Haiku Friday: Unexpected Gifts

This weekend, for the first time, I’ll be officiating at a wedding at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. And yesterday, the bride and groom brought me an unexpected gift. To quote John Wesley, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” It brought back wonderful memories of my childhood in the Moravian Church in North Carolina.


On Sunday, March 1, I’ll actually be talking about my background in the Moravian Church, highlighting its history, traditions, and hymnody.  My discussion will take place between the 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. worship services that morning at Palmer, which is located at 6221 Main Street in Houston. People have been curious here about my background as a Moravian. So I’ll address that, but I also hope it will cause folks to appreciate their own backgrounds in various traditions and how, in many cases, parts of them enrich not only their own experience of the Episcopal Church (or whatever tradition is different from a previous one) but also ours.

In the meantime, let’s reflect on unexpected gifts as this week’s haiku theme. It might be something related to a tangible gift, like the Moravian cookies that I’m suddenly enjoying. It might be a verse about an intangible gift that we have either received or given away or handed down from one generation to another. Whatever you write about, do it with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s the one that I created:

Thanks for the cookies —
Moravian tradition,
now with choc’late. Yum!

On the Road with the Rector #2

Added LaneLiving in the City of Houston provides us with incredible opportunities to participate in cultural and intellectual events. Throughout the year, I’ll invite you and your friends and neighbors to join me in some of these activities that might either strengthen or challenge us as Christians.

The next “On the Road with the Rector” event is a lecture on “Civil Religion and Religious Civility” by Richard Mouw, former President of Fuller Theological Seminary, which is sponsored by the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University. It will take place this week — Wednesday, February 25 — at 8:00 a.m. in Sewall Hall, Room 307, on the Rice campus, which is located at 6100 Main Street.

These are the questions that Mouw will discuss with Elaine Howard Ecklund, Autrey Professor of Sociology and Director of the Religion and Public Life Program:

Should religious arguments be used in political, legal, and other debates conducted in the public sphere?

Should religion ever leave the private sphere?

It will also include a moderated question and answer period and be followed by a breakfast reception for those who are able to stay. Whenever food is involved, it’s always helpful to let them know that you will be attending. You can RSVP either by registering online or by sending an email to Hayley Hemstreet, Program Manager for the Religion and Public Life Program, at hayley.j.hemstreet@rice.edu.

Haiku Friday: As Tami Taylor Says

As you may have guessed, this photo was taken on Ash Wednesday. So, yes, both of these Christians know about the ashen crosses on their foreheads. Soon thereafter, I also received an ashen cross on my forehead, as a priest spoke these words to me: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”


The man on the right, Mr. Kirk Waldron, is a member of the Vestry (i.e., governing board) of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. He has childhood memories of the place and knows where all of the nooks and crannies are. The man on the left, Mr. Gerry Sandoval, is a skilled handyman who knows how to fix all of the nooks and crannies around the church. They are part of a great team that keep Palmer’s buildings from returning to dust, so to speak. They also look after the Rectory, which is now home to me and my family in West University Place. Furthermore, I agree wholeheartedly with a reflection that my wife Carrie wrote about this photo:

Living in a rectory is like living in a haunted house, but instead of ghosts, we live among the memories of the people who lived in and cared for this beautiful home. And instead of hauntings, we get repairs and maintenance and love from these two gentlemen, who listen to me more than they listen to Neil. In the immortal words of Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights, “I appreciate that.”

So that’s our haiku theme for today. Write a verse about those salt-of-the-earth people in your life whom you appreciate for any number of reasons. Use five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line to create something like this, which you’re most welcome to share here:

Gerry and Kirk fix
the things of Palmer, making
the Rector’s wife smile.

