This week I will be printing copies of the policy and procedures manual of our church for the church board. The manual has existed as a series of computer files, some of which started as proposals, developed into proposed policies, were discussed and never implemented. Others were drawn up as descriptions of activities and events that occurred in the church. Some were drafted by committees, refined by the board and then passed. Some have been modified many times since they were originally approved. We have been reluctant to print copies of the manual because it is constantly in flux, being modified and changed over and over again. In the computer are copies of policies that were adopted and later abandoned. A church is a living, growing institution that isn’t defined by policy.

At least that is how our church works. We try to demonstrate some consistency. We try to learn from the past. But we also are flexible and our experience has taught us that just because an idea doesn’t work the first time we try it doesn’t mean that it is a bad idea or that it will never work.

It has been my theory that, for the most part, successful churches are not policy driven. They are, rather mission driven. A need is seen. Action is taken. Then if we need to continue the mission, we refine our practices by learning from our experiences.

Back in 2013, Paul Brown wrote an article for Forbes magazine, “If You Want To Be Successful, Don’t Spent Too Much Time Planning: A Case Study.” Like many other articles, I read it online and though, “there is some sense to this way of thinking.” Unlike other articles, I’ve returned to it several times. The article is aimed at entrepreneurs not at religious leaders, but there is something inherently entrepreneurial about successful ministry in the 21st Century. In the article, he states that he is not against planning and gives four steps for planning:

Forecast the future.
Construct a number of plans for achieving what you want, picking the optimal one.
Assemble the necessary resources.
Go out an implement the plan.

The problem with planning, according to Brown is that it starts with the assumption that you can forecast the future with a high level of certainty. He goes on to say that the number of extremely predictable situations in everyday life is decreasing while the number of variables is increasing.

Ministry takes place in the realm of human relationships which are filled with infinite variations and rarely predictable.

Ever since the 1970’s, I’ve sat through dozens and dozens of strategic planning sessions. There have been a number of them in the churches that I have served. Not too many years ago, just before I discovered the article by Paul Brown, our congregation used an outside consultant to engage a strategic planning process. I used to work as a planning consultant for other congregations, so I understood the process. There was a fair amount of resistance to the process, but we proceeded to set our goals, establish objectives, consider how we would measure our objectives, vote on the plan and then largely forget about the whole process. Real life simply didn’t want to follow the script.

One of the steps, early in the process was a brainstorming session in which participants were encouraged to think what might happen if the church had no financial constraints. “What would you do if you had an unlimited budget?” Several ideas came out that we have never been able to afford.

In my own life, I have done a fair amount of planning. Some of my plans have worked out. Most have not. There have been other situations in which I’ve found that flexibility and innovation are far more important than planning. A congregation that is serious about embracing its future is bound to encounter situations that are unfamiliar and unexpected. Sometimes you just have to “wing it.”

Brown suggests an alternative model for business: Act, Learn, Build, Repeat.

He doesn’t discard the concept of planning, but he does propose a different kind of planning. He suggests that we often find ourselves in unfamiliar territory and the first thing we do is to take one small step in what we hope is the right direction and then pause to see what we have learned from taking that one small step. He claims that the act, learn, build, repeat process requires far fewer resources, especially in the startup phase.

When I think of the planning processes in which I have participated, most have failed to produce significant results. The problem is that we invested a lot of energy and resources in researching, planning and gathering resources while the world was changing all around us. While we were refining our plans the world passed us by. Often we worked on solving problems that either never existed or that were solved by someone else while we were busy planning.

So I will be printing the manual, but I’m not going to print very many copies. If things happen as I expect and intend, those who look at the manual will discover that it is in need of many changes. The printed copies will soon be filled with marks and suggestions. Maybe we will engage in some substantive conversation about the way we want things to work. A few policies will engender enough passion that someone will take on the task of rewriting them. We’ll go back to a set of computer files again with some policies that serve us and to which we refer from time to time and others that are forgotten in the process of running a church from day to day.

Not every document produced by the church becomes scripture. Most should not become scripture. In theology we speak of the canon of scripture as being complete. The Bible that we have inherited is the same Bible that we should pass on to our grandchildren. There is no need for additions, deletions or revisions. That allows us to focus on interpretation.

So far, that only applies to the Bible. It definitely isn’t true of the policy manual.

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!

Signs of spring

This spring seems to be inspiring my friends even though it has been rather strange weather so far. April has had its share of blizzards and although there is no blizzard warning, the forecast is for it to start snowing tonight and through the day tomorrow, leaving us with 2 to 3 inches of the white stuff. I did get my lawn mowed for the first time and I’ve switched the places of the lawn mower and snow blower in the shed. Usually I don’t have to switch them back, but we’ll see what happens.

Anyway, I have friends who seem to have a touch of spring fever. One family with two daughters, aged 3 and 5 have been visiting a litter of puppies. There are four puppies in the litter and they have already decided that one of them will be coming to live in their home. I’m not sure that they have decided which puppy will be theirs, but the girls are definitely excited. It was a real joy to listen as they told me that they are getting a new puppy and all about the puppies they visited. Another couple around our ages have adopted a kitten from the shelter. I received a photo of the husband resting in his chair with a little black ball of fluff in his lap. Both the kitten and the new owner seemed to be very happy about the deal. Another family, a blended household with a bunch of teens, discovered that one of the boys in the family had always wanted a cat, but had never had one. When they began to talk the other boy said he had always wanted a cat, too. The result is two new kittens moving into their home.

I’m happy for the friends and happy for the animals. Animals make good companions and are wonderful teachers for children about responsibility and life. We don’t happen to have any animals living in our house at the moment, though we have a couple of “grand” dogs and I’m particularly fond of my sister’s dog as well. Not being responsible for animals fits into our current lifestyle with us traveling quite a bit. But I am grateful for the animals who have lived in our home. When our daughter went off to college and on with her life, it was no burden to have her cats living in our home and when the cats came to the ends of their lives it was a sad time for us.

I’m not sure that having friends who are adopting animals is a sure sign of spring, but the calendar is advancing. May will be here this week. The grass is green and it looks like spring outside. And all of us are ready for warmer weather after the winter that has passed. The church budget could sure use a dose of relief from snowplow bills.

Part of the joy of living where we do is the new life that bursts forth every spring. Yesterday I watched as a calf at the neighbor’s place was butting its mother with its head, She lowered her head to the calf, who made a small bump and then kicked its heels and ran around to nurse. Watching the calves is great and we have the advantage of being neighbors, so I don’t have any responsibilities for care of the animals. They have quite a menagerie with a few angus, a few highland cattle, a single miniature donkey, a few horses and some longhorns thrown in for entertainment.

The deer will begin dropping their fawns, but not for another 30 days or more. You can tell which does will deliver if you see them from the front or rear. The bulges aren’t quite as obvious from the side view yet, but things are definitely developing. We usually have one or two fawns born right next door where a neighbor doesn’t mow. Most years we can watch them from our kitchen window.

I’ve visited places there there isn’t much variation in the seasons. In Costa Rica the biggest variation in the weather is how much rain falls. The temperatures don’t change that much. They never see snow. We were talking on the phone with a friend in Australia who said his grandson looked at pictures of our winter and declared, “Poppa, I need to visit America when they have snow! I’ve never been to real snow!” The grandson came on a visit with his dad and grandparents when he was 4 years old and remembers some of the things we did. I’m not sure that he knows that we don’t go camping much in the winter, but I’m pretty sure he’d enjoy a winter visit.

I count myself as lucky to live where the seasons change and where we get real snow. But I’m a bit tired of snow this year and don’t really need to have more. I’ve begun walking more now that the weather is nice and I’m ready to continue that pattern. I’m not excited about heavy coats and hats and gloves right now.

One of the gifts of weather is that it serves as a reminder that we are not in charge of the world. There are forces and powers that are beyond our control. The world does not center on me. That’s a good reminder for me from time to time.

New animals will teach lessons about providing care for other creatures. They will help children and teens and even us elder folks to remember that we are not alone and that we need to learn to focus our attention on the needs of others. I can name a few politicians who might do well to learn such lessons. Perhaps we should have free kitten day at the legislature once a year. I’m pretty sure that is another of my ideas that won’t take hold.

Rest assured folks. Spring will come in its own time, at its own pace. And this year, we’re ready for it.

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!

Considreing sabbath

In the last two days, I only visited the church briefly. I have primarily taken the days off from work, with the exception of a few phone calls, a few text messages and a few emails. I did spend a little while volunteering with other members of the church to move some firewood yesterday, but for the most part I’ve been focusing on home chores and personal duties. It isn’t common that I take two days off n a row. The circumstances were a bit unique. Because of a blizzard the week before Holy Week, church meetings had to be rescheduled. And Holy Week was already full of events and activities, so the next week was filled with meetings. Therefore I didn’t have any days off for three weeks in a row, and I was needing a break and a rest. I looked at the my schedule and the list of tasks and by putting in a little extra time on the other days of the week, I was able to avoid going to the office on Friday and Saturday. I got my lawn mowed, did some home repair tasks, and caught up on a bit of there backlog at home. I took naps and renewed my energy.

One of the chores I did was to stop at a local big box home improvement store to pick up an item that I needed. While I was there, I had a conversation with a church member who is working there for the summer. He is a full time student at theological seminary and his summer is dedicated to earning and saving as much money as possible to help him make it through the next year of studies. My brief conversation with him reminded me of the days when I was a full time student. Full time student doesn’t quite mean full time. Two academic semesters or three quarters, depending on which system the school uses add up to about nine months of the year. Although many academic institutions offer seminars and summer school opportunities, many students opt out of summer experiences in order to take part time seasonal work. When I was a student the norm was about ten hours of classroom activities each week. The formula is four hours of homework and reading for each hour in class, so I suppose that the general workload is about 50 hours per week. By the time you are in graduate school, however, you learn a few efficiencies. I had developed the ability to read a bit quicker and to overlap research and library work in ways that gained me some time. I found that I could work 10 to 15 hours a week at a job earning money to help with expenses. In the final two years of my four year program I had internship positions that I was able to balance with classroom work and stopped counting the number of hours per week.

I did, however, enjoy the rhythm of academic life. I would focus and work hard and write my papers and then I would get a big change of pace during the summer when my attention was elsewhere. Two of the summers during our graduate school experience we managed a church camp back in our home state, so we picked up and moved away from the school for three months.

My life doesn’t have the same kind of seasonal rhythm, and hasn’t had that kind of rhythm for 40 years. However, speaking briefly with the seminary student in the midst of a much shorter break for myself brought back fond memories.

The concept of sabbath is a real challenge in our fast-paced always-connected society. We are used to being always available, taking phone calls no matter where we are or what we are doing, responding to text messages when we have a few free moments, checking our email multiple times a day. I am a student of the Bible. I know that a day of rest every week is a commandment that is placed up there with other basic commandments like not committing murder, not committing adultery and honoring one’s parents. One of my teachers commented, “I don’t know how we can expect people to get the commandment about not committing murder when they can’t get the commandments about no other gods and honoring the sabbath.”

Because we work on Sundays, we pastors are prone to letting sabbaths slip, thinking, “Well, I never skip worship, so that must count for something.” I try to take Mondays as a day off, but there are certain things that disrupt that pattern. I never try to tell a family when they should have a funeral, for example. And there are some meetings that cannot be scheduled unless they are placed on a Monday. There are only so many days in each week. And I know that my work gives me the flexibility to take a personal call during the work day and even to leave the office to run a personal errand or keep a medical appointment. So I try to return the flexibility by not being rigid with my day off. I’ve noticed that while the Monday off was the common practice when I began my career, many of my younger colleagues take Friday and Saturday off to get a kind of a weekend. A few weeks ago, I went out to deliver Palm Sunday posters to area churches and found that most of the churches on my list were closed on Friday. They don’t even have office staff in their buildings on Fridays. Perhaps there is a new generation of church leaders who are taking the sabbath commandment more seriously.

I joke that I’m looking for a part-time job in the next phase of my life, but I don’t want one where I work 20 or 30 hours a week. I want one where I work 9 months and get 3 months off. I’m not really sure if that would work for me. I’ve been continuously employed since graduating from seminary and I’ve adjusted quite well to full-time work. Still, a couple of days off was a nice luxury and I’ve asked for and received a bit of extra vacation for this summer. I’ve enjoyed regular sabbaticals during the last 25 years.

Maybe by the time I reach retirement, I’ll have figured this out.

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!

Beauty in the balance

I made my first canoe because I didn’t have money to buy a commercially-produced canoe. It is simply a way to get a canoe with less cash out of our family. I used a table saw to cut the strips and the table saw wasn’t new or in good shape. There was some variation. I didn’t have a planner to get the strips even. I didn’t have a router to mill the strips into bead and cove. I just shaped them and glued them together over the forms as best as I could. My goal was to have a boat to put in the water, not to create a work of art. As is true with every venture, there were mistakes. Some pieces didn’t fit perfectly. Sometimes I measured twice and cut once and still made the cut in the wrong place. I didn’t have a good technique for forming gunwales. My thwarts were generally too thick. But when all was said and done, I put the boat into the water and it paddled fairly well. We had a lot of fun with that boat. We did a little fishing. It was good for morning paddles. I’m not the world’s best varnisher, but I spread a few coats of varnish on the boat and it looked good, especially from a little distance.

I got a lot of compliments on that boat. People told me it looked pretty.

I was more careful on the next boat. I had obtained a router and a router table and was able to mill the strips more precisely. I was patient and scarfed a lot more strips so that I could cut out and discard imperfections in the wood. I sanded and fared the boat better. I bought better wood for the gunwales and thwarts. It is a pretty boat.

My boats, however, are not museum pieces. They are not works of art.

In the balance of utility verses beauty, they lean towards utility. All of my boats have been out in rivers and lakes. All of them have encountered rocks and gravel beaches. All of them have had nicks and scratches. That’s the way I use my boats.

A few years ago I made a rowboat and decided not to make the finish varnish. I painted the boat. It is built to what is known in the trade as “workboat standard.” It is still a pretty boat. The shape is nice. I don’t worry about the fact that there are a couple of runs in the finish. I like to row the boat.

I’ve seen boats where the builder cut strips and kept them in order so that they could be installed with mirrored grain patterns. I’ve seen boats that are fit together with precision that matches or exceeds fine furniture. I’ve seen boats that gleam with layer upon layer of flawless varnish. I’ve seen boats hanging in office buildings to add beauty to the room. I’ve seen boats in museums. I admire that level of workmanship. I probably am not capable of such fine work. I certainly am not patient enough to produce that level of work when it comes to a recreational canoe or kayak.

I was pondering the balance of beauty and utility yesterday. I have a kayak project in my garage that has been going on for more than three years. Part of the delay is my busy lifestyle. Part of the delay is that I chose a complex pattern for the strips of wood. The most recent delay is that the hull and deck don’t fit precisely. This is due, for the most part, to the fact that I had the two halves of the boat separated for too long. The hull was stored in very good circumstances and held it shape very well. The deck was stored upside down and I worked it pretty hard to get the inside sanded and ready to be sealed. In the process, I spread it slightly. Now it has to be gently pulled back into shape. I’m pondering just how to do that without causing any damage and without having the tension misshape the hull. The hull needs to be just right in order for the boat to paddle well. So, rather than force things, I’m pausing to ponder. I’ll come up with a solution, and have had some good ideas, but I’m not quite ready to get in there with the straps and such.

As I pondered, I was looking at the details of the grain in the wood. Wood grain is very beautiful. But its beauty doesn’t lie in symmetry. It doesn’t lie in absolute straight and parallel lines. I try to choose wood with straight grains, but even so, there are variations. And some of the most beautiful wood has swirls and variations in the grain patterns caused by branches and curves in the way the tree grew.

