Jesus: If you want to live a righteous life, you need to start over.
Me: I don’t want to start over.
Jesus: And… That’s a problem.
Photo by Eric Anderson
Jesus: If you want to live a righteous life, you need to start over.
Me: I don’t want to start over.
Jesus: And… That’s a problem.
Photo by Eric Anderson
“Holy… well. Just holy. What happened here?”
“Just one Galilean made this mess?”
“Hard to believe, but yeah.”
“Wow. There’s dove feathers everywhere.”
“Not to mention… Well. Let’s just say that frightened sheep are clear about being upset.”
“Oh, my, you’re right there.”
“One Galilean? You’re sure?”
“Yep. I was here. One minute everything is normal, the next minute somebody’s yelling. Then there’s cattle lowing everywhere, and sheep slipping in dung, and doves scattering feathers around.”
“Then there’s tables flying. He had these braided cords in his hand. Nobody was quite willing to challenge him.”
“C’mon! What about the Temple guards?”
“They were just too stunned to do anything. By the time any of them got moving, it was over.”
“What was it all about, do you think?”
“I can’t be sure. He was yelling something about turning his father’s house into a marketplace.”
“Seriously? Where has he been? It’s been like this since, well, forever.”
“He’s been in Galilee, I suppose.”
“Talk about out of touch.”
“Yeah. Well. It’s over now. Let’s get this mess cleaned up. Help me pick up these tables.”
“Aren’t these the money changers’ tables?”
“He knocked them over, too.”
“So… Is there anything left to pick up?”
“What do you think?”
“I think the money changers picked up every last coin before they ran.”
“You think right.”
“Oh, well. I’ll get this end.”
“I’ve got this end. Now: Heave!”
The image is Christ Chasing the Merchants from the Temple by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (ca. 1645-1655) – http://www.culture.gouv.fr — Réunion des musées nationaux/JACONDE, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6867371
I have said once or twice that the past year and its problems are many things – stressful, harmful, dreadful, painful – but they have not been unprecedented. Every corner of the world has experienced a pandemic in its history. Why else is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse identified as Pestilence, even though that is one of the attributes of the Fourth Horseman, Death, in Revelation 6:7?
Hawai’i in the 19th century endured so many waves of disease that leaders despaired of the survival of their people. We have frequently compared the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 to the influenza pandemic of 1918. Just a few years earlier, however, the United States had suffered an outbreak of actual bubonic plague in San Francisco. The five years of 1900 – 1904 included the political obstruction, outright racism, and unnecessary death we have known in 2020. There is a great video about the San Francisco plague.
Likewise we have known domestic turmoil, political polarization, and racial protest before. I wince every time these things are called “unprecedented” in a nation that fought a civil war, one which took the lives of more combatants than have died in all the other wars we have fought before or since: combined.
These are not unprecedented times. We call them such because we did not learn from the times before.
What should we learn from 2020?
2020 brought great hardship: rising and falling and re-rising tides of illness, fear, poverty, death, and grief. Human beings aid one another in their need in a variety of ways. Nearly all of them begin with the simple gift of presence.
Is someone ill? Family and medical professional caretakers begin their treatment with presence. Is someone afraid? Comfort begins with presence. Does someone need food or shelter or housing? The first step is someone being present to their need. Is someone dying? We offer them presence. Does someone mourn? We make ourselves present.
Presence has been a risk factor in a pandemic. Actions we intended to bless have furthered the course of the curse.
Knowing this, we have drawn away from one another at great cost. Mental health statistics of anxiety disorders have climbed through the year. Holidays have brought a layer of sadness – even more than usual – to their invitations to celebration. For me, the great and terrible marker has been the aching gap of funerals. We grieve alone, but we comfort one another together. Ten people spaced apart in a big room, visibly holding themselves away from embraces, are starved for comfort.
We have tried to use technologies to fill the gaps with some success. There is relief to seeing the smiling unmasked faces on the computer screen or hearing the voices over the telephone. It makes things brighter. It is not, however, the same experience as physical presence. It has its strengths, but it is not the same.
Some day, I hope, we can be present to one another safely. What I hope we learn is to value that time in accordance with its actual surpassing worth.
