What Sounds Do Angels Hear?

What sounds do angels hear?

The soft deep moan of rolling stone,
sand crunched to sand beneath,
softly sighing air drawn through
the widening portal. 

What sounds do angels hear?

Did these working tones obsure
the insects’ songs, the chattering leaves,
the scrape of claws, the murmuring brook
around the corner of the hill?

What sounds do angels hear?

The night-bound stillness
of the sleeping city,
stones sighing as they settle,
a thousand dreaming murmurs?

What sounds do angels hear?

The sudden inhaled breath,
the heartbeat strong beyond all hope,
cloth scraping over stone and skin,
the sudden thud of feet upon the floor?

What sounds do angels hear?

The splash of tears on dust?
A meditative humming? Deep-drawn breaths?
Or, after a silence to encompass all the world,
a gale of laughter from the deepest wells of joy?

What sounds do angels hear? 


Meersburg_Neues_Schloss_April_2010_1020028aHaste, haste!
The storm clouds still obscure
The sky, but worse, the darkness
Of the Sabbath looms.

Haste, haste!
To pull the blood-slick nails
From flesh now unresisting,
Blood no longer flowing.

Haste, haste!
To lower the once-living form
And lay it in the waiting shroud:
No time for spices, they must wait.

Haste, haste!
To carry our beloved One observed
By soldiers and centurion who said,
“This man was truly God’s own son.”

Haste, haste!
The tomb at hand, the body placed
To wait two nights until
We may return with spice.

Haste, haste!
For now, all done which may
Be done, our eyes may stream
With our Good Friday tears.

The image is by Waldemar Flaig.

Really, Jesus?


Really, Jesus?

Last Sunday, it was, “Go and find a donkey.
Then untie it, lead it here, so I may ride.”

Just anybody’s donkey, Jesus?
Don’t you know that they’ll object?

“Just say, ‘The Master needs it.’ That
Will do.” You think? You think it will?

How embarrassing for us, my friend:
It did.

So now, the festival at hand, it’s time
To take the lead for once, and ask:

“So Jesus? Do you have a plan,
And where should we prepare the meal?”

We ought to have known better. “Find
a man who bears a jug of water in

His arms, and follow him. The place
He enters is the place. The table

Will be in the upstairs room.
Prepare the feast; we’ll follow!”

Really, Jesus? Find a man and follow him
Because he bears a jug of water?

How embarrassing for us: it worked.
I guess we’ll have to trust you, Jesus, now.

Wherever you may go from here,
To all the dizzy heights of power, be

Assured we’ll go. We’re right with you.
I’ll not deny you once, nor let alone

This weird prediction of three times.
The rooster can withhold its cry

Until the crack of Doom, and still
I promise I will not deny.

Until, of course, I shout, “I do not know
The man!”

Then weep and weep and weep.

Really, Jesus.

The image is Peter’s denial by Anton Robert Leinweber. 

A Prayer over the Ashes (Ash Wednesday 2018)

File Feb 14, 1 28 24 PMHoly One,

As our ancestors donned ashes to show their sorrow and grief, we take on ashes today. We grieve for our losses and suffering, the loved ones who have gone from us, the hardships we have known, and the evils we have suffered. Comfort and heal us, Gracious God, in the ashes of our grief.

We sorrow also in the sins we have committed: the evils we have done to one another, the mercies we have failed to offer, the kindnesses we have failed to share. May the grief we show in these palm ashes guide us to a closer journey in your ways.

With these gritty marks, O Holy One, on head or hand or simply taken deeply in our hearts, let us leave behind the ashes of our past misdeeds and suffering. May we follow new and better ways with you. Guide, forgive, renew, and heal us, by the merciful power you have shown in Jesus Christ our Savior.


“Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return, in the love and grace of God.”

This is Not a Drill

ESA Feb 2017

Me in my blue and gold aloha wear – not taken last Saturday.

I suspect I’ve already been as wise as I’m going to be about what writers are calling Hawai’i’s “Thirty-Eight Minutes of Terror.” It entirely changed the sermon (except, oddly enough, the title) – “The Discomfort of Faith” – that I preached the next day. It did prompt me to do some reflection, since I heard about a number of responses to the warning, some of which sounded a little like mine, and most of which did not.

I had just finished my hopefully-soon-to-be-ended daily ritual of changing the bandage on my nose (I had a growth removed this month) when the alert tone sounded. I stepped over the see what it was, expecting it to be a tsunami warning.

You know what it said. I read it three times. “This is not a drill,” it said. Each time.

I sat on the side of my bed staring at the phone, wondering what to do now.

It said, “Take shelter,” but what shelter did I have? In Hawai’i, we build to keep things cool, not for protection against an explosive blast. The bathroom has windows right over the tub. All the rooms have windows. The best I could come up with was the walk-in closet right in front of me. OK. That was the best I was going to do.

To what point, if the house fell in on me?

Well, there was one thing I was going to do before I died. I was going to put some pants on.

(I know you’re laughing. I’ll wait.)

