And Now: Two Hundred Thousand

How does one even start to grieve
for ten, for twenty, for a hundred?
How does one even start to grieve
when headstones reach a thousand?

How does one even start to grieve
at tens of thousands, fifty thousand,
when the interring earth is flying,
the crematory flames arising?

How does one even start to grieve?
One grieves for one, each one,
a precious human soul, and with
a hand of comfort, weeps.

Two Tambourines

I wrote this piece as part of a prayer/poem/song conversation with Maren Tirabassi, reflecting on the crossing of the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and Song of Miriam in Exodus 14 and 15. Links to the other pieces in the conversation are below.

They told us to hustle; no time to leaven bread
“Take only one bag or all of us are dead.”
The strap is over my shoulder as I flee from Egypt land
with a tambourine clutched within my hand.

[Chorus]

I will ring my tambourine as I dance along the shore.
I will shout the joy of freedom over welling waves restored
while another tambourine is sinking in the marsh
and the wailing widows of Egypt mourn.

They called out the soldiers, their chariots and spears.
Will we go back to servitude or will our graves be here?
At the hip of a chariot driver a tambourine has room.
He brought it to celebrate our doom.

[Chorus]

The walls of water billowed as slogged through mud and weeds.
Will we lie in murky graves or will we all be free?
The waters took the army in the moment of our need
and left a tambourine fouled in the weeds.

[Chorus]

A live performance by Eric Anderson from September 16, 2020.

Horse and Rider Thrown into the Sea (Eric Anderson)

For World Suicide Prevention Day, September 10, 2020 (Maren Tirabassi)

Drawing of a tambourine by Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo Universidad de Sevilla – 1004173. Uploaded by clusternote, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26967109.

I Got a… Denarius

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received [a denarius] the usual daily wage. – Matthew 20:9

“I got a rock.” – Charlie Brown in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Nobody hired us. You could say I didn’t try.
At least, I didn’t try the ones with work.
I promise you I tried the ones that didn’t,
at least the ones who said they didn’t.

Another day of working to find work;
another day of working without pay;
another day of wondering just how
the evening’s meal will come together.

“Why are you standing here so idle all the day?”
“I’ve chased the ones who will not hire
from this end of the marketplace to that.
So now, I stand, because there is no hope for work.”

Or is there?

Now that was just an hour ago. I worked
to pull the weeds and stake the vines,
but to be honest, darkness came too soon
to make much impact on this vineyard.

Darkness came too soon to make much impact
on the emptiness of my larder.
Darkness came too soon for work to be
rewarded with enough to keep our lives.

But look: there in my hand. The owner
of the vineyard has presented me
with a denarius, a coin whose worth
will keep us fed today, perhaps tomorrow.

I run back to the marketplace
for oil and flour, beans and dates.
My family will not believe
the owner’s generosity – I hardly do!

Behind me I hear quarrelling.
I pay no mind if others’ eyes are evil.
My family will eat tonight
because someone was good.

I usually imagine Jesus’ parable from the perspective of the all-day workers, the ones “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” For this poem/prayer, I thought I’d choose another point of view.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 20:1-16, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, Proper 20 (25).

Photo of a denarius by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=534248.

Horse and Rider Thrown into the Sea

“…and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” – Exodus 14:30b

“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.'” – Exodus 15:20-21

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

I can’t imagine where they found the energy
to sing, to sound the tambourine, to dance.
My feet are lead; they sink into the marshy mud
that runs along the reedy shore.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

We were not last in line, but close enough
to feel as if we were the least in all of Israel.
No doubt the chariots and archers were not close
enough, but we could feel their breaths upon our necks.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

I ran, we ran, we galloped through the slime and muck
and knew – and knew – we were too slow. We were
too late. We were too weak. We knew – we knew –
that swords and chains and whips would be our lot.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

Then suddenly we climbed the bank, the shore
had made its way to us, it seemed, lest we
expire before our limbs had carried us to it.
And still we heard the cries of the Egyptians.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

With trembling I reversed my gaze to see
the sword that shortly would relieve my life,
and saw the waters closing, heard the malice
of Egyptian voices carried off by wails of fear.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

