Whispers..of our Goodness

This was my Christmas Eve message..

I read this particular story about WWI years ago. It has been written about by a number of different authors. As so many even great and moving stories do, though, this one was covered over by time and by other interests. I was reminded of it recently in a most important book, The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. I’m going to read the story exactly as he has written it because it is succinct and moving. I doubt I will ever forget it again. That the story came into my presence is one of those events of synchronicity.

December 24, 1914. In Flanders fields. In present day Belgium the first world war in history was entering its fifth month. Millions of soldiers were bedded down in trenches which criss-crossed the European countryside. Trenches- the last vestiges of Medieval warfare, used defensively against the first fought with modern weaponry. In many places, opposing armies were dug in within thirty to fifty yards of each other and within shouting distance. The conditions were beyond anything we could imagine today. The bitter cold and always wet air chilled to the bone. The trenches were muddy, waterlogged. Soldiers share their space with rats and stench of no latrines was everywhere. Then men slept sitting up to avoid the muck an sludge of their trenches. Dead soldiers littered the no-man’s-land between the trenches, bodies left to decompose within yards of still-living comrades who were unable to collect them for burial.

As dusk fell over the battlefields that Christmas Eve, something extraordinary happened. The Germans were first, and they began lighting candles on thousands of small Christmas trees that had been sent to the front as comfort to the soldiers. The German soldiers then began to sing Christmas carols- first “Silent Night,” then other songs followed. The English soldiers were stunned. One soldier later described the blazing trenches looked like ‘thee footlights of a theater.’ The English soldiers responded to the German singing with applause, tentative at first, then with enthusiasm. They began to sing Christmas carols back to their German foes to equally enthusiastic applause.

A few men from both sides crawled out of their trenches and began to walk across the no-man’s-land toward each other. Soon hundreds followed. As word spread across the front, thousands of men poured out of their trenches. They shook hands, exchanged cigarettes and cookies, and showed photos of their families. They talked about where they were from, remembered Christmases of the past, and joked ironically about the absurdity of war.

The next morning, as the Christmas sun rose over the battlefield of Europe, tens of thousands of men- some estimates put the numbers as high as 100,000 soldiers- talked quietly with one another. Enemies of 24 hours earlier, they found themselves helping each other bury dead comrades. More than a few pickup soccer games were reported. Even officers at the front participated, although when news filtered back to high command in the rear, the generals took a less enthusiastic view of the affair. Worried that a truce might undermine military morale, the generals quickly took measures to rein in their troops.

It was a surreal “Christmas truce,” and ended as abruptly as it began- all in all, a small blip in a war that would end four years later with 8.5 military deaths in the greatest episode of human carnage in history to that time. For a few short hours, no more than a day, tens of thousands of human beings broke ranks, not only from their commands but from their allegiances to country, to show their common humanity. Thrown together to maim and kill , they courageously stepped outside their institutional duties to interact with one another and to celebrate each others’ lives.

While the battlefield is supposed to be a place where heroism is measured in one’s willingness to kill and die for a noble cause that transcends one’s everyday life, these men chose a different kind of courage. They reached out to each other’s very private suffering and sough comfort in each other’s situation. Walking across no-man’s-land, they found themselves in one another. The strength to comfort each other flowed from a deep unspoken sense of their individual vulnerability and their simple desire for the companionship of their fellow humans.

It was, without reserve, a very human moment. Still, it was reported as a lapse at the time. A century later, we remember the episode nostalgically- a time we have come to define in different terms than our own.

I think the story is as much a part of the story of Jesus Christ as are the gospels of Matthew. Mark, Luke, and John. For 1700 years we have heard the gospels taught as a standard to which we must rise, in order to escape our sinfulness. Our jails and prisons are full tonight, more full than any other prisons on earth, they’re full of men and women who have heard so often from parents, from preachers, about how bad they are, how fallen they are, how wicked their human hearts are, that they simply gave in to the human summary of their lives. I’ve heard it dozens of times, “I’m just bad, so I give up; I will just be really bad.”

