Memories of an Ethical Missionary

I originally wrote this reflection in April 2011, shortly after I’d shared my most successful April Fool’s Day gag ever: a claim to have been summoned as an “ethical missionary” at a major American corporation. I’ve slightly changed the essay to reflect the fact that since then, I’ve moved from my work with the Connecticut Conference UCC to Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i. I’ve also inserted a video of the song I wrote about the event, performed in April 2012.

Bear with me a moment, for I must begin this blog post with an apology.

To my friends on Facebook: I sincerely apologize for distressing you with my April Fool’s Day prank last week. I’d never actually intended it to deceive, only to amuse: but it was harder than I thought to create a gag that was both plausible and transparently impossible. Or in other words, I failed to create a fiction that was stranger than truth, and so I deceived, and so I distressed. I’m very sorry.

So what did I do?

I posted a note that I’d be moving to a new job — I hasten once more to say this is NOT TRUE — as the UCC’s first “Ethical Missionary” to a major American corporation. The note included more spurious details, many intended to reveal the joke for what it was, but that’s the summary. A number of my friends responded, and a startling (to me) number took it seriously. I learned a great deal.

I learned again that I have wonderful friends. I’d posited a move across the country, and without exception people expressed two heart-warming things: that they were very happy for my exciting new challenge, and very sad that I’d be so far away. Holding that sense of joy for another with that feeling of loss is, I think, a very deep mark of friendship.

And let us not ignore as well the fact that (so far) all have forgiven me for deceiving them!

I learned again that reality is much stranger than the human imagination — or at least my human imagination. I honestly believed I’d weighted the note with too many impossibilities to be credible. I hadn’t. Let’s face it, on a planet in which both the duck-billed platypus and the giraffe exist, I hadn’t much chance of doing so.

More striking, however, than these two reminders was the revelation of a sudden hunger. My friends sincerely wanted to believe in an ethical missionary, and in a major corporation willing to accept such a person. A friend who is ordained in another denomination praised the forward thinking of the UCC. Another called it “the coolest job EVER.”

It makes me think: maybe it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

An ethical missionary to a big corporation faces an enormous challenge, because corporations already have an ethical code which has the advantage of being both clear and compelling. It’s about “the bottom line.”

The bottom line refers to the last line of a particular financial report in a corporation, the line which describes the return to shareholders, the company’s owners. The company’s managers, who may not be among the owners, see it as their duty to keep that number healthy (growing, increasing, certainly above zero). There are plenty of other ethical touchstones as well, about transparency and such, but many of those function to serve the primary goal of returning value to the stockholders.

Jesus, of course, told a story about precisely this situation. We call it the ‘parable of the talents:’ a master going on a journey assigns three servants to steward portions of his fortune while he is away. The two who successfully increase his wealth receive commendation; the one who fails (though without suffering loss) receives condemnation. Ethical managers of a corporation emulate those two faithful stewards.

I think, however, that that model is no longer sufficient (and possibly never was). The group of shareholders, however large, is not an adequate community to consider in making ethical choices. The owners’ interest is served by keeping finances transparent within the management team, but they are also served by making them opaque to customers, employees, and the general public. We have laws to prevent fraud in those interactions, but the laws that exist actively conflict with the primary ethic which guides business decisions day-to-day.

The great theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr noted this problem nearly eighty years ago in Moral Man, Immoral Society. His brother H. Richard Niebuhr considered the problem of inadequate circles of concern in The Responsible Self, published posthumously in 1962. People in groups act strongly in their own interest; they fail over and over to consider their impact on those around them: the customer, the neighbor, the public.

The financial crisis that erupted in 2008 illustrates this truth over and over and over again. It rose from a game of “pass-the-risk,” one marked by layer after layer of deception, justified by the interests of the shareholders (and not unmarked by the interests of the managers, too). As one might notice from the lack of public prosecutions, it seems to have been legal.

But ethical? Is it ethical to place the global economic system at risk in order to bring maximum return to your shareholders?

I will not, anytime soon, become an ethical missionary to the world of corporate America (or corporate multi-national). If such a job exists, I haven’t heard about it, and though I’ve shifted my ministry from the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ to Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i, I’m fully committed to ministry in the church setting. It’s a crazy idea.

It wasn’t such a bad idea, though, was it?

