Chrissy—Interrupted

Chrissy—Interrupted
David Weiss, May 8, 2019

She was not the interruption I wanted in my afternoon. But I suppose I asked for it.

After a brutal winter had chased us well into April, I was eager to work outside at the table on the front porch. Spring temperatures and warm sunshine blurred the line between typing and basking. We live on a quieter residential street in St. Paul’s Midway. When I work outside like this I know, at least by sight, most of the people who wander by over an afternoon—they’re my neighbors. She was not a neighbor.

Walking—well, shuffling down the sidewalk in her flip-flops and engaged in an animated conversation with someone who was clearly not beside her, she drew my cautious attention. Cautious, because as a devoted introvert I count on keeping my social interactions on a short leash. Cheery hellos to my neighbors are plenty for me. Chit-chat—even with people I know—tuckers me out. This woman’s energy combined with her mildly disheveled wardrobe of yoga pants, tank top, and sweatshirt looked … dangerous to my inner calm. Thankfully, she was in her own inner world.

Until the clink of an ice cube invited her into mine. She’d already passed our porch immersed in conversation with someone she called “Little boy,” when I took a sip of water from my stainless steel thermos. Hearing the ice cube clink, she whirled around, as if on edge. Turns out she was.

She wanted to talk. I just wanted not to be rude. But eventually I talked, too. It was a rambling exchange. She was anxious because her dope dealer was pressing her for payment. She “always” used on a cash and carry basis, but her dealer had fronted her some meth because she needed it, and now he was out looking for her, and she was at least two weeks from her next paycheck. It probably took five minutes to get that much of a coherent narrative from her. Not that she was incoherent, but every sentence had side streets to it. And her world was so different from mine even our English was barely a shared language.

She lived in a tent down in Mounds Park. I recalled last summer hiking on sunny days through parts of the wooded park where you could see people lived. Her eyes brightened when she described cooking her food over a Coleman stove. She was 43, but looked a decade or more older. Had three grown children; said she was a grandma, too. She had a social worker trying to get her into treatment, and someone else helping her to find housing—she told me their names with a measure of pride. She was going to “turn all this around.” She’d just started a 30-hour/week job at a gas station. Now, anxious over her outstanding meth bill, she was on her way to get her laundry at a nearby laundromat where her son had washed clothes for her. Then she’d take the train and the bus back to her campsite.

Like any of us, she had hopes … and demons. Opportunities and impulses. Hers were just … right out there, a bit more on public display. Her anxiety was palpable, although she was also just hungry—and grateful—for human interaction. We were ten minutes into conversation and she still hadn’t asked for money. I finally asked how much her dope debt was. $40. I’d feared worse, but as an out-of-work religion professor, my wallet was hardly brimming with cash. I explained this, wondering how much I dared give her.

By now we’d exchanged names. And as I pulled a $20, two $10s, and a pairs of $5 from my wallet (cleaning out the rest of our grocery money for the week) Chrissy’s eyes widened in disbelieving joy. I said, “I’m giving you the $40 to clear your debt, so you don’t need to be afraid. The $10 is for the train and a bit of food.”

Her arms and legs—and everything else—was just bouncing with glee. “Can I hug you?” she asked, barely waiting for my Yes, before leaning in to give me a very perfumed and very heartfelt embrace. As she tucked the bills into her bra, she promised to pay me back as soon as she got paid. “You don’t owe me anything,” I said. “Pay it forward, when you can. And do your best to listen to those better notions inside you. There’s a lot of life ahead of you yet. Make it a story you feel good about.”

This was by now a long interruption and I needed to step back into my space, so I said, “Now I’m going to send you on your way with a blessing …” I simply meant, “it’s time to say good-bye,” but she assumed I was going to pray over her. Before I got any further, she’d bowed her head—and clasped my hands, hoping for a bit of holiness—and what could I do except invite the goodness of God into her life? So I did. And then she went on her way. Smiling with joy.

She pretty much danced the rest of the way down the block. Was I foolish to place $50 in her hands? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Even if she doesn’t turn her life around (hell, I’m not sure I’ve even turned my life around!), that afternoon she was walking on air. And I couldn’t believe I’d had the good fortune of being interrupted by Chrissy. Seemed like a good deal. For both of us.

 

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Doubting Thomas … Climate Change and Touching Hope

Doubting Thomas … Climate Change and Touching Hope
David R. Weiss – May 3, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #23 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

If you were in church last Sunday you probably heard the familiar story (John 20:19-29) of “Doubting Thomas.” John places it exactly one week after the original Easter account, and most churches use it as the Gospel text on the first Sunday after Easter. It’s one of those stories that’s so familiar (it’s even given us “Doubting Thomas” as a idiom) that it becomes easy to think we know exactly what it means—until we realize we don’t.

Here’s the way it unfolds in John. On Easter evening the disciples are huddling in fear in an upper room. Suddenly Jesus appears to them. Except Thomas misses it. And when the disciples report it to him afterwards, he replies, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” Sure enough, one week later Jesus appears again, this time with Thomas present, and he invites Thomas to indeed place his fingers into the wounds. He tells Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” (Thereby sealing his nickname for history.[1]) And the scene ends with Jesus seeming to make Thomas an example of how NOT to be: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

It seems pretty straightforward. But consider a couple things.

Nobody in this account believes without seeing, so Thomas gets more than a bit of a bad rap. All the other disciples saw Jesus the first time, so it seems a little unfair to single out Thomas as though he was the only one who needed to see in order for his belief to take hold.

