The Great Vigil

The Great Vigil of Easter was once just that - a vigil - a period of keeping wake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray. It was a special time for catechumens - adults preparing to join the church - to go through the final phases of their instruction. It was also a remembrance of the sleeplessness that often accompanies the loss of a loved one to death. The vigil began at sundown on the night before Easter and was divided into four distinct services with periods of prayer between each.

The first service is the service of light. After the Lenten practice of removing shiny objects from the sanctuary and finally stripping the sanctuary bare of everything, including extinguishing the Christ Candle during the Tenebrae service on Good Friday, the room remained dark until Easter Eve, when a new fire was kindled. This new fire was used to light the Christ Candle, which in many traditions was replaced with a new candle at Easter each year. All of this was done with special ceremony, including litanies, prayers, elevating the candle and responses from the congregation.

The second service is a service of the Word. The tradition is for extra readings during this service. Starting with the first words of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void and darkness moved upon the face of the deep. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” Selected readings tell of the creation, of the binding of Isaac, of the Exodus from Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, of Jonah, of the prophet Isaiah, of God’s answer to Job, of the ascension of Elijah, Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant, of the entry into the Promised Land, of the valley of the dry bones and the story of three youth from Daniel. After each of the 12 readings of Hebrew scriptures there were times of silence, prayer and kneeling. There are also readings of Psalms interspersed with these readings. There is also a reading of the Epistles and of the Gospels. The tradition included a sermon reflecting on the sweep of the history of God and the people of God. In more recent times, the 12 readings from the Old Testament was shortened to 7.

The third service is a service of baptism. It was during this service that catechumens who had not previously been baptized were baptized. All of the faithful were reminded of their baptisms with the sprinkling of the water from the font using an evergreen branch. This service concludes with the prayer of the faithful, which includes a statement of Christian faith.

The final service is the service of the Eucharist. This is the first Holy Communion for the newly baptized. The tradition was for this service to conclude before sunrise.

The tradition has changed greatly over the centuries. In some times and places the four services were spread out over a 24-hour period, with the kindling of new fire beginning in the morning of Holy Saturday.

The Great Vigil of Easter was one of the services from the Roman Catholic tradition that was maintained as a popular service of congregations of the Reformation, especially those with Lutheran and Reformed roots. It was less common in some parts of Protestantism and not observed in many congregations. With the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, a process that took place between 1969 and 1983, the tradition of the Great Vigil returned to some Protestant congregations that had not previously celebrated the vigil. Other congregations followed.

In common observance, the Great Vigil has ben shortened and streamlined. In our congregation, we observe a greatly shortened version of the celebration. It is our first Easter service and it holds special meaning because of its placement at the end of an intense time of Holy Week services and observations. We don’t even wait until sunset. Beginning the service at sunset would involve changing the starting time each year with the timing of sunset. Instead, we have settled on 6:30 pm as the time of kindling new fire, earlier than sunset, which this year will be at 7:19 pm. Our service includes the four traditional services, each greatly shortened and each taking place in a different location. Our service of light is held in the entryway of the church. The service of the Word takes place in our fellowship hall. The service of baptism in the narthex in front of closed doors to the sanctuary. Then we turn on all of the lights and enter the sanctuary which has been decorated for Easter. The bright lights and flowers provide a festive atmosphere for the service of Holy Communion that concludes our observance. In our congregation, the tradition is not long-standing. We’ve only been doing it for six years. Prior to that time our first Easter service was a sunrise service, usually held out doors.

Our Sunrise service will be almost perfect in its timing this year. We will gather at Main Street Square in downtown Rapid City and our service will begin at 6:00 am - the time of first light. The service will run from first light to sunrise at 6:32 am. The timing is mostly accidental. We begin the service at 6 a.m.. regardless of the time of the year, but this year’s observance lines up with the actual times of first light and sunrise quite nicely.

For many of us being tired is a part of the celebration of Easter. We pour a lot of energy into Holy Week and we modify our schedules to accommodate all of the activities. We run ourselves a bit short of sleep. We often associate tiredness with grief. It brings our emotions closer to the surface and recalls times of vigil when we have sat with those who are sick or dying.

So today is the day. We begin by waiting.

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

Good Friday, 2018

Different people have different ways f remembering loved ones who have died. When I think of those I have lost in my life, I don’t really think of the day that they died. I can remember the stories of those days. I can remember some details very specifically, even many years after the event, but I don’t particularly remember the dates. I remember the season of the year. I remember other things that were going on in my life at the time, and in many cases I can recall what month it was, but I never put any energy into remembering the exact date. I am not too bad at remembering numbers. I can tell you the phone number our family had when I was growing up and the number of my father’s business. I can remember the dates of birthdays of all of the people in my family, including those who have died. I just don’t remember death dates. It may be that those are days that I didn’t want to remember at the time.

I’ve known people, however, for whom the dates of the deaths of loved ones are seared into their memories and will never be forgotten. For them the anniversary of death dates are significant days. Those anniversaries are rarely easy for those who grieve.

A saint’s day is celebrated on the date of their death. It is, in part, to raise awareness that death is not the end - that life and love and the presence of those who live in Christ remain. Most of the reasons for the practice, however, are things that have been thought up to explain something that we in the church were already doing. No-one really remembers the original thinking or the history of the practice in detail.

In Mexico, Day of the Dead is a national holiday, celebrated at the end of October and the beginning of November. Day of the Dead is actually divided into two distinct holidays, the first being Dide los Inocentes, which is dedicated to children on November 1, known as All Saints Day in much of the rest of the world; and Dide los Muertos on November 2, which is the actual Day of the Dead, also known as All Souls. Celebrations in Mexico often begin a early as October 31. They have drawn together the depth of grief and loss into a single time of the year rather than focus on the individual dates of loss. The tradition, which is spreading to North America as Mexican and Latin populations expand across the continent, generally involves family gatherings. People come together to commemorate and remember those who have died. Visiting, repairing and decorating graves are among the actives observed.

Day of the Dead has many aspects that are similar to family activities on Memorial Day.

Because I live my life immersed in the calendar of the church, I invest energy in All Saints Day every year. I prepare a slide show of those who have died in our church in the past year. I often make calls or visits to those who have lost loved ones in the weeks leading up to All Saints. For those whose memories are more focused on individual dates of loss, my attention can come as a bit of a surprise, but it is rarely unwelcome. People who are grieving do not forget their loved ones and they generally appreciate the opportunity to talk about the one who has been lost and the experience of grief.

Holy Week is another time when I think if the grief that we have together shared. Holy Week has more activities for me than All Saints, which is often recognized not the Sunday closest to November 1 rather than the actual day. Holy Week is a pattern of events that fit into a single week. It is a natural time to think of grief and loss and death and to be reminded that death is not the enemy of human existence. It is a reality of our lives which grows in meaning when we take time to consider that we all will one day face our own deaths. Loss and grief are universal. Everyone experiences them in their own way.

Good Friday doesn’t carry the weight of Easter in the minds of most Christians. Attendance at services on Good Friday is lighter than Easter. The service is more somber. For me, however, recognition of Good Friday enhances the experience of Easter. Life, death and resurrection simply make more sense when considered together.

For the past several years we have divided the Good Friday observances in our church into two distinct events, a bit like the Mexican practice of the Day of the Dead. The first service of the day is specifically aimed at children. We have created a liturgy for the sharing of Holy Communion with young children. Focusing on preschool and elementary children and their understandings of the world, we do not use the blood and body language that is a part of the adult observances, but rather speak of love and abiding presence. We talk about eating and drinking as ways of remembering. The second service is a reading of the scriptures that report the death of Jesus combined with prayers adapted from funeral prayers that have been used in times of grief. Both services are powerful and I anticipate them for weeks before they come.

Today is that day. Like other days, there are tasks that need to be accomplished. I’ve got my usual Friday chores to do. But emotionally, my day focuses on two brief worship services. In those services I allow myself to experience some of the intense emotions of grief and loss. I recall those whose grief is fresh and raw. I share with those who mourn. I marvel at the depth of God’s love that God enters directly into our human experiences of grief. In a sense the concept of incarnation is as intense of Good Friday as it is at Christmas.

Today is that day. May I be open to its richness and depth of meaning.

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!

Maundy Thursday, 2018

The name Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum. Our English word, mandate, is a good translation. We also use the word commandment as a translation of the concept. Because the celebration of Holy Communion is part of a traditional Maundy Thursday service, some have come to believe that the commandment of the day is Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me,” but it is a different commandment from which the day draws its name.

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are the focus of many congregation’s Holy Week activities. The common telling of the story of the last week of Jesus’ life recalls Thursday as the night that Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, was arrested, tried and condemned to death. The next day, Good Friday, is the day of the execution itself.

The mandate of Maundy Thursday - the commandment that we always include in the liturgy of the day - comes from John 13:34: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It is often read with the next verse as well: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The commandment to love in the midst of grief is powerful and critical.

Too often I have found myself in the midst of family conflict as I walk the road of grief with those who have lost a loved one. Conflict and the need for a reminder to love one another is more common in times of grief than we would like to believe.

Once, at a funeral for a woman that I had known for several decades, I was blunt and direct with her children and told them that i remembered when they were younger and I would visit their home. Sometimes there would be a bit of bickering between the children. When they got especially noisy or the bickering got emotional and drew tears, I could clearly remember their mother yelling, “You kids knock it off!” This, I said, was chief among my messages to them on the occasion of their mother’s funeral: “You kids knock it off!” They knew exactly what I meant. Unlike some situations where family members come to disagreement over the estate and the conflict has at its roots an element of greed, this family wasn’t fighting over money. There were genuine disagreements about the division of responsibilities now that their parents had died. The children lived in different cities and it would be easy for them to have gone off after the funeral in their separate ways and not been close.

In this particular case, I have had an on-going relationship with family members. It is clear that they have found new ways to continue to be a family and strengthened relationships since the death of their mother. I’ve even been told by one of the children that they remembered what I said. I said exactly what needed to be said at the funeral. I hope and pray that I have done so.

There are, however, other situations in which I have been involved in which the conflict is more deep seated and the solutions don’t come easily. I’ve planned funerals where family members are so angry at one another that they won’t come together to plan the funeral. I am unable to arrange a meeting with all of the family members at once. On occasion, I’ve even engaged in “shuttle diplomacy,” going back and forth between surviving family members trying to plan a funeral that is meaningful for all involved. I’ve been told to defy the wishes of a sibling or other family member.

It makes me sad when I encounter these situations. I try my best to minister to all of the people involved and to bring some pace to the situation, but I know that there are problems that are beyond my power to solve.

It makes m sad in a similar way when I look at the church of Jesus Christ and how we hav allowed disagreements and divisions to mark our character and identity. It isn’t just the big fights, like the Protestant Reformation that left us with different denominations and different ecclesiastical structures. These divisions re sad, but they are understandable in a historic context. But Jesus’ disciples disobey the mandatum in our everyday lives. I’ve heard Christians speak ill of members of other churches. I’ve hard the charges of apostasy leveled against those with whom there is disagreement. I’ve heard Christians reject other Christians and accuse them of not being faithful.

Such behavior must continue to grieve Jesus.

His commandment was so simple - just to love one another.

So we recall that commandment every year on Maundy Thursday. We speak it aloud - not just in the congregation I serve, but in congregations all around the Christian Church. It is proclaimed by Orthodox and Western, by Catholic and Protestant, by Evangelical and Mainline. We say it because we need the practice. Like many other aspects of Christian faith, our worship is a form of practice of the behaviors that we need. The vision of a world where all of Jesus’ disciples practice the love he commanded remains unfulfilled thousands of years after his crucifixion and resurrection.

Like the time between a death and a funeral, Holy Week, is a time for prayer and contemplation. It is a time for the disruption of schedules and the laying aside of the everyday. It is a holiday - a holy time - a sacred time.

“By this everyone will know that your are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In the tension of church meetings, in the reality of disagreements, in the middle of budget building and fund raising, in the forming of committees, in the conflicts of schedule - in all of the everyday life of the church - may we demonstrate the commandant that Jesus gave us in such a way that everyone will know we are disciples.

May we love one another.

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!

Wednesday of Holy Week

At camp we called it “hump day.” Most of the camps, when I was a staff member, began on Sunday afternoon and concluded on Saturday morning. For counselors, especially those who had little camp experience, Wednesday was a day when their fatigue began to show. Camp stretched their days a little bit. They needed to be up at the first bell and they had to stay up until all of the campers were tucked in their beds. Their days were full of constant activity and camp doesn’t really offer many breaks for personal time.

The thing that we on the camp staff knew, but some of the counselors didn’t know, was that the campers were also getting tired. They showed it in different ways than the counselors, bu they, too, were experiencing some of the stresses of living in close community.

The result was the it wasn’t uncommon for tempers to flare on Wednesdays, or campers to misbehave, or a few tears to fall. If we were going to get complaints about the food, they usually came on Wednesday, and it was also the day for complaints about beds and mattresses and the work chores that were assigned to campers.

It became our mantra to simple get through Wednesday. If you get through Wednesday, you’ll make it through the week.

There was a bit of truth to that. After that much camp, people began to readjust their internal clocks and rising in the morning became easier. After an experience of intense emotions, people became more honest with their feelings and more able to work through problems and difficulties. The community became more evident and more important as the week continued towards its conclusion. It was an almost certain ending. The camper who begged to go home on Wednesday, was begging to be allowed to remain on Saturday. The kids who were driving a counselor up the wall on Wednesday were hugging that same counselor with genuine affection on Saturday. The counselor who was wondering why he or she had agreed to serve on Wednesday was ready to sign up for next year on Saturday.

So, when it comes to Holy Week, which really isn’t the same as camp, today is Hump Day. We’ve had a few of our special services. We’ve stayed up a bit later than usual and rushed off to the office a bit earlier than usual for a couple of days. We’ve passed one day that usually a day off and worked straight through it. We’ve moved enough furniture to have remembered how to be more efficient about that task. But we are also aware that there is much to come.

In a way we prepared for the whole week on Monday with the liturgy of the Passion. We read the whole story. We know how it concludes. We’ve practiced, so to speak, for Good Friday. We’ve counted the rehearsals and preparations and worship services and know how many are left. Personally, yesterday was my long day, with a presentation to colleagues at 8:30, a sermon at a community service at noon and a concert to host in the evening. Most of the days of Holy Week have a single or perhaps two events that are out of the ordinary.

Still, I can feel that today will be a challenge. I’m a bit slower getting going. I lingered a bit over the news before starting to write my blog, usually a sign that I’ll be walking out the door for the office a bit later than other days. I can feel a bit of weariness creeping into my life. So, in a sense, it’s hump day for me.

But I’ve learned something from the years at camp and the years of serving as a pastor. The events of this week, while demanding, are also energy-giving. Unlike some things that I do as a pastor, leading worship is a source of strength and energy. A week in which I worship more than usual is a week for which I have more energy than usual. I’m not superhuman. I need sleep just the same as others, but I have a sense of endurance that comes from knowing which things in life renew and refresh.

Music is a source of strength and Holy Week is, for us, filled with music. It isn’t always the most upbeat and joy-filled music, but while we are going through the services of the week, we are also rehearsing for easter with fast tempos and dramatic dynamics. In the midst of the other activities of the day, I’ll be putting the final touches on my input for the Easter Morning worship bulletin. I’ll catch myself humming Easter tunes even as I prepare for the more somber services of the end of this week.

Our lives continue to seek balance. Sometimes we need to find new balance points and we need to practice new moves. We don’t always get the balance right, especially the first time we encounter a new set of experiences. It takes practice.

And practice is one of the gifts of Holy Week. Last night I counted and realized that it was our sixth blues concert. What seems like a new practice, has been going on for more than half a decade now. I’ve learned to anticipate this week and to plan for it. Much of the planning and paper work for this week was done last week. We had all of the Holy Week worship bulletins except for Easter Morning printed by the end of the work day last Thursday. I’ve learned to delegate more responsibilities. I’m spending less time in the kitchen and more time with people than I was a few years ago. Practice allows us to make changes.

As we used to sing in camp, “You must walk this lonesome valley. You have to walk it by yourself. For nobody else can walk it for you . . .” Each of us will face our own time of dying. Walking with Jesus through the events of his week of dying is one way to prepare for our own journeys.

Indeed the week is holy.