Natural wood is so beautiful that one who works with wood owes the world an item that has a bit of beauty. To take something as beautiful as a tree and cut it up to make another object, it seems to me, requires a certain amount of thought and care. One doesn’t want one’s life’s work to result in a less beautiful world. But the beauty of wood doesn’t lie in perfection. In a way, I think that the beauty of wood lies in the ability of trees to adapt to their circumstances. I’ve gone for walks in the woods and marveled at the way a tree can cling to a rock, or endure storms so violent that the tree is twisted. I’ve noticed how trees grow differently when they are very close to other trees. The location of a tree has a lot to do with its shape. Trees are able to adapt to all sorts of different environments. They have a perfect balance of beauty and utility.

My boats aren’t perfect. They are good enough. They are fun to paddle. And they look good enough to earn me compliments when I travel with them.

Still, I’d like the one in the shop to be really stunning. I can imagine a boat that is more beautiful than I have the skill to create. But if it stays in the shop forever, never finished, it doesn’t justify the work I’ve invested. It needs to be finished to become a boat. And the finishing will be less than perfect.

Life is a balance.

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!

What we leave to the future

I am a bit baffled by the amount of money pledged for the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral and by the speed with which it has come. I am in favor of restoring the historic cathedral and I’m hoping for a kind of hybrid restoration, using modern materials in places where they cannot be seen and restoring façades to their original appearances. But all of that is an aside. What amazes me is that there was almost no effort put into the process of fund raising and more than a billion dollars has poured in. I read one article that the restoration may even be threatened by having too much money. An unlimited budget may result in flourishes and fancies that reach beyond the original cathedral, where compromises were made and shortcuts were taken because there was a certain weariness associated with centuries of fund-raising for an unfinished building.

In terms to threats to the longevity of the institutional church, the fire in the cathedral did not do any where near as much damage as the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and yet funds for reparations to victims have fallen well short of funds to restore the cathedral.

For those of us who have lived our lives inside of the institution, there is always a struggle. How much of what we do is about preservation of the institution and how much is about extending the true Gospel. We know that the institutional church isn’t the only way to live a life of faith. We know that the institution has its flaws and failings. But we are also aware that the institution has been successful in preserving precious words, extending the reach of the ministry, offering care and compassion to those in need, and transferring the faith from one generation to another.

It is clear from reading the Bible that the leaders of our faith weren’t into founding an institution. Moses encountered God in a burning bush on a hillside. He led the people in the wilderness. He went up on the mountain to talk with God. His was an outdoors ministry. He didn’t erect any buildings or found any capital fundraising efforts. His people lived day by day. And the commandments he communicated from God spoke of the obligation of families as the ones to preserve the faith. Parents were to teach the faith to their children. There was no vision of a religious institution to do this essential work.

Jesus, too, practiced his faith outdoors. Read the gospels. You won’t find Jesus sitting in a pew or climbing up to preach from a pulpit. He’s waling along the beach or putting out a little way in a boat. He’s talking to people on a plain or a hillside.

The early church wan’t invested in institutional building or maintenance either. Paul established churches, he didn’t build buildings. The quest for community in the early Christian church was focused on the people, not on the place where they gathered.

Of course we can’t build the future based on the way things were in the past. Human efforts at going backwards in history never work out. We live in our own time. We’ve collected centuries of institutional living and we’ve inherited institutions that were founded in different times. Like every generation, we are faced with a job of sifting and sorting. We have to make choices about what is retained and what is discarded. Of course, like every generation, some choices are given to us and others are made for us.

I suspect that the current decline in church attendance will continue. Despite the ease with witch the money flowed for the restoration of Notre Dame, I don’t think building new cathedrals serves the overall mission of the church. I suspect that the church buildings of the future will be a bit more practical.

I’ve been making jokes for a couple of weeks since it was announced that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rapid City has purchased a building that used to be the main downtown branch of Black Hills Federal Credit Union. It seems that the cathedral and the rectory don’t offer sufficient office space for the diocese and the plan is to move administrative functions into the downtown building. My jokes have to do with the decision to buy a bank building with five drive-through lanes. It invites jokes about drive-through sacraments. Now the Catholic church has seven sacraments, but there are only five drive through lanes on the building. It invites which sacraments require one to go inside and which can be administered through the drive through. Drive through baptism is easy to imagine, as is a lane for communion. Confirmation also is a slam dunk for a drive through, especially since those of confirmation age are really focused on getting their drivers licenses. The concept of drive through confession might really take off. Eye contact isn’t required for that one. So I’m thinking that anointing of the sick is one of the sacraments that won’t be offered in a drive-through facility. After all, the priests should be going out to visit the sick and it can be a real pain to have to get in the car and go somewhere when you aren’t feeling well. Marriage, on the other hand, is something I can imagine in a drive-through setting. Couples getting married often have their minds focused on events that don’t happen at the church. I’ve had couples who have come to me to discuss a church wedding who arranged the reception, the photographer, the clothes to wear, the honeymoon and the limousine before even having a conversation about which church. That leaves the profession of holy orders, which I think is the second sacrament that doesn’t really work in a drive-through. If you want to commit to a religious life, you really ought to be willing to come inside.

Of course all of this is just a joke. They’ll probably close the drive-through lanes in their remodeling of the building. Still, it is important for us to think about the institutions we have inherited and what parts of the institutional church we pass on to future generations. For now, I’m more worried about the legacy of faith, hope and love than I am about the buildings. I suspect that future generations will ask serious questions about all of the empty buildings.

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!

When help doesn't help

There are plenty of stories for those who study the history of the Christian church about well meaning people who made big mistakes because they didn’t understand others. James Michener, Sarah Vowell and others have written about early Congregationalist missionaries to Hawaii who didn’t take the time to understand the culture of the islands. They sought to impose dress codes that were based on the weather in New England rather than the realities of Hawaii. They didn’t understand the systems of education and child rearing and imposed their sense of formal schooling on people who had their own systems of raising children. The result was that the missionaries ended up controlling an unfair portion of the wealth and the indigenous people were impoverished and lost control of many parts of their culture.

In Australia we heard stories of missionaries who encountered indigenous children who were naked or nearly so, who slept outdoors or in simple shelters without beds and bedding and who were eating grubs. The missionaries were horrified and took the children away to boarding schools where they were provided with clothing, beds with bedding and three meals a day. Because the missionaries didn’t understand the family systems they were disrupting, the children suffered terribly because they were taken from loving families. Because the missionaries didn’t understand survival in the desert climate of central Australia, they fed the children food that was unusual and often made them sick. They dressed them in clothing that was unnecessary and often an impediment to survival in the harsh environment.

Generations have suffered from what missionaries thought was bringing religion to those who had not learned of Christianity and what inadvertently was a harsh form of cultural exploitation. The missionaries were exporting culture as much or more than they were teaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

You don’t have to look far to find stories of the church getting its priorities wrong. I’m not sure we are doing any better in our generation, despite having some pretty good examples of how previous generations abused religion.

I know I’m not the only one who wonders what if the billion dollars raised to rebuild the Cathedral of Notre Dame were instead used to compensate the victims of clergy sexual abuse. Would the legacy of mercy shown to victims be a more noble one than restoring a beautiful and ancient cathedral? We will never know because obviously it is easier to raise money to repair a building than to repair broken relationships.

We all agree that hungry children is not a good thing. Our instinct is always to feed them. But we don’t always get it right.

Back before “welfare reform” we had a system of food stamps to provide nutrition assistance to needy families. The way the system worked was people submitted evidence of their income and the system evaluated to see what they could afford to pay for food and still have money for other essentials. Then the people went to an office, paid the amount that was calculated that they could afford and received food stamps, which were vouchers that could be used in grocery stores. If, for example, a family’s need was calculated at $100 and they could afford to pay $70, they exchanged $70 for $100 in food stamps, receiving a $30 benefit. The problem was that the system forced the family to have cash in order to get the stamps. If they fell short, they lost their subsidy. Also there was a stigma associated with using the stamps, which had restrictions on which items could be bought.

That system was replaced by our current system which is based on electronic cards which are reloaded by the agency with the calculated amount each month. This saves the family from having to come up with cash to receive the benefit, but it does not force them to spend any of their own resources on food. The money might go to rent, as was clearly demonstrated by rises in rent across the nation when the reforms were put into place. The net result is that many families have less to spend on food than the would have had under the old system.

Short of grocery money, families sent children to school hungry. Schools responded by feeding. In our town we have at least one school where nearly all children receive free or reduced price meals. Some schools feed two meals a day. Still children are hungry on weekends, so charitable organizations send home backpacks filled with food.

Because we know that there is a need, we donate to Feeding South Dakota and other organizations that help to feed hungry people. We give food to food banks. We support feeding programs at the Rescue Mission. We try to help hungry people get the nutrition they need.

In the process we rob them of the dignity of being able to provide for their children and grandchildren. In the process we rob them of the ability to choose what their children and grandchildren eat. It is an imperfect solution and so far we haven’t come up with better ways to help those in need.

For families living on insufficient income all sorts of factors come into play. The cost of housing and transportation affect the amount available for food. The cost of health care generally needs to be paid by the wider society. Those receiving health care from community health, the emergency room and other places that provide unreimbursed health care tend to not engage in preventive care. Their health is generally poorer than the wider population and their health care costs are higher. A lack of funds can often result in catastrophic illness and individuals who require more expensive health care than those who have the ability to pay. And all of these factors - food, housing, transportation and health care - are intertwined and have deep effects on each other.

Creative thinking is desperately needed as we look for better ways to express our compassion and reach out to help those in need.

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!

Faith, hope and love remain

I am sure that at the time when Jesus lived and engaged in his earthly ministry there were those whose vision of the coming of the Messiah included a world that was freed from tragedy and death. People had witnessed the cruelty of oppressive governments. they had seen injustices that turned poor people into victims. They had seen abuses of widows, orphans and immigrants. They had heard the words of the prophets crying for justice. They had heard the poetry of hope and the descriptions of a world without suffering and pain. It would have been natural to think that God’s gift of the messiah would bring justice and and end to suffering, especially the suffering of innocent victims.

Their sincere desire for the world to become different have continued to this day. There are so many innocents who cry out for justice and peace. Because Jesus did not usher in an age of peace, an end to violence, or the cessation of injustice.

It is a challenge for Christians of every generation to deal with the pain and suffering of the world.

The bombings that killed 359 people in Sri Lanka on Easter morning, many of whom were attending church services are a very real reminder that innocents are still killed. Injustices persist. Death has not been eliminated from this earth. And the suffering and grief of those who have lost loved ones is a mark of just how imperfect this world remains. Watching the rows of caskets and the stream of people walking long distances to attend funerals is heart rending. The world is broken hearted over the tragedy and it is easy to feel powerless to prevent the next act of senseless violence.

Without meaning to be crass or harsh, it is easy to proclaim the resurrection when the weather is good and you are heading off to church in a privileged neighborhood with no fear of violence. It is a different matter when windows of the church are broken and the repairs unfinished as you attend the funeral of one you loved.

We are called to proclaim the resurrection in the midst of the violence, pain and suffering of the world. It is not an easy task. There is a big difference between proclaiming that death and sorrow and sadness no longer exist and proclaiming that death, sorrow and sadness are not the last word. Ours is the latter proclamation. The story of God’s great love for this world is not over, and the pain and violence of the moment are not the last words on the condition of the human spirit in this world. Life triumphs. Love wins. Even when things seem hopeless, hope prevails. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Faith, hope and love remain.”

Bombers can create panic and destruction. They can kill fragile human bodies. They cannot kill love. I watched a brief BBC video of neighbors of one of the churches who had volunteered to help clean up the mess at the church and then who positioned themselves at various places along the road to offer water and encouragement to mourners who were walking in the heat to the church for funerals. They were demonstrating that love is not absent. There were buddhist monks and groups of Buddhist pilgrims who walked to the churches as a sign of solidarity and support to Christians. They were demonstrating that love is not absent. In the wake of the tragedy people are showing their human side, sharing compassion and ministering to one another. Bombing churches is a terrible and horrendous act, but it will not stop the Christian faith.

Perhaps hardest for us is to keep hope. Because the churches in Sri Lanka aren’t the only ones. Although no persons were injured, three historically black churches were burned down earlier this month in Louisiana. A campaign set a goal of raising $1.8 million to help restore the buildings has topped its goal with over $2.1 million donated.

When we see event after event and tragedy after tragedy, it can be easy to lose hope. We can become cynical and say that violence will always be with us and that the best we can do is to prepare defense against attacks. But hope is more resilient than the headlines. People’s capacity to demonstrate love and compassion is greater than the tools of the terrorists.

Some of the newer hymns in our hymnal haven’t yet become beloved in the way that the old hymns have. We haven’t learned the tunes and the words don’t come easily to our lips. When we are feeling stressed, we often return to the old familiar hymns. We know from experience that it lifts our spirits to sing “Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife” to Beethoven’s famous tune. But new hymns also become ways of responding to the events of our lives. In our hymnal number 461 has not yet become beloved by the congregation. As we plan worship, however, we periodically insert it into our worship so that the congregation will, over time, learn it. Its words drawn from Romans, Psalms, and Corinthians, speak powerfully to our time:

Let us hope when hope seems hopeless,
When the dreams we dreamed have died,
When the morning breaks in brightness,
Hunger shall be satisfied.
One who sows the fields with weeping
Shall retrace the sorrowing way
And rejoice in harvest bounty
At the breaking of the day.

The words, by David Beebe can be sung to a familiar tune, Hyfrydol, but are set to a new tune by Emma Lou Diemer in our hymnal. The third verse follows part of the love chapter of 1 Corinthians and ends powerfully:

Like a child outgrowing childhood,
Setting childhood things away,
We will learn to I’ve in freedom,
In the life of God’s new day.
Now we see as in a mirror.
Then we shall see face to face,
Understand how love’s compassion
Blossoms through amazing Grace.

Easter’s message is as challenging for our generation as it was for the first disciples who spoke what others heard as an idle tale.

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!

Easter continues

“What if?” can be an empowering question. It allows an individual or a group to think outside of the normal constraints and boundaries. Many innovations and improvements have started with someone speculating, ‘what if?”.It works great when you are imagining the future. Last night I was with a small task force of folks at our church who were looking at the near term future of the church and realizing some of the changes that affect our congregation. They brought energy and enthusiasm to the task and several of the “What if?” questions were good ideas. Of course we will have to sift and sort our ideas and over time some of them will prove to be impractical, some will prove to bee too expensive, some will not work out as envisioned. Other ideas, however, will succeed and may set precedence for new ways to carry out the mission and ministry of our church.

When we turn the question around, however, and just that kind of thinking to examine the past, but can be crippling, even debilitating. The backwards-looking question is “If only . . .” Both observations are speculation. We don’t know what would have happened if we had done something different. We don’t know how things will work out if we try a new idea. We are speculating. When we think of the future, however, we have the opportunity to try something and observe what happens. Looking back, we realize that we can’t rewrite our history. The past is what it is. We can say, “if only . . .,” but we can’t change what actually occurred.

There is a healing form of looking back and realizing that things might have been better. Sometimes when I realize that I wish I had handled something differently, I am inspired to apologize for my behavior and the apology can lead to reconciliation and healing. I’m well aware that the words, “I’m sorry,” are at times inadequate. I am also aware that there is a form of politics in our country that aspires to never apologize. Even when caught in outrageous behavior some politicians will express regret for circumstances, or the behavior of others. They will do anything to avoid apologizing themselves. There have been several notable public apologies of national figures that didn’t sound like an apology at all. They were simply passing blame. The idea that you should never show your weakness can make a person seem to be insensitive or egotistical and there is plenty of insensitivity and egotism in our public sphere these days.

The trick for the rest of us is balance. We can learn from our mistakes if we understand that they are mistakes. We can make changes if we confess that change is necessary. Living in “if only . . .” however, can lead to despair and depression. Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer has been adapted, changed and adopted by various organizations and groups of people. The original version remains powerful:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

“Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,” is a powerful statement. Such a perspective frees us from “if only . . .”