Second, Thomas reacts exactly like any of us would. By now some of us have been so conditioned to believe Jesus was raised from the dead we affirm that without even thinking about it. But how many of us would be as quick to accept a tale told (even by a good friend) about a man who died last week in a near by town, and three days later was seen walking about? How many?! I thought so.

Third, even Thomas, while seemingly scolded for his need to see, still gets to see. But none of us do. And that’s who this passage is really aimed at. John’s gospel was written, at the earliest, around 90 CE (others date it 10, even 20 years later). So John is writing for people living now sixty years after Jesus did. In other words, everybody in John’s audience from his first readers right on through us, is in the same “predicament”: we all have to choose whether to believe or not—without seeing. Which only heightens the tension. Does that mean all John offers us is a scolding of Thomas—who still gets to see—and a “blessing” for the rest of us if we can manage to do better? No.

Which brings us to climate change. It often feels as though the more you know about the dire straits we’re in, the harder it is to muster hope. To actually read the reports and study the science—even as a layperson—well, you begin to feel like those disciples huddled in that upper room. The world as you knew it has ended. And the world opening up in front of you is fringed round about with fear.

For Thomas—who, after all, is our example in this text—the crucial thing is not that he gets to see, but that he gets to touch. And not that he gets to touch the arms, the cheeks, etc.—but the wounds. His hope comes from touching the worst that the world dealt to Jesus and realizing that there is still life to be had.[2]

In a sense this episode in John’s gospel is an “Easter echo” of Jesus’ words in Matthew about “the least of these” (Mt 25:31-46). In that passage Jesus suggests the place where faith is found is precisely in deeds that meet the needs of others: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Here, in John’s gospel it isn’t mere sight that makes resurrection real for Thomas, it’s the tender touch of Jesus’ wounds. And John’s subtle wisdom to us—who can neither see Jesus in our midst nor light at the end of this climate crisis—is that if we wish to believe, it is less an act of will than a deed of compassion that will bring it to pass. Hope lives in the habits we form … provided those habits hold compassion.

This intuition is at the heart of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book, Active Hope,[3] an offering of practical wisdom for meeting this perilous moment. They distinguish between two meanings for hope. The first is hope rooted in likelihood. There’s at least a reasonable chance it will be sunny tomorrow; I sure hope so. That type of hope was beyond the reach of the disciples huddled in the upper room after the crucifixion—and beyond the reach of anyone who wades very far into the current data on climate change. Reasonable likelihood is no longer on the table.

The second meaning has to do with desire, independent of likelihood. The disciples knew he was dead and buried, but even in their fear, they could have told you they wanted him with them once again. So, what do you hope for, for your children? Push “pause” on “now be realistic,” and just ask, “What do you hope for, for them?” Chances are, the answers aren’t buried very deep.

But there’s yet one more distinction to make. When it comes to hope as desire, it can be either passive or active. Passive hope waits for outside forces to bring something to pass. As a result, passive hope can easily feel hopeless. Active Hope is participatory. It’s a deed. Macy and Johnstone call it a practice—a habit of deeds, if you will. They liken it to tai chai: a set of movements that may seem to accomplish very little, but are nonetheless done with focus and intent … and become like water shaping rock. Far from a disposition you try to “have” as a ground your actions, Active Hope begins as an action-by-action habit that eventually grounds our disposition. Perhaps most significantly for us, Active Hope doesn’t presume optimism. It simply asks that you honor the desire of your heart and act with sincere humble focus.

It’s worth being clear: Macy and Johnstone don’t claim Active Hope will turn things around. They do believe it will turn you around—especially if embraced as a communal practice. That is, by choosing to actively align our energy, in even small ways, with a larger story (vision) that matches the desires of our heart, we invest ourselves (and, ideally, it is a WE doing this) in actions that “help us restore our sense of connection with the web of life and with one another.” Broadly speaking they describe this dynamism as the Work That Reconnects. I think John might describe it as the Work That Resurrects.

As Macy and Johnstone relate, this work “comes from gratitude” (begins with awe at what is) and “honors the pain of our world” (feels loss: let grief have its way with us). During Jesus’ ministry his disciples learned to come with gratitude; we hear that in the stories of wonder and surprise that swirl around Jesus. After his crucifixion they’re overwhelmed by the pain of their world. Initially they’re too overwhelmed even to hope. But when Thomas, in spite of his dis-belief, dares to touch the wounds, he chooses to honor the pain in the pain rather than turn away from it. And in that choice, resurrection occurs. John offers wisdom to the first Christian on how to fuel their movement: by touching the wounds of the world.

It’s essential that we honor the world’s pain and touch it with tenderness—which may include full on anguished lament. Honestly, it may or may not “save” the world. But I’m willing to bet my whole life it can “save” us and our children come what may. Which is to say, it has the ability to root our lives in Active Hope—no matter what. That’s resilience. And that’s good news, even to people huddled in fear.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] Actually … Thomas never doubts. The Greek word for doubt is distazo. Jesus uses apistos; it means, rather more bluntly “without belief.” But it came into English as “doubt,” and that word got paired with Thomas ever since.

[2] I don’t think this is about physical resurrection. Maybe it is, but I think John is making a much more nuanced assertion here, one intended to spark our belief in the value of compassion, love, life itself.

[3] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012). In this post I’m drawing primarily on the Introduction, pp. 1-7; I’ll return to this book again.

Easter – Resurrection AS Extinction Rebellion

Easter – Resurrection AS Extinction Rebellion
David R. Weiss – April 22, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #22 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Nobody saw it coming, not even his own followers.

