September 2018

A new bishop

The Protestant Reformation was a major realignment within the church and there were many different issues and differences that became dynamics in the change. Among those complex dynamics was a discussion about power in the church and the best way for the church to organize itself. After the Great Schism of 1054 both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches emerged is similar hierarchical structures. Each had bishops who had authority over pastors, and cardinals who had authority over bishops. In the Roman Catholic Church there is a pope who is the singular head of the church. In the Orthodox church there is not a singular pope, but rather councils who exercise authority. The Protestant Reformation was a split within Roman Catholicism and part of that split was a break from the hierarchy. Some Protestant churches rejected the entire notion of top down authority and gave the authority to interpret scripture to each member of the church. Within contemporary protestant churches there are many different structures and ways of governing the church.

One of the major parties to the union that formed our United Church of Christ was the Congregational Church. Growing from the congregations formed by Puritan and Pilgrim settlers who came from Europe to the United States, there was a strong conviction that authority rested in the local congregation and that Associations and Conferences of churches were organized for mission, but not for theological authority. Associations and Conferences were not given authority over local churches, but rather derived their authority from local churches. The resulting way of organizing congregations has become known as congregational polity and is practiced by many different denominations, including Baptist, Assemblies of God, the Christian Church and the United Church of Christ. Other branches of Protestantism have adopted an ecclesiastical polity. The Anglican communion, which includes the Episcopal church in the United States has such a structure and that form of church governance is also called episcopal polity. It is hierarchal with bishops having authority over the pastors of local congregations. A similar structure has been adopted by other churches, including the United Methodist Church.

There are other forms of church governance including Presbyterian polity which places authority in Presbyteries or assemblies of elders. And there are all sorts of forms of hybrid and modified forms of church governance throughout the many and diverse forms of Protestant Christianity.

Living a life of faithful discipleship is a challenge for all Christians and there can be different ways of interpreting the scriptures and traditions of the church. We each have our own set of rules by which we organize ourselves and those rules are in constant flux and change. One of the places where a major shift in church polity is occurring in our contemporary world is the United Methodist Church which faces a major vote in February that would result in the ecclesiastical authority of bishops being spread out and the church becoming slightly more congregational in its understanding of the book of discipline.

The differences and shifts in structure are of interest mostly to students of the church and its governance. Most church members see their primary relationship in terms of membership in a local church and if that relationship is strong, they are only mildly interested in how the wider church is organized. If they love the fellowship and worship of their local church and enjoy the leadership of their pastor, they don’t concern themselves much with the dynamics of wider church politics.

Occasionally, however those politics come into play in a local church, most notably when there is a change in the pastor. When a congregation is seeking a new pastor, there are many different ways in which new leadership is chosen. In an episcopal church, the bishop appoints a new pastor. In a congregational church, the congregation votes to elect a new pastor. Some communions are able to make changes in pastoral leadership swiftly. In others it can take a long time to search for and call a new pastor.

Ours is a communion where search and call can take quite a while as local churches are matched with pastoral candidates through the work of the Conference in cooperation with Parish Life and Leadership in the national setting of our church. As is true with all forms of church governance, there is significant prayer and discernment of God’s will in the process.

Last night we had the honor of being invited to a celebration banquet on the occasion of the installation of a newly consecrated bishop in the Church of God in Christ. In that communion, a bishop can also be a local church pastor. It is not a foregone conclusion that Rapid City would be the place where the Bishop of South Dakota would reside, but the previous bishop and the newly-consecrated bishop have both been the pastor of Faith Temple, our local congregation. the new bishop and I have formed a friendship over the years as we have worked together on a variety of community service and ecumenical worship projects.

The occasion of the installation of a new bishop is a cause for a great celebration and last night’s festivities included moving music, testimonials from individuals, a powerful sermon, and special recognitions as well as an excellent meal and plenty of fellowship around the tables. We are met familiar with all of the ways of the Church of God in Christ but there was much of the celebration that felt very familiar to us with our background in the United Church of Christ. We were warmly welcomed and included in all of the evening’s celebrations.

Once again my conviction that we do not need to all be the same was reinforced. Although I have been grateful to be a pastor in our denomination, I have deep appreciation for their denomination and its way of organizing itself for mission and ministry. We can be partners in many different ways as we go forward to serve our community. I look forward to working with the bishop as he exercises his authority in their church and I recognize that authority as having come from God.

I’ll probably continue to call him by his first name when we are together, but in formal and public settings I will use his title as a sign of respect and admiration for the work he has don and the authority that has been bestowed on him by his church.

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!

Multigenerational Society

It is not uncommon for me to sit at table, perhaps drinking a cup of tea while most of the rest of the people at the table are drinking coffee, with a group of people. And it is not uncommon for me to be the youngest person in the group. Mind you, I’m, not that young, but I have a lot of friends who are older than I.

Regular members of our church are well aware of a table in our fellowship hall that is generally populated by old men after worship. There are a few women who occasionally sit at the table, but it is fairly rare for someone younger than I to join that particular group. They have been friends for a long time and most of them have coffee together at least once a week outside of the church. They know each other pretty well and know, for the most part which topics will bring nods of agreement and which will be controversial inside of their group. They know how each other think. They know how each other vote. They are good friends. And, from time to time, they allow me to join their conversation and listen to what they have to say to one another.

They are “been there, done that” kind of people. They have a lot of experience. They have had some successes and a few failures and they can see, from their experience, what will work and what will not. They are a source of wisdom.

One of the great blessings of my job is being able to join them, from time to time, and benefit from their experience and wisdom.

But their’s isn’t the only table where I’ve been welcomed.

I gather weekly around the table with colleagues who are about the same age as I. They might be a few years younger or a few years older, but we are all about the same age. Our kids are about the same age. We’ve all had decades of experience in the ministry and all of us have served more than one congregation over the course of our careers. We’ve served rural and urban churches and large and small churches. We are good friends and we know each other fairly well. We know our points of disagreement and our points of agreement. Sometimes we simply offer a listening ear and support to one another. Sometimes we offer prayer and study. Always we create space for the differences in our theologies and the practices of the churches we serve. We are colleagues and we are fortunate to have one another. I feel at home sitting around the table with these colleagues.

Several times each month I join a group of people as they prepare to begin their work day. We sit around a table and there is always coffee as well as other beverages served. There is usually fruit and another snack available as well. At this table I am always the oldest person. I could be the grandfather of some of the people who are there and most of them think of me as of the generation of their grandparents. In my particular case, my grandchildren are much younger than these adults, but these adults are younger than my children. There is a lot of laughter and joking at this table. We know each other and know some of our passions. We know how to spark a reaction from one another. Yesterday most of the people at the table had just completed a CrossFit training session. They were a bit stiff and sore from the intense work out. I commented that if they want to come to work all stiff and sore all they had to do was wait until they got to be my age. I don’t have to go to the gym to get stiff and sore. I wake up that way every morning. They laughed. They thanked me for coming and joining them. We are friends.

It is essential for me to have good contact with people of all ages in order to maintain balance in the work I do. I’ve read the books about generational theory. I know some of the cultural and experiential differences between people of other ages, but I know that we have a lot more in common than the things that divide us.

One of the young people I know is a woman who grew up in our church. Dr. Leah Georges is a professor at Crdighton University. She has spoken eloquently about the multi-generational workplace in her Ted-X talk. I recommend it to all who are interested in the topic. You can find it here:

She is just one of the impressive young people whose lives have crossed paths with mine. I’m continually impressed with the work of Dr. Sharlissa Moore, professor at James Madison College of Michigan State University. She is the author of a newly-newly-published book:

And an essay about impressive young people would be incomplete without mentioning our son, who is director of the Mount Vernon, Washington, library and the leader of a dramatic and innovative community project:

Most weeks I’m privileged to have a conversation with Dr. Luke Corwin, physics professor at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He is a man with an impressive curriculum vita:

And there are others. Brothers who are both doctors were both real challenges when they were in conformation class. Dr. Greg Kelts is practicing in the Atlanta, Georgia area and his brother, Dr. Andrew Kelts is completing an internal medicine internship in Chicago.

One of the deep blessings of this life is that we are not all the same age. One of the sources of hope is that there are a lot of people who are younger than I who have a great depth of intelligence, and a passion for solving some of life’s biggest problems.

Now if I can only get that table of people who are younger than me and the table of those who are older than me together. . . Actually, I think they’d like each other.

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


In the early years of writing this journal, I became aware that there were certain themes that I needed to avoid simply because I returned to them again and again and there was a risk of the journal becoming repetitious and uninteresting to read. I have since learned that I write for the joy of writing and not particularly to address the need of my readers to be entertained.

Still, I decided to stop writing about the antics of our cats. As it turned out I kept writing long after our last cat passed away and we haven’t yet gotten another one, so I don’t have a ready source of material about which to write.

I also decided that the weather was probably a topic about which I did not need to write. Everyone experiences weather and unless it is dramatically unusual, it probably doesn’t merit a thousand word essay.

I’m not so worried about repetition as once was the case, but there are some times when I do feel a little twinge. The change of seasons is one of those areas. I’ve been journaling online for so long that there probably isn’t much that I can add about the change of seasons. After all, it happens every year.

These days, we delineate our seasons by the positions of the sun. Early humans noticed that when you get away from the equator the days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. As winter deepens, the days get shorter and shorter until one day they start to get longer. The point at which they stop getting shorter and start to lengthen is called the solstice. There is another solstice in the summer, when the days begin to stop growing longer and begin to shorten. It makes sense, then that between the two solstices are the days when the day and night are equal. This is the equinox. There is one in March and another in September. We use these dates as the official beginnings of our seasons. Spring begins at the equinox. Summer at the solstice, fall, or autumn at the equinox and winter at the solstice.

It was not always so. The entire concept of seasons is relatively recent according to historians and linguists. While early humans, at least those who lived some distance from the equator, had a concept of summer and winter, the shoulder seasons of spring and fall didn’t get much attention until recently in human history. The Lakota people of the plains didn’t follow the sun to delineate the seasons of the year, but rather the moon. They divided the year into thirteen moons, each with a name that reflected what happened at that time of the year. For example there was a moon when the leaves turn green, a moon of the harvest, a moon of the rutting deer and a moon when the trees crack from the cold.

It wasn’t until the 12th or 13th century, however, that there is a linguistic record of a name for the season that occurs between summer and winter. Sometime around then the word “harvest” was given to a season. It was a name for the transition from summer to winter, but it didn’t have a specific date. Sometimes it would start as early as August and end as late as December in the northern hemisphere. Sometimes, it was shorter.

The name “Autumn” showed up a century or two later. It was adopted from a similar word in French, or perhaps even from the Latin word “autumnus,” a masculine town for harvest. It was another couple of hundred years later, in the 16th or 17th century when the phrases “spring of the year” and “fall of the year” begin to appear in written documents, marking times of warmth and growth on one hand, and cold and decay on the other. Those phrases soon were shortened to just “spring” and “fall.”

Even then, there wasn’t much agreement on just what the fall season encompassed. Maybe it started in August or September. Maybe it ended in November or December. It was only later that it became common to rely on precise positions of the sun.

These days, however, autumn, or fall if you prefer, begins on the September equinox in the northern hemisphere. That comes up at 7:54 p.m. Mountain Time on Saturday..

Just so you don’t get confused, the date of the start of the season is not directly related to the end of daylight savings time - another subject entirely. That doesn’t happen until 2 am on Sunday, November 4, when we get to fall back, making it 1 am and we get to sleep in an extra hour.

We do, however, associate autumn with a season of dying. The leaves fall off of the trees, the grass goes dormant for winter. The days grow shorter. The temperature drops. The garden stops producing. We make all sorts of associations with this season of the year. Furthermore it can remind us about the reality of our own mortality with Halloween and its emphasis on a kind of cartoonish image of death, All Saints with its reminders of those who have gone before and Thanksgiving with its theme of harvest taken in and giving thanks for gifts already received.

