Children's Sabbath 2019

Today is the 29th annual observance of Children’s Sabbath. Each year our congregation participates in a 40-day prayer vigil leading up to the observance. The prayer vigil and the observance have two main goals. The first is to listen to the voices of children. From ancient days, our people have recognized both the importance and wisdom of children. The 11th chapter of the book of Isaiah expounds a beautiful vision of peace and in that vision a little child is leading the way. Jesus invited the children to come to him even when his disciples tried to turn them away. Children are central to the observance of our faith.

Listening to the voices of children can be a difficult challenge. According to a recent report from the Children’s Defense Fund, over 12.8 million children in the United States live in families where the income is below the poverty line. This means that nearly 13 million children face times of inadequate nutrition and the interruption of their education and live under the threat of homelessness and violence. No child should have to suffer such poverty and yet we have made children among the most vulnerable victims of poverty while we continue to offer tax cuts to the most wealthy of our citizens. It can be painful to realize how much children are asked to bear the burdens of inequalities in our society.

While the overall child poverty rate in our State is slightly below the nation’s average, we are home to the county with the highest child poverty rate in the nation: Ziebach County, on the Cheyenne River Reservation is home to the highest percentage of impoverished children. Across our state the poverty rate among single mothers is 38.2%.

Listening to the voices of children is listening to a cry for help, which brings us to the second part of the observance of Children’s Sabbath. Our second goal is to respond to the needs of children. And the needs are indeed great. Those needs, however, are also basic. It doesn’t take extraordinary means to address a lack of nutrition among children.

Sometimes, however, our well-meaning attempts at solving problems can create dependencies and a form of paternalism that extends the problem into future generations instead of solving it. An excellent example is some of the response we make to hungry children in our community. People, primarily teachers, were observing that children were coming to school hungry. The basic instinct of every caring person when encountering a hungry child is to feed the child. Our community has responded with a variety of feeding programs including school breakfasts and lunches and a unique backpack program where children are provided easy to prepare and eat meals to take home on weekends when school feeding programs are not in operation.

The problem is that in our rush to help we have stepped into the midst of a very basic relationship between parents and children. We have taken away from parents and grandparents the responsibility of feeding the children. By feeding their children, we have taken away their ability to choose what food their children eat. And by feeding hungry children we have shifted family finances. When less money is needed for food in an impoverished family, more money is directed to the costs of housing, making the families vulnerable to predatory lending schemes and housing contracts.

Sometimes the best intentioned attempts at helping can make a problem larger instead of smaller.

While we have two main goals for the observance of Children’s Sabbath, like every other sabbath observance, we are brought back to the reality that we are incapable of solving the world’s largest problems on our own. While there are clearly responses to child poverty that we can make and there is more that we can do, it is true that we need the help of God to address the deepest needs of the children in our community. We are dependent upon God’s participation in human history to bring about real change.

The Apostle Paul wrote about how faith, hope and love are at the center of life. He also wrote of their endurance in the face of the temporal nature of much of this life.

On this Children’s Sabbath we pray for faith. May we once again learn to believe in the worth of each child and the potential of each child to bring light and life to this world. May our faith overcome the cynicism to which we are too often prone and move us to action where inaction has been our response.

On this Children’s Sabbath we pray for hope. Renew once again within us the hope of a world where no child wakes hungry and faces the harshness of homelessness and violence. Remind us that hope is born in the process of walking with those who are in need and working alongside them for solutions to the problems of this world.

On this Children’s Sabbath we pray for love. May the love of God so infuse our hearts and minds that we are empowered to reach out in love to the children of this world. May we so love them that they learn to love one another and to give themselves in love to the world.

The truth is that the very children we seek to help are themselves sources of faith, hope and love in our world. Some of the solutions to childhood hunger and poverty in our state, nation and world will come from the very children who are struggling to grow up in the midst of those problems. Our allies in discovering solutions are the very ones we seek to help.

Our reflection returns us to the initial goal of Children’s Sabbath - to listen to the children. When we really listen to the voices of children, when we really listen to their needs and wants and hopes and dreams we discover that we are linked and bonded with them. Our future lies in the very children we seek to help.

