Lessons from a Slow Motion Disaster

June 11, 2018, Pahoa, Hawai’i

In a conversation with a friend and colleague today, as we shared our fears about the COVID-19 pandemic, the approaches we were taking or considering, and the wide expanse of potential futures, I mentioned that I had been looking forward to a time with less stress in my ministry. In each of the last three years, natural disasters and community conflicts have shaken my neighbors (sometimes literally), my colleagues in faith leadership, and our institutions. I had truly hoped that 2020 would bring some relief.

It has not.

In 2018, lava erupted from the lower slopes of Kilauea, spilling across farms, roads, and houses. Half of the Leilani Estates subdivision vanished and all of Kapoho. Places of great beauty are no more. The molten rock flowed for four months. Sometimes it chose new channels, displacing new people. Sometimes it simply flowed in a well-bounded river. Residents scrambled to evacuate, and sometimes returned to recover additional possessions. Some of them have been able to return home. Some never can.

As we observed that the pandemic was not a one day and done event, my friend asked me, “What have you learned about a slow motion disaster?”

I learned that community connection and collaboration are vital. The faith groups of Hawai’i dithered briefly (we must admit that) and organized quickly. We built on existing relationships among clergy and lay leaders. Then we strengthened them. We created brand-new relationships with one another. We strengthened those, too. The “Faith Hui,” as we came to be known, was not unique. Collaborations sprang up between newly formed groups such as the Pu’uhonua of Puna and the Bodacious Women of Pahoa formed in 2013.

Nobody worked alone – or if they did, they didn’t do it effectively, or they didn’t do it for long.

We learned to conserve our strength as leaders and as congregations. We took on tasks, and we handed tasks along. We recruited people from outside our congregations or organizations to help. Some partnerships lasted only a few days, others persisted. Since the lava stopped flowing, new partnerships have evolved to aid in recovery, or to adapt programs built for one purpose to serve a new and similar one.

Sometimes leaders had to step back. Other leaders stepped forward.

We learned that sometimes we had to attend to our own needs. Spiritual care for people in the Red Cross shelter in Pahoa never reached the levels we’d hoped or anticipated. Some couldn’t take the atmosphere, which, just a few miles away from the fissures, was laden with sulfur. I myself had to step away for a few weeks because my father died, nor was I the only faith leader in that period to suffer the loss of a loved one.

The heart may yearn to be in more than one place, but the body can only be in one.

We learned to stay out of the way of other efforts. As someone who had done event photography for so many years, and as someone who loves to capture the power of nature in images, I yearned to visit the area with a camera. But… that would have added almost nothing to the assistance needed by those affected. It would have done little to tell the story that was not already being done by others. My camera and I stayed home. The photo above, taken from three miles away in the village of Pahoa, was as close as was sensible and as close as I came.

We didn’t have to do everything. There were things we simply should not do.

As I lead a study series on Wisdom this Lenten season, I hope this brief meditation reflects some wisdom for this crisis, for this pandemic. We must not work alone. We must be ready to step back as needed and step forward as needed. We must meet our own needs.

We do not have to do everything.

There are things we simply should not do.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Sir, I See

Faster than a speeding teacher,
more focused than a paralytic healed,
more attentive than a crowd full of dinner:
Look! By the well! It’s a foreigner!
It’s a woman! It’s…
Me!

Could it be me, dear Jesus, so to grasp my thirst
so earnestly, so honestly,
to hold it up before you in its naked need?
Could it be me to have you take so seriously
all my urgent questions, still to leave me
speeding house to house, in all my
comic-fictive strength, inviting:

“Come and see! For I’ve been known
in strength and weakness, height and depth.
Come and see! For only you (and you and you)
and I together can determine once for all:
Could this One truly be the Christ?”

Could it be me?

A poem/prayer based on John 4:5-42, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, Third Sunday in Lent.

Photo of a mosaic in Sant’Appolinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, by © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52650776.

Hands

For decades, I have sought to capture,
living in its stillness, the tenderness
of human beings holding hands.

Palm clasped to palm, thumbs pressing down,
three top fingers wrapped securely and
the pinky lightly tapping its caress.