I don’t go around depressed during autumn. I enjoy the season. I like the return of cool nights and crisp mornings. I enjoy the beauty of turning leaves and appreciate the opening vistas as the trees shed their leaves. I like to watch the animals as they prepare for winter’s harshness.

Still, it is good for someone my age to remind myself that I only have a certain number of autumns left in my life. I’ve been through more than three that lie ahead for me. None of us will go on forever and a season to remind us of that reality is a blessing if we take advantage of the lessons it can teach.

So prepare for autumn this weekend. It comes whether or not we are prepared. It is, however, another of God’s abundant blessings and thanksgiving is an appropriate response.

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 that transcends

Chicago Theological Seminary is a different place now than it was when we were students. I’m tempted to go into a “Back in my day . . .” routine.
Back in my day we were required to live on campus. These days the seminary doesn’t even own dormitories or apartments. It doesn’t operate a dining hall or a lab school.
Back in my day we had cubicles in the library. These days the campus is set up as a commuter campus and most library work is done online.
Back in my day we walked through cloisters to get to a gothic chapel. These days the chapel is an open room with large screens for projection.

You get the picture. Things have changed. One of the big changes is the style of teaching and learning. When we attended seminary we were required to have two full years of full-time residential education before beginning our internships. A common pattern was two years of residency, followed by a year of internship with a capstone year of residency after the internship. The academic work was demanding, post graduate work. It was expected that one learned study, research and writing skills during one’s four year undergraduate experience and seminary was rigorous graduate education. We were required to not only attend classes, but also to live in community. We were expected to discuss assigned readings among our peers and employ group study skills to master challenging material.

I don’t know if today’s commuter campuses with their focus on part-time education are better or worse. They are simply different.Times change and education has changed as well.

One of the things that occurred in the style of education in which we were engaged is that we developed lifelong friendships with our colleagues. After all we had spent so much time together engaged in intense learning that we learned to rely on each other.

One of the friends that we met in the first hour of our first class at seminary was a doctoral student from Australia. We soon became acquainted with his entire family. His wife was a nurse and they had two elementary school-aged children. Over the course of the first two years of our education, we spent hours upon hours reading books and discussing them with our classmates and Tony, our Australian friend was always in the midst of the discussion. While he worked on his specialized research and wrote his professional paper, we were working on our classroom work. We engaged in intense discussion and debate over meals and long into the evening. At one point, Tony’s wife, Shirley, instituted a tea time at the end of the evening. She would make tea and sometimes serve cookies or another snack as a symbol that it was time to stop working on our theologies and prepare for sleep. Those tea team conversations occasionally drifted back into the work we were doing, but they were most often filled with talking about family and home. Being from Montana, we felt far from our homes, but we were nowhere near as far as Tony and Shirley from their home in Australia.

During those two years they made two trips with us to Montana and got to know our families very well. We had a lot of different adventures.

Then, as is the case in such relationships, the time came for them to go back to Australia. We continued our education for two more years and then accepted a call to serve churches in North Dakota. But we didn’t lose track of our friends. They came to visit us when we lived in North Dakota. Their departure flight was from Rapid City, so we also toured the hills together during that visit. They visited us again in Idaho and a third visit coincided with our move to Rapid City, so they got in on the adventure of moving, helping us move into our new home and unpack. In 2006, we traveled to Australia and spent a month touring their country with them. They subsequently returned to the US for additional visits as well.

The thing about the relationship, which now has spanned more than 40 years is that we learned that our unity in the spirit transcends both time and space. We are always able to pick up a conversation where we left off and don’t experience any awkwardness even if we have been apart for years. Whenever we are together we know we can trust one another, that we are accepted and that we are loved.

That is an important lesson to remember. Yesterday our morning began with a call from Australia, where it was evening. After a wonderful day in which Tony and Shirley had been making travel plans to attend the wedding of a grandson in Greece, Shirley came home and took a shower while Tony caught up on some emails. When he thought the shower had been running for a long time, Tony went to check and found Shirley collapsed. She had suffered a large brain bleed. She never regained consciousness. Less than 24 hours later she had died.

The anxious phone calls during the day depended on our having already having made deep connections. We didn’t have time to say all of the things that needed to be said, but we were able to express our love and our prayers and to feel connected to the events in Australia.

There is, of course more. What we know is that we have remained connected to each other even though we have been half a world apart for most of our lives. We also know that we are close to one another even when there are long gaps between our conversations. We have talked about life and death and resurrection so much that we share a common belief.

So this separation isn’t the end. Death is not where our stories stop. Yes, we are stoked and grieving and it is painful news to absorb. But we know that the love that has grown over the years and proven itself to be bigger than distance and time will continue. Love is stronger than death. We are one in the Spirit.

And we give thanks to God for the gifts of the time that we have had together. It has made all the difference in the world.

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!

Wonderful old pianos

When I was a child, my parents did some remodeling in the living room. Our home was an on-going project with a large family. My parents added a second story, then put an addition on the back of the house, remodeled a bathroom, and it seemed as if there was always some kind of a project going on at our home. The living room remodel included removing the french doors that separated the formal dining room from the parlor and creating a single large room. A built-in desk was constructed to make a work space for family business and one wall was filled with custom cabinets that held, among other things, a television set and a stereo, both of which my father had built from Heathkit.

One corner of the room had high custom cabinets over the family piano, an upright that had been in our mother’s nome when she was growing up. The grand oak cabinet was a truly beautiful piece of furniture and the piano was an important part of our home. All of us children took piano lessons and our mother played the piano nearly every day. We had appointed times for practice and the piano was definitely more used than the television.

After I had grown up, our family built a new log home where our mother spent her summers for many years. Shortly after the completion of that home another upright piano was purchased from friends and moved to the cabin. The piano that was in our living room now is in the home of a nephew in Corvallis, Oregon. The one at the cabin is still there, though it is rarely played these days. My sister and I have had a couple of conversations about what to do with the piano. She did some searching on the internet and discovered that it really is a good piano and has some value if the right customer can be found.

The last sentence is key: “if the right customer can be found.” The truth is that finding customers for old pianos is difficult. I know because over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of “horse trading” over pianos. Churches tend to collect pianos. Families have pianos that they no longer want and when they can’t find customers who will pay what they believe the piano is worth, they donate it to the church. Some of these donations are genuine treasures. Our church has 5 pianos, all of which are in good shape, kept tuned and used regularly. But in the last 20 years we have also had at least five pianos that were donated for which we had no use and had to be moved on. In some cases, we found families that wanted pianos for their homes. In other cases, we found ways to trade the pianos for services, including tuning and repair of other pianos. One was simply hauled to the dump and discarded.

I have a friend who has a warehouse filled with old pianos. Each has a small value, but only if a customer can be found and so far he hasn’t found the customers. Right now the market is saturated in our town. A neighboring school district has decided to sell a large number of classrooms pianos and replace them with digital keyboards. Their relatively nice pianos flooding onto the market means that a good piano can be purchased for a low price and those who are trying to get full value for their pianos can’t find customers.

Just last night I was talking with a church member who has a piano at a consignment shop. The piano is a beautiful Steinway upright. It is worth thousands of dollars, but only so if a customer can be found. If no customer is found the piano will accumulate moving and storage fees that could exceed its value.

If you love these beautiful instruments it is heartbreaking to see so many that have no home. But it is difficult to deny that the world is changing. We had a piano in our home when our children were teenagers, but no longer have one. Neither of us play the piano other than to pick out a tune now and then to hear a new to us piece of music. For that purpose, the church has plenty of pianos. We needed the space in our home and the piano was hauled away. The only one of my sisters or brothers who has a piano in their home is the sister who lives in the cabin with our mother’s piano. And my nephew is the only member of the next generation who has a piano. He has been in touch with me wondering what can be done with the piano as he no longer wants to have it. It is clear that our heirloom piano with a great story is in its last generation in our family. And when the piano is gone, one wonders if its story will be lost. My great grandmother was among the early families to settle in Fort Benton, Montana, the end of the steamboat line. When they first arrived in the town, she was allowed to play the town’s only piano, which was in a saloon. However, her activities as a part of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union got her banned from the saloon. The family arranged to have a piano shipped from St. Louis up the Missouri River on the steamboat. It was the second piano in town and the first to arrive by steamboat. There are no more steamboats that go to Fort Benton, Montana. There are no saloons in town that have pianos. And the piano that was passed down for five generations now is looking for a new home. It makes me wonder whether or not the stories will be lost along with the piano.

I don’t know if there is anything in our home that will be passed down for five generations, though we have some items that have come to us form previous generations. The lives of our children and grandchildren aren’t focused on collecting old items. They are, after all, only items. I may not succeed in passing items on to my grandchildren. But I’m committed to making sure that they know the stories.

Who knows? I many stick around to tell stories to great grandchildren one day. And if I don't, I've got thousands of essays that fit onto a tiny flash drive and don't weigh nearly as much as a piano.

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!

Saving lives

i have a niece who is a nurse. Recently she was involved with a team of persons who administered CPR to a patient and succeeded in saving his life. Their training kicked in and they performed the procedure correctly and were able to stabilize the patient and get him the treatment that he needed. I heard the story second hand - told by her mother, but the excitement and joy were still present in the story. It is one of those moments that serves as a reminder of why she went into nursing in the first place. She has a deep concern for people and wants to help them when they have needs. When the patient had been handed off to the emergency department and the cardiologist had been brought in to consult and the team of first responders were allowed to debrief and calm themselves from the initial adrenaline rush there was a sense of satisfaction about a job well done and the joy of a life saved.

My niece is young and fairly new to the profession of nursing. Chances are very good that she will have multiple experiences in her career when CPR doesn’t result in saving the life of the patient. The outcome will be different and the feelings she experiences will be different. I read a New York Times article that claimed that only about 40 percent of patients who receive CPR after experiencing cardiac arrest in a hospital survive. That means that the majority of cases where CPR is administered in the best of circumstances result in death. And less than 20 percent of those who experience cardiac arrest in a hospital survive long enough to be discharged. Cardiac arrest is a very serious and life-threatening condition and often the result is the death of the patient. According to the American Heart Association, about 90% of people who experience an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest die. Most of the time CPR is not successful in saving the life of the victim.

Of course any first responder is willing to engage in CPR even if only a small percentage of people are saved. Just knowing that there is a possibility, no matter how slim, that the procedure will be life-saving is enough to motivate careful and prompt attention. A 10% chance of saving a life is worth taking.

Over the weekend I spent a little time with some professionals who had just been involved in one of the cases where CPR did not succeed in saving the life of the victim. It happened that this case occurred in a place where there were security cameras in place and the team spent quite a bit of time going over the video recordings in search of some clue as to what happened. What the videos show is that the team responded appropriately and that the chest compressions were well-administered, in a good rhythm at a good pace and that the efforts of the team were according to the training that they had received. They did things correctly and the patient still died. No one was saying that there was anything different that could have been done. There was no take away from the situation that would result in a different outcome next time. The reality of the death simply hung in the room as the team reviewed what had occurred. A supervisor who was watching the recordings commented on how well the team had responded and commended them for their work.

I’m sure that they went home with a different feeling than my niece on the day when CPR worked and the patient survived.

The practice of medicine does not change the simple fact that all living beings die. It is an inescapable reality. There are amazing stories of the miracles of modern medicine and it is clear that quality health care can result in alienating a huge amount of human suffering. There re procedures that can restore a high quality of life and others that can reduce or even eliminate pain. There are many success stories that come from modern medicine. But no medical intervention is capable of making a person live forever.

All of us who work with other people come face to face with the reality that none of us will live forever. Mortality is true not only of the people we serve, but of us as well. This reality, however, doesn’t stop us from trying to find out the best ways to treat illnesses, relieve pain and suffering and extend meaningful life.

