I wrote this piece as part of a prayer/poem/song conversation with Maren Tirabassi, reflecting on the crossing of the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and Song of Miriam in Exodus 14 and 15. Links to the other pieces in the conversation are below.
They told us to hustle; no time to leaven bread “Take only one bag or all of us are dead.” The strap is over my shoulder as I flee from Egypt land with a tambourine clutched within my hand.
I will ring my tambourine as I dance along the shore. I will shout the joy of freedom over welling waves restored while another tambourine is sinking in the marsh and the wailing widows of Egypt mourn.
They called out the soldiers, their chariots and spears. Will we go back to servitude or will our graves be here? At the hip of a chariot driver a tambourine has room. He brought it to celebrate our doom.
The walls of water billowed as slogged through mud and weeds. Will we lie in murky graves or will we all be free? The waters took the army in the moment of our need and left a tambourine fouled in the weeds.
Searching for hymns that used the Beatitudes as their inspiration, I was quite surprised to find very few of them. And, well, I decided to add one. It was first sung in worship at Church of the Holy Cross UCC, Hilo, Hawai’i, on February 2, 2020.
Upon the mountain, Jesus sat with all his friends about him, The crowds drew close and silence fell. He taught them without shouting. He spoke of blessings to the poor. He spoke of new creation. He spoke of a world overturned when mourners find their comfort.
You meek take hope, the earth is yours, though others pride to take it. The ones who thirst for righteousness will drink until they slake it. There will be mercy for the ones whose mercy flowed in rivers. The pure in heart will see our God in majesty forever.
You who make peace have always been the children of the Maker, And so are those who suffer for their holiness of labor. If you are caged and tortured for your witness to redemption The gates of heaven will open wide when you are present to them.
The hardships of the world are real, as human eyes keep weeping, But every tear that falls is held within the Savior’s keeping. Blessed are the humble, meek, and poor; the pure in heart, the peaceful. Yes, God embraces those who bear the burdens of earth’s evil.
The image of the Sermon on the Mount is an etching by Jan Luyken from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations housed at Belgrave Hall, Leicester, England (The Kevin Victor Freestone Bequest). Photo by Philip De Vere. Credit: Phillip Medhurst – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20116195.
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.
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 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.”
Written for healing following the fatal shootings at the Pearl Harbor Naval Yard on December 4, 2019. The recording is live from an interfaith vigil at Church of the Holy Cross UCC, Hilo, Hawai’i, on December 5.
When will we find healing When the night is long? When will we find healing In something more than song? Bring your caring To make our healing strong. Bring your caring: Make our healing strong.
When will we love mercy As we know we may? When will we love mercy In the light of day? Bring your healing To make our mercy strong. Bring your healing: Make our mercy strong.
When will our humility Overcome our pride? When will our humility Blossom deep inside? Bring your mercy And raise our souls to care. Bring your mercy… Bring your humility… Bring your healing…
I wrote this song in the fall of 2018, when a number of conversations turned to a wish for Jesus to come along and start to flip some tables. I expected it to be a rousing, even raucous anthem: but it turned to lament.
They’re changing money in the temple, Jesus. They’re not giving full value for each coin. They’re changing money in the temple, Jesus. They’ve turned a house of prayer… Into a house of thieves…
What are you going to do about it, Jesus? The gold is piled high… What are you going to do about it, Jesus? Do you see where the gold… lies?
They’re piling money in the towers, Jesus. They won’t even pay the builders their full coin. They’re piling money in the towers, Jesus. They’ve given all that power… Into the hands of thieves…
[Chorus] Listen… to the gold lies. Listen… to the golden lies.
We’ve exchanged our priests for tycoons, Jesus. We’ve given our worship to the coin. We’ve traded priests for tycoons, Jesus. We’ve given our allegiance… To generations of thieves…
What are you going to do about it, Jesus? The gold is piled high… What are you going to do about it, Jesus? Or the tables, where the gold… lies?
Flip the tables: the gold… flies! Toss the tables, Jesus. Make the gold… fly!
I originally wrote this reflection in April 2011, shortly after I’d shared my most successful April Fool’s Day gag ever: a claim to have been summoned as an “ethical missionary” at a major American corporation. I’ve slightly changed the essay to reflect the fact that since then, I’ve moved from my work with the Connecticut Conference UCC to Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i. I’ve also inserted a video of the song I wrote about the event, performed in April 2012.
Bear with me a moment, for I must begin this blog post with an apology.
To my friends on Facebook: I sincerely apologize for distressing you with my April Fool’s Day prank last week. I’d never actually intended it to deceive, only to amuse: but it was harder than I thought to create a gag that was both plausible and transparently impossible. Or in other words, I failed to create a fiction that was stranger than truth, and so I deceived, and so I distressed. I’m very sorry.