I’ve been thinking quite a bit of the phrases, “What if” and “If only . . .” as I work with a family struggling to make sense out of the sudden death of a teenage son. They knew that he was a bit impulsive. They knew that he sometimes made snap decisions that he later regretted. And yet, his impulses and snap decisions had never before had such devastating or permanent consequences. Part of how parents provide for their teens is to allow freedom for mistakes to be made and responsibility to be learned. Somehow, however, in this particular instance, the mistake had irreversible consequences that left a huge group of people in a deep well of pain, grief and sadness.

“Taking this sinful world as it is” means accepting the death, accepting the finality, and facing the pain. The final reality is that nothing can be done at this point to change the harsh reality. Our minds, however, rush to “if only . . .” It isn’t others who are being blamed. It is individuals who are blaming themselves.

We live broken lives in an imperfect world. Perhaps the most insightful part of Neibuhr’s prayer isn’t the famous bit about grace to accept with serenity, courage to change and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Perhaps it is the wish to “be reasonably happy in this world.”

Part of me doesn’t want to accept “reasonably happy.” Part of me wants to aspire to deep joy. I am, by nature, prone to embrace resurrection and I can see signs of God’s new creation all around in so many places. “Reasonably happy” sounds like a bit of a letdown from the moments of holding a new baby or joy of a wedding celebration. I aspire to more than “reasonably happy.” But I also know that true joy does not come in this life unless we are honest about pain and willing to face sorrow and sadness. To love is to risk loss. I know that I would not be happy if I spent my time avoiding the pain and sorrow of this world. I am called and drawn to situations where pain is raw and real and unavoidable. I choose to be present with others when they are facing deep loss and pain.

It is a balance. Easter reminds us of the joy that lies ahead. It doesn’t pretend that the pain does not exist.

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!


On this second day of Easter, 2019, I have been thinking of the poem, “Kindness” by Shihab Nye. It is longer than I normally quote in my journal, but it speaks to this season. The poem is not new. It was written in 1952. The back story is that Ms. Nye and her husband were on their honeymoon, traveling in South America. They were riding on a bus that was robbed. They lost everything. They had no money, no passports, nothing. Another rider on the bus was killed. A kind man came up the street and saw them and asked what happened. Through broken Spanish they tried to tell their story. He replied, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened.” While her husband hitchhiked to a larger city to get their traveler’s checks replaced, she sat in the plaza of a small town and wrote this poem:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

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

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Of course, I would not wish that kind of trauma on any other person. I myself have no experience equal to what happened to the poet and her husband. I have had some sad times. I have lost some things that seemed to me to be valuable. I’ve known grief. I’ve tasted fear. But I don’t know exactly what they experienced. That is often true when I work with people. I go to be with a family who has lost a child to suicide knowing that my children are alive and healthy. I bring to a widow the news of the death of her husband and I know that my wife and I have had many happy years and odds are that we will have many more. I know that others experience pain that is deeper than my own.

But I also know that there is truth to Shihab Nye’s poem: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know the sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

Resurrection is our theological word for the experience that kindness and compassion lie deeper than pain and grief. There are some interpreters of Christianity who speak of resurrection as if it were resuscitation. A body, once dead, comes to life again. That is exactly the way some of Jesus’ disciples described what happened to Jesus and the experience they had with the resurrected Christ. But resuscitation is not the world story. Even Jesus’ closest friends did not recognize him after his resurrection. His presence was different. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t experienced his death. His death was all too real, too final, too complete.

There are others who speak of resurrection as immortality. But we are not immortal. We will not escape death. Death is a reality of life. I know that there are those who don’t mean no death when they speak of immortality. They know that people die. They speak of the continuity of personality and spirit continuing into a new form after death.

I am no expert on what happens after we die. It is another of those experiences I have not yet had. I have faith that “faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.” I have a conviction that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But I do not know the nature of life after death.

What I do know is that this life offers experiences of the the death of those we love. Grief is a reality. Loss is part of life.

The account of the first experience of Jesus’ resurrection that appears in the Gospel of John is an account of Mary waking up with sorrow. She goes alone to the tomb, before it is light, before the others, before it is the right time to go to anoint the body. Her sorrow is evident even through all of the translations and all of the poetic language that the Gospel writer employed to make a polished story. The raw grief of the moment remains evident in the words of the Gospel to this day.

The process of Lent invites us to face our losses, sorrow and grief head-on. It does not shy away from tears. Not every one makes the investment of such risky behavior every year. It doesn’t feel good to experience the pain of loss and grief. We’ve become quite accomplished at avoiding it. But when we do find the courage and really spend time with sadness, the joy of Easter is a dramatic experience. It may not dawn suddenly, but rather seep into our spirt slowly. Life is stronger than death. Kindness is deeper than sorrow.

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!

Symbols and traditions

“Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny!
Hot cross buns!

“If you have no daughters, give them to your sons!
One a penny, two a penny!
Hot cross buns!

The English nursery rhyme is a reference to the traditional buns that mark the end of Lent. The buns, often baked with raisins and cinnamon, date back at least to the 12th Century, when legend has it a monk marked the buns being baked for Easter Sunday by pulling a knife across the dough in the sign of a cross. The tradition has since become one of making a cross with frosting on the top of the buns.

I took hot cross buns to share with the staff of Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center on Good Friday. It seemed like a nice snack to share with the Corrections Officers and teachers, many of whom are fairly young. I had forgotten that last week was Spring Break in Rapid City schools, which meant that the teachers were not in on Friday, so I had a few to share with others throughout the day. The surprise to me was how many of the 20-something people I encountered had never heard of hot cross buns. They didn’t even know the song.

After all we live in the United States, not England, where hot cross buns are especially common. In England, hot cross buns are so closely associated with Good Friday, that in 1592, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that they could only be eaten on Good Friday, Christmas and for burial ceremonies.

So I told them an abbreviated version of the story. It was an interesting opportunity to share a bit of the faith - not a traditional teaching or preaching opportunity at all, just a chance to talk a bit about Christian traditions in a secular setting. Chaplains are schooled not to engage in evangelism or attempts to convert or change the faith of those we serve. Our role is simply to be there for them when needed and to be attentive to their spiritual needs. I do a fair amount of connecting young people with other churches as part of my work as a chaplain. It isn’t about growing our church, but rather about serving our community. Our congregation has been a part of Rapid City for 140 years, during which time we’ve not paid a penny of property tax except for an occasional special assessment. In that time, we’ve received police and fire protection services as well as the support and good will of the community. Paying back by serving the community in small ways is a tradition as old as the congregation itself.

I wonder how many other Christian traditions are part of my life that might not make sense to others.

A teenager, in another setting, commented on the fact that I was wearing all black. The occasion was the public viewing and family service for a teen who had died and the teen commented that he didn’t believe in wearing all black at funerals. I responded that my choice of clothes was because it was Good Friday. He had never heard of a tradition of wearing black on Good Friday. I have no idea of the origins of the tradition.

Here’s a tradition about which I know, but have seldom observed in recent years. The tradition is flying kites. In some places, kites are flown on Easter Sunday. In other places they are flown on Ascension Day, which falls on May 30 this year. A simple diamond kite is a symbol of Jesus because the sticks of the kite are formed into a cross. When the kite is flying, the winds “lift high the cross” symbolizing the ascension of Jesus to reign over all of the world. It is, I think a rather obscure tradition, probably not observed in many places. Less clear to me is the tradition of flying kites only after 3 pm on Sundays. That may be a tradition based on the fact that our father took a nap on most Sundays and Sunday afternoon activities had to wait until he had been given a chance to rest. I can find no references to that particular tradition in my sources.

We do a modified Tenebrae service as part of our Maundy Thursday service in our church. Traditionally Tenebrae was reserved for Good Friday with the extinguishing of candles as the story of the crucifixion is read from the Gospel texts. Another part of the tradition is called the “Strepitus.” Near the end of the service a loud noise is made to symbolize the moment when Jesus died. There are various methods of performing the Strepitus. In some congregations a couple of pieces of wood are slammed together. In others a drum is beat. A loud closing of the book, the banging of a heavy object on the communion table or a brief erratic burst from a pipe organ are also used to perform the Strepitus. I guess we had our own version of the Strepitus in our church yesterday, which was Holy Saturday and not Good Friday, when the organ tuners went completely through the organ. 33 ranks of pipes, with ranks as small as 12 pipes and as extensive as 60 pipes make up our pipe organ. That’s something like 1180 pipes. Each had to be played individually and tuned by a person who crawls through the organ chambers on hands and knees, sometimes hanging from ladders and walkways to reach the pipes. It takes several hours and if you are in the building while it is going on, you begin to tire of the sound quickly.

Other traditions, such as fasting from meat, refraining from drinking alcohol, not lighting candles, and clearing certain symbols and items from the sanctuary are all parts of the observance of Holy Week.

Today, however, we make a sudden change of direction, for it is Easter. We begin a seven week, 50-day-long season of breaking into the joy of Resurrection. It is one of the most sudden and emotional shifts of the Christian calendar.

A colleague sent me an email on Good Friday stating that the forecast for this morning was for rain and wondering if that would affect our sunrise service. I wrote back. “I don’t know about you, but I’m waterproof. Bring an umbrella. Easter comes, rain or shine!”

Happy Easter!

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!

Preparing for Easter

For forty years we subscribed to a daily newspaper, printed on paper and delivered to our home. Reading the paper was part of my morning routine. In recent years, we were aware of the decline in print newspapers. The papers started to get smaller, the articles were less edited and more prone to errors, the headlines had less connection to the content of the articles, and advertisements for products we didn’t need or want dominated the paper. We knew that many of our neighbors no longer received print newspapers as home after home removed the boxes for newspaper delivery.

Then, las summer, we went on a sabbatical and suspended newspaper delivery for three months. We never re-subscribed. We’ve made the switch to online news. I’ve even been known to sit with an iPad at the breakfast table.

Other print media are starting to fade from our live as well. We no longer keep an unabridged dictionary near our dining table. Questions about spelling, grammar or meaning of words are now resolved through the use of our cell phones. We are sorting out our library and reducing the number of books and I am reading more and more on the iPad. We don’t expect to eliminate books from our lives and we won’ stop making regular visits to the library, but we are aware that things are changing.

My morning routine now involves several different newspapers from around the world. However, since I am not a big fan of pay walls and I haven’t yet subscribed to any digital newspapers, my consumption of news from the US is mainly in the form of reading headlines and one or two sentence article summaries. The phenomenon of pay walls seems to be a feature of US newspapers. I find myself reading more and more articles on BBC and fewer from American news sources because I don’t want to have to pay. It is a silly and inconsistent argument, as I was willing to pay for a print newspaper.

However, it is definitely the case that I am getting an incomplete survey of the news in my current pattern. I read headlines, which I have found are not always good indicators of the genuine content of articles. I read articles from BBC News, which, like all news sources, presents from a particular viewpoint. I read articles from other sources as well. NPR doesn’t have a paywall. But I read fewer from major American Newspapers such as the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune or New York times.

If you stick to the headlines only approach, you won’t learn much about Holy Saturday. It is, in the Christian Tradition a day of vigil. A day to wait. A day on which there are no special services. After a week of daily services, we have nothing scheduled at the church until the Great Vigil, which begins in our congregation at 6:30, moved up earlier from the traditional sunset start time for convenience. The group gathered for that recognition will be small. Most of our members will be at home, planning to attend services on Easter morning. I admit that I am looking forward to the somewhat slower pace of the day. I still have a significant list of items to do, but there should be a mid day break and maybe enough time for a nap.

I think that the headlines only version of Christianity these days actually skips from Palm Sunday and goes directly to Easter without any of the storytelling and worship that lies in the middle of Holy Week. I’m sure that there are good and faithful members of our congregation whose public observances are reserved to Sundays and who feel little connection to the more somber midweek services.

There is an even more brief version of Christianity. We sometimes call them CE Christians. There are a few folks that we see only at Christmas and Easter. That always reminds me of the joke about the man who complained to the pastor that one of the reasons he didn’t come to church more often was that the music was so repetitive. The pastor pressed him, saying, what do you mean? The man replied that they always sing the same hymns when he comes to church. “Every time I go to church they sing one of two hymns!” “What hymns are they?” “It’s either Silent Night, or Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”

The natural response to the joke is to want to say to the man, “Well, you should come to church more often.”

Using the analogy of newspaper headlines, however, I’d like to suggest a different approach. Just as headlines don’t give an accurate picture of the depth of the articles, festival Sundays don’t give a full picture of the life of the church. The challenge for me as a pastor and preacher is how I make the message and the quality of worship on Easter significant and meaningful enough to communicate the gospel to those who don’t attend regularly. What if my sermon tomorrow is the only exposure some people get to the church? How can I say words that are meaningful and invitational at the same time? It is possible that someone who is attending our congregation might have an experience that makes that person want to attend more often and find out more about the life of our church.

I confess that the big occasions aren’t my favorite worship services. For much of my career I have sort of dreaded Easter. I like the joy of celebrating the resurrection. But i also know that it is nearly possible for someone to understand such a complex reality as resurrection from a single worship experience. Many people think that resurrection is something like resuscitation or immortality. They don’t really make the connection between the harsh reality of death and the deep power of Easter and they aren’t in a mood for an extended lecture on the nature of resurrection when they come to church.

So today is also a day of re-thinking my words for tomorrow and choosing carefully what I will say.

When there are some people who read only the headlines, the least we can do is to make the headlines more clear and accurate.

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!

A time to wait

Recently I had a conversation with a professional church musician about Holy Week. The musician, who has decades of experience, was naming some pieces of music that capture the mood of Holy Week. One of the named pieces of music is based on an ancient text and tune. It has a verse that concludes with multiple repetitions of “Alleluia!” I commented that that verse is clearly an Easter verse and should be reserved for Easter, not sung during Holy Week. The musician conceded that in a very strict congregation, it might be noticed that the word Alleluia was used prematurely, most churches would not notice the repetition of the word and the verse would be appropriate for Holy Week. I didn’t think much about the conversation at the time. It had no direct bearing on our Holy Week plans and simple represented a difference in nuance.

I like periods of anticipation and waiting. I don’t want to rush to Easter without having the full experience of Holy Week. But I also acknowledge that my attitude, and my own spiritual practices are a bit counter-cultural. Go into any grocery store during Holy Week and you will find easter candy and eggs and baskets and bunnies and chicks and any number of other Easter supplies. We don’t really celebrate the days of loss and grief. There isn’t a marketing angle to Holy Week. Many people see Easter and the entire holiday at this time of year without giving much thought to Holy Week.

As I have been driving around our community running errands this week, I have occasionally listened to South Dakota Public Broadcasting. Several times I’ve heard station promotion announcements about their plan to play a recording of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra and Chorus presenting Handel’ Messiah this morning. It is good Friday and sometime between now an noon the glorious and triumphant strains of the Hallelujah Chorus will be ringing from radios across our state. I think that probably most of the fans of South Dakota Public Broadcasting and the staff of the radio station feel that this is completely appropriate. Good Friday is, in their minds, a part of the Easter Vacation and a powerful piece of religious music is just right for Good Friday.

For the record I won’t be listening. And if I had time, which I don’t, I wouldn’t have my radio tuned in at that time to that channel. I’m not ready for the Hallelujah Chorus. Not today. Not yet. Today is a day of keeping vigil, of prayer, of silence, of experiencing grief.

Grief isn’t a popular thing in our society. We are continually trying to run away from a sense of grief. We want to have celebration of life ceremonies in place of funerals. We want to avoid sorrow and sadness and the pain of loss. Sometimes, however, it just makes sense to sit with the sadness.

