This is Not a Drill

ESA Feb 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I know you’re laughing. I’ll wait.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

That seemed wrong.

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

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

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

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

Well.

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

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

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

(I make no predictions about lingering death.)

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

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

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

It’s past time to assemble the disaster supplies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because life is not a drill.

Christmas Eve 2017

Bebe_(Nativity)_Gauguin_IMG_7276“If I had Gabriel here
I’d slam my fist upon his nose,”
she thought (though did not say).
“He promised me the King of Kings
and here I lie, exhausted,
in the courtyard of the noisy inn
with my newborn son
whimpering in his sleep
where the spear-tipped straw
of this poor manger cradle
has pierced the blankets once again.”
She thought, and thought again:
“Well, no, I wouldn’t hit him.
Angels aren’t for messing with.
He’d deserve it, though.”

The inn had settled down at last
from raucous greetings shouted by
familiar travelers to their regular
companions, settled down from
moaning of the mothers, ministrations
of the midwife, helpless loving
sounds from father inarticulate
with worry, settled down from newborn
baby’s wail soon smothered on
his mother’s breast, settled down from
traveler and sojourner and nosy neighbor
come to see exhausted mother,
anxious, wary father,
child outraged
to be deprived
the comforts of the womb.

The inn had settled down at last
when new uproar approached
and scattered Mary’s thoughts of angels
(impious though they be).
A band of men, their faces sleepy,
peeked through each courtyard gate
along the street, in search of… what?
the weary mother wondered.
She could not see expressions
shadow-shrouded, but could see the waves
with which they summoned all
their comrades through the crowded
courtyard and approached
the manger bed.

“Forget angels,” Mary thought,
“What good is Joseph if he cannot
keep these wandering herdsmen
from us and this child?”

Now words emerged from mouths
less agile than an angel’s,
words of (really?) angels
praising God upon a hillside,
dispatching them with messages
of God’s over-arching favor
into Bethlehem to see a child
(o come, they’ve seen a child before)
laid sleeping in a manger.

Once started speaking, they could not
be stopped, repeating in their
rasping voices promises of glory,
wonder, all the Earth’s salvation,
to all its peoples, peace.

Much later, when they had run long short
of words, had taken their eager
wishes of good fortune, their ragged habits
(if not the lingering smell of sheep)
out of the courtyard, back unto the hills,
Mary’s weary mind returned to thought.

They had not been the royal messengers
of old, like courtiers of David, no.
But they had brought the message
loud, and strong, and clear.
Emmanuel. God is with us.
Sleeping now, still fitfully,
still irritated by the straw.
Emmanuel. Yes, God is with us.
Even here in noisy Bethlehem.
Even now in this no-comfort place.

Emmanuel. Yes, God is with us.

Even here.

Even now.

The image is Paul Gauguin’s painting “Bebe” or “Nativity of Tahitian Christ.”

Comfort

201710101 Kolea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Win or to Play

Green Die by Steve JohnsonA group of friends really loved playing a game.

I’m not going to use the name of the game here, but you’ve probably seen it and you’ve probably played it. It’s the one where you’ve got these pieces that move around an outside track, and then they go up toward the center of the board, and when you’ve got all your pieces there you’re the winner. You roll dice to see how far your pieces can move, and sometimes you can make your opponents (or they can make you) send pieces back to the beginning.

These friends loved to play this game. But one of them, I’m afraid, was something of a cheat.

He wasn’t a bad person most of the time. He shared his cookies with his friends, and he’d help them out when they were struggling to climb something. He didn’t call people names, and he did his homework with minimal reminders from his parents.

But he did like to win.

While the group was learning the game, he would play merrily along until it started to look bad for him. A few times, he stuck it out until the game was over, but at other times, he’d walk away. A couple of times, he jogged the table enough to displace all the pieces.

That didn’t go over well with his friends.

Since he still wanted to be with them, and he still wanted to play, he had to find some other way to be there. Some way to make sure he ended up winning.

That meant cheating.

He learned how to miscount his moves so that he could land on the “safe” spaces. He’d miscount other players’ moves so that they wouldn’t land on his pieces and send them back. He’d even try moving pieces while the others weren’t looking.

Sometimes he’d get away with it, but mostly he did get caught. They’d make him do it right. But that was nearly as dreary a way to play a game as with someone who’d give up when things looked bad.

Finally, one of them said, “Look. I know you want to win. I know you really don’t want to lose. Here’s the news flash for you:

“None of us wants to lose.

“More than winning, though, what we want to do is play the game. Just play the game. Winning is better, and losing is worse, but what we want to do is play the game.

“And if we’re going to play the game together, we’re going to have to play by the same rules. That’s what makes it a game, and not a fight.”

