Unreturned Compassion

I originally wrote this essay in 2010 as a Facebook “Note.” Since that portion of the service has steadily faded away, this seems an appropriate moment to republish the piece here at Ordained Geek.

In an opinion piece carried by the The Hour in Norwalk, my good friend the Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith, pastor of the First Congregational Church UCC in that city, makes the case that ‘It is our responsibility to defend our Muslim neighbors from slander.’ I commend the essay to you, and I have very little to add to it, except to note that the chorus of those American Christian leaders affirming interfaith relations of kindness and integrity is far larger than those opposing it.

As is frequently the case in these days of instant comment on the Internet, though, one of the latter voices appears right below Rev. Bryant-Smith’s. It’s discouraging, and it features, near the end, this dispiriting flourish: ‘So please, for this weekend of mourning and remembrance, save your one-sided message of unreturned compassion for your pulpit.’

That’s the crux of the matter. Unreturned compassion.

The argument goes like this: ‘They (pick a They, any They) did something bad to us/said something bad about us/think badly of us. That’s Bad.’

So far I agree.

‘Because They did this bad thing, They are Bad.’

Perhaps. All too frequently, one person stands as surrogate for another’s bad acts, with whom they can be identified because of (frequently superficial) shared characteristics. Guilt by association usually looks much different to the one being condemned than it does to the one doing the condemning.

But for the moment, let’s assume that the people named are no surrogates; They bear some actual responsibility. Are They therefore Bad People?

The Gospel word, the Good News, says both yes and no. Remember those whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices, says Jesus (Luke 13:2). Were they worse sinners than anyone else? ‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’

Sin and sinning aren’t escapable things in classic Christian theology. We do the best we can, but we can’t be perfect. With absolute purity unattainable, we rely on the grace of God.

So are they Bad People? Yes. And so are you and I, in our own ways.

But now we really come to the heart of it. What are we to do with Bad People, with Them, and with You and with Me?

‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’ (Luke 6:27-28).

Unreturned compassion. That’s the crux. That’s the center. That’s the Cross.

That’s where we have hope for a society that is greater than what we have. That’s where we will find (or at least glimpse) a blessed community. If we save it only for the pulpit, we’ll never have the glimpse.

Unreturned compassion. That’s the crux. That’s the center. That’s the Cross.

What I’m Thinking: Pitching Our Tents

This is a crosspost from holycrosshilo.com.

I’m busy with the UCC’s General Synod this week, so I’m reading a poem that has just been published in Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality. It’s a fundraiser for the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Here’s a transcript:

The first thing I’m thinking is how grateful I am to the Rev. Jonathan Roach, who will be filling the pulpit at Church of the Holy Cross this coming Sunday. I’m grateful to Jonathan for his time, but even more for the wisdom and insight that he brings to the message that he’ll share this coming Sunday. I know I look forward to watching the recording.

The reason that I won’t be in the pulpit is that this week I am a delegate to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ. The last plenary, in fact, occurs during our worship service and I seriously can’t be in two places at the same time. General Synod this year is being held online, via the Internet, so I won’t actually be going anywhere further than, oh, this desk right behind me. Still, it does mean that I will be spending a number of hours in committee meetings and in plenary sessions, and so therefore, rather than try to share a Scriptural reflection this week, I’ve instead turned to a small book that recently arrived in the mail. It’s a chapbook, that means a short book (a new word for me). It’s called Pitching Our Tents. It’s edited by Maren Tirabassi and Maria Mankin.

The book is an effort to raise funds for the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia. That site dedicated to peace is attempting to expand, to provide a space for a Jewish synagogue and for a Muslim mosque, called respectively the Peace Synagogue and the Peace Mosque. It’s a book full of poetry, and among the poems is one of my own. I was so flattered when Maren Tirabassi extended me the invitation. 

Maren has been reading some of the poems from this chapbook on her Facebook page. She also read one of mine and if I can manage to find the link I’ll include it.

But I did want to read my own poem for you. The title is “August 28, 2017,” and it is based upon a real incident that occurred when an ecumenical – interfaith – group of people chose to witness for peace and love and justice for people of all races.

August 28, 2017

Grass glowing green, sky beaming blue.
Sun streaming down upon the figures
stretched along the sidewalk, bearing signs
inscribed upon their neon glow that
“Racism is sin.” “Justice for all.” “Aloha not hate.”

The same sun heats the sober sable garb
of Buddhist priests and Christian clergy,
glints from clerics’ collars, shines from smiles
of Latter Day Saints and Unitarians,
of Anglicans and followers of Amida.

The sun has blessed this gathering of witness
to the spectrum of embraced humanity
because another gathering beneath Virginia’s sun
had stormed, consumed a human life,
to magnify their power to oppress “the other.”

Does the sun see shaka signs displayed
as cars drive by, or hear the horns that sound
in affirmation? Does the sun hear voices
raised in rage against the signs of hope?
Does it hear the words of poison spat again?

UCC and MCC, Hongwanji and Quaker
hear the calls of violence and know:
until the fury fades, while race and faith 
are used as reason to oppress, the signs
must wave beneath the sun in witness

To another day,
when tents are pitched
beneath the oaks of Mamre
and the traveler and sojourner
find peace.

From Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality, edited by Maren Tirabassi & Maria Mankin

You can purchase this book – and I have no problems in advertising it because I’m not actually benefitting financially from this in any way. It is fully a fundraiser for the Peace Cathedral and the Peace Synagogue and the Peace Mosque. Go the Alliance of Baptists website and look to donate there for the Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality (Note: the suggested gift is $10). You can find it on Amazon to have it printed and mailed to you. But also you’ll find that you can get it electronically. If you’re looking at this at either the ordainedgeek.com or the holycrosshilo.com websites, there will be links in the text to help you find this book.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’m curious to hear what you’re thinking. Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below; I’d love to hear from you.


By the way, did you know I have a YouTube channel? I do. It’s where live stream worship from Church of the Holy Cross lives, as well as musical performances and occasional appreciations of the beauty around me. Oh, right: and a weekly Scriptural reflection called What I’m Thinking. Feel free to check it out!