Of course, I don’t work as a health care professional. I have been trained in CPR, but I have only been involved in administering the treatment once. And in that case the victim died, although the ambulance crew was able to sustain life until he was transported to the hospital. It is likely that I never will be called upon to directly administer CPR again. Still, it seems meaningful to keep up with my training. We made the decision to purchase an AED for our church and there are several people in the church who are trained in its use. We hope that it will stay safe in its case for a long time and that we will never need to use it, but we feel that it is best to be prepared just in case it might be used to save a life. We know the statistics, but we still want to be prepared for that one in ten chance that prompt intervention might make a big difference.

Extending life isn’t the goal of the church. We are prepared to deal with the reality of death and we are not afraid of working with people who are grieving. Our mission is to care for the living and to teach the spiritual resources that enable people to face the end of their lives without fear or undue anxiety. We celebrate life but are not afraid of death. Salvation, ultimately, is not avoiding death, but understanding that life is bigger than death.

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!


For the first five years of our marriage, my wife didn’t drink coffee. I had begun drinking coffee during my first year of college. I had tasted it before, and occasionally would drink a cup, but it wasn’t a regular beverage for me. During my freshman year at college I struggled to adapt to a student lifestyle. I had to learn some new habits and behaviors. As one who read himself to sleep every night, I had to give up reading in bed. I needed a new routine - one that resulted in paying attention when reading, not dozing off. When I first arrived at college, I found that the cafeteria with an unlimited beverage station, was quite an attraction. I would have a cup of hot chocolate nearly every morning. The problem was that the hot chocolate made me drowsy. When I switched to coffee, the problem went away. For years and years, I claimed and believed that the caffeine wasn’t having any effect on me. I could drink coffee before going to bed and sleep without problems. All of that changed as I aged and I now drink very little coffee. We change and new habits are welcome at certain stages of our lives.

After we graduated seminary we moved to North Dakota and not long afterward, my wife was a coffee drinker. What happened was that coffee was extended as a symbol of hospitality in many of the homes we visited. People didn’t ask, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” They just put the filled cup in front of you and assumed that you drank coffee. In the cafe, the waitress would arrive at the table with cups and a coffee pot and fill them before asking if you wanted coffee. Pretty soon my wife was drinking coffee along with what seemed like everyone else.

At our church, the fellowship time that follows worship is referred to by many as “coffee hour.” All of the time I have served this church there have been other beverages. Hot tea is offered as well as water and lemonade or some other cold beverage. In the summer ice tea is often available. I usually get a cup of hot tea. Sometimes I just drink water.

When I decided to give up caffeine, I had no problem with the switch. I’m not totally off of caffeine these days. I drink tea on occasion and still enjoy the flavor of coffee. I have decaffeinated coffee on occasion. On Sunday mornings, I am the first to arrive at the church and I make an air pot of regular coffee and one of decaffeinated coffee and put them out for the first to arrive at the church. The decaffeinated coffee isn’t very popular and folks don’t drink much of it.

There are still a few occasions when I will drink a cup of regular coffee. The most common of those occasions is visiting in the homes of members of my congregation. There are still some folks who offer coffee without asking and there are times when I accept their hospitality and enjoy drinking coffee with them. My lightly-caffeinated lifestyle seems compatible with my current state of health and I experience no discomfort or ill effects from an occasional cup of coffee.

Our culture makes a real association between coffee and hospitality. Even though I don’t drink much coffee these days, I find myself making coffee quite a bit. It is natural to have it to offer as a sign of welcome when people come to my office or home. I like being able to serve something to my guests.

Recently I heard that coffee is one area where a lot of people have big differences between what they say they like and what they really like. If you ask people what kind of coffee they favor, they will usually use the adjectives “dark,” “robust,” and “bold.” When people order coffee in coffee shops, however, they actually prefer milder blends served as lates or cappuccino. We say we want dark, robust and bold coffee, but what we really want is milky weak coffee. It’s not the only place where what we say and how we behave diverge.

A little over a year ago, I began to issue an invitation to the congregation to meet me for coffee in a local coffee shop. I pick a different shop each month and arrive at 8 am on Wednesday. I am prepared to discuss the lectionary texts for the week and sometimes those who show up join in conversation around that topic. Sometimes we spend more time talking about the news of the day or the lives of the people present than discussing the texts. It is a comfortable time for me and usually there are just a few people who come. The occasion hasn’t really turned into a group. I enjoy the informality and the open invitation that doesn’t create an obligation for anyone. Most mornings, I sip a decaffeinated late as we visit. Some days I have a cup of chai tea. One of the cafes where we meet puts on a fresh pot of decaffeinated coffee when they see me come in.

I’ve been wondering about the relationship between coffee and hospitality recently. I think part of the relationship has to do with the ability to offer a modest gift to another person. It makes us feel good to have something to offer. Coffee seems to serve other functions as well. A warm cup in our hands makes us feel good. Having something to sip helps us to refrain from talking and hospitality definitely involves the art of listening. And there are times when you just don’t have the words to say and sipping a beverage sometimes gives us permission to not speak.

Around the world, I suppose, tea is more universal than coffee. There is nothing about coffee itself that makes it our chosen symbol of hospitality. For now, however, I’m going to keep making coffee to offer to others. And I’ll keep accepting the gift of coffee from others. We seem to be more civil to one other when we have a cup in our hands.

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!

Stress and parenting

There have been a lot of articles in popular media recently about how stressful parenting is. Contemporary parents seem to be constantly worried that they aren’t doing the right things and aren’t being there for their children at every point of the day. Yet those same parents, whose lives are filled with worry and stress seem to keep making more appointments for their children, adding more structure to the lives of their children and making less and less time just to be with their children. It seems to me that the last thing these parents want their children to do is to see them having a bit of downtime. Even though all humans need free time to allow our imaginations to roam, they seem reluctant to have any unstructured time in the lives of their children.

It makes sense that parents worry about their children’s futures and that they spend time and energy imagining that future, but parents often read too much into what is often for a child just play. Play can have value all by itself without having to be a predictor of the future. A kid can play with a science kit without necessarily being destined to become a neuroscientist. A kid can enjoy writing and not grow up to become a Pulitzer Prize winner. A child can donate clothes or toys to a charity without becoming Mother Theresa. Part of the stress that today’s parent’s feel comes, in part, from over projecting the future. Sometimes it is just fine for a child to be a child, and parents who can enjoy the present moment without projecting the future can have a less-stressful life.

I’ve heard several stories of parents writing to admissions offices of colleges asking for advice on preparing their children to get into a particular college. Choosing a college for your preschooler might be a bit presumptuous. And it ignores a simple fact. Being admitted to a prestigious college is far less important in a person’s life than learning to make the most of educational experiences. A good college education comes more from an individual’s ability to operate in a learning environment than from the choice of educational institution. I know plenty of successful adults who didn’t get into their first-choice college. Sometimes the ability to recover from disappointment is more important than any other skill.

Young parents are not asking me for advice, and it isn’t my place to tell them what to do, but there is a part of me that wants to say simply, “Lighten up. Enjoy your child.” There dopes
t have to be a big purpose or a deep meaning in every moment you spend with your child.

Last month the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report detailing the developmental importance of play and suggesting the doctors write “prescriptions” for it during early-childhood checkups. it strikes me as really strange that a doctor has to write a prescription for a parent to know that play is an important part of a child’s life. It makes me sad that parents don’t know the joy of just playing with children.

I know that I am getting on in years. Our youngest child turned 35 last week. We raised our children in a different time. But I also know the simple joy of spending a couple of hours designing a treasure hunt with my seven-year-old grandson. I get a lot of pleasure out of being able to read as many books with our four-year-old as she wants. I am perfectly entertained by watching our one-year-old take all of the clean clothes out of the clothes basket and crawl in herself, then crawl out and put the clothes back into the basket. Not every moment spent with a child has to have a specific goal or purpose. Sometimes it is fun to just watch a child explore the world.

As a seminary student, I taught stress management to business executives and traders on the Chicago Board of Trade. More recently I have taught stress management skills to law enforcement officers. I’ve studied the topic enough to know that chronic stress - the kind that become distress - builds when people stay in a hyper-aroused state for too long. Part of the way that people learn to decrease the stress in their lives is to plan for down time - to make time for unstructured activity. It isn’t just children who need play in their lives. We adults need it too, even though we may have trouble calling our activities play. That is one of the gifts of being a grandparent. I can just play with my grandchildren without needing to accomplish some greater purpose.

I know that the time will come, all too quickly, when the challenge of obtaining a college education will loom in the lives of our grandchildren. The expense will be a limiting factor for them as it was for their parents and for my generation. But I also know that we figured out how to help the previous generation get through that life hurdle. Right now, I don’t think that the choice of college should dominate the thinking of parents.

The children’s author Katherine Marsh writes about her ten-year-old son reporting that at school he watched a short film about how the kids of his parents generation “didn’t have video games and had to play board games.” He explained to her that kids should get off screens and play together. It is not bad advice. But how did it occur to the planners of the activity that the way to teach that lesson was to have kids watch a movie. Do they not see the irony of even making such a movie in the first place?

So, parents, relax. Allow your children to take the lead from time to time. They’ll let you know if they are hungry or if they have specific needs. Make some homemade play dough. Get out the finger paints and make a mess. Build a tower out of blocks. Enjoy just being with your children. If you pay attention, you’ll find that your children know more about making life less stressful than you.

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!

Praying for children

japanese pinwheels
Every year our church has a special program of 40 days of prayer for children leading up to Children’s Sabbath. Children’s Sabbath is ecumenically observed on the third weekend in October. This celebration brings together people of all faiths to address the needs of children. The 40 days of prayer is a reminder that the needs of children around the world are great and that we need to renew our commitment to care for, protect and advocate for all children. The biblical mandate to care for children is clear.

Each year, I sign up for a special day of prayer for children on September 14, which is our daughter’s birthday, so it is a day that I can easily remember. Although our daughter is no longer a child, she works with children in a child development center, so thinking of her always means thinking of children. So yesterday, I started by praying for the children in her child development center. Many of those children have parents who are military personnel serving a long way from home, which means that their families don’t have the usual supports of extended family nearby. A few of those children are dual military, that is both of their parents are serving in the military and they go to the child development center as a place where their care is assured while their parents serve. All of the children have parents who are working hard to provide for their families and need the childcare to make their family systems work.

My prayers turned to specific children in our church. I know the stories of those children and our church has its share of family struggles and challenges. Although we have many very loving families with extended networks of support, we also have children who are separated from one or more of their parents through not fault of their own. We have children who face learning difficulties and challenges and whose growing up will be marked with difficulties and problems that need to be overcome.

Next I prayed for the children who were separated from their parents after crossing the border into the United States. Politics aside, and without trying to influence how any person feels about the policies of the government, it is clear that the children are victims. They have ended up in this situation through no fault of their own. It still is not clear exactly how many children were taken from their parents and it is not clear how many of those children have been reunited with their parents since. We know the government did not meat the court-imposed deadline for reuniting children under the age of 5 with their migrant parents. We know that the process by which the separations occurred in the first place was haphazard and confusing. Children need to be with their families and separations are always tragedies. I prayed for the children, that they might be reunited with their families, that they might be protected from harm, that they might be given the love and care that all children deserve.

I prayed for the children in the paths of the huge storms that are currently threatening lives around the globe. At least one infant died in North Carolina when a tree fell on the family’s home. Thousands of others are taking refuge in shelters with an uncertain wait until they will be able to return to their homes. Others are stranded and awaiting rescue. Hurricane Florence is a powerful storm that is moving very slowly and packing a lot of rain. I prayed for the children of the Philippines, where more than four million people are in the path of Super Typhoon Mangkhut. The massive destruction has brought destruction to the northern areas of the Philippines and is now moving west toward China.

