What *Do* People Say to Ministers?

Author’s Note: I wrote this essay in January 2012 responding to a video produced by some people completing their seminary education. Those people have become treasured colleagues and effective leaders in the Church – they also decided to make that video private, so sharing the link won’t do anything.

I posted the original essay to Facebook. I’ve returned to it because the Memories feature drew it to my attention.

A video appeared in my News Feed ten years ago. I watched it. I recognized one of the actors. I chortled. I laughed out loud. And, being somewhat cautious in the language I use in public, I hesitated to re-Share it on my own Wall. It was, after all titled “[Stuff] people say to ministers.”

The word was not “Stuff,” of course. It did begin with the letter “S.”

I’ve been an ordained minister for thirty-three years. And I’ve heard most of the questions asked in the video over that time (I’m particularly fond of a sequence of blank stares). OK, I haven’t been asked about being a nun, and I haven’t heard many of questions about the Mayan calendar. I suspect that’s just chance. But I’ve certainly been asked what I do when it’s not Sunday, and people clearly stop before telling me certain jokes.

I watched it. I recognized the people being played by the actors. I chortled. I laughed out loud.

And I hesitated before sharing it on my own Wall, because I knew that this light, playful, slightly wistful mirror on the life of an ordained minister, which had been created by four people still in the early days of that life, could so easily be seen and heard as a dismissal of those earnest, honest people who dared to lay aside their ignorance and ask a question.

It wasn’t, and I know it isn’t, and so I commend the filmmakers, my colleagues and friends (alums of my own seminary), for their gentle humor, their earnest wrestling with the new shape of their lives, and their courageous honesty. I offer them my sympathy for the misunderstandings that did, indeed, come their way.

There are so many ways in which members of the clergy share the experience of other professionals, other “experts” in a field of study. We are sought out for what we know and what we know how to do – for exposition of texts treasured by communities for thousands of years, for comforting the bereaved in the midst of shock and loss, for expressing the needs and longings of a community to powers beyond us – and we are also subject to being dismissed for filling those expectations. The therapist frustrated by the client who rejects the advice “that sounds like something a psychologist would say” and the safety consultant dismissed for being “over-cautious” will recognize the experience of the preacher whose warnings about selfishness go unheeded because that, after all, is “what ministers always say.”

Like these other professionals, ministers may be discounted if they seem to step outside their field. The auto mechanic is unlikely to be taken seriously when giving stock advice, and the securities trader may be ignored when suggesting a remedy for car trouble. The minister faces this problem in the week-to-week exercise of the profession, however, attending to the management of a physical plant and to the oversight of financial resources. Not all ministers are good at these things. I, for example, am far better at recognizing plumbing problems than fixing them. Those who are highly skilled, however, may find it difficult to have their skills recognized by congregation leaders.

Ordained ministry comes with a huge load of cultural expectations, some of which have been confused amidst the shifts of culture, some of which have combined expectations from disparate traditions, and some of which have been muddled by imperfect transmission of the traditions. In a society increasingly disconnected from a common religious heritage, this puzzling welter of expectations is likely to only get more scattered.

As I said, I’ve been asked what I do when it’s not Sunday. It’s not really a bad question. Very few people prepare a new public presentation every week, so it’s difficult to appreciate the planning time required for a sermon (and indeed, the entire worship service). One hundred years ago, the pastor’s house-to-house visits which kept the community aware of its members’ needs were easily visible down the street or across the fields. Today, the pastor’s car blends in with the rest, and in cities and suburbs the pastoral visit is a rare event since families are only briefly together at the close of day. Planning meetings, hospital visits, and convalescent home calls are mostly invisible. It’s Sunday morning that can be seen.

But some of the questions reveal the power – and the constraints – placed upon clergy by others’ expectations. “Oh, so you’re a minister? I used to sleep around a lot in college.” It’s funny; it’s also a statement of profound honesty that I can’t imagine being addressed to a member of very many other professions. The mere mention of the vocation’s name invited a memory and a moral reflection. It’s an invitation (potentially, anyway) to a deeper conversation. The same is true of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Can you lead us in grace?”

How many people, walking into a room, communicate the compassion of a community, and of a Power greater than any community, simply by their presence?

Likewise the constraints: the questions about musical tastes, and sexuality, and drinking, and swearing. “It’s so great that the church lets you out.” Oh, yes, and my favorite, the puzzled stares. Those are real. There’s a line in the ordination service which is so true it’s nearly universally ignored: “Set apart by the laying on of hands.” The cultural expectation, however muddled and confused, follows right along. Ordained people are, in some way we may not entirely understand, different. Set apart. Subject to a different set of expectations. Accountable in entirely different ways.

The best example I can come up with is the expectation about, well, dumb questions. Every professional, every worker in a trade, gets them. Few will be surprised at the occasional annoyed outburst. Hurt, perhaps, but not surprised.

From clergy, it’s not acceptable.

