December 2018

The last day of 2018

The end of the year brings challenges for publishing my journal. My website needs to have big changes to accommodate the new year. Starting tomorrow, my journal will post to a new URL because of the starting of a new journal. You’ll still be able to navigate around my web site, but things will look a bit different. For those who have set a bookmark on Journal 2018, a new bookmark will need to be set for Journal 2019. To make matters worse, the number of files that need to be published to accomplish all of the changes is huge and requires a high speed internet connection. Since I am traveling, I suspect that there will be some disruption until I get home and get everything straightened out. I apologize for any inconvenience this is causing. Please be patient. I’ll get things running smoothly soon.

I suppose that some kind of a retrospective on the year that is ending would be in order. It is probably going to be the most consumed media today. Newspapers and web sites and television programs will be filled with a look back at 2018. Perhaps there will be some observations from which some conclusions can be drawn, but I suspect that most of this coverage will reveal little about what really has happened.

I don’t mean to be too cynical, but the problem with much news coverage lately is that there has been too little to cover. We have become a culture of the 24-7 news cycle. We are addicted to continuous coverage. We check our cell phones and computers for the latest multiple times per day. What makes for good news is action. When there are things that are happening, such as wildfires or hurricanes, there is plenty of action and we follow the changes in the story.

Much of what is called news in our society, however, is really politics and, in a country as deeply divided as ours, politics is not about quick action. The real art of politics involves slow negotiation and compromise. People have to find small places where change can be made and discover the trade offs that allow for small bits of agreement in a world of disagreement. The result is that there are lots of words, but little real action. Words don’t make news. We have become lazy in our use and consumption of words. We find ourselves looking for “tweets” and short posts that are common in social media. Most of those platforms don’t allow for the kind of complex thought that is required to move the common culture forward.

So we get bored with the repetition. And we disengage, which is disaster for those whose incomes depend on consumption of the news.

The current stalemate in Washington D.C. that has resulted in a partial shutdown of the federal government is a good example. There really is very little action to cover. There news channels have long since exhausted the rhetoric about the disagreements that have brought about the situation. The major players may be having conversations and talks that will lead to incremental changes that can bring forward an end to the shutdown, but that process is not producing action. There is little that can be reported in a series of soundbites that hasn’t already been aired. The news becomes so repetitive that people tune out and when people tune out the advertisers try to follow the attention of the people. Consumption of news is down despite our desire to always be in the know and fear of being left out. The news channels are all experiencing a decline in viewers and facing declines in revenue.

In the midst of all of this, I am hesitant to say much about the year that has passed. As a pastor, I have noticed an increase in anxiety among those I serve. I have noted that many of the people in my congregation have physical ailments that are difficult to diagnose, have shifting and nonspecific symptoms and seem to present as chronic conditions. My experience is only anecdotal, but it certainly seems like there is a lot of general disease among the folks in the church that I serve. And it seems like 2018 was worse than 2017 which was worse than 2016. I’m used to being the bearer of hope and speaking of positive change and progress. It is harder to know how to deal with gradual decline and general malaise.

If I were to say that politics have gone crazy and that our leaders seem to all have become irrational, it would be an understatement. It also would involve portraying mental illness and the reality of depression and other serious diseases in a less than flattering light. From the symptoms, you might judge that we’ve fallen into a kind of corporate mental illness where the ability to discern the difference between unreality and reality has become so widespread that it is difficult to find stable points to check the difference. When the whole world has gone crazy, the word “crazy” no longer carries meaning.

Despite all of this, I am not discouraged or depressed. It is clear that there is much work to be done in the church and leadership is needed more than ever in my career as a pastor. I have work that is meaningful and people whose lives continue to be interesting and complex. There are new babies being born and new leaders emerging in the life of the church. Attendance patterns are shifting. Budgets are as challenging as they have ever been. I suspect that the church in general is facing some hard times, but hard times are not always bad in the life of the church. Facing hard times together can build community, restore a sense of purpose and restructure priorities.

I am no prophet and not good at predictions, but from my vantage point it seems like 2019 will be a monumental year in the pastoral ministry. There are big changes that need to occur and judgment and leadership will be needed in critical areas of church life. We have resources sufficient for the challenge, but the challenge is real.

The end of the year is a good time to take stock, look back and get a fresh perspective. I’m not sure that I’ve accomplished that task yet. Like many other things in life it takes special effort and energy. Time will tell if we’ve invested sufficiently for the road that lies ahead.

I don’t think I could have imagined how I would feel to reach the end of 2018 when the year began. I know I couldn’t have imagined it a couple of years ago. So I’m going to forego predictions about 2019 except to say that the times in which we live seem to us to be momentous and there is much work for us to do together.

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!

Staying healthy

We have a medical system in the United States that is very good at treating acute conditions. If you have a broken bone or a cut or have received injuries in an accident, the medial system is efficient and treatments are effective. I’ve been following the online story of a young man who was severely injured in an airplane accident. Both of his legs were crushed below the knees with multiple fractures. His feet were badly damaged as well. He has had to endure multiple surgeries and is still wearing medical devices on both legs, but his prospects for recovery to the point where he will be able to walk again are very good. The healing that has already been accomplished, with new bone growth and precise alignment is nothing short of a miracle. It is the kind of thing at which the medical system in our country excels.

Some major illnesses that cause premature death also receive effective treatment in our health care system. The survival rates from breast cancer and prostrate cancer have gone up dramatically in my lifetime. The side effects of chemotherapies are being managed and radiation treatments are becoming more precise and effective. After investing incredible amounts of funds into research, treatment for these diseases continues to show promise and people are experiencing remission and high quality life after receiving these diagnoses.

Our medical system, however, is less adept at treating chronic conditions. I know of a lot of stories of people suffering from life-long conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, various types of arthritis who have struggled for years with inaccurate diagnoses and ineffective treatment. They find themselves labeled by the diagnosis when it comes to their interactions with the medical community. They feel that health care professionals discount their reports of symptoms. They receive generic treatments and are chastised for complaining about their suffering. Instead of receiving specific care for the particular symptoms they are experiencing, they are given broad reaching medications that might not have any impact on their specific sufferings and often aren’t that effective at treating their long term conditions, either.

For example, doctors know that increased levels of cholesterol are associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Since cholesterol can be measured with a simple blood test, most adults seeking medical care are tested. When high levels of cholesterol are detected, drugs called statins are frequently prescribed. There is strong medical evidence that statins are effective in lowering cholesterol. The side effects of the medications are well known and they are widely prescribed. Physicians use a bit of statistical deception, often deceiving themselves as well as the patients. Since high cholesterol is associated with heart disease they convince themselves and their patients that lowering cholesterol is effective treatment for heart disease. However, while statins lower cholesterol, there is far less evidence that they have much impact on the long term risk for heart disease. Statins have a much lower statistical effectiveness when the criteria is long term heart outcomes. Using statins to lower your cholesterol does not substantially reduce your overall risk of heart disease. Furthermore, long term use of statins is associated with a rise in diabetes, which is another chronic disease that can have an effect on heart health.

The entire process is complex and no one should change their medical treatment based on this journal entry. The point I am making is that our health care system is less adept at treating chronic conditions than it is at treating acute medical situations.

A little over a year ago, the results of a major British study of the overall health of people who are treated in their health care system were released. Among the findings of the study was that loneliness is a major factor in the overall health of British citizens. While the study was specific to Britain, I suspect that its results could be replicated in our country as well. The study’s authors reported that “loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and affects nine million UK people.”

If you let that sink in for just a minute. It is entirely possible that doctors could prevent more premature death and provide more help by treating a symptom that doesn’t require a blood test to detect. Instead of going after hidden conditions like high cholesterol, treating visible conditions like loneliness might be far more effective in reducing suffering from heart disease.

That, of course, would require physicians to begin to trust what their patients say. There are many who do not. They believe that lab tests and clinical analyses are more trustworthy than the people who live in the bodies they treat.

Patients end up being caught in the system. They experience symptoms and seek relief. Their interactions with the health care system discover new conditions that are treated. In many cases patients are experiencing no distress and no systems, but present for preventive care and find themselves taking multiple medications because of some hidden condition that was discovered only by routine tests.

To add to the problem routine tests are no where near as accurate as physicians believe. A good example is a blood pressure reading. Research has demonstrated that a blood pressure reading taken from a patient who is seated and who has been seated for less than 30 minutes is virtually always inaccurate. Yet taking blood pressure as soon as the patient is seated in the exam room is routine in most physicians’ offices. That means that there are millions of people who are being treated for hypertension (high blood pressure) based on a test that has been proven to be inaccurate.

Physicians could address both loneliness and inaccurate blood pressure readings by taking time to listen to patients before ordering any diagnostic tests. But that would mean seeing fewer patients per day and would change the financial reimbursement levels for physicians. Doctors don’t get paid for treating well patients. They don’t get paid for keeping you well. They only get paid when you get sick and they order treatment.

I’ve little doubt that spending time with my grandchildren is far more effective in terms of long term health outcomes than a visit to a doctor. I’m not eschewing modern medical treatment. I’m just saying that for long term health it takes more than visiting a doctor’s office.

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!

At the library

I took a tour of the Mount Vernon, Washington Public Library yesterday. I’ve toured the library before and I’m pretty familiar with the facility. Our son is the director of the library. But I got a new perspective as my guide for this particular tour was our eighteen month old granddaughter. She is getting pretty confident with her walking and likes to stretch her legs with a good walk. We wandered in and out of the stacks in the children’s section and made our way through the lobby into the adult books. We went around some of the stacks in the Spanish language books and headed for the reference desk, where she led me past the quiet study area and back towards the main checkout desk. As we walked I could see lots of changes in the library that have been made in the time our son has been working there. There are new signs, less clutter, new artwork, new furniture, new computer centers, and a few new staff members. There are display cases filled with collections and other temporary displays put there by library patrons.

Most impressive in my tour, however, were the people who were using the library. It was a busy place. There were children playing and learning at the centers set up in the children’s area, adults browsing through the stacks and working at the computers. Youth also clustered in a different computer area and our grandson was trying out new learning tablets that they had added to the library’s collection. There were quite a few people my age and older who were sitting at desks in a traditional reading room. In another area of the library an adult and a child were having a supervised visit, the social worker observing and making notes on a laptop computer. There was a constant flow of people in and out of the library, many carrying book bags.

I was carrying my computer. I have been having some challenges with my journal that have caused it to appear late. They have high speed Internet in their home, but the change in location has required me to upload a large number of files and the website has only been partially published for a few days. The library has blazing-fast internet, much faster than anyplace I have access to in Rapid City and I soon had all of the files uploaded and my issues solved.

I was thinking of all of the differences between the library we were touring yesterday and the community library in the town where I grew up. I remember loving the library when I was a child. It was a rather imposing building with a lot of steps out front before you entered through heavy wooden doors. You could go either downstairs or upstairs, but the books I liked best were upstairs. That was the main reading room and it was dominated by the large librarian’s desk, where the librarian sat and checked out books with a rubber stamp that indicated the due date. She checked cards to make sure that you had returned the books that you had borrowed and other cards to find the books you wanted. I learned to use a card catalogue in that library. There’s no card catalogue in the Mount Vernon Library these days. Public access computers allow quick lookup of books, their check out status and the location of the books in the building. It’s easy to find what you are looking for if you know the author or the title. You can also browse the collection by subject matter and genre.

Clearly the library in Mount Vernon is a public gathering place. Friends were greeting one another warmly in the entryway, staff and patrons knew each other on a first name basis. There was a chatter of conversation throughout the building except in the quiet area off of the reference desk. Unlike the library of my youth, I didn’t see any library staff wearing half reading glasses and no one was going around shushing the patrons. People were asking questions and getting answers.

The library is making use of every possible bit of space. Plans are well underway for the construction of a whole new library/community center building for Mount Vernon. Funds for architecture have been obtained and additional funding for actual construction is being secured. The plan is for a new type of facility, with more flexible spaces, more meeting rooms, and more services for library patrons. There will be more access to computers, more video resources and space for different kinds of community eduction. The role and function of libraries is changing and successful libraries are making all kinds of changes to be prepared to serve future needs of their communities.

There are still plenty of books. And people continue to read printed resources as well as access an ever-growing catalogue of digital resources. There are more and more ways to gain information and resources from the library without a physical trip to the building. One of the functions of librarians in the digital age is maintaining web sites and other sources of information. Still the heart of the library remain shelves with books and it is still a joy for me to walk through the stacks and browse through the titles. The library pays close attention to which books are most popular and is careful to display the most frequently-used resources in places where they can easily be found. I tend to be drawn to more obscure subjects, and those resources also are quite easy to access.

I am biased, of course. I think Mount Vernon has an exceptional librarian and my tour guide yesterday was the best possible guide a grandfather could have for such an adventure. I am also very proud of the work our son is doing to serve his community and to enable others to discover the joys of reading, research, learning, and discovery. I highly recommend regular trips to the library and, if possible, finding a young child to guide you makes the visit even 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!

A little child

I was thinking that I should be writing some deep theological reflections for the 12 days of Christmas. Some years I have tried to do that with my journal. Theology is the study of God and it is something that I enjoy. Thinking about God is one way of worshiping. You can praise God by using the best of the human brain to organize thoughts about God. Christmas is an excellent time to think about God and to put some of those thoughts into words.

Christmas, however, is often a time for rest and restoration for pastors. We invest all kinds of energy into the season of Advent, with preparation for special services, pastoral duties and the like. In the church, however, activities really slow down after Christmas. The week between Christmas and New Years is a time for families to gather and people often have their attention focused away from the church. The phones are quiet at the church and activities are few. So we have learned that the season of Christmas is a convenient time to take a bit of vacation and spend time with our families. When we had children at home we almost always tried to take a break from our work while they had their break from school.

For most of my career, then, I have focused not on the kind of theology that is done with words and thoughts during Christmas. I have focused on lived experiences. Living is another way celebrate Christmas. The prologue to the Gospel of John says, “What came into being in him was life and the life is the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Life is filled with all kinds of wonderful experiences of the holy.

Little things, like playing checkers with a seven-year-old, or helping a four-year-old struggle through the emotional ups and downs of “Chutes and Ladders.” Little things like following an 18-month-old through the Children’s Museum where each exhibit is a new surprise and delight. A small area with sand and sand toys is as exciting as an entire beach. The water play area is scaled just right for tiny hands.

Little things like family meals. In our regular life these days we are two at the table. Our menus repeat and our conversation is joyful, but often drifts to work and problems that need to be solved. In the busy household of our son’s family there are seven of us around the table and the process of going around the table so each can say what we’re thankful for can take an entire meal. Persuading children to eat healthy foods is a good lesson in nutrition for a grandpa and I tend to be more careful about what I eat when I am with the grandchildren.

Little things like reading to the children. I am a big fan of books, but I’ve don most of the reading of my life quietly. It takes practice to read children’s books smoothly. Try reading this phrase from a favorite book out loud three times in a row. Say it with feeling: “He was a spunky hanky panky cranky stinky dinky lanky honky tonky winky wonky donkey.”

There may not be much deep theology in those little things, but there is something miraculous about spending time with children. It revives the soul in special ways. When I ask my self the question that I ask others, “How is your spirit?” I know that children lift my spirit.

The prophet Isaiah described his vision of peace for the people of Israel as he warned them of the dangers of corruption and idolatry. He wrote:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.

The path to peace is one on which we allow ourselves to be led by the children. Being led by children opens us to think about the long term future. There is more to life than short term profits and losses. There is more than gain for a single generation. Children teach us to think beyond the span of our own short lifetimes. Those who will continue beyond our lives are great leaders when it comes to thinking about how best to invest the time that we do have.

I honestly believe that policy makers would make more informed long term decisions if they would spend more time with children. Protecting the environment becomes a higher priority when you think about the future. Short term political gains become less important. And you don’t have to play games with a child for very long before you once again learn the lesson that in life winning isn’t everything.

A little child leading me, whether it be on a short exploration of the back yard, complete with dramatic puddle splashing, or a visit to a shop or a museum, or a game, or a trip through a bedtime story, is always a meaningful adventure.

Maybe that is why we invest 12 days each year contemplating the simple fact that God chose to come to humans in the form of a baby, tiny and vulnerable and in need of much care. The child in the manger was not the expected shape for the messiah in the apocalyptic visions of the prophets and late before Christian era thinkers. They envisioned military leaders or great monarchs. They thought in terms of power to overthrow the Assyrians and Romans and other oppressors. What we got was a baby. Tiny and fragile and not even able to speak.

