Christmas Pageant Pandemonium

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

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

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

Except.

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

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

Here’s what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three things merit special mention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, Luke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better World? My Ass!

November 19, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Is it mere coincidence that World Toilet Day coincides with “Give to the Max Day” today here in Minnesota? I think not—as least not as karma would have it …

I have learned over the past several years that my body has grown lactose intolerant after a certain point. I no longer drink milk, but yogurt, cheese, and ice cream are all fine—so long as consumed in moderation. For instance, I know that on nights I have pizza for supper, ice cream is NOT a good choice for a late night snack.

But I’m still learning. Margaret and I made plans in the morning to have pizza for supper on Wednesday night. Then I spontaneously chose to enjoy—and I mean enjoy—a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. I remember, as though it were just yesterday (it was!), thinking to myself as the cheese dripped out of the sandwich, “Maybe you should reschedule pizza for supper …” But by supper those thoughts were long gone. Instead we enjoyed our pizza as a late supper while we discussed the six or seven donations we wanted to make to Minnesota nonprofits to celebrate “Give to the Max Day.” After supper I made those donations and after the news I turned my attention to this blog post—on my mind for a week now—to talk toilet tissue choices in honor of world toilet day.

Only by now that savory grilled cheese from lunch was making friends with the pizza from supper to my eternal dismay. (Okay, it was merely my “internal” dismay, but it will not soon be forgotten.) Instead of getting much written, I wound up crawling in bed after weakly praying that I might sleep off my foodie foolishness. Some prayers apparently are not meant to be answered. Or perhaps the pizza had offered a counter-prayer that it be allowed to give birth to fresh wisdom deep in my bowels.

I don’t really think pizza can pray, but ————————————————————— and that dash should run about as long as the path from bed to bathroom at 2:20 a.m.—where for nearly the next two hours I was perched on porcelain … on the very cusp of both World Toilet Day and Give to the Max Day. It wasn’t just irony that stung as I “thoroughly” commemorated both days long before the sun even rose. Fitting, I suppose, since my “celebration” was going on “where the sun don’t shine” anyway.  

So, that was my preparation to write this post. And despite losing far too much of my sleep last night, I’m determined to get this post done and out of my system today … along with everything else apparently.

Here it is short and sweet: Put some bamboo in your loo for your poo—which you can do! That will hardly fix everything wrong in the world, but if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then getting our shit together begins with a single sheet. And making that a sheet of bamboo has ripples that reach around the world …

Today is the twentieth anniversary of World Toilet Day, established in 2001 and later adopted by the UN as an official observance in 2012. Odds are all of you have commemorated it with your own trip to the toilet at least once or twice every November 19 since it started. And that’s sort of the point. Around the world 4.2 billion (that’s a B!) people lack access to safely managed sanitation. That’s more than half the world’s population! (Fine print: about 2 billion lack access to a toilet of any sort; but the number doubles when you include those whose only access is to toilets that are unsafe for people or ecosystems.)

And climate change is making it worse. More frequent extreme weather events and rising floodwaters threaten to overwhelm inadequate toilet systems, spilling untreated waste back into waterways, farm fields, and living areas. Sustainable sanitation systems, on the other hand, can safely collect and store waste, capturing green house gases for energy production; protect drinking water, and turn wastewater and toilet sludge into productive agricultural nutrients. Minimally, access to an adequate toilet is a matter of human dignity. Maximally, it’s about planetary health for the entire ecosystem.

But where does bamboo fit in? Well, between your cheeks of course. There are (at least) two mail order companies that offer toilet paper made from Bamboo to stock your loo for use with your poo. (Which you can do.) And both of them donate a portion of their sales to … make toilets more accessible around the world. That is, they harness the power of your flush to build better sanitation in places across the globe where it’s most needed.

So on World Toilet Day 2020—because what shit hasn’t hit the fan this year?—I’m urging you to make a small change in hygiene habits that can become a modest ongoing contribution to the health of people you’ll never meet and the planet you share with them. The two companies I’ve ordered from are Who Gives a Crap and Reel Paper. WGAC, founded in 2012 in Australia, now with a U.S. branch as well, is older, but both were started with the double-goal of providing a more sustainable TP option to consumers while also funding projects that serve sanitation needs in other parts of the world. They both seem to be good companies.

Now, a little bit of shop talk.

In any conversation about toilet paper, someone will inevitably “go nuclear,” and say “Just get a bidet and bid adieu to TP altogether.” And, yes, there are bidets—both full-blown Euro-style bum-bath sinks as well as toilet seat adaptations that promise to let you spritz with glee all that debris; some will even blow dry whatever glistens down below. And by most accounts the bidet is a greener and better cleaner than TP … but far less culturally practical. Even with toilet seat adaptations, which could, in theory, make almost every U.S. toilet virtually TP-free, this isn’t going to happen. But, if I can nudge even a dozen of my readers to rethink the way they wipe—culturally committed wipers that we are—then I can help tie our bathroom tidying practices to building a better world.

Still, bamboo?

Most conventional toilet paper comes from trees. In the United States, the biggest share of the toilet tissue that ends up in our home bathrooms began in Canada’s boreal forest, which locks away more carbon than any other forest on the planet. It’s a bitter irony that logging in Canada to provide toilet paper for U.S. households in fact drives the same climate crisis that threatens to further undermine precarious toilet options in less developed countries. If you’re planning a long sit on the stool, reading either of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s two very detailed reports on “The Issue with Tissue” (2019) and “The Issue with Tissue 2.0” (2020) is guaranteed to get your blood boiling and your bowels moving.

As these reports make clear, you can make a choice for a better tomorrow even as you’re saying goodbye to yesterday’s breakfast. There are plenty of TP options made from recycled paper, almost any of which are far better eco-options than those that come right from the forest. But here’s the bum rap: if you have a stoic streak that reaches all the way down to your butt cheeks (and beyond), I’ll offer you my raised brow of respect. But, and I’m speaking straight out of my ass here, having auditioned several of these myself, you can call me “Dainty David,” but my derriere delights in a bit more doting than the second-cousin of raw newsprint offers, even when it’s 3-ply and quilted. I’ll tip my hat to WGAC for raising the bar on 100% recycled paper TP—including an astounding 95% post-consumer content. It’s a remarkable product—and earns the top spot in the NRDC sustainable TP scorecard. (NRDC doesn’t score bamboo TP Reel in this report.) But all those recycled fibers give you a toilet paper that—how shall I say this?—sometimes lacks integrity … and lingers. I like a TP that’s a bit less … cheeky.

Which is why bamboo gets my vote. Bamboo is a grass. It has a lot of uses, but in our case, think of it as  … ass-grass. It grows quickly, naturally, and sustainably in China—without pesticide or chemicals—and both WGAC and Reel work hard to ensure that both farmers and factory workers are treated ethically. Its manufacture is much less water-intensive than paper TP. And, because it’s made from “virgin” bamboo (don’t make me blush), the fibers are both softer and stronger than recycled paper fibers. Meaning that when I ask it to kiss my ass, it does—and then it doesn’t hang around. Especially the Reel Paper. When it’s done, it’s gone. Which is exactly why I’m keeping it around these days.

Whether you join me in putting bamboo in your loo for your poo … or decide to raise my brow in respect by choosing 100% recycled paper, I ask you to join me in commemorating World Toilet Day by paying just a little bit more for your TP, knowing that you’re paying it forward while you deal with your backward. Your bum will feel blessed even as your pocketbook helps build bathrooms in places you’ll never see.

Better world? My ass. Yours too.

* * *

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.

On Eagles Wings: A bird’s eye view of the biblical tale

Session #2 – On Eagles Wings: A bird’s eye view of the biblical tale

Approaching the Bible with Heart and Mind: An introduction to Scripture for those who affirm that “God is Still Speaking”
David R. Weiss – Fall/Spring 2020-2021
(made possible by a grant from the Steve and Christine Clemens Foundation)

NOTE: this is a longer than usual post. Here is as a PDF file of the essay below. (As a PDF, it’s 12 pages, including the 3 images.)

Introduction

In this essay I want to provide a very lightly sketched “map” of the biblical tale recounted in the Hebrew Bible. We can’t cover the entire story in a single evening, but I can at least mention some of the “points of interest” that help shape the overall arc of the biblical story. Since each of the remaining four sessions in this series deal with material related to Jesus, in this overview I’ll mostly lift up things that hint at the richness of the biblical story that happens before Jesus. I’ll focus on the story held in the Hebrew Bible, often referred to as the Old Testament by Christians.

We Christians call our specific Scripture the “New Testament.” “Testament” means, covenant or promised relationship. We call our Scriptures “New,” because we believe that somehow in Jesus, God establishes a new covenant/relationship with humanity. Although the early Christians included the Hebrew Scriptures as part of their own sacred texts, acknowledging them as foundational to the world in which Jesus moved and the teachings he brought, they also viewed them as having been somehow superseded by Jesus and so referred to them as the “Old” Testament. However, for Jews, from Jesus’ day to the present, the Hebrew Bible is not an “Old” Testament; it remains for them a set of teachings that describe their living and life-giving covenant with God still today.

Thus, some Christians today—and, in particular many Christian scholars who study these ancient texts alongside Jewish colleagues—refer to these writings as the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, or sometimes the First Testament. This is to respect their standing as still presenting “the” covenant that shapes the promised relationship between Jews and God and to step back from the Christian tendency to denigrate Jewish religion as somehow incomplete short of its “fulfillment” in Christianity. 

Even though we won’t be delving into these early chapters of the story any further this year, it’s important to recognize that Jesus presumed his original audience knew the Hebrew Bible well. His message and ministry took the Hebrew Scriptures for granted. He was, in fact, seeking to renew and deepen the core themes of the Hebrew Scriptures (much like the Hebrew prophets).

Christians frequently assume a discontinuity between the God of the Hebrew Bible and the God of the New Testament. Not so much claiming that they’re different gods, but that somehow Jesus presents God with a decidedly “softer” demeanor. This isn’t the case at all. There certainly are differences in the way God is described (at times) in each Testament, but these differences are shaped largely by the time period in which various writings emerged and not by actual differences in God. (Remember, scripture is an interpretive act: the texts we receive are human attempts—spread out across centuries—that seek to put words on experiences that were life-changing.) Moreover, Jesus absolutely saw himself bearing witness to the same God that Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets found themselves in relationship with. So knowing the overarching themes of this family history is not simply helpful; it’s essential to understand Jesus.

When I originally presented this material as a power point presentation I posed several discussion questions up front, inviting my audience to keep them in mind so we could return to them for discussion at the end. Even if you’re reading this on your own, you might find it helpful to keep these things in mind as you read.

Share one thing that … startled or unnerved you … delighted or surprised you or made you smile … answered a question you’ve had for a long time … raised a new “better and less answerable” question for you.

Are there places in the stories we touched on (all too briefly) here where you can now hear the God who is “still speaking”? What difference would it have made to know some of these things sooner? Why do you suppose you never learned them? What difference would it make in the life of a congregation if this type of learning was more prevalent?

As I move through this material, remember the key insights I covered in Session 1.

These included the value of coming to the Bible with our heads (our best learning and understanding), our hearts (our deepest convictions and yearnings), and … “now”: the challenges posed by any particular present moment. And the importance of remembering the “Big Dipper lesson”: that, in spite of what you may have learned about the Bible growing up, there are different (and perhaps better and more insightful) ways of arranging the stars make up the Bible—but you’ll only ever discover that if you allow yourself to let go of the “constellations” that want to keep arranging themselves in the same patterns again and again. As I said at the time, it’s a bit like “going sky-diving with David”: undeniably a bit nerve-wracking, but the view is incredible. J

Finally, recall the seven “folds” we looked at to assist us as we seek to read the biblical text with both heart and mind at work. The first four help deepen our understanding of the text itself. (1) The biblical text is an Interpretative act: far from “objective” history, it records the life-giving, life-changing witness of a people trying to convey meaning (which is never limited only to facts). (2) The text happens in History: we know that, of course, but we often forget just how different long ago was from yesterday—and only as we put the text in its historical-cultural-linguistic context can we wrestle with it respectfully. (3) The Bible has multiple Sources: beyond its main division between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, this text was composed by a multitude of sources and recognizing this helps us situate texts in both the time and perspective that helps us enter them with understanding. (4) The Bible has different Genres: and simply realizing this (as we do seamlessly when reading a newspaper) makes a HUGE difference in the types of questions we bring to different passages.

The final three “folds” are less about the text than the interpreter: us. (5) The Bible is (inescapably!) read through Lenses: nobody reads the Bible from nowhere; we all have a vantage point shaped partly by our commitments and partly by our circumstances. There’s othing wrong in that—except when we pretend it isn’t so, resulting in all manner of bias that can distort our reading. (6) The Bible is best read in Context: if all you’re doing is reading as an historian, then maybe the ancient context is that matters, but if you’re reading with your heart—as part of your faith—then placing the Bible in conversation with this moment is essential. (7) Calling the Bible the “Word of God” says both too much and too little: it eclipses the holy-and-fallible humanity of its authors … and it mistakenly places a fence around the text as though God has stopping speaking to us today. [That’s an overly concise summary. Refer to the original essay for further clarification.]

Turning to the biblical tale in the Hebrew Scriptures

It’s said there are three big rules in real estate—three things critical to the value of a potential property: location, location, location. And that’s true for the role land plays in our story, too.

The Fertile Crescent is the strip of precious arable land in an otherwise arid region. Leaving their homeland near Ur, Abraham and Sarah follow the Fertile Crescent to the land marked as Palestine on this map. (At the time it was known as Canaan.) They believe it’s the land God has promised to them. Maybe so, but there are “challenges” associated with making your home on a modest bit of land that sits in the crosshairs of great civilizations.