It’s rare to catch the magic of a hug.
The grace of dance still glides
across the frozen frame. And clasping hands:

They pulse with rest dynamic. And now,
I must refrain and urge that others, too,
should bow or nod or pause without a touch.

In taking hands, my friend, I hope to share
my hope, my peace, my comfort there with you.
I love you far too much to risk your health.

We must content ourselves with photos for a time.

Photo by Eric Anderson (c) 2013 the Missionary Society of Connecticut. Used by permission under Creative Commons license.

Hold the Complexity

I asked the Holy One, not once but time
and time again, to tell me what is first
and prime. The sound of silence breathed to me,
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

I might have raised a voice in protest to
the silent breath, to claim the privilege
of suffering for faith, through faith, in faith.
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

Have I not traveled farther in my span
of years than Abraham in his? Might I
not claim the mantle of such righteousness?
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

But breathed the silent syllables: “Did you
devise yourself, beloved child? Did you
create the feet you set upon the road?
Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

Blessed be the Holy One who makes to be
the things that were and things that have not been.
Blessed be the One whose sound of silence breathes:
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

A poem/prayer based on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, the Revised Common Lectionary Second Reading for Year A, Second Sunday in Lent.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

A Lenten Practice that Won’t Be Easy – for Me

I don’t remember when I adopted the annual practice of a Lenten discipline. I’m pretty sure that it was after I’d begun serving as pastor of my first churches, though it might have been before seminary graduation. I tried on a number of ways to draw closer to God in those days.

For some years I mostly practiced a discipline of “giving something up for Lent.” Some have heard me tell the story of giving up anxiety for the season, and how delighted I was that I’d succeeded. Some have heard me tell the follow-up story. The next year I pledged to give up anxiety for Lent again… and failed.

I have never successfully repeated a Lenten discipline.

More recently, I have added an activity, practice, or creative effort to the season. I “take something on” as well as “giving something up.” I don’t announce my choices for the season. I recall Jesus’ stern warnings about praying so that other people could hear rather than that God could hear. Lenten practice should be about my relationship with God and with myself. It’s not to make me look pious to others.

This year, however, I have to make an exception. I think I will need help. I’ve decided to give up self-deprecation for Lent.

It’s a challenge.

I love humor. I love a sense of fun, games, and jokes. I do not, however, like to tell jokes at someone else’s expense. I don’t like to make fun of anyone’s appearance, background, personality, or challenges. I don’t like to make fun of anyone’s vulnerabilities or strengths. Sometimes these jests don’t hurt, but far too often they do. “It’s just a joke” doesn’t cut it. I’d rather not do it.

(By the way, this doesn’t mean I’m successful at this. I do poke fun at others from time to time – and I tell myself not to do it again.)

I’d rather poke fun at myself. That’s what I try to do. Truthfully, I’m the only person I have the right to poke fun of, and I do it pretty often.

Within a few hours of deciding I’d stop doing that for Lent, I caught myself doing it several times.

Self-deprecation might be a more comfortable frame for humor, but for me it is also a sign of insecurity and anxiety. Some of those jokes function to disguise those things, and some of those jokes function to invite comfort for them. Both the mask and the invitation to comfort are… problematic. Both allow me to avoid internal struggle by turning it outward. Both allow me to avoid the work to resolve or refresh what’s unsettled in my soul.

That’s a good reason to give it up, at least for a season.

But it’s going to be difficult, and I don’t think that’s self-deprecation. I invite your help as this season goes along, friends. If you detect me “putting myself down,” I invite you to call me on it – not comfort me, call me on it. “Eric, didn’t you give that up for Lent?” will do.

It is, and will be, a challenge.

Tempted; Deceived

Of course I’d be out-crafted
by the crafty in the absence
of the knowledge, of the wisdom,
to discern what’s right and wrong.

Of course I’d be deceived
by a deceiver in my
ignorance of good and bad,
of lawful and unlawful acts.

Of course I’d take the way that ends
my ignorance, my foolishness,
my childishness, my folly.
Wouldn’t anyone?

I’ll take that fruit and share.

I’ll also wish I’d thought,
in all my quest for wisdom, that
perhaps the One who loves me best
might ache at my betrayal.

A poem/prayer based on Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, First Sunday in Lent.