If you want Christmas theology you don’t have to go any farther than that. Follow a child for a day or a week. Listen to the sounds of a baby. Hold one in your arms and think about what that child really needs to grow in a healthy way.

Some say that Christmas is mostly for children. It is even better for adults who pay attention to children.

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!

Christmas continues

Christmas is a holiday that celebrates children. Telling the story of the birth of Christ naturally leads to recalling the births of other children. And children like to hear the story of their own births. Our celebrations of Christmas, with various traditions of gift-giving, lend themselves to full participation of children. For those of us who love being around children it is an especially delightful time.

From the point of view of simple genetics there is no need for more than two generations. There are many different creatures whose life cycles reach their pinnacle at the point of reproduction and then the focus moves to the next generation. As soon as the eggs are laid and fertilized, the role of the parents is complete. But with us humans, we get the joy of raising our children, and for most of us, the deepened and renewed joy of grandchildren.

But we are a mobile people as well. Our family is not atypical for a modern family with access to education. When our children became adults their lives took them to places that are distant from where we live. Fortunately we live in a time of relatively easy access to travel and we are able to be face-to-face with our children every year. We also have access to modern telecommunication that allows us to send pictures and text messages instantly and to have video chats on a regular basis.

Still, there is no better way for us to celebrate Christmas than to be with our grandchildren.

Because we love the extended celebration of Christmas, we try to make the best of many days rather than cramming everything into a single day. We arrived on Christmas Day, or the first day of Christmas. In the morning the children had their celebration with their parents and opened presents, so when we arrived, they had lots of new things to show us. There were new books for story time and new toys for play. We arrive in time for a family dinner and were able to be a part of the bedtime routine.

The second day of Christmas was a day for play and sharing the lives of busy children. We are on vacation from our work, so we were able to just focus on the children and enjoy them. Our son had to go to work, but we had a family breakfast before he left and a dinner together when he got off from work. Fortunately he had no evening meetings yesterday. He’ll have a lighter work load and more time off during the week.

We have presents for the family, but we’ll wait a day or so more before giving them. We have found that it is good with the grandchildren to have gift-giving be a separate event from our initial arrival. When we first arrive, the joy of being together combines with the children’s natural desire to show us what is going on in their lives is enough. And, at Christmas, they have just received presents from their parents, which do not need to be upstaged by the gifts we have brought.

There is a great luxury in being able to take several days to celebrate the holiday.

The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” focuses on gifts, most of which seem either silly or extravagant by our standards. There are some cultures where gifts are given on different days of Christmas. Because the tradition for the date of the arrival of the Magi is the 12th night, January 6 is a traditional day for exchanging gifts. But traditions around St. Nicholas lend themselves to earlier days. The official feast day of St. Nicholas is December 6, and some celebrate that day by giving gifts in his memory. But that day is based on the Gregorian Calendar. In some parts of the world, Orthodox churches follow the Julian Calendar, which lands St. Nicholas day on December 19. So there is a whole range of possible days for the exchange of gifts at Christmas time. In the song, there are 12 gifts given on 12 days. In the real lives of families, that would be such an extravagance and too much focus on possessions.

When our children were little, we preferred to spread out the time of opening gifts. We’d have them open a few and then take a break to play with the toys received, have a meal, or go for a walk. Returning later to the presents seemed to be a special treat and allowed us to spread out the joy of the day. With our grandchildren the pattern of having gifts from some family members on December 25 and gifts from us on another day seems to be a good routine.

So we still have much to anticipate. We’ve selected our gifts but get the joy of anticipation as we imagine the reactions we might receive when the gifts are given. It is a delicious feeling.

There are some distinct advantages to being a grandparent. We enjoy being parents and it seemed like every phase of our children’s growth into adulthood brought new surprises, new challenges, and new opportunities. We still revel in our times of being with our children and enjoy them very much. Grandchildren, however, are not our primary responsibility. We are able to enjoy them in a different way. Their parents have the stress and anxiety of being responsible for so many different aspects of their lives. We can share a bit of that by being attentive to their safety and by caring for them for brief periods of time while their parents take care of other chores, but at the end of the day, they have to carry more weight than we. That frees us for th simple joys of just being with the children.

It is good to know that I haven’t completely lost my abilities. I can care for three grandchildren by myself for short periods of time while the other adults are otherwise engaged. That’s good for my ego. And, of course, we get time one-on-one with individual children that is simply easier when there are more adults present.

Christmas continues. And the joy is great.

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!

A very good day

There are a lot of things in this life that I don’t understand. One of those things is how airlines assign seats to passengers. When we bought our tickets for our Christmas trip this year I was unable to get seat assignments. The airline was counting on some of the passengers being willing to pay for upgrades to a different category of seating and so even though there were seats available on our flights, none were in the same category as we were. The pricing of airline tickets is so complex that I have never been able to figure out why the airlines put up with the system. With nearly every passenger paying a different price than the other passengers because of discounts, upgrades, the use of points instead of cash and other factors, it must cost the airlines a huge amount of money just to keep track of the pricing schedules. It seems like an airline company could save a lot of overhead by simply setting a price for a particular flight and sticking with that one price.

I don’t understand why people are in such a rush to boar an airline. When we all have assigned seats, it would make sense to simply board the airplane from the back, but that isn’t how it is done. Passengers are assigned to groups according to the fares they paid, the frequency of their travel on that particular airline and other factors. People will stand in line in an attempt to get on the airline as quickly as possible. It isn’t like airline seats are all that comfortable. And the airline won’t leave without you if you are at the right gate at the right time, so there really is no need to rush to board the plane. You’d think that there would be no benefit for first class passengers to board early. Everyone else has to walk by the 1st class seats to get to their seats anyway. A lot of shuffling could be avoided by simply waiting.

I don’t understand why people can’t understand what size bags fit in the overhead bins. The airlines give plenty of information about which bags fit into which spaces. There are limitations of size and weight, but nearly every time I fly there are passengers who are trying to cram bags into overhead compartments that are too heavy and too large for the space. I’m not thrilled that the airlines charge to check bags, but once you’ve paid the fee, your life is much simpler than those who pay no fee and still have bags that are too big.

I don’t understand why people are so afraid of talking to other passengers. I realize that we don’t have a lot of shared history, but for the time of the flight, we are all in the hands of the same pilots and crew. We share the same space. Yesterday was Christmas, for goodness sakes. I smiled at other folks and found out a little bit about them. One mother, traveling the same route as us with her daughter was being responsible and teaching her daughter to be safe when amongst strangers. She also was being friendly to those around her and finding out a bit about them. Her five-year-old daughter too was being friendly. I learned her name, her age, and where she was going simply because I was willing to talk to the 5 year-old. Other passengers in our area seemed to be trying to withdraw into themselves and avoid any conversation at all. They missed some delightful moments with a charming young girl and her mother.

I don’t understand why people won’t try to help others when it is so easy to do so. Our connecting flight was very full and people were having trouble getting themselves arranged. One family of four had been assigned seats in four different rows of the airplane. (I don’t understand seat assignments.) This was not acceptable as the children would be separated from the parents. The flight attendants could not help them, so the were left to negotiate seating on their own. We had two seats in the same row as one of theirs, so I offered to sit somewhere else so they could have two together for the mother and one child. Susan then traded seats so that the two children could sit with the mother. It was no problem for us. We like to sit together, but obviously that isn’t as important as children being with their parent. There were, however, no other people in that area who were willing to trade their seats so the whole family could be together. It seemed like such simple thing to me, but I was amazed at how inflexible some people were. Once again, it was Christmas and we were talking about airline seats. They are all the same and they are all uncomfortable and we were all in the same situation together. You’d think that the least we could do is to be friendly to one another to make the trip pleasant.

In spite of the things I don’t understand, we had a wonderful trip. How could it not be? It was Christmas. We were able to get up in the morning in our own home. A wonderful friend give us a ride to the airport in Rapid City. We had tea and scones in the airport in Denver. We were greeted at the baggage claim in Seattle by our son and two of our grandchildren. We had dinner with the whole family in Mount Vernon - all on the same day. Our grandparents would not have been able to fathom such luxury of travel.

We also exchanged pictures and text messages with our daughter and son-in-law in Japan all along the way. Despite the things I don’t understand, we gain enormous benefits from modern communications and travel technologies. We are incredibly fortunate to live in the time we do.

Santa’s sleigh might have taken the form of a crowded airliner for us yesterday, and the joy and the laughter couldn’t be dimmed by the presence of a few grumpy people. I may not understand, but that didn’t stop me from having a truly blessed day.

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!

Chrustmas 2018

I understand the need for celebrations. We humans are hard-wired to respond to special occasions and special opportunities. As they say, everyone loves a good party. And sometimes it is those who have the least pleasant lives who are the most in need of a celebration. Christmas is a time when those who are sometimes forgotten get remembered.

For example, juveniles in federal detention centers are often incarcerated far from families and many of them come from dysfunctional families that are short on support in the first place. They can go for months and even years without a visitor or a letter or anything else to show them that they are unique and special. The teachers who work with them try to praise them for their accomplishments and systems of points for good behavior provide incentive for them to earn bits of recognition, but for many of them there is a sensation that they have been forgotten and left behind by society. But at Christmas, there are presents and pop and cookies with frosting and decorations and much more. Christmas isn’t just any other day for them. There is a party and there is recognition that it is a special time.

Carolers visit nursing homes and for some of the carolers it is the only time that they visit those facilities. There are special meals and special presents.

Those whose lives are marginal in other senses also have a need to celebrate. I’ve sat in the parking lot of K Mart Wal Mart and the pawn shops and the places where some of our communities most impoverished people shop and been amazed at the amount of merchandise that is loaded into cars that appear to be on their last journeys. Big screen television sets, high end stereo equipment, huge stuffed animals. Big things seem to be popular. It is as if there is a competition to show their Christmas spirit. Extravagance, even extravagance that cannot be afforded seems to be the order of the day in the final hours before Christmas.

Maybe those who have the least are the most in need of celebrating.

But there also is a part of me that is a bit taken back by all of the push to make one day the focus of all of the celebrations and activities. I’m no grinch, or at least I don’t think that I am, but I do grow weary of all of the parties and concerts and special dinners and events. I tire of the repeated Christmas songs in the corridors and elevators. I feel no particular need to over do the decorations and I wonder what it is that motivates people to spend weeks stringing lights on their houses and what seems to be a competitive need to be bigger, brighter and better than the neighbors.

I’m content in my little house with a book and the light of a lamp and am not particularly drawn to climbing about the eaves stringing lights to impress the neighbors.

The thing is, this holiday has long been an occasion for misplaced expectations. It isn’t just the stress that comes from trying to have a perfect holiday when we are decidedly human and most of our events fall short of perfection.

As I read the words of he Hebrew Prophets, I am made aware that there were voices in ancient Israel who expected the Messiah to come as a political leader who would restore the monarchy, establish the power of the united monarchy in the style of David and Solomon. There were those who longed for the consolidation of arms and wealth and knowledge and power in Jerusalem in such a way that the rest of the world would be compelled to join in.

I’m not sure that the prophets expected the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” to be a baby born into poverty in Bethlehem in the midst of a strange Roman enforced census that was aimed at increasing the wealth of the Emperor at the expense of those who could least afford to pay.

The thing about the birth of Jesus is not that it was extraordinary, but rather how ordinary it was. It was another baby, the first for Mary. I don’t know if it was her instinct or the wise counsel of the other women in her family, but she seemed to know what to do. She delivered that baby by herself in the common area - the place filled with the straw and ready for the messiness of animals. She figured out how to make swaddling cloths. As one of the children in our church said, in response to a question about what Mary and Joseph did to prepare for the baby, “They’re gonna need some diapers.” Mary worked it all out. It was what women did in her time. It is what women have always done. It was normal and usual.

God doesn’t need a holiday to enter into human lives. God doesn’t need a special celebration. God doesn’t need luxury accommodations or extraordinary circumstances. The messiah came as an ordinary baby born to an ordinary couple in an ordinary town about 30 miles from Jerusalem, the city where he was to die all too young.

I don’t begrudge anyone their extravagances or their celebrations, though some ways to celebrate are better than others than others. I don’t pretend to have any special insight to direct how others might celebrate and recognize the event. But for me there is great value in recognizing the gift of God-with-us in the everyday moments of live.

When I sit with someone who is dying I am aware that we are not alone. God is with us.

When I hold the newborn child of a young couple in our church, I am sure that God is with us.

When I listen to the power and beauty of music, I feel the inspiration. God is with us.

When I feel the love and support of family and friends, I know God is with us.

The incarnation is evident in the everyday.

Thanks be to God.

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!

Christmas Eve, 2018

I think that my earliest independent memory is of Christmas Eve. I know well a story that comes from some months earlier, and sometimes I think that I can remember that event, but that memory has been so reinforced by a photograph and the frequent telling of the story, especially when I was growing up. When I think of that particular event, what I remember most is the scene from the photography. Christmas Eve when I was 2 1/2 years old, however, I do remember. What I remember is being taken by the hand out into the back yard and going between the garage and a small house that sat behind our house so that I could look across the alley at the hospital building. It was inside that building, I was told, that our mother was. I couldn’t go there on Christmas Eve, but the next day I would be able to go. What was going on in that building was that my brother was being born. I don’t remember much about him as a baby and don’t remember his b birth being that big of a deal. What I do remember is that mother was at the hospital on Christmas Eve and that the next day we opened our presents at the hospital. There was a Christmas Tree in a lounge area at the ned of the hospital corridor. I my memory we took all of Christmas, tree and all, to the hospital, but I’m sure that part of my memory isn’t right. We didn’t take the tree from our house over there, but we did take our presents and open them in the hospital.

And so I grew up, from that time forward, with a firm distinction in our household. Christmas Eve was my brother’s birthday, complete with birthday cake and a special dinner of the foods he liked best. He got to open presents on his birthday, but the rest of us had to wait until the next day. But with Christmas and all of the presents and all of the excitement, waiting was just too much, so after supper and after we had read the Christmas story from the bible and after we had sung Christmas carols around the piano we go to open up one present each before going to bed. We always opened presents one at a time, starting with the youngest kid. For a few years that seemed a bit unfair to me because my brother who had already had birthday presents that day, usually at the noon meal, now got to open up the first present while I had to wait. It wasn’t long, however, before we had younger boys and he lost that distinction.

As I grew older, I became aware that there were families whose tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Their families focused on a celebration dinner and other activities on Christmas Day. Our family had a big Christmas dinner as well all of those trimmings, but we started Christmas day by being able to look at our Santa present and Christmas stockings before breakfast. Breakfast wasn’t its usual ritual of eggs and toast, either. We were allowed to eat cold cereal even though it was winter. Sometimes we just had Kix cereal with melted butter, a tradition that developed in our house for Christmas day only and which I don’t think was observed by anyone else that I know.

Now that I am older, I really appreciate the fact that we waited until Christmas Day to open the bulk of our gifts. The time of anticipation and expectation is a strong part of my observance of Christmas. I enjoy the feeling of waiting with excitement.

These days we have most of the things that we could want. The focus of the holiday is not on gifts now. We’d do better by getting rid of a few things rather than by acquiring more things. Still, I love the anticipation.

The traditions in our family revolve around church. I’ve noticed that many churches have been offering earlier and earlier services to allow family traditions to include meals and other evening activities. The services in our town begin as early as 4 pm in some congregations. Our church, however, has its first service at 7 pm, allowing families to have dinner first and waiting until it is fully dark. We also have the latest service in our town, starting at 11:30 and including the sharing of communion and the tolling of the church bell at midnight. The service was started over 20 years ago in relationship to shift workers who get off at 11:30. The latest service in any other church is at 11:00 pm, which meant that all of the Christmas Eve services offered in town occurred while those who work 3 - 11 cannot attend. Law enforcement officers, hospital workers, and others who have essential jobs end up missing church services. We decided it was important to offer a service that is outside of the normal range. It has become my favorite service of the year. The congregation is usually small, the service is intimate. For many years, I have been working with the same piano player. We’ve developed a style of working and communicating that allows a service without solid lines between the music and the spoken word. Rather we intertwine the two. The celebration of communion is a reminder of the full life and even the death of Jesus and an acknowledgment that the people who come to worship are at all different points in their own life journeys. Our faith is for all of life, not just for the moments of marriage and birth and death. The service welcomes people wherever they are in their lives. Some come dressed in new Christmas clothes. Others come from work wearing whatever they have. Some come in family groups. Some come as single individuals. together we form a congregation and speak words of hope and peace, joy and love.

