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.
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!
I have told this story often over the last seven years.
It was a Friday. I’d taken the day off from the Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ, to drive to Burlington, Vermont, and pick up my son Brendan at the University of Vermont. I’d left early in the morning so that we could stop in Brattleboro and have a tasty and unhurried lunch.
As we approached the town near the Massachusetts line, my cell phone rang. It was one of my colleagues on the Conference staff. She told me that there’d been a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. There weren’t many details, but…
“It sounds bad,” she said.
As the person responsible for communication, this was my job.
I took the next exit, which was the one I’d intended to use in Brattleboro, but rather than search for a restaurant with a distinctive, creative menu we pulled into the chain restaurant closest to the highway. Instead of a cheerful conversation we sat silent as I scanned news websites, Twitter, and Facebook for information. I’m sure the waitress thought I was the worst father she’d ever seen.
Hastily, I tapped this prayer into my phone and sent it to my colleague in the Hartford office. “Read this carefully,” I warned, “and edit it as needed. Then email it to our churches and leaders.”
This was the prayer:
Our voices rise as from Ramah. We cry out for our children. God, who will comfort us?
With stunned tears we watch and listen and wait as word of horrors comes to us. With frozen minds we ask how, once again, such terrible violence has erupted among us. With aching hearts we anticipate the grieving cries: Rachels upon Rachels, Isaacs upon Isaacs, weeping for their children.
The days will come when we can ask why and have some hope of answering the question, O God. We pray your guidance then, when we can labor to prevent these tears.
Until then, to our aching hearts, for our frozen minds, amidst our streaming tears, bring tender comfort and unshakable love.
Our hasty meal consumed, we resumed our southward drive, directed now toward the Conference office and not our home.
The next day I received a phone call from one of the pastors of First Church of Christ UCC in Glastonbury, where I was a member. “We need a song for a candlelight vigil on Sunday night,” she said. “Can you find something?”
I had to write something instead. The prayer gave me the place to start.
I sang “Courage in the Candle” for the first time that night. You’ll find photos and a recording of that original performance here. The video below comes from a worship service at a meeting of the Connecticut Conference. It features my dear friend and colleague the Rev. John Selders on the piano. At his suggestion, we melded “Courage in the Candle” with “God Has Work for Us to Do.”
I was putting the final touches to the sermon on Sunday morning in my study at Church of the Holy Cross. My brain was slowly turning to think about the children’s message – though I consider ideas through the week, the final story takes its final shape on Sunday morning.
It may not be the least anxiety-provoking method in the world, but that’s how it goes.
The usual calm of the morning suddenly vanished. Above my head, I heard the voices of the mynas suddenly rising in volume and intensity. The metal roof began to pound and thump as they beat their wings at one another, resonating like a great drum at me as I sat wondering below.
I’ve heard myna arguments before, but never anything quite this shrill, quite this loud, and frankly, quite this amplified.
Whatever the conflict was about, it seemed to involve several birds, each of them screeching with might and main. The pounding doubled and redoubled. The voices multiplied. Nobody was willing to give in, it seemed. It went on and on.
Suddenly, the source of the sound began to move. Slowly at first, and then accelerating, the screeches and pounding moved from my left to my right, sliding down the slippery slope of the aluminum roof toward the edge. I looked left in time to see the birds drop from the gutter to the sidewalk, still screaming at one another, but with the wingbeats now slowing their unplanned descent to the ground.
For a few seconds more the argument continued unabated, then abruptly ceased. Silence fell. Then the birds, as one and without a sound, took to their wings and flew off.
I promptly threw out all the ideas I’d had for a children’s message to talk about the mynas whose argument ended like this:
“Well, that’s not where I thought this argument was gonna go.”
“Do you remember what this argument was about?”
“Maybe we should take this up later?”
“Somewhere where it isn’t quite so slippery.”
They all knew what the future was supposed to be: a winner to the argument. Instead, the future turned out to be an embarrassed group of dusty mynas.
The future, I told the children, is not always what you expect.
In reflecting on the reflection, however, I realized that the future wasn’t what I expected, either. The image of a group of fighting mynas sliding down the roof had never occurred to me until I heard them doing it.
In the midst of our work and efforts, in the midst of our dedication to service and our commitment to creativity, in the midst of our solemn self-reliance that is so common and yet so foreign to nearly every faith tradition I’ve ever learned about, the subtle (or screeching) movements of the world around us may yet become the inspiration, or the direction, or the guide for our continued journeys. For if the mynas were surprised to find themselves dumped off the roof onto the parking lot, so was I. And if the mynas were surprised to find that a change in circumstance had wiped away their argument, so was I.
The future doesn’t always hold what we think it does. Our lives of faith don’t always look like what it think it will, either. The world may, from time to time, teach us where to go. The Divine may, from time to time, give us the ingredients for our imagination.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!