Advent Hymn: The Place Where Advent Starts

It’s one week until the beginning of Advent, so it seems like a good time to share this Advent hymn text which could be used on any Advent Sunday.

The words affirm the very real anguish in our world and make clear that God enters our world, our church, our lives in the midst of ache and anguish. In a world that remains deeply twisted by suffering in multiple ways, it’s honest, authentic, prayerful to enter Advent with hunger for hope for our lips. This hymn invites that, without forgetting that Advent invites us toward Christmas.

The “Listen” link lets you hear a recording of the hymn.

Note: I give you my permission to reprint the words for use in worship. I also have a pdf of the hymn in Finale with the text and the melody line. The music, however, is not mine; it’s Marty Haugen’s, copyright by GIA. I’m happy to share the pdf on email request–so long as you assure me that you will register your reprint of the music through OneLicense or another copyright service. In any case, if you use the hymn, I’d love to know that. Request the pdf or notify me of your plan to sing it at drw59mn(at)gmail(dot)com.

LISTEN

The Place Where Advent Starts

As the darkness stretches over / all the daylight, all our lives
In the depths of expectation / where the heart sees, you reside.
Dare we beckon to the hunger / fill our frame and feed our soul
In this dim-lit struggling world / that our feasting be made full.

As we wait with restless longing / for your kin-dom fully come
Rise the cries of warring nations / beats the pulse of terror’s drum.
“Comfort now, my people, comfort,” / spoke the prophet long ago.
“Still my peace comes to this world / midst its bombs, its spears and bows.”

As the earth cries out in anguish / less for birth than bitter toil;
As the poor, their fortunes falter / as the ill, their spirits spoil.
Steel our vision, so that we see / full the depth of broken hearts;
For in this place—hungry, hopeless / yes, in this place, Advent starts.

Hasten now, come quickly to us / ’fore our spirits faint with fear.
Be the light in deepest darkness / be the hope that draws us near.
In your advent, may we waken / live the life you call us to:
Every deed a Christmas manger / ready now to welcome you.

 

Text: David R. Weiss, b. 1959 (text, © 2011 David R. Weiss)
Tune: Marty Haugen, b. 1950, JOYOUS LIGHT, (Joyous Light of Heavenly Glory – © GIA Publication)
Alternate Tune: BEACH SPRING (The Sacred Harp, Philadelphia, Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service, Lutheran Book of Worship 423 – public domain)

Permission is given to photocopy The Place Where Advent Starts for use in worship.

Author’s Note: This hymn text took shape in December 2010, during a 14-day hunger strike, as I moved deeply into my own hunger. Advent is surely the season in which we “deck the halls” and “trim the tree” as we get ready for Christmas. Our homes are filled with Christmas Carols (even if we’re supposed to be waiting until Christmas) and (hopefully) the scent of fresh cookies. And YET, for so much of the world Advent is not merely the four weeks prior to Christmas, it is the gut-deep hunger for justice and for wholeness that swallows entire lives. Unless Advent begins in that place, Christmas is not a cause for joy.

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This entry was posted on November 26, 2018. 1 Comment

For Christ the King Sunday …

The Queer Kingdom of God

I usually re-word the phrase “kingdom of God” as “kin-dom of God” because that play on words better captures for us the message and ministry of Jesus: that in God we are ALL kin. I hint at that here, but more directly I suggest that Jesus’ original phrase has a quality of deep irony to it. He uses “kingdom” NOT to draw on earthly kings as a metaphor of God; instead, the content of both his parables and his ministry actually use “kingdom” language to call into question all earthly manner of holding power. Indeed, given Webster’s definition of “queer” as a verb, it’s fair to say that Jesus’ QUEERS earthly modes of power — perhaps none more so than those running the world … and our country … today. And the worldly powers kill him for that. So the 3-part riddle in verse 3 is a sort of Zen koan, giving the disciples (and us) something to ponder after Jesus’ death—and a hint at where they (and we) will witness resurrection.

I invite you to think about where racial justice, universal health care, welcome to immigrants (and fully address the forces that drive refugee/immigration), caring for the planet with future generations in mind, and more find echoes in this poem.

 

The Queer Kingdom of God

Said Jesus to those gathered near, “The kingly deeds of God are queer—
They foul the plans of those whose more is but the spoils of the poor.
God’s kingly deeds intend to foil earth’s foolish dreams of what is royal.
The tales I tell are meant to free your ears to hear, your eyes to see
When God is king the rule of men is plain no rule at all, my friends.
When wealth and power go hand in hand, ‘tis tyranny that leads the land.

“Thus God does queer the very thing that earth imagines makes a king;
It isn’t wealth or might or name, not brutal force or far-flung fame.
The royalty of God begins by claiming every person kin.
When God is king and claiming kin, the outcast ones are gathered in.
No wonder then that under breath the pow’rs that be now whisper death
To One who dares to call their bluff, suggest they’ve ruled for long enough.

“For regal claims of welcome wide the Christ of God is crucified.
But let this riddle hold you then, that kin-dom come might come again.
‘What is the sound of mustard seed growing wild like a weed?
What is the sound of leavened wheat, flour stretched for all to eat?
What is the sound of new made wine, bursting skins of old design?’

“To enemies, speak now as friends, and with the poor make full amends.
Let kindness be the name you chase so every stranger finds a place.
Let welcome be the wealth you keep, and keep it well, both wide and deep.
The doing of these holy deeds – this sounds like wine and wheat and seeds,
For resurrection will begin when you join God in making kin.”