That’s not unique – many of the other helping professions come with the same expectation – but I recall the degree of shock and even some outrage which greeted Lillian Daniel’s exasperated (though considered) response to one-too-many casual “I’m spiritual, but not religious” conversations with strangers. She should have listened to the person, I read. There may have been wisdom she hasn’t heard.

Perhaps she should. Perhaps there was.

But if she was a therapist with years of study in her field and twenty years of counseling practice, would we so easily endorse a questioner’s statement, “I don’t need therapy for my failings. I’ve got my own resources.”

Perhaps we should. Perhaps he has.

But perhaps he doesn’t.

What do people say to ministers? They accept the invitation of the calling and the office to go places they might not go with anyone else in the world, powerful places of self-examination and spiritual exploration. They project upon the minister, the rabbi, the priest, the monk, all the power of spiritual community and spiritual Power, and reaching through that projection, they sometimes find the real thing.

And what do people say to ministers? They may also project their mistaken understandings of the office and the calling, and stumble into conversations that will take huge effort to end up somewhere good. Sometimes they’re innocuous and humorous – for Protestants, at least, that describes the questions about sex – but sometimes they’re not. “Well, I don’t believe that the world was created in seven days, so I don’t believe in God.” That’s a place it’s hard to move on from. Not impossible, but very, very hard.

Full credit to these, my now-and-future colleagues in this puzzling, precious calling. They’ve dared to ask the questions, because they’ll be faced with them as they live their lives: lives set apart by the laying on of hands.

Self-portrait by Eric Anderson.

2021: Not As Advertised

It had such promise, you know?

COVID-19 vaccines were the great dream of 2021. I received my two doses in March and April, and the booster (after some delay due to supply concerns in Hawai’i and my confusion about eligibility) in December. Like so many, I believed that the vaccines would be rapidly sought by an eager public and that viral spread would slow and stop.

Well. That didn’t go as planned.

Like so many others, I watched with horror as furious supporters of electorally defeated Donald Trump assaulted police officers and broke windows to gain the Capitol building. It was a Wednesday, and I was just back from some time off (if not away). As I did on most of 2021’s Wednesdays, I sat down to sing one song on camera, streamed live to YouTube. It was the theme song of 2020, and also of 2021: “When Will We Find Healing?”

That night, we shared a Prayer Time for our Nation.

Over the course of the year, I composed twelve new songs (two of them are featured in the 2021: A Year video at the top of the page). I sang twenty one-hour Community Concerts in addition to all those Wednesday songs. I recorded What I’m Thinking videos. I wrote #LectionPrayers for this blog. I led worship online for Church of the Holy Cross. In June one of my poems was published in the collection Pitching Our Tents.

I spent far more time on camera than I’d ever believed credible – or desirable, for that matter.

Enjoying the company of dear friends in May.

The vaccine’s timing made a trip east in May an acceptable risk, and so I journeyed east to celebrate Rebekah Anderson’s graduation from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, receiving her Master of Divinity. I spent some time in Connecticut as well to visit my brother, stepmother, and several friends – but I didn’t get to see Brendan. He was still working on his master’s program in Bangor, Wales. I’m still really sorry that this pandemic made it unwise to cross two oceans and visit him there.

In April I represented Interfaith Communities in Action at the groundbreaking for HOPE Services Hawai’i’s Sacred Heart Village. Having been elected Chair of the Hawai’i Conference Council last year, in June I presided over the online 199th ‘Aha Pae’aina. In July I served as a delegate to the UCC’s General Synod, also online (more time on camera).

Summer brought reduced illness rates across Hawai’i and across the nation, and so I got to receive visiting friends once again. Polly and Bruce introduced me to a local cacao grower and chocolate maker. With Liz and Beth I ventured out to Kilauea again, and when David and his family visited in November we got a view down into the lava lake at the caldera summit. In June Church of the Holy Cross considered gathering the congregation for worship again – and then Delta arrived.

In just a couple of weeks we went from fairly low COVID-19 diagnoses to the highest we had ever seen. The highest we’ve ever seen – except for Omicron’s arrival in December, when we have been planning for worship gatherings once again.

No, the year has not gone as I had dreamed.

In October, as the Delta wave subsided, I headed east once more to celebrate the wedding of Ian and Sarah, joining Paul Bryant-Smith once more so that Boys in Hats could sing for one of their long-suffering road crew. The bride and groom had already married legally, but seized this occasion to gather friends (outside) and celebrate (outside) with all the joy we could muster.

We mustered a lot of joy.

I have to take off my hat to the TWA Hotel in New York. It’s the only hotel on the JFK airport grounds, and it was so relaxing to spend just a night there. The decor is deliberately anachronistic, recalling Trans World Airlines heyday in the late 1950s. The telephone in the room had a rotary dial.

I called the front desk to inquire about checkout procedures just so I could use it.

Back in Hilo, I finally resumed morning walks in December, at least when it wasn’t raining (and it rained a lot in December). I’d hoped to visit the Kilauea summit at sunrise, but rain has delayed that as well so photos and video of the lava lake in the dark will have to wait until… 2022.

I hope you enjoy the photos and the songs. Love to you all!

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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!