Abraham and Sarah do eventually reach the land of Canaan themselves, but Israel doesn’t become a nation until much later, shortly before 1000 BCE. But as the next map shows, beginning in 722 BCE five successive regional empires take turns swallowing an area that includes Israel. (All except the Roman Empire spread across the entire Fertile Crescent; Rome doesn’t do this only because it begins in the west and its interest was to wrap around the Mediterranean Sea).

Prime real estate, to be sure, but hard to manage. Especially for a tiny kingdom like Israel—which is worth realizing. We tend to read these stories about the ancient Hebrews and the nation of Israel (because they’re so central to our faith) as though they’re tales about a big powerful country. And the people who first told them certainly told them with honest pride and passion; from “inside” these are stories of big deeds and big heroes. But in actuality Israel is much more like a small Central American country (e.g., El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala) living in the shadow of a large U.S. empire … and repeatedly getting pushed around or worse.

This matters for a couple of reasons. It helps us place this text in its larger historical context: as the tales told by a tiny nation caught in the seismic shifts of empires for which they were no match. But it also sets these stories, so central to our faith, in stark contrast to our own context. In the earliest days of our nation, we spoke of this land as our “promised land” while we settled it. But already then and even more so today, we are in fact an empire. And that places us in an awkward relationship to tales in which the heroes are (almost always) the ones who are fighting against empire.

Nonetheless—and maybe precisely because as people of faith our loyalties lie foremost with the God of the Bible, not with the patriotic ardor of our nation—there are important themes in these tales and especially in the larger arc they offer, that can provide guidance for us still today.

If you were to ask most progressive churchgoers to map out the major stories of the Hebrew Bible they wouldn’t get very far. Adam and Eve (who don’t really count since they’re not historical figures); Abraham (maybe Joseph, thanks to Broadway and Disney); Moses; and David (maybe Solomon). Of course, there will be those who can generate more names, but the odds of putting all the names in the right order goes down quickly. Maybe we don’t think the stories matter all that much for Christians, but Jesus counted on his followers to know them. And, unless we mean to say that Jesus doesn’t matter all that much to us, these stories also matter. We won’t be able to fathom, let along follow in his faith if we don’t know the stories that frame his ministry and message.

My short list above calls out only men’s names because the women, usually in our memory and, as often as not in the tales themselves, are an afterthought. Not always. And, as feminist scholars have shown, we can sometimes discern A LOT about voices left silent between the lines if we simply pause to check carefully for what can be surmised in the absence of explicit mention. (The same is true of liberationist, black, womanist, and queer biblical scholars. Each of these “lenses” is able to glean insights that can benefit all of us.)

These stories aren’t exactly our family tree—and that’s important to remember because there have been multiple eras in history when some portion of the Christian church has demonized … with deadly ferocity … our Jewish siblings who still draw their life directly from these texts. The wounds in the Judeo side of the Judeo-Christian tradition run deep and new ones are inflicted still today, so we should be sure to share these tales with a measure of profound humility and repentance. From that posture we will find both gems and skeletons in this “family-faith” closet. Stories that offer us roots … wings … and maybe even some necessary “weapons”!

The timeline here captures only the broadest contours of Israel’s history though it covers more than almost any progressive Christian could plot on their own. It will give us a common reference point for the rest of my presentation. A couple of quick notes on it:

  • “BCE” stands for “before the Common Era,” where the Common Era is a not explicitly Christian way of naming the historical era “commonly” marked since Jesus’ birth.
  • All round number dates are approximate, except for 1000 (that’s why it’s underlined) as David, in fact, was considerate enough to become king exactly in year 1000 BCE.
  • The red letter italicized words to the center-right are the four sources generally acknowledged to comprise the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Ascribed to Moses by tradition, these books contain Israel’s earliest history, but the first written source (the Yahwist) appeared sometime after David was king. That’s a full seven hundred years after Abraham and likely three hundred years after Moses himself had died. If you imagine setting out today to research and write your family history beginning in 1300 CE—even with access to the latest genealogy tools you can quickly see the folly in thinking the Yahwist account of Abraham is straight fact. The other three sources each appear at roughly the point they appear on the timeline.
  • Although I won’t discuss it here, note that the Book of Daniel (167-165 BCE), written in response to the growing persecution of Jews under one of Alexander the Great’s successors, is the one instance of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Bible.

The “arc” of this story traces the unfolding faith of a people who record it through a series of interpretive acts. They aren’t writing “objective” history; they’re writing their passionate, “faith-filled” (and inevitably biased) interpretation of their life-with-God. We might prefer for it to be more factual and objective, but (as I explained at length in my first essay in this series) no family tells their own story as a mere recitation of facts. To do so would empty the tale of its meaning. And in these tales meaning is the point.

Further, the “holy arc” of this story—like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “arc of the moral universe” —is long and bends slowly (and often inscrutably), but it bends toward the promise of freedom, justice, mercy, and welcome … for all. This is crucial: it’s why progressive Christians cannot cede the Bible to those who want to reduce it to a pass key for the next life or, worse, turn it into a rule book for maintaining an unjust status quo in this one. Our progressive faith isn’t taking the Bible too lightly; it grows from this story’s deepest roots, and in order for us to act with full conviction it’s important that we own the arc of this story ourselves.

I’m going to briefly “zoom in” on four slices of this timeline to review some of the individual stories held within it as well as to offer some brief suggestions at how the holy arc of the larger narrative shows up in different eras of Israel’s history. None of this is a full treatment of any of the stories; it’s only a bird’s eye view. But it ought to whet your appetite to learn more about these stories … which is to learn more about the earliest tales of the God who is “still speaking” today.

From Abraham to Egypt

This roughly two hundred year period covers the initial journey of Abraham and Sarah through three generations of their children, concluding with the entire Abrahamic family relocating to Egypt during a famine. Most of this material (all found in the Book of Genesis) is the stuff of legend—literally. It fits into the genre of legend because these stories hold echoes of history … abetted liberally by exaggeration-in-service-of-meaning. They do this not out of any disrespect for historical accuracy but because that’s how meaning moves across hundreds of years of oral telling in an era when foundational family tales endure precisely by becoming larger than life.

In this material God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising land, descendants, and a special relationship with God. But remember, there were no eye- or ear-witnesses to these promises. And NOBODY reads this tale for at least eight hundred years. Given that immense gap between the happening and the recording, with countless campfire telling in between, it’s impossible to know at what point the tale took on its final form—and even whether it began with Abraham or if it was first woven by those who came long after him. This isn’t to wantonly throw doubt on the covenant; it’s to emphasize that the defining feature of legend is that it inevitably accumulates details as it grows. There are dozens of vignettes in this material; here are just a few of them:

Sodom and Gomorrah. The destruction of these cities is preceded by Abraham bargaining relentlessly(!) with God, even challenging God’s sense of justice. In a harrowing scene the townsmen attempt to rape two angels—even as Lot, Abraham’s nephew, tries to pacify the men by offering his two virgin daughter up to be raped instead. Often wrongly framed by homophobia, this is foremost a tale about Israel’s perception of God’s intense wrath over inhospitality to strangers. (NOTE: I explore this scene further in a Readers’ Theater.)

The “Sacrifice” of Isaac. Abraham hears God ask him to give his firstborn son back to God as a burnt offering. This searing tale of theological and parental terror nonetheless holds a central place in both Jewish and Christian stories. So we have to wrestle with it. (NOTE: I do in a short story, “Asenath’s Tale: The Unbinding of Isaac.”)

Tamar’s pursuit of an heir. Judah (Abraham’s great-grandson and one of Jacob’s twelve sons) has a daughter-in-law, Tamar (the first of four “red-letter” women we’ll take note of). She’s widowed when Er (Judah’s eldest son) dies. Per near-sacred custom, Onan (Judah’s second-born son) should impregnate Tamar to provide an heir, but this would cost Onan his shot at the firstborn inheritance. So he “spills his seed on the ground” instead—and pays for this sin by dying as well. (This is really a matter of intentional and devious coitus interruptus, but “Onanism” comes to mean masturbation and carries the terror of God’s judgment.) Tamar, still desperate for a child in an era where childless women were ever at risk as they aged—finally masquerades as a prostitute to trick Judah into sleeping with her to father a child.

Joseph. The story of Joseph (another of Jacob’s twelve sons) is among the richest tales in the Hebrew Bible, involving fantastic dreams, a many-colored coat (the word for which is elsewhere translated as “princess dress”!), and being sold into slavery in Egypt. But there he interprets Pharaoh’s dream so as to save the Egyptian empire during a fierce famine and rises to power becoming Pharaoh’s senior-most advisor.

Family “reunion” in Egypt. This same famine brings Joseph’s siblings to Egypt in search of food, setting up a scene of momentous reconciliation, including its share of melodrama. But Joseph, who is HIGHLY esteemed in Egypt, invites his entire family to move from Canaan down to Egypt to ride out the famine as his honored guests, which they do.

There are “legendary” challenges in every story in this section. We simply can’t know where the line between history and legend lies. But if we ask the right questions (questions appropriate to meaning held in legend versus those that presume historical fact) we can meet theses tales on terms that can foster meaning for us as well today. Examples include questions like, “What type of historical event might have inspired a tale like this?” “What role does this tale play in shaping Israel’s sense of itself—and in reflecting-shaping its understanding of God?” “How might these tales still sow seeds of wonder (or warning) and faith for us today?”

From Moses to “Conquest”

This part of the story covers another roughly two hundred year period (and is recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). But in between Joseph’s welcoming of his family to Egypt as honored guests and the start of the Moses chapter lie a couple hundred years of silence … introduced with these ominous words: “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Then follows several hundred years of slavery. The exact count is irrelevant and not worth arguing over. What matters is that at some point the Egyptian leaders come to view the Hebrews who are sojourning in their midst as a threat and press them into bondage. There are no “family tales” from these years—no matter how many or few the years actually were. For those enslaved, “tomorrow” is an empty word that only means more of yesterday and today, but harbors nothing new. But with Moses this long era of silence erupts—almost ex nihilo (“out of nothing”)—with fresh tales:

The order to kill Hebrew male babies. Moses, of course, is hidden in an ark floating among the reeds, then found and raised by an Egyptian princess. Besides making a colorful start to the Moses story, it provides imagery that Matthew echoes in his birth narrative for Jesus (who he portrays as a “new Moses” throughout his gospel).

The burning bush. One of the most famous scenes in the Hebrew Bible, this is when Moses is commissioned by God to lead the Exodus his call at the burning bush. It’s also where God reveals God’s own name to him. It’s an evocative name that might be translated “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In this scene it’s as though God irrevocably links God’s name —perhaps even God’s very existence—to the pledge to be a liberating force for the Hebrews.

A bloody foreskin?! This entire incident only lasts a couple verses but is an alarming bit of family lore. On the way back to Egypt to begin the Exodus, God attempts to kill Moses and is only saved when his wife wields the bloody foreskin of their son’s penis against God’s fury. (These types of tales reflect the way legend and Scripture as interpretive act function to support the centrality of circumcision in Israel’s life.)

The plagues. Ten plagues are wrought by God upon the Egyptians on account of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. At times Pharaoh seems reduced to a puppet propped up by God’s malevolent whimsy simply so that the Egyptians can be subjected to another round of violence. It’s a fine example of scripture as interpretive act: an event long lost to objective history but retold and rehearsed (via the Passover meal) to interpret the living relationship between God and Israel —decidedly from Israel’s perspective.

Mount Sinai and the Decalogue. Near the start of the Exodus Moses received the Decalogue (“Ten Words”) on Mount Sinai. We hear them as “Commandments,” but the tense of the words is ambiguous, and you can argue (I do argue) that they ought to be read them as “Promises.” They mark out the vista of Beloved Community and our own journey in that direction would be better enabled if we heard these words as luring us forward.

Conquest of Canaan. Most scholars agree the band escaped slaves was much smaller than the roughly 2 million—600,000 men, not counting women or children—credited in Exodus 12:37, which is, after all, legend. After forty years (a biblical idiom that just means “a long time”) in the wilderness they reach the edge of Canaan, the Promised Land where Abraham lived some four hundred years earlier. Unfortunately this land is not only “promised”; it’s also a populated. The Book of Joshua describes a rather quick “conquest” of the land through a series of decisive (and genocidal) military battles. Early on, Rahab, a Canaanite innkeeper-prostitute, harbors Hebrew spies in exchange for a pledge of safety. (She’s the second of our four “red-letter” women.)

Throughout this portion of Israel’s history it’s important for us to remember that we’re reading the memories of slaves. This is family history told from a perspective unimaginable to most of us. The power of the tale begs for exaggeration—how else can its truth be told so that future generations feel it? And how do we encounter it as persons who (most likely) have more in common with those ancient Egyptians than with escaped slaves?

From Judges to Prophets

This period overlaps with the end of the last one in that the Book of Judges offers an alternative telling of the history found in the Book of Joshua. It begins around 1200 BCE and covers the next 700 years to include the scope of the prophetic voices that appear in Israel’s history. It’s largely a tale of Israel’s repeated failures to live into God’s promised future, with only occasional glimpses of real fulfillment. This isn’t to knock Israel! The history of Christianity is the same: mostly false starts, corruption, and worse—with only fleeting moments of something that comes close to echoing “good news.” No matter. This simply makes the persistent message of God’s undiminished hope for what can be all the more striking. And that undiminished hope is what we experience today as “the still speaking God.”

Not conquest but revolt? In contrast to Joshua, Judges records a much slower settling of the land. In fact, some scholars observe (based on a range of archeological evidence) that this band of escaped slaves was settling in a land itself marked by deep social inequities. And they suggest that as the Hebrews spoke of the God who championed their freedom, they may well have sparked a string of uprisings across Canaan, with the poor of the land throwing off their oppressors—and throwing their lot in with the Hebrews. If so, this joining of common hopes was accompanied also by blending of religious beliefs creating a recurring cause of conflict as reported in Judges.