Pitching Our Tents

Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality
Edited by Maren C. Tirabassi & Maria Mankin

Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality is a special project of Maria Mankin and Maren C. Tirabassi supporting interfaith reconciliation and shared ministry in the Middle East. Specifically, the book will help fund the Peace Cathedral (Baptist) in Tbilisi, Georgia, in its quest to build spaces to include a small synagogue and a small mosque beneath its roof.

The chapbook (I had to look that up; it’s a short paperback booklet) features the work of thirty-two contributors from seven countries beyond Georgia. Their poems rise from roots in experiences of inclusion and connection. I am honored to be among the writers.

Maren Tirabassi writes, “Peace Cathedral in the Republic of Georgia was established as First Baptist Church of Tbilisi in 1867. Its history is full of dangerous activist stands, and it has been involved in interfaith work for more than twenty years, trusted by Muslim, Jewish, Yezidi and other religious traditions, in a context where the more dominant Christian culture often responds violently against minorities. They are constructing a mosque and a synagogue under the roof of their church building to turn it into a spiritual home for Abrahamic faiths. In addition, there is a Centre for Interfaith Dialogue, an interfaith adult library and a children’s library with programming and summer camps. Their pilgrimage program brings people to visit the Republic of Georgia to learn about the hopes and struggles of people of all of these faiths.”

In these days of complicated publishing, obtaining a copy of the chapbook is fairly straightforward – making sure that the purchase funds the Peace Project may be a little more difficult. Follow these steps:

  • 1.     Go here to donate to the Peace Cathedral via the Alliance of Baptists. The suggested gift is $10.00.
  • 2.     To pay by credit card, select 1. On the second line of the form, where it states, “Other Designation,” please write in Peace Project – Tbilisi. To pay by check, choose 3, and write in Peace Project – Tbilisi on the Memo line.
  • 3.     Use this Book Funnellink to receive your free electronic copy of Pitching Our Tents: Poetry of Hospitality with a choice of e-book formats or a PDF, in thanks for your support of the Peace Cathedral.
  • 4.     If you would like a print copy, it is available on Amazon. The cost is as low as Amazon will allow (this only covers the printing cost). The authors do not receive royalties from this, nor will the proceeds go to the Peace Cathedral, so if you’d like to support them, please follow the donation steps above.  

Published

In some ways I consider this my first foray into being a published author. I mean, look: I’m in a book! In truth, though, I’ve been a published author for a long time. I spent seventeen years writing for the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ (now part of the Southern New England Conference UCC), eventually becoming senior publications editor. My by-line appeared on newsprint and on glowing screens, and it has also appeared in United Church News.

My work as a poet has appeared almost entirely on my personal blog. So is that… published? Well, I think it is. It’s potentially visible to far more people than ever saw my columns in the print editions of ConnTact. I grant you (with a ruleful smile) that the readership has, well, not risen to its potential.

What sets this moment apart for me is not the format or the publisher, but the invitation. I have admired the work of Maren Tirabassi for longer than either of us care to admit. Her compliments on my work published in this blog have filled me with deep gratitude. To have her ask me to contribute… Well. I practically fell over myself to say yes. And write something.

Behind the Poem

Photo by Eric Anderson, August 28, 2017

For the moment, I’m not sharing the poem here. I will eventually, unless I forget, which is possible. I encourage you to gain access to the poem by supporting the Tbilisi Peace Project with a donation; that’s the purpose for which I wrote the poem in the first place. I will, however, tell something of the story behind the poem.

On August 12, 2017, the “Unite the Right” rally sparked racist violence to Charlottesville, Virginia. Marchers chanted Nazi slogans against non-whites. They chanted slogans targeting Jews. They raised the flags of slave-holding and rebellion. One sped deliberately into a crowd, and Heather Heyer died.

The nation’s leadership failed to condemn the racist and anti-Semitic platforms of the marchers, famously claiming there were “good people on both sides.” Demonstrations sprung up around the country condemning the white supremacist foundations of the Charlottesville rally, calling for repudiation of racist ideology, policy, and activity. Among the places was Hilo, Hawai’i. Interfaith Communities in Action gathered a small group for an hour’s roadside sign-waving on Monday, August 28, 2017.

What the planners, including me, had not expected was a counter-protest.

A smaller group gathered across the street, purportedly protesting against abortion but with signs, speech, and a bullhorn clearly opposing the anti-racist stand of ICIA and its participating communities. They chose one name to shout, taking it from the press release announcing the rally. That name was mine. I heard it clearly shouted in tones of threat.

A few of the counter-protesters even ventured across the street to confront us directly. There was no violence, but for weeks afterward a photo of myself appeared in the group’s materials, identified as a false minister. I reflected on the events in a Pastor’s Corner in Church of the Holy Cross’ The Messenger.

Graduation 2011 & 2021

Graduation 2021

I wrote and posted this essay on June 18, 2011 – ten years before this update. I wrote it about my son Brendan’s impending graduation, and I appended a video of his remarkable presentation for the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts’ Senior Celebration earlier that month.

Today Brendan anticipates another graduation, though it’s a few months away. He’s working on a Master of Arts degree in Arthurian Literature at Bangor University in Bangor, Wales. His sister Rebekah received her Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary just last month. Their accomplishments continue to thrill and astonish me.

In the last ten years, the “central truth” I chose to tell through their childhoods has asserted itself again and again. Humanity’s purported dominance of the world collapsed last year, not to earthquakes, storms, or fires, but to a virus. Humanity’s purported wisdom fractured into power games. Humanity’s inventiveness could not keep up with humanity’s willfulness. The United States of America, self-proclaimed greatest nation on earth, still holds the lead in the greatest number of deaths attributed to COVID-19. Despite this, some cling to folly as if it were virtue, and some of them hold power.

My children’s careers have already taken sharp turns from my own. I stayed continuously in school from the age of 4 to the age of 24. At 25, I entered my chosen vocation of pastor. The road from there to here has had more than a few unexpected turns, but today I work as a local church pastor much as I did in 1988.

