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 Many of those laws remain, and even where those laws have been repealed or overturned, their effects remain.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.

An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist

On March 15, in my Sunday morning sermon to worshipers at Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i, I said, “When our Board of Deacons meets following worship today, I will recommend that we not meet for worship for at least two weeks. I have already begun planning a worship experience via live video over the Internet in anticipation that we will need to do this at some point. It won’t be what we want. It may not satisfy the thirst of our souls. But we need to satisfy a different thirst first.”

The Board accepted my recommendation. Not long thereafter, Hawai’i Governor David Ige issued a stay-at-home order that prohibited gatherings greater than ten people until the end of April. Church of the Holy Cross shifted to worshiping via streaming video over the Internet, a new endeavor and one with which relatively few of us had any familiarity.

Fortunately, I’d done something like this before when I was on the communications staff of the Connecticut Conference UCC. I also had been producing short pre-recorded videos as part of the church’s life each week for three and a half years.

That gave me some technical background, but I also had to think about reformatting the Sunday service. We simply could not replicate the in-person event. It was irresponsible to bring in the choir to sing. The sermon needed to get shorter. The children’s moment needed to be included, and so a story became the first section of my meditation. Music was still important, but we would have to feel our way into it for practical and copyright awareness reasons.

What are the essentials of worship? A moment to call ourselves into that place… a prayer to bring ourselves to God… reading of Scripture… a story… a message… an invitation to give… a consecration of those gifts… a blessing.

Others will have their own ideas about the essentials I’ve omitted (confession and assurance, for one). This was how I started, and it has turned out to be a good framework.

The next questions were all technical. First, how to share? I wanted to make it as painless as possible for the end user to view and participate in worship. There were several options, boiling down to three major groupings.

One that many churches have used is Facebook Live, a live video option within the social media platform. It offers some limited interaction – rather delayed by processing time – and Facebook is a widely used platform. It was not, however, widely used in my existing congregation. Requiring people to subscribe to a social media service in order to worship seemed like a bad approach.

A second option was a video conferencing application like Zoom or GoToMeeting. This had the strong advantage of offering interaction during the service; lag time exists in these technologies but is usually not noticeable. Although there are in-browser options, the principal players in this field require the end users to download an application. That seemed to me like a significant barrier for people unfamiliar with these technologies.

So I chose the third option: Live streaming over a video distribution service, in this case YouTube. I had an advantage. I’ve had a personal YouTube account long enough that I was already authorized for live streams. That resource was in place. I’d had plenty of practice embedding YouTube players into the web pages of our church site, so people could find us in a familiar interface. Best of all, YouTube has worked hard to be a “visit us and it works” technology. It almost never requires an end user to install anything.

Streaming, however, was not enough. There might be audio or video issues. There might be breakdowns or technical failures. There might simply be people straining to hear from a small computer speaker. Live subtitles didn’t seem practical without special equipment (I’d be willing to be proved wrong about this). I had to provide the texts easily and in advance.

As a result, the worship service text gets posted to a web page, including links to a PDF version of the service so that people can print it and follow along while they keep the YouTube box centered in their screen. I write and post a text for the sermon and pastoral prayer as well, generally early on Sunday morning, so that people with hearing or audio difficulties can follow along. Subscribers to our email newsletter receive the link to the service’s web page on Thursday or Friday, and then again a little over an hour before worship begins. Nobody should have to search very far for the link to the service text and video.

Now it was time to test things. There is a camera in my laptop computer, but I doubted that it would work well (or that the microphone would work well) for worship streaming. One test later, I was on my way to the electronics supply store looking for a better webcam and a long Ethernet cable. With the webcam, a Logitech C922, mounted on a camera tripod I could separate the camera from the computer that controlled everything. It also improved both video and audio quality (with one persistent audio problem I’ll discuss later).

Early tests had showed an undesirable number of freezes and drop-outs. Why? Wifi, of course. The long Ethernet cable immediately evened out the audio and video.

Still eager to test this in a small but “live” environment, I settled on performing a song each Wednesday. So on March 18, I went live for the first time.