(Likely there were instance of both military conquest and messy assimilation that marked this era. It’s no more surprising to have twin accounts of this saga than that Fox, CNN, and MSNBC report the same day’s top news stories with a markedly right, center, or left angle. Moreover, this material is legend, so this really is a case when you have “alternative facts.”)

Jael and Judith. These tales, separated by five hundred years are linked by two things they share—well, three. Both involve Hebrew women who kill generals of foreign armies that have been threatening Israel (one by driving a tent peg into his head, the other by getting him drunk and then decapitating him). And both are acclaimed by all the people. Their twin acts of heroism come back in an astonishing echo later on that most of us entirely miss because we don’t know these stories. (I’ll explain below.)

Samuel’s advice on kings. During the era of the judges the Hebrews repeatedly long for a king “like other nations have.” Samuel, regarded as the last of the judges and first of the prophets, warns them that their wish is foolish, telling them that with kings come unbearable taxes, standing armies, and forced labor. He begrudgingly anoints Saul as Israel’s first king.

David: slingshot, discreet love, royal jewels, and royal rape and murder. Few biblical characters are so complicated. He kills a giant soldier with a slingshot. He and King Saul’s son, Jonathan, seem to be lovers. He is passionate for God—at one point dancing in such jubilation that he flails the royal jewels in front of the populace—much to the chagrin of his wife. When he calls Bathsheba (our third red-letter woman), the wife Urriah, to the palace, the Bible doesn’t say he rapes her—but there is no “consent” with a king. He then sends Urriah into battle where he’s killed, so that David can marry Bathsheba as a show of compassion to a war widow. Regardless of the tumult that goes on behind the scenes of David’s reign, because his passion for God is regarded as authentic he becomes the standard by which every future king of Israel is measured—and nearly all of them are found wanting.

Solomon: Samuel, Temple, and civil war. Known to us mostly for his wisdom (and his many wives), he also builds a temple and seems to presume he’s placed God “on retainer” to his own royal aspirations … an arrangement that does not go over well with God. In fact, the Bible says that under his rule Samuel’s warnings come true: Israel groans under forced labor, a standing army, and unbearable taxes. Conditions are so harsh—it’s as though “Egypt” has resurfaced in Israel—that civil war breaks out upon his death. After less than eighty years as a united nation Israel fractures … never to be unified again.

Interlude: Eden. The creation tale set in the garden and culminating in the Fall doesn’t happen in history (it’s “more” than history—it’s myth), but it was likely woven with the memory of David and Solomon and Israel’s hubris at its peak in the author’s mind.

Prophetic voices. During this long five hundred year era of fracture, occupation, exile, and restoration a whole series of spirit-filled persons rise up: “the prophets.” They did not predict the future, although they often spoke with searing (and near-seering) foresight. It’s most accurate to say they read the present against the backdrop of God’s longing for liberation and justice. Then they tried to cast that reading in words and images sufficient to wake people who were often asleep to the moment. Mostly their words stung as they called out the gap—the chasm—between Israel’s communal life and true fidelity to God expressed as hospitality, justice, and mercy. They were abrasive in their contempt for the pomp of ritual and worship divorced from these other things. But they also, on rare but critical moments, found images to seed hope in people bewitched by despair.

The material in this section begins as legend (in Judges) and becomes intertwined with history (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles) as it goes along—though the biblical genre of history is not governed by our standards of objectivity. This is history heavily spun by the interests of those doing the writing, just less marked than legend by outright exaggeration. For their part, the prophets regularly use poetry as the genre for their oracles because they trade in the type of evocative imagery that is most at home in poetic verse.

From Catastrophe(s) to Questions

The last sweep of Israel’s biblical story I want to mention, running from roughly 722 BCE to 450 BCE, is marked by national catastrophe(s) and deep theological questions.

Assyria. In 722 BCE the Assyrian empire conquers and then scatters the ten northern tribes of Israel, leading to the legend of the “lost” tribes. However, the Assyrian army wearied of rooting out “the poorest of the poor” from the hill country of Israel and so they left these least members of the northern tribes behind.

Babylon. After a little over a century of a precarious existence as a tiny remnant of Israel, the kingdom of Judah was conquered between 597-587 BCE as the Babylonian empire overtook Assyria. They sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, carrying the conquered people off to exile in Babylon (modern day Iraq). But they, too, left behind “the poorest of the poor” in Judah’s northern hill country.

Exile interlude: imago Dei. For fifty years Judah lived in exile in Babylon. Some scholars date the origins of the first creation tale to this period. In contrast to the Eden which ends in the Fall, this tale, with its soaring anthropology of humans as imago Dei (in the image of God) and its declaration of creation as well-ordered and good, was exactly the type of tale needed to sow hope in the hearts of exiles who’d lost everything.

The Persian Christ. In 539 BCE Cyrus, king of Persia overtakes the Babylonian empire and decides to allow the exiles to return to their homelands, even providing funds to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. His benevolence is so astonishing that one prophetic voice calls him “Messiah” or “Christ”—which simply (but audaciously) declares that Cyrus has become an instrument of God for the good of God’s people.

The poorest of the poor reappear. Once the exiles return and begin to rebuild the walls of the city and eventually the Temple itself, who should see this activity but those “poorest of the poor” left behind by two earlier empires. They were eager to join their kin in rebuilding, but the exiles rejected them—and their claim of kinship. The Jews returning from exile excluded these hill folk from any part of a restored Israel … on account of who they might’ve slept with (i.e., intermarried) during those years apart. Denied any claim to being Jews, they were instead called—derisively, and on account of having lived in the hill country known as Samaria—“Samaritans.”

This history is critical for Christians to know. Without it we can’t begin to understand the scandal of Samaritans who appear in the Gospels (the woman at the well, the single thankful leper, the “Good Samaritan” in Jesus’ parable) and whose presence help confirm the reach of the good news in Jesus’ message. (NOTE: I have a Readers Theaters about the Good Samaritan.)

Catastrophic theology. The questions likely began during the Exile but were pursued with fresh vigor after their return to Israel: “Why did God send us into Exile?” (This is, of course, Scripture as interpretive act. It’s a very fair question for them in light of their experience. But we needn’t join them in presuming God “sent” them into exile in order to appreciate their theological wrestling.) The “mainstream” answer, provided in the books (and persons) of Ezra (a priest) and Nehemiah (a governor) was this: because we married outsiders, who are despised by God. And indeed, Ezra and Nehemiah oversaw one or two xenophobic waves in Israel when intermarriages were voided and non-Jews were driven out.

But at least three voices offered a different answer, arguing that God’s love included all people: Jew and Gentile alike. The problem was not intermarriage; it was not a matter of ethnicity, but, as the prophets had railed, a matter of ethics: an absence of hospitality, justice, and mercy. The latter chapters of Isaiah and both the Books of Jonah and Ruth (the fourth red-letter woman we encounter) press this claim. Jonah and Ruth are noteworthy because most scholars regard them as fiction: short stories woven precisely to make a theological point about the wideness of God’s love. (NOTE: I explore each of Ruth and Jonah in its own Readers Theater.)

The easy answer to the Exile was to exclude those not like us; that answer echoes across history. But in Third Isaiah, Ruth, and Jonah we have the first “God is still speaking” campaign. These voices remind us that our claim to be followers of a welcoming God is NOT a break with Scripture but the tenacious carrying forward of ancient scriptural courage into the present moment.

The Biblical Arc

I’ve only scratched the Hebrew Bible here. Each of these stories has facets we didn’t look at—and there are countless tales with further twists and turns that weren’t even mentioned. I remember being in the Carlsbad Caverns, my mouth agape, my eyes overfull with wonder at beauty (and, no doubt, some crevices of terror) that raced beyond my ability to hold it. The Bible is no less. Not always easily accessible, but surely worth the effort, especially when made in good and trustworthy company.

Step back now for a moment and consider the span of stories I’ve noted and their overarching themes:

  • Tradition is good, but no matter how strong, it can be upended for God’s purposes.
  • Ingenuity—even scandalous messy ingenuity—undertaken in moments of necessity is nigh upon sacred … if it helps “bend the arc” toward justice.
  • Hospitality is (right!) next to holiness in God’s view. Maybe it IS holiness.
  • God is bigger than any name, any words, any box; and pity the person—the people—who presume God is theirs to define or domesticate.
  • God has an existential(!) commitment to freedom—as though divinity itself is somehow contingent upon the mutual pursuit of justice with human partners.
  • Divine “authority” rests on the power of liberatory promise—a way of envisioning power that severely critiques most every expression of earthly authority … especially those espoused by kings.
  • Somehow a breathable tabernacle made a better home for a billowing Spirit-God than a stone temple did.
  • Right worship—worship that pleases God—is worship that echoes, anticipates, and outright fuels a hunger fort justice. Anything else is a waste of God’s time. And ours.
  • Theology is sometimes working itself out—by argument—within the pages of the Bible itself; we occasionally listen in while God’s human partners sort things out.
  • God’s extravagant welcome is irrepressibly present, even when it needs to use guerrilla means to have its voice heard.

Themes like these are not only worth our wonder as we encounter those ancient texts; they’re also priceless insights as we meet the present moment.

A Few Final Observations

 My goal in this short essay has not been to treat any of these stories in the depth they deserve, only to hint at the unexpected treasures that are waiting within this text that we’re all too often barely acquainted with. And to suggest that those of us who wish to be engaged with Jesus can engage him more fully—more faithfully—when we have a deeper appreciation for the family history he knew so well. Here are just a couple final thoughts.

Remember Jael and Judith, those “headlining” heroines? They’re the only two women in the Hebrew Bible of whom it is said, “Blessed are you among women!” Does that phrase sound familiar? Elizabeth uses it to greet a pregnant Mary in Luke’s Gospel. Luke counted on his first readers to recognize this greeting as a “coded” antifa welcome! He uses Elizabeth’s words to place Mary—because of the child in her womb—as the next heroine who will save her people.

Those four women in red? (Tamar, the outcast/“prostitute”; Rahab, the Canaanite innkeeper-prostitute; Bathsheba, the victim of royal-rape; and Ruth, the cursed Moabite widow.) Alongside the 42 men named in Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus, these four very “edgy” women are called out as well as “essential” figures in Jesus’ lineage. It’s one of Matthew’s way of telling us that Jesus will bring together all the threads of God’s story … even the ones we least expect.

We often laugh (bitterly) at Pharaoh’s hardness of heart during the plagues. After the first or second plague why couldn’t he seeing the writing on the wall and just free the Hebrews without watching his society be subjected to further violence to property or life? Three words: Systemic racism, BLM. (Our collective hearts today are no less hardened against liberation the Pharaoh’s. We might learn from his folly, but mostly so far we choose to repeat it.)

Given that many of these stories are the memories of slaves or refugees, it’s worth asking whether persons today who carry these memories in their blood, the culture, or in their lives, encounter these stories with a perspective richly different than ours, perhaps one worthy of our extra attention.

Finally, lest we think the xenophobic faith animated by the Exile is reserved for ancient times, we might ask in what ways a similar dynamic animates the xenophobia toward undocumented immigrants that finds voice in many Christian evangelical circles today. Or how the hunger to meet the uncertainty of our own future feeds into the divisive, racist, and polarizing views within the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Far from being an irrelevant relic from a distant past, when it is read with the best resources of both heart and mind, the Bible remains a text able to foster a faith that can help us meet the challenges of this moment in the spirit of Jesus and as part of the unfolding story of God … who is still speaking.

Now, whether on your own or in conversation with someone, I invite you to pause and reflect on the questions I set out at the beginning:

Share one thing that … startled or unnerved you … delighted or surprised you or made you smile … answered a question you’ve had for a long time … raised a new “better and less answerable” question for you.

Are there places in the stories we touched on (all too briefly) here where you can now hear the God who is “still speaking”? What difference would it have made to know some of these things sooner? Why do you suppose you never learned them? What difference would it make in the life of a congregation if this type of learning was more prevalent?

© David R. Weiss | 2020.09.25 | drw59mn@gmail.com

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

Getting a Truck for a Song

NOTE: this is a longer than usual post. Here is as a PDF file of the essay below. And, because it was used as the basis for a power point, here’s a PDF file of the PowerPoint. In fact, you can even watch it on YouTube as a Zoom presentation.

Getting a Truck for a Song: A Gospel Story About Feeding the Hungry in a Hospital in Uganda—Told Backwards
David R. Weiss – October 4, 2020

Presentation for St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, Roseville, MN

Hello, my name is David Weiss, and I’ve been invited to share a bit about a fundraiser I’ve been running under the fiscal sponsorship of your congregation. I want to thank Pastor Brad, in particular for inviting me to Zoom in to be with you for this presentation.

My presentation is titled “Getting a Truck for a Song: A Gospel Story About Feeding the Hungry in a Hospital in Uganda—Told Backwards” I’m excited to tell you this story, but I have to warn you: even though I’m on tape, I’m probably going to get choked up a couple times because the wonder in this tale runs so deep in my life.

I sometimes think God is like an origami artist, making folds in our lives that occasionally make it possible for a mere two-dimensional piece of paper to unexpectedly transform into a three dimensional work of art. We sometimes use highfalutin words like “miracle” to describe these moments, but most of the time when you look back you can begin to see all the creases that made this particular moment possible. You just didn’t know the design that was being worked out all along.

In Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, the main character, Emily, returns to Earth for a single day after dying. It’s become a profound theatrical moment when she gets a glimpse of all the origami folds as they’re happening and can see where it all leads. She famously and frantically asks the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” It’s as though she sees the weight of each crease made in our lives. The stage manager responds to her question in what I imagine is a tone of resignation and empathetic disappointment, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

I’m inviting you into an Our Town Emily-style moment this morning. A grand and holy pause to stop and see the creases that brought us to the truck I’m going to tell you about. According to Apostle Paul, all of us who gather together in Jesus’ name are saints. So I’m hoping that while we’re gathered today, we might pause and see, even if just barely, the folds of grace that crisscross our lives.