There is a difference between intelligence and knowledge. Many people are smart. They can create things. They can calculate things. They can learn things. They can understand things.
Their ability to understand things – and create and calculate – depends a great deal on what they have actually learned. Without a base of knowledge, their understandings, calculations, and creations simply collapse in the face of cold, hard reality.
Examples of intelligence presuming expertise in the absence of knowledge and training are rife in 2020. In the United States, individuals contradicting experts had far too much sway, far too much authority, far too much power. The result has been that this nation has led the world in infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths. We chose our unstudied ignorance over the knowledge of those who had studied. In a few cases those who did so paid the ultimate price. In more cases, other people paid the ultimate price.
Experts do not know everything, particularly when a situation like an emerging virus… emerges. Early statements from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization advised caution because of what they did not know. The researchers and scientists worked to learn about the new pathogen. Their success can be seen with the incredibly swift production of safe and effective vaccines. The point is that they did not quite start “from scratch.” They started with a knowledge of similar viruses, of tools to assess its characteristics, and for that matter with centuries of experience now that vaccines can work.
I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m probably bright enough that I could have done it… after spending years to learn the science of virology. I am no end grateful that others had already done that.
Can we learn to take expertise, training, and knowledge more seriously?
My theological tradition’s branch grows from the genius of John Calvin. He was a French Protestant who, in Geneva, Switzerland, developed the ideas which became the Reformed strain of Protestantism. Christianity in general holds to a doctrine of the inherent sinfulness of human beings. Calvin’s phrase expressed a somewhat bleaker view. He called it “total depravity.” “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace… Therefore simply to will is of man; to will ill, of a corrupt nature; to will well, of grace.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.3.5)
Well. That’s depressing.
It has also been widely illustrated by human action in 2020.
Darker skin color has been strongly associated with COVID-19 illness and death in 2020, mirroring the experiences people of color have had with the criminal system, employment system, housing system, and government system. Official violence has continued to receive unmerited protection and even explicit encouragement from some elected leaders. Political leaders ordered an assault on Black Lives Matter demonstrators outside the White House, one carried out with well-documented brutality. They cleared a lane to a church from which their tear gas (tear gas is forbidden in war by international treaty) had driven ordained and lay staff from a medical station – a healing ministry – so that one politician could hold a Bible for the cameras.
Sexist and racist speech has re-emerged as “acceptable,” with those employing them using the tattered excuse that “they didn’t mean to offend,” as if motive really changed the impact of their words and deeds. As the year ended, a suicide bomber detonated a recreational vehicle filled with explosive in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Some days went by before there could be agreement that it would be labeled a “terrorist” act. Could it be because he had been male and white?
Well. That’s depressing.
I have spent most of my ministry career working theologically at the more generous end of the doctrine of Original Sin. I have tended to de-emphasize the Pauline and Augustinian obsession with sexuality (though I note that people hurt one another terribly through their sexuality); I have tended to assume good motives for people (despite the clear harm they inflict); I have tended to a theory that circumstance, not nature, underlies the impossibility of perfection (despite the evidence that evil acts tend to be done out of all sorts of circumstances). Now I have to re-think this. It’s not that people behave worse than I thought. I’ve studied enough history to know differently. It’s that people persist in their evil, that they justify their evil, that they embrace it in the face of ethical teaching, new information, the guidance of their religion, and even their own pious statements to the contrary.
It’s one thing to read of these things. It’s another to see them and hear them day after day.
Total depravity indeed.
I have no interest in turning to a theology in which there is no worth to the human soul – among other things, it is clear that God puts great value in human beings. Calvin knew this, too. “Yet God would not have us forget our original nobility, which he had bestowed upon our father Adam, and which ought truly to arouse in us a zeal for righteousness and goodness… so that sick of our miserable lot we groan, and in groaning we sigh for that lost worthiness. But when we say that man ought to see nothing in himself to cause elation, we mean that he has nothing to rely on to make him proud.” (Institutes 2.1.3)
I hope we learn more humility about ourselves and our rectitude from 2020. I hope we discard the easy dualism that divides the world into Good People (that begins with Me) and Bad People. I hope we can consider not just that I Might Be Wrong but that They Might Be Right. I hope we can learn that others have paid a price for our comfort that we never asked but have been loathe to relieve.