My son and daughter have taken more time to consider their vocations. Even today, with master’s degrees in hand or nearly so, they continue to weigh new options. Perhaps they learned something about the hazy nature of “plans” from my erratic career. Perhaps they have just been wiser than I was… or perhaps they have been wiser than I am.

Once more they cross the “stage” that arbitrarily separates one season of their lives from another. Once more I wonder what this new season might bring. Once more I realize that they bring fullness of life to this season, and to the next, and to the next. Once more I realize that in them I have been richly blessed. Once more I pray that they will find rich blessing in the season before them.

Once more I rejoice to be part of their seasons.

Graduation 2011

On Monday, my firstborn child will take a few more of the steps into adulthood. He will walk across the platform and receive the diploma that marks the close of his public school education. With scores of other parents in the seats, and thousands across the nation, I will applaud him. My heart will fill with joy and pride, and my eyes with tears.

Adulthood is not conferred by arbitrary markers such as age, education, or achievement, but it is suggested by them, sometimes even confirmed by them. My son will be very little more mature on Tuesday than he is today (I can hope for at least a little bit), but this is one of the milestones used by our society that shouts loudly indeed. Even though I’ll continue to support him for some time to come – college tuition comes to mind – even in my eyes he can no longer be the boy I’ve known so long.

I hope I’ve been a wise father. In some ways I suppose I resemble the metaphorical “helicopter parent,” hovering over my children. I still read aloud to my children every night, and they still tolerate it. I still walk to the bus stop in the morning with them. This Thursday I saw my son onto a school bus for the last time.

If I am a helicopter father, I’m one who has chosen to tell a central truth. Life comes with pain, and pain comes with life. I had few options about concealing this truth. At a very young age my son learned a great deal about pain and fear, when his baby sister needed treatment for a life-threatening illness. I didn’t try to lie to him about pain, and risk, and heartbreak, and fear. These are realities of the world, and even the most loving parent in the world lacks the power – not the desire, the power – to hold them all in check.

I hope I’ve succeeded in doing what I set out to do instead: to make it clear that though I could not necessarily protect him, I could be with him. There is pain, but there is also comfort. There is death, and there is life. There is sorrow, and there is joy.

I don’t know how well I did with that. It’s a life lesson, and he’s plenty of time to learn it. For the moment, I ache for his disappointments. I ache for mine as well, but I ache especially for his. To some extent, I know, he has made or found his own comfort. To some extent, I fear, his hurts endure.

And I know, imperfect person that I am, that I have inflicted or contributed to some of those hurts, for which, my son, I am most sorry.

I am a minister of the Gospel, and he’s paid some of the price for that. I spent too many evenings away from the supper table, unable to lend my voice to the bedtime story. He has endured the pressure of being a “P.K.,” pressures I can’t wholly know. I lost my relationship with his mother, and I can hardly imagine the tears he’s shed for that, only know that they had an echo in my own.

And it must be said that my flaws of personality, intelligence, and wisdom have nothing to do with that vocation at all, and he’s suffered for those, too.

My son sees, and he dreams. He dreams, and he thinks. He thinks, and he writes. He writes, and he speaks. He’s eloquent, and far more wise than I remember being at that age. He clothes himself in black, to make something of a suit of armor for himself, even though he knows it does not protect him and cannot. And he still he dreams of Camelot: of “the powerful fighting for the powerless, instead of exploiting them.”

My son, go forth and make it real. There is pain, and there is no armor that will keep it from you; there is no shield you can place before anyone else that will entirely prevent them from suffering. But there is also brilliance, and eloquence, and wisdom. There is generosity, and joy, and courage. There is strength and resilience and endurance. There is faithfulness and honor, there is love, and laughter.

My son, there is life. You have it in abundance.

So go forth into Tuesday morning, and the Tuesday mornings that follow. There are books and classes still to come for you, there is time to splash about in the lake. There are long trips and short excursions, there are embraces and there are kisses. There is sorrow and loss and disappointment, and son, there is life.

And if you’d like someone to stand with you when you stand in your armor, hoping your courage will last, call. I walked to the bus stop with you. It’s just one more step.

Congratulations, son.

Cleaning Crew

“Holy… well. Just holy. What happened here?”

“Some Galilean.”

“Just one Galilean made this mess?”

“Hard to believe, but yeah.”

“Wow. There’s dove feathers everywhere.”

“Not to mention… Well. Let’s just say that frightened sheep are clear about being upset.”

“Oh, my, you’re right there.”

“Yeah.”

“One Galilean? You’re sure?”

“Yep. I was here. One minute everything is normal, the next minute somebody’s yelling. Then there’s cattle lowing everywhere, and sheep slipping in dung, and doves scattering feathers around.”

“Wow.”

“Then there’s tables flying. He had these braided cords in his hand. Nobody was quite willing to challenge him.”

“C’mon! What about the Temple guards?”

“They were just too stunned to do anything. By the time any of them got moving, it was over.”

“What was it all about, do you think?”

“I can’t be sure. He was yelling something about turning his father’s house into a marketplace.”

“Seriously? Where has he been? It’s been like this since, well, forever.”

“He’s been in Galilee, I suppose.”

“Talk about out of touch.”

“Yeah. Well. It’s over now. Let’s get this mess cleaned up. Help me pick up these tables.”

“Aren’t these the money changers’ tables?”

“He knocked them over, too.”

“So… Is there anything left to pick up?”

“What do you think?”

“I think the money changers picked up every last coin before they ran.”

“You think right.”

“Oh, well. I’ll get this end.”

“I’ve got this end. Now: Heave!”

The image is Christ Chasing the Merchants from the Temple by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (ca. 1645-1655) – http://www.culture.gouv.fr — Réunion des musées nationaux/JACONDE, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6867371

2020: What We Should Have Learned

I have said once or twice that the past year and its problems are many things – stressful, harmful, dreadful, painful – but they have not been unprecedented. Every corner of the world has experienced a pandemic in its history. Why else is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse identified as Pestilence, even though that is one of the attributes of the Fourth Horseman, Death, in Revelation 6:7?