God grant us the grace to never forget the children.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Family

I’ve never studied anthropology and I am not any kind of an expert in tribal cultures, but somewhere I read about a society in which the adult women gather around whenever a new baby is born. The grandmother and her sisters form a kind of team of mentors to assist the new mother as she adapts to the routines of caring for an infant. I suspect that what I read was part of a historical novel, so it might be an idealized version of tribal society and I’m sure that it was incomplete in its descriptions. Whenever groups of people gather there are quirks of personality and challenges of relationships that are a part of the equation. Even the most loving and supporting families have challenges and struggles. Adaptations need to be made. Accommodations are part of the process. Nonetheless I have this rather idealized vision of a group of supportive women surrounding a new mother and strengthening her capacity to care for her baby.

I am witnessing a modified version of that process in my own home these days. From the time she was a tiny baby, our daughter’s aunts have adored her. My sister and my wife’s sisters have surrounded our children with all kinds of love and support throughout their lives. They have close and independent relationships. Our daughter and son send text messages and communicate directly with their aunts. This was especially helpful recently when Susan was in the hospital and I was overwhelmed with the task of keeping people informed. Knowing that our children were in direct contact with their aunts relieved my of the role of carrying messages between them.

Almost immediately, as the word got out of Susan’s condition, family started to arrive. Our son was first, making it to the hospital just before midnight. My sister and Susan’s youngest sister weren’t far behind, getting to Rapid City in the wee hours of the morning and arriving at the hospital the next day. Our daughter, who lives in Japan, had to allow more time for travel. Although she wanted to come immediately and stay for a significant amount of time, it was most practical for her to wait a week before departing Japan. She and our three-month-old grandson arrived the next week. Meanwhile the sisters, as I affectionately call them, worked out a rotating pattern of visits, so that there would always be one of them in our home to help with care and other household chores. They have been a constant and very helpful presence in our home since before Susan was released from the hospital.

For the past week, I’ve taken great delight in witnessing the relationships between the adult women in our family. Susan spends quite a bit of time in a recliner in our living room and the others gather around. I’ll come into the house to find them all sitting and talking with the baby on a blanket in the center of the floor. Since this is our daughter’s first child, she has plenty of questions about how he is doing or what he needs or what is happening. The gathering of grandma and great aunts is providing a wonderful, natural support system for her. She came to our home to help, and she certainly is helping, doing laundry and caring for her mother, but we get the added bonus of this natural community of support for her as she moves into the role of mother with incredible grace.

Our daughter was especially well equipped for the role of mother. She had wanted to become a mother for many years before it happened, so she had dreamed and planned and prepared for the role. And she had more than a decade of experience working in childcare, with many years of caring for infants in private and military centers for child development. I once joked, when she was in her early twenties that any woman who could care for a room of 10 infants and keep them all in clean diapers and fed wouldn’t have any problem with a single child. I doubt that any other new mother came to the role with more experience in infant care than our daughter. She is remarkably calm and natural in her care of our grandson.

Still, she had questions. Is he getting enough to eat? Does he spit up more than other babies? Is he healthy? Her baby is doing very well and he is calm and at home in his world. Still any parent worries just a bit. I know I did when we had babies in our home. I still do now that they are in their thirties.

Our family isn’t much for television, so we sit around in the evening and talk. Often our primary entertainment is the baby. He is so much fun to hold and rock that there is a gentle competition for who gets to hold him. When he is awake, there will often be two or three of us down on the floor next to his blanket.

Another entertainment in our house is reading. When our children were small, we read aloud every evening and since Susan came home from the hospital we have returned to the practice of read-aloud, this time from a novel written for an adult audience. We read a chapter or two in the evening as we wind down.

I wish I could remember which book had the stories about the tribal culture and the gathering of women. I think it would be a perfect book for read aloud when we finish the current one.

It is our own version of a tribe. We’re rather loosely knitted, gathered together in response to a family crisis. Normally we live thousands of miles apart from one another. We don’t share the same village. But when there is a real need, we know we can count on one another. And when we are together, we are a tightly bonded group.

There are many blessings in my life. Family is one of the greatest.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Proofreading

If you are a regular reader of my journal, you already know that I’m not completely accurate in typing and that I sometimes employ run-on sentences. You know that my journal entries are far from mistake-free. It is an excellent example of me when the document I’m writing has not been edited. None of my journal entries are read by another or edited before I post them. You’re getting the raw, unfiltered Ted. And it is sometimes awkward and sometimes a bit challenging to read.