May we learn humility.
There are so many ways to take that phrase. Do I mean that Christianity has failed to assert its power against the coercion of the State? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to pray away the pandemic? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to retain the loyalty (and attendance) of its members? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to convert the world to Christ?
No. I mean that Christianity has failed to live up to the standards of its Founder or of its God.
Christians this year have spent too much time and energy in maintaining political and social power. The Christian voices summoning up care and compassion have been soft by comparison. Christian voices have issued calls for violence in the assertion of privilege. Christian tongues have invoked racial bias, sexist dogma, and homophobic prejudice. Christian guidance has encouraged deadly folly in the name of Jesus. Christian leadership has ignored the vulnerability of many for the benefit of a few.
As the year ended, for heaven’s sake, the Wall Street Journal published two opinion pieces. One argued in explicitly sexist terms that a woman’s own achievements should be disregarded in favor of the title conferred by her husband’s office. Translation: Courtesy and respect for education and accomplishment bow to sexism and “I’ll call you anything I care to” privileged rudeness. Another asserted the virtue of Ebenezer Scrooge (yes, the one from “A Christmas Carol”), praising his thrift and diligence as the foundation of the feast. Translation: Greed is good.
Neither article survives ethical review with a Christian moral lens. Both were written in a culture that proclaims its Christianity. Christianity failed to guide either one.
Christianity seems to have left Christlike-ness behind.
As 2021 begins, I hope we learn to discover Christlike-ness. I hope we can learn, despite total depravity, to encourage one another in doing better today than we did yesterday. I hope we can learn, in short, to repent, to reform, and to renew ourselves and our faith.
I hope we learn.
It started so well…
My only significant trip of the year started in 2019. I joined the Society of Christmas Day Travelers (Um. Is there an official organization called such? If there is, I didn’t formally join it) and flew east to spend time with friends and family in New Haven, Connecticut; Boston, Massachusetts; Norwalk, Connecticut; Westfield, Massachusetts; and New York, New York. It was lovely and, because I’d allocated two full weeks to the trip, not exhausting.
I returned to pick up the regular busyness of pastoring. In fact, I met with a family about a funeral for a dear church member on my first day in the office. We welcomed new members into the church. I planned a study of the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament for Lent. I attended the Church Leaders Event on O’ahu in February, the last time I would board an airplane in the year. That doesn’t sound like much of a milestone, but I had anticipated a number of trips to Honolulu in 2020 as part of my work with the Hawai’i Island Association Committee on Ministry. Only one took place.
Shrove Tuesday on February 25 saw me elected as President of Interfaith Communities in Action. On Ash Wednesday I welcomed the Rev. Jonathan Lee, a long-time friend who works for the Pension Boards, United Church of Christ, and we made plans for another visit that included him preaching at Church of the Holy Cross late in Lent. February ended (on the 29th; did you remember it was a Leap Year?) with an anniversary celebration for a wonderful couple in the church.
As March began, however, the spread of COVID-19 in the United States at large began to affect Hawai’i. The first diagnosis was confirmed on March 6th, someone who had contracted it aboard a cruise ship. The first case on Hawai’i Island was diagnosed ten days later. I shared my state of mind at the time in the essay, “Lessons from a Slow Motion Disaster.” I took my last daily walk with friends in Lili’uokalani Gardens on March 20th. On Sunday, March 22nd, we held our first online-only experience of worship. We hoped we might safely resume gatherings two weeks later. We did not.
Like pastors everywhere in 2020, I had no experience in leading or comforting a congregation during a pandemic. My work with the Connecticut Conference UCC gave me a foundation in Internet publication and video production most of my colleagues do not have. Even with that background, it all felt like an ongoing improvisation. To some extent it still does. I recorded those struggles in “An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist” Parts One, Two, and Three. There should probably be a Part Four sometime…
Being me, I also turned to music. One of the questions asked early and answered early was about the risks of group singing. They turned out to be unacceptably high. How, then, to continue to enjoy vocal music? I launched “A Song from Church of the Holy Cross” on March 25th. I’d hoped to write an original song each week of the pandemic. That ambition didn’t survive the second week, but I did succeed in writing some new pieces throughout the year. I also transformed the twice-monthly Community Sings into hour-long live streamed Community Concerts. My Music playlist on YouTube includes both the single songs and the concerts.
