Sea Shell Sin

I saw an author’s self-written blurb on the back of a recent book of his, and was struck (read: aghast!) at what it said. Read it, then I’ll tell you why I’m writing this.

The author (a well-known Christian preacher/teacher) wrote:

I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider this story from the February 1998 Reader’s Digest: A couple ‘took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball and collect shells..’ Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: ‘Look, Lord. See my shells.’ That is a tragedy.”

The author, a second generation preacher, continues:

This book will warn you not to get caught up in a life that counts for nothing. It will challenge you to live and die boasting in the cross of Christ and making the glory of God your singular passion. If you believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain, read this, learn to live for Christ, and don’t waste your life.”

To have the audacity to be able to claim what constitutes a life “that counts for nothing” reveals a very large ego. I personally find that the larger a person’s ego is, the greater the chances are that it is also misshapen. Perhaps that audacity arises from the fact that the author is a preacher, and that his dad also was a preacher is not insignificant. Many preachers believe they are role models for how people should live their lives (just don’t come poking around in the cupboard under the sink: you might find some shells there, or other things).

They believe and teach, just like the main speaker at any pyramid sales event, that “Everyone is a prospect! Everyone needs what you have! Walk the walk, don’t take ‘No’ for an answer.” To be a real Christian, a true Christian, an on-your-way-to-heaven Christian, according to those listen-to-me preachers, you’ve got to tell everyone about Jesus. Everyone! Don’t miss an opportunity anywhere – at the bus stop, the restaurant, on an airplane, or at home! Hand out tracts, carry your biggest Bible, and wear necklaces, tie-tacs, lapel pins, tattoos, bumper stickers, or t-shirts that will let the world know that-

You. Are. A. Christian.

Christianity, after all, is about words- spoken, written, and memorized- right? It’s about getting that person at the bus stop (if you’re way lucky) to say a prayer, your prayer, the one printed right here on this tract, repeat after me: The Sinner’s Prayer, “God, I am a piece of worthless trash…” Etc.

Once you’ve said The Sinner’s Prayer, you’re in! Now you’ve got to tell other people the Good News, and to find what the Good News is, go to a church, maybe even our church. And don’t collect shells. They are a waste of time. As is everything except the speaking, writing, and memorizing of Bible words.  Softball? End that nonsense, too! And a 30-foot trawler??? That needs to be sold, right now, and the money- a tithe at least- given to a church, maybe even our church, almost certainly our church! (We did get you into heaven, right? And away from that sordid shell addiction? Also, we’re upgrading the air-conditioning at the parsonage, too, so we could use some extra help. God will bless you for that, indeed he will).

Feeling obligated to “save” the soul of every person you see, to tell your version of God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ, and to try to keep up with the people who are running from you or turning a deaf ear toward you, is an exhausting process. It’s exhausting because you either are doing it, or not doing it, and when you’re not doing it you feel guilty or ashamed because you think you should be doing it. People will burn in hell just because you wanted to watch the Mavericks and the Spurs on TV tonight!

Here’s my opinion about what is revealed in that back-page blurb above. And do be aware, in fairness, that the author is also very adept and anxious to point out who is going to hell and why; he would no doubt include me, with glee, in the great majority army who will burn, baby, burn. C’est la vie. Or, rather, c’est la mort.

The author believes in beliefs. He is not alone. Believing in beliefs it is a plague, particularly in the U.S. Belief in belief reduces the majesty, grandeur, and mystery of God to a series of codified rules which are enforced by spiritual superiors, uncritically swallowed because of the fear of not swallowing, and which completely deny the Truths taught and lived by Jesus the Christ.

Belief is about knowledge- what you know- what you read, write, listen to, and memorize. In belief, you learn what to think, how to say it properly, and then are able to consider yourself to be special (elected, chosen, better) for having learned, memorized, and regurgitated the right beliefs- the orthodoxies of others. Faith, the faith lived by Jesus, plays only a very small role.

Faith is about not-knowing. It is about moving forward without knowing the right words, or the consequences. It is about stepping into the Mystery of God, and looking around. The chances are excellent that when you do that, you will feel the desire to learn more about the depth and width and timelessness of that Mystery and that is when you will hear- or, more likely- feel the words, “Follow me.”

When that happens, you might be led to a Jesus-attending dinner party of tax-collectors and sinners, or to a wedding party with more wine than you’ve ever seen in one place. You may be led to break the religious laws again and again because they were turned into legalities by tight-lipped, judgmental preachers. If Jesus is your companion on this journey you will be a revolutionary for real, unearned and unqualified Love; you will fall in love with the revealed Grace and Love of God, and then you’ll realize that the God that fit inside of your imagination for so long wanted you to experience the explosion of God’s continuing Creation. You’ll realize that Truth, real Truth, always leads to more questions. You’ll see the idols that people can make of their beliefs, the forts they build around them, and the defenses they will use to mask their fears.