 

drw – 07.22.05

On Steve Sabin, Child Pornography, and Grace

On Steve Sabin, Child Pornography, and Grace
David R. Weiss, November 21, 2018

There are no winners in this column. Not even me. I would’ve preferred to just go to bed.

It’s too soon to say much about the arrest of Pastor Steven Sabin for possessing and distributing child pornography (just reported on November 20). But because there will be a firestorm of commentary forthcoming, I’m going to say a few things right now.

Steve Sabin, 59, served as senior pastor at Christ Church Lutheran in San Francisco for the last 17 years. Ordained in 1985 he was first called as pastor to Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames, Iowa. In 1998 his clergy status was revoked after a church trial because he was in a committed same-sex relationship, but Lord of Life refused to fire him and he continued to serve as their pastor until being called by Christ Church Lutheran in 2001. His 1998 trial was covered in Call to Witness, a 2000 documentary film featuring the stories of several of the first openly gay and lesbian Lutheran pastors. His clergy standing was restored after the ELCA changed its policy on partnered gay and lesbian clergy in 2009.

This fall a San Francisco Police Internet Crimes Against Children Unit investigating an online social media source of child pornography identified Sabin as the individual hosting the images. Last Thursday (November 15) he was arrested after police searched his apartment and reported finding more than 600 files—both images and videos—“depicting juvenile minors being sexually abused.”

This is a ghastly revelation. All the more so because of Steve’s role as a pastor—and as a leading voice in the struggle for sexual justice in the church. There is nothing good to say. But there are a few things that mustbe said, lest they get lost as the vileness of his actions echoes around the internet. I will say them.

I do not know Steve Sabin. I’ve only met him in passing twice (most recently in the Twin Cities just a couple of years ago). I forget the exact event, but I gave him a copy of my book, To the Tune of Welcoming God, while quickly explaining the indirect role he played in fostering my work around welcome.

I came to Luther College (Decorah, Iowa) to teach religion in the fall of 1998, just months after Steve’s church trial. I knew nothing about him or the trial; I wasn’t even aware that he spoke at Luther during my first weeks there as part of student-driven Coming Out Day event. But his talk precipitated some anti-gay chalking and an anonymous letter challenging Luther’s religion professors to take a clear stand on homosexuality (hoping for words of condemnation). That led first to three classroom declarations of my support for gay and lesbian persons and a week later to a campus-wide forum where I offered an extended faith-based affirmation of homosexuality. Within a year I was teaching a course on GLBT Voices in Theology, beginning the work that would become my vocation for two decades. For not knowing him, Steve Sabin had a pretty big impact on my life.

I write tonight, not to defend him, but to be clear about the scope of grace.

Every child in every image or video of pornography is a beloved child of God. Their bodies and psyches have been assaulted in evil ways that will redound in their lives. But nothing done to them—nor anything they do as a result of the wounds inflicted on them—nothingseparates them from the love of God.

Apparently, Steve Sabin somehow—tragically, disastrously, horrifically—came to view only some children, those to whom he ministered, as beloved children of God, while viewing others as objects of an unhealthy and destructive desire altogether detached from the vows he took as a pastor.

His parishioners, both in Ames and in San Francisco must be reeling. We do not know how long Steve has been involved in viewing or sharing child pornography, but his arrest will raise all manner of questions among those who knew him as pastor. So a couple things need to be said here, too.

Every child (or adult) ever baptized by Steve was fully wrapped in the grace of God. And every Eucharist at which Steve presided likewise offered bread and wine that carried in-with-and-under them the full grace of Christ’s presence. The efficacy of the sacraments (add to that confirmations, marriages, funerals, and more) does not rest on the character of the pastor but on the power of God. And while, yes, Lutheran theology affirms this, it isn’t anything that can be “legislated” by denominational authority. It is simply the truth of God and the scope of grace.

The Bible is replete with instances of less than noble persons serving as conduits of God’s gracious and liberating power despite their human failing. Human beings are woefully fallible—at times (and in Steve’s case) treacherously so. But when Steve—or any other pastor—announces “the gifts of God for the people of God” that claim rests not on the integrity of the person speaking but on the integrity of God’s own Self. These are God’s gifts, not Steve’s, not mine, not yours. God’s.

That cannot make any less the anguished mystery, the horrific sense of betrayal, the appalling ambiguity of discovering how awfullysomeone we trusted can besimul justus et peccator—at once both saint and sinner. We want that phrase to be quaintly paradoxical, but as the news about Steve reminds us, Luther meant the words most viscerally.

By all accounts Steve was an exceptional preacher, a fine pastor, and a generous mentor. What do we make of the words he shared—now? Is every sermon, every essay, every word of pastoral or collegial wisdom suspect? Yes. We will need to interrogate his theology now that we know he kept company with evil impulses to such an extent. Those who are revealed to be leading such double lives often imagined they could successfully contain one identity here and another one there. But from our hearts and minds to our bodily members—for better and for worse—we are wholepersons. And when one identity becomes deeply distorted it inevitably distorts the rest of who we are. No imagined inner boundary is ever as secure as we delude ourselves, especially as the inner distortions increase.

But are his sermons, essays, or words of counsel now utterly voidof wisdom and grace? The hard answer is No. Much as we might prefer to see Steve’s legacy—now in tatters—as simply counterfeit (at least in recent years), the truth is more uncomfortable. The Spirit is not as limited in its capacity for faithfulness as Steve was. The reason we’ll need to “interrogate” rather than outright dismiss his work, is because we dare not presume that God is unable to bear wisdom and grace to us even through deeply broken vessels. That presumption is neat and tidy, but it is unfaithful to the God who trades recklessly in grace. Unfaithful to the God whose reckless grace might one day trade for us should we be the one so deeply broken.