I’m too old a hand at communication, however, to believe that current technology would work for everyone. In addition to live streams, the continuation of What I’m Thinking (which reached episode 200 this year), and the church’s electronic newsletter The Weekly Chime, we changed the print newsletter The Messenger to weekly and I began sending hand-written notes to those we believed did not have Internet access about once a month. My writing this year included all those additional essays for The Messenger as well as the #LectionPrayers here at Ordained Geek.
Church went on.
Jonathan Lee returned to preach electronically rather than in person, delivering the Palm Sunday sermon from his living room in Connecticut on April 5th. Unlike some of my colleagues, I did not experience a rush of additional video conference meetings among congregational leadership. In fact, we held far fewer meetings and managed to continue the work of the church pretty well. I really commend the members and the leaders for demonstrating that level of confidence in one another. There have been and continue to be strains and struggles – Church of the Holy Cross lost the bulk of its facility use income in 2020 – but we have continued to care for one another even as we have tried to figure out how to do that safely.
I have presided at three funerals since the pandemic struck. Other families have chosen to defer services until a public gathering is safe. This is one of the places where the isolation has taken a severe toll. It hurts to see grieving people keeping six feet away from other grieving people. It hurts to not see the supportive faces of those come to honor the departed. It hurts, and this is a pain that will not fade quickly.
The economic impact on Hawai’i has been considerable. Though our island relies less on tourism than O’ahu or Maui, service workers have been furloughed or laid off as hotel incomes fell away. In the interfaith community, we greatly fear the end of the state’s moratorium on evictions. Without substantial aid, jobless working families will not be able to pay rent. Landlords who have their own bills to pay will evict them, and then have trouble finding new tenants with cash in hand. I cannot stress how important it is to prevent this. It is always easier to keep someone housed than to find housing for them once they have become homeless.
As summer arrived, case counts fell in Hawai’i. Church of the Holy Cross replaced the pews with folding chairs to maintain distance between households and resumed gathering for worship on July 5th, though we continued to stream the service as well. Six weeks later, rising diagnosis rates prompted us to return to online-only worship. We have done this ever since, and have made no attempt to guess at how soon we might welcome a congregation again.
A couple of other organizations asked for my services this year. During the summer, I accepted an invitation to join the board of the Kuikahi Mediation Center. Among my contributions was vocals and instrumentals for a jingle in the fall (oh, and some video production as well). I was also nominated to become Chair of the Conference Council for the Hawai’i Conference United Church of Christ. The members elected me in October at the delayed ‘Aha Pae’aina and I took office then. I stepped down from the Hawai’i Island Association Committee on Ministry as the month ended.
In September, I joined an incredibly talented panel of ministers speaking about “The Sermons That Keep Preaching,” during which I confessed that I had, in fact, written nearly the same sermon about two years apart. For the October ‘Aha Pae’aina, I interviewed some of my Micronesian colleagues on camera to be included in a live streamed workshop. In November, I assembled the contributions of religious communities around East Hawai’i for the Interfaith Communities in Action Thanksgiving Celebration. The song from Church of the Holy Cross was my own composition, “Hard Season.” For December, I accompanied soprano Joanne Pocsidio on guitar for the University of Hawai’i at Hilo’s Kalikimaka 2020 video.
The strange truth is that during this past year, I have been in front of a camera at least three times in most weeks, and four times in just under half of them. Televangelist indeed.
As all this was happening, my son Brendan gained acceptance to a Master’s degree program at the University of Bangor in Bangor, Wales (yes, on the island of Great Britain). After COVID-related (and bureaucracy-related) delays he flew to the United Kingdom in October. Rebekah continued her seminary education at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, though with classes online and growing case counts she left the city for some months. Sadly for her and for all of us, her cat Morwen died as 2020 ended, putting another capstone of grief on a year with too much for everyone.
