At the movies

Talking with friends yesterday, I heard about several movies that had made a difference in their lives. One friend, who is just a little bit older than me, has a list of movies that he wants to watch and discuss with his grandchildren. They are movies that carry important life lessons especially strongly. As he told me about the movies, it became clear that I wasn’t familiar with any of them. I just don’t watch many movies. It is a strange thing. I don’t have anything against movies. We raised two children, both of whom love the movies and keep up with current trends in movie making. We own a high quality DVD player, inherited when one of our children got an upgrade. Our community has several excellent theaters with lots of options for movie goers. But I just don’t seem to watch many movies at all.

I joke with my friends sometimes that I am culturally deprived. Movies are a reflection of our culture. They are a complex, team-produced art form that exists in real time. In theory, I can think of all kinds of reasons that it is a good thing to go to the movies from time to time. And when we do get around to going to a movie, I usually enjoy it.

Somewhere inside of me there is a little message that watching movies is a waste of time. Even though I can rationally disagree with that point of view, I find myself making other choices when I do have a bit of time. I can’t really imagine myself checking in with my friends and saying that one of the big events of my week was watching a movie.

My mother was raised in a strict Methodist family. Her grandparents on both sides of the family lived in the same small town as her family. They took a dim view of entertainments such as playing cards and dancing. The women in the families were staunch members of the WCTU. My mother and her sisters all had an anti-alcohol and anti-gambling bent that they expressed from time to time. It is possible that their family took a dim view of movies. It was common, in those days, for people to resist movie entertainment. But I don’t recall our mother ever saying anything negative about movies. She watched movies and we occasionally went to movies as an entire family.

Our town struggled to maintain a theater for watching movies indoors. Some years it had a reasonable bill of movies, other years it was closed more than it was open. But the drive in usually had a successful run. We’d load up everyone in the car and head to the drive in for a night of entertainment. I remember putting on our pajamas and piling in the car. On summer nights, we’d roll down the windows and we could hear not only the speaker placed in our car, but bits of sound from the other cars and we watched the movie. It was great fun.

I took my wife to movies when we were dating. It was a pleasant experience. I watched the original Star Wars Movie in a theatre at the time that my father was struggling with the cancer that would end his life. It was a great escape for me and helped me clear my mind and emotions.

I really can’t find anything in my past that was negative about movies. Whatever resistance I have had must come from my own quirky personality. I can make a rational argument for th positive values of watching movies. I just don’t get around to watching many.

I think that most of us have some inconsistencies and irrational behaviors somewhere in our lives. Fortunately for all of us, most of those irrational behaviors don’t cause others any harm. As I mentioned, our children don’t appear to have suffered from my not watching movies. They will have some stories to tell their children about their quirky father, I’m sure. They can tell about how they were in elementary school before I got around to buying a VCR. I did so partly because it made better financial sense than renting one from Blockbuster every weekend. I also had made the statement that I would buy a VCR when I found a movie that I wanted to watch more than once. My kids gave me a copy of the Disney movie, Fantasia, on VCR. They knew I enjoyed the movie and was a fan of classical music. They were right. I watched it several times after we got a VCR. Both of our kids had extensive collections of VCR tapes at one time. One of those collections is still in storage in my home. I was asked about it just the other day. “Don’t get rid of those, they’re valuable!” Maybe so. I haven’t watched one since the kinds moved out of our home.

Recently USA Today listed 10 “must see” movies for the coming summer. On the list is “Avengers: Infinity War.” Having not seen any previous Avengers, the title of the movie doesn’t appeal to me. An infinity war doesn’t seem like entertainment to me. I guess that it might be a good concept for people my age to explore. We are all mortal. No one gets out of this life alive. But despite its box office success, the movie doesn’t appeal to me.

“Deadpool 2” sounds like it could have the same reviews as “Infinity War” and no one would notice which movie it was.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” sounds more appealing. I liked the character Han Solo and his partner Chewbacca in the Star Wars movies. “Heredity” has a nice title, but I’m not much for horror films. A film that frightened the movie goers at Sundance Film Festival is probably too scary for me. “Oceans 8” might require a movie goer who at least knows something about “Oceans Eleven.” Maybe I should watch the first Incredibles before going for “Incredibles 2.” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the fifth film in the Jurassic Park franchise. I watched the first one, but never got around to 2 - 4.

Mission Impossible was a TV series with some episodes I watched. I wonder if they still have instructions that self destruct, now that nobody owns a cassette player any more. “Ant Man and the Wasp” sounds a little too weird for me.

So I guess the movie for my summer adventures will have to be “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!” Don’t know what it is about, but the title is catchy.

And if you are a lover of movies, my journal probably isn’t going to be a good place to get your recommendations for movie watching anytime soon.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Ethics

In our denomination clergy are required to take specialized ethical training on a recurrent basis. Every five years, a class is required in order lo maintain standing as a clergy person. I have been an advocate of these requirements and have participated in many discussions with other clergy about how we can maintain high standards of behavior in our profession. This is especially challenging as more clergy enter the profession without the same academic preparation that was required of us. A certain amount of ethical training is intensely academic. It requires careful and consistent thinking and an atmosphere of rigorous standards. As clergy enter the profession who have not engaged in that kind of education, courses on basic clergy conduct need to be carefully designed to educate all of the participants. Fortunately, much of clergy conduct is common sense once you stop to think about it.

Much attention has been given to sexual abuse by clergy. There are some pretty terrible stories of abuse by clergy. I’ve interviewed some of the victims in my work as chair of an investigation team. In our conference there are two teams, one for each half of the state. The team is made up of two lay persons and one clergy and one of the laypersons has training as a counselor. Care is given to make sure that interviews are conducted in a safe manner, are well documented, and that participants are not pressured. I’ve heard stories of gross abuse by clergy and I’ve recommended that clergy have their professional standing removed. I never engage in this lightly, but there are instances where it is clear that the violations are extensive enough that the perpetrator no longer deserves to be called a minister.

In our boundary training we also discuss other ethical lapses of clergy. I know stories of clergy who have taken financial advantage of vulnerable members of their congregations. They tend to justify such behavior by making reference to financial troubles that stem, in their opinion, from low pay and benefits for clergy. Although none of us have entered this profession because of the promise of wealth, some have found ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the people that they serve.

I also take recurrent ethical training in my role as a Sheriff’s chaplain. Law enforcement ethical training is similar to that offered to clergy. A person in a position of power needs to understand that others may seem like they are consenting when no consent occurs. They are, rather, deferring to the differential in power. Although I do not carry any weapons as a chaplain, I do have symbols of the power of law enforcement in my identification badge and clothing that I wear.

It is very easy, to my way of thinking, to be careful about gross violations of ethical standards. It is easy to create situations where my behavior is witnessed and others are fully aware of what I am doing. I make it a point to consult regularly with leaders in my church about any questions or concerns that may arise.

Still, I am aware that I occupy a position of privilege. Last year, while attending a training seminar for law enforcement chaplains, I wandered into a cafe in Norfolk, Virginia. When I got to the check out, the clerk gave me a 50% discount because I was wearing a shirt that had the logo of the Pennington County Sheriff. She said that they had a law enforcement discount. 50% is a pretty deep discount. There is no way that the restaurant is making a profit from law enforcement officers. The discount smacked of protection money - funds exchanged unreported to purchase extra favor. Of course I don’t have any influence on law enforcement decisions in Norfolk, Virginia. I accepted the discount as a sign of generosity and gracious hosting of the event. But it did make me think. I brought it up in an ethical discussion among chaplains later. Our ethical rules state that we accept no gratuities or gifts from those we serve. What about a deep discount on a meal? There was spirited discussion around my question. I think that I was probably wrong to accept the discount.

Other things are signs of privilege. Having served in my current congregation for a long time, people are aware of some of my likes and dislikes. And I have forged friendships with those I serve. They are often gracious and make small gifts to me. It is known that I like molasses cookies and lemon bars. There have been several occasions when a small plate of treats has been left on my desk. It is a special privilege afforded to the pastor that is not offered to other members of the church. In a sense it is a gratuity offered because of my position. I haven’t had any ethical dilemmas in accepting those gifts, however. I make no attempts to hide the gifts. I am open in offering my gratitude. And I am carful never to ask for special privilege.

There is a big difference between three or four cookies on a paper plate wrapped up and left on my desk and the special privileges claimed by clergy in our misconduct investigations. I do not see the gift of cookies as an ethical violation. But it helps to be aware of such gifts and to understand that we who have the title of clergy are in a special position of privilege and power in our institution. Knowing that we are in a place of power helps us to be aware of the risks of abusing that power.

All who serve others owe it to ourselves and to the people we serve to uphold the highest of ethical standards. Regular education and conversation about boundaries and ethical standards is an important part of our continuing ministry. The people we serve need to know how to raise ethical concerns and have those concerns heard and taken seriously.

In the meantime, I try to be extra generous whenever there is a bake sale at the church. I’ve received plenty of blessings in my time and it makes sense to share.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

The Chaplain

Wen I was a student I witnessed a pastor who was trying to push members of his congregation to lead prayer in public. He would protest when asked to offer a blessing or invocation, saying that others could lead the prayers. It was a bit awkward. I decided that as a pastor I would never refuse to pray when asked. I do work hard to teach others to lead prayer in public. I help confirmands learn prayers that they can use when asked to offer a blessing. I’ve advocated for passing around the job of leading devotions at meetings. But I never decline when asked to pray. Not long ago at a meeting of a statewide organization, I witnessed another pastor showing reluctance to lead a prayer and thought again about how awkward that felt.

This resolution of mine has led to my offering prayers in a variety of settings outside of the congregations that I serve. I’ve given invocations at service club meetings and banquets and fund-raising events. I’ve prayed over meetings of city councils and state legislatures in multiple locations. I’ve offered blessings at lunches and dinners and at meetings of all kinds. I’ve served as chaplain to corporate boards and non profit organizations.

I put considerable energy into crafting prayers for those events. Although I am comfortable leading prayers that are not scripted when working with board and committees within the church I serve, I usually write out prayers before delivering them at the occasions of other entities. I try to say words that are meaningful and relevant. I try to imagine the ways in which my pryers might be heard by those who have different opinions and traditions than my own. I am aware that there are times when I am leading a prayer as a Christian knowing that there are Jews and Muslims and those of other faiths present.

At the core of my prayers before interfaith groups is my conviction that there is one God. Even though our religious traditions are different, even though our ways of worshiping are different, I am absolutely convinced that there is only on God who has compassion and deep love for all people. I do not see the world as containing those who are saved and those who are damned. I see it as containing people who are beloved by God and whom God longs to forgive for our sins.

I’ve prayed with prisoners in jails and prisons, including those who have confessed to me that they had killed other humans.

Having said that, I do not believe that the role of religion is to govern. I am not in favor of governments establishing and supporting any particular religion to the exclusion of others. I am grateful to live in a country that has many different faiths. I don’t believe in using the power of government to impose religion on others. I’m firmly committed to the separation of church and state.

When I am serving the Sheriff as a chaplain, I am deeply aware that I am called to serve all, not just those who are Christian. I am especially careful not to use my position to recruit members for my church or to promote my denomination. I have worked hard to educate other chaplains in understanding our role as servants. And I understand that the position is at least partially political. I serve at the pleasure of the Sheriff. I have been appointed by an elected official. I chose to engage in that service as a volunteer and I understand that serving those who serve is a privilege.

I am, however, challenged to continue thinking about such matters carefully by the recent firing of the Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives by House Speaker Paul Ryan. I’m sure that Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest, was well aware that there were politics surrounding his appointment. There are politics surrounding everything in the House of Representatives. If he had temporarily forgotten that, he was certainly reminded when he was reprimanded by the Speaker for praying that those who “continue to struggle” in the United States would not be made “losers under new tax laws.” Apparently praying for the poor was too political for Speaker Ryan.

However, being a chaplain doesn’t make a person not a Christian. Any serious disciple of Jesus will find her or himself praying for the poor. It is what Jesus did. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) If you read Conroy’s prayers you will find references to the Christian scriptures and Christian tradition. He is, after all, a priest. He prayed to God that lawmakers would help “the least among us.” He prayed fr them to follow the example of St. Nicholas, “who fed the hungry, brought hope to the imprisoned, gave comfort to the lost.” He asked lawmakers “to serve other people in their need” and “to pray for the unemployed and those who work but still struggle to make ends meet.” He urged “those who possess power in Washington to be mindful of those whom they represent who possess little or no power.” He prayed for lawmakers to be “free of all prejudice,” and to “fulfill the hopes of those who long for peace and security for their children.” The prayers of the chaplain are recorded in the Congressional Record and available for all citizens to read. Click on this link for the archive of prayers.

Apparently Patrick Conroy’s prayers became too political for the Speaker. Anyone who preaches the gospel will make those in power squirm from time to time. We are often charged with the task of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

Speaker Ryan can probably find a chaplain who will agree with him more often. He can find a chaplain whose politics line up with his own. He can find a chaplain whose prayers will not make any mention of the real challenges before the legislature. But as a Catholic and a Christian, he will not avoid the conflicts between his faith and the actions of the legislature under his leadership.

Last Friday, Rev. Conroy prayed “for all people who have special needs” and “those who are sick” and for those “who serve in this House to be their best selves.” Speaker Ryan might not have noticed, but Rev. Conroy has been praying for him all along. Firing the chaplain won’t stop the chaplain from praying.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Courage and persistence

A year ago Michelle McNamara died in her sleep. She was only 46 years old. An autopsy found that she had an undiagnosed heart condition and had taken a mix of prescription drugs, including the pain medication Adderall, and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. Adderall is the brand name for fentanyl citrate, a narcotic pain killer.

She had spent much of the last part of her life immersed in details about unsolved murders. She left behind an unfinished manuscript about the Golden State Killer, who committed a string of unsolved rapes and murders in California in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt teamed up with author Billy Jensen, researcher Paul Haynes, and her publisher to pull together roughly 3,500 files on her computer and her handwritten notes. In February, her manuscript was published. “Illl Be Gone in the Dark” has sold around 150,000 copies and has been optioned by HBO, which is adapting it into a documentary series.

The book is a chilling and vivid narrative of a serial killer’s crimes. It also reveals Ms. McNamara’s obsession with the case and the psychological toll it took on her. The book ends with a letter from her to the killer, in which she predicts his eventual capture: “This is how it ends for you.”

The prediction came true.

On Wednesday, law enforcement officials said they had finally arrested the notorious Golden State Killer in a suburb of Sacramento. Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was taken into custody outside his home and charged with six counts of murder. He lived just a half-hour drive from where the 12-year rampage of terror began. He was a former police officer and was an active duty officer during the time when many of the crimes he is accused of occurred.

Two years ago Monica Miller, who was in charge of the Sacramento F.B.I. field office from 2013 to 2017, convened a task force on the 40th anniversary of the attacks in the Sacramento suburbs. The arrest was a culmination of decades of traditional police work and the use of new DNA evidence techniques.

“We found the needle in the haystack and it was right here in Sacramento,” said Sacramento district attorney Anne Marie Schubert.

The dedication and even obsession of a few people kept the case alive and led to solving a string of crimes that had sparked fear in the residents of the community for decades.

Of course the arrest is just the beginning of a lengthy process of presenting evidence and seeking a conviction. It isn’t over for the families of the victims. But thee is a sense of relief in knowing that an arrest has been made. It isn’t that the fear is the same as when the rapes and murders were actively being carried out. For reasons that are not yet understood, the killer stopped his crime spree in 1986. Perhaps he sensed that investigators were closing in. Perhaps there was some twinge of conscience left in him. Whatever the reason, the crimes stopped and the years passed without a break in the case.

There were, however, those would not give up.

Sharing headiness with that case and arrest this week is the conviction of Bill Cosby on charges of sexual assault. It does seem like there has been a change in our country. It was just a year ago when Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose dominated morning TV. Harvey Weinstein’s movie empire seemed untouchable. In just months, it has all come tumbling down.

It is a different world and the country is in a different mood than was the case in 1991 when Anita Hill told her story to a public unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with the term sexual harassment.

