An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well. We strive and we learn.

Our Current Configuration

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

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

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

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

Controlling the ATEM Mini with my toe.

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

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

The Experience

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

Pray for us!

In Appreciation of Nurses

May 6, says the calendar, is National Nurses’ Day in the United States. I have seen Facebook and Twitter observances today, as well as a statement by the President – one which, I observe with some pain, he made with nurses present, standing too close to one another, and without masks.

Ironically, as the nation and the world face a rapidly spreading and deadly pandemic, thousands of nurses and other health care workers have been laid off as “elective” medical procedures have been deferred. Others have been fired for refusing to enter risky situations without proper protective equipment. Some have been screamed at by “open now” demonstrators for simply speaking the truth about a widespread and serious illness.

In these days that nurses are hailed as heroes one moment and treated so shabbily the next, I want to thank them for being the heart and soul of compassionate health care.

Late in 2017, I noticed a strange growth on my nose. I didn’t think much of it at first, as it acted first like one thing and then like another thing that I expected to heal up and go away. When it continued to grow instead, I reluctantly took myself to have it examined.

I have two major flaws as a patient. The first is that I will delay a medical consult. I don’t care much for the standard discomforts and indignities of a medical exam. Yes, I know they’re needed. Yes, they’re still uncomfortable and undignified. I value my dignity. If I’m present in a physician’s office, it’s either because it’s a regular check-up and I’m giving up my dignity for the responsibility of self-care, or I’m really afraid. Really afraid.

The second is that while I can be trusted to follow through on things like wound care, I’m terrible when it comes to lab work. See the paragraph above.

That December in the examining room of dermatologist Dr. Monica Scheel, I was terrified. I strove to present a calm demeanor. I told my body that it was not to flinch. I kept my voice light. If I succeeded, the only reason I didn’t get an Oscar for that performance was the absence of a film crew.

Dr. Scheel went a long way to try to reassure me, to turn my act into some semblance of reality. She is a skilled physician with great people skills. There came the time, however, when her attention had to be focused on some parts of my skin rather than on me. She numbed the area thoroughly. Then she removed the sample to figure out what it was.

As she did, the nurse on the other side gently moved her gloved fingers back and forth along my forearm. She didn’t say anything. She just let me know, in the only way that could reach me in that moment, that there was comfort for my fears.

I tear up just a little remembering it.

In my experience, it is nurses who have been given the role of rooting medicine in humanity. This is no slight to physicians or technicians, who I have also known to bring that human touch. For them, however, there will often come a time when they have to set that part of themselves aside, to focus on a portion of the person, not the whole.

Nurses – RNs, LPNs, CNAs – they have been given the awesome responsibility to be the comforting presence, the one who accompanies us as we endure treatment and the one at our side as we heal.

Thank you, nurses. There are no words to fully appreciate what you do.

An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist

On March 15, in my Sunday morning sermon to worshipers at Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i, I said, “When our Board of Deacons meets following worship today, I will recommend that we not meet for worship for at least two weeks. I have already begun planning a worship experience via live video over the Internet in anticipation that we will need to do this at some point. It won’t be what we want. It may not satisfy the thirst of our souls. But we need to satisfy a different thirst first.”

The Board accepted my recommendation. Not long thereafter, Hawai’i Governor David Ige issued a stay-at-home order that prohibited gatherings greater than ten people until the end of April. Church of the Holy Cross shifted to worshiping via streaming video over the Internet, a new endeavor and one with which relatively few of us had any familiarity.

Fortunately, I’d done something like this before when I was on the communications staff of the Connecticut Conference UCC. I also had been producing short pre-recorded videos as part of the church’s life each week for three and a half years.

That gave me some technical background, but I also had to think about reformatting the Sunday service. We simply could not replicate the in-person event. It was irresponsible to bring in the choir to sing. The sermon needed to get shorter. The children’s moment needed to be included, and so a story became the first section of my meditation. Music was still important, but we would have to feel our way into it for practical and copyright awareness reasons.

What are the essentials of worship? A moment to call ourselves into that place… a prayer to bring ourselves to God… reading of Scripture… a story… a message… an invitation to give… a consecration of those gifts… a blessing.

Others will have their own ideas about the essentials I’ve omitted (confession and assurance, for one). This was how I started, and it has turned out to be a good framework.

The next questions were all technical. First, how to share? I wanted to make it as painless as possible for the end user to view and participate in worship. There were several options, boiling down to three major groupings.