I’m grateful for the Eve. Christmas will be special, but for today, I can wait.

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!

Seriously, Candy Canes?

Sometime last summer I wrote a journal post about Kit Kat candy bars in Japan. Unlike the way they are marketed in the United States, where there is basically a single flavor, milk chocolate, in Japan they come in all kinds of flavors such as strawberry cheesecake, blueberry, saki and even wasabi. We were quite amused by the many different flavors in many Japanese stores. I also noted in that column that part of the sales strategy of the candy in Japan was definitely aimed at tourists. After touring all around Japan, from Aomori in the north to Hiroshima in the south, the only place we found wasabi flavored Kit Kat candies was in the gift shop in the departure area of the Tokyo airport.

This week, however, I have decided that the Japanese have nothing on those of us in the United States when it comes to weird flavors. If you are into strange flavors in candy, you really don’t have to go beyond Jelly Belly band jelly beans. Buttered Popcorn is distinct form Caramel Corn. Chili Mango isn’t the only spicy flavor. If Cinnamon isn’t spicy enough for you, they have Sizzling Cinnamon. For strawberry lovers there’s Strawberry Cheesecake, Strawberry Daiquiri and Strawberry Jam. They have a whole lineup of Krispy Kreme Doughnut flavors, another group of Cold Stone ice cream flavors, and their Cocktail Classics beans. They have “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans based on the Harry Potter books. Flavors in that assortment include Booger, Dirt, Earthworm, Earwax, Grass, Rotten Egg, Sausage, Soap and Vomit among others. It is almost enough to get even a confirmed jelly bean eater like me to give up the candy.

This week I discovered another area where our country seems to have gone off the rails when it comes to candy flavors.

There are certain areas of life where I am a traditionalist. I like traditions. I love exploring the history of traditions. I often speak of church traditions in my sermons and my journal posts. For around 200 years, one of the Christmas candies has been candy canes. The red and white striped candies with the distinctive hook at the top are peppermint flavored and can be found hanging on Christmas trees, decorating centerpieces, in bowls and mixed among trays of other Christmas candies.

As an aside, if you eat the hooked end of the candy first, you are just strange and perhaps should consider turning the candy around and eating it properly.

At any rate, I’m in favor of the peppermint candy canes and see no need for other flavors. A few years ago, I noticed that there were a few strange flavors sneaking in. The first one I remember is root bear candy canes. I like root beer and the root beer ones aren’t bad. But I still prefer my root beer candies to be shaped like little kegs and see no reason for them to be candy cane shapes.

Root beer has been joined by Dr. Pepper and Orange Crush. I’m not sure of the advantage of having soda pop flavors in candy. Soda pop is pretty much liquid candy as it is with the high sugar content of most of those beverages.

And they didn’t stop there. Coffee flavored candy canes are sweeter than I like my coffee, but I don’t drink that much coffee any more. I don’t associate coffee with children and candy canes are really a children’s candy in my mind. Like the soda pop flavors, I just don’t see the need for it.

If you want a real treat, make a good cup of hot chocolate and stir it with a traditional peppermint candy cane. That’s a great flavor combination.

And there are more flavors of candy canes, mostly not good ideas.

Oreo cookie candy canes are basically chocolate flavored with a hint of vanilla cream. But they are sure to be a hit with children for the simple fact that they turn the tongue and inside of the mouth black. A room full of children sticking out their tongues and saying, “look at me!” isn’t my favorite way to celebrate a holiday, but the kids seem to like ti.

I haven’t done so yet, but I think you could persuade me to try dill pickle candy canes. At least they are a traditional color of Christmas. I can imagine a tree with red and white traditional candy canes and green and white pickle candy canes. It might look pretty good. I like a little vinegar with sweet flavors and a bit of dill meets peppermint might be a good combination. I haven’t tried them, but I’m keeping an open mind.

There are, however some flavors that I intend to avoid.

I’m going to leave bacon candy canes on the shelf for others to buy. I’m not sure, but I suspect that they have a bit of smoky flavor with a hint of ham thrown in. Those aren’t the flavors I’m seeking when I go for sweets. Ditto for Rotisserie Chicken. I’ll leave that one in the box as well. I suspect that the flavors are actually quite close. It’s easy to add liquid smoke to the candy. The idea of either sort of turns me off, frankly.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for me to buy Mac ’n’ Cheese candy canes, either. I like cheese, but the stuff they put on most boxed Mac ’n’ Cheese is some kind of yellow powder that bears little resemblance to real cheese. It reminds me of the parmesan that comes in a green shaker. I guess it’s cheese, but it’s not like freshly grated parmesan at all. And cheese has a distinct odor. It’s not what I want to be smelling when I bring a candy cane to my lips. Thank you very much, I’ll leave that one alone.

So far we’ve avoided candy canes in our house this Christmas, and, after reading about candy cane flavors on the Internet, I’m not inclined to get any. Here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas and may all your candy canes be peppermint.

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!

A Solstice Celebration

solstice bonfire
40 years ago we had the opportunity to travel in Europe for six weeks. We flew into Amsterdam, rented a Volkswagen van and drove through several countries. My parents had formed a lot of friendships with people from Europe and we traveled mostly from friend to friend, with a few nights in Youth Hostels along the way. We were in Germany on June 24, which is the feast of St. John the Baptist. With friends whom we were visiting, we attended a celebration of the occasion which included a bonfire and a tradition of leaping over the flames. I don’t remember all of the details of the occasion, and I do not speak German, so there were probably plenty of aspects of the celebration that went right over the top of my head at the time. I do remember a conversation with one of our German hosts about the maypole being a tradition associated with the summer solstice. I had previously believed that the tradition of the maypole was observed on May Day, the first day of May. Like many traditions with ancient origins, there are many different modern expressions and some of the modern expressions have lost touch with the origins.

The traditions of observing both the Summer and Winter solstice are very ancient in northern Europe. In Scandinavian countries the celebrations are major holidays. Huge fires are built on St. John’s Eve, the night before Midsummer’s Day. In ancient times the fires were burned to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes straw dolls were burned as part of the tradition. It was also a tradition in some countries to set old and unused boats alight and cast them into the water where the fires reflected from the surface.

As a freshly-minted seminary graduate, I was aware of the processes by which the holidays of the Christian Church were superimposed on existing holidays and traditions and observances were blended over the centuries. Actual calendar dates of the events of the life of Christ are largely unknown. Even the counting of the years since the birth of Christ is lost to the passage time. Most theologians believe that the date was sometime between 6 BC and 4 BC based on references to known historical events mentioned in Luke and Matthew. One of the reasons for the variation in dates is that the modern calendar, with leap years, did not exist in the early days of Jesus’ life. Our calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar after Pope Gregory XIII first was introduced in October of 1582, replacing the Julian calendar which was first proposed in 46 BC, and is assumed to have been the official calendar during Jesus’ lifetime. In the Gregorian calendar, today is December 22. It is December 9 in the Julian calendar. If you find this confusing, you can see why dates and times are a bit mixed up.

With the exact dates and times unknown and no dates and times mentioned in the Bible. The Bible is concerned with theological elements and not historical chronologies. Attempts by more recent thinkers at establishing Biblical chronologies are not considered to be reliable.

What early church leaders knew, however, was when the people celebrated. And they began to superimpose Christian observances on existing celebrations as a way of leading people to adopt Christianity and a way of demonstrating that this newer faith was not without occasions for celebration and joy. Over the centuries December 25 emerged as the day for celebrating Jesus birth. It wasn’t exactly the same day as the winter solstice, but that may have been more due to calendar errors than other factors. If we assume that Jesus was born on December 25 and accept that his cousin John was about six months older, that places John’s birthday on June 24 near the time of the summer solstice. It also makes the date for the conception of Jesus around the spring equinox and so these pre-existing dates were adopted for the church’s celebration of the annunciation and birth celebrations.

Traditions from pre-existing holidays such as candle lighting, bonfires and other observances were adopted into Christian celebrations. Over the centuries the distinction between Christian and pre-existing observances blurred.

These days some who are open critics of some aspects of the Christian church, along with others who find themselves outside of the church have begun to look to non-Christian sources for times of festival and celebration. The lighting of fires in observance of the solstices is a tradition that is being recovered with and without its Christian associations.

Last night under the full moon we celebrated the wedding of friends in a beautiful outdoor setting surrounded by nine bonfires. The candle lighting ceremony was challenged by the wind, but the evening was full of ancient symbols, some adopted form Northern European traditions, some adapted from indigenous American traditions and some from Christian traditions. The ceremony was a kind of hybrid of blended traditions. Blending traditions is most appropriate on the occasion of a marriage, it seems to me. A marriage after all, blends families and makes new connections between people. The crowd gathered for the wedding was unique because of the many distinct relationships of the couple.

The night was beautiful and I was reminded of how seldom I spend time outside just looking at the night sky during the winter. The colder temperatures draw me inside and my outdoors adventures are often short. The pattern of the clouds sweeping in was lit by the moon and the stars twinkled even through the thin layers of cirrus. The crowd soon moved inside to warm and share a meal following the ceremony and the attendants of the fires quickly extinguished them. It occurred to me briefly to leap over one of them, but I thought better of it, being aware not only of my own physical limitations, but also the simple fact that I was not the center of the occasion and drawing attention to myself was not in order.

I am no less committed to my Christian faith by being aware of more ancient traditions that underlie our observances of this season. Knowing some of the stories and collecting the memories has made our celebrations even richer as the years pass.

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!

Another Advent Reflection

I am always surprised to learn that there are faithful Christians, many of whom have been members of churches all of their lives, who don’t know that he story of the baby in a manger is not reported in all four Gospels. It appears only in Luke. Matthew begins with a genealogy and gains its place in the Christmas narrative by being the only Gospel that reports the visit of the Magi. Mark is in a hurry to tell the story and begins with Isaiah’s prediction about John the baptizer and his ministry in the wilderness. The Gospel of John begins with a beautiful, poetic, and very Greek prologue. Only Luke tells the story of Mary’s pregnancy, delivery and the location of the baby.

We, however, really like that story. We like it so much that we’ve added characters. Many people believe that there is an innkeeper who offers a stable when the public accommodation isn’t full. That really isn’t what the Gospel says. It says that Mary placed the baby in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Mary and Joseph never were people who would have been staying in a public accommodation. They didn’t have that kind of money. They were staying with family. Bethlehem was, after all, the town from which Joseph’s family had come. The Inn was the guest room. Most simple homes in that region at that time had two rooms. The homes were built on hillsides and the upper room was the usual place for guests to stay. The lower room is where the animals came in when the weather was bad. The upper room was full. The baby was born in the lower room. There was no cow. Cows were too expensive for those people. The sheep were out in the fields that night with the shepherds. You can read about it just a few verses later.

But we love not only the story as it is told int he Bible. We love our own versions of the story, as portrayed in the pageants of our childhood.

So, as Advent draws to its conclusion this year, I have been thinking about what the Gospel really says. After all, this is year 3 in our lectionary cycle - the year that more of our Gospel readings come from Luke than the other three.

Luke starts out by that “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events.” In the third verse of his Gospel he states, “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you.”

That is all well and good for Luke, but I must confess that I’m not too good at orderly reports. I’m basically a storyteller and I often get the order of events mixed up. Anyone who knows me will report that my office is not an orderly place. I thrive on a bit of disorder. Regular readers of my journal will note that I flit from topic to topic without any apparent rhyme or reason.

And I am convinced that those who are writing orderly accounts are few and far between these days. In fact, I’m not sure I can name many. The news organizations seem to bounce from chaos to chaos, reporting event after event as if they cannot remember what happened yesterday. Our government skips from scandal to crisis and back to scandal so quickly that it spins my head and not in a good way. We need an orderly account. Luke’s opening was enough to keep me reading.

As I read along, I see that Zechariah, being a priest, has the courage, or the gall, to ask an angel a question, wondering how a couple of oldsters like him and his wife could achieve a pregnancy. He thought they were past the age when that kind of thing happened. Luke reports that “both were getting on in years.” Zechariah repeats the author’s opinion, “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel, figuring that Zechariah didn’t believe the prophecy, informed him that he was going to “become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

I’ve never been struck dumb. I’ve had a frog in my throat. I’ve had a grumble in my speech. I’ve been beset with coughing fits. I’m well aware that losing the ability to speak is not an easy thing for a preacher. Once when I reacted to a medicine by developing a cough, I reminded my doctor that I earn my living by speaking in public. The medicine was changed and I remained employed. Zechariah apparently spent a few months on a silent retreat. They say it is good for listening and learning and contemplation.

I tried an experiment. I watched a group of recent news videos on my computer with the sound turned off. Instead of angry, the people begin to look like they are suffering. Current events videos without the sound tend to make me feel sorry for those I’m watching - even the ones I call idiots when watching with the sound turned on. Silence, it appears, reveals our pain.

Later in the Gospel, when Mary talks to the angel, she too asks, “How will this be?” She doesn’t get struck dumb. She gets an explanation, though how believable that explanation really is to her is not very clear. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”

The line I really like from the Advent stories in Luke is about Mary. “Mary treasured up all these things.” (Luke 2:19)

That, it seems to me, is a very valuable skill. I’m not sure that I know how to treasure up all of these things. I treasure the moments when I received news of the coming of grandchildren. I treasure up the times I get to spend with them. I treasure up the stories I hear from the people in the congregation I serve. I’ve got a heart and a brain full of treasured memories.

So as we come to the end of Advent, my resolution is to turn down the sound and try to remember the treasures more clearly. Who knows, maybe there are treasures worth remembering in the faces of those who normally fill our lives with so much noise.

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!

Sacred ground

Bridger horse ride
This coming Monday will be Christmas Eve. It will also be five months since my friend and brother, Byron Buffalo was laid into the earth at the tiny cemetery in Bridger, South Dakota. A heart attack was the official cause of his death. He died working horses at the Bridger Church, where he established the horse ministry that touched the lives of so many youth and adults. He is now a man of the earth, buried in that hard South Dakota prairie gumbo. His grave is within easy sight of the hills where he rode his horses. The horses graze right up to the cemetery gates. It’s windy there. It’s almost always windy there.

Byron’s earthly remains lie amongst the remains of a lot of people at whose funerals he officiated. He’s put shovel to that ground many times and laid to rest elders and peers and those who were younger than he. Among those who lie in that hallowed ground are survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation a detachment of the U.S. 7th Calvary rode up to a small camp to disarm the Lakota who were there. In the course of their actions, a rifle went off and members of the calvary started shooting. When they stopped hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children lay dead on the ground. An exact count has never been officially recognized, but estimates range from 150 to 300. In addition 4 men and 47 women and children were wounded, some of whom later died of their wounds. A handful of survivors were forced to leave the bodies of their loved ones behind and started to walk north in the middle of the cold Dakota winter. The bodies of those who died were placed in a mass grave.

The survivors walked and walked and walked. Some say they were headed to Green Grass where they believed Sitting Bull was encamped. They made it to a place alongside the Upper Cheyenne River, where they finally formed a new winter camp. Some food and assistance was provided by other Lakota from the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Reservations. Years later a housing development was placed there and the town was named Bridger. The Lakota name for the place, Takini, was given to a nearby school. Byron taught me to call the place Upper Cheyenne. It is where Byron served as a pastor for two decades. It is where he is buried, alongside some who survived the attack at Wounded Knee.

On Sunday, a circle of riders on horseback will ride around that little cemetery before heading south to retrace the route of the Wounded Knee survivors, arriving at the Wounded Knee Battlefield and memorial on December 29 to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre. Every year since 1986, riders have retraced the path of Chief Bigfoot’s Lakota band traveling from Bridger to Wounded Knee. Those who participate in the ride say it is an important way to remember the past and to build a strong future. “It’s about remembering Chief Big Foot and his people,” said John Two Hawks. “It’s about healing a wound that has existed in our culture since that day. And going back to that place is a way to do that.”

This year will be especially bittersweet because this year Byron won’t be riding. His body will stay in its final resting place. His spirit will forever ride with those who continue the tradition.

