2019: Here, There, Everywhere


2019 began in modified delight. Both Brendan and Rebekah had been with me for Christmas in Hawai’i, but Brendan flew back to Boston and the Starbucks counter on December 29. Bekah, on a student’s holiday schedule, stayed until January 14 before flying back to cat and classes at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I wish my son had been able to stay longer, but it was a delightful way to begin the year. Bekah and I were able to sing together at Church of the Holy Cross and also for Pu’ula Church’s ‘Aha Mele.

I welcomed a number of visitors this year, some as special guests of the church and others as friends (and one or two as both). They included David Vasquez-Levy, President of the Pacific School of Religion; my seminary classmate John Madsen-Bibeau; my Uncle John and Aunt Lana Simonds; Tracy Barnowe of the Hawai’i Conference staff; Connecticut Conference Minister Kent Siladi; former Silver Lake Conference Center A-Team Coordinator Jesse Huhn; friend and colleague Liz Miller with her spouse Beth Scanlon; Hawai’i Conference Minister candidate David Popham (he preached at Holy Cross as Conference Minister toward the year’s end); and dear college friends Polly Goldman and Bruce Feist.

I did some traveling, too. It was a General Synod year, and the editors at United Church News asked me to join the news team for the denomination’s national gathering again. I wrote stories and took photos for both the national coverage and the Hawai’i Conference. Or to put it another way: I wrote a thing.

Synod is also a UCC family reunion, so I got to see lots of friends and even family. Rebekah attended as a delegate for UCC Disabilities Ministries and led a workshop with proud poppa in attendance. It became a story, of course, that father and daughter met in Milwaukee, halfway between their homes.

With Synod over, I took a week to visit the East Coast, which wasn’t enough time. I shuttled from Brendan’s home in Boston to my brother Christopher’s in New Haven to Paul Bryant-Smith’s in Norwalk to Rebekah’s apartment in New York. Paul and I enjoyed playing a Boys in Hats concert in Danbury, including some participation from Bekah and with Brendan at the camera.

That was my only formal concert performance for the year. In May, however, the Faith Hui held a dinner to give thanks for all the work we had done together during the 2018 eruption. I sang for a fair amount of that event, including an original song in recognition of the crisis. Much later in the year, I was astonished to receive a certificate of thanks from the state Senate for my small part in doing that work during the disaster.

The summer set another crisis in sharp relief: the dispute over appropriate use of Mauna Kea, sacred to some Hawaiians and bearing or symbolizing sacredness to others in different ways. At the request of Connie Larkman at United Church News, I put on my reporter hat again and wrote “Conflict of souls around Hawai’i’s sacred mountain.” The story fails to describe fully the depth of emotion around the issues. The dispute revealed existing fractures in the community that we had been accustomed to discount or ignore. Kia’i blocked the access road for months in numbers from less than a hundred to over 3,000. Everyone was determined.

I spent the fall trying to help my congregation build resilience in stress and deepen their listening skills. At some point, the particular question of the Thirty Meter Telescope will be settled, though I doubt it will be to everyone’s satisfaction. We will still need to live with one another in the community. We will need skills to do it.

We lost some very special people in our congregation over the year. Blanche, Karl, Millie, and Anita just at year’s end. All Saints’ Sunday in October was very poingnant.

I did quite a lot of other writing this year. I edited and contributed to a Church of the Holy Cross Lenten devotional Open the Heart. On my blog, I continued to write a poem/prayer each week based on the lectionary texts. As Advent approached, we repeated An Advent of Giving, with new devotionals by yours truly.

I took a lot of pictures of sunrises in 2019, in great part because I took morning walks for several months before some mole removals led me to take a break that, um, hasn’t ended yet. My hope is that the symbol of sunrise dominates 2020: new beginnings. Light. Hope.

Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!

 

It Begins

In the manger of Bethlehem, the infant sleeps.
On the Judean hillsides, the shepherds seek their flock.
Which of the parents dozes? The father?
The mother? Neither one? Both?
Love made flesh, power made weak,
Majesty made lowly, will soon awake in tears,
Seeking the warmth of skin and blood and milk.

Let that infant grow within our hearts.
Let that love take form within our purpose.
Let that mercy take shape in what we make.
Let that peace enfold those we embrace.
Let that grace shine forth just like that star:
Let the work of Christmas begin in me.
Let the work of Christmas begin in us.