If you unfold an origami creation carefully you can get it all the way back to a flat piece of paper. And if you trace over the creases you can see in stark relief all the folds needed to make the final result possible.

Next week my friend Moses will go truck shopping in Uganda. If he were to post about it on Facebook, his status might read something like:

“Looking to buy a reliable extended cab pick-up to transport people and porridge to feed hungry patients at a local hospital. Limited funds—hoping to get the truck for a song. God willing.”

Now, I could tell you the story of that truck from the beginning. But this a gospel story best told backwards.

That truck—when it’s finally found and purchased—will indeed carry porridge, bananas, and the people to serve them, across the city of Mbale in Eastern Uganda. The porridge will be in ten 5-gallon jerry cans, served up in 16 oz. mugs along with a banana to every patient in the maternity ward, the women’s ward, and the children’s ward at the Mbale Regional Hospital.

It’s a busy hospital because it serves an entire region. Besides the beds for inpatients, it hosts regular out-patient clinic on certain days each week, like the pediatric clinics for diabetes and vision, where children and their parents often walk miles to get care before returning home (walking miles again) the same day.

You might wondering if the hospital food in Uganda so bad they’d rather eat porridge and bananas. No. It’s that in Uganda—as in many developing countries—hospitals provide medical care … but not meals. So when you go into the hospital you have to make arrangements for family or friends to bring you meals each day. And if you don’t have family and friends able to do this, you just don’t eat for the time you’re there. Which is not great, especially if you’re taking medications on an empty stomach. Or if you’re a nursing mother. Or a kid. In which case a cup of porridge and a banana can seem like a feast.

Moses says the new mothers and young children in particular beam when they eat, as if Jesus himself were the host. Truth is, the folks behind this meal program—the members of the Dorcas Star Mission—seem to imagine that Jesus is the one being fed. Who knows. Maybe they’re both right.

They feed the mothers and kids first. On clinic days with walk-in clinics they try to bring extra to feed as many of the walk-in patients as they can before they turn around to walk home. On good days there’s leftovers to feed other patients. On really good days even some of the staff get a mug of porridge. Because some of them work all day without eating either.

This is already happening in Mbale—without a truck. How can that be?

Meet the boda-boda. These are Ugandan taxicabs. They’re everywhere. Often three to a lane. Darting left and right. Scrapping to get their current passenger delivered as quickly as possible so they can move on to their next fare. Notoriously unsafe. But reasonably cheap. And in a country where poverty is plentiful, cheap is golden. And because relatively few people own vehicles, boda-bodas are a lifeline, even if a rather precarious one.

So right now a half dozen boda-bodas are used every day, five days a week, to transport 50 gallons of porridge in jerry cans and several hundred bananas and the handful of volunteers who serve the meal. But a truck would really help. That’s why Moses is going shopping for one.

They make the porridge from scratch. Cornmeal and sugar and water. I suppose like our cream of wheat or cream of rice cereals. Of course, they cook theirs in a big potand over an open fireand gallons at a time. But that’s just a detail.

They’ve been doing this since mid-April. By now the hospital provides them a room to set up in when they arrive, so they can serve up the porridge. Afterwards they clean things up and store them there until the next day. When they serve another couple hundred patients all over again. And they’ve been at it for more than a hundred days now.

Who does this? Who is this “they”? A handful are “just” volunteers. People with time on their hands and compassion in their hearts. They take turns doing the cooking and the feeding and the cleaning. But the brains that figures out the logistics, the love that sustains and motivates, the mystery that inspired this program—these things belong to the Dorcas Star Mission, born of a simple faith fellowship of just eight persons. A house church of sorts. They’d been meeting regularly for several years now, simply to support one another in their shared faith: in navigating the challenges of daily life, from work to family, by referencing Bible passages, sharing prayers, joining in fellowship.

But last April, as the pandemic was spreading across the globe, this small circle of followers of Jesus—ordinary folks like you and me—none of them wealthy or well-connected, felt pressed in their hearts, invited by their faith, called by the Spirit—creased by a paper-folding God, if you like—to do something more.

So they started feeding patients at the hospital. The need was so great that before long they were feeding 400 meals a day—mostly out of their own pockets!—and that’s when Moses came to me looking for a truck. That was May 2020. But why would Moses come to me? Why would he think I could help fold an origami truck to carry very real porridge, bananas, and people?

I suppose because this wouldn’t be the first time our lives were “creased” in ways that took surprising shape.

Most recently (because I’m telling this tale backwards) in spring 2019 an eight-year old girl flew by herself from Uganda to Germany to be reunited with her mother, who had fled Uganda five years earlier. I’d helped raise $4000 through a GoFundMe to buy her plane ticket for that trip. Actually I’d raised all that money four years earlier.

See, it’s no small thing to get a child out of a country that her mother fled from for her life. It took Moses years and years and years of making a tiny origami fold here and another one there—perhaps a bribe or two along the way as well. But in March 2019, Chloe, against all odds, made it to Germany. And to her mother.  So why wouldn’t Moses ask me for a truck?

Moving backward, 2018 was a particularly hard year for Moses. Having been a pretty daring Ally to LGBT persons for a number of years had cost him dearly. That summer his car was vandalized and his home in Mbale, where he lived with his wife and 4 children, was broken into. He’d also lost much of his income as a freelance project manager due to his association with LGBT persons. Two of his three school age children were sent home from school because he could only pay the modest tuition for the oldest one. I asked my family members to chip in. We sent Moses enough money to repair his car, replace the front door on his home, and get his kids back into school. It really wasn’t all that much money, but looking back it was another crease in the sacred paper of our lives …

Now go back to November 2016. Sunday, November 13, my wife, my son and daughter-in-law, my daughter and her son—the six of us are sitting down to eat Sunday dinner. I get a phone notification of a new Facebook message. It’s rude to check Facebook at the dinner table, I know. In fact, it irks me when my kids do that. But I see it’s from Moses on the other side of the world, so I open it and read it to myself. And I am stunned. When I try to share it with the others at the table, I’m reduced to tears. He writes to tell me that twelve days earlier, on November 1, Moses and his wife, Sara, have welcomed their fourth child. And they named him “David.” In my honor. As Moses puts it, as “a testament to our enduring kinship.”

When someone has creased your life like THAT, how do you say NO when they ask for help in buying a truck?

Still earlier, from 2014 to mid-2016, there were yet other folds being made, as the congregation I was attending at the time sent modest quarterly support payments to the Rainbow Christian Fellowship, a community of 20 or so LGBT persons and allies based in Mbale. Moses had become their leader, a sort of unofficial deacon to the community, several years earlier after their original leader was killed in a tragic accident.

During this same time window – in the summer of 2015 – I started the fundraiser that raised money to fly Chloe to Germany 4 years later. It turned out that most of the original money got spent on the ensuing legal maneuvers. So when Moses finally got clearance to buy the plane ticket in 2019, we made a direct appeal to one person who covered the outstanding funds needed to get her on the plane to her mother.

The year before, in fall of 2014 I ran my first fundraiser at Moses’ request, to fly his dear friend—Agnes, Chloe’s mother—to Germany where she eventually made a successful application to be considered for asylum. Although Agnes was heterosexual herself, like Moses, she was a courageous Ally to the LGBT community in Uganda. As a small-time independent seller of crafts—a one-person street vendor, really—she used her movements to serve as a courier of documents, evidence of human rights abuses, and other important communications between high-level LGBT activists and organizations. When her role was revealed, her life was put in jeopardy and she made the very difficult decision to flee for her own safety while leaving her daughter in her grandmother’s care.

In one of those origami moves that makes something out of nothing, I not only raised $3500 from 50 different donors, I also serendipitously connected Agnes with a chance friend I’d made years earlier through Lutherans Concerned/North America. Markus was a gay Lutheran who lived in Germany—and he was not only willing to drive a couple hours on short notice to meet Agnes at the airport, he also hosted her on her arrival and connected her to an immigrants rights organization that guided her the through asylum process in Germany.

Now we’re seven years back, as the folds ago. 2013. My church at the time has decided to send a person to Uganda to meet in-person with LGBT Christians and allies working for acceptance, welcome, and justice in Uganda in hopes of establishing some relationship and building longer-term partnerships.

Me? I am a homebody. My international travel up to this point has included a couple short day trips across the border into Canada and one high school trip to Mexico thirty years earlier. I am NOT excited to go, but I am a writer and the church wants to send someone who can “bring the experience back to the congregation,” so they want to send me. Because I am a writer, I cannot protest like the biblical Moses, that I am “slow of tongue”; but I make clear that I am “anxious of foot,” and would be happy if they selected someone else. I am as successful in my reluctance as that earlier Moses was. Before long I am getting my passport —and a bevy of immunization shots—and new luggage.

And I’m anxiously trying to map my plans for spending time and getting around in a country far away from anything I’ve ever known. That when I reach out to Moses. At Pastor Brad’s suggestion.

You see, among the many jobs he’s juggled, Moses has worked as a “fixer,” an on-the-ground guide and jack-of-all-trades for visiting journalists and film crews. Because he speaks at least three Ugandan tribal languages as well as near-perfect English—and he knows the country and the culture(s) and the rules for filming; and he knows where to get equipment repaired without getting ripped off, and he knows people everywhere, and he knows which police to bribe “as the cost of doing business” and which ones you don’t dare try to bride—because of all these things, he’s a priceless resource for someone coming in from outside the country. He was both a fixer and a translator for “Call Me Kuchu,” an award-winning 2012 documentary that put faces and stories to the lives of LGBT persons in Uganda.

Well, in 2013 I hired Moses to be my driver for the two weeks I would be in Uganda. As a bonus, he was known and trusted by multiple members of the LGBT community there—including Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, one of the very few church leaders willing to be public in their support of LGBT persons. The bishop had actually been defrocked by the conservative Ugandan Anglican Church for his stance—and had his pension revoked. But he kept wearing his collar and using the title because, as he said, “It is how my people know me, and I continue to serve as their shepherd.

Anyway for two weeks Moses was my driver, my translator, and my liaison to a community that would otherwise have had no reason to trust me. He daily held my life in his hands. And, on the two occasions he was not available to do so, he arranged for a trusted friend of his to meet me and accompany me in his stead. That friend was Agnes, who held me safely in her hands when Moses could not.  One of those times, her hands also held then 2 year-old Chloe. So it was my great honor—my holy privilege—to later play a role in shuttling both of them in turn to safety in Germany.

While in Uganda I was mostly in Kampala. One day I stopped with Moses to see his closet of an apartment where he stayed when working on assignments there in the capital city. Humble abode is understatement.  I also made one trip with Moses about 150 miles east to Mbale, his hometown. There, in a large hotel courtyard that provided more discretion than a local coffee shop would, I met several members of the Rainbow Christian Fellowship, including Aisha, whose name will appear again a few folds backward yet. Aisha had never even heard of me before this day, but she was awed and teary-eyed to meet me because I had some shirttail connection to people in America that had been grace to her.

While in Mbale I also met a couple of Moses’ children though I never got to meet his wife. But I did visit his simple concrete block home—four bare rooms and an outdoor toilet. One room in particular left me in speechless awe, but we’ll get to that next.

Now we’re all the way back to 2011. I’d just heard Bishop Christopher speak in the Twin Cities about the plight of LGBT persons in Uganda. For several years earlier I’d been a national trainer and the Twin Cities coordinator for the Reconciling in Christ program. By 2011 my contributions to that work were no longer formal—but no less fervent. In February, shortly after the brutal murder of David Kato in January—he was the leading activist profiled in “Call Me Kuchu” and a personal friend of Moses—I was moved, inspired, en-folded in the Spirit you might say, to write a hymn text: an anthem for Uganda. Titled “Preserve Uganda’s Future Hope,” it poured my grief and passion and faith into a powerful, poignant text. As Pride approaches that summer—likely in May of 2011—I shared that hymn with my email circle of RIC-related pastors.

Pastor Brad was one of the recipients of that hymn text. He, in turn, shared it with someone he knew, but had never met. A young man in Uganda named Moses. A week later that man reached out to me by email, to introduce himself and thank me on behalf of the Rainbow Christian Fellowship, for a song I’d written.

It was the first email I’d ever received from Africa that didn’t come from a wealthy Nigerian prince or the widow of a rich diplomat hoping to leave me her fortune. It was my first contact with Moses.

Moses taught my song to the Rainbow Christian Fellowship, and on October 19, 2011, the Rainbow Christian Fellowship sang my anthem for Uganda in that bare room with a concrete floor in Moses’ home. That’s why, when I stood there about 18 months later, I could not speak, because the echo of my words on the lips of saints unknown to me was still so heavy in the air.

That, my friends, is the song that Moses will buy this truck with. Because had that song not linked our lives, not of these other folds would have been possible.

But we’re not quite back to the beginning yet. There are two last scenes.

I didn’t know Pastor Brad well in 2011, but we knew of each other through our common vision of a church that welcomes and affirms LGBT persons in the fullness of their being and their calling.

I knew of Pastor Brad in particular, because of his association with the Naming Project, a summer camp for LGBT youth that he helped found in 2004. The project took its name from the name-calling that so many queer youth must endure—some of whom don’t endure it, but die as a result of it. At the summer camp these youth are grounded in faith and in their being named as beloved children of God.

All the way back in 2006, while he was pastor at St. Luke Presbyterian, a person in Uganda reached out regarding the Naming Project and the desire of a small circle of persons based in Mbale to better support the spiritual needs of LGBT youth and young adults in their faith community. That contact came from Chris, Moses’ predecessor with the Rainbow Christian Fellowship. It opened a relationship that continues to this day with several members at St. Luke’s who support educational opportunities, particularly for those who have lost familial support because of their sexuality. One of the first young persons who received that support was Aisha, the young woman who tearfully greeted me in that hotel courtyard in 2013 as though I were the personal ambassador of all the goodness she had received.

