April 2024

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

A brief unsolicited sermon

One of the theological terms with which preachers struggle, often during Advent, is repent. It is the commandment, or at least the invitation, that John issues in preaching about the coming of the Messiah. In Matthew 3:2, John declares, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent carries many meanings including: change your inner self; change your way of thinking; regret your past sins; live your life in a way that proves you have changes; seek God’s purpose for your life.

The word in the original Greek of Matthew’s gospel is metanoeite, which means “to change one’s heart and mind.” A literal translation of the term is “to change direction, to stop going the wrong way and start going the right way.” Preachers have long proclaimed the invitation to stop going in one direction and find a new direction in their exposition of the concept.

Less commonly included in preaching is another subtle bit of language and translation that is part of understanding the evolution of the concept in theology. The distinction between regret and repent is a concept in contemporary English and other modern languages, but it does not really exist in ancient Greek. In our way of thinking, repentance is born of deep regret - regret that is deep enough that it inspires a change of mind or a change in course of conduct. In the ancient world, however, the distinction between thinking and action is absent. The change of behavior is seen as the sign of the change of mind. It is all a single concept in the original Greek. There can be no change of behavior without a change of mind and to change one’s mind is to change one’s behavior.

In our world, however, there are plenty of examples of people expressing regret without actually making any changes. Public apologies often seem to be more of an expression of sadness over getting caught than sadness over the actual behavior. Politicians will express regret and continue to do the same thing as before. There seems to be a disconnect between being sorry about something and actually changing one’s behavior.

I’m not sure that this distinction serves society. Would we not be better off if regret actually produced change? Is not change the solution for the problems we experience?

As long as I am geeking out over language and the meaning of words, let me introduce the etymology of another term that is common in contemporary usage, but not so common in ancient literature. The word trauma is common in reference to the wounds experienced by victims of violence in our contemporary world. Although the word has some roots in a Greek stem word, its use in the contemporary sense is not very ancient. The first uses of the word in reference to wounds or injuries is from the 17th century French and probably comes from the Proto-Indo-European root “tera” meaning “to rub, turn.” That same root yields words referring to twisting, drilling, piercing, and also the term for the process of removing husks from grain or threshing. That same root is also the basis for the modern word “attorney,” with its sense of a professional who can bring forth a different outcome. The roots of that word are distinct from the biblical word that carries a sense of counselor or one who stands in your place to advocate for you.

Attorneys and Lawyers aside, the origin of the word trauma is not just wound, but piercing and turning - tearing apart. That sense of being torn apart has a reflection in some of the ways we talk about grief. We say we are “beside ourselves” with grief as if we had become two entities that simultaneously exist. I have often heard survivors of trauma speak of their experience as one of undergoing a twisting and tearing process of becoming something different than what existed before. Their experience has caused them to experience more change than they previously thought was possible - or even survivable. They thought that they could not bear the events that came to pass and yet somehow they have survived. Somehow they have born grief that was once beyond imaginable.

Those suffering trauma, however, do not easily come to an understanding of the process as somehow good or positive. Although I might speak of the possibility of “good grief” in counseling a survivor, I am careful not to introduce such an idea too early in our conversations - before the victim has been able to pour forth the negative emotions which rise up when they reflect or re-experience the trauma.

In a sense, trauma forces a kind of repentance. The old ways are no longer viable. Life as it once was ceases to exist as a possibility. The only way forward is a direction that was not previously possible. One does not get over trauma. The only course of action is to go through trauma. The future after experiencing trauma is forever altered. A new way of living emerges. The old is not fully forgotten, it is simply unattainable. There is no way to go back to what it was like before.

What emerges is a new way of seeing, understanding, knowing - a new way of living. We often use the term “survivor” to refer to this new post-trauma way of life. What has been survived is the end of the old way of being and the birth of a new way of being. The survivor carries knowledge and memory of what was before and what can no longer continue. The new being is literally beside what once was. There is a distinct separation between the past and the future - a turning point - a repentance. For a survivor, change was not the product of individual will, but rather something for which there was no other option. There was no possibility of not changing. Yet there still is a choice. The choice is to survive. One might perish from the trauma. One chooses to survive.

A survivor exists through a miracle of imagination - a new heaven and a new earth opens up where no way forward seemed to exist. It is a rough and jarring process. Such deep change is a triumph of the human spirit.

It is this new life to which we are called from the traumas of our time.

Grace has brought me safe thus far

I seem to have developed a very positive relationship with my family doctor. It is a good thing because I am in contact with her a bit more than I think might be normal. Then again I have never before been this age and I am not sure what is normal for my age and stage in life. When I was a young adult, I was a pilot, which meant that I needed to have a Class III medical certificate. The certificate required an annual physical by a flight surgeon that included general health, vision and color vision checks, and a few other tests. I didn’t worry much about the examination except for the vision portion. I’ve worn glasses or contact lenses since I was 6 years old and each year I emerged from my medical exam with a notation on my certificate that required me to not only wear glasses when exercising the privileges of my airman’s certificate, but that I also carry a spare pair of glasses with me when flying. I kept an extra pair of glasses in my flight bag so they were always at hand. Never did I need to reach for the extra pair when flying, but they were there.

These days I don’t worry much about eye exams. I’ve been told by my optometrist that I have some early stage cataracts, but that there is no need to proceed with surgery until they become more prominent and there is no predicting when that will be. I’ve had a lot of friends, including my wife, who have had successful cataract surgery and I’m not worrying about that one and so far, I have been able to obtain corrective lenses for my vision deficiencies. As far as I know I’m seeing well and I am able to do the things I enjoy such as reading, playing music, driving, and going on outdoor adventures without a problem. I’m pretty careful to wear a strap on my glasses when paddling so that they don’t get lost should I take an unplanned dip into the water. It has happened to me before.

What seems to be the case, however, is that being past 70 means that little things crop up. I’ve learned by experience that scanning symptoms on Web MD or the Mayo Clinic site late at night isn’t a way to promote an optimistic outlook on life. In general my symptoms are not indicative of all of the various calamitous conditions about which I read on web sites that are supposed to help people with illness. I find checking in with my family doctor to be much more reassuring when little symptoms persist. And, when I did have something serious going on - when atrial flutter suddenly showed up - she was quick to respond, make a referral to a specialist, and help me arrange for prompt and helpful follow up.

Mostly, however, being in my seventies doesn’t mean severe illness. It means a few more general aches and pains that I remember being a part of my life when I was younger. I have had a bit of swelling in one of my ankles the past few days. At first I thought it was sprained. However the symptoms match a condition I had in the other foot a few years ago which was determined to be mild edema. Being careful about salt intake, wearing compression stockings, and being sure to elevate my feet when sitting and reading provided a solution. Those are things I can do without needing to consult my doctor.

I seem to be less sure these days about when to consult with the doctor and when to apply simple home remedies.

I do know that I don’t want to discuss my symptoms with everyone. I have a friend who is quite an expert in natural remedies, medicinal plants, and such. If I so much as mention a symptom to her I’m likely to go home with some kind of tea or poultice that is supposed to solve my problem but about which I know nothing and lack the usual confidence that inspires successful treatment with placebos.

The last thing I want to be in my old age is someone who is constantly complaining about my health. After all, if there is one thing that I would like to communicate to younger people about attaining my age is that it isn’t as bad as I had imagined. In fact, I’m not wishing to turn back the clock at all. I’ve had a good life to be sure, but I have no need to repeat any of it. I feel like I’ve earned the measure of wisdom I possess through a lifetime of making mistakes.

Actually, it isn’t that strange being in my seventies. I know that I used to think that such an age was old, but my friends who have moved on into their eighties keep inspiring me with their clear thinking and lively discussion. Somehow my sixties sped by much faster than I expected and I’ve weathered some of the greatest life changes including retirement, to which I did not take too kindly, especially on my first attempt. Selling our home of 25 years and moving over a thousand miles away to a whole new climatic zone took a bit of adjustment, but it turns out that it was a good thing to do. I’ve learned to say good bye to some of my possessions and I’m appreciating my somewhat trimmed down lifestyle. A smaller home is a bit less work and a smaller yard makes a bit difference. I used to budget two hours a week to mow my lawn. These days if I’ve taken a half hour it means that I’ve been taking it slow and stopping to dig in the garden along the way.

Being in my seventies allows me to worry just a little bit less. I can still get myself into a tizzy about the challenges our children face as parents of lively young ones, but I am also amazed and encouraged by their competence as parents. I think we were mostly winging it when our kids were that age. They seem to have things under control a bit better than we did. Then again, I know that appearances can be deceiving.

I’m learning to calm down and make jokes about my forgetfulness and to give myself permission to make mistakes from time to time. Others seem to be remarkably accepting of my failings and willing to give me a second chance.

I’ve got another birthday coming up in a couple of months. I plan to wear the new digit after the 7 with pride and joy. I’ve been through a lot to get this far and as far as I know I’ve got plenty more birthdays ahead. I am, however, grateful to have a doctor who answers my email questions with amazing patience.