The nation is learning to listen to the victims. It is learning to believe credible accusers. Powerful men in media, entertainment, business and politics have abused women for far too long. Attorney Nacy Erika Smith, who represented Gretchen Carlson in her suit against Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes said, “This is fast culture change and an important milestone, but it’s taken centuries to get here.”

Congressmen, comics, business moguls, actors and journalists from across many industries and workplaces have tumbled one after another. As the song says, “The times, they are a changing.” We are now in the #MeToo era.

It has been reported that there were as many as 60 additional victims of Bill Cosby. 35 accusers appeared on the cover of New York magazine’s July 2015 issue. Many of them were in attendance and watching as the jury handed down its verdict: “guilty, guilty, guilty.” The Washington Post reported that “the courtroom rocked with emotion.” And there have been many other victims of many other violent men. Many of them suffered harassment or abuse without being believed. There have been many cases over the years when the public and the courts didn’t take the victims seriously and didn’t believe what they said.

Maybe we are learning to listen to the victims and take them seriously.

The change started with one woman’s courage to tell her story, but it could not end there. Over the decades hundreds of woman have had to go public with the truth before the country would start to listen. Countless victims have suffered while a few risked everything to bring the truth to light. The truth, now exposed, isn’t pretty. The Golden State killer was especially cruel, moving from raping single women to raping women in front of their children and even in front of their husbands before murdering both. Other abusers weren’t so bold or so messy, but caused irreversible damage all the same.

It seems as if every day brings a new story of a victim’s claim being sustained against a powerful offender. The perpetrators have not all been outed and they have not all been convicted. The crimes are more common than we want to believe. Many women, like Michelle McNamara, have died before justice was seen. Nonetheless, we will be a better people because of their courage.

It is a courage that those who abuse their power will never understand. It is a courage for which we should all be grateful.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Unexpected blessings

At coffee yesterday, a colleague and I are telling stories of some of the challenging people we had met in the course of our careers. We are both gray-headed pastors who have served multiple congregations and had a range of experiences. We both love the work we do and the people that we serve. We both are passionate about our faith and the community of the church. But occasionally, and yesterday was one of those days, we recall some experiences that have challenged us. We both had stories of a person who seized power in a small area of the church and became a little dictator. Those characters become almost comical in the storytelling because there is so little power in the church and one who seizes it doesn’t have much at all. But in context, while the event is going on, that person can be a real pain and cause a lot of frustration. They rarely respond well to rational argument. They frequently claim tradition without knowing the history of the institution.

I recalled the advise that a mentor had offered me early in my career, “Get up every day and pray for good health and strength for the person with whom you’re having conflict. You want them to live longer than your time of leading the church. You certainly don’t want to officiate at their funeral.” We laughed.

It is common to encounter someone in the church who stands as a barrier to important work that the church is doing. Perhaps it is one who is always trying to save pennies in budget meetings, or one who opposed a much-needed change at a congregational meeting. Often it is someone whose position is backed by some, but nowhere near a majority, of the congregation. I recalled reading in the history of a congregation I served in another state, the minutes of a congregational meeting where a member of the church rose to oppose installing modern bathrooms in the church building. “I’m never going to do that in God’s house!” I never met the person. It is possible that the person kept the promise. But the church installed bathrooms and every church I’ve served in my career has not only had bathrooms, but engaged in a bathroom remodeling project to bring bathrooms up to modern standards and make them more accessible. I don’t know anyone who argues against bathrooms in churches these days.

It can be even more frustrating for a pastor, when it is easy to see that the person is on the wrong side of history. You can wax nostalgic and go on and on about the size of church youth groups in the 1960’s, but that won’t change the realities of sociology. Family size has an impact on the number of children in the church. There are a lot of other factors in the lives of teens these days, including increased sports options, increased travel and different expectations from parents. You can try to blame church staff for the realities of our times, but it won’t bring change.

I’ve discovered, over the years, that those who complain about the lack of new members are almost always the worst at hospitality. They complain about a lack of new people and they complain about new people when they come. They seem to want to have new members without having the new members change anything.

Those who believe that new members will solve financial challenges are simply wrong. The church will still have to make difficult decisions and live within its means. And new members bring new expenses with them as well as new generosity.

Lest I leave readers with the wrong impression, however, it is important to note that although we pastors do occasionally get going on a string of comments like the above, we don’t spend our time sitting around and complaining about the members of our congregations. In fact our conversation yesterday was about the nature of community and the joy of living in community.

Those quirky members - the ones we are challenged to get along with - are gifts of God. They are blessings. Sometimes we can’t see the blessing at the moment. Sometimes we see others as opponents or even enemies, but the body of Christ is complex with many different parts and many different ideas. Every pastor needs to read 1 Corinthians regularly. The letter reminds us that we need each other and that we don’t have to be the same to be parts of the community of Christ. Diversity is essential to our enterprise.

And, as every pastor who has been around for a while knows, the folks who drive you up the wall provide stories that you will be telling decades from now.

The spiritual practice of gratitude has been a very important part of my life. It is easy for me to rise in the morning and think of multiple things for which I am grateful. I have the gift of health. I have a wonderful family. I have meaningful work. I live in a beautiful place. All of those things are blessings and reminding myself of my blessings is important. But there is another level to the practice of gratitude. After expressing gratitude for life’s joys, it can be deeply meaningful to offer gratitude for the problems and challenges of life as well. I would not wish for anyone to suffer burns, but suffering burns taught me a lot about compassion and gave me insight into pain and the addictions that can grow out of the use of pain medication. I am a better pastor for having had that experience. Looking back, it is easy for me to see that the times when the church was short of financial resources were times of building community. Having to struggle helped us to learn about stewardship and about generosity. At the time, it didn’t seem like we were in a good place, but looking back I can give genuine gratitude for the experiences.

For all of the quirky personalities and all of the challenges we have faced as pastors, we give thanks to God. It turns out that they were blessings - every one!

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

More than 5 senses

I grew up learning that there are five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. My eyesight has always been less than perfect, so I learned from an early age to have my eyes tested, fitted with glasses and my vision corrected. For many years I wore contact lenses under the belief that the lenses were slowing the progress of a degenerative condition. When the discomfort associated with wearing the lenses became intense, I took a break from the contacts and discovered that they were not helping. Since, I’ve been able to wear glasses comfortably and achieve vision correction. So I understand vision and regular testing and measuring of that sense. In a similar way, I know about hearing testing. I’ve had a basic hearing test and so far I haven’t had problems with my hearing. I have also heard that there are some tests that can measure smell. A smell test is often administered as part of the diagnosis of certain types of dementia. I am less aware of the tests that can be done to measure taste and touch.

Studies aimed at understanding and helping children and adults who have trouble with sensory processing have led scientists to posit two additional senses. And, being scientists, they have assigned names that are more difficult to remember than the names of the first five senses.

The sixth sense is called proprioception. We all have receptors in our muscles that tell us where our body parts are. These receptors work in conjunction with our brains to give us real time information. We don’t have to look at our hands, for example, to know where they are. This sense enables me to use my keyboard while my eyes are on the screen of my computer. My fingers go to the appropriate keys without my needing a visual clue as to their location. This system, however, is less functional in certain conditions. We have a son who experienced a small stroke during birth. The tiny area of his brain that is affected is barely visible on a CT scan, but the result is that he has diminished proprioception of his right hand and arm. Physical and occupational therapy combined with years of careful practice have given him use of that hand and arm, but he is extremely left-handed. His right hand and arm work mostly as helpers for his left hand and arm. This has very little effect on his ability to us tools and do his life’s work, but as a child he was sometimes identified as uncoordinated or clumsy, when what was really going on was diminished proprioception. Children with more severe sensory processing issues become afraid of certain physical activities and require additional help to engage in normal activities.

The seventh sense carries the name vestibular sense. The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance, eye movement and spatial orientation. It helps keep you stable and upright. Those experiencing vestibular issues may not know where their body is in space. They feel out of balance and out of control. A friend, after experiencing a stroke, has experienced severe vestibular issues. When his body is leaning to the right, he senses that it is leaning the opposite direction. His natural motions to correct result in his tipping over. Months and months of physical therapy have enabled him to make great progress and he can now walk short distances with a walker and is able to sit upright in a normal chair, but his mobility is severely restricted and he ends up using a wheelchair for mobility most of the time. It is unclear how much function he will regain.

Our senses don’t stop at seven, however. There is an eighth sense that also gets a modern, scientific name. Interoception is the ability to know what is going on inside your body. Issues with interoception usually show up in childhood. Kids who struggle with interoceptive sense may have trouble knowing when they feel hungry, full, hot, cold or thirsty. It is thought that interoception is similar to proprioception. Just as receptors work in conjunction with the brain to tell muscle and joint positions and the location of body parts, receptors inside organs send information about our bodies to our brains. Vital functions like body temperature, hunger, and thirst are immediately obvious to most of us. Less obvious are receptors that give information about digestion, respiration and heart rate. Most of us are fairly good at knowing when we are out of breath or struggling to gain our breath after intense physical activity. It is pretty easy to count our respiration rate. We also have rudimentary awareness of our digestion system. We know when it is time to use the bathroom, for example. Awareness of heart rate is a bit of a challenge for many of us. However, since being diagnosed with an occasional irregular heartbeat I have trained myself to have increased awareness of my heart. I can sense when it is beating faster or slower more easily than was the case for the many years that I completely ignored my heart.

Experts studying interoception believe that mindfulness activities such as meditation can help with learning to be more aware of interoceptive sensations. Studies conducted with Buddhist monks have shown an amazing level of awareness of and control of heart rate, for example.

Like the 5 senses, the three additional ones have a degree of learning associated with them. Just as we can learn to look for certain things, we can learn to sense certain activities within our bodies. With my vision issues, I had to learn to look for wild game on distant hillsides, for example. Once I understood that I was looking for motion more than for color contrast, I became better at spotting game. A similar learning took place for me in the development of fishing skills. I had to learn what to look for. We can train our listening to be more sensitive to the sound of our children’s voices or to certain warning signals. Practice improves our senses of taste and touch as well.

Knowing about and practicing skills of proprioception, vestibular and interoceptive senses can help us understand ourselves and others better.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Community

I have experienced ready-made communities wherever I have lived. I attended a small liberal arts college, so my first venture from home involved moving into a community that was intentional about orienting new members, careful about forming community, and supportive of all of its members. A freshman talent show invited us to share a bit of ourselves with the wider community. Special social events were designed to help us get to know others and make friends. Dorm living makes it impossible to forget that you live with other people. My seminary experience was similar. Members of our small starting class have become life-long friends and we continue to think of some of those people as very important in our lives.

After graduation, we began serving churches. Each move, and there haven’t been many, was from an established community and into an established community. We knew that there were safe places and trusted adults for our children. We understood that people in the church were willing and eager to help us with the tasks of learning to live in a new place. We turned to church members for support when needed.

It is only upon reflection that I have begun to understand that not all people have such an experience. Last week I visited briefly with a couple who were shopping for a new church after having moved from another community in our state. They had good reasons for their move and it made sense to them, but they were also grieving the transition in relationships after decades of living in their former town. They were up to the challenge of finding new doctors, learning to shop in different stores, figuring out the best routes for getting around town and learning how to access essential services. They met lots of new people, but hadn’t formed many friendships. I hope that our congregation can become a community for them, where they feel welcomed and accepted. We’ve been able to be that for others.

The use of social media to form community can be meaningful to some. FaceBook has been especially effective for some people at the task of catching up with previous relationships. People have used the tool to reconnect with former school mates and others who once were friends, but whose life circumstances led them in different directions. I am almost totally passive on the forum, and yet I routinely get a “blast from the past,” in the form of a friend request from someone I once knew but from whom I’ve drifted away. My high school classmates were, for the most part, the same people I knew in elementary school, so we spend a few years together and shared quite a few experiences, but it has been 48 years since I moved away from my home town. I’ve had quite a few experiences in the intervening years and I’m hardly the same person I was back in those days.

While some are filled with nostalgia for the good old days, I have found the intervening years to be filled with meaning and rich experiences. I’ve no desire to go back to the petty drama of high school life, wondering about who is popular and who is not, trying to form a niche for myself in the school community, worrying about who is dating whom. I’ve enjoyed showing my wife, children and grandchildren the place where I grew up, but I’ve no particular desire to go back to the days before I had a wife, children and grandchildren.

By nature, I guess, I’m not much for reunions. Perhaps that will change as I age. My mother didn’t attend a high school reunion until the 50th anniversary of her graduation. She had so much fun that she didn’t miss a single annual gathering until her health prevented her from attending. Perhaps I’ll follow a similar path. It seems unlikely, however. Since I didn’t graduate from high school and went to college following my junior year, I’ve never figured out exactly which class is my reunion cohort. I guess I identify most with the class in which I was a member than the class who share the year of departure with me. And, after all of these years I have discovered that when I was in high school many of my friends were members of other class groupings. I did attend an all class reunion once and found out that I spent most of the time with a class two years ahead of ours, where there were more people I remembered.

We’ve had the privilege and honor of returning to the congregations that we served from time to time and have enjoyed seeing the people with whom we’ve shared ministry. We have life-long friends from those churches and see some of those people regularly. But going back is a good reminder that you can’t go back. The churches have changed. The membership of those churches is mostly of people who have joined since we left. A couple of the churches we served are no longer open as active congregations. And each return to those places includes conversations with people who remember us fondly and whom I don’t remember clearly at all. Life goes on. We form new relationships.

Still, I am deeply aware of how important community is. We need other people and we need to feel our place in a group of people. I watch young members of our congregation struggle to form community. Because attendance patterns are different than was the case with previous generations, they may find themselves sitting in church on a Sunday when the friends they long to see are not present. They catch a few activities that really help them to experience community and then there are long gaps of time before that same group of people is together again. Being a church community is just one priority among many others. I wonder if they find community in the sports activities of their children, which often take more time and energy than church. They do form significant friendships, but I’m not convinced that they do find community there.

We continue to seek to provide community for all who come to the church. It begins with a welcome. We are aware, however, that there is much work that remains to be done.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Spring

I am listening to the birds greet the morning. The temperature is already over 40 degrees and should make it over sixty today. The grass is turning green. The days are getting longer. It is impossible not to feel the seductive flavor of spring fever. Of course, I’ve had a case of the condition for some time, but regular snow storms put a damper on the mood. This time, however, it feels like spring really is in the air and on the ground.

Spring, of course, means that there is yard work to be done. The carpet of pine needles needs to be raked, the gutters need to be cleaned out, the garden needs attention. I don’t mind yard work, but I have a schedule that sometimes doesn’t allow quite enough time for domestic chores. And there are things I enjoy more than others. Dealing with pine needles isn’t my favorite of chores. And for those of you who haven’t raked up pine cones, they’re no great pleasure, either. Fortunately our city has a good yard waste recycling program and we have a good place to take the loads of stuff we rake off of our yards.

And I do mean loads. The pine needles on my yard will fill both my pickup and my trailer. It is amazing how many there are. They biodegrade very well and, of course in the forest, they simply make humus beneath the trees. But for a lawn there is a problem because they are so acidic that the soil isn’t good for growing grass with too many pine needles. And putting them all in my compost pile has the same effect, the garden needs other things in the compost pile and if I have too many pine needles, the dirt produced doesn’t grow the food we like to eat. I know, I’ve tried composing my pine needles. You get a really big pile, without enough other plant material to mix in. Part of the problem is that I like to mow my lawn. Even though I allow the grass clippings to stay on the lawn and mulch back into the soil, the pine needles overwhelm the grass clippings. My neighbors have part of their yard that they don’t mown and from which they don’t remove the pin needles and the grass thrives in that area. The result presents another problem. Each late summer and autumn, the fuel loads in their yard present a real fire threat. I sleep better knowing that my yard is short trimmed grass and less prone to wildfire.

Spring always brings lots of thoughts to mind. Of course, I know that there is open water at the lake and I haven’t been paddling yet. I’ll have to do something about that very quickly, perhaps today. I’m really late compared to my usual, but this has been an unusual year. I guess we say that about every year in the hills.

