Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chain of blessing

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them (Numbers 6:22-27).

Every day for the past 3,000+ years, these words of blessing have been spoken to the people of Israel. This "priestly blessing," named as such because it was given to Aaron and his sons, the hereditary priesthood of Tabernacle and Temple, has echoed through the ages, in that lineage, and adopted by the presiding ministers of the Christian Church.*

The photo above is contemporary, taken yesterday. "A descendant of the priestly caste pronounces the High Priest Aharon's blessing at the Western Wall," 70,000 attend Priestly Blessing at Western Wall, Jerusalem World News, 12/31/11.

They are said so often, it may take some effort to hear them.

In their Biblical context, they come at the end of several chapters of instruction for organizing the priestly class, the Levites and the sons of Kohath. Even after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we see these kohanim still (in the surname Cohen).

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* The blessing has even made its way into popular culture. In the TV series Star Trek, Mr. Spock's Vulcan greeting of "Live long and prosper" might be seen as a simplified and secular version of the priestly blessing. Especially as the original actor in the role, Leonard Nimoy mirrored the gesture of the kohanim from his childhood synagogue.
 

Friday, December 23, 2011

With us is God

Gracious God, born of Mary and ever-coming into the world, this Christmas may we receive the grace to adore you. May we worship your glory in humble places. May we honor you with fine gifts for those in low estate. And may we, with shepherds and angels, sing praise to God Most High, God Most Near, God Most Holy, God Most Merciful, Jesus Christ our savior, our brother, our king. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joy to the World

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together...” (Isaiah 40:3b-5a).

Three weeks ago the season of Advent began with the reading of these words of prophecy. Isaiah knew that there are so many obstacles between us and God, between the world we have and the world God is bringing into being.

As Advent proceeds, we are asked to be attentive to the ways that God is working in the world, perhaps even look to and minister in the “rough places” as precisely the places where God's glory is being revealed.

The Hudson County Correctional Center (pictured above) is tucked into one of those corners of the County that pass for “wilderness,” surrounded by tangles of concertina wire. If your loved one is inside, it's difficult to visit - and many of those incarcerated do not get visitors.

For each of the past 13 Christmas seasons, I have had the good fortune to be in jail - too briefly - to sing Christmas music, to read some of the great words from Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke, and to hear (and sometimes give) a sermon for the occasion.

Make no mistake about it - jails and prisons are oppressive. Yet each year I am moved by what happens inside. From a choral standpoint, the audiences are some of the most appreciative I have ever sung before. But even more, it is the joy and hope – sometimes mixed with sorrow and desperation – that the inmates show forth, and that I hear when God breaks into this place. The lessons seem to mean more when read in the wilderness, when shared among disreputable shepherds in the lonely fields.

Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they burst out in exuberant welcome. And all because some church folk managed to find their way into a place where “respectable” folk don’t go, not because we’re so special, but because the people we’re visiting are, and the good news we carried in – or discovered once we’re there! - is contagious. Sometimes it even happens to the guards!

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

This year, because the jail changed its policy and no longer holds large services, we were escorted into three of the pods (dormitories) which house women inmates. We gave a shortened version of the usual program, and, like usual, we had brief conversation time. Please remember in your prayers Alicia, and Kimberly, and Mary, and the quiet smiling young woman whose name I didn‘t get who will be deported this week, and the woman who couldn’t stop crying because she was afraid and away from home with no prospect of returning soon. Remember them and all their brothers and sisters awaiting the day of release.

When I first started going, I found the sound of doors locking behind us unsettling. Now I’m more bothered by the fact that we have to leave so soon, leaving behind those with sentences still to serve. But this year, unaccountably, the gospel broke among us singers.

As we were leaving the second pod, waiting for transport to another floor, someone started singing the Christmas spiritual “Amen,” and the calls of “See the little baby,” and “lying in a manger” and the “A-A-Amen” responses rang off the hard tile walls and in the stairwell, and I like to think we caused a little consternation, or maybe it was just the walls themselves echoing the song “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king, peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled” as we, a little more reconciled than when we started, made our way home.

And may it be so for Alicia, and Kimberly, and Mary, and all who wait for the glory of the Lord to be revealed. Amen.
 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Prayer for healing

Healer of our every ill,
Light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.


Great God, your very life is healing for illness, for sorrow, for that which is broken. Lay your hand upon us, that we might be made whole, renewed in life, upheld by your Spirit, and possessed by your love.

Bless all those engaged in the ministry of healing, and help our hospitals, clinics, doctors, nurses, aides, therapists, chaplains, and health care administrators be enablers of healing for people and communities. We ask in the name of the great physician, the One whose ministry heals the sick and the world itself, Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

"Healer of our every ill" verse by Marty Haugen, (c) 1987, GIA Publications, Inc. "Flower Mandala" by Carole Devereux.
 

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Black" Friday prayer

Generous God, we come before you knowing that every Friday is a bleak Friday when we remember your crucifixion, each injustice, every evil in this world. And yet we rejoice, knowing that each Sunday - in fact every day - is a resurrection day when we celebrate your gift of new life to the world. Help us to trust that your providence is enough, and that each day may bring bread for all who hunger.

Grant that we, like your faithful disciples in every age, might know the power of resurrection in the midst of this world. And enable us to be witnesses to your glory, sharing the good news of freedom from bondage to debt, bondage to lusts, bondage to fear, bondage to any desire other than for good, in Jesus name. Amen.

 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

The Apostle Paul does not urge us to give thanks for everything, but simply observes that we are created with an orientation towards thankfulness, and that in every circumstance there is something that we can be grateful for.

Being thankful, dwelling in thankfulness, is good for us, and is a holy place to be. For what are you thankful today?