And now… I cannot summon up the strength
to sing, or dance, or beat the tambourine.
When breath returns, perhaps I will be strong
to sing a song of thanks that now I do breathe free.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

The churning waters have devoured the Egyptians.
The shores are strewn with all the corpses of the drowned.
One gazes up at me with vacant eyes, no more
surprised than I to see I live and he has died.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

So when I sing, dear Lord, in celebration of this gift
may I remember to regret the slain. Though ill
was their intent, and evil was their goal,
they, too, could claim the title of your children.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

Oh, will a sunrise ever come, O God, that sees
the power-filled renouncing their prerogatives?
When slavery in all its forms is done? When death no longer rules?
When no one casts their eyes on corpses,

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea?

A poem/prayer based on Exodus 14:19-31 and Exodus 15:1b-11, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading and alternate Psalm Reading for Year A, Proper 19 (24).

The image is Miriam’s Song by Samuel Hirszenberg, Center for Jewish History, NYC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/center_for_jewish_history/3560756375/, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41533409.

Two or Three or Seven or Seventy-Seven

It sounds so… easy… Jesus.
Like when those friends of mine
cajoled their mother into asking you –
the gall! –
to ask you if her sons could sit
at either side of you upon your throne.

Oh, yeah. Like that was gonna happen.
I knew full well that your ideas
were not in line with theirs –
the gall! –
but also, well, they weren’t in line with mine
but trust me, you’ll see my way, won’t you now?

Such simple steps. First me, then me and Andrew, say,
or me and Matthew or Iscariot
to talk to James and John (and mom) –
the gall! –
and get them straightened out. And if that
doesn’t work, we’ll get the group. And you.

But really, just how many times
will I be forced to make this run-around?
How many times will James and John (and mom) –
the gall! –
be able to repeat this sorry circle
and distract us from your better work?

Once ought to be enough. Or twice.
They’re smarter than they ought to be, you know,
these Sons of Thunder and their mom –
the gall! –
but I’d be willing now to go as high as seven
and then they can be tax collectors to us all.

What’s that you said?
Like… Matthew?
Oh.
The gall.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 18:15-20 (with references to Matthew 20:20-28 and 18:21), the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, Proper 18 (23).

The image is Le Christ rencontrant la femme et les fils de Zébédée by Paolo Veronese – photo by Tylwyth Eldar, 2018-08-04 11:05:41, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71396860.

And After That

And [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. – Genesis 45:15

Where does that conversation start?
“You sold me into Egypt.”
“Well, yes, we did. We, um, thought…”
“Well, we didn’t think…”
“Mostly, Joe, we felt…”
“Yeah, we felt, and mostly what we felt…”
“…Was angry.”
“Yeah.”
“Angry.”

I get angry, God. Oh, yes.
Despite the best advice, I’m ready now
to test You. Yes, and such a test.
For if our weary state is not
so great a hardship as the state of slavery,
or worse, imprisoned and yet guiltless,
or worse, awaiting a deliverance
that should not be delayed, yet is…

Our weary state is bad enough
that I can set it side-by-side
with seven years of famine and
with seven years of harvests
left to rot amidst the fields.
We ignored the Josephs who would tell us to
prepare for harsher times…

Well.
Suffice it to admit my heart is aching
and my blood is pounding and
I do not weep for resolution but
I weep in deep frustration and
I am not ready to embrace
my not-so-sorry siblings.

I hesitate as well to reach for You, O God.

So.

May I swiftly come into that place “and after that”
enjoyed by Joseph, Reuben, Judah, and the rest.
Restore to us the unity of family.
And… as I come to You, may my tears drench Your neck
and may Your tears run down beyond the collar
of my robes, as sweet upon the ground
as is the dew of Hermon.

A poem/prayer based on Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133, the Revised Common Lectionary Alternate First Reading and Alternate Psalm for Year A, Proper 15 (20).

The image is Joseph Recognized by His Brothers by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois (1863) – http://www.culture.gouv.fr/Wave/image/joconde/0419/m015586_0004599_p.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8740999.

