Where is the Laughter?

Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me…” – Genesis 21:6

Where is the laughter, O God?
Where is the delight in your created multiverse?
Where is the wonder that bubbles up
in human beings rejoicing?

But who can laugh in days like these?
Who can laugh? Four hundred thousand people
now have died around the world?
One hundred thousand of our closer neighbors?

Yes, who can laugh in days like these,
when the essential work and heightened risk
and sickening and dying falls upon
the people burdened by the sin of racism?

Yes, who can laugh when clubs and shields
and “rubber bullets” strike, when tear gas
drives the ministers from holy ground,
when violence asserts the mantle of Christ’s Church.

Yes, who can laugh, for who can breathe?
Who can laugh, for who can see for tears?
Who can laugh, for who do so through a mask?
Who can laugh, for who can see their neighbor smile?

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?…
Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

O LORD, let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
and we
will
laugh.

A poem/prayer based on Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, Proper 6 (11).

A stained glass window in the Collegiale Notre Dame de Dinant in Walloon, Belgium. Photo by Vassil – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17808949.

Unholy Dominion

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

I look to Your face, O Righteous and Holy One.
It should be beaming bright as noonday sun,
and in its radiance my eyes should be dazzled.
Then why instead do Your hands obscure Your face?
Why does Your forehead tremble? Why do
Your shoulders shake? Why does a river run
from both Your eyes down to Your feet?

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet…

Why do the heavens wail? Why does the lightning strike?
Why do Your eyes flash amidst Your tears,
rising suddenly above Your trembling hands?
Why do Your brows draw together
in holy wrath arising from Your sorrow?
You have made us, after all, a little less than You.
We stand in crowns of glory and of honor.

You stand. I fall. My face is to the ground.
Your glory is too wonderful for me, too great
Your anger, and too great Your grief.
Your foot descends to hover just above
my neck. “Is this,” You ask, “dominion you
would choose? It’s not? Then why,” You whisper,
“do you force it on My children?”

A poem/prayer based on Psalm 8, the Revised Common Lectionary Psalm Reading for Year A, Trinity Sunday.

Detail of a large gypsum relief showing the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III placing his foot on the neck of an enemy. From the North-West Palace, reused in South-West Palace at Nimrud, Iraq. ca. 728 BCE. The relief is now in the British Museum. Photo by Dr. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90697184.

Pentecost 2020

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

They were together in their humiliation.
They were together in their grief.
They were together in their rage.
They were together in their humanity.

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…

A man bleeding, collapsing on the road.
A woman dying in her own apartment.
A man gasping that he couldn’t breathe.

And at this sound the crowd gathered…

They gathered to grieve.
They gathered to protest.
They gathered to demand.
They gathered to declare their humanity.

Amazed and astonished, [the crowd] asked…

They asked why you deserved this.
They asked for submission to violence.
They asked for time for the process.
They offered… nothing.

…In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.

God made us children.
God made us adults.
God made us human.
God made us the equal of anyone.

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Do you have to ask?
If you have to ask,
how can you know?

But others sneered.

Oh, yes. We have heard this before.

But Peter… raised his voice and addressed them, “…This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…'”

We will declare the justice of the Creator.
We will declare the injuries of the Created.
We will demand the justice of the order.
We will defy the structures of the racists.

May everyone who calls on the name of the LORD be saved.

A poem/prayer based on Acts 2:1-21, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, Pentecost Sunday.

The image is “Pentecost” by JESUS MAFA. Used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution/Noncommercial/ShareAlike 3.0 license.

An Open Letter to the President of the United States

June 3, 2020

The President of the United States of America

Dear Mr. President:

I add my voice to the rising tide of voices denouncing your words and your deeds on Monday; your deeds on Monday, throughout your time in office, and in your conduct as a public figure and a private citizen.

People of color in this nation have continued to suffer from institutional racism, codified by laws written when white men openly sought to establish and defend their power over women and people of other racial and ethnic groups. Many of those laws remain, and even where those laws have been repealed or overturned, their effects remain. The attitudes remain. Ahmaud Arbery’s killers hunted him down because the only reason for a black man to be in their neighborhood was to commit crimes. Brionna Taylor died when police demanded and executed a no-knock warrant, then failed to announce themselves as police. What justification was there for that? George Floyd died when an officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes. Neither he nor the officers with him responded to his pleas for mercy.

These were all acts of violence, Mr. President, violence against citizens of the nation, violence against the people you swore to protect by upholding the Constitution, violence committed in the latter two instances by agents of the state. 

If these had been isolated incidents, the families and the communities might have demonstrated faith in the legal system. How could they? Two months elapsed before a video forced authorities to consider a murder case in Mr. Arbery’s death. Two months elapsed before details of Ms. Taylor’s death came to public awareness. Without the video of Mr. Floyd’s death, would those officers have successfully claimed “self-defense”?

These are acts of violence, Mr. President, committed against people who have been routinely harassed by law enforcement officials because of their race. They are acts of violence committed against people who remember very clearly that you could not consistently condemn overt racists with Nazi flags and Ku Klux Klan hoods. These are acts of violence piled upon humiliations, obstructions, and oppressions beyond count or measure.

