No Explanation; No Blame

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

All you need do, Redeemer, is explain.
Explain the suffering, the illness, the
dis-ease. Explain the disabilities,
ill fortunes, and abuse. Explain it all
so we may know the cause, the source, the blame.

In truth, we are less interested to see
the sufferer healed. We gain a measure of
self-satisfaction in our judgments, yes?
And leave the sad afflicted in the sad
result of “their own failed and sorry lives.”

But you, Redeemer, will not settle for
the sadness of our satisfaction. You
insist that we lay down our judgment, hear
the voices we would silence. You insist
we act as healers in the suffering world.

May we take your direction in this time:

[Jesus said] to him, “Go, wash…” (from John 9:7)

A poem/prayer based on John 9:1-41, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, Fourth Sunday in Lent.

The image is Le aveugle-né se lave à la piscine de Siloë (The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam) by James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2008, 00.159.173_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10957455.

Prayer Amidst Pandemic

O Holy One,

We’re frightened. Simply and honestly, we’re frightened. We can summon up our courage, but we must summon it amidst our fear.

We fear the thing we cannot see.

For some, this fear has led us into frenzy. Look, see the empty shelves where frozen foods and sanitizing lotion and toilet paper rolls were stocked. Look, see the calls and visits rising at the doctors’ offices, the urgent cares, the hospitals’ emergency rooms. Look, see the frenzy.

For some, this fear has led us into flat denial. Look, see the false-faced reassurances. Look, see the failures to anticipate. Look, see the bald refusal to take ownership of errors.

For some, this fear has led to false bravado. Look, see the gatherings still scheduled, defiant and unwise. Look, see the accusations leveled against “foreign” carriers of illness. Look, see the quest for blame replace the quest for health.

Look and see, O God. Look and see.

Now help us see, we pray, the actions of compassion. May we care for one another in our caution, less concerned with how this virus might affect “my” health than how it might bring harm to “yours.” May we keep our sickness to ourselves (for once, and if only this once, then at least this once). May we bring our groceries to share, our voices over telephones or video streams, our prayers…

Our prayers to you.

Grant strength to those who struggle to breathe. Grant protection to those who labor in healing. Grant compassion to those who share their ability to move about with those who must stay home. Grant connections of hearts between those who must refrain, for now, from touching hands.

In the name of the Healing Christ,

Amen.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Lessons from a Slow Motion Disaster

June 11, 2018, Pahoa, Hawai’i

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

It has not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do not have to do everything.

There are things we simply should not do.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Sir, I See

Faster than a speeding teacher,
more focused than a paralytic healed,
more attentive than a crowd full of dinner:
Look! By the well! It’s a foreigner!
It’s a woman! It’s…
Me!

Could it be me, dear Jesus, so to grasp my thirst
so earnestly, so honestly,
to hold it up before you in its naked need?
Could it be me to have you take so seriously
all my urgent questions, still to leave me
speeding house to house, in all my
comic-fictive strength, inviting:

“Come and see! For I’ve been known
in strength and weakness, height and depth.
Come and see! For only you (and you and you)
and I together can determine once for all:
Could this One truly be the Christ?”

Could it be me?

A poem/prayer based on John 4:5-42, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, Third Sunday in Lent.

Photo of a mosaic in Sant’Appolinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, by © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52650776.

Hands

For decades, I have sought to capture,
living in its stillness, the tenderness
of human beings holding hands.

Palm clasped to palm, thumbs pressing down,
three top fingers wrapped securely and
the pinky lightly tapping its caress.

It’s rare to catch the magic of a hug.
The grace of dance still glides
across the frozen frame. And clasping hands:

They pulse with rest dynamic. And now,
I must refrain and urge that others, too,
should bow or nod or pause without a touch.

In taking hands, my friend, I hope to share
my hope, my peace, my comfort there with you.
I love you far too much to risk your health.

We must content ourselves with photos for a time.

Photo by Eric Anderson (c) 2013 the Missionary Society of Connecticut. Used by permission under Creative Commons license.

Hold the Complexity

I asked the Holy One, not once but time
and time again, to tell me what is first
and prime. The sound of silence breathed to me,
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

I might have raised a voice in protest to
the silent breath, to claim the privilege
of suffering for faith, through faith, in faith.
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

Have I not traveled farther in my span
of years than Abraham in his? Might I
not claim the mantle of such righteousness?
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

But breathed the silent syllables: “Did you
devise yourself, beloved child? Did you
create the feet you set upon the road?
Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

Blessed be the Holy One who makes to be
the things that were and things that have not been.
Blessed be the One whose sound of silence breathes:
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

A poem/prayer based on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, the Revised Common Lectionary Second Reading for Year A, Second Sunday in Lent.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

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

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

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

I have never successfully repeated a Lenten discipline.

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

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

It’s a challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is, and will be, a challenge.