The Wind is Against Us

We left you there upon the mountain, Lord.
The safest place for you – or well, for us –
well insulated from the crowd’s demands
for things that we, in truth, cannot provide.

If you are there upon the mountain, Lord,
then you will not repeat those awkward words,
“You give them something now to eat.” With just
five loaves of bread at hand (as well you knew).

If we had known about that pair of fish,
well, that would surely make the difference
in our well-meaning cluelessness. “Bring them
to me,” was all you said, and all were fed.

So you are there upon the mountain, Lord,
and when we have once more resumed our breath,
when we are not so weary carrying
those baskets full, we will be there for you.

But now that you are on the mountain, Lord,
we find that we cannot return to you
with quite the ease we promised. Now a wind
opposes our return to land and you.

We’d rather be upon the mountain, Lord,
instead of struggling with our oars and sail
to make some headway into this head wind.
How can we find your presence once again?

But now the wind blows from the mountain, Lord,
and with it moves a terrifying shape,
a figure of the dead and of our deaths,
to take us from your side for now and ever.

“Take heart!” we hear. “Do not now be afraid!”
Oh, these, we know, are words of angels, heard
by those they summon to great deeds, the likes
of which are not within our feeble skills.

And, “It is I!” you cry, O Lord, a word
of doubtful reassurance. Who is that
who walks upon the gale-tossed sea? A ghost
we comprehend; a Savior, not as much.

But when you were upon the mountain, Lord,
we strove to come to you despite the wind
and now see you come to us, and how
can we do other but to meet you here?

So call us from the mountain, Lord, and call
us from the heaving sea, and may we take
our faltering steps upon the waves and reach –
and find – and grasp – your outstretched loving hand.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 14:22-33, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, Proper 14 (19).

Panel from a Christopher Whall window in Chipping Warden, Northamptonshire. Church (St Peter and St Paul). Photo by jmc4 Church Explorerhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/52219527@N00/5384683573/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18275704.

Midnight Wrestling

Hoarsely breathing.
Sweat’s aroma growing.
Taste of dust across the teeth.
A shapeless silhouette against the stars.
Muscles aching, skin abrading, jaw clenched tight,
we wrestle to the dawn.

In ignorance I strain.
In ignorance I fumble for a hold.
In ignorance I push or pull or pivot.
In ignorance I gasp for breath, inhale, exhale,
and beg for blessing, beg for name.

Is this you, God?
Do you produce this ache
by dislocation of my frame?
Is this the silent panting struggle with Creation?
Is this you, God?

No name.
Just a name for me,
a name for a devoted wrestler, but
I weary of the struggle, weary of the pain,
weary of the ignorance.

If you must put
your arms about me once again,
might it be a parent’s warm embrace
and not to separate my fragile, aching bones.
Oh, bless me as I am.

A poem/prayer based on Genesis 32:22-31, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, Proper 13 (18).

Drawing of Jacob wrestling with the angel by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov – http://religionart.narod.ru/gal9/photo45.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9087629.

An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist – Part Three

Church of the Holy Cross configured for distanced seating. Note camera tripods.

Part Three became inevitable as infection rates in the state of Hawai’i and the county of Hawai’i declined to the point that a congregation could be gathered once more at Church of the Holy Cross. The steps required to reduce risk of virus transmission created new challenges for liturgy. The state still limits gatherings to less than fifty people, which also turned out to be the capacity of the church sanctuary when chairs replaced pews. Having a congregation meant that the sound system now needed to serve two groups: the worshipers in the space and the worshipers over the Internet – and they had different needs.

In many parts of the country, churches still worship exclusively over the Internet because infection risk is still too high in their area. On Hawai’i Island, we went some time with no new cases at all. We are now seeing new cases again, between zero and three a day. We are watching those reports carefully and will discontinue in-person worship if it continues to rise.

