gift of vibrant imagination. The ability to find truth in tales well-told.

Later, she loved reading to nieces and nephews and grandchildren. As her grandchildren multiplied, so did her collection of picture books to read with them. And she read to herself. Our hallway was lined with a bookcase for her books, but they spilled over onto shelves and nightstands and corner tables around the house as well.

She read … until she confided a few years ago that by the time she turned to the next page, she couldn’t remember the last one.

Mom also wove words. She could make up simple tales of adventure, customized for a particular child, widening their world with wonder. She not only led, she wrote bible studies for her church women’s group. And, as many of you know, for fifty years she wrote an annual Christmas letter that stitched together the news of our family, both sorrows and joys. We knew the grace of finding our lives held by Mom’s words.

I think about Mom and Music

We grew up surrounded by music. Mom occasionally played the organ at church … though none of us kids really remember that. But we do remember piano-playing at home. Children’s sing-along records. Collections of hymns. Musicals, during which we joined Mom on the Broadway stage to belt out songs from Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music, Camelot, Oklahoma, The King and I, and more. Mom had the best singing voice in our family—by far—but she invited all of us to make a joyful noise, even when we missed the notes.

Christmas records got playtime from Thanksgiving through Epiphany. A wide range of other music filled our home the rest of the year. Until 4 or 5 years ago when Mom’s dementia played havoc with her auditory sensitivity. Besides making the church PA system unbearable for her, it rendered our home … silent. Music left her life.

In a final reprieve, just over the past year, that sensitivity diminished, and she and Dad relished watching Lawrence Welk reruns every Saturday and Sunday night. They listened side by side, Dad hearing again the music they enjoyed together 60 years earlier, Mom hearing now as though for the first time music only vaguely familiar, both lodged and lost somewhere in her memory.

I think about Mom and Food

Mom was a good cook. We each have favorite Mom-meals and dishes. There were fancy, custom-shaped and decorated birthday cakes; jello cakes in the summer, oreo dessert almost always waiting in the freezer, puff pastries with grandkids.

We baked cookies together, each of us with Mom in turn. Nieces, nephews, and grandkids, too. She gave us an ease in the kitchen, a love for baking, an eagerness to share food. Don became an amateur gourmet chef. Deb saves a whole week of vacation each year just to do Christmas cookie baking. Deon and I both cook and bake as well—and have passed that love on to our own children … and grandchildren.

But food was never just about food. It was the joy of creating such deliciousness from scratch. And sharing it afterwards. Food was about being together. The Bible study Mom wrote was on bread and the Bread of Life—the interwoven holiness of physical and spiritual food. It was as though her life prepared her to write that study, and once written, it replayed itself again and again in our home.

I think about Mom and Hospitality

Mom was on the quiet side, but her gift was to make YOU feel welcome. Every year as we grew up, Mom welcomed the new teachers to St. Paul school, often with homemade bread, followed by an invitation to a home-cooked meal. We learned—we experienced—the sacred power of hospitality. And it left an imprint on each of our lives.

Our home was filled with quiet puzzle-working and raucous game-playing. It’s true, Mom occasionally shushed the games’ noisiness, but you could tell she was still happy to see family and friends having fun. Just this past Friday night, the loud laughter around the table as we played cards would’ve had Mom covering her ears … even while her eyes would’ve twinkled with joy.

In college and seminary, I frequently brought friends home with me. One time I brought a seminary classmate—Daniel, a pastor from Tanzania doing extra study at Wartburg Seminary. When he learned Mom sewed, he asked her to teach him, so he could buy a sewing machine to take back to his wife in Africa. Dad found a good second-hand machine (easier to learn, smaller to pack, and fewer things to go wrong) and Mom taught Daniel to sew—a gift of hospitality that traveled half-way round the world when he went home to his wife.

Mom made connections. As people from her past have learned of her death, many have used that word—“Your mom made a connection with me.” Mom was quiet hospitality in action.

Finally, I think about Mom and Fabric

Mom sewed. She made quilts for each child; then for each grandchild. And for many of her great-nieces and nephews. She made clothes. Deon recalls that her first store-bought dress was for eighth grade confirmation. Prior to that, Mom made all her dresses.

I don’t recall Mom so much making my clothes as mending them. Again. And again. And again. As a boy I went through the knees of my pants decades before torn-open knees became fashionable. Mom patched those knees, one after another after another. I had a particular pair of beloved shorts. Each time I wore—or tore—a new hole, I begged Mom to patch it “just one more time.” And she did—twenty-three times. Thankfully, I outgrew the shorts before I outlasted Mom’s patience. But not before Mom one time opened the crotch and used a patch to give me another year with them.

These shorts are the only piece of childhood clothing I still have: evidence of Mom’s love that held me, patched me, and sent me back into the world again and again. Mended. Made whole even amid tears (and tears).

But fabric isn’t only cloth. Mom also worked with the fabric of life—most often by listening, which was perhaps her finest superpower.

Whether out in the gazebo in our backyard, while washing and drying dishes, or while sitting quietly in the living room, Mom’s compassion radiated outward from her heart through her ears. At critical times in each of our lives, her listening presence steadied us, wrapped us in unconditional love, and urged us to find and honor our truest selves. This was true for Dad and for each of us children.

In the obituary I wrote: “Carol saw herself in Luke’s description of Mary (2:19)—as someone who pondered things in her heart. She felt deeply the pain around her, whether family, friend, or wider world. She held many things prayerfully in her heart, and in a multitude of unseen ways she sought to mend the world.”

Ultimately dementia tore her world asunder. And there was no patch for that. And yet, her fierce habit, her tenacious holy ritual over these past years, was that she would go to bed, almost always before Dad, and wait for him to join her so she could hold his hand for a while before falling asleep. She did this straight through her dementia—right up until a week before she died when her awareness drifted away altogether. Reaching over to hold his hand, it was as though she knew in these final years that it was her turn to be mended.

And so it is, Mom. Be mended and made whole.

* * *

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.