Two Things True

Two Things True
David R. Weiss – July 15, 2022

Two things—opposite as it were—can be true at once.

There are things I wish I did not know … that I am yet glad to know. Not happy, per se, but grateful amid regret. Things needful to know and so the knowing, though unwanted, is, at the same time, welcome.

Two things true at once.

Or again: I am learning that it is possible to write—and to act!—with love … on the far side of hope. And it is possible, from that place, to sustain what might be called “counter hope.”

Not pessimism. Not at all. But a hope that is no longer hopeful. No longer the reflection of upbeat attitude or warm emotion. A hope so thin and gritty that it is “merely” existential—and nothing more. That is, it exists only as chosen action, however tiny, in the present moment. Such “counter-hope” is not something we hold onto, not something we “have”; it is something we do. Again and again and again.

Just back from a week of hiking up on the North Shore (of Lake Superior), my experience was one of persistent bittersweet awe. Many of the parks and trails and beaches bear witness to the irrepressible artistry of creation, the seeming longing of the world simply to be with unrestrained exuberance. Thus, an entire week of “oh my” followed by “and yet.”

Gooseberry Falls

Despite its pristine pretensions where I walked, this Earth is wounded. And deeply. We saw glimpses of that in the occasional mountains of logged trees or rail cars of mined ore. Fellow members of the Earth community, their citizenship revoked so they might be rendered resources for (globalized Western) human appetites that are fluent in one language only: More.

That’s not to say that no people or culture has shown a capacity for restraint or, better yet, a culture of humble harmony with the planet. Many have. But the lingua franc of the globalized industrial world is accumulative consumption. Our measure of worth, our sense of meaning, our very reason for being (from the individual to the whole economic system!) is oriented to a singular end: More.

Hence our wounded planet. And because no corner on Earth is separate from the whole, even the North Shore’s beauty is wholly entangled—in distant but undeniable kinship—with raging wildfires, receding lakes, ocean plastic, retreating glaciers, rising temperatures and more. The instinctive awe cannot be divorced from withering anguish.

Two things true at once.

Delighted to spend a week in daily relationship with three of my grandchildren. Yet every moment of joy is matched and more by the inescapable awareness that they have no idea. And they are wholly unprepared for the future that is coming for them.

How could anyone be prepared for a tomorrow that is not simply the day after today but the sum of decades of yesterdays that will now broker a complete break with every yesterday … and rewrite every tomorrow we ever imagined?

At Split Rock State Park

And isn’t childhood—they are, after all, just 9, 11, and 13—supposed to be a long season of innocence; rambunctious, sometimes cantankerous growing, in which kids can be kids, delaying their ripening maturity until young adulthood finally claims them? But with the entire world readying to shift—perhaps before they even have the chance to grow up—there is an impatient anxiety in me. They may not have the luxury of childhood.

Of course, many—countless—children across the globe—have already had their childhood forfeited to the More that fuels war and famine, political ambitions and environmental destruction. My grandchildren are simply going to find their lot abruptly joined to that of their peers around the world. A generation—a whole series of generations—consigned to live within the wounds of a planet that would’ve preferred to offer us its abundance.

Except that there was no abundance that could satisfy us. Enough? Was that even a word?

The same was true, by the way, of my brother’s relationship with bourbon. What struck me as abundance beyond measure left him perpetually unsatiated … until it left him permanently dead. A longer more complicated tale than that, but the cause-effect holds true. As it may for us as well.

I have every desire to be hopeful. I could name them if you like. Six children: each the apple of my eye. Nine grandchildren: together joys uncounted. A wife who still pitters the patters of my heart. And two or three decades of my own still unfolding. And those are only the desires that leap to mind. I have multitudes of wishes for a future that I know is no more.

Two things, painfully true at once.

“And yet …” you will stammer. “If only …” you will offer. “For surely …” you will insist. I hear the sincerity in your voice. But sincerity cannot purchase what is no longer for sale.

It isn’t just the math—although that’s damning enough. Between rising CO2, trespassed planetary boundaries, collapsing ecosystems—and social systems and political systems—there simply isn’t any honest math that provides any solid basis for hope.

And whatever miniscule odds you might conjure up are exorcised (an ironic use of the word if there ever was one) by those determined to turn a profit right up to their last breath, those determined to wield assault weapons while uncertainty and anxiety peak (an incendiary combination), and those determined to undo democracy so that authoritarian homophobic misogynist white nationalism can be the flag flying over the future as it implodes. I could go on: pandemics, migrations, drought, famine, hunger, massive civil unrest, war, and nuclear disasters. But that would just be piling on.

Yes, there is an abundance of good to strive for—simpler living, greener energy, and the resolute protection or reclaiming of all manner of civil rights and human rights. But that good is not cause to be hopeful. The forces arrayed against us, some systemic, some personal, and some ecological are not going to negotiate. And some of them have inertia that simply no amount of good will or regret will moderate. Our future is bleak—at best. And I mean “at best”; there are possible futures worse than bleak.

Temperance River State Park

Which is why I say the good is not cause to be hopeful. The good is cause to do right. Irrespective of the odds. Doing right on the far side of hope, that’s “counter-hope.” It’s the best we can do now. It won’t make a dent in “bleak.” But it may open a passage to a tomorrow we never wished for, but which we will be damn grateful for if we make it there alive.

Two things true at once. The world is overfull with beauty. And overwrought with wounds. So much to savor. So much to salve. Keep busy savoring and salving and you won’t miss the hope at all.

* * *

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 July 19, 2022. 2 Comments

Making Fernando Cry

Making Fernando Cry
David R. Weiss – July 5, 2022

[Aside for those of you who weren’t aware of this: Fernando is a 32-year-old Brazilian man who just arrived in the U.S.—his first time abroad—to start a 3-year post-doc fellowship at the University of Minnesota in cardiac physiology. Connected through a friend of a friend—indeed just hours before he arrived—he will rent a room from us until the end of August when he moves into a place much closer to campus.]

To be fair, Fernando has been with us since 10am last Monday, so I waited an entire week to make him cry. It’s not like I put him in tears in the first few days. Let me tell you about it.

I knew already last week that Fernando’s parents were no longer together. And that he had a younger half-brother on his mother’s side and a younger half-brother and half-sister on his father’s side. No big deal, since our family has half-siblings, step-siblings, and heart-siblings in spades.

Anyway, Monday night we had almost an hour to wait, sitting on plastic chairs in a parking lot (thankfully in comfortably warm air with a gentle breeze) before the fireworks would start. So I asked him, “How old were you when your parents divorced?”

He paused, as if considering how (or how much) to answer, and then he said, “Well, my history is a complicated one. I think it would be a good movie …” And then he explained (edited here for brevity).

“My mother was poor and black. My father was white and wealthy. They did not really have a relationship. When my mother discovered she was pregnant, she talked to my father, but nothing came of their talking. So I was born and my mother raised me alone. Eventually she remarried and got my younger brother, but she would never tell me who my father was.

“I often asked her, because I truly wanted to know my father, but my questions only made her sad. She would tell me to wait until I was older, and because I could see she was sad, I learned to keep my own sadness—which was a lot—inside me. Even though I often wondered about my father, I put the energy of my sadness into my studies to distract me since I knew I could not learn anything until my mother agreed.

“When I was 22, I completed my undergraduate degree to become a physical therapist and then my mother finally told me who my father was. And I was very surprised. You see, we lived in a small town (20,000) and everybody knew everybody else. So when she told me, I learned that my father was someone I already knew. He lived not far from us. A rich white man with a family of his own.

