Slow work

My high school grades prove that I wasn’t exactly a star student. I don’t know if the official records still exist after the old high school I attended burned to the ground, but I know that it doesn’t really matter. Things changed in terms of academics when I arrived at college. The big difference is that in college I worked hard at earning grades and making my education count. I knew how to work when I was in high school. I had received a significant amount of praise for jobs I had done. My cousin said to me as a summer job of working at his ranch wound down, that I had outworked his other hired help that summer. A local pharmacist praised my work when I cleaned the floors in his store weekly. I worked alongside other employees in my father’s business and learned to keep up with them.

For most of my life I have worked to deadlines. In college I had required reading, midterm exams, final exams and deadlines for assignments and papers. In graduate school, I learned to keep up with the scheduled pace of learning and finishing professional papers. I became a published author in those days and learned to meet publication deadlines. Once I graduated, I was a preacher. There was a final exam every week. The quality of my work was judged in part by the quality of the sermons I preached. In addition to preparing sermons, I produced weekly worship bulletins, monthly newsletters, and annual reports. In the early years of my ministry I worked at jobs on the side that had definite deadlines. I learned to time news broadcasts and reading the markets, sports, and even the community calendar that had to be delivered to the second to synchronize with the network news that arrived via cable and satellite to be broadcast. Later I worked for a weekly newspaper with strict publication deadlines every week.

I learned to be organized and to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. Then I retired. My life has changed. There are still a few deadlines. Meetings occur at specific times. Tax returns have to be returned on time. Farm animals need feed and water delivered in a timely fashion. Gardening follows the flow of seasons. Most of the deadlines in my life, however, are fairly soft. It definitely feels like I have much less pressure.

I am learning the joy of slow work. Yesterday I took on several tasks. I prepared new hives for a couple of colonies of bees that arrive this morning. I repaired a drip irrigation system for planters on our back deck and my dahlia beds. I mowed weeds at the farm. Each task I did at my own pace, gathering my tools, doing the work at a walking pace, taking time to look at things, and then putting away tools in just the right place. I have all of the bee boxes and frames laid out in the order I will need them today. I have my irrigation lines installed just the way I want them. I have adjusted the sprinkler heads one by one. I trimmed the weeds and put the weed trimmer away just the way I like it. I never felt rushed. Along the way I spent considerable time just watching the bees coming and going from the existing hives. I watched my grandchildren playing in the yard. I sat on the steps to our deck with our son and listened to his stories of the past week. I ate my meals in a leisurely fashion.

I have found that I really enjoy working at my own pace. I know that my productivity in the shop is far less than I used to accomplish. I have a kayak project that has been stretched over several years. I used to build a boat in less than a year in my spare time. But I am in no rush and I like doing things just the way I want. My woodworking is more precise than once was the case. When I take things slow, I tend to stop when I make a mistake and do whatever it takes to correct it before moving on. I spend more time thinking about how I want to do a job and make fewer mistakes than I used to make. I take time to write poetry, something that I rarely did over the course of my life. I read two or three books at the same time, alternating my reading depending on my mood.

I know that a lot of chores take me longer than once was the case. When I move bales at the farm, I rarely throw them. I pick them up carefully and move them one by one. My stacks are more precise, and I make more trips from the trailer to the barn, and I no longer try to keep up with the young ranchers who can move hay at twice my rate.

I enjoy working at my own pace. I’ve begun to tell others that I enjoy slow work. I think that I am learning some of what I know about slow work from working with bees. When I rush into the apiary and start shuffling tools or bee boxes around, the bees become agitated and guard bees begin to swarm around my head. Sometimes they will land on me and I have to take a deep breath and slowly back away or I would get stung. However, when I approach the bees slowly and watch them as I move boxes and peek into the hives, they adjust to my presence and allow me to work without bothering me. They will go about their business of carrying pollen and nectar to the hive and returning to the fields to gather more without bothering me. They will alter their flight paths to allow for my presence without sending out guard bees. It does require, however, that I move slowly. Another beekeeper friend calls it “the Zen of bees.”

Bees are incredible colonies. They can build and fill honeycomb at a quick pace. They transport pounds of nectar and pollen from the fields into the beehives. The queen lays eggs to fill an entire bee box in a short amount of time and all of the larvae are tended and fed in an efficient manner. When a cell produces a bee, it is quickly prepared for its next use. But they accomplish their work by each doing a little bit. A single bee carries just a few grins of pollen at a time. Collectively, however, the hive grows and develops at a good pace.