2018 Was Not… Boring

The year in video

The Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette, one of the finest preachers and pastors I know, reminded us today of her New Year’s Eve prayer a year ago: that 2018 would be “boring.”

It was not.

It was not for me, for my family, or for many of my neighbors, either.

It began with some real high points. I began the year by welcoming the Rev. Dr. Chris Davies, a long-time friend, to the pulpit of Church of the Holy Cross. Quite aside from relishing her words of wisdom, I got to act out her reading of a favorite children’s book, and we celebrated communion together.

I was wrestling with my first struggle of the year, however. I’d developed a growth on my nose in December. It had been removed, tested, and found to be benign, but I still had to have a MOHS procedure to make sure it was all gone, lest it return. So I wore bandages on my nose for a few weeks, including during a visit east in January.

Brendan had begun working for Starbucks by then in Boston, and Rebekah was serving as an intern at the First Church of Simsbury, Connecticut. We got together with my father, recovering from his second broken leg in Massachusetts, and starting to get used to the new apartment he and Shirley had moved to.

Paul Bryant-Smith and I enjoyed playing two Boys in Hats concerts in 2018 – pretty impressive considering the distances involved. In January we played at the Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport, and in May we played at First Church in Simsbury. Rebekah and her co-interns sang one of my songs at the church in January with a proud poppa looking on.

Back in Hilo, I was able to photograph a lunar eclipse in February, and enjoyed hiking in Volcanoes National Park, Rotary social events, and taking pictures of flowers. I was summoned to provide music leadership again for the Hawai’i Conference Clergy Retreat in March (this Conference, and indeed this Association, has a *lot* of musical talent) with the instruction to “choose songs that everybody knows.”

That meant, of course, “Jesus Loves Me.”

Lent came early, and we offered Ideas for Lenten Disciplines again. I maintained my personal discipline of #ThursdaysInBlack throughout the year.

Also in March, I found myself seated at the same table with US Senator Mazie Hirono as the Zone Club of Hilo honored her and Irene Nagao with the Rose Award. I just tried to look like I belonged with the dignitaries.

The end of March brought the solemn riches of Holy Week. The Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa joined us for Maundy Thursday worship, so we heard the Tenebrae readings in two languages. On Easter, a lovely sunrise opened the day’s celebrations. Somehow, I managed to complete the sermon without saying something like, “You thought Jesus was dead. April Fool!”

I finally got to see the Hokulea, the double-hulled canoe whose Malama Honua voyage circumnavigated the globe. She visited Connecticut’s shore not long after I moved to Hawai’i, and came to Hilo for the Merrie Monarch Festival.

My father celebrated his 80th birthday in April. I was late to the party – actually, they delayed it so I could be there. I flew to Florida first, to take part in the UCC Pension Boards’ offering of CREDO, an education program for clergy. I was delighted to discover some good friends were among the group, and even better pleased to find how important the program was. I got a better sense of myself as a person and as a pastor, and made some decisions about steps to take in my life and work in the months ahead.

But that would wait. I spent the next week back in New England, where the family had gathered to celebrate Dad’s birthday. We enjoyed our lunch, helped him blow out the candles, and told enough stories about him that he felt like we could save some for next year.

Even as we were doing this, lava had started flowing in Leilani Estates on Hawai’i Island. The Lower Puna Eruption of 2018 claimed 700 homes and displaced over 2,000 people. I returned home to join the faith community’s efforts to bring relief. We served meals, encouraged volunteering at the shelters, organized a laundry voucher program, and basically searched for the gaps in people’s lives. Our weekly meetings generated a lot of activity.

I also returned home to face the loss of a dear church member. I’d had breakfast on Easter morning with Millie and her family – she proudly told me that though she couldn’t get them all to church on a Sunday morning, she could get everyone to Easter sunrise service. Hers was the first funeral of 2018, but not the last. Millie, Joe, and Margaret were all people I’ve come to know and treasure in these years. I gave their lives to God with an aching heart.

My heart had more to ache about, because in June my father suffered an infection. We thought he’d overcome it, it turned out that his body had had enough. He died on July 1st as I spoke with him on the phone. Five days later, I was in New England with the family. Due to the kindness of the church leadership here, I was able to stay two weeks.

Dad’s service was painful wonderful. Memorial words from Elva Merry Pawle, Chuck Ericson, and Paul Bryant-Smith brought tears and laughter. Paul and I played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (the Israel Kamakawiwaole version) and “The Great Storm is Over.” My brother and I looked over old photos, and then had to stop.