Chairs, Masks, Sinks, Books, and Screen

Church of the Holy Cross is blessed with pews that are not attached to the floor. Early on, we thought we might rearrange the pews themselves, but were confronted with the problem of sanitizing the furniture between services. Since four congregations worship in the room during the day, we needed a cleaning regimen. Rather than risk virus material settling into the cloth (and damage to fabric and wood from bleach-based cleansers), we stacked up the pews and replaced them with folding chairs. Those chairs also allow us to seat household groups of different sizes together while keeping space around single worshipers.

All the congregations clean twice: once as they enter the space, and again as they leave. While it seems redundant, it offers better protection and reinforces the sound practices of caring for yourself (cleaning before) and caring for others (cleaning afterward). Chairs, pulpit and lectern, microphones and stands, and window louver levers, and other touch areas get cleaned. All congregations take attendance so that contact tracing can be done if we become aware of someone with a positive test for COVID-19. Worshipers enter through a kitchen with sinks for hand-washing and sanitizer for those who prefer that. Everyone wears a mask (and we have more available). The walks have six foot tape marks to maintain distance. After service, everyone exits through a separate door.

Hymnals and Bibles have been removed. We only provide a large-print bulletin for those with vision challenges; everyone else relies upon the projector screen for worship. We do not sing hymns together. We do speak prayers together. There is singing, however: two musicians sing from near the back of the chancel while wearing masks. The closest seats in the congregation are twenty-five feet away.

The preacher and lay leader now speak from separate lecterns with separate mics (covered with disposable foam shields). And, of course, there is no greeting line at the close of service.

We’ve Got to Move

We discovered the first week that the lack of congregational singing made for a very still hour – too still. While there was a “movement prayer” at the beginning of the service, it was too short and in the wrong place. A church member offered to lead additional movement, so the two vocal performances now also serve to lead the congregation in motion. It’s not actually hula, but the gestures come from that tradition. In addition, I lead a brief prayer in movement immediately after the sermon.

Attendance has been in the forties, which is close to the capacity of the room. We can accommodate a few additional worshipers just outside the sanctuary in an area covered by the roof (and equipped with speakers). We may need to add a screen in our Building of Faith if more people begin to attend.

Still Streaming

With the capacity of the room reduced, and knowing that people needed to continue to reduce contacts, we resolved to continue live streams into the future. We had to do things differently – again.

Video Cameras

With the streaming-only format, we had to do very little camera movement. There were only two places that people ever stood – three on a Communion Sunday – so a single camera operator could manage it even though he was also acting as a musician. Now we have five (and added a sixth) plus seven on Communion Sunday: pulpit, lectern, piano, organ, chancel for vocal anthems, bell (rung before service), and communion table. That meant we needed camera operators throughout the service.

We also had to place the cameras differently. We wanted to reduce the distraction they would cause the worshipers who were present and we wanted to give the worshipers at home the best experience we could. The cameras aren’t really capable of a high-quality shot over a long distance. We also faced cable length limits.

Both cameras, therefore, needed to be toward the front (their tripods are visible in the photo at top). One camera stands against the wall to the right for a shot of the pulpit and organ. The other stands just left of center for the lectern, piano, and chancel.

These are the same Canon camcorders we have been using: a Vixia HF R52 and a Vixia HF R800. The one by the wall now has a much longer cable run. In addition to a fifteen foot HDMI cable with a mini-connector on one end, we use a coupler and a twenty-five foot HDMI cable to reach the switcher. This is close to the limit of an HDMI signal. The first time we set it up, we tried to get some more slack with another cable extension, and it simply would not work. The other camera is close enough that its fifteen foot cable suffices.

For the first couple weeks, we set up the Logitech webcam as a wide shot to provide the switcher with another source. She never used it, so we’ve retired that camera.

We have, however, added another video source. The church has used projected words and imagery for some years. That slide show can also be used as a video source via HDMI.

The first two weeks taught us something else about the video: it was really hard for the director to select a shot without a preview image of it. She needed to know whether a camera had settled – or was even on the right subject – before switching to it. One of the lacks of the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini (though not its newer sibling, the ATEM Mini Pro) is a multi view of its sources.