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 and Holy Week

One of the factors that influenced the way our congregation observes Lent and Holy Week is my own personal experience with grief and loss. As a pastor, I am familiar with grief. I am often the first one called when death occurs - often I am called to attend to the moment of death. I learned early in my career that death itself is not frightening or terrible. Being at bedside at the moment that a person takes her or his last breath is not a traumatic experience. It makes one aware that human life is precious. It also makes one aware that there is more going on than what meets the eye.

Our grief, however, is more than a reaction to final moments. It is the product of a lifetime of memories and relationships. Me mourn the passing of one we have loved and our mind is filled with what might have been. We are saddened by the words left unsaid, the experiences that cannot be shared, the possibilities left unfulfilled.

Grief will come to every human being in one form or another. I learned this early on in my career when, as an intern, I found myself teaching stress management classes. Armed with information from the then-new research of Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe on the relationship between stress and physical illness, I expanded the course curriculum on how grief works in our lives. Working with Granger Westberg, whose work into grief demonstrated that grief occurs not only when death occurs, but also at other points of loss, I began to examine the ways grief affects our lives in many different ways.

Grief was, however, in the early years of my career, academic. I studied other people’s grief. I learned how to assist them in their journeys. I mastered the rudiments of officiating at funerals. Then, just a few years into my career, my father received a cancer diagnosis. The cancer was aggressive and the treatment options were limited. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy all provided short-term treatment, but the result was that he died just 15 months after I learned of the diagnosis. It wasn’t my first experience with death. I had lost a sister and grandparents and aunts and uncles. But the death of my father was different from all of my previous experiences.

Fortunately for me, I was immersed in the church and the church is practiced in grief. The congregations I was serving were very understanding and supportive and allowed me to experience grief in the context of loving and caring people.

I did begin to think of discipleship, especially the disciples’ following Jesus into Jerusalem and their experiences of his arrest, trial and crucifixion in different ways. The stories that we read every Lent and Holy Week somehow had different meanings for me. I began to incorporate the liturgy of the passion into the Holy Week observances of the congregations that I served. At first we read the entire passion story as a part of the observance of Palm Sunday. Palm and Passion Sunday is observed in many congregations. The readings for Palm Sunday with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem are followed by the reading of the passion story - in some congregations excerpts from the texts, in others the complete text from a single gospel.

I began a practice of working carefully for a dramatic reading of the passion story.

My theory, shared with many other church leaders, was that many people experience only the Sunday activities of the church. No matter how dramatic Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services are, many Christians only attend the Palm Sunday and Easter Services. If there is no contact with the passion story, they miss a critical part of the story.

More recently, however, I have come to the conclusion that Holy Week is an important spiritual discipline, even if fewer people experience the services. For several years, now, our congregation has offered services every day of Holy Week, creating unique experiences for worshipers that allow them to delve deeply into the experience of grief and loss. I sometimes tell people that Holy Week is an opportunity to practice skills for what will inevitably come to every human being - to experience grief in a controlled setting before it is immensely personal in completely unavoidable. In Holy Week one can choose a single service, or dive more deeply into multiple experiences as their circumstances permit.

Having said that, I choose to participate in all of the services. the week reminds me of what happens to grieving families between the time of death and the funeral service. There are plans to be laid. There are meals to be served. And while all of this is going on, life continues outside of the church. Headlines are made. Meetings occur. Jobs must be completed.

It is not life as usual. Sleep and eating patterns are disrupted. Thoughts of loss and sadness come in unexpected and unpredictable waves. Some things have to be put off or simply left undone. We go into a kind of survival mode - hunker down and get through the experience.

One thing I learned early in my work with those who grieve is that grief is exhausting. People who are grieving become tired. And being overly tired has powerful effects on emotions. Our emotions are somehow more raw and closer to the surface. Tears occur when we don’t expect them. Laughter bursts forth at moments that can seem inappropriate. Anger rears up unexpectedly. Pain sears deeply.

So we plan passive as well as active events for our Holy Week. Today we simply sit with our grief. We don’t seek solutions. We don’t offer closure. We simply experience what is going on. At the church this evening we’ll host a blues concert with professional musicians sharing the rich tradition of American Blues Music. I don’t have any sermon to deliver. I don’t have any readings to prepare. I am allowed to sit with the congregation and share the moment. It is an evening of release.

In a sense Holy Week is just beginning. But we have already gone deep with our experiences and their meanings. There is much to ponder as we sit with the blues tonight.

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!

Ministering to the spirit

I’ve been known to speak of humans as if we were divided into three aspects. I speak of providing resources and support for people to have healthy bodies, healthy minds and healthy spirits. This tree-aspect view of humanity isn’t something I invented. It has been around for a very long time. Western thought on the topic is heavily influenced by ancient Greek thought, which posited that there is a life force which is more than the physical aspects of the body. Other cultures had similar concepts. Traditional Chinese medicine addresses “Qi” which is a similar concept to life force. In Yoga, the concept is called prana. Traditional Native American religion also has a concept of a human spirit.

The location of the spirit in the human body has been a matter of inquiry and ideas about it have changed over the centuries. The languages of both of the testaments of the Christian Bible (Hebrew and Greek) both speak of a connection between the spirit and breathing. Our language does the same. To inspire is to breathe. It is easy to see how ancient observers made this connection. When a living being dies, it ceases to breath. A breathing person is alive. One who does not breathe is not alive. In fact for many centuries the presence or absence of breathing was a measure of whether or not a person was living. Holding a mirror to the nostrils of a comatose person was one test applied.

It isn’t just the respiratory system, however. We have also thought of life and death in terms of the circulatory system. Is a heartbeat present? Take the person’s pulse. If there is a heartbeat, then life exists. It took quite a long time for people to become aware of how deeply these two systems are interrelated. The lifesaving technique CPR acknowledges this connection in its name and practice. Cardio for heart and Pulmonary for breathing.

In these days where mechanical respirators can take over much of the function of breathing and artificial pumps can assist with circulation, physicians often use electronic scans of brain activity to determine the extent to which ongoing life is possible.

The human spirit, however, doesn’t reside in a single place in our bodies. It isn’t just a matter of lungs, heart or brain. This, too, is not a modern idea. Many of the ancient philosophies of human nature posit the existence of a life force that is a part of everything and present in the whole beyond the sum of the parts.

Part of the problem is that whereas the human body and the human mind have been successfully studied by employing scientific method, the application of science to the study of the human spirit presents challenges. Science assumes that at least some of the variables can be controlled. It assumes that experiments can be replicated by replicating the conditions of the original experiment. Our spirits, however, don’t respond in consistent or replicable fashion. Our reactions change with time and circumstances. Virtually every medical experiment realizes that there are variables that are beyond control and that human beings are more complex than a single system. Therefore medicine has tended to focus on chemistry, which can be quantified, thus the extensive use of medicines in human health treatments. Modern medicine acknowledges that physical and chemical manipulations are not the whole story of human health, but it tends to focus on areas where success in treatment can be illustrated.

The level of precision achieved in orthopedic surgery, for example, cannot be achieved when working with a person’s spirit. There are some ancient techniques of spiritual direction which can be studied and imitated. But much of religion is more intuitive and less scientific than the field of medicine. That doesn’t make it any less real or less important, however.

I frequently counsel people who are making major life decisions. Perhaps they are considering a change in career, or perhaps a relationship is in need of attention. Often people have already made major life decisions before they come to me for counsel. They want me to affirm the choices they have already made. Still they are aware that there is a problem with their spirit. They seek prayer almost as if it were magic or science. “Give me a dose of that so I will feel better.” Prayer, however doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a matter of cause and effect. For those of us who engage in a discipline of regular prayer, it often is experienced as a process of listening - of becoming more aware of what is going on - rather than a process of taking action or making change.

One of the human diseases where the role of the spirit is very evident is depression. The disease has obvious physical aspects. People die of depression. Sometimes the mode of death is suicide. And there are physical interventions that save lives such as limiting access to the means of suicide. There is a chemical aspect to depression. Certain medicines can ease the symptoms of depression significantly and effective treatment often involves medicines. There is a cognitive side to depression. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been proven to help people cope with and live with depression. But depression is more than all of these things. Depression is also a disease of the spirit. The languages of psychology and medicine fall short when it comes to depression.

I sometimes speak of depression as a reflection of vitality - where the image is reversed. I know this is an incomplete metaphor, but it can be helpful. When one experiences vitality one has physical and mental health and one experiences life infused with spirit. Depression is somehow devoid of that same spirit - or at least lacking in spirit. And unlike air and blood, which can be pumped and artificially circulated, there is no mechanical substitute for the human spirit. What renews the spirit is love.

The prologue to the Gospel of John speaks of “The Word become flesh.” Theologians call it incarnation. Spirit-infused body is essential to human vitality. The human being is the best vehicle for conveying love to others. Human community is the answer to human suffering. Within the sacred space of relationship we invite others to return to vitality and absorb the gift of love.

It is imprecise and messy and filled with awe. We still have much to learn about spirit.

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!

Long distance trips

In November of 1920, two men started a flying service with two biplanes flying from Winton, Queensland in Australia. They provided charter and sightseeing flights and later obtained contracts from the Australian government to cary mail between railheads in western Queensland. They named their company Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited. Today the world knows the company as Qantas, the acronym formed from the company’s name. In 1947, after the end of the Second World War, the company started an amazing service. They provided regularly scheduled airline service from Australia to England, flying from Sydney to London and back. Each one-way trip took four days and seven stops. They called it the kangaroo route.

Today, A Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, with a distinctive Qantas paint scheme, landed in London just over 17 hours before taking off from Perth in Western Australia. The flight, with more than 200 passengers and 16 crew, inaugurated regular service between the two cities. 17 hours is a long flight. I’ve flown from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia, a flight that took a little over 15 hours. We made the trip on a Boeing 747, which used roughly twice the amount of fuel used by the Dreamliner flight. And the noise levels were considerably higher than on the newer Boeing design.

The flight is the second-longest route in distance and time. The current record-holder for the longest is Qatar Airways flights 921 and 920 between Auckland, New Zealand and Doha, Qatar. That trip covers over 9,000 miles and takes 18 hours and 20 minutes to complete. It is currently being serviced by Boeing 777 aircraft.

There used to be a nonstop flight from Singapore to New York, which is even longer. That trip used a 747SP airliner. Continental Airlines used to operate a non-stop from Newark to Hong Kong with a Boeing 777. United Airlines had a flight from New York to Hong Kong using a Boeing 747-400. Fuel prices are the major factors in the discontinuation of super long-distance routes.

Planning and executing super long-distance air routes is a sophisticated science. There are several choices of routes. Airlines generally follow great circle routes on long distance flights, traveling north or south of a direct route, but covering a similar distance, taking advantage of the curvature of the earth to obtain the most favorable winds aloft. On a long flight the winds can make a huge difference in time and fuel consumed. And fuel is a huge factor because the more fuel used, the more weight the aircraft has to lift from the ground on takeoff. As fuel is burned and the airliner becomes lighter, altitudes and efficiency increase. Much more fuel is used in the first half of the flight than in the second half.

Having grown up around airplanes and being a person who enjoys flying, I keep track of these really long distances. It seems to me that it would be fun to be a passenger on one of those really long distance flights, but It probably makes no sense given my lifestyle, income and other factors for me to travel one of those routes. It is likely that the flight to Australia will remain my personal long distance record.

And some of the records are no longer available. Airlines are considerably faster than was the case years ago. For two years, from 1943 to 1945, Qantas operated a weekly flight between Perth and Koggala Lagoon in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). They used Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats. The average flight time was 28 hours. And the Catalina wasn’t exactly quiet with its huge radial engines. The record flight took 32 hours and 9 minutes. That record stands as the longest-ever regularly scheduled airline flight.

The history of aviation in the 20th century is truly remarkable, from the first ever heavier than air flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903 to regularly scheduled super long-distance airline service around the globe. Flying has become the most common and most practical method of long-distance travel.

But the journeys we envisioned have not yt come to pass. Fuel, noise and safety concerns have meant that we still fly at subsonic speeds. The age of supersonic flight, envisioned in the middle 20th century and briefly brought about by the Concorde have gone by the wayside. It isn’t practical in today’s economy to move people at that speed.

Growing up in the days of the space race and watching every launch live on television, I believed that we all would be flying into space within our lifetimes. I expected that I would make a trip to the moon, something that doesn’t seem likely now, given the extreme costs of space travel and the simple fact that there is not yet any reason for mass travel between near space objects. We can learn so much from unmanned flights that the choice to send humans needs to be carefully made.

Of course we still dream. Flights to and from Mars are being planned. There are those who envision a time when people from the earth might colonize other planets. It is always hard to predict the future and exploration sometimes advances in huge bursts of speed, but at the moment it doesn’t look like the 21st Century will match the 20th in terms of advances in transportation.

Our imaginations, however, are not limited. I can read about the super long-distance flights and imagine that I might one day take one of those journeys. I can learn about space travel and imagine what it might mean to undertake such an adventure.

But today is Palm Sunday. And I need to set aside my imagined journeys and prepare for the practical 10-mile trip from my home to the church and the short walk that we will take as a community in our Palm Sunday Parade. Not every journey takes a lot of hours. Not every journey covers a huge distance. But Jesus’ walk into the city of Jerusalem changed everything and the world has never been the same.

Not every trip has to be long to be meaningful.

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 day to listen

It is easy to become cynical and to say that there is nothing new under the sun. The writer of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes is one example. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) I am not sure, but I think that I find myself thinking similar thoughts a bit more these days than was the case when I was younger. It is possible that a touch of cynicism comes with aging.

I think, however, that we may be witnessing something new in our country. Arguments about gun violence and what to do about it have been raging for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it seems like people are so entrenched in their opinions that there is almost no shifting of opinions. After every mass shooting there is a spike in debate about gun violence followed by inaction. This has happened over and over again.

Google searches on the topic of gun control spike in the 48 hours after a mass shooting, but they fade almost as quickly. Within a week it is almost back to normal levels. This has been the case in mass shooting after mass shooting: Aurora, San Bernardino, Southerland Springs, Las Vegas, There have been a few exceptions. The President of the United States got involved after Sandy Hook and interest remained higher for a longer period of time. The President’s comments after Charleston also caused a spike in interest for a while. Other politicians speeches and actions will keep public interest higher for long after some tragedies, such as was the case after the Orlando shooting.After the shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 students dead, however, the debate has lasted longer and interest has continued to spike. It is too early to tell whether it will be like the other cases, where there is interest and talk followed by inaction, but something about our current conversation seems different.

What is different is that the conversations are being led by students. The voices we are hearing are the voices of victims. For what seems like the first time since Columbine, the nation is being forced to understand that there are always more victims than just the number of dead bodies that make up the official count. Every witness to school violence is a victim.

We count the numbers: 13 dead at Columbine, 26 dead at Sandy Hook, 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Those numbers are real and stark and significant. But there are always more victims. Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours.

They are also victims. They have experienced trauma. They will never be the same. And this time, they are speaking out.

Today is a day to listen to them.

Half a million are expected to participate in the March for our Lives Rally in Washington DC. There are similar gatherings set all across the nation. Here in Rapid City, the numbers will be smaller, but what will be shared in common with larger marches in larger cities is that the event is being organized by and led by students.

It is easy for me to count the days since the Parkland shooting. It occurred on Ash Wednesday. Holy Week starts tomorrow. During the season of penance and prayer, I have tried to listen very carefully to the Parkland survivors. Several things are clear.

The students do not all agree. Some favor stricter gun laws. Others do not. Some are in favor of arming teachers, others are not. But they are respectful in their conversations. They are careful with their words. They are quick to listen. They understand that they are all hurting - all grieving - all victims.

They are asking us to listen. Innocent children who have been attacked are asking us to listen.

It is easy to dive into the debate. It is easy to express our opinions. It is easy to end up in a shouting match with people whose position is different from our own. I’m sure there will be a bit of that as today plays out. Here in Rapid City and in other places there will be counter protestors who are organizing because they feel that the March for Our Lives movement threatens their rights. But our old arguments are not the focus of tis day.

The students want us to know that change can happen. The student’s vow of “never again” is a solemn pledge of victims to those they have lost. Their message is simple: “We are students who wish to be safe in our classrooms.”

It is a reasonable request.

Unlike the oldsters like myself, these students are digital natives. They grew up with access to computers and smart phones and they are experts in the use of digital media. You don’t have to attend one of their rallies to hear their message. They use tools of organization that we sometimes don’t understand and often use with a kind of gracelessness that is unknown to youth who have always know a digital world.