Dad and Karenna
A Tribute to Lynn Anderson

Back in Hilo, the eruption continued. I kept up the work with the Faith Hui, worked with the Hawai’i Island Church and Ministry Committee, played every other Friday for our Community Sings, and planned a solo concert (my first in some years) for August. Our choir director Rachel Edwards and I discovered that we could do a pretty amazing duet of “Ain-a That Good News.” I wrote a sermon entitled, “This May Need a Song” – and so I also wrote a song.

The week of the concert, disaster struck – again. The lava flow in Puna had subsided (though nobody was at all sure whether it might resume), and now we received a Pacific hurricane. Lane passed a hundred miles south of Hawai’i Island, turned north, and slowed. Though it was far offshore, its cyclonic winds drew moisture-laden air from the east right over Hilo, where it fell. Over four days, we received over four feet of rain.

Flooding along the Hilo Bayfront on August 25th

Despite the weather, which was still bad on August 25th, the concert raised over a thousand dollars for Puna eruption relief.

Brendan and Rebekah both shifted addresses in September. Brendan continued working for Starbucks, but moved out to West Newton. Rebekah began her studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

In September we held a special memorial service for the Rev. Susumu Yamane, Pastor Emeritus of Church of the Holy Cross. He had been well loved in the church and the community, and we were glad to honor him for his ministry and service. Shortly after we took on meal preparation for a village of Puna evacuees – for a week in October, then once a week through November and December. I went down a couple times with guitar and ukulele to offer some music along with the meal.

By October, however, I was exhausted. I have rarely taken time off in October, but this time I had to. I spent most of it in Kona, enjoying sunsets rather than sunrises. I came back to honor the beloved souls who had passed that year at our annual All Saints worship service, including my dad.

Sunrise on Halloween

Also in October, I began walking each weekday, first thing in the morning. One result was a lot of dramatic sunrise photos. I don’t know that I’m any healthier, but I do enjoy it.

The holiday season came with a great project, and great joy. Our Board of Deacons decided to encourage members to bring non-perishable food items, one contributed each day, through Advent. One said that it was a pity that we probably couldn’t find a daily devotional on giving for the season, and I said, “I might be able to write one.” And I did. The result was “An Advent of Giving,” and probably over 400 pounds of food items brought to The Food Basket. We haven’t weighed the last week’s gifts yet.

And the great joy:

Brendan flew out on December 15th and spent two weeks here. We got to explore some parts of the island, but enough so that he’ll have to return to see more. Rebekah arrived on December 19th, and will stay until mid-January.

Well. That’s quite a year. I haven’t even touched on the year in the nation or the world, which had enough strangeness and chaos to fill a bookshelf. Nor have I mentioned several friends’ visits which gave me great joy.

I’m conscious of how much I’ve deferred my CREDO decisions. Natural disasters and family crises have that effect. I’m also conscious, however, that I am where I belong, and (mostly) doing what I should be doing. We’ll see how this coming year changes the “mostly.”

Hau’oli makahiki hou – have a joyful, healthy, and happy New Year!

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2018 in Pictures on Flickr

All Saints 2018

EPSON MFP image

My mother and father in 1962.

I’ve seen a number of “Name your saints” queries this year. If they’ve been common in previous years, I missed them. Call it selective attention, or selective ignorance, or… something.

This year I noticed.

At Church of the Holy Cross, we observe All Saints Sunday on the weekend prior to November 1st (other churches seems to favor the Sunday after). We have a well established ritual. We name those who have died in the year since the last observance, toll the church bell, and friends or family members come forward to light a candle.

I’ve always been struck by the deliberate pace of this service. For most of my career in New England, we in the liturgy-crafting profession have labored for efficiency in worship, brevity where at all possible. “Keep the service moving,” we tell ourselves.

Not here.

Our Chair of Deacons read each name slowly, clearly, deliberately.

Then, the crashing tone of the bell flowed in from its perch just outside the sanctuary.

Then, a pause.

Then, some person, some people, stood from their seats and bent their steps forward. They stood before the unlit candles, took one, or two, and bent their tips into a waiting flame. They placed the glowing taper in its row, and maybe paused… before returning to their pew.

They sat.

And only then did the next name sound.