I am fortunate to be blessed with many things. I am grateful for fulfilling work – even in the midst of aggravation! I am grateful for the generosity of others which is helping to feed so many people today. And I am thankful that today is a day of rest for me. I am glad to finally have a nice car to replace the one destroyed by a drunk driver in June, and still thankful that no one was hurt in that incident. And especially grateful that this has carried me to visit my Dad, who is still living and enjoying life, and soon to see other family members gathered together.

I am grateful that God has given us a world full of blessing, challenged that there is still so much to do, and awed at the privilege to be a part of so much wonder.

May God bless and keep you this day and forevermore.
 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Remembering Kennedy

Today marks the 52nd anniversary of the killing of John F. Kennedy, President.

Since his death, we have learned some of the back story of his complicated life. Without the chance to complete his term as President - and a full life of public service - we are left with a story of promise and potential not fully realized. So it becomes easy to imagine a flawed Presidency, or an idealized one. And that has probably distracted attention from this American hero, who was elected based in large part on the strength of his character.

Our polis, our civic life has suffered from this traumatic loss. While not my favorite talking head, Chris Matthews' writing on Kennedy is worth reading, and his new book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, provides a good look at a leader whose loss we justly mourn.
 

Monday, November 21, 2011

The 9-Percent

"Approval of Congress Matches Record Low," Allison Kopiciki, NY Times Caucus blog, 9/16/11. "Congress faces historically low approval ratings as it wades into the debate over the $447 billion jobs package proposed by President Obama, with just 12 percent of Americans now approving of the way Congress is handling its job, matching its all-time low... Only 6 percent of registered voters say that most members of Congress have earned re-election, while 84 percent say it’s time to give someone new a chance, a historic low for the New York Times/CBS poll. Dissatisfaction with Congress runs deep across both parties, with more than 8 in 10 of both Republicans and Democrats saying it’s time to elect new representatives" (emphasis added).

I would like to know where they found the 9% who approve? People who have been comatose for the past six years? Clones of Grover Norquist, ideologically ecstatic that government has now ceased to function?

First Congress punted the job of fiscal reform to the "super committee," and now the "super committee," has gone exactly...nowhere. We have a failure of leadership. And that is not on Congress, but reflects the delusions and divisions in society - and our willingness to elect the same failed representatives again and again and again.

In New Jersey we just elected our state legislature. Despite a small number who were challenged by redistricting, NO incumbents failed to be reelected, not one. Something is wrong with that picture.
 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween

For about as long as humans have been human, we have wondered, feared, and hoped about the souls of our companions who die. Both out of love for those we've lost, and out of fear for what might happen to us, we have felt it important to "put the dead in their place," to make sure they are not wandering the earth causing trouble.

Perhaps it's no problem that we are no longer quite so supertitious in this direction. But there's something missing when Halloween has become just an occasion for dress-up and excess.

Ghosts still wander the earth - in reality, or in metaphor. We do well to respect what they still have to say to us, what we need to do to help assure peace in their passing. In the Western Church, we will remember the departed tomorrow, on All Saints' Day. But tonight, for all the fun there may be in a Fall Carnaval, I hope we do not neglect the spirits that are just out of sight.
 

Growing faith

We were asked a question today in church: "How do we grow in faith"?

Does the grass know how it grows? It is a mystery.

Good soil, water, and sunlight help - but are no guarantee. We know people with seemingly all the resources, but no results. And, while hardship can stunt growth, new life can unaccountably spring up in the most adverse circumstances.

Whenever it happens, growth in faith, faith itself, is always a gift.

If there is one thing that helps the most... it is the example of others' fathfulness, others' hope, others' love. We see that so clearly in Jesus - but also in so many others. That is the best kind of soil.

 

Friday, October 21, 2011

God's commandments

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." And then the Lord gave ten commandments for the people to follow. Leviticus 19:1-2

Over the years, the commandments have picked up a bad reputation with some, fueled by those who would impose them on others, or who seem to delight in punishing lawbreakers. But the text does not show the commandments given by these lesser authorities, but by God.

And you might simply take them as guidelines for good behavior. We don't need a heavenly enforcer to know that killing, stealing, jealousy, failure to rest, and disrespect to others eventually leads to bad results. Violate them and you violate the conditions of personal and social health, to your peril.

But look back to the way God gives the commandments: not to keep people in line, but out of God's desire that we share in the holiness, the righteousness, the goodness that is God's very nature. "You shall be holy..." God wants us to imitate the goodness that is God's desire for us.

That's freeing, compared to the endless chain of bad stuff that follows from going counter to the Way given by God.
 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Prayer for peace

This day marks the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan, our nation's longest war.

Afghanistan War Children, photographer unknown

O God, war rends your creation and multiplies suffering and poverty. Let us cry out in response to war's devastation. Be with all affected by warfare: those who wage it, those caught in its crossfire, and those who fund and enable it. Call forth peacemakers and healers, that the wounds of war and the ills which provoke war might be the subject of your care, your healing, your transformation. Help us to see the many victims of war: the precious lives killed, the beautiful bodies maimed, the spirits afflicted by violence committed, inflicted upon, and witnessed. Have mercy, and heal us.

O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The second paragraph is from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p.72.
 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday prayer

From despair and hopelessness: save us, Lord.
From denial and paralysis: save us, Lord.
From indifference and fear: save us, Lord.
From captivity to sin and thrall to death: save us, Lord.

In mercy you came to dwell among us, sharing bread and breath, dining with sinners, forgiving enemies, and caring for creation with the power of God's own love. Hear us now, and heal us from the sin that has twisted us, that we might be upright with you and with one another, in Jesus' name. Amen.
 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lloyd Gold

Lloyd Gold died last Friday. Maybe you knew him, or someone like him.

