They Wept Because They Understood

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. – Nehemiah 8:8-9

Could you not let them weep, Ezra?

Could you not let the tears fall for repentance?
I’m sure they had their share.
What person doesn’t?
Did you never weep to know your sins?

Could you not let the tears fall for relief?
Their labor was complete, the city wall
stood tall despite the efforts to disrupt it.
Did you never weep in triumph?

Could you not let the tears fall for awareness?
How few had ever heard the Law in part?
Complete? I’d venture there were none.
Did you never weep in ignorance dispelled?

Could you not let the tears fall for… loss?
Ah, yes, I raise that question, Ezra.
Did you recall another gathering,
with rain to match those families’ distress
to hear their marriages must break,
their spouses torn from homes,
their children cast away?
Where did they go, Ezra?

Where did they go?

I understand theologies of purity.
Exiled for three generations, searching for the cause,
you sought to build a faithfulness to last,
forestall another covenant in ruin.

But Ezra, it didn’t work, you know.
Deep faith has always had to struggle with
the mud, the mess, the muckiness of life.
Women and children cast aside? Mud of a different kind.

No, let them weep, Ezra. They’ve earned their tears.
They’ll strive for your perfection, and they’ll fail,
and so did you, and so do I, and so do all.
Alas, the parents’ sour grapes have set the children’s teeth on edge.

A poem/prayer based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year C, Third Sunday after the Epiphany. I am indebted to Cory Driver for his reflection on this text which made the connection to Ezra 10:6-44.

The image is an illustration of Ezra 10 by Jim Padgett (1984), published by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0, I was somewhat startled to find this image, which captures some – not nearly all – of the heartbreak of Ezra 10.

What *Do* People Say to Ministers?

Author’s Note: I wrote this essay in January 2012 responding to a video produced by some people completing their seminary education. Those people have become treasured colleagues and effective leaders in the Church – they also decided to make that video private, so sharing the link won’t do anything.

I posted the original essay to Facebook. I’ve returned to it because the Memories feature drew it to my attention.

A video appeared in my News Feed ten years ago. I watched it. I recognized one of the actors. I chortled. I laughed out loud. And, being somewhat cautious in the language I use in public, I hesitated to re-Share it on my own Wall. It was, after all titled “[Stuff] people say to ministers.”

The word was not “Stuff,” of course. It did begin with the letter “S.”

I’ve been an ordained minister for thirty-three years. And I’ve heard most of the questions asked in the video over that time (I’m particularly fond of a sequence of blank stares). OK, I haven’t been asked about being a nun, and I haven’t heard many of questions about the Mayan calendar. I suspect that’s just chance. But I’ve certainly been asked what I do when it’s not Sunday, and people clearly stop before telling me certain jokes.

I watched it. I recognized the people being played by the actors. I chortled. I laughed out loud.

And I hesitated before sharing it on my own Wall, because I knew that this light, playful, slightly wistful mirror on the life of an ordained minister, which had been created by four people still in the early days of that life, could so easily be seen and heard as a dismissal of those earnest, honest people who dared to lay aside their ignorance and ask a question.

It wasn’t, and I know it isn’t, and so I commend the filmmakers, my colleagues and friends (alums of my own seminary), for their gentle humor, their earnest wrestling with the new shape of their lives, and their courageous honesty. I offer them my sympathy for the misunderstandings that did, indeed, come their way.

There are so many ways in which members of the clergy share the experience of other professionals, other “experts” in a field of study. We are sought out for what we know and what we know how to do – for exposition of texts treasured by communities for thousands of years, for comforting the bereaved in the midst of shock and loss, for expressing the needs and longings of a community to powers beyond us – and we are also subject to being dismissed for filling those expectations. The therapist frustrated by the client who rejects the advice “that sounds like something a psychologist would say” and the safety consultant dismissed for being “over-cautious” will recognize the experience of the preacher whose warnings about selfishness go unheeded because that, after all, is “what ministers always say.”

Like these other professionals, ministers may be discounted if they seem to step outside their field. The auto mechanic is unlikely to be taken seriously when giving stock advice, and the securities trader may be ignored when suggesting a remedy for car trouble. The minister faces this problem in the week-to-week exercise of the profession, however, attending to the management of a physical plant and to the oversight of financial resources. Not all ministers are good at these things. I, for example, am far better at recognizing plumbing problems than fixing them. Those who are highly skilled, however, may find it difficult to have their skills recognized by congregation leaders.

