The Cost of Calling it a War

In some places in the world – Wuhan, northern Italy, New York City, to name three – the spread of COVID-19 has greatly resembled the impact of war. The virus has brought terrible suffering. It has taken lives. It has left thousands grieving. It has overwhelmed medical facilities and professionals. It has forced horrible decisions. It has exacted a stiff toll on the economic lives of cities, provinces, states, and nations.

Wars do that.

In response, governments have summoned organizational resources in a very similar manner to those required in war. They have issued orders restricting the freedoms of their citizens. They have sought to create supplies that had not previously existed, and direct them in unusual quantities to the places they are needed. They have recruited additional personnel to meet the needs. They have intervened in the economic processes of the world.

Wars do all that, too.

Further, governmental leaders have urged their citizens, out of a sense of patriotism and the good of the nation, to take on new tasks (while old ones cannot be done). Sewing masks for medical staff reminds me of the bandage preparation groups of the American Civil War. They have asked for sacrifices among the population for the good of all.

These things, too, happen in war.

It is not, however, a war, and there are steep costs to thinking about it as one.

This week, some business and political leaders came to the conclusion that the public health response to the spreading contagion came at too high a price. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, offered that he and those of his generation might offer to sacrifice their lives “in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.” Fox News commentator Brit Hume endorsed the idea, saying, “The utter collapse of the country’s economy — which many think will happen if this goes on much longer — is an intolerable result.” The President of the United States, without any medical advice at all, suggested that Easter – April 12 – would be a good day to return to normal activity again.

It’s a war, they say, not on a virus, but in defense of an economy. They are summoning a patriotic fervor to defend the wealth of a nation, wealth that is held by a startlingly small portion of its population. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis, in 2016 the richest 10% of Americans possessed 77% of its wealth, up from 67% in 1989. 1% of American assets were (unevenly) divided between fully half of the population.

In other words, the sacrifices of war are being urged on a generation of Americans who have not benefited from the wealth they are being called upon to defend. It is true, I’m afraid, that in war a generation, generally of young adults, is called upon to sacrifice itself in defense of rights and privileges they frequently have not enjoyed.

That is why we must not call it a “war.”

We are engaged in a massive effort, yes. We are trying to preserve the public health from a spreading pathogen which can cause terribly acute illness and has a high rate of mortality. That is not, however, a war. A virus does not select targets. It makes no decisions based on strategy or in keeping with some “law of war.” It jumps from host to host as best it can without regard for anything except opportunity. Admirals and generals have no tactics for this response. Those trained in public health do.

We are engaged in promoting the healing of those infected by the virus. The number of people who require advanced care because of COVID-19 disease is stunning. Our hospitals are built for the number of people who are usually sick, not for this. Mobilizing the equipment and the personnel to care for the acutely ill is a herculean task, but it is a task of healing, not of death.

We are also trying to maintain the daily life of human beings. Some of that gets measured and described by economists: growing things, transporting things, making things, selling things, bringing things home to continue the life of the household. Other things rarely get measured by economists: conversations between friends that lift the heart, the acknowledgement of the sales clerk’s shared humanity, the sweetness of common prayer. All of these things are being stressed by the pandemic, and all of them will need help and healing to recover.

None of them will be aided by the language of war.

None of them will be strengthened by the guiding assumptions of war. “War is cruelty,” said William Tecumseh Sherman, and he demonstrated it. Cruelty will not help us.

We face pain, anguish, illness, death, and loss.

We must face it without cruelty.

As for those summoning us to sacrifice our kupuna for the wealth of some: The answer has to be a firm and unequivocal, “No.” May they ashamed of their callousness. Let their cruelty find no place in policy, in the hearts of the people, and especially not in a rising tide of tears for the sick and the dead.

It is not a war.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

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.

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.

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.

Haul in the Nets

“Haul the net in, Simon.”

“How can I do that? My hands are full with the lines of the net I just cast, Andrew. Haul it in yourself.”

“Must I do everything?”

“No. Just haul your own net in.”

Sigh. “Just give me one hand, Simon. This one’s heavy. First mine, then yours.”

Sigh. “All right then… Got my lines together. Here’s my hand. Give the call to pull.”

“Pull! Now pull again! OK, move your hand along; I’ve got it steady… PULL!”

“Well, you weren’t kidding. That’s a heavy net.”

“Thanks, Simon. Let’s do yours.”

“All right. Oh, look.”

“Look where?”

“Behind you, Andrew. There’s that Jesus coming back.”

“Did he leave?”

“I thought he did. He went down the Jordan, where that fellow John’s been preaching. I didn’t think that he’d be back.”

“He’s always been a funny one. Half a foot on earth and half in heaven.”

“Yeah. But here he comes.”

“It’ll be good to see him.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, here’s my hand. Let’s get your net hauled in, my brother.”

“Maybe Jesus will be impressed how good we are at catching fish.”

A dialogue based on Matthew 4:12-23, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany.

The image is The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew (Vocation de Saint Pierre et Saint André) by James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.56_PS1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10195832.

2019: Here, There, Everywhere


2019 began in modified delight. Both Brendan and Rebekah had been with me for Christmas in Hawai’i, but Brendan flew back to Boston and the Starbucks counter on December 29. Bekah, on a student’s holiday schedule, stayed until January 14 before flying back to cat and classes at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I wish my son had been able to stay longer, but it was a delightful way to begin the year. Bekah and I were able to sing together at Church of the Holy Cross and also for Pu’ula Church’s ‘Aha Mele.