It would be better if it was edited before it is published.

Unedited documents, however, are becoming the rule and not the exception. Increasingly we read documents that have not been read and proofed by a human editor. I use a spell checker when I am writing and it does catch some mistakes. It also makes a few. For example, when I want to use the word “too” it will auto correct to “to.” Then it will highlight the auto corrected “to” because it should be “too.” If auto correct worked a bit more slowly, the problem wouldn’t happen as often. I really know when to use “too” and when to use “to.”

So far I have resisted using a grammar corrector. The software called “Grammarly” is probably the most popular among the circle of writers with whom I have the most contact. The problem is that I spent a lot of time and energy learning grammar and teaching myself to write cogent sentences and I pride myself on my ability to write and speak clearly. I also have worked most of my career developing a particular storytelling style for both writing and speaking. i am well aware that written language and spoken language are different. I have invested many hours honing my skills and I think my human evaluations are superior to what even the best of algorithms can produce.

Having said that, I am not the world’s strongest proofreader. Proofreading requires a disciplined skill of reading exactly what is written without allowing your brain to correct for meaning. My wife is a very skilled proofreader. She is the one in our office who is continually being asked to proof documents before we send them out. She is good at catching errors and correcting mistakes.

But she has been out of the office for nearly a month now. I’m sure that more mistakes have crept into our printed documents because of her absence, but I’m trying very hard to get better at proofing documents. This morning I will have to proofread the weekly worship bulletin before it is posted to the web and printed for worship.

I have tried several different approaches. I’ve tried reading out loud and slowly, thinking that the discipline forces me to read more accurately and to focus on each word. I’ve tried reading the entire document backwards, which is good for catching spelling errors, but worthless when proofing for grammar or meaning. I’ve tried reading page by page, then going back through the document page by page in backwards page order. That seems to be the most successful technique for me, but it is very time consuming.

When I began my service in this congregation, I inherited a secretary who was very accurate in her work. She was good at catching mistakes in grammar and spelling, but we would occasionally have a discussion about meaning. Sometimes I bend grammar rules to convey a particular meaning or mood. She wanted to correct such. We learned to work together very well. I also inherited a former English teacher who sat in the back row of the sanctuary and checked every week’s bulletin for mistakes. She even brought a red pen to mark the bulletin and gave it to me as she left the sanctuary if there were any mistakes. Most weeks she could find at least one. It got to be a kind of silent competition between us. I’d try to produce a perfect document and she’d try to find mistakes. Once I made it for an entire month without a single correction from her. Then I learned that she had been sick and not on top of her game. I always wondered if there were mistakes that got by her because she wasn’t feeling her best.

Of course the church isn’t about perfection. We know that we are not capable of perfection. We’re in the business of forgiveness. Being humble enough to admit mistakes is a skill that every pastor needs to develop very carefully. It can be critical to being able to move forward. The days of the old “Herr Pastor” who was always in charge and definitely above the congregation served are past. Our people want and expect human leadership. When we use our mistakes to point towards God and the differences between God and ourselves we can lead people to a deeper understanding and appreciation of our faith. But it can be hard to admit mistakes, especially when we are passionate about our subject, which is often the case for a pastor.

From time to time I will get out notes form a sermon that I delivered a while ago. Because our readings go in a three-year cycle, I’m often reading sermons from 3, 6, or 9 years ago. Once in a while I’ll even bring up one that is older than that. The process is very humbling. I discover all kinds of things that I said back then that i wouldn’t say now. I sometimes even wonder how the congregation put up with my immature rantings. Then again, it isn’t just the pastor who is in the business of forgiveness. The church is pretty skilled at that task, too.

One task that I may undertake in retirement is choosing a few of the essays from my journal and drawing them together into an edited volume. I’m pretty sure that the task will be another lesson in humility. Things that I thought were pretty good at the time, probably seem less so after a few years.