“And I hoped to have a relationship with him. But when I approached him I learned that it is not easy to simply “become” a father and son just because you want to, when you never knew each other for so long. Sometimes I talk to him still. But it is always a little strange, because why could I never know him sooner? I have a closer relationship with his mother and his children, but it is still very different than what I have with my mother’s family.”

Quite a tale to share (and there is more that I have left aside). Margaret and I sat in rapt attention, well aware that this was a “thin moment” in which he was making himself quite vulnerable to us.

After the fireworks we came home. Well, we were mired in a parking lot down in Eagan for 45-50 minutes, and then we came home.

On the way, I shared with him that my relationship to my children was also complicated. In very different ways, of course, but I shared a sketch of my life as a parent on the drive home, so that he would know I had heard his story with real empathy.

By the time we got home it was 11:30, and we all decided to have midnight snacks. Even Percy joined us (of course!). I just had cheese and crackers, so while Fernando made his burger, I gathered a couple things to show him. When we sat down, I first showed him the “Gravity” poem I wrote for Ben on his 30th birthday. He now knew enough to appreciate the sentiments as well as to be amazed at the acrostic.

Then I showed him my two 3-ring binders in which I keep my copies of “Apple: Tree” and “Reading with Dad,” the letters I am writing to my children. I explained that for four years now—ever since they both moved west within months of each other—I have written a letter every month, both to tell the story of my life, but also to make a bridge across the complicated past that we have. Each binder now has 250+ pages of typed letters in them.

He was speechless. Literally. He said, while his eyes glistened with tears, “I do not even have the words in Portuguese to say anything.” And then he found them. Both tears and words.

“All my life I wondered about my father. But until today I have never wondered whether he wondered about me. And you have shown me that maybe my father also wanted to know me, but he did not know how. I will reflect on this for a long long time.

“I said earlier that I would always remember this day because it was my first fireworks in America, but NOW I will always always remember this day for this. Talking about my father is the hardest thing for me to do—and how could I be here just one week and feel safe to say it all to you and Margaret?

“It reminds me, my grandmother—my mother’s mother—sent me a message when I was getting ready to come here. In it she said, ‘Don’t you worry, Fernando. You will find a beautiful family to be your family in America. I have seen them, and they are so good. You will be blessed.’ I do not know how she says these things, but I believed them when she told me. But I did not think I would find my family so soon.”

Well, by now we were all three teary-eyed and over-tired. So we exchanged hugs and went to bed. It was a bit more fireworks than any of us anticipated.

Fernando had mentioned earlier in the evening, at the end of his tale, that despite his suffering through the years about his absent father, that he had learned to use it as a source of empathy for others. So have I. Now, I will not say that all suffering bears a gift. But often it can. If you allow it.

Fernando is here on a fellowship to do research in cardiac physiology. He likes to say a bit cheekily, “I have come here to learn how to mend a broken heart.”

Who would’ve guessed it might be his own.

* * *

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

This entry was posted on July 5, 2022. 2 Comments

A Modest Defense of Self-Immolation

A Modest Defense of Self-Immolation
David R. Weiss – June 3, 2022

Usually when I finish a piece, I am eager to post it for others to read.
I finished this piece 18 days ago. Draw your own conclusions.

I know, it’s a rather alarming title, but I need to begin first with a confession before I get to the real subject. I truly enjoy writing the memoirish pieces I occasionally post on my blog, wrapping the stories of myself and my family in (hopefully) equal measures of honesty and grace. These pieces are a gift, to myself, my family, and often (from the feedback I receive) to others.

But there is, in fact, more than that. My decision to write the truth of my life as fully and faithfully as I can seeks not only to integrate myself but also, and just as importantly, it helps anchor and cultivate relationships that can be real and authentic—some present and some yet to be. Such truth-telling is the ground in which solidarity can grow. And solidarity—the capacity to stand with and for another across difference—is made possible by story. It primes the imagination for empathy. Thus, this writing matters.

But here’s the confession. Sometimes I do this writing because, even when I’m plumbing the anguish of my mom’s dementia or the fraught history I have with my children or the yawning sense of incompleteness I find in my own life arc—even then, this is the least painful writing that calls my name.

I have so many hard words to write in my future. More than you … maybe more than I … can imagine. These familial sketches soothe the restless writhing over what must also be put into words soon enough. In memoir, I mend my past and present. But there are words waiting in the wings that aim to wreak havoc on the future. Although “wreak” gives me too much credit. I am simply to intone the next acts in our planetary apocalypse. It is a task that I dread.

Also, a task to which I feel called.

And it is just possible that these two tasks, truth-telling about oneself and truth-telling about our planet (and our collective place on it) may be twin revolutionary deeds that point the way to a precarious tomorrow … “precarious” being the best of all possible worlds still available to us.

That’s the confession: some of my richest writing serves at least partly as a distraction from my most necessary work.

Today that necessary work involves a modest defense of self-immolation. (Self-immolation is the act of dousing oneself with a flammable liquid and then setting oneself on fire with the intent to sacrifice one’s life to the flames in a fiery gesture of anguish and/or protest.)

I’m thinking most specifically of the April 22, 2022 self-immolation by Wynn Bruce, a 50-year-old Colorado man who set himself on fire on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. He died of his burns the next day. News reports say he left no statement explaining his action, but his years as a climate activist, his regular participation at a Buddhist Ecodharma (eco-teaching) Retreat Center, the timing of his act—on Earth Day, and a handful of social media posts suggest this was an act planned well in advance and seemingly born of concern-grief-empathy for life itself.

This is the self-immolation I have in mind. So, I’ll say this up front (but I’ll repeat it along the way as well): I do not encourage, endorse, or support acts of self-immolation. I DON’T. And yet, I feel the need to offer a modest defense of it because it is easily mischaracterized, especially in the media, and it actually matters that we reckon with it for what it is, rather than dismiss or criticize it for what it isn’t.

Self-immolation is not suicide; at least not as typically conceived. To call it suicide (as has happened in news reports and commentary) misrepresents it at a fundamental level.

I do not wish to negatively “judge” the morality of suicide here. I’m simply arguing the distinction matters. Suicide is an act to end one’s life on account of abject despair, often due to some form of mental-physical-emotional distress or pain, or the perceptive of such. I’m not concerned with deciding whether suicide as such is ever “right” or justified. However you morally assess it, you can describe it as an act of the willful disintegration of oneself, an act undertaken, whether impulsively or after long reflection and planning, in the conviction that life as it is (or is perceived to be) is no longer worth living.

In stark contrast to this, self-immolation is a deeply terrifying act because it is made in the profoundly paradoxical and perhaps near-mystic conviction that life IS worth living—and is nevertheless in this act being surrendered.

Paul Tillich (in Dynamics of Faith, 1957) described faith as the active orientation of the self with reference to one’s “ultimate concern” (which might be a supreme value, but for Tillich was God). In this context, he asserted that faith is the very act of self-integrationthe act of becoming a (more) whole person by moving toward deeper alignment with one’s ultimate concern.

Self-immolation is exactly that. Terrifyingly so.

And when it’s named as suicide, the existential-moral-religious terror that is at its core (for both the actor and the rest of us) is erased. If anything, self-immolation might be called an act of prophetic suicide, which is to suggest that the point of reference is not the self—or the self’s pain—but the larger community, the Earth itself … or even God—or God’s pain.

