Advent: Without Precedent

Sometimes the words we use whisper secrets we need to hear …

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

Advent is Desperation

When Luke sets the context for his Christmas narrative, he isn’t placing it so much in factual history as in emotional-political history. For Jews living under Caesar’s rule, life itself was slow (and occasionally swift and brutal) trauma. Whether historical fact or literary device, the reference to a census was to say, “These were desperate times, and yet …”

Caesar Augustus – Wikimedia Commons

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

Advent: Unbidden, Unwelcome, Upending

We had a very unexpected death in our congregation today – just as we ventured into Advent. Hence, this poem …

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

Advent: Find Yourself a Stick …

A little evocative Advent poetry …

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

Paying it Forward

Paying it Forward: My Journey as an Ally into the Welcoming Story of Scripture
David R. Weiss – Journey of Faith, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ – November 3, 2021

NOTE: You can download a PDF of this talk here. You can watch a VIDEO of the talk here. (The video is pretty “raw” – that is, it’s simply the audio & video picked up by my laptop for a Zoom feed for those watching online in addition to those in the room. And, I of course, squirm a bit watching myself speak. But if you’d like to hear it and see it, it’s here.)

I was born into a German Lutheran family almost 62 years ago … early on Christmas morning. Named David because Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the City of David. I attended church every Sunday of my childhood unless I was sick. We said table grace every night before mealtime—even when we dined out at a restaurant. I attended a Lutheran Day School from first grade through eighth grade. After four years in a public high school, I headed to Wartburg College, where I studied psychology, sociology, and religion. After that I attended Wartburg Seminary where I completed a master’s degree in Theology and later on the University of Notre Dame, where I completed a second master’s degree, this one in Christian Ethics. From 1997 to 2017 I taught religion at Notre Dame, Luther College, Augsburg, St. Kate’s, and Hamline—all church-related schools.

During those same twenty years I came to work relentlessly, writing, organizing, and speaking locally and nationally to urge people of faith and communities of faith to becoming fully welcoming to LGBTQ persons. I taught a college course on LGBT Voices in Theology. Published a collection of my essays. Wrote and recorded more than a dozen hymn texts that celebrate welcome. I was ALL IN as an Ally.

Still, growing up my life was steeped in traditional Christian faith, active church involvement … and a solidly heterosexual identity. So how did this come about?

Well, my journey begins in the heart. In my own youthful hunger to pray.

As a fifth-grader with an uncomfortably precocious spirituality, I yearned for a nearness to God that nothing in my reserved German-American-Lutheran upbringing was able to provide. But I was blessed with a fifth grade Sunday School teacher named Dale. He opened our classes, usually amid the rampant chaos of about-to-be adolescents, with prayer. Prayer that breathed nearness.

When Dale prayed he set aside all the formal piety used in the prayers I recited from the hymnal. He launched into prayer like a cannonball dive into a swimming pool. He prayed with passion. Not made-up excitement, but authentic in-your-gut passion. He spoke to a God who was palpably real, palpably present. A God I wanted to know. I still pray the way Dale modeled for me.

When Dale left to attend seminary, I knew he’d make a great pastor. But the next year, with no explanation, he was back running his parents’ pet shop. I worked for him there during my high school years. Eventually I learned one of his classmates had outed him as gay to seminary administrators—who told him not to return for his second year of seminary. He was broken-hearted but too ashamed to tell his family or others at church. He carried his hurt in agonized silence.

Once I learned Dale was gay, I realized that his posture of prayer was hard-won. His seemingly casual confidence in God’s presence was never taken for granted. And although it faltered and faded in later years, that wasn’t because of weakness on Dale’s part; it was because of the relentless lack of good news in the church’s response to him.

My journey begins in the heart. In my own longing for authentic faith and vocation.

After college I went to seminary myself. I didn’t feel a call to be a pastor, but I knew I wanted to know more about God. I learned a lot in my seminary classes. I learned even more in my friendships.

While in college I’d prided myself on learning all manner of Lutheran doctrine. In seminary my faith … shifted; it left my head and moved … out into my limbs. I became invested in “doing,” rather than believing. In living compassion, rather than just knowing theology.

Amid this shift, I became friends with half a dozen gay and lesbian seminary students whose lives were a living dilemma. They felt called to be pastors. But they knew the only way they could do that was by being less than truthful about who they were to their professors and eventually to their parishes. These were the classmates whose faith seemed most alive to me. They had every reason not to be there. Back then, Lutheran seminaries pretty much put out the “Not Welcome” mat to gays and lesbians (and they couldn’t even imagine bisexual or transgender persons coming their way). But something stronger than that lack of welcome pulled them to seminary.

In their close company, often outside of the classroom, I wrestled with what it meant to live compassion. I still loved theology, but now less for its doctrinal claims than for its potential to be a passionate voice for justice and its capacity to produce compassion not as a token response in a given moment but as a whole way of being in the world. And much of what I learned came from my circle of gay and lesbian friends.

I hadn’t yet sorted out all the biblical passages or the moral questions about homosexuality (bisexuality and trans weren’t on my radar back then). But by age 23 I had met the people themselves (many times over), and I had found them bright, warm, funny, compassionate, gracious, and committed to serving the same God I longed to serve. They had nurtured my faith and kept me company on my own vocational journey. How could I not join them on theirs?

My journey begins in the heart. In anguish and anger.

After seminary, I spent several years working in warehouses and restaurant kitchens. It was good work, but it was far from vocation for me. Eventually I went back to graduate school, at Notre Dame where I studied Christian Ethics. There I wrestled directly with the biblical, theological, and moral questions related to sexuality using my intellect, but the journey continued in my heart as well. 

A couple years into my graduate work at Notre Dame, just 30 miles from my hometown, my mom called to tell me Dale had suffered a massive stroke. Only 46 years old, his body gave out after years of trying to ease the spiritual anguish of a ruptured vocation through excessive drink and food.

Dale never recovered. He just lingered, half-dead, for nearly 30 months. Paralyzed on the left side of his body, he never walked again. I visited him twice a month in the nursing home. Some days we talked. Some days his speech was so slurred I could only nod and hope to guess his meaning. In the spring of 1996, Dale grew tired of lingering. He said he knew he wasn’t going to live much longer. And he asked me—the man who chose not to be a pastor—to preach at his funeral. I hesitated, but he insisted through lips that had long ago refused to cooperate with clarity, “Because David, you know me. You know who I am. You preach.” So I did.

Dale had never come out to his family. To them he was still the gifted kid who somehow lost his way and inexplicably drank himself to death. They never knew how wounded he was or why. In the same room, listening to the same sermon, were Dale’s friends. They knew he was gay—and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t left the church that caused him so much torment before it killed him. Somehow I found words of comfort, grace, and hope for those who gathered to mourn his death.

The long months at Dale’s bedside changed me forever. I never spoke these words out loud in my sermon, but through my tears that day I promised myself to never miss an opportunity to speak a word of comfort, grace, and hope to a gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender person. Not ever.