At his funeral, one of his friends observed that Lloyd was “not normal.” And thank God for that. You might have expected to see him in the pages of Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, the final gone-astray scion of a once grand Southern family. Instead, Lloyd was a fixture of Hoboken and Jersey City street life for the past 20+ years.

His funeral was in the basement of a funeral parlor in Newark. They were going to “throw him away,” until a long-time friend stepped in to make sure that Lloyd was buried right. I don’t know that Lloyd would have cared that much, but it was good for the nine people who came to see him off.

He looked pretty good, considering he was dead, wearing his only suit jacket, his hair trimmed. Lloyd loved his jewelry, but all of it had been stolen before a friend came to pack up his things. So he went out wearing just a tiny shamrock pin, a gift he’d once given, now given back, and a necklace of shiny blue stars.

He would certainly have appreciated the fresh-faced young priest who came from Grace to ensure that the Church Episcopal took note of his passing, to recall the walk through the valley of the shadow of death and pray the great prayer of commendation: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Lloyd. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.”

Lloyd was not the easiest person to get along with. You might quaintly call him pixilated, but he suffered from mental illness. That, plus his fondness for a drink or several, and his outrage at injustices of all sorts led him into trouble and broke many relationships. In his last 20 years, he was homeless much more often than not.

But Lloyd’s life was filled with grace. He could not always get himself together, but he gave freely and generously to others. One of the folks who stuck with him the longest told how, when he was sick, Lloyd would bring him a cup of tea or soup. If he was hospitalized, Lloyd would always find a way to visit. “Most ‘normal’ people don’t do that.” Reminds me of Jesus.

And Lloyd did that a lot, in crazy ways, which should not be that surprising given that God long ago chose to reveal the sacred through the foolish things of the world. Lloyd often appeared as a holy fool, flamboyantly bedecked in his beloved costume jewelry. My favorite Lloyd story is from my wife Lisa, who would talk with him when he came into Hoboken Antiques, mostly to browse the dollar costume jewelry bin.

Now, Lloyd being homeless and a little “out there” made her a bit uneasy with his visits. On this day, as they talked, he told her that there was a big celebration at All Saints (the Episcopal Church up the street where Lloyd was a sporadic member), and invited her to come. “The Bishop is coming,” he said. “There'll be refreshments.” She said she had to get home and do her homework. “No, really, you should come, it’s a special celebration!”

Eventually she said “Bye, Lloyd” as he went out. She heard the door shut and went back to her schoolwork, but about ten seconds later she heard the bells ring. The door was opening and Lloyd was coming back. “Don't forget about the celebration!”

The church was in the opposite direction from home, but that evening Lisa had to go uptown to look for a book for her class, and as she came back downtown she noticed that the church was lit up and the doors were open. She knew there was a party going on, said to herself, “Oh, alright,” accepted Lloyd’s invitation, and walked in the door. And into the Eucharist.

She doesn't remember seeing Lloyd there that night. He had gone on to other things. But it struck her the way it never had before that Jesus' communion meal is a celebration. And she remembers the light in the sanctuary was very beautiful, a transfiguration light.

And that’s the way it often was with Lloyd. He invited people into something bigger than they were expecting. Sometimes more troublesome. But if you had the eyes to see, it was often strangely beautiful, caring, and out of the ordinary.

I have no doubts about Lloyd’s deliverance. Love and grace shone through his life. I’d say “God bless you, Lloyd,” but I know God has. And we have been blessed by and through him. Rest in peace.

Lloyd Gold
March 8, 1951 - September 16, 2011


“Resurrection Tulips”
Lloyd Gold, 2011

 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

There can be no doubt

LAST MINUTE UPDATE: In less than 90 minutes, the state of Georgia is scheduled to execute someone whose guilt is very much in doubt. Any hope for intervention rests in the hands of Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm and Judge Penny Freesemann. Please sign the petition asking them to stop what can never be reversed: an execution.

The United States of America continues to kill people, as the State of Georgia plans to do tomorrow to Troy Davis. Mr. Davis was convicted of murdering a Georgia police officer, Mark Allen Macphail, in 1991.
Since then, the case against him has collapsed, and a new trial would certainly fall well short of reasonable doubt. (See Amnesty International for a summary.)

I do not know if Troy Davis is guilty or innocent. And that is a problem.

I believe we should not be in the execution business at all. But we certainly can't be killing people when guilt is not certain.

Troy Davis has said "They can take my body but not my spirit, because I have given my spirit to God."

Criminal justice is not principally about the criminal. It is about all of us, and strives to restore the body to health.

It probably will not stop the State of Georgia from killing Troy Davis. But please speak up. Call the District Attorney of Chatham County (912-652-7308), and ask him to intervene. And when you can't get through (their phone may be off the hook), send your message at districtattorney.chathamcounty.org/Home/ContactUs.aspx.

You may also wish to keep faith by talking with others about justice, life, and death, and by fasting on Wednesday evening. And please mark the 7 o’clock hour Eastern time - the time of Troy’s scheduled execution — as a moment to offer prayer.

Thank you.

Almighty God, let your justice rule. Spare the lives of the innocent and the guilty, and work your way in the hearts of every human being, that each may turn from destruction and towards the light of righteousness. Restrain us from the impulse to kill. Be with each of us who lies under the threat of death, and open to us the way of truth, of hope, and of life. Amen.
 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dag Hammarskjöld - I am the vessel

Dag Hammarskjöld (July 29, 1905 - September 18, 1961) was descended from a family line of Swedish knights. The youngest son of the Prime Minister of Sweden, Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, a member of the Hague Tribunal and the Nobel Foundation, he was raised in an atmosphere steeped in an ethic of public service.