A poem inspired in part by Luke 2 and in part by “The Work of Christmas” Howard Thurman. This poem was written for the Christmas Eve meditation of December 24, 2019, at Church of the Holy Cross UCC, Hilo, Hawai’i.

The image is The Birth of Christ (between 1570 and 1603) by Joos van Winghe – https://skd-online-collection.skd.museum/Details/Index/888833, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81597171.

Christmas Eve 2019

A woman and an infant in the foreground of a stable.

“He promised me the Son of God, the angel did,”
she murmured to the sweating, focused midwife.
“Promise anything they will,” she answered,
not noticing her charge had spoken with an angel.
“Now push!” she cried. “And push again!” For in
the cries of birth what angel could be heard?

At length the growls and the gasping cease,
though night remains unblessed by silence. No.
“The Savior has good lungs,” the watching Joseph notes
and winces at his piercing tones, distressed
by all this labor and this hunger and this cold,
now swiftly stifled at the weary Mary’s breast.

“The angel promised me a Savior,” now she sighs
as Son of God tries once and twice and squalls,
frustrated, not to grasp the nourishment he seeks.
She gasps, adjusts the infant’s head by order
of the midwife, sighs. At last. The slurping sounds
distract her as the midwife mops away.

“Angels, now,” the midwife sighs. “There’s all too few of them.”
She gazes at the wincing man, wonders if this “angel”
hides a demon, decides to take the mother’s word.
“Come, angel. Pile up the straw behind your wife.
He’ll nurse much better once her back is straighter.”
“I’m not an angel,” says the man, redundantly. She knows.

“He promised me the Son of God.” Now Mary’s eyes
arrest the midwife’s gaze. “Of course he did, my love,”
she coos, finishes the cleaning, readjusts her gown.
“They’re all the Child of God, you know, and this one
is for you.” “Oh, no,” the mother says, as flatly as
a waveless sea. “This One is for us all.”

A meager coin in hand, the midwife steps into the night.
Another one convinced their baby is the Promised One,
she thinks. What sorrow for his mother if he follows
that drear road! She draws aside to let a band of grimy men
pass by. One asks about a baby in a manger, “So the angel said.”
She watches as they turn into the stable. Now: she wonders.

A poem based on Luke 2:1-20, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Christmas Eve.

The image is The Nativity by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale – Bonhams, lot 420, 19 March 2008, Chester, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45143477.

On Impeachment

An iris flower at night with raindrops on its petals.

I doubt that anyone mistakes me for a fan of the current President of the United States or his policies. I reviewed a list of his priorities as he entered office and considered three of them to be actively evil:

  • his proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S.,
  • the income tax cuts that would (and have) disproportionately benefit the wealthy, and
  • the border wall with associated measures.

I had not imagined children taken from their parents. I had not imagined entire families imprisoned. I had not imagined the cold refusal to welcome refugees.

To my mind, family separations in and of themselves constitute grounds for impeachment. The practice removed children from their parents because the parents would be imprisoned without bail while awaiting a hearing for an offense that was most likely a misdemeanor. The directive to deny reasonable bail flies in the face of Constitutional protections. Incarcerated parents around the United States know where their children are, but these parents were denied that basic information. It’s clear from the government’s failure to reunite these families that they had not made any plans to do so. The loss of one’s children sounds an awful lot like cruel and unusual punishment to me.

Further, the President who gave these orders corrupted the enforcement agencies who carried it out. They had to do the work of cruelty. They still carry on the work of cruelty, only now the parents and children share the same prisons. It is monumentally unjust and a horrific abuse of power to require unjust acts of someone. We have seen it happen before.

I have been ready for his impeachment for some time. I have been impatient for it for some time. And yes, I find the articles passed last night to be adequate grounds for impeachment and removal from office.

The event finds me solemn and sorrowing. Although this is only the fourth time Congress has debated articles of impeachment, three of them have happened in my lifetime. I do not welcome Presidential misconduct. I do not welcome abuses of government power. I cannot greet even their exposure and impeachment with enthusiasm. At best, I feel a solemn satisfaction, not that “justice will prevail” (I read too much history and theology to be assured of that), but that, for a moment, a sign has been posted. “These acts, even of a President, will not be permitted.”

I wish I had more comfort to offer. I wish I felt more comfort. Some voices speak of loyalty, and some speak of violence. Some voices speak their fears. A few voices speak their hope. Would that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were here to speak of a dream…

Well, here is mine (it was David’s first), and I suspect it is similar to the prayers of incarcerated children:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:1, 13-14

So Hard to Believe

13th century manuscript illustration of picking cherries.