Ordained ministry comes with a huge load of cultural expectations, some of which have been confused amidst the shifts of culture, some of which have combined expectations from disparate traditions, and some of which have been muddled by imperfect transmission of the traditions. In a society increasingly disconnected from a common religious heritage, this puzzling welter of expectations is likely to only get more scattered.

As I said, I’ve been asked what I do when it’s not Sunday. It’s not really a bad question. Very few people prepare a new public presentation every week, so it’s difficult to appreciate the planning time required for a sermon (and indeed, the entire worship service). One hundred years ago, the pastor’s house-to-house visits which kept the community aware of its members’ needs were easily visible down the street or across the fields. Today, the pastor’s car blends in with the rest, and in cities and suburbs the pastoral visit is a rare event since families are only briefly together at the close of day. Planning meetings, hospital visits, and convalescent home calls are mostly invisible. It’s Sunday morning that can be seen.

But some of the questions reveal the power – and the constraints – placed upon clergy by others’ expectations. “Oh, so you’re a minister? I used to sleep around a lot in college.” It’s funny; it’s also a statement of profound honesty that I can’t imagine being addressed to a member of very many other professions. The mere mention of the vocation’s name invited a memory and a moral reflection. It’s an invitation (potentially, anyway) to a deeper conversation. The same is true of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Can you lead us in grace?”

How many people, walking into a room, communicate the compassion of a community, and of a Power greater than any community, simply by their presence?

Likewise the constraints: the questions about musical tastes, and sexuality, and drinking, and swearing. “It’s so great that the church lets you out.” Oh, yes, and my favorite, the puzzled stares. Those are real. There’s a line in the ordination service which is so true it’s nearly universally ignored: “Set apart by the laying on of hands.” The cultural expectation, however muddled and confused, follows right along. Ordained people are, in some way we may not entirely understand, different. Set apart. Subject to a different set of expectations. Accountable in entirely different ways.

The best example I can come up with is the expectation about, well, dumb questions. Every professional, every worker in a trade, gets them. Few will be surprised at the occasional annoyed outburst. Hurt, perhaps, but not surprised.

From clergy, it’s not acceptable.

That’s not unique – many of the other helping professions come with the same expectation – but I recall the degree of shock and even some outrage which greeted Lillian Daniel’s exasperated (though considered) response to one-too-many casual “I’m spiritual, but not religious” conversations with strangers. She should have listened to the person, I read. There may have been wisdom she hasn’t heard.

Perhaps she should. Perhaps there was.

But if she was a therapist with years of study in her field and twenty years of counseling practice, would we so easily endorse a questioner’s statement, “I don’t need therapy for my failings. I’ve got my own resources.”

Perhaps we should. Perhaps he has.

But perhaps he doesn’t.

What do people say to ministers? They accept the invitation of the calling and the office to go places they might not go with anyone else in the world, powerful places of self-examination and spiritual exploration. They project upon the minister, the rabbi, the priest, the monk, all the power of spiritual community and spiritual Power, and reaching through that projection, they sometimes find the real thing.

And what do people say to ministers? They may also project their mistaken understandings of the office and the calling, and stumble into conversations that will take huge effort to end up somewhere good. Sometimes they’re innocuous and humorous – for Protestants, at least, that describes the questions about sex – but sometimes they’re not. “Well, I don’t believe that the world was created in seven days, so I don’t believe in God.” That’s a place it’s hard to move on from. Not impossible, but very, very hard.

Full credit to these, my now-and-future colleagues in this puzzling, precious calling. They’ve dared to ask the questions, because they’ll be faced with them as they live their lives: lives set apart by the laying on of hands.

Self-portrait by Eric Anderson.

Not Now. Not Now.

“When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?'” – John 2:3-4

Oh, no. Don’t even. Don’t even think it.

I can see the whispers at the table.
I see indignant looks into the cups.
The arms would like to strain to carry them, and…
they don’t.

Now here comes mother. Surely not.
I’m just here to relax, to raise a glass
(now lighter) in honor of this day,
and pray a silent special prayer for them.

I did not come to play the host
reliable in lieu of host incompetent.
And really? Is it such an awful thing
the wine is gone? Just look! They’ve had enough.

They’ve had enough and more, you know,
because they’ve drunk the good,
the mediocre, and the bad to drain
these wineskins dry. There’s wine aplenty: all in them.

So, call me grumpy Jesus if you like.
It’s just three days since dripping
I arose to dove’s descent and prophet’s roar.
Not now, I say. I need a moment’s peace.

We came here, you and I, accompanied
by strangers (Was it they who drank the wine?
Well, by their smiles, they drank enough)
who say that they will follow me for wisdom and for life.