Most of the indigenous peoples of the plains counted a person’s age by counting the number of winters survived. Winters were harsh and illnesses were more common during the cold months. Food was more scarce and more people died during the winter than any other time of the year. Having made it to spring with one’s health was always an accomplishment. By that standard, I’m getting a good collection of winters. I’ve collected more in the Black Hills than in any other place, and our winters are milder than the open country of North Dakota, where I collected seven winters. But all of my winters have been lived in colder climates: Montana, North Dakota, Idaho and South Dakota plus four winters in Chicago, which experientially felt every bit as cold as the other states.

I haven’t become a snow bird, spending winters in souther climates and I don’t feel the attraction of such a lifestyle, either. I like a bit of winter. I think that I actually prefer shoveling snow to mowing grass. I’v no desire for a home in a place that doesn’t experience all four seasons.

We know that spring can be a long season and it can be a short season around here. We’ve seen springs that quickly became summer-like in terms of temperatures and precipitation. But those make for problems for the rest of the year. Here in the hills we are dependent upon spring’s moisture to fill up the reservoirs and get us through the year. On that score, the recent weeks of snow have been good for us. May and June can be wet months as well and we hope that they will be that way this year. 2017 had an exceptionally long fire season and we have no desire for a repeat.

So far, so good. The forecast calls for rain this evening to keep things moist, but that is about all that we can expect this week. Temperatures are forecast to reach the mid seventies by the end of the week. In our neck of the woods that kind of weather will bring out the motorcycles. We all need to give a little extra care and look twice and three times just to make sure that we are aware of all of the other people who are out to enjoy the spring weather.

We’re five or six weeks out from new deer fawns but it is beginning to be the season to start watching the does. It doesn’t take much studying to know which ones will be delivering. It isn’t just their appearance, but also their behavior.

Spring is a delightful reminder that the earth is constantly renewing itself. New life is emerging and the exuberance of life cannot be suppressed. The warmer temperatures invite us to spend more time outdoors and the fresh air renews our spirits. A little physical labor makes sleeping easier and waking to birdsong begins the day with a prayer of gratitude. We are indeed fortunate to live in this place and experience this wonder.

Happy spring!

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Using the pencil sharpener

I heard an interesting story this week. It came from a school district in a different town. A parent was volunteering to help in the classroom. The parent is well educated and has a wide variety of skills, in fact that parent is the administrator of a tightly-recognized educational program. However, the task assigned to the volunteer parent was to sharpen pencils. It is a bit of an outrage that this particular combination of school and teacher squanders the resource of parent volunteers but I was struck by something else. Why does any adult need to sharpen pencils? I thought that sharpening pencils was the responsibility of the student. I clearly remember that there was a pencil sharpener in each classroom of the elementary school I attended. From the first grade, we knew that having our pencils sharpened and ready for use was our responsibility. We had to have a spare because if we broke a lead during class we wouldn’t be allowed to sharpen our pencils until a break such as recess or lunch. I can clearly remember a similar policy towards sharpening pencils when our children were elementary students. One time our daughter was corrected by her teacher because she was focused on helping a classmate sharpen a pencil when she should have been doing her own work. I was told by the parent volunteer that students weren’t allowed to use pencil sharpeners un=supervised. Some teachers kept electric sharpeners on their desks and allowed students to use them when the teacher could watch. Other teachers simply didn’t have pencil sharpeners in the room and sent parent volunteers down the hall to sharpen 30 or more pencils at a time.

I’m concerned that a school doesn’t think it is capable of teaching students to use a pencil sharpener safely. I wonder if the little plastic sharpeners that we all used to keep in our pencil boxes are now deemed to be unsafe contraband in student desks.I never had one, but I had classmates that had special sharpeners for their crayons. Some were built into the crayon box itself.

A pencil sharpener is pretty easy to learn to operate. Because a pencil is smaller in diameter than a finger, it is pretty hard to injure oneself using one. The biggest danger I can remember from using a pencil sharpener is that the container for the shavings would get overfilled and when you went to empty it, some could spill on the floor. That gave an other opportunity for teaching as we learned how to clean up our messes.

Our education was imperfect and incomplete. Many of the facts of history were left out of the curriculum. Our math skills weren’t as advanced as is the case with elementary students these days. We weren’t exposed to much cultural diversity. Although we were children of the space race and science and engineering were receiving attention in public schools, we didn’t have access to organized STEM or STEAM curricula. We spent hours practicing cursive writing, a skill that is not routinely taught in public schools these days. We did quite a bit of simple calculating by hand and by head instead of using calculators. We suffered punishments that weren’t appropriate and weren’t always fairly administered, though I’m pretty sure that I received no permanent injuries from being smacked with a ruler.

But we did learn to operate a pencil sharpener. I’m pretty good at it today. I generally use the old-fashioned hand crank model instead of the electric one in our church office. Don’t worry, though, it is mounted at adult height and none of the students in our preschool can reach it, so I’m pretty sure we’re in alignment with current safety standards.

I told the parent volunteer who told me this story that the whole situation might have started with my mother. One day, shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, she was boarding a plane. She was more than 80 years old at the time and she was a fairly small woman. The TSA inspectors found and confiscated a small plastic pencil sharpener in her carry on bag. They told her that it would be easy for a criminal to take a small screwdriver, remove the blade and use the blade to injure another person. Never mind the fact that the blade in a pencil sharpener is only about a half inch long and that my mother did not possess the fine motor skills to disassemble one at that point in her life. I’m guessing she would be far more dangerous had she thrown the whole bag at someone than if she were to try to use a pencil sharpener as a weapon. We laughed about the story later. The loss of the pencil sharpener didn’t set her back financially, and we assured her that we could replace it. In fact she turned into a bit of a rebel, carrying a pencil sharpener with her on each subsequent flight. She was never stopped or had another pencil sharpener taken from her again.

I can remember when merry-go-rounds and swing sets began to disappear from school yards. When our children were in elementary school we raised money for new outdoor play equipment for the school that adhered to the then-common theory: “The equipment stays still, the children move.” We found funding for interesting climbing structures and tubular slides and other equipment that was designed with an eye to the safety of the children who played on it. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though I knew I would miss the swings that would let you go so high and so fast. Still, a classmate of our grandson when he was in kindergarten last year climbed up a structure, hung by his knees and fell breaking his arm. The injury wasn’t too severe, but he did miss a couple of days of school and spend a few weeks with a cast on his arm. It didn’t seem to slow him down very much.

We can’t isolate our children from every risk. We really should be intentional about teaching them safety skills. I’m thinking pencil sharpeners might not be a bad place to start.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Sheep

sheep
Every once in a while I get into a conversation with friends about our high school mascots. You know, the Cougars or the Bears or the Troopers or such. The names of sports teams has been the matter of quite a bit of national attention. Some of the mascots have been found to be offensive and have been changed. When we pastored and lived in Hettinger, North Dakota the school mascot was the Black Devils. The basketball team was having a few banner years in those days and even won the state championship during the time we lived there. There was a little bit of chatter in those days about changing the team name. One pastor of a fundamentalist church made quite a statement about devil worship and the chants used by the cheerleaders. When asked about my option, I said, “If getting rid of evil in the lives of our students were as easy as changing the name of the mascot, it would have been done years ago. Changing the name won’t affect teenage drinking or the presence of drugs in our school. Maybe we should tackle some of those problems first.”

These days the number of us who can remember the Black Devils and the cartoon image of the school mascot are getting fewer and fewer. The Hettinger High School Night Hawks have blue and black as their colors. Maybe looking at the school records is a bit like watching old movies. Back in the days of black and white we had a different mascot. Now that we have color, we’re the Night Hawks. I don’t live there anymore and haven’t lived their for more than 30 years. I don’t know if they’ve gotten rid of all of the evil in the high school these days. They haven’t won a state championship since those days.

sheepherderIn the conversations about high school mascots, I usually end up telling about the high school I attended. Our mascot was the Sheepherder. It is portrayed by a sketch of a scruffy man with a beard smoking a pipe. His hair is clearly on his collar, a point we noticed during our high school years when length of hair was a big issue and boys were suspended for having their hair long enough to touch their collar. The fact that the mascot is smoking a pipe was also an object of a lot of jokes and teasing. The school has kept the mascot to this day.

maniacs_1
For years my friends would agree that I had a pretty strange high school mascot. Then I met a friend who had attended Orofino High School in Idaho. Orofino was the location of the Idaho State Hospital for the Insane. The high school mascot is the Maniacs, complete with a cartoon character that is screaming and throwing a tantrum. I have to admit that I’d rather be a Sheepherder than a Maniac.

In fact, over the years, I’ve take a bit of pride in being a Sheepherder from Big Timber, Montana. I was seventeen when I left Big Timber and except for summer breaks from school, I haven’t lived their since. And I haven’t earned my living in agriculture. I don’t know the sheep business any better than anyone else.

I can remember, however, the days when both the Jarrett Brothers and Teddy Thompson would trail their sheep up into the mountains each spring and return them to the ranch in the fall. If you happened to be driving up the valley when they were moving sheep, you needed to be prepared to take a lot of time to slowly work your way through the bands of sheep. They worked the sheep with dogs and there’d be a four-wheel drive vehicle pulling the sheep wagon at the rear of the band. Most of the sheepherders had horses, but a few of them walked all the way up the valley with the sheep.

As such, I claim a small about of expertise whenever the subject of sheep comes up in church, which is surprisingly often. Jesus is known both as the lamb of God and as the good shepherd. Most people know the Christmas Story and the basic story of Easter. Those are stories that we tell every year, without fail. Many Christians will tell you that their favorite Psalm is Psalm 23. It shows up two Sundays every year - more than the birth narrative or the Easter story. Many of us memorized it as a child and know it by heart. I’ve recited Psalm 23 when visiting people in the hospital or hospice house. Even if they appear to be unconscious, their lips will often move with the words as I decide the Psalm. It is familiar, comforting, and brings hope in difficult situations.

So, I get to fall back on Sheepherder stories from time to time. I can remember the big wool bags and the feel of the soft fleeces during sheering time. I know the sounds (and the smells) of sheep and am comfortable around the critters. I’ve held the bottles to feed bum lambs and remember how quickly they grow.

But my stories come from memories.

My sister, on the other hand, raises a few lambs every spring. There are always sheep in the country that need to be fed by hand and raised by humans. The ewes will occasionally have triplets and be unable to raise all three. Other lambs are orphaned by events that happen during their birth. Sometimes a lamb will become a bit sick and have trouble eating aggressively enough to keep growing. Those lambs that need special nurture and attention are called bums and are separated from the others to be hand raised. My sister has an enclosure with a shed that has a warming light and a rack to hold bottles that approximates the height of an ewe. Some of the lambs need to be held and bottled individually. She gets to know them as she mixes the formula and feed them. Her Australian shepherd, Cody, gets to feel like a real working dog even though those lambs don’t ever separate once they are in the pen. Before long the sheep will grow and be ready to move back to the main ranch.

Its good for a preacher to have a sister who is still a sheepherder to remind me why stories of sheep and shepherds are so deeply ingrained in the history of our faith.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Be not afraid

Yesterday I entered a restaurant near the church. I had gotten to the restaurant ahead of the people I was meeting - two executives of local non-profit organizations. They have some chairs in the entry way and I took a seat and waited for them. While I was waiting, two different people asked me if I had been helped, and I replied that I was waiting for some friends. They smiled and went on with their business. I was comfortable sitting in the chairs and before long my friends arrived and we proceeded with our lunch meeting.

The day before - Wednesday - I got to a local coffee shop (not a Starbucks) a few minutes early for my Bible Study group. I went to a table and sat for a little while before ordering my coffee. When the next person arrived, we ordered coffee. Some of the participants in the study had coffee. Others did not. We had a leisurely meeting and the people working in the shop said to us, “Have a good day!” as we left.

On Tuesday, I met a member of our church for lunch. We had been trying to get together for a couple of weeks, but various conflicts and some snowy weather had forced rescheduling. With my schedule, we agreed to meet for lunch. It was a different restaurant than yesterday. And yes, I arrived a few minutes early. I do that a lot. I waited in the lobby of the restaurant until the person I was meeting arrived. Everyone was nice to me and I exchanged pleasant conversation with several employees of the restaurant while I waited.

Three times in three days I entered a local eating establishment and didn’t order hight away.

On April 12, two entrepreneurs went into a Starbucks restaurant in Philadelphia. They were there for a business meeting, but the man they were planning to meet there hadn’t arrived yet. They were asked if they needed help. They replied that they were waiting for a business partner. Rashon Nelson asked if he could use the restroom and was told he couldn’t because he hadn’t bought anything. He brushed it off. Within about 2 minutes after arriving at the cafe, they were approached by two police officers who talked to them. They were arrested for trespassing.

In the wake of the protests that arose after the incident, they have received apologies form the police commissioner, from Starbucks managers and corporate executives and others. Starbucks has announced that they plan to close all of their retail stores so that all employees can receive anti-racism training.

The difference between me and the two who were arrested and detained for nearly eight hours is the color of our skin.

The difference between us is that no one reacted to my presence with fear. The Starbucks employees, and perhaps the policemen they called were afraid of the two. People weren’t afraid of them because of what they had done. Their behavior wasn’t threatening. People were afraid of them because people are afraid of black men.

Had the incident occurred in our town, it probably would have been Lakota men.

Here is a bit of good news. A man none of us knew walked into our church on Sunday morning. I had met him before and I recognized him, so I knew there was no reason to be afraid. But I was leading worship and couldn’t be the one to greet him. He had a small backpack and he set it down as he slipped into a pew at the back of our sanctuary. After the service, folks invited him to join us for a potluck lunch. At lunch a half dozen of our members made a point of speaking with him and sitting next to him. After he had eaten, I visited with him and found out a bit of his story. He wasn’t a pan handler. He wasn’t begging. In fact he was happy because he finally was preparing to move into his own place after having been homeless for several years.

I was very proud of my congregation. They really are good people.

One of the major themes of the Gospels is Jesus’ teaching about not being afraid. But our society is filled with people who are fearful. And they are often fearful in situations where no fear is warranted. Irrational fear or excessive fear when no threat is present is a serious psychological condition. But no one is going to call the clerks in the Starbucks cafe paranoid. No one is going to call the police officers paranoid. It is clear, however, that the incident wouldn’t have happened without some irrational fear.

I can only imagine what it must be like to be a black man in our society. I have lived a sheltered and privileged life. And I live in a very safe place. Sure there is some crime in our city, but there is no place in our city where I am afraid to go. I don’t have to worry about who is afraid of me, either. I can approach clerks and waiters and not worry about them calling the police. I can sit for a few moments waiting for friends without feeling a need to justify my presence. Most of the time I don’t even bother to explain why i am waiting.

I’m not sure how to teach courage to people who are fearful. One way is simply to give them opportunities to meet strangers and to get to know them. Inviting strangers into our congregation and sharing a meal with them gives people an opportunity to meet folks that they would never meet in other settings. In fact, people might even be afraid of some of those folks if they met them outside of the church.

The way to get beyond fear is faith. The Bible urges believers to not be afraid in Isaiah, in Deuteronomy, in Joshua, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and Acts. You get the picture.

"Be not afraid, only believe."

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Many seasons

When I was a college student, I served a small congregation as a supply preacher for a year. I received a license from the Association to serve as a pastor even though I had not completed my education. In fact I had not yet even gone to seminary. I was mentored in the work by our Conference Minister. In addition to serving the church, I was a full-time student and also served as janitor of the office building where the conference office was located in trade for rent of an apartment in in that building. The worship bulletins for the church were run a mimeograph machine that belonged to the Conference Office. It didn’t take too much paper as the congregation was small. I learned some of the responsibility of developing liturgy on a regular basis. Because of the office schedule, I had access to the mimeograph machine only on Saturdays, so I’d prepare the bulletin and type the stencil with our manual typewriter during the week. The platen on the typewriter was too narrow to accept the stencil in the direction that it needed to be printed, so I’d cut the stencil with a razor blade and a ruler, type it and then carefully glue it back into one piece before running it on the machine. The mechanics of the process don’t matter to my story, but it is interesting to me how much easier the process is these days.