“When [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” – Matthew 1:18b

It’s all very well for me, you know.
He gave the plot away, the evangelist did,
for all his readers to know what Joseph could not:
Mary told the truth.

I feel no gut-wrenched shock, no rising fire,
no heart-destroying grief and pain
to close my mind against the simple fact that
Mary told the truth.

“Hey, Joseph,” I whisper over the centuries,
“What need of angels visiting in dreams
if you could only hold your faith and trust that
Mary told the truth?”

What need, indeed? Except that I rely far more
upon my keen discernment of the world’s
condition. It took Matthew to assure me that
Mary told the truth.

Officiously I do declare that voices often
silenced – women, children, refugees –
should be attended, but: would I have trusted
Mary told the truth?

For love, perhaps. For faith, perhaps.
For trust, perhaps. For God, perhaps.
For obeisance of a cherry, then:
Mary told the truth.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 1:18-25, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Fourth Sunday of Advent.

Seven Year Sorrowful Anniversary

I have told this story often over the last seven years.

It was a Friday. I’d taken the day off from the Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ, to drive to Burlington, Vermont, and pick up my son Brendan at the University of Vermont. I’d left early in the morning so that we could stop in Brattleboro and have a tasty and unhurried lunch.

As we approached the town near the Massachusetts line, my cell phone rang. It was one of my colleagues on the Conference staff. She told me that there’d been a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. There weren’t many details, but…

“It sounds bad,” she said.

As the person responsible for communication, this was my job.

I took the next exit, which was the one I’d intended to use in Brattleboro, but rather than search for a restaurant with a distinctive, creative menu we pulled into the chain restaurant closest to the highway. Instead of a cheerful conversation we sat silent as I scanned news websites, Twitter, and Facebook for information. I’m sure the waitress thought I was the worst father she’d ever seen.

Hastily, I tapped this prayer into my phone and sent it to my colleague in the Hartford office. “Read this carefully,” I warned, “and edit it as needed. Then email it to our churches and leaders.”

This was the prayer:

Our voices rise as from Ramah. We cry out for our children. God, who will comfort us?

With stunned tears we watch and listen and wait as word of horrors comes to us. With frozen minds we ask how, once again, such terrible violence has erupted among us. With aching hearts we anticipate the grieving cries: Rachels upon Rachels, Isaacs upon Isaacs, weeping for their children.

The days will come when we can ask why and have some hope of answering the question, O God. We pray your guidance then, when we can labor to prevent these tears.

Until then, to our aching hearts, for our frozen minds, amidst our streaming tears, bring tender comfort and unshakable love.

Amen.

Our hasty meal consumed, we resumed our southward drive, directed now toward the Conference office and not our home.

The next day I received a phone call from one of the pastors of First Church of Christ UCC in Glastonbury, where I was a member. “We need a song for a candlelight vigil on Sunday night,” she said. “Can you find something?”

I couldn’t.

I had to write something instead. The prayer gave me the place to start.

I sang “Courage in the Candle” for the first time that night. You’ll find photos and a recording of that original performance here. The video below comes from a worship service at a meeting of the Connecticut Conference. It features my dear friend and colleague the Rev. John Selders on the piano. At his suggestion, we melded “Courage in the Candle” with “God Has Work for Us to Do.”

I keep singing this song for fresh tragedies.

I wish I could stop.

Shall Be Glad

All I want for your birthday, Jesus,
is your mother’s dream.
To see the lowly raised up high,
the proud confused, dispersed.
To see the drunk with power deposed,
the hungry without hunger any more.

All I want for your birthday, Jesus,
is the prophet’s dream.
A desert blooming beneath the sun,
a rainbow soaring above the sand,
the rocks a-blossom, the weeds a-fruit,
the shaken knees no longer afraid.

All I want for your birthday, Jesus,
is to believe in ancient dreams.
To trust in the promise, trust in
the promises, trust in assurances
repeated, repeated to Mary,
through Mary, to me, through me.

A poem/prayer based on Luke 1:46b-55 and Isaiah 35:1-10, the Revised Common Lectionary alternate reading and first reading for Year A, Third Sunday of Advent.

The image is The Visitation by Giotto di Bondone (1310s), found in the lower church of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12219735.