I do not condone riot. I am an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. Anger, however, is the appropriate response to injustice. The truth of racism in America can only provoke anger. However I lament the violence erupting in our cities, I have to bear witness to this truth: the anger is responding to a long history of violence and injustice. If you increase the violence of the state – if someone authorizes deadly force even against looters – you multiply the violence.

Mr. President, this is the time to abandon your instincts for retaliation. This is the time to lay the groundwork for reconciliation. This is the time to acknowledge injustice. This is the time to mourn the dead. This is the time to quench the flames, not feed them.

So far, as after Charlottesville, you have chosen to feed them.

I have some further comments on your visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church. I will tentatively accept the account that Attorney General William Barr ordered the protesters cleared to expand the security perimeter around the White House. The explanation, however, is an inadequate excuse. Those demonstrators had done nothing to provoke a violent response. There was no need for tear gas, batons, or rubber bullets. None whatsoever. The approach to people gathered in peaceful observance of their First Amendment rights cannot possibly be a violent one. If it is, those who ordered it need to be held to account.

Mr. President, you should ask for Attorney General Barr’s resignation immediately. The others who followed his illegal order should also be dismissed.

Then you walked to St. John’s Church. Mr. President, you could not have known this, but the police assault drove staff and priests of the church from its grounds. They entered the property without a warrant and without probable cause of a crime. Frankly, they should all be tried for assault.

Then you stood on the church grounds holding a Bible. Did you ask permission to stand there? Did you confer with the church’s leadership at all? Did you have any reason to believe you could use church property as a backdrop?

Frankly, sir, if you did that on the grounds of my church, I would consider filing a complaint for trespassing against you. Because of the use of force, I would demand accountability of the police officers and their commanders, up to and including the Attorney General.

I am a pastor. I do not approve of violence. I do not believe Jesus approved of violence. He ordered his followers not to resist his arrest. He offered forgiveness – not violence – to his torturers and killers. Who did he drive from the temple? Those who sought to enrich themselves under the cloak of religion.

I trust the contrast between Jesus Christ and Monday’s action is clear, Mr. President.

When you stood on church grounds, you sought to claim the endorsement of the Christian faith for your threats of violence and more violence. You used violence to obtain that place. You trespassed on the physical space and you trespassed on the spiritual space. Your attempt to claim holy sanction for your acts defines the word “blasphemous.”

Here is my advice.

Retract your threats of violence. Begin substantive conversations with leaders of these protests.

Insist on the resignation of Attorney General Barr and discipline of those who followed his orders.

Apologize to the leadership of St. John’s Church.

Apologize to the faith community for your blasphemous attempt to use their faith for your selfish purposes.

Based on your prior behavior, I do not believe you will take any of these actions. Therefore, there is only one proper remedy: Resign from office. You have demonstrated once more that you are unworthy of the public trust.

Sincerely,

Eric S. Anderson
Ordained Minister, United Church of Christ

Help of the Helpless

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land. – Psalm 68:5-6

I am grateful, O God, to know
the people for whom You labor,
the people for whom You care.

You care for the homeless.
You care for the resource-less.
You care for the refugee.

I am grateful, O God, to know
the people for whom You care.
Do You wonder why people do not?

A poem/prayer based on Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, the Revised Common Lectionary Psalm Reading for Year A, seventh Sunday of Easter.

The image is a portrait of Tomomichi Yuuki, “Mizuhan portrait”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64228756.

Orphaned

[Jesus said,] “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” – John 14:18

Technically, I have been an orphan now
for twenty months and three. My mother died
as I was starting to believe that I
was an adult – perhaps, of course, before
I had achieved that title – in the waning months
before my second decade reached its close.
It seems so odd to be now older than she ever was.

My father lived much longer, though afflicted so
in latter years by Parkinson’s Disease, he could
not make the trip to visit me, his eldest son,
in the Hawaiian Islands. The flowers of this place
adorned his passing when I wish they could
have welcomed him as honored guest.
But he greeted eighty years with such a smile.

So I have been left orphaned well into
my middle age, a kinder fate than many folk
endure. If none of us were perfect in our love,
we had at least the grace to learn and grow,
to love anew when older means to love had passed.
So Jesus, if you would, come visit me, I pray,
for I am orphaned, and I weep for your embrace.

A poem/prayer based on John 14:15-21, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, sixth Sunday of Easter.

The photo is of my father and my mother on their wedding day in 1962; photographer unknown.

This poem/prayer fails to honor the woman my father married in 1995; they met while both pursuing M.Div. degrees at Andover Newton Theological School. She has been the mother-to-an-adult my own mother could not be. My son said it best. His grandfather had had the privilege to marry the love of his life twice.

All I Ask

[Jesus said,] “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” – John 14:14

I’m asking.

I’m asking for deliverance from a virus.
I’m asking for deliverance from all-encompassing folly.
I’m asking for deliverance from the demands of greed.
I’m asking for deliverance from injustice.

I’m asking.