Ashes on the Street

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the penitential and introspective season of Lent for most Christians around the world, including the Christians of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that we held four services at various times throughout Ash Wednesday for our members and guests to observe that beginning liturgically and to receive not only the imposition of ashes, as a symbol of our mortality and utter dependence on God’s grace, but also the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

What is surprising to many — and controversial to some — is that members of our congregation also offer to mark the foreheads of strangers with ashes in the shape of a cross, reminding them that, while each of us will return to the dust from which we were made, God’s love surrounds and sustains us, now and always. Parishioners sign up to do this in hour-long shifts at the intersections and light rail station near the church. Most of the people who either walk or drive past them are heading into or through the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest medical center in the world. Hermann Memorial Medical Plaza, for example, is a 30-story building that is located directly across Cambridge Street from Palmer’s campus. Passers-by include medical professionals of all kinds, family members of patients, people with cancer or other diseases, the cleaners and maintainers of the hospitals, and human beings with no home. All of them are created in the image of God and are loved by God.


Last year Palmer reached out to 944 strangers in this way on Ash Wednesday. This year we far surpassed that number, making a connection with 1,594 fellow travelers on the road of life. All of us, even if we don’t know it, need mercy and forgiveness.

The man in the photo below stopped to talk to us early in the morning because he was curious about why we were outside. I told him that the ashes are a symbol of the reality that we are finite and fragile, yet embraced by an infinite and loving God. I also said that Christians reflect on that reality throughout the several weeks before Holy Week and Easter. Then a parishioner made the sign of the cross on his forehead, reminding him of his mortality and of the fact that he is not alone and leaving all three of us a bit teary-eyed. The reason we do this is to have these kinds of encounters with people who are usually strangers to us but never strangers to God through the love of Jesus Christ. We bring that truth into the public square.


Texas Tuesday: Also Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston means pancakes in the kitchen and fire on the patio. What’s being burned in this photo are palms from last year’s liturgy for Palm Sunday. The ashes will then be used to mark with the sign of the cross the foreheads of those who either come to worship with us on Ash Wednesday or pass by the intersections or light rail station near the church, where members have already volunteered to meet all sorts and conditions of people who will be passing through the Texas Medical Center. That happens tomorrow!


Haiku Friday: Taking That First Step

I recently participated in a group discussion that included this video of a girl’s first ski jump. All of us, I think, can relate to her tremendous hesitation about getting started. Yet there are people around her who obviously care for her and want her to succeed. The result is thrilling, not only for her but also for us as we watch this brief adventure. Be sure to catch what she says when she reaches the bottom.


Your experience of this probably didn’t happen on a ski jump. Perhaps it took place as you entered a new school, asked someone out on a date, walked into a courtroom for the first time, or gathered up the courage to apologize to a friend. Writing about that kind of experience is this week’s haiku theme. Your haiku should include five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s what came to mind for me after I saw that girl’s courage:

First time in pulpit:
“O Lord, please let a trap door
open beneath me.”

Texas Tuesday: Houston’s Chinatown

We recently went on a family adventure that took us through Houston’s Chinatown. While we didn’t have time on that trip to explore things there, we certainly want to do so in the future. I was fascinated by the fact that the street signs were written in both English and Chinese. All of that brought back fond memories of our oldest son in kindergarten last year at Breck School (Episcopal) in the Twin Cities. He took Chinese and would have continued to study that language in later grades, too, if we had not moved to Houston. I’m not sure, however, that he would ever have learned how to spell “Sam Houston Parkway” in Chinese.

Houston's Chinatown

Meeting at the Table with King Jesus

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Epiphany V, February 8, 2015

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary . . . (Isaiah 40:28)

Those words were written for the exiles of ancient Israel — people who were on the verge of forgetting their own story. They felt overwhelmed by the forces of the world around them — the false gods of political power and military might, the experience of exile and loneliness, and the fear of abandonment. They had grown weary over many years away from home. And they were starting to forget the story of God’s faithfulness, the story of God’s steadfast love toward their ancestors. Having been dislocated geographically, they were now dislocated spiritually.