Seeking the resurrection story

I am aware that I can sometimes rush to judgement. I know that this is not an admirable trait and I think that I am a bit better at keeping an open mind than was the case when I was younger, but still there are times when I wrestle with judgements I have made. I know that my judgments might not be accurate. At least they are not the full story and yet sometimes when I get a notion - usually about another person - I have trouble looking past that notion.

This Eastertide, I am struggling with my sense of the direction our leaders are taking worship at our church. Here is the judgement that is probably keeping me from fully participating in worship with our congregation: I think that our pastors are having trouble with resurrection. Perhaps their personal beliefs simply do not include specific ideas about what happens after death. Perhaps they have decided that some of the historic teachings of religious leaders about heaven are misleading and not culturally appropriate in modern times. I don’t really know, but it is almost as if the topic of resurrection is being avoided in our church this Eastertide.

On Easter Sunday, the liturgy and sermon focused on the short ending of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars agree that the most ancient versions of the Gospel end with 16:8, in which the women, when they discover the empty tomb early at first sunrise on the first day of the week, are instructed to Go and tell the disciples, but instead, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” This is one of the possible Gospel texts for Easter Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary. The alternate Gospel for Easter is the full resurrection story from the Gospel of John. When I prepared Easter worship in this cycle of the lectionary, I usually opted for the text from the Gospel of John, but I have also preached on the short ending of Mark. When I have done so, I have spoken of the scholar’s agreement that this is likely the most ancient version of how the gospel ended. But I also raised the question of why our traditions have given us both the intermediate and the long ending of the Gospel. If it were true that the women told no one, somehow their silence did not keep the story from being told. In the first place, the empty tomb is part of the most ancient versions of the Gospel. Furthermore, subsequent generations of faithful people felt the need to include post resurrection appearances of Jesus in the endings that we now find as part of the text. I think it is a mistake to discount portions of the text as we have received it simply because there is evidence that they are later additions. We still have to wrestle with the question of why the additions have become a part of our scriptures.

I left the church on Easter morning feeling that the service simply avoided the topic of resurrection. I felt the same the following Sunday. And this morning I’m a bit uncertain of what to expect. The lectionary for today includes Acts 3:12-19 which is Peter’s sermon to the Jews of Jerusalem in which he directly asserts that Jesus is the Messiah and that he was raised from the dead. The Gospel for the morning is Luke 24: 36-48, one of the reports of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in which he eats in their presence and reminds them that they are witnesses of his resurrection. However, this week, as was the case last week, there is no Gospel reading in our congregation’s liturgy. And the reading from Acts is “selected verses from chapter 4.” I’m always wary of “selected verses.” It can be an indication that the pastor is choosing the text to reach a conclusion previously drawn instead of being led by the text to proclaim the Gospel.

I know, I’m being judgmental. I know I’m drawing conclusions before even attending worship. I will be in church and I will try to approach worship with an open mind.

I know that resurrection is a difficult concept to understand. It is a difficult concept to preach. I wrestled with resurrection every year of my career and in preparation for every funeral at which I officiated. But I also know that some of my deepest experiences of resurrection have come from spending time with grieving people mourning the loss of a loved one. Their stories and memories have brought their loved one to life in my experience. It is clear to me that death is not the end of the worth, the meaning, and the value of human life. It is not the end of love.

I know from my experience of membership in this congregation that our lead pastor is not a reader. She does, however, listen to a lot of audio books. And research has shown that people who listen to audio books retain more information than those who read digital books on electronic devices. While I still prefer reading paper books and do about 75% of my reading from paper books, I do read a fair amount from a digital reader. I love its convenience for traveling and generally have several books loaded on my reader and will travel with it as my only reading device. So perhaps our pastor is retaining as much information from audio books as I do from my combination of reading.

Nonetheless, I think that avoiding direct talk about resurrection during Eastertide is a disservice to a congregation. It is not just my age that forces me to face mortality and to think about death and resurrection. I’ve thought about these issues for all of my life. I know I’m not alone in squirming when I hear a minister say something like, “heaven or wherever we go when we die” at the funeral of a loved one.

Our pastor is very modern and keeps ups with the latest trends in preaching. And I know that there is much I can learn from following one whose direction is different from my own. So, for the most part, I will keep my discomfort to myself. Still, I may check out another perspective through another congregation’s online worship in addition to our church’s worship. I’m longing for some resurrection preaching this Eastertide.

Speaking of suicide . . . again

On several occasions during my years of living in South Dakota, I was approached by reporters from television stations and newspapers who asked me for details about a death that occurred in our community. On each of those occasions I had to respond by saying, “That information is not mine to share.” When I responded to deaths by suicide to assist loved ones who were left behind, I assured those with whom I met that I would hold in confidence the stories of their loss and grief. While it is important for the public to know the statistics about suicide and to know the scope of the problem, families deserve privacy in their loss and grief. At each meeting of a suicide support group that I facilitated, we reminded all participants that the stories that were shared in the group were not stories that they could share beyond the group.

I have known some brave individuals who have been willing to tell the stories of their loved ones and how they died publicly. Sometimes it can be healing for those grieving to learn that their stories do not have to be hidden out of fear of the stigma attached to death by suicide. Their loved ones made a difference in the world and will be missed by others, some of whom do not know the full story. A few brave survivors have written books about their loss that has helped to guide others in their journeys of grief. But the choice about what and when to share information should belong to those who knew and loved the one who died, not to others. My role has always been clear. I choose to tell my own stories, but not the stories of others.

Having said that much, there are times when I can speak generally of suicide loss and grief. When I know that individuals will not be identified, I can speak of general truths about suicide loss without identifying those involved and invading their privacy.

I have visited with many families who experienced the death of their loved one as a complete surprise and shock. They had no clear that their loved one was contemplating ending their life. They often will say something like, “If I had only known.” But, of course they did not know. Speculating about the past rarely leads to answers and it never leads to a different reality. Part of the unique nature of suicide grief is that often it strikes survivors without warning. A day begins one way and then takes a turn that is totally unexpected. The trauma of loss is compounded by the trauma of surprise.

There are other families, however, who had seen signs and clues of their loved one’s depression. I remember one father telling me, “I have known for a long time that this might be the way his life would end. I tried everything in my power to prevent it, but there was nothing more that i could have done.”

There is no magic formula that applies to all suicide loss.

I retired from my role as a suicide first responder in 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The time had come. I had witnessed too much tragedy. I had sat with too many families in the grip of grief. I had filled my brain with too many tragic memories. I needed to shift my role in the community. I ended up moving away from the place where I had served for decades as a member of the community outreach team for survivors of suicide. I left that work to others.

Initially, in the year that followed, it seemed that I had made the right decision. My life had so much less stress than it had had during the years when I was a first responder and frequently rose and dressed quickly in the middle of the night to serve others. And when 2020 drew to a close, I eagerly awaited the statistics and for the first time in my career there was good news. The number of deaths by suicide in 2020 in the United States was lower than the previous year. After year after year of increasing suicide rates, there was a moment of relief. While nearly 4,600 individuals died that year, leaving behind so many grieving loved ones, at least the number was 3% lower than the previous year. I began to hope that some kind of turn around had occurred.

My hope, however, was not complete. The rise in death by suicide resumed in 2021, erasing the temporary gains of 2020 and surpassing all previous years. 2022 saw another increase and in 2023, more than 50,000 people died by suicide in the United States. It was the largest number ever recorded, surpassing the previous record set in 2022 by over 500 deaths.

Calls to the national suicide helpline increased by 100,000 per month last year. Especially alarming about the statistics is the number of young people who are dying of suicide. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 35. According to researchers at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Covid pandemic could be a contributing factor. Dr. Christine Crawford, psychiatrist and medical director of NAMI, said, “It caused a significant hit on our young people in terms of acquiring the social skills and tools that they need. They were ar those, and they were disconnected from their peers and from the elements that are so critical for healthy development in a young person.” She went on to say that young people who spend a lot of time engaging with internet connected devices are constantly bombarded with images of war and polarizing political messages which can lead to anxiety and depression.

The 2021 public health advisory issued by the US surgeon general on the rising number of youth attempting suicide singled out social media and the pandemic saying they had “exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”

We need to learn to talk about this rising tragedy and we need to do more than just talk. We need specific action to prevent suicide death. We need to provide Applied Suicide Intervention Skills training to all first responders and to all professionals who work with those at risk. We need to raise public awareness about resources for help in times of crisis and we need to expand mental health resources in all of our communities.

I will not tell the stories that I have received in confidence. Neither will I be silent in the face of this continually growing tragedy.

Everyday surprises

I used to come alive in response to crises announced by phone calls in the middle of the night. For a couple of decades I was on call as a suicide first responder, alerted to my duty by the voice of the 911 dispatcher. And even before that - for my entire career, really, I have been on call to respond to illnesses and deaths and family crises and tragedies in the lives of the people I served in congregations. I used to have a small sign I kept near my desk that said, “The interruption is my job.” I learned to go with the day that did not turn out the way I had planned and to respond with care and compassion and empathy to disruptions in the lives of the ones I loved and served.