An outstanding student, he excelled in his studies, particularly in the Humanities and linguistics. He became known as a talented poet and translator of poetry, particularly the poems of Emily Dickinson; an art and music historian; and in his later years, as a theologian. He was also an athlete: a gymnast, a skier, and a mountaineer. But his main interest was political economy. He earned a law degree and a doctorate in economics from Uppsala University and taught economics, then entered public service. Working for Sweden’s financial health in the years of the Great Depression, and for Swedish foreign policy, he helped to preserve Sweden’s neutrality as so much of Europe fell under the Nazi regime, and gained expertise in international affairs.

In 1949, he began to represent Sweden as a delegate to the brand-new United Nations. In 1953, he was elected Secretary General, receiving 57 votes out of 60; and he was re-elected to this post in 1957.
Hammarskjöld was widely regarded for helping to shape the United Nations into an independent international organization, patiently working to confirm the United Nations for the people who worked there, as a place set apart from narrowly conceived national interests. As Secretary General, one of his first diplomatic achievements was to negotiate the release of American prisoners of war held by China during the Korean War.

Practicing what he called “preventive diplomacy” he worked to ease the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 and address the situation in Palestine,
and to negotiate the post-colonial politics of Southeast Asia in the years after the Japanese invasions of WWII and before the U.S. interventions in Viet Nam. But Africa was to draw his attention most intensely. Many parts of Africa were coming out of colonial rule to national independence, with widely varying degrees of effectiveness and benefit to their citizens. While the old colonial systems were receding, the idea of Africa as a source of natural resources to be despoiled and exploited by powers on other continents, without much regard for the well-being of the local citizens, had not gone away. Africa, especially the Congo region, became the pawn of a post-colonial ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the old colonial interests of Belgium and England added to the competition.

Dag Hammarskjöld was resolved to work for the benefit and development of Africa. He was convinced that the emerging countries there have an important mission to fulfill in the community of nations, and strove who help them develop their future. As he expressly said, he believed that the next decades must belong to Africa or to the atom bomb.

His advocacy for the United Nations as an independent entity, and for the development and self-determination of small nations, angered many of the world’s most powerful countries. At one point, the Soviet Union insisted that Hammarskjold resign as Secretary General. And while he was supported by President Kennedy, he made many elements of the U.S. Government furious when he refused to allow a McCarthy-era FBI raid inside the United Nations.

In 1961, the political situation in the Congo rose to a boiling point after the election of the nationalist, Patrice Lumumba, as President of the new Republic of the Congo. The Belgian colonial regime had been brutal, spawning the first modern human rights campaign to oppose its abuses. It left the newly-independent Congo ill-prepared for self-government. The province of Katanga, with the backing of Belgian colonial interests, declared independence from the Congo. Lumumba threatened to appeal to the Soviet Union for assistance.

On September 14 a coup d’etat headed by Colonel Joseph Mobutu, who would later become infamous as the dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, arrested and imprisoned Lumumba. In January of 1961, he was assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

In 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld traveled to the Congo repeatedly in order to help negotiate some settlement of their conflict over national self-determination. (In the photo at left he is shown inspecting UN troops in the Congo on one of those visits). He was determined to help the people of the Congo decide what they wanted for themselves, without the manipulation of the great powers; and sent in one of the first major UN peace-keeping operations to prevent one side in the conflict from trying to obliterate the other, as happened three decades later in Rwanda.

On his way to broker a cease-fire agreement between the Republic of the Congo and Katanga State, in the early morning of September 18, 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash at the border of the Congo and Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia. When he died, many speculated that Hammarskjöld had been assassinated, in order to keep the U.N. from bringing the central government of the Congo and the mineral-rich Katanga Province from coming back together.

He was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961.

In the mid-1970’s, the United States Senate convened the “Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect To Intelligence Activities,” also known as the “Church Committee” because it was led by Senator Frank Church. Investigating the misuse of United States intelligence resources over three decades, part of the findings of the Church Committee included a 1975 report titled: “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.” One of its conclusions was that there was some CIA knowledge, and activity, in the deaths of both Patrice Lumumba and Dag Hammarskjöld.

It was not till the 1963 publication of his personal journal, titled “Markings,” that the depth of his Christian faith and how much of a relationship he lived out between this faith and his active spirituality within the diplomatic world became understood. Dag Hammarskjöld himself called this journal: “a sort of ‘White Book’ (a diplomatic briefing) concerning my negotiations with myself - and with God.”

In the acceptance speech for the posthumous awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, Rolf Edberg, the Swedish Ambassador to Norway, shared some reflections about Dag Hammarskjöld. He spoke of how: “Time and again, Hammarskjöld referred to the indissoluble connection between peace and human rights. Tolerance, protection by law, equal political rights, and equal economic opportunities for all citizens were prerequisites for a harmonious life within a nation. They also became requirements for such a life among nations.”

The Swedish Ambassador continued, speaking of the intensity “that grew stronger each year,” with which Hammarskjöld stressed that:

“The United Nations had to be shaped into a dynamic instrument in the service of development. In his last report, in a tone of voice penetrating because of its very restraint, he confronted those member states which were clinging to ‘the time-honored philosophy of sovereign national states in armed competition, of which the most that may be expected is that they achieve a peaceful coexistence.’ This philosophy did not meet the needs of a world of ever increasing interdependence, where nations have at their disposal armaments of hitherto unknown destructive strength. The United Nations must open up ways to more developed forms of international cooperation... This report...now stands as a last testament.” Ambassador Edberg concluded: “Dag Hammarskjöld found the words of the U.N. Charter concerning equal rights for all nations, large and small, filled with life and significance. Above all, it was the small nations, and especially the developing countries, which needed the United Nations for their protection and their future.”

This address, delivered in December, 1961, still contains timely and urgent words.