Storms and other natural disasters can be confusing, disorienting and terrifying to children who often don’t have any way to protect themselves from the disaster and who are not included in the decisions about evacuation and seeking shelter. Even those in shelters can lack basic needs. I have seen pictures of children in the Philippines sitting on a bare floor in huge rooms without any blankets, toys or comfort items.

I prayed for the children, and for those who are now adults, who were victims of sexual abuse. Far too many children were abused by people they should have been able to trust, including the victims of clergy sexual abuse. How the church became a place that shielded predators is a deep tragedy and mystery, but the victims deserve answers and the church needs to probe deeply to make sure that there are no new victims. It is obvious that business as usual simply is not enough to assure the safety of children.

prayer figures for children
I prayed for the children of Puerto Rico. With the current news filled with questions about the number of victims of last year’s hurricanes that devastated the island, we know that there were children among the victims. And we know that there are children whose lives were disrupted by the effects of the storms. Some of them are living in substandard conditions. Others have been forced to migrate away from Puerto Rico because of the lack of resources.

I prayed for the school children in Rapid City. Poverty in America affects many children. In our city there are many children who face insufficient nutrition every day. Although there are feeding programs, including schools that provide virtually all of the food to some of their children, we know that our systems of social support have resulted in parents and grandparents who no longer are able to provide for the basic needs of children. This on-going tragedy has been going on for generations with no end in sight.

The bottom line is that there are too many children and too many needs for a single day of prayer. That is why we dedicate 40 days of prayer each year. It’s clear that I need to sign up for more than one day.

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

Unscheduled conversations

Sometimes it begins with the question, “Can we talk?” Sometimes it is more direct: “We need to talk.” Sometimes it is just an inquiry, “Do you think you might have some time?” There are lots of ways that the conversations begin. What we know, from experience, is that these conversations are important and that we need to make time to listen and to talk, even if we are busy with other tasks. There have been a lot of these conversations in the past few weeks as we return from sabbatical. People have been waiting for our return and need to talk.

Occasionally one of these conversations will take place over the phone. When it does, we know that we are probably in for 45 minutes or an hour. When possible, we try to arrange for face-to-face meetings. Increasingly, we find ourselves meeting people for lunch or coffee.

Such conversations have always been part of the pastoral ministry. In generations past, most of these took place either in the church office or in the homes of people who belong to the church, but as the years go by, we discover that more and more of these conversations take place outside of the church or someone’s home.

Often it takes a little while to discover the real reason for the conversation. There will be a bit of small talk about the weather, a question about how our work is going or about our children or grandchildren or a generic question about life in the church. Soon enough, however, when we make time to really listen, a deeper and more important reason for the conversation emerges. It might be that the person has received a medical diagnosis that changes their outlook on life. It might be that there is a family problem that is causing anxiety. It might be that there are issues at work. These conversations rarely begin as formal counseling sessions and people usually don’t want advice as much as they want a sympathetic ear.

Providing pastoral care to a congregation is not, in my experience, a process of going through the list of church members and making visits to their homes. Home and hospital visits are important. People who are living in nursing homes need to be visited. I don’t mean to downplay these important aspects of ministry. But the care of the congregation comes more from being able to respond to needs as they arise than from trying to get people to meet on our schedule.

I once had a colleague who was very systematic in his work. He would go to the office each morning. The first thing he would do would be to deal with his mail. Each piece of mail was dealt with before he went on to the next. If a letter required an answer, it was answered before he even read the next piece of mail. He couldn’t understand the clutter on my desk and it would have driven him crazy if such clutter had been on his. He made hospital rounds at an appointed time. He visited in the nursing home on selected days. He paid home visits to the members of his congregation between 3 and 5 pm Tuesday through Friday. As far as I know he was a very effective pastor. I could never be like him. I allow the members of my congregation to interrupt my office time. I take phone calls from home and speak to people when they call. I have a schedule that rarely follows my plans, even though I make appointments and plans and keep a calendar of meetings and appointments. When a crisis occurs in the life of one of the people in my church they get more of my time than those who are in more stable situations. Some hospital visits take 5 minutes. Some take 2 hours. I never know for sure how long a particular conversation will take.

Part of what made my colleague successful is that he served a rural congregation at a time when most farm families were at home during the day. He knew that if he dropped in on a family, work may be going on in the field or the shop, but he was likely to be able to find the people he was visiting and they were likely to drop what they were doing to offer him a cup of coffee. The world has changed. If I make cold calls to members of the church, I’m likely to find no one at home. It can be a real inconvenience to member of my church for me to drop by unannounced. Even in rural communities the times have changed. People lead busy lives. Sometimes the best way to connect with a church member is to take a phone call at 8:30 pm that you know will last an hour, even when you are tired from a long day and wish that you could fit such conversations into a schedule.

At an ordination in our denomination, there is a specific question about keeping confidences. It is the expectation of the congregation and that pastors provide safe listening. We engage in many conversations that must be kept confident. That means, among other things, that there is always a part of my job that is hidden from other members of the church. The person who is calling me on the phone doesn’t know how many phone calls I’ve taken that day. The person with whom I’m having lunch doesn’t know how long it has been since I’ve had lunch with my wife. The longer I serve as a pastor the more aware I become that there are a lot of people in the church who really don’t know what I do with my time. I have tended to make a joke of it, saying, “You know, I only work one hour a week.” The truth is quite different. Most of the members of my congregation don’t know how many hours a week I work and they don’t know how often I need to be on call and ready to respond to interruptions of my schedule. And there is no good way to teach them about this.

So there is a pile of clutter on my desk that needs my attention. And some of it will have to wait. Because my real work is connecting with people and that occurs best when I am able to respond to their schedule and not my own.

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!

Big differences

I recently was pleased to hear of a young doctor who I knew as a high school student. He is now completing a medical residency to become certified in internal medicine and plans to return to our community when that residency is completed. He has been in conversation with and interviewed at a local group practice. The person telling me the news about the young doctor said that he will start working with an annual income of about $700,000. I don’t know what benefits are included in the salary, but it is a fair bed that a physician working for a group practice has health care included among the benefits of the job. I have not researched that number and so know it only by hearsay. What another person earns really isn’t my business. But I think it is safe to assume that there are some physicians in our community, who have specialized skills, who earn close to that figure.

There are also people in our community who work at minimum wage jobs. Some of those workers work at multiple jobs because no single job will employ them full-time which would result in their earning benefits. Rather they work at multiple part-time jobs which means that salary is their only compensation. Their health care costs come out of pocket. A full-time minimum wage earner in South Dakota earns just under $18,000 per year.

The cost of housing in our area is variable, but rents range from just over $600 per month to well over $1,200 peer month. The median home price in our town is $192,600, so it is safe to assume that home ownership is pretty much beyond the earnings of a minimum-wage worker in our town. If we assume 30% of wages for housing, the minimum wage earner only has about $500 per month for that expense. Since it takes at least $100 more per month, it follows that the minimum wage earner is spending more than 30% of income on housing.

Then there is the cost of health care. Average health insurance cost for families, without subsidies, is $1,021. If you use that number it means that rent plus health care exceeds the income of a minimum-wage earner before they even consider groceries. More realistically, a family can find close to two minimum wage earners to increase income and would qualify for subsidies that could reduce health care costs to around $400 per month with an average deductible of over $8,000. If they are lucky and remain healthy, there is a little left over for groceries and clothes.

The specifics off the income and expenses are not critical, except to say that there are many people in our community who are struggling to make ends meet. They might be hard workers and careful budgeters and still struggle to meet the bare essentials of living.

The challenge for us is to try to form a community with these wide differences in income. It is hard for us to speak meaningfully about the cost of health care when some people simply assume that health care will be paid as part of their employment and think of their wages as income above and beyond that benefit while others are spending a huge percentage of their income on the same expense.

Using the 30% rule, the $700,000 per year doctor would have nearly $20,000 per month for housing. That person probably isn’t going to end up being a next-door neighbor to the one who can only afford $500 per month. The result is that not all of the people in our community are speaking to one another on a regular basis. The surgeon in the operating room doesn’t really know the people who clean that room every day. The successful real-estate developers don’t really know the renters who live in the apartments they own.

It is hard for us to engage in community conversations when the ranges in our community are so wide. People of wealth can be very generous and genuinely care about other people. They make gifts to organizations that feed hungry people and volunteer their time to helping agencies, but they don’t know first-hand what it means to have to choose between buying medicine and groceries. They have never personally had to make a decision which bills will go unpaid. They can’t connect with a family that has fallen behind in their utility payments and can’t find the money to have the power turned back on.

But this is who we are. We are a community that has both wealth and poverty. It is made up of people who don’t worry about money and people who think of little else. We are a diverse and varied community. Sometimes our emotions create barriers. A minimum wage earner can look at the home of a person who makes more than a half million dollars a year with jealousy. There can be envy over new cars and other expensive items. Someone who has always enjoyed financial privilege can convince themselves that they have earned their wealth. After all they have worked hard to achieve their position. What they don’t realize is that it takes more than hard work to get ahead in our society. There are people who have worked just as hard as they who struggle to put food on the table. Those emotional barriers also work against the formation of true community.

The church is called to be a center of community. We have the capacity of being a place where rich and poor meet face to face on equal footing and can form relationships that reach beyond the barriers of class and wealth. Unfortunately, we seldom succeed in that goal. Churches, like other social institutions, tend to be gatherings of people who hav much in common. Our congregation is pretty good at mixing people of vastly different economic levels. It is one of our strengths. Being the way we are requires a lot of work. But that is our calling.

When we say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” we really mean it. Now it is our challenge to not just say the words, but also to live the meaning behind them.

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

Stories of Church Bells

When I was a young child, our church had a steeple with a bell that was rung to announce the beginning of worship. Our family always arrived at the church before the bell was rung and occasionally, we were allowed to assist with the ringing of the bell. There was a rope that came down from the steeple into the entryway of the church that was attached to a large ring that rocked the bell to one side causing the internal clapper to strike the side of the bell. When the rope was released the weight of the bell would swing it to the other side where the clapper would strike. As a kid I would be lifted up and hang onto the rope, while an adult pulled it down. The swinging bell would pull me up before lowering me back near the adult who would pull again until the bell had rung the required number of times. The sound of the bell was louder just below its tower and the experience of being a part of its ringing was great fun.

When I was a bit older, the church underwent a remodeling that involved removing the steeple and adding an education wing to the building. The bell was put in storage for a while and later mounted near the ground on a stand. It took many years before the congregation raised the funds to have a new steeple built to house the bell.

A bell that I really remember was the one at our church camp. It was rung to announce waking time, to call people to meals and to announce the beginning of meetings and sessions. We also rang it softly to announce lights out at the end of the day. The bell was mounted in a tower made of logs that sat near the dining hall. Over the years I got to ring that bell many times. As an adult, when I was manager of the camp, I rebuilt the tower with new logs and moved it to a new location in preparation for the building of a new dining hall.

One of the churches that we served at the beginning of our ministry had a bell. Its steeple was outside in front of the church and we would send a youth or an adult out at the appointed time to ring the bell. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the church, we allowed anyone who wanted to ring the bell at the end of the celebration worship. Old and young lined up for their turn to pull the rope. The ringing attracted neighbors who came to see what was going on and who enjoyed taking a turn ringing the bell as well.

That particular bell was the object of many Halloween pranks. It became a kind of challenge for area youth to see if they could get away with ringing the bell on Halloween night. One year, I dressed in dark clothes and stood next to the bell. When a youth would approach, I would step out and startle the youth, who would run down the street, perhaps with a story of the haunting of the church. Another year we devised a plan to balance the bell upside down and fill it with water to drench the first person who came to ring the bell. The problem with this plan was that it was a small town. The activity of filling the bell with water was a big enough production that any potential ringers were aware of what we were doing. When we finally got the bell filled, it dripped and leaked and so we had no victim for our prank. We finally pulled the rope and ran just to witness the large splash of water.