As a college student, I was not a last-minute person. I planned my life so that I would complete assignments before deadlines. I would become anxious if I felt I was falling behind in my work. For big events, such as Easter, I had the stencil typed as much as a week in advance. That meant that some weeks I was working on more than one service at the same time. It is a skill that is very helpful to me and that I continue to use to this day.

I am preparing for a three-month sabbatical this summer, so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about worship for the church in the time that I will be gone. Our church will be using a combination of its own members and supply pastors from outside the church to lead worship during our absence. So I’ve returned to my practice of working ahead in the preparation of worship bulletins. I’ve got a file on the computer with the summer bulletins and each week I add bits of liturgy and other items to the bulletins. The hymns have been chosen for the entire summer, The preachers have been lined up, and some other work has been done. I have tree weeks of worship in August for which there are no bulletin notes entered yet, but I should have the rough draft of those bulletins completed within week.

In the meantime, life goes on at its regular pace. In our normal plan of work for the church, Thursday is the day that we polish the bulletin. I try to have the first draft of the bulletin completed by 9 am when our administrative colleague arrives to enter the announcements and other items into the document. The liturgy is complete, but the document needs to be finished, proofread and printed. By the end of the work day on Thursday we plan to have the bulletin ready to print. Actual printing is the first task on Friday morning, which allows for last minute changes if events in the congregation shift.

So part of my mind is thinking of the flow of the 4th Sunday of Easter, Shepherd Sunday, and part of my mind is thinking of the end of the season of Pentecost. In addition to the worship bulletins for August, I have an in-progress document on my computer that completes worship plans for the season of Pentecost. If I don’t have the general outline of worship through the season, which ends November 25, in place before I leave, the musicians and other staff members won’t have enough planning resources to be ready to begin September with the return of our choir and a full slate of programs for the church. That means a third track of thinking about worship.

The trick is to focus on one task at a time when I am actually working. I can’t be thinking about with words to use for the Call to Worship on August 19 while I am choosing the hymns for October 14. I can’t allow thinking about hymns for Thanksgiving Sunday to distract me from the mood of Shepherd Sunday.

On the other hand, I’m finding that working at several points in the worship pattern of the church in sequence is giving me a fresh perspective on the bigger picture of the flow of worship in the community. It has taken me decades to really gain the sense of living in a flow of worship as opposed to thinking about the process as a series of stand along events. When I was a student a worship service was like a paper I was preparing. I would plan the service and when we had completed our worship I would move on to the process of planning the next one.

These days I am able to see how the cycle flows and returns to familiar themes. We always read Psalm 23 on the fourth Sunday of Easter. Every year there is the opportunity to preach a sermon on the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Every year there is an invitation to reflect on the valley of the shadow of death where I shall fear no evil for Thou art with me. I grew up in sheep country, but I don’t have enough stories about sheep for a new one each year.

The congregation I serve, like all other congregations, is constantly changing. People come and go. Families are formed and reconfigured. Relationships change. Leaders go through transitions. The dynamics of the wider society are different now than was the case in former years.

Like the years, our lives have seasons. Working with several seasons at once reminds me that they are all connected. It is a blessing to be so reminded.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

As a rule

Last evening I was addressing a meeting about some general principles of capital fund raising. It is a topic that I know a fair bit about, having conducted multiple capital funds campaigns over the course of my career. I also have worked with consultants who do capital fund raising full time. At any rate, I used the phrase, “as a rule . . .”

Of course there are no rules that govern people’s giving patterns. I used the phrase incorrectly. I should have said, “generally,” of “usually.” No one commented on my use of the phrase, and I doubt that it confused any one, but I noticed it and thought to myself that I need to be more careful in choosing my words.

The phrase “as a rule,” is a shortening of a phrase that has its roots in naval navigation. The term as used in that context is “as a rule of thumb.” A rule of thumb refers to the safe distance from an obstacle. In the days before GPS devices and depth finders and chart plotters, Sailors used paper charts. The charts had dangerous reefs, sand bars, and other obstacles that posed a danger to sailors noted on them. The tradition was for the captain of the vessel to place his thumb next to the obstacle and the ship was to stay that far away from the obstacle. No particular though was given to the scale of the chart or even to variations in the sizes of human thumbs. A vessel was safe if it got no more than the distance covered by the captain’s thumb on the chart.

Of course there were problems with the rule of thumb. Most charts of the time had only estimates or incomplete information about the rising and falling of tides. They rarely had significant information about currents or changes in terrain caused by landslides or other dangers. The charts were mostly based on hand-drawn charts and could have significant errors in the locations of certain items. Dangers were often discovered by accidents or near accidents that caused panic among crews and led to errors in reporting. Then there are the normal problems with sailing: wind speed and direction, fog and other weather patterns, and the limits of human endurance and judgment. “A rule of thumb,” often wasn’t enough to avoid an accident, and there are stories of ships lost at sea and near shore that fill volumes and volumes.

The real rule in sailing is that sailors should avoid running into areas too shallow for the ship. They should also avoid running into rocks and sand bars and other obstacles. And, while they are at it, they should avoid running into other boats. That’s the general rule and whether or not thumbs were used to insure safety is a moot point when an accident occurs.

One has to be careful of rules because the world is not constant and there are usually exceptions to rules. To take another example from sailing, The bow is the front of the boat as it goes through the water. The back is the stern. The left side is port and the right side is starboard. All of those directions are for a boat in motion and are relative to the motion of the boat. Technically, when a boat is traveling in reverse the stern comes the bow and starboard becomes port. The assumption is that sailors should face the direction of travel on a vessel. But not every sailor uses that terminology correctly. So it is incumbent upon careful sailors to make sure how the captain is thinking when issuing commands. Since boats generally move backwards only when maneuvering in close quarters the stakes in those commands can be high.

There are other rules that have exceptions. You’ve probably heard “righty=tighty, lefty=loosey” in reference to the direction that a nut turns. There are exceptions to this rule. One that is important to remember has to do with the connections to propane or acetylene or other volatile gasses. In industrial uses, pipes used to connect to the valves on volatile gas bottles are backwards from the standard direction used on inert gas bottles. This is to prevent the connection of the wrong hose to the wrong bottle. This is critical in cases such as oxygen-acetylene welding bottles. You have to hook up the right hose to the right bottle to avoid a dangerous situation. The hoses are threaded backwards, but in most cases the valves turn the same direction. However, there were some bottles manufactured with the valves also going in the opposite direction. In an emergency situation, it is important to know which direction the valve goes to shut off the flow of gas.

Exceptions to that rule include the lug nuts on certain automobiles. Although it is rare in modern vehicles, it used to be the case that the lug nuts on one side of the car turned in the opposite direction in order to prevent the motion of the wheel from loosening the nuts. Strangely this also used to be the case with the flush handles on toilets. If the handle was on the right side of the tank the nut would turn the opposite direction of the nut on a handle on the left side of the tank. These days, however, flush handles generally have plastic nuts and are designed to be installed on either side of the tank by turning the handle upside down. Knowing the direction to lose the nut involves knowing a bit about the age of the handle and, in some cases, a bit of trial and error.

Then there is the matter of “stage right” and “stage left” as opposed to “audience right” and “audience left” in theatre productions. The assumption is that the majority of actors will be facing the audience and therefore directions need to be identified as to whether left and right are from the perspective of the audience or of those on the stage. The rules are complex when applied to proper display of flags, in which the position of honor depends on whether the flags are displayed on a raised stage or on the level of the audience.

So I’ve decided that I need to teach myself, when noting rules, to be aware of the exceptions. In fact, I suspect I’ll use the phrase, “as a rule” far less often if I can only make myself slow down and think about what I’m saying.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Dreams

I’m not one to remember my dreams often, but I woke this morning with a clear memory of a dream. In the dream, it was time for worship to start and I was struggling to adjust a device that controlled the temperature in the room. The device had extremely small switches and my fingers were too large to use the switches effectively. The device was inconveniently located on a pipe in the ceiling and I was working standing on a chair with a flashlight in my mouth to be able to see. As I worked, the start of the church service was being delayed.

First of all, my imagination has stretched met worries quite a bit of distance from reality. The heating controls in our church are managed by a computer. When we make adjustments, we sit in a comfortable chair at a desk and use a computer keyboard with which my fingers are very comfortable. Furthermore, I and not the primary user of the heat controls. I have two trained administrative assistants who can be given that job while I do other things.

Although I occasionally have dreams about being late for worship, it is not something that I do. I generally arrive at the church a couple of hours before worship.I like to make sure everything is in place and that I am ready for the task. Last night when my worship role was to lead a simple home dedication for Habitat for Humanity, I arrived nearly an hour early and had plenty of time without feeling rushed. That’s the way I like it and that is my usual style when it comes to worship.

Dreams, however, reveal aspects of your personality which might be hidden. People have known that the language of dreams is not direct or immediately obvious for many generations. Many scholars believe that the oldest stories of what we now call the Old Testament are not the ones that appear in the beginning of the book of Genesis, but rather an origin story that appears in Deuteronomy. That story begins, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” That story, which the book commands people to recite in response to inquiries about the origins of our people, begins with a reference to Joseph, who, from other texts we know to have had skill as an interpreter of dreams. His ability to interpret dreams was responsible for freeing him from prison and garnering favor with Pharaoh.

We’ve been talking about our dreams for many generations.

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were pioneers in the modern field of dream analysis. In the century since their time thousands of books have been written about the topic. There are books that purport to be dictionaries of dream symbols, doctoral thesis of eager students, and even a World Dream Atlas to which Facebook users contributed. Dream analysis is used by many cognitive therapists in their work with clients. Psychologists often incorporate dream interpretation into their practice, usually focusing on concepts identified by Jung and Freud. Therapies that focus attention on dreams and their interpretation are based on a belief that dreams reveal our deepest truths but that the language of dreams, a language of symbols, is not obvious.

I’m not convinced that the meaning of many dreams is deeply hidden.

It doesn’t surprise me that I dream about being late for worship. It is an easily understandable anxiety that I have. I believe that worship is vital to the life of the community and I feel a deep obligation to facilitate worship in a manner that is respectful of this who participate. I care about getting it right. My brain is probably working on those concepts when I sleep as well as when I am awake.

When our children headed off to school and again later when they went off to college, my wife had dreams in which a baby was lost and we were searching for the lost baby. I don’t think it requires many sessions of deep psychoanalysis to draw meaning from those dreams. From the moment we meet them, we parents have a concern about losing our children. Then we raise them to become independent adults and to go out into the world. Our feelings are mixed and come to the surface when they encounter major life changes.

One of our college professors kept an extensive dream journal. He recorded his dreams upon waking for decades. He collected volumes and volumes of recorded dreams. He reported that when he began the process he might remember one or two dreams a week. Soon he was remembering four or five dreams each morning. He never published his journals. As far as I know he never shared them with another person. He would occasionally refer to them in his teaching. Late in life he developed dementia and his family helped him to move away from our college town to be closer to them and receive care. He passed away several years ago. I’ve wondered what happened to his journals. Are they still being kept somewhere? Are they available for study? I suspect that there is a good doctoral thesis inside of those journals.

I doubt, however, that they would reveal much about our teacher that is currently unknown. He was a pretty straightforward guy. He had a brilliant mind for academic study. He was an accomplished pianist and organist. He had a loving marriage and family. He was active in the church and served in many leadership positions. Recording his dreams never got in the way of his contributing to the community in many ways.

This journal isn’t likely to become a dream journal. I might occasionally be surprised to remember a dream. I might even find out something about myself and what concerns are before me. After all it is pretty obvious that the small controls and the difficulty and seeing reflect my anxiety about falling behind with technology and losing capabilities as I age. I don’t think I need a psychologist to see what is going on. I suspect, however, that I will continue to go on with my life ignoring the majority of my dreams and being happy. I don’t think there’s a PhD thesis in my nocturnal thoughts.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Remarkable leadership

Pope Francis may be the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church, but there are many areas in which he is first. He is the first Pope who is a Jesuit. He is the first Pope who is from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first from the Americas. In fact he is the first Pope since the eighth century to have come from outside of Europe. (Gregory III was from Syria.) He has been called the protestants’ favorite Pope. We, who are not members of the Roman Catholic church and who watch its activities from the outside, have appreciated his leadership for reform in the historic church and his consistent and persistent voice for the world’s poor and downtrodden. He has, from my point of view, demonstrated remarkable leadership in the church.

Last week he did two things that are worthy of the attention of all world leaders. He apologized and he issued a remarkable and powerful document.

First the apology. He apologized for “grave errors” in his misguided defense of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by an infamous pedophile priest. His defense of the bishop was surprising and disappointing to those of us who are observing from outside the church. We have seen Popes and other church leaders engage in similar behavior before. When they place institutional self-preservation over concern for those who have suffered, the results can be terrible. Across the board, Protestant and Catholic, the church has engaged in systematic cover-up of horrible and inexcusable abuses by those in power. The victimizing of children is among the gravest horrors of the church. The repercussions of abuse within the church has caused so much pain and suffering for its victims that defense of the perpetrators is unspeakable. Unfortunately, there are those who fear that continuing revelations will damage the image of the church. Damaging or not, however, the truth must be told for the sake of the victims. When Francis defended the bishop, who is most certainly guilty of covering up the abuses of the priest, he fell into an old and all too familiar pattern of religious leaders who place institutional survival over the suffering of victims.

But something different happened this time. Francis apologized. In a letter to Chile’s bishops h wrote, “As far as my role, I acknowledge, and ask you to convey faithfully, that I have made grave errors in assessment and perception of the situation, especially as a result of lack of information that was truthful and balanced. From this time I ask for forgiveness to all those that i offended and I hope to do so personally, in the following weeks, in meetings that I will hold with representatives” of those affected.

Priests routinely hear confessions. Here is a Pope making a public confession. It is striking and remarkable.

It is leadership at its finest.

In the church, the institution that believes that God comes to us in human form, we do not expect our leaders to be superhuman. We expect them to be human, which means bailable and capable of errors. We have not, however, frequently experienced genuine and heartfelt apology and expressions of real change.

It is this apology that invites all Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, to sit up and take notice. It lends weight and credible to Pope Francis’ second remarkable action of the past week. In an Apostolic Exhortation, he calls on all Christians to view holiness as demanding an engagement with “the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged.” The teaching, titled “Gaudete et Exsultate” (Rejoice and Be Glad), urges all true Christians to do more than have concern for those who are marginalized by society. He calls for genuine engagement with those who have deep needs, putting aside personal gain or security for the sake of those who suffer. The statement is even more powerful in the wake of the apology issued by the Pope in which he demonstrates a personal commitment to the concepts he outlines.

He lifted up words from our scriptures that we are unlikely to hear from politicians and other leaders in our country: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him.”

Following centuries of history in which the Catholic Church has projected a confidence about its processes of determining who the saints are, Francis speaks of the “Saints Next Door,” and acknowledges the holiness of people who have not been beatified and canonized by official actions of the church. Warning of the temptations of a purely subjective faith and the tendency of contemporary people to fall into the temptation of trusting only in one’s own powers and abilities, Francis reminds all believers that a will lacking humility consistently misleads those who fall into its delusions. We are human. What we are and what we are able to do comes from God and not from ourselves.

Francis invites those who are faithful to go against the flow - to listen more to Jesus than to the tides of popular culture. He noted that we can “waste precious time” by being caught up in “superficial information” and “instant communication.” He called on the faithful to make time for genuine prayer and contemplation in their lives.

It is an amazingly strong statement and I, as a Protestant, have found much in it that is instructional and helpful. As I read it I was struck by the stark contrast between the statement and the type of leadership that is being shown in American politics today. A thoughtful, carefully worded and edited document, that takes time to explore ideas contrasts starkly with a series of angry tweets issued from a cell phone with minimal attention to spelling, grammar and punctuation. The call to reach out to and engage with those who are dispossessed contrasts with political leaders who call for reform of public safety-net programs. An invitation to show hospitality to immigrants sounds very different from crowds chanting “build the wall!”