Both the elites within the Jewish religious establishment and the Roman authorities knew that the man—and the message he so recklessly embodied in the community he gathered around himself—had to be stopped. This notion of divinely sanctioned compassion threatened to undo the carefully guarded structures—religious, cultural, and imperial—that helped ensure that profit, power, and status moved in … predictable … patterns. Reserved to those with the right families, the right connections, and (occasionally) the right opportunities. After all, social stratification is a hallmark feature of civilization.[1]

But this man’s other-worldly vision, his relentless conviction that you could actually weave community out of compassion seemed to have just the right mix of intriguing presentation and beguiling practice. The common folk (upon whose lower, outcast status rested the leisure of others) were enthralled. Not all of them to be sure. Both religion and empire have ways to rein in the aspirations of those usefully deemed “other.” But this man was something else. And for the sake of everyone who was someone, he needed to be stopped. Hard. And publicly. Because that was the most effective method to dispose of both the man and the message. Thus, the point of the crucifixion was not simply to crucify Jesus but to crucify compassion.

On Holy Saturday it certainly appeared that compassion was extinct, so to speak. By all accounts Jesus’ followers and friends were fearful: scattered, in hiding, bereft. How long that first Holy Saturday endured we cannot know. The narrative, of course, says three days, but I suspect that’s our own wishful literalism treating the awe-filled testimony of the gospels as though they’re news stories rather than true stories.

The “fact” of the resurrection is beyond this essay. It’s interesting though that Paul (the earliest author in the new Testament, writing perhaps 15-20 years after the crucifixion) speaks primarily of a vision of a post-crucifixion Jesus. Mark (the next to write, perhaps 35-40 years post-cross) speaks of an empty tomb but not a risen Jesus. Matthew, Luke and John all have “proper” resurrection tales, but it’s taken 50-plus years for them to … arise. And John even describes the disciples on Easter morning as out fishing. That’s hardly the type of activity you’d go back to just 36 hours after seeing your closest comrade publicly, horrifically executed for treason. So this resurrection business is complicated, to say the least.[2]

But whether you believe that Jesus walked out of the tomb or that those tales seek to name a reality deeper than fact, the bottom line—the gospel truth, if you will—is that there WAS a bodily resurrection: the church.

And that happened via compassion. The church was not born by affirming a set of doctrines or beliefs. It was born as Jesus’ followers and friends began—sometime on the far side of the crucifixion (my guess is weeks or months afterward, but that’s just a guess)—after a season of fear, grief, and confusion to recapitulate among themselves the radical compassion that Jesus had preached. And in the praxis of compassion they found Jesus “alive” in their midst again. That experience became the resurrection.

Resurrection is the original “extinction rebellion.” It is the dramatic affirmation that with our own bodies we will counter every effort to extinguish the seeds of compassion that have been sown in our hearts. For Jesus, and for his first followers and friends, that compassion was incarnated primarily in a widening welcome extended to humans in need. While the empires of Jesus’ day could surely wreak havoc on ecosystems, they had no ability to fundamentally fracture the entire planet’s health. There was, of course, as yet no scientific understanding of the intricate web of creation—although psalmists and prophets intuited this web as have most (maybe all) aboriginal peoples.

As I noted in “Redeemed for Resilience” (GIT, Essay #13), by the end of the fourth century the early church became the imperial church, and the radical compassion that drove the resurrection became reserved for saints and monastics. The majority of believers were instructed in doctrine and duty, and in many ways, the church chose to recapitulate the very dynamics of profit, power, and status that Jesus had challenged. The embers of resurrection never entirely faded, but for most of its history the church has been shaped by priorities other than radical compassion. (Yes, the church has fostered its share of compassion, kindness, mercy, etc. But, for the most part, the church made sure to ration these goods out in amounts that promote “good order” rather than instill them with the prodigal world-changing extravagance that Jesus did. )

Fast forward to the present day. Now “Extinction Rebellion” names a fairly new loose-knit global movement of activists committing non-violent actions to protest inaction by governments to address climate change.[3] Although secular in origin, their credo is not unlike that of the earliest Christians: to deploy their own bodies in countering the complacency that threatens to extinguish the very seeds of life that have been sown on this planet.

On one hand extinction—the complete disappearance of a life form from the biotic community—is a cosmic fact. As life bubbles up across eons, some of those bubbles go bust sooner than others. And sometimes cataclysmic cosmic events—sudden meteor strikes or slow-moving ice ages—dramatically reshape life’s context and reset the bar for survival for entire ecosystems. On the other hand—the hand that matters right now—today, we don’t face extinctions dealt out by the unfolding cosmos. We face—we’re experiencing, as I write and as you read—extinctions at a pace unknown since the dinosaurs died out 65 million years. At a pace some scientists say qualifies as the sixth great extinction in Earth’s long history.[4]

But this round of extinction has two noteworthy characteristics. First, rather than being caused by an insentient cosmic process/event, this extinction is being caused by us. Initially (and still) driven by how human development undoes specific habitats, ripping asunder the web of flora and fauna that constitute an ecosystem, this extinction is also being amplified by climate change, the cumulative impact of an industrial society playing Russian roulette at the level of atmosphere and ocean. Second, unlike the first five extinctions, which we view from a vantage point of safety measured in millennia past, this extinction may well include us. All life is interconnected. There are only so many strands of the web we can extinguish before the web nearest us collapses, taking us with it.

