Texas Tuesday: Prayer at City Hall

photo-2Today I enjoyed lunch with Houston City Council Member David Robinson, who is also a member of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. He had invited me to offer a prayer before the City Council meeting this afternoon — an invitation that rotates among the members of City Council throughout the year. So I got to wear this visitor badge inside City Hall and hear a wonderful introduction and welcome to Houston from Council Member Robinson not only for me but also for my family.

THE PEOPLE ARE THE CITY — those words, in an art deco style, appear inside the Council Chamber, above the doors that let me and others into that room. If that’s true, Houston was well represented today because the room was overflowing with citizens at a session dedicated to public comment. Needless to say, there are lots of opinions about prayers offered in official settings of that kind. Nevertheless, I was invited to stand before the men and women gathered there and, essentially, to make the first public comment. So I reminded them that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, of which I am a part, God said that the creation was “very good” in the beginning. Then I shared these words of the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, which come from his collection of sermons and prayers entitled Inscribing the Text:

You are the God from whom no secret can be hid.

You are the God of truth
to whom the truth must be told.

And so we bring to you
the truth of the world:
the truth of hunger and poverty,
the truth of need and abandonment and anxiety,
the truth of hurt and dying,
the truth of violence and war.

All these truths we submit to your more
powerful life-giving truth.

So we bid you, truth-doing God,
veto the hunger and poverty in our world,
override the need and abandonment and anxiety
so palpable among us,
cancel out the hurt and the dying
so pervasive in our world,
move peaceably against violence
and enact your shalom
in the face of our threats of war.

We do not hold back from you
the truth of our need.

Do not hold back from us
the gospel truth of your mercy,
compassion and

Sway us from our deep distortion
into your deep goodness
that we and our world may again,
by your verdict,
be “Very good.” Amen.

Baseball Cards and Buechner Too

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 10, July 13, 2014

So [Esau] swore an oath to [Jacob], selling his birthright to Jacob. (Genesis 25:33)

C.J. Green is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia and also contributes to the Mockingbird blog. I’m a big fan of Mockingbird, and Green’s most recent post there is entitled “A Place on the Ladder: Notes from Sibling Rivalry.” It opens with a memory that’s uncomfortably familiar to a lot of us here this morning either as siblings or as the parents of siblings. He writes:

1999It was a Ken Griffey, Jr. baseball card, blue and shiny and highly-coveted by Little Leaguers everywhere. Packed in with four other no-names, it was a diamond in the rough. And it was mine. My brother, a year older, couldn’t believe I was so lucky — I mean, Ken Griffey, Jr. — so he proceeded to, quite sneakily, remove it from my collection and place it in his own. I can’t remember exactly what happened next but, after many tears and a flurry of hand-to-hand combat, the card lay discarded on the ground with river-like creases running over Ken’s regal face. My Ken Griffey card. But wasn’t it just a bit of paper with some stats on the back? Yes, it was, but that’s not the point. This wasn’t just a fight over some baseball card. This was indirect fire from a much greater conflict: years of brother-against-brother war.[1]

Green later admits that he didn’t really care about baseball cards. But his brother did. It was, he confessed, “a rare, shining opportunity” to wield power against him. Continue reading

Change Ringing

More than seven years ago, I received my first letter during my first week as the Rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota. It was a strongly worded complaint from a neighbor about the church bells, a carillon that was allegedly disturbing the peace of that letter’s author. Eventually I had a face to face meeting with the Deputy Chief of Police for the City of Edina about the noise level of those bells and the hymns that they played. Welcome to the neighborhood!

I thought about that introduction this week because Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where I now serve, also has bells — 17 bells to be exact. Nine of them can be used to play hymns and songs, and four of those nine are the original bells from 1929. The remaining eight bells are change ringing bells.

There are no hymns or other melodies played on these change ringing bells, and they’re rung neither by a single person nor by automation. Rather, it’s an art form that is both a human effort and a team effort, with a group of people ringing them in a series of mathematical patterns called “changes.”

In North America, 52 bell towers can produce this unique sound. Five of them are in Texas. Three of them are in Houston. Last Sunday, between services, I climbed a ladder into the bell tower at my new church to watch the change ringers at work:


Yesterday, my family and I stopped by the church in the evening. Our two boys ran around the courtyard and explored the water fountain there. The three-year-old had a great time jumping over puddles. But all of us enjoyed listening to six change ringers complete a quarter peal — about 45 minutes of continuous ringing — that was done in honor of my becoming the Sixth Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. Don’t worry, this is only one minute of the sound of that quarter peal:

Now . . . I wonder what’s going to be in my mailbox or my inbox at the church after the holiday weekend. Hopefully it won’t involve the Houston Police Department.

Out on Highway 61 with Bob Dylan

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, June 29, 2014

[Isaac] said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering.” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:7-8)

When my family and I moved here several weeks ago, one of the best parts of our drive from Minneapolis to Houston was listening to a playlist entitled “Journey to Texas.” It was created by one of our new friends in this congregation, someone who even mailed us a description of the songs. About the first one, “Highway 61 Revisited” by Bob Dylan, he wrote: “Minnesota’s native son starts you off on your journey. The song has ‘highway’ in the title, so it must be a road trip song, right? Plus it begins with Dylan’s retelling of a famous Bible story, which seems appropriate.”

This morning I’d sing the opening lyrics to you the way that Bob Dylan does, but, let’s be honest, that’s impossible for most people on this planet. So I’ll just read them:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well, Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”[1]

That’s Bob Dylan’s version of the story about Abraham and his son Isaac. The original version, set, as we heard this morning, in the land of Moriah, comes from the first book of the Bible. Continue reading