I welcomed a number of visitors this year, some as special guests of the church and others as friends (and one or two as both). They included David Vasquez-Levy, President of the Pacific School of Religion; my seminary classmate John Madsen-Bibeau; my Uncle John and Aunt Lana Simonds; Tracy Barnowe of the Hawai’i Conference staff; Connecticut Conference Minister Kent Siladi; former Silver Lake Conference Center A-Team Coordinator Jesse Huhn; friend and colleague Liz Miller with her spouse Beth Scanlon; Hawai’i Conference Minister candidate David Popham (he preached at Holy Cross as Conference Minister toward the year’s end); and dear college friends Polly Goldman and Bruce Feist.

I did some traveling, too. It was a General Synod year, and the editors at United Church News asked me to join the news team for the denomination’s national gathering again. I wrote stories and took photos for both the national coverage and the Hawai’i Conference. Or to put it another way: I wrote a thing.

Synod is also a UCC family reunion, so I got to see lots of friends and even family. Rebekah attended as a delegate for UCC Disabilities Ministries and led a workshop with proud poppa in attendance. It became a story, of course, that father and daughter met in Milwaukee, halfway between their homes.

With Synod over, I took a week to visit the East Coast, which wasn’t enough time. I shuttled from Brendan’s home in Boston to my brother Christopher’s in New Haven to Paul Bryant-Smith’s in Norwalk to Rebekah’s apartment in New York. Paul and I enjoyed playing a Boys in Hats concert in Danbury, including some participation from Bekah and with Brendan at the camera.

That was my only formal concert performance for the year. In May, however, the Faith Hui held a dinner to give thanks for all the work we had done together during the 2018 eruption. I sang for a fair amount of that event, including an original song in recognition of the crisis. Much later in the year, I was astonished to receive a certificate of thanks from the state Senate for my small part in doing that work during the disaster.

The summer set another crisis in sharp relief: the dispute over appropriate use of Mauna Kea, sacred to some Hawaiians and bearing or symbolizing sacredness to others in different ways. At the request of Connie Larkman at United Church News, I put on my reporter hat again and wrote “Conflict of souls around Hawai’i’s sacred mountain.” The story fails to describe fully the depth of emotion around the issues. The dispute revealed existing fractures in the community that we had been accustomed to discount or ignore. Kia’i blocked the access road for months in numbers from less than a hundred to over 3,000. Everyone was determined.

I spent the fall trying to help my congregation build resilience in stress and deepen their listening skills. At some point, the particular question of the Thirty Meter Telescope will be settled, though I doubt it will be to everyone’s satisfaction. We will still need to live with one another in the community. We will need skills to do it.

We lost some very special people in our congregation over the year. Blanche, Karl, Millie, and Anita just at year’s end. All Saints’ Sunday in October was very poingnant.

I did quite a lot of other writing this year. I edited and contributed to a Church of the Holy Cross Lenten devotional Open the Heart. On my blog, I continued to write a poem/prayer each week based on the lectionary texts. As Advent approached, we repeated An Advent of Giving, with new devotionals by yours truly.

I took a lot of pictures of sunrises in 2019, in great part because I took morning walks for several months before some mole removals led me to take a break that, um, hasn’t ended yet. My hope is that the symbol of sunrise dominates 2020: new beginnings. Light. Hope.

Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!

 

On Impeachment

An iris flower at night with raindrops on its petals.

I doubt that anyone mistakes me for a fan of the current President of the United States or his policies. I reviewed a list of his priorities as he entered office and considered three of them to be actively evil:

  • his proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S.,
  • the income tax cuts that would (and have) disproportionately benefit the wealthy, and
  • the border wall with associated measures.

I had not imagined children taken from their parents. I had not imagined entire families imprisoned. I had not imagined the cold refusal to welcome refugees.

To my mind, family separations in and of themselves constitute grounds for impeachment. The practice removed children from their parents because the parents would be imprisoned without bail while awaiting a hearing for an offense that was most likely a misdemeanor. The directive to deny reasonable bail flies in the face of Constitutional protections. Incarcerated parents around the United States know where their children are, but these parents were denied that basic information. It’s clear from the government’s failure to reunite these families that they had not made any plans to do so. The loss of one’s children sounds an awful lot like cruel and unusual punishment to me.

Further, the President who gave these orders corrupted the enforcement agencies who carried it out. They had to do the work of cruelty. They still carry on the work of cruelty, only now the parents and children share the same prisons. It is monumentally unjust and a horrific abuse of power to require unjust acts of someone. We have seen it happen before.

I have been ready for his impeachment for some time. I have been impatient for it for some time. And yes, I find the articles passed last night to be adequate grounds for impeachment and removal from office.

The event finds me solemn and sorrowing. Although this is only the fourth time Congress has debated articles of impeachment, three of them have happened in my lifetime. I do not welcome Presidential misconduct. I do not welcome abuses of government power. I cannot greet even their exposure and impeachment with enthusiasm. At best, I feel a solemn satisfaction, not that “justice will prevail” (I read too much history and theology to be assured of that), but that, for a moment, a sign has been posted. “These acts, even of a President, will not be permitted.”

I wish I had more comfort to offer. I wish I felt more comfort. Some voices speak of loyalty, and some speak of violence. Some voices speak their fears. A few voices speak their hope. Would that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were here to speak of a dream…

Well, here is mine (it was David’s first), and I suspect it is similar to the prayers of incarcerated children:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:1, 13-14