It’s time for churches to reclaim extinction rebellion as our cause. To use our individual choices, communal practices, and civic power to strengthen the social and ecological webs that support life. Maybe even to join Extinction Rebellion in some of its theatrical (liturgical!) nonviolence. I could say we ought to do these things “because” we believe in resurrection. But, actually, I think it’s the reverse. Easter’s “Alleluia!” belongs to all the Earth. Only as we begin to rebel with our own bodies on behalf of all life, letting compassion echo evangelically in our lives, only then can we say—only then are we saying—“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” If you’re looking for an Easter alleluia, you’ll find it there.

[1] www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization

[2] I Cor. 15:3-8; Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-11; 26:13-15; Mark 16:1-8; Matt. 28:9-20; Luke 24:13-53; John 20: 11-29; 21:1-14. My thinking on resurrection has evolved over many years, beginning in seminary (1984) and continuing in graduate school (1992-97) in both seminars and a candidacy exam that looked at the Historical Jesus. Those most influential for me are John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), Marcus Borg, “The Truth of Easter” in The Meaning of Jesus, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), and Willi Marxsen, Jesus and Easter: Did God Raise the Historical Jesus from the Dead? (Abingdon Press, 1990).

[3] www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/20/stroud-cotswold-town-that-spawned-radical-protest

[4] www.projects.propublica.org/extinctions/

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization

[2] I Cor. 15:3-8; Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-11; 26:13-15; Mark 16:1-8; Matt. 28:9-20; Luke 24:13-53; John 20: 11-29; 21:1-14.

[3] www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/20/stroud-cotswold-town-that-spawned-radical-protest

[4] www.projects.propublica.org/extinctions/

Three Days Dizzy

Three Days Dizzy
(An experience in liturgical vertigo—in which I lose my balance)
David R. Weiss, April 15, 2017

I wish I could just blend in. Odds are my desire to belong—to fit in—is every bit as strong as yours. There is no quiet thrill in my Holy Week discord. More truly a visceral dread. There are causes I gladly embrace. This diatribe is not one of them.

NOTE: I originally wrote this reflection-rant in April 2017, but did not post it at the time. It felt almost too raw–too likely to offend my readers. But it IS my truth. And because it may resonate with some of you, I post it today. It is my breathless attempt to stand beside the Jesus I know. And ultimately I would rather risk unsettling you with my words than betraying him with my silence. 

Almost against my will, risking fracture in the very community I dearly want to call home . . .

I SWEAR—this man Jesus is a holy child of God, a sage-mystic-healer-prophet. He is Christ: chosen of God, and in his words and deeds—yes, in his life, death, and life-beyond-death—we meet the living God of the universe. This claim is so interwoven with me—I live and move and have my being within this conviction—that I would die for it. No proud claim there; simply the humble acknowledgment of how central this truth is . . . to my next breath.

And I SWEAR—this God whom we meet in Jesus is fiercest Love. Making justice, to be sure. Toppling powers, freeing slaves, overturning tables. No tame goodness, this deity. This God whose fierce Love filled Jesus’ frame to full incarnation, is no stranger to anger. But this thirst for a restored and fulfilled world is not . . . never was . . . never will be slaked by blood.

I SWEAR—from the founding of the Earth until this very moment, despite our overactive imaginations, God has not once needed blood to make history whole. Least of all—LEAST OF ALL—the blood of this holy Christ. Which is why these Three Days feel to me like an elaborate celebration of some grand lie that slanders God and makes the sheer redeeming miracle of Jesus’ holy—and wholling—life a mere prelude to the spilling of his blood.

Rendering unto us—I SWEAR—a god unknown to Jesus, for whom Love came even before alpha and ever after omega. For whom the whole of God is Love—first to last, and more!—such that our redemption . . . our ransom-rescue-restoration was set sure by God. Absolutely. Period. No blood. No bargain. Just. Because. Love.

So I SWEAR—before Jesus was even born (“in the beginning,” if you like) we were already loved to redemption. And in his life we see the power of that redemption—already accomplished—announced, unleashed, set ablaze. To the world’s great chagrin. Yet over these Three Days we think it wise to give God goddamned credit for the world’s murderous frenzy. As though by some false alchemy we can turn nails and thorns and cross and blood into a fitting sacrifice for sins already banished long ago by such fierce Love.

I SWEAR—it seems to me that we join Judas in betraying Jesus, in our case to a tale that cannot carry the truth of his life. It matters how you tell the story. For sure, he dined for one last time, and ventured out to pray, and was betrayed and taunted-tortured-timbered until he breathed his last. I don’t dispute these things. But gospel is that telling—that type and tone of tale—by which the truth contained therein takes life within our lives.

And I fear—I SWEAR—with all my dizzy heart, that the way we tell this tale these last Three Days, in fact betrays us, too. By framing Jesus’ birth as aimed all along toward death we fix outside the frame the actual coming of the kin-dom he declared in word and deed—which had no need of death to seal the deal. That death was inevitable—I don’t deny—but only on account of the life he’d lived. And there can be no life-giving telling that does not keep—in every prayer, in every song, in every word, in every breath—that lived Love front and center. Eclipse the mundane miraculous compassion of his life from the very heart of these Three Days . . . and all that’s left is lie.

And losing my balance, I SWEAR—the way we fawn on Good Friday over the suffering of this lamb comes damned close . . . to liturgical crush porn—somehow drawing our own unholy squeals of delight as innocent suffering squeezes life out of that one chosen of God. Is that too offensive to say? Did not the prophets say as much and more?

I admit: there is power in these days. That Jesus held fast his faith in God, his faith in Love, right through to his own death. No small witness to the truth he lived (but hardly the point either). And that we recognize—and announce—the resonance between his cross and the sufferings and injustices and abandonments that we may know today. There is real power in learning that God’s compassionate solidarity and boundless love chases after each of us even to the most terrifying places of our lives. I have no quarrel with these evocative claims.

