Friday, June 3, 2016


I haven’t written in a while, and this time I REALLY have an excuse: first, carpal tunnel, then tendonitis, then arthritis and what may be a pinched nerve, all in my writing hand. So I may not be writing a lot for awhile.  But I have a few random thoughts (two actually):

I do not understand how the three young men from Minnesota who were found guilty of “conspiracy to commit murder abroad” face life in prison, when cop after cop who has actually committed homicide here gets off with nothing.

I am not a supporter of people going to Syria to fight for ISIS, but could we be honest about who actually is ever tried for “conspiracy to commit murder abroad”?   Lots of Americans go to serve with Israel’s army, there are U. S. veterans fighting with militias in Iraq and Syria, there are many mercenaries (called “contractors”) committing murder in countries all over the place.   We should at least call it “conspiracy to commit murder abroad for people and groups we don’t like”).

That’s the first thing.  The second is that it’s a beautiful spring day outside: lots of rain, lots of green and colorful things bursting out all over.  But when we turn on the local news today, we will hear it’s a “bad day” a “gloomy day”, and that the “good day” of the weekend will be when it doesn’t rain.  Of course, prior to the newscast, they will tell you that they are going to tell you that and then at the beginning of the newscast they will tell  you that they are going to tell you that, and then five minutes into the newscast they will tell you part of that, and promise to tell you more of that later in the newscast.   And sometimes apologize for the rain.

Yes, I am in a good mood today, honestly!  It being spring and gardening time, maybe you’d like this poem, recently out in Philadelphia Stories:


                                                                                                                "God does what she wants.
                                                                                                              She has very large tractors."
                                                                                                                                           Robert Bly

It is the first time Jesús has planted, and
his haircut is on backwards.  His eyes are
little birds, hinged at the wings.  His hands
spend their days combating eagerness.
Give him a shovel.  Give a boy with poking eyes
an extra hand to carve his name in dirt.
Some boy's house fell into its own pit here
and made hole-homes for rat-friends,
for pawned treasures and secrets that never
got redeemed.  Jesús can make time with a shovel.
Make it march backward.  Stand on its head.
Do tricks.  Blink back nobodies.  Earth is a bag
to hold heaven, and Jesús is a hole's best friend.
Big sister Milly (one leg over the fence into babies,
the other still in diapers), hands him a tomato
with its web roots of tiny feathers.  It is a small
bird fallen out of heaven.  It is a troubling
miracle, that rests a moment in Jesús’ palm,
cupped between the thumb and the dirty nails,
until his knee bends, his hands 
swoop down, and his fingers
release the peeping prey to the freshly dug earth.

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be ye not afraid of the rain.


Monday, March 28, 2016


There has been a lot of talk this election year about an “angry electorate”, or at least the angry part of the electorate that the news media loves to cover.  And there certainly has been enough angry rhetoric from the Republican presidential candidates.

But I don’t think that anger alone explains the appeal of Mr. Trump, and his appeal to “deport all illegal (sic) immigrants” or “bar Muslims from entering the U.S.”, not to mention the physical violence that has taken place at some rallies.

There are a lot of people angry in this country.  I’m angry about income inequality, pollution and climate change, profiling and racism, violence against women, etc. etc.  People are angry about a lot of stuff.  I imagine that in every election in our divided nation, close to half the people are angry about “the other side”.  But I don’t think that explains what is happening this year.

I think the problem greater than anger is that people feel powerless.  That their world is changing and that they can’t stop it.  Which causes fear and hopelessness, which are REALLY hard to feel, and so we tend to cover it up with anger.  And usually the kind of anger that looks for a scapegoat.

A lot has been made of the fact that it’s mostly white working class people who support Trump.  (I imagine there’s a lot of poor white people that do as well).  I can’t speak for such a large group, but I can see why they would be angry—about income inequality, the loss of high-paying jobs, and cultural shifts that—to them—have happened so rapidly.