So I stood up, stepped into the closet, and grabbed the black slacks I was planning to wear to the Ho ‘Ike celebration at a church just south of here. I reached as well for an aloha shirt that I would wear to that celebration, too: blue and gold with a bold, contemporary pattern. I think I even stepped over to the bureau to retrieve socks.

(Like most people here, I leave my shoes at the door to the house. Socks only go on my feet when I’m planning to leave.)

I made no pretense at a coherent prayer. Just, “Oh, God, be near.”

Already, something had struck me as wrong about the alert. Like many others, I plunged onto the Internet on my phone. I checked the emergency management agency pages for Hawai’i County (that’s the Big Island) and the State of Hawai’i. Neither showed an active alert. Google knew nothing of a heightened threat from North Korea.

Oddly enough, I didn’t think to check Twitter or Facebook. I was looking for authoritative information, after all.

And I realized what bothered me about the alert. Even as Hawai’i News Now used its “push” feature to repeat the official warning, I noticed that the sirens were not wailing. Moreover, the radio was on – and playing normal programming, not an official emergency broadcast. News commentators hadn’t even interrupted NPR’s Weekend Edition on its five hour delay to repeat the alert.

That seemed wrong.

I’d reassured myself, but not entirely. It could still be coming. It was unlikely that a North Korean ICBM would be aimed at Hilo, but if it was, there was no shelter that would protect me three miles from the airport. And, I realized, while I had heard about the range of North Korean missiles, I knew nothing about their accuracy. It seemed possible that a missile aimed at the US military facilities on O’ahu could land on Hilo, 210 miles away.

So I decided I’d step on into my day as if it was going to go on. In my dress slacks and shirt, I walked through the house, picking out the music I planned to share at the church and picking up my guitar.

As I did, Hawai’i News Now pushed out the story that the alert was an error, a mistake, a false alarm.

It took another half hour before the officials dispatched the same message.


A couple things surprise me in retrospect. I never even considered calling loved ones to say, “I love you.” I’ve heard others repeat this time after time. I’ve heard of couples and families that gathered together in whatever they could find for shelter, and of people who made hasty calls to the mainland, all to reassure their loved ones that they loved them.

I didn’t do that. It didn’t even occur to me.

So one of the reasons I’m writing this today is to assure my family and friends, near and far, that I do love you, more than I can possibly say. What I can’t promise is that in a crisis, when my life’s end might be at hand, I’ll think to tell you so. I make no excuses and I do offer an apology, but if this event was any indication, I’m likely to await imminent death on my own.

(I make no predictions about lingering death.)

I also found that my feelings amidst it all were nearly impossible to describe. There was some fear, but it wasn’t panic. It wasn’t paralyzing. I did not, as a colleague of mine said later, step out of doors to accept the transition to glory. I had no eagerness to step from this life into the next one. The thought running through my mind was simply, “Oh. So this is how it ends,” mixing hope; resignation; some anger at the profound arrogance, stupidity, and malice of those making nuclear war; and, yes, acceptance.

Though I rapidly looked for signs that it might not be true. Let’s not forget that.

It also exposed my blasé naiveté. I wasn’t prepared for a disaster. Although surviving a nuclear holocaust seems perishingly unlikely, there are other disasters that strike nearly as quickly and, as Puerto Rico’s experience tells us, could leave me living without accustomed resources for a very long time.

It’s past time to assemble the disaster supplies.

I have no desire to see the employee who sent out the mistaken warning suffer. I’d like that person to learn something, and some articles I’ve read suggest that I’d also like to see the people who created a system that was so easy to misread also learn something.

The fact that every single person in Hawai’i – and everyone else who’s heard the story in the aftermath – knew exactly where this missile was (not) coming from, and why, means that I also hope that the United States President and State Department has learned something. Their ham-handed “diplomacy” landed us in a place where a mistaken attack warning was eminently believable.

Let me say that again: We believed the warning in great part because of the threats and bluster of leaders on both sides of the Pacific. Those need to stop, and now. Diplomacy requires respectful language even between adversaries who deeply dislike and resent each other. It’s lengthy, frustrating, and not always successful.

But talking is always better than a nuclear detonation over people.

So, dear friends and family: I love you dearly, even if I don’t think to call when a missile is on the way. And I promise to get that disaster kit together.

I also pledge to tell the world’s leaders to get their acts together, lest a mistake become a monstrosity.

Because life is not a drill.

Christmas Eve 2017

Bebe_(Nativity)_Gauguin_IMG_7276“If I had Gabriel here
I’d slam my fist upon his nose,”
she thought (though did not say).
“He promised me the King of Kings
and here I lie, exhausted,
in the courtyard of the noisy inn
with my newborn son
whimpering in his sleep
where the spear-tipped straw
of this poor manger cradle
has pierced the blankets once again.”
She thought, and thought again:
“Well, no, I wouldn’t hit him.
Angels aren’t for messing with.
He’d deserve it, though.”