It is absolutely right in this moment to be focused on freeing the children in the images and videos found in Steve’s possession and doing what can be done to mend the souls. They are beloved children of God. Any language that falls short of “moral atrocity” fails to take measure of Steve’s actions toward them.

And it is absolutely right to be focused on supporting the parishioners whose faith may be deeply shaken by this. As well as those who considered Steve a colleague or mentor in ministry or in LGBTQ advocacy work. These persons, too, are beloved children of God. Any language that falls short of “betrayal” fails to take measure of the impact of Steve’s actions on them (and on the causes they held in common).

But there is a final further truth that is hardest of all to speak in this moment. But perhaps most necessary. And that is that still today, Steve Sabin remains a beloved child of God. His actions condemned, but his self beloved by a weeping God. When Paul writes (Roman 8:38-39), “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” he is explicating the gospel. And that phrase “nor anything else” has to include “child pornography.”

This is the scope of grace. I do not know the soul of Steve Sabin. (Although I am willing to bet it is—and has been tortured for some time now.) I only know my soul, which has more than its share of awful ambiguities, even if they do not match the scale of Steve’s. But more than this, I know the grace of God. And if that grace is not sufficient to hold Steve, even while God rages and weeps, we are all in trouble.

I won’t ask anyone else to pray for Steve Sabin right now. But as someone whose was myself sexually abused as a juvenile by a pastor-figure (a former Sunday School teacher)—I will pray for him. Unapologetically. Because grace reaches every one of us. Or none of us at all.

*          *          *

David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of ecology, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.comwhere he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

This entry was posted on November 22, 2018. 2 Comments

When Life is a Game

When Life is a Game
David Weiss, October 19, 2018

I don’t reflect on my Mom’s “descent” to be morbid or melancholy … and surely not to be voyeuristic. If you feel discomforted, turn away. I do it because it’s what I do: wrap life in words as carefully and compassionately as I can. From what I see and hear—and feel—I could write a book, but I can only bear to write brief glimpses. You won’t catch the whole story here, just a moment.

I’m in town for a visit that happens to coincide with my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary, but I came less to celebrate than to keep company. “Festive” is overstatement. Quiet accompaniment with rare moments of bright joy is more accurate. And more than enough.

Mom’s dementia creeps. No precipitous decline, just a slow unraveling of self, thread by thread, row by row, the fabric of her life coming undone. Like Bansky’s recent self-shredding art prank happening in the slowest motion possible, but inexorably self-consuming nonetheless.

In Mom’s case her energy remains painfully unfocused during the day. She’ll describe herself to me as “a lazy woman,” with a mix of resignation and contempt. “No oomph,” she says almost apologetically, but with no capacity to marshal any fresh oomph from anywhere.

She used to comment to me on knick-knacks and pictures around the house all day long during my visits. Like memories shooting out of the past from one item after another. This time there’s hardly any of that until just before bedtime, when, like a child with frantic energy at the end of recess, she flits from a plant to a little crocheted trinket to another plant, to a book, to a photo—each time pointing it out to me as though I need to know this right now. As though desperate to delay the bedtime she knows is here.

I suspect this is at least partly because she never sleeps with just Dad and herself anymore. Her hearing has become so acute that at bedtime she sleeps—or tries to—with every heart beat echoing in her head. A little too much “me time” for her own comfort. It may be that thoughts, as well as heart beats, crowd in at the end of the day. I don’t know. But I wonder.

This visit I also notice her waning interest in interaction. People sometimes measure their social energy in “spoons,” saying, “I only have so many spoons (of energy) to use in a day, and I have to spread them around.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I’m all out of spoons, and if I don’t get some alone time, I’ll crash and burn.” My mom seems down to her last spoons for interaction. Yes, she still enjoys interaction over cribbage or Scrabble, and occasional bursts of conversation (especially at bedtime), but once those spoons are spent, she’s in her own world.

Which is mostly word puzzles or solitaire—both of which she castigates herself for. “I play too much of this game (solitaire) … it bothers my arthritis, but I just try to go slowly.” And “I don’t know why I let myself get caught up in these word puzzles, but I do. Yes, that’s you, Carol. That’s you.” I think she finds both activities self-soothing because her memory doesn’t play hide-and-seek there. But beneath the level of her conscious thoughts she wishes it were otherwise.

Conversation, I think, simply requires too much effort to do for very long. And most tasks—even pretty basic ones—require a sense of purposeful energy that escapes her. But these simple games can still challenge her within a framework of predictability. As do cribbage and Scrabble, where the interaction is made “manageable” by the rules and rhythm of the games. Plus, they let her use the part of her mind that’s still pretty reliable.

Even during mealtimes this week, with just three of us at the table—me, Dad, Mom—she brought her crossword to the table one day, and worked silently on words while eating with us … but in a place quite her own. Twice at supper she finished her food and cleared her place to play solitaire while Dad and I still ate and talked. As though she could not bear the effort of tracking a conversation (let alone joining it), and so it was more comforting to retreat into the familiar patterns of her games.

These games, they are … a bit … like a stuffed animal to cling to. I don’t mean that pejoratively. I mean somehow these patterned activities give her a foothold in a world that seems increasingly off kilter. You can almost see it on her face when she becomes absorbed in them. It is calmness on the far side of disquiet, but not quite as far on the far side as she would prefer.