Here is the question for us today as we listen to those who participate in the March for Our Lives Rallies. Are we willing to reconsider our positions when we are respectfully asked to do so by the youth of our nation?

Are we willing to listen?

One of the strengths of the students is that they are unattached and unaffiliated. They don’t belong to the major political parties. They aren’t members of the big lobbying organizations. This is a strength. As long as they remain independent, the longer they will succeed in getting our nation to listen to their message.

Today is not the end of the conversation. This is not the last rally. The road to meaningful change is long and fraught with pitfalls. But today is a good day to start.

I, for one, will listen.

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!

Names

My father maintained the all people who spelled their name “Huffman” were related. He said that our way of spelling our name was a recent adaptation, that in Europe our family name was spelled Hauffmann. The transition to the American Continent often involved a change in the spelling of the name. Some chose Hoffman. Some chose Haufman. Some chose to keep the double n at the end of either of those names. Single and double f’s were also options. Only a few chose Huffman, and we are all related. That doesn’t mean we all know each other or that we know how we are related.

Of course, in one sense, my father was correct. All humans are related. Modern DNA evidence, unavailable during my father’s lifetime shows that there are ancient connections between people whom we think are unrelated. So, we are all related.

I remember one day, in 1969, our family was visiting the Washington, D.C. area. We had driven around and around trying to find a place to park. Our father spotted a driveway with a marked mailbox that said “Walter Huffman,” his name. He promptly drove up the driveway, and to our embarrassment as teenage children, walked right up and knocked on the door. He said, “Hello! My name is Walter Huffman and I’m from Montana and I saw your sign and I knew that someone with a name like “Walter Huffman” would surely let Walter Huffman park his car in your driveway for an hour or so. They did. We did. It has become a family legend.

When I moved to Chicago, I looked up my name to find out if there were others in the city who shared it. There were other Huffmans, but none listed in the phone book with the name “Ted Huffman.” There was a Ted Hoffman, but no Ted Huffman. I was rather pleased. A city of three million and my name was unique.

Of course, I’m not the only one with the name. All you have to do is Google it and you’ll find out that the American Director Ted Huffman, who made his Royal Opera debut in 2016 is way more famous than I. Ted Huffman. A google image search of my name brings up thousands of images. Maybe two or three of them are pictures of me.

Our family stories have two versions of how I got my first name. One is that our father took a look at me shortly after I was born and said, “A kid like that needs a short name. He’ll never learn to spell anything longer than three letters.” Another is that my forebears who went by the name Ted were all named Edward and someone said, “If you’re going to call him Ted, why not name him Ted.” I prefer the second story to the first. and I have a fair spelling vocabulary these days.

I was thinking about names last night because I was reading about Chris Thiele, who was a Pinkerton Agent around the turn of the twentieth century who was involved in some of the agency’s famous union busting work. His name caught my attention because it is very near to the name of Chris Thile, which I think is pronounced the same. Chris Thile is the host of “Live From Here,” a musical variety show that is popular on public radio.

That show changed its name back in December when Minnesota Public Radio terminated its contracts with former Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor last month after allegations of “inappropriate behavior” surfaced. If you google “Prairie Home Companion” these days, you’ll likely get bounced to garrisonkeillor.com. The home page of that site has a rambling, Garrison Keillor essay about changing the name and date of Columbus day to Eisenhower Day on Eisenhower’s birthday, which is October 14. “A day on which smart people can admit to their dumb mistakes,” is what Keillor proposes.

We surely need a day for smart people to admit dumb mistakes.

What I think Keillor must be aware of by now is that life goes on. The show has a new host and a new name and it isn’t the way it used to be and it never will be again. The thing in which Keillor invested such a large slice of his life is now over.

Back in the 1980’s when Keillor announced he was retiring from A Prairie Home Companion for the first time, they had a big farewell show. Roy Blount, Jr. recited a poem at that show with the line, “’Tis better to have been good and over than rotten and gone on too long.” We didn’t know at the time how prophetic those words would turn out to be. I think it had been good and over at that time. The show went of the air for several months and at first when it returned it had a different name. But that was a long time ago. Since then Keillor has retired at least a second time, been fired, become embroiled in scandal, and much more. What at one time had been good and over became rotten and gone on too long.

Still, there is much in a name. Chris Thile the musician is a mandolin player and a band member and a guy with his name in the headlines. Chris Thiele the Pinkerton agent was sly and tricky and not above lying to try to manipulate someone or influence sworn testimony given in court. He preferred to stay in the shadows and often used a pseudonym. Just because one made me think of the other doesn’t mean that they share much in common at all.

So when people say, “What should I call you? Pastor? Reverend? Doctor? Priest? Mister? I say, “I answer to a lot of names, but Ted is just fine.” Titles don’t mean that much to me and I know that my capacity to touch the lives of others comes from what I do and how I treat them, not from may name.

Don’t expect my name to be up on buildings or in the lights of broadway. Signs come and go. I’d rather be “that guy, can’t remember his name any more, but he sure loved the church and the people who went there.”

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!

Seeking a new employee

I sit on the board of a local nonprofit that is currently in the process of searching for a new office administrator. Through a combination of social media, web-based job sites and the South Dakota Job Service, we have received a pile of resumes that were sorted and a small number were chosen for interview. We conducted some of the interviews yesterday and have more tomorrow. Hopefully we will be able to narrow the field and make a choice. Perhaps we’ll need a couple of second interviews, but a decision will be made soon and we’ll be in the process of training and learning to work with a new employee. We are a small nonprofit, so we don’t have the highest salary or the best benefits to offer, but we have worked to provide fair compensation to our employees.

I’ve been through the process before, both within the church and as a member of a board of a community service agency. There are a lot of good people searching for different jobs and usually there is a wide range of possibilities about which direction the agency will take. Personalities matter and in a small institution every new person brings change.

I’m struck at how much the process of searching and obtaining employees has changed over the years. There was a time, not too long ago, when personal recommendations and references were critical in matching people to jobs. We’ve obtained quite a few really good employees for our church because they were known by someone who knew someone who we knew. And I’ve always felt that calling references was an important part of screening candidates for jobs. A person is three-dimensional and a workplace is filled with stressors that don’t appear on paper. A paper resume tells only part of the story.

More than once an interview has revealed things that don’t show up in the paper resume. And more than once I have gotten information from references that has been very helpful in making a decision.

My favorite question when calling references is: “If you were interviewing this candidate for a job, what question would you ask?”

Many of the applications I screened for this particular job didn’t have references - merely a statement that said, “references available upon request.” I know that the role of references is decreasing because I am often asked by church members to serve as a reference in their job search, but rarely called to actually provide a reference. I don’t know if employers are being less cautious in the job service process or if people are being so shy about what information they give in our litigious society that references are becoming less prominent in the job search process.

One of the candidates we interviewed did herself no favors by failing to adequately prepare for the interview. I started the interviews by giving a little background about the history and work of the organization. This information is readily available on the organization’s web site and I can tell by the reactions of the candidate how much they know. On candidate didn’t seem to know what the organization did or what the job really entailed. Of course the job description and a great deal of information about the organization, its mission, and even the personnel who are currently involved is readily available.

I think that what is happening is that computers and automation make it possible for candidates to cast a wide net when searching for a job. They can automate much of the application process and by using job sites can get their resumes into a lot of different potential employers. Still, by the time they have made it to the interview stage, they must be aware that how they present themselves is critical to obtaining the job.

Yesterday, as we conducted the interviews, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if there are some candidates that we are missing. We sort paper resumes very quickly. And the actual job doesn’t really involve preparing a one page summary. The ability to create an attractive resume really isn’t very closely connected to the skills and abilities we are seeking. The same is true of the actual interview. In fact, I think that if we were to have to repeat the search for a new employee, I might intentionally insert a phone interview ahead of the face-to-face interviews. It would allow us to have direct contact with more candidates and the office administrator in the organization will deal with far more people over the telephone than face-to-face in this particular job.

I get some of my best ideas when it is too late to put them into action.

The process of searching for the right person for a job is an important responsibility. The health of an organization rests on the employees it hires. More importantly, a job is a big part of a person’s life. Finding the right match between candidate and job can make a huge difference int he quality of life/ The kine of nonprofit with which I am associated are organizations that are engaged in deeply meaningful work serving the community. Work with purpose is a very valuable gift that we have to offer to our employees. When they believe in the cause served by the organization as much as we who serve the organization as volunteers do, it can be a powerful experience. Choosing the right person does make a difference.

In this particular case we are using a three-person interview committee. We’ve worked together on other projects before and I’m sure we’ll come to a reasonable choice without conflict. Our opinions and reactions are already pretty similar when we discuss the process.

And this is only a small part of what needs to be done this week. Next week is Holy Week. I’ve got a lot of worship notes to prepare and services to refine. I have calls to make and people to serve. The search for a new employee is just a small part of a much bigger process.

Still, I pray we can make a good choice. The prayer might be the most important part of the process.

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!

Ancient stories, modern meaning

The book of Genesis records stories that our people have been telling each other for many generations. There are some who see these as scientific explanations of the origins of the universe, but our people knew these stories and were telling them to our children and grandchildren long before there was anything known as scientific method. And previous generations were remarkably accurate in the telling of the stories. Using a process of group memorization, word-for-word accuracy was achieved in many tellings over long spans of time. Regardless of how you interpret them, regardless of your faith perspective, regardless of your understanding of scientific method or modern theories, these stories are treasures that are worthy of our best efforts to preserve them and to expand their telling. From time to time, we see nuances from these stories playing out in everyday life.

Genesis 3 records a brief interchange between God and the first humans after they had disobeyed an instruction they had been given:

“Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

We have been passing the buck and blaming each other for our own misdeeds for a long time.

This story frequently comes to mind when I am working with people or even when I read the newspapers.

I don’t mean to pick on anyone, especially someone that I don’t know, but as I read an article in the New York Times this morning, I was reminded of this ancient story of our people. Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, was questioned the House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday at a formal hearing. There was no small amount of criticism of the costs of redecorating of his office. In part, Mr. Carson said, “I invited my wife to come and help. I left it to my wife, you know, to choose something. I dismissed myself from the issues.” And it was Mrs. Carson, he said, who “selected the color and style” of the furniture.

The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

I’m just saying, it isn’t hard to see other people in the old stories that have been both inspiring and informing our people for a long time.

Of course part of the origin of the story was the very human question about human suffering. If God is good and God is all powerful and God made everything that exists, why is it that humans experience pain and suffering - things that don’t seem to us to be at all good? As the saying goes, “Inquiring minds want to know.”

In our story, the suffering is punishment for disobedience, and everyone shares in the punishment. The snake has to remain on its belly and eat dust while it is hated by all future generations of humans. The woman has the pain of childbirth greatly increased. The man has to work hard to obtain enough food to survive. The span between birth and death will be a span of toil and trouble. And that is the way we have interpreted many of the things that are parts of our lives everyday ever since.

These ancient stories help us to understand the harsh realities of life. We may not have perfect answers for all that life throws at us, but we stand in a line of people who have been struggling for many generations to understand this life and some of the truths that we hold are so significant and so meaningful that they could not have come from a single generation - they are the products of our collective pondering over many generations. Big ideas, like our radical monotheism, took generations to be formed.

Recently a young man who grew up in our church and is an adult member of our church was doing his job, serving with the US Army in Iraq. His crew and their helicopter were sent to recover the victims of an accident in which seven people died. They arrived at the scene of the horrible accident and did their work as carefully and diligently as possible. They returned to their base and the young man did his job of cleaning out the helicopter and preparing it for its next assignment. Along the way he saw things and experienced things that were horrible. The death of humans is not a pretty sight. Having to scrub the helicopter was not a fun task. He isn’t complaining about his job. He isn’t saying much except that he did his job and his courage did not fail him.

But we humans can’t erase the things we have seen from our minds. There are sights and smells that you never forget. He will come home when his year of overseas duty is completed as a changed man. He will need to develop skills for dealing with the trauma he has witnessed for the rest of his life.

I am grateful for this young man. I am grateful that I knew him as a child and walked with him through his teenage years. I am deeply grateful that there are people who are willing to do the job that he is doing. Imagine being a grieving family member of one of the victims of that accident. In the midst of the horror of the loss and the pain of grief the fact that the remains of your loved one were carefully recovered and prepared for return to your home would be deeply meaningful and terribly important.

The families of the victims and the witnesses to the accident’s aftermath are connected even though they may never meet face to face. And it isn’t just them. We all are affected by the trauma that occurred. That is why we need the stories of our people. We need common stories to remind us of our connections. We need common stories to help us seek meaning in the midst of a world where pain and suffering are very real and all too common.

We need to tell our parents and Sunday school teachers once again how important it is that they teach these stories to a new generation. We need to be grateful that they do.

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!

Meetings

I wonder how many miles I have traveled to attend Conference meetings. The United Church of Christ has formed Conferences as mid-level judicatories to organize our mission. In many cases, especially out west, Conferences have the same boundaries as states. In quite a few other cases, he territory is larger. When I moved to South Dakota, our Conference consisted of the churches in South Dakota. That seemed like a bit of a decrease in Territory from where we had lived. Out there our Conference was the southern portion of Idaho and the state of Oregon. We lived in Western Idaho, not too far from the Oregon line, but still had to drive all the ways across Oregon to reach the Conference Office, a distance of 430 miles. I made the trip a lot of times by car and a few times by airplane. But I had been traveling a lot for Conference meetings even before we moved to Idaho. I traveled 345 miles one way from Billings Montana to Missoula Montana to attend a Conference meeting when I was a college student. I grew up traveling with my parents to Conference meetings. One year, when our father was the moderator of the then Montana Conference, he made a visit to each church in the Conference in a single year. Most of the trips were on Sunday to attend worship services, and many of those trips were planned so we children could go along. Some of the trips were planned with alternatives depending on weather forecasts. We flew to more distant locations and drove to closer ones.

I’ve felt that the connections between congregations and the mission that we share are important. By working together we can accomplish more than churches are able to do alone. I’ve traveled to Regional and National Youth Events from Hawaii to South Carolina. I’ve attended church meetings from Edmonton, Alberta to Fort Worth Texas. One thing about my service in the church - I’ve done a bit of traveling.

These days, however, with the advent of technology and the downsizing of Conferences, things are changing and I need to continue to be careful with the decisions I make about traveling. In general, local congregations are keeping larger percentages of the total income of the church for local ministries and sending smaller percentages to the Conference and National settings of the church. This means that there are fewer funds for Conference operations. In many Conferences this has resulted in combinations of services. Conferences are becoming bigger in geography, while shrinking in staff and services to local congregations. Our Conference has become part of a larger Tri-Conference which involves staff sharing between Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota while shrinking the total number of staff persons. This means that conference meetings can often involve many more miles than was the case previously. It is part of a national trend in our United Church of Christ, but it is much less noticed in areas of the country where we have more congregations and the congregations are closer together. Unlike some of my friends who serve in the Northeast, were we have congregations in nearly every town and the population is dense, I’ve never served a congregation that was in the same time zone as the Conference office, a phenomenon that continues to surprise some of my colleagues.

I’ve been thinking about all of these dynamics for several days now as I contemplate an invitation I received to serve on a board of directors of a foundation that is dedicated to some of our shared ministries. The invitation stated that it would involve only one meeting per year and that the meetings would be fun. Those two factors, intended as selling points, didn’t make the job sound very appealing to me. I’ve driven too many miles and I have enough opportunities to attend meetings that driving across the state for a meeting that might not be accomplishing serious work isn’t appealing. In my book driving long distances for fun involves new scenery and/or grandchildren. I don’t want to serve on a board for fun. Furthermore, a Board of Directors of a trust that his fiduciary responsibilities for management of financial resources that are corporately held that meets only once per year is a bit suspicious in my eyes. I don’t want to be a member of a figurehead board where someone else is making all of the decisions behind the scenes.

It has been several days since I received the invitation and I should respond today, but I woke up contemplating my response without any certainty about what I will say. I don’t need any more Boards of Directors on my Curriculum Vitae. I’m not even sure that I need a curriculum vitae any longer, though I occasionally update it with a few details. I don’t need the experience of serving on a board of directors of a trust. I’ve got more than 20 years of similar experience with multiple trust boards including some that are significantly larger than this particular trust.