One that many churches have used is Facebook Live, a live video option within the social media platform. It offers some limited interaction – rather delayed by processing time – and Facebook is a widely used platform. It was not, however, widely used in my existing congregation. Requiring people to subscribe to a social media service in order to worship seemed like a bad approach.

A second option was a video conferencing application like Zoom or GoToMeeting. This had the strong advantage of offering interaction during the service; lag time exists in these technologies but is usually not noticeable. Although there are in-browser options, the principal players in this field require the end users to download an application. That seemed to me like a significant barrier for people unfamiliar with these technologies.

So I chose the third option: Live streaming over a video distribution service, in this case YouTube. I had an advantage. I’ve had a personal YouTube account long enough that I was already authorized for live streams. That resource was in place. I’d had plenty of practice embedding YouTube players into the web pages of our church site, so people could find us in a familiar interface. Best of all, YouTube has worked hard to be a “visit us and it works” technology. It almost never requires an end user to install anything.

Streaming, however, was not enough. There might be audio or video issues. There might be breakdowns or technical failures. There might simply be people straining to hear from a small computer speaker. Live subtitles didn’t seem practical without special equipment (I’d be willing to be proved wrong about this). I had to provide the texts easily and in advance.

As a result, the worship service text gets posted to a web page, including links to a PDF version of the service so that people can print it and follow along while they keep the YouTube box centered in their screen. I write and post a text for the sermon and pastoral prayer as well, generally early on Sunday morning, so that people with hearing or audio difficulties can follow along. Subscribers to our email newsletter receive the link to the service’s web page on Thursday or Friday, and then again a little over an hour before worship begins. Nobody should have to search very far for the link to the service text and video.

Now it was time to test things. There is a camera in my laptop computer, but I doubted that it would work well (or that the microphone would work well) for worship streaming. One test later, I was on my way to the electronics supply store looking for a better webcam and a long Ethernet cable. With the webcam, a Logitech C922, mounted on a camera tripod I could separate the camera from the computer that controlled everything. It also improved both video and audio quality (with one persistent audio problem I’ll discuss later).

Early tests had showed an undesirable number of freezes and drop-outs. Why? Wifi, of course. The long Ethernet cable immediately evened out the audio and video.

Still eager to test this in a small but “live” environment, I settled on performing a song each Wednesday. So on March 18, I went live for the first time.

The audio quality is… odd. The spoken portion of the video has a fair amount of room echo in it, but by and large it works. During the music, however, the input level rises and falls without rhyme or reason. I would discover that this is a frequent issue on Windows – some process adjusts the sound input levels based on its best guess – but finding it proved to be a more time consuming than I could manage.

We went into our first worship service with this setup: one webcam and built-in microphone feeding into a “Webcam” stream on YouTube Live. We simplified the setting. We placed two chairs on camera, which remained fixed. Participants moved in and out. I stayed on camera for most of the service, a practice we later changed.

Once more, we had issues with sound during the musical performance.

To try to fix that, we turned to better microphones and an audio mixer. It improved things a little, but we still had the curious problem with levels changing by themselves. We reduced the room echo, however, and that was all to the best.

We also brought in a guest preacher via Zoom.

I have to hand it to Zoom: their online help is superb. Setting up an account to stream a Zoom meeting to YouTube is not an easy task, nor is setting up a meeting to be streamed. The instructions they provide, however, are clear and detailed. I did a test (of course) that included the audio mixer (it connects via USB) and Zoom simultaneously. It worked.

And on Palm Sunday, our preacher addressed us from 6,000 miles away.

We also added prelude music that day. Worshipers had told me that they really missed that time of music. It helped them center their spirits. A member recorded a piano performance in audio, and we played it through the board. One of our three-person production team began moving the camera, so it was no longer quite as static. We were slowly adding technical capability as we went.

For Easter Sunday, our piano accompanist offered a video recording of a piano adaptation of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. That meant adding a new level of complexity, because combining pre-recorded video with live video meant using a video switcher. I’d been experimenting tentatively with OBS, which is both powerful and free, but had avoided adding that level of complexity. Well, now we needed it.

Using OBS meant three changes. First, it meant configuring the software for our combination of video and audio inputs. That took some experimentation. Second, it meant switching from YouTube Live’s webcam interface to its stream interface. I was somewhat familiar with that from prior experience, fortunately. Third, it meant that one or two of us would need to be familiar enough with OBS to make the switches happen during the service itself.

We made those changes, and discovered something else: using OBS eliminated the strange changes in audio levels we’d been hearing. I immediately switched to using it for the Wednesday songs as well.