The ride was very important in Byron’s life. It was an honor, in 2016, to be invited to come to Upper Cheyenne and photograph the riders as they departed from the church and cemetery. As was typical, Byron arrived a bit late that December 23. His pickup was on its last legs and the trip from Eagle Butte was delayed by the need to pick up a few supplies. He greeted me warmly, but was in a rush to help others get their horses ready for the ride. They knew that Byron understood the horses and could help them prepare for a long winter’s journey.

Historically the Lakota were a semi-nomadic people. They followed the buffalo and their traditional homes were portable. They could pick up and move camp as the movement of the buffalo demanded. They had traditional places to camp and traditional places for ceremonies, but they lived with a degree of flexibility that made them especially well-suited to the ever-changing conditions of life on the plains. It only took a couple of hundred years for the reservation system to produce people who had a different relationship with place. Now there are those whose lives happen in a very small bit of geography and who are firmly attached to specific places. Byron was a member of an in between generation. He did his share of traveling, living in Arizona when his father attended Cook Theological School and later, after completing his military service, when he returned as a student at Cook. He lived in several places on the Cheyenne River reservation, settling in Eagle Butte where he served as addiction counselor before turning full time to the ministry at Frazier and Upper Cheyenne.

Still, I don’t know anyone who belonged to the land more than Byron. I can’t imagine any place that would be more fitting for his grave than that cemetery. His family got it right when they decided where to place his remains.

I have relatives who are attached to a place, in a way that seems similar to Byron’s attachment. One of my cousins has lived on and worked the place we call the River Ranch for all of his life. Unless some medical emergency takes him to a nearby hospital, he will die on the ranch. His niece and her family run the ranch. Her children are the sixth generation of the family who have lived there. I sometimes think of the ranch as the place of our people.

But my life has been nomadic. Born in Montana, I’ve lived in Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho and South Dakota. I’ve lived in South Dakota more years than in any other place. But there is no one place to which I belong. I’ll probably do more moving before the end of my life’s journey. But for as long as I live, there will be places I long to visit that hold special meaning for me. The River Ranch is one of those places. Another is a tiny cemetery not far from the Upper Cheyenne where the riders will gather Sunday and circle around before heading south to Wounded Knee.

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!

How's your spirit?

“How are you?” It is a question that I hear over and over again. And it is a question that I ask of others on a regular basis. Sometimes it is simply a polite greeting, repeated at the start of a conversation as a way to make a connection. Most of the time, however, it is a genuine inquiry. People really do want to know about others. A few years ago, I started responding to that question, “I’m well, thank you.” The idea was to comment on my physical health without having go go into detail about all of my life until the conversation had progressed to another stage. I also wanted to thank the other person for their interest without making the conversation only about me. A short report tat gives an honest answer to the question and allows the conversation to pass to other topics is a good response. Of course, there are times when I am not well and the answer is not appropriate. I’ve been known to say “I’ve been better, and I’m hoping to be better soon,” or “Other than a cough that is bothering me, I’m not bad,” or even “It depends if you are asking about my behavior, my performance, or my feelings.”

I’ve been deeply aware of that question recently because I’ve been meeting regularly with folks who are in the midst of serious illnesses that are likely to result in premature death. In some cases, I’ve even stopped asking the question in that way. My new favorite question for those situations is, “How is your spirit?” The question is not unexpected. The folks of whom I would ask that question know that I am a pastor and that I am concerned about their spiritual health. It makes sense to me in part because I am not a doctor and don’t have answers to or treatments for many physical ailments. It also seems to be a gentle acknowledgement that even when on has a serious medical condition their spiritual health is worthy of concern.

Sometimes, it allows a deeper conversation to begin.

Although I began asking the question in the midst of a particular relationship with a man who was dying, it seems to me that it is a good question for many other relationships.

It is a good question for all of us to ponder from time to time. “How is your spirit?”

I have a number of friends who are considerably younger than I. Several are younger than my children. Some of those people are in excellent physical shape. They work out regularly, are attentive to exercise and are proud of their abilities. I enjoy hearing about the things they are doing and I hear lots of stories about particular workouts or cross fit regimens. When I ask them “How are you?” I get a quick response and the general tone of that response reflects their glowing health in most cases. I also happen to have two friends who were paralyzed by accidents early in their lives. The response to that same question is slightly different when I ask them, but both of them tend to give me very positive reports in each conversation. Responses to “How is your spirit?” however usually elicit a pause from young people. Often the first response will be, “I don’t know,” or “I haven’t thought about that.” Then, after another pause, I frequently hear about significant challenges or problems that are faced by people making their way in a very challenging time in the world’s history.

It certainly seems that unlike the folks with whom I visit who are facing end of live situations, the spiritual health of otherwise healthy young people isn’t always great. From my anecdotal evidence, it appears that young folks in the prime of their lives are more spiritually challenged than those who have experienced major life-changing situations and more spiritually troubled than those who are facing the end of their lives.

Spiritual health is no easier to diagnose and treat than mental or physical health. We humans are prone to encountering problems and challenges that baffle us. And even though I am a pastor with many years of experience behind me, I know that the question, “How is your spirit?” can quickly touch off a conversation about problems and situations for which I don’t have ready solutions.

Many folks are not equipped with spiritual disciplines. They don’t know how to find moments for quiet and reflection in their lives. They don’t have practice with silence and contemplation. They aren’t used to devotional reading. They don’t have communities that are attentive to their spirits. They haven’t learned about intercessory prayer. The fact that there are an increasing number of people who profess no religious affiliation has been well documented. That also means a general decrease in the skills for spiritual self care.

And that brings me to another of my new responses. When someone tells me that they are “spiritual, but not religious,” I ask them, “So what do you do to nurture your spirit?” Many don’t have a coherent answer to that question.

As I drive around our city, I notice that there are more and more gyms devoted to providing services to those who want to improve their physical health. I drive by the Athletic Club and Planet Fitness and Ultimate Goals Fitness and Koko FitClub and Snap Fitness and Hurricane Fitness and the Weight Room and Cardio Fitness and Rapid Results, Nucleo Fitness, Anytime Fitness, Core Connections and Black Hills CrossFit. And there are a lot of others. Most days the parking lots at the fitness centers sport more cars than I see in the parking lots of the churches I pass. And I know from experience as a pastor that there are plenty of families in our churches for whom youth soccer or volleyball is a higher priority than church activities. When sports tryouts or practices or games are scheduled for Sunday mornings, I know where those families will be and it usually isn’t at church.

We’ve become fairly accomplished at caring for our bodies. And yet none of us possess bodies that will go on forever. We will all one day die. We’re less accomplished at caring for our spirits, which endure forever. Caring for them seems like a worthy practice.

At least, I intend to keep inquiring about the spirits of the folks I meet.

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!

Grief in the season of joy

Many years ago an older colleague commented that when a pastor serves a church for a long time, a transition takes place from officiating at funerals for parishioners to officiating at funerals for friends. “Most of the funerals I do are for my friends these days.” I understood his words and I knew that they were accurate, but I didn’t completely know how it would feel at this stage of my life and my career.

In my previous calls, I certainly officiated at funerals of people who I had known for a significant amount of time. We served 7 years in our first parish and 10 in our second. But there was a significant factor in those parishes and it was my age. I was 42 years old when I left that second parish. That meant that the bulk of the funerals at which I officiated were of people the age of my grandparents and a few of people the age of my parents. I’m older now. I’ve officiated at a fair number of funerals for those who are younger than I. And more and more the people whose funerals at which I officiate are my peers. Our church still has elders. We’ve one member who is thirty-four years older than I, but when it comes to age, I fit in with those who are identified as seniors.

One of the key elements in the ethical code for pastors is that we serve all of the people of the church without showing preference or partiality. It is important for the life and health of the congregation that pastoral services be offered to all and that all be served. However, it is nearly impossible not to form closer relationships with some members than with others. In the natural course of events, I’ve been invited into some homes more often than others. I’ve found more common interests with some members than with others. My life intersects with some folks more often than with others because of common interests and activities.

Some weeks hit me harder than others. The congregation needs and expects a leader who is not simply an emotional basket case. I am allowed to be human and to have feelings, but there are moments when my personal feelings should not get in the way of meaningful worship or effective pastoral care. Like those in other professions, there are days when I need to “suck it up and get back to work.” Still, this is being a challenging week for me. The death in our congregation was not unexpected. We had the blessing of three meaningful years after the diagnosis of his cancer, a particularly cruel form of caner than claims over 90% of its victims within a few months. I personally had the bonus of many mornings of meeting for coffee. The past 18 months especially have been filled with some very good times of visiting and sharing.

We have lots of shared history. He had served on and chaired the Department of Stewardship and Budget in the church. He had served on the Church Board and been moderator of the church. One of the years he served as moderator was especially tumultuous for me. He was my direct supervisor when my brother, my mother and my father-in-law died. He held that role when our first grandchild was born and when our daughter was married. He walked with me through transitions in church staff and changes in church leadership.The stories we could tell just about church life in this congregation are significant.

The journey of his final days was not terribly different from others who have died. His transition was peaceful and Hospice House was able to very effectively control his pain. I didn’t see him win significant discomfort and his sense of humor remained to the very end. I have been blessed by knowing him.

And yet I’ve been in a funk for a couple of days now. I know that it is grief. I know the signs and stages of grief. I’ve been through it before. But each experience is unique and has its own pace. It isn’t the first time in my life that my Advent has been colored by grief. It is just four years since one of the kids I counseled in church camp and to whose family I am close died during Advent. The season carries both joyful and sad memories for me. And this experience ads another layer to a season that already is filled with layer upon layer of memory.

One of the experiences of aging is that there are more layers of memory that shape my feelings than was the case when I began my career. 40 years of funerals does not make them blur into a single event. It does not make any single funeral commonplace or routine. Each one has its own unique journey of grief.

I take the fact that I have deep feelings and personal reactions as a sign that I continue to be called to this work. I still care as deeply and as passionately as i did when I was 25 years old. I’m not the same person as I was then. I have a great deal more experience. But my passion and my sense of call to the ministry is as strong as ever. I am grateful for the closeness I feel to the people that I serve.

Love is always worth it, even when it leads to the pain of loss. Love always wins. Love endures forever. I say these words a lot and use them in funerals a lot. And I know that they are true. Death and grief are no longer theoretical concepts for me. They are ever-present realities. I have a unique role to play in the community as an officiant and eulogist, but the most important part of the work I do is that I walk with the people whom I am called to serve.

No one can do this work alone. We get through by walking together.

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 nocebo effect

Our brains play a powerful role in our lives. Scientists have long understood that the brain is a critical element in health and wellness. Much attention has been given to the placebo effect. In multiple studies, scientists have administered inert substances to patients as a control to medical trials. To their surprise, patients to whom the insert substances are administered sometimes experience recovery from their symptoms. The effect is more complex than simple positive thinking. It is not just believing that a treatment or procedure will work. There is a strong connection between brain and body and when they work together, physical symptoms actually disappear.

There are limits to placebo treatment. Doctors won’t be successful simply prescribing placebos for all medical conditions. There is no evidence that placebos lower cholesterol or shrink tumors. There are, however, many symptoms that are modulated by the brain, such as pain. Placebos are most effective for conditions such as pain management, stress-related insomnia, fatigue and nausea.

Less commonly understood is the opposite of placebo effect, called nocebo effect. This is when a patient anticipates a particular side effect of a medication and then goes on to experience that effect even when the medication is an inert substance. Once again the brain ha a direct effect on actual symptoms, but in the placebo effect the symptoms decrease while in nocebo the symptoms increase. Effects of nocebo can be as broad as vomiting, pain, and headaches. There are some researchers who claim that it can even result in death, although such a severe reaction is too dangerous to make its study ethical, so solid evidence of death as a result of nocebo effect is not well documented.

The nocebo effect may be a factor for law enforcement officer that affects the health and safety of the general public. A little background information is in order. Police often find themselves exposed to danger, including being exposed to dangerous substances. When people find drugs or other substances, they often call the police to come help them know what to do with these items. In recent years powerful drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil, have posed significant dangers to law enforcement officers. Because these powerful drugs can be absorbed through the skin, any contact with them can be life-threatening. Officers have received training in the dangers of drugs and in proper handling of substances to provide for their safety and preserve evidence. They now carry gloves and other protective clothing for use at crime scenes. Many patrol officers now carry full protective clothing for extreme situations.

The fear of accidental exposure to dangerous drugs is widespread among law enforcement officers. There is a widely reported case of an Ohio officer who nearly died after brushing fentanyl off his shirt. Cases of officers experiencing dizziness, nausea, and lightheadedness have been experienced by law enforcement ages from coast to coast.

More and more law enforcement agencies are equipping officers with rescue shot cases which contain syringes and the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone, often known by the brand names Narcan or Evizio. Properly administered, this drug can save lives, both the lives of intentional drug users who accidentally overdose and, potentially, the lives of law enforcement officers and others who are accidentally exposed.

The problem is that some symptoms of drug overdose can be the result of nocebo effect. The symptoms appear when no exposure has occurred. It may even be the case that fear of exposure contributes to the symptoms experienced. Medical professionals say that the risks from accidental exposure to opioids, even potent ones, are actually very low. You wouldn’t get that opinion from speaking with police officers, however. Most of them believe that the risk is very high and that they could be exposed to such risks on virtually every drug-related call to which they respond. Across the nation there have been dozens, and perhaps hundreds of incidents, in which officers believe they have been exposed and experience real symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and disorientation, and yet do not have actual substance in their systems when tested. The fear is rampant. Unidentified substances can kill and law enforcement officers therefore reasonably believe that most or all unidentified substances are dangerous.

Better safe than sorry is the attitude and therefore officers are likely to be treated with naloxone whenever symptoms exist whether or not actual exposure has occurred. This has lead to a variety of different approaches to the use of naloxone. Some agencies have equipped all of their squad cars with rescue shot kits and trained officers to administer naloxone. Others have noted that ambulance response is quick in most jurisdictions and that law enforcement can summon assistance of paramedics with a radio call. In those jurisdictions officers are required to summon an ambulance in order to have the drug administered. The drug begins to work within a couple of minutes, so the delay of summoning an ambulance is not a significant factor in its effectiveness.

Naloxone is a prescription medication and it is expensive. Although generic naloxone can cost between $20 and $40 a dose, most law enforcement agencies use rescue kits with two doses that cost $130 to $140 and use inhalers to administer the drug. Equipping every squad car with kits and keeping the kits up to date can be a significant expense for agencies.

Of course no one wants anyone to die when an effective treatment is available, so rapid administration of the drug is important, even if that means that it will occasionally be administered in situations where it is not necessary.

Recently another problem has been discovered. Because naloxone is a prescription substance it shows up on the pharmacy records of individuals who have purchased kits to carry in their private first aid kits in case of emergency. Some have then been denied life insurance because the substance shows up on routine insurance pre-qualification examinations.

In the midst of all of this discussion of naloxone and who should carry it, there is increasing evidence that it is most commonly used in cases where no actual exposure occurred, but where nocebo effect has produced real symptoms. Discerning when it should be used is a difficult art.

Conversations about the drug and who should be empowered to administer it continue and fears of exposure to drugs continue to rise.

We live in a dangerous world. It is not, however, as dangerous as some folks 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!

Gaudete waiting

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Philippians 4:4-6 is the Biblical passage often used as a call to worship for the third Sunday of Advent. The first word of the passage in Latin is Gaudete. This day is known as Gaudete Sunday and has been long established in Christian tradition as a feast day in the midst of the more somber preparation for Christmas.

Advent is a season that has undergone many changes over the years. The seasons of Advent and Christmas were added to the Christian Calendar in part because of the rush of people who wanted to convert to Christianity after the Roman Emperor Constantine made its observance legal. The six weeks of Lent and Easter, the traditional times of preparation for and admittance into the Christian Church became crowded with converts and the decision was made to add a second opportunity each year for membership in the church.

Advent was originally a six week period of prayer and fasting - the same length as Easter. Like Lent, the season’s demands on believers were rigorous, and like Lent, one Sunday was designated as a break from the fasting and rigors or spiritual discipline. In Lent Laetare Sunday provides that break. In Advent, Gaudete Sunday offered a day of rejoicing in the midst of the somberness of the season. The day was to be for believers a day of joy and gladness in the promise of redemption - a foretaste of joy that is promised to all who believe. In the ninth century, the duration of Advent was reduced to four weeks, but most of the penitential nature of the season was preserved.