And if they feel powerless to change things, where do they turn to?  If you are African-American, there are groups and strategies you can be a part of, from Black Lives Matter to NAACP.  There are many Latino and immigrant groups, women’s and LGBT organizations.  There are unions and environmental groups.

But if you are a white working class man, you may be asking “Who is MY champion?”  And if you feel shut out, disempowered, and that opportunities to flourish and feel secure are passing you by, then it’s not hard to see that you might be drawn to a man who not only promises to fix what’s ailing you, but also does it in a way that calls out the very groups you may see as destroying your way of life: immigrants, Muslims, the poor, minorities, “elites”, “uppity” women.

Needless to say—but it really does need to be said a lot—Trump’s strategies aren’t going to help working class people at all.  But when people in the US vote more often for whom they perceive and feel is “for them” rather than on specific policy strategies, you could see how someone is “standing up” and “knows how to get things done” would be appealing.

Now you could say “It’s their fault—“They should see through Trump’s lies”—“They’re acting out of their privilege as whites”—“There’s plenty of movements and organizations they could get involved with for real change”, etc. etc.

That may be true. (Although it is easy for the left to demonize and stereotype poorer and less educated among us, because, let’s face it, the intellectual and financial base of most of the left is middle class and upper class.)  But telling people who feel powerless that they are wrong to feel that way is like saying to someone who is angry “Why are you angry?”  or “You really have it better than lots of other people”. How often does that work out well?

I’ve seen this same dynamic in the church.  Most of the congregations I’ve served have been in inner cities, where great ethnic, cultural and economic changes have taken place in the neighborhood around the church.  I have led those churches into change, change that has been hard and slow and sometimes divisive. While many established leaders discover that a new way of being church with the community is both wise and just, not all do.  And when fundamental change takes place—especially if people don’t feel they have the power to stop it or change it—there can be a lot of resentment and blaming that gets built up.  The newcomers—whether they are from a different race or language or economic status—make an easy target for “why things are going wrong”.

As church leaders we quickly point out the racism—both obvious and subtle—in these disenchanted leaders.  And it is there.  But I’m beginning to see more clearly that we often overlook how the shift of power can be so unsettling to those who once had great power (or thought they did) and now see others “taking” that away from them.  If you feel powerless, you may even see a genuine, intentional sharing of power and vision and leadership as a threat.

I surely am not saying we should back off change because some of the old guard are suffering (and don’t call myself Shirley!).  Far from it!  But if we claim—as we do in the church—that God empowers all people, then part of our work has to include patiently and courageously listening to people who feel powerless, and helping lead them into a new understanding of power and mission that includes them, along with the new groups exercising power and leadership.

Not that I (and we) do that well all the time.  Nor do I think that everyone can and will get on board with change.  Some people have to leave.  Accepting that can be hard for those of us who want the change; it can be doubly hard for those who have decided to support the change, but still are struggling with it personally, and who may have long histories with those who have left.

That change that I’m talking about—on the church and on the national level—is indeed a justice issue, but I’m beginning to see that framing it as such can sometimes have the opposite effect that we want.  People who are living out of a sense of powerlessness may even see what we call justice as injustice, because they perceive they are being excluded. 

I do not think we should stop working for change in society that is needed—changes in addressing climate change, racism and policing, income inequality, war and so on—changes that may make that section of the populace who feel powerless feel even more so.  That’s going to happen.  My hope is that there is a way we can work for that change without stereotyping and demonizing the people we don’t like because they stereotype and demonize people we do like.

Part of that has to do with really listening to people who are different than us and not attacking.  I would like to suggest a couple of ways our language can either impede or help that listening:

1)         Only talking about white privilege with working class white folks when we talk about policing or other issues of racial justice is not very effective.  Most police officers come from that community (a real problem for community policing, to be sure), and so many working class white folks have family or friends who are cops.  People who feel—and to a lesser or greater extent have experienced—great losses by the changes that have occurred (especially economic) don’t feel very privileged.  They have more privilege for being white, yes. But they don’t feel that they are privileged in general.  Framing the discussion in terms of privilege doesn’t seem to engage dialogue very much.