If you’ve lost track, we currently use:

  • A single webcam on a tripod,
  • Two dynamic vocal microphones in mic stands,
  • An analog audio mixer with a USB output, and
  • A laptop computer running OBS using a wired Internet connection.

We have plans. We’re not entirely happy with the video. It’s difficult to move a video camera smoothly. It’s awkward to move one that doesn’t have its own viewfinder. The camera operator has to use a side view of the laptop screen. We have ordered a hardware switcher and have camcorders available. Using their HDMI output, we hope to be able to produce a better looking video. The switcher, however, has been on backorder for weeks and I do not know when this will change.

Finally, I determined to do something different and special for Good Friday. Some years ago I wrote a song based on Psalm 130. I set up several cameras and microphones, recorded several takes, and assembled a final video using the editing software I’ve used for years.

Enjoy.

The Cost of Calling it a War

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

Wars do that.

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

Wars do all that, too.

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

These things, too, happen in war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must face it without cruelty.

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

It is not a war.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Lessons from a Slow Motion Disaster

June 11, 2018, Pahoa, Hawai’i

In a conversation with a friend and colleague today, as we shared our fears about the COVID-19 pandemic, the approaches we were taking or considering, and the wide expanse of potential futures, I mentioned that I had been looking forward to a time with less stress in my ministry. In each of the last three years, natural disasters and community conflicts have shaken my neighbors (sometimes literally), my colleagues in faith leadership, and our institutions. I had truly hoped that 2020 would bring some relief.

It has not.

In 2018, lava erupted from the lower slopes of Kilauea, spilling across farms, roads, and houses. Half of the Leilani Estates subdivision vanished and all of Kapoho. Places of great beauty are no more. The molten rock flowed for four months. Sometimes it chose new channels, displacing new people. Sometimes it simply flowed in a well-bounded river. Residents scrambled to evacuate, and sometimes returned to recover additional possessions. Some of them have been able to return home. Some never can.

As we observed that the pandemic was not a one day and done event, my friend asked me, “What have you learned about a slow motion disaster?”

I learned that community connection and collaboration are vital. The faith groups of Hawai’i dithered briefly (we must admit that) and organized quickly. We built on existing relationships among clergy and lay leaders. Then we strengthened them. We created brand-new relationships with one another. We strengthened those, too. The “Faith Hui,” as we came to be known, was not unique. Collaborations sprang up between newly formed groups such as the Pu’uhonua of Puna and the Bodacious Women of Pahoa formed in 2013.

Nobody worked alone – or if they did, they didn’t do it effectively, or they didn’t do it for long.

We learned to conserve our strength as leaders and as congregations. We took on tasks, and we handed tasks along. We recruited people from outside our congregations or organizations to help. Some partnerships lasted only a few days, others persisted. Since the lava stopped flowing, new partnerships have evolved to aid in recovery, or to adapt programs built for one purpose to serve a new and similar one.

Sometimes leaders had to step back. Other leaders stepped forward.

We learned that sometimes we had to attend to our own needs. Spiritual care for people in the Red Cross shelter in Pahoa never reached the levels we’d hoped or anticipated. Some couldn’t take the atmosphere, which, just a few miles away from the fissures, was laden with sulfur. I myself had to step away for a few weeks because my father died, nor was I the only faith leader in that period to suffer the loss of a loved one.

The heart may yearn to be in more than one place, but the body can only be in one.

We learned to stay out of the way of other efforts. As someone who had done event photography for so many years, and as someone who loves to capture the power of nature in images, I yearned to visit the area with a camera. But… that would have added almost nothing to the assistance needed by those affected. It would have done little to tell the story that was not already being done by others. My camera and I stayed home. The photo above, taken from three miles away in the village of Pahoa, was as close as was sensible and as close as I came.

We didn’t have to do everything. There were things we simply should not do.

As I lead a study series on Wisdom this Lenten season, I hope this brief meditation reflects some wisdom for this crisis, for this pandemic. We must not work alone. We must be ready to step back as needed and step forward as needed. We must meet our own needs.

We do not have to do everything.

There are things we simply should not do.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

A Lenten Practice that Won’t Be Easy – for Me

I don’t remember when I adopted the annual practice of a Lenten discipline. I’m pretty sure that it was after I’d begun serving as pastor of my first churches, though it might have been before seminary graduation. I tried on a number of ways to draw closer to God in those days.