I think we- we, the preachers mainly- have been telling a wrong story. The story we have told about how bad people are and how they need Jesus to save them from their badness may be part of the story, but I’m wondering if it is even the main part of the story? I think the gospels of Jesus are most importantly about his ability to help us rediscover our deepest, in-the-image-of-God, goodness.

As the magi walked across the mean streets of evil King Herod’s Israel to be near the Christ child in the manger, so too did the soldiers of WWI crawl from their trenches to be near the  Christ child in each other. The Magi weren’t bad people, and the soldiers weren’t bad people, but they were both part of bad, evil systems that take on a life of their own and claim victim after victim.

Our history books are largely chapters and more chapters of war, and then of war’s aftermath- pages of conquest and strife written in the blood of humans all over the world. But between those thousands of pages of upheaval and greed and power, there are many more thousands of unwritten pages. Those are the pages, the stories of human cooperation, human love, and human empathy which have enabled each of us to be here. People helping people to live: to eat, to be safe, to heal, to be healthy. Each of us are unbroken strings of life, back to the beginnings of life itself, in which goodness has prevailed, has had to prevail.

We live, most of us, in the quiet, in the love of families and communities. We live in celebration together, caring for each other. We feed our families, play with the kids, make sure the woman down the street has something to eat. We give rides, we share money, care, and we share love. Because from the moment of our conception, that love is in us..that God-ness is in us.

But we hear about the events of war, of crime, of the rich who want to be richer and the poor who are so desperate they will do anything to stay alive, and we are made afraid.

Made afraid. Leaders raise armies of people who will do their bidding because they have been made afraid. As bad as crime is it seems worse as we are intentionally made afraid. We are made of afraid of living because we are made so afraid of dying. The darkness of fear becomes the darkness we mistake for general and inevitable evil. And we feel like we are bad, and if we don’t feel like we are bad we are told by spiritual leaders and others that we are bad. And so, like so many prisoners, we give into our supposed and learned human nature of being bad. But I think we’ve been taught wrongly. We’ve been had and we’ve been used and we have been turned into something God did not intend us to be.

Jesus came to set the prisoners free. He said that the very first time he stood up to accept his responsibility as a teacher, a guide, a savior. And it began when he was a baby.

God didn’t send a soldier, or an archangel to fight against the evil of the world, he sent a baby..innocent and utterly dependent on the good will of others. A baby..who enabled everyone around him, even before he was born, to be reminded of their God-imaged goodness. Everyone who came near him cared for him, shared with him, sang about him, protected him. Even in the case of the wise men, they protected him at the risk of their own lives.

The people who came near the baby, the Word made flesh, were reminded that this is NOT a dog eat dog world. This is a world in which the interconnectedness of everything is the only reason there is life and that there is, as Jesus promised, life abundant for those who free themselves of fear, of their own assumed badness.

Fear not! Jesus would say over and over during his life, in all kinds of situations to all kinds of people.

And that is my message for you this night. Be reminded by the Christ child that you are good, that you were born good,  born to be in goodness with others, to proclaim God’s image in you by the Life you live. Think about your feelings right now; feel how you feel. You are with families, with a community..people you love and who love and many more you care deeply for and who care deeply for you. And dozens, scores- right here, right now- who you would do more for than you can even imagine being able to do.

This is the way God intended us- connected, whole and helping..good. And that reality is exactly what Jesus enables us to remember about ourselves: we are never alone, God is with us and we are with each other. Thanks be to God

Listen now, as we sing together now, “Silent Night.” Imagine, as we sing, imagine men crawling from their trenches just 96 years ago, crawling from the darkness of their trenches and moving with the re-kindled Light in them, toward the Light in others. It’s an image I believe we live within the potentials of all the time- an image, a memory in which we can live and move and have our natural and our best being.

Stand now as we sing. The Light will passed as we sing- the Light, an outward and visible expression of the Light already in you.. Let’s stand now and sing..