None of this—from those first Sunday School prayers to the seminary friendships to the bedside vigil—none of it made the Bible irrelevant. Rather, it sent me to the Bible with questions that were far from abstract or hypothetical. They were questions with faces and names. Questions marked by real lives—and, in Dale’s case, by real death.

But don’t tell me I came to the Bible with an “agenda.” I came with anguish. With hunger. With hope. With the very stuff that life is made of. And if you think about it—if you’re honest—that’s how every spiritual pilgrimage begins, even the biblical ones.

Think of Abraham and Sarah moving across endless sand dunes—going up … and then back down a mountain with a child intended for sacrifice. Or Joseph, thrown from a pampered life into a deep pit and then sold into slavery before rising to power in Egypt. Remember Moses and Miriam leading their people out of Egypt into freedom, but also into more unknown territory than they could possibly fathom.

Recall Ruth and Naomi, women and widows in a time when it was barely safe to be the first and rarely safe to be the second. Think of David, the shepherd king, runt of the family, anointed to power, fleeing for his life, taking the throne, and then watching his dynasty unravel due to his own tumultuous testosterone.

Consider Mary, transfixed between angelic promises and watching the tortured death of that promised child on a tree. Or Mary Magdalene, the female apostle, claimed by Jesus but envied by others and plagued ever after by rumors of her past. Think of Peter and Paul, these two head-strong but equally awkward leaders of the early church.

None of these folks took their cues solely from the Bible. They began with their lives. Their pain and their joy. Their hope and their fear. They began with their questions.And I began with mine.

Each journey—theirs, mine, and yours—begins in the heart, in the frightfully unpredictable, the ecstatically joyful, the tragically painful lived experience of life. And in this space God … and God’s word is our companion. Not as blueprint or map. Not as answer book. And surely not as the persistent threat of eternal judgment. Rather as a compass, a north star, a whisper of grace.

My journey took a momentous turn 25 years ago in February 1997. Ten months after Dale’s death. Well into my graduate studies at Notre Dame. And soon after starting to teach my own classes of college students.

Notre Dame wasn’t a friendly place for LGBT persons back then. The daily student newspaper carried mean-spirited tirades against homosexuality on a weekly basis. I cringed when I read them. But I was here to get a degree. I wasn’t Catholic, after all. Not really my argument to get into. It wasn’t my life on the line.

But now I was taking attendance in my classes. My students … kids just 18 or 19 years old … suddenly had faces and names. I never knew whether any of them were LGBT, but my first semester I had eighty students, and surely a couple of them matched up with one letter or another—and felt targeted by those weekly tirades. I felt myself move from an occasional cringe to chronic discomfort.

On February 20th, I read a poetic lament written by an anonymous senior. He wrote about coming to Notre Dame four years earlier knowing he was gay—and how he’d graduate in three more months—without having told a single person at school this truth of his life. His piece was titled “Living in fear,” and it told the fear that framed each day for him. His words were my burning bush. I couldn’t turn away. I had no idea who he was. Clearly not one of my students because I had only freshmen and sophomores. But his pain seared my soul. That night, re-reading his piece, I wept—sobbed—while I wrote into the wee hours of the next day.

I didn’t write an essay. I wrote a letter back to him. I titled it “Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.” I wrote, “I see now that if God is silent in the face of your anguish, it’s only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words. Well, here they are.” And I went on to ransack the Bible for images of welcome and comfort. I wrestled with the Word of God the way Jacob wrestled with that angel, not as an enemy or adversary, but determined to wrestle … until I, too, received a blessing.

Two weeks later my response was published. Since then, I’ve written hundreds of pages about welcome, spoken to thousands of people. I already had very real names and faces for company on my journey up to that night, but it was the poignant anonymous anguish of a young man I never met, whose name I never learned, that marked a crucial moment in my journey.

I’d already studied the Bible with a sharp mind in college and seminary, years before I wrote those “Words offered at the end of the day.” I’d already learned a lot. But during my time at Notre Dame, particularly in seminars on the Hebrew prophets and the Gospels, I came to appreciate how C.S. Lewis describes Aslan, the lion who represents Jesus in the Narnia Chronicles: as “profoundly good—but hardly tame.”

I found the Hebrew prophets brimful and more with passion for justice. They declared a God whose commitment to liberation was not only disinterested in fanfare and ceremony but exploded in anger when devotion to ritual created the conditions for apathy, abuse, or injustice. The prophets loaned God their words to sound alarms in times of complacency and to spark hope in the depths of despair.

I met the Jesus whose parables sought to disorient those who heard them, precisely so they could hear new things. A man whose healing miracles again and again aimed to restore those marked as outcast by their infirmity to the community God longs for. And a man whose meals and whose fellowship obliterated the carefully constructed boundaries that sought to preserve a world shaped foremost by power and prejudice. I started using the phrase “kin-dom of God” in place of “kingdom of God” because it’s clear that for Jesus God’s reign IS the experience of becoming family.

Eventually, I had to deal with the six or seven Bible passages that seem at first glance to condemn homosexuality—the “texts of terror,” as they’re sometimes called. One way to approach them is through careful textual scholarship, looking at the historical and social contexts and the linguistic features. This makes it pretty clear these passages don’t speak to our contemporary experience.

I’ve written about how they really deal with behaviors like using anal rape to terrorize strangers in a territory or to humiliate vanquished soldiers, “reducing” them to women. Or temple prostitution, which used sexual ecstasy to “seal” the power of sacrifices. Or pederasty, where an adult man—usually married—used a prepubescent boy in a mix of one-way eroticism linked to power, status, and gender roles.

None of these behaviors are expressions of sexual orientation or identity. None of these texts have anything to say about committed and caring same-sex relationships.

Much as we might wish that the biblical writers had anticipated every question our world would present to us, they concerned themselves with the world they knew. This isn’t at all about a reluctance to take the Bible seriously. It’s about recognizing the Bible is far too complicated a book to presume that it speaks directly to issues today. It’s about showing real reverence to the text and real respect for the actual authors in their actual history.

But another—more life-giving—way I’ve come to meet Scripture is through the life of Jesus. Christians have called Jesus the Incarnate Word of God at least as long ago as John’s Gospel, likely even sooner than that. And in his life Jesus repeatedly re-frames the written biblical text, not to relativize it and not to dismiss it, but to refocus it on the same passion that the prophets showed: mercy and justice, and a large measure of gracious welcome. Finally, for us as Christians, Jesus’ life of radical, surprising, and unconditional welcome is the Text that claims our attention, our loyalty, and our hearts.

Reading the biblical story through this Text, this life, and with fresh attention to welcome and surprise, I began to see themes that were there all along that I never really noticed before. Consider that set of stars we know as the Big Dipper.