I think there is great value in slow work in our fast-paced world. I still have much to learn, but that is one of the gifts of retirement. I have time to think and to work at my own pace.

What's in a name?

I still occasionally purchase beverages at coffee shops. I don’t drink coffee much anymore and when I do I am careful to order decaf. I do drink a bit of caffeinated tea from time to time and I enjoy a good chai late. I am, however, capable of making all of the beverages I enjoy at my home and the prices of coffee shops usually don’t seem like something I want to spend. However, there is something about the culture of coffee that is attractive to me. For all of my adult life, sharing a cup with a friend has been a good way to develop relationships. In my first parish, I used to have coffee at the City Cafe almost every weekday morning. It was a good place to meet with church and community members and to gather a sense of the pulse of the community. I don’t remember the exact price of coffee at the cafe, but I know it was less than a dollar per cup. We didn’t have much extra money in those days and part of the activity was a game with cards or dice which was played at the table to determine which person would pay for the coffees served at the table. Generally I could pay for a round of coffee with pocket change. I remember that a decade later, when we lived in Boise that we used to make a joke that went something like this: “What do you do if you encounter a stranger on the street who is begging you for a dollar for a cup of coffee? You give him a dollar and then follow him to find out where you can get a cup of coffee for a dollar.”

Coffee in coffee shops these days is frequently in excess of $5. And I can still make a very good cup of coffee at home for much less than $1 even if you factor in the expensive espresso machine that I purchased twenty years ago.

Still, I love to go for a cup with our son when he has a few minutes and I often meet friends for a cup at a local coffee shop that focuses as much on the conversation as did those cafe coffee times when I was just learning how to be a pastor. I try to be careful and a wise steward with our money, but I don’t worry about every dollar the same way that I did when I was younger. I have always valued relationships over money. I didn’t choose my vocation or my lifestyle based on a desire to acquire a lot of money and I’m fairly sure that I am much happier than people who have a lot more money than I.

My son and I have a running joke about names and coffee shops. It is fairly common for baristas in coffee shops to ask you name when taking your order. Then they write your name on the cup and the one preparing the beverage calls our your name when it is ready. Our son’s name is Isaac and coffee shop clerks seem to have trouble spelling it. When he receives a cup with his name misspelled he will often take a picture of it and send it to me. We’ve laughed over “Isak,” Izak,” “Issac,” and “Izack.” It seems like just when we think we’ve seen every possible way to misspell his name someone will come up with a new one. A couple of times when he has been with me and we place a coffee order, when asked my name by the server, I give them their own name off of their name tag. When they say, “Really?” I reply, “No, but I know you know how to spell that name.” The joke doesn’t work very well, however, because my name, Ted, seems to be easy for virtually ever clerk to spell. The only spelling variation I can remember is that occasionally it gets an extra d at the end.

I’ve had a fascination with names for a long time. I enjoy reading the name tags on clerks in cafes and calling them by their name in conversation. I try to remember the names of the nurses and attendants at the doctor’s office and use them when speaking to those people. I know the names of the clerks who check me out at the local hardware store even though I know virtually nothing about their lives other than their job. One of the delights of my years working at the church in Rapid City was going down the hall each autumn and reading the names of the children enrolled in Cinnamon Hill Preschool. Every year there would be names that were new to me and spellings that were unique. Sometimes, when I meet someone new or read the name from a name tag in a cafe or store, I will ask if there is a special meaning to a person’s name or if it represents a particular heritage. Often the answer I get is that the name was just a favorite of the parents.

Somehow, however, people find ways of making their names their own. When our daughter came into our home we were on a list to adopt a special needs child. Special needs children available for adoption often are older and have already been named, so choosing a name for a child wasn’t on our list. Then, at the last minute, we were asked by the agency if we would consider adopting an infant and when we said, “yes,” we had only about 24 hours to come up with a name for our daughter. We went with the name we would have used had her brother been a girl. In those days we did not know the gender of a child before it was born, so we were prepared with a name for a boy and a name for a girl. Now, 40 years later, it seems like our daughter’s name has been exactly the right name for her. I can’t imagine her with another name. I love the choice. But it was a pretty random choice. We did not know her personality when we chose the name. I guess we were just lucky. More likely a name gets its meaning and value from the unique personality of the one who receives it.

At any rate, I continue to enjoy names and learning new names as I make my way through life. Often I even learn how to spell another’s name correctly by simply paying attention.