When all the names had been read, the congregation queued, returning to the sanctuary’s front, to light additional candles in memory and love and honor of those who had died in prior years. When they had finished, and I took my place to speak a final prayer of love and sorrow, the sanctuary glowed in daylight and in candlelight.

I’ve always lit a candle or two during that last portion of the service. Friends, family members, church members have departed from my life and gone to God. I’ve honored them with a flame or three.

This year, however, I stood for a name.

Our Chair of Deacons read his name: “The Reverend Lynn Anderson.”

EPSON MFP image

A family vacation in the summer of 1982.

The bell tolled.

I stood. I hadn’t far to walk — I’d come down from the chancel and taken a seat in the front pew — but I took those few steps to the taper-laden table and chose my candle. My hand trembled as I held the wick to the flame. I placed the candle in its holder. I paused. Then I took the few steps back, and sat.

My heart had broken open.

My father, Lynn Anderson, died on July 1st. He was eighty years old. He’d grown up in the hills of western Massachusetts, where his body now rests. The grandson of a Swedish immigrant, he was the first of the family to attend college. He married my mother, Maren Simonds, in 1962. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics education from the University of Michigan. Mom, with a master’s degree in biology, ran tests in a medical laboratory.

He and my mother loved each other — and they frustrated each other, too. In the 70’s they chose to do something about it, and deepened not just their relationship with one another but their parenting to their sons. They went on to become national team resource couple for Marriage Encounter, offering others what they so prized.

Shortly after I learned to drive, my mother had a melanoma growth removed. I remember thinking it was convenient that I had my license just when she needed a chauffeur. The cancer, however, had already hidden elsewhere. In the spring of 1983, I came home from college once to visit her in the hospital after a tumor paralyzed her. I came home a second time for her funeral.

I’ve been lighting a candle for her in my heart — whether I used that metaphor or not — for over 35 years.

Dad had to finish raising two sons, one in college and one in high school, without the love of his life, the love he’d worked so hard to nurture and preserve. He succeeded. We each got our college and graduate degrees (Christopher emulated Dad and earned a Ph.D.). We both married. My wife and I blessed him with his grandchildren.

In the meantime, he also heard the call of God, and turned from classroom teaching and school administration to the ministry. He got his M.Div. eight years after I got mine. He served small churches in Connecticut as an interim pastor — long tenures (for an interim), reflecting the challenges of finding pastors for small congregations. After retirement, churches sought him as a favorite supply preacher when their minister was away.

Dad and Shirley 2009

The Rev. Shirley Anderson and the Rev. Lynn Anderson

He also met and married the love of his life — again. During his seminary years, he gave his heart to Shirley Sherman and she gave hers to him. They filled one another’s spirits. They shared house and home.

So there are my treasured saints this year. Others called them Lynn and Maren, Dr. Anderson and Mrs. Anderson, Reverend Anderson. I called them Mom and Dad.

My heart breaks that they are gone. My heart sings because they lived.

And I know that my Redeemer lives, and in my flesh I will see God. (Job 19:25-26)

 

Mother’s Day 2018

Madonna and Child_Alaverdi_Theotokos,_GeorgiaIronically, this piece begins with this brief reflection from 2017:

Mother’s Day is not the easiest day for me. My mother died young, just as I was learning to appreciate her and not rebel against her. I don’t know what it is to be an adult with a mother. The marvelous woman who married my father many years later has certainly brought abundant new joys into his life, and mine, and those of my brother and my kids.

There are other losses, too, that grow sharp for me on this day, so I wish you joy with you mothers as long as you have them – and healing for the hearts broken by cluelessness, carelessness, callousness, and cruelty in that relationship we call “motherhood.” Make it a blessed, if not a happy, Mother’s Day.

Motherhood is… complicated.

It gets thrust on people unexpectedly, sometimes through a biological birth, and sometimes not. The most dearly desired children in the world surprise their parents – their mothers – with urgent, expected-yet-unanticipated demands. Post-natal depression strips many new mothers of their strength. Simply feeding a newborn is shockingly difficult.

Since ages and ages past, human beings have equated a woman’s worth with her ability to bear children. The Bible’s first book is a litany of discounted womanhood. Sarai/Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel – all three find their fertility only in the miraculous intervention of God. Despite the fact that all three are dearly loved by their husbands and family, all three live in despair until their labor of prayer becomes the labor of delivery.