In describing his character, Ambassador Edberg said that Hammarskjöld demonstrated how: “Such a conviction must be based on a determined philosophy of life. No one who met him could help noticing that he had a room of quiet within himself.”

This might have been a reference to the U.N. Meditation Room, which is located off the public lobby of the General Assembly Hall in New York, that Hammarskjöld designed. This place, set aside intentionally as a place to listen for the “still, small voice” of God includes an inscription on a black marble plaque, which Hammarskjöld wrote:

“This Is A Room Devoted To Peace And Those Who Are Giving Their Lives For Peace. It Is A Room Of Quiet Where Only Thoughts Should Speak.” He also wrote the text of the leaflet given to visitors to the Meditation Room. It begins: “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.”

The last translation work that Hammarskjöld engaged in was to put the works of twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, into Swedish. I and Thou (Ich und Du), the great book written by Martin Buber, speaks of his belief that all real living is in relationship. Pages from I and Thou were found in the wreckage of the plane in which Hammarskjöld was killed.

Ambassador Edberg described the likeness of Buber’s writing to Hammarskjöld’s own convictions, that: “There were invisible bridges on which people could meet as human beings above the confines of ideologies, races, and nations.”

Just before his plane took off on its fatal flight, Hammarskjöld left behind with a friend a copy of the book Imitation of Christ. by Thomas à Kempis. Tucked inside its pages was the oath of office of the United Nations Secretary-General.

This week we pray for the World Summit at the United Nations, and in thanksgiving for the ongoing work of the United Nations during this year’s observance of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. We also pray for the work of the Lutheran World Federation, and for all groups and individuals who dream about, and pray and work, for human rights and world peace.

I believe that we should die with decency
so that at least decency will survive.”

Dag Hammarskjöld

The full address by Rolf Edberg, the Swedish Ambassador to Norway, is at the website of the Nobel Prize Committee.

Reverend Lisa Bellan-Boyer
Parish Iconographer
St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church
Written on September 18, 2005

 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Prayer for 9/11 anniversary

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.

As we recall terrors past and present, grant that we may remember your response: the way of the cross, the resurrection from the dead, and the sharing of bread. Heal our suffering world, and grant that we may not be marked by evil, but transformed by the power of your redeeming love, in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Credits:
Isaac Watts, "O God our help in ages past," from The Psalms of Da­vid, 1719.
Stephane Jaspert, "Two candles" (1982) after Gerhard Richter, used by permission.
 

Monday, August 29, 2011

The New Rugged Cross

Immediately following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, there was an extensive search to rescue any surviving victims. On September 13, 2001, one of the construction workers, Frank Silecchia, was searching in the debris under 6 World Trade Center. He has said that he had been having a silent conversation with God, in despair at the wreckage. He felt lost in his heart, mind, and every other way. In the tangled mess of destruction, there were no longer any straight lines, no reference points.

Frank turned around and saw a void, which he later called a "chapel," and saw three vertical lines through the dust. As he got closer, he saw three crosses of steel beams. The central one, 20 feet tall, had a shroud of ductwork draped over its left beam. Frank took this as a sign that God was present in the midst of the destruction, and it became used as a shrine and place of prayer. In early October, the central cross was moved to Church & Liberty Streets, next to the morgue trailers. It became used as a regular place of worship as the debris was cleared from the WTC site. (See Wikipedia: World_Trade_Center_cross.)

One of the chaplains who worked in the WTC recovery, Lisa Bellan-Boyer, had met the cross and Frank and heard his story and the way the cross was used as a place of interfaith spiritual respite. Just preceding the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, she recalled a well-known hymn about the “old rugged cross.” She quickly wrote down an additional verse and refrain about the WTC's “new rugged cross,” feeling that the words came from a source beyond her. They evoke the way that cross speaks to both the reality of brutality and the hope of God's continued presence. She has said that she felt the new verse answered those who were proclaiming the disaster a sign that God had turned away.

“The Old Rugged Cross, with a New Verse”

On a hill, far away,
stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame.
And I love that old cross, where the dearest and best,
for a world of lost sinners was slain.

REFRAIN:
So I’ll cherish the cross, (the old rugged cross,)
till my trophies at last I lay down,
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it someday, for a crown.


Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
has a wondrous attraction for me;
for the dear Lamb of God left his Glory above,
to bear it to dark Calvary.   REFRAIN

In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
a wondrous beauty I see,
for ‘twas on that old cross, Jesus suffered and died,
to pardon and sanctify me.   REFRAIN

To the old rugged cross, I will ever be true,
its shame and reproach gladly bear;
then he’ll call me someday,
to my home, far away,
where his Glory forever I’ll share!   REFRAIN

Near the Pit, so close by,
stands a “New Rugged Cross,”
an emblem of catastrophe.
It reminds us of those, ‘neath that bright morning sky,
who faced their own Calvary.

FINAL REFRAIN:
And I look to that cross, that new rugged cross,
As it stands, so solid and square,
With hope, as a sign, from the Spirit of Love:
God was, is, WILL ALWAYS BE THERE.


“The Old Rugged Cross” words & by George Ben­nard, 1913.

“The New Rugged Cross” verse and refrain by Rev. Lisa Bellan-Boyer, copyright 2002 & 2011 and used by permission.

Artwork by Keith Piaseczny, ArtAid.org, copyright 2002 and used by permission.
 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cristobal de Morales Requiem Mass - 9/10/11

Saturday, September 10th at 11:30am, Holy Rosary Church will offer a Requiem Mass in memory of those killed ten years earlier. The mass will be sung by Cantores Sancti Rosarii, directed by Harold Bott.