On the other hand, I believe in volunteer service. I believe that volunteers who responsibly serve on these boards are part of what makes them work. The trust placed in the board allows for management without the high fees that would be charged by financial institutions for management. With smaller amounts of invested funds, management fees can make a significant difference in the amount of resources available for the mission of the trust. Volunteers mean more funds invested in mission. The obligation of service falls to all members of the church and I am not exempt. I continue to recruit volunteers for service to the wider church and it would not be fair for me to recruit people for positions in which I am unwilling to serve.

So I begin my day with a dilemma and an unmade decision. I’m tempted to answer that I would accept the position if I were assured that serious business as well as fun was involved and if the group would consider changing from annual to quarterly meetings.

I must be a real glutton for punishment.

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!

Love written on our hearts

The prophet Jeremiah received his call to be a prophet in the 13th year of the reign of King Josiah. That would be 626 BCE. The book of the prophet continues past the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586. Most scholars place the death of Jeremiah around 570 BCE. That means that our people have been talking about the prophet for more than 2500 years. We were talking about him yesterday when our worship focused on Jeremiah 31:31-34, a beautiful description of his vision which dreams of a day when God’s law isn’t a mater of external legalisms for our people, but rather an internal knowledge that comes from deep within each individual. He speaks of God’s law written on the hearts of the people.

We didn’t go into it in depth yesterday as the timing of our worship didn’t allow us to explore all of the nuances of the text, but Christians have long debated whether Jeremiah’s vision is something that remains in the future - as yet unfulfilled - or as something that has come to pass. That is a complex argument that is too extensive for a journal post, but to put it in a simple frame, at least consider the possibility that what Jeremiah saw as the future as he sought to reassure the people following the fall of their city and the capture of its people has now become the past as we look at it from a vantage point a couple of millennia and more later.

What if God’s law has already been written on our hearts?

I see plenty of evidence that it may well be the case. I am in a position to observe wonderful acts of human kindness that isn’t required by some external law. People go far and above the minimum requirements of civil law in how they treat others. I’ve witnessed the outpouring of compassion in the moments of grief. I’ve seen selflessness in serving those in need. I’ve been touched by generosity that exceeds expectations. I am deeply aware of the good that comes from the hearts of many people.

The problem may not be that God has somehow not yet gotten around to placing the highest good within us. It may be that we fail to recognize the good that is within.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote:

"Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend."

She is onto something that is very real. I have seen it in my work with families who have experienced loss of a loved one to suicide. Their pain, so deep, so unanticipated, so raw can be troubling to face. More than once I have had to cry after leaving an initial meeting with such a family because the depth of their grief has such an impact on me. But later, sometimes after months and years have passed, after they have lived with their sorrow as a constant companion for a while, I have seen those same people become some of the greatest supporters of others. From somewhere deep within them comes an urge to help others and the help they offer is genuine and more meaningful than I can describe. It is as if their deep loss and sorrow has uncovered a compassion and love that is greater than they were aware existed. It is as if God’s love lies deep within them - written on their hearts.

I have come to believe that there are all kinds of things that prevent us from discovering the love that is deep within. We build shells of defensiveness. We light the fires of anger to mask the pain we feel. And, all too often, we run away from the intensity of grief and, instead of facing it head on, push it deep beneath the surface and cover it up with a veneer of normalcy.

Life, however, has a way of forcing us to deal the the cracks in the crust that covers up the reality that is within. There are times when sorrow and sadness simply cannot be avoided. That, too, I witness with regularity and frequency. I’ll think the topic of conversation is a recent loss and find myself listening to a mountain of pain from an older, previous loss. We will reach a point of trust in a conversation and it will feel as if a dam has broken and we are washed in the floods of mountains of grief pouring directly from the soul of a person who just a few moments earlier appeared to have everything under control.

We don’t like the feeling of losing control, but when we do, the doors open to discovery of something new - something that has been hidden.

What has been hidden for too many people is that their pain is connected with the pain of others. When we hold our pain inside and refuse to allow it to show, we can convince ourselves that our pain is unique and that we have somehow suffered more than others. We think our pain is more significant than the pain of others. But when we find expression for what lies within we discover that we are connected by our pain. Like the voices in a support group who have discovered how much they have in common, we can learn from experiencing our own pain and by listening to the pain of others.

Then, after we’ve felt the pain so deeply, we discover that even deeper lies love that does not die. Indeed the eternal lies within each of us.

Jeremiah got it right. And, at least from our point of view, he was not talking about some future promise that is yet to be fulfilled, but a present reality.

Love is already written on our hearts.

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!

Recycling

I come from a long line of people who were frugal and saved things because they might become useful in the future. My relatives saved broken items with the intent of fixing them. They learned to make do with used furniture and they became skilled in repairing things that others might discard. My Great Uncle Ted, for whom I was named, saved the pressed paper cores from rolls of string and used them to make other objects. He salvages used sheet metal from heating ducts and reformed it into everyday devices. If there was something that he could make instead of buying, he was happy. If someone else had something they wanted to get rid of it often ended up in one of his sheds. He kept adding sheds to his back yard to create more storage space. And he is just one of many relatives.

Much of their frugality came from the experiences of the Great Depression. They learned to do without things that they couldn’t afford to buy. They learned to make do with what they had. They learned to look for ways to reuse and repurpose items that others might discard.

They were also generous. They gave us a lot of different things. In the early years of our marriage we always wrapped all of our Christmas presents in bits of paper from display rolls that only had one or two wraps of paper because and uncle got them from a cousin who ran a drug store. Much of our furniture came from other family members who helped us get started when we first married.

These family members were into recycling before recycling was a thing.

They would be horrified if they knew how much money we spend renting storage space to store all of their stuff that has somehow come into our possession. That rocking chair that was retrieved from a neighbor’s trash, re-glued, stripped and refinished before getting a new cane seat is now in the back of a rented storage unit waiting until some person wants it. That person is unlikely to be our children or our nieces or nephews.

And we aren’t the only ones. Which explains the size of the rummage sales that our church hosts twice a year. A huge amount of volunteer effort is invested in events that are part fund=raising for the minions of the church, part providing bargains for those who want and need the items on the sale and part fellowship and community-building. Even after a lot of years of serving this church and witnessing its ministries, the size and scope of the sales amaze me. We never seem to run out of people who have items to donate.

Every sale there is at least one family in our church who is making a major transition: moving from a house to an apartment, experiencing the loss of a family member, changing jobs or some other event. Those big changes often bring big loads of donated items to the church. I’m talking pickup loads and trailer loads of stuff.

The organizers of the sale have become experts at sorting the useable items from the trash and a fair amount of trash does make its way to the landfill. But most of the items find new owners. What is left over after the sale is carefully sorted and donated to other groups and agencies that specialize in getting used items into the hands of those who need and want the items. Some things to to the Habitat for Humanity Restore, some to the Rescue Mission store, some to the Veterans Home, some to the animal shelter, some to a book sale - you get the picture. The sale is well organized and a massive undertaking. Then, a few months later, we do it all over again. Each March and each August with the sales seeming to get bigger and bigger each year.

I remember a time before rummage and yard sales were common. People kept most of the things that they had. Storage was inexpensive. Then, on occasion, large amounts of things were taken to the dump. In my hometown, before we had a landfill, we had a high bank near the river where the items were literally dumped over the bank. There was a family, and perhaps more than one family, who lived in a run-down place right next to the dump and who combed the discarded items for things that could be resold. They salvaged metals from the pile and got them to a company that would pay pennies per pound. They found items that could be repaired and made the repairs. They sometimes found customers for things that they had retrieved from the dump and cleaned up.

As the years passed and people became a bit more aware of the environmental costs of such practices our town began to organize some more formal methods of recycling. An old warehouse between the train depot and the old dump was made available to collect steel cans, aluminum cans, and newspapers. As the city explored ways to create a more sanitary landfill for community garbage, the recycling efforts began with volunteers collecting the items and stacking them in the old building. The steel and aluminum could be hauled 80 miles to a metal recycler who would pay pennies on the pound - rarely enough to pay for the gas to haul the pickup loads of items to the recycler. The paper was initially hauled to a different city where it was combined with paper from other towns and loaded into train cars for shipment to a distant paper mill that could reprocess it. Again there was no money paid for the used paper. I’m not sure where the shipping costs for the paper were obtained. The effort rose and fell with the discipline of the community to sort and save the recyclable items and with the number of volunteers willing to load and haul the items. Eventually the practice fell by the wayside for a lack of funding and a lack of volunteers. It was perhaps 30 or 40 years before the community, faced with expensive costs of hauling trash after the landfill was filled up, got back into the recycling business - this time with a bit more support and effort.

We’ve still got a long ways to go. We purchase too many items, keep too many items and aren’t always responsible with the disposal. Our systems are still very dependent upon volunteers. But we are learning. And I developed a few good habits from those days of sorting sheds of people’s old smelly beer cans and hauling pickup loads of things to the recycler that are still useful for everyday living.

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!

Names

I don’t understand how my memory for names works or doesn’t work. My sister is visiting me and we have a good time talking about our growing up days and a host of other topics. After many years of living in other states, she is now living in the town where we grew up and she will mention someone who I knew as a child and I’ll have trouble figuring out who she is talking about. We’ll be having a conversation about a person from our past and I can recall lots of minute details about that person and can’t remember the name.

I don’t think that I have a very good natural talent for names. I have had to work hard at remembering names all of my life, but it is, to a certain extent, an acquired skill. Every Sunday after worship I greet as many people as I can by their names as they pass through the line to shake my hand. Many wear name tags, but I try to focus on their faces and look at the name tag only when I can’t come up with the name from my memory. I’ve even made mistakes and used the wrong name from time to time, something that few people appreciate. After all your name is pretty close to your identity.

There are a lot of names that I can recall. I know the names of most of the children whom I’ve baptized over the years. There is something about formally asking in a public setting, “By what name shall your child be known?” After receiving that answer and repeating the name, I’ve got it pretty firmly in my mind when I introduce the child to the congregation. On the other hand, I was going through the 25 or so children on our church’s cradle roll recently and discovered that I can’t remember the middle name of hardly any of those children. I knew those middle names at one time, but I have not retained them.

I know that part of the problem is that I continue to meet new people and that when I work hard to get a name at least into my short term memory, those in my long term memory seem to take longer to recall at times. I’ve forgotten a name in conversation and then it will come to me much later, when I am engaged in a completely unrelated task. That, actually, is a bit reassuring to me. It is a sign that my brain will continue to work on a memory problem even when I’m not conscious of it.

I moved from the town where we grew up when I was 17 years old. I’ve livd in 5 different cities and towns since that time. I’ve lived in this town longer than I’ve lived in any other place. I do pretty good with the names of the people with whom I work on a regular basis. I am the secretary for two boards of directors and I can record attendance without needing to ask anyone their name. I greet people in public all the time, some of whom are members of my church, others whom I’ve met in different contexts. I recall the names of hundreds of people every week without much apparent effort.

Then I turn around and can’t remember the name of a person with whom I attended eight years of school. It is frustrating.

My name is short and, I guess, fairly easy to remember. I will go into a coffee shop where I know I haven’t been for more than a month and the barista will remember my first name. That same person won’t know much about me, such as where I work or which organizations I belong to, but will remember what drink I usually order. I’m impressed. After all, the person in the coffee shop usually wears a name tag with their first name on it. I can get their name easily. they have to really remember mine.

When I was a kid, the joke was that my father took one look at me when I was born and said, “That kid will never learn to spell a name with more than three letters!” Of course that isn’t true. I knew that it wasn’t true when I was little. I didn’t do well in spelling in elementary school and my writing was riddled with spelling errors until I went off to college, when I really worked on learning to be a better speller. These days, despite struggling with an over-zealous auto correct on my computer, I do an acceptable job of spelling. But I’m sure that if you are a regular reader of my journal you’ve caught plenty of errors.

Anyway, that short first name, combined with the fact that I have no middle name means that I don’t run out of boxes when filling out forms. It doesn’t take too many spaces to write my complete name. Short names, on the other hand, can be as difficult to remember as long ones. We had friends in college who married and hyphenated their last names. The combination was a real deal: Buckingham-Sczpanski. But do you think I can remember the name of the husband as I write this? And there are other couples from that era of our lives whose names I can’t recall at all. I’ve not kept track of that couple. I’ve always sort of wished that one of their children would have grown up to meet and fall in love with another person whose parents had hyphenated their last names. String together enough names like that and you’d have an entire genealogy.

I know that memory isn’t as good as we age as it once was. I can be very impatient with that fact. I don’t like it when I recognize something that is a sign of decreasing capacity. So I work hard to overcome that. If, on the other hand, I am struggling to come up with your name, never fear. I’ll probably remember it suddenly later that day when I’m engaged in some totally unrelated task.

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!

Backwards R

My timing for this journal entry is probably in a bit of bad taste. After all, it isn’t very kind to make fun of some person or entity when they are having trouble. But somehow I can’t resist making a small comment. And the story is in the news. Here is a quote straight from the New York Times: “Toys “R” Us, the iconic retail chain that has sold toys and games to millions of children for generations, is closing shop in the United States. After filing for bankruptcy protection in September and suffering through a brutal holiday shopping season, the company decided on Wednesday to close or sell all of its remaining stores, after executives met with creditors throughout the day, according to three people briefed on the discussions.”

This is no laughing matter. More than 30,000 people stand to lose their jobs. Starting with a single baby store in Washington that sold cribs and strollers, the business grew to over 2,000 stores nation wide. A couple of generations of children grew up knowing Geoffrey the Giraffe and the jingle, “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid.”

I have spent my share of money in Toys “R” Us stores. I remember following our children through that maze of impulse items set up at the entrance of the store. Our son headed for the Lego brick sets and our daughter for the dolls and accessories. When we moved from Boise, Idaho to Rapid City, South Dakota one of the comments I heard from our kids was, “Well, at least it has a Toys ‘R’ Us.”

I think I understand the dynamic pretty clearly. In the age of Internet selling, the bricks and mortar toy store is an antiquated sales model. The chain simply couldn’t keep up with Amazon and Walmart. Even with the simple architecture and low building costs of its stores, the overhead was simply too high for them to compete. Then there was the 2005 leveraged buyout that left the chain with a $5 billion debt. They just couldn’t keep up. And now liquidation sales will take place over the next few months. The signs will come down, complete with the backwards “R.”

And that is what I want to talk about today. That stupid - yes I think it was stupid - backwards “R.”

I always felt uncomfortable with the stores’ name and slogans on two levels. First of all as a parent, and now as a grandparent, I work diligently to teach children the correct way to form letters and to write. When they write a backwards letter, I make a gentle correction. I am careful in my printing when I write a note or postcard to our grandchildren, so that they see an example of clear printing. Every time I did business with the store, I wondered about a business that seemed to be intent in teaching children how to write the letter backwards. It bugged me enough that the clerks got tired of me mentioning it to them, I’m sure. The clerks, of course, had no input on marketing decisions or the logos and branding of the stores. They couldn’t do anything but be polite an humor that strange bearded guy who wanted to pick a bone with the sign on the front of the store. And it was clear to the clerks that the backwards “R” wasn’t stopping me from shopping in the store or from making purchases.

On another level, however, it seems like the name and logo is making fun of children and the way they learn to write. Of course I find it charming when one of my grandchildren writes me a note, even if the words run together and there are line breaks in the middle of words and letters are backwards and words misspelled. I love every paper and note that they give to me. My office and my home are filled with samples of early attempts at writing. But when I write back to those children, I am careful to make sure that my words are spelled correctly and my letters are written correctly. To do less would be, it seems to me, to be making fun of children. A store that caters to children and sells products for children should never make fun of children.

I enjoyed shopping in the stores. I have fond memories of some of the toys we found there. I like toys and I like shopping for toys with children. Still, I’m pleased that the backwards “R” s are coming down.

So the dilemma for me this week comes from the fact that I am a Toys backwards R/ Babies backwards R rewards member. I have rewards points that I need to use. And our local store was already stated for closing so they are advertising up to 60% savings on remaining inventory. It is a pretty inviting scenario. After all, our grandchildren have birthdays every year. And a little gift from Grandpa at Easter might be in order. And they have some really neat Lego sets of which I bet a few remain.

I do not need anything that they have in the store. I don’t enjoy shopping in the first place. I could just let the whole thing go. After all, someone else will be just as happy and maybe even more so that I and perhaps someone who couldn’t normally afford a toy will get something really special if I don’t scoop it up before they get to the store.