It’s just a human-imposed pattern. And there might well be a more interesting pattern in that part of the sky, but we’ve been taught to see the Big Dipper—and only the Big Dipper—for so long, that, even if we try, our eyes find it virtually impossible to see anything else in those stars.

Well, all my life no one had ever told me that there were dots in the biblical narrative that revealed the pattern of a scandalously welcoming God. But at long last my questions, my hunger, my anguish, and my learning, let me finally see this pattern that had been there all along. Listen to this rushing wind of images:

Abraham and Sara, a couple of nomads—and nobodies because they had neither land nor children—become the parents of a nation.

Isaac, their child of promise and laughter, nearly gets sacrificed in a misguided attempt by Abraham to prove his faithfulness to God, but instead walks down the mountain alongside his father, finally known as the laughing gift he was all along.

Jacob, Joseph, and David—all sons second-born or lower in a society where first-born sons got everything—each becomes the hope of their people. Indeed, when Samuel comes to anoint David to be king of Israel, his father, Jesse, first summons every older brother, certain that one of the other seven must be the one chosen by God. Only when pressed by Samuel, does Jesse send someone to get the runt of the family. Samuel anoints David, and his heart becomes the biblical standard of a king’s passion for God.

Rebekah, a woman with no voice in her culture, resets the course of history by helping Jacob gain an inheritance that seemed destined for Esau.

The Exodus is the great tale of liberation and love. A whole people of nobodies—slaves for whom “tomorrow” doesn’t even really exist—except as the continuation of today’s unending servitude—Godwelcomes a whole people of nobodies into freedom and community and tomorrow.

Naomi, despite being a woman and a widow, manages to secure safety and security not only for herself but for her foreign-born daughter-in-law as well.

And Ruth, this foreign-born daughter-in-law, a Moabite no less, a member of an entire people damned in the Bible—she becomes not only one of the greatest biblical model of faithfulness, but also the great grandmother of King David. She brings the bloodline of people condemned in the Bible into the royal lineage that runs through David and on down to Jesus.

The tale of Jonah has nothing to do with the size of the fish’s belly and everything to do with the size of God’s love, which Jonah discovers includes even his enemies. When he explains to God why he first refused to go to Nineveh, he says he was worried that the God he knew to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” would suddenly be these same things to those people—and he wanted that God all to himself and to his kind.

Isaiah declares that eunuchs—persons whose sexual anatomy, whether by birth or by violence, often left them marginalized, exploited, or altogether outcast—eunuchs had found God’s favor. He goes on to declare that the very goal of the God of Israel is to gather outcasts—and that God’s gathering is still far from complete.

The story of Jesus in the Gospels is more of the same—with the emphasis on “more.” Almost every category of questionable character or status makes an appearance in the gospels’ grand narrative of welcome. We see shepherds, wizards, barren women, bleeding women, lepers, demoniacs, all manner of persons with disabilities, tax collectors, revolutionaries, and more. The man is a magnet for every imaginable outcast person.

Like Samaritans. They make three significant cameo appearances in the gospel accounts.

When Jesus encounters a woman at the well and asks for a drink, she reacts with surprise, that this Jewish prophet would stoop so low as to seek water from a Samaritan. But a few verses later she becomes one of the first “apostles,” sent by Jesus and sharing the good news about him with her fellow villagers.

When Jesus heals ten lepers, nine—all of them Jews—are so happy to be cleansed of the disease that they go their own ways never returning to praise God or thank Jesus. Only one—a Samaritan—returns to do so.

And when Jesus tells the parable about the injured traveler lying alongside the road, he describes how both the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. Their Temple duties forbid them to come in contact with anyone near death. So, while their actions strike us as callous, they’re really just following the orders of their occupation. But someone needs to aid the traveler, and the Samaritan—never named in the parable as the “Good Samaritan”—comes along and saves the day.

What’s at stake in these “Samaritan sightings”? Most of us have no idea, but in Jesus’ day these encounters were scandalous beyond measure … the result of animosity several centuries old.

Twice in Israel’s early history, great empires swept through and conquered them. Seven hundred years before Jesus the northern tribes were scattered by Assyria, eventually becoming, in fact, “the lost tribes of Israel.” One hundred fifty years later, the Southern tribe of Judah was carried off into Exile by Babylon. Both times the Bible tells us that “the poorest of the poor” were left behind. There were some Jews that these superpowers didn’t bother to scatter or deport. They were too poor, too illiterate, too unskilled, too worthless to worry about. Left behind, they lived up in the hill country of Israel, known as Samaria. Over the years they intermarried with refugees from other conquered nations, but they persevered in worshipping the God who had liberated and loved them generations before.

Decades later, their kinfolk returned from Exile to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. The descendants of these poorest Jews from the hill country came down, overjoyed to greet their long lost family and help them reclaim the land and rebuild the Temple. But they were scorned as half-breeds. They were told to get lost. They were regarded as illegitimate Jews—bastards, really—on account of sleeping with … and forming families with … the wrong type of people.

They were denied the name “Jew” and were instead called “Samaritans,” a term uttered by Jews with disgust. In Jesus’ day, Samaritans remained, without question, the single most despised category of people you could mention. And yet in one of his best-known parables, Jesus chooses an outcast Samaritan man to image the activity of God in the world.

So, in case you didn’t catch the point about Jesus’ ministry taking the promise of God’s faithfulness and the wideness of God’s welcome—already stretched widely in the Hebrew Scriptures—and stretched yet further by Jesus in his day …  In case you missed the parts where shepherds, wizards, barren women, bleeding women, lepers, demoniacs, all manner of persons with disabilities, tax collectors, revolutionaries, and more got included in the story …  Well, the Samaritan sightings come along like an italicized, underlined, bold print, brightly colored bit of text that says, NO MATTER WHO THE WORLD THINKS YOU ARE, YOU’RE WELCOME ALONGSIDE JESUS.

See, this isn’t just a minor theme hiding in the background. When you read the Bible, not literally, but seriously and reverently, moved by the messy stuff of life and aided by good scholarship, you discover that this is THE CENTRAL THEME OF THE BIBLICAL STORY. It’s called “grace,” but “grace” is just an abstract theological word until you put flesh on it. Clothe it with ethnicity and skin tone, with class and power, with gender and sexuality. To say that God deals in grace—in radical, absolute, unexpected, unconditional, and sometimes even unsettling welcome—that doesn’t mean much of anything until it means precisely “the people not like us.”

We see this in the tale of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Peter has a rooftop vision in which God invites him to enjoy a feast of forbidden foods spread on a blanket. He declines to eat anything, assuring God he’s never eaten anything “ritually impure.” God responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” At first Peter doesn’t understand this isn’t about food; it’s about folks—people that are regarded ritually unclean. But a short while later, when he receives a request to go preach to Cornelius, a Gentile (and thus ritually unclean), he realizes his vision was really a call to see these unexpected people … as clean.