Then again, I might never get around to doing it. After all, I’ve got a bulletin to proofread this morning and more documents to edit soon.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Predictions

More than a quarter of a century ago, I had a conversation with a former weather forecaster. He was a professionally-trained meteorologist who used to work for the Federal Aviation Administration before making a major mid-life career change and becoming a minister. I used to joke with him that the ministry was a lot like weather forecasting - you have to make a lot of guesses and you never really know what is coming next. He once told me a story about an agency policy that was weighted toward the computers when it came to analyzing data. The FAA at that time had new computers that were used to analyze wind speed and direction, upper atmosphere moisture, cloud cover and other factors. It would make preliminary predictions that were processed by human meteorologists. The rule at the FAA at the time was that the humans had the power to override the computers. However, if they chose to override the computer and the computer proved to be more accurate than the human predictions, the forecaster was reprimanded. If the computer was wrong and the human agreed with it there were no negative repercussions for the human. Therefore there was no incentive to take a risk when the computer appeared to be wrong.

What I learned from this friend is that the science and art of predicting the future is at best a very challenging exercise. Making a five-day forecast is not a simple exercise at all. Even with all of the new technologies that have emerged in recent years, forecasters still are most accurate when predicting events very close. They can often be pretty good about predicting what will happen tomorrow, but when it comes to predicting a week out, the accuracy goes down quite a bit.

Predicting a month or more into the future is still more guesswork than hard science.

Knowing that, of course, doesn’t keep us from looking at the Farmer’s Almanac, which predicts weather an entire season in advance. I try to do so with a grain of skepticism, but over the years I have discovered that the combination of using a bit of vague language and general terms that is part of the writing of the Almanac provides one kind of a window on the future. If you go with the Almanac, the prediction is that this winter is going to be long and cold in our part of the country. Frigid and Snowy are the terms that the 2020 edition of the Farmer’s Almanac uses to describe the upper midwest. The map in the almanac shows the entire midsection of the country, about a third of the landmass of the country, to be facing colder than normal temperatures this winter. The coldest weather is predicted to come at the end of January and to linger well into a chilly spring. I guess that is their way of saying that we can get snow into May again next year like we did this year.

It is possible that I’m a bit more focused on the weather this winter than usual. When we lived in North Dakota, I didn’t pay much attention to the weather. I knew that winter would bring some snow and some days of below zero temperatures. I also knew that we had good winter clothing, a reliable car, and a home with a good furnace. You develop a kind of attitude that simply accepts the weather and learns to live with what comes. Then we moved to Boise, Idaho, which doesn’t have anywhere near as much variation in the weather. Most days in Boise are sunny and there isn’t much rain or snow. The mountains seem to get all of the precipitation. I paid attention to the weather forecasts because I enjoyed skiing and when we got good snow in the mountains, the winter recreation was incredible. Then we moved back to the Dakotas, this time to the hills where it is a bit warmer and the weather a bit less severe than out on the open plains.

Of course everywhere we have lived, the weather has been a topic of conversation. Go to anyplace that has a table of senior men sitting around drinking coffee and you can overhear plenty of conversation about the weather. A quick read through the Farmer’s Almanac provides a sufficient background for diving right in and joining those conversations. Most of the participants have gotten their weather news from the television, which is notorious for not making long term predictions.

The bottom line is that we can’t predict the future. We often think we would like to know what is coming. We sometimes look for obscure signs that might tell us what to expect. But life itself will always come up with surprises. The unexpected occurs. A previously-undetected factor will prove to be important.

There are still people who look to the Bible for predictions about the future. The Bible, however, isn’t about predictions of the future. It has many words of prophets who called the people back to faithfulness to the covenant with God. It ends with a vision that is filled with symbolic language and challenges attempts at interpretation. There are plenty of folks who look to that vision as if it were a prediction. In order to do so you have to assume a certain level of specialized language and words that have unusual meanings. Reading the Revelation of John without first studying the context and history of the book might give the illusion of understanding, but the more one really studies the book, the more mysteries remain.

So I’m preparing for another winter of unpredictable events. We’ll get some snow, but I don’t know how much. It will be cold some days, but I don’t know how many. There will be some nice sunny days, but I don’t know when.