I don’t doubt that there are suicides driven by climate despair, an irrepressible sense of “doomism.” It is unquestionably a moral tragedy—and atrocity—that we live in an era when abject despair is, arguably, a rational response to our current planetary crisis. It is surely not the only rational response, but it is one. Still, self-immolation does not reflect “doomism,” and when it’s reduced to an act of climate despair, we belittle it. Worse, we deaden ourselves to the response it ought to elicit in us.

Listen, we are in full blown ecological crisis. Now. We are in real danger of “total societal collapse”—which, by the way, is the term employed in a paper published by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction as part of the 2022 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR2022). The report uses a planetary boundaries model that tracks how human activity is disrupting nine different Earth systems that jointly maintain the “safe operating space” in which human society has developed.

Unfortunately—which is a planet-sized understatement—we have exceeded the “safety zone” on four of nine boundaries: we’ve severely disrupted (perhaps altogether ruptured) their ability to help preserve the planet’s ability to sustain us … and other species. Four of nine. And (pending data analysis) we’re likely to have crossed two more safety thresholds as of last summer. SIX OF NINE. And, because these boundaries interact with each other, supporting or destabilizing the other boundaries, we might cross all nine of them within the decade. We are coming unmoored. At the planetary level.

The UN paper puts it this way [editorial asides are mine]: “In the absence of ambitious [read: politically imprudent] policy and near global adoption and successful implementation [read: a snowball’s chance in hell], the world tends toward the global collapse scenario.” As Earth systems buckle, human social systems—from food supply to national political discourse to global cooperation, to civil unrest and violence—in turn strain and tear. And these stresses reinforce each other in cross-systems’ feedback that threatens to escalate all the way to “total societal collapse.” Oof.

Of course, there is always a thin ray of hope we can cling to. The GAR2022, like every other UN report, assures us (however dire its initial warnings) that there are steps we can take to avert the worst of this. Yet that very hope stalls our response. We think, “If it’s still possible, then I have a little more time to maintain my life as it is.”

But, about this recent GAR2022 (released in May), one senior advisor and contributor to the report asserted (anonymously to a British news source) that the GAR2022 was “watered-down before public release.” That the world has, in fact, “passed a point of no return.” That “the [final] GAR 2022 is an eviscerated skeleton of what was included in earlier drafts.” OOF.

This is our world—our entire lifescape. Right now. And it will be our children’s inheritance.

yes, there are absolutely steps we can take to lessen the severity of a worst-case scenario. Quit building pipelines. Practice gratitude—daily. Imagine radical sharing (then practice it). Drive less. Learn to garden. Make friends (across differences!). Stop flying (I’m serious). Study nonviolence. Stop eating meat. Treasure nonmaterial abundance. Create deep community in your neighborhood or church. And there are more. Concrete steps that can lessen the enormous suffering (which is headed our way no matter what) and anchor our humanity amid the coming tumult. I’ll say it again, because we don’t seem to understand this, so long as we hold out hope that somehow our politicians or some new technology is going to turn this thing around, we will find ourselves waiting a little bit longer to get truly serious.

And if we’re honest, our response thus far, over the fifty years we’ve known about the threat of global warming, from global agreements to national policies to community models to consumer choices—given that our entire lifescape is at risk—has been purely pathetic. It’s inaccurate even to say that we’re living on borrowed time. We’re on stolen time. Time stolen from other species, from entire ecosystems, from whole generations—including the very next one, that is, the little ones we cradle in our arms and tuck into bed at night right now. Their time. Stolen as we speak.

It is against this backdrop that I need to offer a modest defense of self-immolation.

I do not encourage, endorse, or support it. But I understand it. When you look without blinking at the damage we have done to the biosphere, when you hold open your heart to the wounds of all living things on account of human choices … on account of human systems that operate with inertia even beyond our individual choices, when you attend to the compassionate (pain-bearing) presence of God in the midst of the world that God loves—and when you grasp the radical indifference of the industrial human world to all this—of course your soul might choose to bear witness by becoming a searing fireball of grief-agony-compassion-truth.

To be very clear, self-immolation is NOT celebrated or encouraged within the Buddhist tradition. It is a very complicated topic. Wynn Bruce’s own circle of Buddhist friends have voiced both their respect and their grief for his actions—and they have been honest about not knowing the state of his mind or his full intention. Still, I do not believe such an act is properly called suicide. Or that it is an act of doomist despair. It is, rather, an attempt to bear searing witness to the agonizing truth of this moment. We are out of time. Earth is out of time. God is out of time.

It is absolutely possible to face a harrowing future by choosing to be fully human and fully alive. So, if I wish to respond to Wynn Bruce’s self-immolation in a way attends to its heart-wrenching witness while simultaneously seeking to prevent others from feeling called to such acts, I will redouble my own efforts to recognize and embrace the Earth-suffering truth he knew while also pursuing as many of the steps named above as vigorously as I can.

A modest defense. What I can say immodestly is that the time to embrace life in all its fragile urgency is now, now, now. With nothing held back. Because ALL of our tomorrows hinge on this one singular today.

* * *

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 June 21, 2022. 1 Comment

Norman Gottwald: On God (YHWH) as the Justice Between Us

Norman Gottwald: On God (YHWH) as the Justice Between Us
David R. Weiss – June 17, 2022

This past spring Hebrew Bible scholar Norman Gottwald died at the age of 95. In the June 1 issue of Christian Century Walter Brueggemann (himself 89 and an acclaimed Hebrew Bible scholar) wrote that Gottwald was “the most important and influential Old Testament scholar of the 20th century in the United States.” That may be true in the academy and indirectly in the seminary, but I’m betting Gottwald—and his work—is mostly unknown in the pews.

It’s true that Gottwald’s scholarship is intimidating. At nearly 1000 pages, his 1979 classic The Tribes of Yahweh is least of all light reading. But his core insight, lifted up in Brueggemann’s remembrance, belongs in church pews today more than ever. I’ll get to that.

First, a note on the man and his method. Long before it became standard to “position oneself” by acknowledging the identities and agendas that (inevitably!) impact our worldviews and our work, Gottwald argued that we ought to “own up to our ideological investments” (The Politics of Ancient Israel, 2001) in order to promote vibrant and insightful critical dialogue rather than falsely pretend that any of us write and speak from nowhere in particular. And he was deeply invested: in anti-nuclear campaigns in the late 50’s, and in free speech, feminism, anti-Vietnam War, and racial justice, as well as more local concerns in Berkeley (where he taught for nearly two decades). Even after he retired from teaching he worked on causes like immigration, globalization, health care, and labor through the Democratic Socialists of America. Gottwald was thoroughly immersed in following the prophet Micah’s injunction to “do justice, chase mercy, and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8).

Gottwald’s personal-political investment in this work in his own life gave him a particular edge in excavating the dynamics of power often hidden between the lines of the biblical text. Drawing on sociology, economics, and archeology—and aided by his embrace of Marxist analysis—he read the story of ancient Israel with fresh—and revolutionary—insight. Some of his conclusions remain points of debate today, but many of them—including his method, while controversial at first, have become consensus positions among scholars. (Hence Brueggemann’s accolade.)

Still, much of Gottwald’s work remains buried in the church. Both because we woefully underestimate the capacity and interest(!) of adult lay people to entertain and embrace adult ideas about their own faith tradition. There is some truth to this. (See if you don’t feel a bit alarmed and defensive by the “adult ideas” I offer below.) But perhaps even more so because these adult ideas are almost incendiary in application. I’m coming back to that.