Poor Rachel. She loses her life to bearing her husband’s twelfth son (her second child), and even her dying wish to name the boy is ignored as Jacob/Israel named Benjamin himself.

Motherhood is… not easy.

It startles me, therefore, how many women, how many people, step forward to do it. They take on the biological demands, and then they take on the relational demands. Even more, with no genetic kinship at all, offer the nurturing, supportive relationship of mothering to the children of others. They may be hanai mothers, or foster mothers, or adoptive mothers, or no-formal-relationship-but-you-know-who-cares-for-you mothers, or simply somebody who, in the moment, gave you the comfort your mother was not there to give.

There’s no gender requirement for that.

Let’s face it, there are also the disappointments for children of… complicated mothers. Illness, addiction, violence, trauma, separation, death, and more can and do separate mothers from those they wish to love. Other mothers, for these reasons and more, simply never love well. To be in the mother’s place is not the same as adopting the mother’s role. To adopt the mother’s role is not the same as living it well.

When violence, trauma, separation, or death come, it leaves a wound in the child, the other parent, the rest of the family, the gathered community. We remember those wounds each day, and each Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day is… complicated.

So I’ll renew my prayer from another year: May Mother’s Day come to you with blessing. May Mother’s Day bring some healing from the losses and the sorrows. May Mother’s Day bring you some more strength for the labor of mothering. May Mother’s Day bring you more appreciation of your parents’ struggles, and better equip you to support them. May Mother’s Day remind you that we have a fully dependable Mother in God, who gathers us beneath Her wings.

May Mother’s Day come with blessing. Amen.

The image is an 11th century fresco in the Alaverdi Cathedral in Georgia.

This is Not a Drill

ESA Feb 2017

Me in my blue and gold aloha wear – not taken last Saturday.

I suspect I’ve already been as wise as I’m going to be about what writers are calling Hawai’i’s “Thirty-Eight Minutes of Terror.” It entirely changed the sermon (except, oddly enough, the title) – “The Discomfort of Faith” – that I preached the next day. It did prompt me to do some reflection, since I heard about a number of responses to the warning, some of which sounded a little like mine, and most of which did not.

I had just finished my hopefully-soon-to-be-ended daily ritual of changing the bandage on my nose (I had a growth removed this month) when the alert tone sounded. I stepped over the see what it was, expecting it to be a tsunami warning.

You know what it said. I read it three times. “This is not a drill,” it said. Each time.

I sat on the side of my bed staring at the phone, wondering what to do now.

It said, “Take shelter,” but what shelter did I have? In Hawai’i, we build to keep things cool, not for protection against an explosive blast. The bathroom has windows right over the tub. All the rooms have windows. The best I could come up with was the walk-in closet right in front of me. OK. That was the best I was going to do.

To what point, if the house fell in on me?

Well, there was one thing I was going to do before I died. I was going to put some pants on.

(I know you’re laughing. I’ll wait.)

So I stood up, stepped into the closet, and grabbed the black slacks I was planning to wear to the Ho ‘Ike celebration at a church just south of here. I reached as well for an aloha shirt that I would wear to that celebration, too: blue and gold with a bold, contemporary pattern. I think I even stepped over to the bureau to retrieve socks.

(Like most people here, I leave my shoes at the door to the house. Socks only go on my feet when I’m planning to leave.)

I made no pretense at a coherent prayer. Just, “Oh, God, be near.”

Already, something had struck me as wrong about the alert. Like many others, I plunged onto the Internet on my phone. I checked the emergency management agency pages for Hawai’i County (that’s the Big Island) and the State of Hawai’i. Neither showed an active alert. Google knew nothing of a heightened threat from North Korea.

Oddly enough, I didn’t think to check Twitter or Facebook. I was looking for authoritative information, after all.

And I realized what bothered me about the alert. Even as Hawai’i News Now used its “push” feature to repeat the official warning, I noticed that the sirens were not wailing. Moreover, the radio was on – and playing normal programming, not an official emergency broadcast. News commentators hadn’t even interrupted NPR’s Weekend Edition on its five hour delay to repeat the alert.

That seemed wrong.

I’d reassured myself, but not entirely. It could still be coming. It was unlikely that a North Korean ICBM would be aimed at Hilo, but if it was, there was no shelter that would protect me three miles from the airport. And, I realized, while I had heard about the range of North Korean missiles, I knew nothing about their accuracy. It seemed possible that a missile aimed at the US military facilities on O’ahu could land on Hilo, 210 miles away.