For Mom, these days, life is a game. And in an imperfect world, unraveling thread by thread, perhaps a game is enough.

Pulling ‘little Jimmy’ out of the fire

Pulling ‘little Jimmy’ out of the fire: on faith, works, and the unsafe goodness of God
David R. Weiss – Pilgrim Lutheran Church (St. Paul, MN) – September 2, 2018

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 2: 1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

At Pilgrim, each week the preacher selects a short contemporary quote that highlights a theme in their sermon. This was my bulletin quote: “If Jesus did in fact say that [“The poor you always have with you” John 12:8], it is a divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.” ~Kurt Vonnegut, “Palm Sunday Sermon” in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981).

*     *     *

Lutherans tend to look the other way when James shows up in the lectionary. After today’s reading, you can understand why. We just heard James ask, “What good is it, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (2:14) And he immediately answers his own question: NO, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17)

Such words sit very uncomfortably alongside Luther’s claim that we are reconciled to God by grace through faith, as a free gift apart from anything we do, a claim that is at the very heart of the Reformation. No surprise then that James was not among Luther’s favorite books. In fact, he called it an “epistle of straw” and questioned its place in the New Testament canon.

Imagine this fanciful scene, some version of which really did happen; the words go back to Luther himself: Luther and a circle of students and colleagues are gathered around a table in his home (as was his habit) discussing theology over snacks and beer. Tonight they turn to James and the conversation grows animated as they catalog the theological mischief sown by this epistle. There’s a fire in the hearth at the edge of the room, and suddenly Luther opens his Bible to the book of James itself—just a few pages. He grabs them, as though to yank them out of the book, and utters in a tone that carries both humor and honest anger, “Were it up to me, why I’d throw little Jimmy into the fire!”

He said that.

Well, my life sits on the floor in that room near the edge of the hearth. My thirty-plus years as student-scholar-teacher-practitioner of theology are an attempt to say, YES, it’s possible—as a Lutheran—to be a “Jamesian Christian.”

I heard that phrase—Jamesian Christian—for the first time just this past summer, but it captures the intuition of my own faith as far back as Wartburg Seminary in the early 80’s. Somewhere, boxed up in my basement, I have a paper I wrote for a first-year Theology class. I poured the passion of my heart and mind into it. I received high marks for the clarity of my thought and writing—and an underlined note of caution about my “tendency to flirt with ‘works righteousness’.” It was a polite but real warning that, if I wasn’t careful, Luther would be casting metoward the fire next.

I thought—way back then … and for every year since—that my professor misread my passion for gospel-driven justice as somehow threatening the primacy of grace. Perhaps Luther would think so, too. But my own lived experience—intuited in thought, announced in words, embodied in deeds—is that the gospel drives justice so inexorablythat any attempt to draw a line between the two, even if theoretically possible, is unfaithful to the single sweeping movement of God in the world.

I understand Luther’s apprehension about James. Particularly, in the Reformation era—when “faith” had been largely reduced to a matter of obligatory works, some of them “good,” many of them little more than empty traditions—James was apparently invoked by church leaders to support a view of faith that everything to do with obedience to power and little if anything to do with Gospel.

I get that. But I worry nonetheless that Luther’s fiery dismissal of James misses the truth carried within his challenging words. So I intend to pull “Little Jimmy” out of the fire this morning. To do that we’ll give a nod to other readings today, but we’ll hear from Kurt Vonnegut, and a word about Aslan, the lion in Narnia. By the end, I’d like to think, if Luther were here today, he’d agree that—rightly understood—it’s only by keeping faith and works in a living relationship that we bear witness to the grace of God.

So here we go.

In Deuteronomy Moses charges the people of Israel to keep God’s commandments. He exhorts them to faithfully pass on these “statutes and ordinances” from one generation to the next. We Christians—Lutherans, in particular—have a hard time hearing the good news in Moses’ words. We hear the beginning of “the Law” under which people will only ever know the judgment of God for falling short.

But hearing it that way fails to remember that the God of Moses is also the God of Jesus. The covenant extended to Israel, while different in history and detail than the covenant extended to us through Jesus, is no less marked by grace. It also fails to listen carefully to those living within that first covenant still today. Jewish life, in all its theological and cultural diversity, is marked far more by reverence and joy than by burden.

Still, the early rabbis tallied them up at 613, these statutes and ordinances commended by Moses—and that does seem like a lot of rules. But in graduate school I heard a Jewish scholar liken them to “love notes” being passed between God and God’s people. All. Day. Long. Each action an embodied whisper of devotion spoken through the mundane rhythm of daily life. 613 love notes.

There are, of course, Ten “big ones”; we know them as the Ten Commandments. But, here, too, we miss something. In Hebrew, the verb form translated as “imperative”—as command—is actually the same as “future” tense. Only context—or perspective—determines whether it’s best to translate such words as a divine demand on the present … or a gracious promise for the future.

I find it … truthfully evocative …. to imagine the words of that covenant, offered at Sinai—to newly freed slaves—not as a new set of authoritarian rules but as a series of alluring, wedding-like promises.

“Now that I have brought you out of Egypt, let me—YAHWEH—tell you what our life together will be like …” And then, lovingly, God describes a future in which, through mutual love, the name of the God who liberated them will never be mis-used to harm others. In which killing and theft and deceit will be unknown because the depth of love between God and God’s people will empower a different type of life together. A promised life.