These days I am retired and I am not on call for anything, really, except perhaps as a dad consultant when my daughter who is working so hard to keep everything going while her husband is deployed overseas and who has never been a fan of insects, arachnids, or rodents and needs to seek a solution to a dead mouse in the back yard where her son plays or my son and daughter in law who are incredibly competent and involved and amazing in their abilities to keep all of their demands in balance, but who can be, occasionally in need of just a little help to raise four children while practicing demanding professions and so might ask for grandpa to give a girl a ride to school or pick up a teen from his robotics club meeting.

And yet the events of my life frequently present me with surprises. Weeks do not end the way I expect and days do not go the way I expect and the direction of my thoughts and emotions catches me by surprise. I do not mind this, though I might occasionally experience mood swings that temporarily raise my stress level. It is Friday and I look back at the past week with a sense of deep gratitude, no small amount of pleasure, and amazement at the turn of events that has given me a bit of a taste of everything.

On Wednesday I commented to Susan that my plans were interrupted, though I really didn’t have many plans other than to facilitate an hour or so’s work from our grandson on a fence project that seems to be stretching out weeks longer that I thought it would take and continue to work on preparation for a presentation still more than a week away that has a few complex dynamics that include picking up two new colonies of bees and getting them settled in the first half of the morning then switching gears (and clothes) to staff a display and lead a children’s workshop at an Earth Day event at our church that we have been planning for nearly a year.

My day was upended, however, with a change in plans from working with our grandson in the morning to meeting him right after lunch for our project and worrying as I accompanied Susan to a hastily arranged doctor’s appointment in search of an explanation for a sudden and intense pain that resulted in orders for lab work and a follow up scan set for a later date and more than a bit of worry over an unusual phenomenon for which we had no ready explanation.

We didn’t have to wait for that explanation when, despite a definite improvement in her symptoms, the lab results prompted a trip to the emergency room yesterday after I had spent the morning working in the church library. The trip resulted in repeat lab work and the completion of the previously recommended scan to reveal a much less threatening diagnosis than we might have expected. It is all good news with a fairly simple follow-up and a consultation with another doctor sometime in the future but the elimination of the thousand possible frightening things it might have been and a clear, simple, understandable solution that is within our range of experience and should not cause disruptions or further surprises on the way to recovery.

Today promises to return to a bit of normalcy with our son having a day off from work and I wanting to pursue final preparations for new bees to move to the farm and join our apiary while putting some finishing touches on my preparations for the church Earth Fair.

And yet, surprises continue. Last night I was working on my response to the prompt for next Monday’s gathering and found myself with tears in my eyes as I attempted to read aloud a poem that had become surprisingly personal as I sought to write in a style that I have never before attempted, weaving rhymes in patterns that I didn’t expect to flow but that pour off of my tongue in a rhythm unlike any language that I ever used in preaching. What I thought would be a simple reading of a hastily-written and incomplete poem seems to be turning into a kind of performance with which I am a bit uncomfortable and which draws forth emotions that I do not expect. I think I am likely to need to spend quite a bit more time with that project over the next few days than I anticipated.

And there are likely more surprises coming in my life. I am so happy that our son and grandson are taking a brief trip next week to visit and support our daughter and her son in South Carolina and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to support his wife and other children so that their trip is good not only for them and for our daughter but for all of our grandchildren and their hard working and remarkably competent parents. Grandpa duty nearly always surprises me. The two year-old comes up with new words at almost every visit, the six-year old is amazingly observant, the nine-year-old is brilliantly artistic and whatever else happens I know that I will not be bored anytime soon.

Thank goodness my retirement is more exciting than I expected.

Making bee habitats

The Green Team at our church is partnering with the Multi Faith Network for Climate Justice to host a sacred earth fair on Saturday, April 20. The event will feature table displays from a variety of organizations working to engage people in caring for the environment, a panel of local activists, workshops to learn more about grass roots action in the face of climate change and opportunities for members of faith communities to network and connect in their efforts to care for creation.

As a part of that project, I have been working on a display about backyard pollinators. Part of that display is a project for children who will attend the event to make mason bee habitats that they can take home. As a beginning amateur bee keeper, I have been learning a lot about the various insects that pollinate the many plants growing on our son’s farm. I have a couple of colonies of domestic honey bees and will be adding two more this spring. For the most part, being a beekeeper involves observation of the bees. I do give them a bit of additional food during the winter and have the joy of harvesting some of their honey in the fall. I purchased boxes for my first hives, but have built the boxes that the new bees will occupy.

Along the way, I have learned to identify different pollinators that are present on the farm. Our goal with honey bees is to tend enough to help with the pollination of the fruit trees and flowers on the farm, but not to bring in more domestic bees than the property can support. I don’t want to displace any of the native pollinators with the bees I am raising. Last year, I enjoyed watching bees at work on various plants. I was especially stricken by the lavender plants which at times would have honey bees, bumble bees, and mason bees all on the same plant.

With the guidance of our very observant six-year-old granddaughter, I found a place near the chicken coop where there are many mason bees nesting in some rotting boards along the base of an old machine shed. Mason bees are especially fun to watch with children for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that they don’t sting. The granddaughter who loves to observe all kinds of insects on the farm was stung twice last year. I am assuming that those stings came from the domestic honey bees, which will sting if threatened. Most stings are the result of ignorance or carelessness. I have a bee suit that protects me from stings when I have to do things that rile up the bees such as inspect hives, remove honey, and reconfigure the bee boxes. Most of the time, I don’t need to wear my bee suit when working with the bees, however. I can usually move slowly and observe the bees. When I take my time the bees seem to adjust to my presence and go about their activities without bothering me. The times I have been stung were both caused by my panic when a bee got next to my skin. When that happens, the best thing is to simply be still and allow the bee to leave on its own. If the bees are swatted or an attempt to brush the bee off occurs, the bee is likely to perceive a threat and sting.

Bees sting to protect the colony. Each bee sting is a sacrificial act on the part of the bee. It dies in the process. But it takes a great deal of patience to calm the instinct to brush the insect away if it is in one’s hair or in some other place. One of the stings I got last year occurred when a bee crawled up my pant leg and I tried to brush it away. I’m not sure I could have suppressed that instinct when I felt the bee.

For the most part, however, I don’t need to fear being stung as long as I am patient and willing to walk away at some times to allow the bees to calm down. I do have a smoker which will cause the bees to go inside the hive, but I don’t use it very much. It seems to rile up the bees more than calm them.

The mason bees, however, are an entirely different matter. We can get down and observe their nesting area without fear of being stung. If a been inadvertently lands on your hand or face, it will simply leave. If you sense it and brush it away, it will simply leave.

The mason been habitats we will be building with children at the fair are made from food cans rescued from the recycling bin. I make sure they are rinsed out and remove the covers from both ends of the can. I have painted the cans and attached strings so that they can be hung in trees. I have also cut pieces of bamboo to about six inches of length. The children place the pieces of bamboo in the can until they are wedged tightly. The bees will enter the tubes, seal them with propolis, and build places for fertilized eggs to develop. They feed the larvae nectar and pollen. When the larvae turn to bees they eat their way out of the individual cells in the bamboo and emerge to begin the cycle again.

One of the challenges in preparing for the project is that the majority of food cans produced these days can only be opened on one end with a conventional can opener. The cans are rounded in such a way that a can opener won’t work on one end. Increasingly cans are equipped with tabs that allow the user to remove one end without the use of a can opener. Those cans generally are very difficult to open on the other end. I have a cutoff wheel on a right angle grinder that works well to cut off the end of the can, but it leaves behind sharp edges that pose a danger to children. I have had to file and bend over portions of the cans to make them safe for use.

I want to be recycling common household items for the project as a demonstration of how we can consume less, but I wish there were more products that came in cans that can be easily opened on both ends. We don’t use much commercially canned food in our house, so I have had to reach out to friends to collect enough cans for the project in the first place. I’m unlikely to need this many in the future, but lately I have been paying attention to the containers that we purchase with our food.

Besides, painting old cans yellow with black stripes has provided hours of entertainment for this old retired guy. It keeps me from getting into trouble.

a very good day

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When I wrote my journal entry for yesterday, I didn’t think through my topic very well. I should have known that writing about tulip festival would not do justice to the event. Just as writing about cheese does not compare to the experience of eating cheese, writing about tulip festival without pictures leaves much to be desired. So, I am including pictures with today’s entry.

Over the course of a lifetime, I have had many really good days. I have been blessed to be with couples celebrating their marriages, with families bringing their children for baptism, with a community celebrating the lives of beloved people, and with congregations engaging in hands on mission and service. I have been blessed to travel to interesting and beautiful places. I’ve hiked up mountains to reveal incredible vistas, I’ve walked along the shores of lakes, rivers, and oceans. I’ve witnessed the miracle of the birth of a baby and held the hand of an elder as death came. I’ve been given the treasure of a life partner who has walked beside me, led me, and traveled with me for over five decades and who still enjoys new adventures. I’ve watched our children grow into adulthood and become parents themselves. I’ve held five grandchildren and witnessed their growth and exploration of the world. There have been many really good days.