I’ll leave it to history to sort out and judge the leaders of our world. But last week, I found far more inspirational leadership in a church to which I do not belong than from the government of the country where I am a loyal citizen.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Religion and science

There is a phrase that you hear bandied about in a lot of different churches as if it were a sort of motto that was unique to a particular denomination: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” I’ve heard various attributions for the phrase, but to the best of my knowledge, it comes from an obscure German Lutheran theologian writing during the Thirty Years War, a blood time in the history of Europe in which religious tensions played a significant role. Rupertus Meldenius wrote a tract on Christian unity that was published around 1627.

It is, I believe, an important statement on how Christians approach their faith. Of course we can (and do) argue about what is essential and what is non-essential, so the key phrase may be the third part of the statement, “In all things charity.”

The phrase came to my mind as I have been thinking once again about the artificial divide between science and religion that seems to be popular in the minds of some Christian and non Christian thinkers. On the one hand there are entrenched Christians, primarily fundamentalists from traditions that distain educated clergy, who use one or two verses of scripture to illustrate what they claim to be disagreements with contemporary scientific thought. On the other hand are secular scientists who use selected examples of mistaken church teachings and corruption within the church as examples for the rejection of all religion. Granted it seems that those two extremes will have trouble finding common ground, it is important to recognize that the rejection of scientific thought is not at the core of religion, nor is it an ancient tradition among Christians.

The rejection of science is relatively new in the history of Christianity, despite the fact that some Christian fundamentalists claim that there has been a separation from the beginning. First of all, Christianity is much older than modern scientific method. You don’t find debates about a divide between science and religion before the time of Francis Bacon who lived in the late 16th Century. Bacon, who was influenced by the works of Copernicus and Galileo, attempted to formalize the concept of scientific method. All of these founders of scientific method and thought were people of faith. They made no attempt to discredit religion at all.

The more ancient and interesting arguments about the relationship of faith and reason, however, go back much farther. Taking a look at those conversations can provide quite a bit of enlightenment to the contemporary and somewhat misguided arguments between science and religion.

From Roman times, and perhaps from even before the time fo Christ, there has been discussion of how much of ultimate truth is informed by reason and how much by faith. The ancients understood that our minds have a great capacity to figure things out and there is a great deal of truth that can be perceived by human thought. However, it is equally truth that there is much that is beyond our grasp. Modern attempts at a unified theory of mathematics illustrate that human minds and imagination are capable of understanding that universal truth exists, but our attempts to possess or conquer even just a bit of that truth fall short.

The fourth century philosopher and Christian Saint, Augustine, was well aware of the human capacity to comprehend logical truths. He was also aware of the capacity of the human imagination to deduce subjective truths that exist in our minds but are not the whole story. For example, Augustine claims that there is no external reality which is time. Time, for him, is a human construct that exists only in our perception of reality, not in reality itself.

I could spend a week’s worth of journal entries on the thoughts and writings of Augustine, and the result would mostly be intensely boring to those who read it, but there is an Augustinian principle that I believe informs contemporary discussions of faith and reason. Augustine wrote of his theory of universal truth. It was his belief that all truth comes from God. Since it is from a single source, eventually all truth will be reconciled, regardless of how it is obtained. Truth from scripture and truth from human investigations eventually are reconciled because they came from the same source. There is only one source so ultimately there is only one truth.

I don’t believe that if he were living today Augustine would be among those who reject modern scientific thought. He would have seen it as seeking the same ultimate truth as is sought by religion. Augustine did place reason in a slightly lower position than faith, acknowledging that faith is essential to the pursuit of truth.

His somewhat convoluted arguments about free will also show that some contemporary arguments have been going on for a very long time. He believes that there is within every human being a certain amount of free will and a certain amount of predestination. In contemporary language we might understand this as the evaluation of the role of nature and nurture. How much of our identity is a part of our genetic code and how much the result of decisions we have made? Augustine, of course, uses theological language in the discussion, referring to what modern thinkers might label biology as original sin. There is, in our very nature, a certain element of predestination. Despite the power of reason and the advances of thinking, there remains a part of each of us that is determined by events that occurred long before our birth.

I personally do not buy into the rejection of scientific method. With Augustine, I find that the pursuit of truth is not in any way a rejection of God or of religious practice. I am not threatened by differences between individual verses in the Bible and scientific discoveries. In fact, I believe that when we bring the same high standards of logic and human consistency of thought to the study of scripture as we bring to the study of nature we discover that truth always lies beyond our grasp.

Seeking truth, however, is worthy of the best of our investments of thought, creativity and energy.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Snow day

We had a lovely snow day yesterday. First of all we were not snowed in. At any point in the day we could have gotten in our car and driven to town if there had ben a need. However, the schools were closed. County offices were on an only essential personnel basis. The same was true of the Air Force Base. We had had plenty of warning of the blizzard, so we had the worship bulletins prepared and it was easy to have the office closed for a day. I did go out to visit with one church member in the afternoon, but for the most part had a day off.

The storm started with rain, but the rain didn’t come until late on Thursday. None of our Thursday activities were disrupted. We went to the play in the evening and didn’t get home until 10:30 or so and the rain was just beginning to fall as we pulled into the driveway.

It snowed pretty heavily during the morning, but the winds never did pick up in our neck of the woods, so we just watched the snow pile up outdoors. After lunch I went out and cleared the driveway and it was warm enough that it stayed clear until a little dusting of snow blew over it in the evening. We had power and Internet service all through the storm, so there were no inconveniences that way.

If you are going to have a snow day, it isn’t a bad way to have one. The moisture is good for the hills. The snow makes everything look pretty. All in all there is nothing to complain about.

And today we’ll go back to normal. The high school music competition that had been set to begin at the church at 9 am has been moved back to 11 am. I have a few clerical tasks that I normally do on Fridays that I’ll complete this morning, but other than that we’re back to business as usual.

It is a blessing that this storm isn’t going to disrupt church attendance on Sunday.

The more relaxed pace of the day gave me a bit more time for reading and one of the things I read was a magazine column by an other whose articles I read most months. We’ve never met, but his writing is very familiar to me and I feel like I know a bit about his life from having read his articles over a period of several years. His column this month is about his learning to admit that he has slowed down a bit as he has aged. He wrote that so far the effects of aging haven’t become a problem for him. Sure his knees hurt sometimes and he walks a bit slowly than once was the case, but his slower pace allows him to see things that he missed when he was barreling through life a breakneck speed. He’s turned over the day to day operations of his business to younger, sharper minds and occasionally he notices that they are sharper, think faster and are more capable of multitasking than he. He notes this truth, but says it doesn’t bother him. Being mostly retired allows him to focus on one thing at a time, which, once you’ve tried it, is very fulfilling. He knows he is no longer able to safely manage a large sailboat single handedly, but that gives him more time to sail in a small boat. The small boat isn’t as fast or as capable, but it gives him the pleasure of sailing all the same.

I don’t know the age of the author, but I imagine him to be a bit older than me. I’m still enjoying the bustle of the office and I don’t mind being the one who has to go in on a snow day. I actually was at the church twice during a day when we were officially closed. It didn’t seem like a problem to me and the day definitely seemed to have a slower pace than our usual. I like the feeling that others are depending on me and occasionally turn to me for advice and support. Most of the time I don’t mind my phone ringing and the inbox of my email filling up.

But I do think about what it will mean to retire from time to time. It isn’t an unpleasant thought. If retirement could be a bit like a yesterday, it wouldn’t be bad at all. I might take a few more naps. I would know that I could go out and about if I needed to, but that I could also sit and enjoy a book a bit longer in the morning if I wanted to. It might be possible, as the author noted in his column, that will find great pleasure in doing things one at a time.

Here’s the problem, however. I wonder if retired people get as much fun out of a snow day as we do. I mean if you don’t have the routine of going to the office every day, do you really appreciate a bonus day off? I remember how we used to long for summer vacation when I was in elementary school and how after a few months of vacation we used to look forward to the return of the school year. We didn’t like to admit it, but we were ready for school to begin in the fall. The novelty of being able to sleep in (which I’ve never done much anyway) wore off. The lack of structure, so treasured at the beginning of the summer, turned to occasional bits of boredom by the end of it. I think we would have enjoyed snow days, but that wasn't something we ever got when I was a kid. The school busses didn't run when the weather got bad, but we kids in town were expected to be able to walk to school regardless of the weather, and that seemed to work out just fine.

I’ve been blessed with a good life. I’ve always had meaningful work. I’ve never had a sense of not wanting to have my job. Sure there are things that drive me up the wall. There are frustrations I could live without. One day it will be time for me to move on. Something, however, tells me that the time hasn’t come quite yet.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Telling the story

In the face of truly horrific events, the process of just telling the story accurately can be a significant challenge. Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate and writer. After witnessing first-hand the horrors of Nazi concentration camps it took him several years to begin writing and publishing books, but once he found his voice the books flowed freely from his pen. He chose the literary form of fiction. Throughout his life he was criticized and pressed by friends and enemies alike. There were some who wanted to restrict him to simply reporting facts, without artistic interpretation. The fact that he used his imagination and story telling skills to write about the Holocaust has been the subject of many articles and books. Perhaps his own autobiography is most revealing. In it he reports of a visit to the Rebbe of Wizhnitz in Israel. In his own words:

“The conversation became more relaxed. He asked me about my work. He wanted to know if the stories I told in my books were true, had they really happened. I answered not too convincingly: “In literature, Rebbe, certain things are true though they didn’t happen, while others are not, even if they did.

“I would have loved to have received his blessing.” (All Rivers Run to the Sea, Memoirs, Elie Wiesel, Knopf, 1995, page 275.)

The report shows the struggle of trying to tell a story that is simply too big to tell. A purely factual account of the events of his childhood would fail to tell the stories of so many who were murdered. Telling only what he had seen with his own eyes would seem inadequate in the face of the immensity of the horror the world had witnessed. The story of one is so small in the face of the tragedy of six million.

Wiesel, of course, wrote both fiction and nonfiction works. He did what he was able in a remarkable and incredible life. But I suppose that there will always be those who criticize his use of his imagination.

I don’t find art to be dishonest. I believe that there are times when the human imagination gives us the capacity to tell larger stories than we might otherwise be able to address. I am an interpreter of the Bible. It contains many stories that report events for which language fails to convey the whole story. There are many such stories in the history of our people. For example, consider Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration. When you read the biblical accounts of these events it is obvious that first generation witnesses couldn’t find the words to describe what had happened. They employ analogies. “The spirit was like a dove.” “Jesus’ clothes were whiter than any fuller on earth cold whiten them.” It is obvious upon reading the scriptures that the events described defy the capacity of human language to describe.

All literature forces us to recognize the limits of language. Even our best attempts at “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” fall short of being free of perspective. Read court transcripts and you will discover that people see different things from different points of view.

The brutal beating of Matthew Shepard in the fall of 1998 on the outskirts of Laramie Wyoming was one such event. During the five days between the beating and his death in a Fort Collins hospital, the eyes of the world were focused on what happened. During the trials of his attackers there were so many stories written in newspapers and reported on television that is was difficult for those of us watching from a distance to discern the whole truth of what had happened.

In 2000, Moisés Kaufman and eleven other members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with residents of the city. They kept journals and went over the published news reports of the murder of Matthew Shepard. The play that grew out of their careful research is The Laramie Project which has been performed widely as one of the ways of telling the story. HBO commissioned a film of The Laramie Project in 2002 and ten years after the murder, members of the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to conduct follow-up interviews and produced a companion piece entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. That play was presented as a reading at nearly 150 theaters around the world on October 12, 2009, the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.

The Matthew Shepard foundation supports productions of The Laramie Project as a way to continue the telling of the story of the tragedy in its ongoing efforts to honor his life and aspirations by working to “erase hate by replacing it with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

The play has previously been performed in Rapid City and last night Black Hills Community Theatre presented an ensemble reading of the Laramie Project, with 67 members of our community taking the stage under the direction of Zach Curtis, who was an actor in the original performance of the play in Chicago.

The piece is a powerful piece of drama. Even without costumes, and with very simple staging and lighting, the power of the writing comes through. The audience in the Performing Arts Center was clearly moved by the experience. It was, for me, one of those, “I’m just glad I was there to see it!” events.

The power of the project is its ability to accurately portray the real people of a real western town. It is remarkable in its ability to withhold judgment and just tell the story.

Of course no play can tell the whole story. There are characters whose appearances are brief and only a small slice of their lives are portrayed. Humans are remarkably complex. A lifetime would be all too short to tell the whole story of what happened that year in Laramie.

There are some stories, however, that simply must be told. We must continue to tell the stories of the Holocaust so that every generation knows what Elie Wiesel’s generation suffered. We must continue to tell the story of Matthew’s life and death so that others will know the evil of which humans are capable.

And sometimes, I am sure, art and literature help us to tell the stories that are too big for us to tell completely. I am grateful for theater and art and literature in our lives.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Volunteers

I am going through a rite of passage that isn’t mentioned in the books as far as I know. It isn’t one I anticipated, and I really didn’t see it coming. In a plain envelope from the Department of Health and Human Services this week I received my medicare card. My coverage doesn’t begin for another 45 days, but the existence of the card is enough to remind me that I’m heading towards the category “senior citizen” in a way that is more difficult to ignore than the weekly appeals to join AARP. As an aside, what it it with an organization that keeps offering membership reward after membership reward and absolutely none of the items offered is something I want?

There is something interesting about my age cohort - at least the males who share my birth year with me. We are the first to have lived in a post-draft world. We received our draft cards, were assigned our lottery numbers, and some of us were ordered to our physicals and then, at what seemed at the last minute, the draft was ended and no one born in my birth year was drafted into the U.S. Army. That means that all who served as a result of the draft are older than me. And you know how old I am. It won’t take too many more decades before the nation has no one who remembers first hand what it means to be drafted into military service.

I bring that up because of an entirely different topic. In the early days after the draft the term that was bandied about was the “all volunteer army.” It is, when you stop to think about it, a serious misnomer. While those serving in the Army and the other branches of the U.S. military have chosen to serve without coercion, they are highly trained and highly skilled professionals who are paid for their service and who are directed and managed as employees, not as volunteers.

I know the difference. I have spent my career working in volunteer organizations. I serve on the board of multiple organizations that rely heavily on volunteers. You can’t get away with giving orders to volunteers. It doesn’t work to try to motivate them by yelling at them like a drill sergeant.

One of the things that seems to go with the medicare card that I will soon be carrying with me in my wallet everywhere I go is that I have developed a bit more patience than I had when I was younger. I’ve spent more than a few wild rants telling whoever would listen about my frustration with the slowness of decision-making in volunteer organizations, the lack of commitment of some volunteers, and the seemingly stupid decisions made by some volunteer boards of directors. I’ve been party to church politics and petty power struggles in an institution that has virtually no power to be grasped. I’v seen some of the worst of human behavior in the service of some of the noblest of human causes.

Trust me, the United States Army is not a volunteer organization.

The rag-tag militias of the early days of the American revolution were volunteers. But it has ben a long time since our forebears pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to support their declaration of independence. These days the brave and self-sacrificing young men and women of the Army have a right to demand lifetime health care, reasonable retirement benefits, and fair wages for their service.

Meanwhile, I am committed to working with volunteer organizations. There are some types of community service that simply work better with volunteers. Habitat for Humanity doesn’t make sense as a housing provider without volunteer labor. Adding labor costs to the costs of the homes they build would drive those homes out of reach for those who need them. The model depends on volunteers. The law enforcement chaplaincies in our community are better as volunteer organizations. Volunteer chaplains don’t owe loyalty to the formal structure of the agency. They serve because there is no greater honor than being allowed to serve those who serve. An exchange of salary would cheapen the process. Our Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide team is effective precisely because we are volunteers - people who are involved because of our life experiences not because someone has paid us to be there. Our caring is born out of genuine loss that we have known first hand. If my home were to experience a fire the volunteers who show up in the fire truck are my neighbors and friends. If I were to be injured deep in the woods, the volunteers of Pennington County Search and Rescue would be there to respond with skill and compassion. There are many things in our society that work best when staffed by volunteers.