Handel’s best-known work probably wasn’t his favorite. One study of the work that I read asserted that Handel wasn’t pleased with the oratorio. The words for the pieces in the work weren’t chosen by Handel, but rather by Charles Jennens. Jennens was known as an anti-deist who was interested in primitive Christianity. He collected the words that Handel set to music from the King James version of the Bible, and the Coverdale Psalter. The Coverdale Psalter was the collection of psalms translated into English and set in musical rhythms for use in worship in connection with the Book of Common Prayer at the time. I’m sure that it can’t be easy to write music to go with words that have already been chosen, but I don’t know the reasons why Handel wasn’t happy with the oratorio.

It is hard to come up with a theological argument against using words that come directly from the Bible, other than to note which passages where taken out of context and which were left out from the selections of the work. Personally, I have no particular objection to the choice of words. But not every word and not every song is appropriate for every day of one’s life.

It is an ancient tradition for Christians to avoid the use of the word Alleluia during the season of Lent. Our liturgies and responses are carefully selected to not include that particular word. In some congregations a special show is made of “locking up” the alleluias on Ash Wednesday and releasing them at the great vigil of Easter. We’re not that formal in our congregation, but I personally try not to write or include in our worship songs or prayers with the word during Lent.

I hear, from time to time, complaints about the somber music I choose and the hymns in minor keys that I associate with the season. People come to church to have their spirits lifted and some find the waiting and patience of the season be less than they expect of the church.

Today is one of the “marathon” days for me. I’ll be serving hot cross buns at Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center at 6:15 this morning. I’ll be in my office at the church before 8 am. We have services at 11 and 12. Then there is set up and preparation for the Great Vigil, which includes returning to the sanctuary some items that were removed during the stripping of the altar in the liturgy of the passion. In the early evening I will sit with a family for the viewing of the body of their teenage son who died tragically and whose funeral is tomorrow morning. For that family and for the friends of the teen, Good Friday will always be a day of somber remembrance and probably not a day to sing the Hallelujah Chorus. It is unlikely that I will ever forget their sorrow and sense of loss. It becomes another story in my collection of experiences that teach that understanding of resurrection comes only after having the courage to face death directly. Easter morning will come, but not yet.

Today we keep vigil and we wait.

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!

Maundy Thursday, 2019

The mandate is simple: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Almost anyone can memorize it. Jesus did make other requests of his disciples: “Do this in remembrance.” Today, however, even though we will celebrate Holy Communion, our mental focus is on the mandate to love one another. It is the mark of a Christian - that we love as Jesus loved.

I think it would be safe to say that we struggle with that mandate. Maundy Thursday is an annual event in which we confess that the struggle is real and that we need help to truly love one another.

I’ve lived all of my life inside of the church. I’ve seen some beautiful examples of faithfulness to the mandate. I’ve witnessed selfless giving as volunteers rallied together to help a family move. I’ve seen folks provide loving care for others’ children so that the parents could have an evening out. I’ve witnessed folks helping others out of a financial crisis. I’ve walked with grieving families as others rallied around, arriving with gifts of food and compassion. I could tell story after story of times when the love of faithful people for one another has been powerful and beautiful.

And I have seen times when we have fallen short of the mandate. Usually our failures have to do with the things we have left undone rather than the things we have done. We failed to visit when we could have. We’ve forgotten those who are out of sight. We’ve asked institutions to provide care for aging elders. We’ve not been present for single mothers struggling to meet rent. We’ve turned our backs on injustices in our community.We’ve been too tired to respond to yet another appeal for help.

Critics of the church don’t have trouble pointing to times when we have been hypocritical. We’ve said one thing and done another. You don’t have to look far to find complex and sometimes cruel politics in the church. There are abusers in our midst and angry words have flown within our institution.

We don’t really love one another like Jesus loved.

Saying the words is simple. Living the life is a big challenge.

So, once a year we remind ourselves of the original story and its context.

In the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John we find the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Simon Peter protests Jesus actions, saying that the roles should be reversed. It is the disciples who should wash Jesus’ feet. Jesus, however, insists. The ritual washing that precedes the celebration of the Seder usually focuses on the washing of hands, but Jesus offers a traditional and long-standing symbolic gift of hospitality to his disciples. Then he speaks to them, predicting that he will soon be betrayed. After that, before he speaks of Peter’s denial, Jesus gives the disciples his new commandment: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The word translated commandment in English is “mandatum” in Latin. Thus we have our annual recognition of Maundy Thursday.

There will be plenty of worship services in the Christian Church today where the mandate is not the main focus. I was speaking to a person who is not Christian yesterday about our observance of holly week and from his perspective the week is an extended passion play for Christians. I don’t experience it that way, but that is how it seems to at least one outsider. We spend the week going over and over again the story of Jesus arrest, trial, condemnation and crucifixion. He is accurate that we do read the passion story multiple times during Holy Week. I read it out loud during the liturgy of the passion and will read it again out loud during our Good Friday service. And we will celebrate Holy Communion this evening. It is our tradition. I’ve celebrated communion on Maundy Thursday every year that I have been a pastor. And we used to have our own version of a passion play as the setting for our celebration. In the congregation I serve, that passion play has given way to an evening of choral music and a focus on a cantata for the occasion. A few years ago an associate pastor wrote a service that centered on tenebrae, the extinguishing of candles, sometimes observed on Good Friday. That tradition has lingered and is incorporated into the cantata we’ll share this evening.

Foot washing never caught on in our congregation. We used to do a symbolic reenactment. I remember the rancher who said. “You’ can pretend to wash my feet, but I’m not taking off my boots.” I guess it was his own version of Peter’s response. Recruiting actors to play the roles of the disciples became a real challenge and optional foot washing ceremonies have been offered without any of the faithful taking us up on the offer. I guess we’d prefer to show our love fro one another in different ways.

Our traditions are living and that means that they change. Even things that seem to us to be nearly identical repetitions of things we have done before are subject to subtle changes in tone or emphasis. Sometimes a new action or new words are introduced and they stick. I’ve joked that our congregation’s tradition of a blues concert during Holy Week is one such tradition. It won’t be easy for future pastors to forego the concert. We like it and that enjoyment of the music will continue after the current generation has passed. There is no biblical mandate that we gather to listen to the blues together. It is just something that we’ve decided we like to do. New traditions emerge.

In that midst of all of the change, however, our mandate remains: “Love one another.” When all else is said and done, we are still challenged by this teaching. It is worthy of one day each year and more.

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!

The pace of life

As I look back, I realize that my life has not been a journey undertaken at a steady pace. When I was in my twenties, I taught stress management classes. I spoke to learners about exercising for endurance and about setting a pace that could be sustained rather than running full bore until exhaustion. I have a fairly good cognitive understanding of how longevity is a product of understanding the dynamics of stress and distress and managing stress so that it doesn’t become distress. In practice, however, I have always undertaken periods of greater stress. When I was a student, we used to call it “pulling an all nighter.” The concept was that when the work piled up, you just worked to completion, forgoing sleep. I never was able to do that very well and I learned early in my student career that the technique that worked for me was to take a nap fairly early in the evening and rise very early in the morning. I seem to have more energy first thing in the morning and my work is productive at that time of the day. To this day, I rise earlier than any of my peers in order to work when I have energy. I also go to bed earlier than many of my colleagues.

I did, however, have periods of time, when the end of semesters rolled around and lots of papers were due and tests were imminent, of sleeping less and working more. Those weeks of intensity were usually followed by a few weeks that were less productive.

Later in my life, when I had completed the journey of a full-time student, there would be weeks, perhaps when I was leading a youth mission trip or when I was heading up a camp or conference, when I would sleep less. When I was the dean of church camp, I prided myself in being the last one to bed at night and the first one up in the morning. I used to say that I simply had more endurance than the campers and that they would end the week more tired than I and it was generally true. But I remember times of collapse after a week’s church camp. Once I injured my back loading boats after a water sports camp. I called my doctor, who called in a prescription for a muscle relaxant. I took one pill and slept for nearly 24 hours. One could say that the pill was effective, which I guess it was. But the other factor was that I was really tired.

To this day, I stretch out my days and put in long hours some weeks and then have days that follow when I need more sleep.

Holy Week is a marathon of my own creation. I’m the one who submitted the plan for worship every day of Holy Week. I love all of the services that we have in our church. I want to be with the people at the blues concert and also to shear communion with the choir. I look forward to the journey to the cross and the great vigil. I can’t imagine missing Easter sunrise with other congregations. I love the journey.

Part of what I love is that it pushes me mentally and physically. I don’t want to live life at a constant pace. I want to have times when I push really hard and explore the limits of my endurance. Friends will say to me, “You must be really tired.” and I am. Being tired isn’t the worst sensation in the world, especially when you can look back and see that you’ve accomplished good work.

There are, of course, limits. I don’t have the energy that I had when I was 25. I don’t respond to my drowsiness by drinking cup after cup of coffee as was the case when I was leading church camps every summer. I sneak naps from time to time when I am able. I’ll find myself nodding off when reading at my desk some days. Last night I lingered at the church picking things up for a half hour or 45 minutes after the last guest left, but I also left some work undone to be tackled this morning. I don’t try to get by on four hours of sleep any more.

Age and maturity should have an impact on the pacing of my life, and I am sure that they do. Still, I enjoy an occasional week that pushes my limits and has a pace that is more extreme than my usual. It reminds me that I am alive. It keeps me from falling into a rut. Ministry cannot be a simple repetition of whaat has done before. We are called to create newness and to put fresh energy into the tasks before us. Our Creator God made us in the image of God. We are also creators, capable of bringing newness into the world. So we have mixed things up this year. On paper the schedule for Holy Week appears to be similar to recent years. In reality it is quite different. This year I used visuals for the reading of the passion and had to practice my timing over and over again. We upped the pace of our social media advertising for the Blues Concert and the crowd was bigger. The Seder meal is new and the result of carful nurturing of our congregation’s relationship with the Synagogue of the Hills. We did quite a bit of personal recruiting for that event and the numbers look good. The Maundy Thursday cantata is more ambitious than recent years with a new choir director and extra choir members recruited from sister congregations. It isn’t just a case of the same old routine. For us, it is exciting and challenging.

It is only Wednesday and I had to exert some effort to get out of bed this morning. I wasn’t quite ready. I’m a little tired. That’s OK, there are much worse feelings one could experience. For this week I seem to have avoided boredom and a sense of purposelessness. That’s not bad for a guy my age.

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!

The organ and the blues

Tonight is our annual blues concert. It is a recent tradition in our church. We’ve been doing it for a few years. The idea is to recognize the blues as a distinctive art form with a deep relationship to grief, sorrow and sadness. As we journey through Holy Week, one of the skills we teach our people is that there are things that we can’t fix. Our instinct is to rush into situations of grief and want to make everything better. Sometimes, however, things can’t be made better. Sometimes we need to learn to simply sit with our grief. Our annual blues concert is about acknowledging that deep sorrow and sadness exist in the world and that there are things that are beyond our power to fix or make better. So we sit with the blues.

The concert is just one example of an incredible luxury that I have as pastor of this particular congregation. I have access to live music and musicians who share the spiritual leadership of the congregation. Not many pastors can count of the power of a 33 rank organ and an organist capable of making the instrument sing. We also have two grand pianos in our sanctuary, a 9’ concert grand and a 6’ choir piano. We have a technician who keeps the instruments beautifully tuned and ready and a half dozen exceptional pianists to provide music from them. Our piano is the recording instrument of a touring classical pianist. We also have five octaves of handbells and ringers skilled in advanced techniques such as singing bells, mallet work, four in hand and other skills. We have a brass choir. We have flute, violin and cello soloists, all symphonic musicians. We have a jazz pianist and world class fiddler, both recording artists. And when I call up the blues musicians for our annual concert, they respond with eager assent.

I acknowledge that music is one of the real luxuries of my position. Not many pastors have it so lucky. There are many who work in larger and grander churches with more extensive inventories of instruments, but few who have access to the musicians that I enjoy.

Tonight, however, when we sit with the blues, there will be new and raw grief in the room. We watched from a distance with horror as flames roared through the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral. The spire fell. Flames burst through the openings where the grand rose window once had been. And as I watched I imagined the heat and flames ripping through the grand organ.

This morning I can’t find a definitive assessment of the condition of the organ, but I know where it was located, high in the building. Of course the grand organ has been, for centuries, the product of centuries of development and is really many organs all controlled from an incredible 5-manual console. The magnificent instrument had many parts that are very susceptible to fire and heat. In addition to the electronics, most recently upgraded in 1992, the instrument had nearly 1,000 wooden pipes among the over 8,000 pipes in its inventory. As I watched the fire burn, I couldn’t help but think of the zinc pipes, which would melt under the intense heat of the fire, dropping molten metal to the floor below like giant teardrops at the tragedy.

There is no sound like a grand organ echoing off of the walls and ceiling of a huge cathedral. It isn’t something that can be replaced no matter how much money they raise or how deep the commitment to rebuild the cathedral.

The grand organ began with a medieval instrument somewhere around 1330, under a high window in the nave. A new instrument was begun around 1400, installed on a stone gallery above the western portal so that the old organ could remain in use during the construction. The new organ was dedicated in 1403. A restoration of that organ began in 1473 and lasted over 50 years. It was a classic French organ - the organ that defined the genre - with a plenum, a flute chord and batteries of reeds. A third manual was added in 1620 and a fourth one in 1672.

With the age of enlightenment a new organ was ordered in 1730, incorporating the pipes and similar divisions to the existing organ. The mighty 32’ pipes joined the organ and the Louis XV organ case placed pipes high enough to partially shade the west rose window. It was those pipes that came to my mind as I watched the flames lick through the window in pictures taken from the outside of the building as the fire raged.

Building and rebuilding the organ continued with a major reconstruction begun in 1828. By 1862, the goal of building a symphonic organ had emerged and the instrument was expanded to have different pressures in different chambers of the instrument. The instrument was powered by pneumatic lever machines until electric blowers were installed in 1924. Restorations were carried out in 1932, 1959, 1963, 1989, and 1990. Thus the grand organ that greeted the 21st century was the product of 689 years of development, additions, furniture-making, pipe forming, air compressing, wind directing, tuning, valve constructing, electronics installation, computer programming.

The keys on the manuals and the stops have been touched by some of the world’s greatest organists. Angela Kraft Cross, who played the dedicatory concert on the rebuilt organ in our congregation in 2007, has played the grand organ. There is a picture of her in front of the main console on the cover of one of her albums. More directly, the classical organ sounds of the reeds and flutes in our organ were influenced by sounds developed in the great organ of Notre-Damme. The power and beauty of the sounds of that instrument have inspired organ builders around the world. When we reconfigured the great and swell organs in our church and added the choir division, one of our goals was to enhance the wonderful Austin Classic American Pipe Organ with more symphonic sounds, making the instrument capable of playing repertoire of the French enlightenment.

So we will sit with the blues today and although our memories are incomplete, we will recall the echoes of the grand organ of Notre-Dame and weep for the simple fact that those sounds are forever lost. A new organ will undoubtedly emerge, but it will take centuries for it to mature. Perhaps the grandchildren of our grandchildren will one day experience those sounds.

In the meantime, it is good that we have the blues to allow us to sit with our grief.

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!

More than a celebration of life

The Washington Post has an article this morning with the headline, “The funeral we we know it is becoming a relic - just in time for a death boom.” I’m not paying to read Washington Post articles right now and I can’t figure out how to get around their paywall, so I have not read the article, but I can imagine its contents. I imagine that the article contains stories of several non-traditional memorial services. I hear about them fairly regularly and I’ve attended a few. The services are held in nontraditional venues, perhaps a favorite bar or garage workshop or a backyard or park. The guests don’t dress up in suits and ties, but rather appear in casual clothing - dressed for a party. In fact the majority of these non-traditional celebrations of life assume the mood of a party. There is usually an open microphone and often someone who serves as an MC. There are stories about what a wonderful person the one who died was, about friends and accomplishments and often about hobbies and recreational activities.

As more of the people who are responsible for planning funeral and memorial services count themselves among those with no religious affiliation, funeral homes are offering a variety of funeral packages that don’t involved churches as all. In larger cities, you can now hire “Celebration of Life” planners. People who earn their living by being paid to plan events that celebrate the life of someone who has died.