So I decided I’d step on into my day as if it was going to go on. In my dress slacks and shirt, I walked through the house, picking out the music I planned to share at the church and picking up my guitar.

As I did, Hawai’i News Now pushed out the story that the alert was an error, a mistake, a false alarm.

It took another half hour before the officials dispatched the same message.

Well.

A couple things surprise me in retrospect. I never even considered calling loved ones to say, “I love you.” I’ve heard others repeat this time after time. I’ve heard of couples and families that gathered together in whatever they could find for shelter, and of people who made hasty calls to the mainland, all to reassure their loved ones that they loved them.

I didn’t do that. It didn’t even occur to me.

So one of the reasons I’m writing this today is to assure my family and friends, near and far, that I do love you, more than I can possibly say. What I can’t promise is that in a crisis, when my life’s end might be at hand, I’ll think to tell you so. I make no excuses and I do offer an apology, but if this event was any indication, I’m likely to await imminent death on my own.

(I make no predictions about lingering death.)

I also found that my feelings amidst it all were nearly impossible to describe. There was some fear, but it wasn’t panic. It wasn’t paralyzing. I did not, as a colleague of mine said later, step out of doors to accept the transition to glory. I had no eagerness to step from this life into the next one. The thought running through my mind was simply, “Oh. So this is how it ends,” mixing hope; resignation; some anger at the profound arrogance, stupidity, and malice of those making nuclear war; and, yes, acceptance.

Though I rapidly looked for signs that it might not be true. Let’s not forget that.

It also exposed my blasé naiveté. I wasn’t prepared for a disaster. Although surviving a nuclear holocaust seems perishingly unlikely, there are other disasters that strike nearly as quickly and, as Puerto Rico’s experience tells us, could leave me living without accustomed resources for a very long time.

It’s past time to assemble the disaster supplies.

I have no desire to see the employee who sent out the mistaken warning suffer. I’d like that person to learn something, and some articles I’ve read suggest that I’d also like to see the people who created a system that was so easy to misread also learn something.

The fact that every single person in Hawai’i – and everyone else who’s heard the story in the aftermath – knew exactly where this missile was (not) coming from, and why, means that I also hope that the United States President and State Department has learned something. Their ham-handed “diplomacy” landed us in a place where a mistaken attack warning was eminently believable.

Let me say that again: We believed the warning in great part because of the threats and bluster of leaders on both sides of the Pacific. Those need to stop, and now. Diplomacy requires respectful language even between adversaries who deeply dislike and resent each other. It’s lengthy, frustrating, and not always successful.

But talking is always better than a nuclear detonation over people.

So, dear friends and family: I love you dearly, even if I don’t think to call when a missile is on the way. And I promise to get that disaster kit together.

I also pledge to tell the world’s leaders to get their acts together, lest a mistake become a monstrosity.

Because life is not a drill.

Comfort

201710101 Kolea

When my children were infants, there was a phrase that promised a bright new future. As the newborn raised the cry that might mean “Hungry!” or might mean “Lonely!” or might mean “Dirty!” or might mean “Carry me around in circles!” or might mean “I’m tired and I don’t know what else to do!”, I would dream of a new era. Not the era in which they could tell me, “Want food” or “Want snuggle” or “Want clean diaper” or “Want up” or “Want to know what to do” – though that would have been helpful.

No, I longed for the day when my son, and later my daughter, could self-soothe.

It might be the most precious of human learnings. The world hands us lemons much of the time, not lemonade. We live amidst a downpour of discomforts. Hunger, loneliness, sticky stuff on skin, boredom, and simple frustration don’t disappear because we grow up. They are simply the earliest of many discomforts. Falls bring bruises. Experiments sometimes end in failures. Games result in losses as well as victories.

Coping with all that, finding ways to self-soothe, is a foundational human skill, and it gives birth to a plethora of other human skills. Food preparation relieves hunger. Social skills relieve loneliness. Bathing relieves stickiness (and prevents sickness). Gaining a height may relieve a particular yearning. Knowing oneself may relieve the frustration of indecision.

One of the most important things I’ve done in moving to an unfamiliar place, where I knew very few people on arrival, is finding ways to self-soothe. To find refreshment. To obtain comfort.