The image is Eve Tempted by the Serpent by William Blake – Victoria and Albert Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24661174.

Like an Angel

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

If it were me and not the Rock,
not the fearless Sons of Thunder,
I do not think I would have seen the cloud
that in its brightness overshadowed them.

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

For me, I think your radiant form
and figures suddenly at hand
would be enough to seal my eyes,
collapse my knees into the dust.

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

I might, in fact, have stuffed my clothes
into my ears lest I, lest we, should hear
of things beyond our understanding
said by you or Moses or Elijah.

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

That would have offered to
the Voice Divine a challenge!
“Listen to him!” bellowed into my
cloth-swaddled ears.

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

Gently lay your fingers on my shoulder.
Brush your fingertips along the seam.
As my grip loosens, lean and whisper,
softly: “Do not be afraid.”

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 17:1-9, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Transfiguration Sunday.

The image is a study of Saint Andrew and another apostle for The Transfiguration by Raffaello Sangio – http://www.topofart.com/artists/Raffaello_Sanzio_Raphael/painting/11317/St.Andrew_and_Another_Apostle_in’The_Transfiguration’.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23549876.

Cracked and Worn

I didn’t want a divorce
but I got one, Jesus.
A broken relationship
handed to a judge.
No prison, but
I’ve never been released.

So many gifts I’ve laid
before your altar
never certain whether
there was someone I had hurt.
But no, I lie. There was always
someone whether I knew or not.

To reconcile, though – ah, there’s
the rub. For now I’ll ask
“On whose terms, precisely, Jesus?
I have my injuries, my hurts.
Who’ll make their peace with me?
Who’ll listen to my terms?”

Don’t say it, Jesus. I know
just what you’ll say to such
a question; you’ve no need
to say, “My terms.”
Oh, go ahead. I’ll wait. Just
say it… Oh. You did.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 5:21-37, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Smoke-Choked Basket

Don’t look this way, Jesus, please.
If you’re looking for light, excuse me.

I’m only gasping underneath this
smoke-choked basket here because…

I’m not certain how much glow You’d get
even if you lift the basket.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 5:13-20, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany.

The image is “Light Under a Basket,” a 1532 Bible illustration by the Italian Petrarca Master; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4006971.

A 2019 Accomplishment

Sometime toward the end of 2018, a Tweet (that I can no longer find) challenged weekly preachers like myself to include a quote from a non-white, non-male, non-straight person in every sermon of the coming year. Intrigued, I decided to do it.

I was a little worried about finding those quotes.

I wasn’t worried that the materials didn’t exist. I know very well that people of every gender identity and every race have done great work in theology, social commentary, and Biblical studies. That didn’t mean that I’d have success in finding it. My personal library’s authors are predominantly white and male (and presumably heterosexual). I’ve been using online commentaries as a research aid, but hadn’t deeply considered who the authors were. I knew I’d been quoting particular people fairly often, and that some of these were women or people of color, but in what proportion? I didn’t know.

As it happened, finding those quotes was quite easy. There are several solid websites around offering lectionary-based commentary to preachers. In some cases, the editors have intentionally sought diversity in their contributors. When a site has several years of commentary available (as Working Preacher does), it increased both the likelihood of finding strong quotes from non-white, -male, and -straight voices and widened the spectrum of perspectives I read about a text.

The remarkable aggregation site The Text This Week has the virtue of several years of material and also of casting a very large net. Even when its editor is behind on things because of life challenges, it remains a must-visit collection for its links to prior years’ commentaries.

Record-keeping was the bigger challenge.

I’m a geek (note the title of the blog). I decided that the best approach to a question like this was a database, so I built one. Each quote gets its own record. Each person quoted gets a record as well, and I record their gender identity, race, religious affiliation, time period, and some other information. Sometimes that information was not easy to find, by the way.

It was pretty easy in any week to see that I had or hadn’t met my objective. At the end of the year, a report confirmed that I had met the goal.

I’m quite grateful to the challenger (I just wish I could be certain who it was). They brought my attention to something I hadn’t thought about, and I plan to keep that attention. I’m also grateful because I rather like my quote-recording tool, and I’m thinking about ways to make it useful in other ways as well.

Thanks for the challenge. I’m pretty sure it made me a better preacher this past year.