Seven Year Sorrowful Anniversary

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.

Amen.

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 couldn’t.

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.”

I keep singing this song for fresh tragedies.

I wish I could stop.

Shall Be Glad

All I want for your birthday, Jesus,
is your mother’s dream.
To see the lowly raised up high,
the proud confused, dispersed.
To see the drunk with power deposed,
the hungry without hunger any more.

All I want for your birthday, Jesus,
is the prophet’s dream.
A desert blooming beneath the sun,
a rainbow soaring above the sand,
the rocks a-blossom, the weeds a-fruit,
the shaken knees no longer afraid.

All I want for your birthday, Jesus,
is to believe in ancient dreams.
To trust in the promise, trust in
the promises, trust in assurances
repeated, repeated to Mary,
through Mary, to me, through me.

A poem/prayer based on Luke 1:46b-55 and Isaiah 35:1-10, the Revised Common Lectionary alternate reading and first reading for Year A, Third Sunday of Advent.

The image is The Visitation by Giotto di Bondone (1310s), found in the lower church of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12219735.

Harsh Prophet

Were I to descend to the riverside, John,
fiery prophet, baptizing fiercely,
were I to descend to seek holy forgiveness:
What would you call me? A viper? A snake?
What would you call me? A coward? A hoax?
What would you call me? Irrelevant? Dull?
What would you call me, religious authority…

And would I descend to the riverside, John,
fiery prophet, baptizing fiercely,
would I dare to seek holy forgiveness of you:
Not knowing if you would bring shame to my name.
Not knowing if you would despise my remorse.
Not knowing if you would discount my devotion.
Not knowing how deeply you see in my soul…

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 3:1-12, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Second Sunday of Advent.

The image is a 19th century wood carving of John the Baptist preaching at the riverside in the Church of the Assumption and St Nicholas, Etchingham, England. Photo by Poliphilo – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80795653.

No One Knows… But…

A painting of a full figure of Christ, arms raised with brown-gold skin, on a white wall.

OK, I get it.
Nobody knows
the day or the hour,
not even the angels of heaven.

(Not being
one of the angels of
heaven, I know I don’t
know when that hour will come.)

And Jesus,
I know that you
know not the hour or the
day, but God alone has time’s command.

But to be perfectly honest, now,
if you could say to God, “Today
would be Just Fine
to return…”

That would be fine with me.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 24:36-44, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, First Sunday of Advent.

The image of Christ is painted on the outside wall of the Church of Saint James the Greater, Sankt Georgen am Langsee, Carinthia, Austria. Photo by Johann Jaritz / CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43256814.

Today I am with You

Today I am with you, dear Jesus, drenched
with tears to see the shepherd-wolves, the ones
who bay and scatter all the desperate flock,
rapaciously defending their carnivorous pack.

Today I am with you, dear Jesus,
looking for that so elusive Righteous Branch,
and longing that the fear may fade in those
who seek a refuge from the flood incarnadine.

Today I am with you, dear Jesus, though
I hang not on a cross of my deserving,
save as witness horrified at this:
humanity’s appalling inhumanity.

I turn to look at you, dear Jesus, and
I see your tortured arms, your blood-streaked face,
and say, “Remember me, O Jesus, on
that precious day you come into your holy realm.”

And then, O Jesus, pray: What do you say?

A poem/prayer based on Luke 23:33-43, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year C, Proper 29, Reign of Christ Sunday.

Photo of a Holy Week procession in Valladolid, Spain, by Porquenopuedo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2066881.

On this Old Earth

“They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” – Isaiah 65:21b

O God,
I’m doing fine.
Some days are long,
some short.
At each day’s end,
I eat and drink.
I am refreshed.

Yet half my neighbors,
half the households of this land,
bring home from labor
13% of total income,
while half the checks
increase the wealth
of 10% of earners.

They sweat and plant,
assemble and sell,
cook and clean,
press the grapes for wine
for wealthier homes
where wealthier people
eat and drink and sleep.

Do they not labor in vain?
Are not their children
born for calamity?
Where are those offspring
blessed by the LORD?
For, rich and poor alike,
are we not damned for this?

A poem/prayer based on Isaiah 65:17-25, the Revised Common Lectionary First reading for Year C, Proper 28.

Photo by fir0002/flagstaffotos – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=135212.

Income statistics for 2016 from “What Wealth Inequality in America Looks Like: Key Facts & Figures” from the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis.

Bless This House

“The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.” – Haggai 2:9

With Zerubbabel and with Joshua
imagination stands and weeps to see
the scattered blocks of stone once standing proud,
now scattered with the blackened ruined beams.

A few would then recall those stones erect,
those beams above, a roof embellished with
a gilded glow. No doubt they wept and wept
to see their memory cast down in ash.

Imagination, yes, but also I
have seen the ruined churches, heiau – razed
sometimes by accidental flames, sometimes
by hands’ deliberate destructive force.

I turn to Zerubbabel and I turn
to Joshua, and part of me, so up
to here with things to fix and clean and paint,
the bulbs and window glass and water spouts,

Cries out, “Do you not see how you are blessed
to have no structure to maintain, no house
exacting so much toil, so much gold,
demanding much more worship than our God?”

Then silently and softly, Haggai’s God
replies, “Take courage, child of mine, despite
the costs and worries, for these houses make
a home for those who join their hearts in prayer.

“These spirits seek a shelter from the blast
of circumstance and ill intent, and so
we raise these walls of stone and wood and glass
to make for souls a refuge and a home.”

A poem/prayer based on Haggai 1:15b-2:9, the Revised Common Lectionary First reading for Year C, Proper 27.

Photo by Eric Anderson.