That bell had a steep steeple roof above the bell with a cross at the top of the roof. It was a long way up to the top of the cross. One year, when we were painting the church building, we decided that the cross needed a new coat of paint. We didn’t have a ladder tall enough to reach the top of the cross, so a church member brought a forklift with a platform. The forklift was raised and a latter placed on top of the platform. A youth from the church who was the son of the owner of the forklift climbed the ladder and painted the cross. All went well, except, just as he was descending, he dropped the can of paint, leaving a large splash of gold paint on the shingles of the steeple. The paint stain remained for the rest of the time I served the church and for many years afterward.

Each year in the community of Bowness-on-Solway, on the firth that separates England and Scotland there is a reenactment called the Bell Raid. People approach the small community in rowing boats followed by a picnic or a pub lunch if it is raining. The annual gathering is a reenactment of an historic raid that took place in 1626, when a Scottish raiding party crossed at low tide and stole the bells from the Bowness church. As they ran over the firth with the disgruntled citizens of the town racing to catch them the flood tide was biting at their heels. The water was rising, they were being chased and the bells were heavy. They dropped the bells in order to escape. The bells sank to the bottom of the Solway river and disappeared forever. With revenge on their hearts, citizens of Bowness succeeded installing bells from Dornock and placing them in their little church. It became the duty of the minister of Dornock to write to Bowness when a new rector was appointed there, for the return of the bells. The traditional reply was, “Only when ours come back from the sea.” These days the reenactment involves the use of beautifully restored traditional wooden boats and it is a bit of boat festival as much as an historic event. It is also the opportunity for the people of both communities along with wooden boat enthusiasts from all around to enjoy a good pub lunch and raise a few pints.

Today I serve a church with a bell that is rung with a electro-mechanical clapper that is rung by an elaborate time clock that knows not only the time of day but also the day of the week. The system is automatic except for the tolling hammer, which is used rarely for funerals or other special occasions. That system has been in place since 1959 and works fairly well, with occasional problems with the clock or mechanism that require a bit of maintenance. I love the sound of the bell and it doesn’t seem to annoy the neighbors, but there are times when I miss the old practice of pulling a rope and sometimes even wish we had a grand story, like the title church in England with the bell from a Scottish church in its steeple.

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 sabbatical policy of our church was put into place more than 20 years ago and has functioned well through several pastoral sabbaticals. But the world is changing and not everything remains the same after the passage of time. One of the aspects of the sabbatical is the process of reporting. In order for the congregation and pastor to benefit from a period of separation, they need to know what has happened during that separation. When the sabbatical policy was drawn up, it was assumed that the reporting would be done in writing. Members of the congregation could read the report of the pastor. The pastor could read the reports of the boards and departments of the church. The policy assumed that these reports would be exchanged after the sabbatical. The process actually worked pretty well in the early years.

These days, however, we live with the expectation of a constant news cycle. Email has overtaken the U.S. mail as the channel for distribution of meeting minutes and other official communications. We are so used to constant communication, that we have no patience for delays. It is not at all uncommon for me to receive text messages on my phone when I fail to answer an email on my day off. People expect instant responses.

Since 2007, I have posted this journal online every day, so those who are interested are able to check in and see what I am thinking. Part of that process is that I sometimes forget that most people are not looking at this web site. Since I have written my reactions and recorded my adventures, I think that others know what has been going on. But having written a document does not mean that it has been read. Communication assumes both reading and writing. The journal, furthermore, is out of step with most blogs. My posts are long and require readers to take some time to process their information. They stand in stark contrast to the constant chatter of twitter feeds.

Early in my seminary career, one professor gave us an assignment to write a few aphorisms to live by. An aphorism is a pithy and short observation. They often contain general truths without being very specific. Aphorisms are the kinds of phrases that you often see on church signs and they are what tweets are supposed to be. It is said that Benjamin Franklin was a master of the aphorism. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Others have claimed that much of the material that appeared in Poor Richard’s Almanac was simply collected from the conversation of the day and reflected the times more than specific thought by Franklin.

What I discovered back then, and am aware of now, is that I don’t think in aphorisms. I am challenged to say much of anything in one or two sentences. I’m no good at titles, something to which members of my congregation, especially those who read the church bulletin, are well aware. My preferred way of communicating is a personal essay.

In the church, however, it is always necessary to communicate important information in a variety of media in several different ways. We use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. We have an electronic newsletter and also produce a printed document that is delivered to some members through the post office. We have video monitors that flash announcements in the entryway of our church. We make announcements from the pulpit during worship. We print announcements in the church bulletin. We answer questions about church programs over the phone. We have learned that the best communicated messages have been circulated through a lot of different media. No single channel of communication accomplishes the task.

So communicating the results of the sabbatical will have to take different forms. There will be an element of storytelling and oral reporting. There will be a formal written report that will be included in the annual reports of the church. There are already the 92 essays that I have posted in my online journal. Sunday we showed pictures of the Japan portion of our sabbatical in the fellowship hall after church for people to see.

Right now, I am having an equal difficulty finding out what has been going on in the church during our absence. I have quite a bit of information, but there are plenty of questions and gaps in my understanding. The key to obtaining this information is listening. While I have the urge to speak and report what we have been doing, it is essential that I keep quiet and listen carefully to understand what the congregation has been doing. It is a good discipline for me to assume the role of a listener.

All of this is taking place in the context of an ever-changing world. The church is shifting its position in the social order. One of the things that we noticed in our travels is that our congregation is not unique in its older age profile, its worries about the lack of children and youth participation in the church, its struggles with commitment from younger members, and its anxieties about the future. It is easy to bemoan the changes. It is easy to become discouraged and even disgusted with what seems to be a lack of commitment on the part of church members, it is a reality. Those who choose to participate in the church and those who are called to lead it will have to wrestle with these issues long into the future. A change of leadership will not change the character of the congregation. And no congregation can separate itself from the realities of its social context.

As we come back together into a new season of the relationship between pastor an parish, we are well aware that the sabbatical has changed us. Now our task is to learn from what has happened as together we invest in the future of our church and move into the future together.

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

Making changes

Genuine change is difficult. We can envision how we want things to be, but making them happen requires effort, dedication, and persistence. From the perspective of sabbatical, I could see some ways in which I had been managing my time and work life that were inefficient and in need of change. My old pattern of short-changing myself on sleep was inefficient. My tendency to over schedule my time sometimes meant that there was less time for contemplation and thinking. When my schedule was being driven by the events that occurred around me, I sometimes failed to follow my own priorities. The most pressing task isn’t always the most important.

I could see these things and I could see that there are some things I can do to make things better. But when I return to the actual work environment, it is very easy to slip back into old patterns. I can easily justify such behavior by telling myself that it takes time to make changes and I’ll do some tasks later, after I’ve caught up with some the backlog of work that accumulated in my absence.

Right now, there is a crush of people who want to see me. Visits that I might make once a month or less now all want attention within the first couple of weeks back in the office. This is natural and it is good for the church for me to be out and meeting with people. The tasks of the office, while important, are not as high a priority as being with the people I serve.

My approach has been to keep the awareness of planned changes high. I have a few small tasks that fit between other activities and when I turn to those particular tasks, I am reminded of the changes I want to make. One of those tasks is sorting books in my library. The entire job is huge, but it can be broken down into small segments. I can sort a few books whenever I have an extra ten minutes. Doing that task reminds me of how I want to transform the office space from what it has been - a cluttered study for me, filled with objects that give me inspiration - into a more useful space for the whole church - a conference room and a place for small meetings.

I’m not the only one working at making changes. Yesterday, after my afternoon meeting I visited briefly with one of our office administrators and other members of her family. She and her husband are in the process of serious downsizing. Their new home is about half the size of the one they are selling. In preparation for the move they have been sorting through their possessions and over the last weekend they held a garage sale to get rid of excess items. The sale was successful but they were tired from all of the extra work. As they returned tables to the church last evening, you could tell that they were looking forward to the night’s rest.

It is hard work to make changes.

That work, however, is also refreshing. When I succeed in making a change, even a small one, I am energized by my success and that helps to give energy to the next task. Since part of the changes I need to make at this point in my life is to decrease the inventory of possessions, just giving away an object or figuring out how to get rid of some items can give me energy for more sorting.

Different cultures have different attitudes towards possessions. A custom that was part of some of the plains tribes had to do with the belief that possessions dragged down the soul of a person. When a person died, his or her possessions were quickly given away, sometimes within the first day. It was believed that the person’s soul couldn’t make it to the afterlife if it was encumbered with possessions. To be free of possessions was to be free to ascend to a joyful afterlife. I’m not doing justice to the complex religious beliefs of a highly-developed culture here, but the general point makes a lot of sense. Because we judge others by their possessions - where they live, what kind of car they have, what clothes they wear, etc. - we often fail to see the true identity of a person.

Shedding some of our possessions can have a liberating effect. It is a good idea. And it is also hard work, because we need to sort. It isn’t as simple as making a big pile of things and hauling them to the thrift store. We need to sift and sort.

For me the books are symbolic. I have a huge collection of books. Shelves at home and in my office at the church are crammed with volumes. The vast majority of those books have little or no cash value. Although I paid good money to obtain them, they have no resale value. Many of the books I have read once and perhaps referred to occasionally, but now have no need to own. I have access to good libraries and to the Internet for the content of the books. There are, of course, a few books that have sentimental value - books written by friends, books that have had a deep and lasting impact on my life, and even a couple to which I have made contributions. And there are a few that should probably be sold. I have some rare and collectable volumes that I no longer need to possess and which have no value to my children as books, but which could be passed on to another person and the funds of the sale would at least pay for the shipping of the book to the new owner. So the books have to be sorted. I can’t just box them all up as if they all were headed to the same place.

It is a symbol for one of the tasks of my life. I need to sort more than books, more than possessions. I need to sort ideas and thoughts and pare down the inventory so that the things that are most important can have the most of my attention.

The process will continue.

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


I think it might be accurate to describe me as an intellectual. I enjoy study and reflection. I gain pleasure from the exercise of the mind. I took well to school and the teaching style that was common in colleges and universities in my time, principally lecture and reading, was a good match for my learning style. I considered pursuing an academic career and might have done so had not the work of being a pastor so appealed to me. At one point, I saw the ministry as something that I would do for a while to gain a bit of real-world experience and perspective before returning to academics. That was 40 years ago. I fell win love with the work and life of a pastor and I have not regretted my vocational choices.

Because of the way I learn and think, however, I have always been one to read books and analyze the ideas of others. I’m fairly good at analyzing the ways that others organize their ideas. I like thinking about the structure of thought. I’m sure that there is a part of me that has a sense of right and wrong about thinking. I am annoyed by those whose ideas are disjointed. I can be short with irrational argument. I am quick to point out inconsistencies and errors of logic. I enjoy the give and take of a good debate, but have little time for the hollow arguments that characterize American politics in this generation. In the current climate, however, political debate has little to do with rational thought. Winning an argument has little to do with winning an election. Politics is a game of emotions and stirring up public excitement more than a game of persuading thought. That kind of competitive tit for tat holds no interest for me.

A life of faith and the work that I do with people, however, is not just a matter of giving them the right ideas or influencing the way they think. Faith is not merely a matter of giving intellectual assent to ideas. It is about making a commitment. That doesn’t mean that faith is irrational. I’ve heard a few preachers who cling to notions and ideas that simply don’t make sense. They want others to embrace their particular interpretation of the Bible, without digging deep to come in contact with how the Bible has been interpreted over the generations of faith. The false science vs religion debates bore me not so much because preachers fail to understand the nature of science, which they do, but because it is such bad theology. To say that what the bible means is what one wants it to mean rather than to learn the ways in which the words of the bible have functioned throughout the history of our religious traditions is simply intellectual laziness. Those who preach genesis without the historical knowledge of the context of the book, and often without reading about the exile or the long history of Israel, are condemned to partial knowledge.