He accepts the invitation, goes to Cornelius’ home, and preaches to Cornelius and his entire household—all Gentiles: the men uncircumcised, the women and children ritually unclean in other ways. Every one of them falls outside the known bounds of God’s welcome. But before Peter even finishes his message, the Holy Spirit claims all these foreignersexactly asthey are (unclean by human standards, unclean even by biblical standards, but chosen as clean by a welcoming God)—and they’re carried away in a moment of holyecstasy. It’ll be decades before the rest of the church sorts it all out, but in that moment, Peter connects the dots and exclaims to the Jewish Christians who’d come with him, “How can we not welcome fully into our church those whom God has so clearly and fully welcomed already?”

Of course, the welcome to Gentiles is not exactly analogous to welcoming LGBTQ persons today … though I’d argue it’s pretty dang close when you get right down it. But this Acts 10 text relates even more closely to another contemporary group of people: ALL THE REST OF US.

Acts, chapter 10—in fact, the entire Book of Acts, and much of Paul’s writings, might be more aptly titled for us today, “Gentiles R Us.” Then maybe we’d remember that once upon a time, almost 2000 years ago, despite way more than a small handful of texts that specifically condemned everyone in this room simply for being Gentiles, WE—the distant but undeniable members of Cornelius’ household—WE were the ones offered an entirely unexpected welcome, first by God and then (after several decades of argument) by God’s church.

That’s why I title this talk “Paying it Forward.” Years ago, driven by questions, by friendships, by hunger, by anguish, I went looking for a God who welcomes others. And here’s the surprise: I discovered as well the God who welcomes ME.

The story of God’s surprising welcome is MY story, OUR story, too. Thus, to even ask whether we should pay it forward? How dare we not?! Welcome is the theme of the biblical tale from first to last! All manner of outsiders are unexpectedly brought in. Again and again and again and again—including in Acts 10: US.

The Bible carries in its narrative the tune of a welcoming God. Indeed, it holds the pounding rhythm of a welcome that is still widening today. If we attend to the stories of those most recently called into that welcome, LGBTQ persons or others for whom this welcome is still raw and real—we might remember that such Grace was once breathtakingly fresh for us as well.

“Paying it Forward” means remembering the grace of a welcome that always comes to each of us as quite a surprise—and without condition. In this remembering, how can we not be moved by joy to extend that welcome on to others today? Paying it forward. It’s not “the least we can do.” It’s the only thing we can do in response to Grace.

© 2021 David R. Weiss

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

The Moral Atrocity of the Billionaire

The Moral Atrocity of the Billionaire
David R. Weiss – October 30, 2021

NOTE: In retrospect the tone of this piece is a bit overly strong at times, a bit lacking in nuance. But I’m leaving it as is, because quite a few folks read it in this form already. Plus, quite honestly, I was rightfully angry as I wrote. Most of us—myself included—cannot fathom the sheer enormity of a billion dollars. And, as Flannery O’Connor once said, “When you’re speaking to those unfamiliar with your world, you need to write in ways that shout.” This isn’t so much a personal attack on Elon Musk as it’s an indictment of the very notion of the billionaire. He’s simply the poster child of billionaires right now.

Elon Musk is worried that the government might try to tax his hoarded billions of wealth. Lucky for him, Senator Joe Manchin saved his day, calling the idea of taxing billionaires divisive, arguing that, just like everyone else they contribute to society, creating jobs, investing money, and even giving to charity. Manchin says, “It’s time that we all pull together and row together.”

I beg to differ. Billionaires aren’t pulling together or rowing together at all. Whatever they “give back” to society cannot begin to compensate for the way their obscene wealth distorts the fabric of human community and undermines the stability of the planet.

Photo: 2013 by Dan Taylor / Heisenberg Media
Licensed under the Creative Commons 
Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Let me say this softly, lest it seem like I’m screaming: by any possible measure of reference on this finite planet, billionaires have no right to exist. At all. (Oops, did I raise my voice there?) I’m serious. Billionaires are worse than the moral equivalent of serial killers because they are inescapably guilty of mass murder … and do so, not only with impunity, but with the grotesquely mistaken envy of others. The greed necessary to become a billionaire can only be described as a pathologically insatiable desire for “more” on a planet where finitude dictates that such a level of “more” will always and inevitably mean such a degree of “less” elsewhere causing suffering and death for other persons and the planet. You cannot hoard that much wealth except by reducing others to poverty.

By now you are maybe incredulous, even distraught at my tone. True, I rarely write such sharp words. But trust me, you have NO IDEA how much a billion dollars is—especially when held by one person.

Imagine YOU have a billion dollars—and no further income. So you have to spend this money carefully because it’s not getting replenished. Let’s suppose, as the ink is drying on the Declaration of Independence in 1776, that you start spending $10,000 each day. Let me say that again: $10,000. Each and every day. 365.25 days a year (to account for leap years). From 1776 to 2021. 245 years. You’ll STILL have slightly over $100 MILLION in the bank. After spending $3,652,500 per year. For 245 years. That’s obscene wealth.

There are over 2000 billionaires in the world, about 630 of them in the U.S. Given that #400 on Forbes list of the 400 richest persons in the U.S. has a net worth of $2.9 billion, those 400 persons could’ve started dropping $10,000 a day around the time Columbus set sail for these parts, and every one of them would still have ALMOST A BILLION DOLLARS LEFT TODAY. They could spend $3,652,500 per year for 529 years and STILL have $967,827,500 in the bank. That’s a moral atrocity.

Elon Musk. Unhappy someone suggested taxing his billions. Earlier this week in one day his net worth jumped by $25 billion. That single day gain would let him spend $10,000 a day every day since Jesus’ birth (roughly 4 BCE)—that 365.25 days per year for 2025 years, or 739,631 days. At that pace, he’d have spent $7.4 billion, leaving him with $17.6 billion still burning a hole in his pocket. And leaving him, after two-thousand YEARS of living a millionaire lifestyle still at #40 on the Forbes list. Jesus Christ!! That’s a moral atrocity.

But that one day earning merely added to his already insanely obscene wealth, estimated by Forbes at $292 billion as of today. Elon could’ve started spending $10,000 each day, $3,652,500 each and every year … 26,000 YEARS AGO … and his net worth would STILL BE MORE THAN JEFF BEZOS’ CURRENT NET WORTH OF $195 BILLION. This is the guy tweeting his disdain that anyone would dare to tax his billions. This is beyond moral atrocity; it’s pathological evil.

And this on a planet where other people die for lack of food and water and housing and healthcare. Where the planet itself groans because of insatiable appetites. The supper wealthy—which is my book starts well shy of billionaire status—are stripping untold multitudes of their lives. Billionaires (and I’d add in multi-millionaires) are quietly engaged in mass killing. There is NO WAY on a finite planet to accumulate that degree of wealth without depriving others of the very means of life itself.