This is a moving and ethereal treatment of the Mass for the Dead. Cristobal de Morales' music is typical of the polyphony of the middle Renaissance, and the Requiem is a simple, contemplative presentation of the funeral mass. The central theme of the service is in the Requiem text: "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine on them."

Holy Rosary Church is at 344 6th St (between Brunswick and Monmouth Streets) in downtown Jersey City (FLYER).


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Prayer for faith in the storm

Great God, as tumults rage, grant us the impetuous faith to throw ourselves into a disorderly world, that we may find you there. Grant us the power to bring calm to those in trouble, hope to those in peril, healing to any who are broken, and bread to the hungry, in Jesus name. Amen.

Matthew 14:22-33, with thanks to Matthew Skinner for a great idea and some good language.
 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taking Jesus Literally

In the gospels we hear again and again how Jesus loved to break bread with others. He repeatedly sent his disciples out to see that people were fed, even when it seemed impossible (Matthew 14:13-21).

Telling about our churches' food pantries or tallying up our hours at the local soup kitchen doesn't feed anyone. When we have more than we need, there is room to share more. At a time when our government is heading in the wrong economic direction and when Congressional leaders are out-doing each another in doing less for those in need, Jesus asks “do you love me”? If we do, we will feed his people. (You can look it up: John 21:15-19).

Perhaps now is a good time to challenge one another to take Jesus literally. Food ministries in the US are close to crisis status, with declining support and increasing need. The front page of today's New York Times features a photograph of a child starving in Somalia (“Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape From Famine”). Its famine hits world attention as the number at risk of death rises towards - or above - one million. Can you look this child, probably dead by now, in the face?


I have a clue about what Jesus would do. How about us?

I challenge us each to make a donation to hunger relief and to ask our congregations to do something beyond what we are doing now. Lutheran World Relief makes great use of donated funds, as does the ELCA's World Hunger program. Bread for the World does a great job of ecumenical advocacy and can help educate congregations about responses to Jesus' command: “feed my lambs.”

Maybe you can even drop in at the local soup kitchen and share a meal with those being served. All at once, you can fill your belly, make some friends, and feed your hunger - for justice.

Photo: “A woman held a malnourished child at a camp. Somali aid workers said dozens of children are dying every day, most buried in unmarked graves” (cropped). Credit: Tyler Hicks, NY Times.
 

9/11 Books, Video and Other Resources

Some of the best resources I've found for presenting and interpreting 9/11.

Books

City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center. James Glanz and Eric Lipton, Times Books, 2003. The best, most comprehensive telling of the World Trade Center’s history, from its conception and construction to its destruction and beyond.

102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, Times Books, 2005. Stories from inside the towers on 9/11. Good architectural diagrams of the buildings’ structure, and discussion of the design decisions which had an impact on survival.

Messages: Signs, Visits, and Premonitions from Loved Ones Lost on 9/11. Bonnie McEneaney, William Morrow, 2010. In a different vein, tells stories of peoples’ after-death experiences with 9/11 victims. Well done and respectful of both belief and skepticism in the afterlife.

Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back. Jere Longman, HarperCollins Perennial, 2003. Does a really good job in telling the Flight 93 story, especially given its publication before many in-flight records were released.

The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge. Michael Daly, St. Martin’s Press, 2008. Good biography of an amazing man and faithful priest, the NYFD Chaplain killed at the World Trade Center.

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. The factual baseline for what happened on 9/11 and the events leading up to it, although sadly limited in many respects.

The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden. Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. Ballantine, 2011. Update on many of the missing pieces from the 9/11 Commission Report.

Portraits: 9/11/01: The Collected "Portraits of Grief" from The New York Times. The New York Times, Times Press, 2002. Brief sketches of most people killed at the World Trade Center, as published in the well-known NY Times series.

Video

Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. Exceptional exploration of faith and theological issues around the 9/11 attacks, focusing on people directly involved in the disaster and its response. Unfortunately out of print. Try your local library.

The Heart of Steel. Angelo L Guglielmo, Director. Moving presentation of some of the volunteer experiences in the World Trade Center response.



Online

911digitalarchive.org. The September 11 Digital Archive uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and present the history of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. The Archive contains more than 150,000 digital items, a tally that includes more than 40,000 emails and other electronic communications, more than 40,000 first-hand stories, and more than 15,000 digital images.
 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Preaching the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

I’ll be preaching this September 11th, the tenth anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and Washington DC. I have been involved in the recovery work from those attacks since that date, working as a chaplain in the World Trade Center recovery, and more recently guiding tours of the World Trade Center site for the Tribute Center.

This means that I know a lot about those events. They have been part of my life. They deeply affected me and many people I know. It also means I feel the need to do some extra work to think this one through, to put my feelings and experience in service of proclaiming good news.

Beginning that work, there are a couple of thoughts that may be helpful to other preachers and speakers who will grapple with what to say.

Unique Memories

One of the features of 9/11 for the preacher is that most of your audience will know what you are talking about. As one of the signature moments in cultural history, people remember where they were when they heard the news. Certain images replay in people’s heads. Many people have their own 9/11 story.

September 11, 2001 is also closely linked to other events and themes: war in Afghanistan and Iraq, fear of others (especially Muslims), the desire for security, sacrifice, retribution and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. People remember 9/11 each time they take their shoes off in an airport or see an old movie with the World Trade Center towers in the background.

Many of these experiences have strong emotions attached to them: grief, helplessness, anger, desire for vengeance, fear, courage, pride, hope, love...

Whether it directly becomes part of the sermon, it will be good to listen for some of those stories and feelings in the preaching process, including your own. Where were you on September 11th? How did it affect you? What did you feel? What did you do in response?

Selected works from "Art for Heart," an exhibition of paintings
by children who lost loved ones in the attacks on the
World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001.