Today Aisha is among the founders of the Dorcas Star Mission, paying forward into Mbale the same grace she received from Minnesota more than a decade ago.

And that overture from Chris and the Rainbow Fellowship in 2006 became the fold that built the origami bridge that led Brad to share my song with Moses five years later in 2011.

Finally, we get to the first fold. What brought Brad to the Naming Project? That’s not really my story to tell. But I can share this much—since it’s up on the Naming Project’s website.  In 1998, while serving as a hospital chaplain, he met a young woman whose anxiety over the seeming conflict between her family, her faith, and her sexuality had expressed itself in anorexia and bulimia; it was eating her alive. Around the same time, at the same hospital, Brad met a gay teen in such torment because of the world’s rejection of gayness, that he contemplated suicide.

These two queer kids, fighting for life and faith—and food—became the first folds in a piece of paper—a living Scripture now stretched across 22 years—that led Brad to the ministry that connected him to the Naming Project, to Moses, and to my song.

The song that formed a friendship so enduring that when I say “Moses is looking to buy a truck for a song,” that’s about as much truth as a single sentence can bear without bursting into flame. 

Today, there are eight persons in Mbale, including both Moses and Aisha, whose lives have been faithfully folded into God’s work feeding the hungry. When they approached me late last spring about help in buying a truck, after all these other folds, who was I to say no?

So I reached out to Pastor Brad to seek his help in providing a fiscal sponsor for the fundraising. This was critical because we had at least one major benefactor for whom the chance to make a tax-deductible gift was essential. But it also raised the credibility of the campaign to have it sponsored by a church rather than me as an individual.

So you, too, at Saint Michael’s, have been folded into the gracious reach of God that runs between Minnesota and Mbale, Uganda.

Let’s return for just a moment to Emily on the stage in Our Town. She still exclaims, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the stage manager still responds, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

Well, you ARE gathered saints. And perhaps in this moment you do feel, at least a bit, the way all these origami folds of grace crisscross our lives. I hope so.

Thanks for letting me tell you about the Dorcas Star Mission and their silly sacred belief that they just might get a good truck—for just a Song. This has been a “Gospel Story About Feeding the Hungry in a Hospital in Uganda Told Backwards.”

But it’s time to move forward now. Time for Moses to go truck-shopping with whatever money is available. I’d be remiss not to mention that a few final gifts would help him shop for a little more reliable truck. In origami, as in the mysterious workings of grace, every crease counts. And who knows, the next fold just might be yours.

*                *                *

Interested in making a gift to this campaign? You still can right here:

www.charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/five-loaves-two-fish-and-a-truck-in-uganda

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.

Approaching the Bible with Heart and Mind: First Things First

NOTE: this is a longer than usual post. Here is as a PDF file of the essay below. And, because it was used as the basis for a power point, here’s a PDF file of the PowerPoint.

Approaching the Bible with Heart and Mind: An introduction to Scripture for those who affirm that “God is Still Speaking”
Session #1 – First Things First
David R. Weiss – September 30, 2020

An Overview
We begin with a quick overview of the first session and the series as a whole. Titles can only hope to hint at what is to come. “Approaching the Bible with Heart and Mind: An introduction to Scripture for those who affirm that ‘God is Still Speaking’.” Well, how do progressive Christians approach the Bible as a written text that bears witness to the God who is still speaking? The phrase, of course, is the tagline of the United Church of Christ, but it names the challenge felt by anyone who wants to hold the Bible as conversation partner in their faith—alongside their whole self. That is, including both a modern scientific understanding of the world and a deep longing to live with purpose and meaning.

I believe this is possible—I have found it to be true. And in this brief introduction I will share some of the basic tools that have allowed me to do this and some of the insights that are the fruit of this work.

Here is the briefest sketch of the whole series.

In our first session, “First Things First,” I’ll presentsome basic tools and perspectives that allow us to invest both heart and mind in responding to the biblical text. Session 2, “On Eagle’s Wings” offers a bird’s eye view of the biblical tale in one giant narrative sweep. As we’ll discover, it’s not quite accurate to think of the Bible as telling one single story from start to finish, but it’s helpful to at least take a glimpse at the whole map before picking any particular terrain to explore.

After the first two sessions we’ll spend our remaining time looking more closely at the gospels and the story (and history) of Jesus. (There are so many other fascinating things we could explore, but in this 6-part introduction, and we’ll put our initial emphasis on Jesus.) Session 3, then, “The Gospels: Seeing Jesus Together … or Not” offers some additional tools and perspectives for approaching the primary texts about Jesus with added understanding and insight. And Session 4, “Christmas Pageant Pandemonium” untangles and untames the gospel yuletide tales. Christmas wonder will never seem “just” cute ever again.

We conclude with two sessions that invite us to wrestle with the meaning of Jesus. In Session 5, “Jesus, Before the Gospels,” we’ll peer back decades before the gospels were written to glimpse the “historical Jesus,” the man who is “Ground Zero” for our faith. Hardly a crystal clear image, this historical glimpse is nevertheless essential for those who want to take the measure of the gospel portrait(s) of Jesus with the whole of our hearts and minds today. And—as if to ensure we don’t tie things up together too neatly —Session 6, “Jesus, Death and Beyond” can only scratch the surface of asking how the Bible—and we!—makes sense of Jesus’ life on the far side of his death.

Outcomes
What can you expect from these sessions? I’ll hazard six guesses.

  1. Some of your lifelong questions will be answered, even if that happens in unexpected ways.
  2. You’ll discover less answerable but even better questions!
  3. You’ll begin to see more clearly the powerful silver thread the Bible carries even amidst its many quirks.
  4. You’ll be increasingly able to claim this text with confidence and conviction as a companion on your faith journey.
  5. In your roles as parent/mentor to children, you’ll be able to hold this text both lightly and firmly, in a way that can hold the respect and trust of children as they grow.
  6. Most of you will be changed in ways you can’t even anticipate … and that’s an outcome I mention as both promise and warning. J

Finally! On to First Things
Four things remain for us to consider. First, we’ll look briefly at why this type of learning matters. Then we need to pause before going any further to remember how much we don’t know. After that I’ll introduce origami (Japanese paper-folding) as a guiding image for the multitude of tools and perspectives that can help us encounter the Bible as Scripture. And then I’ll present in turn seven such “folds”: Scripture as interpretative act, genres, sources, history, lenses, contemporary context, and why calling the Bible the Word of God says both too much and too little.

Why this type of learning matters … so much
Why it matters for our heads. Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us shaped by a scientific worldview is knowing how to stand in respectful relationship to a text that we’ve been told is authoritative but which is also clearly not scientific. And the most common responses are either to reserve our intellect for “secular” matters and put Scripture in a category of its own (a sort of intellect-free pure-reverence zone), or to dismiss Scripture as a relic from a pre-scientific era that’s no longer worthy of our serious engagement today (as an awkward trapping of our tradition that may even lead us to step back from Christianity altogether). This type of learning matters for our heads because it demonstrates that meeting the Bible with our minds fully engaged is both possible and fruitful. In fact, Christianity is practiced most faithfully when we are encouraged to use all the cognitive skills we have.

Why it matters for our hearts. If liberal/progressive Christians have been led to hold the Bible at arms’ length from our heads, that move has been equally fateful for our hearts. The truth is we’re whole persons—our hearts and minds are interwoven—and when our head is held in check, it’s hard to offer more than a half-hearted embrace of the Bible with our heart either. We’ve become adept at encapsulating Christianity in maxims like “love of neighbor,” “care for the least,” or “all are welcome,” but such maxims only carry meaning when wrapped in the warm flesh of real persons. And if we cannot see how those truths (and others) were profoundly compelling and liberating within the biblical world, our faith will feel oddly disconnected from the book that carries the story of its birth.

This is among the most critical needs for progressive Christians: to see that our extravagant welcome to others is NOT a disconnect from this ancient text, but an extension of its dynamic power into this present moment. This type of learning matters for our hearts because it allows us to find the roots of our progressive faith in Scripture. As much as we yearn to be thoughtful, we also long for faith that is heartfelt.

Why it matters for now. We live today … on edge. Tomorrow seems more precarious than ever. Perhaps every generation has found reasons to feel this way. Perhaps every generation has thought itself uniquely justified in thinking so. Still as the political, ecological, economic, and societal stakes of our present moment rise higher and higher it’s hard not to feel that this time it’s the truth. And in the face of tomorrow’s uncertainty there’s an understandable temptation to look back toward a fondly remembered past that was (at least mythically if not actually) simpler and more certain.

But what if this text has always—from Abraham onward through Jesus—intended to gift us with the power to lean into life’s uncertainty not with naïve optimism but with the hard-won hope carried by its seeds of wisdom and liberation. Then this type of learning matters for now because if there is a path to tomorrow marked out by hope and wisdom and liberation, that’s the path we want to be on. Moreover, the deepest well from which we draw inspiration to orient our lives is from story. Our own story. Our family’s story. The stories we encounter in great literature. Because humans are fundamentally creatures of story, our ability to find in the Bible a well of stories that hint at a surprisingly gracious God going back 4000 years—that’s a deep well—and we need to drink from its living water today—for the challenges we face now.

Can I point the way to such a path? I believe so. My own journey into a life-giving understanding of Scripture that supports a progressive Christian faith is its own tale for another time. But I should say a brief word about my “credentials”—why should you trust me? I’m not a biblical scholar, per se. But I’ve done college, seminary, and graduate school study of the Bible, always asking—both in the classroom and out in the world—how this learning matters for my head, my heart, and this particular now. (Where “now” has at times meant apartheid, nuclear weapons, US foreign policy, technology, health care, Native Americans, immigration, LGBTQ persons, ecology, gender, climate change, consumer culture, and race. Which hardly makes me an expert in any of these areas; but they each name a place where I’ve worked to thoughtfully engage my faith, my Bible, my head, my heart, my life.)

Additionally, I spent twenty years teaching religion—including Introduction to the Bible—to college students. Much of what I’ll share comes from those years of teaching, where my own thinking has been refined by the questions brought from my students’ heads and hearts and lives.

Remembering how much we don’t know
Because most of us grew up in a culture where Christianity is the casual backdrop for a lot of things we take for granted—and many of us grew up in churches where our knowledge of the Bible was not very sophisticated no matter how extensive we thought it was—it’s really important to remember there are things we don’t know. And sometimes the only way to reach those things is to let go of things we thought we knew for certain.

Here’s an example. Almost all of us learn as little children to find the constellation the Big Dipper in the night sky. Someone helps us trace the pattern from star to star with our fingers until the lines begin to connect even without tracing them. For some of you that may be true of other constellations as well, but likely for everyone, if you look up into the sky on a clear dark night, by now your eyes will automatically turn those starts into a Big Dipper. In fact, what you’ll find—you can do this on your own on the next clear night—is that it’s virtually impossible to stop your eyes (your mind) from connecting those stars into that pattern. But that pattern isn’t the only way to see those stars. Chinese astronomers fashioned an intricate sky map wholly independent of the Greco-Roman one we grew up with. And the stars in and around the Big Dipper are arranged in different patterns—linked to different images and stories—in the traditions of each of the many Native American tribes.

So I invite you to remember that what is true of the Big Dipper is true of the Bible. You grew up connecting dots in one way for so long that by now your eyes, your head, your heart, have been convinced it’s the only way these dots could possibly be connected. I’m going to suggest some other ways. And if you’re willing to let go—even provisionally—of the things you’ve always assumed, you will see new patterns. Most of them have been there all along; we’ve simply never been invited (or allowed!) to make these other connections. But because they are life-giving ways to view this ancient text—ways that enable us to meet it with heart and mind at a new depth—I’m betting you’ll be grateful to have finally remembered how much you didn’t know.

Origami—an unlikely image for textual encounter
You’re likely familiar with origami—the Japanese art of paper folding—even if you’ve never made an origami creation yourself. The only origami creation I ever became adept at was a peace crane. I made several thousand of them as part of a project for the Luther Peace Fellowship in the mid-1980’s; so many that almost forty years later the muscle memory still tells me which folds to make where.

There are two important insights that origami art offers to our hope of reading the Bible with head and heart. First, every fold counts. If you skip or accidentally miss one of the folds your creation will be misshapen—if it takes shape at all. Second, there are moments in almost every origami design when you need to move the paper by drawing on multiple folds at the same time: these are the very moments when the paper transforms from a two-dimensional sheet into a three-dimensional creation.

If you were to unfold an origami creation back to a flat piece of paper, you’d see traces of crimps crisscrossing the sheet everywhere, but it’d be impossible to tell what was “hiding” on the far side of all those folds until you actually put it together. Still, every crease is needed to reach the final design. There are plenty of biblical passages from the creation tales to the gospel accounts that are the same way.

I’m going to offer seven “folds” that are essential for approaching the Bible with heart and mind. I’ll present them in an order that makes a sort of logical sense to me but there isn’t really a priority among these folds. They aren’t all decisive in every bit of biblical material, but in most cases only by employing most of them can you allow the text to reveal the shape—the message—within it.

These are the seven “folds.” After naming them, I’ll briefly explain each one in turn.

  1. The biblical text itself is an Interpretative act
  2. The text happens in History
  3. The Bible has multiple Sources
  4. The Bible has different Genres
  5. The Bible is (inescapably!) read through Lenses
  6. The Bible is best read in Context
  7. Calling the Bible the “Word of God” says both too much and too little

The Bible as Interpretative Act
I think it’s useful to see the Bible as an interpretive act. I don’t want to argue over whether the Bible is the Word of God. I’ll offer a few thoughts on that at the end, but I don’t think that’s the most helpful frame to begin with. I prefer to think of the Bible as a text that interprets God, or more accurately one that interprets the initial encounters between Jews and God and between Christians and God.