On some level, you COULD argue that we ought to kill the rich as an act of self-defense. The reality IS that dire. Nonetheless, that’s NOT my argument. I am NOT advocating stripping the wealthy of their lives. I am merely advocating that we strip them of their wealth. We should provide multiple opportunities for redistributing such wealth as fast as it accumulates via taxation, charitable giving, and community investment.

I don’t imagine that government will go after the super-wealthy through rigorous taxation anytime soon. Senator Wyden’s “billionaire tax” would’ve raised $345 billion in taxes from just the 20 richest Americans—without even denting their billionaire status. But with 278,000 folks in his home state of West Virginia live in poverty—including 100,000 kids facing daily food insecurity, Joe Manchin is worried that it’s somehow divisive if we “target” taxes at the billionaire class.

For the most part, what passes for “legitimate” government today serves primarily to “legitimate” the preservation of obscene wealth to the deep harm of the common good. If we truly grasped the obscenity of a single individual holding $1 billion dollars (let alone $100 or $200 billion), either the citizenry would demand that government takes immediate steps to reclaim the stolen goods of the community … or mob violence against the wealthy would ensue.

I don’t want a penny of Elon Musk’s wealth. But with 13 million children in the U.S. living in food insecurity, when I holler, “Why aren’t we taxing the hell out of billionaires?!” I’m asking for a friend. Actually, 13 million of them.

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

O Pilgrims, Come: The Tale of the Text

O Pilgrims, Come: The Tale of the Text
October 15, 2021 – David R. Weiss

It took me roughly twelve miles (walking in the Wind)—and just shy of 300 words—to cross 100 years. But sweet Jesus, what a journey.

All stories start somewhere in the middle (whether they realize it or not). For this story that middle is March 2021. I received an email from someone on the Anniversary Committee at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Saint Paul. They were making plans to celebrate Pilgrim’s 100th anniversary in October. Someone had floated the idea of commissioning a centennial hymn to mark this special occasion in the congregation’s life. They began to think of local hymnists they might ask. Eventually my name came up. I’m not a particularly well-known hymnist, but I’ve written more (relatively unknown) texts than fit on my fingers and toes. More importantly, I’m known to Pilgrim, and I’ve known Pilgrim for nearly two decades.

Beginning in 2004, when Pastor Carol Tomer invited me to preach at Pilgrim for Reconciling in Christ Sunday, every few years I’ve been asked to preach or lead an adult forum there; in 2014-2015 I served as Theologian in Residence. After seventeen years, eight sermons, at least a dozen forums, and even a stint on a church committee, that mutual knowing reflects mutual respect and warmth as well. In fact, I just led my most recent adult forum via Zoom this past February.

This March email asked if I would take on the project of writing a centennial hymn for them. Of course, I was honored, humbled, delighted. And apprehensive. Although I am more than confident of my writing ability, the past couple years have been a struggle at times. A wilderness sojourn of sorts with long barren expanses in between oases of productivity. My creativity, temperament, and self-esteem have all occasionally withered—sometimes without warning. When working only against internal expectations and deadlines, that sense of falling short can still be excruciating but at least it’s entirely private. Saying Yes to this request would be a very public commitment.

I wrestled with the decision for a few days before replying Yes. And I wrestled with it for more than a few days in the first weeks after that Yes. This was never about whether I wanted to do it or whether “in theory” I could do it. It was about whether at this point in my life, suspended in a season (hardly my first) of unrelenting self-doubt and merciless melancholy, I trusted myself to do it. I said Yes in a spirit of reckless hope, throwing caution (and myself) to the Wind. And trusting the Wind to catch me.

Most every other hymn text I’ve written—probably two dozen of them—has come from inside me. Biblical imagery, of course. And rich theology in service of a chosen theme. But these have been my choices. In contrast, this text needed to echo 100 years of choices other than my own. So, I set to work gathering stones, as it were. As in making “Stone Soup” and inviting many others to toss all manner of ingredients into the pot.

There were many contributions. Three earlier anniversary booklets: 1946 (25th anniversary); 1971 (50th anniversary); and 1981 (60th anniversary). A 1996 (75th anniversary) meditation booklet on the intricately carved wooden reredos (the art behind the altar). A brief timeline chronicling major events and milestones in the congregation’s history. A guide to the “layman’s Bible” of tales and teaching held in the stained-glass windows. A guide to the Jesse Tree carving of Jesus’ ancestors. A floor map showing the cruciform pattern of the church itself and indicating where each bit of sacred art is found in the sanctuary. Several current brochures. Altogether about 70 pages of written material and another 30 pages of photos in the anniversary booklets.

Pilgrim Lutheran Church – 1935 St. Clair Ave., St.Paul – http://www.pilgrimstpaul.org

A personal tour of the building from the church archivist who had earlier supplied all the written documents. (As well as my own wander around the church’s website to get a sense of the phrases and images that they use to virtually lean into the world today.) The images from a new 16-panel display of Pilgrim’s more recent history. And a 55-minute video of Pastor Carol reflecting on the church’s history with her uniquely warm insight shortly before departing to take a new call in Olympia, Washington.

That’s a lot of stones!

I worked through all this material in April, letting the Stone Soup simmer, while this theme or that theme bubbled its way to the top. “Simmering” makes it sound too easy and automatic. There is so much richness in anyone’s history, and Pilgrim’s heritage holds a true abundance of riches. As everything simmered—at times coming to a rolling boil in my head!—the initial challenge was to select which handful of events and themes for the hymn, trusting this handful to generously evoke much more that wouldn’t fit in the lines themselves.

By the end of April, I’d settled on a basic structure of three or, more likely, four verses. The first one to reflect Pilgrim’s deep past; the last one to set the congregation on the threshold of the future; and the middle one or two verses to tell the sweep of Pilgrim’s life together over the decades. I put together a 20-point summary of themes and events (many of these points had sub-points within them); it was still far too much for a hymn, but it seemed to me to capture the breadth and depth of Pilgrim’s history, heritage, and missional vocation.

In early May I shared this summary with the Anniversary Committee and the Church Vestry (the Council). I explained it was still too much to fit into the final hymn, but now I had 100 years simmered down to these twenty points on a single page. And that it would be from among these events and themes that I would fashion the final hymn. I asked if I’d missed anything important in my summary or if any points in it were so essential that they really needed a place in the final text. I did NOT want anyone looking over my shoulder as I crafted the actual verses, but I also didn’t want to turn in a final text only to learn I’d overlooked one of their family treasures.

Candlelight on Sunday evening

Happily, other than amplifying a couple points in my summary as being really important, everyone seemed pleased with my short list of highlights from their long years of history. The two things lifted up? That their Sunday evening contemplative services had become such an unexpected gift, reaching beyond the congregation itself and embracing many who longed for a spiritual wayside if not a specifically Christian home. And that they’re not afraid to wrestle with questions that make them uncomfortable, as, for instance, with their current Reparations Task Force. I made sure that both were in my final text.