It is now 2021. We have – those reading this – survived 2020. Others did not. Some died of “the usual” causes: age, illness, violence (Usual? Yes, tragically usual), neglect, accident, suicide. Others died of COVID-19: 45 on Hawai’i Island, 286 in the state of Hawai’i, 346,000 in the United States, 1.82 million worldwide. Vaccines are in production, but they can not be manufactured and administered at the rate anyone would prefer. 2020 will linger into 2021.
Another essay is in the back of my mind – lessons to take away from 2020. Let’s see if that one takes shape this weekend before I return to ministry in a pandemic as my vacation ends on January 5th.
Whether it does or not, may we have health of body, mind, and spirit in this new year. Love to you all!
Part Three became inevitable as infection rates in the state of Hawai’i and the county of Hawai’i declined to the point that a congregation could be gathered once more at Church of the Holy Cross. The steps required to reduce risk of virus transmission created new challenges for liturgy. The state still limits gatherings to less than fifty people, which also turned out to be the capacity of the church sanctuary when chairs replaced pews. Having a congregation meant that the sound system now needed to serve two groups: the worshipers in the space and the worshipers over the Internet – and they had different needs.
In many parts of the country, churches still worship exclusively over the Internet because infection risk is still too high in their area. On Hawai’i Island, we went some time with no new cases at all. We are now seeing new cases again, between zero and three a day. We are watching those reports carefully and will discontinue in-person worship if it continues to rise.
Church of the Holy Cross is blessed with pews that are not attached to the floor. Early on, we thought we might rearrange the pews themselves, but were confronted with the problem of sanitizing the furniture between services. Since four congregations worship in the room during the day, we needed a cleaning regimen. Rather than risk virus material settling into the cloth (and damage to fabric and wood from bleach-based cleansers), we stacked up the pews and replaced them with folding chairs. Those chairs also allow us to seat household groups of different sizes together while keeping space around single worshipers.
All the congregations clean twice: once as they enter the space, and again as they leave. While it seems redundant, it offers better protection and reinforces the sound practices of caring for yourself (cleaning before) and caring for others (cleaning afterward). Chairs, pulpit and lectern, microphones and stands, and window louver levers, and other touch areas get cleaned. All congregations take attendance so that contact tracing can be done if we become aware of someone with a positive test for COVID-19. Worshipers enter through a kitchen with sinks for hand-washing and sanitizer for those who prefer that. Everyone wears a mask (and we have more available). The walks have six foot tape marks to maintain distance. After service, everyone exits through a separate door.
Hymnals and Bibles have been removed. We only provide a large-print bulletin for those with vision challenges; everyone else relies upon the projector screen for worship. We do not sing hymns together. We do speak prayers together. There is singing, however: two musicians sing from near the back of the chancel while wearing masks. The closest seats in the congregation are twenty-five feet away.
The preacher and lay leader now speak from separate lecterns with separate mics (covered with disposable foam shields). And, of course, there is no greeting line at the close of service.
We discovered the first week that the lack of congregational singing made for a very still hour – too still. While there was a “movement prayer” at the beginning of the service, it was too short and in the wrong place. A church member offered to lead additional movement, so the two vocal performances now also serve to lead the congregation in motion. It’s not actually hula, but the gestures come from that tradition. In addition, I lead a brief prayer in movement immediately after the sermon.
Attendance has been in the forties, which is close to the capacity of the room. We can accommodate a few additional worshipers just outside the sanctuary in an area covered by the roof (and equipped with speakers). We may need to add a screen in our Building of Faith if more people begin to attend.
With the capacity of the room reduced, and knowing that people needed to continue to reduce contacts, we resolved to continue live streams into the future. We had to do things differently – again.
With the streaming-only format, we had to do very little camera movement. There were only two places that people ever stood – three on a Communion Sunday – so a single camera operator could manage it even though he was also acting as a musician. Now we have five (and added a sixth) plus seven on Communion Sunday: pulpit, lectern, piano, organ, chancel for vocal anthems, bell (rung before service), and communion table. That meant we needed camera operators throughout the service.
We also had to place the cameras differently. We wanted to reduce the distraction they would cause the worshipers who were present and we wanted to give the worshipers at home the best experience we could. The cameras aren’t really capable of a high-quality shot over a long distance. We also faced cable length limits.