Surely that sense of disorientation describes a lot of us too. Our television and computer screens are filled with news of violence and brutality, including brutality against children, by ISIS in the Middle East and by Boko Haram in Africa. And then we woke up last Monday to hear on the local news about violence and brutality in our own backyard. The Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe, his wife Dorcus, and their youngest son, Israel, Jr., whom they called Jay and who was only five years old, had been murdered in their apartment — beaten to death.

Israel was a native of Uganda, where he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church of Uganda. He served both as a chaplain to the University of Houston and as the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. He also had, in addition to degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School, a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Rice University.

All of this was very much on the minds of folks on Tuesday morning at the Men’s Bible Study and our weekly staff meeting here at the church. That’s partly because some of you remember Israel from the time he was just beginning his studies at Rice. For his dissertation, Israel studied the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994, writing about the senseless killing of family and neighbor — by Christians — and the transformative power of the Torah to prevent a repetition of that kind of senseless killing. The fact that he and his family became victims of that very thing is horrifying.

As most of you know, Israel’s oldest son, Isaac, has been arrested and charged with capital murder in this terrible case. The only other surviving son, Emmanuel, is about to graduate from a prep school in California. So Isaac and Emmanuel will now walk through this valley of the shadow of death without their parents, without their youngest brother, and without traveling side by side on the long road that lies ahead of them. It’s a journey of grief, sorrow, pain, forgiveness, repentance, and — yes — justice that will exhaust them.

Albeit under different circumstances, most of us know what it’s like to be tired, weighed down by disappointment, disease, or death. We bring those burdens here, and wonder if God will hear our cry. We bring those burdens here, when we can no longer carry them by ourselves.

In the midst of our weariness, Isaiah reminds us that God “does not faint or grow weary.” He reminds us that God created the earth, stretched out the heavens, and yet still recognizes each star in the celestial canopy. Those things — those realities — point to the true seat of power in contrast to the claims of the princes and rulers of this world.

The God of creation will loosen their grip on the weak. According to Isaiah, “[The Lord] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” We’ve seen this take place in the story of Israel and in the story of the Church. We’ve also seen it happen in the stories of people around us, in our own friendships, in our own households, and here in our own parish family.

I thought about Isaiah’s bold statement last Thursday, as friends and colleagues of the Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe gathered across the street in Rice Memorial Chapel to remember him and his family. There we sang the familiar hymn Amazing Grace, with some of us believing its words to be true, while others — perhaps in exile from an earlier life of faith — might have wished, if only for a moment, that they could believe its message in the midst of things that none of us can understand.

Singing that hymn brought to mind a commercial for the Salvation Army that I saw years ago and have never forgotten. The words were spoken by the people whom the Salvation Army serves – individuals too often forgotten by society but not forgotten by God. And this is what they said:

Amazing Grace
How Sweet the Sound

That saved . . .
A Crack Head
Drug Addict
Meth Freak
A Wretch
Like Me.

I once was . . .
SadJust Lost

But now I am . . .
I’m found

Was blind but now I see.

Then, at the very end, the voice of a narrator says:

Every day shattered lives are restored, thanks to the goods you donate to the Salvation Army.

It was, in many ways, like an ad for the reign of God. It represented the kind of diversity that’s described in the biblical vision of the heavenly banquet.

And something else came to mind too – an unusual poem about the founder of the Salvation Army, a man who became blind late in life. That poem, entitled “General William Booth Enters Heaven,” describes the old man being reunited with those to whom he had reached out with Christian compassion. Here’s the part that reminds me of the community invited by Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, to feast with him:

Jesus came from out the court-house door,
Stretched His hands above the passing poor.
Booth saw not, but led his queer ones there,
Round and round the mighty court-house square.
Then in an instant, all that blear review
Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new,
The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled,
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world. . . .

He saw King Jesus; they were face to face,
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

My friends, the Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe was washed in the blood of the Lamb, who has taken away the sins of the world. And he believed in this biblical vision of the heavenly banquet. He knew that his God, in the words of Isaiah, “does not faint or grow weary.” As he told his bishop, our bishop, the last time they met, “I am filled with great hope.”