Think of a very moving experience in your life, something that left a deep impact on you. Jot down three words that capture some aspect of this experience. Now imagine how you might use those words in relating this experience to someone else that you want to understand it. What you’re imagining is interpretation. You don’t simply relate facts; when you describe life-changing experiences, mere facts are never enough. You need to interpret the experience to communicate its meaning. When we talk about the experiences recorded in the Bible we’re talking about life-changing, even history-changing experiences, and so they necessarily involve interpretation.

So, what does this tell us about the Bible and our approach to it? It tells us first that the Bible, for its original community of Jews and Christians, was Scripture. It was a text regarded as sacred. That doesn’t mean it was magically delivered from heaven. It means it was a text with which they were in holy conversation, in ways formative for them. The text spoke to them—and they spoke to it. It shaped their lives and they shaped its form. Think of it as something like a community journal. The entries are shaped by the experiences you have; the entries then shape your future experiences; and those new experiences come back and shape new entries. And on and on—a kind of unfolding conversation.

To call the Bible “Scripture” is to say that for its first community, the Bible records their ongoing conversations about the meaning of their life with God. One interpretive act after another.

Of course, it’s possible to read the Bible as merely a literary historical text, but you won’t fathom its power as Scripture unless you (at least imaginatively) acknowledge its character as interpretive act for the people who wrote it and for those who first read it. And to do that effectively you need to fill in the history, culture, language, and beliefs of these people. Whether or not it’s Scripture for you doesn’t really matter; it was Scripture for them, and you simply won’t understand it fully unless you meet it on those terms, from the inside.

But what if it is Scripture for you still today? Does that make all these scholarly questions about the history, culture, language, and beliefs of the original community irrelevant? Not at all. If anything, it makes those questions all the more important. Then grasping its power as interpretive act isn’t simply a matter of scholarly imagination, it’s a matter of personal and communal faith. Because, then, even if we’re no longer adding to the written expression of this community journal, through our lives we are participants in this unfolding holy conversation ourselves.

A text that happens in History
Because we’ve only ever seen the Bible in its final form, it’s easy for us to forget—and yet important for us to remember—that the Bible didn’t miraculously arrive all at once. It was compiled experience-by-experience over literally hundreds of years. And those experiences had been told and retold orally—for decades, generations, sometimes centuries—before being written down. And when they were written, they were often written down episode-by-episode, only slowly becoming books, and the books only slowly became the Bible. Thus, the Bible is the result of a long process, not a one-time event.

Each book or portion within a book is born out of a particular historical context; it records one chapter of Israel’s (or the early church’s) life. A text might be written at same time as the events it describes (the way a newspaper account or a current event book is), but that’s rare in the Bible. Almost always the text describes events decades or even centuries after they occur, and in these cases the description is often shaped more by the historical context in which it is told than that in which the events actually took place.

This is hardly a radical idea; we just haven’t been taught to watch for it in the Bible. We know, for instance, that any account of slavery in the U.S. or our dealings with Native Americans that’s written today will frame its discussion very differently than it would have a hundred or two hundred years ago. Sometimes even just decades can make a huge shift in perspective. Such lag times between events and the written texts that record them is the rule, not the exception in the Bible. So in reading any passage in the Bible it helps to understand both the history and the culture that frames the events themselves and also the historical context in which those events are being later recorded. This double-layering of history was often quite evident to the original community. We forget it at the peril of our own understanding.

The Bible has multiple Sources
It’s too simple—and simply irresponsible—to name God as the Bible’s author and stop there. Not least because the story within the Bible makes clear that God is far more comfortable working through fallible human characters than we might prefer. So the Bible comes from a variety of sources or authors. Understanding the context or agenda of these sources is essential to understanding their messages. Some books (like the prophetic writings) bear the name of the person to whom they are attributed —though these books were likely often collected by students or disciples of these prophets rather than the prophets themselves. Other books either don’t identify their author or are linked to persons by traditions that may or may not be accurate (David and Psalms; Solomon and Proverbs; the gospel writers).

The Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is traditionally ascribed to Moses, but while it recounts events in which Moses often plays a central role, scholars today discern (at least) four distinct editorial sources at work in the Torah—and dating hundreds of year after Moses lived. These sources are almost certainly not four individual authors but four “editorial teams,” four sets of writers active at different points in Israel’s history each recording earlier events from their own distinct vantage point. It requires great facility in the original Hebrew to unravel these sources—and scholars indeed argue at times over which passages belong to which source—but the arguments presume multiple sources, as evidenced by distinctive viewpoints, ways of naming God, and echoes of cultural background.

In reading any particular book of the Bible understanding the source(s) is critical not because it reduces the “holiness” of the text, but because it helps situate the holiness more clearly, making it easier for us to follow—and perhaps join—the conversation with the respect it deserves.

The Bible has different Genres
We might say, “Sure: history and hymns,” but it’s a lot more complicated than that. And it matters a lot. It makes a huge difference in what we attend to in the text—and an even greater difference in the questions we bring to it.

For instance, scholars universally agree that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth. That’s not a value judgment against them; it’s a literary assessment that allows us to fully appreciate them. You can’t ask “fact questions” of myths. They were never intended to provide those answers—and neither the first tellers nor the first hearers thought so. Myths carry truths—the best-regarded wisdom of their eras—often about cosmology (the perceived principles that undergird the world and where we and other beings fit within the world’s order).

Besides myth, the Bible also holds legend—folk-lore regarding historical figures, but with ample room for exaggeration because meaning is more important than the fact in these tales (Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges). And history—although even here this isn’t modern “objective news” history but facts recounted usually with a heavy spin—like plenty of biased “news” sources today (Samuel, Kings). Additionally, in the Hebrew Bible we find wisdom literature—philosophy about life (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes); debate—where the philosophical reflections are presented via debate and argument (Job); poetry as hymn (Psalms); poetry as prophecy (prophets); fiction—where short story is used to carry daring insights(Jonah, Ruth); and apocalyptic literature—writings steeped in symbolism as they seek to reveal meaning in the midst of dire tumult (Daniel).

In the New Testament we have gospel—a genre we’ll discuss in Session 3, which is neither history nor biography, though we’ve often wanted to read it that way; literally “good news,” gospel tells Jesus’ life in such a way that the news of it becomes GOOD for those who receive it. Within the gospels we encounter parable and allegory—distinct types of teaching stories. After the gospels, Acts sort of extends gospel (it’s a sequel to the Gospel of Luke) merged it with history—but history with a decided spin, of course. Then letters—noteworthy because knowing the first century literary form helps us read them more clearly, even as we wrestle with hearing only one-half of the conversation (the Epistles). And another instance of apocalyptic literature (Revelation).

Each type of literature has characteristics that help identify it and, more importantly, that help us encounter it on its terms of respect and insight. In fact, we do this all the time in our daily lives. Whether watching television or reading the newspaper, we move seamlessly from one genre to the next (news, documentary, comedy, entertainment news, op-ed columns, comic strips, political cartoons, advice columns, etc.) No one tells us what type of genre we’re engaged in; we’re expected to recognize it and interact with the material accordingly. The author counts on this!

It’s almost certainly the case that the original communities interacted with the Bible like this: recognizing and moving seamlessly across its genres. But our historical distance, our lack of biblical literacy, and as often our theological prejudices have led us to treat the Bible as just “history and hymns.” To insist on honoring its diversity of literary genres (and how those genres impact the questions we can legitimately pose) isn’t to take it less seriously than a biblical literalist; it is to meet it with the seriousness the text deserves. To acknowledge that “even” myth, legend, and fiction can be Scripture is to affirm that holy meetings can happen on this type of literary ground. In the rest of our lives we regularly honor art that reaches for the sacred; sometimes that same reach happens in the art of myth, legend, and fiction within the pages of the Bible.

The Bible is (inescapably!) read through Lenses
This “fold” is less about the biblical text itself than about being aware of where we position ourselves as we meet the text. We read from different places—but we all read from somewhere—no one reads from nowhere. There is no perfect vantage point. The goal of recognizing our lenses is not to be rid of them but to be aware and self-critical of them. That is, to take responsibility for them—and to make sure they are as free of “debris” as possible.

There is no shortage of lenses used for reading the Bible. And some of us might use different lenses at different times. I’ll mention just a few as examples.

Some Christians claim that the Fundamentalist/Literalist lens is no lens at all—it simply reads the words on the page and takes them as truth. But as we’ve just seen in discussing history, sources, and genre, the very presumption of this lens brackets a bunch of helpful insights outside of where the text meets head and heart and thus ultimately (in my view) fails to give either the Bible (or God!) their due.

The Liberal/Humanist lens is steeped in commitments to the head; so eager to remove any hint of the supernatural that it often ends up erasing mystery as well. Still, this lens has brought much insight to the text by its enthusiastic support for making the fullest use possible of scholarship of all sorts.

A Devotional lens (which might be tilted either toward the individual or the community) makes the heart its priority; but it can be so focused on seeking inward comfort or spiritual insight that it can miss the many ways that the Bible directs us outward, into the messiness of the world.

I tend to use a Liberationist lens, shaped by the academic insight and lived experience of many oppressed persons (Black, poor, women, queer, and more)—because I find that the Bible foremost tells the story of a God who champions the cause of the outcast and the marginal. But I employ that lens as a white, straight, well-educated, middle-class, liberal Protestant, U.S. male. And all of those details about me further specify my location as I read the Bible and further focus what I notice (and what I miss) in the text. So even as I might claim that a Liberationist reading offers the “truest” lens for the Bible’s message, these many finite features that further define my vantage point means that my liberationist reading will never be absolute. I need to count on others to fill out the text’s meaning from locations other than my own.

All of these are broadly drawn examples of lenses; each might be specified further into almost endless sub-groups. And there are lenses that are outright abusive: those that support overt racism or sexism or xenophobia. The bottom line here is threefold. (1) The lens we use matters; it guides the attention of both our head and our heart. (2) We each have a lens, whether we acknowledge it or not, so it’s important to “own” our lens and use it responsibly. (3) And we need to read the Bible in community with other persons unlike us if we hope to meet the fullest measure of the meaning it holds.

The Bible is best read in Context
Lenses carry intent behind them (even if we’re personally unaware of that intent); context, meanwhile, describes the “weather-season-climate” the conditions that prevail around us during our encounter with the Bible. Currently, the pandemic is context. So is the cry for racial justice—and to finally face the way that white supremacy misshapes our society and our communal lives. The looming threat of climate crisis. And rising global inequity. The unnerving and unholy alliance between evangelical Christianity, far right politics, and white nationalism.

But context can also be the positive if still challenging aspects of our contemporary moment, such as the interconnectedness of the global community and the religious-cultural diversity in our own communities. And context can be immediate and local —as the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Communal, as in the transition between pastors. Or personal, as in the birth of child or a cancer diagnosis.

The story within the Bible is of a God who engages people not in the abstract but in the particular, the messy, the joyful, the crisis moments of life. Therefore, to the extent we mean to encounter this text on its terms, we should allow those terms to speak to the context of our moment.

Finally, calling the Bible the “Word of God” says both too much and too little
It’s common for Christians to refer to the Bible as the Word of God. I don’t dispute that. But it seems to me that this both overstates and understates the case.

It overstates it by ignoring or at least overlooking the very human reality of the people who are the story-tellers. Scripture is not a monologue delivered by God; the writers are not trance-held microphones used to convey divine words. (Although many of us likely grew up with this as the unspoken presumption in our minds.) The Bible is rather the written record of a dramatic encounter between God and people. Sometimes it records that encounter in the words of a conversation; more often it records it in the historical events that transpired. Always what the Bible records is the human interpretation of very profound encounters with God.

For Christians, to call the Bible the Word of God overstates it in the same way that calling Jesus “God” misses the whole point—if we don’t also call him “human.” Thus, if, as Christians claim, we see God most clearly in Jesus, then what we see first and foremost is a God who is willing—indeed determined—to meet us under very human conditions, including hunger and weariness, sorrow and misunderstanding, suffering and even death. This suggests that to call the Bible the Word of God—and to think that settles everything—doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the God whose word it is. This is a God determined to speak with humans not simply to them.

So when we regard the Bible as Scripture we need to pay as much attention to the storytellers, to those who form the other half of the conversation. We need to know everything we can about their language and manner of writing, their history, cultural assumptions, and beliefs. This is not because we fail to believe enough in God, but precisely because we believe strongly in a God who does not shy away from the risks and the messiness involved in encountering us under the less than ideal conditions that we humans offer: that is, all manner of human bias, prejudice, and limited understanding.

One caveat here: this last observation means that there are places where the biblical authors record the injustices of history or the prejudices of their own culture … and unfairly project them onto the heart of God. And then God waits for us to summon the audacity to challenge these words because the God we have known shows us better (e.g., slavery, women, LGBTQ, etc.). This is OUR interpretive act.

But also, to call the Bible the Word of God … says too little. It stops short. To truly claim the Bible as Scripture today is to claim that the God spoken of in the Bible is still alive—and that therefore this is a text worth being in conversation with even today. It means the Bible remains a living text: sacred not because its words are unchanging but because they remain dynamic, capable of speaking to us here and now.

If God is still speaking, then we need to remain open, both within these pages and beyond them, because who knows where God’s presence will be today? Except—that the biblical story suggests it will likely be at the edges, among the outcasts, the oppressed, and those overlooked.

Finally, we should be clear: the biblical pattern is not one where God speaks and we listen. It is a pattern of shared conversation, at times even debate and argument. It might be more comfortable for us, if God promised encounters in which we could simply sit back, listen, and maybe take a few notes. But God is always asking for volunteers to come up on stage. In fact, God seems intent on making volunteers out of all of us in this divine-human drama by leaving the stage and wandering around in the audience, where, one after another, we’re invited to join in the conversation.