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Blue

There are two things I would lose myself in when I was a child. One was a particular blue wall. The other was the blue lights (always blue) of the Christmas tree (always set up in the bay window of the living room.)

I would stare at those blues- the wall a robin’s egg blue, and the lights a glassine electric blue, in which could be seen the hot tungsten, burning, afire. I understand a bit more now (but only a bit more) about ADD than I did then, and much more about the proclivity of some persons to be ‘dreamy’ (the word then) or that some are prone to a transcendent view of everything which can be, until one has the words for it, or a handle on it however loose that handle may be, the kind of state of being which causes an adult just as likely as another child to ask “what are you looking at?” or (the more ominous) “what’s wrong?”

In the blue of the wall I would wonder..about why? (am I me) and how? (did I get to be here) and what? (is this all about). I was pretty young- 6,7,8- and these were questions born, I know, of cognitive connections winding their way into normal childhood growth; nonetheless, I remember them explicitly today, a whole bunch of years later, as happening yesterday. I know that makes little sense and it didn’t then either- “what’s wrong with you?” However, the best verbal response I’ve put together over the years has been that the wall took me out of myself. And outside of myself, then and now, there is no time. Yesterday, today, then, now..they are a cloud, rather than the straight line into eternity that they masquerade as away from the blue wall.

Or the blue lights. I know in later years there were other blue Christmas lights- opaque, cool, UL appoved and safe. But the lights which caught my eye- and which I gave my consciousness over  to a few minutes at a time- were like fine glass dipped in blue ink- transparent, but still blue. The whole inside of the bulb could be seen- the little coil of tungsten cooking inside the argon filled glass oven was bright,and white hot.

No, you didn’t want one of these hot bulbs laying up against a deeply dry evergreen/wasgreen branch! Christmas disaster! (and I think there was such a disaster in every town every year in those days when the Underwriter’s Laboratories seemed to be cutting a lot of light bulb slack!)

The blue light, held carefully though, was like a candle pulling me toward that same general blue wall space. Maybe it was a petit mall seizure, and I have wondered about that-really. The fire, the blue, the coil, the glass- even now, they are present- right now. Are they tens of feet deep in the makeshift landfill behind our home, covered by the next 40 years of my parents living there? Are they smashed now so small they have been scattered by rain, worms, roots, and wind into invisibility?

Or are they here now- because I do see them, I do? And I’m seeing them outside of memory, outside of nostalgic Christmas memories. I’m seeing them in the room they were in, the one with a bay window and blue walls. And the bulb is hot and the walls texture is wallpaper over hundred year old plaster on latticed, hand-shaped lathes. painted robin’s-egg blue, like a sky inside the house, and the stars are hot in the night’s dark blueness.

And the space between that last sentence and this one was long enough that, if it was later in the day, not early morning, someone would have asked, “What are you looking at?” or “What’s wrong?” And my answer now, the one I knew way-back-then but didn’t have the words for, would be

“Everything”

or

“Nothing”

“Wow!” the 4th Sunday Advent Message

This message will be finished on Christmas Eve, so if you are unable to be here Friday night (at 6 p.m.), you may want to watch on line. (http://ourchurchvideos.com/76458/jacksborofumc)

Wow!”

The fourth Sunday in Advent, 2010

December 19, 2010

David B. Weber, Pastor, First UMC, Jacksboro, TX

I really do believe this gospel story is “Wow!”

I believe this story is still unfolding, still producing new “Wows!”

And I believe we have been waiting in wonder and with wisdom now1, and that we are about to see something new.

We know the gospel story, the nativity story. We know it so well that it feels like settling into a comfortable old chair when we hear those opening words from Luke: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed..”

But my intentions this year have not been to get comfortable again with the story, but to look again at this story as a Thin Place this time- a place where, like the shepherds and the magi, we could encounter the divine nearby- as close as the condensing breath of a baby on the chilly night air.

So, in wonder, with no preconceived, prejudiced, expected or “historically traditional and acceptable” answers at the ready, I asked myself these questions:

1.What have I missed before in this story of Jesus’ birth?