Both cameras, therefore, needed to be toward the front (their tripods are visible in the photo at top). One camera stands against the wall to the right for a shot of the pulpit and organ. The other stands just left of center for the lectern, piano, and chancel.
These are the same Canon camcorders we have been using: a Vixia HF R52 and a Vixia HF R800. The one by the wall now has a much longer cable run. In addition to a fifteen foot HDMI cable with a mini-connector on one end, we use a coupler and a twenty-five foot HDMI cable to reach the switcher. This is close to the limit of an HDMI signal. The first time we set it up, we tried to get some more slack with another cable extension, and it simply would not work. The other camera is close enough that its fifteen foot cable suffices.
For the first couple weeks, we set up the Logitech webcam as a wide shot to provide the switcher with another source. She never used it, so we’ve retired that camera.
We have, however, added another video source. The church has used projected words and imagery for some years. That slide show can also be used as a video source via HDMI.
The first two weeks taught us something else about the video: it was really hard for the director to select a shot without a preview image of it. She needed to know whether a camera had settled – or was even on the right subject – before switching to it. One of the lacks of the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini (though not its newer sibling, the ATEM Mini Pro) is a multi view of its sources.
How could we create that? I’ve seen some creative ideas, including using several splitters and a multi view converter, but then I saw someone using field monitors. These are small screens that are mostly used to provide videographers with a better view of their shot than provided by the built-in screen of the camera. Our two Timbrecod DC-80 7″ screens have an HDMI pass-through. We place them between the cameras and the switcher, and now the director can see what the camera sees before choosing it.
One immediate annoyance was that the field monitors could not be used with the ATEM’s first input. I’ve done some research, and apparently the ATEM misreads the frame rate with some active pass-throughs, but only on the first input. We use input one for the slides, and the cameras get two and three.
The church installed a new sound system just over two years ago which, frankly, makes the challenge of providing sound to both the sanctuary worshipers and the online worshipers even possible. The old system, well… best to avoid that nightmare.
Our sound mixer is a Soundcraft Ui24R, a completely digital device. It has no physical knobs or sliders, but can be controlled via a keyboard and mouse, a network connected computer, a tablet, or even a smart phone. Its USB connection bears a host of signals, not just the main mix. A connected computer can select individual channels or one of eight auxiliary outputs.
Each auxiliary output can have its own mix. This is a game-changer.
Why? Because there are things that people worshiping over the Internet need to hear through the sound system that people in the sanctuary should not. In particular, we have to be very careful about amplifying the organ. The potential for feedback through the sanctuary speakers is mostly manageable, but it has to be carefully monitored. The organ produces plenty of sound, and amplifying it isn’t particularly helpful.
People worshiping over the Internet, however, need to hear it. They also need to hear the piano. We added two microphones in the chancel area (a pair of MXL 990 condenser mics) to pick up those sounds – and they are not part of the main mix. We include them only in the auxiliary mix.
We confronted cable length limits again. Although we can control the Soundcraft via a tablet, we had to connect our streaming computer to it via USB, and it was twenty-five feet away. USB has a length limit of around fifteen feet. In this case, we were delighted to find that an active extension cable did the job. We also experimented with using an active USB hub in the chain, and found that it didn’t work.
We have been frustrated with a relatively weak signal from the Soundcraft Ui24R. It reaches OBS with relatively low volume. The basic mixing controls in OBS wouldn’t bring it to desired levels – but it turns out that there’s an Advanced Audio panel that allows one to boost the base volume of an audio source. We’ve currently set it to add 10 decibels, and I’m considering a boost to 12.
I keep hoping that we can find a “normal” once again, and not have to make too many more adaptations. We probably aren’t there. One of the signals for our worship service is the ringing of the church bell. We’re able to film it because we have lots of windows and the bell is just outside.
What we can’t do in the stream, however, is hear much of it. It’s too far away from any of the microphones. We also can’t hear much of the congregation’s responses. I’m not eager to take on the challenge of adding “house sound” microphones to the mix, but that may be coming.
It is a relief to have a congregation present. They do provide an energy that is missing in the one-way stream approach we chose. My Sundays include a certain amount of anxiety – I’m deeply concerned for the health of the worshipers – but I find I am less exhausted by the experience of worship than I had been.
There will be another installment…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.