But when we make them we must be very clear we are not mistaking the cross as being redemptive. And the responsibility to be unmistakably clear about this falls to us because for too much of Christian history we’ve made the opposite claim, and it still echoes unrepentant in our hymnody and liturgy, and we dare not make the right connection alongside the wrong connection and blend the two as one. I hear so many nice-sounding assertions that haven’t explicitly disentangled themselves from bloodthirsty atonement . . . and the result is empowering-potential . . . hobbled by being bound to blood. Such good news will never gallop.

I SWEAR—the gospel truth is not that Jesus’ death changes everything, but rather—PLEASE—that it changes nothing: the point is that the world’s murderous frenzy does not lessen Jesus’ love. Not even one bit. Does not unlive his life. Does not undo the incarnation—or the community called together by this man. In the face of this fierce Love, death proves powerless, though not because it cannot kill the man—it does—but because it cannot kill the Love his life unleashed.

And that is gospel worth an Easter champagne toast (which I once saw a pastor offer during an Easter liturgy). But I’m not sure we truly catch the threat behind the bottle’s pop. If this man lives—and you can take your pick between a raised body, an incorporeal spirit, or a revived community of followers—whether resurrection is medical miracle or mystical metaphor or something in between really does not matter that much.

Because if Jesus’ death is not about redemption in the least, then resurrection is not God’s stamp of “paid in full” upon the account that bears our name. Instead, however you choose to understand it, if it’s not about redemption, then resurrection is about launching our lives—fiercely and fearlessly—into love. And, reading the gospels, we know where that leads.

Which is why I SWEAR at last—if this man lives, then that sharp pop of Easter champagne poses to each of us this inquiry, even as the “Alleluia!” leaves our lips: “Okay, now which of you … is ready to love so recklessly you’ll get killed for it?”

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NOTE: I’ve wrestled with this theme multiple times in essays, poems, hymns. Here are a few others if this is a “Easter rabbit hole” you want to venture down …

2000/2001: (poem cycle) “Listening for Love While Avoiding the Violence”
2003: “The Cross and the Queer”
2004: (hymn) “It was upon a moonlit night”
2005: “The Queer Kingdom of God”
2010: “Taking Issue with Easter Lilies”
2014: (poem) “This ‘Alleluia’ in the Air”
2016: “An Easter Evening Reflection … on a Virtuous Zombie”
2017: “Holy Week and Wagging the Dog”

Maundy Thursday – Meeting the End with Love

Maundy Thursday – Meeting the End with Love
David R. Weiss – April 16, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #21 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

John 13:34-35 – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are followers of the Way: because you love one another.[1] Part of Jesus’ long farewell discourse in John’s gospel, these words have given us the name for Thursday in Holy Week: Maundy. The Latin behind “commandment” in this verse (echoed again in 15:12-17) is mandatum (from which comes our word, mandate. This is “Mandatum Thursday”: “Commandment Thursday.” It might better be called Love Thursday, since Jesus calls his friends[2] to love many times more than he uses the word “commandment.”

Overall John’s gospel is noteworthy on several counts. Considered by scholars to be the last of the biblical gospels authored, his telling is often regarded as the least historical and most theological (which is not to say that he ignores history, that the other gospels ignore theology, or that the others present history the way we think of it today). But, even a surface reading of John reveals no parables, multiple lengthy discourses, and a self-focused Jesus (as opposed to a focus on God’s kin-dom), all of which place him in stark contrast to the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so-called “synoptic” because they view Jesus through the same lens).

One might make the case that John is thus less interested in historical fact, but he remains supremely interested in Truth. John’s gospel—which, like the other gospels aims to communicate good news to his original readers/hearers in a way that fosters the experience of good news in the hearing itself—is finely crafted and reflects both the lived experience of his community and John’s own nuanced theology. Of particular note is John’s commitment to “realized eschatology,” a fancy theological mouthful for saying that John believes that the redemptive/liberatory impact of Jesus on us and our lives begins right now—in all its fullness. Whether John regards another layer of fulfillment in an afterlife is not the point. He believes that the full power of the gospel is unleashed in the world through the Spirit moving in our lives today.

Two features of John’s Maundy Thursday narrative stand out to me. First, contrary to the Synoptics (and likely contrary to history), John does not have Jesus eat the Passover meal on Thursday night. He pushes Passover back by day: a small bit of “historical license” with theologically seismic implications. Not much is changed about Thursday evening, but the absence of a Thursday Passover means that on Friday afternoon throughout Jerusalem Passover lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the meal … a slaughter that aligns with Jesus’ death on the cross. It is John’s way of profoundly linking Jesus to the Passover lamb (whose blood, in the original Passover tale kept Jewish homes safe during the final plague in Egypt).

It’s a symbolic connection that (in my mind) has disastrous echoes in atonement theology for millennia to come: in assertions that say our forgiveness/redemptive hinges on the spilling of Jesus’ blood. Given the scandal of Jesus’ death on the cross—which surely rocked his friends’ and followers’ worlds in way we cannot imagine—John’s daring interpretation of the death is understandable. His logic, I suspect, is quite different from ours. We often begin the story of Jesus with the assumption he came to die and skip over the very messy theology that undergirds that assumption. The earliest communities of believers began with the inexplicable fact that he DID die—for which they were utterly unprepared—and then find themselves making daring efforts (that are hardly consistent across the gospels or the early church!) to reconcile the profound goodness of Jesus’ life to the irreconcilable(!) character of his death.