2)         And to my friends on the left—where I locate myself—is it helpful to respond to opinions you disagree with by saying the people expressing them are “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining”? If your goal is to change people’s attitudes and actions, how exactly will cutting off dialogue help?  There must be ways to understand and then counter their opinions in ways that open rather than close the human connection. Also, how much power and privilege do we have because of our education and our ability to use words?  Do we use that privilege in systemic, subtle and unconscious ways?

Well, that’s a lot of words from me.  I am worried about the direction of our country and our church.  But I don’t feel powerless about it.  And I trust that this will keep me sane.

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be power.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ahs Wednesday Ashes

I haven't written here in a long time.  I don't know why.  Yes I do.  Unlike when I'm writing poetry or fiction or even sermons, I'm not worried about what my reader is thinking about what I'm writing.  I'm conscious of my reader, and seek to be in communication with them, but worry doesn't invade the creative process.

Not so with this blog.  I want to write something significant, but in the back of my mind (ok, the center), I'm thinking "this better be ... good, profound, challenging, whatever."   That's not helpful.  So if I write on this blog in the near future (iffy, since I'm having carpal tunnel surgery next week), it will mostly be poems I want to share.  Here's one for this Ash Wednesday:


Peter warmed his hands at the fire
before the denying; did he warm
them at the fire before the restoring?
One palm still shows a bit of green,
as if it did not know how to die.                   
The rest crackle as we break them
into pieces into the foil-lined pot.
It is always windy the day before
Ash Wednesday, as if the spirit
cannot abide before it is commanded
to be still, to repent of its waywardness,
to settle into the flesh which must return
to dust.  We light a match, we touch
it to the severed fronds.  The fire leaps
quickly into the air, devouring, then
settles into embers that glow red
before they crumble into black.
Some years we forget to bring gloves
and the pot burns our palms. Some
years we use snow to keep the ashes
from flying.  There have been so many
deaths, so many immolations.  Black
lives matter.  Black ashes simmer.
Children set on fire.  Families deported
in half.  The wind stirs the pot.
The smoke on our fingers won’t go away.

On one side of our church sign, it announces "Ash Wednesday" service for tonight; on the other it says "Ahs Wednesday".  I trust the second one is true, because there is much to "ah" about in this joyful season.

Be beauty. Be justice.  Be dust, but be not afraid.


Monday, December 28, 2015


Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the celebration—if that’s what it is—of the slaughter of every male child under two in the region of Bethlehem by Herod’s henchmen.  It’s the part of the Christmas story that usually doesn’t get told.  It is commemorated in the third verse of the Coventry Carol:

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

It’s not a part of Christmas that is clean and tidy. It’s not just.  It’s not peaceful.  It’s horrible.  And it keeps happening.

Many of us were moved by the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy, who was washed up dead on the Turkish shore, when his family was fleeing the war, and trying to get to Greece.  No one knows for sure, but probably close to 15,000 Syrian children have been killed in the war.  Tens of thousands of Iraqi children have died in the last 12 years, as they have in Afghanistan.  As they have by the millions because of hunger, poverty and disease across the world.

All of this is human wrought.  And the Herods among us keep multiplying

Tomorrow is the 125th anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, in which 300 some Lakota people were slaughtered by the U. S. Army.  Tomorrow, or someday soon, the Obama administration is going to begin raids to deport the children and their parents who fled violence in Central America.  God knows when the next police shooting of an unarmed African-American will happen, but it will happen too soon.

I am tired of being outraged. And tired of feeling powerless to change. 

But I will not give up.  I will keep working to defy Herod and protect those he would slaughter.  Maybe I can’t do much, but I can at least bear witness.