Here, in its most concise form, is Gottwald’s perspective on the origin of ancient Israel.

In the period from 1250-1050 BCE the land of Canaan was ruled by scattered city-states that were vassal states in Egypt’s empire. These Canaanite states paid their necessary tribute to Egypt and enriched their own elite by ruthlessly exploiting the peasants within their realms. During this critical two-century period, various groups of peasants revolted and fled (making a mini-Exodus of sorts) from the lowlands controlled by the city-states to the more remote highlands, where they founded something of a network of counter-Canaanite communities.

These communities actively sought to reject the oppressive politics/economics of Canaan by embracing egalitarian agrarian practices and, when necessary, mutual aid to one another. They also actively rejected Canaanite religion and embraced (which is really to say, gave birth to) monotheistic Yahwism. These “communitarian” tribes (Gottwald’s term) eventually merged into Israel. They were comprised of people with overlapping but not identical lineages. They came to regard themselves as a single people because of the shared conditions from which they escaped and the shared religious story they developed to explain their past and chart their future.

Thus, Gottwald said (and many scholars now agree) much of Israel’s early narrative from Abraham through the Exodus and settling in the Promised Land is “foundational myth” more than even oral history. It represents less stories passed down through generations, and more tales creatively generated to unite disparate peoples into a common narrative which could become theirs to co-create on the far side of oppression. There may have been some enslaved people who came all the way from Egypt and joined in this venture, but, given Canaan’s status as a region under Egypt’s thumb, it is just as possible that these origin myths projected a more localized rebellion/escape onto a larger canvas for its obvious dramatic and thereby unitive power.

Hardly the tale we’ve grown up telling ourselves. Or, more accurately we’ve told the foundational myth as if it were history. But there is plenty of sociological, archeological, even textual evidence to suggest otherwise. Welcome to biblical history … for adults.

Now to the edge of incendiary. As Brueggemann observes, Gottwald came to understand that in Canaan the religion of Baal and the politics of oppression were fully entangled and mutually reinforcing. Baal served to justify, endorse, practically demand (“practically” in both senses: “nearly” and “in practice”) the social hierarchy and exploitive conditions under which the pre-Israelites suffered. Thus, to escape these conditions was to escape that god.

But what people could escape their bondage if ordained by a deity—unless another stronger deity championed their liberation? This is tricky here. Because it raises the question of whether Yahweh “existed” as a deity before these peasants revolted and escaped, or did Yahweh “come to be” in these peoples’ flight to freedom? The question is profoundly theological, inasmuch as the name itself (YHWH) connotes the capacity to “cause to be,” perhaps in the very sense that Yahweh might cause these people, heretofore enslaved, to be a people in their own right.

Indeed, José Miranda, a Mexican liberation theologian writing in the 1970’s, notes that YHWH, (the Hebrew “name” God offers to Moses at the burning bush), can be rendered as either present tense—“I am who I am”—or future tense—“I will be who I will be.” It’s the same word; the tense is determined by context. Miranda argues, based on the string of future commitments God makes to Moses as part of this self-declaration (“I will bring you out … I will deliver you … I will redeem you … I will take you … I will be … I will bring you into … I will give it to you … ” Exodus 6:6-8) that it only makes sense to render YHWH also as future tense. And he suggests very provocatively that in this scene God makes their own ‘godness’ contingent upon God’s ability to deliver liberation. If, as Gottwald suggests, the Moses’ tale is created as part of how the Israelites account for their very existence as a people, it is possible that this God lived only in their most audacious, hopeless, desperate inklings until they acted toward freedom.

I say “incendiary” to hearken back to the burning bush … and to wonder what it might mean if bushes were to burn in our sanctuaries today. Brueggemann quotes Gottwald to call out his core theological insight in fairly dense verbiage: “The loosely federated egalitarian tribalism of Israel was symbolized and institutionalized at the most comprehensive level by a common cultic-ideological allegiance to mono-Yahwism. Far from being an eccentric, cultic component of Israel’s life or an arbitrary ornament on the main body of society, mono-Yahwism was a form-giving, energy-releasing reality.” In other words, as Brueggemann “translates”: “YHWH is inescapably and integrally linked to economic fairness.”

Far from reducing God to a necessary character in Israel’s tale of liberation, Gottwald viewed the process of liberation and the establishment of communities of economic justice as both the conditions under which Yahweh could come to be—AND the “energy-releasing reality” that made those very conditions possible. One does not proceed the other. They co-originate and mutually reinforce each other. God IS the presence of material justice in Israel’s life … and when that justice fractures, so does God.

Brueggemann connects Gottwald’s insight to our present moment, calling on churches to engage in truth-telling regarding “our predatory economic system, which produces and sustains poverty through cheap labor,” and to articulate “an alternative way that will yield neighborly abundance.”

These words are so true, but they stop a bit short of being incendiary. So let me light them on fire. The truth is the vast majority of us (white Americans, at least) are active (even if sometimes reluctant) participants in that predatory system. Our lives are allegiant to Baal, even if we weekly put Yahweh’s name on our lips. If we wish to do the truth-telling that is necessary to authentic biblical faith, we will need to speak from within the swirling vortex of economic justice coming-to-be.

Which is to say that short of real reparations in some form for the stolen land and stolen labor on which our lives sit, we are still living in Canaan and there is no speaking of God. Whatever we do on Sunday morning, it does not place us in living relationship with the “form-giving, energy-releasing reality” of God—except as we undo the generations of oppression and “make justice roll down like mighty waters” (Amos 5:24).

The biblical God and material justice are a package deal. We embrace them both. Or we know neither. For Norman Gottwald the choice was both—borne out in his scholarship and in his life. Because his work is still so unknown in the pews, my fear is that most Christians have never even faced the choice. Well, now the burning bush is right here in front of us. Both in Gottwald’s work and in the cries for justice round about. May we choose justice and see how brightly the flames of God take hold of our shared life.

Sources:

Roland Boer, “Norman Gottwald: A Pioneering Marxist Biblical Scholar,” Monthly Review Online, published April 10, 2011, accessed June 16, 2022, https://mronline.org/2011/04/29/norman-gottwald-a-pioneering-marxist-biblical-scholar/.

Walter Brueggemann, “Faith Seeking Economic Justice,” Christian Century, 139, no. 11 (June 1, 2022): 14-15.

Kevin Carson, “The Children of Israel,” Center for a Stateless Society, published on February 16, 2014, accessed June 16, 2022, https://c4ss.org/content/24630.

José Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1974), 293-297.

* * *

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.

The Moreness of God – on Trinity Sunday

Sermon – David R. Weiss – June 12, 2022
Pilgrim Lutheran Church, St. Paul, MN
Texts: Psalm 8, Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and John 16:12-15

So, it’s Trinity Sunday, and I must confess, I’m not much interested in reflecting on the sacred mystery of the godhead: three persons in one divinity … whatever that means.

Like you, I am reeling from the rising gun violence in our country—and our seeming inability, either politically or culturally—to stem access to assault weapons or our love affair with violence.

Like you, I am torn over the racial injustice, the roots of white supremacy that reach everywhere in our society, our synods, our lives—and our determination to change the subject rather than repent.