These are words of GRACE, my friends. And when the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others—rail against Israel for her shortcomings, it’s because their communal life is failing to echo the grace of that original covenant. The prophetic call to repentance is not a call back to a rigorous-but-doomed-to-fail obedience to the law. It’s a call back to grace. And it sounds a lot like the Epistle of James … and a lot like Jesus.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus at first seems to support our tendency to see Jewish “statutes and ordinances,” in these verses called “the traditions of the elders,” as empty actions. But Jesus quotes Isaiah—who is speaking for God—to explain what’s lacking: “their hearts are far from me.” Those 613 “love notes”—including the one about hand-washing—are being written in Jesus’ day … with no love in the heart.

Instead the religious leaders now cynically “manage” those “love notes” so as to consolidate and preserve their own power. In essence they mis-use words uttered with love to newly freed slaves … to re-enslave the children of Israel to a false, loveless, understanding of God.

That, of course, is exactly Luther’s Reformation declaration. He isn’t talking about empty Jewish traditions, but his claim is the same—that church leaders in his day have fashioned an abundance, a burden, of obligatory deeds in which faith is no longer the response of the heart to God’s gracious love, but a frantic, anxious attempt to earn what has already been freely offered. And, while Jesus is obviously not one of the Hebrew prophets, he stands in their lineage, announcing once again the scandalously unconditional love of God as the basis for human community. A love so dynamic, so powerful, that it cannot help but unleash waves of mercy, compassion, and justice in its wake.

Then, how do we read James’ words about faith, if NOT as a direct challenge to Luther’s conviction that the gospel is utterly free? I find the novelist and essayist Kurt Vonnegut helpful here. Hardly an esteemed biblical scholar—not even a self-identified Christian—he grew weary of hearing “good” Christians excuse the ongoing suffering caused by poverty by citing Jesus’ words in John 12, “the poor will be with you always.” As though Jesus is conveying God’s will about the way things will always be. Vonnegut countered that in John 12 Jesus is responding directly to Judas about his feigned concern over the costly ointment just used by a woman to lovingly anoint Jesus’ feet. For Vonnegut, the passage “says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.” In words fringed with prophetic sarcasm, Jesus is saying to Judas—and to the rest of us: “So as long as you lack genuine love in your life, your world will always include poor.” The persistence of poverty doesn’t reflect God’s priorities; it reflects our priorities.

So, following Vonnegut’s reading of John 12, does James really mean that faith will not save us? If you read, even the rest of the verses assigned for today, let alone the rest of the Epistle, it’s clear that James is writing to a community that believes it can claim faith in Jesus without addressing the deep inequities of wealth in its midst. A community that believes it can, in good “faith,” kiss the hand of the wealthy while treating the poor dismissively. James’ words have the same edge as Jesus’s words. He means: “Do you really think it’s the “gospel” you heard, if your own community is still so misshapen by injustice?! Do you really think it’s “faith” you have, if it isn’t leading you to care for the poor?!”

James isn’t interested in protecting some “pure” notion of faith from flirting with good works. No, he’s alarmed—angered—at the notion of “Christian faith” that thinks it can build walls between have and have-nots … while being Christian. With prophetic zeal, James says if you want to pat yourselves on the back for your “faith,” while ignoring the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the prisoners … or immigrants, Black lives, those who say #MeToo, or others targeted by social bias—well, whatever “faith” lets you ignore these persons is notsaving faith, is notgospel faith, is not faith in the scandalous graciousness of God who liberates slaves in the same motion as justifying sinners. Faith in that God cannot be kept back from chasing after mercy, compassion, and justice.

Finally, an image from C. S. Lewis’ tales of Narnia is instructive. When the four children first stumble into Narnia, they’re told they must meet Aslan, the King of Narnia. At first they’re excited, but upon learning that Aslan, who stands for Jesus in Lewis’ fantasy of Christian faith, is a Lion, they nervously ask, “But, then, is he safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

This is the truth of James’ epistle. The luring power of God’s gracious love—expressed both in the covenant with Israel and again in the ministry of Jesus—is not safe, but it is profoundly good.

This Goodness claims each of us in love exactly as we are, and in the same breath that it claims us, this Goodness also beckons us to join in announcing and extending that love to others. Not only in words, but also in liberating deeds. And in this world—where walls rise up, where rhetoric demonizes, where structures impoverish, and where bias can kill—in this world that work—which is entirely bound up with hearing the gospel in the first place—is never safe. But it is profoundly, graciously good.

Which is why, from my place on the floor between Luther’s table and the blazing hearth, I snatch “Little Jimmy” out of the fire, before the first page even lights in flame, and I say to an astonished Luther, “Wait, friend, James isn’t arguing with you. He’s arguing for the power of the Gospel you’re so excited about. He’s insisting that it never be walled off from the unsafe goodness of God.”

And as we know, my friends, there are those in the world today still waiting to be touched by that Goodness. May we find ways to touch them. Amen.

*     *     *

David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

 

It’s Treason! Reflections under a Dictatorship

It’s Treason! Reflections under a Dictatorship

By Bradley Christopher from inside Uganda, August 25, 2018

August 13, 2018, was the final campaign day for candidates vying for the Arua Municipality MP (Member of Parliament) slot in far NW Uganda. The post fell vacant after the assassination of theformer area MP, apparently for peddling Mr. Museveni’s “life presidency” project. National television networks in Uganda had camped in Arua for days, frequently airing live reports as the country followed every twist and turn in the hotly contested race with held breath.