So what have I to do with them?
And what have I to do with this?
And what have I to do with you?
And what have I to do with anything at all?

Not now. Not now. Not now.

“His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.'” – John 2:5

All right. Just… right. Just grab some buckets there
and fill those jars. Yes, those, The biggest ones.
All six. I hope they’ve got some water in them
or this part will take all day.

They’re filled? All right. Now dip
a pitcher in, and tell the steward that
there’s wine to serve again, and plenty
for the day to run into the night.

And woman – mother – can I have the time
I need to ask and answer who I am,
John’s “Lamb of God”? I swear by all that’s holy,
if I do not get that time, I will…

I will…

Well. Let’s just say that tables are gonna fly.

A poem/prayer based on John 2:1-11, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year C, Second Sunday after the Epiphany.

The image is The Wedding at Cana by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (ca. 1686) –, Public Domain,

Epiphany 2022

“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…” – Matthew 2:3

One year since some deluded,
some deluding, some misinformed,
some misanthropic stormed
the halls of Congress, to retain
a would-be Herod on his throne,

Revealing in an afternoon of rage
the violence they credited to others,
the hollowness of civic virtues
claimed, the eagerness to claim
the lie as truth, to curse the truth.

The rising of tide of wrath withdrew
as evening – came in face of force –
so legislators came once more to count
the votes, and as they did, the injured
sought relief, the grieving comfort.

King Herod missed his mark. The child
he sought escaped, though wailing rose
in Ramah where Rachel wept uncomforted.
His rising tide of wrath withdrew
though unfulfilled, without success.

Would Herod be assured to know his work
was finished near Jerusalem’s height
by Pontius Pilate after thirty years
had passed? Did his corpse-teeth grin
to hear the soft moan, “It is finished”?

Is our Epiphany to be
that Herods rise, and Pilates rise,
as tides of poison circling the globe?
Oh, might see once more the One beset
by violence, who died, indeed – and rose.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 2:1-12, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year C, Epiphany of the Lord.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Bath of New Direction

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” – Luke 3:21

Rise from the water,
streaming droplets
patter in the stream.

Dust of travel swirls
in ochre ribbons
carried in the current.

Shivers in the sun
from unseen water
leaping from the skin.

Toes gripping at the mud,
legs straining at the bank,
emerging with a tiny slip.

Though newly washed,
the feet once more
wear soil on their soles:

The river silt,
the muddy bank,
the wind-blown dust.

Within a heartbeat
gritty sand alights,
defying wash and washer.

The tunic settles on
the dampened, dirt-streaked
skin, applying sediment anew.

A moment and the bather
is no longer clean, and
we wonder at the bathing’s purpose,

For what repentance
did the bather bring,
and what forgiveness need?

But look: the newly washed
re-sandaled takes another way,
into the wilderness.

A baptism of cleaning?
Not so much. But of direction?
Jesus chose the blessed way.

A poem/prayer based on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year C, First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of Christ.

The image is Baptism of Christ by Mesrop of Khizan, active 1605-1651. Image from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved January 5, 2022]. Original source:,_active_1605_-_1651)_-_The_Baptism_of_Christ_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

2021: Not As Advertised

It had such promise, you know?

COVID-19 vaccines were the great dream of 2021. I received my two doses in March and April, and the booster (after some delay due to supply concerns in Hawai’i and my confusion about eligibility) in December. Like so many, I believed that the vaccines would be rapidly sought by an eager public and that viral spread would slow and stop.

Well. That didn’t go as planned.

Like so many others, I watched with horror as furious supporters of electorally defeated Donald Trump assaulted police officers and broke windows to gain the Capitol building. It was a Wednesday, and I was just back from some time off (if not away). As I did on most of 2021’s Wednesdays, I sat down to sing one song on camera, streamed live to YouTube. It was the theme song of 2020, and also of 2021: “When Will We Find Healing?”

That night, we shared a Prayer Time for our Nation.

Over the course of the year, I composed twelve new songs (two of them are featured in the 2021: A Year video at the top of the page). I sang twenty one-hour Community Concerts in addition to all those Wednesday songs. I recorded What I’m Thinking videos. I wrote #LectionPrayers for this blog. I led worship online for Church of the Holy Cross. In June one of my poems was published in the collection Pitching Our Tents.

I spent far more time on camera than I’d ever believed credible – or desirable, for that matter.

Enjoying the company of dear friends in May.