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Yesterday was a really good day. After breakfast, we were greeted by sunny skies as we drove an hour to the Skagit valley and into the tulip fields. We had plenty of time to walk at our own pace. I had my cameras and some good lenses to photograph the flowers in my own way, taking my time, focusing on individual blossoms and huge bright-colored fields. I looked at drops of water through my camera and experimented with focus, depth of field, exposure and light. There were enough clouds in the sky to soften the light and make for brilliant color photography, but there was no rain. The sun made its appearance enough to warm us as we strolled at our own pace. There were quite a few other people enjoying the views, but a weekday morning was not the height of crowds, so parking was no problem and we didn’t feel pressure from other viewers to move at a particular pace through the blossoms.

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After we walked through the fields, we took a leisurely drive through the festival route, viewing additional tulip farms with their fields of brilliant color before crossing back across the river. We had time to take a stroll along the river where we enjoyed many pleasant walks during the year that we lived in Mount Vernon before walking to the library, where we met our son for lunch.

After lunch, our son’s next appointment was to take part of the library staff on a walk through the first floor of the new library building under construction. We were able to tag along on the tour, donning safety vests, hard hats and safety glasses with the staff members and following them as they looked at the areas that will become their new offices, staff rooms, and work areas as well as the locations of the children’s library, youth spaces, adult book stacks, quiet rooms, conference rooms, commercial kitchen and service areas. We marveled at the natural light from the tall windows that are in the new building and the incredible quiet inside. Even though there is a busy street right next to the library, we could not hear the cars as they passed by. The building is designed and being constructed to passive house standards which is several times more efficient than LEED certification.

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We tried to comprehend the impact on the community of a new public space that will provide a host of services to the community and is being constructed to last for a century or more. Our tour-guide son explained the impact of the massive solar arrays that will generate all of the electric demands of the new spaces in the building, including the large commercial kitchen. The building will also be supplied with electricity from the grid and a supplemental generator system as in addition to the building needs, there will be 78 electric vehicle charging stations with capacity to expand EV charging in the future. One way that the amount of electricity generated by the solar panels on the building is that it would be enough to keep all of the cell phones of the city charged every day.

I know that hubris is a vice and not a virtue, but I could not help but swell with pride as I followed our son around the tour. He has participated in the vision for this building, written grant application after grant application, planned and figured out how to create this massive public works project without the need of raising taxes, either for the construction or the operation of this new facility. Once in my career, I served a congregation that was able to make a significant expansion of their property and add additional space to their building. Another time, I helped lead a capital funds drive that provided over a half million dollars for ministry. Our son is leading a 53 million dollar construction project. Over five million of that expense is being spent directly in the small town where the library is located with an additional 15 million going into the economy of the county just from the construction. I don’t even know how to think in those terms. I dealt with thousands of dollars. He helps to manage millions as their community re-envisions what a library can be and how it can serve a community long into the future.

After the tour we still had time for a leisurely drive along the beautiful route back up to our bayside home, pack a sack lunch and head to the church for an exciting and fun-filled meeting where we put the finishing touches on plans for a major event being held at our church on April 20. The members of our team have become close friends as we have worked together over the past year. It is good to know that I can still make new friends in my seventh decade.

But enough words. You probably came for the pictures. I hope they give you some images of what a very good day can bring.

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Flowers and cheese

Back in 1978, after graduating from seminary and before beginning our first call as pastors, we traveled with my parents and a sister and her husband through Europe. Other than Canada, I had not previously been out of the United States, and in those days a passport wasn’t needed to travel to Canada, so we applied for and received our first passports in preparation for that trip. Our flight from this continent to Europe took us from Edmonton, Alberta to Amsterdam, where we picked up a rental van with which we toured several European countries, visiting friends and touring dozens and dozens of cathedrals and castles. As our plane descended for its landing, I was at the window getting my first glimpse of the Netherlands. I strained to see tulip fields, but it wasn’t the season for the bulbs to be blooming, so what I saw were fields of green. The next day, as we drove from Amsterdam to The Hague we saw some of the famous tulip fields.

That was a long time ago. These days, one of the treats of April where we live is a trip to Skagit County, just south of where we live, to visit the tulip fields. I didn’t know until our son and his family moved to this area that Skagit County produces the majority of the tulip bulbs sold in the United States and exports cut tulips to florists across the country. Today we will walk through the fields at RoozenGaarde, a large commercial producer of tulips and daffodils. We are going mid week because the weekends get pretty crowded during the tulip festival. RoozenGaarde features over 50 varieties of tulips and each year we are greeted with stunning beauty.

The tulips are a very popular feature of Skagit County. Mount Vernon, where our son is the community’s library director, promotes tulip tourism year round. A large smokestack, once part of a milk dehydrating facility, now is painted with a giant tulip. There is a huge tulip sculpture along the riverfront and tulips bloom from planters around the town.

The tulip fields are not universally celebrated. For some coast Salish people they are a symbol of colonialism. The fields where tulips now grow were once tidal marsh areas where indigenous people padded their canoes during the spring floods and harvested a variety of native foods. The floods are now controlled by a combination of dams and dikes and the rich soil deposited by centuries of flooding now produces fields of bright blossoms.

I have learned to slightly adjust my thinking. Once I associated tulips with Holland, and I know that there are still stunning tulip fields there. But now, when I think of tulips, I think first of the Skagit Valley’s beautiful farms. It is one of the blessings of the place where we now live and we treasure our annual visits during tulip festival.

I’m learning that flowers aren’t the only adjustments to my thinking. For example, when I think of American cheese, I think of Wisconsin. Cheesehead is a reference to a fan of the Green Bay Packers, but it is also an acknowledgement of that state’s fame for producing excellent cheeses. However, when it comes to the World Championship Cheese Contest, Wisconsin came in third place when it comes to smoked provolone.

Second place went to a cheese producer in South Dakota. That’s right, our former home state is home to some of the best cheese in the world. In the tiny town of Dimock, south of Mitchell, home of the world’s only Corn Palace, is Dymock Dairy, which produces premium handcrafted artisanal cheeses. Dymock Dairy earned second place for smoked provolone in the World Championship Cheese Contest.

The first place for smoked provolone went to (drumroll please) Ferndale Farmstead, just a few miles from where we live. Ferndale Farmstead is a seed-to-cheese farm. It grows crops that are fed to cows that produce milk from which the farm produces a variety of award winning cheeses. This year they won awards for four categories, fresh mozzarella, Latin American style melting cheeses, Latin American style hard cheeses, and was the first place winner in smoked provolone.

The farmstead produces about ten varieties of cheeses and ages them in a temperature-controlled area on the farm. Cheeses take anywhere from one day to one year to make. Fresh cheeses are handled like fresh fruit and shipped to local stores quickly. Aged cheeses are treated more like fine wine and left to age at the farm until they reach the height of flavor.

Ferndale Farmstead uses local sources for the wood that is burned to cold smoke the award-winning provolone. They import the culture for the cheese directly from Napoli in Italy where the cheese makers have a mentor in Raffaele Cheese. It isn’t a large production facility. The volume of cheese produced in Ferndale is small, similar to the production of the South Dakota Dairy. There are several cheese producers in Wisconsin that are much larger. Agropur is an international cooperation with 7500 employees while Ferndale Farmstead has a total staff of ten cheesemakers.

The cows that produce the milk for Ferndale Farmstead’s cheeses have all been raised from birth on the farm. One side of the farm’s cheese production is overseen by Nidia Hernandez, who heads a tiny team of Latin cheesemakers who market their products under the brand Familia del Norte. Familia del Norte won first place in the Latin American style hard cheese category for its panela cheese, scoring higher than farms in Illinois and Wisconsin that placed in second and third. Our county is home to several first rate restaurants that feature Familia del Norte cheeses, including their award-winning quesillo/oaxaca melting cheeses. The cheese makes a huge difference in authentic Mexican cooking.

Every place that we have lived has surprised us with local enterprises that we did not expect. We were unaware, for example, that our first congregations were in the center of some of the largest producers of confectionary sunflower seeds in the world. The huge blossoms all facing the sun were a delight every summer and fall and my affection for growing sunflowers has followed me to every home we’ve lived in since. Today will be another wonderful day filled with beauty as we take advantage of the beauty of the place where we have found ourselves.

Total eclipse

Today is the day of a thriving experience for millions of people. A total solar eclipse will be visible from a wide swath of area from Mexico to Canada. Here in the United States, the path of totality spans from Texas, up through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The maximum duration of totality in Missouri will be 4 minutes and 13 seconds. I have friends who have traveled across the states and, in some cases, paid a high price for motel rooms that have been reserved for months in order to be where they will be able to observe the phenomenon.