All of that is mostly ancient history these days. Many Christians don’t know the history that has led up to the season. The rose color of Gaudete is not observed in many churches, where all four candles of the Advent wreath are purple. In more liturgical churches, the rose candle remains, but I suspect that many of the members of our church do not know, off the top of their heads, to which week it belongs.

Still, today is a day for rejoicing. In our church our children and youth will be leading worship, which always is a delightful time and introduces a bit of levity into the season. There will be plenty of laughter in our church this morning when we gather for worship. And, after worship, there will be special treats for children and other signs of a joyful day. Most of the children have one more week of school before the Christmas holiday and the excitement has been building for weeks.

But there are many for whom this is not a season of joy. Yesterday I met with the Survivors of Suicide Support Group that meets in our church and once again heard the stories of those who have experienced deep loss and for whom the holidays are a time of sadness and remembrance. The meeting reminded me of the four families who have lost a loved one to suicide in our county this Advent. It recalled for me the Advent anniversary of the death of a young man with great promise for the Christian ministry who died by suicide four years ago. There are many among us who approach this season of the year with fear and trembling.

The reasons for shortening Advent from six to four weeks are obscured in the historical record. It isn’t completely clear. One theory is that during the ninth century most Christians lived in the northern hemisphere and unlike Lent with the lengthening days, increased sunlight and the promise of coming summer, Advent is a season of shortening days and more darkness. During the long nights, excessive contemplation of sinfulness and penance can become overwhelming. Whether or not this is the actual reason for the change in the season, it does appear that people have been aware of the effect of seasons on our emotional lives for many centuries. We are affected by weather and daylight and all kinds of environmental factors. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has a significant impact on the lives of about 3 percent of all people, but those who suffer from mental illness are disproportionately affected. As many as 20 percent of people diagnosed with major depressive disorder also suffer from SAD. About 25 percent of those who suffer from bipolar disease also feel the effects of SAD. The season can be a time of sadness and dysfunction.

A day of joy in the midst of a season of sadness and depression is a treasure that should not be forgotten. Despite the rush away from formal liturgies and the teachings of the ancient institutional church, there is wisdom in the years and layers of tradition that are a part of our heritage. Simply forgetting our history and traditions is a perilous venture.

Many contemporary congregations have given in to the rush to Christmas that is a part of popular culture. They stage their special productions and programs during Advent and seem to be celebrating Christmas for the month of December and as soon as Christmas day arrives they are on to other things.

The rise from depression and sadness rarely comes suddenly. One day is insufficient. In the church, we still have a significant span from Gaudete Sunday to Epiphany. Whether or not Christmas landing on December 25 is due to a miscalculation of the date of the winter solstice, in the flow of our part of the world, the solstice arrives on Friday. The longest night of the year slowly gives way to lengthening days. The 12 days of Christmas run from December 25 to January 6. Gaudete Sunday is a foretaste of the celebration of the return of light which is three weeks in the future. This long period of time is closer to the actual experience of those who are rising from deep depression. It takes time.

So today we celebrate the presence of joy even with those who are not feeling joy. We repeat the command to rejoice because it takes time. And there is waiting that is yet ahead for those who suffer. We stand with them and we wait.

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!

When clergy fail those they serve

Two decades of serving as a first responder to those who have lost loved ones to suicide has taught me that the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a difficult and dangerous time for the victims of certain types of mental illness. I know too many stories of those who have died by suicide at this time of the year, and each year I approach this season with a certain degree of fear and trepidation because I know that the risk is high for families who have members who live with severe depression and anxiety. It is a good season to reach out with extra love and compassion to those who suffer. At the same time, so many mental illnesses remain hidden and it is often difficult or impossible to see the danger of a coming suicide. For those who lose a loved one the experience is generally one of sudden and traumatic loss. They are unable to do anything to prevent the death because they do not know that it is coming.

I’ve been on the response team to work with families who have lost loved ones to suicide twice in the past week and our County lost two other citizens to suicide in the prior week. The overwhelming tragedy of these situations will color the holiday season for these families for the rest of their lives.

As a LOSS team member, I don’t hide the fact that I am a Christian and that I am a minister, but I am always careful to remind myself that my role in the situation is to bring comfort to those who are suffering and to make and strengthen connections with their communities of faith and sources of spiritual guidance and strength. I ask them if they have a pastor or priest that they want to be contacted. I look for connections that already exist. If I were to find myself in a situation of needing to respond to a suicide in my own congregation, I would ask other members of the LOSS team to respond so that I could respond as pastor. It is not my role to be a pastor when I am serving as a member of the team. I’m careful of these boundaries. They are important to protect families from further suffering.

Over the years I have witnessed some of my pastoral colleagues who have failed to maintain proper boundaries when serving families who have lost loved ones to suicide. They have become judgmental and failed to understand the nature of mental illness, which is a real disease that can be fatal. They have allowed their own grief, which includes anger, to invade funeral services and made statements that are inappropriate and which cause additional pain. They mistakenly focus on the way a person died without giving sufficient attention to how that person lived.

The church doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to serving those who die by suicide. In support groups I have been asked directly about statements heard in churches concerning the salvation of those who die by suicide. These statement reflect old theologies and old legal interpretations that judge a suicide victim for their last minute decisions. The person who dies by suicide is seen to have committed a crime and in some churches that crime is judged to be significant enough to warrant eternal punishment. Prior to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s those who died by suicide were denied a Roman Catholic funeral and were not allowed to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. In 1990, Pope John Paul II approved the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acknowledges that this who die by suicide suffer from mental illness.

Not everyone in the church has gotten the message however. Katie Mettier wrote the story of Maison Hullibarger in the Washington Post this week. She reports that the devout Catholic family lost their son to suicide on December 4 and worked with their priest to plan his funeral. Mason was a brother to five siblings, an athlete and teammate, a good student and a passionate Pittsburgh Steeler fan. But during the funeral service, Father Don LaCuesta told mourners that Mason may be denied admittance to heaven because of the way he died. He continued to rail agains suicide. Finally Mason’s father, Jeffrey walked to the pulpit. “Father,” he whispered, “Please stop.” The priest did not.

After the funeral the family barred the priest from the cemetery and conducted their own graveside service with the assistance of friends and other mourners.

From my point of view the priest’s performance is shocking and cruel and he should not be allowed to conduct any more funerals. He is creating irreparable damage in the name of the church. The demands for the priest to be removed finally elicited an apology from the Archdiocese of Detroit, but so far he continues to serve in his position. Family members and friends are afraid that he will be moved to another parish where the potential exists for him to cause more pain. It is a similar situation to priests who have abused children. There is no question in my mind that the priest is guilty of abuse of the family.

Mental Health Ministries, Suicide Prevention Ministries, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and many other organizations provide guidelines and resources for clergy who are serving families suffering from suicide loss. It is not difficult for those who care to become educated and to benefit from the experiences of others. The failure to make this education mandatory for all clergy is tragic.

Uninformed and harmful clergy are not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Rather than judging the victims of suicide and their families the church needs to take a good look at itself and take reasonable steps to educate clergy. A funeral that inflicts additional and unnecessary pain on a family is more than a tragedy. It is abuse by clergy, plain and simple. A clergy person occupies a position of power and abuse of that power cannot be tolerated.

Fortunately, admittance to heaven is not controlled by priests or other clergy. It is controlled by God who is compassionate and loving. As the letter to the Romans states: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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!

Looking up

It was just before our second Christmas in Boise. On December 14, 1986, a long-winged, hand-hand-built airplane, made from lightweight honeycomb-graphite composites, powered by two 100 hp engines, one on the front and the other on the back, filled to capacity with fuel, took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California. On board were two pilots, Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, brother of the airplane’e designer, Burt Rutan. I had been following the construction of the airplane since they began building it a couple of years earlier. When an appeal for funds to construct the plane went out to members of the Experimental Aviation Association’s members, I sent a donation of $25. I had friends in North Dakota who were building an airplane to one of Burt’s designers. Their VariEze was a unique design, with a canard wing on he front.

Home built and experimental aircraft were once again leading the process of design and construction innovation. The large corporations, Cessna, Piper, Mooney and Beech were all struggling under a load of product liability lawsuits stemming from accidents that involved their aircraft. Private aircraft design seemed to have stagnated, with all of the factory airplanes costing a fortune for a 30 year old design.

Dick and Jena set a record, flying around the world nonstop without refueling. They landed nine days after taking off at the same airport, having followed a route that was determined by weather, wind, politics and geography.

I first saw their airplane, Voyager, hanging above the front desk at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum when we took our children to Washington D.C. I stared in awe at the amazing plane and the incredible feat that it accomplished. I still pause in wonder each time I see the plane, which is now hanging in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, continued to innovate in aircraft design, turning out new designs. You can see the influence of the design of Voyager in the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, in which Steve Fossett flew nonstop, solo around the world, taking off and landing at Salina Kansas in just over 67 hours, setting the around-the-world speed record. He didn’t stop there. He flew from the NASA Kennedy Space Center around the world and landed in Bournemouth, England and set an absolute distance flying record.

If you look at pictures of the airplanes, it is easy to see the design connection between Voyager and Global Flyer and VMS Eve, the mothership that carried Spaceship Two aloft yesterday when a new record was set when the smaller ship undocked at high altitude, ignited its rocket engine and flew into space. Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two wasn’t the first privately funded space vehicle. That record is held by Elon Musk’s Space X rocket. Spaceship Two, however, was the first to carry people into space. The plan is to become the first commercial space tourism company. Virgin Galactic has already booked 600 customers who will pay $250,000 each for a 90-minute ride into space.

I am not among the customers. It doesn’t look likely that the price of space travel will come down into the range of my budget in my lifetime. It is a bit strange, because as a child, I assumed that I would have the opportunity to fly into space. I watched as the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs set record after record. The nation’s resolve to conquer space with human piloted vehicles was strong in those days. We all studied our math and science courses and believed that we would be a part of a future that would involve travel away from our home planet.

Space travel, it turns out, is even more costly and complex than we had imagined. Still, yesterday’s historic flight was an amazing feat. Just as I watched Voyageur when Dick and Jenna flew around the world, I pay attention when new records are achieved by amazing individuals who are pushing the limits of design and innovating new ways to travel and explore.

Sir Richard Branson has promised that his company, Virgin Galactic, will be carrying tourists to the edge of space within 18 months. If they achieve that timeline, it will have taken longer than they were predicting. A fatal crash in 2014 set back the program from its original timeline. The company, in cooperation with governmental agencies thoroughly examined what occurred in the crash and although it was determined to have been caused by pilot error, they made necessary changes in systems to prevent future pilots from making the same mistake. It certainly appears that they are back on schedule to soon be carrying space tourists. The pilots were awarded astronaut’s wings by US government officials and their “passenger” a mannequin named Annie. Branson himself is training to be passenger on an upcoming flight. Paying customers will soon follow.

The process is far from inexpensive. The giant four-engined VMS Eve wasn’t built in a backyard garage. The complex systems that power and navigate the mother ship and the smaller, rocket powered spaceship are mind-boggling. The number of obstacles that have had to been met and overcome is amazing.

The news of the flight was welcome yesterday as those of us with our feet on the ground struggled through another day of news of governmental struggle and scandal. My day was filled with routine work and a couple of crises and emergencies to which I responded. The flight of the spaceship wasn’t the most important factor in the lives of some of the people with whom I worked yesterday, and it wasn’t the topic of our conversations. They were facing their own tragedies and crises. They didn’t have time for the news beyond the events in their own families. They won’t remember the day for the news headlines, but rather for a moment of personal tragedy, pain and loss.

Still, as I reached out to walk with them through their lives filled with sadness and loss, I held, in the back of my mind the aspirations and dreams of humans whose ideas have led us into space. There is more to the world than our daily existence and sometimes we need to look up and be reminded that even when our bodies are fixed on earth our spirits can soar to untold heights.

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!


I am not a musician. I love music. I attend quite a few concerts and other opportunities to hear music. I listen to music in my car. I play the trumpet and guitar and dabble at the piano. I sing in the church choir. I took a few courses in music in college. I serve on the board of directors of a musical group and I’ve raised a lot of music for various choirs and musical groups over the years. But I am not a musician. Here are some of the reasons why I know that I’m not a musician.

I can turn off all of the lights in a building when locking it. I’ve written about this topic before and won’t go into depth on the topic, but suffice it to say that we’ve had a lot of musicians who work in our church over the years and none of them could get all of the lights turned off when it was their responsibility to lock the building. Our current staff are no exception. Just last night one musician offered to turn off the lights in the balcony, made a trip up and down the stairs and when that person had gone out the door, I went up into the balcony to turn off the four light switches which had been left on. It doesn’t bother me. I want to have musicians in the church and their skills at making music are much more valuable than their ability to turn off light switches.

I don’t have a soundtrack for my life, or if I do, it involves a lot of silence. I am not always thinking about music. Sure, I can get a song in my head and have it going over and over again. And I can have events or conversations bring songs to mind. I’ve been known to sing a few bars from a musical in response to something that we’ve been talking about. But I enjoy silence. When I am home alone, I often go about my work with no music in the background. I can drive for hundreds of miles on occasion with no music playing, just listening to the sounds of the vehicle I am driving and thinking.

I possess a few practical skills. I know that this is a bit unfair and is a stereotype, but I’ve spend enough time worrying about budgets and how to pay the bills over the years to know that my role in the church is different from the many musicians I have known who really don’t want to think about money at all. I make sure the oil in my car is changed on a regular basis. I can repair many household items when they break. I know how to dress appropriately when the weather turns cold.

Before I descend completely into stereotypes, a bit of history might be in order. One of my brothers is a musician. He has worked in a bicycle shop, as a personal assistant to a professional, as a home health aid, as a taxi driver, and in a lot of different roles. But he is first and foremost a musician. When music doesn’t produce enough income to put groceries on the table, which has been most of his life, he will work at another job, but he is always thinking about music. He is a percussionist. And he’s pretty good, too. He has played with rock bands, jazz bands and currently plays with a big band. When we were kids, our family living room doubled as a music room. A piano was one of its prominent pieces of furniture. We practiced our instruments in that room. My brother had a trap set in that room. He would play for hours, sometimes at volume levels that threatened to drive the rest of the family out of the house. My parents defended his music and made space for him.

My mother had only a few house plants, and the ones she had were hearty. There was a begonia in our living room that had been doing well, but was rather stunted and sickly during the years that the drum set occupied a space in that room. When the drum set moved on with my brother, the begonia flourished and grew into a big, healthy plant. We always suspected that the begonia was a music critic and wasn’t found of drums.

Once, when we were teens, our parents went on a trip. My brother took the opportunity of their absence to hitchhike across five states to attend a Music Educator’s National Convention. He’s never been the best at everyday communication and his trip caused more than a little bit of worry before he returned home safely.

Music has always been a high priority for him. I do not know, but I suspect that his passion has been a factor in some of his divorces, and he’s had more than most people.

There are plenty of musicians who live rather normal lives, have healthy relationships, earn a good living, possess practical skills, and even turn off the lights when leaving a room. But there are also some quirky personalities who are a bit difficult to live with who make wonderful music. I’m drawn to the quirky ones who can really make music. I’ve put up with a lot over the years to have good musicians in the churches I serve. I’ve gone to bat to raise money to cover new and repaired instruments. I’ve championed higher salaries for musicians. I’ve advocated for music programs. I’ve refereed a few arguments and disagreements between musicians. And I’ve gone around the building turning off lights after rehearsals.My role as supervisor of church employees has involved a lot of work with musicians. Other pastors, office staff and janitors are far less time consuming for senior ministers than the musicians on the staff.

I do not, however, want to live in a world without musicians. I don’t want to serve a church without musicians. I just have to write a journal entry and blow off a little steam from time to time in order to keep from yelling at them.

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 cost of neglecting education

There are many things in life that have unintended consequences. Well meaning people can take action without having considered all of the consequences of their action. I’ve made that kind of mistake a lot in my life. I mean to help, but my help isn’t always helpful. I was thinking on unintended consequences recently as I listened to a radio program while driving my car. The topic of conversation was developing regulation for driverless cars.