Hawai’i in the 19th century endured so many waves of disease that leaders despaired of the survival of their people. We have frequently compared the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 to the influenza pandemic of 1918. Just a few years earlier, however, the United States had suffered an outbreak of actual bubonic plague in San Francisco. The five years of 1900 – 1904 included the political obstruction, outright racism, and unnecessary death we have known in 2020. There is a great video about the San Francisco plague.

Likewise we have known domestic turmoil, political polarization, and racial protest before. I wince every time these things are called “unprecedented” in a nation that fought a civil war, one which took the lives of more combatants than have died in all the other wars we have fought before or since: combined.

These are not unprecedented times. We call them such because we did not learn from the times before.

What should we learn from 2020?

Presence is Crucial and Irreplaceable

2020 brought great hardship: rising and falling and re-rising tides of illness, fear, poverty, death, and grief. Human beings aid one another in their need in a variety of ways. Nearly all of them begin with the simple gift of presence.

Is someone ill? Family and medical professional caretakers begin their treatment with presence. Is someone afraid? Comfort begins with presence. Does someone need food or shelter or housing? The first step is someone being present to their need. Is someone dying? We offer them presence. Does someone mourn? We make ourselves present.

Presence has been a risk factor in a pandemic. Actions we intended to bless have furthered the course of the curse.

Knowing this, we have drawn away from one another at great cost. Mental health statistics of anxiety disorders have climbed through the year. Holidays have brought a layer of sadness – even more than usual – to their invitations to celebration. For me, the great and terrible marker has been the aching gap of funerals. We grieve alone, but we comfort one another together. Ten people spaced apart in a big room, visibly holding themselves away from embraces, are starved for comfort.

We have tried to use technologies to fill the gaps with some success. There is relief to seeing the smiling unmasked faces on the computer screen or hearing the voices over the telephone. It makes things brighter. It is not, however, the same experience as physical presence. It has its strengths, but it is not the same.

Some day, I hope, we can be present to one another safely. What I hope we learn is to value that time in accordance with its actual surpassing worth.

Expertise and Competence Matter

There is a difference between intelligence and knowledge. Many people are smart. They can create things. They can calculate things. They can learn things. They can understand things.

Their ability to understand things – and create and calculate – depends a great deal on what they have actually learned. Without a base of knowledge, their understandings, calculations, and creations simply collapse in the face of cold, hard reality.

Examples of intelligence presuming expertise in the absence of knowledge and training are rife in 2020. In the United States, individuals contradicting experts had far too much sway, far too much authority, far too much power. The result has been that this nation has led the world in infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths. We chose our unstudied ignorance over the knowledge of those who had studied. In a few cases those who did so paid the ultimate price. In more cases, other people paid the ultimate price.

Experts do not know everything, particularly when a situation like an emerging virus… emerges. Early statements from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization advised caution because of what they did not know. The researchers and scientists worked to learn about the new pathogen. Their success can be seen with the incredibly swift production of safe and effective vaccines. The point is that they did not quite start “from scratch.” They started with a knowledge of similar viruses, of tools to assess its characteristics, and for that matter with centuries of experience now that vaccines can work.

I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m probably bright enough that I could have done it… after spending years to learn the science of virology. I am no end grateful that others had already done that.

Can we learn to take expertise, training, and knowledge more seriously?

John Calvin… May Have Been Right

My theological tradition’s branch grows from the genius of John Calvin. He was a French Protestant who, in Geneva, Switzerland, developed the ideas which became the Reformed strain of Protestantism. Christianity in general holds to a doctrine of the inherent sinfulness of human beings. Calvin’s phrase expressed a somewhat bleaker view. He called it “total depravity.” “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace… Therefore simply to will is of man; to will ill, of a corrupt nature; to will well, of grace.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.3.5)

Well. That’s depressing.

It has also been widely illustrated by human action in 2020.

Darker skin color has been strongly associated with COVID-19 illness and death in 2020, mirroring the experiences people of color have had with the criminal system, employment system, housing system, and government system. Official violence has continued to receive unmerited protection and even explicit encouragement from some elected leaders. Political leaders ordered an assault on Black Lives Matter demonstrators outside the White House, one carried out with well-documented brutality. They cleared a lane to a church from which their tear gas (tear gas is forbidden in war by international treaty) had driven ordained and lay staff from a medical station – a healing ministry – so that one politician could hold a Bible for the cameras.

Sexist and racist speech has re-emerged as “acceptable,” with those employing them using the tattered excuse that “they didn’t mean to offend,” as if motive really changed the impact of their words and deeds. As the year ended, a suicide bomber detonated a recreational vehicle filled with explosive in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Some days went by before there could be agreement that it would be labeled a “terrorist” act. Could it be because he had been male and white?

Well. That’s depressing.

I have spent most of my ministry career working theologically at the more generous end of the doctrine of Original Sin. I have tended to de-emphasize the Pauline and Augustinian obsession with sexuality (though I note that people hurt one another terribly through their sexuality); I have tended to assume good motives for people (despite the clear harm they inflict); I have tended to a theory that circumstance, not nature, underlies the impossibility of perfection (despite the evidence that evil acts tend to be done out of all sorts of circumstances). Now I have to re-think this. It’s not that people behave worse than I thought. I’ve studied enough history to know differently. It’s that people persist in their evil, that they justify their evil, that they embrace it in the face of ethical teaching, new information, the guidance of their religion, and even their own pious statements to the contrary.

It’s one thing to read of these things. It’s another to see them and hear them day after day.

Total depravity indeed.