As has become tradition in Ugandan politics, aspirants invite ‘bigwigs’ from Kampala to boost their ratings and amplify their message. The heavier the bigwig, the better. Contestants from theruling NRM typically invite Mr. Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 33 years and counting. But after three decades in power, he has run low on lies and characteristically reminds his audience “where he brought the country from,” promises a local youth or women’s group a few million shillings (couple thousand U.S. dollars) and warns them of faltering government services should they not vote his candidate of choice.

Opposition-leaning candidates on the other hand could count on Retired Colonel Dr. Kizza Besigye. He is the poster child of political opposition in Uganda having challenged Mr. Museveni 4 times for the presidency, losing each time in elections marred by intimidation and worse. Since his maiden run against Mr. Museveni in 2001, he has lived and experienced everything imaginable that an opponent can be subjected to under a dictatorship, including trumped up charges of rape and treason (the favorite pet charge), as well as countless grave assaults, detentions and imprisonment. He has endured deep personal loss—as when his younger brother was carted off to prison on hispolitical account under a phony charge of murder, assaulted in detention, denied medication, and ultimatelydied in prison. This lengthy CV has endeared Dr. Besigye to the Ugandan masses and a mere rumor that he will be in town easily raises huge crowds. Just so we are clear, this fact has not changed. But then enter Bobi Wine!

Bobi Wine shortly after being sworn in as a Member of Parliament in 2017. (AP)

Bobi Wine, until early last year, was just like any other Ugandan pop star. That he was successful in the realms of music and acting in Uganda is uncontested; I dare say he is an accomplished poet as well, although his poetry is more often interwoven in his music rather than stand-alone pieces of art. Born Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, 12 February 1982, Robert shot to the limelight in the early 2000s with a new version of Ugandan pop on a music scene that had been hitherto dominated by Congolese music. His songs, even from early days were songs of justice, frequently advocating for the betterment of the ghetto youth. That pattern remained consistent with the crowning moment in July 2017 when he was elected area Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East beating his opponents by the biggest margin by any current MP in Uganda, in an area barely 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Kampala City Center.

Again, just so we are clear, both NRM (National Resistance Movement), Mr. Museveni’s party, and FDC (Forum for Democratic Change), Dr Besigye’s party, fielded seasoned politicians against him, but he and his “people power” message sent his opponents to a crushing defeat. He has since delivered three more parliamentary victories to the “opposition” in a period spanning less than six months, throwing his “people power” support in turn behind the 2018 victories of Paul Mwiru, JinjaEast (March 14), Asuman Basalirwa, Bugiri Municipality (July 27), and Kasiano Wadri, Arua Municipality (August 15).

As the sun set on August 13, and Mr. Museveni’s armored convoy snaked out of Arua town, he knew his candidate of choice, an additional parliamentary rubber stamp to his dictatorship stood no chance. The voices of thousands of young men and women that came out and chanted “people power, our power” had not only thundered through the streets but also ripped through the heart of the dictator.

Bobi Wine in court after being badly beaten in custody. (Getty)

Under the cover of darkness, the army sealed off hotels where the opposition candidate and strategists were, brutalized journalists, stole their equipment and belongings, arrested scores of MPs and their staff, shot dead Bobi Wine’s driver, and released a photo-shopped picture of a shattered hind window of a presidential convoy SUV, apparently stoned by “people power” supporters. What a shame!

Almost a fortnight later, Bobi Wine’s driver is now buried; a widow and eleven orphans left behind, MP Francis Zaake, was brutalized and dumped at Nsambya Hospital, left for dead. He continues to receive treatment there. And Bobi Wine, due to the injuries he sustained while in custody, can’t walk unaided. After a short stint in the Court Martial, he has since joined 32 others atthe Gulu civil prison on charges of, guess what? Treason!

Bobi Wine after his court appearance. (Ghetto TV / GULU)

But as one born and raised in Uganda, awed by her natural beauty and cultural riches, yet troubled by the long history of political violence and corruption, I cannot help but ask, in these times is it treason to press for change? Or is the real treason to maintain one’s power and wealth at the expense of democracy, justice, and civil freedom? Many Ugandans are asking the same question. And the voices get louder each day.

 

Bradley Christopher is the pseudonym of a friend I met third-hand while in Uganda several years ago. Unsettled by recent events in his homeland, he reached out to me asking if I might help him offer an inside view to those on the outside. This is one such view. ~David

For further reading, these two articles provide helpful news reports of the recent events:

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/uganda-bobi-wine-arrested/568549/

http://vanguardafrica.com/africawatch/2018/8/16/ugandas-dictatorship-becomes-increasingly-brazen

 

On Joy, Junk, and Honey Pots

“On Joy, Junk, and Honey Pots – A Sermon in Three Acts”

UCC Focus Text and Theme: 2 Sam 6: 1-5, 12b-19 “God-inspired Joy”

David R. Weiss – July 15, 2018 – St. Paul’s UCC (St. Paul, MN)

Children’s Message:In today’s reading King David has a big box that he’s bringing into Jerusalem, the city where his palace is – and he’s pretty excited about it. Now our box (just a big cardboard box) here is just plain, pretty new, and empty. So you’ll need to use your imaginations because David’s box was very decorated, very old—about 300 years old!—and, most important, it had some really special things in it.

In fact, while David led the box—called “the Ark of the Covenant”—into the city, he was dancing like crazy he was so excited, so happy. But why? What was in this big box that could make a grown man—a king!—risk looking silly in front of all his people? Well, two big flat pieces of rock. But not just any rock, these rocks had writing on them.They held God’s Covenant: Ten Promises to the people of Israel.