Developing a Shared Memory

Virtually no one under the age of about 14 will remember the events of September 11, 2001. Most will have heard something about it, but few will have covered it in school. Like every other cultural reference (to movies released 20 years ago, to current pop culture, to Bible stories), the preacher will need to assess how much the listeners recognize and understand the referent. You’ll need to make some decisions about how and how much to describe the events, in order to support proclamation of the gospel.

This is also true even of those of listeners who remember 9/11. Those who remember 9/11 have a variety of experiences, feelings, and opinions about it. As with any big story, we will each know only fragments. One of the functions of preaching is to “gather up the broken pieces,” to contribute to a shared view of reality. In choosing what to remember, what to emphasize, what to omit, the preacher has an influential voice in shaping community memory.

1. What is the heart of the gospel? Where do you hear the good news of deliverance, of hope, of life beyond destruction?

2. What parts of the story (the 9/11 story, the scriptural story) are necessary to proclaim the gospel?

3. What parts of the story (the 9/11 story, the scriptural story) hinder the hearing of the gospel? How does God speak and act in the presence of stumbling blocks?

Brief additional thoughts

9/11 was not the first nor the last occasion of terror and the murder of innocents. America took note of this one, not only because of its magnitude, and spectacular, cinematic, media-saturated quality, but because it happened here, to us. It is important to appropriately remember this particular event, and also the 9/11s which happen daily throughout the world. The cross of Jesus Christ illumines persecution, torture, and murder everywhere.

As we see the face of Jesus, we see a human face. Since Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans memorial, remembrances of the world's killing fields have highlighted the individual lives which make up the macro-events of history. You cannot go wrong by looking at the faces of those involved in 9/11 - the victims, the survivors, the responders, and even the perpetrators - with the light of Christ. (See the NY Time Portraits of Grief, or CNN list of 9/11 victims.)

The Appointed Texts

The texts for the day offer a lot to address this anniversary. Some brief thoughts on some of the lectionary texts for Sunday, 9/11/11.

Genesis 50:15-21 - Joseph forgives his brothers

1. “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good...” I get very uncomfortable with the notion that God somehow supports or enables evil, knowing that good will eventually be the outcome. “It's all part of God's plan” can be a facile excuse for wrongdoing and tends to diminish the experience of those wronged. I love this story – but I favor a careful telling where God’s “left hand” is patiently at work behind the scenes, continually finding ways to bring about good no matter how diligently people seek other ends. I recall how destruction is easy. 19 people and a few boxcutters brought down 4 planes and those tall towers. But millions stepped up in response. It may be occasion to point to signs of healing. And yet, there will be a tension not found in Joseph's story - he, after all, survived the ill done to him, and prospered. Those who were murdered on 9/11 are still mourned, and not all who were hurt have found the good that God intends... Come, Lord Jesus, come.

2. Joseph never uses the word “forgive.” Does he forgive his brothers? What does forgiveness look like in the real world?

Matthew 18:21-35 - How often should I forgive?

1. Forgiveness may be a matter of grace - but it usually takes work. On a good day, we might forgive once. Seven times seems very hard. Seventy-seven? Just about impossible. While this is a continuation of the teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation in the preceding verses, this reading ends with a disturbing image of God as torturer. Anybody really listening will hear that, too. (Does God in the text live up to God’s own forgiveness standard?) Preaching might focus on the hell that unforgiving people make for themselves and others. By contrast, living examples of forgiveness might be lifted up, showing the burdens that are lifted when God’s generous mercy finds a home in our lives.


Some of the best resources for presenting and interpreting the stories of 9/11/01.

Images:
• St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the only church building on the WTC site, destroyed 9/11/01
• Selected works from "Art for Heart," an exhibition of paintings by children who lost loved ones in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001
• Artist's rendition of Reflecting Absence, part of the under-construction National September 11 Memorial & Museum, image by Squared Design Lab
 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany

Almighty God, we give you thanks for those witnesses who have preceded us in faith, especially remembering this day the New Testament saints of Bethany: Mary, who sat at her rabbi's feet; Martha, who trusted in Jesus and confessed him as Messiah; and Lazarus, who obeyed Jesus' command and came out of the grave. Give us the grace to listen to your Word, true hearts to know your presence, and the will to follow you from death into life. Grant that we too may follow you in faith, trusting ever in your promise of new life in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Craven

The U.S. Constitution, adopted September 17, 1787: “Section. 8. The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;...” (archives.gov).


“This debt limit increase is his [Obama’s] problem...” John Boehner, Speaker of the House, July 12, 2011.

“We need to raise the debt limit - but Republicans can’t take the responsibility.” Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, July 12, 2011. (OK, that’s not a quote - just a summary of what he said. He described his plan where the Republicans would vote “against” a debt limit increase - but also give Obama the authority to do it, abdicating their responsibility under the Constitution. See Mitch McConnell says Republicans will not let government default.)

Shame on you. Your economics are wrong. Your politics (I pray) are wrong. And your idea of leadership is to point the finger at somebody else, to shirk your duty, and to avoid any sense of responsibility for the state of our nation. The most out of touch institution in the U.S. is the Congress. This is about your spending, your tax policies, the budgets and earmarks and tax loopholes and bailouts and pork that you lobbied for, schemed for, and voted for.

Obama’s time in office: 19 months. Average length of service in the House at the beginning of the 110th Congress was more than 10 years; in the Senate, 12.8 years. If you want to assign blame, start from there.

If you want to accept responsibility, you need to start from a very different place. The President “implored both political parties to give ground and show the American people that Washington can actually work. ‘If not now, when?’ Obama said” (Debt-talks). Big proposals - the Republicans say no. Moderate proposals - the Republicans say no.