There are places I go to find a stillness that soothes. The sight of ocean waves rolling in, and hissing back out, reaches someplace deep within and fills me where I’m empty. The summit of Kilauea, where volcanic gasses float into the sky, transformed by molten rock below into a scarlet plume, awes me.

And lately, I’ve found, the sight of one small bird gives a comfort I’d never expected.

It’s called a kolea – or in English, the Pacific Golden Plover. It spends the summer in Alaska, where it wears a stunning plumage of silver and black. In the fall, it takes wing for Hawai’i, making the 3,000 mile trip in three or four days without stopping. It dons a new plumage of speckled sand and cream. They tend to return to the same place, spearing bugs from sandy beaches and plucking them from rockier coastlines. They’ll winter in house backyards as well.

And, it turns out, on the lawns of churches.

There’s a kolea that lives here, at Church of the Holy Cross. I don’t see it every day – I don’t see it every week, because I suspect it seeks its food up and down the street here – but when I do, I can feel every muscle relax. My breath falls gently down into my lungs.

Because a kolea feels comfortable enough to call my neighborhood home.

I have to say that this kolea is not an easily startled bird. It keeps a wary eye on preschool children at their top speed, but will hop away only when it’s clear that their games are heading in its direction. As I’m walking along, it will watch me, but hardly change its dedicated search for supper. It seems more concerned about the myna birds than me.

The funny thing is, I’ve never been a bird watcher before moving to Hawai’i. Now some obscure knowledge (I doubt everyone knows the migratory habits of the kolea) brings me comfort, restores my soul.

Thank you, kolea, for this unexpected gift of comfort.

And thank you, Creator, that I’ve learned another means to soothe my soul.

Don’t Feed the Ego of the Ruler

Recently, a pastor of a large church on the mainland — the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church (SBC) of Dallas, Texas — wrote this to the Christian Broadcast Network News:

“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.”

The passage to which he refers is Romans 13:1-7. I’ll include it in full at the close. He’s given us a very shallow reading of the text, and considered absolutely none of its context. In Romans 8, for example, the apostle Paul (the writer) notes that there are other powers in the world that are clearly unauthorized by God. Paul urges people to bless those who persecute them in Romans 12, maintaining a theme found elsewhere in the letter that suggests the Christian community in the imperial capital was under stress. Lots of stress.

Dr. Jeffress also ignores the context of Paul’s life and death. He was executed by the rulers whose “God-given authority” Paul so blithely commends in Romans 13. Does Dr. Jeffress really mean to say that Roman persecution of the early Church, which claimed the lives of so many of its earliest leaders, was God-driven? Does he mean to imply that their arrests, detentions, and executions were the result of their “bad conduct”?

Dr. Jeffress, were he to look, could find abundant Biblical examples of good conduct being rewarded with bad treatment at the hands of authorities. The people of Israel enslaved by Egypt… The prophet Elijah pursued by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel… The prophet Jeremiah imprisoned by King Zedekiah… Jesus…

Paul was simply wrong. Authority is no indicator of God’s favor, endorsement, or direction. As I read this text, I actually hear Paul trying to restrain a burgeoning movement toward violent rebellion. He’s attempting to restrain a violent response to an increasingly violent persecution by the governing authorities. Governing authorities, I note once more for Dr. Jeffress’ sake, that took his own life unjustly.

But truthfully, I didn’t need to do much Biblical research to know that Dr. Jeffress was wrong, because his public statement giving Divine approval to authority applies both to the U.S. President and to the Supreme Leader of North Korea.

Most troubling for a servant of Christ, the public statement serves only to inflate the ego of the President. It provides no new information about the situation. It gives no moral guidance. It offers no alternatives to death and destruction.

Dr. Jeffress, Jesus is not about inflating the ego of rulers.

Dr. Jeffress, Jesus is not about uncritical moral decision-making.

Dr. Jeffress, Jesus is not about death and destruction.

Hear me when I say this:

If you are feeding the ego of the ruler, and you are not feeding the ruler with wisdom, then you are a stranger to the heart and mind of Christ.

I’ll say it again:

If you are feeding the ego of the ruler, and you are not feeding the ruler with wisdom, then you are a stranger to the heart and mind of Christ.

Dr. Jeffress: Repent.

Ego without Wisdom

Romans 13:1-7

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.

Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.