Unlike funeral directors and celebration of life planners, ministers and rabbis and others who officiate at traditional religious funerals do not earn their livings conducting funerals. Although honoraria are sometimes paid, income from such is not the primary source of income for those officiants. The tradition, in some Christian churches, is for income from honoraria to fund special household projects and furnishings. In other congregations, honoraria are deposited in a special fund that provides support to those who have special needs. Often called the Pastor’s Purse, or special missions fund, these monies are made available to provide assistance to others who have extraordinary means. Such funds have been used to pay funeral expenses for those who are unable to pay.

But there are other differences, more important than the exchange of money at the time of a death. I can go on and on about some of the trappings of contemporary funerals and my feelings about spending $10,000 and more on a hole in the ground, including limousine rides for those who wouldn’t otherwise hire such expensive transportation. What I would like to offer, however, is a bit about what gets left out of some celebration of life events.

I guess it can help those who are grieving to hear many voices say what a wonderful person it is who has died, how that person contributed to important causes and how that person stood out from the crowd. But when I have been in the depths of grief, I already knew that my loved one was unique and wonderful and talented and had made an impact on the lives of others. I need to know a little bit more than what a good person she or he was. I need someone to remind me that the way I feel at the depths of my grief is not the way I will feel for the rest of my life. I need someone to remind me when I have no words for my prayers that I am not the only one praying. I need someone to remind me that my memories will not fade and that the community will not forget the one I have loved.

I need community. I need a larger perspective. I need to know that this is not the end.

Festive funerals are not the invention of the 21st century. Our generation did not invent the use of the word celebration in connection with the death of a loved one. throughout the history of the Christian church there has been attention to celebration of a life well lived. Saints have been elevated and their names and dates of death have bee preserved for future generations to study and learn of their contributions. Churches have often done a better job of retaining the memories of those who have died than secular institutions.

Not long ago I attended the funeral of now whose life was truly remarkable. The event was held in a room that was too small for the crowd of friends who wanted to pay their respects and greet the family. The crush of people was too great to allow for individual conversations or even a receiving line of family members. The celebration of life was genuine and the speakers were intelligent and practiced. Interestingly, there was a lot of repetition as speakers all seemed to be most impressed with the old age of the person who had died. The events, commitments and projects of the last ten or fifteen years were most mentioned. The person who died had enjoyed a long and fruitful marriage, almost nothing of the years of marriage was mentioned. The person had lived in many different places, the retirement community was most often mentioned. I knew before the funeral that this was a remarkable person who had lived fully and graciously. There was no new information offered at the celebration of life.

As we journey through Holy Week, I hope we do more than just to say “Jesus was a good man who died in a cruel fashion.” Religion has much more to offer those who give than a celebration of a life well lived. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to celebrate lives well-lived, only that there is more to the story.

Holy Week is an opportunity for the church to assist people in thinking about how they face death, grief and loss. Of course such lessons are only available to those who participate, which isn’t even the majority of our congregations, and a very small portion of our communities. But even those who do not participate will find themselves inside of our buildings for the funeral of someone they have known and respected. I pray that we will have more to offer than a backyard potluck or a golf course balloon release.

Stay tuned. What we have to offer comes only at the end of the week - only after experiencing the depths of loss and grief.

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!

Palm Sunday 2019

We lie in a big world and our generation has the technology to do some amazing things in that world. One thing that we routinely do is to talk to the future. Last evening, we spoke to our daughter in Japan and a friend in Australia. It was already Palm Sunday in both places when we were talking. In Japan, it was early and our daughter and son-in-law were just starting their day, getting ready to go out to attend some special events. In Australia, our friend had come home for lunch after the service in the small church where he is a member and was preparing to head out to worship with another congregation at their afternoon celebration. He was describing his young grandson wielding a 10’ palm branch in their small church, being careful not to hit another person with the big branch. It is early autumn in Australia and there are some large palm branches available for the celebration.

At our church today we’ll have palms that might be described as florist palms. They are hardly branches, but rather a stem with a few leaves, easy to carry, easy to lift over one’s head, easy to wave. And after church we’ll have a brunch and then head downtown for a community parade down Kansas City Street. We’ll walk a few blocks followed by a reading of the Gospel and the singing of a couple of songs in a park next to one of the downtown churches. Later I’ll attend a pot luck supper at the Well, an emerging spiritual community that meets in our church building.

There are a lot of different ways to celebrate Palm Sunday. Our Australian friend described to us the service in the Fijiian congregation he was heading for as “a half hour communion service followed by a couple of hours for dinner.”

Palm Sunday is an interesting holiday. After six weeks of lent, congregations are ready for some upbeat music and throwing off a bit of the somberness that has been a part of the season of prayer and preparation. For those of us who live in the cycles of the church year, Lent can be a time of calm and relative quiet, but for most people Sunday worship that is too somber is not appealing. Palm Sunday, with its pageantry, is fun. Children waving palm branches, the choir singing celebrate songs, the Gospel proclaiming a triumphal entry - it all seems upbeat.

In many congregations the liturgy of the palms is immediately followed by the liturgy of the passion. We used to combine the two services, but in recent years have moved the liturgy of the passion, where we read a lengthy Gospel report of the events of the last week of Jesus’ life, - the last supper, the arrest, trial, conviction and execution - to a separate service on Monday evening. Sunday is set aside as a day of celebration in anticipation of a week of confronting loss and grief.

Palm Sunday carries a lot of memories for me. My father raised donkeys and he tried to have a new colt for Palm Sunday celebrations. We did not use artificial insemination and therefore timing the birth of the colts was less than precise. One memorable year, the colt came late and was born on Easter morning. The colt, a Jenny, was named Hallelujah in honor of the day. She proved to be nearly constantly in trouble. One day she tried to cross a cattle guard, stewed through the grate and injured her leg. We got her out, doctored her wounds, which were mostly cuts and scrapes with no broken bones, luckily. When she grew up and became a mother, she was less attentive to her colts and they always needed extra attention. She quickly earned the nickname Lulu, which stuck and sometimes was said as a negative comment on her mental capacities.

When we had a cold on Palm Sunday it was taken to church. Most years it was kept outside of the church building. When we were lucky the weather was nice. Once or twice we attempted a procession up the church aisle with a donkey colt. I learned fairly early not to be a fan of taking farm animals inside. To this day I have no desire to have live animals as part of our church services. It can be a lot of work and in our family the boys usually got the cleanup duties.

It is hard to tell, from the study of the Bible, how important that entry into Jerusalem really was from the perspective of the wider community. Jesus had been anticipating his return to Jerusalem for quite some time and he occasionally made his disciples uncomfortable with his talk of Jerusalem and the trial he would face. Some of the more radical Zealots among his disciples must have interpreted the words of the prophets as a prediction that the return of the messiah to Jerusalem would result in political upheaval and an overthrow of the Roman government. Others might have feared raising the ire of the temple authorities. I would have been a time of mixed emotions for both Jesus and his followers. Luke reports that when asked to calm the crowd Jesus responded by saying that they could not be suppressed noting that even if the people were quiet the stones would shout.

It makes sense, then, that the day might bring forth mixed emotions from our congregations. Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter simply are not as big in the lives of contemporary congregations as was the case a while ago. The role of the church in their lives has shifted with the passing of generations. Spring break from school is a much bigger factor in the lives of the members of our church than the arrival of Palm Sunday.

Still the day is worthy of our attention. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is a moment in the story of our faith that is worthy of our time. We will celebrate. We will wave our palms. And with those simple actions we will once again launch a week of worship and prayer and contemplation. Like Jesus first disciples, we may not change the world in a single day, but we are in this and God is with us for something much bigger than today.

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!

A day of preparation

Holy Week is a bit of a marathon for us. We are gearing up for a week of continuous worship, prayer and work at the church. There will be no days off for a while. The blizzard of last week left us a little bit behind, but we will be ready for Palm Sunday worship, brunch and the community palm parade tomorrow. Then there is something every day with two services on Friday. Easter morning will begin with a sunrise service at 6 am. That means longer days for us at the church. It is a rich and rewarding week. All of the activity is not something that has been imposed from the outside, it is a choice we make for ourselves. The joy of Easter is deepened by facing the rigors of Holy Week. I routinely work with families who are going through grief. I am not unfamiliar with the connections between emotional distress, fatigue and deep grief. There are worse things in this world than being tired.

Today is a day of preparation. I’ll rehearse my sermon for tomorrow and the service of passion for Monday night. I need to make a few phone calls to make sure that some details of events occurring later in the week are worked out.

In the back of my mind, however, are the congregations of the three African-American Baptist Churches whose buildings were burned down in intentionally set fires. Police have arrested a suspect in the fires, the 21-year-old son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy. Four days before his arrest, Holden Matthews made Facebook posts expressing disgust with the beliefs of members of those churches. He said in part that he cannot “stand all these baptists around here, bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forced on their ancestors just as it was on mine.”

That kind of statement is not rational and therefore it doesn’t work to respond with rational thought. It is hard to understand how the thought that events in history placed people in a position where they adopted some of the religious beliefs of the dominant culture might justify forcing them out of their houses of worship by wanton destruction of the buildings. There isn’t a rational argument that justifies arson.

The history of the church and of religion isn’t without its horrors. Crimes have been committed by church leaders. People have been forced into participating in religious practices. Those in power have abused their positions. Abuse continues as can be witnessed in the shocking and devastating news of clergy sexual scandals breaking around the world. There is much that is bad that has been perpetuated in the name of religion. None of that justifies more violence. None of that justifies torching churches.

The history of bombings and burnings of African-American church buildings reveals the dark side of racism and hatred that has been a part of the relationships between people in our country since its founding. The high ideals of the founders of the United States did not fully take into account the violence and displacement of indigenous people or the cruelty of an economy based on forced labor and the denial of the humanity of slaves. It took a long time for slavery to be abolished. We are only now learning the full effects of the near genocide of native tribes. Violence continues to this day. It does not make violence the right thing.

For those who belong to the churches that were burned, it is as season of sifting through the ashes, and planning for the process of rebuilding which, unfortunately, has to begin with further demolition of beloved buildings filled with memories. In a sense Holy Week is an appropriate time to face the sadness of loss. Our faith story has death, grief and sadness at its core.

Sorrow and sadness, however, are not the end of the story. Holy Week is not all that there is to our faith. Confronting the reality of loss and grief does not give them power over us. Our God is a living God and we are an Easter People. We know the joy that lies ahead.

But we won’t rush the journey. We will take time to sit with the blues. We will give time to allow the tears to flow. We’ll allow tireless to seep into our bones.

It is, after all, a rehearsal for a reality that we all will face. It might not come at this time of the year. It might not come this year. But to be human is to face loss and grief. I’ve sat with families whose lives have been devastated by a sudden and traumatic death. I’ve been with them on the worst days of their lives. I know that recovery is possible. I know that one day they will feel better than they do at the height of their grief. But I also know that it is something that cannot be rushed. I know that making promises of better days ahead is not appropriate. Sometimes the best we can do is to acknowledge the reality of the pain and simply share the journey.

Sharing the journey is what Holy Week is all about. It is an opportunity to practice a skill that is important.

So we pray with the congregations whose buildings have been burned. We do not offer simple solutions. We do not pretend to be able to understand the senseless acts of arson. We simply grieve the loss while trusting God’s promises and faithfulness.

The stories of our people are filled with dark times and genuine loss. They are also filled with stories of the triumph of faith and the promise of new tomorrows. As custodians of these stories, we need to tell them freshly this week and every week of our lives. The journey is not a sprint that is soon over, but a marathon that must be approached with energy, enthusiasm and endurance.

Let the week begin.

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!

Sad news

Yesterday we learned from a Facebook post that the Board of Directors of the Montana Northern Wyoming Conference of the United Church of Christ have decided that this summer will be the last of active programming at Camp Mimanagish. The announcement didn’t come as a total surprise. We have known for some time that the camp was struggling to find sufficient volunteers, funds and participants for its programs. We follow the camp through several different channels, including social media, Conference newsletter and personal contacts.

We have a close tie to the camp. I first attended the camp when I was just a couple of months old. My mother was serving as camp nurse for a week of family camp. The camp had to have a medical professional at each session because it is locate in an isolated canyon deep in the mountains. The road to the camp is gravel and dirt for the last 30 miles and there was no phone service at camp until the 1980’s.

After that first experience with camp, I never missed a summer, attending camp there every year for the next quarter of a century. My wife and I first met at Camp Mimanagish. During the summers of 1975 ad 1976 we were managers of the camp. Those were the last two summers that the old Half Moon Dining Hall was in use. I directed and helped with the laying of the foundation and initial construction of the new dining hall and returned with a work camp of teens from North Dakota to assist with the demolition of the old dining hall.

We could see signs that the camp was experiencing troubles when we visited last summer as part of our sabbatical, which involved returning to previous places of ministry and visiting with mentors and others who had helped us form our ministry.

Closing the camp will be a difficult process for the Conference and I don’t know all of the details that are involved. The land upon which the camp is located belongs to the U.S. Forest Service and the camp has been operated under a long term lease since it was founded. In addition to the large dining hall, there are several other buildings including a lodge, a chapel, a residence for the manager, a shower house, and six or seven cabins for campers. One of the cabins that was in use during our time was destroyed in a huge wind storm a few years ago and not replaced. The cabins range from 2x4 construction with rough interiors to full log buildings. The camp has a deep well and a good water source and a large septic system. I don’t know the details of who will become responsible for the buildings if the lease is terminated. I assume that the ownership reverts to the Forest Service and that the Forest Service may have some use for at least some of the buildings. Others, I am sure will be torn down or allowed to deteriorate slowly over time.

I am sure that the decision was very difficult for the board. There are a lot of memories at that camp. It has been one of the central ministries of the conference for as long as people can remember. On the other hand, the operation of the camp was costing money that the Conference simply doesn’t have. They could not afford the annual operating deficits and a solution had to be found. It isn’t that they wanted to close the camp. It is that they could not find a way to keep it open.

The news is very sad for us and for many others whose lives were touched by their experiences at church camp.

It is part of a continuing trend in the United Church of Christ. Earlier this spring, I learned of the decision of the Minnesota Conference to sell one of its camp sites. We watched from the outside several years ago when the Northern Plains Conference made the decision to sell its camp, a place where we had taken our family and members of the congregations we served in North Dakota.

The decline in mainline congregations and in the ministries of congregations and conferences is visible and impossible to ignore. Membership is down. Giving is down. Programs are reduced. I’ve been in conversation with some who say that the church is aging out. As older members pass on, they aren’t being replaced by new members. That is true. We have seen declines in membership that are due to the simple math of having more people die than join the church. But the story is more complex than the simple math of birth rates. The passing of leadership from the WWII generation to the boomer generation was not smooth. The WWII generation, sometimes called the greatest generation, provided a rich corps of leadership in many institutions. Young adults came home from the war and went to work in their communities providing leadership for churches, civic organizations and a whole host of other institutions. They were generous with their time and with their financial resources. And they continued to serve well into their retirement years. They built strong institutions and provided leadership for many decades.

What they did not do gracefully, was share leadership with others. Some of the baby boom generation have complained that when they tried to assume leadership they were either blocked by elders who were reluctant to share leadership or found that they were not allowed to do things in their own way, facing restrictions imposed by their elders. They didn’t develop the same habits of generous donations or of selfless volunteerism that had marked the previous generation. When, through the natural process of aging, boomers finally have assumed leadership, their level of commitment has been different than was the case with the previous generation. And they have raised children and grandchildren who are themselves less committed.

This isn’t the first time the church has faced financial challenges. It isn’t the first time the camp has been threatened by a lack of income. But the leadership and donations that sustained the camp and other programs in the past simply are not present now. When we were building the new dining hall, I was able to recruit professional carpenters, plumbers, electricians and concrete workers who would give multiple weekends and significant resources to support the camp. Similar leadership isn’t stepping forward to save the camp any more.