Like you, I am transfixed (all over again) by the spectacle of January 6, the fragility of our democracy, and the rising threat of authoritarian white “Christian” nationalism that seems hellbent on making America “great” again by erasing voting rights, reproductive rights, and pursuing a xenophobic assault manner of civil rights.

Like you, I am anguished and terrified at the planetary crises (climate and so much more) that are ready to unravel the only world we have ever known—already in our lifetime and echoing across the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

And we’re here to talk about how the unseen dynamics of divinity itself are inter-related, three yet one—not three gods, but neither one simple God, but a sacred mystery?

Trinity Window, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Liege, Belgium

I don’t think so. Unless—

Unless that holy mystery somehow addresses the anxiety and injustice and outrage of this precarious moment.

Here is a long sweep of history overly simplified, but condensed to get us to where we need to be.

The Bible nowhere lays out an explicit doctrine of the Trinity. It doesn’t even very effectively hint at it. Even in John’s gospel, which is sort of a prequel to the doctrine, you get words stumbling around as they do in today’s reading, making as much nonsense as real sense if we actually attend to them.

What the Bible does hint at is a Moreness to God. An alluring complexity beyond understanding.

In the reading from Proverbs we have an attempt to name how divinity drips and dances, laughs and delights throughout creation. Personified as Wisdom, an attribute of God or a partner with or within God, the energy of the sacred spills into the world as pattern, beauty, system, purpose.

Across the New Testament we encounter a multitude of voices that wrestle with the astonishing reality of Jesus. A person who seemed more fully human than was humanly possible. Not because of some halo above his head, but on account of his ministry at the margins, his redeeming welcome to outcasts, his boundary-breaking bread-breaking—his very gritty embodiment of grace.

On account of his ministry—and then his shattering death, and then his wholly unexpected ability to regather his followers into the church—these voices are compelled to wonder, how then do we speak of Jesus?

John’s gospel finds a dozen different ways to wonder whether somehow the Divinity behind all that is, the Divinity that spilled over creation, the effervescent Moreness of God, was deeply present in Jesus.

It fell to the early church fathers to debate, argue, accuse, and condemn one another until the first official “doctrine” was developed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and refined over the next hundred years or so. A refinement ongoing still.

But for all of the ink spilled and insults hurled and condemnations declared, Augustine, who wrote an entire book on the doctrine, comes closest to the truth when he remarked that finally the Trinity is a fence around a mystery. It speaks the Moreness of God, but it hides as much as it reveals. Ultimately, all our words fall short.

This much we can say: the mystery behind the fence is Love. Anything more—mapping the respective roles of the Three Persons, their exact relationship to each other, and the manner by which they are at once Three yet One—any of that is rampant speculation. Distraction. It pretends that human intellect can apprehend the inner workings of God.

The Truth is that naming God as Trinity—even as the words themselves twist in the Wind—simply says that the very ground of God is love. Divinity itself is not solitary because love is not solitary. Somehow—and this is the fence, not the mystery itself—somehow Divinity is multiple-yet-undivided: such that the very ground of holiness is love-flowing-in-community. The words barely do it justice. We come to the edge of God, and it is as though we sense a blazing brightness just beyond—or an absolute darkness that can’t be pierced—or a rushing wind—or a complete stillness. And all we truly know is that this which is Beyond us is full of love for all that is.

Everything else is speculation or distraction. But this small glimmer is enough.

We used to think that if we traced material reality all the way down, we could find tiny individual pieces: molecules, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons. That ultimately the universe was comprised of the tiniest bits of stuff, pulled apart. Each alone.

But what we have come to understand is that even material reality at its most basic is relationship. No thing exists apart from its boundness to everything else. If we try to put it into words we might say, the very baseline of all that is, is bubbling, gurgling, dancing, unfolding relationship.

The doctrine of Trinity suggests the same about divinity. It is not solitary; it is bubbling, gurgling, dancing, unfolding relationship. It is love longing to immerse itself in creation … including humanity. Anything more than this … is behind the fence. But this tells us plenty.

Still, in the gospel reading Jesus says, “I have much more to tell you … but you can’t bear to hear it now.

Can we bear to it today?

Given the guns and white supremacy, the threat of authoritarian white “Christian” nationalism and the multiple crises of our own making that threaten Earth’s capacity to host life. Can we bear to hear the “more” that Jesus has to tell us TODAY?

This passage suggests that this “more” comes not simply from Jesus, but from the whole swirling Moreness of God. The Holy Energy at the Heart of All That Is wants to reveal Truth, Jesus says, to you (plural). The Divine Community longs to pour Itself/Themself, not simply into one another, not simply into creation, not simply into Jesus, but into human community, into the church.

What might this mean—and how might it be good news for us today?

I’ll suggests four things that this swirling Moreness of God means for church today.

First, despite our attachment to tradition and preference for certainty, the church as holy community is always and especially now emergent. That is, it unfolds fresh into each moment, because that’s how divine energy moves among Itself/Themself and into and among us.

This involves both more ambiguity and more audacity than we can comfortably bear.

More ambiguity—because emergent means that none of the deep injustices or dangerous human impulses or profound ecological perils before us have quick or easy answers. Whether or not they can even be resolved depends on a host of decisions not yet made. In some way, faithfulness to Love in this present moment is all we really have. And faithfulness will be what opens up possibilities in the future. Regardless of how precarious that future is. (And “precarious” is soon to be a synonym for “future.”)

More audacity—because while the early church and most of the Christian tradition rushed to reserve divinity-in-humanity exclusively for Jesus, there is zero biblical evidence that Jesus felt the same way. If anything, there are plenty of hints to the contrary: that Jesus is counting on us to become vessels of divine energy, bearers of the Moreness of God into this world. This doesn’t mean we replace Jesus. It means we extend his reach into the realms where we live today. That’s some audacity.

Emergent. Ambiguity. Audacity.

Second, affirming the outpouring Moreness of God means acknowledging a God-drenched kinship with all that is—alluded to in Proverbs 8. And it means renouncing the aspirations in Psalm 8 to rule over creation or imagine that God has set it beneath our feet. What may have been innocent words of praise 3000 years ago, became an ecocidal delusion in the last centuries and decades.

There is an alienation afoot in our psyches that has had damning consequences for our world and our life in community. There is no quick cure—but the Moreness of God, should we dare to take it seriously, tells us that every corner of this world, every type of flora and fauna, every river and every landscape, every yard and garden … holds family. It’s time to embrace our long-lost kin and remember that we are home. Here on Earth.

God-drenched kinship.

Third, inasmuch as the doctrine of the Trinity sets shared life at the very center of God-ness, and inasmuch as this shared life longs to pour Itself/Themself into our life, this means that our life as members of a holy community will be shaped deeply—and in stark contrast to the world as it is today—by radical sharing.

The culture of individualism and nationalism, personal status and private ownership, are antithetical to the Divine Life longing to be in us. What does such sharing look like? It emerges. Start small. Somewhere between ambiguity and audacity, between universal kinship and your particular place there is a sweet spot. Start there and grow.

Radical sharing.

Fourth, and held for last because this one is hard. Prepare to die. NOW HOLD ON. I don’t mean it like that. I mean it like this. A whole host of our human brokenness (maybe most of it), from interpersonal sin to ecological assault, is rooted in our refusal to acknowledge that the Wisdom celebrated in Proverbs, the Divine Compassion so fully present in Jesus, fashioned a finite world of infinite beauty … and placed us within its finitude.