But faith isn’t just about possessing the right information.

It is often the case when people aren’t intellectually rigorous that they see the world in terms of false dichotomies. They think that you have to choose either belief or science as if they were opposed. One of those false dichotomies that is a long-standing conversation in the church concerns faith and works. The Christian faith began in the context of a time when there were many legalists who practiced religion as a matter of following a specific set of rules. They studied the laws and they observed the behaviors of others. When there was an infraction of a law, even a tiny infraction of a minor law, they pointed out the error to the person. Their hyper-critical approach seemed to project that only scholars of the law would be able to gain God’s favor. They judged people based on their behavior and conformity to the tiniest details of a complex set of laws. Early Christian leaders, including Jesus himself, confronted those legalists with a fresh approach to the law. They understood that salvation was not a matter of behaving in a particular manner. The Apostle Paul wrote directly about faith being the key to salvation, not the practice of good works.

In this context, many Christinas have interpreted the letter of James as a kind of contrast with the main ideas of the Bible. James argues for faith that includes good works. He believes that faith should inspire a life of doing good things and that faith should show in the behaviors of the faithful. He does not set up an “either/or” dichotomy. He does not say that you have to choose between faith and works. But preachers have often set up that kind of choice, arguing that looking to the works of one is wrong and that salvation is not about works. There are volumes and volumes of such sermons.

James, however, is not saying that salvation is merely a matter of doing the right things or something that can be earned by doing good works. He is saying that faith is a matter that involves a whole person. If one is truly transformed by faith then they will engage in good works that will demonstrate that faith. Faith is more than having the right ideas. It is a transformation of the entire person.

There are, in our world, many who are Christian in name, but whose lifestyles don’t reflect Christianity. I don’t know how many times in recent years that I’ve heard someone say that they are spiritual but not religious as if the practice of religion is somehow disconnected from a spiritual life. They see a dichotomy where none exists. spiritually and religion go hand in hand. Spiritual practices that are solely individual and have no impact on relationships are hollow and meaningless.

There is nothing wrong with inviting those folk into the communion of the church and the sharing of a life of faith with others. How much better our world would be if we had fewer politicians who talked about their “Christian values” and more who actually attended church.

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


In the sprint of 1981, a baby boy was born in a small town in North Dakota. It had been a long labor and his mother was exhausted, but she cuddled with him. His father was also tired, but too euphoric from witnessing the birth to sleep. His paternal grandmother was in her car, driving the 400 miles from her home to provide love and support for the new family. All of his fingers and toes counted and the initial cleaning and medical tests completed, the baby dozed contentedly. It was a day of wonder and awe for the family.

As the baby grew, he received regular medical care as recommended. On an early visit to the doctor, he was diagnosed with vertical talus, a fairly rare deformity of the foot. These days, frequent ultrasounds of babies before they are born usually reveal such anomalies, and an examination at birth usually results in a diagnosis. At that time, ultrasound was much less common and the situation was not diagnosed for a short time. Upon diagnosis, the family was referred to an orthopedic surgeon who stressed the importance of treatment before the child learned to walk. A trial of nonsurgical treatment, involved stretching and casting to increase flexibility and lengthen tendons was attempted. Although it was stressful for the parents to have their baby in casts from the diaper line to the end of his toes, the baby adjusted quickly. Subsequently, surgery was required and was successful in realigning the talus. Both feet were done in the same procedure and the casts returned for eight weeks, followed by shoes with braces to keep everything aligned.

Through all of this, the child thrived. He learned a modified army crawl that allowed him to drag the legs in casts and still get around where he wanted to go. He charmed all of the adults in his life and wasn’t limited in his social interactions. He was a calm baby and slept well. Once the casts were off his feet he learned to walk and enjoyed a normal childhood. Regular visits to the orthopedic surgeon monitored his growth and a second surgery was performed when he was in elementary school that kept the bones at the base of his legs and in his ankles properly aligned.

That was a long time ago and physicians and surgeons have learned a lot in that time. These days, the condition would be immediately diagnosed at birth, if not prior to birth. Surgery can be performed as early as 9 months of age and the continuing problems are very rare.

In this case, as the child matured into adulthood, subsequent x-rays of the feet demonstrated the skill of the surgeons and no further complications developed. During one routine followup appointment the surgeon had a small group of students follow him on his rounds and used a series of x-rays from the child to conduct a short lesson on successful treatment of the condition, singing the praises of the surgeon who had performed the initial procedure.

These days that little boy is a father himself with three children. The older two walk and run with great joy and no problems and, after an initial concern of lose tendons in her hip joint, the baby has developed normally and there are no medical concerns. That baby has been walking with support from an adult or by holding her balance against a piece of furniture for most of the summer and had learned to stand independently for quite a bit of time. She was a bit reluctant to take her first independent steps, but everything was working together yesterday and she took three or four independent steps, then did it again and again. Soon she was walking eight or nine steps and was proud of herself and pleased with the reaction of her mother and siblings.

Her father was at work and received the news along with her grandparents via text message. We grandparents posted typical grandparent words of pride and praise. Her father wrote, “My heart is amazed.”

I, being a grandfather, am impressed and delighted with my granddaughter’s walking. I am also impressed with the words and attitude of our son. He is a wonderful father. And he is a poet as well. He has loved words since he first began to speak and, as a librarian, he surrounds himself with books and reading. He takes such delight in his children and I am feeling grateful that today is Saturday and he will be able to spend the entire day with his daughter who will be exploring and stretching the limits of her newfound skill. She is no longer a baby, but has become a toddler. I know from experience of being a father the it isn’t the last time that his heart will be amazed.

There are so many children in this world who, through circumstances not of their own making, suffer from neglect or a simple lack of resources. They grow up in poverty, without sufficient nutrition, and without homes due to war, politics and a failure to share. I realize that the resources our grandchildren have of stability and a comfortable home and loving parents and an extended family and community of support are luxuries when compared to some of this world’s children. But every child is a miracle. Every child is capable of amazing the hearts of adults who will pay attention.

We all need our hearts to be amazed. The joy and purpose of life are revealed in such moments. It is for this that we are alive. It is for this that we live. Human hearts can be amazed by sunrises and the flight of birds. They can be amazed by the grandeur of mountains and rivers or the rhythm of the tide washing on a seashore. They can be amazed by quiet meditation and the practice of presentness.

We are, however, made to be amazed by one another. We are born for relationship. And, by God’s grace we are given that gift. Once in a while we even find words to express our joy.

Yesterday, our son’s heart was amazed by the steps of his daughter. My heart was amazed by the delight, eloquence and grace of our son.

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

I beg your pardon

One of the treats of this summer’s sabbatical was that we had extra opportunities to read to our grandchildren. Since their father is a librarian, there are always lots of books in their house and we would never get bored reading in that context. And our seven-year-old grandson is old enough to read to us, too, which is a special treat. Still, we packed a bin of books into our camper for nights when our grandchildren came to sleep over and afternoons when we needed a break to just sit and read. Some of the books we brought are new to this generation of our family. Others are books that our children loved and we loved reading to them.

I’m not very good at voices, but I can do a credible cookie monster for “Happy Birthday Cookie Monster!” I’m not so good at Bert and Ernie, however. I can do a pretty good Grover for “The Monster at the End of this Book,” and the kids can recognize Elmo in “Another Monster at the End of this Book.” Our grandchildren love “Fred and Ted Go Camping,” partly because they get to go camping (with a canoe nonetheless) and their grandfather is named Ted. And “There’s a Mouse in the House” is a book that I’ve read so many times that I can continue to the next page before the kids turn the page.

Some of the books we took with us are ones that we simply love. They were so much fun to read to our children that we want another opportunity to read them again. One of those books is by Sesyle Joslin with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, called “What Do You Say, Dear?” It is a tongue-in-cheek lesson in manners with such classic scenarios such as this: “You are flying around in your airplane and you remember that the Duchess said, ‘Do drop in for tea some time.’ So you do, only it makes a rather large hole in here roof. What do you say, dear?” (turn the page) “I’m sorry.”

Here’s another: “You go to London to see the Queen. She says, ‘Oh you must stay for dinner. We are having spaghetti.’ So you do, and there is spaghetti for the appetizer, spaghetti for the main dish, and a spaghetti salad. By the time the Queen’s guard brings spaghetti for dessert, you cannot fit into your chair any more and you want to leave the table. What do you say, dear?” (turn the page) “”May I please be excused.”

And here is the one that I was thinking about after something that happened to me yesterday: “You are at the Princess’ ball and she is telling you a secret, but her orchestra of bears is making such a fearful lot of noise you cannot hear what she is saying. What do you say, dear?” (turn the page) “I beg your pardon.”

So here is what happened to me. I was in the grocery store. I had purchased a small number of items, (using my “We Care” food card, of course). I had put my purchases into my own bag and so was returning the cart to the place inside the store where they park the carts. A woman was getting a cart out of the area to do her shopping and I paused for a brief moment to let her get out of the area before going in with my cart. On her way by me she said, “Pardon me.”

I replied, “No worries.” It is a phrase we learned when we were in Australia and is meant to say that no trouble has been caused.

What I was thinking was far more complex. First of all. she had done nothing wrong. Going into the store and getting a cart to do your shopping is completely normal and polite behavior. There was nothing for which she needed pardon. I wasn’t inconvenienced in any way.

Long after our exchange, I thought I might have said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have the power to pardon. The governor can pardon a violation of state law and the president can pardon a violation of federal law, but I’m just a minister. As far as I know, I don’t have the power to pardon anyone for anything. I think I can grand absolution if you happen to be Protestant, but we don’t do that very much in my church because we figure that we are all sinners and it takes the Grace of God for us to be assured of forgiveness.” That would have really confused her and led her to believe that I am a really strange person.

According to the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary, “I beg your pardon is a phrase used in formal speech that can have two different meanings. The first is “I’m sorry,” and is used when you have made a mistake or done something wrong. The second is used to show that you strongly disagree or that you are angry about something that someone has said. Here is their example of that second usage: “I beg your pardon, young man - I don’t want to hear you speak like that again!”

Pardon me is a less formal phrase, but certainly has its roots in the formal phrase. So perhaps the woman at the grocery store wasn’t apologizing for something she had done, but rather expressing her disagreement or anger at something that I had said, which doesn’t quite make sense since i had said nothing to her and I think the last thing I had said was “Thank you,” to a store employee who had helped me with the self-checkout machine when it registered the wrong weight for the bag I was using and the employee had to reset the machine.

I’m sticking with my observation that no pardon was necessary in the situation. Still it was kind of the woman to say something nice with a smile to me. I believe I was a complete stranger to her.

Anyways, no worries. It all was just fine.

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!

Preserving history

gutted museum
An aerial view of the National Museum of Brazil is seen after a devastating fire on Sept. 3 in Rio de Janeiro. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Like many of my contemporaries, I have adjusted may consumption of news in the midst of what appear to be culture wars, constant turmoil and official attacks on the free press. It is very hard to find objective sources of news. Newspapers are facing a huge crisis with the change in the way that Americans consume news. The combination of continuous cable television news and the Internet have made most printed documents a kind of index or commentary on the news rather than the news itself. I could go on and on about how difficult it is to get a sense of the truth in a post-truth society, but that really isn’t the point of this particular journal entry. I just want to start with the simple fact that lately, I have been spending less and less time seeking to keep up with the news.

One item in the news over the past few days that has captured my imagination has been the horrific fire that consumed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. I keep looking at the pictures of the gutted shell of the building that housed the largest collection of natural history treasures in Latin America. Countless artifacts have been forever lost. The museum didn’t only hold artifacts from Brazil, but also items from all around the world. The images of the burned out shell seem to illustrate so well the deep loss to the world of the opportunity to come face to face with irreplaceable and unique ways of gaining insight into the past.