I could go shopping, get whatever strikes my imagination and that would give me one last chance to make a snide comment to the clerk. I’m thinking of something like, “If only they had put the R up in the right direction on your store, maybe it wouldn’t have to close.” On the other hand, that’s just kind of mean and I don’t want to be mean. And I’ll guarantee you that the clerk won’t appreciate my sense of humor.

And I feel sorry for the clerk. After all that person has to find a new job.

So goes business in America in the 21st Century.

Note to you who are thinking of starting new businesses. I’m not that bad of a customer. And I appreciate grammar and spelling.

And I know which way an R goes.

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!

Caution when driving

A couple of days ago I was waiting to pull out of a parking lot. I was signaling my intention to turn right into the street. There were a lot of cars coming from my left, so I waited patiently and, when I saw a space coming, prepared to merge int the traffic. Just as I was ready to pull into the traffic lane, I made a quick glance to my right and there was a pedestrian, just a foot or so away from my car. Fortunately my foot was sill on the brake and so nothing bad happened, but it shook me. I had been so fixated on looking at the cars coming from my left that I wasn’t paying attention to the whole picture. We teach our children to look left, look right and look left again, and I wasn’t following this basic rule of safety.

A bit chastened by my near-mistake, I have been trying to remain more vigilant, more focused and more attentive to my driving. In doing so, I’ve been noticing other drivers as well.

To the woman who was talking on her phone by cradling it between her left shoulder and her ear, you probably shouldn’t be talking on the phone while driving at all, but if you must do so, invest in a hands-free device. There is no way that you can have a full visual scan - you can’t even look in your right and rearview mirror - when you cradle the phone like that. And I know that you weren’t bing attentive to the speed limit. I was following you as you continued through town.

To the man who passed me while I was slowing to a stop at the light, the yellow light applies to you, too. And, for the record, you didn’t save much time. Two miles later as we rounded the corner and headed into down town, you were only one car length ahead of me.

To the person of unknown gender who was weaving in and out of traffic, changing lanes every little way, trying to be the fastest car in a line of traffic in what passes for our morning rush hour, you were not only being dangerous, you were making other drivers angry with you. Having other drivers angry doesn’t do much for your safety and it doesn’t help you reach your destination faster.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Rapid City, we’re a relatively small city and we have limited financial resources for municipal projects. We can’t afford a rush hour. The best we can muster is ten or fifteen minutes when it might take five minutes longer to drive across town than is the case most of the time. And that traffic is limited to just a few areas in our town. We simply are in no position to have real gridlock and severe traffic jams that plague larger cities.

To all of the other drivers. I really wish you no ill. I don’t want to be in your way and I want you to reach your destination safely. But you people really pull some very dangerous stunts. It is a wonder we don’t have more severe accidents. I know that this time of the year the stripes painted on the streets aren’t as bright as they are just after the paint truck has passed, but for the most part our crews keep the roads well marked. I can drive my pickup truck, filled with firewood, pulling a trailer also filled with wood around town and through the winding areas of the road to our home while driving at the speed limit without wandering from my lane. It isn’t that hard and if your car is in good mechanical condition with good tires, I can’t understand why you can’t stay in your lane. After all, the stripes are probably mostly worn off by people like you who keep crossing over them on every corner.

And to the flat landers - and you know who you are - you grew up in a place with no hills or mountains and are used to straight highways with few curves - to you, I’m not sure why you think that dying in a flaming head-on collision is preferable to sliding off of the edge of the road, but neither is required of those of us who drive on the curves in the hills. We drive around those curves every day and don’t feel any urge to cut the corners and feel no fear of sliding off the edge of the road even when there is a steep drop. It is OK to stay in your lane. The engineers didn’t make half of the road less stable. People don’t go crashing over the guard rails and into steep canyons anywhere near as often as they run into cars going the opposite direction. While it is sometimes entertaining - and even comical - to follow you, you do scare me at times with your wandering around the road.

I drive a 19-year-old car with 270,000 miles on it, but I keep good tires and brakes on it. I do, however acknowledge that it isn’t in peak mechanical condition. My speedometer jerks and doesn’t always read accurately. So I have a GPS that also reports my speed. Between the two, I pretty much keep track of my speed at all times. And I find the speed limit signs on the road easy to see and read. While I sometimes find it annoying to be following someone who is driving 40 in a 45 mph zone, it never ceases to amaze me when the same driver continues to drive 40 mph when we get to the 35 mph zone. You’d think they’d at least change their speed a little bit. And some of the people who drive the same speed regardless of the posted limit are my neighbors who live in the same neighborhood and drive the same roads every day as I do. They are familiar with the roads. They should be familiar with the speed limits.

So if you’re driving out there, be careful. We don’t want you or anyone else to get hurt. And for every one of you that is out there, there is some old coot like me who will make fun of you for every time you do something stupid.

Chances are pretty good that pedestrian has been telling of his near brush with the driver who got obsessed with the street traffic and wasn’t paying attention to the sidewalk. If you hear a story about an old coot in an old car it is probably 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!

Stephen Hawking moves on

A tribute to Stephen Hawking would be in order if for no other reason than the way he demonstrated, by how he lived his life, that even a severely debilitating disease does not define the person who suffers from it. While a student at Cambridge University he was diagnosed with a form of motor neuron disease. In the early 1960’s his doctors gave him no more than two or three years of life. But the disease, for which there is no cure, did not stop the brilliant man from making his contributions to science and to life. The disease finally made him dependent upon a motorized wheelchair for mobility and a voice synthesizer for speech. But it did not limit his ability to communicate his brilliant ideas and concepts.

There is, of course, far more to the story than can be stated in a single tribute. Not everything in his life worked out the way he planned. Although I believe he discovered love and certainly his three children all speak of the love of their family, I know there were also times of pain in relationships. Two divorces couldn’t have been easy for him or for the women he divorced.

He made it his life’s work to explain complex scientific principles to laypersons. His book, “A Brief History of Time: A Layman’s Guide to Cosmology” was a best seller. It sold over 10 million copies. But even Hawking admitted that most of the people who purchased the book never actually read it to its conclusion. It was dubbed “the most popular book never read,” and there is some truth to that title. Hawking got hung up in arguments of extremely complex concepts and those arguments sometimes became a bit circular. His search for a comprehensive set of laws that governed the whole of the universe came up short as will always be the case for humans. We can understand some things very well. We aren’t that good at understanding everything. At any rate, it will be many more generations and many more successful and failed scientific experiments before the understanding of the universe is comprehensive enough to give something near to complete understanding.

You do have to admire, however, a man who makes it his life’s job to explain something that is too complex for explanation. The audacity and courage of his goals deserve our admiration. He wasn’t one for small thinking. His attempt to develop a “theory of everything” is among the boldest undertakings ever attempted by any human.

While Hawking received no small amount of fame for some of his comments about religion and his willingness to debate some of the historical claims of religious thinkers and writers, he never took up the cause of evangelical atheism in the manner of Richard Dawkins. Still, there are plenty of folks who saw his writings as being somehow anti-religion. This, I suspect, is inaccurate or at best incomplete.

After all, you can’t come up with a theory of everything unless that everything includes God. Which brings me back to the theory that very few people actually read the book “A Brief History of Time” all the way to the end. He concluded that book with the observation that if scientists could find the most fundamental laws of nature “then we should know the mind of God.”

I know he was speaking metaphorically, but he brought to the discussions and conversations between religion and science a quality that is missing in the work of some other scientists. He acknowledged that while science and religion have made conflicting claims, one does not have to abandon one’s devotion to scientific method in order to realize that science and religion are about fundamentally different things. Far from casting out religion, science, when pursued fully, leaves plenty of room for religious thinking. He seemed to understand that no religion has ever been rendered obsolete by facts or observations.

More importantly, I think, he knew that most scientific discoveries and break-throughs are eventually rendered obsolete by the discovery of new facts and additional observations. Science is very good at proving former scientific theory to be wrong. Ideas are continually superseded when they are proven to be inadequate.

Hawking could sound almost religious when he wrote about science, especially the field of theoretical physics. Trying to find the patterns in the basic fabric of reality - the mathematical laws that govern the workings of nature - requires work that is not only accurate in the smallest detail but also comprehensive in the wider picture. This led Hawking and other scientists to claim theological significance for their work. While he dismissed the most simplistic notions of a God-created universe, Hawking’s search for M-theory, a fundamental theory of nature at its deepest level produced ideas and concepts that are so difficult to test that it requires a level of faith to embrace their observations.

These observations and arguments, of course, are too complex and convoluted for a single journal entry - they are tasks of many lifetimes. But the ongoing conversation between science and religion certainly comes to my mind on the day that I awoke to the news that Stephen Hawking has died.

It is obvious that his death does not mean the end of his ideas. It is clear that some of the value of his writings is yet to b revealed and that people will be reading his books for many years to come. His sense of humor is remembered and celebrated by his family and his colleagues alike. His capacity to overcome adversity and live with disability is a shining example for all of us. And all of us will experience some level of disability in this life.

It is abundantly clear that death is not the end of Stephen Hawking.

Generations of scientists will continue to test and refine and expand his theories. A few will even describe their work in religious terms. They will continue to use theological language in ways like calking the Higgs boson the God particle.

And Hawking, having reached the end of his earthly life, now has come face to face with one of life’s ultimate questions. I have no doubt that his conversations with God are both delightful and fascinating.

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!

Rambling thoughts

Bob Hicks, editor of the small journal “Messing About in Boats,” wrote in his March column about discovering some old yachting journals in a small box in the attic of his barn. Of the attic he said: “now containing 60 years worth of stuff too good to toss out but not otherwise of immediate need.”

I think that is a good description and one that will be easily recognized by a lot of folks. The home in which we now live is the place where we have lived for the longest time of our lives. It contains numerous things that are “too good to toss out but not otherwise of immediate need.” Recently it has begun to occur to us that among those items are quite a few things in which our children have no interest whatsoever.

It is rummage sale time at the church, which is a perfect time for those of us who have those sorts of things. We’ve delivered a number of boxes and still have one more day before the deadline for bringing items to donate to the sale. It always amazes me how much merchandise our church comes up with to sell at two rummage sales each year. The sales are monumental efforts, involving hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours. The work is accomplished with good spirit and it is very good for the members of the church to work together.

One of the things about Hicks’ magazine, however, is that he is the kind of person who keeps that sort of thing. From time to time he reprints an article from an old magazine that is fun to read. This month it is a report about coastal and inland yachting and yacht clubs that originally appeared in the Century Magazine in May, 1892. That, of course, was a different century. The article gives details on many different types of boats with their advantages and disadvantages. It also reviews many yacht clubs, including commentary on their club houses. It draws a few conclusions which the passing of another century and a quarter have proven to be quite a way off of the mark. For example, the article states, “So the catamaran, after a just trial by a jury of all the yachters, has disappeared, and is not likely to be seen again.” Of course multi-hull boats, both sail and engine powered fill a large variety of roles in the contemporary boating scene including small recreational catamarans, world-cruising catamarans and trimarans, ferries and other larger ships. They got that particular prediction wrong. There were a few other observations in the article that are laughable from the perspective of today’s point of view.

Another thing that the article got wrong was the prediction that yachting and yacht clubs would soon become the province of working class folks. The prices of that particular kind of boat and the fees associated with membership in those clubs have made them very exclusive indeed. A slip in the Lincoln Harbor Yacht Club on the Hudson River in New York can run over $8,000 per month with winter storage running about $45 per foot of boat. That’s just the cost of parking the boat. It can be a costly proposition to keep a yacht in a city - or any other place for that matter.

One of the magazines of the yachting set is called “Sail.” It is a beautiful glossy magazine with advertisements showing gleaming yachts with luxury living quarters that exceed any hotel I’ve ever visited. Recently Sail ran an article examining “pocket cruisers.” Pocket cruisers, to my way of thinking are sailboats that are small enough to be easily trailered, so they can be launched for a short trip and retrieved for storage at home. They generally have very modest accommodations for a couple of people to sleep in a sort of camping type of arrangement, with perhaps a portable toilet, a couple of bunks, a small burner, a cooler and perhaps a small sink. Generally the cabins in pocket cruisers are too short to stand up, except perhaps right in the hatchway. They’re OK for an overnight, but not a place where one could live for an extended trip.

Sail’s article came to the conclusion that the ideal “Pocket Cruiser” is the Bavaria 34’ cruiser. They seem to be operating with a different definition of pocket cruiser than I. The Bavaria 34 has a two or three cabin layout with a complete head with a stand-up shower, a galley that rivals any luxury RV, complete with refrigerator and freezer, microwave and a completely gimbaled oven and stove. If you are willing to go world-wide in your search for a used version of this boat, you might find one in the $100,000 - $150,000 range. While the boat is technically trailerable, you wouldn’t want to plan on rigging, launching and sailing in a single day and the same is true for hauling and putting down the mast. And you’ll need a one-ton truck to pull that trailer as well. That’s another $80,000. It is a nice boat, just not what many of us have in mind when we think of a pocket cruiser.

Then again I’m not a subscriber to Sail.

It is a bit interesting to me because while the folks who support that magazine and who agree with its conclusions about boats would definitely consider myself to not be in their class when it comes to income and available capital to invest in a boat and I would agree with them, I’m not exactly what folks would consider to be impoverished. A couple of days ago, I had an extended conversation with a couple of folks who were likely to be sleeping in their vehicle for the foreseeable future. They don’t have good prospects for getting together deposits or rent anytime soon. They didn’t have any food or money for food. I guess gas for their vehicle became a higher priority at the moment. I did help them with some food, perhaps a day’s worth, and gave them some leads on other places to get fed, but I couldn’t solve their housing crisis. They must have looked on me, with reliable vehicles, a warm home, and a steady income as being very wealthy. It is all a matter of perspective.

The good news, I guess, is that unlike that article in a box in Bob Hicks’ barn attic, no one is going to keep the articles I write for more than a century to be read for amusement by armchair critics. That is, I think, a good thing.

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!

Planning for Pi Day

Let’s see: 3.14159265359. Of course the number goes on for a whole lot more digits. It has been calculated out to over a trillions of digits beyond the decimal point. I won’t need that many. Although my sister has definitely memorized more digits of pi than I, remembering the first three digits is probably enough to impress her. 3/14 is celebrated by mathematicians and a few other folks as “Pi Day.” That was the day that my sister was set to arrive for a visit, but a last minute change in schedule means that she won’t be here until the next day. Having remembered that Wednesday was pi day should be enough to impress her, if only a tiny bit.

The Greek letter “π” is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant - the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159. It is an irrational and transcendental number, which means it will continue infinitely without repetition or pattern. It is that fact that makes it fun to memorize some of the digits beyond the decimal and a challenge for super computers to computationally calculate more and more digits. People have known a bit about the concept of pi for a very long time. There is even a brief reference in the bible. 1 Kings 7:23 refers to a circular pool as being 30 cubits around and 10 cubits across. All circles are just a little more than 3 times their width around. The mathematician Archimedes used polygons with many sides to apprise mate circles and determined that Pi is approximately 22/7. The use of the geek letter was first used tin 1706. Since the word perimeter begins with p, the corresponding Greek letter was chosen. It became popular after being adopted by the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler in 1737.

The number is useful in computing several geometry problems involving circles. The area of a circle is calculated by the formula: area equals Pi r squared. If you are a mathematician with a sense of humor, you’ll get from that formula the joke, “Pies aren’t square, they’re round.” OK so it isn’t that funny, but it does amuse a few mathematically inclined friends of mine.

At the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where there is a collection of quite a few mathematically inclined students and professors, they’ll be celebrating the day by serving pie to each other. I don’t know if they go to the trouble of baking their own pies, but if so, they’ll need to get a good crust for the dish. I’m certainly no expert, but it does seem to help to make sure you use butter straight out of the refrigerator. Cut it into tiny cubes before cutting it into the flour. And make sure the water you use is ice cold. I’m sure for Tech students, purchasing a pie crust from the freezer section in the grocery store will work fine.

Of course there are other types of crusts that can be made. If you search for Gluten-free pie, you may find a recipe that uses pitted dates soaked in water and unsweetened shredded coconut. This mixture is blended in a food processor or blender and the resulting dough-like mixture can be pressed into a pie plate and used for the crust in a refrigerator pie. I don’t think it would work to bake the stuff, however.