My goal in these sessions is to share some of the tools and perspectives that can help you encounter the Bible with head and heart—your whole person. As we meet this text, drawing insight from the seven “folds” outlined here, I believe we’ll discover that the Bible, far from being written for another time, holds wisdom, truth, and power that is still extraordinarily good news for us gathered together today. We can’t afford to be tentative as we encounter this text. The world can’t afford for us to be tentative either. So much is at stake. We need to meet this moment with all the grace we can bring to it. I believe the Bible can help.

Drawn into this holy conversation, you may perhaps even feel a little excited when God leaves the stage and wanders over your way. I can’t promise to remove the fear that comes with that moment (fear—soul deep awe—at the immediacy of God’s presence is a pretty strong theme in the biblical material), but at least you’ll recognize that a bit of reverent fear belongs to the moment, too. 🙂

© David R. Weiss | 2020.09.25 | 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.

Visualizing 2040: Imagining My Place in Tomorrow

Visualizing 2040: Imagining My Place in Tomorrow
September 16, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Right now I’m in a webinar on “Regenerative Leadership” taught by Transition US. The Transition Movement, international in scope, is focused on facilitating a transition away from oil-centric lives and the danger we pose to ourselves and to entire ecosystems because of our economic-cultural addiction to oil. Just as much (perhaps more so), the Movement focuses on transition toward a healthier communal way of being human on a finite planet.

Of course, it’s more than just the oil. We live, as their website says, “in an age of unprecedented change, with a number of crises converging. Climate change, global economic instability, overpopulation, erosion of community, declining biodiversity, and resource wars, have all stemmed from the availability of cheap, non-renewable fossil fuels. Global oil, gas and coal production is predicted to irreversibly decline in the next 10 to 20 years, and severe climate changes are already taking effect around the world. The coming shocks are likely to be catastrophic.” Thus, in anticipation of the coming shocks—Transition cultivates “vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience … to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience.”

Transition US has selected “From What Is to What If: Reimagining and Rebuilding Our World” as the theme for its current yearlong campaign, and this 16-week Regenerative Leadership webinar is part of that: aiming to develop and refine leadership skills to expand transition work in communities across the country. In preparation for Thursday’s class we did a pre-taped visualization exercise that invited us to imagine waking up in 2040 and to take stock of that world as it might be if we start transitioning toward a more just sustainable world today; a sort of fast forward sneak peak at a possible tomorrow as a tool for stoking strategic planning today. Then we were asked to write two short responses to the exercise. These (lightly edited for clarity) were my responses.

What is your vision for yourself, your community, and the world in the year 2040?

Initially I found the visualization/visioning exercise both frustrating and humbling … though it did ultimately led to a place of hopefulness.

But first, the humbling frustration. Many of the visualization prompts asked me to imagine the “systems” of that future world as I moved through a typical day. (What would I eat? Where would it come from? What about my clean drinking water? Where would my waste go? What would community transit and architecture look like?) But I have very little “practical knowledge” about my day-to-day life today let alone tomorrow. It’s embarrassing how much I’m dependent on systems I don’t understand to provide water, food, energy, etc. In (too!) many ways I’m at the mercy of the modern world.

This is not an excuse to be lazy in visioning, it’s the honest lament that for some in our class (like me)—and for many in the wider public—the capacity to even muster a legitimate “what if” about better ways to access water, food, energy, transit, etc. is more likely to unlock despair than imagination. This is surely not the case for everyone, but as I listened to the prompts it was hard not to feel increasingly despondent because my life/learning has not equipped me to respond to these prompts except in fairly shallow ways.

The prompts do ask really important questions about the world we’re longing for—but they did not present ME with a bridge to get there. They focused mostly on “the hands” dimension of Transition (the practical, on-the-ground, outward aspects of Transition), while my real (and pretty much only) gifts lie much more on “the heart” dimension (the introspective, spiritual-philosophical, inward aspects of Transition). But the visualization exercise offered very few opportunities to engage that dimension. Thankfully [he wrote with bitter irony], because the world of “what is,” already regularly discounts and/or fails to value the skillset I do have, I recognized that familiar feeling and chose to imagine 2040 on terms I could engage with.

My vision for the future 2040 looks like this:

I’m 80 years old, so moving a bit slower, but I remain engaged in Inner Transition work in faith communities. While it might be nice (and kudos to those who can) to imagine a 2040 where we’ve successfully dodged climate chaos, my 2040 is a world chastened by the now unremitting waves of climate karma and one still struggling to make peace with an economy in tatters and an eco-system perilously frayed. That’s my best case scenario (sorry; and don’t ask about my worst). So what does Inner Transition work look like in that future?

My church has retooled itself into a community hub of education and inspiration. It remains rooted in its Christian tradition, but has become, as the Zapatistas say, “a world where many worlds fit,” such that events reflecting other faiths and inter-faith are part of our weekly rhythm. We “broke into” our sizable endowment to renovate our building into a multi-purposed structure that allows us to do the ministry needed in this moment. This includes hosting community ed events that reflect the heart of our faith that we are indeed “at home on earth”: teaching the closer-to-the-land life skills that make life possible on a less hospitable planet. But also teaching the hospitality skills (the listening-empathy-knowledge necessary in a culturally world) that make community possible in a country still working to undo centuries of racist-sexist-capitalist injustice; those wounds run deep!

A disproportionate part of our work, particularly my work, is fostering faith (the capacity to use stories, rituals, and convictions to make meaning in our lives) that can plumb the grief that is the pathway to a more just and sustainable 2060 or 2080. I likely won’t see those years, but others will—including some of my own children and grandchildren. Before we reach that far side of a turn we may only be starting in 2040, perhaps the closest thing to a “magic bullet” for the daunting global context we face today is near bottomless grief for the decisions made and reaffirmed countless times in prior decades, even centuries—and the suffering those decisions have purchased, past-present-and-future, for so many beings. I don’t mean grief as aimless, endless anguish, but as lament that allows us to excavate our culture, our world system, with surgical precision and resolute abandon—this grief helps true the compass that might guide us steadfastly toward a tomorrow where we make friends with finitude and that near mystical notion: enough.

But it’s not all grief. Now a resident theologian emeritus, I write a weekly column for the neighborhood online newspaper that’s equal parts wisdom, poetry, and simple snark (at 80 you can do that). I still lead weekend retreats, some connecting ancient texts (Scripture) to current themes with surprising insight and others that help persons chart the narrative of their lives against the apocalyptic canvas of the contemporary world such that meaning hovers within their reach once again. I spend a couple hours on weekday afternoons collaborating with teens on fashioning faith in a mostly post-god world: creating capacity for awe, conviction for good, and a cross-generation vision for justice. And weekend evenings I sit back in a corner next to my wife (now 81) while the church hosts community coffee houses, where mostly I enjoy the music, sip tea, and wonder how I got so lucky to be alive at this moment.

How might this vision inform what you are doing now?

Well, I’m already laying the inward (the headward and heartward) groundwork to be able to do this: I’m engaged in oodles of learning and reflection to connect my education in and passion for theology to this work. Finding institutional support—finding institutional imagination—is trickier. Still, I suppose this vision right here—moving as it does from a disgruntled rant to cheerfully sipping tea with my beloved—could inspire me to seek out co-conspirators and potential church sites … Turns out there’s really a good bit to ponder. So stay tuned.

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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.

9/11 – Lady Liberty in the Foreground

photo – National Park Service / Public domain / wikimedia commons

Sometimes the uncomfortable task of the poet is to seize our eyes in a moment when they are already wrenched by horror and force us to look more deeply into the terror before we avert our gaze. In this poem I echo—and invert—many images in Emma Lazarus’ famous poem about the Statue of Liberty. Understand: this is not a defense of terrorism. It is a plea that we recognize terrorism as the inevitable fruit of the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the power-hungry—and the legacy of state terrorism that runs deep in our own history … from genocide and slavery to military incursions, foreign policy, trade deals, and corporate exploitation. We fool ourselves if we think that military retaliation—or anything else less than justice can promise us peace. ~drw 9/11/2001

9/11/2020: Although the pain of this moment remains seared in our memories—stamped into the very shape of our lives henceforth—so little suggests that we have even begun the inward turn that is the first step toward repentance and renewal.

 

Lady Liberty in the Foreground

This mighty woman with her torch stands placidly bereft
Her hem wave-washed beneath bright skies
above calm water-harbored lies
while smoky wisps of violent truth swell billows to her left.

She lifts her lamp in silent shame, its welcome long outworn
to huddled masses, tired, poor
whose breath withers on distant shore
in labor for our ill-won wealth, their liberty stillborn.

Our sea-washed sunrose-gates once twinned, with storied pomp around
our innocents now tempest-tost
lives unnumbered ever lost
in towers traded now for wretched refuse on the ground.

From horrored hearts—their anguish true, is naught but vengeance loosed?
Dare she invite us to repent
of exiled lives too cheaply spent,
her flame a bloodied beacon-hand for woes come home to roost.

drw – 09.11.01

 

Here is the text of Emma Lazarus’ (1849-1887) poem:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset-gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome, her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin-cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore;
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

11.02.1883

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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.

 

Water Carriers—Every One of Us

Water Carriers—Every One of Us
September 1, 2020 – David R. Weiss

We were barely noticed as we made our way along Summit Avenue. Three friends, masked and walking with a hardly remarkable purple aluminum water bottle, save for the mix of blue and white ribbons streaming from the top.

Most cars, bikers, even fellow pedestrians would’ve never guessed the weight of our steps. I’m not sure we did until our two-mile trek was well underway. Becky, Deb and I had met on the church lawn about 9:15 in the morning. We gathered alongside the shrub that had marked our spot on the lawn from Sunday evening’s gathering. We paused there and each of us said a brief word about our morning’s mission. And then we walked.

We were, echoing a motif in our own faith tradition, three magi—three wise ones—coming from the east. Carrying with us not three gifts, but one. Still, that one gift is decidedly more valuable than any collection of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You see, the purple water bottle was filled with 16 ounces of Nibi. Water.

Nibi (pronounced nih-bee) is the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe word for water. For sacred water. In early August this water was ceremonially drawn from the Headwaters of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota. And yet it isn’t sacred on account of the ceremony. For the Anishinaabe there is no water that is not sacred. Every bit of it is essential to the whole of creation—interwoven with life at every level. It is at once—in every instance—both mundane and sacred. We carried holy-ordinary water.

Since early August this 16 ounces of Nibi has been making its way across the state, carried by Native and non-Native persons—on foot, by bike, by boat, horseback—in the Relay for Our Water. At each leg of the relay one group passes it on to the next group of water carriers, the water poured reverently from one container to the next, to the next, to the next. On the twenty-seventh day it reached us.

Each day as the water moves it raises awareness about the threat posed to Nibi by Enbridge’s proposed Line 3. The new pipeline would carry tar sands crude—the dirtiest oil there is—from Alberta, Canada across Anishinaabe lands in northern Minnesota … crossing or running near to more than 200 wetlands, lakes, streams, and rivers, including the Mississippi Headwaters … until it reaches Superior, Wisconsin.

Line 3 would disrupt or destroy large tracts of pristine land, violating treaty rights that guarantee Anishinaabe access to healthy lands even beyond their tribal reservation boundaries. It would threaten lands that grow wild rice—a truly sacred food in Anishinaabe culture. It would only fuel our society’s thirst for oil at the very moment when we need to breaking this deadly addiction, investing instead in jobs that promote a just transition to green energy—not further indebting our wellbeing to fossil fuels.

And Line 3 promises to poison Nibi for generations to come; promises because it isn’t a matter of if but when the spill(s) happen. Enbridge pipelines have had over 800 spills in the past fifteen years—including the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. No wonder the Anishinaabe have been fighting Line 3 for six years. The wonder—the shame—is that more of us haven’t been fighting alongside them. The Relay for Our Water invites us to do just that.

So that’s why we carried the water on August 31. The night before we’d welcomed it from a group of Youth Climate Strikers who carried it to us at the edge of the lawn outside St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. Once poured into our container we wrapped it in our Sacred Circle liturgy, a simple service that uses gratitude, grief, enlarged vision, and active hope to meet the dire challenges presented by climate crisis and other entangled injustices like Line 3. We prayed and read and sang and listened in a light rain, as though Nibi itself had joined us in a most holy-ordinary collaboration of sorts.

This morning three of us returned to the exact spot where the Nibi rested yesterday evening to carry it from there to the next stop on its journey, the Twin Cities Friends Meeting House near Macalester College. It was midway between these two spots that the ordinariness of it all overwhelmed me.

Nobody noticed us as we walked along. And this was likely true for most of the miles the Nibi had traveled. We water carriers are nothing special. Ordinary people carrying ordinary-holy water on a journey across the state. But the weight of this barely noticed work is to join peoples and generations in care for Nibi and in solidarity with our Native siblings. Not just the water, the work as well is ordinary-holy—both mundane and sacred in every moment.

And then something else hit me. So, you didn’t get to carry Nibi in the Relay? Well, on average our bodies are 50-60% water by weight. Each of us, all day long, carries not just 16 ounces but between seven and fifteen gallons of Nibi in our own bodies. Sacred water because there is no water that is not sacred. It is at once—in every instance—both mundane and sacred. We carry holy-ordinary water in ourselves.

And the water within us? No less than the Nibi in the Headwaters of the Mississippi, every bit of it is also essential to the whole of creation—interwoven with life at every level. Within us … among us … indelibly part of us, each human being is host to some 100 trillion microbes. Tiny creatures that aid in our digestion, play key roles in our immune system, and carry out other duties essential to keeping a person alive. They don’t “help” us live—they are wholly interwoven with our living. We live through them as they live through us, on undulating waves of Nibi. An unending refrain of the cosmos … and the sacred.