Well, he settled down. He had a few relapses, but fewer and fewer as time went on.

Because he really did want to play.

Photo by Steve Johnson, used by permission under Creative Commons license.

I’iwi Rules

'I'iwi_at_Hosmer_Grove,_Haleakala,_Maui,_Hawaii_4There was an i’iwi who was brave and creative and spirited. If she was a marcher, she’d have marched to the beat of her own drummer – and changed drummers at least four times along the course of the parade. The chances are good that only one of those five drummers would have been audible to any other marcher.

She was not a marcher, however, and had no intention of becoming one (since i’iwi never seriously consider marching at all). She was determined, however, to push the boundaries every chance she got.

It started when she realized that her long curved bill could be inserted into an ohi’a blossom from above as well as below. It worked as well from either side. She experimented with all sorts of perches, and all sorts of grips. Some worked better than others, but she never gave up trying something else.

 

If she could eat upside down, she reasoned, certainly she could fly upside down. Right?

This, it turned out, did not go well at all. Her body, which probably had more sense than her head at that moment, resisted even trying to fly upside down. She would flip over, and her wings would curl just a little more and complete the roll so that she was rightside up again. She tried left, and she tried right, and she went rolling through the sky.

With enough determination, though, she got her wings to stop making that extra curl – or make a reverse curl (she wasn’t sure) – and there she was, belly-up to the sky. And…

Falling.

She flipped hastily over before she hit the ground.

A few more tries brought much the same result. An i’iwi’s wings don’t provide a lot of lift upside down.

“Well,” she thought, “how about if I try something else?” She gained some altitude, settled into a rhythm, and then tucked one wing onto her back. And then she was rolling and spiraling downward, head spinning, and only her body’s instinct to re-open her folded wing saved her from a nasty crash.

Several near-misses later, she flew wearily to a tree where her grandmother had been watching. She settled down on the branch to catch her breath.

“What,” asked her grandmother, “were you doing?”

“Trying different ways to fly,” she replied between gasps of air.

“Upside down?”

“I can eat upside down.”

“On just one wing?”

She shrugged. “I’m sure I can make it work.”

Her grandmother looked long and lovingly at her, and said, “If any i’iwi could do it, I’m sure you could, Granddaughter. But I’m afraid there are some basic rules to flight – not rules of what’s allowed, but rules of what’s possible. And one of them is that you’ve got to use two wings to fly.”

An i’iwi could explain the physics of it, I’m sure, better than I can. What I can tell you is that the grandmother gave her granddaughter enough of an explanation that her failures to fly on one wing started to make a lot of sense. It’s one of the rules that i’iwi live by.

For many centuries now, people have had a set of rules that make life better for us. We call them the Ten Commandments. They’re not laws of physics, but they do tell us how we can live well with each other and with God. If we don’t give our worship or give our resources to powers which aren’t God, we’ll do well. If we don’t break promises made in God’s name, we’ll do well. If we give time to God, we’ll do well. If we treat our parents respectfully, we’ll do well. If we don’t hurt one another, or steal from one another, or lie to one another, or break our relationships, or pay more attention to each other’s stuff than to themselves, we’ll do well.

Those are as basic to us as two wings are to the i’iwi. With those rules, we’ve got every chance to fly.

Photo by Kanalu Chock  – originally posted to Flickr as ‘I’iwi at Hosmer Grove, Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8261908

The Big Brother

Cookies by ZingyyellowThis story is about a little boy who had a younger sister. Do any of you have a younger brother or sister?

[Pastor, of course, knows perfectly well that some of these children have younger brothers or sisters. He had to suggest that elbowing little sister was not strictly necessary for the story.]

Well, when the little sister came along, he was terribly excited. She was a brand new addition to the family. She was smaller than he was, which was a new experience for him, and she was pretty adorable, after all. It was wonderful to have the new baby in the house.

Fairly soon, though, he wondered if she was going to be quite as wonderful as he’d hoped. She didn’t seem to do much, you see. In fact, all she seemed to do was eat, sleep, and cry. Sometimes it seemed that all she ever did was cry.

She’d cry when she was hungry. She’d cry when she wanted a snuggle. She’d cry when she was tired. And for heaven’s sake, she couldn’t even use the potty, and she’d cry when things were messy.

I mean, this was kind of hard to deal with, after all.

He was pretty observant, though, and he noticed something about all this crying. It worked. She’d cry, and she’d get fed. She’d cry, and somebody would pick her up. She’d cry, and she got put down to sleep. She’d cry, and somebody would take her off to get her cleaned up.

That was impressive. He didn’t get what he wanted as easily as all that.

So he decided he’d give her technique a try.

As it happened, he wanted a cookie. So he stood in the kitchen, and he started to cry. With any luck, he’d have a cookie before very long.