Some of the antics at the School of Mines involve pie plates filled with whipped cream - hardly pies in the technical sense - but useful for making a mess and getting the comic sense that comes from having watched too many slapstick movies where someone get a pie in the face.

If you want to eat it, use a graham cracker crust and mix cream cheese with the whipped cream. Crunch up a few cookies to mix in with the filling and top with sprinkles. Stick the pie in the refrigerator before serving and it isn’t too bad.

Of course I don’t know why I’m coming up with easy pie recipes for the students. Pi isn’t supposed to be easy. It is a kind of nerdy piece of information that gives those in the know a sense of having a bit of inside information. If they revel in the challenge of difficult mathematics, others ought to revel in the difficulty of complex recipes.

Pies, if you don’t count pizza, are not a real staple in our family’s diet. I like a piece of pie on a special occasion, but it isn’t something that we make very often. Several years ago I got on a kick of trying to teach myself how to make a really good cheesecake, a kind of variation on pie, but abandoned that process after several very good desserts.

I read that there is a pizza shop in Wichita that celebrates Pi day by selling a complete full-sized pizza for $3.14159265359 each. (They’re willing to round down to $3.14.) The promotion is wildly successful, probably due to the very low price. I also have heard of a coffee shop that sells its specialty beverages for that price on Pi day. That should still produce a very healthy profit for the coffee shop. Their ingredients aren’t that expensive and their overhead should be will covered by charging over $3 per cup even if the going price is around $5 these days.

I’m just pleased with myself for having caught an article in an online newspaper and remembering that Pi day is coming up. It will be a good thing to mention to some of my mathematician friends and I’ll get a few brownie points for mentioning it to my sister when she arrives for her visit.

So mark your calendars and get ready to celebrate Pi day is coming this week. I guess if you want to really impress a mathematician friend, you could memorize the formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder. All you have to do is to calculate the area of the circle and multiply that times the height.

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

What time is it?

If my research is correct, the idea came from a Canadian. He was born in Scotland, but he emigrated to Canada. Sir Stanford Fleming proposed a worldwide system of time zones in 1879. He advocated his system at several international conferences. He is credited to the instillation of the internal effort that led to the adoption of the present time meridians. It was that concept that led to the adoption of standardized time zones. Standardized time was needed in order for railroads to offer a uniform time schedule. Since trains traveled large distances in relatively short times, a system was needed for passengers and shippers to know when the train would arrive and depart. So, on November 18, 1883 the system was put into place. Prior to that the time of day used observation of the sun. Noon was the time when the sun reached its highest point in the sky and each locale had its own official clock, usually set in a church steeple, a government building or a jeweler’s shop.

The idea of universal time took a while to catch on. Not everyone liked the idea. Some believed that the imposition of standardized time was an expression of government over-reach. The idea that it should be the same time here as it is in another place was seen as a denial of the reality that the sun rises and sets at different times in different places. Some communities in Europe and the United States began to have two clocks - one to display the local time and another to show universal time.

It may seem like this argument was something that took place a long time ago, but the timing of the creation of universal time coincides with the founding of the church I serve. Our church is just slightly - less than a year - older than the concept of universal time. It might even have been a hot topic of discussion among the founders of the congregation.

I raise the point because this morning’s switch to Daylight Savings Time was a hot topic of conversation among members of our church choir this week. Several members expressed a dislike of the change in time and proposed that we pick one or the other time and stick with it instead of adjusting twice each year.

Of course Daylight Savings Time is a different matter than standardized time. But that idea also started in Canada. Germany and Austria were the first whole countries to go to Daylight Savings Time in 1916, the idea was first implemented in Port Arthur, Ontario - which today is known as Thunder Bay. The residents turned their clocks ahead forward by 1 hour on July 1, 1908. Other locations in Canada followed. Regina in Saskatchewan implemented Daylight Savings Time on April 23, 2924. Brandon, Manitoba did so on April 24, 1916. Regina Manitoba was the first place to establish Daylight Savings Time by municipal law.

Those Canadians!

Not everybody is imitating their plan. Well, not everybody. And that is part of what makes it so confusing. Arizona doesn’t ever have Daylight Savings Time, which means that they effectively switch time zones twice a year when the rest of the country makes the change. A bill has been approved by the Florida senate that would make today the last time change in that state. The proposal is for them to stay on Daylight Savings Time year round. It is sort of the opposite of the Arizona decision. Prior to 2006, individual counties in Indiana could choose whether or not to adopt Daylight Savings Time. Some did. Some didn’t. Eight counties in the northwest corner were in the same time zone as Chicago part of the year and in a different time zone the rest of the year. When Indiana went to statewide Daylight Savings Time the eight counties switched from Eastern to Central time year round, just to keep a bit of confusion going. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve lived for nearly three decades in either North or South Dakota - states with two time zones. In fact I’ve never served as ordained minister in a congregation that is in the same time zone as its conference office, a distinction that seems surprising to some of my colleagues who live back east where conferences are smaller.

And, if you check around the world, people do even more interesting things with time zones. The nation of India is on the half hour from Universal Time. When it is noon in London, it is 5:30 pm in New Delhi. And India isn’t alone in being on the half hour. In Australia, Northern Territory, South Australia, Lord Howe Island and the Cocos Islands are on the half hour. Other places on the half hour include Newfoundland in Canada, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar and the Marquesas Islands. Venezuela used to be on the half hour, but changed its time zone to the hour on May 1, 2016. Just incase you think you’ve got all of this figured out, Lord Howe Island in Australia shifts only a half hour for Daylight Savings Time so is offset from the rest of the world part of the year and on the hour the rest of the year.

It doesn’t end there. In Nepal the time zone is offset by the quarter hour. When it is noon in London, it is 5:45 pm in Kathmandu. The Chatham Islands in New Zealand are also on the quarter hour, as is the case of Australian Central Western Standard Time.

All of this is to raise the question from the song by the band Chicago, “Does anybody really know what time it is?”

If you are used to reading this journal first thing in the morning, since I write it first thing in the morning, did you check your clock to make sure you’d switched properly to Daylight Savings Time today. I did. I also have a big note on my desk at work reminding me to change the clock that controls the bell in the church steeple this morning. Of course people don’t really use church steeple bells to tell what time it is these days. But since it rings both at 9:15 and at 9:30, it might confuse the neighbors if I forgot to move it ahead.

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 Pursuit of Happiness

The framers of the United States Declaration of Independence famously included in the list of unalienable rights “the pursuit of Happiness.” The document contains many other important ideas and is worthy of deeper study than most citizens afford it, but that concept of the pursuit of happiness is an elusive endeavor to say the least.

The Declaration does not define happiness. It does not consider the achievement of happiness to be a right, only the pursuit of happiness.

While I am certain that there is value in the pursuit, I remain skeptical about whether or not people achieve or earn or find - or what ever is the right word - happiness. Is it possible to reach happiness in this world.

The question has been bouncing around in my mind because I just finished reading a contemporary novel. It isn’t the Great American Novel. I’m not even sure that it is a good novel. I picked it up on the recommendation of a seminary professor and it took quite a bit of reading before I could figure out why it was recommended. Having finished the book, I can’t quite decide whether or not it was a good recommendation. I suspect that reason that it was recommended is that it represents a shift in contemporary Jewish fiction. Some of the great late 20th Century novelists like Bellow, Potok and Wiesel wrestled mightily with themes of what it means to live in a post-Holocaust world. After a major European power, assisted by the inaction of many other nations came close to exterminating Jews altogether and in the process murdered more than six million, is happiness really possible? With the distinction between the victims and survivors being so narrow - mostly just a matter of random chance - can the distance between heaven and earth be great? The novels even wrestle with major theological themes. With so many victims, the notion of heaven as a sort of holding place for those who have died is brought into question.

As the 20th Century drew to a close, those same fiction writers began to wrestle with the passing of generations. When one generation vows to never forget, what is the responsibility of the next generation? This is not an idle question. There is strong evidence that trauma is indeed generational. A couple of major studies have revealed significant post-traumatic stress in the children of Holocaust survivors. Some have even indicated that such stress may be more severe in the second generation than in the first. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel took on the question in his 1992 novel, “The Forgotten.” One of the principle characters is a Holocaust survivor who is losing his memory to an unspecified illness. The possibility that all he has witnessed might be surrendered to oblivion is horrifying to the character in the story and, by association to the reader of Wiesel’s novel.

As we move towards the second quarter of the 21st Century, a few new novels are appearing from Jewish writers who are exploring the impact of the Holocaust on the third and forth generations of the survivors. What is the impact of a tragedy this scope? Is it truly possible that the sins of one generation are visited upon others to the seventh generation?

When it comes to happiness, however, I don’t believe that gentiles are exempt from the deep questions of Jews. We too have been witness to overwhelming tragedy.

I was born in the first few years after the Holocaust. My father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. But there has been enough trauma in the world in my lifetime to make me well aware of the depth of horror and the capacity of humans for indescribable evil. The Pol Pot regime in Cambodia caused 2,000,000 deaths in less than 5 years between 1975 and 1979. The 1994 Rwanda genocide resulted in 800,000 deaths. 200,000 died in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.

The violence didn’t end with the close of the 20th Century. Estimates of casualties in the Syrian Civil War vary between 346,612 and 481,612. the violence has been going on since 2011with no end in sight.

In a world of such extreme violence, where we have become numbed by counting victims in the hundreds of thousands, is happiness a realistic goal for anyone?

Looking at the personal lives of my neighbors, one has to at least ask, “Is there something about contemporary Americans that makes us particularly bad at the pursuit of happiness?” Every day I hear new stories of betrayal, divorce, affairs, bankruptcies, broken families, traumatized children, workplace harassment, bullying and more. Even churches, long held sanctuaries from some of the evils of the world have been fraught with scandal and places of terrible abuse. It isn’t hard to get the impression that when it comes to pursuing happiness, 21st Century Americans are particularly inept.

Still, there is great inspiration in reading the founding documents of our nation. And there is great hope that a band of colonists who have witnessed the displacement of the indigenous people of the continent, who are well aware of the evils of slavery, who have experienced the tyranny of monarchs, and yet who can still envision the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. For them, merely surviving is insufficient. Life is the right of every human, but there is more. Humans are meant to experience liberty. Life and liberty alone are still left wanting. It is the pursuit of happiness that is required for the development of meaning and purpose.

It is clear that one does not have to achieve complete happiness for its pursuit to be filled with meaning. All life is a journey and when we focus on the destination we fail to understand the value of the journey itself. If we think exclusively about happiness, if we constantly ask ourselves, “Am I truly happy?” we may be disappointed with the results. Deep and abiding joy comes not from achievement, but from the pursuit.

We will continue to pursue. And in doing so we will keep alive the glorious vision of our founders.

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!

Stroke

Many years ago a great aunt of mine had known a successful career as a speech therapist. She was a stickler for precise speech and often corrected us children when we visited her. Her own son was quite a bit older than we, had earned a PhD and was a university professor. She was immensely proud of his accomplishments and held him up as a standard which we should emulate. To us kids, he was boring. He talked a lot about subjects that didn’t particularly interest us. Now, as an adult, I can look back and see that I was unfairly judgmental about him. He really was a fascinating man who lived a fascinating life. Our aunt, however, came across to us as stern and strict and precise and judgmental of us and our behavior. I remember one night in 1976 when she showed her sense of humor and had us all laughing as she sang a silly song and got into a bit of family silliness. It was my single glimpse at the other side of this woman and it taught me a lesson about my tendency to judge others - judgment often comes too quickly, before the whole story is known.

Unfortunately, this aunt suffered a stroke and the stroke affected her speech center. She lived her life from the time of the stroke to the end of her life with very limited ability to speak. Her words were slurred when they came out and she frequently couldn’t find the word she wanted to say at all. She was, however, a speech therapist. She understood the dynamics of teaching one to improve her or his speech. And there was nothing wrong with her thinking. Her problems had to do with a few physical limitations and her ability to speak. This was immensely frustrating for her. Another aunt, who provided care and regular visits for her during this part of her life, reported this frustration to the rest of us with a great deal of sadness. Even to those of us who had been judgmental of her it seemed a bit cruel that she should suffer this particular affliction.

In the way of the world the aunt who had cared for her and who was a beloved aunt to all of us also suffered a stroke some years later and she never regained her ability to speak clearly after her stroke. Her attitude, however, was different. She didn’t show that same level of frustration and anger with her condition. She developed a calmness that allowed her a sense of peace and made her much easier to visit.

In the years since, I have had a lot of contact with people who have suffered strokes. One thing about stroke is that there are a lot of different variations. Strokes occur in different areas of the brain in different people. They are of varying sizes. And our brains are all a bit different from other people’s brains. Stroke isn’t the kind of sentence to a slow lingering death that I once thought it was. Stroke occurs in young people as well as elders. It can occur to infants during the birth process with varying effects. I have a friend and colleague who is near to my age who suffered a stroke in his 30’s at the height of a career that up to that point had been brilliant. He was a author and editor and widely recognized for his thinking and speaking and writing. He was in active recovery from his stroke for at least 20 years. His recovery has been amazing. He went from being unable to take care of the simplest of everyday functions to being able to live independently. He has returned to writing and has written eloquently. Many of the functions he lost in the stroke have been recovered. The image that his physicians use is that his brain “rewired” itself. I know that is just an analogy and that it doesn’t involve copper wire, but it is a helpful way of thinking about his recovery.

Another friend, who experienced a stroke in his early eighties, was hospitalized for an extended time. He had been a big fan of newspapers before his stroke and his wife consistently and faithfully read the newspaper to him every day, often reading multiple newspapers for up to four hours each day. We’ll never know for sure, but it certainly seemed as if her reading was a huge factor in his recovery. He began to discuss the news with her and although his vision never recovered fully, he did regain the ability to read parts of the newspaper.

I have learned to think of stroke differently through the experiences of others. I also have learned the warning signs of stroke. The mnemonic FAST (Face, Arms, Speech, Time) is a quick screening technique. Is part of the face drooping or hard to move? Is their arm weakness or inability to raise both arms evenly? Are there speech difficulties or a change in speech? If any of these symptoms exist, time is of essence. Take or administer an aspirin and get to the emergency room as quickly as possible. In one conversation my doctor emphasized calling 911 first and only then taking the aspirin. Don’t even evaluate whether or not you have a ride or can drive, just get help.

There are other warning signs of strokes that are easy to obtain.

Of course all of this is on my mind because I visited another stroke victim yesterday. His speech is definitely affected, but I had no trouble understanding every word that he said. His thinking was clear even though he could barely force his eyes to open and his arms weren’t working the way he wanted them to. Treatment in the hospital was first rate and signs of recovery are very positive at the moment.

It brings back a flood of memories to me, however. We humans are a fragile species. We are prone to illness and the failure of some of our body parts. We need to learn self care and to accept our mortality. None of us will go on forever in this life. And while we make this short journey together, learning to listen is essential. We never know when it will help us truly hear the wisdom of another.

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!

International Women's Day

Sometimes I write about things I don’t know about. Some times I write about things I REALLY don’t know about. Today might just be one of those days.

Today has been declared International Women’s Day. Surprisingly the day is receiving more press in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa than it is receiving in the United States. The theme this year is #PressforProgress. The call is to press forward and progress gender parity. The 2017 World Economic Forum released a Global Gender Gap Report that claimed that gender parity is over 200 years away.

We’ve been talking about equal pay for equal work for all of my active career. Women have been speaking out for equal access fo employment and career choices. But it seems that we still live in a world where the system is rigged in favor of men.

My own personal experience is that an increasing number of my colleagues are women. They are competent, capable and strong pastors and leaders for our churches. But I know that there are denotations that still do not ordain women and do not accept women in leadership roles. That seems foreign in our denomination, where our first women was ordained in 1853, but It was 125 years before ordination was common in Protestant denominations. I have, however, been told that the increase in women in church leadership corresponds with the decline in compensation for pastors. The more our profession slides in terms of recognition and compensation, the more women rise to positions of leadership. Or perhaps it is the other way around.

Still, the denomination that was first in the United States to ordain a woman has yet to elect a woman as its General Minister and President - the top executive position in the church’s national setting. We may have been first to ordain, but have fallen behind our colleagues when it comes to full sharing of leadership.

Our profession, however, is hardly the standard by which the role of women in society is judged. When it comes to top compensation for executives, the church isn’t the place to look.