So we grieve the loss of another important and significant ministry. And we open our hearts and minds to new possibilities that will emerge. God will provide what the church needs to move into the future. And the future will be different from the past. In the transition there will be a few tears and some grief. The old ways are passing.

The prophet, however, reminds us that God is always “doing a new thing.” It is the newness for which we need to be alert.

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!

Snow day

For the information of folks living near me in Rapid City and the surrounding area, I thought you’d like to know that today’s forecast for Fairbanks Alaska is for a high in the mid fifties under partly cloudy skies. High temperatures are supposed to remain in the upper forties through the next week with the possibility of a little rain on Saturday. It is currently 38 degrees in Anchorage under cloudy skies. They’ll see some rain on Friday and by Monday it should be sunny skies and highs in the 50s. Those conditions should last for much of next week. Temperatures in Alaska were 20 degrees warmer than usual. Researchers say that temperatures are warming roughly twice as fast in the Arctic as they are in other parts of the world. Temperatures have been so high that NOAA computers flashed warnings of faulty sensors because the temperatures were so far out of range. The seniors were working properly. The computers had been programmed for cooler times. The permafrost isn’t truly perma. It’s melting.

Part of the problem has been unusual jet stream patterns. One climatologist referred to the jet stream as “wobbly.”

I guess the wobbly jet stream can also be blamed for the foot or so of snow outside my study this morning. We took a snow day yesterday and have decided to spend the morning today digging out. The church office will remain closed until at least noon, later depending on conditions. My phone app just says, “Snow will continue.” We could get two or three more inches. I’ve stopped trying to be precise in my measurements. I just look at the snow on the deck and say, “It looks like about a foot.”

Blizzard days are different than once was the case. I updated the church web page three times yesterday. I updated the outgoing message on the church voice mail each time as well. I responded to dozens of text messages and communicated with others by email. I even spoke on the phone with a few church leaders.

With the advent of modern forecasts, we tend to make decisions about snow closures and conditions earlier in the day. I didn’t have to get up at 3 am to make a decision about whether or not activities would resume at the church today. I looked at the forecast and made the decision early in the evening yesterday.

The county pulled snowplows off of the roads at around 5 pm. The Interstate is closed all the way to Mitchell. The city bus system is not operating. Most flights at the airport have been cancelled or postponed. the schools are closed. The YMCA is closed. The courts are closed. Things are shaping up for another snow day in Rapid City.

We didn’t get the forecast winds. I guess there are some really strong winds off to the east of us, but here in the hills we are sheltered and the storm has mostly been gently falling snow which looks beautiful when you can stay inside and look out at it.

That was too much for some of my more restless neighbors. One, who really loves operating his four-wheeled UTV, was running up and down the street, learning a lane in the middle. I doubt if he made things any easier for the snowplows which will arrive sometime today, but he was enjoying it and probably not causing much damage other than leaving huge chunks of snow in the regular driving lane because his rig clears only a narrow lane as wide as his plow.

But it was strange yesterday. It wasn’t all that cold. The visibility was reasonable. Folks were at home. But we didn’t see any of the neighborhood children out. It seemed like a nearly perfect day for snowmen and sledding, but I guess the kids spent the day inside with their computers and tablets and televisions. I kept thinking we’d see the neighbor’s kids out playing in the snow, but the only ones we saw out and about were the one neighbor with his snowplow UTV and another neighbor with a jeep who simply loves to prove that he is able to get out. I doubt that he really had anywhere to go, but his jeep has a lift kit and oversize tires and wasn’t having any trouble making a beer run or whatever he decided to do. His garage door opener works well and his garage faces out house, so I watched out the window without anxiety because it really wasn’t that bad.

We weren’t really snowed in. I could have gone out with our pickup and probably would not have needed to put the chains on it. However, I take the “no travel advised” from the Sheriff seriously. Looking at the South Dakota Department of Transportation map on the computer, it seems like conditions are far worse off to the east. There are a lot of road closures once you get out of the shelter of the hills.

We are, however, South Dakotans. We’re a hardy lot. We’ll be out shoveling and digging ourselves out before long and I expect activities to return to normal by Friday. Palm Sunday may sport a pile of snow here or there. We’ll have another bill for plowing the church parking lot, and we’ll head into Holy Week with our plans in place and our activities as usual. In fact attendance may be up just a little bit because folks have been cooped up indoors. Also we’ve all been talking by text or phone. There wasn’t a whole lot more to do. I spent more time working on my sermon yesterday than is typical. Of course there is a danger of being over prepared, but with all of the services of Holy Week, I’m not very worried. It was, however, fun to have long blocks of time to work uninterrupted except for the occasional buzzing of my phone.

I doubt if this storm will go down in the annals of our town as a significant event. We’ve had lots of spring blizzards. We’ve had blizzards during Holy Week. We’ve had Palm Sunday blizzards. Spring storms are part of life in the hills.

Stay home. Stay safe. Stay warm. We’ll all be out and about 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!

Symbolic food

Special foods have long been a part of human celebrations. Many societies have ceremonies around food and eating. In the church we regularly share communion, a kind of symbolic meal. The bread and cup are symbols and don’t constitute a complete meal. They are just a little taste and a remembrance of the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus told his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with you before I suffer.” Being observant Jews, Jesus and the disciples were sharing a meal that was steeped in generations of tradition, dating back to the meal that the people of Israel ate on the eve of their departure from Egypt. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with specific instructions for teaching future generations about the Exodus, including what and how to eat.

It is a bit difficult to know the exact menu of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples. In modern times the seder plate holds symbolic foods that probably were a part of the meal. The ceremonial foods of the meal each have a role in the traditional liturgy that is spoken to educate all on the meaning of the passover.

Matzot, or unleavened bread, is an important item. It is traditional to have three matzot, covered with a napkin. One can be broken and two will remain whole. This is important because the Hamotzi blessing, required on all holidays, is to be pronounced over an unbroken piece. Some say the three pieces also symbolize the three Jewish groups: Priests, Levites and Israelites. Biblical accounts of Jesus and the disciples specifically mention Jesus offering the prayer over the matzot.

The shank bone of a lamb, with some of the meat on it, is also an important ceremonial food. It may be a reference to God’s promise to redeem the people with an outstretched arm. The meat is to be roasted over an open fire. Contemporary Jews, however, often do not use lamb for this offering. It is thought that the meal cannot be fully observed without the temple in Jerusalem and therefore a symbolic item, often a piece of chicken, is substituted for the lamb shank. The meat is not eaten as a part of the formal liturgy and so its role on a seder plate is symbolic.

A hard-boiled egg represents the offering that was made at the temple. The custom is to eat eggs with salt water, which is also a part of the meal. The offering of eggs as a symbolic substitute for the offering of birds for sacrifice dates back at leas as far as Roman times and probably was customary in the time of Jesus.

Bitter herbs to remind people of the bitterness of slavery. Freshly grated horseradish is often used. Grating the horseradish will bring tears to the eyes of the one preparing it. In some places the stems of romaine lettuce or endives are used. In modern times a food processor is often used to prepare the bitter herbs, reducing the discomfort of those preparing it. Its symbolic role, however, remains - to remind people of the suffering of slaves.

Charoset is a paste made of apples, pears, nuts and wine. It reminds those who participate in the meal of the mortar used by the slaves to build with bricks.

The vegetable, called karpas in Hebrew, has a more obscure role in the ritual. Parsley is often used in contemporary celebrations. Some say that it is a reminder of backbreaking work. The Hebrew letters of karpas can be arranged to spell the word perech if a single additional letter is added. Perech means backbreaking work. In some traditions a slice of onion or even a slice of potato is served. This is dipped in salt water and eaten.

There are also glasses of wine prescribed as a part of the meal.

The Christian tradition has moved far away from the traditional seder plate, however. In our observance only the bread (matzot) and the cup are used. In some congregations grape juice is substituted for wine in the cup. The traditional Hebrew prayers are not included in the Christian tradition. Rather words reminding worshipers of Jesus instructions to his disciples are used. The connection with the commandments to remember the Exodus are very obscure and many Christians share the communion observance without a thought of the story of the Exodus.

For the most part the connections between the Jewish seder and the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion are forgotten in contemporary observances. It can be meaningful for Christians to participate, when invited, in the seder meal as a reminder of the Jewish roots of our faith, and a way of learning about our sisters and brothers whose religious life is different from our own.

This understanding is critically important in the light of the many waves of antisemitism that have swept Christian communities and led to the horrors of the 20th Century Holocaust, in which Christians actively participated in an attempt at genocide base don the religion of the victims. The two faiths are inextricably connected and the failure to recognize those connections has led to unspeakable violence.

Sharing a meal together can be a deeply meaningful way of making human connections. Because we all need food to survive and because the fellowship of the table binds us together, the act of eating together can strengthen relationships and build understanding.

Few of us have direct experience with starvation and severe shortages of food. In fact many of us are guilty of overconsumption of food which not only leads to a lack of understanding of the importance of food, but also to health risks caused by overeating. Taking time to think carefully about food as we eat is one way to adopt a more healthy lifestyle. Symbolic foods and ritual meals can help us to change our attitude towards and relationship with food.

Eating is essential to survival, but it is so much more. Food and thinking about food can be a key to a deeper understanding of our story and the traditions of our faith.

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!

What if?

There is something in us that makes us ask, “What if?” even when the events are clearly beyond our control. I have learned that when people are asking, “What if?” there often is no answer to the question. We don’t know what if. We only know what has occurred. We will never get the answer to what if.

Grieving families will often say, “What if?” or “If only . . .” As I work with them, I assure them that such questions are normal and usual in the midst of the circumstances. I also remind them that we cannot know the answers to the questions no matter how much we wish we could.

I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank and wondering what my life would have been like or how I would have reacted had I lived in Germany during the height of Nazi power. I am descended from people who once lived in Germany. Our family might have decided to stay had circumstances been different. As it has turned out, it has been a good life for me, born to folks who have been in the United States for many generations. I would like to imagine that I might have been capable of heroic action had I been in the circumstances of those who lived under the Nazi regime. But we will never know because that is not the way things turned out.

I went through another phase of thinking about those “what ifs?” when I was a bit older and reading the novels of Elie Wiesel. Would I have found the courage to resist and stand up to totalitarian leadership? Would I have been capable of taking huge risks to preserve and protect the lives of others? The movie Schindler’s List had a similar impact on me.

What would the world look like today had the Holocaust and World War II never happened. All of the people who died would have living descendants. Some would have traveled. I might even have met some of them. My father’s life would have been different had he not enlisted during the war. My mother’s life would have been different had she not traveled to California to marry him during the war. They might have chosen a different place to make their home and raise their children. I might not have met my wife and instead married another.

It is all idle speculation, but I do think of those things some times. Over 50 million people died in WWII. What if they had lived?

I think similar things about other big events. Around 160,000 people died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. What if they had lived? How would the economy of the island be today? How many of them would have been forced to leave the island due to overcrowding and lack of resources?

Scientists tell us that the condition of life in the world today is dependent upon long-ago events. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction of 66 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs and freed up space for mammals like us. Had that not occurred human life on the planet might never have evolved. Certainly had the Oxygen Catastrophe of 2.5 billion years ago not occurred and destroyed most anaerobic life, modern species, including humans, would likely never have come into existence.

The events of history, of course, cannot be changed. They are what they are. We can ask “What if?” but we cannot change the way that things have occurred.

We can, however, have an impact on future events. We can choose not to allow totalitarian leaders to rise to power. We can take actions to avoid some of the catastrophes that scientists predict are on the horizon. Decisions we make today will determine the future of the planet and life thereon.

It is hard to predict the future. While nuclear weapons are in sufficient supply to destroy all humanity, it is probable that if they are used there would be some survivors, at least initially. There are countries, in Africa and Latin America, that are neither close allies nor adversaries of nuclear-armed countries. Residents of those countries might survive initial nuclear explosions. Survival for them would be precarious. Global supply chains would be destroyed. Environmental effects of nuclear explosions would be dramatic. Dust and ash would block sunlight and have a negative effect on agriculture. Famine would kill many. It might not kill everyone. Civilization might collapse under the strain.

There are those who have made predictions about the effects of continued global warming on human populations. The picture painted isn’t pretty and the effects could be as dramatic as the decision to use nuclear weapons in war. Accelerated climate change could lead to pandemics due to changing conditions for pathogens. Subsistence farmers might be in the best position for survival. The most impoverished people on the planet today might be better suited to survival than those who live in affluence.

Speculating about the future, however, is not much different from asking “what if?” about the past. There are so many factors and the complexity of human existence on this planet is so extreme that even the best scientists among us cannot make accurate predictions. In a sense planning for future catastrophes is a futile enterprise.

Still, when we ask “what if?” we can imagine a world in which the Holocaust and WWII had not occurred. There would be many people living good and productive lives and more resources for solving the problems of today’s world. When we consider the losses of those events it seems prudent to at least anticipate the future and to take what actions we are able to prevent future catastrophe. For the sake of those not yet born, it seems important that we learn how to live together on this planet. Failure to do so might indeed mean the end of human life.

That is a scenario that we are unable to fully imagine. It is literally unthinkable, at least in the terms of human consciousness. Still, avoiding new catastrophes seems like a good idea.

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!

A Confusing System

I have had several conversations with friends recently about the economics of health care in the United States. There are so many ways in which we find it impossible to understand how health care dollars are spent. The numbers are so staggering that we have trouble comprehending them. The National Health Expenditure Accounts are the official estimates of total health care spending in the United States. According to their figures, US health care spending reached $3.5 trillion. That is $10,739 per person. There is little question that we are spending more than other countries for health care. And the cost is projected to keep rising at a rate that far exceeds inflation. Experts estimate that U.S. health care spending will reach $5.7 trillion by 2026.

We don’t get what we want for the money, either. Our costs are higher than Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Sweden and Japan. Our infant mortality rate is significantly higher than all of those countries. While the overall mortality rate has fallen in the U.S., it has not fallen as fast as in comparable countries. The U.S. mortality rate was close to average in the mid 1980’s, but we continue to fall behind the rest of the world.

Physician pay in the US is high compared to other countries and high compared to other professions in the US. In general, those who treat younger patients earn less than their colleagues who treat older patients. For example the average salary of a pediatric oncologist is more than $100,000 less than what is earned by an oncologist in general practice. On the other hand the lowest paid physicians earn six figures, which is a far cry from what their patients earn. Physician compensation has more to do with location than with specialty.

Despite those wages, there is a shortage of physicians. You might think that high wages and a shortage would produce greater numbers, but the number of physicians is tightly controlled. Less than half of the qualified students who apply to medical school are accepted. When pushed, some medical school administrators will admit that preserving physician income is one of the reasons for low acceptance rates.

The cost of doctors, however pales in comparison to other US medical costs. Medical clinics average over 10 times the cost of other commercial real estate costs. The cost of hospitals is even higher. And there is no end in sight for expansion of medical buildings. The size of patient exam and treatment rooms is growing exponentially. Medical buildings are constructed with multiple-story entrances and lobbies. They are the cathedrals of the 21st century.

And no one, inside our outside of the medical community understands pricing and billing for medical services. Hospitals are quick to point out that they provide care for which they are not compensated. Yet they continue to operate as nonprofit corporations. That means that in order to break even, they are charging other patients for the uncompensated care. Health insurance rates are based in part on the need for those with insurance to provide income to providers who give care without compensation.

Figuring out these finances is expensive. Hospital billing departments employ large numbers of registered nurses - people who are trained to provide patient care are required to engage in negotiating with insurance companies over compensation. Like the airlines, complex formulas are employed that result in no standardized fees. One patient may pay costs that are double or even triple what is paid by another. The actual amounts exchanged have more to do with the type insurance than with the service provided.