I have no interest in turning to a theology in which there is no worth to the human soul – among other things, it is clear that God puts great value in human beings. Calvin knew this, too. “Yet God would not have us forget our original nobility, which he had bestowed upon our father Adam, and which ought truly to arouse in us a zeal for righteousness and goodness… so that sick of our miserable lot we groan, and in groaning we sigh for that lost worthiness. But when we say that man ought to see nothing in himself to cause elation, we mean that he has nothing to rely on to make him proud.” (Institutes 2.1.3)

I hope we learn more humility about ourselves and our rectitude from 2020. I hope we discard the easy dualism that divides the world into Good People (that begins with Me) and Bad People. I hope we can consider not just that I Might Be Wrong but that They Might Be Right. I hope we can learn that others have paid a price for our comfort that we never asked but have been loathe to relieve.

May we learn humility.

The Failure of Christianity

There are so many ways to take that phrase. Do I mean that Christianity has failed to assert its power against the coercion of the State? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to pray away the pandemic? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to retain the loyalty (and attendance) of its members? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to convert the world to Christ?

No. I mean that Christianity has failed to live up to the standards of its Founder or of its God.

Christians this year have spent too much time and energy in maintaining political and social power. The Christian voices summoning up care and compassion have been soft by comparison. Christian voices have issued calls for violence in the assertion of privilege. Christian tongues have invoked racial bias, sexist dogma, and homophobic prejudice. Christian guidance has encouraged deadly folly in the name of Jesus. Christian leadership has ignored the vulnerability of many for the benefit of a few.

As the year ended, for heaven’s sake, the Wall Street Journal published two opinion pieces. One argued in explicitly sexist terms that a woman’s own achievements should be disregarded in favor of the title conferred by her husband’s office. Translation: Courtesy and respect for education and accomplishment bow to sexism and “I’ll call you anything I care to” privileged rudeness. Another asserted the virtue of Ebenezer Scrooge (yes, the one from “A Christmas Carol”), praising his thrift and diligence as the foundation of the feast. Translation: Greed is good.

Neither article survives ethical review with a Christian moral lens. Both were written in a culture that proclaims its Christianity. Christianity failed to guide either one.

Christianity seems to have left Christlike-ness behind.

As 2021 begins, I hope we learn to discover Christlike-ness. I hope we can learn, despite total depravity, to encourage one another in doing better today than we did yesterday. I hope we can learn, in short, to repent, to reform, and to renew ourselves and our faith.

I hope we learn.

2020. Well. That’s Quite Enough of That.

It started so well…

My only significant trip of the year started in 2019. I joined the Society of Christmas Day Travelers (Um. Is there an official organization called such? If there is, I didn’t formally join it) and flew east to spend time with friends and family in New Haven, Connecticut; Boston, Massachusetts; Norwalk, Connecticut; Westfield, Massachusetts; and New York, New York. It was lovely and, because I’d allocated two full weeks to the trip, not exhausting.

I returned to pick up the regular busyness of pastoring. In fact, I met with a family about a funeral for a dear church member on my first day in the office. We welcomed new members into the church. I planned a study of the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament for Lent. I attended the Church Leaders Event on O’ahu in February, the last time I would board an airplane in the year. That doesn’t sound like much of a milestone, but I had anticipated a number of trips to Honolulu in 2020 as part of my work with the Hawai’i Island Association Committee on Ministry. Only one took place.

Shrove Tuesday on February 25 saw me elected as President of Interfaith Communities in Action. On Ash Wednesday I welcomed the Rev. Jonathan Lee, a long-time friend who works for the Pension Boards, United Church of Christ, and we made plans for another visit that included him preaching at Church of the Holy Cross late in Lent. February ended (on the 29th; did you remember it was a Leap Year?) with an anniversary celebration for a wonderful couple in the church.

As March began, however, the spread of COVID-19 in the United States at large began to affect Hawai’i. The first diagnosis was confirmed on March 6th, someone who had contracted it aboard a cruise ship. The first case on Hawai’i Island was diagnosed ten days later. I shared my state of mind at the time in the essay, “Lessons from a Slow Motion Disaster.” I took my last daily walk with friends in Lili’uokalani Gardens on March 20th. On Sunday, March 22nd, we held our first online-only experience of worship. We hoped we might safely resume gatherings two weeks later. We did not.

Like pastors everywhere in 2020, I had no experience in leading or comforting a congregation during a pandemic. My work with the Connecticut Conference UCC gave me a foundation in Internet publication and video production most of my colleagues do not have. Even with that background, it all felt like an ongoing improvisation. To some extent it still does. I recorded those struggles in “An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist” Parts One, Two, and Three. There should probably be a Part Four sometime…

Being me, I also turned to music. One of the questions asked early and answered early was about the risks of group singing. They turned out to be unacceptably high. How, then, to continue to enjoy vocal music? I launched “A Song from Church of the Holy Cross” on March 25th. I’d hoped to write an original song each week of the pandemic. That ambition didn’t survive the second week, but I did succeed in writing some new pieces throughout the year. I also transformed the twice-monthly Community Sings into hour-long live streamed Community Concerts. My Music playlist on YouTube includes both the single songs and the concerts.

I’m too old a hand at communication, however, to believe that current technology would work for everyone. In addition to live streams, the continuation of What I’m Thinking (which reached episode 200 this year), and the church’s electronic newsletter The Weekly Chime, we changed the print newsletter The Messenger to weekly and I began sending hand-written notes to those we believed did not have Internet access about once a month. My writing this year included all those additional essays for The Messenger as well as the #LectionPrayers here at Ordained Geek.

Church went on.

Jonathan Lee returned to preach electronically rather than in person, delivering the Palm Sunday sermon from his living room in Connecticut on April 5th. Unlike some of my colleagues, I did not experience a rush of additional video conference meetings among congregational leadership. In fact, we held far fewer meetings and managed to continue the work of the church pretty well. I really commend the members and the leaders for demonstrating that level of confidence in one another. There have been and continue to be strains and struggles – Church of the Holy Cross lost the bulk of its facility use income in 2020 – but we have continued to care for one another even as we have tried to figure out how to do that safely.

I have presided at three funerals since the pandemic struck. Other families have chosen to defer services until a public gathering is safe. This is one of the places where the isolation has taken a severe toll. It hurts to see grieving people keeping six feet away from other grieving people. It hurts to not see the supportive faces of those come to honor the departed. It hurts, and this is a pain that will not fade quickly.