Driverless cars hold the promise of increasing highway safety. Some of the innovations that are in modern cars driven by people help to increase safety by sensing the distance between the car being driven and another car in front of that car in the same lane, recognizing when the vehicle wanders from its assigned lane, and other features. Autonomous vehicles obey speed limits, operate within appropriate right-of-way laws and observe traffic signals and signs. There is hope that persons with disabilities will be able to achieve a level of independence not currently available when a driverless car can take them from one place to the next. The discussion in the program was around what legislation is needed to regulate the cars. Those on the program agreed that there needs to be some system to evaluate the effectiveness of the system’s sensors. One person suggested something akin to the vision test now required for a driver’s license. Of course a robotic vehicle doesn’t see images in the same way that humans do, but many systems employ cameras which could be tested for accuracy and acuity. Some kind of simulation could be developed and examiners could observe the vehicle on a test track or some other safe location before the vehicle is allowed to operate in traffic. The problem with such a test is that vehicles could be designed for the test and still lack some of the elements required for real world situations.

Those participating in the show kept coming around to the fact that creating reasonable regulation is extremely difficult. It is a conversation that was repeated, in a different form, yesterday when Google Chief executive Sundar Pinchai faced questions from US lawmakers about the company. The lawmakers questioning him kept trying to ask simple “yes” or “no” questions and the reality is that the company doesn’t exist in a simple environment. The capabilities of an individual device depend on what software and applications have been installed, how the privacy settings are used and a wide variety of other factors. When a legislator asks, “Can my phone do this or that?” the answer depends on a lot of different things. The legislator demands a simple “yes” or “no” answer, but such an answer cannot be accurate because the question is more complex than the questioner understands.

So creating regulation is difficult. That is true. But creating the technology is also difficult.

I am not one to call into radio programs, but I was momentarily tempted. What I wanted to say is that we shouldn’t turn aside from a problem simply because it is complex or difficult. We don’t turn away from complex or difficult engineering challenges. But one of the unintended consequences of years and years of focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is that we have neglected humanities education. We have colleges and universities that excel in STEM areas and do not even teach a course in the history and philosophy of science. We have major universities that produce graduates who have never taken a basic ethics course.

It really shouldn’t surprise us that we have legislators who are unable to legislate when we have watered down and removed civics education from our secondary and post-secondary schools. We have put such an emphasis on producing technicians and engineers, those with skills much-needed, that we seem to have forgotten that this world also needs people who can make complex ethical decisions, ones trained in the art of debate and negotiation, and people with the skills to craft meaningful legislation to address complex social problems.

As was illustrated by a bizarre public argument between legislative leaders and the President yesterday, there is more to the art of negotiation than making demands and refusing to compromise in any manner. Whatever else that display of public grandstanding was, it was not an effective lesson in the art of the deal. No art was demonstrated in that strange display.

The humanities, including history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, modern languages, geography, law, politics and religion are essential fields of study. Education in those areas is as essential as education in science, technology, engineering and math. The solution is not to decrease the emphasis on STEM education, but to acknowledge that those educated in STEM areas alone are not fully educated and additional education in the humanities is needed for a balanced society.

The failure of modern schools to adequately teach humanities has direct costs for society. It results in brilliant engineers who can create computers with enough capacity to allow a motor vehicle to operate autonomously, but who balk at the complexity of designing common sense regulation of such a vehicle. It results in governments who cannot negotiate agreements and who cannot foresee the consequences of their actions.

The truth is that we haven’t been faithful in creating educational systems that serve all of the people. We have mistaken the size of budgets for the quality of education. We continue to design large educational systems with complex administrative structures without considering the basic needs of students in the classrooms. We isolate superintendents of education in office buildings and allow them to spend their days on tasks that involve little or no contact with students.

I know a brilliant physicist who has a Ph.D. degree but who, until recently, had not even considered why his degree is called “Doctor of Philosophy.” The highest academic degree awarded by universities once were awarded for programs of study that spanned the entire breadth of multiple academic fields. As opposed to a Master’s Degree which denotes mastery of a specific field, a Ph.D. was awarded to one who understood how their area of expertise fit into the wider picture of education and life.

These days you can earn a Ph.D. without having taken a single course in philosophy, or history, or ethics.

And our society is paying the cost of those unintended consequences.

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!

At the dentist

I haven’t had the best dental health. I had cavities as a child and have continued to need dental procedures throughout my adult life. I’ve been told that my front teeth are worn down due to a habit of grinding my teeth, and this may be the case, but I am completely unaware of such behavior. One dentist told me that I must grind my teeth in my sleep. Another dentist told me that as the human lifespan has increased, teeth haven’t begun to last any longer. Generations ago, tech that lasted for 45 or 50 years were sufficient. Now we need them to last 90 or more years. Whatever the cause I know that my mother invested significant money on dental work in the last decades of her life and it appears to me that I may be headed for a similar future.

I try to be a good steward of the teeth that i do have. I brush my teeth as instructed. I have them checked and professionally cleaned regularly. I have repairs done when they are required. I carry dental insurance that helps with the expenses.

Modern dentistry is amazingly successful. there are techniques for repairing and saving teeth that didn’t exist decades ago. Oral surgeons can create implants that function as replacement teeth. Modern x-rays and other diagnostic tools enable dentists to detect small problems before they become big problems. I am fortunate to live in the time that I do and to have access to the care that is available. I have relatives who are my age and some who are older who sport complete sets of dentures, having lost all of their original teeth. I am fortunate to have avoided such a problem so far.

I remember our family dentist when I was a child. He operated his practice in a two-room suite on the second story of a downtown retail building. You entered on the side of the building and climbed a flight of stairs to a narrow hallway. There was no sign on the outside of the building and only the dentist’s name painted on the glass of the door inside. He had no receptionist or hygienist. There was an outer waiting room and an inner room with a single dentist’s chair. He worked alone. He had various lights and drills and other tools close at hand. Who a filling was required, he mixed up the compound of silver and other materials and applied it himself, tamping with dental instruments that he had sterilized in a small autoclave that sat in the corner of the room. He was a respected professional in our town and had a comfortable home.

Times have changed. The dentist I see now recently took over from a dentist that I had seen for more than 20 years. His office is also on the second story of a building, but one designed for professional offices. He has a waiting room, with a window into a clerical office that usually has two or three employees. There are at least six dental chairs and hygienists for each of them. There is an array of diagnostic machines and separate lab and office areas. The office is filled with high-tech equipment and there seem to be new devices every time I visit. The last visit revealed computer monitors attached to the feet of each of the dental chairs which I presume are used for patient education.

The overhead in that office must be staggering. All of that equipment has to be paid for and it sits unused three days a week. The dental office operates only four days a week and when it does, we patients are lined up so that the dentist never has to do any waiting between patients. He goes from one to the next while we sit prepped in the dental chairs.

I am all in favor of evidence-based medical practices. And I believe that as we learn more, we need to apply that knowledge to treatment and care of patients. I have no desire to go back to the days of the dentist who served us when we were children. But I am acutely aware that the level of care that i receive is made possible by my dental insurance and my professional salary. There are a whole lot of people in our community who cannot afford the services provided by my dentist.

I am not used to thinking myself as an elitist or a member of the upper class, but when you consider dental care, I am afforded a level of luxury that is higher than most of the people in the community where I live, let alone in comparison to the rest of the world. I am not sure how I justify such selfishness.

I like having a mouth that is free from pain. I like having all of my teeth and being able to eat whatever foods I choose. There are definite advantages to being the recipient of such good dental care. But the money that is invested in my sixty-five year old head could buy a lot of preventive dental care for a lot of children who could benefit from early care. The distribution of dental care is not based on merit or who deserves care. It is based on ability to pay. Without dental insurance, I know I’d be shopping for a new dentist, one who didn’t have such a luxurious high-tech office with its accompanying high cost of operation.

When it comes to medical care it seems that we are willing to accept no limits. We are willing to pay. According to Reuters, the U.S. spends about twice what other high-income nations do on health care but has the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rates. We use roughly the same amount of health services as people in other affluent nations, but we pay much higher prices and have worse results.

Having the fanciest office and the most equipment doesn’t result in the best care.

It gives me something to think about while I’m sitting in that comfortable reclining chair with the computer monitor at my feet waiting for the dentist to get to me for my next dental exam.

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!

Compex ideas at this time of the year

Last night was the final night of Hanukkah, one of the minor Jewish holidays. Some have called Hanukkah the “Jewish Christmas,” primarily because it falls in December, but such a name is inaccurate. The two holidays are very different. Hanukkah commemorates a revolt against Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had forbidden Jewish religious practices. After a period of relative religious tolerance, the new ruler attempted to force the Jews to abandon their religion. The temple at Jerusalem was desecrated with Hellenistic religious symbols and observance of Jewish festivals and traditions was forced underground. In 167 BCE Jewish priests led a revolution against Antiochus that resulted in the liberation of the temple. When the temple was finally liberated there was only enough oil to kindle the temple lamp for a single day. Seven days were required for a full dedication of the temple. The oil miraculously lasted for not just seven, but eight days. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil. Fried foods such ad donuts and potato pancakes are eaten in celebration of the gift of oil.

The celebration, like many events in Jewish life, reflects a very complex and sometimes conflicted memory of the historical events. The uprising, while temporarily successful, did not accomplish all of its goals. Eventually the uprising was quelled. The temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. Jews were once again and remain scattered throughout the world.

Long before the time of the Maccabees and the revolt, the people of Israel were not of one mind about the meaning of the restoration of Israel. Some prophets, like Isaiah painted a picture of the entire world coming to Jerusalem to worship God. A world with a single religion and religious agreement was described in eloquent poetry. Others, like the prophet Micah, while describing a vision of religious peace didn’t necessarily see all people having a common religion. Rather there would be multiple religions, but the ability to live in peace with those who think and believe differently.

Both visions remain in the future. We humans haven’t learned how to share this planet in peace, whether by all embracing the same religion or by learning to respect and tolerate our differences.

The prophetic vision of world peace is reflected in Christian celebrations at Christmas. The Christ child, who for Christians is the fulfillment of the prophets’ vision, is celebrated as the Prince of Peace. The coming of the messiah was foretold as ushering in a time of world peace when conflict would cease and nations would not rise up against nations any more.

Like our Jewish sisters and brothers, our understanding of the world is complex. Although we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the prophetic vision, we have to admit that the result was not a cessation of warfare between nations. The incredible violence of 20th Century wars and the unending nature of 21st century warfare clearly illustrate that world peace is not yet accomplished. The human capacity for violence and cruelty seems to be limitless.

Our annual observances have become a challenge of reconciliation of the powerful vision and the harsh reality. We can imagine a world that is better than the one in which we now live. We can imagine relationships that are better than our current ones. And our ability to imagine leads us to hope for a brighter, more peaceful and less conflicted future. That hope can inspire action that decreases violence and increases understanding. Much good has come out of people who care share a hopeful vision with others.

It is our desire to hear the hopeful vision that inspires us to continue to read the words of the prophets. Prophetic poetry is part of all of our Advent and Christmas celebrations. We want to think of a world at peace. We want to envision the ability to lay down arms and to work together for justice for all. That vision can serve to be a commentary on our leaders and upon ourselves. We have failed to live up to the vision.

The cycle of our worship life brings us around to the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany every year. Each year we remind ourselves of the glorious vision of the prophets and of our inability to fulfill those visions.Each year we celebrate God’s gift of the Prince of Peace while at the same time acknowledging that we have not yet fully achieved peace on earth, good will towards all.

We sometimes describe this process as “the not yet already is.” We are actively taking part in the realm of God, but that realm has not yet reached its full expression. Theologians, who are partial to jargon, sometimes call this “inaugurated eschatology,” or sometimes “realized eschatology.” The concept is that the coming future of God beaker through into the present in ways that allow believers to experience God’s glory that is yet to come. God’s realm is both present and future. The concept challenges our notion of time. Present and future are somehow merged, but our perspective prevents us from fully comprehending this reality. The idea continues to inspire intense debate and discussion among theologians.

Layered upon the theological complexities of the season are many different levels of tradition and expectations that come from a win variety of sources. This season of the year has become connected to consumerism and retail sales. Businesses depend on increased spending and purchasing of more items as an expectation of our Christmas celebrations. Children become confused about whether the focus of the holiday is giving and receiving gifts or the religious observances. Individuals are torn by all of the holiday additions to their schedules: office parties, special concerts, school presentations. Extra obligations abound. Sometimes the beliefs that are at the base of the holiday are forgotten in the all of the rush and hectic over scheduling.

We can barely think about world peace because we can’t even find a peaceful moment for reflection in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

Our ideas are complex because we are complex. It is clear that we still have much to learn.

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 my time wisely

A wide variety of religious traditions label sloth as a sin. In Christianity, sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work and it seen as one of the seven sins that are fatal to spiritual progress. The Buddha identified sloth as one of the five hindrances, a list of confusions and distractions that prevent people from experiencing the happiness that is available. Other world religions list some form of sloth of laziness as something to be avoided.

On the other hand, most religions recognize the need for rest. A day of rest is one of the ten commandments. Life in this world, with its rapid pace of change, can be bruising. Our minds get overwhelmed and tired. With long days of work and short breaks for sleep, we can easily become worn down. The constant 24/7 news cycle overwhelms us with worries and fears. Denying the body’s need for rest and calm cannot be denied in the long run.

I have discovered, however, than not all inactivity is restorative. Just doing nothing can occur without real recreation occurring. At the same time, many activities which are labeled “recreation” can add to the list of obligations and pressures of daily life. I recognize this with many youth sports programs. The youth enjoy participation in the activities, but the pace of the programs and the demands of competitive youth sports can be exhausting. Instead of recreation, sports become work, often justified by the promise of scholarships or other incentives that need to be “earned.”

It may be that we don’t know how to rest.

Yesterday we delivered firewood to one of our partners. It was only about 100 miles to our destination and so I was home and finished with that project in a little over 5 hours. It wasn’t anything like the long days I had earlier in the week. On Friday, I left home a little after 4 am and got back home a little before 6 pm. I had done office work, led a worship service in an assisted living home, counseled with a family in crisis, responded to an emergency at the hospital, made a visit at a local correctional facility, and spent a little time working on Sunday’s sermon. I was tired at the end of the day and went to bed early, but wok at the usual time ready to go. I’m not as young or energetic as once was the case, but I am still capable of working long days. But yesterday, I had an extended period of “free” time after I returned from the firewood delivery and I really didn’t accomplish anything significant between the time I got home and the time I went to bed. I did a few chores around the house, but what I really did was to waste time.

And, having grown up the way I have, and having lived the life I have, I am feeling a little self-critical this morning. I should have used my time better. Wasting time makes me feel guilty.

I don’t really think that I am in danger of falling into sloth, but the fact that I woke this morning feeling disappointed with myself is a sign that perhaps I need to make some changes. Ideally, I would be wise in the use of my time. I have many things that need to be done. There is no lack of chores at the office or at home. Undone work surrounds me all the time.

I’m aware that I can’t survive by working all the time. I am in need of rest and recreation just like anyone else. The commandment about honoring the Sabbath applies to me just like it does anyone else even though I work pretty hard on Sundays. Taking time to restore perspective is essential. Genuine recreation, however, is different than sitting in my recliner with the footrest up and just doing nothing.

In my work with others, I know how important it is to discern the difference between sloth and depression. Often inactivity can look like sloth from the outside, when what is going on with the individual is a genuine illness that requires prompt treatment. When a person is suffering the pain of depression, it is not a lack of will that is causing inactivity. Losing touch with the sources of restoration can be disorienting and dangerous.

I, however, am not depressed. I am in love with the work I do and the life that has been given to me. I am surrounded by family and friends who give me energy and enthusiasm for life.

When I waste time, I am capable of engaging in creative thinking, generating new ideas, formulating topics for this journal, crafting concepts for sermons, seeking solutions to problems. But some days, like yesterday, I just waste time. And with time being a limited and precious commodity, I feel guilty about wasting it.

The promise of our faith, however, is that we don’t have to remain stuck in our sinfulness. Forgiveness is a gift that is freely offered. We can find new ways to live our lives. Change is possible. Today is a new day with new possibilities and new challenges. It is unlikely that I will have time to be slothful with all of the opportunities that lie ahead for my day. It is a simple fact of life that some days are less productive than others. We are not judged by our output. The number of tasks accomplished isn’t a competition with winners and losers. Our tasks, however, are invitations and our response can give us energy. On productive days, I rest well, knowing that I have contributed. The fact that not every day is productive means that I am human.