It’s about economics - artificially low taxes for the wealthy. And it’s about politics - according to Sen. McConnell, as long as Obama is president “a real solution is unattainable.” That means “we won’t work with this guy no matter what happens to the country.”

America will judge which position represents responsible leadership.

Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell: the debt limit, and the deficit, and the debt, and the job crisis, the housing crisis, the banking crisis, and the gap between rich and the rest of us - all of these are our problems. America gets it - why can't you?

 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Land that I love

July 4, 2011

I used to make a point of calling this holiday “Independence Day.” Its major feature was, for me, the specific point of national pride in seeking independence from a foreign master. It was about standing up, declaring “this is what we stand for,” and being willing to back it up with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

I know a little more history these days, enough to know that few persons’ deeds ever match their rhetoric. Those who talk freedom are not always the ones who sacrifice of themselves to win it. And American freedom has far too often been at the expense of others’ bondage: slaves, women, native peoples, the poor in this land and others.

The very term “independence” rings oddly when we know that independence is a fiction, whether we are talking about “individuals” (who only exist in families and communities), the global political-economy, or the interconnection of all things (dependent origination).

Yet the fourth day in July is a good occasion to remember and reflect what is best about this land that I love. This Fourth, I'd like to highlight three things I value about my native land.

Freedom is linked to opportunity and justice. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [people] are created equal;
that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Parse these any way you like, but these words were the opening salvo of American democracy, which led to our Constitution and Bill of Rights, one of humanity’s best attempts to structure a just civil society. We can enumerate the myriad ways which, since the beginning, this nation and our people have fallen short of this ideal. But the vision cannot be negotiated away without losing our soul. It is a hope and a promise and a guide.

Fighting spirit. While we may be too quick to engage in war, and not dedicated enough to the practice of engaged, disciplined diplomacy and peace-making, I do love the backbone behind this fighting spirit. We see it in the impulse to serve – in the military, in civic service, and in helping professions. And we also see it in the way Americans often find ways to pull together in times of crisis. I remember 9/11 – especially for the response of thousands after thousands of people to step up. We see it in most disasters. If we look, we see it every day. I sometimes dream about what our world would be like if we would put down the remote control and buckle down to tackle poverty, sickness, and injustice the way we can fight a more easily-defined enemy.

Welcome the stranger. In his book The Island at the Center of the World about the early Dutch history of New York, Russell Shorto sketches an intriguing case for the way New York City’s flagship role in the American experience is due to the relative openness and tolerance practiced by the Dutch and carried forth by their polyglot heirs.

The United States of America, except for our native peoples who first inhabited the land, and for the descendents of slaves, brought and kept here against their will, is a nation of immigrants. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Our culture is jazz – which is to say we are the beneficiaries of the frisson, or sizzle which happens when cultures meet, ideas and goods are exchanged, peoples intermarry.

And despite the many points of conflict and even violence, by and large this is a story of people being able to work it out, to work and live together.

The illustration to the right is the American flag at Chuang Yen Monastery, a Pure Land Buddhist and mostly Chinese community near Carmel, NY. It flies outside the Great Buddha Hall, and overlooks statues of Buddhist saints and the community's large ceremonial drum. In every age, immigrants have come to America to make this land their land, and to enrich the rest of us through their presence.

God bless America - land that I love.

Artwork:
The Post-9/11 American flag painting hangs at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, artist unknown.
 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sunday haiku

Rain drops, fish plops, monk
chants drift. A carp floats
close by Kwan Yin, belly up.

 

A glimpse of the Buddha

Today (Saturday 7/2) was the first full day of Buddhist Summer Camp at Chuang Yen Monastery. The day is programmed with Dharma talks and Buddhist education, service, “working meditation,” vegetarian meals, and typical camp activities like relay races. I have visited the monastery before but never stayed overnight. It is a peaceful, beautiful, well-used, and welcoming place.

At the end of the day, I walked back to the men’s dormitory, which sits across from a small lake. In late twilight, I paused to sit for a few moments on a flat rock. The lake was before me, mirroring the surrounding trees and the deepening shades of the sky above.

Every few moments carp would break the surface of the lake, each plop a reminder that the lake was a living thing. And also the occasion to think of how nice it would be have a pond with such well-fed fish, who dine on remainders from the dining hall, and who would no doubt make a tasty, sustainable addition to the dining table.

Then I thought of the karma generated by this place, where no animals are killed and campers do not slap stray bugs, but carry them outside. There just may be a different vibe to a pond where fish are never harvested, to a piece of land where deer are not hunted and no slaughtered chickens, pigs, and cattle are trucked in. And to a place-and-community where the people seek to cultivate compassion in their every day relationships.

Then a car came up the road. As it pulled in to park, for several moments its headlights illumined my lakeside scene. Past me to my left, on the small rock cliff that formed part of the shoreline, there was a shadow of a seated buddha, my shadow.

As a shadow, you couldn’t look for all the marks of a Buddha - you could only get a resemblance, a suggestion. While I have the build for a good Chinese Buddha, anyone seated on the rock in that way would have cast a similar shadow.

And that’s about right. Zen Master Seung Sahn writes that “Everyone already has goodness in their mind. It is already present, and needs no special cultivation” The Compass of Zen (Shambhala, 1997, p.38). In another idiom, you might recall “created in the image of God.”

The image does not have to be complete to evoke the truth that Buddha-nature, our God-given goodness, is right here where we live. In truth, I make a pretty crappy Buddha. An image which blurs some of my rough edges is sometimes necessary to see the shape of enlightenment, to recall the hope of deliverance and the peace that passes – or perhaps fully is understanding.

The car headlights went out. The mosquitoes began diving in to test my compassion for them and my equanimity towards even small sufferings. But the Buddha-shadow remains, contemplating Kwan Yin Lake in the moonlight, even as I write.