It’s possible—in light of John’s realized eschatology (where redemption happens NOW, among the living)—that he identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb not to make his blood key to redemption, but to include his bloody death in the redemptive power of his life. As though by finding a place for Jesus’ death within the Passover story of God’s liberating work, John insures that the cross cannot become a cause to doubt the power of Jesus’ life. Like the Passover lamb, his death is one piece of a much larger tale of liberation.

The other intriguing feature of John’s Maundy Thursday account is this. We commemorate Maundy Thursday as the night when Jesus instituted Holy Communion at the end of his last supper and before his arrest and crucifixion. But, although Thursday in Holy Week gets its name from John’s gospel, in his telling Jesus never celebrates Holy Communion. He has a final meal followed by a famous foot-washing scene, but there is no lifting up and breaking bread, no pouring and sharing wine. How can it be that this meal—so emblematic of our faith … so sacramental … is simply missing in John?

No one knows for sure, but I’m persuaded by a suggestion I heard decades ago (alas, uncredited because my memory recalls the insight but not the origin): in John’s community they gathered to read aloud pieces of this gospel each week. And each week they did this while celebrating communion, themselves taking and breaking bread, pouring and sharing wine. John wrote for their lived experience, so he wrote a gospel to compliment the meal already at the heart of their gathering. No need to describe the meal itself.

Whether that’s the real reason or not will likely never be known. But it fits with how I see this night in this week intersecting with our experience of climate change. Put yourself, even if just momentarily, in Jesus’ sandals. He sees the end—his end—rapidly approaching. It’s not that he wants to die, but that he will not compromise the power of compassion that dwells in him. And he sees the rising powers of the world determined to preserve themselves at the cost of his life. This isn’t divine foreknowledge. It’s simply the sober commonsense insight accessible to most every person who’s been a prophet/martyr.

But Jesus’ primary concern on this night in this week is to ensure that the compassion birthed in and through him continues to be realized in the world after his death (that’s realized eschatology). And how does he do that? He tells his friends to love one another. Relentlessly. Fiercely. Even at great risk. Love. Jesus’ death would seem to undermine the usefulness of this counsel. But before we race ahead to the resurrection and see there some miraculous overturning of death, before we do that—just wait. Because on that first Maundy Thursday there is as yet no resurrection. No gospels have been written. No Sunday School lessons learned. No Hallelujahs hurled heavenward. No Easter lilies bought. None of that is “real” yet. There is ONLY a daunting, messy, chaotic end racing toward Jesus. And he meets that end by sharing a meal and asking his friends to persist in loving one another.

Perhaps that love is central to what happens on Easter morning. (I happen to think it is, though in a very unorthodox way.) But I want to hold us in the shattering uncertainty of Maundy Thursday for a moment. There is a strand of eco-awareness today that looks at the unnerving science and the damning math and assesses it with the same sort of sobering certainty that Jesus did on Maundy Thursday: we’re screwed. And who knows whether it is alarmist (as we like to hope) or just … inconveniently honest. But I ask you, today, to put yourself in an ecological Maundy Thursday moment. What if there’s ONLY a daunting, messy, chaotic end racing toward us? If so, how will we meet that end? Here is the thin, profound, powerful good news of Jesus: Let’s meet it gathered with friends, sharing a meal, and pledging love.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] This is mostly NRSV translation, but I have replaced “my disciples,” which is certainly what the Greek says, with “followers of the Way,” which is what the church came to understand and which resonates with my sense that Jesus never saw himself as having a monopoly on “the Way.”

[2] There’s a whole theology behind this one word, which links Jesus directly to the Hebrew notion of God’s Wisdom. Jesus says his ministry will be (can only be?) carried on, not by followers or disciples, but by friends.

Palm Sunday Politics and Planet Earth

Palm Sunday Politics and Planet Earth
David R. Weiss – April 11, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #20 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

In just two days we’ll remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of what we now call Holy Week. Often commemorated as a “triumphal entry” followed by the Temple “cleansing,” both frames understate the power of Jesus’ actions.[1] By seeing them for the richly provocative actions they were, we might also see them as suggestive for our response to climate change.

Jerusalem. Not just any place on Earth, in Jewish tradition the city—especially the Temple—stand as an axis mundi (literally: “Earth axis”), a point where transcendence and immanence touch; where Mystery and mundane meet. Such points are known in every faith tradition. That the events we consider today play out here makes them more than history: they’re holy drama.

Additionally, they’re located in time as well as space. Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem in a vacuum. It’s Passover, the Jewish festival of liberation, no doubt “celebrated” with bitter irony under Roman rule. Still, the memory of liberation is so fresh at Passover, that Rome dare not let it be celebrated under anything other than a watchful and well-armed eye. Thus, Pilate (Rome’s appointed governor for Jerusalem) would’ve ALSO made his entrance into Jerusalem around the same time Jesus did, though coming from the opposite direction.

And his entry would’ve been triumphal in the most militaristic way: soldiers on foot and on horseback, weapons, drums, banners, and poles bearing a golden eagle—symbol of Jupiter, the god of Rome. His procession and presence during the week was meant to remind Jews that the Passover meal would be the only liberation they could expect to taste anytime soon.

Once we realize Jesus’ palm-strewn pathway into the east side of city happens over against Pilate’s procession from the west, it becomes evident that Jesus is making a visibly anti-triumphal entry. He comes, mounted on a donkey in a deliberately embodied echo of Zechariah 9:9-10. His “kingship” is marked by humility … and the promise of genuine (that is, just) peace. As with his parables on the “kingly activity of God,” his Palm Sunday procession makes an intentional critique of Rome and its regal pattern of domination. Though some of his listeners may have wished otherwise, Jesus presents no call for violent revolution, but offers an unmistakable summons to a whole different way of life.