Maybe yesterday gives me a bit of perspective to seek a better balance of activity and rest in my life. Maybe I can learn from the experience and be better prepared for the days that come. It is possible that I am slowly learning that in God’s world nothing is wasted. The time of our lives is precious regardless of how it passes. It was a good day. And today promises to be good, too.

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!


In the past week, I’ve visited with several people who use wheelchairs or walkers as tools for mobility. Illnesses or injuries have put them in a position where they need the devices to get around. Most of the people I visited are folks whom I knew at other phases of their lives, when they did not need assistance.

I was thinking of them and the challenges they face as I was doing a bit of work around the church yesterday morning. I needed to carry several items from my office to the church kitchen and from the kitchen out to my car, which was parked down by the kitchen. I don’t always park by the same entrance when I am at the church, choosing where to park by where I am going in the building. It isn’t that our building is so large. It is easy to walk from one end to the other, but if I am carrying something, I take advantage of the variety of different places to park. Yesterday, I had a crate with three-liter thermoses, one with coffee, one with decaf, and another with hot water. If I am doing my math correctly, 9 liters is 9 kilograms, which is just under 20 pounds. Add in the weight of the crate, cups and the container of condiments and I could have been carrying 30 pounds. That’s not enough to be a big strain, but enough that I don’t mind a shorter trip when it is convenient.

Carrying the crate and walking, it came to me what a blessing it is to be able to walk where I want. The simple task I was performing would be a huge challenge if I had to use a walker for balance or a wheelchair to get around.

I often take the many gifts of this life for granted. I have made it this far in life without ever experiencing any major illnesses or injuries. My life has been remarkably free from pain. I have a few aches that I didn’t have when I was younger, but nothing that causes me much distress. Occasionally I will notice that my hands don’t have the strength they once had and that my joints need a little loosening up after I’ve been sleeping, but I’ve never experienced a major disability.

Beyond that, it feels good to walk. The human body is a marvelous creation. The complexity of all of the different parts of the body that work together to enable motion is nothing short of a miracle. Muscles flourish with movement. Moving feels better than being stationary. We were created to walk.

I’ve read several articles about how we are becoming more sedentary than previous generations. We don’t walk as much as once was the case. Our machines, especially private automobiles, have enabled us to go farther, but they are also requiring that we sit for longer periods of time and use our bodies win ways that are very different than was the case for previous generations.

Visiting with friends in their wheelchairs is a reminder that the gifts of this life are ours only temporarily. We do not go on forever. Although we are fortunate in that we don’t know the span of our lives or the challenges that lie ahead, it is certain that every human being will one day die. And most of us will experience limitations on our abilities as a part of the aging process.

One of the gifts of the work that I do is that it is varied. Sometimes I need to sit with people. Sometimes I need to do physical work and carry things. Most days involve a wide variety of activities. Some parts of my job require intense focus. When studying, I need to reduce distractions and pay attention. Other parts of my job are repetitive and can be done while my mind is wandering. Moving chairs from one room to another to set up for a special cantata rehearsal doesn’t require a lot of intense thought. I can be thinking about my next journal entry or this week’s sermon. Sitting with a father who is deeply concerned bout his son requires my full attention. I need to listen carefully and make sure I am understanding his concerns. Reading the liturgy for communion is familiar and easy for me. I can be counting the number of people present, preparing the cups and bread and reading the liturgy out loud at the same time. Making a hospital visit require me to follow the procedures of that institution while focusing my attention on the person I am visiting and their unique family dynamics. The work I do is widely varied and there is something new every day.

I know, however, that this is just one of the seasons of my life. The time will come when others assume many of the roles that are now mine. Age and illness will require that I make changes and some of those changes will be slowing down and moving around less. That knowledge makes the steps I take and the objects I lift more precious to me. I am lucky to be able to do the things that I do.

There are some evenings when I think to myself that I simply can’t take one more thing. I’ve had too many demands placed on me. I tire of all of the things that need to be done and all of the people whose needs are on my mind. But I know that I would miss my work deeply if I were to lay it aside. I get pushed to the edge on occasion, but I’ve never really been handed more than I am able to take. Long days make for peaceful nights of sleep and on the occasions where my sleep is interrupted, I become more appreciative of the nights when the phone doesn’t ring.

And today is a new day. I’ll do a bit of driving, unload a bit of firewood, have conversations with friends, and mull over tomorrow’s sermon. And while I’m at it, I will be grateful for the ability to walk and carry and move around. Life is good.

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!

Anxious times

Yesterday afternoon I set up a meeting with a young man who needed to talk. I asked him where he would like to meet and he suggested that we meet in a McDonald’s Restaurant. I’m not a frequent customer of McDonalds, but I knew where the restaurant he wanted to meet was. As I entered the restaurant, I recognized a member of my congregation, sitting with a couple of other gentlemen. I nodded at him, but sat in a different area of the restaurant to wait for the person I was to meet. As I sat there, I received a text message that the meeting wouldn’t work for him after all and proposing that we meet the next day. So I went over and greeted the member of my congregation and sat down with him and his friend for a few minutes. They were watching the end of the funeral service for President George H.W. Bush at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. The service followed the public one the day before at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. This was a smaller one with about 1,200 invited guests. It wasn’t however, exactly private. The television crews were giving it full coverage.

I had my back to the television, but I could hear it. A couple of minutes after I sat down, the program cut to commercials and when they returned, the funeral was over and there was another news story being discussed by a television personality.

One of the gentlemen with whom I was sitting commented, “Well, I guess the funeral is over. Now we have to go back to politics. That’s the only thing that is on, these days.” We then had a short discussion about being tired of ceaseless politics.

I don’t watch much television, but I do have to agree with the speaker. We get overloaded with politics these days. It seems as if elections, campaigning, and election news are everywhere. Part of it is the continual nature of campaigning in today’s world. As soon as one election is over, they start campaigning for the next one. Part of it is the unsealed nature of the electorate. We’re a divided nation and many elections are close. Part of it is the nature of television and Internet coverage of news.

I decided not to comment that the reason it is the only thing that is on may have to do with the choice of channels on the television - and the choice to watch television at all.

I deal with a lot of anxious people these days. They are anxious about things in their personal lives. They are anxious about the state of the economy and the price of the things they need. They are anxious about health care and the status of heir health. They are anxious about the uncomfortable conversations they are having around their family dinner table and with their friends at church. There is a lot of anxiety around.

The great Old Testament teacher, Walter Brueggemann, has written and spoken about the difference between the way that we talk about faith in the contemporary church and the meaning of faith to the prophets. When we talk about faith, we often talk about having a particular set of beliefs. It is often intellectual assent - we agree with a creed or a statement of faith. It wasn’t so for the prophets. For them, faith is trusting God. If you trust God and the goodness of God, you don’t have to be anxious. People of faith don’t need to worry about the future. It is only when we mistakenly think that we are in charge - or other humans are in charge - that we are overcome with anxiety. If God is in charge, all is well with the world, regardless of the political realities, regardless of our personal status, regardless of the span of our life.

To be a person of faith is to let God be God and not to try to be a god yourself.

Not worrying is a big topic for Jesus:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can anyone of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?  “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you-you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34)

Our faith has a lot to offer to the anxious people in our world. I’m not sure that I am always eloquent in communicating that to others. I’m not sure that I am always able to let go of my own anxiety, but I am working on it. And I hope I can share my faith with others in ways that allow them to be less anxious, too.

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!

Inadequate care

Each week as a pastor is different from the previous one. It is one of the things about my vocation that I enjoy and which keeps me engaged and learning. Last Sunday, the 1st Sunday of Advent was a clod and blustery day. To top it off, the bus driver who helps transport people to our church woke up sick and we didn’t have time to recruit and deploy a substitute, so the bus did not operate. It wouldn’t have been very full anyway because slippery streets and sidewalks were keeping some of our members safely at home. For those who did make it out the day turned out to be not too big of a challenge. Our snowplowing service had worked hard on Saturday to keep our lot clear for the annual Christmas Tea, so it was free of ice on Sunday. There was a performance of the community handbell ensemble in the afternoon and a late afternoon meeting with a local synagogue to commemorate the first night of Hanukkah, so the day was busy, even though the number of people attending events was fewer than we would have expected had the weather been a bit less chilly and snowy.

Sunday was also a communion Sunday and so this week I’ve been trying to squeeze in as many visits to folks to bring them communion as possible. Taking communion to individuals and small groups has always been one of the delights of my calling. I get a chance for a bit of conversation with people. Communion sparks memories and I usually hear some stories of faith in action. People are appreciative of my work and quick to thank me for coming.

While visiting the people of our church is a delightful experience, the institutions where some of them live often pose challenges. While a large number of people are able to live independently until the ends of their lives, there are others that need assistance with daily living. Institutional care is often the choice of families. In Rapid City is a retirement community and there are a lot of different centers that offer skilled nursing care, assisted living, memory care, and other services.

My impression after this week’s visits so far, however, is not good when it comes to the institutions that serve our people. One skilled nursing home in our community has recently gone through a sale and then another change in management. I have heard that it it is currently in receivership, though I haven’t been able to confirm it. Officially, it is run by a corporation that operates 22 centers in four states, and appears, from its website to have extensive experience and resources. The facility is physically well-maintained, but as I walked the halls yesterday, it was evident that I was seeing a lot of residents and rehabilitation patients, but very few staff persons. Outside of the clerk at the front desk, I was greeted by no other staff during my visit. I’ve visited in the facility and didn’t need assistance finding the patient I was visiting, but the building is a bit confusing for a first-time visitor and I wondered how others might feel. The person I was visiting happens to be a former director of that facility and so our conversation drifted to the issue of staffing. He reported that a typical response to pushing his button to call for assistance was well over a half hour and that he had been left without assistance in the bathroom for an extended period since he was a patient, something that never would have happened when he worked in the facility. He confirmed that the facility seemed to be woefully understaffed.

Another company that operates four facilities in our town is back after having sold the facilities, but the customer that bought them was unable to operate them and the company is now operating them, but clearly at a reduced level of staffing. It is unclear whether this is a temporary or permanent situation. Although they, too are woefully understaffed, the web sites of all of those facilities currently claim that there are no job openings at any of them at present. it makes me wonder if understaffing is a new normal for that type of facility.

There are two continuity of care facilities in our community and both have completed new construction in the past year. The facilities appear to be very well-maintained and offer modern amenities. But from the perspective of one who leads worship services in those facilities, I know that worship isn’t a priority. I’ve arrived to lead worship only to find staff surprised that I am there, the room unprepared, and sometimes other activities schedules for the space. In one facility where I held regularly scheduled services for more than 20 years, I was turned away when I arrived for a service saying that the service conflicted with other scheduled activities and that our service wasn’t on the schedule. While the residents want worship services, it certainly seems like the institutions don’t care whether or not they are available.

Worship isn’t about my convenience. My job is to serve people, and I’m willing to go through a bit of hassle to do it. I don’t mind rearranging furniture. I do a fair amount of that in my own facility. I understand that staffing is lighter on Sundays than on other days of the week. I also know that from the perspective of residents, weekends offer a lot fewer activities than weekdays.

There are a number of different assisted living facilities in our area, including several new ones. They provide a wide range of different services and a wide range of different management styles. Some of them are a real challenge for access for visitors, with locked doors and special procedures to gain access. I understand the need for security, but true security requires people. It can’t be accomplished by locks and cameras alone.

The number of people needing skilled nursing services and assisted living will continue to increase in the years to come. Clearly more staff are needed in our community. It remains unclear to me, however, whether or not the facilities are willing to pay a living wage to those who work in them. When profits are placed above care, it doesn’t leave a pretty picture.

Having just re-read this journal entry, I am aware that the words I have written are much less harsh than the thoughts I have had in the past couple of days. I wish I could offer solutions instead of criticism, but it is clear that this problem is bigger than me.

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!

Walking with those who greive

Last night, when I was driving home after a long day, I was crafting the opening sentence for this morning’s journal entry in my mind. I thought I would begin it this way: “I don’t know exactly when it became easy for me to deliver the sad news of a death of a loved one to a family.”

Then I thought, “The reason I don’t know is that it has never become easy.” I’ve been a minister for over 40 years and it is still as difficult and gut-wrenching as it was the first time I was called upon to deliver such awe-awe-filled news. What has changed, slowly, over the years, is that I am no longer afraid.

I was taking tickets for the annual Sheriff’s Christmas Party, hosted by the Sheriff’s Chaplains, when my phone vibrated in my pocket. I asked another chaplain to take over for me and slipped into the hallway to take the call because it was from a colleague who works for a non-non-profit in our town. Within a few minutes, I was speaking on a speaker phone to an energy meeting of some of the staff of the agency giving them some advice on how to go about the process of delivering a death notice to some of the people served by their agency. Only after the phone conversation was ended, did it strike me as a bit strange that I have somehow become one of the people to whom others in our town turn when faced with the difficult task of informing others that a death has occurred. How did it happen that I became the one they call?

Part of it is age and experience. I’ve ben around this town for more than 23 years. I’ve been consulting with this particular agency for more than 20 years. I know the staff well. I’ve watched their children grow up and head off to college. I’ve been to retirement parties and helped orient new staff members to the work of the agency. I’m old enough to be the grandfather of some of the newer employees. I’ve been around the block so to speak. I’ve got the white hair, slumping chest and medicare card to prove it.

The ideas I shared with those in the meeting yesterday were basic. The information of a death of a loved one is necessary information. It needs to be communicated in a timely manner and is best communicated face to face. You go to those who are involved and you tell them what has happened as simply and as directly as possible. You get the news out as quickly as possible. Don’t make the news of the death a punchline in a long story. As soon as the other person knows you are talking about their loved one they want to know whether or not their loved one is OK. Delaying the news is cruel torture. Do not use euphemisms. Do not be afraid to say the word “dead.” There are occasions where “passed on” or “no longer with us” can be reasonable ways to speak, but not at the point of first delivering the news. Do not go into excessive detail. Get the basic news before the briefing person and allow them to direct the conversation with their response.

It is essential that the bearer of the news establish him or herself as a source of truth. Grieving people need others whom they can trust. They need a source of accurate information.

Delay is to be avoided. With the speed of social media, the news will come out very quickly. Learning of the death of a loved one through a rumor or a Facebook post is not the right way to receive that news. Once you know that you have to deliver the news, go now.

Another thing that I say when speaking of delivering data notifications is that you can trust people with their grief. Don’t be afraid of tears or even a loss of control. I usually ask people to sit down to receive the news simply because it is less distance to fall if their muscles temporarily fail them. If a person doe fall to the floor, that is a safe place. They won’t hurt themselves further once they make it to the floor. They may cry or even scream, but that will pass. Within a few minutes, calm will return. Don’t be afraid to just sit quietly while the initial shock passes.

People who are not expecting the death of a loved one will be in shock. They aren’t going to remember the details of what you say. Deliver the essential news, but don’t deliver a lot of advice. Information about how to plan a funeral or notify relatives can wait for a little while. Limit yourself to the essential news and allow time for grief.

I’ve been on notification calls that take a couple of hours, but that is rare. Most of the time 15 or 20 minutes are invested in the initial visit and after that amount of time, the community starts to get in motion. A neighbor arrives with an offer of support. A family member comes with a hug. The grieving person needs to make a phone call. The natural support systems become evident. I try to never get in the way of those who come to lend assistance. Sometimes I offer to return later or to check in on the grieving person the next day.

What age and experience has taught me is that grief is a daily occurrence in our community. It is a natural part of living with other people I may not be involved, but there is always someone wrestling deeply with the pain of loss. Grief is a natural process and has as an essential element love. We grieve because we have loved. And love is a good thing. And love does not die. The relationship is not over when the news of the death is delivered. Life goes on and the gift of life triumphs.

I am honored to walk alongside those who are grieving, but, no, this hasn’t gotten easy.

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!

Advent hope

Practicing patience isn’t on the usual list of spiritual disciplines, but it is a skill that in my life that has definitely required practice. I think that I am a reasonably patient person these days, but it wasn’t always so. I was impulsive in my younger years. When I wanted something, I could invest a lot of energy in figuring out how to get it. Sometimes the quest for acquisition was more important and more fun than actually possessing the item. But life has taught me that a degree of patience is a positive value.