The cost of prescription medicine is not determined by the cost to develop the medicines or the costs of general research. Rather the cost is determined by what the market will pay. When people are desperate for medicine, they will pay high prices. Those holding patents on medicines claim that they have a right to charge whatever the market will bear.

Compared to other businesses, health care providers have extremely high costs for billing and collections. A hospital may send as many as a dozen paper bills to a patient before negotiations with insurers are complete and actual patient costs are known. It is not uncommon for the cost of billing for a particular procedure to exceed the hospital’s margin on the procedure. Thus the cost of billing becomes another cost that is passed on to consumers in the form of higher insurance premiums. There is no motivation for the institution to become more efficient or cost effective.

In this confusing jumble of prices and charges there is plenty of money to be made. Insurance companies complain, but continue to be profitable. Hospitals complain, but continue to expand. Physicians complain, but continue to purchase big houses and new cars. Pharmaceutical companies complain, but continue to rake in the profits.

I speak with physicians and hospital administrators and patients and nurses and technicians and none of them understand the pricing structure for medical procedures. Virtually all of them blame some other sector of the medical economy. Ask a physician why a particular procedure costs what it does, and chances are the physician doesn’t know.

The trend of paying more and more while receiving less and less seems to be set to continue in the US medical economy.

That humming noise you hear when standing in the parking lot of a hospital might not be only the sounds of mechanical systems of the building. It might be the sound of everyone complaining. There is more whining in health care than a lot of other professions. To a single parent, paying 65 or 70 percent of their income on rent, the sound of a physician complaining about low pay is not a pretty sound. Hospital administrators crying crocodile tears over medicare reimbursement rates doesn’t have much impact on those waiting in line for dinner at the rescue mission.

We are intelligent people. We ought to be able to figure this out. We don’t have to be the victims of this out of control system. Intelligent solutions are possible. To find them, we’ll have to learn to navigate the politics in a new fashion. We may even have to compromise in order to work with those with whom we disagree.

In the meantime, I’m trying to adopt a health lifestyle and live in such a way to avoid consuming more than my share of health care.

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!


When I pause to think, I can remember the day that I packed up to leave for college. I didn’t take too much with me. I had a couple of boxes of clothes, the sheets, blankets and towels my mother had helped me pick out, a portable typewriter, my trumpet, and a guitar. I had a small desk that I decided to take with me, even though the college had desks in the rooms. I had a brand new dictionary, received as a gift. That was about it. Three of us made the trip to the college in my family’s chevy carryall. Moving into my dorm room took about a half an hour. I had plenty of time to walk around the campus and familiarize myself with the names on the buildings and make sure I knew where the first orientation meeting would be held before I had any first day obligations. I changed rooms in the dormitory three times that first year. I went home for summers every year of my college education. That’s seven different places to live, eight if you could my family home, in four years. At the end of that time I was married.

We kept moving. Four years of graduate schools involved moving all of our things to five different apartments. Two summers we packed up our things and put them in storage while we lived at church camp for three months. The trumpet, two guitars and the typewriter made every move with us.

Then we settled in. We lived in a parsonage in Hettinger, North Dakota for seven years, followed by a U-Haul move to Idaho where we lived in the same house for ten years. We had a moving company haul our possessions to South Dakota, where we’ve lived in the same house for nearly 24 years.

I’m not exactly sure how I got from being able to pack up all of my things in a day to the point where the mere thought of moving is intimidating. I still have the same trumpet, guitars and typewriter, though I admit that the typewriter hasn’t come out of its case except to be shown as a strange machine to children and their friends for the time that we’ve lived in South Dakota. There are, of course, a lot of other things.

Some things are easy to sort. There are books that haven’t been off of the shelf for five years, clothes in the back of the closet that haven’t been worn for as long or more, boxes in closets that contain items we’ll never miss. There are duplicate items in the kitchen, obtained from years of helping others close out their homes and move.

There are also items that once seemed valuable and important to me that don’t seem to hold similar value: a point and shoot digital camera with all of its cords and charging block that I used quite a bit before I had a cell phone with a better camera in it. Similarly there is a digital recorder that I used before my cell phone became the recorder of choice. There is a box of miscellaneous cables and chargers of electronic devices that I’m pretty sure that will never be used again. The list goes on and on.

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson developed a theory that involves eight developmental stages. Like all theories, it is incomplete and doesn’t fully explain human behavior, but it gives clues to the way our minds work and the tasks that must be accomplished in a lifetime. On Erikson’s developmental chart, I’m coming to the final developmental stage that he calls integrity vs. despair. My developmental task is to look back over my life and pull together all of the accomplishments and experiences and learn to look at my life as a whole. Gaining a sense of integrity about my life is, according to Erikson, essential in order to avoid bitterness, depression, and despair.

I’m just entering into this particular developmental stage, but it is clear to me that I am thinking about my life differently these days. I still love to think of the next challenge and the next bit of productivity and the next opportunity for growth and self-development. But I also find myself thinking a lot about the journey of my life to this point and how to sift and sort through all that I have done to discover the most essential meaning. A couple of friends have suggested that I should write a memoir and I suspect that Erikson would agree that it would be a meaningful task. It is, however, one that I intend to put off for a while. I’ve got some sorting to do first.

I’ve spent quite a bit of my life acquiring things and I need to speed up the process of distribution. It has been quite a few years since I read Erikson seriously, but I’m thinking that he didn’t mention how critical it is to get rid of a few things at this stage of life. We’ve vowed to leave behind fewer things for our children to sort than was the case with our parents. It hasn’t quite gotten to the point of obsession with me, but it does occupy my mind when I have a few free moments. I suppose it will have to rise to near the level of obsession before I begin to make major strides in the process. In the meantime, I’m dabbling at it, doing a little here and a little there, closing a few items to package for the rummage sale, tossing a few items in the garbage, finding new homes for this and that. At the rate I’m going, I won’t get it all done anytime soon.

For now, I’m keeping the trumpet and the guitars. The typewriter is a different matter entirely. I know I have no need for it. I know our children and grandchildren don’t want it. I know that it has no cash value. I know that collectors all have that particular common model. I wish I could find someone who wanted it.

I guess I’ll leave it on the shelf while I sort some other items.

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!

Searching for the lost

There are countless children’s games that involve searching for something that is hidden. When our children and grandchildren were infants, we used to place a facecloth over their eyes and say, “Where’s . . . “ Then the child would pull the cloth from their face and laugh at the surprise of being able to see us once again. This peek-a-boo game evolves naturally into a game of hide and seek. I remember when our grandson was young he used to love to play hide and seek over Skype. I would crawl under the table or into a closet and then my wife would carry around the computer so that the camera pointed into nooks and crannies around our house until it finally pointed to the place where I was hiding. Great giggles followed while our grandson found a place to hide and his father would carry around the computer looking for him. The game is even better when we are together and we’ve played it with a lot of children. As long a boundaries are respected and there is attention to not frightening the child the game is wonderful. Knowing that you will be found makes hiding bearable.

Games of hiding and searching for that which is lost have been around for millennia. Some of those games have been formalized into rituals. The Passover Haggadah, the official book of liturgy for the observance of Passover, contains a section called Tzafun or the search for the hidden. Toward the end of the meal the children are sent to look for the afikoman which has been hidden by the leader. Neither the meal nor the Seder can be concluded before some of the group has eaten a piece of it. Whoever finds the afikoman can demand a reward.The afikoman is a piece of matzah which is to be the last thing tasted at the meal.

Faithful Jews have been observing the Seder since before the time of Christ. Somewhere during Roman times the practice of eating hard boiled eggs as part of the Seder observance became common. A boiled egg is now considered to be an essential part of the Seder plate.

Christins, who freely adopted Jewish customs and added customs from other sources as well and then gave them new meanings, somehow ended up with the custom of searching for hidden eggs. The Easter Egg hunt has become a part of Easter observances. Even those who have no religious affiliation participate with joy in the search for eggs, which these days are more likely to be candy than the eggs of chickens.

We love to search for the hidden.

But we don’t find special pleasure in having treasured items that have become lost. When I was younger, I sometimes would grow so frustrated when an object was lost that I couldn’t be rational in my search. I ran around randomly looking, but not being systematic in my search. I had to learn to calm down, relax, and look more carefully. I remember a conversation with my wife in the early years of our marriage when we compared the feeling of having something lost as opposed to having an object that was broken. If I remember the conversation accurately, I found it much more difficult and frustrating to deal with something that was lost. With a broken item, a repair could be attempted. With a lost item, there wasn’t much to do. My wife took the opposing point of view. With a lost item, you could calmly search and you have a good chance of finding the item. With a broken item, you know the it is damaged and may be damaged beyond repair. Having two different perspectives has been good for both of us and over the years we have learned to see the other’s point of view more clearly.

A lot of people from our county have been searching for two months now for a little lost one. 9-year-old Serenity Dennard ran away from Black Hills Children’s Home, a youth treatment center on February 3. It was bitterly cold that day and a search was initiated. With each passing hour the chances of her survival dimmed. The Sheriff’s office and teams from Pennington County Search and Rescue employed the best equipment and techniques for the search. Helicopters and dogs were brought in to assist. 14 dogs with 5 different search specialties have been employed. Teams of searchers, stretching out in lines and covering the rugged terrain have searched back and forth. Meanwhile a team of investigators have been searching, without success, for any clue that might point to an abduction. Billboards have been posted. Pictures of the girl have gone out over law enforcement networks all around the region. Over 335 people have been interviewed, including potential out-of-state sightings. Search warrants have been issued.

So far it remains a mystery.

Today 30 - 40 people will be out looking once again. The searchers know that if they find something it will reveal that the little girl is not only lost, but also irreparably broken. The bitter cold since she was lost means that survival outdoors is impossible. Too much time has passed without anyone being able to find her to render assistance. The weather is good. The search can be effective and safe for searchers.

As one of the Sheriff’s Chaplains, I’ll be out there early with some air pots filled with coffee and do what I can to support the professional searchers. I’ll lend my eyes as I am able and do chores and run errands that need to be done. I’ll also be prepared to chat with frustrated and tired searchers and have a prayer ready for the end of another search without finding, or, on the other hand another prayer ready in the event that something is found. Either way, Serenity is in God’s loving and eternal care. Prayers are in order.

And I’ll continue to pray for our community. The search has, despite everyone’s best efforts, become political. Tempers have flared. Accusations of mishandled search days and mistakes made have been registered. The game is no longer fun, but the search continues.

Perhaps the ancients had it right. The search is an essential lesson of faith and our lives cannot resume their normal course until the lost is found. I pray that we are open to learning the lessons that are in this search. And I pray that the search will reach its conclusion soon. Please join your prayers to mine.

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!


A young friend of mine who is a PhD university professor was recently denied tenure. The reason was that he hadn’t attracted enough grants to the university to cover all of the costs of his research. When I first heard the news, I was, of course, disappointed. I have a great deal of confidence in this person’s abilities and I think it will be a huge loss to the university and to the students that he will likely be moving on soon. It seemed grossly unfair that university professors are judged by their ability to attract income to the university. Upon reflection, however, I realize that pastors are judged by their ability to attract income to the churches they serve.

I’ve been very fortunate in that category throughout my career. Even though I have served congregations in places with declining populations and in other challenging environments, I’ve always been able to produce positive financial growth in the institutions I serve. That used to be the case. In my current call, we took a backwards slide in 2008 when the recession hit the US economy. The decrease in income wasn’t caused by something over which I had control, but it still left me scrambling. I pulled in the reins on spending, went without a pay raise, and made other adjustments and was able to produce a surplus as the country and our community rose out of the depression.

However, a decrease in income is back and this one is one that I don’t think I can reverse. And I don’t even know if it is possible to come up with a balanced budget by tight spending controls. The reasons for the decrease are complex. Certainly one factor is that our congregation has lost some significant donors through death. This, however, has happened in the past and we’ve always been able to make up for those losses by enabling others to step up to the plate. We attract a few new members and discover a few significant donations and move on. That is not, however, the only reason for the decrease in income. It probably isn’t the main reason for the decrease. I know this because I serve on the boards of directors of other nonprofit corporations and they are all experiencing similar trends.

One factor is the new tax bill. Charitable donations in the size that our organizations receive are no longer deductible from taxes. Of course tax deductions aren’t the only motivators for charitable gifts. People give because they believe in the work that churches and other nonprofit institutions do. But some of that giving was motivated by the added incentive of tax deductions under the old tax rules. I’ve read articles that say that approximately 30% of giving was the result of the promise of a tax deduction. That means that the new tax law is equal to a 30% decrease in income for institutions who have no donors who give $25,000 per year or more. That covers most of the nonprofit organizations with which I am affiliated. And so far, it appears that the experience is approaching that level of decrease in giving.

It isn’t quite that bad in the church, but people are just starting to get their taxes done for the first year of the new tax law and according to a random sample of people with whom I have visited, the picture is not pretty. I’ve spoken with plenty of people for whom the new tax law, which gives huge tax breaks to wealthy people, means an increase in taxes of as much as doubling their federal income tax. The new tax law does not favor self-employed people. The increase in the standard deduction didn’t begin to make up for the loss of business deductions in the new law.

And, guess what? Pastors are self employed under tax law. You’ve got it. My colleagues and I lost our business deductions. We lost our charitable gift deductions. And most of us went without raises this year because our institutions are hurting.

I didn’t go into this calling for its financial rewards. There are other jobs where one can earn more money for lighter duties and shorter hours. I have been happy working in the Conference of the United Church of Christ with the lowest wages for most of my career. I don’t need to keep up with “the Jonses.” I don’t need new cars. I don’t need a luxury lifestyle. The congregations I have served have been honest and fair and the work has been deeply meaningful. I have never wanted to extract from the mission of the church more than is required. I want the church to stay engaged in outreach and serving others. I have not been unhappy serving a congregation that does not give merit pay raises and that doesn’t give a cost of living raise every year. I’ve worked hard to cover when other employees have left in frustration over what they perceive to be low wages. I’ve convinced others that our calling is service, not wages.

The circumstances of where we find ourselves mean that this year and next will be among the most challenging of my career. It isn’t about my wages, but about the overall financial picture of the church. I don’t want to be the overseer of decline. But there are factors in the financial performance of the church that are beyond my control. A few church leaders are beginning to understand the size of the challenge and they will help me communicate the situation with the rest of the congregation. As has always been the case, God will provide what we need to live abundantly and gracefully and to do the work that we have been called to do. This isn’t the end of the world. It is an opportunity to learn better ways to do the work of God. I know, however, that it will require creative thinking and hard work and more than a little bit of fund-raising. I know it will not be easy.

Jesus never promised that the path of discipleship would be easy. He invited those who are able to pick up a cross and follow. May we discover courage and faith for these times.

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!


When I was a tenderfoot scout, my troop invested several weeks making pack frames. One of the fathers cut strips of thin plywood which we soaked, shaped and laminated into frames. We then carefully cut the stitching on the straps of standard Boy Scout canvas backpacks, attached the straps to the frames with screws and washers, and attached the canvas bags to the other side of the frames. When we got done we were proud of our pack frames. The bags could be removed to be washed and the frames could be used to pack other heavy items. We imagined ourselves hauling tents and cooking gear to remote locations, setting up hunting camps and packing out our game on our backs. We used our pack frames for a couple of campouts, but our Boy Scout trips in those days were mostly only one night of camping and generally we camped within a mile or so of the cars that had taken us up to the mountains. I had a compact cooking kit, but my sleeping bag wasn’t exactly small. Of course we didn’t need much for clothes.

I think the longest trek that I made with that pack frame was a three day, two night trip up the Horseshoe Lake trail, across to the Rainbow Lakes and back down that trail. At our farthest, we were probably less than 10 miles from the road.

A few years later I acquired an aluminum pack frame and pack that weighed a fraction of what my old homemade frame had weighed. The straps were more adjustable and I added a waist strap that really helped when carrying loads of 30 to 40 pounds.