But Jesus wasn’t just taking issue with Rome or with Pilate. In 6 CE (during Jesus’ youth) Rome made the Jewish Temple authorities responsible for collecting imperial taxes and maintaining the debt records frequently invoked to foreclose on Jewish land. Even prior to this, the Jewish Temple had been twisted to serve those holding religious power and economic wealth, but from 6 CE onward it also became the religious edge of Rome’s political-economic oppression. Even if they did somewhat begrudgingly, the Temple elites were chaplain to Empire. (How deeply the Jewish public resented this is shown at the start of the Jewish Revolt, when besides driving out the Roman army, they immediately burned the records of land debt kept at the Temple.)

So when Jesus clears the Temple on Monday, he isn’t just temporarily displacing money-changers and animal vendors. Something much more decisive is playing out. He’s pronouncing a judgment against the Temple for having allied itself with the forces that are stealing both land and life from God’s people. As much as the Temple was seen as the very throne of God, a whole string of Hebrew prophets spoke out in the harshest words possible whenever they saw Temple rituals carried out in the absence of justice in Jewish society. They knew God wanted nothing to do with worship cut off from justice.

Some 700 years before Jesus, Jeremiah accused the people of presuming the Temple somehow guaranteed their security despite rampant social injustice, saying “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14 || 8:11) Thus, when Jesus invokes Jeremiah’s words about “a den of robbers,” (which, his original hearers knew, culminated in the threat that God would destroy the Temple), there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone present: this is no mere “cleansing.” It’s a prophetic action that symbolically destroys the Temple. Not the building itself, but the systemically twisted relations it had come to divinely authorize. If you’ve heard Black Lives Matter protesters shout “Shut It Down!” as they move on to an interstate highway, you’ve heard the same tone of protest that Jesus used to shut down the Temple that day.

It’s hard to overstate the provocative depth of Jesus’ action at the Temple. No doubt, even some of his own followers were uneasy. It was a symbolic act that reached DEEP into primal emotions, not unlike burning an American flag. Or, to “bring it home,” like pulling the vestments off your local church altar and burning them if your church has been silent (or, worse, complicit) in any of Rome’s more recent deeds: caging immigrants, bashing queers, killing black bodies, or belching CO2. Most of us would hesitate to go there. Jesus does not.

Let’s be clear. Palm Sunday was no innocent pageant of Jewish peasants lining the road with palm branches as Jesus rode through on a donkey. There was, I’m sure, genuine joy in the air. But every cheer of “Hosanna,” every cry of “King,” every salute to “Son of David”—these were all dangerous words. No wonder some of the Jewish leaders tried to get Jesus to quiet the crowds. But recall his reply: “I tell you, if these people were silent the rocks and stones would cry out.” (Lk 19:39-40) Earth itself longs for a rule other than Rome’s. And that scene in the Temple? It isn’t a judgment of someone else’s religion. Jesus is calling out our religious tradition anytime it offers even silent complicity to rulers or systems that plunder land, impoverish people, imperil ecosystems, or promises “Peace, Peace,” while catastrophic climate change comes at us. And there’s plenty of both of those going on in churches today.

These two events at the start of Holy Week remind us there are real choices in front us, too. And they don’t show up out of nowhere. From Jesus’ first announcement that God’s kin-dom had come near, his ministry consistently posed a stark alternative to the politics of Rome and the Temple. One grounded in compassion toward and reverence for all life. That alternative asks for our allegiance still today.

Palm Sunday’s politics long to be good news for planet Earth. But it will take more than a few half-hearted Hosannas while we wave our palm fronds to convince the rest of creation we’re ready to show up … for all of us. So if you find yourself feeling a bit foolish, limply waving a palm frond in church just a day before our President’s “triumphal” visit to Minnesota, remember, for Jesus, Palm Sunday was neither triumphant nor tame. It was confessional and confrontational: the communal enactment of pledging loyalty to God and, on that account, withholding it from Caesar.

For Jews, eating the Passover makes that experience present to them right now. For New Zealanders grieving the mosque shooting last March, the Maori haka dance joined the mourners (across their diverse cultures) to New Zealand’s deepest past. Our Palm Sunday worship ought to have the seriousness of a Jewish Seder and the resolve of a haka dance. Dare we? The rocks and stones will be waiting.

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] The texts are Mk 11:1-22 || Mt 21:1-21 || 19:28-48. For a full treatment, see Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, HarperOne, 2006, pp. 1-53.

Resilience – Bending the Arc

Resilience – Bending the Arc
David R. Weiss – April 4, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #19 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Today I want to conclude my thoughts (begun in Essay #17) on the fourth core insight of the Transition Movement: that we should (1) enliven imagination, (2) tap into deep agency, (3) reclaim and share earthbound skills … (4) without waiting for permission from the “governing” (political, corporate, and cultural) forces around us.[1] These forces are so entangled with profit and/or power that they’re NOT going to offer permission, let alone support for us as we make the changes that are necessary for a transition away from fossil fuel intensive living. But we must transition—and quickly.