The church is one of those institutions. I know. I receive a salary for what I do in the church. My family has been primarily supported by wages from the church for as long as I have been an adult. While the church has a few paid professionals, the strength of our organization lies in its volunteers. Volunteers staff our mission and outreach. Volunteers make the key decisions in the life of the church. Volunteers lead the organization, plan its budgets, manage its resources and care for its future.

Which brings me to another definition of volunteer. In gardening and agronomic terminology, a volunteer is a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted by a farmer or gardener. Unlike weeds, which are unwanted plants, a volunteer may be encouraged by gardeners once it appears, being watered, fertilized, or otherwise cared for. Being a lover of sunflowers, I’m a big fan of volunteers in my garden. The botanical definition of volunteer brings to mind the delight and surprise of plants that seed themselves and come up without any human intervention.

I think that my passion for voluntary organizations is as much driven by the surprise and delight of gifts freely offered as it is by any other cause. May the spirit of volunteers continue to delight us this spring and every season of our lives.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

What is wrong?

I went out to run an errand in the middle of the afternoon yesterday. It was a beautiful day and before I put the car in gear, I rolled down the driver’s window. My car is old and doesn’t have a thermometer as most modern cars do, but I could tell that it was really nice. My car had been sitting in the sun and was uncomfortably warm inside. As I drove across town, I started to be stuck by how few cars had their windows down. I began to count. Less than 1 in 10 cars had its windows down. I drove by a sign that reported that the temperature was 68 degrees. I felt like asking, “What is wrong with you people?” I rolled down the rest of the windows in my car.

I know that spring has been tempting us to succumb to spring fever around here. We’ve had snowfall once or twice a week to remind us that it can still get cold and nasty outside, but we get a few days with nice weather that are really pleasant. Despite the winter storm warning that has been issued for Friday, Tuesday was lovely. The snow is almost all melted from our lawn. The deer are finding some new shoots in the grass. There are isis poking up from the dirt in the flower beds. The seasons are changing. Even if we do get a really big blizzard, the snow will quickly melt. Yesterday was definitely the kind of day that invites me to drive out to the lake to see how much ice is left.

It seemed sad to me that 90% of the folk around me didn’t seem to notice how wonderful it was, or if they did, they chose not to allow themselves to enjoy it. I know that some of them had cars that were as warmed by the sun as mine. They must have been running their air conditioners, which seems sad when the weather outside is the perfect temperature.

I have enjoyed living in South Dakota. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived any place else in my life. The people are wonderful. But there are times when I can’t help thinking, “What is wrong with you people?”

I got home in time to prepare supper and as soon as I got to the house, I opened up some windows to let the wonderful outside air inside the house. Things freshen up when we are able to open the windows. We live in a pine forest. You don’t need air fresheners when the outside air is fresh. While I was waiting for a few things to bake in the oven, I went out onto my front porch in the very early evening light. It was so beautiful. I looked up and down the street. There wasn’t a child in sight. We have neighbors with plenty of children. We worry sometimes because they play in the street. We caution all of our visitors to be cautions to protect the children from harm. But there were no children outside in that beautiful evening weather. The school busses had deposited them hours earlier. I don’t know if they were doing homework or eating supper, but it was strange. I do know that the children in our community are over scheduled. They have school sports and community sports and music and dance and theatre and are signed up for program after program. They don’t have much time for free play. It is so different than the world in which I grew up, where we had school, homework, and we spent as much time outdoors as we possibly could, with our parents calling us in to go to bed.

I wanted to ask, “What is wrong with you people? Don’t you know that kids belong outside with enough free time to allow their imaginations to soar?”

These aren’t strangers. They are my neighbors.

W have a very strong Habitat for Humanity affiliate in our community. I’ve been involved in it for as long as I’ve lived here. I’ve served on its board of directors, volunteered for building, and served on committees. Our church has sponsored multiple houses. But the cost of land and construction is driving the cost of Habitat Houses up. The home we are working on with Habitat for this summer is projected to cost $156,000. Even with the interest free loan spread out over 20 years, that makes the principal payment over $600 a month. Add in taxes and insurance and the house payment approaches $1,000. With some houses in our market selling for half of that cost, it means that it would be less expensive to keep existing houses and develop an interest-free scheme for financing them than it costs to build new houses. But that isn’t Habitat’s way of doing business. And families won’t qualify for conventional mortgages. So we have houses on the market that won’t sell, and some are being torn down for new development, while our community lacks affordable housing and Habitat for Humanity homes may no longer be affordable homes soon. It makes me wonder, “Whats wrong with you people?”

Or “What’s wrong with us people?”

We have the intelligence and the resources to solve the housing problems of many of the people in our community. The Habitat for Humanity model is part of that solution, but not all of it. We have the skills and resources to make existing homes into simple, decent and safe housing for families, but we seem to lack the will to use multiple approaches to this complex problem.

Maybe it takes one more blizzard to get us to appreciate spring weather.

I’m not sure what it takes for us to see the opportunities we have to work together to solve the housing crisis in our town. We know that stable housing results in lower consumption of health care and better performance in school. We know that stable housing is a good investment for the entire community. We can solve this problem.

What is wrong with us?

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Essential diversity

It is my custom, sometime on Monday, to scan my calendar for the week to come to see what new appointments, meetings or unusual items mark the week. Of course, my weeks are not predictable, even with a good digital organizer. Interruptions occur. Sometimes, I have to reschedule my appointments because of crises in people’s lives or events that were not predictable. Still, it is good to have a sense of the flow of the week. As I looked forward this week, I noted the wide diversity of meetings that I have set up. I’m not as big a fan of meetings as was the case when I was younger, but there are still quite a few meetings in my schedule. Some are important connections with individuals. I need to visit one-on-one with the members of our church on a regular basis. A few of my colleagues refer to pastoral visits almost exclusively as connections with people who are ill or shut-in. While these visits are important, I have found that it is equally important for pastors to make regular calls and visits with people at other phases of their lives.

It is one of the joys of my work - the opportunity to visit with people at all stages of their lives. There is so much in modern society that divides people by age. Health clubs, including the YMCA tend to program by age, segregating people within their facilities. Educational systems are graded and divided by age. Social events often are dominated by one age or another. Adults may gather to watch children, such as parents and grandparents at children’s sporting events, but if you observe, they spend very little time interacting with one another. The coaches spend more time with the kids than the parents in some cases. In the church we are intentionally intergenerational and I deeply appreciate that. Almost anyone I speak with in our church agrees that they want to be a part of a church that has people of all ages, where elders and children get to know one another and all ages are respected and treasured.

I read a book several years ago that addressed age segregation as a church growth technique. It pointed out that churches tend to attract new members within a narrow age range. By focusing on a single group a church can specialize in the music they like, the programs that meet their needs and get those people to invite their friends. It may be true, but the result isn’t what the members of our congregation want. They don’t want a church that is predominantly one age group.

It isn’t just age, however. There is great diversity in other aspects among the members of our church. One day this week I will have lunch with a member who is unapologetically liberal. He loves politics and is involved in many grass roots political movements. He supports candidates that share his political opinions and attends events where liberals gather. Virtually every conversation with him involves politics at some point or another. He has a brilliant mind and is an astute observer who is often accurate in his predictions. I appreciate his participation in our church and he has served it well by offering leadership to committees and giving generously of his time. I will also have lunch this week with a member of the church who is very right-wing in his political beliefs. He contributes to campaigns of conservative politicians, shares their views on many topics and enjoys attending conservative political events. I seriously doubt that these two men are friends. I doubt that they would choose to have lunch with each other. But I get the privilege of knowing both and listening to both.

There isn’t much in our society today that encourages people to spend time with and get to know those with whom they disagree. Even our media encourage people to choose sides. There re some homes where the only news watched comes from Fox Television. There are other homes where MSNBC or CNN is the preferred brand. In those homes the other channels are not observed. I’ve noticed that even businesses tend to choose a single source of information. The same channel will be playing every visit to their waiting room. Not being much of a television watcher, this doesn’t have much of an effect on me. I tend to look for the remote and push the mute button when I have to spend time in a waiting room. I generally have a book with me. Yesterday, I really enjoyed being the first customer of the morning in a car shop. I went into the empty waiting room and read my book for the whole time that i was waiting. The television wasn’t turned on, even after a couple of other customers entered the area. As far as I know none of us missed it.

Communities are built on discovering our common ground, not on emphasizing our differences. The intense polarization of almost everything in our country does little to remind us that we are all in this together. This was a lesson I learned early in life. My father, who enjoyed politics and a good argument, often held views that were minority points in our community. His customers often disagreed with his political positions. One of his customers referred to him as “my favorite communist.” My father wasn’t communist, but he had a definite anti-fascist bent born of having served in the Army Air Corps during the second world war. That same customer, however, once said of my father, “He has some crazy ideas but he is honest and he sells a good product at a fair price.” They were able to do business over a quarter of a century because they both had shared core values. The fact that they disagreed about politics didn’t interrupt the process of forming community. When my father received a devastating cancer diagnosis, some of those people with whom he disagreed politically were the first to offer care and concern for the family.

Our communities need us to be able to reach out and get to know those who think differently. We need to learn to do business with those with whom we disagree. And, fortunately for me, our congregation is so rich with diversity that I get to practice those skills every week.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Scipture is more than a selected quote

I is fairly easy to use scripture to promote your particular point of view to the exclusion of other points of view. It has been going on for centuries. A person has a particular position on a political, social or moral issue and finds a single verse in the bible that seems to support that point of view.They then lift that single verse out of context and proclaim it to be inerrant truth. They believe that simply saying or reading words from the Bible makes them right.

The problem with that kind of thinking is that the Bible is a complex collection of religious teachings that has emerged from generations of faithful living. If you become familiar with the Bible, you discover that it has no problem arguing with itself. The prophet Jeremiah is a direct descendant of the priests who were banished by Solomon when he became king of Israel. Religious disagreements and differences are part of the story of our people and they are a part of our Bible. Both Jesus and Paul take issue with the biblical interpretations of scribes and pharisees. The tradition of arguing about meaning is deeply rooted in scriptural tradition. The concept of “The Bible says it, I believe it, and thats all there is to it,” is a rather contemporary notion. One has to have more than a few choice sentences proof texted from the Bible to live a life of faith.

Here is an example that I’ve heard over and over again: the 10th chapter of the Book of Romans makes the argument that salvation is for all people. “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” The chapter comes from an internal discussion in the church at Rome about whether or not one has to convert to Judaism in order to become Christian. Romans takes the clear view that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. It goes on to say, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

This argument for universal salvation goes on to urge believers to share their faith with others. It speaks of the key role of those who proclaim the message of Jesus. Verse 14 poses four questions about how the Good News of Jesus is to be saved. The last of these questions is translated in the King James version to say, “and how shall they hear without a preacher?”

Preachers love to extract this one question and use it as a justification of their role. I recently read an article about small group Bible Studies in which the author, who I might add is a self-proclaimed preacher as opposed to one ordained by a major denomination, claims that this verse means that lay people can’t lead bible study. He also has a few verses quoted out of context about the role of women and uses his own brand of logic to conclude that only men can lead Bible study. The funny thing to me about the article is that this person who is arguing against women leading Bible study groups concludes by saying, “I say no . . . ‘How will they hear without a preacher?’ Romans 10:15.” There are several funny things about the argument, not the least of which is that he made the wrong location reference. He is quoting Romans 10:14. But that is the kind of bluster with which too many people abuse scripture. They find a few words they like and quote them out of context. He has taken a passage or scripture that talks about inclusion and the universality of the Gospel and twisted it to support an argument for exclusion.

People who think that they know who is saved and who is not are generally wrong.

There is nothing new about abusing scripture as a technique for personal and political gain. Politicians love to put on a show of being pious. They attend prayer breakfasts and put a grave expression on their faces. They like to be seen with famous televangelists and preachers of big congregations. Many have even learned a few words of scripture that they can sprinkle into their speeches from time to time.

It is easy to use a few words from the Bible to support almost any argument and there are those who do it every day.

Three principles have guided my study of the Bible over the years. The first is that the Bible is for all people. After studying the history of the translation of the Bible into common languages, I have been convinced that our history has invested heavily in making the Bible accessible to all people. People can be trusted with the scriptures. They can be read by believers and non believers alike. Sometimes a first-time reader will see something that has been missed by those who have studied the scriptures for years. Place no limits on access to the Bible.

The second principle is to pay attention to what the Bible has to say about itself. There are many places where scripture comments on itself. In the Gospels, Jesus often quotes scriptures. Paul makes additional commentary on scriptures. The Bible is a useful tool for interpreting itself. When people learn the historical context of the scriptures it becomes easier to see how complex and subtle they can be.

The third principle is to engage in conversation with others. People who spend hours and hours studying the bible in isolation may become very familiar with the scriptures, but they lack the perspective that comes from other points of view. I enjoy reading what others have written about the Bible. I often consult three or more commentaries in preparing a sermon. Beyond that, I find it meaningful to get together with others to read and discuss the scriptures. For all of my career, I have promoted and led responsible Bible study. It is wonderful to read the scriptures for the first time, but it is also valuable to return again and again and look with a fresh perspective.

When you are confronted with someone who uses the Bible to justify their argument, think twice. Don’t be afraid to go to the Bible yourself and learn what it really says.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Avatars and alter egos

I’ve been using the Internet as a tool for a long time. My first connections were with a 300-baud telephone modem that you literally placed the telephone handset into a cradle on the modem. It was so slow that I would download my emails, disconnect and write my replies then reconnect to upload my responses. Email was all we did in those days. I participated in an email group that focused on church concerns and theology. In those days we all used pseudonyms for email addresses. It reminded me of the handles we used in CB radio conversations. I remember thinking at the time that it would make a lot more sense to use our real names. There were several people in the email group whose identities I knew and none of us posted anything in our messages that we would have minded being associated with our names.

It seems that from the very beginning the Internet encouraged people to use their imaginations to create a kind of alter ego - the personality on the Internet was somehow different and distinct from the person you would meet face-to-face. I have resisted this notion. There is nothing appealing to me about having a kind of split personality. I don’t need to have another identity to maintain. One is enough for me.

While my friends were really developing Facebook profiles and using free blog sites, I was developing this web presence. I have registered the domain names for RevTedH and maintain them as my official we presence. The only reason I don’t use my full name, Ted Huffman, is that it was already registered to another Internet user. If you go to tedhuffman.com, you can find out about a director who has the same name as I. We both have a taste for opera. I didn’t study at Yale.

It seems, however, that there are a lot of people who are intentionally creating and maintaining different personalities on the Internet. They don’t seem to mind inconsistencies and don’t mind projecting an image that is different from what is known to the people with whom they live and work. Others are working to project their real personality, but putting a lot of personal data out on Facebook and other sites where their data is available to be used and abused by advertisers, political operatives and others.

I’m not sure what is right or wrong in terms of an Internet presence, but I’ve tried to follow similar patterns to those by which I live the rest of my life. My web site is probably an incomplete picture, but I think that what is here is accurate. There are, however, stories that I don’t tell. Given that this site contains over 3,000 personal essays, there is a lot of data up here. But it is going to take you a lot of reading to find the details about my life. Some things are pretty obvious, like the events of my educational history, my publications, employment history and other details that are on my CV page. You can find out the names of my children and grandchildren quite easily. You can even find the picture of my grandchildren that I’ve chosen as the header for this year’s journal. You’d have to dig deeper and read quite a few essays to find the towns where my children and grandchildren live, but that information has also been revealed.

Just like my professional life, there are a few details that are not relevant and not revealed. However, it has been my intention, both in my life as a pastor and in my Internet presence to present myself as I am.

As a result, I don’t really understand people who work so hard to maintain different personalities and presences on the Internet. I know people who have false Facebook accounts with made-up names, made-up personalities and the like. I don’t know the appeal of such fiction, but it must be there. There are people who put a lot of effort into creating avatars that roam the internet and somehow enable them to live vicariously. It just isn’t my thing.