Hanging onto hope

A heatwave struck a number of countries in the Sahel region and across West Africa at the end of March and lasted into early April. The heat was most strongly felt in the southern regions of Mali and Burkina Faso. In Bamako, the capital of Mali, the Gabriel Toure Hospital said it recorded 102 deaths related to heat in the first days of April. Around half of the people who died were over 60 years of age. Temperatures soared above 48C (118F). Scientists say that these record temperatures were “impossible” without human-induced climate change. Human activities like burning fossil fuels made daytime temperatures up to 1.4C hotter and nighttime temperatures more than 2C above normal. 1.4 degrees doesn’t sound like much, but for hundreds of people in the region it was the difference between life and death. According to analysis from the World Weather Attribution group the high day and night time temperatures would not have been possible without the world’s long term use of coal, oil and gas as well as other activities such as deforestation.

To put the crisis in perspective, scientists say that with average temperatures now around 1.2C warmer than pre-industrial levels, events like the recent Mali heatwave will occur once in 200 years. However, if global temperatures breach 2C, those same powerful heatwaves will happen every 20 years.

The heatwave is combined with serious drought on the African continent. The drought is a bit more complex to assign causes. While temperatures are easier to link to human caused practices of fossil fuel consumption and deforestation, low rainfall is primarily linked to El Niño a weather pattern caused by upwelling of warm weather in the Pacific that is linked to impacts on weather in many locations around the world. Drought is common in various places around the world occurring as often as once every ten years. However El Niño makes severe drought more than twice as likely. The cause of more frequent El Niño events is still under ongoing scientific investigation. There is no definitive agreement in the scientific community, but recent studies suggest that global heating may be leading to stronger El Niño events.

Drought combined with high temperatures is a deadly combination. A single example serves to illustrate. In one community where the village well has dried up, water must now be brought in from 8 k (about 5 miles) away. The principal method of getting water is carrying a 20L jug on the top of one’s head. Water bearers are most frequently women. 20 L of water weighs 44 pounds. 10miles with 44 pounds for half of the trip. One woman with five children was making up to 5 trips per day, with a baby on her back and a toddler by her side. 5 trips combined to consume 12 hours just carrying water. Add temperatures of over 100 degrees F and 5 trips is humanly impossible.

As terrible as these statistics are, hearing about the crisis in such terms is not making people more likely to change their behavior. In fact the severity of the global climate crisis is already so intense that many people have given up hope that they can make a difference and in their lack of hope are less likely to make the individual changes that make a difference. Studies have shown that many young adults believe that they have no future and that there is nothing that can be done to alter that reality. They point to huge policy and industrial practices that are beyond their control. Feeling helpless to affect the huge short term profits of global oil companies and governments that subsidize fossil fuel extraction, they have given up hope of change.

However, this planet is remarkably resilient and small changes add up to big differences. Individuals are far from helpless in this crisis. Making changes, however, requires hope. Hope is not the usual province of scientists. It is, however, the message of those of us whose lives are dedicated to religion. For decades “faith hope and love abide - these three” has been a central message of my preaching and ministry. Now, in the face of the rapidly accelerating climate crisis, I find that hope is even more critical than before. Far too many of my colleagues, however, have decided to focus their attention on topics other than hope. One discussion group in our congregation’s focus this week was “Why Are So Many Churches Struggling Today?” Next week’s focus for that group is “No Longer Living in Christendom.” My younger colleagues seem to have less and less hope themselves and are focusing attention on reasons for despair in their careers. It is almost as if they are eager to say, “This isn’t my fault - it’s happening to all churches,” instead of seeking sources of hope for meaningful change in recent trends in religious practices.

In our church, however, we have a small ritual. Once a month, a few individuals are invited to share a brief story of one thing they are doing to make a change to help care for creation. After sharing they deposit a marble in a glass container. At first the marbles were hardly detectable, but over time they add up. This Sunday, in observance of Earth Day, a larger group of individuals will be sharing and depositing their marbles. One person shared about decreasing plastic use. Another spoke of using a drying rack instead of a clothes dryer. A youth shared about dietary choices. Another spoke of riding their bike instead of driving. Little things add up to make big differences. We have spoken of this reality in teaching people to look for hope for generations. The message of hope continues to be essential in a life of faith.

I have begun to seek opportunities to write and speak about hope. Yesterday, I had an essay published in a local newsletter. Here is a link to that article. It is a small thing but small things add up and I refuse to abandon hope. Faith, hope and love remain - these three.