We are created within the web of this life, and that web is tearing today because we insist on ignoring Earth’s limits as though they are not also our limits, and amassing stuff (rather than relationships) as the measure of meaning. Listen, this is not only ecocidal behavior, it’s heretical behavior. It sets us out to be God, rather than to be among the finite vessels through which God flows.

Our uniqueness in creation is not that we alone share in Divine life; God pours godself over and into all creation. Our distinction is that (so far as we know) we are uniquely endowed with intellect and self-consciousness, with empathy and spirit, sufficient to savor the way that God’s infinite Love dances across finitude with such wisdom and joy.

In this regard, John’s gospel is noteworthy for its concept of “realized eschatology.” Fancy words that mean, in John’s gospel, eternal life is not life after death; it is infinitely deep life beginning now. It is life flourishing in the fullness of relationships: with God, with one another, and with the world. For John, this IS eternal life. It is life lived in full awareness of finitude and without fear.

Finitude without fear. That will be hard, but it is the fullness of our faith.

There is a Song singing Itself in the Universe. It is the Song of Wisdom and Pattern, Beauty and Joy, the Song of unfolding Love. We are not the author of that song. It began long before us and it will continue long after we are gone from here, drawn back into the Song Itself.  

But here, now, in this oh so precarious moment, our joy, our purpose, our greatest thrill is to learn THAT song and to add our voices and to discover what emerges when we do.

Amen.

* * *

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 is us

This is us
David R. Weiss – June 6, 2022

The image—evocatively rendered in batik: burnt orange, deep maroon, white, and black—shows two persons, arms wrapped around one another, on a path in front of a house: the prodigal son and the father. Their wordless embrace is the only evidence offered (or needed) of reconciliation hoped for—and extended.

I know it’s a static picture, resting on the top shelf of the bookcase at the end of the hallway in my childhood home, but it still somehow elicits wonder: that they have held each other in this mutual sustained hug for close to forty years, ever since I gave the fabric piece to my dad as a gift in the mid-eighties.

No less the wonder: it is an image of us.

As a child, Dad and I had a fraught relationship. Mostly quite good—I don’t mean to imply otherwise—but the fierceness of our love, the uniqueness of our gifts and temperaments, and the stubbornness of our characters moved across our lives like tectonic plates, screeching at times. Outright quaking at others. Alongside the laughter and tenderness, which was abundant, there were more childhood fireworks between Dad and me than with my other three sibling combined.

The worst of these conflicts reached “Mom-level,” when, late in the evening Dad and I found ourselves brought to the kitchen table, often both drenched in anger and at the edge of tears, while Mom played peacemaker between us. Most days Mom was the cheery wallpaper in our home, the behind-the-scenes busyness that kept us fed and clothed and bathed and bedded. So fully present in the rhythm of our days you might mistake her for the rhythm, itself. But on these nights, Mom stepped off the wall, out from behind the scenes, and implored-cajoled us from arch enemies back into father-son again.

By high school and college our conflicts were more subtle but no less pitched. Fewer all out display of fireworks, but my burgeoning social idealism interwoven with my increasingly radical Christian faith regularly considered Dad’s middle class Christian values—and found them wanting.

This was still, I believe, the measure of my love: that what I knew to be ideal and faithful in my mind must surely be found in my dad as well. Except it wasn’t. By now my words were a force to be reckoned with. Dad was thoughtful and deeply principled, but he lived in a world bounded by tradition and reality. Our differences—now manifest in charged debates—were grounded only partially in differing principles and much more so in the chasm between our learning, our lived experiences, and our owned responsibilities (that is, his many and my few). But I routinely narrowed the differences down to “right” OR “wrong” and left little doubt about which of us paired with each descriptor. Although I always hoped he would join me in being “right.”

For his part, one innocent well-intended reply from my dad instead became an unrelenting echo of self-doubt that chased me for decades. One night at the supper table, Dad asked both Don (then a senior) and me (a sophomore) if we had thoughts on possible careers. Don voiced interest in pharmacy, which Dad affirmed as a worthy goal, requiring good math and science, both of which Don had. He eventually made numbers his first love, becoming an accountant. Until numbers were displaced by bourbon, and he became an alcoholic instead. (But that’s another tale.)

After Don’s response, Dad inquired of me. With genuine excitement—even a dawning sense of purpose—I declared my aspiration to be a writer. Dad “gently” redirected his question: “Well, that’s a fine hobby to have, but I was asking about what you might like to do for a living.” The words were spoken in love (as were my far less gentle words of debate!), but they crushed me. Not so much in casting doubt on my love of words or my skill as a writer—those were unquestioned by me—but that Dad could not himself see my writing as vocation, could not affirm the joy-in-my-gut that writing brought me, this was a yawning absence that took up residence in my soul, a phantom taunting me at every vocational turn for decades.

We each wanted the best for the other. We so seldom delivered. [Aside: Today Dad is among the most enthusiastic and generous supporters of my writing.] The terrain of our love was fraught. I don’t think either of us could see it whole at the time. We were each so wholly invested in our half of that shared world. Mom saw it, whole and broken. (But that also is another tale.)

During my seminary years we reached a truce of sorts. The distance between Dad’s more conventional views and my far more progressive (albeit mostly armchair) values was as great as ever. But Dad had come to a place of grudging respect for my driven thoughtfulness, even if he wasn’t going to own my values as his own. And I had learned (inwardly at least) a measure of humility, as I found myself surrounded by seminary professors and peers whose values proved actually closer to my dad’s than to mine. Even more than this, I found myself cross-examined by my own adulthood: challenged to do the very calculus I asked of my dad just a few years earlier—to make the leap from professed commitments to profoundly risky life choices.

I blinked. Repeatedly. And while I never moderated my values, I stopped wielding them as the measure of my dad as I wrestled with whether even I could measure up to them.

That’s when this picture dates from. It was a gift to my dad during this interlude of restless peace. We were both (from our differing perspectives) impatient with me. I went to seminary three years. At the end of each year, I quit. Wracked by uncertainty about vocation, driven by demanding ideals, but at a loss for how to embody them. In that moment I gave this picture as a gift to my dad in the sincere and innocent (read: foolish) belief that our differences were behind us and that this imaged embrace could be us from now on.

Less than two years later our lives heaved and fractured and the only embrace between us was the bare suggestion of one in batik on the wall of his apartment in Cleveland. Every life is a tale comprised of so many influences left and right, above and below, outward and within, that indeed every paragraph should admit “but that’s another tale” again and again. (And so, Cleveland is one among of trove of tales right here.)

Suffice to say that in a period of less than a year I quit seminary for a third and final time. My dad’s job was relocated from Michigan City to Cleveland, Ohio (300 miles and 5 hours away from home for the final several years of his career). Then, in rapid succession, I got married, moved from Denver to Oklahoma and then to Madison, and announced both a pregnancy and the intent to file for divorce (this last was announced before the child was even born). It was more upheaval (in real life and in values) than he could endure.

For five months I was “dis-owned”: told not to write or call; unwelcome at home if Dad was there; not even to be named in conversation within his earshot. It was a breach brought about by that same fraught love that framed our lives from early on. It reflected as much (likely more) the anguish he felt at everything, as any anger he might have spoken. But after a lifetime of laughter and fireworks and debates (and even truce), five months of absolute silence between us was absolute terror.