So it will come as no surprise that i’m not involved in games. I did do the games of Luminosity for several years, but that has fallen by the wayside these days as I pursue different ways to fill my time. I like puzzles and some games, but my time for such is limited. I’ve never played Pokemon GO. I don’t even know how the game works. I’ve looked at the Pokemon cards that our grandson has collected, so I know a little bit about some of the characters and have a sense of the general appearance of the creatures. I have no understanding of whaat is going on when multiple vehicles pack the fire lane on the east end of our building, backing up into the parking lot and blocking the path to my usual parking place. I’ve been told that playing Pokemon GO is a good way to get out and get exercise, but these people don’t seem to be interested in getting out of their cars. We have a big parking lot, but they don’t want to leave their cars in the marked places. Last week there was a car parked on the grass because the fire lane was filled with other cars.

I’ve been told that there is a Pokemon GO gym near the base of our cross. I’ve made an official appeal through the game’s web site to have the feature removed from the game and I’m hopeful that they will find some other place to attract the players. It seems that game play does nothing to engender respect for the church, its services, its symbols or even common politeness.

I don’t know if players imagine themselves to be someone else while playing the game. On player told me he isn’t normally rude and wouldn’t normally park his car in someone else’s place, but he got caught up in the game and did some things that he regrets. At least he was willing to talk to me about the game.

In the meantime, I’m sure that there are plenty of innocent people who just play for fun and don’t disrupt others’ lives.

I don’t understand. I don’t need a personality that does things that my other personality disapproves. I’m unlikely to take up playing the game. I’m just me. That seems to be enough for now.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Good for a laugh

OK friends and neighbors. It is about time for a joke. I usually write fairly serious things in my journal, tending towards philosophy and theology, but let’s be honest, it is time for a bit of levity. The second Sunday of Easter is often recognized as Holy Humor Sunday. This tradition was begun by early Greek Christians. The week following Easter Sunday was observed as “days of joy and laughter” with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The Sunday after Easter is also known as Bright Sunday and it is seen by the faithful as an opportunity to engage in celebrations of the greatest miracle in human history - the resurrection of Jesus, and also celebration of smaller resurrections that occur in the lives of church members.

I’m not planning a stand-up routine for worship tomorrow. It’s a bit of a challenge to make a string of jokes out of the Gospel story of Thomas and his slightly skeptical approach to Jesus’ resurrection. And I’m probably the wrong one to just string together jokes until the folks are sitting there with tears running down their cheeks. However, I can tell the readers of my journal one of the best jokes I’ve heard this week.

But first, a bit of actual Science. You have to go back about 49 million years, which is a stretch of our memories, so we rely on archaeologists and paleontologists and other scientists. In the last month or so, there has been quite a bit of attention to an article published in Science Magazine about a now-extinct monitor lizard called Saniwa ensidens. They’ve known about the lizard for some time. In fact the scientists who wrote the article had been studying specimens that were unearthed from an escarpment in Wyoming in 1871. Examining old fossils and other ancient remains has yielded new information with the emergence of new technologies for studying them. Researchers are using computerized tomography (CT) scans to obtain extremely detailed x-rays of fossils.

The team examining the fossils determined that the lizard had four eyes. In addition to the two standard eyes, it also had pineal and parapineal eyes on the top of its head. Imagine that! a lizard with four eyes!

Actually, I can imagine a lizard with four eyes. This is what it would look like:

Liiiizard.

There you have it. Where else can you get a 300-word buildup for a joke with a one-word punch line?

It was George Burns who came up with the formula for a good sermon: “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.”

Asked why it is important for people to be quiet when they go into the sanctuary for worship, the child responded, “Because people are sleeping.”

A funeral service is being held in a chuch for a woman who has just passed away. At the end of the service, the pallbearers carrying the casket accidentally bump into a wall jarring the casket. They hear a faint moan. They open the casket and find that the women is actually alive. She lives for 10 more years and then dies. A ceremony is again held at the same church and at the end the pallbearers are again carrying the casket out. As they are walking, the husband calls out, "Watch out for the wall!"

An engineer dies and reports to the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter checks his dossier and not seeing his name there, accidentally sends him to Hell. It doesn't take long before the engineer becomes rather dissatisfied with the level of comfort in Hell.
      He soon begins to design and build improvements. Shortly thereafter, Hell has air conditioning, flush toilets and escalators. Needless to say, the engineer is a pretty popular guy.
      One day, God calls Satan and says: "So, how are things in Hell?"
      Satan replies: "Hey, things are going great. We've got air conditioning, flush toilets, and escalators. And there's no telling what this engineer is going to come up with next."
      "What!" God exclaims: "You've got an engineer? That's a mistake - he should never have been sent to Hell. Send him to me."
      "Not a chance," Satan replies: "I like having an engineer on the staff, and I'm keeping him!"
      God insists: "Send him back or I'll sue."
      Satan laughs uproariously and answers: "Yeah, right. And where are you going to get a lawyer?

OK, the last one is really a lawyer joke and there are so many lawyer jokes that the world really doesn’t need another one.

Muldoon lived alone in the Irish countryside with only a pet dog for company. One day the dog died, and Muldoon went to the parish priest and asked, "Father, me dog is dead. Could ya' be saying' a mass for the poor creature?"
      Father Patrick replied, "I'm afraid not; we cannot have services for an animal in the church. But there are some Baptists down the lane, and there's no tellin' what they believe. Maybe they'll do something for the creature."
      Muldoon said, "I'll go right away Father. Do ya' think $5,000 is enough to donate to them for the service?"
      Father Patrick exclaimed, "Sweet Mary, Mother of Jesus! Why did ya' not tell me the dog was Catholic?

Two priests die at the same time and meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter says, "I'd like to get you guys in now but our computers are down. You'll have to go back to Earth for about a week, but you can't go back as humans. What'll it be?"
      The first priest says, "I've always wanted to be an eagle, soaring above the Rocky Mountains."
      "So be it," says St. Peter, and off flies the first priest.
      The second priest mulls this over for a moment and asks, "Will you be keeping track of us, St. Peter ?"
      "No, I told you the computer is down. There's no way we can keep track of what you are doing. This week's a freebie."
      "In that case," says the second priest, "I've always wanted to be a stud."
      "So be it," says St. Peter, and the second priest disappears.
      A week goes by, the computer is fixed and the Lord tells St. Peter to recall the two priests.
      "Will you have trouble locating them?" He asks.
      "The first one should be easy," says St. Peter. "He's somewhere over the Rocky Mountains, flying with the eagles. But the second one could prove to be more difficult."
      "Why?" asks the Lord.
      "Because he's on a snow tire somewhere in Alaska.”

Happy Holy Humor week. May the experiences of the week bring a smile to your face.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Devices

I’m a bit of a gadget guy. I like having new devices. I certainly wasn’t the first person I knew who had a cell phone. I didn’t get in on the bag phone phase. My first cell phone was a flip phone and I got it in 1996. Actually, we didn’t call them flip phones in those days. It was a StarTAC clamshell phone. It had an antenna that you had to pull out at the top of the phone before speaking. There were a lot of dead spots where the phone wouldn’t work. I bought a booster antenna for my car and it would work a little bit better in the car, but there were lots of places where I had no phone service.

I’ve been much more intrigued by smart phones. I was an early adopter of a personal digital assistant before the device was combined with a phone. I had a Palm Pilot with my address book and calendar on it. It was a hassle carrying two devices all the time, but I had relied on a pocket calendar before that, which I had to manually copy over into a desk calendar. I was forever having trouble remembering what i had written where. I was bad at loosing addresses and phone numbers. So the PDA worked for me. In my eagerness to get away from having to have a phone and a PDA, I got a Palm Phone almost as soon as they came out. There was a Blackberry after that. When the iPhone was introduced, I was inclined to get one, but they only worked on AT&T and that company had terrible coverage in South Dakota in those days, so I stuck with Verizon and my Blackberry until Verizon got the iPhone with version 4.

All of that isn’t very interesting, really. It is just to say that I’m not a luddite. I’m not opposed to technology. I came to South Dakota with a laptop and I’v had one continually since those days. We had a good desktop computer as well in those days.

On the other hand, I don’t seem to need to have the latest version of a device. As long as the one I have is working, I’m pretty much satisfied with it.

I am amazed, however, at how quickly technology has permeated society. I’m in no position to judge good or bad. It is just the way it is. Here are a couple of stories form the last week.

I led devotions at our local rescue mission one evening. After the crew started serving food, I left the building because I had another appointment. As I left the building I walked by a line of people who hadn’t arrived before the doors were shut. They were likely to be fed, but they had to wait before they could go into the dining hall. There were probably ten or fifteen people waiting there. Every single one had a phone and had their phone out of their pocket and was looking at something on the phone. I don’t know if they had book readers or were somehow connecting to the Internet. There might be wireless in the Rescue Mission. I don’t know. It was interesting to note that in our town at least, the homeless have smart phones. They are considered to be survival tools and are obtained even when shelter is not available and food is in short supply. I guess the phones are how they obtain the things that they need to survive.

Another story: I met a friend at the airport to provide a bit of assistance with him getting his car. It is the kind of thing friends do for each other all the time. He was arriving on the airlines after having been in Washington, DC where it was about 60 degrees today. He got off the airline wearing short pants and a light jacket - not at all unusual for this particular friend. It was about 25 degrees when he got of the plane and it was snowing. He had over 150 miles to drive to get to his home. He headed out to his car. He did have a suitcase and he is a South Dakota native, so I assume that he had winter clothes with him somewhere. I said I was a bit worried that he might encounter bad roads on his way home. It isn’t much fun driving in a snowstorm after dark on the open prairie. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got my phone!” and off he went.

I think a cell phone is a good thing to have if you get in trouble and need some rescue. Still, I wouldn’t rely on a cell phone. There are still some places out in the country where they don’t work too well and it could be a long time before someone could get to you if you were in trouble and the roads were bad.

At the church one of our routers failed this week. That means that for a little while we don’t have a reliable we-fi signal in all of the building. Those wanting a signal are going to have to walk around a bit until we figure out whether the router can be repaired or needs to be replaced. I already know of an 11-year-old who will notice if he is in church on Sunday. He is constantly on his cell phone, no matter what else is going on at church. I don’t know if addiction is the right word, but I worry about him because he seems to have a rather limited skill set for occupying himself when he doesn’t have the phone in his hands.

I guess what I’m saying is that I, like others, need to work on setting aside my devices. I don’t think they are evil. I don’t intend to do without them. But I do need to gain perspective and to take a break from them from time to time.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Is it still winter?

It's gonna be a longggg springtime. And what will the birdies do then- the poor things? They'll fly to the sky just to keep their feet dry And tuck their heads under their wings, the poor things. It's gonna be a longggg summer. And what will the birdies do then, the poor things? They'll fly to the pool just to keep themselves cool. And tuck their heads under their wings, the poor things. It's gonna be a longggg autumn. And what will the birdies do then, the poor things? They'll fly to the trees, just to sit in the breeze.
And tuck their heads under their wings, the poor things. It's gonna be a longggg winter. And what will the birdies do then, the poor things? They'll fly to the barn, just to keep themselves warm. And tuck their heads under their wings, the poor things.

It’s a silly camp song. The way we sung it at camp, the song leader would run around a table wile holding the note for “long” during he spring verse, then run around several tables during the summer verse, holding the not even longer. On the autumn verse, the leader would run around the dining room and for the winter verse the leader would go outside and run all the way around the dining hall, sneaking breaths from time to time, but making it appear as if the note had been held for the entire time.

I thought of that song when I heard the snow plow go by on Sheridan Lake Road at 4:15 this morning. We don’t have a lot of snow and it’s supposed to get up to around 40 degrees today, so it might melt, but the winter weather advisory predicts snowfall to continue through the day and overnight with totals reaching 3 to 5 inches by noon tomorrow.

It's gonna be a longggg winter.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s spring in South Dakota. The equinox occurred on March 20 just as predicted. The days are getting longer. We switched to daylight savings time. A year ago, I was paddling in the lake by St. Patrick’s Day.

This year the St. Patrick’s day parade was cancelled due to a blizzard. The Douglas High School Early Bird track meet on March 29 was cancelled. The West River Invite last Tuesday was cancelled.

One of our favorite phrases around here has become, “I hear that next week it’s going to be in the 50’s.”

Of course, this type of weather isn’t all that unusual in South Dakota. Remember the Mother’s Day Blizzard back in 2015, when we had 20 inches of snow and strong winds? We were just learning to use Twitter, but we got #mayblizzard to trend.

And the truth is that the winter hasn’t been all that long. We’ve had a few snowstorms, but we’ve had some warm weather and breaks between the blizzards. There were days when the temperatures reached into the ’60’s between some of the storms.

And the snow does have the added benefit of covering up the undone yard work. And I did buy a new snowblower this year to replace the one that served 23 winters before being tired enough to end up on the church rummage sale. And I’ve been complaining about my sedentary lifestyle. Shoveling snow does get me outside and engaged in a bit of physical activity.

All in all it isn’t a bad tradeoff for living in a place where we don’t have hurricanes and we don’t have many tornadoes and the flooding has been controlled and pretty predictable since 1972 and folks around here can’t remember the last earthquake and we like to have something to complain about which makes winter as good a topic as excessively long run-on sentences.

Still, I’m a little bit tired of waking up to new snowfall in the morning.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the moisture. Any moisture is good for the forest. We need moisture to restore the land. The Legion Lake fire burned 54,000 acres in December. We had a truly extraordinary fire season in 2017. We don’t need another one like that. Unfortunately, while the moisture is essential for the trees, a wet spring increases the grass growth and if it turns try at the end of the summer, the fuel load can be very high, leading to more fires.

So when the snow quits we can complain about the smoke and when the smoke clears we can complain about the snow. It’s nice to live in a place where the seasons change and so does the conversation at the coffee shop.

My favorite topic these days, in part because I’m weary of wether talk, has been to suggest a new motto for our state. Our official state motto, “Under God the people rule,” isn’t bad, but we don’t put it on our license plates. They say “Great Faces, Great Places.” I pay attention to the words on the license plates even though thee is no way to read those words from a license plate if you are following at a safe distance. Back in 1985, we moved from North Dakota to Idaho and I had to trade my “Peace Garden State” plates for “Famous Potatoes.” Notice that it doesn’t say “Good Potatoes,” or “Big Potatoes,” or “Delicious Potatoes” - just “Famous Potatoes.” At least our children learned to spell potato correctly despite incorrect instruction from the then Vice President who added an e at the end.

Anyway here are a couple of suggestions for South Dakota state motto. Inspired by the weather, how about “All Four Seasons Every Day”? I’m thinking that “God made no mountain that we can’t improve by carving it” would work at least for the Western end of the state. I suppose “We hunt and eat our state bird” is a bit crass even though it is true. I’m not sure we want to advertise, “The Cheapest Place to Buy a Senator,” or “You don’t have to leave America to live in a one-party state.”

On second thought, perhaps it would be best to just talk about the weather.

It's gonna be a longggg winter.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Computer woes

It has fallen out of the headlines, but the City of Atlanta, Georgia is still grappling with the computer hack that installed ransomware on many of the city’s essential computers. Officials have not yet revealed whether or not they paid the ransom, but essential city services, such as utility billing are slowly coming back on line. Over a week after the initial attack by ransomware known as SamSam, the city’s website and broader computer system is still not functioning as designed. Some employees remain locked out of their computers and unable to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, it is an increasingly common story. Cyberattacks are seemingly random and continue to cause worry among all computer users. Networks are especially vulnerable as the malware spreads quickly from machine to machine within the system.

As computer experts struggle to create effective defenses against such attacks, equally brilliant minds are devising new attacks and hacks that result in a kind of constant escalation of attacks and defenses. In the midst of all of this, we all are left with vulnerabilities and with insufficient knowledge to protect ourselves from attacks.

Meanwhile, we have all become more dependent upon our machines. At our church, we need networked computers to adjust the thermostats and control the heat in our building. We need networked computers to produce our newsletter and worship bulletins. Our organ console is powered by a sophisticated computer, though it is not at present networked and has no access to the internet, rendering it less vulnerable to cyber attack.

This year we have spend a significant amount of money, equivalent to the cost of purchasing a new workstation, to increase our online security and beef up our wireless network. In addition we have personal computer anti-virus and protection software installed on all of our computers.