Learning new ways to care

When I was first ordained and called to serve congregations in two rural towns in North Dakota, it was fairly common for me to receive a phone call from an employee at the local hospital informing me that a member of my congregation had been admitted. Although the congregations I served were very good at keeping their pastor informed about the needs of members of the congregation, there was a sense that the wider community was also exercising care. My congregations were fairly small and it was possible for me to visit those hospitalized every day if the circumstances warranted. Our small hospital, however, did not provide all of the services that members of our congregations needed. Someone needing orthopedic surgery or a heart procedure, chemotherapy, radiation, and a host of other life-saving procedures was required to travel for those treatments. While we lived there, or son required orthopedic surgery and the surgery took place in Rapid City, 175 miles from our home. It was not uncommon for me to drive to Rapid City or to Bismarck (150 miles one way) to visit a member of our congregation receiving treatment. It was not uncommon for me to drive 30,000 work-related miles in a year during that time in our lives.

When we moved to a larger city to serve a congregation in Boise, Idaho, the hospitals did not call us to inform us of members admitted. I could, however, inquire at the front desk of either hospital in our town for a list of persons admitted. Both hospitals kept lists organized by denomination, so I frequently visited members of the United Church of Christ who were in our city from other communities for medical treatment. I remembered the long trips and less common visits I was able to make to members when we lived in a remote location. Boise was a medical center with all services including pediatric intensive care, cardio-vascular surgery, infusion and radiology services available, It served an area with a 150-mile radius.

Eighteen years into my career, about a year after we moved to Rapid City, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPA), changed access to information about who was in the hospital. No longer could hospitals legally provide access to lists of people admitted to the hospital. Patients had to designate who was allowed to see their medical information including the fact that they had been admitted for care. We had to develop a network of care within our congregation that encouraged family members to notify the church when there was a desire for a pastoral visit. I was spending as much time as before providing care for members receiving medical treatment, but I spent less time actually visiting people and more time discerning who needed visits. Often I would learn about a member’s hospitalization only after treatment was completed and the patient was released from care.

Despite the limitations imposed by HIPA, I enjoyed access to the hospital and the members of my congregation receiving care there. I had an official identification badge, issued by the hospital, that allowed me access to lists of names of patients who had indicated that they wanted a visit from a pastor of a particular denomination. The name badge required that I take regular instruction into the rules of the hospital, including the specific requirements of HIPA. There were times when I had access to information that I could not share with the wider congregation. This was nothing new to me, however, because I regularly found myself in situations where keeping confidences was part of my role. It is one of the requirements of ministers expressly stated in our code of ethics.

For the last seven years of my career as a pastor, I also carried a law enforcement identification badge. The badge was recognized by hospital employees and gave me access to information within the hospital. Like the hospital badge, it came with strict and careful restrictions on what information could and could not be shared with others.

As a result, I became used to being able to go where I wanted within the hospital. I knew the procedures for visiting in restricted areas such as the Intensive Care Unit and emergency room treatment areas. I knew the proper procedure for donning gowns, face masks and gloves. I knew when I should step out of a room to allow medical procedures to be conducted. Within the guidelines of the law and the hospital, I used my access to provide pastoral care to members of the congregation and law enforcement officers. I became used to being allowed to visit outside of normal visiting hours and having access to those receiving medical treatment.

Then, in the final months before my retirement, everything changed. The Covid-19 pandemic restricted visiting in hospitals and care centers to only the most critically necessary visits. Pastoral care in institutions virtually came to a halt. I was allowed access to provide care in a few critical situations as a patient neared death, but I had to made a quick shift to providing care over the telephone in many cases. I had to learn a new skill of offering prayers over the phone, something that I had rarely done before.

And now, being fully retired, I don’t have any official identification badges. I am a member of the general public. I have a friend who is undergoing a surgical procedure this morning and I know that I will not be able to sit with his spouse in the waiting room as the procedure is conducted. I’ll send a text message with a prayer but it isn’t the same thing. The procedure will be complete and my friend will be back home by the end of the day so face to face visits will be possible, but I realize that there is a difference in access to information.

Regular members of congregations have learned to provide care without special access for as long as there have been restrictions on access. I am no different, and I don’t need to have special status or official identification badges in order to show my care for others. It is just another skill I am learning in my new role in the community.

And always, I trust the power of prayer to transcend physical distance. I continue to include in my prayers those who are far away including those whom I have never met firmly believing that prayer opens me up to recognize God’s presence in the world.

Prayers continue.

Oops!

Sorry, dear readers, for the late posting today. I forgot that the web host migrated my site to a new server yesterday and so this morning failed to publish it to the correct address. Hopefully this didn't cause too much confusion.

Blessings!
Ted

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