2.Is there still more to be learned or to be known about the story?

Pulling from the wisdom then of a lifetime of authors, teachers, and my very own reflections; authors old and new, many Christian but not all, I am seeing Light. It’s a Light which is leading me to a place in my heart, in my soul..maybe in ways Light has led others to their encounters with the divine.

Here’s what is becoming so firm for me, so manifest, so apparent, so obvious that I am finally beginning to be able to articulate it:

The Word became flesh. And just as everything else in Creation was, once upon a time, described described as Good- that Word, that Word made flesh was also pronounced by God to be “Good.” (As in “this is my son in whom I am well pleased.”) This world, this universe, the earth, the sky, the stars, the animals- God said, “That’s Good.”

Goodness. That is what I am perceiving being revealed.

So from the scene of the stable and the manger, let’s move outward now and look at an always-becoming-larger picture:

Look first at Mary, a young woman, most likely 16, 17, 18 years old. We know nothing about her before the angel Gabriel came knocking. Nobody would have looked at her askance if she had looked out the peephole and hollered, “Get out of here!” But no, her response after the plans of God from the angel was, “Let it be.” She was a good young woman.

Joseph, Mary’s fiance. He could legally have had Mary taken to the edge of town and stoned. And who would have blamed him? His manhood had been insulted. His girlfriend was pregnant, and not by him! But he takes Mary as his wife, and raises her son as his own. Joseph was a good man.

And Elizabeth, Mary’s older cousin who Mary goes immediately to stay with at the beginning of her pregnancy. Does Elizabeth judge her cousin? Does she make Mary jump through moral hoops in return for a favor, or dictate dogma about unwed motherhood to her before she extends an invitation to stay? No, Elizabeth says to Mary, with no hesitation, “Come in, come in.” And then they sing together! Elizabeth was a good woman!

The shepherds..these were the tough guys of their day..the guys who could kill a bear or a lion with their fists and a knife. But they’re knocked over by the beauty of an angelic chorus; they’re made new by the gentleness of a baby’s presence. The shepherds were good men!

The wise men, the magi.. Riding across the property of Imperialist Rome, into the land of the puppet king Herod. The magi, following Wisdom- the Light, saw the prophecies of ancient oracles coming true and they risked their lives, their fortunes to keep that great news from the evil king Herod. They too were good men!

Most of what we have studied and understood about Christianity has been to understand the necessity of Jesus coming as the son of God to take away our sinfulness, our awfulness, our human badness. It seems as if that is how Jesus is most understood- as goodness standing in stark contrast to our badness?!

I’m here today to say something very different. I don’t believe Jesus came to make us ashamed of ourselves, or to stand in bright contrast to our dark-hardened heartlessness. On the contrary, I do believe Jesus enables us to rediscover, celebrate, and to more fully and abundantly live our human goodness. And I think today that I will probably spend the rest of my life understanding and sharing that. It is the Light that is filling my eyes, and it is also the wonderful wisdom I have waited a long time for- a Light that is also filling my heart and mind.

Have we been looking at the manger, at the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ from too many wrong and dark angles?

Have we been missing the covered-over goodness in ourselves and others that Jesus, from the time he was a baby, uncovered in all who came near him?

God looked out on God’s Creation- on the earth, the seas, the sky, the moon, the stars, animals, Adam and Eve and said, “That’s good.” God sent his son to demonstrate, to affirm that it’s still good- that it never stopped being good, and we never stopped being created in a good God’s image!

On Christmas Eve I’ll say more and tell you a story that reveals this truth- a story you will never forget.

And this is a theme you will hear me preach and teach often in the new year. But let this begin to sink in, beginning right now:

You have come near the Christ, you have reached toward Jesus, because you are good. We have been invited to the manger in Bethlehem; more importantly, we have been invited to the cross at Golgotha, because we are good.

Because we are good and we have always been good, but we have also been forgetful. And God, in the son, wants us to remember, to know, to live: we are good people.