Through mot of our backpacking days, we saw tents as rather expensive luxury items. It isn’t that we didn’t want a good backpack tent, we just didn’t want to spend the money required when a simple groundcloth could be made into an adequate shelter with a bit of cord. I remember one trip when I went to sleep with my head tucked into my sleeping bag wishing I had a real tent with mosquito netting, but the mosquitos calm down as soon as it starts to get cold and I soon forgot about it and drifted off to sleep, waking a few hours later to listen to the coyotes sing and wonder if I was smart enough to know what a wolf sounded like.

It wasn’t long before car camping was our most common form of excursion. We spend a few nights in campgrounds during our drives to and from Chicago and I refined my skills of camp cooking, sticking to the basics of bacon and eggs, hamburgers, beans, fried potatoes and warmed up canned stew. Of course we nearly always ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. We obtained a nice four-person tent when our kids were very young and it served our family well until their teenage years when we updated to a tent trailer.

Along the way, I’ve owned a lot of backpacks. Most of them have been simple packs without frames. I’ve had specialty backpacks designed to carry several generations of laptop computers. I’ve been sorting through things and I have a small pile of luggage that we’re ready to donate to the rummage sale. Among the items is a nice computer backpack that is way too big for my current lifestyle. My computer is not much bigger than my tablet and I no longer carry a computer back and forth from work. My work computer is portable and I carry it to meetings, but I hardly need a great big backpack to carry that slim device from place to place.

I still have a hard-sided briefcase that I once treasured as a symbol of my having arrived as a professional. It is the second one I’ve owned. The first was received as a gift around the time I completed my graduate education. It was damaged by a burglar who visited a hotel room were I was staying on a trip to New York City. I had left it locked in the room. The locks were damaged and the case was slashed by the burglar’s attempts to get inside. Once inside, the burglar found nothing worth stealing and the case was deposited in a dumpster where it was recovered by hotel security. My only loss was the case, which was replaced by another gift. I never carried a briefcase as a daily item and I don’t think I’m going to start now. I don’t think I’ve used that briefcase in the last 20 years and wonder why I’ve kept it this long. The pen that was inside of it had long ago dried up. The papers were of no value whatsoever.

I think that my days of needing an expedition backpack are over. I still have a very nice backpack that has dividers for my camera and lenses and room for a tablet or laptop in a padded area. I have a much smaller bag that I use to carry my notebook and a few other items back and forth to work. It has a pocket with room for the various ID cards that I need for some of my volunteer work and another space large enough for a compact bible and book of worship. There is room for a pad and pen and a stack of business cards. I rarely need more than that for going back and forth to work. I still like reading about expeditions to remote places, but I’m thinking that other than some simple canoe camping I’m not likely to need much in the way of a backpack and a simple dry bag with shoulder straps is sufficient for portages in the length that I’m likely to attempt. I do have a nice dry bag with very comfortable straps filled with survival gear that i keep in my vehicle during the winter. The next time I get caught out in a broken down or stuck vehicle, I don’t intend to be cold or hungry. I’ve got enough supplies in that bag to last a long time.

Still, yesterday, I found myself looking at backpacks on the Internet when I had a few spare moments during the day. I don’t need a backpack. I wonder what it is about them that fascinates me so. Still, there are some really neat features on those new packs . . .

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!


This is what I know:

Walking makes me feel better. When I am able to get outside and walk I feel like I have more energy and stamina. I experience fewer aches and pains.

Walking helps me sort out my head. In a busy, fast-paced life of many decisions being able to take a few minutes to just think freely allows me to establish priorities and make better choices.

Walking lifts my spirits. I enjoy walking. I like the feeling of my own muscles taking me where I need to go.

I consume more than my fair share of fuel. Although my wife and I work in the same building, differences in our schedules mean that we rarely share rides to and from work. I have my own car and drive all over our city all the time. Compared to many of this earth’s inhabitants, I use way too much fuel.

Most people will greet you when you are walking. The slower pace encourages eye contact and at least a simple “Hello!” or “Good morning!”

Here is what I think:

Walking helps strengthen the ties between our church and our community. When I know exactly how far it is to walk from the rescue mission to our church, I understand the few people who make that trek to ask for assistance. When I walk from our church to another church in our community, I gain a physical sense of our closeness. When I walk through the neighborhood that surrounds our congregation I learn about the homes and the people who live in them. I even get to meet the neighborhood dogs.

The ancient discipline of walking prayer is at least as much about the walking as the praying. When one walks the connections between body, mind and spirit work better.

Walking is usually a very good investment of my time. Sure it takes a little bit longer to get from one place to another, but physical activity increases efficiency enough to more than make up for the difference.

Yesterday was a pleasant day, but it was a day filled with meetings. My first meeting started at 8:30 a.m. and my last meeting ended at 8:30 p.m. Between those meetings were 4 other meetings. It was the kind of day when I normally wouldn’t have enough time between meetings to do anything but use the restroom and comb my hair. I had a break long enough for lunch, but my evening meal had to wait until after the last meeting of the day. My longest meeting took over two hours. Another one took almost exactly two hours. That is a lot of sitting. I had enough time, however, to walk to my first meeting, which took place a little over a mile from my office. I allowed myself a half hour to walk each way, which was more time than I needed. The walking set the tone for the entire day. I was a bit more reserved in meetings. I listened more attentively to others. I was more patient. I didn’t get stiff from sitting in chairs all day long.

As a brief aside: Have you noticed that more and more board and meeting rooms are furnished with chairs on casters that wheel around and swivel? I have. Have you noticed that while those chairs look inviting, they really aren’t more comfortable than regular chairs without wheels? I have.

The Gospels report several conversations between Jesus and his disciples and between disciples as they are walking. One of the most famous is the appearance of Jesus to two disciples while they were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The distance is 6 1/2 or 7 miles. It was far enough for Jesus to interpret a whole body of scripture to the disciples and to comment on the relationship between the scriptures and the experiences they had just had in Jerusalem. It was almost far enough for the disciples to recognize the resurrected Christ as Jesus. That took just a bit longer - they recognized him when they shared a meal following the walk.

When we were younger and back packing more often, I tried to keep a day’s walk between 7 and 10 miles so there was plenty of time for other activities and we didn’t tire ourselves too much. When we are on vacation, we seem to average between 5 and 8 miles of walking if we don’t have too many miles to drive. The distance of the road to Emmaus seems just about right for a good conversation.

Walking and faith seem to go hand in hand in the bile and in my own life experience as well.

I have a lot of friends, however, for whom that much walking would be an impossible challenge. They live with disabilities that prevent them from covering so much distance. Even a short walk is a real challenge. Injuries, chronic illnesses, and other conditions make the task of walking an impossible challenge for some and force others to limit the amount of walking they can do. I’ve known several people who use wheelchairs for mobility. Some of them cover ground quite a bit more quickly than my normal walking pace. I have two friends in their 20’s who use wheelchairs following tragic accidents. Both know how to use the mechanical advantage of wheels to outpace those of use who are walking.

I could ride my bicycle. I enjoy that very much. However, because I need to drive from home to the office it seems that my bike is rarely in the place where I need it to get around. Sometimes it is just less hassle to simply walk. For several years, however, my brother was primary care giver for a man who used a wheelchair for mobility. He discovered that the bicycle and the wheelchair were an excellent match of pace for short excursions in the community. The pair, one in a wheelchair the other on a bicycle, became a familiar sight in their neighborhood.

Each step I take is a simple prayer of gratitude for having the ability to walk.

I do live in South Dakota. The forecast calls for snow all day today. I might not walk as much as yesterday. But spring is coming and there’s always tomorrow.

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!

Sorting books

I’ve been sorting books lately. I know that I own too many books and that it is time to get rid of some of them. The interesting thing to me is that now that I’ve shared stories of my sorting, I’ve discovered at least three or four other friends who are going through a similar process. There was a time in our lives when acquiring more books was a goal. We love reading and there are books that are worth reading again. However, there are always new books being produced and many of the books we once treasured have become books that we will never again read. We would have been better reading library books and returning them once read.However the books have become our friends. I like having floor to ceiling bookshelves lining the walls of my study.

Yesterday, I came across some of my adventure books about travel in the far north. I enjoyed reading about some of the early explorers who ventured down the great rivers of the north. The Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut all hold an attraction for me. Intrepid explorers endured great hardships to follow rivers to the sea, traveling huge distances across lands devoid of trees, covered in permafrost. They saw the caribou, musk ox, arctic fox and polar bear. They survived on ptarmigan and arctic char and salmon.

The lands across which they traveled, however, are not completely uninhabited. Indigenous tribal people have lived in the far north for centuries upon centuries. They have learned the ways of survival in an often brutal landscape.

My experience of these lands and the people who live there and those who have traveled through those places has mostly been through reading. I’ve collected a lot of books and articles. We’ve been able to visit souther provinces in Canada, from east to west, but have never been in the northern territories.

We learned a little more of the nature of life in the roadless areas when we were fortunate to attend one of the learning circles at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Center in Beausejour, Manitoba in 2006. The Center (or Centre in Canadian spelling) provides university-accredited theological education and preparation for ministry through traditional indigenous learning circles. The Centre allows non indigenous participants to promote cross cultural education. Those fortunate enough to participate meet First Nation, Metis, and Inuit peoples. We met and shared learning experiences with people who live in the roadless areas of the north. Access to and from one of the communities of a participant is mostly by small airplane, with some traveling by boat in the summer and over an ice road in the winter. Most of the outside goods that come to the community arrive by airplane. That means that basic supplies come only at incredibly high cost. The old ways of self sufficiency and living off of the land are being replaced by hunting with rifles, which require cash to purchase and ammunition which also must be purchased and travel by snow machines which require gasoline and parts brought in from the outside.

Their way of life is changing.

The north country has always been a place of change and adaptation. People have learned to make do for generations. They have formed community in places of isolation from the outside world and learned ways of living

Our experiences with the Centre and our ongoing relationship through newsletters and occasional small donations helps us to feel a small bit of connection with those who serve people in the far north. My interest has expanded to reading about the history of European contact, the Hudson Bay Company, and independent expeditions into the the north. I read articles every year about people who have gone to the north country for adventure travel. Those journeys sound intriguing to me, but I know that guided canoe and raft trips in the far north lie far beyond the reach of my budget. I’ve gone to the web sites. I know about the fishing lodges that can be reached only by float plane and that cost over $5,000 per person per week. The fishing is fantastic. The wilderness experience is exquisite. But those experiences are reserved for other people. They are also far removed form the everyday lives of people who live in the indigenous communities, often entrapped by generational poverty and made dependent by the arrival of modern conveniences.

Books are a way for me to travel to places I will never go and meet people I could never otherwise come to know. I’ve poured over some of the photographs and descriptions so many times that i almost feel as if I know my way around some of the isolated locations. I felt a twinge of regret when the road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk was finished. There was something attractive about Tuktoyaktuk’s isolation that made it seem more exotic before you could drive there. Mind you, not many people make the drive. It is as far as you can go traveling north in the same time zone where I live.

So, I’ve selected a few books to keep and am parting with others. I’m sure that there’ll be more sorting as the years go by. I know that I’ve got to lighten my load as I journey through this life. I also know that there are places that fascinate me that I will not visit in this life. One lifetime is too short to go every place that holds interest. There are plenty of things that I have not yet seen that are very close to home. I have had the luxury of travel more than many people. So I am grateful for the books and stories. I am grateful for the folks who write articles about their adventures. I have learned to find joy in vicarious experiences.

Two boxes of books are ready to go to the next rummage sale. I’ve sorted out the ones I will keep and the ones that can be sold for cash. Many of my books have no real value. Still, I hope that someone discovers one of the books and reads it and heads off to an adventure that is as grand as the ones I’ve experienced.

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!

April smiles

In the spring of 1904, the New York Times reported that Ignacio Valente had filed a bill for $250 against the city. The auditing bureau of the Finance Department was reviewing the bill to determine whether or not it should be paid. This is the story that was reported by the newspaper about that bill.

It seems that Mr. Valente and his wife got into a terrible quarrel over the way she cooked macaroni. At the hight of the argument, she stormed out of the house declaring that she would rather die than come back to such a man. After she had left, his temper began to cool. The longer she was gone, the more worried he got. He started to search for her. Finding no trace of her whereabouts, he eventually reported her disappearance to the police. After several days, the police reported that the body of a woman matching his wife’s description was at the City Morgue. With fear, he went to the morgue and described his wife’s clothing. He was shown a body dressed in the clothes he remembered, but who didn’t look quite by his wife. “They all change with death,” declared the Morgue keeper.

With a bit of doubt, Valente had the body prepared for burial, hosted a wake and held a funeral. Notice of the event was posted in the Italian papers and his wife, upon reading of her funeral, came back home. Initially, Mr. Valente was relieved to discover that his wife was alive. Then, he confirmed that it was truly his wife when she flew into a rage over a dress that was missing from her closet. Mr. Valente reported that indeed he knew where the dress had gone. The other women was wearing it when she was buried. It took a trip to the dress shop and more expense to calm his wife’s anger.

Adding up the expenses of a funeral, lost wages due to grief and a new dress, Mr. Valente submitted his bill to the city, claiming that none of these expenses would have occurred had not the city Morgue keeper forced him to believe that the other woman’s body was that of his wife.

The article in the New York Times doesn’t say whether or not he ever received compensation. Nor does it report whether or not Mr. Valente every felt remorse for his criticism of his wife’s cooking.

It isn’t an April Fool’s joke. It is just one of the strange articles from the archives of the New York times.

It never made the newspapers, but I’ve heard both of my parents’ versions of an event that took place in the spring of 1980. My father had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Surgery had relieved the pressure within his skull, but radiation and chemotherapy treatments did not appear to be successful in eliminating the tumor. Reconciled to his own death, my father wanted to spend as much time at home as possible, preferring his own space to the hospital that was 80 miles away. My mother, a registered nurse, provided what care he needed. He began to spend quite a bit of time in bed, usually retiring before my mother in the evening. She used the time after he was tucked in to do some reading and have a little time to think.

One night as she prepared for sleep, she had a terrible time finding the end of the roll of toilet paper. She batted at the roll in both directions, thinking that perhaps someone had put it on the roller in the opposite direction from the usual, an unlikely event since she was the one who replaced the rolls. My father would simply get out a new roll and leave it on the bathroom counter. Failing to find the end, she began to tear across the face of the roll to create a new end. This finally produced the needed tissue, but resulted in a mess of small pieces on the floor. She finished her preparations and slid into bed.

The bed was shaking. Her husband was laughing so hard that it took him a couple of minutes to regain his composure enough to say, “April Fool!” Delighting in her husband’s sense of humor despite his grave illness, she switched on the bedside lamp to continue their conversation, which caused another riot of laughter. Finally, he struggled out of bed and grabbed a hand-held mirror, whereupon she discovered that he had managed to inject green food coloring into the end of the toothpaste tube.

I don’t think my mother ever conducted her evening absolutions without first turning on the light after that.

The best part of it all, however, was that it gave them a story to share. My father told that story for the next four months or so. My mother told it for the rest of her life with great relish and joy.

The challenge of the event is that all of us who have heard the story are aware that there really is no way to top the pranks of my father’s last April Fools Day. Most years I don’t even try. I just tell the story.

I thought about making a journal entry today about a proposed solo expedition to follow the Back rive north from Great Slave Lake through the Barren Lands to the sea. I estimate that it would take about 75 days to paddle the distance. I thought that announcing a leave of absence for the journey would garner the attention of some of the members of my congregation. Then I could place an “April Fool!” at the end of the article. As I reflected, however, it seemed to me that if people really believed the prank it would mean that they think I’m really crazy enough to attempt such a stunt and I’d like to think that my public persona is a bit more sensible than that.

So, in its place, I reported a few silly stories. Perhaps they have made you smile. No pranks today, just a wish that the events of today bring joy to your life.

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!