The #MeToo movement against male harassment has received a lot of press in the US and elsewhere and it does seem to be gaining momentum as the entertainment industry, politics, and big business have been forced to come to grips with many examples of sexual harassment that have been allowed to continue making workplaces inhospitable for women. For too long we’ve turned a blind eye to allegations of harassment. Clearly 2017 and 2018 have been years of women saying, “No longer!” Famous people have been forced to resign and have had to give up power because of the courage and actions of their victims.

Still, there are plenty of victims whose claims are ignored and whose voices go unheard.

It would be easy to write an essay that cited examples of discrimination and unjust practices that make women victims. However, my life has been blessed with many strong, capable women who have provided examples and leadership. It is essential that we listen to the victims when harassment occurs, but it is also important to recognize women who have risen above the elements in society that seek to unfairly hold them back.

The BBC series 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. BBC creates documentaries, features and interview about their lives giving space to stories that put women at the center. The series celebrates contributions and leadership from women around the world.

I have personally been blessed to have grown up among strong women. My parents were business partners and shared both the tasks of income earning and homemaking. Theirs was a relationship that was forged by the times in which they lived and it was by no means free from stereotypical gender roles, but when I became an adult, I discovered that there were many families where the woman took a back seat to her husband. Such was not the case with our mother. She had strong opinions and knew how to express them. She had business skills upon which our father depended as together they grew their business. She managed over three decades of widowhood with intelligence and competency.

I also grew up among sisters and knew that there were boundaries and limits to my behavior. There was, I am sure, a certain amount of privilege that came from being the first boy in the family, but I learned from an early age and respecting my sisters, their space and their lives was essential to being a part of our family.

I have been very fortunate to be married with a wife who is also a colleague, whose intelligence, skill and wisdom have provided leadership to our family in so many ways. Like our parents before us, we are affected by the culture in which we live, but we have been blessed by living in a time of increased awareness of the roles of women and increased assess for women to positions of responsibility and power.

I am the father of an amazing daughter whose courage and maturity inspire me daily.

So it seems natural to me to celebrate International Women’s Day. I know that all people, men and women, benefit from the progress that is being made towards women’s equality. It is a day that is not set aside for women, but a day that benefits all humanity.

In a way it seems a bit trivial for it to be only one day. Every day, in a way, is an appropriate day to acknowledge the leadership provided by women and to engage in action for equality for all people.

International Women’s Day was started by women who sought the right to vote in the early 1900’s. The Suffragettes brought both persistence and patience to their cause and refused to accept the doors slammed in their faces and the selfishness of men who sought to exclude them from the political process. Their leadership is essential to the lives we live today.

So today, I claim International Women’s Day as a day for all people and a day to recommit to making every day a day of positive difference for women and for all people.

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!

Robots

I caught a brief video on BBC about Flippy, a burger-flipping robot that has been introduced in a Pasadena, California burger restaurant. It uses image recognition and heat sensing technologies to know when to turn the burgers and when to take them off of the grill. The machine is capable of handling 12 burgers at once. The restaurant chain, CaliBurger, intends to install 50 of the units in its stores over the next few months. The robots aren’t cheap. They cost $60,000 to purchase and an additional $12,000 per year to run. Depending on the service life of the robots, which is not completely known, they probably are less expensive for the restaurant than human cooks. Burger line cooks are generally unskilled workers who are hired part time without benefits and are relatively low cost employees. The job, however, isn’t a very fun job. It is hot and greasy and can cause wrist injuries. At the end of the day, most people who do that job would prefer to be doing something else. It is a high turnover job. But it is a job that they can get and it does provide some income for their family. I’m pretty sure that there are some people who currently work in fast-food restaurants who will be displaced by the robots.

The manufacturers of the robots say that they are more consistent than human cooks. The burgers come out exactly the way the restaurant owners want them to be. The video did, however, show the robot making mistakes. It would occasionally flip a cheese burger after the cheese had been put on top, making a mess of the cheese and the burger. Probably that is a minor bit of software adjustment and the machine will soon be flipping burgers with a lower rate of mistakes than humans. It will also work longer hours without demanding overtime. It won’t quit the job as soon as something better is offered.

For now, the machine is just an additional level of automation in a fast food environment that already has quite a bit of automation. It won’t replace humans. It won’t be handing the food to the customer and replacing all of the employees. There will still be jobs for humans in fast food for the foreseeable future.

It does get one to thinking however. What level of automation is most desirable? Are there some jobs that we want to preserve simply because we have people who need those jobs? If machines are assigned all of the repetitive tasks, will there be more and more people who simply don’t have jobs? What do those with no jobs do with their time?

It isn’t just flipping burgers, of course. Perhaps the most notable of advances in robotics are self-driving vehicles. Driving truck is a job held by a lot of US workers. They earn their living and support their families with their skills behind the wheel. But deliveries have already been made by experimental driverless trucks. Laws are being adjusted in some states to allow for automated transport systems. There is talk of automated cars replacing cabs driven by human drivers in the not-too-distant future.

The questions isn’t substantially different than the questions that arose in the early years of the industrial revolution. When machines do the jobs that humans used to do, what do humans do? One of the things they do is to repair machines. I have a friend who repairs sophisticated medical imaging machines. He has some highly specialized skills and hospitals have become utterly dependent upon the machines. It doesn’t look like there will be any less need for his skills in his lifetime. New jobs arise in building and maintaining the machines that do the jobs that humans no longer want to do. And it is true that the applications of robots so far are for jobs that are repetitive and probably don’t bring out the highest and bess skills from the humans who do those jobs.

As we live into this new time of increased automation, one wonders where the limits of technology may be.

I know of a congregation that has multiple satellite churches. The satellite churches don’t have live worship leaders, but rather huge video and audio systems that show the main service being conducted at the home site. Through this application of technology one team of worship leaders can provide a kind of worship experience for thousands of people. The worship team is already smaller than the team in our church, which includes a vocal choir, a bell choir, lay readers as well as paid staff. Clearly their model is attractive to some worshipers - they draw a bigger crowd than our congregation. The one time I attended a service, however, it wasn’t very worshipful for me. It was more like going to a movie - focused on entertainment without engaging me in any significant engagement in n actual worship discipline.

It does, however, show that I can be replaced with technology. My congregation could opt for a big screen and streamed in services in place of what we do these days. It isn’t a choice I expect the congregation to make, but it is silly for me to think that I am somehow exempt from the changes that are occurring in technology. We are all affected.

Just yesterday, a friend proposed giving up computers for Lent. I suggested that it could be a problem in our church because that would mean giving up heat in the building and processing of donations and issuing of pay checks - all of which are done employing computer technology. While it is possible and even desirable for us to individually give up our over dependence on screens and keyboards, it is hard to imagine simply avoiding technology all together for six weeks.

But there is no escaping the simple fact that times are changing.

I keep wondering what they might call a robot preacher. Talky? Preachy? Know it all? So far I haven’t come up with anything that hasn’t already been said about a human preacher.

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!

Listening to the wind

Several months ago I had a conversation with a woman whose husband was a shift worker about the things their family did to make the schedule work. She said that one of the best things that they did was to purchase black out curtains that made their bedroom very dark to enable sleeping during the day. I commented that I seem to have no trouble falling asleep with the lights on. Although we turn out the lights when we sleep and I don’t mind the darkness, I have no trouble going to sleep when my wife is staying up a bit later than I and she needs the light to do something in the bedroom.

I am also able to sleep with a fair amount of noise. I attribute this ability to having grown up in a family with plenty of brothers. I didn’t have the experience, now very common, of having my own bedroom. I always shared my bedroom with a brother until I went off to college, where I had a roommate. Interestingly enough, I had a hard time with roommates in college. Until I married, I didn’t succeed in finding a roommate whose lifestyle was anywhere near mine. Part of the problem was rule infractions. I wasn’t much for bending the rules and I managed to find roommates who wanted to keep all kinds of illegal substances in the room including beer and marijuana. It wasn’t just that I seemed more focused on my studies then they. It wasn’t just that we kept different hours. It was that I was pretty sure they had the ability to really get me into trouble. It never happened. We were never busted. But the fear bothered me. I changed roommates twice in the first year of college. I’m pretty sure that the housing director at the school saw me as a problem. He was probably relieved that I saved the money for a private room for my second year of college.

I’ve developed a pretty good ability to sleep with a fair amount of light and noise. When our children were little, I learned to get up and respond to their crying, but I was slow to do so and I can remember trying to figure out how my wife could hear sounds that I had not heard. She had a special ability. When our kids were 2 and 4 we moved into a home where the Amtrak train came right behind the house twice each night - once heading west and then heading east. It blew its whistle right behind our house because of an upcoming street crossing. She learned to seep through the train. I woke when the train was late. But that same person who could sleep through the train passing behind the house and blowing its whistle, would wake instantly if a 4-year-old whispered, “Mommy!” It was amazing.

Thoughts of sleep an noises came to my mind last night. It was windy yesterday and the wind continued through the night. We live in a pretty sheltered place with plenty of pine trees, so we don’t get wind speeds that are as high as they get out on the plains, but it was windy enough yesterday that, after the fourth or fifth time of chasing our garbage container down the street, I decided to put it back away and wait until next week to put it out for pickup. We have a large container that will easily hold two weeks worth of garbage and it is cold enough that there will be no odor. Some of the neighbors, who didn’t have the luxury of being able to stay home on a Monday, had to go down wind quite a ways to find their containers.

The wind continued though the night and I woke a couple of times and lay in bed listening to the sound of the wind. It felt good. It is a pleasant sound to me. I was warm and safe in my bed and the wind was outside.

I grew up in a place with a lot more wind than we get here in the hills. I’ve written about some of my experiences with wind in other journal entries. The sound of the wind in the trees seems very natural to me. And, when I was a kid, those were cottonwood trees, which are pretty good at cracking and shedding big branches. It can be pretty frightening to listen to the sounds of big winds in those trees. But I grew up with it and though there were a couple of instances of branches hitting and causing damage to the roof, there was never any danger to us inside our home.

I also grew up next to the river. Living far away from running after at this phase of my life, one of the treats of being on vacation is getting to sleep somewhere next to a river. The sound of the rushing water, like the sound of wind, is a kind of lullaby to my ears.

I think that I am attuned to sleep when the sounds are the sounds of nature. I’m not sure I’d enjoy living off the end of a runway of a major airport. I can remember lying in bed as a child and listening for the sound of our father’s airplane returning home, but that was something different entirely. I did learn to sleep with the train tracks behind the backyard fence, but was careful about the location of the next home that we purchased.

Like many other things, different people have different things that interrupt their sleep. I don’t know if I have neighbors who found it difficult to sleep last night because the wind was making more noise than usual. Perhaps they have ear plugs or other ways to dim the sound. Perhaps they are like me and enjoy the sound of the wind. At any rate, I woke a bit ahead of my alarm this morning feeling refreshed and enjoying the feeling of lying in bed and listening to the wind.

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!

Shoes

My father wore Red Wing pull on boots. I don’t know when he started wearing that particular style of shoe, but I can’t remember a time before he wore those boots. He wore them to work every day. He owned a pair of dress shoes, which were reserved for Sundays and certain important meetings. Saturday evening was shoe polishing time at our home and we all lined up our shoes and as soon as we were able to help, we participated in the polishing and buffing of shoes. When I became a bit older I found out that my dad always kept a brand new pair of boots in his closet. When a pair wore out, he’d switch to the new ones and buy another new pair to be the pair in waiting. Once, after he had died, I asked my grandmother about the practice. She couldn’t remember any time when he went without shoes or think of any reason why it made him happy to have a spare pair in reserve at all times. He died with a brand new pair of boots in the box in his closet, worn only in the store the day he bought them.

Like our dad we had everyday shoes and dress shoes. Our everyday shoes were generally what we called tennis shoes. Black and white, Keds brand lace ups. They didn’t have fancy hiking soles. They weren’t waterproof. In the winter we wore 5 buckle overshoes, so what kind of shoes we had inside of them wasn’t a big deal. We always kept our old tennis shoes. In the summer we had a big box of “river shoes” which were tennis shoes with holes in various places. These were worn for wading in the river and protected our otherwise bare feet from the rocks that lined the bottom of the stream. We’d wear these until there was hardly any shoe left, sometimes with the soles flapping as we walked.

I got a pair of cowboy boots, probably after a whole lot of campaigning on my part, when I was about 8 years old. I remember all three of my brothers wearing those boots as one after the other our feet became too big to wear them. In general we got new jeans and a new cowboy shirt for rodeo every year and went to the rodeo wearing tennis shoes just like most of the other kids in our town.

I don’t think that shoes have ever been a really big deal to me, but somehow I ended up with a whole lot more shoes in my closet than my father ever owned. I have sturdy, warm and waterproof hiking boots. I own two (count ‘em) pairs of cowboy boots - one brown and one black. I generally wear those boots for dress and try to keep them polished and nice. I wear shoes that are called walking shoes for everyday these days after years of wearing boots exclusively. These shoes have come a long way from my tennis shoe days. They have thick soles with a hiking boot tread. They are waterproof and warm even on winter days. They have attractive uppers that are acceptable in most settings. I wear them to work and to visit people in their homes and to meetings without another thought. I used to always buy the same brand and model, but a few years ago that brand seemed to be more poorly made. I found it hard to get a pair to last a whole year. I took them back several times and had them sewed up, but when it came time to replace a pair I switched brands last year and haven’t looked back. I like the new brand just fine. Time will tell if they hold up long enough to engender some brand loyalty. I still buy my hiking boots at Red Wing out of a sense of loyalty and the positive memories of going to that store with my father.

Looking at other people’s feet, however, I have come to the conclusion that my footwear is rather boring by comparison. Recently at a small group meeting, I looked around the room. Most of those gathered wore some form of running shoes. OK mine aren’t exactly running shoes, and some might have been walking shoes or cross trainers or some other kind of specialty sport shoe, but they all had lightweight uppers. But now two pairs looked alike. My grey shoes were no standouts in that crowd. On man was wearing shoes that were so bright green that I wondered if they glowed in the dark. Another’s shoes were bright blue. There were shoes with orange and red stripes. One woman was wearing what looked like high top shoes that laced part of the way up and had a couple of velcro straps at the top. They were blue and white and seemed to have no connection, either in color or style to the rest of her outfit. These, I assume, are fashionable, though no one has ever turned to me for fashion advice.

Most running shoes look comfortable, but not all shoes look that way to me. I’m pretty sure that some people make shoe choices based on appearance more than comfort. How else can you explain high heels, a topic about which I have no expertise, but that look to me like a very unnatural way to walk.

I saw a pair of shoes recently, though I can’t remember the setting, that looked like they were wrapped in aluminum foil. They were silver and shiny and showy. I bet it is a struggle to keep them shiny in the muddy, slushy streets of our town this time of year.

Looking at all the different kinds of shoes that people wear these days doesn’t make me want to go out and buy more. In fact, it makes me think that if anything is acceptable, I should be able to get buy with only one or perhaps two pairs of shoes. A lot of men have no problem wearing black shoes with brown pants or vice versa these days. People seem to wear what look like recreational shoes in dress settings all the time. I think that I could just select the shoes that are most comfortable and forget about it.

On the other hand, if they sold those shoes that light up when you walk in adult sizes . . .

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!

Unfair school funding

About a year ago, I rad an article in the New York Times about the divide in parental donations in a suburban Los Angeles school district. Malibu, which is overwhelmingly affluent was taking in a lot more money during PTA fundraisers than Santa Monica, where nearly a third of the students qualify as low income. California schools are strapped, so PTA fund raisers are not just a matter of enrichment, but are used to cover classroom basics as well. The superintendent of the district proposed an equal distribution of PTA money over the 11 schools in the district. This made the Malibu parents so angry that they pushed to secede from the district and create their own school system just for Malibu students. They wanted the money from their PTA fundraisers to go exclusively to their children.

One quote in the article struck me. Craig Foster, school board member from Malibu, said that the current system gives parents “the opportunity to put your money where your heart is.” The former managing director at Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse went on to say. “It has to be an emotional appeal, and it has to be for the benefit of the donor.”

It seems sad to me that Mr. Foster’s heart doesn’t extend beyond his own backyard. Unless it benefits him directly, he doesn’t want to donate. I don’t know the man and have never met him, but whenever selfishness rears its ugly head, it makes the person seem petty and small.

The problem of PTAs and fundraising has been going on for a long time.