I understand their excitement. If we lived a bit closer, I would have gone to significant effort to observe the event. On August 21, 2017, we got up early at our home in Rapid City, South Dakota, picked up a friend at his home and drove south to Alliance, Nebraska, where we found a spot in the yard of St. John’s Lutheran Church to set up our cameras and experience two and a half minutes of totality. It was a stunning experience. The crowd gathered to see the eclipse went silent during totality and cheered at the day’s second sunrise. The roosters in the neighbor’s yard crowed again to hai the second dawn. The experience of totality was unlike anything that I had ever experienced before. I had observed a couple of partial eclipses prior to the event, using pinhole cameras to view the sun. For this event, we had special sunglasses to protect our eyes as we looked at the sun as totality approached. The experience was more than just the brief moments of totality, which were impossible to ignore. We had over two hours of being able to observe partial totality. The next day, I wrote about the experience and published a picture of partial totality in my journal. Here is a link to that report.

I would love to experience a total eclipse again one day, but they are rare and even though I am retired, I don’t feel the leisure to completely disrupt my life with long distance travel this year.

Total eclipses of the sun are relatively rare. And they are generally historic events that are recorded and the reactions of people to the experience are remembered. In college, I studied one famous eclipse as part of a course I took on the history and philosophy of science. In the spring of 585 B.C., in the Eastern Mediterranean, a total eclipse turned day into night. At that time, solar eclipses were cloaked in scary uncertainty. They caught people by surprise. But that eclipse, 585 years before Christ had been predicted by a Greek philosopher named Thales. He lived in what is now Turkey, but at that time was a center of Greek civilization. Thales was said to have abandoned the gods and gained the power to predict the eclipse. He is credited by some historians of science as the founder of scientific method. He observed the movements of the sun, planets, and moon across the sky as seen from earth and was able to predict where in the sky certain heavenly bodies would appear.

Over the ages since that time, the reputation of Thales soared. Herodotus reported his ability to predict the eclipse. Aristotle called him the first person to fathom nature. He was honored as one of the seven foremost wise men of ancient Greece.

The science of observation of the sun and moon is very precise these days. Astronomers have determined to the second when the sun will disappear today across North America. According to Internet reports, it will be the most-viewed astronomical event in the history of our nation, with millions of sky watchers positing themselves for a view. They have been able to plan their observations because of the accuracy of the scientist’s predictions. Back in 2017, we were not only able to pan our viewing of that eclipse, but we already knew that today’s event would occur and there were maps of totality available at that time.

Solar eclipses, however, were not always predictable to humans. Thales is famous because 2,600 years ago, such events were not the matter of philosophers and scientists. They were interpreted as portents of calamity. Kings trembled. Lives changed. Superstition reigned. Thales’ prediction began a huge philosophical change from superstition to rational observation.

In 585, the kingdom of the Medes and that of Lydian were engaged in a brutal war that had gone on for years. The daytime darkness caused by the eclipse was seen as a very bad omen. The armies quickly laid down their arms. Terms of peace were negotiated. The daughter of the king of Lydia was married to the son of the king of Medes. Peace came to people whose lives had been dominated by war.

Sadly, no one expects today’s eclipse to bring peace to Ukraine, Somalia, or other war-torn places across our globe. The scientists have predicted the event and there are very few people for whom it will come as a surprise. You don’t have to be a scientist to benefit from the careful observations of astronomers. There is a phone app that you can download for free to track solar eclipses and similar phenomena.

In my class of the history and philosophy of science, Thales was considered to be the first scientist. He was the founder of a radical new way of thinking. Instead of seeing human experience as subject to the whims of gods, he was able to experience nature as an observable phenomena, with predictable patterns. It is likely, however, that Thales did not “invent” this new way of thinking in isolation. There is clear evidence that court astronomers in Babylonia in ancient Mesopotamia made accurate observations of the moon and planets. Although they typically interpreted their observations in the language of gods and magic and their numerical calculations in mystical terms, they prepared the minds of people for the coming change in the way people think about the world and natural phenomena. There are Babylonian clay tablets that report eclipses that have been dated to as early as 750 B.C. Modern historians now cast doubt on the notion that Thales was the founder of science. Some say the stories of his way of thinking are more apocryphal than based in fact. It is likely that the process of changing the way people think and interpret nature took a very long time and evolved slowly.

Don’t expect today’s eclipse to result in a radical change in the way people think. It may, however, be a moment to pause and re-think some of the notions we have long held. Perhaps it can be a time for a few people to embrace a few new ideas. Who knows, at some time in the distant future, people may look to our time as the opening of a new way of thinking.

Pray for peace

Here we are. It is the second Sunday of Easter, 2024. From my point of view, the world has always been in need of the Easter message, but this year, of all of the years of my life, it seems like that the need for that message is at its most desperate.

I could write about the environmental crisis that already is threatening the lives and well being of millions of people - of the drought and the threat of wildfires that is bearing down on British Columbia, just to the north of my homer where the fires from last summer continue to burn having resisted the power of even winter to extinguish them.

I could write about the rise of the power of totalitarian governments around the globe and the ways in which our own nation is flirting with fascism in a way that is deeply reminiscent of the years leading up to World War II.

I could write about the worldwide crisis of refugees and how never before in human history have so many been forced to flee their homes with no place to turn and are being met with increasing resistance and persecution wherever they flee.

I could write about the war in Sudan affecting 25 million people, over 14 million of which are children in urgent need of humanitarian aid, of 8 million people fleeing causing the largest displacement crisis in the history of the world.

I could write about hundreds of possible places where the future seems grim, where death seems to dominate, where new life and resurrection is critically needed. Doing so, however, would diffuse the message and increase the sense of hopelessness. Easter, if anything, is the opposite of hopelessness. While I am tempted to simply pray for the entire world and allow God to sort out all of its needs, let me focus for a moment on just one situation in a world that is in desperate need of Easter resurrection.

Six months after the Hamas attacks on Israel, war, disease, starvation and death ravage Palestinians in Gaza. Israel is deeply divided, as its prime minister struggles to keep his promise of total victory. Here in the United States, Israel’s most essential ally, the voices of many have turned against the way it is fighting the war. As we walked down the street with our Grandchildren on Friday, we passed a block of protestors, calling for peace without offering a clear path to that elusive goal.

The past six moths have revealed horror after horror. More than 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed by Hamas on October 7. 253 people were taken to Gaza as hostages. At least 34 of the hostages have been killed. The government of Israel has announced that nearly a hundred still remain in custody amid inhuman circumstances. A UN team reported last month that it had “clear and convincing information” that hostages had been subjected to sexual violence “including rape, sexualized torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” There are “reasonable ground” to believe the violence against hostages is continuing.

More than 33,000 Gaza’s, the majority of whom were civilians, have been killed. The organization Save the Children reports that 13,800 Palestinian children in Gaza have been killed and over 12,000 wounded. Unicef reported that over 1,000 children have had one or both legs amputated. Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in Rafah under conditions that are unknown because journalists are not allowed to report from Gaza. Israeli firepower has reduced all of Gaza to a large wasteland.

A grim irony of the war is that Nir Oz, the Israeli settlement that was attacked on October 7, is part of a left-wing movement whose members had supported the idea of peace with the Palestinians.

The Internal Court of Justice is investigating and accumulating evidence that both Hamas and Israel may have committed war crimes. South Africa has charged Israel with allegations of genocide against the Palestinians. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and the United Kingdom.

World Central Kitchen, which had been providing minions of meals in Gaza, has been forced to withdraw its services following a direct attack against a relief convoy that died seven volunteers. Those deaths outraged President Biden whose condemnation of the killings has left Israel even more isolated and its leadership more desperate to demonstrate progress in its attempt to eliminate Hamas. The killing of the World Central Kitchen team seems to have been a tipping point in world opinion. Some pundits observe that the US is no longer prepared to serve as a safety net for Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist coalition partners.

Thousands of protestors waving Israeli flags are blocking the streets around the Israeli parliament demanding the resignation of the prime minister and new elections. The deeply divided people of Israel live in shock following a brutal attacks.

Six months into the war there is no sign that it is ending. Israel has revealed no specifics about how Gaza will be governed when the war does end, except insisting that it will continue to be in control. The plans are clearly for an occupation of the region. Both sides cannot see the other side as a potential partner for peace. The attacks of October 7 resulted in many Israelis saying that they are not a people who deserve equality. Their humanity is questioned by those who are grieving the losses and watching with horror the treatment of the hostages. On the other side those who are witnessing the targeting of women and children, the deliberate killing of entire families, the demolishing of entire neighborhoods as inhuman attacks. The Israelis are seen as monsters.

The dehumanization of those perceived as enemies portends a disastrous future.

The world is desperate for peace that seems to be beyond our grasp. If hope were easy we might be tempted to believe that we are not in need of the miracle of resurrection. However, with death dominating and hope hidden, it seems as if never before have we found ourselves in such desperate need of resurrection. Life in the face of death is the core of the Easter message. Now, as never before, our Easter prayers seem essential. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 suggests that we “pray without ceasing.”