There is another issue with all of this sophisticated equipment and software. The more complex our system becomes the less we are capable of managing it ourselves.

About 30 years ago that a pastor of this congregation assembled a computer from a kit. He learned some basic programming language and set it up to do some basic database management. It was little more than an address book, but it was the start of computer record keeping in the church. Prior to that the essential records of the church were kept in ledgers in a fireproof file cabinet. The entire security plan consisted of locked doors and the heavy concrete-lined file cabinet.

Less than 25 years ago, I helped the church establish a rudimentary network, allowing our computers to communicate with one another and our staff to share documents without having to manually transport floppy disks from one machine to another. Not long afterward, we began to connect to the Internet. Email systems were established. A web page for the church was built. Up to that point, the pastor was the systems manager for the institution and made decisions regarding purchase of hardware and knew the basics of troubleshooting the system. As this was happening, I found that i was spending more and more of my time keeping the system operating.

At some point, we discovered that we needed more professional help to keep our system operating properly. We hired a tech company to come in, evaluate our network and provide the hardware, software and support needed to get it functioning properly. This resulted in the purchase of an online backup system replacing a system of keeping backup drives in the fireproof file cabinet. We basically lost control of our network at this point. We no longer have anyone who works directly for the church who understands the network or knows more than some basic techniques for correcting mistakes. A service call from our computer company is fairly expensive, and we are completely dependent upon them for certain repairs.

Along with the complexity of the network came more capability. We migrated our database to the cloud and have integrated software that tracks our financial affairs as well as our membership and a lot of other items. We have a system for online donations and members can set up recurring payments through credit card, checking or savings accounts. We added the computer controls to our building’s heating and air handling systems. We stopped using desktop printers and our copy machine became our primary printer.

Yesterday a technician came by for a planned upgrade to our system. We had set it up for him to come during the noon hour to minimize disruption. At 4 pm he was still working. One of our work stations had been tied up for 5 hours and this is newsletter week. A lot of valuable work time was lost because the technician was struggling to get the system to work properly. We were basically restored to the same functionality that we had had before the work began by 4 pm. We had some of the enhanced capabilities that the upgrade was supposed to produce by 9 pm. It is pretty clear that the upgrade will cost more than anticipated. And I spend the afternoon focused on the computers not on my regular tasks.

Moreover, I really don’t know or understand what the technician has done. I have to trust his capabilities and hope that what he has done is something that another technician in the future will be able to continue to service.

And yes we have a couple of new usernames and passwords to add to the system. There are always more passwords that need to be known. This upgrade added a few new ip addresses, so it took a while for the computers to find the other components of the network.

By 9 pm I could check the heating controls and make adjustments from my home computer. At this point only the technician and I know how to do this. I’ll have to train volunteers and staff to be able to take advantage of this upgrade.

I have great sympathy for the managers and employees of the city of Atlanta. We are at once dependent and vulnerable. And there is no end in sight.

And they still don’t teach computer network administration in theological seminary. It isn’t our natural skill or our training s pastors. Most of us would prefer to be doing other things.

Or perhaps it is just the simple adage: “The good old days might not have been so good, but back then I wasn’t so old.”

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Being outdoors

For a few years now, I’ve had the idea of making a couple of pair of snowshoes. I’m thinking that it may be time to work on that project. And it isn’t just because there are another 3 or 4 inches of snow that need to be cleared from my driveway before I head out this morning. These spring snows will quickly melt. They don’t hang around long, though the forecast calls for even more snow later this week. The moisture is really needed and I shouldn’t complain, but I am a bit tired of winter weather.

The main reason I’m thinking of making some snowshoes is that I haven’t been doing as much outdoor recreation lately as once was the case. There was a time when I purchased a season ski pass and headed to the slopes whenever I had a bit of free time. I also did quite a bit of cross country skiing back in the day. But lately, I’m not doing much skiing. I’ve focused my attention on paddling and for fanatics of small boats, winter is the time when you work on repairing your boats and building new ones. I have a project going in my garage at all times, though I haven’t worked on it as much this winter. When it gets really cold, my boatbuilding activity stops in want of warmer weather.`

If you check out Apple’s App Store for phones, you can find an application called “Wildfulness: Unwind in Nature.” For $2.99 you can install on your phone an app that will pair “beautiful on-screen animations reflecting natural scenes, such as winter mountains and spring mornings, with forest sounds.” The app promises to help its users “relax from yo9ur busy day.” Actually this is just one of many applications that use natural sounds and images claiming the power to relieve stress.

Frankly, I’d prefer to just go outside - even in he cold of winter.

There is plenty of research that illustrates the benefits of simply going outdoors. A walk in the woods or a paddle on the lake yields measurable health benefits. Spending time outdoors lowers blood pressure and boosts creativity. Journalist Florence Williams book, “The Nature Fix” chronicles the scientific evidence that demonstrates the benefits of simply spending time outdoors. She writes, “At the same time, we’re chronically burdened by ailments made worse by spending time indoors, from myopia and vitamin D deficiency, to obesity, depression, loneliness and anxiety.” Staying inside can literally make you sick. According to one study as many as 90 percent of the youth in South Korea experience myopia due to vitamin D deficiency from last of sun exposure. There is a move in that country to install full spectrum lights in classrooms to stem the tide of short-sightedness.

We know from research into seasonal affective disorder that people can develop serious illness from not receiving sufficient light. Although some people appear to be more vulnerable than others, the symptoms of SAD are serious and can include clinical depression. SAD is very common, with as many as 3 million cases presented to medical professionals in the United States each year.

Yuma University researcher Yoshifumi Miyzazaki hypothesizes that human bodies relax in nature because human bodies evolved in nature. Homo sapiens evolved living outdoors. Our natural environment includes regular contact with the natural world.

In one study just 15 minutes outdoors per day increased short term memory. When we take time to go outdoors and appreciate the natural world our prefrontal cortex quiets down and our brains produce more alpha waves, associated with calmness, flow and meditation. We are literally designed to make praying outdoors easier than doing so indoors. This says something important about the design of church buildings. I know that the chapel at Placerville Church Camp, with its glass front that gives a superb view of the black hills, is an easy place to worship and pray.

A study conducted in Finland showed that people who spend 45 minutes per day outside experience a boost in cognitive performance. The same study claims that spending five hours per month outdoors in a natural setting will reduce the indigence of depression significantly.

I know it is true for me. I find myself longing to be outside, even when the weather is cold. And I need a bit more than just clearing the snow from the driveway and walking from my car to the office. I need to take time to walk and breathe and experience the coldness of the air.

I was feeling the need to go outdoors strongly during the last week. My schedule was busy and the weather has been cold. The ice was out of the lake and I was paddling regularly by mid March last year. I was able to paddle into December. This year looks to be at least a full month shorter when it comes to the paddling season. I shouldn’t be using that as an excuse. I live in the woods. I don’t have to make much effort to simply go for a walk in the trees, breath the outdoor air, listen to the sounds of the birds and restore my spirit.

If I’m a bit tired of the weather, I’m not alone. Last evening I watched the deer lying in the grass wile the snow dusted their backs yet again. They may not be conscious of it, but they are ready for some fresh green shoots to burst forth. It gives them more energy with less work than eating the dry grass upon which they are subsisting at the moment. With new fawns coming, they could use the extra nutrition. The spring birds are a bit confused by all the snow as well. We hear them singing riotously whenever the snow stops and the sun comes out as it did yesterday afternoon before the snow started to fall again around dinnertime.

I have no intention of buying the nature sounds application for my phone. Every time I feel the urge, I’m going to find a way to go outside, even if it is just for a few minutes.

I guess I can start this morning by shoveling snow.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Have you got a minute?

“Pastor, have you got a minute?” Seasoned pastors know that the question never refers to a single minute. Sometimes it is the opening line in a conversation that can take hours - or an announcement that can mean a major shift in priorities and plans. It is all part of what we do. I have colleagues who have signs that say, “The interruption is my job,” or similar phrases to remind them that when you are in the business of serving people, you need to maintain a flexible attitude toward your management of time. I’ve learned to listen carefully to the next sentence after we’ve established that I am listening. There have been many.

“You won’t believe this, but . . .”
“I’ve got terrible news . . .”
“It’s cancer . . .”
“There’s this girl . . .”
“I always thought we had a good marriage, but . . .”
“I don’t know why I was the last to find out . . .”
“We went to the doctor. . .”
“I’m going to need to resign from my committee . . .”
“I’ve got a job offer in . . .”

These essential conversations about the lives of the people I serve are not always bad news. Big news can be good news. Life-changing news can be life-giving news. People share many different parts of their lives with their pastor.

It can often require that I dig deep for extra energy. I put a lot of myself into leading worship. I work hard on preparation and I try to be at a high energy level for the process. And it isn’t unusual for me to feel very tired after a worship service. Despite the wishes of many in my congregation, I try to avoid meetings right after worship. I know that they are convenient for those who attend church, but it is a challenge for me to be fully present and engaged after such a large outpouring of energy. I prefer to sit quietly, take a break, or engage in something less energetic for a little while.

It is at that point of low energy, however, when I’ve learned that I need to find reserves to respond to the people I serve. Last week was no different. Holy Week is very busy for me and I am usually quite tired after all of the extra services and activities. But there wee multiple important conversations that followed the special services. People who are undergoing major changes in their lives often find the services of Holy Week to be deeply meaningful and their worship experiences stir deep emotions within them and inspire the need for some follow-up. When I pause to think, it makes sense.

At the moment, I have to take a deep breath and will my brain to focus.

From experience, however, I have learned that serving people has as many life-giving moments as the moments that drain energy. I gain energy from talking about important topics with people. I am served by serving others. It is not uncommon for an interruption to make my day.

I get to be present at some pretty amazing points in other people’s lives. We’ve shared tears at the news of a devastating medical diagnosis, or a sudden and tragic loss of a loved one. We’ve been shocked by the behavior of others. We’ve tried to pick up the pieces after receiving life-shattering news. But I’ve also been among the first to be informed of a new love, or a longed-for pregnancy, or a well-deserved honor.

I served two intern years as a pastoral counselor in a health care center. At the time, I felt strongly called to health care ministry. I was in the process of receiving my full credentials as a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. My supervisor at the time suggested that I take a few years to gain some experience in a local parish as part of my preparation for specialized ministry. He knew, through his own wisdom and experience, how the general work of the parish can help broaden the perspective of a pastor and teach about how complex and wonderful the lives of people really are. My plan was to serve three or four years in the parish before returning to a health care position. It has now been 40 years since that conversation. Either it has taken me 40 years to gain 3 or 4 years of experience, or my place really has been in the parish not in specialized ministry. I enjoy a small amount of volunteer chaplain work on the side, but I know my life’s work is in the life of the congregation.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed a lot of change. There was a time when the Conference had a support structure for local church pastors. Conference ministers served as pastors to the pastors. There were colleagues and mentors available to give help when difficult problems arose. The national setting of the church was a source of programs for local churches. The world isn’t that way any more. Conference and national settings of the church are engaged in a struggle for survival. There have been so many staff cuts and consolidations and programs dropped that local church pastors frequently feel that we are out here by ourselves and need to develop our own sources of resources and support. Small and isolated congregations can no longer afford full time pastoral leadership. This means that the jobs that are available for pastors are really challenging and complex congregations. Part of my success as a pastor stems from the small congregations where we began our career. The jobs were small enough that we could stay on top of them and still have room for additional studies and starting a family. These days those congregations don’t have the ability to offer a full-time salary and benefits such as housing and health insurance.

I’ve been very fortunate in the timing of my active working career. I am grateful that it has turned out the way that it has. I am even more grateful to the people whose life stories are shared with me.

“Pastor, have you got a minute?”

Fortunately I have a minute and more . . .

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Easter

In the life of the church, Easter seems to come on suddenly. We are deep into Lent and our Holy Week observations and suddenly it is Easter and all the somberness is lifted, the lights are turned up bright, the decorations are put out and Easter comes on, full of Alleluias and resurrection acclimations. The transition of our sanctuary from Good Friday to Easter Sunday is dramatic. The drape comes off of the cross. The crown of thorns is lowered. The purple banners come down. White cloths are put on the surfaces, Easter banners are put up, shiny candlesticks appear and the easter lilies are arranged. The volunteers were in a good mood yesterday as they prepared the room.

Strangely, even though we will celebrate Easter in our worship services for seven weeks, the Easter mood at the church will go away as quickly as it appeared. Easter decorations will be replaced with other decorations. Plans for other spring events soon will dominate the minds of most of the church’s members and we will return to life as usual very quickly. It was strange yesterday to notice that in addition to putting up the Easter decorations in the sanctuary, one of the volunteers was putting away some of the Easter decorations in the parlor. I think our parlor operates on a different calendar than other parts of the church. Easter appeared in the parlor right after Valentine’s Day (which was Ash Wednesday this year). Now we’ve moved on to a generic spring feeling in that room.

In real life, however, resurrection takes a long time to be evident. As we read through the stories of resurrection appearances in the Gospels, we discover that there is a common theme of people not understanding what they are experiencing. Even Jesus’ closest disciples, with whom he has shared teachings about resurrection, fail to recognize the resurrected Christ. When I travel the journey of grief with those who have lost loved ones, the sense of resurrection comes on very slowly. Although we read of people who can draw the time of mourning to a quick close, it seems to be a vey difficult thing to do. It isn’t at all uncommon for grief to be spread out over one or two years or more. Even after the passage of a few years, the recognition of the the on-going presence of the loved on is slow to manifest itself for many.

We put an awful lot of pressure on the day of Easter Sunday. We know that church attendance swells. We know that we will see people in church that we don’t know or whom we rarely see. Some congregations in our town add extra services to accommodate the crowds, something they haven’t done since Christmas Eve. Other congregations rent auditoriums or large halls for their Easter Sunday worship. Then, in the next week, they take down all of the decorations, return to their usual schedules and places of meeting and live goes on as usual.

Easter, however, is not about life going on as usual.

I have commented to my congregation that I think that the reason that Lent is six weeks long and Easter is seven weeks long is that grief is easier to understand than resurrection. We allow more time to come to the realization that death is not the end and that life is triumphant. Furthermore, in our tradition, we worship on Sunday - the day after the traditional Jewish sabbath - because we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ every week of the year, not just in one season.

I will enjoy the special pageantry of this day. I’m looking forward to celebrating communion with our lay minister in all of our fancy robes and Easter stoles. I’m anticipating the glorious Easter Anthem our choir has prepared. I’m looking forward to the powerful organ postlude of Widor’s Toccata. I will revel in the larger crowd for worship than normal. I’ll forget counting calories and eat an extra hot cross bun before diving into an Easter dinner. I’ll join others in taking pictures of our decorated sanctuary. I’m into Easter Sunday as much as anyone else in the church. After Lent and Holy Week I almost feel like I deserve a day of unabashed celebration.

But there is also a part of me that knows that this is just one more day in a long journey. The gift of resurrection is a challenge to absorb. Looking at this world with all of its troubles and studying the history of our current century make it hard to come to the conclusion that love and life are triumphing. There is so much death. There are so many innocent victims. There is an apparent triumph of lies and falsehood. If you just look at the surface, it is hard to live as an Easter people in our moment of history. In a sense we are more comfortable with Lent and guilt and grief than we are with Easter and open celebration. Maybe that is why you hear more of the fugues and minor keys of Bach than the symphonies of romantic composers in our church. We have become accustomed to looking for the dark side in our music and in our worship.

While we would not deny that there is evil in this world and that pain and suffering are a part of every human life, we are, however, a people of the resurrection. Our job is to tell the good news to others and share the joy of resurrection with each person we meet.

I for one, however, am not very good at turning on Easter suddenly. I need to warm to the season and to the news. Like Mary in the garden with Jesus, it takes me a while to recognize what is going on. I am well aware that there is an expectation that today’s sermon will be extraordinary. After all it is the big occasion. I’ve known for a long time that what I say today will be heard by more people than what I’ve been saying during Lent.

We will see how it goes. Chances are pretty good that it will take a few weeks for my best Easter sermon to come out. After all I do have seven weeks. Stay tuned.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!