Ben’s baptism at six weeks old was the last marital deed his mom and I did (other than signing the document to dissolve the marriage altogether a few months later). Within 48 hours of the water splashing his tiny forehead with grace, his mother and I bid bittersweet farewells and she left for Denver with Ben strapped in a car seat behind her.

My parents were both at the baptism. It was the first time Dad and I were within 250 miles of each other in five months. I learned later from Mom that it was the tears Dad saw me weep at the baptism that day that finally softened his heart; he sensed the immensity of my hurt even though he could not fathom the resolve of my decision. A second, unannounced, moment of wet grace. If the picture was given to my dad about two years earlier, the truth of the image dates in fact, from August 8, 1987, the date of Ben’s baptism. We barely spoke to one another that day, navigating the hurt that moved mutually between us with infinite care, as though any wrong move might undo everything.

Countless tales lie untold between then and now. But for thirty-five years that batik embrace has held our lives. Tentatively at first, to be sure. With an awkward occasion now and then. But the terror of those five months of absolute apartness chastened both of us, and without ever vocalizing it aloud, we both vowed never to let our ideals or our comprises with reality or our stubbornness or our remaining differences to put us beyond the reach of the other’s outstretched arms.

Indeed, that picture is the image of us: decades long into a mutual, sustained, mostly silent hug.

It is perhaps no wonder that I reflect mostly on my mom these days. My relationship with her was never fraught. She seemed to intuitively understand me in those moments over the years when my words failed me. And, more than my dad, she was eager to honor my gift of words. Indeed, until Alzheimer’s began to steal her words and her focus, Mom and I regularly talked the night away.

Alas, now it is Mom’s relationship with everyone—including Dad—that is fraught. Complicated in unforeseen ways and without hope of resolution. Each of us three surviving kids (Don died in 2004, another tale) has our own journey alongside Mom. Dad’s journey, as husband-caregiver, best friend-near stranger, is most complicated of all.

When I’m in Michigan City, Mom is mostly silent (except for asking what day it is, or announcing her intent to play solitaire, or asking for another car ride …) so Dad and I carry the conversation. We cover politics and sports, even church with relative ease these days. But the terrain of the heart, in which Mom and I were fluent, when we reach there, Dad and I are mostly content to hug.

Whether parting in person or ending a phone call, we struggle to say, “I love you.” We don’t struggle with the feeling, but perhaps in deference to the tumult in our past, the words remain strangers to us despite what’s in our hearts. Hence, the simple embrace speaks volumes of a tenderness hard-won across years of fraught love. The image on batik is of the “prodigal” son, but today that word has been erased. This is us: father and son—simply glad for the presence of the other in a life where precarious increasingly carries the day.

We purchased this hug dearly. And even after several decades, neither of us is about to let go.

* * *

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 June 6, 2022. 2 Comments

Driving Mom Crazy

Driving Mom Crazy
David R. Weiss – June 1, 2022

“Is that your red car out there?” asks Mom, looking out the living room window. “Yes it is,” I say, anticipating her next request. “Would you like to take me for a ride?”

This is about her only request these days, but she makes it at least a dozen times a day. (Almost always to Dad; I just happen to be in town for a couple days.)

Dad tries to limit her to two 30-minute rides in the winter when the daylight is short. By summertime, even though Mom rarely rises before noon, she’s hoping for a ride right after her noonish breakfast, again before supper, and again in the evening. And by “hoping,” I mean “demanding,” because she’s pretty relentless. Plus, her memory is so short now, that within 10-15 minutes of finishing one ride, she doesn’t remember it anymore and so is asking, not for the “next one,” but for the last one all over again; as far as she can tell each ride is the first one of the day.

When Dad hears her ask me, he reminds her, as he often does—and with subtle exasperation in his voice, “Carol, you’ve already had three rides today.” “Oh!” she says with a hint of her own exasperation, “I guess I don’t keep track!” An her tone implies that anyone who counts rides must have nothing better to do with their time.

Dad’s exasperation is because he actually does have better things to do than count rides, but he’s interrupted so often by Mom’s requests for rides these days, that counting rides is about all the focus he can muster. Mom, for her part, has nothing better to do with her time than go on rides, because outside of solitaire, which she still plays religiously (although also with frequent rule-bending so the games come out in her favor with uncanny regularity), the comforting sway of a car ride and the passing scenery are the best entertainment in town as far as she can tell.

Anyway, I say, “Sure, Mom, I’ll take you for a ride.” I initially question whether this will only feed the cycle of her requests and further complicates Dad’s life, but I am genuinely happy to drive her around for thirty minutes. Later that night, as we sit on the swing in the back yard, Mom asks me for another ride (which, for her, as I’ve just explained, is always more or less the one she just took and just as quickly forgot) about ten times in a twenty-minute period. She remembers the requests no more than the rides, so my offer isn’t going to increase the number of asks at all. They multiply of their own accord.

“Shall we drive past the lakefront?” This is the usual route that Dad takes her on, although, having lived in Michigan City all 85 of his years, he knows a near infinite set of way to reach the lakefront (and other routes as well) that I can’t even begin to map in my head. So I stick with the familiar.

“Sure,” she says. “I’m not a fan of water [that’s true], your dad likes driving down there.” Also true, although “drive by the lake” appears frequently in her own frequent requests, so I’m not sure if I’m hearing unusual candor on her part today or just an offhand remark to an unusual driver.

As we drive, she asks if she’s ever ridden in my car before—(she has, several times)—and then somewhat dutifully adds, “I probably have, but I don’t remember.” She reads off the street names, with some measure of recognition, then looks around and remarks, “That’s now how I remember it.” But, of course, she doesn’t remember it at all.

As we approach the lake, I mention that I hear the cooling tower for the power plant (not a nuclear plant, but it features the same type of cooling tower), long part of Michigan City’s skyscape, is going to be torn down. “What are you talking about?” she asks. I start to explain, but she cuts me off, “Don’t tell me anymore. I don’t know anything about that, and I don’t want to.”

We ease our way over the bridge as I realize that without a summer park sticker, I won’t be able to drive up past the lakefront itself, but no matter. We roll to a stop at the entrance gate and I confirm that we can avoid the entrance fee by turning immediately to our left and heading back to the exit. On our way we pass the little basin in the marina where Mom took me—and decades later, my son—to feed the ducks. I share this happy memory, but she stops me. “I don’t know anything about that.” Which wasn’t always true, but surely is today.

I tell her about my son, Ben (whom she mothered as an infant when he and his mom lived with my parents for more than a year), the first grandchild who swelled her heart so. She loved each of her six grandchildren, but it’s fair to say that she learned the ropes of grandmotherly love enthusiastically on Ben. Sadly, “loved”—past tense—is also fair to say since she doesn’t remember any of them any longer.

She listens to me talk with mild curiosity. I say he lives in Arizona now. “Have you visited him there?” “Not yet,” I say. And I explain that last year he still lived in California, where my daughter also lives—(“You have a daughter, too?” she asks.)—and that Margaret—(“You’re married?”) and I visited Susanna and Ben and Jess (Ben’s wife) in California last May, but they have moved to Arizona since then. “Oh, you better stop telling me so much. I won’t keep any of that straight.” And she’s right. But I tell anyway her for the joy of retracing the lines of loves that were once the gossamer threads that decorated her heart.

Those threads seem lost to her now, but I retrace them as much for me. Wistfully grieving what isn’t any more by graciously pretending it still might be if only I speak the words just right.