May we pray for peace.

The dance

I am not a dancer, but I have a love of dance. When I was in college I took a class in ballet and I completed an independent study and wrote a paper on liturgical dance. In that class, in addition to writing about dance, I presented dance performances at local churches and presented a junior dance recital with another dancer. Most of what I know about dance, and much of my love for the art comes from being a ballet dad. From the time she was only two years old, our daughter was fascinated with dance. We lived at that time in Boise, Idaho, which is home to the American Festival Ballet. Just down the street from our home was a dance academy run by a member of the troupe. It was located in a strip mall with a wall of windows in the front of the studio. Our daughter would stand by the windows, staring at the dancers, in pink leotards, going through their paces and begged to be allowed to go in. She was too young for kinder ballet, but as soon as she was old enough, she was enrolled. From that time through a couple of years of college she danced her way through life.

She danced through math, which was a challenging subject for her to learn. She memorized math facts to rhythm and learned fractions from time signatures. She memorized the names and styles of classical composers and became familiar with the characters in popular ballet performances. When she was in high school she earned credit at her dance academy by teaching young children the basics. A series of knee injuries changed her participation in dance when she was in college, but by that time, there was a closet in our home with a row of ballet costumes from years of dance recitals. I had become a skilled dance dad. “You job, dad is to drive the car. Don’t talk when we give other dancers rides.” I loved all of it.

Ever since, my ears have perked at opportunities to read about and to watch dancers. Yesterday, I listened with fascination to an interview with Guillaume Côté, a principal dancer and Choreographic Associate at the National Ballet of Canada. Guillaume has announced that he will retire at the end of the 2024/25 season. A special production titled Adieu: A Celebration of Guillaume Côté will cap his stunning career. In that production he will restate his thrilling rendition of Bolero and perform a new work, Into the fade. It will be a stunning cap to a career that began with his being the youngest performer ever to dance Drosselmeyer in the company’s production of the Nutcracker when he was only 18 years old He has danced Prince Siegfried in 11 versions of Swan Lake with 17 different dancers performing the role of Odette.

In addition to being a dancer, Guillaume is a trained musician and composer. He plays rock guitar and was awarded the Best International Short Film at the 2020 Milan International Film Festival for his work, Lulu.

What struck me about the interview most, however, was the conversation about his dance company, Côté Danse. His company produced a ballet version of Hamlet which had its world premier before a sold out audience on April 3 at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. The show will be performed in Romania in May.

I am fascinated at the notion of a wordless performance of Shakespeare’s classic play. It is hard for me to imagine. The play is cerebral, filled with self reflection and Shakespeare’s typical brilliant word-play with layers of meaning. How can its meaning be presented in motion alone without words? It turns out that the idea isn’t new. A dance version of Hamlet was produced in Venice in 1788 and there have been many productions since. The Stuttgart Ballet danced Hamlet in 2008 and Côté himself starred in a production of Hamlet by the Canadian National Ballet in 2012.

In the interview, Côté described the famous “to be or not to be” scene. Having previously engaged in swordplay, Hamlet still holds his blade in his hand as the third act begins and contemplates life’s hardships as he considers suicide as a possible option. In the dance version, Hamlet holds the blade to his wrist and later draws it across his throat without touching the skin. In the original play, Hamlet reflects, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. O, what a rougue and peasant slave am I! To be, or not to be, that is the question.” The scene presents suicide as a dangerous option so dramatically that it is chilling in a conventional presentation of the play. Côté’s description of the dance scene left me shaking, almost fearful to watch the scene should I ever have the opportunity. I am drawn to the dance, but at the same time have no particular desire to watch that scene. It seems more frightening than any horror movie to me.

I have been witness to too many scenes of death by suicide. When I was working with suicide loss, I learned to avoid viewing scenes as investigators did their work. I shuddered to listen to the officers’ descriptions of what they had witnessed. I have too many gruesome scenes in my memory to ever want to see another.

And yet, suicide is a topic we need to discuss. It is one to be brought out into the public. Its often hidden nature makes the tragedy somehow more filled with stigma for the survivors who have lost loved ones. Prevention requires that we learn to speak directly, as does Hamlet, of its presence as a possibility. Survivors of suicide are themselves over twice as likely to die by suicide than those who have not experienced suicide loss. However, talking about suicide is an effective way to prevent suicide. Those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts who are able to confide those thoughts are less likely to act upon them.

Art is a reflection of life. Dance invites reflection and conversation about important real world issues. I will continue to follow Côté and his dance troupe. Who knows, I may even have the opportunity to see the dance staged when it comes to Vancouver, only 40 miles from my home. In the meantime, just the radio interview has given me this opportunity to continue the work of conversation that helps prevent tragedy. Choosing to live continues to be possible now just as it was for Hamlet, despite his dramatic death in Horatio’s arms, not of his own hand, but from a wound of Laertes’ sword, with its tip poisoned by Claudius in his quest to remain king.

Springtime

The cherry tree in our back yard is blooming. One day we could see that a the buds were getting ready to open. The next day there was an explosion of white blossoms in our back yard, transforming the feeling of the space. And we still have frozen cherries from last year. We have guests coming for dinner on Sunday and Susan is planning to make a cherry pie for the occasion. I’ve found that frozen cherries make a fun snack and will take a few from the freezer from time to time between meals.

Fruit trees are one of the unexpected joys of our home here. In addition to our cherries, there is an orchard at our son’s farm that produces apples, pears, and plums. They have planted additional fruit trees each spring since they bought the place so there are new trees coming into production in preparation for the time when some of the older trees complete their life cycles and need to be replaced.

The fruit blossoms are one of the features of the farm that our domestic honey bees like. They also like the pasture where there are quite a few dandelions growing. When the sun is out I can sit for a long time just watching them. They are returning from their trips outside of the hive laden with pollen. Their back legs are positively yellow as they enter the hives. We’ve decided to expand our apiary modestly this year and will have two new colonies of bees arriving on April 20. I met with our bee supplier yesterday and he is excited about the new queens that are getting ready for distribution with their entourages. I built the hive boxes for these bees over the winter and am ready for them to move to the farm. The day they arrive will be a very busy day for me as we have been planning a big gathering at our church for that day. I’ll pick up the bees right at 9 am, take them to the farm and get them settled in their new hives. Then I will need to rush to the church to set up booths and get ready for the 1 - 4 pm gathering. It will be a real celebration of spring. I’m preparing a display on back yard pollinators for the event.

I wish I was better at capturing photographs of the bees. It requires a macro lens, which I have, but focus is critical and bracketing the shots is ideal. The bees, however, move quickly and the depth of field in such a shot is relatively small. I’ve seen some excellent photographs of bees, but so far have failed to get the pictures I imagine I might get. Last year, I sat transfixed on one sunny morning watching while native bumblebees and mason bees along with our domestic honey bees all worked the lavender. There were multiple plants with all three types of bees on the same plant. The bumblebees are ground dwellers. They prefer sheltered areas, often looking for nests abandoned by rodents. Last year I know there were nests under a pile of blackberry canes that have since been burned. The farm, however, has lots of other places for them to nest. Mason bees prefer hollow sticks and stems. They will move into human-provided homes as well. We cut pieces of bamboo and arrange them for the mason bees, but they have found a couple of other places to nest as well. There are some old fence posts near the corner of one pasture that have holes in them dug by other insects, and there are some rotting boards under one corner of the chicken coop where I’ve seen large gatherings of the bees.

Spring seems to be upon us. We still have had some chilly mornings, but the frost is out of the ground. The daffodils are in full bloom and we have tulips that appear to be ready for the blossoms to burst forth any day now. The tulips are a special treat for us. We planted quite a few bulbs in our South Dakota yard, but the deer would eat them as soon as they emerged, before we got any blossoms and after several years, having their greenery eaten before it could nurture the bulbs, the bulbs themselves died and we had no more. What we could grow there were iris. A fawn might occasionally taste an iris, but we’d find the flowers spit out. Deer don’t like the taste of those plants. We don’t have any iris in our yard here, but we have friends who have promised to give us rhizomes this year.

This week is school spring break and we’ve had a few adventures with our grandchildren to celebrate the break and to give their mom a bit of a break so she can get some farm chores done. We went bowling on Wednesday and yesterday there was quite a cookie baking session going on in our kitchen. Today our plan is to go to a children’s science museum. These adventures with our grandchildren are one of the real bonuses of being retired. Susan is really good a planning adventures. It is easy to swap cars with our son’s family so that we have access to a mini-van when needed to transport children.

I’m still adjusting to being retired. The process has been a bit more challenging than I expected. I really enjoyed the work that I did and I miss the people and the work. I know, however, that the time had come. New leadership needs room to emerge and though times of transition can be difficult for congregations, learning to say good bye and hello are essential skills for growing churches.