I wrote this poem several years ago when the father of a young child—who had played Baby Jesus during Christmas—was deported.  It was recently published in RiverSedge magazine. I thank God the family is together again.  And I thank God that God is not going to give up on our sorrow and our struggle.

Baby Jesus’ dad got deported.

He wasn’t old.
He wasn’t wrong.
He wasn’t slick.
He was just there.

He was there riding a train.
He was there grilling a steak.
He was there picking up trash.
He was there, lying next to his wife,
The moonlight soft, the whisper slow.

Baby Jesus’ dad got deported.
We saw him off at the airport.
Forehead blessings. Tears. Promises
Of return.  There isn’t much
You can say to the baby Jesus
When the baby knows it all.
The nation will survive
Without baby Jesus’ dad.
The steak will be a bit overdone.
The reading and math a bit slow.
The nighttime drops of liquid moon
Will float and flee before the dawn.
Baby Jesus’ dad got deported.
He took his shoes off.
He emptied his pockets into the plastic tub.
He raised his arms for the magic wand.
He squeezed himself into the air.
Wave goodbye, baby Jesus.
Wave until your arm grows thorns.

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be sorrow clamoring for hope.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Day Before


Our Marias are in labor, our children push
towards the light: In Syria, a girl dreams
of peace, on the border with Mexico,
a Honduran boy dips his toes and his heart
into the waters of the Rio Bravo.  In
Ferguson, in Staten Island, in Minneapolis,
those felled by bullets, by choke holds,
by the color of their skin are being born
again in voices that will not keep silent.
Where are our Josephs standing guard?
Where do our shepherds keep watch?
On the very edge of heaven, that
luminous space so close to earth
you can hear the heartbeat, you can
taste the blood, the angelic voices
strain against the command: wait
with your song until the birth occurs;
hold your wings against the darkness.
Who will join their chorus? Who will
speak the word that gives birth to joy?

Be justice. Be beauty. Be born anew.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015


I have a conflicted relationship with Veteran’s Day.  Both of my parents served during World War II and my father was in combat.  They were proud of their service and I am proud of them.  Later in their lives, they changed their minds about the use of our military, as our military became more of a way to exert our power (and often to prop up corrupt regimes) than to fight against tyranny.

I prayed for veterans on Sunday in worship, especially those who have been injured physically, emotionally and morally.  I’m glad I did that, but I am uncomfortable about the way the church’s concern with caring for people in the armed forces and veterans so often morphs into a blessing—even an enthrallment—with the military.

We get church newsletters from different congregations, and I see many of their websites and posts on line.  Almost all of them this month had special recognition for Veteran’s, including special worship services.  But I do ask: when was the last time you saw an announcement for a special service for union members near Labor Day or May Day?  Have you ever seen a church newsletter promoting support or prayer for those who have worked to oppose our unjust wars?

November 11 was originally Armistice Day, meant to commemorate the treaty at the end of World War I.  It was meant to celebrate peace, not military strength.  That treaty, with its heavy punishments of Germany, helped fuel the rise of Nazism.  And our triumph in World War II, in my opinion, helped fuel our invasions of the last sixty years: Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Granada, Panama, Iraq, not to mention all our proxy wars in Latin America.

I’m not a pacifist.  There may be times when violence, including military force, is necessary.  But most of our wars since World War II (all of which has meant us warring against nations and peoples much poorer than us) don’t fall into that category.  And every use of violence creates the conditions for more violence, if not directly causing violence. 

Part of that violence is turning soldiers—from our country and others—into killers, and then not doing enough to turn that killing off when they come back.  Which may be impossible to do in the first place.  A big part of the violence in El Salvador today is because of the oppression and violence for decades, and all the young people who served in the army or the guerrillas who have not truly reentered society.  We live in a very anxious time in our country, as seen by the upswing of racial violence and the exploding scapegoating of immigrants and the poor.  We’ve all heard a lot about suicides of vets.  I fear we may be hearing more about homicides, if we don’t change our worldview and our practice about the use of force.