So what did I do?
I posted a note that I’d be moving to a new job — I hasten once more to say this is NOT TRUE — as the UCC’s first “Ethical Missionary” to a major American corporation. The note included more spurious details, many intended to reveal the joke for what it was, but that’s the summary. A number of my friends responded, and a startling (to me) number took it seriously. I learned a great deal.
I learned again that I have wonderful friends. I’d posited a move across the country, and without exception people expressed two heart-warming things: that they were very happy for my exciting new challenge, and very sad that I’d be so far away. Holding that sense of joy for another with that feeling of loss is, I think, a very deep mark of friendship.
And let us not ignore as well the fact that (so far) all have forgiven me for deceiving them!
I learned again that reality is much stranger than the human imagination — or at least my human imagination. I honestly believed I’d weighted the note with too many impossibilities to be credible. I hadn’t. Let’s face it, on a planet in which both the duck-billed platypus and the giraffe exist, I hadn’t much chance of doing so.
More striking, however, than these two reminders was the revelation of a sudden hunger. My friends sincerely wanted to believe in an ethical missionary, and in a major corporation willing to accept such a person. A friend who is ordained in another denomination praised the forward thinking of the UCC. Another called it “the coolest job EVER.”
It makes me think: maybe it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it’s not such a bad idea.
An ethical missionary to a big corporation faces an enormous challenge, because corporations already have an ethical code which has the advantage of being both clear and compelling. It’s about “the bottom line.”
The bottom line refers to the last line of a particular financial report in a corporation, the line which describes the return to shareholders, the company’s owners. The company’s managers, who may not be among the owners, see it as their duty to keep that number healthy (growing, increasing, certainly above zero). There are plenty of other ethical touchstones as well, about transparency and such, but many of those function to serve the primary goal of returning value to the stockholders.
Jesus, of course, told a story about precisely this situation. We call it the ‘parable of the talents:’ a master going on a journey assigns three servants to steward portions of his fortune while he is away. The two who successfully increase his wealth receive commendation; the one who fails (though without suffering loss) receives condemnation. Ethical managers of a corporation emulate those two faithful stewards.
I think, however, that that model is no longer sufficient (and possibly never was). The group of shareholders, however large, is not an adequate community to consider in making ethical choices. The owners’ interest is served by keeping finances transparent within the management team, but they are also served by making them opaque to customers, employees, and the general public. We have laws to prevent fraud in those interactions, but the laws that exist actively conflict with the primary ethic which guides business decisions day-to-day.
The great theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr noted this problem nearly eighty years ago in Moral Man, Immoral Society. His brother H. Richard Niebuhr considered the problem of inadequate circles of concern in The Responsible Self, published posthumously in 1962. People in groups act strongly in their own interest; they fail over and over to consider their impact on those around them: the customer, the neighbor, the public.
The financial crisis that erupted in 2008 illustrates this truth over and over and over again. It rose from a game of “pass-the-risk,” one marked by layer after layer of deception, justified by the interests of the shareholders (and not unmarked by the interests of the managers, too). As one might notice from the lack of public prosecutions, it seems to have been legal.
But ethical? Is it ethical to place the global economic system at risk in order to bring maximum return to your shareholders?
I will not, anytime soon, become an ethical missionary to the world of corporate America (or corporate multi-national). If such a job exists, I haven’t heard about it, and though I’ve shifted my ministry from the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ to Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i, I’m fully committed to ministry in the church setting. It’s a crazy idea.
I wrote this song in October 2017 after fifty-nine people died, slain by a lone gunman in Las Vegas. Interfaith Communities in Action sponsored a prayer service at Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo. We read every name. We lit a candle for every life taken.
Just last week we held a similar service, remembering eleven killed at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And today, twelve have died in Thousand Oaks, California.
I don’t want to light another candle.
I Don’t Want to Light Another Candle
I don’t want to light another candle.
I don’t want to spark another flame.
I don’t want to curse the crushing darkness
remembering another body slain.
For the world is all aglow with candles
as bright as the noonday sun appears,
and we can see the swelling of the ocean
overflowing with the rivers of our tears.
I don’t want to light another candle.
I don’t want to read another name.
I don’t want to shout into the halls
of magnificence and power,
“Why must it always be the same?”
I don’t want to light another candle.
I tell that my grieving days are done.
I don’t want to count the dead and injured
when the number that’s too high…
Let me look up and see
God’s rainbow sailing through the sky:
a promise made of rain and sunshine
that all will be well by and by,
all will be well by and by.
Oh, God, may all be well…
by and by.