On our way home we skirt the edge of Greenwood Cemetery. “Big cemetery!” she observes. And, at least as Michigan City cemeteries go, she speaks truth. Halfway along the perimeter she adds more quietly, now herself wistfully grieving what isn’t anymore, “I think I have a son in there.” Too much truth. “You do,” I confirm. “And I have a brother in there. Do you remember much about Don?” “No, I just know he’s there.” And what is truer grief than that—to know of a sadness you no longer feel, and yet to name it, perhaps hoping that some echo of its pain might still be found in your soul?

I seize the moment to share a memory or two of my own. “Don was taller and more slender than me. We both took piano lessons, but his fingers were longer and narrower than mine (and I show her my right hand with its comparatively stubby digits), I always hit double keys, but his fingers found each individual key. He could play really good.” “Okay, okay. That’s enough. I don’t need to know anymore.”

Mom inhabits only the present moment these days. And it seems a very crowded and selfish present moment, with little room for anything else.

We’re just half a block from home when she meekly inquires, “Can we just go around the block before going home?” And, of course, we can. We turn past a sign, “Be alert—children at play.” Mom adds, “I think all the children must be out playing out in their backyards.” They clearly are none in sight. I think, but don’t say, “All those children have left by now, just like your memory. The sign is still there, but there’s no front yard or backyard that holds any kids … or any memories these days.”

If you’d seen us pull up together in front of our house, you might’ve thought to herself, “How sweet—the son is in town and has taken his mom for a ride down memory lane.” Sorry, that lane’s not on this map anymore. It’s just me driving Mom—crazy.

But I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

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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 June 1, 2022. 2 Comments

Marketing Millstones

Marketing Millstones
David R. Weiss – May 28, 2022

Like many of you, I’m numb. From grief, horror, disbelief, outrage.

We have become a nation where the lives of innocent ones—most recently, and all too often for more than two decades now, children—are the price we’re willing to pay for unfettered access to weapons designed for carnage.

This is a complicated issue, with many angles to it. So, there will be a “long game” required to effect the policy changes—and the cultural changes—that are needed to make our society safer from gun violence.

Nevertheless, we are so much the global outlier in terms of gun violence and mass shootings that it makes a mockery of American Exceptionalism. This must and can be addressed. Every other nation on the globe has found both the resolve and the means to at least reign in the bloodshed. Anyone who says we can’t fix this, is lying.

But more to the point, our children are dying. They’re being obliterated—identified through DNA swabs because AR-15s are designed to mangle flesh beyond recognition.

And this slaughter of innocents calls for something more immediate than a “long game” (even if it also requires a long game). My humanity—yours, too!—demands of us something NOW. A wave of grief and horror that we allow ourselves to feel all the way to our bones. Absent knowing that truth in our depths how can we act from it? In words of outrage, speaking truth to those still willing to be complicit in this ongoing slaughter.

These are my words, penned to each of Minnesota’s GOP representatives (none of whom represent me, but all of whom continue to vote against gun law reforms in the House).

Dear Representatives Emmer, Fischbach, and Stauber,

Once again we find ourselves as a nation soaked in the blood of innocents, from Buffalo, New York to Uvalde, Texas and so many places beyond. We’ve now had 216 mass shootings (4 or more shot) in the U.S. in 2022 alone, eleven of which have involved mass murders (4 or more killed) (https://www.gunviolencearchive.org).

Other countries have addressed gun violence with FAR more success than we have. It is time to pass far-reaching legislation that bans assault weapons, and requires universal background checks, owner training, and institutes red flag laws. Regardless of what you may choose to do to increase access to mental health services, these types of gun regulation take steps necessary to protect public safety. There is no reading of the Second Amendment that requires the right to gun ownership—at the cost of public safety … at the cost of children’s lives.

In the gospels Jesus’ most dire words are reserved for those who undercut the well-being of children. He does not mince words. He says it would be better for them to have a great millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea than that they succeed in actions that threaten the hope held by children. (Mark 9:42)

Your most sacred duty is at the very least to promote an America in which children are safe. You cannot continue to side-step this duty. Long after your political tenure ends (and perhaps before) your legacy will be judged by your actions—your votes—for or against gun laws that increase the safety of children. In this regard, when the NRA tells you that you cannot ban the type of weapons that require parents to provide DNA swabs in order to identify the shredded bodies of their children, the NRA is marketing millstones. This summer, pick your policy wardrobe carefully—and courageously. You don’t want to be wearing any millstones.

I write as a fellow Minnesotan, father of six and grandfather of nine. I take my Christian faith very seriously, attending worship every Sunday and seeking after justice and mercy every day of the week. It’s in that spirit that I implore you to hear my words and begin aligning your votes with the lives of children instead of the weight of millstones.

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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.

Bite Me: A Brief Tale of Oral Adventure

Bite Me: A Brief Tale of Oral Adventure
David R. Weiss – May 24, 2022

It was the sort of thing that I might’ve swooned over four-and-a-half decades ago. Winsome girl next door offers to introduce me to the joy of oral flecks—for free. Even at age 62 it piqued my curiosity, and I thought, “why not? Heck, maybe Margaret will be game, too …”

So that’s how I came to sample Bite® toothpaste, one of those new fangled chewable toothpaste bits that offers you healthy gleaming teeth … sans the plastic.

“Place one (1) bit in your mouth, bite down, brush with a wet toothbrush—twice a day every day.” Like I said, “bite me.”

Here’s my brief review.

Hmmmmmm. Well, intriguing. A little bit like crunching up a mint Life Savers® and then brushing your teeth with it. Lots of grit (“oral flecks,” get it?). How much do I chew? How fine do I try to grind it? When do I start brushing? How long? These gritty bits aren’t going anywhere! And, the all-important question when it comes to oral flecks: Do I spit or swallow? There are no instructions!

Okay, but is there any afterglow? Well, my mouth feels clean and … satisfied. Does that count? The grit easily rinses out. (Go ahead, color me timid: I chose to spit.) And my teeth feel very clean. It does NOT feel like I just ate candy. So that’s cool. And the minty taste is very subdued: fresh, but not overstated.

So, yeah, I could like me some oral flecks on a regular basis. Except.

Except it’s an investment. At $12/month (it looks like you can get the price down to around $8/month if you buy a 4-month supply at a time) these bits are at least twice the price of our already mildly pricey JĀSÖN® tooth gel. I don’t track how fast we go through a $6 tube, but I know they last the two of us at least two months each, so we’re currently paying about $3/month for greener-than-the-major-brands gel in a tube.

Of course, the point of zero-waste toothpaste is to be plastic-free, not cheap. To take one small step toward breaking our addiction to petroleum-based convenience. (Bite tooth bits come in a small glass jar with a metal lid, both more recyclable than plastic. And you can purchase refills in cardboard packaging.) But am I willing to more than double my teeth care costs (which are already more than double what they could be if I brushed with Colgate – gag!)… just to avoid plastic?

Well, yes.

I’m not sold on Bite®, though. I’ll do some research. I already see Georganics® makes a similar tablet that you can get an 8-month supply for $30. Now we’re in the ballpark of our current budget. Of course, right now, I put a pea-sized bit of gel on my brush about five times a day (look, that’s wake-up, three meals, and bedtime—don’t judge me!). But I know it’s possible to brush with just a wet toothbrush in between to clean things up. And if I’m treating myself to oral flecks first thing in the morning and again at night, that might be just fine. 🙂

So, the search is on. Next question: can I interest Margaret in oral flecks, too. We’ll see!

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