As the grandfather of a grandson who spent his summer reading about, studying, and engaging in imaginative play around ancient Egypt, I couldn’t help but notice that among the treasures lost was a collection of Egyptian artifacts that included mummies and many associated burial items from ancient Egyptian tombs.

The loss of history is a devastating reality.

The current news cycle about the fire seems to be a round of blaming and anger over what is perceived by some to be the Brazilian government’s mismanagement and neglect of the country’s cultural heritage. Recent budget cuts have resulted in less funds to protect the places of curation of the objects of the nation’s history.

It is not just government that poses threats to the long term protection of historical objects around the world. And it is not just Brazil that is in danger of losing priceless treasures from its past. In June a fire destroyed the Aberdeen Museum of History in Aberdeen, Washington, which contained thousands of local artifacts.

In 1958, a fire at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City destroyed one of Claud Monet’s largest “Water Lilies” paintings and several other woks were severely damaged. Much of the collection survived only through heroic efforts of museum staff and the fact that the museum had the funds to be in the process of protecting its artifacts. The fire itself came from a building remodeling that included installing air conditioning to protect the collection. Some of the damage to paintings came from water produced by the building’s standpipes, a form of fire suppression. The Museum of Modern Art was considered at the time to be “fireproof,” with state of the art for the time systems.

And it isn’t just fire that poses a threat to our history. In the Netherlands, where much of the land occupied by cities is below sea level, flooding is a constant threat. Add to the natural circumstances of the country rising seas due to global climate change and water poses a real danger. In Rotterdam, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which houses a world-renowned collection of Old Masters and modern European art, has faced five floods in the past 14 years. During one of those floods water short-circuited the water pumps in the art storage area and emergency workers were forced to choose between saving rooms with paintings or the museum’s collection of historic books. Fortunately supplemental power was brought in to restore the pumps at the last minute and the entire collection was saved.

The loss of our history has devastating effects. When we do not accurately remember our past, we fail to learn its lessons. The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The role of religion is, in a large part, the curation and preservation of religious history. Because the ideas and concepts of religion are much larger than can be developed by a single generation, the failure to care for its history makes it impossible for a new generation to add depth of understanding and meaning.

Our culture is also in danger of losing priceless bits of our history through academic neglect. In search of ways to justify the high costs of education, many modern universities are dropping requirements for students to learn history. As universities become more like trade schools, focused on the pay scales of the jobs that graduates receive, they run the risk of failing to teach history. We have already produced a generation of scientists and engineers who know virtually nothing of the history and philosophy of science. They know how their branch of science functions without knowing how that information was obtained or why the study of a particular branch of science is important. They become specialists who cannot see the interconnections between various branches of scientific inquiry. They are capable practitioners of scientific method without knowing why that method is meaningful.

If our only problem was a fire-gutted building in Rio de Janeiro, we could work to protect remaining collections and redouble our efforts to provide the most secure storage for artifacts of which we are capable. However, our challenge is much bigger. We live ini societies that are less careful about accurately preserving history in more ways than the buildings that house collections. Faithfully and honestly remembering our past seems to be a lower priority in general. Defending buildings where artifacts are stored is a worthy endeavor. Teaching a new generation the importance of history is a yet higher calling.

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!

Difficult choices

I was asked to help facilitate a meeting last evening in a neighboring community. The place and even the topic of the meeting, while vitally important to the participants, are not necessary for the idea I want to discuss in this morning’s journal. What occurred at the meeting is that most of the participants saw the issue in terms of a fairly simple either/or choice. They were able to see that there was a different point of view than theirs, but thought that there were only two choices. There was a majority that was clear early in the discussion, but there was a definite division in the room. As conversations progressed, tempers began to flare. People were trying to convince others to join their side. At one point the tension was so high that a participant left the room and stepped out of the process.

Although the resolution of the meeting was positive and I believe that bringing in outside facilitators assisted the group in their process, I keep thinking about the dynamics of the meeting. From my perspective as an outsider who wasn’t invested in any particular outcome, the group was hindered by narrowing their choice to only two options. It is something that I see in groups, especially non-profit corporations and church groups fairly frequently. In an attempt to figure out the will of the stakeholders, a leader will present a question as coming down to just a few options, often only two and then polling the group. When a straw poll is taken it is clear that some favor one option and others favor the other. While in a pure democracy, the matter simply comes down to which side has the majority, it doesn’t quite work in many cases because the group needs unity. A majority isn’t all of the people. Those who are in the minority feel disenfranchised. In some situations the minority has sufficient power to make it impossible to proceed even though a majority exists.

I have often said to church leaders that a 60/40 split is no decision. A church needs to have 80 percent of its members behind a project to make that project a go. Throughout my career as a pastor I have sought to avoid leading a church to a vote when it is clear that there is a significant disagreement. In those cases the result can be a split within the church that takes considerable time to heal.

The apostle Paul communicated with congregations that were experiencing disagreement over a wide variety of issues. One topic that was frequently the discussion in the early church had to do with how much of the tradition and law of the Jewish faith had to be incorporated into Christianity. Faithful Jews who became Christians often continued to observe Jewish dietary laws, their Gentile brothers and sisters did not. Which side was right. Paul refused to take sides. He could understand that forcing a choice between two options would divide the community. He urged believers to see unity over sameness.

Church leaders in every generation, however, have sought to set up dichotomies and lead congregations to making difficult choices. “Do we choose this option or that one?” “Is our belief this way or that way?” “Is this moral teaching right or wrong?”

If I were in a position to write a pastoral letter to a congregation, (which obviously I am) one of the pieces of advice that I would offer would be to avoid narrow choices. When it is clear that some people are on one side of an issue and others are on the other side, allow yourselves to agree to disagree. Understand that division and diversity are part of the nature of the community. A church does not have to be a gathering of people who are all the same. And sometimes, we have to allow room for differing beliefs and even different practices to exist within the same institution.

In the case of last night’s meeting, it was very clear to me as an outside observer, that there was no way to make a choice. In the first place, there was not enough evidence to support either side of the issue. The group needed information that they did not have. Some of that information would be easy to obtain, but some of it might be beyond the reach of the group. There are things that we might never know. To speculate about the motivations of a person who is not present is only speculation. There is no way to turn that speculation into a hard fact.

All of this takes place in the context of a wider society that is deeply divided. Our nation has spent too long looking at issues as black and white, or in our case red and blue. You are either on one side of the issue or another. You belong to this party or to the other. In such a context, a kind of hyper-competitiveness takes over and winning becomes more important than how you treat the opposition. You can see this in every debate in congress and often in the bumper stickers and signs in the lawns of your neighbors. In such a situation, rational argument rarely makes any difference. You can win an argument by the rules of logic, but votes are rarely swayed by logic. A burst of emotion is often more productive in terms of winning and losing than a well-crafted argument.

The emotions in the meeting were clear to an outside observer. It was also clear that no one was going to change their mind or alter their opinion. All that the meeting was capable of doing was intensifying the level of emotion. The most productive thing about the evening was the fact that no decision was made. We left the meeting knowing that there was healing that needed to take place before proceeding and that at least in the case of this particular issues, the divisions would remain. The group needs to find the resources to proceed without multiple points of view.

We may use democratic principles in governing our churches and organizations, but sometimes real decisions don’t come down to a simple vote.

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!

Brewing kombucha

For most of human history, bread has been made with sourdough. Archeologists have excavated breadth dates from 3700 BCE, but the origin of sourdough fermentation likely relates to the origin of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent several thousand years earlier. The use of modern baker’s yeast has only been around for about 150 years. Sourdough starters have been passed on from generation to generation and kept alive through multiple bakers in many different settings.

Modern baker’s yeast is a byproduct of the process of brewing beer and is very consistent in its makeup and in the results for baking. It works best with wheat breads and other recipes with plenty of gluten. A bread made of pure rye doesn’t have enough gluten to rise with baker’s yeast. Sourdough is the solution for an authentic heavy dark rye bread.

I used to keep an active sourdough starter going and used it for pancakes and biscuits as well as bread baking. But somewhere along the line, the need to regularly tend the sourdough led me to give up on it. It is simply easier to grab a packet of yeast from the store shelves when I want to bake bread. These days I don’t bake most of the4 bread that we consume, but rather purchase bread from the bakery most of the time.

I do, however, have a couple of cultures of living bacteria and yeast growing in my home. My on again/off again practice of making yogurt is on again. It really is a very simple process to make yogurt and I’m fairly proficient at producing batches that match our consumption.

I also returned from our sabbatical with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) for making kombucha. I’d tasted kombucha before, but this summer, our daughter-in-law was experimenting with the tea beverage and I found it to be refreshing at the end of a hot summer day. She equipped me with my own jar of SCOBY and I’ve got a batch that is just about ready for a short second fermentation. I may only produce vinegar, but the goal is a fermented tea. You start with sweet tea and the yeast and bacteria turn the sugars into alcohol and carbonation. The goal is to produce a beverage that is only slightly alcoholic, but is effervescent. The instructions make it sound easy, but I don’t have enough experience to know yet how much nuance is required.

Some claim that kombucha has health benefits, but not many of those claims have been verified. It appears that the practice of making kombucha originated a couple of hundred years ago in eastern Russia, although its roots may be much older than that. It has become popular in the United States in the past few years.

To make matters more confusing, the kombucha that I am brewing in my basement is a different beverage than the Japanese drink konbu-cha, which is mead from dried seaweed and sometimes known as kelp tea.

The kombucha sold commercially is less than 5% alcohol, the threshold at which a beverage falls under federal regulation in the United States. Commercial brewers regularly test the alcohol content of their beverages to make sure that they comply with this requirement. I’m nowhere near that sophisticated with my gallon jar of sweet tea that has a mushroom of SCOBY floating at the top. It smells like vinegar to me. According to the instructions I received, I’ll remove the liquid tea in a couple of days and bottle it for a week’s second fermentation before drinking it.

I’m only mildly frightened of the possibility of some kind of disaster such as occurred to one of my friends who, when brewing his own beer, capped bottles that built up too much pressure and burst creating a substantial mess to clean up.

I really don’t need a new hobby and I’m not sure how I let myself get talked into taking possession of the SCOBY, but now that I’ve transported it from Washington to South Dakota I do feel some obligation to give it a try.

We like to think of ourselves as independent individuals, but a human body really is a community of many different living organisms. We rely on cultures of bacteria to keep our digestion functioning properly. Even some parasites render benefits to us while others live within us without causing any apparent effects. Life emerges in the context of other life and complex forms of life such as we are are always surrounded by other forms of life.

In the second chapter of Genesis there is the story of the Garden of Eden and of God’s creation of Adam. In that story, God observed, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” What follows is a flurry of creation of animals and birds. There is no suitable partner for the man among all of the creatures that are made, however. Finally God causes the man to sleep and takes one side of the man to create a woman. The ancients understood that a human living alone and in isolation is not healthy or desirable. We are, from the beginning of time, created for relationship with others. Our relationships with other creatures many be significant, but they are, in a sense, insufficient. We need other humans to complete our identity and to give meaning to our lives.

I don’t intend to be the custodian of the SCOBY for the rest of my life. I’m already thinking of others to whom I can pass on the culture so that I won’t feel too guilty when I allow my portion to move out into the compost pile and reclaim my basement for other activities than brewing. I can go to the store and purchase beverages when I need them and there truly is nothing that is more refreshing than water when one is really hot and tired.

For a while, however, I’m trying to care for the SCOBY and hoping to taste some palatable results from the process. Who knows? I may even produce something worth sharing with family and friends.

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!