The economic impact on Hawai’i has been considerable. Though our island relies less on tourism than O’ahu or Maui, service workers have been furloughed or laid off as hotel incomes fell away. In the interfaith community, we greatly fear the end of the state’s moratorium on evictions. Without substantial aid, jobless working families will not be able to pay rent. Landlords who have their own bills to pay will evict them, and then have trouble finding new tenants with cash in hand. I cannot stress how important it is to prevent this. It is always easier to keep someone housed than to find housing for them once they have become homeless.

As summer arrived, case counts fell in Hawai’i. Church of the Holy Cross replaced the pews with folding chairs to maintain distance between households and resumed gathering for worship on July 5th, though we continued to stream the service as well. Six weeks later, rising diagnosis rates prompted us to return to online-only worship. We have done this ever since, and have made no attempt to guess at how soon we might welcome a congregation again.

A couple of other organizations asked for my services this year. During the summer, I accepted an invitation to join the board of the Kuikahi Mediation Center. Among my contributions was vocals and instrumentals for a jingle in the fall (oh, and some video production as well). I was also nominated to become Chair of the Conference Council for the Hawai’i Conference United Church of Christ. The members elected me in October at the delayed ‘Aha Pae’aina and I took office then. I stepped down from the Hawai’i Island Association Committee on Ministry as the month ended.

In September, I joined an incredibly talented panel of ministers speaking about “The Sermons That Keep Preaching,” during which I confessed that I had, in fact, written nearly the same sermon about two years apart. For the October ‘Aha Pae’aina, I interviewed some of my Micronesian colleagues on camera to be included in a live streamed workshop. In November, I assembled the contributions of religious communities around East Hawai’i for the Interfaith Communities in Action Thanksgiving Celebration. The song from Church of the Holy Cross was my own composition, “Hard Season.” For December, I accompanied soprano Joanne Pocsidio on guitar for the University of Hawai’i at Hilo’s Kalikimaka 2020 video.

The strange truth is that during this past year, I have been in front of a camera at least three times in most weeks, and four times in just under half of them. Televangelist indeed.

Morwen in 2007

As all this was happening, my son Brendan gained acceptance to a Master’s degree program at the University of Bangor in Bangor, Wales (yes, on the island of Great Britain). After COVID-related (and bureaucracy-related) delays he flew to the United Kingdom in October. Rebekah continued her seminary education at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, though with classes online and growing case counts she left the city for some months. Sadly for her and for all of us, her cat Morwen died as 2020 ended, putting another capstone of grief on a year with too much for everyone.

2020 Photo Summary - 1 of 141

It is now 2021. We have – those reading this – survived 2020. Others did not. Some died of “the usual” causes: age, illness, violence (Usual? Yes, tragically usual), neglect, accident, suicide. Others died of COVID-19: 45 on Hawai’i Island, 286 in the state of Hawai’i, 346,000 in the United States, 1.82 million worldwide. Vaccines are in production, but they can not be manufactured and administered at the rate anyone would prefer. 2020 will linger into 2021.

Another essay is in the back of my mind – lessons to take away from 2020. Let’s see if that one takes shape this weekend before I return to ministry in a pandemic as my vacation ends on January 5th.

Whether it does or not, may we have health of body, mind, and spirit in this new year. Love to you all!

An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist – Part Three

Church of the Holy Cross configured for distanced seating. Note camera tripods.

Part Three became inevitable as infection rates in the state of Hawai’i and the county of Hawai’i declined to the point that a congregation could be gathered once more at Church of the Holy Cross. The steps required to reduce risk of virus transmission created new challenges for liturgy. The state still limits gatherings to less than fifty people, which also turned out to be the capacity of the church sanctuary when chairs replaced pews. Having a congregation meant that the sound system now needed to serve two groups: the worshipers in the space and the worshipers over the Internet – and they had different needs.

In many parts of the country, churches still worship exclusively over the Internet because infection risk is still too high in their area. On Hawai’i Island, we went some time with no new cases at all. We are now seeing new cases again, between zero and three a day. We are watching those reports carefully and will discontinue in-person worship if it continues to rise.

Chairs, Masks, Sinks, Books, and Screen

Church of the Holy Cross is blessed with pews that are not attached to the floor. Early on, we thought we might rearrange the pews themselves, but were confronted with the problem of sanitizing the furniture between services. Since four congregations worship in the room during the day, we needed a cleaning regimen. Rather than risk virus material settling into the cloth (and damage to fabric and wood from bleach-based cleansers), we stacked up the pews and replaced them with folding chairs. Those chairs also allow us to seat household groups of different sizes together while keeping space around single worshipers.

All the congregations clean twice: once as they enter the space, and again as they leave. While it seems redundant, it offers better protection and reinforces the sound practices of caring for yourself (cleaning before) and caring for others (cleaning afterward). Chairs, pulpit and lectern, microphones and stands, and window louver levers, and other touch areas get cleaned. All congregations take attendance so that contact tracing can be done if we become aware of someone with a positive test for COVID-19. Worshipers enter through a kitchen with sinks for hand-washing and sanitizer for those who prefer that. Everyone wears a mask (and we have more available). The walks have six foot tape marks to maintain distance. After service, everyone exits through a separate door.

Hymnals and Bibles have been removed. We only provide a large-print bulletin for those with vision challenges; everyone else relies upon the projector screen for worship. We do not sing hymns together. We do speak prayers together. There is singing, however: two musicians sing from near the back of the chancel while wearing masks. The closest seats in the congregation are twenty-five feet away.

The preacher and lay leader now speak from separate lecterns with separate mics (covered with disposable foam shields). And, of course, there is no greeting line at the close of service.

We’ve Got to Move

We discovered the first week that the lack of congregational singing made for a very still hour – too still. While there was a “movement prayer” at the beginning of the service, it was too short and in the wrong place. A church member offered to lead additional movement, so the two vocal performances now also serve to lead the congregation in motion. It’s not actually hula, but the gestures come from that tradition. In addition, I lead a brief prayer in movement immediately after the sermon.