Now it was time to move from themes and events to images, phrases, meter, and rhyme. Writing a brief prose sketch of Pilgrim’s storied heritage and faith would have been daunting. Doing that in rhyme was double-daunting—in bolded italics. Plus, this was a hymn: a song for worship. So, the internal energy of the text needed to sing Pilgrim’s history in a way that offered praise to the God who has been their beloved companion on this century-long journey.

With preparation complete and intention clear, I needed inner calm so that inspiration and art could have their turn. But inner calm can be elusive with such a multitude of ideas whispering, “Pick me! Pick me!” And with so much at stake. And with the clock ticking (my deadline was mid-June). Inspiration can be invited, but rarely if ever corralled. I needed the Wind. I found it by walking. Twelve miles.

The walking path around Lake Nokomis is almost exactly three miles (assuming you cross Cedar and include the western end of the lake). As it happens, I have occasion to walk that pathway once or twice a week. I suppose most of us have activities that help us “settle” inside: slow down, collect ourselves, re-center. Walking is one of mine. Over three weeks and four walks, thus, twelve miles, I carried my sheet of words as I circled the lake, notebook and pen in hand. By now most of the trees along the path know me and they obliged me with reverent quiet as I waited for the Wind to come. Sometimes it twirled the leaves on the trees around me, but on each of those four walks it also twirled the words as they danced inside me.

The opening pair of couplets came first—although the meter would be adjusted before I was done. And then a refrain. I wasn’t expecting a refrain, but there it was, taking the church’s tagline—“a home for hungry minds and souls”—and offering itself as the thread to stitch each verse to the next. Each walk more phrases, sentences, couplets emerged. The meter found itself, and a few stubborn sentences eventually softened so they could be matched to meter. Four verses and a refrain. Two-hundred-eighty-nine words to be exact. Two-hundred-ninety-two if you count the title, which I suppose you should.

Could I have written this text around a lake other than Nokomis? I won’t put limits on God, but I trusted the Wind to join me on these walks around this lake, and it did. As the people of Pilgrim Lutheran would testify—as did Martin Luther himself—the unique character of the gospel (good news) is that it’s never known in the abstract. It is always particular: only ever gospel when it’s good news for me … or for you. So that this hymn, with its persistent echo of grace—and good news—emerged on that particular path isn’t mine to question. It came to me along the edge of Lake Nokomis.

In Ojibwe, Nokomis means “my grandmother.” Interestingly, as with gospel, Nokomis is always particular: my grandmother. And in Ojibwe myth, Nokomis means the one particular Great Mother, as in Mother Earth. When my refrain sings, “Wisdom bids us all to dine …” is that Wisdom, usually personified in Hebrew Scripture as a woman ancient as Earth itself … or is it Nokomis beckoning to us? Who knows. My writing is always something of a duet between myself and the Wind. Is it possible that Nokomis found her way into my verses? You’d need to ask the Wind about that.

At last, let’s turn to the hymn text itself.

As some of you know, I have ZERO musical training or aptitude. I can’t even read music—I just try to make my voice go up or down like the notes do. I usually write a text with a specific (familiar) melody in mind, but for this project I intentionally avoided that since the church was commissioning original music for this hymn. (Anne Krentz Organ, a noted Lutheran composer based in Chicago did this after receiving my text in June.) As the phrases started to come together, I settled into a 7/7 rhyme scheme for the verses (seven syllables in each line). And an 8/6 rhyme scheme for the refrain. Both are common meters in church hymnody, so I knew they’d be congregation-friendly for singing. And having a refrain with a complimentary, but not identical meter would allow the composer to play with two separate but related melodies.

I’ve put the hymn at the very end. Here’s a short “guided” tour of the themes, events, and images you’ll find. Because poetry often “works” by leaving things unsaid in between the lines, if you’re not an “insider” to Pilgrim’s story, this tour will help you make the crucial connections for the hymn’s intricate imagery to work.

Verse 1: Origins and architecture. Pilgrim Lutheran was originally a mission chapel planted by Redeemer Lutheran, located several miles to the east. Initially they only had funds to complete the basement, so for the first decade they worshipped in an underground “sanctuary” with stairwells leading to a building not yet there. When the above ground structure was finished, it was beautiful, including stained glass windows that highlighted central stories and themes of their shared faith.

In the 1960’s a unique oak carving went up behind the altar. The “Returning Christ” shows Jesus coming as Lord of history, a profoundly theological image that declared faith in God in the face of rising Soviet influence in the world. The same carving, set against the yawning lure of American individualism, shows Jesus surrounded by an entire community of people, intended to spill over into those gathered in the pews. Someone writing in their 60th anniversary booklet remarked that the sanctuary’s beauty carried worshippers to “the brink of the eternal.”

Verse 2: A history tilted toward inclusion. Despite being founded as a Missouri Synod (that is, a very conservative) Lutheran church, Pilgrim gave women the vote in church matters within their first decade. Fifty years later, in the 1970’s, they joined a sizable minority of other like-minded churches that split off from the Missouri Synod over the synod’s rigid theology and biblical interpretation. Eventually these churches—including Pilgrim—became founding partners in the ELCA Synod.

Over its years Pilgrim has been active in immigrant resettlement, affirming LGBTQ Christians, pursuing inclusive language in worship, and most recently standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and seeking racial justice. Their wide welcome is holy hospitality drenched in the waters of baptism—this is fundamentally God’s gracious welcome. While it’s commonplace to prize children as “the church of tomorrow,” at Pilgrim they’re emphatically recognized as the church today. This is done architecturally—with a special children’s door—and also through special children’s areas in the sanctuary where their curiosity and even movement are welcomed in the midst of worship.

Verse 3: Art, worship, and Sunday evenings. In its original sanctuary and through a multitude of later gifts, Pilgrim has relished art as a doorway to the sacred. Under creative pastoral and musical leadership, the people have embraced worship that ranges wide across styles but runs deep in tradition. “Sunday Evenings on Saint Clair” offers contemplative worship that aims to be open and inviting, especially to Seekers—many of whom carry baggage or wounds from earlier church encounters, but who still hunger for a moment of mystery in their lives. In fact, this service is prized by some who rarely attend themselves because it so effectively reaches out to others.

Verse 4: Leaning into the future. I place a bit of Trinitarian divinity in this verse, suggesting that Pilgrim lean into its future via Advent-expectation, Easter-resurrection, and Pentecost-Spirit. And I echo their determination to continue asking—together, as a community—hard question about what it means to be a church in reformation still today, allowing themselves to be pressed uncomfortably as they discern the path toward holy kinship. This verse ends by inviting these Pilgrim saints into a simple prayer as they journey into their next century.