Amen

1The three previous Advent messages have been about Thin Places, similar to the Celtic definition of them but concentrating on mental and emotional states rather than places. Wonder, Wisdom, and Waiting have been those states of being.

Things without names preclude titles for them, too

There is no name that I am aware of for this:

When an adult has a baby- a little baby, a 2 month, 3 month, maybe 6 month old baby..

When an adult- and it doesn’t matter, woman or man- when an adult

has a little baby in their lap and the baby is a little bit awake or not at all,

the adult will softly wiggle, almost without thinking, the first knuckle of their little finger into the baby’s fist.

There is no name for that wiggling of the little finger into the smaller much smaller hand,

nor has there been, nor will there be..

there shouldn’t be, mustn’t ever be

because to name that moment or minute or whole naptime (it doesn’t matter)

to name that time would be to shrink, subdue, even subjugate that time into meanings

understood only (maybe) by the adult so squeezed when, in fact,

the baby- no matter how small, even a day, even an hour- has begun with the adult

to change

history;

to make all things

new.

Because that’s how important such an encounter is, even one like this that is nameless.

The adult and the baby..

(stop here and remember, not with your mind but with the skin of your little fingertip, the last time that wiggle-then-squeeze happened. If your fingertip doesn’t remember then bring the memory up from the ancestral imagination that you were born with and that was unlocked the first time forever when you squeezed that impossibly warm handful of someone’s little finger however many years ago that was. Either way, remember without words, without meaning, just feel).

The adult separates the softclenched baby’s fist with a softmaneuvering fingertip. Why?

Because the wave spills onto the beach and reaches into the sands there as deeply as it can;

Because flower petals spread in the heat of the sun to gather as much sunlight as possible;

Because the crow lifts its head then it its wings to the updraft blowing to nowhere but lifting joy.

That’s why: it is the only reason why it has to be the only way it is that humans can be.

A stillpoint in the history of the universe. Touch, squeeze………

now..and pause.

Pause, don’t breathe for a moment. Pause.

The dance ends and the dance begins, the dance of everything that was, becomes the dance of everything that will be and both halves of eternity rest now in this moment where stories end and stories begin and where spirit wiggles and spirit squeezes and it is a single action that reverberates in all that is

including God.

Or maybe that single action-wiggle/squeeze, squeeze/wiggle- is God,

or maybe not.

There is no word that I am aware of for this.1

1 The difference in the ages of the participants in this..dance, shall we call it?..means this: not much. The adult, thus squeezed, will never separate from the baby squeezing and will, if asked, if the need is known, if privileged to, die even violently rather than know the baby is to be harmed in almost any way if such sacrificial action does not occur. Adults so touched, part of the eternal stillpoint, will lose part of themselves- their indefinable wordless selves- forever, willingly, in the baby’s fist and the baby, even without the cognitive ability to recall anything specific about the adult, or even know that the warmth squeezed was an adult will, nonetheless, hold that adult within the deepest part of their historic memory, that part of memory which belongs to the ages and always will.

@David Weber, December,2010

Small Town Ohio: High School Football, 1965

I’ve been doing some deep cleaning the last several days, and among the many things I uncovered was an envelope from my mother’s stuff which contained my high school football memorabilia. She saved stuff that I haven’t touched in over 45 years! There were pictures, newspaper articles, and individual score sheets on each week’s individual and team performances. There was a special award for my receiving the team’s Mayhem Axmurder Award for 1966- given to the “meanest and most effective” defensive player. I played tackle and I made a bunch of them that year.. I guess.

So I was the 1966 Mayhem Axmurderer of my high school football team. I got to keep the jersey which affirmed that. Yes, I know:

Good. Lord.

Among the (many, many) other papers were several prep sheets. These were write-ups about the coming game. They covered particular players from the other team, the kind of offense they ran, and included special plays which the coaches had put together to be used against that team. The cover page of the prep handout was a hand drawn cartoon and an initial pep talk written by the coaches. (Note: this was the days of blue mimeograph and I don’t think the coaches typed, so the prep sheet was handwritten, before it was run off on the mimeograph machine. Those of you who are my age will understand that I held these particular papers to my nose just nowto see if they still had that special mimeograph smell. They did not.)