I first heard about Israel’s study of the Rwandan genocide from a professor of Hebrew Bible who spoke at the memorial service last Thursday. That professor also shared with us a prayer from St. Augustine’s book The Confessions:

Creator God, O Lord of all,
who rule the skies, you clothe the day
in radiant color, bid the night
in quietness serve the gracious sway
of sleep, that weary limbs, restored
to labor’s use, may rise again,
and jaded minds abate their fret,
and mourners find release from pain.

That’s a beautiful prayer. It brings to mind the words of Isaiah about God, who not only “stretches out the heavens like a curtain” but also renews the strength of those who wait for him here beneath the starry sky. Even when overwhelmed by grief and sorrow . . .

. . . they shall mount up with wings as eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Yesterday afternoon, a little north of Houston in The Woodlands, the 166th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas adjourned. Our clergy and lay delegates from Palmer sat directly behind the folks from the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston.

166th Diocesan Council

So the Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe should have been sitting at the table in front of us. But I will meet him at another table, face to face with King Jesus. This I believe.

My God “does not faint or grow weary,” so I am filled with great hope. Let us pray:

O God, who brought us to birth, and in whose arms we die, comfort us in our grief and shock at the violent deaths of Israel, Dorcus, and Jay. Surround us, the people of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, the Episcopal students at the University of Houston, and both Emmanuel and Isaac with your love; give us all hope in our confusion and grace to release Israel, Dorcus, and Jay into the embrace of your mercy; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.


Haiku Friday: EDOT Annual Council #166


In the Episcopal Church, there are annual meetings not only for parishes but also for dioceses, which are geographic regions in which multiple congregations, under the leadership of a bishop, work together as God’s people. Today, a little north of Houston in The Woodlands, the 166th Diocesan Council convenes for the bishops, clergy delegates, and lay delegates from across the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

It’s like an extended family reunion, with everything, good and bad, such an image encompasses. Sometimes these conventions inspire the faithful. Sometimes they’re blessedly boring. I say “blessedly” because occasionally metaphorical fireworks are set off. The 113th Diocesan Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia in 2005 was an example of high drama. But that’s not what I’m expecting today.

Of course, since I’m new here, I could use some pointers from folks. So give me a little advice, share a memory, or make a prediction — in the form of haiku — about Diocesan Council or about whatever conventions or annual meetings that you’ve witnessed. All you need for this is one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:

Robert’s Rules are great,
but these words make my heart sink:
“Point of order.” Ugh!

Texas Tuesday: Grief and Great Sadness

On Tuesdays at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, I usually lead the early morning Men’s Bible Study and then attend the mid-morning, weekly staff meeting. At both of those gatherings today, the first thing on everyone’s mind was the homicide investigation into the deaths of the Rev. Israel  Ahimbisibwe, his wife Dorcus, and their youngest son Jay, who was only five years old. Yesterday their bodies were found in their apartment, which showed no signs of forced entry, after members of their congregation tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to contact them.

According to a statement from the Episcopal Diocese of Texas:

Ahimbisibwe, a native of Uganda, served as vicar of Redeemer Episcopal Church in Houston and as chaplain for the University of Houston. . . .

[He] was ordained in the Church of Uganda and held masters degrees from both Princeton Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School. After completing graduate research at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he earned an additional masters and doctorate from Rice University.

This evening there will be a prayer service at the University of Houston in memory of these three children of God who were loved by so many people. The Rev. Patrick Hall, Episcopal missioner to Rice University and a familiar face to folks at Palmer, will be one of several priests available to provide pastoral care to students after that service. For the rest of us, here are a few words that can be our prayer tonight:

O God, who brought us to birth, and in whose arms we die, comfort us in our grief and shock at the violent deaths of Israel, Dorcus, and Jay. Surround us, the people of Redeemer Episcopal Church, and the Episcopal students at the University of Houston with your love; give us all hope in our confusion and grace to release Israel, Dorcus, and Jay into the embrace of your mercy; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.