Now this is really important, because it helps you understand why King David was so excited. (And besides, most of the gown-ups don’t even know this, so you might need to explain it to them later on.) Sometimes we call these the Ten Commandments, like they’re ten really important rules. Almost like God is wagging a great big finger at us each time and saying, “Now you better not do this, and you better not do that …”

No.These are “imagine-with-me-promises.”They’re ten things God said to the people of Israel as if to say, “Now listen, this is what our life together can look like … I will be your God, and you will be my people, and you will love me more than anything else in the world … And because my very name means freedom and good news, you’ll never even want to use my name to hurt anyone—I mean, how could you? … And each week we’ll set aside one day to just enjoy each other’s company—won’t that be great? And because we’ll build a whole life around love, your children will grow up loving their parents … and there won’t be any killing, or any cheating, or any stealing, or any lying, and nobody will get jealous.”

Those aren’t rules.Why would David be so excited about a box of rules? No, they’re promises: “imagine-with-me” promises spoken by God about what life can look like when we put LOVE first of all. King David was so excited—silly excited—because he was already carrying these promises in his heart, but now he knew that the big box carrying the flat rocks that these promises were first written on was going to be at home in his city. No wonder he danced with joy.

And whenever youremember the promises of what might be—what can be—when God loves us and we love God, you might also finding yourself dancing with joy.

*     *     *

Message for adults:

First—a concluding word about my message to the children. Probably any of us who learned the Decalogue—the “Ten Words” of the covenant God made with Israel on Mount Sinai—learned them as “Ten Commandments.” I don’t mean to argue about that. Well, I suppose I do, a little bit. In Hebrew the verb form translated as “imperative”—as command—is actually the same as “future” tense. Only context—or perspective—determines whether it’s best to translate it as demand … or promise. I simply want us to remember that the God we recognize as still speaking today has alwaysbeen a God of gracious promises, even when our ears weren’t attuned to hear them as such. We have a mostly checkered relationship with the Ten Commandments. It might do us good to try relating to them as Promisesfor a while. And maybe the kids can help us learn how to do that.

Okay, on to my message: “On Joy, Junk, and Honey Pots – A Sermon in Three Acts”

Act One: The King’s Joy . . . and the King’s Junk

Sure, it was covered in gold, this big crate. But it was something like 300 years old. And it had seen better days. Been through sandstorms during the forty years that the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. Been through battles, too. Sometimes victorious, sometimes not—and at least once captured by a foreign army. It was, no doubt, showing its age by the time King David brought it to Jerusalem.

Nevertheless the Ark of the Covenant had been the stuff of legend from its very beginning. It held the stone tablets containing the ten covenantal promises God made to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was regarded as Israel’s most sacred objectand the tales associated with it, both miraculous and frightful, wrapped this box in a mix of wonder and dread. Besides holding the stone tablets, the Ark was seen as home to the very presence of God.

Now, after having been carried by these people to and fro for several centuries, the Ark was coming to Jerusalem, the capital city of David’s united kingdom. It was coming home.

David’s fascination with the Ark had less to do with itsmany legends and more to do with hissingular love for God.

David loved Israel’s God—Yahweh, their liberator, the Holy One who pledged a future framed by justice and mercy—with a pure passion that was unique among Israel’s kings. In fact, despite his failings and flaws—and there were some big ones!—David’s exuberantlove for God became the standard against which every other kingin Israel’s history was measured. And nearly all of them were found wanting.

Because David loved God so dearly—with something like a mystic’s zeal as can be heard in his many psalms—he was entirely overcome with joy at the prospect of bringing this ancient well-traveled mysterious box to rest in a tent specially built to be its home in the city that was also David’s home.

And it is this joy that brings us to the king’s junk. Sometimes the Bible is so honest it catches you short. We read that David was giddy at God’s presence. So much so that, wearing only a linen ephod, he leapt and danced with total joy before the Ark as it was brought into the city. Now that linen ephod was something like a cross between a loincloth, an apron, and a hospital gown.

And this was the measure of the king’s joy: that both the royal jewels and the king’s junk were on full display as he danced. That’swhy his wife Michal despiseshim when she glances out the window in verse 16. Right after ourreading ended, in verse 20, she accuses her husband, David, the king, of having“uncovered” himself in front of the palace maids as any vulgar fellow might. Unfazed, David replies in verses 21-22, “You can’t even imagine my joy at the presence of God, you have no idea.”

Sometimes showing your junk is the risk you take to be clear about your joy.

Act Two: A Different Kind of Junk . . . A Different Kind of Joy

My Grandma Belling—my maternal grandmother—was the type of grandma who—like the Ark of the Covenant—filled you with a mix of wonder and dread. She was a stiff, stoic, stern German Lutheran woman. Her lips were almost always pursed in something just short of a frown, even when she was happy. I would not call her “wistful.”

But it seems she hada wistful side in her younger years. In the 1920’s and 30’s, over a sixteen-year period, she gave birth to nine children, eight of whom lived into adulthood. She loved them all, with a stern quiet joy. But during those years I’m told she also spoke often—wistfully—ofher hope that she might have a Christmas baby. Just like Mary. She prayed for this. But it never happened. Not to her.

But at 4:28 a.m. on Christmas morning, 1959, my mother, the youngest of my grandma’s eight children, gave birth to me. Grandma Belling died when I was eleven years old, but for those eleven years this woman of wonder and dread regarded meas the answer to her prayer. It was a regard that rested upon me with its own mix of wonder and dread.