When our children were in elementary school, we naturally became involved in the PTA. I remember an early meeting, where the group was discussing fund-raisers. It seemed that the most popular fund raising for the organization involved sending children door to door with various sales items. There were candy bars, for which the PTA would pay more than retail price and then sell at double the price paid. There were magazine subscriptions with a similar higher than normal cost. And there were other ideas. I raised a question about what this really taught children about the marketplace. First of all, I said, “If it is a Parent Teacher Organization, why are we asking our children to raise the money for us?” Then I questioned whether these sales benefitted the fundraising companies more than they did the school. I proposed that I would prefer to make a donation than to buy a bunch of candy or magazines that I didn’t want.

Of course I ended up being on the fund raising committee.

Within a couple of years, we dropped all fund raising events except an annual school carnival. We took the total amount that was raised in the various events, divided by the number of students and knowing that not every family had funds to donate for every student and that some of the lower income families had more students than some of the more wealthy families, I and several other members of the committee doubled our donations so that those who could donate less would be covered. We exceeded our fund raising goal with a single letter of appeal.

I also made a few appeals to neighborhood donors who didn’t have students in school, but who were supportive of the school in subsequent years. But we eliminated the process of sending our children door to door to raise our donations.

I recalled that process as I was talking to my son yesterday about the elementary school where his son is enrolled. They participate in a program that calls for higher investment by parents. Parents are required to invest both time and financial resources in their children’s school. The extra funds, which average around $350 per student per year, provide a rich learning experience for the children and the parents can see the benefit of the investment. The problem is that this enhanced program is embraced by wealthier families and the children of less wealthy households tend to be enrolled in the normal program. This disparity creates a class system within the school.

Secondarily, the parents, when they get together, come up with a variety of ideas for raising the extra funds needed many of which involve sending their children door to door selling overpriced items.

I was proud of my son for recognizing these problems. I like to think that his awareness comes, in part, from our decision to enroll our children in an elementary school that had a diverse population and from our involvement in PTA activities when they were growing up. Probably he would have become an involved and compassionate parent anyway, but I like to feel a little bit of connection. I’m proud that he can see beyond his own family when it comes to supporting school programs.

the reality is that schools across the nation are underfunded. We don’t pay teachers what they are worth. We shortchange academic programs and overfund certain athletic programs. Not long ago I was visiting with a parent in a divorcing family that was trying to work out how to cover an estimated $10,000 per year in expenses for an elite athletic program in which their student participated. Their belief was that the investment would pay off in college scholarships. They might be right. But there are a lot of students who have abilities who will never get a shot at a program with that kind of costs.

When we underfund our schools, we create inequalities. and any inequality in school programs inhibits the role of education as the great equalizer of a society. Stratification of society into “haves” and “have nots” weakens the entire society.

Equity in school funding should be a fundamental right, not a cause that must be pursued by those who are politically active. Just as we shouldn’t be asking our children to raise money for our projects and programs, we shouldn’t ask them to pay for our mistakes in distribution.

It may be time for the traditional PTA to be replaced by some kind of wider foundation that supports all children. Clearly the issue has not been resolved with the passing of a generation. Fortunately, my grandchildren are even more bright and resourceful than their parents who themselves are more capable than their parents.

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 crisis compounded by greed

When I was a teenager, the War in Vietnam was raging. It was a terribly costly war in terms of lives lost. In order to supply the soldiers needed for the combat, the draft was in full swing. Every young man had to register before his 18th birthday and a lottery was in place to determine, by date of birth, who would be drafted. It took a long time after the end of the war to get an official number on the US soldiers killer or lost in action in Vietnam. In 1982 the Vietnam Memorial was inscribed with the names of 57,939 members of US armed forces who had died or were missing as a result of the war. Additions to that have brought the total past 58,200. At least 100 names on the memorial are those of servicemen who were Canadian citizens serving in the US forces. We often use the round number of 58,000 as the count. There were far more losses of Vietnamese combatants. Allies of the United States also lost soldiers, including South Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. Then there were the civilian casualties.It was a costly enterprise.

That war pales, by number, however, with the war in which we are currently engaged. No, I’m not talking about Iraq (4,486 US soldiers). I’m not talking about Afghanistan (2,345 US soldiers). I’m talking about the victims of prescription drug overdoses. Since 2000, more than 200,000 people have died of prescription drug overdoses - more than three times the number of American lives lost during the Vietnam War.

We’ve seen a lot of lip service recently about opioid addiction. In fact President Donald Trump on Thursday suggested using the death penalty on drug dealers to address the opioid epidemic. While it is true that those who are addicted often end up purchasing illegal drugs after their addiction becomes so severe that their need for drugs outstrips what can be obtained legally or the price of legal drugs makes illegal drugs appealing to them, a large number of victims of opioid overdoses began their addiction with legally prescribed drugs obtained from pharmacies and other legal distributers. It may be politically acceptable to go after the pushers of illegal heroin and fentanyl, but the lethal results of drugs sold for profit by legal companies are just as real.

And the laws protect the drug companies. And the drug companies invest a significant amount of their profits in lobbying congress for laws to protect them and their high profits. As recently as 2016, The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement act was pushed through Congress by a small band of lawmakers backed by a powerful array of drug companies. The initial version of this law as written by a drug industry attorney. Sponsored by Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), it made it nearly impossible for the Drug Enforcement Agency to use immediate suspension orders against drug distributors. It protects drugstores suspected of diverting prescription narcotics to the black market from suspension of their orders. Even when enforcement agents can prove that those shipments pose an imminent danger to the community, it is insufficient evidence according to the new law.

Instead of combatting the destructive killer of opioid addiction, congresses has made it more difficult to prosecute those who are shipping huge numbers of prescription medications - far beyond the amount needed for effective treatment of pain - to pharmacies across America. The industry defends the law as necessary to ensure that legitimate pain patients can receive their medication without disruption. When DEA officials do discover companies delivering unreasonable amounts of drugs, rather than prosecute, DEA must bring “corrective action plans” before the companies can be sanctioned. The result is that enforcement against companies that ship huge amounts of drugs is nearly impossible. This legislation has been documented by the Washington Post and by a “60 Minutes” investigation last October.

Part of the problem is that there is a huge amount of profit involved in health care in the United States and there is no shortage of companies who are scooping up those profits. Drug manufacturers dole out $240 million a year for the purpose of lobbying congress. The insurance industry adds $157 million per year. Those are just dollars invested in lobbying, Health care companies spend additional millions on campaign donations. Those dollars buy a lot of attention from those in congress who are constantly engaged in raising big money for election bids. These companies don’t spend money on lobbying out of altruism. They are inviting money and they expect a return. They see buying legislation as an effective method of increasing profits.

Congress does a bit of talking about our nation’s drug crisis. But their actions don’t make it look like they are truly seeking solutions.

At the heart of the crisis is pain. Americans experience a lot of pain. In a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, on in four adults said they suffered a daylong bout of pain in the past month. One in 10 said they have experienced chronic pain that lasted a year or more. The amount of pain in our country makes pain killers a gold mine for drug companies. Those suffering pain will do almost anything to get relief. Unscrupulous doctors are willing to exploit their patient’s desperate need for relief.

But the promise of a pain-free life is always a false promise. Real living involves pain. Learning to live with pain is part of being human. A doctor can’t eliminate pain. Responsible physicians can take away some of the pain, but they cannot eliminate it. Responsible doctors are beginning to cut back on prescribing opioids. When they are prescribed, it is done for much shorter periods of time. Still, the drugs are dangerous. A dependency can develop in as little as two weeks.

Non-pharmacological therapies are essential to living with pain. Physical therapy, proper posture and body mechanics, weight loss, proper diet and other therapies are as critical as is medication.

We’ve got a bit problem - a lethal problem. We can’t count on congress, with its deep addiction to big dollars, to provide the solutions. We need to learn to deal with this in other ways. As is true with every war, sacrifices will need to be made. There will be real costs. But only when we take responsibility for this crisis ourselves will we find our way out of this mess.

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 job I love

There was a time, some years ago, when I thought of the church as a kind of hierarchical ladder. We started our career serving two small churches. Then we were called to a congregation that was about twice the size of the two churches combined. Then we moved again to a mid-sized congregation. That was more than 23 years ago now. I think when I first came here, I imagined that I might go on from this church to serve at the Conference level and perhaps even serve in the national setting of the church. A former pastor of this congregation did just that, becoming a conference minister and after that serving in the Stewardship office of our church’s national setting.

There were many things that I did not anticipate with that kind of thinking. One of the things is that the church isn’t a hierarchy. Those serving in Conference or national settings aren’t somehow above those serving in local churches. In addition, I don’t think that i understood how rapidly mainline churches, and our denomination were shrinking. Because the congregations I served held their own in membership and grew modestly, I didn’t notice how many congregations were shrinking in size and how many congregations were closing. The impact of this change on Conference and national settings of the church was dramatic. Conference offices started cutting staff and program budgets. The same was occurring at the national level. So while the congregations I was serving were growing in budget and program, the Conference and national settings of the church were shrinking. Each year they had less to offer to local congregations. Each year they hired fewer staff persons. Each year there was less activity and less excitement about those settings of the church.

When I became aware of this trend, I naively thought for a while that the problem was poor leadership. I convinced myself that had I been called to serve in one of those other settings, I would have done things differently and the results would have been different. That is highly unlikely. For one thing I did serve in the church’s national setting. For about 20 years in the middle of my career, I served part time as an educational consultant in the church’s national setting. And my position is one of many that was eventually eliminated. There are no more educational consultants. There are no more free-lance curricula writers, another job that I did for several years.

Another thing that I didn’t envision when I was thinking of the shape of my career, was simply how much I love doing the work of a local church pastor. I look at the jobs that Conference ministers do, with extensive driving, many nights being away from home, difficult situations, nearly constant conflict - and I can see easily that such a job is no where as joyful as the work I do. Conference ministers aren’t called in to lead Christmas worship. They rarely officiate at weddings or baptisms. They don’t conduct any where near as many funerals as I do. They don’t get to know the members of the choir or see the dedication of the people who work in the church kitchen.

I have also discovered some wonderful things about serving long-term pastorates. I have confirmed children that I have baptized. I have celebrated weddings of adults who were children when I met them. I have watched middle-aged persons become seniors and elders. I have witnessed the transformation of the congregation in many different ways.

Of course, I have also been called upon to officiate at the funerals of my friends - in fact most of the funerals I lead these days are for people that I consider to be my friends. I have said good bye to young adults as they go off into the world to college, military service, jobs and other adventures. Many of them end up living in other places and I see them only rarely. I have witnessed the pain of widows and widowers as they adjust to major life changes. I have walked with people as they struggled with life-changing illnesses. All of this carries deep meaning, but it also means that I have not only celebrated with the congregation, but also grieved with it.

Of course there are careers that offer higher salaries, more security and earlier retirement. But the truth is, I cannot imagine a different career that I would have loved like I love the jobs I have been called to do. Of course there are days when I’m moving furniture and wondering how that got to be my job. There are times when I am stuck behind a computer when I want to be out visiting people. There are chores that I have undertaken that I don’t particularly love. But the overall thrust of my job is a path of service that I wouldn’t trade for any other job in the world.

This week I got another invitation to participate in a tribute to a colleague who is retiring after long and faithful service. Those requests are coming in more and more. Many of my seminary classmates have already retired. It seems that 40 years is the career span of many ministers and this June will be the 40th anniversary of our seminary graduation. The good news for me is that there is no mandatory retirement for us and I was about as young as was possible when I graduated from seminary, so I think I’ve got a few more years of effective service in me yet.

But none of us will go on forever. We serve God in the places where we are called for the time that God allows us and I have no illusions about the future of the church. God will provide the leaders that are needed and the day will come when I don’t be one of those leaders.

In the meantime, I’m having a ball being pastor of this congregation. I know there is no “ladder” and no pinnacle for ministers, but the place to which my career has brought me gives me great joy and satisfaction. I’ve been a lucky one in this career.

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

What do we believe about sacrifice?

Among the ancient literature are bits of propaganda by one group against another. Greek and Roman propagandists wrote some pretty disparaging things about Carthaginians. In fact some of the things claimed by the propagandists were dismissed as hyperbole like the claim that the Carthaginians sacrificed children to give thanks for favors from the gods. Except that there is now significant archeological, epigraphic and literary evidence that the Carthaginians did exactly that. They did kill their children, and from inscriptions that have been found they did so not just as an offering for future favors but also to fulfill a promise that had already been made. There is even evidence that they bought the children of poor people and raised them specifically for sacrifice. It was a brutal practice.

It isn’t just Carthage.

Human sacrifice and ritual killing was part of the Etruscan Culture. A famous mural has images of human sacrifice. Urns are carved with images of sacrifice.

During the Shang Dynasty, human sacrifice was important in China. The Celts practiced human sacrifice as part of their religious rituals. The Druids participated in and officiated at human sacrifices. In Ancient Hawaii, a luakini temple, or luakini heiau, was a Native Hawaiian sacred place where human and animal blood sacrifices were offered. Kauwa, the outcast or slave class, were often used as human sacrifices at the luakini heiau. They are believed to have been war captives, or the descendants of war captives.

The Mespoptamians, the Aztec, the Incas - they all practiced forms of human sacrifice.

It is possible that human sacrifice is part of our religious heritage as well, although there is no known direct evidence. We d know that such a practice was pondered by our people and Abraham, the father of our faith, whose very name means “father of nations” came very close to the practice on two occasions. He took his son, Isaac, to Moriah believing that he is complying with God’s demand that he sacrifice the boy. He builds an altar. He lays the firewood, he binds his son, he raises the sword. It is only at the last minute that the practice is interrupted, a ram is discovered, the boy is saved. Another time, at the demand of his wife Sarah, Abraham cast out the slave woman Hagar and the son she bore for Abraham. Ishmael and his mother are set in the desert, where he nearly dies of exposure and thirst. The action, on Abraham’s part isn’t exactly a human sacrifice, but it comes close to murder by neglect. The boy and his mother miraculously survive and the sacrifice is averted.

Long after our people had given up consideration of human sacrifice, the religious rituals described in our Bible are filled with instructions for animal sacrifice. Man different creatures from doves to lambs and goats and calves are sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem well into the time of Jesus. The book of Leviticus describes five types of sacrifices: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the trespass offering. Each sacrifice involved specific elements. Some involved animals and others grain or other fruit of the field. The burnt offering required a bird, ram or bull without blemish. The meat and bones of the animal were totally burnt and offered to God. The hide was given to the Levites who sold the hides for income. Peace offerings also involved animal sacrifice. Sin offerings varied from a measurement of flour to a young bull depending on the severity of the sin. A trespass offering had to be a ram. The fat portions, kidneys and liver were offered to God and burned completely. The remainder of the ram was eaten inside the court of the tabernacle.

It was this practice of sacrifice against Jesus railed in the cleansing of the temple, reported in all four Gospels. He expelled the merchants and money changers, tipped over tables, made a whip and drove the merchants who were selling animals for sacrifice out of the building and courtyard. He refers to the Temple as “my father’s house” and indicates that the practices of the merchants are incompatible with an accurate understanding of God.

Do we actually believe, as did so many ancients in so many different cultures, that God is, at the core angry with humans and demands sacrifice to atone for sins? Do we believe that God demands killing to satisfy some kind of blood lust? At the core of our images of sacrifice is our concept of God.

While Christians do not have human or animal sacrifices in our traditional practices, the concept of substitutionary atonement is a part of mainstream theology. It is the notion that human sin deserves punishment by God, but that Jesus’ sacrifice and death on the cross makes up for human sin. As the “lamb of God,” Jesus is sacrificed in place of us and his sacrifice becomes the way for forgiveness of our sins. This mainstream theological concept comes very close to promoting the image of an angry God who demands punishment. Such is evidenced by the tone of many a Christian sermon. Our congregational forebear, Jonathan Edwards, a famous preacher of the Great Awakening, famously wrote a sermon entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that appeals to sinners to recognize that they will be judged by God and that this judgment will be more fearful and painful than they can comprehend.

Our notions of God, however, are challenged by the Gospels themselves, especially the descriptions of Jesus’ actions in the temple. His cleaning of the temple did not endear him to the temple authorities. It did not garner him popular support or respect. Within days of the cleansing of the temple he was on trial and some of the things he said were used as testimony against him: “I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.” His popularity with the common folk was not high, either, as they screamed “crucify him!” at his trial.

It is enough to make us question our own notion of the nature of God - a good thought for pondering in the season of Lent.

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!