We are bound to one another, to creation itself. The same water enlivens us all. Beings of every sort and kind. Nibi is under threat. But we are water carriers—every one of us. So carry on. And carry well. Holy-ordinary in every moment.

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Learn more about the issues at stake in Line 3: www.stopline3.org/issues

Learn about action steps you can take: http://bit.ly/RfOW_Act

Follow the Relay for Our Water: www.facebook.com/Relay-for-our-Water-629502024372144

A recent online story on the Relay: www.stcroix360.com/2020/08/river-relay-connected-by-water

 

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 1, 2020. 1 Comment

Five loaves, two fish, and a truck – in Uganda

NOTE: This post shares a GoFundMe campaign I’m managing for a local church.

Moses and me in Kampala, Uganda, 2013.

But for me, it’s VERY PERSONAL. In 2013 I traveled to Uganda, where Moses served as my driver and right-hand man for *everything* for two weeks. We’ve remained good friends – a few years ago he even named his 4th child after me!

Moses is one of eight persons who founded the Dorcas Star Mission. This campaign is raising funds to help them buy a truck to further empower their ministry feeding hospital patients — a need heightened during the pandemic.
Here’s a modest CHALLENGE:
Margaret & I already made a $500 gift to the Mission before the campaign launched to help them cover costs while the campaign was running. But we’ll make an additional donation of $2 for EACH of my blog readers (or Facebook friends) that makes a donation (of any amount!) between now and August 15. If you donate, make a comment on this post so I know to make a $2 match for your gift!

PLEASE CONSIDER MAKING A GIFT THAT IS MEANINGFUL TO YOU … it’s even a gift if you share the campaign! Thank you.

(Link direct to the GoFundMe page)

Five loaves, two fish, and a truck – in Uganda (GOAL: $20,000)

Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves, two fish, and faith. The Dorcas Star Mission in Mbale, Uganda has similar hopes, but they also could really use a truck. Let me explain.

Feeding the hungry is a worthy cause anytime anywhere. But feeding hungry new mothers and young children at a hospital in Uganda during a pandemic is a special challenge. This fundraiser hopes to meet that challenge.

A hospital, hunger, and the Dorcas Star Mission

Back in April, with Uganda bracing for the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of Christian men and women who meet regularly for study and fellowship desired to do something to aid their local community. One member suggested they could provide food for patients at the local hospital. Administrators at the Mbale Regional Referral Hospital serving Eastern Uganda were happy to receive their offer. And thus the Dorcas Star Mission was born out of this simple desire to live out their faith through service to others.

In Uganda, as in many developing nations, public hospitals provide much-needed medical services—but often do not provide meals. Families must bring in food for family members in the hospital.

But not everyone has family able to do this. In Uganda many families already scramble to eat day-to-day. And under the economic disruption caused by the lockdown during this pandemic, very few hospital patients are receiving any food support at all. They may only be at the hospital for a couple of days, but without adequate meals, medications can have worsened side effects and recovery is slowed. With little more than “five loaves, two fish, and some faith,” the Dorcas Star Mission stepped in to fill this need. (But they could also really use a truck.)

Corn porridge and bananas, carried by boda-boda

The Dorcas Star Mission began their feeding program in mid-April. Using their own meager funds and a little aid from local businesses, they purchase corn meal to make porridge and they provide bananas as well. By early May they were bringing meals to 400 patients a day Monday through Friday. The hospital provides a room where they can serve up the food and wash their utensils afterwards. They first serve the breast-feeding mothers, then other patients in the women’s ward with small children, and then any other patients with no outside support.

But the need is so great. Since starting the hospital has asked them to also provide extra food two days a week when there are day clinics—to which patients (including children) often walk in from five or more miles away. In fact, even some of the hospital nurses and staff go without food for their entire shifts, so they welcome any extra porridge.

Each day the Dorcas Star Mission makes 50 gallons of corn porridge in one member’s home—enough to feed a pint of porridge to 400 women and children. Then they transport the porridge (in ten 5-gallon/20-liter jugs), along with bowls, spoons, bananas, and volunteers, to the hospital. Right now everything is ferried over Mbale’s chaotic city streets by a dozen boda-bodas—small motorcycle taxis they have to hire each day. Did I mention they could really use a truck?

The men and women of the Dorcas Star Mission have indomitable faith and boundless compassion. Although they are all persons of modest means, they have so far funded this ambitious meal program—including all the taxi fees—out of their own pockets. But acquiring a truck is simply beyond their means. Yet this would allow them to transport food, supplies and volunteers more efficiently and more safely. That’s why we’re appealing to you.

A truck … and a little bit more

A truck isn’t the only need, but it’s the biggest one. Funds we raise will go first to purchase a reliable used double-cab pick-up truck ($13,000-$15,000). Besides this major purchase, the other essential need is facemasks (now mandatory in Uganda), both for volunteers and for in-patients. Remaining funds raised will be used to cover other expenses for their ministry. These include cell phone minutes to let them coordinate their work, rent for their tiny office, porridge ingredients (cornmeal, milk, sugar), bananas, utensils, and, if possible, small stipends for core volunteers.

They’ve already strained to increase their porridge delivery to 500 servings per day five days a week. If our campaign is resoundingly successful, they know that if they provided 800 servings per day there would be that many hungry mouths to feed.

Uganda is a couple months behind the U.S. in its experience of the pandemic timeline. By offering support now, we can enable The Dorcas Star Mission to respond most effectively when the need will be greatest. So, it’s not really five loaves, two fish, and a truck. It’s more like 50-60 gallons of porridge, dozens of bananas, a handful of volunteers, facemasks, cellphone minutes … and a truck. And you can help make this happen. Please make a gift that is meaningful to you.

Trust years in the making

St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Roseville, Minnesota is hosting this fundraiser. Pastor Brad has known Moses, one of the leaders of Dorcas Start Mission, for about fifteen years. David, though not a member at St. Michael’s, is coordinating this fundraiser. David and Pastor Brad have been friends for close to two decades, and David met Moses in person when he traveled to Uganda seven years ago.

Both of us have strong relationships with Moses and have seen him act with extraordinary integrity and compassion over the years. Quite simply, we would trust him with our lives. St. Michael’s Lutheran Church is pleased to host this fundraiser as one expression of our Global Outreach. All funds received (less any transaction and transfer fees) will go to assist the Dorcas Star Mission in their charitable work providing food support for patients at the Mbale Regional Referral Hospital.

Thank you for your generosity and support of the Dorcas Star Mission through your gift to St. Michael’s Lutheran Church. If you prefer to mail in a donation, send it to St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, 1660 West County Road B, Roseville, MN 55113 – and be sure to put Dorcas Star Mission on the memo line. Contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. No goods or services were exchanged for these donations.

Five loaves, two fish, and a truck – in Uganda

You can help make this happen. Please make a gift that is meaningful to you.

(Link direct to the GoFundMe page)



Albert Weiss and the Ku Klux Klan

Albert Weiss and the Ku Klux Klan
August 4, 2020 – David R. Weiss

If we’re honest, most of our family histories have episodes and chapters in them that we wish weren’t there. Mine does, too. Happily, this isn’t one of them.

But a little background first. In 1920 the Ku Klux Klan began organizing in southern Indiana …

Originally founded in 1865 as a post-Civil War vigilante group of ex-Confederate soldiers dedicated to terrorizing newly freed Blacks in the South, the Klan had largely disappeared within a decade. (To be sure, even though the KKK had been officially disbanded, there were plenty of racist vigilantes still active in the South alongside Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws.)

Then, the 1915 release of the film “Birth of a Nation” unabashedly glorified the Klan as a supposed protector of America’s purity—and white supremacy. The film was praised by President Woodrow Wilson and sparked a resurgence of the Klan beginning in the Deep South. This incarnation of the Klan, however, was led by better-educated and better-connected men; its political influence quickly became formidable. Drawing on the latent xenophobia that always rises in wartime, the Klan wed its racism to added fears of immigrants coming from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe, immigrants most often Catholic or Jewish.

This broadened message of fear and hate helped the Klan move north. Industry was drawing both European immigrants as well as southern Blacks to the area. (Chicago’s Black population more than doubled between 1910 and 1920; Detroit’s grew six-fold in that time.)

Wikimedia Commons – Klan gathering on January 1, 1922 in Muncie, Indiana. The sign at the left says, “We stand for law and order.”

So this is the Ku Klux Klan that spread northward in Indiana in the early 20’s. It spread like wildfire. From July 1922 to July 1923 its statewide membership grew by 2000 per week until the Indiana Klan boasted over 250,000 dues-paying members—the largest membership of any state north or south. By 1925 the Governor of Indiana and over half of the members of both house of the General Assembly were card-carrying Klansmen. The Klan’s reach into local communities ran just as deep. Protestant ministers were offered free memberships. At its peak, 30-40% of the white males in Indiana joined the Klan. Even those who did not join were frequently intimidated into silence. And many politicians from the city to state level knew that a Klan endorsement was key to their election.

The Klan’s statewide newspaper, The Fiery Cross, targeted Blacks and Jews (often framed as Jewish Communists), but it saved its strongest venom for Catholics who were accused of plotting secretly to overthrow the U.S. government, hand the nation over to the Pope, and then exterminate Protestants across the country. All who joined the Klan pledged their secrecy, affirmed that they were “native born, white, Gentile, American citizens,” vowed their allegiance to the country, and promised to “faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of White Supremacy.” Remember, over a third of all white men in the state made these pledges in order to join the Klan.

Daily Republican, Rushville, IN, August 16, 1923

While the Indiana Klan was strongest in the central part of the state, it had members throughout, including perhaps 20% or more in northern Indiana. In 1923 the Klan made a serious though ultimately unsuccessful bid to buy Valparaiso University (at the time nicknamed “the Poor Man’s Harvard”) shortly before its purchase by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. And in 1924 the Klan held a rally in South Bend targeted at Notre Dame. The rally became violent between Notre Dame students and Klansmen (including some who had been deputized by the sheriff).

So, that’s the background. Now meet me at 215 Grant Avenue in Michigan City, the home of Albert and Johanna Weiss, and their son Robert (my grandpa), who would’ve been about ten. Let’s say summer 1923, but it might have been 1922 or 1924. They’re out on the front porch. Maybe after supper on a Sunday evening.

Here comes the Michigan City Ku Klux Klan marching down Grant Ave in their robes. Perhaps a couple dozen of them. Hooded. Likely carrying both an American flag and a Christian flag. The Klan harnessed the worst energies of both patriotism and faith. Their march had three purposes. It served to celebrate the Klan itself—which they would do at the end of the march when they burned a cross (maybe several crosses) in the dunes. But along the way it served two other purposes. To intimidate the Polish Catholics and the Blacks, both of whom were increasing in the city’s west side. And to recruit white Protestant men to join. Men like my great-grandpa Albert.

Albert was a laborer at Haskell & Barker (later Pullman Standard), a manufacturer of railroad cars. His particular work was hard—and hot. He was part of a crew that heated the steel train wheels until they expanded, then forced them onto the axel where they would shrink and seal tight. He undoubtedly knew a host of other immigrants (he’d only come to the U.S. from Germany around 1910). Still, as a white German Protestant, he had every reason to buy into the Klan’s message of fear and hate.

As the marchers walked by, one of them called out to my great-grandpa by name, “Hey, Albert, you should be out here marching with us! Come join!” It might’ve sounded like a friendly invitation, but such invitations often included an unspoken—“or else.” Which made Albert’s reply all the more memorable: “I won’t join anything that requires me to hide my face. If your beliefs are so honorable, why are you hiding behind those hoods?” And he stormed back into the house.

Just like that, the moment was over. Thankfully, so far as we know, there were no reprisals made by the Klan against him. But the scene etched itself into his wife’s memory and became one of the stories she shared with her grandson, Frederick, my dad. For her, it was a story that helped define her long dead husband. A man of hard work, little book learning, very modest means—but with convictions and honor that had roots running down deep, as though into the earth. Unshakeable.

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, in a day when our nation was unsettled by change and uncertainty, and many were easily mesmerized by heightened fear and cultivated hate of others, Albert Weiss, my great-grandfather, said No.

It’s a far different world today, but one in which fear and hate still sell all too well. I now live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Google maps places me about 459 miles from Albert’s front porch. But standing on my porch, just above a yard sign that proclaims “Black Lives Matter,” the distance—and the century—between us fall away. I never met Albert. He died in 1932, several years before my dad was born. But today I stand on his shoulders.

If you’re one of Albert’s descendants (or even if you’re not!), I invite you to clamber on up. In the face of fear and hate he was unshakeable. Today there’s room on his shoulders for all of us.

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NOTE: The collapse of the Indiana Klan began in 1925 when its leader, D.C. Stephenson, was convicted in the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Sent to prison (in Michigan City), he counted on clemency or commutation from the governor (a fellow Klansman). When that didn’t happen, Stephenson (from prison) provided the Indianapolis Times with the names of politicians involved in corruption through the Klan. The whole organization was unraveled thanks to a series of reports that earned the Times the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. By 1928 Indiana Klan membership had dropped from 250,000 to just 4,000. But that’s another story.

There’s a lot of online material about the Indiana Klan, including a nice 15-minute C-SPAN video (www.c-span.org/video/?298317-1/1920s-indiana-ku-klux-klan). These are the pieces I relied on for this essay:
www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Klan;
www.theindychannel.com/longform/the-ku-klux-klan-ran-indiana-once-could-it-happen-again;
www.historymuseumsb.org/the-golden-era-of-indiana;
www.blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/ku-klux-u-how-the-klan-almost-bought-a-university;
www.nd.edu/stories/a-clash-over-catholicism.

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

This entry was posted on August 4, 2020. 1 Comment