We do not live in an ear of history which will be noted for its patience. We cook our food in microwave ovens because conventional ovens are too slow. We use computers that are blindingly fast and continue to upgrade for more speed at every opportunity. Our consumption for data is so voracious that we demand faster and faster data transmission.The pace of life and the demand for quick decisions is increasing with every passing day.

Some things, however, are worth the wait. And the process of waiting can add value. Advent is a season that reminds us of the value of waiting. Never mind that the season was originally six weeks long and has been shortened. Never mind that most of society doesn’t observe Advent and goes directly to Christmas with decorations, music, and more appearing the day after Thanksgiving, and in some cases, right after Halloween.

The season of Advent can be hectic, with all of the Christmas shopping and all of the holiday concerts and all of the decorating and baking and extra meetings. But the invitation of Advent is to take things more slowly.

Advent reminds us of the process of pregnancy, which for us humans takes nine months. Preparing for the birth of a child is a process of growing excitement. It can also be a time of concern and worry. Each child is unique and there is no way to know in advance what the outcome will be. Having a child involves a lot of risks. There are risks to the health of the mother and there are risks to the health of the child as it develops. These days, with all of the advanced diagnostic and imaging tools that exist, there is a bit less surprise. Genders are known and revealed before the birth. Multiple births are detected and provided for. Some types of childhood disease and disability can be detected in utero.

Still, there is real mystery in each birth. It takes a while for a personality to become fully revealed. How it feels to hold a child cannot be described before it takes place.

Advent reminds us of that process of healthy waiting and anticipation.

My own discipline of patience involves not rushing too quickly to Christmas. Our home doesn’t sport too many decorations in the first place, but we aren’t decked out like some of the homes in our neighborhood. One of our neighbors’ homes was featured in the annual symphony league parade of homes which this year took place on November 4, with advance showings on November 3. That required a frenzied transformation from elaborate Halloween decorations to elaborate Christmas decorations in a little over a day. It was impressive to watch all of the work that was done. We, on the other hand, had a slower pace to our week.

We do engage in some preparations during Advent. With a daughter and son-ion-law in Japan, presents must be selected and shipped early in order to arrive for Christmas. We also ship packages to our grandchildren and their parents. More important than the external preparations and decorations, however, are the internal preparations. Christianity is a faith of perpetual expectation. The promise of a second coming of Christ leaves believers in an “in between” time as we celebrate the presence of the resurrected Christ in our lives and anticipate additional revelations and that which is yet to come. We live aware of our past, but also aware that there is much to come in the future.

In a sense, every life is a journey in an “in between” time. We collect memories from our past and we anticipate our future. Each of us is on a journey from brith to death and none of us possesses the ability to describe what precedes our birth or comes after our death. That doesn’t keep us from speculating. We have some very elaborate stories and ideas about what lies beyond the scope of this life. But we do not possess direct knowledge.

The season of anticipation is a season of hope. We live with an assurance that what lies ahead is good. Pain and suffering can e endured because of the promise of relief and consolation. The confusion and disorder and disillusionment of the present is not the only measure of the value of our existence. We believe in a brighter future and we live in hope.

Hope, however, can be fragile. It can be crushed by disappointment and grief. It can be buried under addictions and illnesses. I have encountered those who appear to have no hope, who are burdened with a sense of despair. It is not easy to craw out from the devastation of feeling that there is no future. Our faith, however, teaches us that hope is resilient. Hope abides. It endures. Even when it seems to be lost, it reappears again. And a tiny spark of hope can illuminate a world of despair.

As we wait, we are able to look for signs of hope. Small glimmers of hope might not at first be noticed, but once they come into focus they make a world of difference. As we wait and watch, we allow our spirits to be renewed.

I welcome this season of waiting. I’m in no rush for it to get over. I want to take it day by day at a pace that allows m to see the hope that surrounds 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!

Practicing my art

Part of my attraction to the church and to the vocation of ministry came from falling in love with multi-layered stories and complex thought. I enjoy the kind of stories that have multiple meanings and from which multiple conclusions can be drawn. I am amazed and delighted that the stories of our people are the stories of very complex concepts and ideas, many of which took generations to develop. An idea such as monotheism might be presented by some as a simple truth, but there is nothing simple about it. To truly believe in one God means to turn aside from other deities. It requires a careful examination of priorities and loyalties. Civil religion, with its symbols and rituals can often lead one astray from the ultimate authority of God, yet it is preached and practiced in churches as if it posed no threat to the concept of monotheism. In some cases civil authority is preached as if it were religion. The concept of the divine right of kings has been applied to representatives, senators and presidents.

I grew up in a family that practiced engagement with preaching. My father got deep enjoyment out of discussing the sermons that were preached in our church. He loved to invite the preacher home for dinner after worship and would pepper that preacher with questions throughout the meal. He was interested in learning and he was interested in using the tools of conversation to advance shared knowledge and ideas. Sometimes his penchant for conversation was an embarrassment to me, especially when I was a teenager and I thought that some ideas could be dropped. Looking back, I realize how much I have adopted his love of the interplay of mind with mind.

Yesterday, as I took a few minutes alone to reflect on the morning’s sermon, I realized that I have been feeling a bit sad about my preaching lately. It wasn’t just yesterday, but on several occasions since we returned from our summer’s sabbatical, I have been disappointed with my preaching. Yesterday’s sermon was particularly glaring in my mind. I had prepared a careful examination of Jesus predictions in the 21st chapter of Luke. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” We live in a time when too many are weighed down by the worries of this life and I felt that examination of these ideas and the parable of the fig tree would take a lift time and a few stories to communicate.

But the sermon isn’t all that there is to worship. And I am not the only one who has input into how our time is to be used. Yesterday’s service was particularly cluttered. Our choir director has been distracted by rehearsals for an upcoming cantata and so we began the season of lent with the introit and benediction response that the choir had prepared for the end of the Pentecost season. Both are lovely, but both are longer than typical. Then there was the anthem, with four string players and its added complexity. In addition, the library committee has insisted recently that reading club awards be presented in worship on communion Sundays, I’ve tried to convince them that a less crowded worship service would be preferable, but they are not to be deterred. And, yes it was communion Sunday and I had prepared a liturgy that was just a little longer than usual because I wanted the sacrament to be fully developed in the light of the fact that we had guests from the Seventh Day Adventist Church with us in worship. I had written out a mission moment and a pastoral prayer with care prior to the service with an eye towards time, but also with an eye towards important issues in our congregation. I realized early in the service that there was no time for the sermon that I had planned. I scrambled to figure out some way to simplify the ideas to say fewer words and take less time. I took a section of the planned sermon that addressed our impatience and how it can lead to worry and ran with it. The result was an incomplete idea. The service still ran over it allotted time.

The Bells of the Hills presented a lovely concert in the afternoon and I spent much of the concert sitting in the pews stewing about my poor performance as a preacher in the morning. It was the opposite of being present to the music and allowing it to lift my spirit. The fact that I woke in the night still stewing about it is a sign that I am not practicing the Gospel in my own life. The “worries of this life” have caught me “unexpectedly like a trap.”

We live in a culture where we often fail to take time for complex thought. Blogs are supposed to be much shorter than this journal. Some people excel at the 280 character limit of Twitter. Short, pithy aphorisms are preferred to complex arguments. As I reflect, I can see why so much of the Biblical prophets’ ideas are expressed in poetry. Poetry is the art of using few words to express depth upon depth. It occurs to me that this particular Advent, which has begun with a pace that is all too hectic, may be the perfect season for poetry. The problem is that I am a rambling storyteller and not a poet.

It is a bit of a surprise to me that 40 years into my career I am struggling with my preaching as much as I did when I began. I want to discover the right words for the moment. I can be very self-critical. Preaching is not so much a skill that can be mastered, but rather an art that needs to be practiced.

It is clear to me that I still have much to be learned. And I have a sermon each week to teach me.

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!

Speaking openly about abuse

This Friday the Washington Post ran an in depth article about Father Brian Christensen of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help here in Rapid City. It is part of a series of articles that attempt to put a human face on the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church. In October, one of Christensen’s associate priests, Rev. John Praveen, was charged with sex crimes against a 13-year-old that occurred in September. Praveen is being held in the Pennington County Jail on a $100,000 cash bond. If convicted, he faces 30 years in prison.

Unlike other incidents of abuse by priests, this case resulted in a quick investigation and arrest. The cathedral and its officials made no attempt to hide or cover up the charges. Father Brian has addressed the situation directly with the congregation. Before the incident occurred, the Cathedral had undertaken careful steps to educate members of all ages about sexual abuse, how to report crimes and how to make sure that proper investigations by outside authors were undertaken.

It had seemed like the issue of clergy sexual abuse was something that occurred in other places and that the well-well-documented cases of multiple victims and official church cover-up were stories we read about, but from which we hd a certain distance. This case, however, is right in our town. I had not met Rev. Praveen, but Rev. Christensen is someone I know, a trusted colleague, a leader in our community.

Depending on which statistics you read, clergy sexual abuse occurs at about the same rate in the Roman Catholic Church as it does in Protestant churches. The abuse in the Roman Catholic church has, however, garnered more publicity recently in part because it was so covered up and silenced in the past. The string of sex abuse scandals stretching decades with thousands of victims is in part due to the size of the Roman Catholic Church and in part due to the veil of secrecy that was so carefully maintained in the past.

The church has been rocked by the scandal. It should be. A grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused more than 30 priests of abusing about 1,000 children. Two U.S.cardinals have been disgraced. People are leaving the church and naming the fear and distrust of priests as one of the reasons.

There is a decline in participation in church in our country and the Roman Catholic church is leading that decline. No other religious group has lost more members than the Catholic church in recent decades. Not all of that decline is due to clergy sex abuse scandals, but it certainly is a major factor. According to the Pew Research Center millions of people who were raised Roman Catholic no longer identify themselves as part of the church.

The challenge for Father Brian, and for all of us who are religious leaders, is to not fall into the trip of thinking that we are somehow the victims. Clergy who have committed abuse have given the church a bad name. They have sullied the respect that once was given to ministers and priests. They have caused people to turn away from religion and affected the membership and resources of congregations. But we are not the victims. We haven’t suffered the pain and the shame experienced by those who have been abused. As uncomfortable as we are made by the prevalence of clergy sexual abuse, our situation is not that of those who have been abused. Our attention and compassion needs to be focused on those victims, on seeking justice for those who have been abused, and on preventing future crimes.

What this situation has taught me, however, is that our efforts at prevention are sometimes inadequate. The cathedral, like my congregation, had boundary training and abuse prevention training in place. We all receive recurrent training. The cathedral, like my congregation, had reporting and investigation policies in place. We have worked hard to make sure that people know how to report crimes and how those crimes are to be investigated by those outside of the church.

Despite all of those efforts, however, a crime against a child has occurred in our town. And it isn’t just the Roman Catholic Church that is rocked by it. Even though I know those who work with children in our church well, even though we are careful about not having situations where activities are not witnessed, even though we work hard to create a safe space for all people, what has occurred at the Cathedral has had an effect on my thinking. I have been wondering, and talking with other church leaders, about what more we can do to prevent such an event from occurring in our congregation. One victim is too many for our community.

Since the arrest of Rev. Praveen, there have been a lot of prayers in our community. Prayers for the victim and for her family and prayers for the accused have been said. And prayer can be the catalyst for genuine action. It is clear that more prayers and more action are needed.

I am grateful for the response of law enforcement officers in our community. As far as I know they took the allegations seriously, responded quickly, and have investigated thoroughly. I know and trust the corrections officers who work at the jail and I have confidence in the attorneys and judges who staff our court system. Things have not proceeded as they have in other communities where abuse was covered up and hidden from the public eye. The newspaper has reported appropriately on the case and the public has been informed.

We need to lay aside our fear of talking about sexual abuse in the church. It is a reality that needs to be confronted openly and honestly. And we need to redouble our efforts at prevention.

Our community is fortunate to have Father Brian leading the cathedral as it faces this crisis. He is a man of fish an integrity. His honesty and openness are what is needed. I am grateful that he granted an interview with the Washington Post reporter. As painful as it is to read about the scandal in our town in a national newspaper, it is important to bring this out into the open and talk about it.

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!

Partners in mission

I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends about the death of missionary John Allen Chau. Interestingly, no one in my church has brought up the subject. There is a lot more talk about his death in some of the more fundamentalist congregations in our town than there is in the church that I serve. If you haven’t followed the news, the 26-year-old Seattle man was an evangelical missionary who worked as a solo operator, going by himself to places where evangelizing was discouraged and, in some cases, illegal. After having made illegal contact with a remote hunter-gather tribe on North Sentinel Island he was killed by members of the tribe.

Many of the comments posted on the Internet are damning, pointing out that he knew the risk and that he was intentionally going where he was not wanted with a message that they did not want to hear. He defied the law and his death was the result of his defiance. Others see his recklessness as having done damage to the cause of bringing Christ to those who have not encountered the gospel. What he saw as ministry was not wanted and not interpreted as ministry by those to whom he traveled.

I want to be clear that his death was tragic. It was tragic from the standpoint of his friends and relatives who have lost someone they love. It was tragic from the standpoint of a remote tribe who do not want attention and publicity. They now will find it hard to remain isolated and unknown because of all of the attention that his death has brought to their island. There are plenty of other people who are willing to take huge risks to change their lifestyle despite the fact that they do not desire that change.

I suspect that the reason that his death isn’t the topic of more conversation in the congregation I serve is that we see his style of ministry as a holdover from the past. There was a time when our church engaged in that style of missionary work, but that was 200 years ago. We have learned a lot and matured in our faith since those days. Back in 1806, five Congregational college students gathered in a field to discuss the needs of people living in Asian countries. A thunderstorm arose they took shelter in the lee of a haystack and continued their prayer. The gathering came to be called the “Haystack Prayer Meeting” and launched the missionary movement in our denomination. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was formed and in 1812 the ABCFM sent its first missionaries to India.

Early missionaries from our denomination were, in some ways, like those of some modern churches. They were “lone rangers” who were self-initiating and willing to work with little peer contact. They set out to share their faith, but in many cases their work went hand in hand with colonization and was more about exporting culture than sharing faith. The novel Hawaii, by James Michener, tells a story that is not far from the truth about our missionaries in that State. They tried to impose dress codes, moral judgment, trade and governmental policies on the natives they encountered. They lacked appreciation for the cultural and technological innovations of indigenous people. In many cases they became personally rich by appropriating property and resources that should not have been theirs to take.

We like to think that we have learned from those old ways. These days our missions in other countries are partnerships with people of faith rather than exporting our own people to export our faith and style of religion to others. A clear difference between our approach and that of other groups was evident in the 1990’s when I would occasionally hear from other churches that they had missionaries who were smuggling bibles into China, where the cultural revolution had made proselytizing illegal. They would occasionally ask for donations of bibles that their missionaries could covertly smuggle into China. I would inform them that our church had a long-established relationship with Amity Press, which is a huge press in China that produces millions of bibles, hymnals and other religious texts in the Chinese language. While smuggling is an illegal operation, we had partners who were legally distributing millions of bibles for every one that was smuggled. The difference is that we respected the culture, language and traditions of people in China and trusted them to be our partners as opposed to sending individuals from the US to export our style of religion.

There is a myth of the bold Christian missionary who works undercover and operates in disobedience of local laws. In places where proselytizing is forbidden, they try to convert people. They often come off as more interested in changing cultures than in changing hearts.

There will be people of faith who celebrate John Chau as a martyr who died for his faith. I cannot argue with their interpretation. He also was uninformed, arrogant and self-serving. His failure to form partnerships and his assumption that his theology was superior to that of those he sought to convert made it impossible for him to assume the role of a servant. He paid dearly for his attitude and his actions.

I believe in missions. I believe that there is great value in traveling to other places and sharing faith. I have supported missions throughout my career and led many mission trips. Our congregation has a thirty-year partnership with a sister congregation in Costa Rica. There is a display in the entryway of the church I serve that shows the work of our sister church and asks for donations. I will make a donation to that fund this month. I believe in sharing our Christian faith with others.

But I also believe in respect for the lives and faith of those we meet in our travels. I believe that other people have faith and that they have things to teach us. I believe ion respect for their norms and laws. I don not believe that the Gospel requires us to force our ways on others.

As for John Chau, he is in God’s hands. We do not need to judge him. Neither do we need to imitate his behavior.

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!

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