There’s nothing wrong with belief; but it must be ready to bend, even ready to be thrown out when it no longer is valid- when a newer “truer” Truth takes its place. We can believe in God or have faith in God. The former tends to make God small, while latter tends to make us larger. It may cause us to want to be part of a community which plays..oh, I don’t know..maybe, softball? Or it may cause us to bend over, in increasing awe and always-growing Mystery, and see God’s perfect, evolving and creating Beauty..in a seashell.

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Mung

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Mung

Where we would one day
in the locker room
talk of girls and Vietnam,

Today,
hanging, squatting,
entwined in the bars of the jungle gym
We talked about the most horrible

Thing

we could imagine
Tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine

“Mung” someone said. This:

Hang a dead opossum on the clothesline
for two weeks
in the middle of summer.
And then, and then
and then
Slap the bloated falling apart thing
in the stomach
with a 2 X 4.
Whatever comes out of its nose
and mouth
is

Mung.

Where we would one day
in the locker room
talk too loudly about
those things of which we were

most afraid,

Today,
we laughed
and hollered, “Gross!” and “Yuck!”
and laughed at the unimaginable
before recess was
over.

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by David B.Weber 2006

Raspberry Pie

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3 Cups red raspberries from a small Amish farm
1 Cup sugar gathered over time
from the nectar of hyacinths

A Tablespoon of never-chilled cream,
delivered with haste from the dairy barn

Place the ingredients
in a green ceramic bowl
and allow a small child with clean hands
to squeeze the mixture to the exact point where
the child tires of it..
Now, in high anticipation
and with a steady grasp, add:
Slowly, a quarter pound of butter
from the cream of a Jersey cow
fed only on coastal grass
and cracked sweet corn and..

Enough flour that,
when cooked over a fire formed of ash and live oak,
with just enough water to, when stirred,
it becomes a soft pearl-like paste..

Bend now and smell the raspberry melange one last time
before it is transposed
by slathering it with a wooden spatula
onto a crust of broken and crushed sugar cookies
pressed against the bottom and sides
of a cast iron skillet
and moistened with drops of newly stirred lemonade,

Now heat it through in a clay oven laid over the remnants
of the fire where wheat and water became one
and where you must stand now and allow
the ashes red glow
to transport you into the fondest memories
of your young adulthood.

When those memories have run their course,
the pie is ready to be removed
from the clay-contained heat
to a tabletop
upon which a red and white checked tablecloth
hemmed by someone’s grandmother before 1975 has been placed.
When the temperature of the pie is such that
the small child who stirred it
can place her tongue against the iron skillet
without harm and with delight,
the pie is ready

To be eaten.

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words by David Weber 2007

Decoration Day

graveyard-Church

It rained last night, so the road up to the church is muddy this morning.
Bro. Carter made it up, I see, so let’s give it a try.

Goddammit.
Now, Bill, it’s Sunday.
Shit.

Watch your feet when you get out.
I’m going over to have a cigarette. Be right there.

He walks a ways then kicks the mud off on the side of a tombstone:

Pfc. Walter Prescott
Arkansas Volunteers
1842-1864

Bill remembers standing there fifty years ago-
Has it really been that long?-
when Bro. Hubbard buried his Daddy
down by that magnolia tree that the kids climbed in
when they were little.
He remembered his Daddy dragging on Camels
in the kitchen after breakfast and coughing ‘til his face
was as red as the plum jelly smeared over toast on the
plate in front of him..

And then one day his Momma came to the schoolhouse
and said, C’mon, Daddy’s gone to be with Jesus
And Bill thought Jesus had finally come back the way
Bro. Hubbard shouted he would be coming back soon.
But Daddy was in the living room under a sheet
and men came and took him to the church
and then Momma cried
and then Momma cried
and then Bill ran to where he was standing now
beside Pfc. Walter Prescott.

Other cars had made it up the hill now and
pretty soon there was some feedback 
screeching through the windows of the church
which meant Bro. Carter’s wife was fixin to sing
and
I guess I better get up there in case Jesus comes today

Bill looked down at the magnolia tree one more time
as he ground his cigarette out and got mud on his shoe
again. Goddammit, anyway.

 

David B. Weber, 2006

The Jesus Holy Name Three-Point Baptist Church

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It smells of wood floor planks cut from the catalpa trees
nearby a hundred years ago.
That, and the aging paper
of hymnals, Bibles,
and the old theatre seats
which were added when the show hall in town
went out of business
right after the town got electricity in the 50s
and everybody started staying
at home to watch Milton Berle.

Sister Carol’s Gibson guitar is lying
up on top of the piano.
She knows three chords:
A, B, and G7
and forces all the hymns into various combinations of them
while she sings along in unknown chords of her own.
She is past 70 now,
but no one would think of asking her to retire
anymore than they would suggest
setting the pulpit on fire.

Bro. Carter drives in two Sundays each month from Dardanelle
to bring the message, but it is almost always the same:
a reading from John 3 ("Ye must be born again!"),
a story or two about persons who met with an untimely death
without having paid attention to John 3,
and a reading of the poem "Footprints",
whether it fits with the message or not,
which it rarely does.

 
Bro. Carter had presented the church with a
framed copy of the poem, in fact,
and it hangs right beside the wooden sign
in which white numbers on black squares
announce the attendance last week- 17-
and the amount of the collection- $58.97.