Lifelong learning

Yesterday I was speaking with friends and the topic of the conversation shifted to the current generation of college students and the differences between their experience and ours. Present were folks my age, and others who are about the age of our children. All were college graduates. We noted the obvious differences between our experience and that of today’s generation of students. While we incurred some debt in pursuing our education, it was relatively minor and easily paid back. Those who were the age of our children had incurred more debt and had struggled to pay it back. But the cost of a college education has gone up dramatically. It is double and even triple what the cost was for those who graduated 10 to 15 years ago. The cost of housing and healthcare have also become important economic factors for today’s generation of college students. They understand that there are many jobs which may be honorable work, but which simply do not pay enough to cover housing and healthcare costs.

There have been studies and surveys of college students for many years. Because many studies are university-based, and undertaken as student projects, surveying other students is a ready field for study. The studies show that the choices students are making about college and their choice of college majors is more driven about what job they can get upon graduation and less about preparing for life in general. Students feel less free to pursue their personal interests in education and more constrained to selecting colleges and career fields as a studied investment. Financial security has become more important in the choice of college than a sense of vocation.

Fewer students are majoring in the humanities. More choose science, technology, engineering and math - known as STEM. They believe that these fields will help their employment prospects upon graduation.

It doesn’t always work out, even for those who are astute their choices. While unemployment among recent college graduates is at historic lows, underemployment is not. According to a recent Harris Poll, 40 percent of college graduates are underemployed, meaning they are in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Colleges are resisting pressures to become simply trade schools for jobs with higher compensation. The mission of a college is varied. Colleges exist to prepare citizens for the world, to assist adolescents in becoming adults and to conduct research. They are promoting the increase of knowledge and the sharing of insight and research with the world. To focus solely on the income prospects of their students would require narrowing the focus and abandoning some long-standing academic goals.

Employers often are looking for skill-specific certificates rather than general degrees when selecting new hires. Some universities, such as the University of Utah, are giving seniors the opportunity to earn certificates in fields such as data analysis and instructional design a a part of their academic career. There are advocates who say that such certificates are more valuable in seeking high paying jobs than traditional degrees.

I think that the focus on employment upon graduation and the income levels in the early years following graduation can be incredibly short-sighted. Colleges may succeed in enabling graduates to begin their careers with high-paying jobs, but ours is a society in which jobs and careers change at a frequent rate. Many current career fields will not exist, or at least will be dramatically changed over the next ten years. Having a high paying job right now doesn’t give one the skills to pursue the new jobs that will emerge over time.

When I was a student, there was a great emphasis on developing the basic skills for lifelong learning. We were taught that we needed to continue research and education throughout our lives and that the ability to continue learning was more important than any specific set of skills. This has certainly proven to be true over the 40 years of my life as a minister. I began my career typing my sermons on a manual typewriter. I now serve as the computer network administrator for our church. I have no formal education in setting up routers and firewalls and other hardware and software, but having skills to produce effective websites and social media is increasingly important in the life of the church. There are many other changes in the tasks I perform and in the skills sought by pastoral search committees. To remain current has meant that I need to read a lot. I had had to be adaptable and flexible. I believe that my ability to adapt to changing circumstances has been the result of a basic liberal-arts education as a foundation. It has also given me the skills not only to succeed early in my career, but to continue in my field throughout my life.

In all fairness, I have not chosen a career that ranks among the highest-paid. My experience has been that of gaining benefits from my vocation that are beyond financial compensation.

I fear that universities and colleges, in seeking to respond to the demand for high paying jobs for graduates are focusing too much on the short-term and ignoring the long-term benefits of education. It isn’t just a matter of what jobs students obtain upon graduation, but where they are 5 and 10 and even 20 years after graduation. Do they benefit from the investment in their education for all of their lives, or just initially upon graduation?

The world of work has changed and it will continue to change in the decades to come. Colleges and universities need to be aware of the rate of change and the need of their students to graduate not only with the skills necessary to obtain full employment upon graduation, but also with the skills that will empower life-long learning and flexibility to participate in a rapidly-changing world of work. I doubt that making colleges more like technical schools will provide a solution to the challenges of education of the future.

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


I spent the morning stacking firewood with the Woodchucks yesterday. It was fun to get back to the easy banter and joy of shared work. It is amazing how much the group has accomplished in the time that I was away. It is one sign that the church carries on and its ministries continue in our absence. Two of the key leaders in the program will be traveling to visit family in another country soon and the work will carry on in their absence as well. There are many things in the church that are the result of many people working together and not dependent upon a single individual. It is good to know that the work of faith continues beyond our personal participation.

I’ve been getting plenty of exercise and the feel of work was natural. It is one of the things about our particular sabbatical that we continued to be physically active. We did a lot of walking, but also a fir amount of physical labor during our break.

Then, last evening, we lingered on our deck after eating supper outside and just enjoyed the beautiful place where we live. three deer wandered into our back yard. They are sleek and good looking after a summer of abundant feed. We missed the time of new fawns this year and are eager to see the fawns in our neighborhood. As we sat outside in the nearly perfect weather with the smell of the pine trees and the beauty of the evening, I was once again reminded of how fortunate we are to have been called to live in this place. Chicago was too big of a city for me. North Dakota was a bit short on trees. Boise was too dray and had almost no wind. Rapid City is nearly a perfect climate for one with my sensibilities. In the night we had a rain shower, the second since our return. It was a joy to lie in bed and listen to the rain coming down the downspouts. Indeed we are blessed.

During our sabbatical we visited churches. That isn’t the same thing as belonging to a church. Our observations of people during our break led us to believe that there are many who are seeking the experience of genuine community. We have always had a built-in community wherever we have lived. We haven’t had to stop and think about which church we would join. We were called to churches and joining was among the first things we did each time we moved. We had a ready-made intergenerational community of folks who were used to working together, supporting one another and accomplishing big tasks together. There are many people, however, who have not yet found such a community. Beyond the theology, a church is a community and we have generations of experience with being community. Of course we also have generations of experience with the perils and conflicts that come from living in close proximity to others. The Bible has a lot of stories of the successes and failures of community. We know that Moses became exasperated with the people of Israel and there were times when they grumbled about his leadership. We know that the Apostle Paul was sometimes frustrated with how his beloved congregations behaved when he was traveling away from them. You can read about it in the Epistles.

Community is not about being perfect. It is about being human and understanding that we thrive when we live with others. Solitude can be a meaningful spiritual discipline, but it almost always leads one back into community. I’m a person who enjoys time alone. I become antsy when I don’t have enough time of heading off on my own to walk or paddle or just be alone. But I also am a person who needs community.

So it will be good to worship with our congregation this morning. It is a real homecoming for us. No longer strangers and sojourners as we were during the sabbatical, we are returning to a place where we are known and where we belong. Our sabbatical has taught us the importance of this community. It has also taught us the importance of making this community available to others. Most close-knit communities have a resistance to change and they project biases which are hidden to them, but visible to visitors. They enjoy being with one another so much that they are ambivalent about having to do the hard work of getting to know new people and having those new people change the community. But welcoming guests and strangers is an important part of our calling. And no community can long survive which doesn’t develop a capacity to include new members.A quick look around our congregation makes it evident that the church of the future hinges on more than just our own birthrate.

Community is found in many places in the church. Worship is primary, but not exclusive. People also find community in fellowship hours, in the quiet conversation of the church parlor, in service groups, in the church school, in volunteer activities, and in the meetings of departments boards and committees. Being aware of the process of building and nurturing community in all that we do is critical to the future of the church.

Still, I am looking forward to this morning’s worship service with high hopes and great expectations. It will mark a milestone in our ministry. Going on sabbatical was meaningful. Reunion is an important part of that process. A quick glance at the attendance sheets from our time of sabbatical reveals that we aren’t the only ones who have been away from the community. I am a realist. I know that Labor Day Weekend is a time away for many families. And our weather is just right for a last weekend in the hills. But I also know that September is a tine of returning to routines after summer’s adventures. The next couple of weeks will be times of reunion for many in the congregation.

I’m not the only one who has missed this community. Perhaps our absence and reunion will result in a renewed dedication to the care of the community.

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

In the marshmallow field

hayfield 1
When my father first went into the business of selling farm machinery, there were still quite a few ranchers in our country who put their hay up loose. They’d use a buck rake to gather the hay from the windrows and make large loaf-shaped piles of hay in he field. A couple of innovate ranchers mounted buck rakes to the back of old truck frames and drove them around backwards in the field. There were a few ranchers who still used horses for power when they put up their hay.

We were in the business of sailing bailers. My father was a John Deere dealer and the John Deere 14 baler was a modern solution for the problem of how to put up hay. It came in several different models. The 14T fed twine to tie the bales. The 14W used wire. The PTO model was for ranchers who had a tractor with enough power and a power take off to run the baler. Popular in our country are the models that had a Wisconsin air-cooled engine to power the baler. These could be pulled by a smaller tractor in the field. The bales from these machines were gathered from the field by hand by a few ranchers, but most soon got large loaders for their tractors to pick up the bales. In our country, most of the stacks were built by hand until a few ranches got New Holland self propelled stackers.

We sold a lot of balers. Over the years as new models of equipment came out, we sold mowers, rakes, swathers, and lots of balers.

When the companies came out with the balers that made large round bales, they were eagerly embraced in our country. Each bale could weigh as much as a ton and the process meant that the hay was completely handled by machines. The bales could not be lifted by hand and so there were a lot fewer back injuries from handling hay by hand. I was off to college by that time and have only helped feed a few round bales when visiting ranches.

hay bale 2
These days there are huge square balers that make special bales that transport easily. On the west coast they load bales into shipping containers for transport to Japan and China to be used as animal feed. The long-distance transport of hay is only economically viable because we import so much from China that the shipping containers pile up on US shores and the ships might have to return empty if there wasn’t something to fill them.

In recent years, we have observed many ranches switching from twine-wrapped bales to net-wrapped bales. The netting protects the hay better and less is lost in moving and storing outside. Also, net wrapping takes only a couple of turns in the baler, compared to 15 to 30 for twine wrapped bales. This makes baling go faster and the increased cost is offset by the savings of time.

In country where there is a lot of moisture and the hay is put up green from the field, they use plastic wrap. They cut the hay green and bale it immediately instead of allowing it to dry in the field. The bales ferment and produce feed that is higher in protein for the animals.

While we didn’t live on a ranch, we spent a lot of time on ranches, and I remember lots of times when we played in and around hay stacks. When my cousin got a round baler, his kids though up all kinds of adventures that involved climbing to the top of the bales and jumping from one to another.

Right next to the back yard where our grandchildren live there is a hay field that receives lots of moisture. The Skagit valley is prone to flooding, which makes for rich soil and the field produces three cuttings each summer. The rancher plastic wraps the bales then pushes the wrapped bales together to make for quicker loading when transporting them off of the field.

hay field 3
I joked with our grandchildren this past summer about living next to a marshmallow field. The big bales, wrapped in white plastic look like giant marshmallows. Since we were camping with our grandchildren and S’mores were a big hit as they learned to toast a marshmallow over a campfire, there was plenty of talk of marshmallows during our visit.

This past week, as we traveled back home, the rancher made another cutting of hay and put up bales in the field behind their home. Our son sent us pictures last night of the kids playing on the bales. It brought back memories of playing in loose hay when I was a kid, and of stacking bales as a teenager, and of playing on the round bales with my cousin’s children. I feel fortunate that our grandchildren are growing up in a place where they can see part of the process of producing food and understand how it works. I am also grateful that they live next to open space where they can run and play and experience the world in a safe environment. Their home is long on books and home-made objects and short on television, which suits their grandfather perfectly. This summer we built a short fence for their yard and since it was hot in the day, I dug most of the post holes in the early morning. Our seven-year-old grandson was out there first thing each day, shoveling the dirt mounds and working right alongside me. I’m glad he is growing up with a sense of the worth of real hands-on work.

And, in addition to the work, there is plenty of time for play. There is no need of fancy equipment or uniforms or other trappings to go and play on the hay bales. All you need is your imagination and the gentle eyes of your parents to make sure you stay safe. It doesn’t hurt that they live right next to a marshmallow field.

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!