I’m asking for deliverance from my loneliness.
I’m asking for deliverance from my narcissism.
I’m asking for deliverance from my burdens.
I’m asking for deliverance from my sin.

I’m asking.

I’m asking for deliverance from my grief.
I’m asking for deliverance of the world’s grief.
I’m asking for deliverance of the world’s violence.
I’m asking for deliverance from… it all.

I’m asking.

What say you, Jesus?
Shall we wait at this table until it comes to pass?
Here, at least, we have the bread to sustain us…
Except that it has not been broken yet in you.

A poem/prayer based on John 14:1-14, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, fifth Sunday of Easter.

The image is The Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15542032.

In Appreciation of Nurses

May 6, says the calendar, is National Nurses’ Day in the United States. I have seen Facebook and Twitter observances today, as well as a statement by the President – one which, I observe with some pain, he made with nurses present, standing too close to one another, and without masks.

Ironically, as the nation and the world face a rapidly spreading and deadly pandemic, thousands of nurses and other health care workers have been laid off as “elective” medical procedures have been deferred. Others have been fired for refusing to enter risky situations without proper protective equipment. Some have been screamed at by “open now” demonstrators for simply speaking the truth about a widespread and serious illness.

In these days that nurses are hailed as heroes one moment and treated so shabbily the next, I want to thank them for being the heart and soul of compassionate health care.

Late in 2017, I noticed a strange growth on my nose. I didn’t think much of it at first, as it acted first like one thing and then like another thing that I expected to heal up and go away. When it continued to grow instead, I reluctantly took myself to have it examined.

I have two major flaws as a patient. The first is that I will delay a medical consult. I don’t care much for the standard discomforts and indignities of a medical exam. Yes, I know they’re needed. Yes, they’re still uncomfortable and undignified. I value my dignity. If I’m present in a physician’s office, it’s either because it’s a regular check-up and I’m giving up my dignity for the responsibility of self-care, or I’m really afraid. Really afraid.

The second is that while I can be trusted to follow through on things like wound care, I’m terrible when it comes to lab work. See the paragraph above.

That December in the examining room of dermatologist Dr. Monica Scheel, I was terrified. I strove to present a calm demeanor. I told my body that it was not to flinch. I kept my voice light. If I succeeded, the only reason I didn’t get an Oscar for that performance was the absence of a film crew.

Dr. Scheel went a long way to try to reassure me, to turn my act into some semblance of reality. She is a skilled physician with great people skills. There came the time, however, when her attention had to be focused on some parts of my skin rather than on me. She numbed the area thoroughly. Then she removed the sample to figure out what it was.

As she did, the nurse on the other side gently moved her gloved fingers back and forth along my forearm. She didn’t say anything. She just let me know, in the only way that could reach me in that moment, that there was comfort for my fears.

I tear up just a little remembering it.

In my experience, it is nurses who have been given the role of rooting medicine in humanity. This is no slight to physicians or technicians, who I have also known to bring that human touch. For them, however, there will often come a time when they have to set that part of themselves aside, to focus on a portion of the person, not the whole.

Nurses – RNs, LPNs, CNAs – they have been given the awesome responsibility to be the comforting presence, the one who accompanies us as we endure treatment and the one at our side as we heal.

Thank you, nurses. There are no words to fully appreciate what you do.

Reassure Me

It’s dark.

This is a valley of shadows.

This is a valley of death.

My grief and not my cup runs over.

Too many earthly shepherds flail
with rod and staff;
they maim and kill their flock,
and leave the predators untouched.

My enemies enjoy the feast
that I will never taste.

This is place from which I cry,
“De profudis clamavi ad te!”
“Mimma’amaqqim qeratika!”
“Mai loko o na wahi hohonu,
ua kahea aku au ia ‘oe!”
“Out of the depths I cry to you!”

Reassure me with your implements
of protection, Holy Shepherd,
for the night is long. I am afraid.
I turn my prayers to you.

A poem/prayer based on Psalm 23, the Revised Common Lectionary Psalm Reading for Year A, fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday.

Image of The Good Shepherd by Luca Giordano – http://www.gallery.am/hy/database/item/6772/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20019538.

Untasted

The truth is that I’m pretty hungry now.
This walk from city to Emmaus has
been tiring, more than any walk I can
remember, since my heart is wrapped in grief
and fear because, you know, you’re dead and gone
and I refused to take much comfort from
the words the women shared (is it because
they’re women, now, I ask “enlightened” me?).

So I am famished when I sit to eat
with you (the you I do not recognize)
and my companion (oops, whose name I have
forgotten to report to history).
Can we get to it now? Just break the bread
and share it round, replenish my depleted
stores of stamina and strength of mind.
I’ll wait. You break. Then we can eat in peace.

Now hours and miles later, gasping with
the sweet exhaustion of a joy-filled run,
I find that you have traveled swifter yet
than I, to share the miracle of your
renewed and resurrected life. I share
the wonder that “The Lord has risen indeed;”
because I left the bread untasted on
the table when the Lord appeared to me.

A poem/prayer based on Luke 24:13-35, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, third Sunday of Easter.

Image by RvdWeyer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27519876.