Anyway, this particular prep sheet was about a team from Youngstown which we were playing that week- Youngstown North. Let me quote some of the coaches “motivational” comments:

“North has been knocked out 64 straight times, and plans to get off the canvas against us. Anyone who has been knocked out that many times is bound to have a weakness, which they do. On many occasions they have beat themselves through faulty execution and mistakes.”

Of course the same thing can be said of the Dallas Cowboys or any sports team, but this was 1965, so there is more.

(If you are easily offended, stop here. Really. I should tell you before we go on that Youngstown North was an almost-all African-American team, although at that time, we knew them as an all Negro team. And all of our team members were white. The “glass jaw knock out” you see in the motivational picture above reflects a very real stereotype of the time: even the toughest black guy had a glass jaw, some thought, and taught, and believed.)

Continuing:

“Gentlemen, there is no alternative in the game this week. We must WIN it. There is too much shame connected with losing it…Everyone knows why North is getting beat. They are predominately low intelligent colored people. They can’t learn many things, and what they do learn they have trouble executing it very well.

“There is no doubt about it, some of them have good muscular strength and speed..but we know that it takes another very important element- BRAINS. This is where we can get our advantage…

“We must beat them or be put to tremendous shame.”

The coach was right- even now, I still feel tremendous shame, though it’s not the kind of shame he thought it would be. I tell myself that it was 1965, and it is 45 years later. But I know how the institutional racism I grew up with has knocked at the door of my consciousness over the years. What bothers me are the times when it manifested itself through me and I wasn’t aware of it. I’m certain that has happened any number of times.

I’m not really angry at the coaches or other adults who passed along this system of exclusion to the following generation, as much as I pity them. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated often, the civil rights movement was (and still must be) about freeing all people of their wrapped-chain attitudes and the crippling weight of judgmentalism. I pity those handicapped by such lies and I feel sorry for myself and so many others who have never been able to completely shed the imaginary but inflicted veil stretched over our fields of vision.

And what of the young men of Youngstown North? Across years and space, across a different country and an always brand new culture, I can say “I’m sorry.” But those are just words- useless, pale, impotent, nice-sounding words if I do nothing to back them up.

So I’ve tried. I don’t think there’s an iota of any of this shit (and that’s what it is) in my own children. They were raised in the South where the flavors of racism were and are different than they were in ’65 Ohio, but that I detect nothing mean about their attitudes, exclusionary about their relationships, or narrow about their love for others, tells me that their mom and I did some things right in this regard.

But I’ve experienced the outward and visible kinds of racism in the last several years, after decades of not experiencing it. The use of the ‘n’ word, the telling of really awful race-based jokes, and the overt attempts to re-establish institutionally racist principles among some persons and groups in state and federal government, are things I thought I would never ever see again. Wow, I was wrong. I have been dumbfounded so many times recently that I have been and know I will have to continue to be a pastoral advocate against and in the face of this ..awfulness. This little essay is a tiny part of that effort; and the the best part of this whole story may be this:

The winner of the game between our small town high school and Youngstown North was..

Youngstown North!!

North broke their 64 game losing streak against us! We discovered there were were no “glass jaws” to be broken. They executed very well and made fewer mistakes than we did. And it looked to most of us, that North had strength, speed, AND brains.

I’ve looked back on the game for many years as one of the best things that could have happened to me as an individual, and I bet there are dozens of my teammates who would feel the same way. There were stereotypes shattered that cool October night and the shattering of stereotypes is always a good thing. I’m guessing- if such things can be quantified- that the sounds of joy on the bus home to Youngstown North that night far outweighed whatever “shame” we may have felt in our hometown locker room.

So I laugh over a genuine soreness in my soul for a time and a place that never should have been. But I also laugh because we were such asses. We really were.