The vaccine’s timing made a trip east in May an acceptable risk, and so I journeyed east to celebrate Rebekah Anderson’s graduation from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, receiving her Master of Divinity. I spent some time in Connecticut as well to visit my brother, stepmother, and several friends – but I didn’t get to see Brendan. He was still working on his master’s program in Bangor, Wales. I’m still really sorry that this pandemic made it unwise to cross two oceans and visit him there.

In April I represented Interfaith Communities in Action at the groundbreaking for HOPE Services Hawai’i’s Sacred Heart Village. Having been elected Chair of the Hawai’i Conference Council last year, in June I presided over the online 199th ‘Aha Pae’aina. In July I served as a delegate to the UCC’s General Synod, also online (more time on camera).

Summer brought reduced illness rates across Hawai’i and across the nation, and so I got to receive visiting friends once again. Polly and Bruce introduced me to a local cacao grower and chocolate maker. With Liz and Beth I ventured out to Kilauea again, and when David and his family visited in November we got a view down into the lava lake at the caldera summit. In June Church of the Holy Cross considered gathering the congregation for worship again – and then Delta arrived.

In just a couple of weeks we went from fairly low COVID-19 diagnoses to the highest we had ever seen. The highest we’ve ever seen – except for Omicron’s arrival in December, when we have been planning for worship gatherings once again.

No, the year has not gone as I had dreamed.

In October, as the Delta wave subsided, I headed east once more to celebrate the wedding of Ian and Sarah, joining Paul Bryant-Smith once more so that Boys in Hats could sing for one of their long-suffering road crew. The bride and groom had already married legally, but seized this occasion to gather friends (outside) and celebrate (outside) with all the joy we could muster.

We mustered a lot of joy.

I have to take off my hat to the TWA Hotel in New York. It’s the only hotel on the JFK airport grounds, and it was so relaxing to spend just a night there. The decor is deliberately anachronistic, recalling Trans World Airlines heyday in the late 1950s. The telephone in the room had a rotary dial.

I called the front desk to inquire about checkout procedures just so I could use it.

Back in Hilo, I finally resumed morning walks in December, at least when it wasn’t raining (and it rained a lot in December). I’d hoped to visit the Kilauea summit at sunrise, but rain has delayed that as well so photos and video of the lava lake in the dark will have to wait until… 2022.

I hope you enjoy the photos and the songs. Love to you all!



“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1

“For we observed his star at its rising…” – Matthew 2:2

Star-Creator discovered beneath a star,
Planet-Former found over the curve of Earth,
Human-Shaper nurtured in the womb of Mary,
All-Embracer wrapped in mother’s tears:

Shine upon us.

Monarch-Ruler fleeing from a king,
Word-Incarnate lacking human speech,
Life-Light needing one to testify,
All-Knowing yet unknown:

Shine upon us.

Spirit-Eternal in human flesh,
Glory-Unbounded with a weary face,
Life-Everlasting corpse upon a cross,
Love-Transcendent unrecognized in a garden:

Shine upon us.

A poem/prayer based on John 1:1-18, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year C, Second Sunday after Christmas, and Matthew 2:1-12, the RCL Gospel Reading for Epiphany.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Where on Earth?

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” – Luke 2:46-48

One day lost. He’s with Uncle. Or Auntie’s taken charge.

Two days lost. One day outward, one day back,
and no way to decrease the time. Messengers
from Marathon we’re not.

Three days now. Scour the inn, the streets
around the inn, the streets around the streets.
“Come child, have you seen my child today?
Or yesterday? Come child, speak quickly now!
If you do not, I must find one who knows.”

“He wouldn’t, would he?” “Oh, I think he would.”
The Temple. Right. Of all the places. Yes, he would.
Too tired to race, we clamber up the rising streets,
to gain the shadow of the outer courts,
the bustle of the moneychangers, cooing of
the doves, the lowing from the cattle stalls.

Around a corner, round a corner, take this bend.
We’d ask a guard, but visitors from Galilee
might get an answer from a backhand slap,
or worse, we’d get our son arrested.

The teachers and the scribes assemble in
these knots of deep discussion, picking at
the tangle of the faithful life, unbraiding it
to see if might be new woven into
tapestry, or if we make new knots
unweaving what was woven once.

Ah, there! We hear the piping voice, not
a grey-capped head, but a headstrong boy.
We stride, relieved, but fear’s receding wave
has left revealed parental wrath.
“Now, child,” (don’t jostle the Great Men)
“How could you do this thing to us?”

And he, still thinking like a scholar and a scribe,
returns a question to the question –
a tactic he will anger many people with some day –
“Where did you think I’d be but in my Father’s house?”