Moreover, the Transition Movement asserts that the transition needed is actually life-giving as well. Profits may suffer, power may be less concentrated, but life—that will be richer … more abundant, as Jesus called it. And I argued across my last two essays that Jesus, in fact, teaches about acting for good without waiting for permission—even when such actions are outright (and creatively) subversive of the status quo. I described what Walter Wink calls Jesus’ “Third Way”[2] (an option beyond “fight or flight”) as a way that preserves—and amplifies—human dignity, transforming the dynamics of a no-win scenario into a moment with breathing space … and fresh potential. And I suggested it invited us to not simply trust in the long arc of the moral universe, but to bend it with our own action.

As we face climate change—and systemic forces that constrain our options and obstruct our capacity for social transformation—besides imagination, energy, and skill, we must create moments with breathing space and fresh potential. And that’s precisely what Transition communities aim to do. Moving with cheerful(!) energy away from a carbon-intensive society, they are localized invitations to jump on that long arc of the moral universe—believing that its arc is not inevitable but the result of concerted communal choice. This is NOT to suggest that God is indifference to the universe’s moral character, but that God counts on those who bear God’s image to play a decisive role in shaping God’s universe for good.

But how? While this will (absolutely) sometimes involve saying “No!” to policies and projects that threaten Earth’s wellbeing (and hopefully doing so with creative gusto and fierce resolve), the defining resilience of Transition Movement is its creative gusto in saying “Yes!” to patterns of life that bend the arc toward a more sustainable, regenerative flourishing of life. Transition also regards wisdom as necessarily local, contextual, so it doesn’t offer definitive answers to how any given community might bend the arc. (And I’m also no expert, merely a fellow traveler along the way.) But I can offer some examples.

Transition Movement focuses on neighborhood connections, making a secular affirmation of Jesus’ pronouncement that the Kin-dom of God[3] is at hand—near enough to touch … perhaps waiting only upon our linked arms to burst into full bloom. Since I’m writing for faith communities, I want to suggest ways for churches, which may not have a neighborhood-based membership but do have reservoirs of deep social bonds, to exercise the “Yes!” at the heart of resilience. Transition is rooted in learning the skills to live more lightly on the planet in community because that communal aspect not only stretches the reach of all the learning, it also activates joy and hope. Thus, the goal is precisely NOT to encourage these as individual endeavors but as opportunities to mutually build community and deepen planetary kinship … even reverence for creation.

Here are several ideas of where to start. [4]

Food. Imagine conversations and group activities that foster confidence and fellowship around growing food, buying local/organic, supporting farmer’s market/CSA’s, moving toward plant-rich diets, eating seasonally, reducing food waste, canning/freezing for food storage, or using permaculture in home gardening/landscaping. Some of these could (should!) culminate in actual shared meals.

Housing. Conversations and group activities can foster confidence, fellowship, and change around energy efficient light bulbs, basic home weatherization (which could involve sharing how you adjust seasonal clothing choices before you adjust thermostats!), insulation, and energy efficient appliances. Trade experiences or aspirations for living in closer community: denser housing, co-housing, even communal homes. Some of these are “costly”; others are inexpensive and repay their investment quickly. The point is to actively share knowledge/skill and take the responsibility within our reach for the lives we live.

Transportation. Conversations and group activities can foster confidence, fellowship, and effect real change in how we move ourselves around. Creating car pools for church events—perhaps tracking this as a community challenge. Offering learning opportunities in using mass transit, from reading bus/train schedules to finding route connections to even making groups rides so that anyone who wants can feel confident using mass transit. Creating (and celebrating) opportunities to bike and walk as alternatives with side benefits of personal health and company. Maybe skills sharing in basic bike repair.

Waste. Conversations and group activities can foster confidence, fellowship, and effect real change in how we refuse, reuse, reduce, recycle, and rot (compost) our waste. There are zero-waste initiatives and recycling classes that can inspire and teach us a lot. Ending the ease with which we toss what we don’t want in the garbage is an ecological, moral, spiritual imperative—and by pursuing it as an act of communal learning, hemmed in by humility and seasoned with joy, we can go farther than as individuals.

Finally, imagine framing all of these activities—on each occasion—with prayer or other simple rituals that link this learning to our desire to care for the planet by living lightly upon it, our gratitude for Earth’s bounty, our hope to keep “home” in ways that align with Earth as our wider home. Imagine lifting up these efforts regularly (habitually!) in our communal worship as holy pursuits … as holy habits.

None of these things are nearly so daunting as the challenges to which Jesus offered his Third Way. Or are they? We’ve brought our entire ecosystem planet to a point of genuine peril by not facing them sooner. The forces that limit not only our choices, but also our imaginations are far more daunting than we want to admit. Our hearts and minds are occupied by forces that count on our complicity as they sell off our children’s future (and so much more). Saying “Yes!” to new patterns such as I suggest above will not come easily, which is why the communal and worshipful aspects are so essential.

And why the resulting joy is such good news. In fact, perhaps it is not so much the jumping itself but more precisely the union of seeking justice while generating joy that is able to actually bend the arc.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] As identified by Rob Hopkins and Sarah McAdams in “The Transition Movement: Past, Present, and Future,” roundtable discussion, 2018 Transition US 10th Anniversary Online Summit: www.transitiongathering.org/videos.

[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (NY: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 98-111. This text offers a very accessible discussion of Wink’s more scholarly treatment in Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 175-193.

[3] Jesus, of course, says “Kingdom,” but kings are a distant abstraction for us, and he actually means something close to kin-dom in that God’s gospel activity is expressed in deepening the embrace of kinship in all directions.

[4] http://transitionstreets.org/ offers a curriculum that guides small groups through practical learning toward Transition. It could be used “off the shelf” within faith communities, though I believe framing it explicitly within a faith narrative will greatly deepen its impact when used by groups for whom a faith narrative is key in life meaning.