At the beginning, it looked like it was going to work. Mom came right away, and she asked him, “Why are you crying? What’s wrong? What do you want?”

His sister, however, never answered questions like these, no matter how many times she was asked. In fact, the adults usually answered them themselves: “Are you hungry? Oh, yes, you are!” without even giving his sister a moment to reply. So he didn’t answer, either.

He just kept crying. And the more his mother didn’t guess he wanted a cookie, the more frustrated his crying got.

I’m afraid this part of the story goes on for a while. Does anybody want to fill in with some crying?

The adults shook their heads, but one of the older brothers chimed in with, “Wah, wah, wah!”

Well, he finally stopped crying. By that time he was in his mother’s arms, snuggled on her lap, with his tears drying on her shoulder. He finally decided to answer the question she asked gently once again:

“What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

“Well,” he sniffled, “I want a cookie.”

His mother was baffled.

“Why didn’t you ask for one? Why did you start crying about it?” she asked.

“Well, my sister just cries. She cries, and she gets what she wants.”

“Oh, son,” said he mother. “She gets what she wants because, being a baby, she doesn’t need very many things. She needs to be fed, and held, and cleaned, so we don’t have too many things to guess at before we find the right one.

“You want many more things than that.”

He had to admit that this was true. His sister never seemed to want a cookie, after all. It was rather nice of her, in fact, to leave them all for him.

“Also, your sister doesn’t know how to talk yet. She has to learn.”

This was news to her big brother. He thought she could talk just fine; she just never did.

“She’ll learn to ask for things. It will take some time, but she will. You did, after all.”

“I did?”

His mother beamed at him. “Yes, you did. And you do it very well. At least, until just now. And I think it works much better for you than just crying. So you might try asking once again.”

Asking. Oh, yes. What was he asking for?

“Can I have a cookie?”

And now, what do you think his mother said?

The young people let out an immediate and unanimous chorus of, “She said ‘No!'”

Oh, my. Don’t you folks like happy endings?

Well, I like happy endings. And since this story didn’t happen just before supper time, mother was able to look at her son and say…

“Yes.”

Photo by Zingyyellow. Used by permission under Creative Commons license.

The Manu-o-Ku Sisters

Incubating_white_ternToday’s story is about a bird – and no, I’m not going to ask you to guess which one. Today, the heroines of our story are a seabird called a manu-o-Ku. In English, it’s called a white tern, and I would think you can guess what color most of its feathers are.

That’s right. They’re bright white.

Like a lot of seabirds who catch fish and squid – er, calamari – the manu-o-Ku spends a lot of its flying time circling around and looking down at the sea. Since it flies straight so seldom, that’s why it’s called a “turn.”

[The congregation responded with not-so-muffled groans.]

This, incidentally, is why most people prefer that I use the Hawaiian names for creatures in my stories. I can’t pun in Hawaiian.

Well, there are three manu-o-Ku in this story, and the three of them were sisters. They were all grown up, each had a husband, and each would set out to lay a new egg and add a new chick to the family each year.

Manu-o-Ku are somewhat unusual among birds. They don’t build a nest for their eggs at all. They find a depression in the ground, or among rocks, or on a branch, and they lay a single egg in it. Both father and mother take terns (terns, get? take terns) keeping the egg warm.

These three sisters, however, had different ideas about where to lay their eggs.

The first sister was the one who wanted to get things over and done with. She would find a spot on the ground with only the barest hint of a depression, and it didn’t matter to her if there was a slope. In fact, when she and her husband would trade places, they’d sometimes have to hold the egg in place with their webbed feet.

There were seasons when the two of them went scrambling after a rolling egg and gently coaxed it back into place.

The second sister was the perfectionist. She looked high and low (literally, on the ground and in the trees) for the perfect spot for her egg. If the depression was a little to big, she moved on. If it was a little too small, she moved on. If there was anything even the tiniest bit out of place, she moved on.

She was always the last to choose her place and lay her egg, and she drove her sisters, her husband, and the rest of the family nearly frantic with worry that she’d wait too long and lay her egg in mid-air!

The last of the three manu-o-Ku sisters was careful, but not compulsive. She was decisive, but not slipshod. Her egg might rock in its depression, but it would not roll away. She turned away from plenty of potential sites that could put her egg at risk, but she found a good one in plenty of time.

There’s a difference between being careless and being too picky. It’s important to see that we meet our real needs, whether that be for food or water or shelter or, of course, a safe place to lay an egg. It can be nearly as big a problem, however, to require perfection for our needs, or confuse what we want with what we need.

We might find ourselves laying an egg in mid-air. So to speak.

Photo by Duncan Wright – USFWS Hawaiian Islands NWR, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1167986