How could we create that? I’ve seen some creative ideas, including using several splitters and a multi view converter, but then I saw someone using field monitors. These are small screens that are mostly used to provide videographers with a better view of their shot than provided by the built-in screen of the camera. Our two Timbrecod DC-80 7″ screens have an HDMI pass-through. We place them between the cameras and the switcher, and now the director can see what the camera sees before choosing it.

Laptop running OBS Studio, two Timbrecod field monitors, and the ATEM Mini on the video director’s desk.

One immediate annoyance was that the field monitors could not be used with the ATEM’s first input. I’ve done some research, and apparently the ATEM misreads the frame rate with some active pass-throughs, but only on the first input. We use input one for the slides, and the cameras get two and three.

Sound

The church installed a new sound system just over two years ago which, frankly, makes the challenge of providing sound to both the sanctuary worshipers and the online worshipers even possible. The old system, well… best to avoid that nightmare.

Our sound mixer is a Soundcraft Ui24R, a completely digital device. It has no physical knobs or sliders, but can be controlled via a keyboard and mouse, a network connected computer, a tablet, or even a smart phone. Its USB connection bears a host of signals, not just the main mix. A connected computer can select individual channels or one of eight auxiliary outputs.

Each auxiliary output can have its own mix. This is a game-changer.

Why? Because there are things that people worshiping over the Internet need to hear through the sound system that people in the sanctuary should not. In particular, we have to be very careful about amplifying the organ. The potential for feedback through the sanctuary speakers is mostly manageable, but it has to be carefully monitored. The organ produces plenty of sound, and amplifying it isn’t particularly helpful.

People worshiping over the Internet, however, need to hear it. They also need to hear the piano. We added two microphones in the chancel area (a pair of MXL 990 condenser mics) to pick up those sounds – and they are not part of the main mix. We include them only in the auxiliary mix.

We confronted cable length limits again. Although we can control the Soundcraft via a tablet, we had to connect our streaming computer to it via USB, and it was twenty-five feet away. USB has a length limit of around fifteen feet. In this case, we were delighted to find that an active extension cable did the job. We also experimented with using an active USB hub in the chain, and found that it didn’t work.

We have been frustrated with a relatively weak signal from the Soundcraft Ui24R. It reaches OBS with relatively low volume. The basic mixing controls in OBS wouldn’t bring it to desired levels – but it turns out that there’s an Advanced Audio panel that allows one to boost the base volume of an audio source. We’ve currently set it to add 10 decibels, and I’m considering a boost to 12.

Catching My Breath

I keep hoping that we can find a “normal” once again, and not have to make too many more adaptations. We probably aren’t there. One of the signals for our worship service is the ringing of the church bell. We’re able to film it because we have lots of windows and the bell is just outside.

What we can’t do in the stream, however, is hear much of it. It’s too far away from any of the microphones. We also can’t hear much of the congregation’s responses. I’m not eager to take on the challenge of adding “house sound” microphones to the mix, but that may be coming.

It is a relief to have a congregation present. They do provide an energy that is missing in the one-way stream approach we chose. My Sundays include a certain amount of anxiety – I’m deeply concerned for the health of the worshipers – but I find I am less exhausted by the experience of worship than I had been.

There will be another installment…

Poor Farmer

I don’t think much of your agricultural practice, Jesus.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”
a farmer who leaves the weeds amidst the wheat,
and only separates the two at harvest.

Well, let me tell you, Jesus, that the weeds
are not just growing peacefully beside
the wheat. They steal the water, hide the sun,
choke the grain. The wheat begs your relief!

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me!”
“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?”

I need a farmer who will bring me aid and comfort
from the spreading weeds of greed and folly
ravishing the struggling grain of your own planting,
LORD. “I hate them with perfect hatred,” indeed.

Unless…

Unless, of course, I let the Psalmist’s prayer
take root within my heart and blossom there:
“See if there is any wicked way in me;”
test me to see if I grow like the weeds.

Ah, now I am less eager for your justice
or your retribution or your weeding. Now
I am content to grow in peace however fragile,
to become, I pray, your wheat and not your weed.

“See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Psalm 139, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading and Psalm for Year A, Proper 11 (16).

Photo by Eric Anderson.