Attendance has been in the forties, which is close to the capacity of the room. We can accommodate a few additional worshipers just outside the sanctuary in an area covered by the roof (and equipped with speakers). We may need to add a screen in our Building of Faith if more people begin to attend.

Still Streaming

With the capacity of the room reduced, and knowing that people needed to continue to reduce contacts, we resolved to continue live streams into the future. We had to do things differently – again.

Video Cameras

With the streaming-only format, we had to do very little camera movement. There were only two places that people ever stood – three on a Communion Sunday – so a single camera operator could manage it even though he was also acting as a musician. Now we have five (and added a sixth) plus seven on Communion Sunday: pulpit, lectern, piano, organ, chancel for vocal anthems, bell (rung before service), and communion table. That meant we needed camera operators throughout the service.

We also had to place the cameras differently. We wanted to reduce the distraction they would cause the worshipers who were present and we wanted to give the worshipers at home the best experience we could. The cameras aren’t really capable of a high-quality shot over a long distance. We also faced cable length limits.

Both cameras, therefore, needed to be toward the front (their tripods are visible in the photo at top). One camera stands against the wall to the right for a shot of the pulpit and organ. The other stands just left of center for the lectern, piano, and chancel.

These are the same Canon camcorders we have been using: a Vixia HF R52 and a Vixia HF R800. The one by the wall now has a much longer cable run. In addition to a fifteen foot HDMI cable with a mini-connector on one end, we use a coupler and a twenty-five foot HDMI cable to reach the switcher. This is close to the limit of an HDMI signal. The first time we set it up, we tried to get some more slack with another cable extension, and it simply would not work. The other camera is close enough that its fifteen foot cable suffices.

For the first couple weeks, we set up the Logitech webcam as a wide shot to provide the switcher with another source. She never used it, so we’ve retired that camera.

We have, however, added another video source. The church has used projected words and imagery for some years. That slide show can also be used as a video source via HDMI.

The first two weeks taught us something else about the video: it was really hard for the director to select a shot without a preview image of it. She needed to know whether a camera had settled – or was even on the right subject – before switching to it. One of the lacks of the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini (though not its newer sibling, the ATEM Mini Pro) is a multi view of its sources.

How could we create that? I’ve seen some creative ideas, including using several splitters and a multi view converter, but then I saw someone using field monitors. These are small screens that are mostly used to provide videographers with a better view of their shot than provided by the built-in screen of the camera. Our two Timbrecod DC-80 7″ screens have an HDMI pass-through. We place them between the cameras and the switcher, and now the director can see what the camera sees before choosing it.

Laptop running OBS Studio, two Timbrecod field monitors, and the ATEM Mini on the video director’s desk.

One immediate annoyance was that the field monitors could not be used with the ATEM’s first input. I’ve done some research, and apparently the ATEM misreads the frame rate with some active pass-throughs, but only on the first input. We use input one for the slides, and the cameras get two and three.

Sound

The church installed a new sound system just over two years ago which, frankly, makes the challenge of providing sound to both the sanctuary worshipers and the online worshipers even possible. The old system, well… best to avoid that nightmare.

Our sound mixer is a Soundcraft Ui24R, a completely digital device. It has no physical knobs or sliders, but can be controlled via a keyboard and mouse, a network connected computer, a tablet, or even a smart phone. Its USB connection bears a host of signals, not just the main mix. A connected computer can select individual channels or one of eight auxiliary outputs.

Each auxiliary output can have its own mix. This is a game-changer.

Why? Because there are things that people worshiping over the Internet need to hear through the sound system that people in the sanctuary should not. In particular, we have to be very careful about amplifying the organ. The potential for feedback through the sanctuary speakers is mostly manageable, but it has to be carefully monitored. The organ produces plenty of sound, and amplifying it isn’t particularly helpful.

People worshiping over the Internet, however, need to hear it. They also need to hear the piano. We added two microphones in the chancel area (a pair of MXL 990 condenser mics) to pick up those sounds – and they are not part of the main mix. We include them only in the auxiliary mix.

We confronted cable length limits again. Although we can control the Soundcraft via a tablet, we had to connect our streaming computer to it via USB, and it was twenty-five feet away. USB has a length limit of around fifteen feet. In this case, we were delighted to find that an active extension cable did the job. We also experimented with using an active USB hub in the chain, and found that it didn’t work.

We have been frustrated with a relatively weak signal from the Soundcraft Ui24R. It reaches OBS with relatively low volume. The basic mixing controls in OBS wouldn’t bring it to desired levels – but it turns out that there’s an Advanced Audio panel that allows one to boost the base volume of an audio source. We’ve currently set it to add 10 decibels, and I’m considering a boost to 12.

Catching My Breath

I keep hoping that we can find a “normal” once again, and not have to make too many more adaptations. We probably aren’t there. One of the signals for our worship service is the ringing of the church bell. We’re able to film it because we have lots of windows and the bell is just outside.

What we can’t do in the stream, however, is hear much of it. It’s too far away from any of the microphones. We also can’t hear much of the congregation’s responses. I’m not eager to take on the challenge of adding “house sound” microphones to the mix, but that may be coming.

It is a relief to have a congregation present. They do provide an energy that is missing in the one-way stream approach we chose. My Sundays include a certain amount of anxiety – I’m deeply concerned for the health of the worshipers – but I find I am less exhausted by the experience of worship than I had been.

There will be another installment…

An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist – Part Two

A view of cameras, microphone, and streaming software for the May 22 Community Concert.

In Part One, Gentle Reader, I explained how a mild mannered ordinary local church pastor with a somewhat strange skill set became a televangelist, and some of the tools he used to become one.

(I will now abandon the use of “Gentle Reader” references, since I’ve never much cared for that 19th century style of English prose.)