The audio quality is… odd. The spoken portion of the video has a fair amount of room echo in it, but by and large it works. During the music, however, the input level rises and falls without rhyme or reason. I would discover that this is a frequent issue on Windows – some process adjusts the sound input levels based on its best guess – but finding it proved to be a more time consuming than I could manage.

We went into our first worship service with this setup: one webcam and built-in microphone feeding into a “Webcam” stream on YouTube Live. We simplified the setting. We placed two chairs on camera, which remained fixed. Participants moved in and out. I stayed on camera for most of the service, a practice we later changed.

Once more, we had issues with sound during the musical performance.

To try to fix that, we turned to better microphones and an audio mixer. It improved things a little, but we still had the curious problem with levels changing by themselves. We reduced the room echo, however, and that was all to the best.

We also brought in a guest preacher via Zoom.

I have to hand it to Zoom: their online help is superb. Setting up an account to stream a Zoom meeting to YouTube is not an easy task, nor is setting up a meeting to be streamed. The instructions they provide, however, are clear and detailed. I did a test (of course) that included the audio mixer (it connects via USB) and Zoom simultaneously. It worked.

And on Palm Sunday, our preacher addressed us from 6,000 miles away.

We also added prelude music that day. Worshipers had told me that they really missed that time of music. It helped them center their spirits. A member recorded a piano performance in audio, and we played it through the board. One of our three-person production team began moving the camera, so it was no longer quite as static. We were slowly adding technical capability as we went.

For Easter Sunday, our piano accompanist offered a video recording of a piano adaptation of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. That meant adding a new level of complexity, because combining pre-recorded video with live video meant using a video switcher. I’d been experimenting tentatively with OBS, which is both powerful and free, but had avoided adding that level of complexity. Well, now we needed it.

Using OBS meant three changes. First, it meant configuring the software for our combination of video and audio inputs. That took some experimentation. Second, it meant switching from YouTube Live’s webcam interface to its stream interface. I was somewhat familiar with that from prior experience, fortunately. Third, it meant that one or two of us would need to be familiar enough with OBS to make the switches happen during the service itself.

We made those changes, and discovered something else: using OBS eliminated the strange changes in audio levels we’d been hearing. I immediately switched to using it for the Wednesday songs as well.

If you’ve lost track, we currently use:

  • A single webcam on a tripod,
  • Two dynamic vocal microphones in mic stands,
  • An analog audio mixer with a USB output, and
  • A laptop computer running OBS using a wired Internet connection.

We have plans. We’re not entirely happy with the video. It’s difficult to move a video camera smoothly. It’s awkward to move one that doesn’t have its own viewfinder. The camera operator has to use a side view of the laptop screen. We have ordered a hardware switcher and have camcorders available. Using their HDMI output, we hope to be able to produce a better looking video. The switcher, however, has been on backorder for weeks and I do not know when this will change.

Finally, I determined to do something different and special for Good Friday. Some years ago I wrote a song based on Psalm 130. I set up several cameras and microphones, recorded several takes, and assembled a final video using the editing software I’ve used for years.

Enjoy.

Untouched

[Thomas] said to them, “Unless I… put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” – John 20:25

I don’t want to make this a condition
of belief, my Friend. I don’t want
to make this a condition
of relationship; oh, no.

But.

While I don’t desire so to place
my finger on or in your wounds,
I crave in separation time your touch,
A hand, a breath, a deep embrace.

Just that.

So great a thing as that.

A poem/prayer based on John 20:19-31, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, second Sunday of Easter.

The image is The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio – http://www.christusrex.org/www2/art/images/carav10.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6804893.

Holy Week 2020: Easter Sunday

This is, perhaps, my way of emulating
your three days away, to let a silence
fall between a midday and a morn, to
wait and see if resurrection lifts the weary
bones once more, restores connections,
grants the boon of inspiration.

Perhaps.

But truth to tell, my risen friend,
I yearn much more that you would speak
to me and all the weary world
as you addressed your friends that night
behind the fast-closed door. Come wish me peace,
dear Jesus. Come and wish us peace.

A poem/prayer based on John 20:1-18 the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, Easter Sunday.

Image of Christ greeting his disciples by Duccio di Buoninsegna – http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/d/duccio/buoninse/index.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3925674.