Quick glances pass between us, with a common thought,
a memory of angel’s promises,
of ragged shepherds claiming to have heard a song,
and marveling to this child in his feeding trough,
a memory of aged sages praising him
in this same temple all those years ago.

Well. First, we thought he’d be with us.
And then we thought he’d be with relatives
who’d come with us to celebrate the Passover.
And then we thought he’d still be at the inn
where we had stayed, or with the children of
the neighborhood, or not too far away.

And, child, if you ask, “Where would I be
but in my Father’s house?” then I shall ask
(and see, you’re not the only one
to answer questions with a question), “Son,
what is your Father’s house? Does God
live in this Temple, shining though it does,
with prayers and incense rising in the air?
Oh, no, your Father’s house is wider than
the world. Your parents find no clue
to finding you by knowing you are in
‘your Father’s house.'”

But we are too distressed with fading fear
and overwhelming joy to say such things.
We murmur “Thank you,” to the smiling scribes
and gather up our budding scholar in
our arms. Once more we’ll take the road
to Nazareth and home, and treasure what
we’ve heard within our hearts.

A poem/prayer based on Luke 2:41-52, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year C, First Sunday after Christmas.

The image is Jesus retrouvé dans le temple (Jesus Found in the Temple) by James Tissot (between 1886 & 1894) – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.41_PS2.jpg, Public Domain,

Christmas Eve 2021

Such fear upon that blessed night:

The fear of Joseph, who had failed
to find a shelter proper for the birth.

The fear of Mary, who had never birthed
a child before, nor known her body to take charge.

The fear of neighbors, who awoke
to sounds of labor echoing.

The fear of stable owner, wondering
if father’s stormy brow meant violence.

The fear of midwife, all experienced
with healthy births – and infant deaths.

The fear of all, when mother’s screams
went silent, and the universe was hushed.

The fear of mother, marveling to hold
a newborn who would not be comforted.

The fear of angels, asking if a band
of shepherds was their audience.

The fear of shepherds, so the messenger
said first, “O do not be afraid.”

The fear of singers in the heavens’ choir,
lest heaven’s song lack harmony.

The fear of watchmen at the gate,
confronted by the shepherd band.

The fear of seekers for the infant Christ,
uncertain where to find the stable bed.

The fear of parents, shocked to see
the hillsides’ wanderers had come.

The fear of parents, hearing angels’ words,
which would the fear of monarchs generate.

The fear of monarchs, which would bring
no celebration, only tears like rain.

The fear of sleeping child. Who can know
what infants know? And who can say
what infant Jesus knew of dusty days
and stormy seas and quiet conversations
by the water’s edge, of questions over meals
and by a paralytic’s cot and in the shadows of
the night, of lepers leaping thanks unspoken
save for one, of baptism and Satan’s snares
and stories told and proverbs taught
and so much more, and so much more,
all leading to an agonizing cross
and to a tear-swept joyful dawn.

A poem/prayer based on Luke 2:1-20, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year C, Nativity of the Lord, Proper I.

The image is The Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1612-1614) by El Greco, 1541?-1614, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved December 24, 2021]. Public Domain. Original source:

In Those Days

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. – Luke 1:39-40

In those days, Luke? Say rather:
“After her imagined life had been upset
by visitation of an angel,
Mary saw the pretenses of life too well,
her friends and loved ones, neighbors, too,
persisting in a sad semblance of ‘normal’
when the love of God was breaking in.

“She fled because her efforts to
acquaint the villagers of Nazareth
with blessing, with deliverance,
were greeted with polite discount,
with blank incomprehension,
silent disbelief, and smirks that smack
of shame and slander.

“She fled because she had no outlet for
the wonder bottled up inside,
no person who would recognize the glory.
Who but one already bearer of
a miracle would comprehend
a miracle before her?

“So in those days she fled. When Mary stood
upon the threshold of Elizabeth, received
a wave of welcome, knew they shared in wonder,
all the pain of others’ disbelief gave way,
and in a flood of tears she praised
magnificent reversal, pride dispersed,
power humbled, humble lifted,
hungry satisfied and wealthy leaving empty.

“For in the shared experience of grace,
they built on love’s foundation,
Mary and Elizabeth, to raise up faith
and hope and joy that others would not see.”

Write that, Luke. It’s what you meant by,
“In those days.”

A poem/prayer based on Luke 1:39-55, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year C, Fourth Sunday of Advent.

The image is Visit of Mary to Elizabeth by Fr. George Saget, a portion of a larger mural behind the altar of Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal. Downloaded from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved December 15, 2021]. Digital source photo by Jonas Roux – Flickr [1], CC BY 2.0,