Years ago there was a coal stove
about halfway down the east side of the building
which someone would volunteer for a month at a time
to come early and get lit.
Since the early 60s there are
five strategically placed electric resistance heaters
around the room which hum metallically
through the service on winter days.

On the west side of the building there is a cemetery,
begun there back when the church was a log cabin.
Some of the Arkansas Volunteers were buried there
after their bodies were hauled down from Pennsylvania
wrapped in muslin and salt
after the War.
Down at the bottom of the cemetery are some magnolia trees
and azalea bushes (red) and a mimosa tree
that was planted there by a missionary from Japan
who had come through sometime in the 30s.

In a little while the familiar sounds of the wooden floorboards
will be heard as people make their way to
the seats their grandparents sat in.
It rained last night so there probably won’t be many here this morning
and someone will have to come up later in the week
and sweep the dried mud out.

Good Morning, Sister Brown, Bill with you this morning?
Oh, sure, he’s parking the car. He’ll be in shortly, I expect.
The rain was a real blessing, wasn’t it?
I swear, my garden was about to burn up!
Well, God is good.
Oh, He is, that’s a fact, it surely is.

 

by David B.Weber 2006

The Scapegoat..forgive us our sins

Leviticus 16:6 "Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. 7 Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 8 He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. [a] 9 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat…
21 [The priest] is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.

I grew up at a time when there was a universally identifiable American scapegoat. International Communism was always-increasingly ready and able to reach into our churches, our schools, and into all levels of local, state, and federal government, according to everyone from the head of the F.B.I, J.Edgar Hoover to the local president of the American Legion. Our fifth grade teacher told us how Communist teachers in Russia would tell their pupils to close their eyes and pray to God for candy. When they opened their eyes, of course, there was no candy.

The Russian teacher (ugly, old, and rough) would then challenge her school children to close their eyes and silently thank Premier Khrushchev for leading the great Soviet Socialist Republic. While the Communist children had their eyes shut, the Communist teacher would distribute Communist candy to each miniature Communist.

Those kinds of stories (and there were a legion of them!) embeded themselves in the cognitive topsoil of pre-pubescent children. I am 60 years old now and I still default to some of them. I still hear the word “Communist” and I really do think first of both Khrushchev and his lackey, the teacher with candy. (Who, we also knew with 10 year old sighs of disgust, hated both God and America!)

Later, we would learn (in college while the hysterical heat was dissipating but still ever-present) about Sen.McCarthy, the House on UnAmerican Activities, and Hollywood blacklists. Simultaneously, we watched our peers leaving to fight Communism’s newest evil manifestations in Vietnam. And Cambodia, and Laos, then all of Southeast Asia, then the worllllddddd!!!!

But, just as T.S.Eliot prophesized the whole world one day ending with a whimper, thus did Soviet Communism in fact end. Spread thin around the world, the Soviet war machine led the Republic into bankruptcy, Premier Gorbachev saved face through pretended negotiations with the Americans, and Humpty-Dumpty the Empty Communist Promise fell off the Berlin Wall with a splat.

Ding dong the witch is dead! Which old witch? The Communist witch- our enemy, our evil nemesis, our scapegoat!
It is upon scapegoats that a nation, a family, a political movement, or even a group of teenaged bullies, can project their own fears about themselves, their own disappointments over their lot in life, their personal or national cowardice, their jealousies, their lusts, and their insatiable greed. That goddam Soviet Union just wanted the iron rich mountains of Eastern Europe! That National Liberation Front only wanted to control the seaports and off shore oil drilling in South Vietnam! We simply wanted to spread democracy, religion, and love, sweet love.

We had had such a good scapegoat! We could all focus on that big Red, gluttonous, ill-dressed, rough-talking sword-dragging Soviet Empire that wanted our wealth, our women, and our way of life. But now they were no more.
In fact, now we were doing business with them! We were building churches there, going to college there, drinking their vodka here!!! Our scapegoat was gone! Our great historic means of ridding ourselves of guilt, shame, lust, and unnatural sexual thoughts, was gone!

What could we find to replace it? What could we possibly find that we could hate again with patriotic zeal and God-blessed righteousness? What would give us illusionary friendship with the high and mighty of our nation, companionship with the movers and shakers of Big Business, the attention of that cute brunette in the front office at work? Who could we pile our sins on, blame for all of our personal and national failures, and send into the wilderness to experience the fear, the loneliness, the powerlessness, the fear, the fear, the fear that we so feared…?

Who? What? Tell us..lead us..in the name of the God who looks like us, wants what we want, and will understand if throw out big chunks of Matthew and Luke for the time being and replace them with bigger portions of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the dark and disagreeable Amos. Who What will our new scapegoat be?

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil evilevilevil, whimpering cowardly posturing evil the kind of evil people not like us want to force down our throats just like the communists wanted to spill our precious bodily fluids on the battlefields of our morality..give us this day our daily bread that we have a right to, worked for, demand in the name of all that is holy for thine is the kingdom, our kingdom…

Amen