Spring is a good time to celebrate change and new experiences. There is so much for which I am grateful. I am learning to pay attention to my gratitude as well as offer my prayers for those around me and for the children who are victims of war and violence around the world. Being retired has not shortened my prayer lists at all. It has, however, given me a bit more time to focus on individual situations and prayers and more time to just listen. How grateful I am that the sunshine is inviting me outdoors to pray.

Potatoes and Tomatoes

Susan’s father called himself a “meat and potatoes” guy. He wasn’t keen on trying new foods, but he liked basic meals. He grew up in a household where potatoes were served with every meal. When we were first married, we would visit his parents fairly regularly and after we graduated from seminary we lived in North Dakota, which was their home state, and we saw them frequently. Breakfasts were always served with fried potatoes. Often they were the leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner chopped up and fried. Lunch offered boiled potatoes most of the time, and occasionally there would be potato salad. Dinner always featured potatoes, mashed, or baked and occasionally scalloped. I enjoy potatoes and found their eating style to be easy to embrace.

We, however, don’t serve potatoes with every meal. In fact we might go several days without including potatoes in our meal plans. I still enjoy fried potatoes with eggs for breakfast, but don’t prepare them every day.

When we moved from North Dakota to Idaho, potatoes were frequently the topic of conversation. The Idaho state slogan is “famous potatoes.” I used to joke that the slogan said “famous” not “tasty.” I had been fairly loyal to Red River Valley russet potatoes when we lived in North Dakota and didn’t find Idaho potatoes to be any better flavored. Potatoes are big business in Idaho, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington. An Idaho agribusiness company developed the process for making potato flakes that could be reconstituted as mashed potatoes. They supplied a lot of potatoes to support the war effort during World War II. Idaho potatoes were the choice of McDonalds restaurants and there are huge facilities in Idaho where potatoes are cooked and frozen and then shipped around the world.

When the McDonalds chain began opening restaurants in Russia, they were criticized for importing potatoes into Russia and began to source potatoes for those restaurants in Russia.

When we lived in Idaho, we used to be able to get enormous potatoes from the grocery store. Sometimes we could find ones that were over a foot in length and were really heavy. Typically we could purchase individual potatoes in the 4 to 5 pound range in our grocery store and if you looked you could find a few that were close to 10 pounds. We would purchase one when we had an out of state guest and offer it as a gift to them saying, “We knew you have to travel, so we found a small cull from our Idaho potato fields for you to take home as a souvenir.” The joke was usually good for a few laughs.

Skagit County our neighbors to the south here in Washington, is home to a large amount of potato production. Those farms often grow a special variety sold as golden potatoes in grocery stores.

I am no expert in potatoes, but I’ve been party to a lot of conversations about potatoes and I have bits of trivia about them in my head. According to a 2019 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), potatoes are by far the most eaten vegetable in the U.S. According to the USDA the average American eats 49.4 pounds of potatoes a year. Compare that with an average of only 9.4 pounds of onions, the third most eaten vegetable in the U.S.

The second most eaten vegetable in the USDA study raises its own conversation. It is tomatoes, at an average of 31.4 pounds per year. The conversation, of course, is whether it is appropriate to call a tomato a vegetable. Tomatoes are botanically defined as fruits because the form from a flower and they contain seeds. However, according to the USDA, they are most often utilized as a vegetable in cooking. Back in 1893, the argument over the designation of tomatoes reached the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that the tomato should be classified as a vegetable on the basis of its culinary applications. Scientists continue to disagree with the court ruling.

Another debate over the classification of food is brewing and has prompted more than a dozen Washington legislators to write to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Zavier Becerra arguing that potatoes should keep their designation as a vegetable. Every five years the USDA and HHS publish dietary guidelines for US citizens. A recent report said that the advisory committee for the guidelines is considering classifying potatoes as a grain.

I’m with those who wrote the letter of protest. Like botanists who continue to call tomatoes fruit despite a Supreme Court ruling, I intend to continue to call potatoes vegetables regardless of the official designation by the makers of dietary guidelines. Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamins. A good baking potato contains more potassium than a banana, a food that is commonly cited as high in potassium.

If the classification of potatoes were to be changed, vegetable consumption across the country would go down dramatically. Nearly 50 pounds of food per year would become classified as grain rather than vegetable. Moreover, according to Jamey Higham, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, a change in the classification of potatoes would give federal food programs such as school lunches, which are required to meet federal nutrition guidelines, to purchase fewer potatoes. Potatoes would no longer count as a “specialty crop” eligible for federal subsidies.

I’m not particularly concerned with federal subsidies, but I think offering potatoes in school lunches is a pretty good practice and I don’t think that there would be significant health benefits to reclassifying the food. Although those who are watching carbohydrate consumption need to pay close attention to their potato consumption. Potatoes are a carbohydrate rich vegetable with about 26 grams of carbohydrate in a medium potato with the skin. The starch in potatoes is considered to be a complex carbohydrate. According to the diabetes association, complex carbohydrates generally take longer to break down in the body than simple sugars and potatoes are perfectly okay to include in a healthy diabetes diet.

I’m holding on to calling tomatoes fruit and potatoes vegetables. I’ll listen to other arguments, but I don’t think they are going to convince me.

Accessing health care

Back in the late 1970s my father was diagnosed with cancer. The illness eventually was the cause of his death. Before he died, however, there were a lot of medical interventions, some of which eased pain, others helped him live a bit longer. Along the way there were some very meaningful times with family and friends. One long time family friend, who was a doctor, said to me after one of his visits, “I had no idea what some of the drugs he is taking cost. I prescribe drugs every day without knowing what they cost. Frankly, the medicines that my family needs come almost entirely from free samples provided by pharmaceutical companies.”

Physicians are busy. Most are in their profession because they want to help people not because they enjoy running a business, dealing with insurance billing, keeping track of accounting, and winding their way through the increasingly complex US health care system. For profit companies that make their income from selling devices, drugs, and services to people who are facing illness have developed a wide variety of techniques to promote their businesses. One of those techniques is providing physicians with access to free samples of medications. By distributing those samples to patients, the doctors become familiar with brand names and are more likely to specify those names when writing prescriptions. I suspect that doctors, when scanning lists of possible treatments that come up on their computers tend to lean towards ones that they have previously used successfully.

I was thinking of the doctor who prescribed medications without knowledge of their costs yesterday. After a visit with my family doctor on Monday, it was recommended that I see a specialist for a condition that is not life threatening and is common with folk my age. I agreed. My doctor said to me, “I’ll send the referral in today and you can call tomorrow to make an appointment.” Later in the conversation, I mentioned that I have a trip planned for the very end of the month and the doctor said that there should be no problem seeing the specialist before my trip. I called the office of the specialist to make an appointment the next morning. They gave me the next available appointment which is for July 11.

It is important to note that my situation is a non emergency and the wait will not result in discomfort or problems for me. I am aware that when there is an emergency the health care system can respond more quickly. A little over a year ago, when I experienced a hearth arrhythmia, that same family doctor made a referral and I was seen by the cardiologist within a week and received a successful procedure with no delay. My experience this week is not the only pace at which the health care system works.

I am struck however, because I know that delays in receiving diagnosis and treatment has been one of the criticisms of the Canadian health care system. Each time health care system revisions are proposed in congress, there are critics who argue that a single payer system like the one in Canada will result in delays in health care. Living near the Canadian border I listen to Canadian radio quite a bit and I am familiar with the debates over health care in their system. One of the discussions that comes up frequently is about a shortage of doctors and nurses in the system and efforts of provincial and federal governments to address that shortage. Not long ago, participants in a radio panel were discussing delays in the Canadian health care system and one of the statements was made that there can be delays of over a month to see certain specialists. Among the specifics offered in that conversation was the same specialty to which I was referred. If I am interpreting what I’ve heard correctly, Canadians are worried about having to wait over a month for a specific type of health care. Our system, which is touted as having fewer delays in service offered me a delay over three times as long.

It is clear that neither country has a perfect system. In both countries those with access to wealth can command higher levels of care. In both countries those who can afford to travel for care can access care that is unavailable or delayed in some places. There have been temporary closures in emergency rooms in British Columbia caused by a shortage of health care workers. Obviously a closed emergency room is a significant threat to communities. There are other problems with the Canadian system that are regularly discussed on the radio.

What I know about issues of the US health care system is less complete. We have had the benefit of very high quality insurance for all of our adult lives. After we completed our educations, where we had access to first rate university health care systems, our insurance was provided by the congregations we served who purchases that insurance through a denominational program that offers excellent coverage. Now that we are retired, in addition to Medicare for which we are qualified by our age, we have a supplemental policy that is excellent. We pay those premiums, which cost thousands of dollars each year, but which we can afford due to the pension that has been provided by those same congregations.

We are fortunate. We can access the health care we need. I am well aware that there are many who don’t have that luxury. Medical bills remain a leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. The high cost of access to routine health care has resulted in many waiting too long before seeking treatment resulting in increased costs. Lifesaving medications are sometimes only accessible at huge financial costs to the patients and their families. People literally choose between food and medication.