Refrain: echoing Pilgrim’s tagline: “A home for hungry minds and souls.” Here I blend Hebrew Scripture imagery of Wisdom calling all to feast with symbols of baptism and Communion—all wrapped in Pilgrim’s deep spirit of welcome, hospitality, and love. The final line is particularly brimful of meaning. Of course, Pilgrim aims to “welcome strangers home.” But there’s so much more here. Pastor Schuessler created the Little Pilgrim “logo” in 1959 (on a napkin in a Chicago pizza parlor, no less!) and nicknamed him, Xenos, a Greek name meaning “pilgrim.” How fitting. But intended or otherwise, there’s a profound double entendre: used as an adjective, xenos means “strange”; as a regular noun, “stranger.” But—by some sacred grace—strangers become Pilgrims when they’re known by name.

As I said at the outset, sweet Jesus, what a journey—in the Wind. Okay, here’s the hymn, “O Pilgrims, Come,” which debuted at Pilgrim’s Centennial worship service on October 10, 2021:

O Pilgrims, Come

By our Redeemer planted, like a seed beneath the ground;
Til grew a tow’ring building, bearing gospel all around.
With stained glass traced by sunlight, to be read by wond’ring eyes;
Mid oaken acclamation of Christ coming in the skies.
The cloud of saints around us, on the wall and in the pew;
The brink of the eternal splashing o’er our lives anew.

Refrain:
O Pilgrims, come, the table’s set; the spring of water clear.
And Wisdom bids us all to dine, so come from far and near.
With hungry minds and hungry souls, and lives in love aflame;
Thus welcome every stranger home, and call them by their name.

Our women early voted, and in time our synod changed;
Our welcome ever widened, reaching many long estranged.
Where’er our lives have led us, and where’er you still may be,
We journey by the water, all together whole and free.
Our youth, the church already; thus we built a children’s door;
Their wand’ring, wond’ring witness helps the faith of all to soar.

[Refrain]

Through art we touch the sacred, where the holy may reside;
Our worship spans traditions, going deep and ranging wide.
So listen, in the stillness, there is music in the air;
The doors are opened fully, Sunday ev’nings on Saint Clair.
In quiet candlelighting, as the day begins to part,
The words soft weave the myst’ry in the waiting of each heart.

[Refrain]

Tomorrow is our Advent, and our Easter, Pentecost;
We move with expectation, risen too, and Spirit-tossed.
As questions rise to press us, faith reforming still today,
We bear a restless witness to God’s holy kin-dom way.
Sweet Jesus, walk beside us; on the journey we abide.
Your gospel be our message; your compassion be our guide.

text: David R. Weiss – © 2021 – Pilgrim Lutheran Church – http://www.pilgrimstpaul.org
original music: Anne Krentz Organ

Xenos, the Little Pilgrim, circa 1959

[All images courtesy Pilgrim’s website: http://www.pilgrimstpaul.org]

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

Faith as Meaning-Making in Our Lives

Faith as Meaning-Making in Our Lives
David R. Weiss – September 29, 2021

Over the past several weeks I’ve been working on presentations for the “Journey of Faith” adult faith formation series at my church.

I first encountered James Fowler’s theory of Faith Development as a college junior and used his research in crafting my senior Psychology research project. I read a book by him again in seminary. And revisited his work further in my (uncompleted) Ph.D. dissertation.

Over my two decades of college teaching, I taught Fowler’s ideas in full courses at Luther College, Augsburg, and St. Kate’s—including many “adult learners” (aged 30-60). His theory always proved personally insightful for my students, as well as evoking “big” questions beyond their own lives.

It’s been a challenge to gather even a fitting “glimpse” into Fowler’s work over two 30-minute presentations, but that’s been my task, and I think I’ve done reasonably well, so I’m sharing my work here.

My first presentation (September 22) was “Faith as the Holy Human Ground of Humanity – James Fowler on Faith as our Developing Capacity for Making Meaning in the World.” I prepared a 4200-word essay to get my own thinking sorted out; then I made up a 2-page “cheat sheet” handout, which is what I spoke from.

My second presentation (September 29) was “Seeing Faith in the Arc of OUR Lives – James Fowler on Faith as our Developing Capacity for Making Meaning in the World.” For that I prepared a 5300-word essay (which includes a whirlwind review of Week 1 for any newcomers), plus a 2-page “cheat sheet” handout, which is what I spoke from. This week the “cheat sheet” also includes a third page of “self-assessment” questions that invite you to reflect on your own life in light of Fowler’s work, and a fourth page of more general reflection questions.

If you studied Fowler with me (I know some of my former students follow my blog), you’ll find these papers a nifty refresher. If his work is new to you, you’re in for a dense but rewarding treat.

Here are links to pdfs of each document:

Enjoy—and feel free to pose your own questions to me!

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.

Abortion Rights – Presente!

Abortion Rights – Presente!
David R. Weiss – September 4, 2021

As a man, a white man no less, I check the demographic boxes that are responsible for more suffering, exploitation, and callous brutality toward life than probably any other broad category of human persons.

So it’s perilous for me to presume anyone cares what I have to say about women’s reproductive rights. Yet it’s also important for me to speak … so the women in my life hear my support loud and clear … and so I do not miss the opportunity to openly reject the values of white men that have wrought such evil on the world.

Anti-abortion laws are foremost anti-women laws. They prioritize control of women’s bodies and lives and sexuality and future rather than ensuring women’s education and autonomy and health and integrity.

But it’s more than that. Scratch beneath almost any anti-abortion legal initiative and you’ll find  its proponents are eager to use the death penalty, quick to invest in war, happy to look away from poverty, disinterested in responding to the climate crisis, unsupportive of the Covid vaccines, angrily anti-mask, against robust sex education and access to contraceptives, determined to preserve a health care system that cares first for profit, and hellbent on making it as hard as possible for persons of color to vote. (And more.)

Connect all those dots and anti-abortions laws are ultimately part of a worldview that trusts only white men to know what it best for anyone. (Yes, there are women and persons of color who are anti-abortion, but the overarching worldview is racist, misogynist, and ecocidal.)

There are a host of justice-oriented life-affirming ways to lessen the frequency of abortion that actually work. But those seeking to outlaw abortion are not ultimately interested in lessening its frequency; they’re interested in criminalizing women who second-guess their white male worldview and (in Texas, at least) anyone who aids them.

I am not “pro-abortion”; I am pro-life. But I recognize that life itself is messy, and sometimes a choice for abortion is the most “pro-life” choice a woman can make—and the instances where this is true happen more frequently in a manifestly unjust world (which is the very world that the larger anti-abortion agenda in fact seeks to maintain). And, in a manifestly unjust world, every assault on abortion rights makes that world even more unjust.

Finally, that choice belongs foremost to the woman in whose body … in whose life … it will play out. Is that position fraught with peril? Of course. Life is fraught with peril. But in balancing the needs of justice, it is past time to trust each woman to think and feel and choose for herself. And past time for the rest of us is to be publicly and passionately committed to building a world in which women find themselves respected, supported, honored, educated, and safe.

If we truly commit to these things, we will find ourselves more able to trust their choices—and we will find our world more ready to support those same choices, whatever they are.