There was a report on the BBC News today about how some veterans don’t like to be called heroes, because they don’t feel that adequately represents who they are, and the messiness of what they had to do.  One ex-marine talked about how “maybe the pendulum has swung too far from the guilt over what happened to Viet Nam vets”.  I think that “guilt” is exactly the right word—for what we did to the vets returning from that war, and what we did to the Vietnamese.  We won’t assuage that guilt by simply thanking vets “for their service”.  We need to come to terms with what was done in our name, and what continues to be done.

So today, I will honor my parents and my other relatives who served in the military, as well as many friends and parishioners over the years. But I will also honor those who have worked against unjust wars—including veterans like John Kerry and Ron Kovic in the Viet Nam era, and Camilo Mejia and others who resisted the Iraq war. And because of my Irish heritage and my service now in a heavily Mexican community, I want to honor the San Patricios—the Saint Patrick battalion: Irish-Americans and Irishmen who defected during the Mexican War to fight for Mexico, because of the cruelty and injustice of what we still are reaping the fruits of.

This poem was written in honor of my father, Walter Hansel, who was threatened to be hit for speaking German when he went to kindergarten in 1917 (during World War I), and whose German helped the country of his birth during World War II and the occupation.  It was first published in Ilanot Review, an English language journal in Israel.  Ironically, the issue whose theme was “Conflict” came out just before the last war in Gaza.


A man hung from his parachute
like a seed softly whirligigging down,
shouting “Don’t shoot—I surrender!”                       
in the tongue of the enemy, your first tongue.
He had no way to reach
his weapon, but the men under

you did, and in a minute—though your voice
was raised and your rank commanded
obedience—it was the county fair
in Shreveport, in Pembina, in New Ulm                    
and New Prague, step right up, everyone                  
wins a prize, the lights flashing,
the girls all giggles, and bullets
and a ribbon for the man who hits the nose.

Then, silence, the head of the boy
on his chest, his body limp
in its harness, gravity doing
its work.  The son of German cousins—
perhaps the grandson of your grandfather’s friend—
spoiled blood over his uniform. Father,

why did you tell me this story
and not my brothers?
Your memories are like your hands:
big, calloused, open.
His boots newly shined, pulled him
down to the earth he finally
met as a shroud, a nothing,
a home. Your men did not speak.
They held their rifles across
their chests, as if bearing sick children.

Be justice. Be beauty. Be honor.





Wednesday, October 7, 2015


So I haven’t written in my blog for awhile.  All kinds of excuses: lots of stuff going on at work, nice long vacation, health problems.  Sometimes I think that—just maybe—I have only so many words in me in a given week or given day. And because I am doing a lot of writing every week: sermons, lessons, grant proposals, reports, my poetry residency at Roosevelt High School, sometimes it feels as if I’ve run out of things to say.

That of course, is bullshit.  Like everyone else, there is barely a limit to the words I have in store for me, both in my brain and in the common language that we share.  Part of what has kept me from writing here is a lack of energy (which really means a lack of commitment to summon my energy for this blog, rather than summoning it for work, obsessing about a topic on Face Book, or TV).  But I think that part of the block has been that I’m afraid what I will write won’t be beautiful, profound or at least funny.

That is a trap of course. I imagine a lot of writers—and other creators—feel that way quite often.  When I am most connected to my writing, I’m not worrying about that.  The act of creating is in itself sufficient blessing.  But when I’ve been depleting myself, my ego asserts its primacy over the creative spirit in me, and I judge myself by how others might react to something I might write, and so I don’t risk.

This also is vanity and a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:17), a more elegant way of saying this is bullshit. 