For some years I mostly practiced a discipline of “giving something up for Lent.” Some have heard me tell the story of giving up anxiety for the season, and how delighted I was that I’d succeeded. Some have heard me tell the follow-up story. The next year I pledged to give up anxiety for Lent again… and failed.

I have never successfully repeated a Lenten discipline.

More recently, I have added an activity, practice, or creative effort to the season. I “take something on” as well as “giving something up.” I don’t announce my choices for the season. I recall Jesus’ stern warnings about praying so that other people could hear rather than that God could hear. Lenten practice should be about my relationship with God and with myself. It’s not to make me look pious to others.

This year, however, I have to make an exception. I think I will need help. I’ve decided to give up self-deprecation for Lent.

It’s a challenge.

I love humor. I love a sense of fun, games, and jokes. I do not, however, like to tell jokes at someone else’s expense. I don’t like to make fun of anyone’s appearance, background, personality, or challenges. I don’t like to make fun of anyone’s vulnerabilities or strengths. Sometimes these jests don’t hurt, but far too often they do. “It’s just a joke” doesn’t cut it. I’d rather not do it.

(By the way, this doesn’t mean I’m successful at this. I do poke fun at others from time to time – and I tell myself not to do it again.)

I’d rather poke fun at myself. That’s what I try to do. Truthfully, I’m the only person I have the right to poke fun of, and I do it pretty often.

Within a few hours of deciding I’d stop doing that for Lent, I caught myself doing it several times.

Self-deprecation might be a more comfortable frame for humor, but for me it is also a sign of insecurity and anxiety. Some of those jokes function to disguise those things, and some of those jokes function to invite comfort for them. Both the mask and the invitation to comfort are… problematic. Both allow me to avoid internal struggle by turning it outward. Both allow me to avoid the work to resolve or refresh what’s unsettled in my soul.

That’s a good reason to give it up, at least for a season.

But it’s going to be difficult, and I don’t think that’s self-deprecation. I invite your help as this season goes along, friends. If you detect me “putting myself down,” I invite you to call me on it – not comfort me, call me on it. “Eric, didn’t you give that up for Lent?” will do.

It is, and will be, a challenge.

A 2019 Accomplishment

Sometime toward the end of 2018, a Tweet (that I can no longer find) challenged weekly preachers like myself to include a quote from a non-white, non-male, non-straight person in every sermon of the coming year. Intrigued, I decided to do it.

I was a little worried about finding those quotes.

I wasn’t worried that the materials didn’t exist. I know very well that people of every gender identity and every race have done great work in theology, social commentary, and Biblical studies. That didn’t mean that I’d have success in finding it. My personal library’s authors are predominantly white and male (and presumably heterosexual). I’ve been using online commentaries as a research aid, but hadn’t deeply considered who the authors were. I knew I’d been quoting particular people fairly often, and that some of these were women or people of color, but in what proportion? I didn’t know.

As it happened, finding those quotes was quite easy. There are several solid websites around offering lectionary-based commentary to preachers. In some cases, the editors have intentionally sought diversity in their contributors. When a site has several years of commentary available (as Working Preacher does), it increased both the likelihood of finding strong quotes from non-white, -male, and -straight voices and widened the spectrum of perspectives I read about a text.

The remarkable aggregation site The Text This Week has the virtue of several years of material and also of casting a very large net. Even when its editor is behind on things because of life challenges, it remains a must-visit collection for its links to prior years’ commentaries.

Record-keeping was the bigger challenge.

I’m a geek (note the title of the blog). I decided that the best approach to a question like this was a database, so I built one. Each quote gets its own record. Each person quoted gets a record as well, and I record their gender identity, race, religious affiliation, time period, and some other information. Sometimes that information was not easy to find, by the way.

It was pretty easy in any week to see that I had or hadn’t met my objective. At the end of the year, a report confirmed that I had met the goal.

I’m quite grateful to the challenger (I just wish I could be certain who it was). They brought my attention to something I hadn’t thought about, and I plan to keep that attention. I’m also grateful because I rather like my quote-recording tool, and I’m thinking about ways to make it useful in other ways as well.

Thanks for the challenge. I’m pretty sure it made me a better preacher this past year.

Haul in the Nets

“Haul the net in, Simon.”

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

“Must I do everything?”

“No. Just haul your own net in.”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Simon. Let’s do yours.”

“All right. Oh, look.”

“Look where?”

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

“Did he leave?”

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

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

“Yeah. But here he comes.”

“It’ll be good to see him.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

2019: Here, There, Everywhere


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!

 

On Impeachment

An iris flower at night with raindrops on its petals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 27:1, 13-14