There is a lot of joy in allowing oneself to be surprised by that comes. I’m thinking that I don’t need an inside track on the future. I’m willing to take it as it comes.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Gifts of food

One of the fun things about traveling in Japan is the process of purchasing a meal to go. Railway stations have restaurants where you can dine in, but they also have places that serve bento boxes - meals that are prepared to take with you. The bento boxes are a delightful alternative to American fast food, which is also available in Japan. Bento boxes are special compartmentalized boxes with nutritious food, usually in appropriate portions and most of the time presented in a very visually pleasing way. The tradition of bento extends far beyond what you can purchase in a train station. The tradition of expressing love through attractive lunches packed at home is the true origin of bento boxes. Mothers pack lunches for their children that are both nutritious and attractive. Rice balls formed to make tiny pandas with a scarf made of a thin strip of salmon and a few small tomatoes and broccoli for garnish. Many bento boxes have fish or chicken as the primary meat with bits of salad and rice. Some have sushi rolls, other have salads and other foods.

Bento boxes are seen as expressions of a mother’s love for her child. chars-ben are bento boxes made to look like characters such as teddy bears or people. A lot of effort is put into making the meals look attractive. Mothers believe that if they make the boxes look pretty, the children will be more likely to eat the food that they have prepared. Some mothers now take pictures of their creations and post them on social media.

The word “bento” is thought to have its origins in the Edo Period which lasted from around 1600 to 1867. Elaborately decorated lacquer food containers were made to take to the theater and other leisure outings. Bento was a symbol of wealth and status. These days simple and attractive bento boxes are available in markets at a low cost. The food, however, is generally prepared by hand, with a lot of attention going into the choice of colors.

We don’t have such a tradition in our country, though there are plenty of parents who use great care in packing lunches for their children. Most parents have experienced phases when their children are picky eaters and finding ways to encourage healthy eating is a challenge. Paying attention to the appearance of food is one way to encourage healthy eating habits.

I have been thinking of bento boxes lately as a rather steady stream of delicious food has been brought to our house. Members of the church have provided tasty meals and snacks for us since Susan’s hospitalization. Some have brought complete meals. One friend brought over a dozen or more cupcakes, elaborately decorated in autumn themes. Another brought a roast chicken that smelled so good it was hard to wait to eat it. We’ve received home-made chicken pot pies, a host of molasses cookies (my favorite kind of cookie) and salads and hot dishes and all kinds of other gifts of food. They may not be bento boxes, but significant care was put into making a beautiful presentation.

Gifts of food are part of our culture of caring in our community. I’ve commented that here in South Dakota we grieve by eating. A funeral lunch can be an excellent opportunity to share stories and remember the one who has died. Telling stories is one way of experiencing resurrection as the person lives on in the tales told. Our grief can be poured out in ways that enable us to remain connected to the living community that surrounds us.

In our church, cookies and bars are the staple of funeral refreshments. Those things and coffee - lots of coffee. For those of us who have given up caffeine, decaf coffee can be found if you know where to look, but in this part of the country, coffee is assumed as the beverage of adults. Years ago, when we first moved to North Dakota, Susan didn’t drink coffee. However she soon started because people didn’t ask her whether or not she wanted coffee. They simply served it to her and she learned to drink it to be polite and accept the generosity of her hosts. We’ve since learned to politely refuse some gifts of food when our diets require a bit of discretion, but we continue to feel gratitude for the gifts of food that come our way. It is part of the culture of the place where we live that we really appreciate.

Although the pressure to make the perfect presentation isn’t as intense in the United States as with bento boxes in Japan, there is a little bit of competition surrounding gifts of food in our culture, too. Various contributors of bars for a funeral snack work hard to offer their best. One of the beloved stories of our church is of a woman who always made bars for every funeral and other occasion, but who refused to share her recipe. Her family, in compliance with her wishes, put cards with the recipe on them out at the luncheon following her funeral. The cards put a smile on our faces at the time and have become treasured recipes in many households in our congregation. Once in a while a member will make those particular bars for another occasion and we all enjoy a special memory of a very special person.

This morning I am hosting a breakfast for colleagues. We are getting together to plan a community Thanksgiving service to be held in November. I could have gone to the store and purchased prepared food. Coffee and pastries are common offerings for such events in our community. However, I decided that a home-made egg bake would be easy to produce and would provide a better option both in terms of appearance and nutrition. So I’m off to the church a bit early today to make sure that I have breakfast for my friends. the Gospel of John reports that Jesus prepared breakfast for his disciples in one of his resurrection appearances.

We believe that when we share a meal in remembrance, Jesus is present. However you express your faith, food is a gift of the heart.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!