So here goes: I love language, and I hate that it is more and more under attack.  By that, I mean truthful, engaging, polysemous (look it up!) use of language.  Nothing like a presidential campaign to bring out the demons of anti-language. From Trump’s “Mexico is sending rapists” to all of the Republicans saying climate change is not real (which is like saying math is not real).  To me, the worst of the bunch is the claim that immigrants are bad because “they refuse to speak American”.  Which is untrue.  Most immigrants strive to learn English. But many also speak their mother tongue (and often more than two languages).  Why is that a threat to people—enough of a threat that the candidates can milk it for its fear factor?

Many people in the world are in daily contact with more than one language.  Many people move for work, education and family reasons, and come in connection with other cultures.  Many people are Socrates.  (It’s a thinker, that one).  A French person who knows English or Spanish or German is not considered a threat to other French people (Arabic, yes, due to the fear of “terrorists”, another slaughtering of our daily tongue).  Vietnamese who speak English and Cantonese have work and education possibilities beyond those who only speak Vietnamese.

Maybe it’s part of our tortured immigrant past; a ghost that will not stay quiet.  My father started kindergarten in 1917, speaking only German.  Bad timing, dad.  We were at war with Germany, and the teacher threatened to hit any child who spoke the “language of the enemy”. He went home crying, and his father declared “From now on, we only speak English in this house”.  So many immigrants made similar decisions—that to be accepted as American, one had to deny one’s culture and language, rather than add to it. 

Is it because we stripped away so much of our immigrant past, including the beautiful languages that we brought, that we are so afraid of people who choose not to do so?  (The irony here is that English is the most mixed up language of them all, having incorporated words, syntax and sounds from a whole bunch of nations).

This summer, I was able to visit the grave of my grandparents in Langdon, North Dakota. I never met my grandparents.  My grandmother Anna died from complications of childbirth when my dad was twelve, a wound that profoundly affected him and his family.  My grandfather Jacob died while I was in the hospital as an infant with brain trauma.  I heard stories from my dad of his mom, and how she would sing to him at night in Polish or Russian. How he remembered one word in particular she would bless over him as he went to sleep: dobri.  Good.  Good boy.  Good love.  Good night.

This is a poem I wrote for my grandmother, who came to this country speaking four languages, though she had not had much schooling.




You brought four languages
with your name and passport,
picked from the air churning
around a Europe torn over,
never forgotten even as you
whittled your tongue down to fit
America. Erde, chleb, víz, dam.
Earth, bread, water, blood.

With a burnt oak chest and your
memory tight as a grave stone,
you left Kalusz the year                     
the cemetery stopped burying,                                   
to try your back and your will
in this new world of
osprey and buffalo,                                        
of homesteaders and wandering
bands of railroad men, of prisons
full of money and the wishes
of beggared children.

You told my father “All my children
will go to college,” but you
died after giving birth to the last
boy; and, that year, the barn
burnt down, and the man you had
married for love and for his thick
German hands tripped over the wounds
and fell into a deep well, where
sorrow and rage made love                            
in the darkness, each upon each.                                
Where do you converse now,
granddaughter of conversos?
Where does your spirit fall?
This air we breathe descends
back to 1907; back to farewells,
hard bread and want.  I want

to call you back from my genes,
the ones that make us speak
in any tongue, the ones that look
out this morning at a leafing tree
in early spring and cry out
for a word stronger,
deeper than green.                                                      

I write to you from a century
my father failed to see,
where all his children went
to grad school, where I live
with a wife and daughter from Chile,
and a daughter who descended from slaves,
where no record of you
past the town of your birth
exists on line, in a museum
or a box.  Where have you
gone? Can you see that I offer you
my fingers, the dirt of city soil
under the nails, the scent
of my daughter’s hair as I bless                                 
her onto the school bus
taking her to her bilingual world:
Tierra, pan, agua, sangre.
Dirt, bread, water, blood.

Be beauty. Be justice. Be the language you were born.