Moved by the timing of my birth, my parents gave me a “Christmas name.” They didn’t dare name me Jesus, of course. And they didn’t care for Joseph or Zechariah or Simeon. Thankfully, they steered clear of Herod as well. They named me David—after King David—because, in Luke’s Christmas story, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “the city of David.”

SoI’m named for this king who danced with such joy in today’s first reading. Maybe that makes me particularly well-suited to preach on this text, EXCEPT—… while I doshare David’s passionate, nearly all-consuming love for God … and I share with him, as well, some rather big flaws and failings, I have never been on such intimate terms with joy as King David was.

So this is a glimpse at MY junk: I livewith anxiety and depression. Some of it is just my temperament: in spiritual terms I have melancholy. Some of it is connected to trauma earlier in my life. On my better days I live with an understated inner quietness, knowing with cheerful irony that much of the time what strikes people around me as inner peace is just my exhaustion at simply being alive. But there are occasional days when a sense of nothingness swallows me whole and I prefer not even to come downstairs. Maybe thatmakes me uniquely UNqualified to preach about a text on joy. But listen to these words, which I wrote just over a decade ago:

For most of my intensely spiritual journey, I have felt nothing, or better said, Nothing[with a capital N]. No warm feeling in my heart. No soothing sense of peace. No creed held with calm (or fierce) conviction. I have lived in stillness—and yet I have known all along that it was a BreezeI longed for. I have always sensed, in a way just beyond the reach of words, that it was the Wind of Godthat stopped just short of touching me. I have felt the absence of God to such an unmistakable degree that God’s absence has been an unmistakable presence in my life.

Growing up in the Midwest, framed by forested hills and rich farmland, I spent years yearning for a lush, green spirituality, one full with palpable and obvious evidence of life. I felt nothing. I looked around inside myself, and where I hoped to see verdant fields or deep woods, I saw only vast stretches of barren land, sand that occasionally shifted in the Wind, but showed no sign of life, except for a cactus here or there, which only seemed to highlight the inhospitality of my inner terrain.

But what I came to learn is that the desert literally teems with life. Certainly not as lush as other places, not as crowded in green. But if you are Still. If you sit in Silence, in that place where the Wind Itself rests, you begin to see a landscape with life enough to fill a heart with wonder.

That was a decade ago. You see, mine has been a long meandering path. And I have neverdanced with wild abandon like King David did. I doubt I ever will. But not every instance of Joy comes as exuberance. And unless I let you see my junk, you can’t fathom my joy.

Act Three: Winnie the Pooh and his Honey Pots, too.

I’m going to close with a few words about Winnie the Pooh. And by now, I trust you recognize I’m not merely trying to be cute.

There is a tale in which Pooh and his friends are out adventuring and realize they are lost. If I remember, right, Tigger is mostly unfazed, but also mostly frenetically unhelpful. Fear sets in with Piglet; panic begins with Rabbit; and resignation is voiced by Eyeore. But it is Pooh who finally leads them home. Here’s how the scene plays out:

Pooh’s tummy rumbles. Piglet asks in a trembling voice, “W-w-what was that, Pooh?” Laughing Pooh replies, “My tummy rumbled. Now then – come on, let’s go home.” Piglet asks, “But Pooh, do you know the way?”And Pooh responds calmly, “No, Piglet, but I’ve got twelve pots of honey in my cupboard, and they’ve been calling to my tummy.” “They have?” Piglet asks incredulously. “Yes, Piglet.” Pooh announces. “I couldn’t hear them before because Rabbit was talking so much. I think I know where they’re calling from now, so come on. We’ll just follow my tummy.”

As for me, do I know the way to Joy? No, I don’t. There are days when my anxiety prattles away like Rabbit, or my depression sounds a lot like Eyeore’s resignation—only not nearly so cute. I don’t know the way. But I know this. Like Pooh, my tummy rumbles. And that rumbling bears witness to a truth deeper than anxiety or depression—or anything else in life.

That rumbling whispers, “justice is possible—and if not perfectly so, then dammit chase after it imperfectly.” It reminds me, “every instance of suffering is held in the heart of God—if you would find God, then go to where the suffering is and meet God there.” It declares with quiet resolve, “peace is the fruit of love—so love one another, that you might know peace.”

And, yes, my friends, that rumbling—though I can barely imagine it myself—sometimes dances with a joy far beyond words, its exuberant movementproclaiming, “God loves YOU, and you have no idea how much.”

Like Pooh, we have Honey Pots that call out to us. Our Honey Pots include the stories we tell from Scripture. The bread and the wine we share in Holy Communion. The water we sprinkle in baptism. The music that fills this space during worship.

But, just as much as these, our Honey Pots alsoinclude the stories of our lives shared with one another. The fair trade coffee hour as well as other meals we gather for. The restless longing we have for a world that truly reflects God’slonging for justice. And even the simple warmth with which we greet each other.Those, too, are Honey Pots.

And if we, too, listen to the rumbling in our tummy, it will lead us unfailingly to Joy. And that’s gospel—good news—for each of us.

So I hope you leave today with a deeper appreciation of King David’s joy—and perhaps a quiet smirk at his junk. With the recognition that there are other types of joy and other types of junk. And with a keener awareness of the rumbling in your own tummy—and a fresh attentiveness to the Honey Pots in our midst.

Amen.

drw59mn@gmail.com

This entry was posted on July 15, 2018. 1 Comment