The inn had settled down at last
from raucous greetings shouted by
familiar travelers to their regular
companions, settled down from
moaning of the mothers, ministrations
of the midwife, helpless loving
sounds from father inarticulate
with worry, settled down from newborn
baby’s wail soon smothered on
his mother’s breast, settled down from
traveler and sojourner and nosy neighbor
come to see exhausted mother,
anxious, wary father,
child outraged
to be deprived
the comforts of the womb.

The inn had settled down at last
when new uproar approached
and scattered Mary’s thoughts of angels
(impious though they be).
A band of men, their faces sleepy,
peeked through each courtyard gate
along the street, in search of… what?
the weary mother wondered.
She could not see expressions
shadow-shrouded, but could see the waves
with which they summoned all
their comrades through the crowded
courtyard and approached
the manger bed.

“Forget angels,” Mary thought,
“What good is Joseph if he cannot
keep these wandering herdsmen
from us and this child?”

Now words emerged from mouths
less agile than an angel’s,
words of (really?) angels
praising God upon a hillside,
dispatching them with messages
of God’s over-arching favor
into Bethlehem to see a child
(o come, they’ve seen a child before)
laid sleeping in a manger.

Once started speaking, they could not
be stopped, repeating in their
rasping voices promises of glory,
wonder, all the Earth’s salvation,
to all its peoples, peace.

Much later, when they had run long short
of words, had taken their eager
wishes of good fortune, their ragged habits
(if not the lingering smell of sheep)
out of the courtyard, back unto the hills,
Mary’s weary mind returned to thought.

They had not been the royal messengers
of old, like courtiers of David, no.
But they had brought the message
loud, and strong, and clear.
Emmanuel. God is with us.
Sleeping now, still fitfully,
still irritated by the straw.
Emmanuel. Yes, God is with us.
Even here in noisy Bethlehem.
Even now in this no-comfort place.

Emmanuel. Yes, God is with us.

Even here.

Even now.

The image is Paul Gauguin’s painting “Bebe” or “Nativity of Tahitian Christ.”


201710101 Kolea

When my children were infants, there was a phrase that promised a bright new future. As the newborn raised the cry that might mean “Hungry!” or might mean “Lonely!” or might mean “Dirty!” or might mean “Carry me around in circles!” or might mean “I’m tired and I don’t know what else to do!”, I would dream of a new era. Not the era in which they could tell me, “Want food” or “Want snuggle” or “Want clean diaper” or “Want up” or “Want to know what to do” – though that would have been helpful.

No, I longed for the day when my son, and later my daughter, could self-soothe.

It might be the most precious of human learnings. The world hands us lemons much of the time, not lemonade. We live amidst a downpour of discomforts. Hunger, loneliness, sticky stuff on skin, boredom, and simple frustration don’t disappear because we grow up. They are simply the earliest of many discomforts. Falls bring bruises. Experiments sometimes end in failures. Games result in losses as well as victories.

Coping with all that, finding ways to self-soothe, is a foundational human skill, and it gives birth to a plethora of other human skills. Food preparation relieves hunger. Social skills relieve loneliness. Bathing relieves stickiness (and prevents sickness). Gaining a height may relieve a particular yearning. Knowing oneself may relieve the frustration of indecision.

One of the most important things I’ve done in moving to an unfamiliar place, where I knew very few people on arrival, is finding ways to self-soothe. To find refreshment. To obtain comfort.

There are places I go to find a stillness that soothes. The sight of ocean waves rolling in, and hissing back out, reaches someplace deep within and fills me where I’m empty. The summit of Kilauea, where volcanic gasses float into the sky, transformed by molten rock below into a scarlet plume, awes me.

And lately, I’ve found, the sight of one small bird gives a comfort I’d never expected.

It’s called a kolea – or in English, the Pacific Golden Plover. It spends the summer in Alaska, where it wears a stunning plumage of silver and black. In the fall, it takes wing for Hawai’i, making the 3,000 mile trip in three or four days without stopping. It dons a new plumage of speckled sand and cream. They tend to return to the same place, spearing bugs from sandy beaches and plucking them from rockier coastlines. They’ll winter in house backyards as well.

And, it turns out, on the lawns of churches.

There’s a kolea that lives here, at Church of the Holy Cross. I don’t see it every day – I don’t see it every week, because I suspect it seeks its food up and down the street here – but when I do, I can feel every muscle relax. My breath falls gently down into my lungs.

Because a kolea feels comfortable enough to call my neighborhood home.

I have to say that this kolea is not an easily startled bird. It keeps a wary eye on preschool children at their top speed, but will hop away only when it’s clear that their games are heading in its direction. As I’m walking along, it will watch me, but hardly change its dedicated search for supper. It seems more concerned about the myna birds than me.

The funny thing is, I’ve never been a bird watcher before moving to Hawai’i. Now some obscure knowledge (I doubt everyone knows the migratory habits of the kolea) brings me comfort, restores my soul.

Thank you, kolea, for this unexpected gift of comfort.

And thank you, Creator, that I’ve learned another means to soothe my soul.