Two months later, we have seen marked improvements on the technical side and have made some changes to the experience of worship as well. We continue to use YouTube Live as the streaming method; we have not sought to expand to send streams to other services at the same time. We use email reminders (typically Friday afternoon and another on Sunday morning) to give our newsletter subscribers a quick way to find the links to the video and to the worship materials on our website.

The order of service has had one significant addition: a hymn for people to sing together at home. This came as a suggestion from a worshiper, and we implemented it in about two weeks once we were satisfied that the musicians could manage preparing two songs. We’ve had some very positive feedback on that addition, and we’ve tried to really support it by making the lyrics available with our worship materials and, more recently, including them in the video stream.

The worship leaders also changed their positions. Webcams, including the Logitech C922, are designed for a short distance between the lens and the subject. That put the two musicians closer together than physical distancing guidelines recommend – and sent the wrong message. For some weeks now the leaders have stood at music stands with a six foot table (our communion table) between them. The webcam serves as a wide shot that includes both participants and displays the distinctive cross above and behind.

The real technical achievement is moving to more than one camera.

The hardware video switcher, a Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini, arrived on April 27. The most basic function of this device is to switch between four different audio/visual signals arriving via HDMI. It has a USB connection, and a computer recognizes it as it would a webcam – an audio/video source. Once cabled to the laptop, the ATEM became another source OBS could use.

What about cameras with an HDMI out port? This developed into a rather frustrating exercise. I have owned a Canon Vixia HF R52 for some years. I’ve used it to shoot videos of lava, and it was the main camera for the What I’m Thinking video series for a long time. When I worked for the Connecticut Conference, we used a pair of identical cameras for studio recordings and for live streams. I knew its HDMI out would work.

I really wanted to have at least two cameras, though, and preferably three (three cameras is common on TV studio sets). I bought a pair of very inexpensive cameras, expecting they wouldn’t be great, but that they’d do. Well, they didn’t. They connected over HDMI just fine, but the HDMI output when in shooting mode displayed what was on the screen, which sounds good until you notice all the little icons about battery life, focus mode, and so on. There was no item in the camera’s menu that allowed me to turn off the little pictures that cluttered the picture. In addition, connecting the HDMI cable turned off the camera’s own display, so a camera operator couldn’t see what the camera saw.

I hoped I’d be able to use my own DSLR, but ran into the same problem (both of them, in fact). I couldn’t turn off the icons. The camera’s live display went dark.

This time when I went shopping I made a visit to the manufacturer’s websites and read the full user’s manual. The Canon Vixia HF R800 met the criteria, and with its older sibling has captured our worship service since.

But wait, there’s more! These cameras come with HDMI cables, but they’re about three feet long. That’s not long enough. They use a mini-HDMI connector, so that was something to check carefully in ordering. We chose to continue using the webcam for the wide shot, but now it had to be further away from the computer. That meant procuring a USB extension cable. I don’t even want to talk about tripods.

Well. We strive and we learn.

Our Current Configuration

A Sunday configuration with the technical station at right, consisting of hardware switcher, laptop running a software switcher and encoder, and an audio mixer.
The worship service of June 14, 2020.

We use three cameras. The Logitech webcam gives us a wide shot, which we do not move. The two Canon Vixia camera are both mounted on tripods with halfway decent fluid heads (as is the Logitech). They each provide a “one shot” (single individual) for those standing at the music stand lecterns. One of the team serves as camera operator – they are about eight feet apart.

The two Vixias feed their signals via HDMI to the ATEM Mini. The ATEM and the webcam connect to a laptop via USB, as does the Behringer mixing board. The laptop runs the OBS Studio software. We added another person to the team to handle the switching chores. I admit that it is a hodgepodge system. There are literally two devices performing video switching chores. It has, however, allowed us to significantly improve the worship’s video dimension.

We have become more proficient with OBS as well. We use more titling, particularly during the hymn for singing at home. We use recorded video of the worship space sometimes when people are moving back and forth to microphones.

Controlling the ATEM Mini with my toe.

I use all three cameras during the Wednesday song performances as well as the Community Concerts. I put the ATEM literally at my feet and change cameras with my big toe. I have not learned to sing and change cameras at the same time, so it mostly happens between songs.

Blackmagic released another version of the ATEM – the ATEM Mini Pro – just after I’d placed our order. Both products spent a lot of time in backorder (as I write this, they’re on backorder again). The Pro device includes a streaming encoder itself, allowing it to push out a stream without a laptop running OBS. It also includes a multiview feature that allows the operator to see the output of all connected cameras on a connected monitor.

The Experience

Hardware and liturgy changes aside, the experience of leading these services online has remained pretty consistent. They take real effort to plan, although they are simpler in some ways. We select fewer pieces of music than our previous services. There is a prelude but not a postlude, one hymn rather than four, one anthem but no offertory. Only three musicians participate, and one records her performance in advance. The service is shorter. The combined story and sermon takes less time than the two individually.

The major difference between these experiences and a worshiping congregation is the absence of the worshiping congregation. The worship leaders do not experience the energy of the gathered people. Instead, we pour our efforts into an unresponsive camera lens. We cannot even see the live comments made on YouTube.

In retrospect, I wonder if a video conferencing solution might have provided some of that feedback, given us some of that missing energy. My experience of teleconferences does not give me a great deal of confidence that it would. Having held a few church board meetings in this way, I have found more discomfort with the technology than I had feared. Some weeks of experience could have helped with this, of course.

We have received appreciative notes from people about the services we are providing, and the viewer numbers are close to an in-person Sunday. At least half of the views happen at some time after Sunday. If nothing else, we have learned that people will engage in a worship experience at some time other than ten o’clock on Sunday morning – and that we should continue to make one available.

Looking Ahead

Church of the Holy Cross is now working on the ways we will hold in-person worship with due caution and care for the health of the worshipers. We will continue to stream our services. It introduces yet more technical challenges. We will need to use the sanctuary’s installed sound system, which fortunately can be piped to the computer as an audio source… via a long USB cable that will need to actively bolster the signal. The cameras will have to be further away from the switcher – more extension cables. The cameras will need operators. The operators will need instruction. And so on.

Pray for us!