I am fortunate that despite a few delays and occasional complex issues with insurance billing codes that require patience and many phone calls to sort, we have so far negotiated the health care system without major problems. On the other hand, as we age, we will continue to increase our use of the system. For now, I don’t have any reason to complain. I wonder if that will continue in the years to come.

She walks

I came to poetry rather late in my life. Actually, I came to literature rather late. After high school English classes, I read almost no poetry and no fiction during my college and graduate school studies. Other than a course titled “Christian Faith and Contemporary Fiction,” a few poetry assignments for a transformation intensive, and a course that featured the writing of Elie Wiesel, my reading was very focused on philosophy, theology and biblical studies. I read voraciously, but I had definite reading goals that were aligned with my educational goals. I was pretty driven as a student. I set goals and achieved them. Not to brag, but I graduated with highest honors from college and graduate school. That focus, however, came at a cost. I was doing very little recreational reading during those years.

After graduation, I satisfied my natural hunger for literature by writing prayers, which often were quite poetic. I began to read fiction, but initially focused on stories and essays to enhance my preaching. As I developed a storytelling style of preaching, I read more fiction though it was often geared to philosophical fiction. Meanwhile, preaching and writing liturgy was satisfying my need to create.

During graduate school, I succeeded in publishing a poem in a denominational journal. I can’t remember how I decided to write the poem, but it was one of several that I wrote as reflections on a part time job I had as a church janitor. A year later some of my professional writing was published in a professional journal and I set myself the goal of publishing a book by the time I reached the age of 30.

I have yet to achieve that goal. It seems that most of my post-graduate school goals took longer than I expected. I sometimes joke that it took me 30 or 40 years to gain 3 or 4 years of parish ministry experience. There are lots of real world challenges that one encounters outside of a formal academic setting that cause a realignment of objectives and goals. When setting goals as a student I did not consider the impact of becoming a father on my available time and my life’s goals. Nor did I expect the growing passion for the pastoral ministry, worship design and leadership that developed in my life.

For most of my career writing prayers, crafting sermons, and professional writing satisfied my creative urges. About 15 years into my career I began writing educational curricula materials. That grew into an extension of my career for the next quarter of a century. I wrote and edited for many formal faith formation curricula published by several denominations. Curricula tops the list of publications in my CV and my only published books are curricula.

Twenty-eight years into my career, I undertook the discipline of daily journal writing as part of a sabbatical that served to refocus my ministry. A year later I began to publish my journal on my personal website. My preferred genre for my writing has definitely been personal essay ever since.

Around that same time, I started to read more poetry and expanded my reading of fiction. In conversation with high school and college literature teachers, I began to read through reading lists assembled for students. Discovering that I had a definite gap in my education when it came to classical literature, I would go through the books on the reading lists attempting to fill that gap. Along the way, I rediscovered a love of poetry. I also found that reading poetry enhanced my skills for writing prayers and my prayers became more poetic in nature. That was reinforced by additional work I did studying and teaching the prophets, especially focusing on Isaiah. I began to collect books of poetry and always have one or more volumes on my reading shelf. Retirement has given me even more time for poetry and I read poetry nearly every day.

In my time as an Interim Minister of Faith Formation I made it a practice to write a prayer for each class that I taught. Rather than begin classes by reading the prayers of others or praying off the cuff as pastors commonly do, I began to prepare for teaching by writing a prayer focused on the students, the topic, and current events. Those poems were often in the form of poetry in part because I was teaching Isaiah among other topics.

Now retired, I belong to a poetry writing group that meets twice each month. We have a poetry prompt for each session and roughly two weeks to produce a poem on a common theme. In addition, we receive and write to two additional prompts in each meeting of our group. I am especially taken with the out of class prompts for which we have time to write more polished poetry.

The prompt for last night’s meeting was a quote from Thich Hat Hahn: “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling in the moment and feeling truly alive.” I tried to write a poem about the care of creation, as our group also has a challenge to produce poetry for an Earth Day celebration toward the end of April. However, as is often the case with my poetry, the process led me in another direction focusing instead on the connection between justice and Creation care. I’m still heavily influenced by Isaiah’s call to justice. Here is the poem I wrote.

She walks

She walks
8K every day
Barefoot on dirt path
She walks
 
Baby on her back
Toddler by her side
Jug on her head
She walks
 
Every day
Empty is light
20 liters heavy
She walks
 
Family of five
Needs 75           
Four trips a day
She walks
 
Once a well
In the center of town
Now is dry
She walks
 
The desert grows
Nowhere to move
Just to survive
She walks
 
Faces scrubbed
Tin cup in hand
She watches her child
She smiles
 
She is strong
She will endure
She feels alive
She walks

It's April again!

It is a good day to be wary of the old tried and true pranks. I wonder how many years people have been putting plastic wrap over toilets and swapping the contents of sugar and salt containers. My father was a great prankster. In the last year of his life, when he was sick and our mother was nursing him at home, he quietly snuck out of bed in the wee hours of April first while Mom was catching a bit of much-needed sleep. He put a bit of white glue on the end of the toilet paper roll and returned to bed. When our mother rose in the morning she used the toilet in the dark so that the light wouldn’t bother dad. As she batted the roll of toilet paper trying to find the free end, she could hear him giggling in the bedroom.

Woe to any advertiser who sent “return postage guaranteed” envelopes to my father toward the end of March. He would fill the envelope with steel washers in hopes of creating a charge of a dollar or more in postage and yielding the advertiser no order anticipated in such envelopes. He took great pleasure of making his income tax returns as heavy as possible back in the days when the government offered free postage on tax return envelopes.

We learned to be wary of a slice of cardboard in an otherwise perfect looking pancake, food color in eggs and other pranks on the first day of April.

My father has been gone for more than four decades, and there are some memories that are beginning to fade despite my constant telling of his story. However, the memory of his laughter is one that remains strong in my mind. He took great joy in very simple things.

Media outlets still put considerable effort into April Fools Pranks. Google seems to always come up some way of pranking the unwary. In the early 1990’s National Public Radio caught my attention with a gag in which an actor pretended to be former President Nixon declaring that he was running for president again. Way back in the 1950’s BBC reported that Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and extra workers were needed to harvest noodles from spaghetti trees. Fast food chains have chimed in with their own pranks. One yearTaco Bell announced that they had made a deal to purchase the Liberty Bell and rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. Burger King ran an advertisement for a “Left-Handed Whopper,” that sent scores of clueless customers into their stores in search of the fake sandwich. The spring we were preparing to move from North Dakota to Idaho, Sports Illustrated ran a made-up article about a rookie pitcher named Sidd Finch who could throw a fastball over 168 miles per hour.

The Washington Post ran an article titled “A Brief, Totally Sincere History of April Fools’ Day a few years back. I think it was fairly accurately researched. It suggested that there is no definite recording of the origins of the holiday. Some report that it has roots in the ancient Roman festival of Hilaria, celebrated at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises. Others claim it was inspired by the Egyptian legend of Isis, Osiris, and Seth. I have read that it has origins in the shift from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar called for by the Council of Trent in 1563. That calendar shift changed New Years day from April 1 to January 1 among other corrections to the calendar including the introduction of Leap Years. People who continued to celebrate the beginning of the year on April 1 were called April Fools. I also read somewhere that April Fools was related to a tradition of playing pranks on Christian priests on the Sunday after Easter, claiming that the ultimate prank of all time was the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I’ve tried my share of April Fools pranks over the years, but am not very good at keeping a straight face and often succeeded in fooling no one. I lived in South Dakota enough years to know that one of the great April Fools pranks is the weather itself. The first of April can bring almost any weather imaginable to South Dakota. We’ve heard thunder during snow storms, watched daffodils coaxed out of the ground by 60 degree temperatures only to be crushed by a spring blizzard, witnessed spring hail, high winds, and days in which the temperature shifted by 50 degrees and more. One spring I suggested that South Dakota might change the state motto from “Famous Faces, Famous Places” to “All Four Seasons Every Day.”

These days I am entertained by the fake stories and pranks our grandchildren attempt. Like me, their faces often give away their intentions. I rather enjoy a day in which I play no pranks but leave my family on edge expecting a prank to show up at any minute only to find at the end of the day that there were no pranks.

There is something incredibly healing about sharing laughter with other people. An insuppressible giggle is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world whether it is expressed by an infant or an elder. It is hard to remain angry at someone who makes you laugh. The ability to land a well-timed joke can ease the tension in a meeting with much disagreement and open a pathway to a resolution. If I can get someone to laugh out loud, I know that we are on our way to resolving whatever problem has caused our conflict.

I sincerely wish your April Fools’ Day is filled with laughter whether its source is the memory of those like my father who took such delight in the day, an unexpected prank of a friend or family member, or your own unique idea successfully executed. Sometimes failed attempts at a joke can be as hilarious as a successful surprise. Give it a try. You may end up ROTFL.

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