To the women in my life, in this anxious moment, I see you. I hear you. I trust you. And I am dedicated to building a world where respect, support, honor, education, safety—and trust—are indeed the touchstones of your lived experience. Someday. Starting now.

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

This entry was posted on September 4, 2021. 1 Comment

Collapse … and the Love of God

Collapse … and the Love of God
David R. Weiss – August 29

Dark Hope: a hope that is fully alongside us in the unpredictable tumult ahead. Indeed,
not a hope that “shines in the darkness,” but a hope that abides as darkness itself.

In my Dark Hope series earlier this month I allowed myself to stare into the abyss—the likelihood, the near certainty, that our civilization is heading toward a tumultuous collapse. The opening acts of climate breakdown are already with us in the forms of record heat and drought, hurricane and flood, ice melt and sea level rise, wildfires and species loss—from insects to mammals. And societal breakdown is also at the door in the dismissal of science, frenzied xenophobia, extremism, rising violent rhetoric—and outright violence. Moreover, the collective unwillingness of so many to respond to a pandemic with civility, common sense, or compassion, foreshadows a descent into barbarism when conditions worsen—which they will.

It’s a lot to carry. And never really set down. Margaret notices how I sigh—often and deeply—some days, as if I am winded and trying to catch my breath. It’s not physical weariness per se, although I certainly feel it in my body. Some days I’m just emotionally out of breath. All. Day. Long.

Recently one of my grandchildren recounted with dramatic dismay the lack of good cell phone reception at one place they stayed while visiting family in Mexico. In back-to-back sentences he described easy access to a cell signal as a “necessity” and “convenience”—as though the two terms meant the same thing. When I pointed out the gap between their meanings, he admitted that “convenience” was more accurate, but immediately claimed that—for his generation—it was a “necessary convenience.” I did not point out that “convenience” will go extinct for his generation.

One of my most faithful readers, after reading my Dark Hope essays, remarked about how deeply they challenged her understanding of God. “Do you really think God would allow things to so completely unravel?” she asked. It was not some naïve question. She is a wise woman, older than me, and has wrestled with theological questions that have carried her quite “outside the box” for plenty of years herself. But, like me, she is a parent and a grandparent, and to contemplate a future that goes so far sideways is a very different prospect when you feel so deeply connected through those you love to days you don’t expect to see yourself.

It is a real question. What does the prospect of worldwide ecological and societal collapse say about God?

The question is a version of many others. What does 9/11 … or the Holocaust … or slavery (say about God? Or any number of other instantaneous or generational calamities that inflict suffering on the innocent. All such questions challenge the righteousness or at least the omnipotence (the all-powerfulness) of God.

I remember reading Elie Wiesel’s Night sometime in college. There is a scene where he recounts the hanging of three prisoners, one of them a young boy. Mounted on chairs, with nooses around their necks, the other prisoners were ordered to attend the killing. One man cried out from the crowd, “Where is God?!” Then the chairs were kicked away. The two men died instantly, but the boy, too light, hung for thirty minutes, his life ebbing away in slow agony. Again, the voice from the crowd, “Where is God now?!” And Wiesel heard the answer, unspoken but fully formed, rise within him: “Where is God? Here God is—God is hanging here on this gallows …” (Night, Bantam Books, 1960, pp. 61-62)

Wiesel’s witness runs along a razor’s edge. It might mean, God is as good as dead—helpless, abandoned, just like us. It might be a cry of abject despair. And he admits that this declaration, painful as it is, resonates. And yet, this is a razor’s edge: there is a second, quieter, even more challenging claim.

That claim, which Wiesel allows, even if he never fully embraces it himself, is that in some inscrutable way, here, at the very focal point of our suffering—our seeming abandonment to the forces of chaos and worse—right here, God somehow is alongside us.

This shadowy wisdom, kindred to Dark Hope, bears a daring, audacious, paradoxical witness to God’s presence under conditions that appear to deny it. This is the same impulse behind Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, Jürgen Moltman’s crucified God, the seed of Central American Liberation Theology, and Sharon Welch’s feminist liberatory vision. To be clear, these varied expressions are hardly identical with each other—or with Wiesel, but they express the apprehension of a common mystery: that sacred presence is not limited to what we might count as “victory.”

It would take a book to unpack all of this. But I will suggest a couple core insights that are at once troubling and reassuring. I think it is fair to say that God is not omnipotent—at least not in the way we have measured power since the predominance of patriarchy. God is not omnipotent via power-over or having final control. That measure of omnipotence is the human reaction to the radical insecurity that marks our lives: it is the desire to foreclose any option not to our liking … projected from us onto God.

Rather, God’s commitment to offering-and-fostering-love is the defining feature of divinity. I say this in theological language, but I mean as much cosmically as supernaturally. God, which I think of as the energy that pervades and shapes the cosmos, is fundamentally focused on relating everything to everything else. At the sheer physical level, that’s gravity: the cosmic force of mutual attraction. But as consciousness rises, that longing for relationship becomes collaborative: our wills participate in furthering —or twisting—God’s longing for mutuality as the crowning pattern of creation. This is the mystery of agency in a cause-and-effect cosmos. (And the topic for a whole other essay!)

But this is the unexpected consequence of God’s “choice” to prioritize love (the possibility of mutual relationship) over power (the assertion of control): it means there is always an exposed soft underbelly to the sacred. God is not all-powerful, but all-vulnerable. God’s “super-power” is not the ability to protect us but the promise to accompany us no matter what. This is a whole different axis of power.

This is NOT an argument for a God who is infinitely weak (unless you are bound only to a notion of power as control—a notion that might appear compelling in the short-term, but which is ultimately a foolish affront to and at times an evil distortion of the soft sacred hum of the universe). But it is a truth we rarely encounter. God’s power rests unequivocally in love and vulnerability—and the power these forces have to (potentially) effect transformation in the beings with whom God longs to collaborate.

Here is the holy mystery of God in its most terrifying truth. At every moment of cosmic history (for our concern here—at every moment of human history) God’s longing for mutual relationship is sufficient to effect it … but can never guarantee it. There is no moment in which hope is utterly lost, because so long as the universe is, God is willing mutuality into all that is. And God never stops.

But neither does God control the future. God invites and persists and accompanies and encourages and strengthens and holds us unendingly in love. Still, in our corner of the universe, the fate of life on this small blue planet rests on the collaborative energy between human beings and God—and on the host of biophysical systems that have evolved around us. Earth history is improvisation.

We are deep into a cacophonous improvisation right now, one that portends catastrophe and collapse. Even if it comes to that, God’s longing to foment love will go there with us. Even in this maelstrom, God’s presence will be sufficient to transform those of us who choose to collaborate into partners with God in caring for a shattered planet and a shattered society. Whether such work will carry the day—who knows. But that it will be holy work, of this I am sure. And that, my friends, is cause for joy.

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