Sights and sounds

I’m in the habit of turning off lights. I frequently walk around the church and turn off lights that others have turned on. I turn off the lights that are left on in our home. I’ll sometimes turn off the light as I leave a room only to hear a complaint from someone who is still in that room and needs the light. I like to roam around familiar places with no lights on at all. I don’t turn on the lights to wander around my house at night. I frequently walk around the church early in the morning with the lights turned off.

On the other hand, if someone else wants to turn on the lights, it rarely bothers me. I’ll go to bed in the evening and if my wife is doing something in the bedroom with the lights on it doesn’t bother me at all. She will sometimes comment on my ability to sleep with the lights on and I comment that I close my eyes when I sleep and the world gets dark when I close my eyes.

For technical accuracy, I’m not quite right in that statement. Eyelids don’t block all of the light. They are a thin layer of skin and light is able to pass through the skin. A light shined directly in the face of a person with closed eyes can be perceived. But how much light bothers a sleeping person varies from individual to individual. I know people who have a hard time sleeping when there is light in the room. Most articles and books seeking to advise shift workers on sleeping during the day advise investing in good blackout curtains to get the bedroom as dark as possible. I’ve wondered if the skin on my eyelids is thicker than some people so that the light is less of a bother.

Sounds, however, are different. We don’t have lids on our ears. One can bury one’s head in a pillow or wear earplugs or other devices to close out sound, but for the most part our ears are always “turned on.” I frequently hear noises in the night that my wife does not. I love the sound of the coyotes singing in the night and I think I may have taught myself to wake up when I hear them. I’ll frequently wake for a few minutes and listen to them even though they generally are very far away. Recently when we were in our camper at our son’s home I heard coyotes in the night and the next morning no one else in our family had heard them. I’ll also report having heard the neighbor’s stereo or some commotion in the neighborhood that others do not hear.

I have wondered if the difference in my perception of sight and sound has anything to do with the fact that my vision is far from perfect. From the time I started school, I have worn corrective lenses. I can make the world go out of focus simply by removing my glasses. I now wear glasses that correct for near vision, far vision and astigmatism. For most of my life I’ve not seen things that others do. I used to marvel at my brother’s ability to see animals that were distant. He’d spot a deer on the hillside and even with him describing to me its location, I wouldn’t see it. He could see fish in the river that I could not.

I know, however, that my hearing isn’t perfect. There are high pitched sounds that others can hear that I do not. I will sometimes miss words in a conversation, especially in a loud or crowded room. I’ve been known to ask a grandchild to repeat words in a conversation. And I know that listening is a skill that requires practice.

I have often been in worship where a leader invites the congregation to pray silently. I avoid the use of the words silent or silence when referring to prayer. When our congregation enters into quiet prayer, it is far from silent. I hear the sounds of the congregation - breathing, stomachs rumbling, coughs and sneezes, children murmuring, rustling of fabrics as people move. Our prayers are not truly silent. So I prefer to use the term “quiet prayer.” What we offer to God does not require words spoken aloud, but we still offer ourselves to God and those selves make sounds. I like the sound of our congregation. I also use the sounds of our congregation to determine the space between words. I invite quiet prayer and never use a watch or timer to judge the length of time before I next speak. I can feel the mood of the congregation without using a clock. I’m pretty sure that the amount of time allowed for prayer varies widely week to week. Sometimes we sit quietly for just a few seconds, other times we might be quiet for a couple of minutes. Always, there are things to hear while we pray.

We live in a place where most of the night sounds are natural, but there are plenty of other sounds. At night, the loudest feature of our home is our refrigerator. It is approaching 25 years old and I’m sure they make quieter units, but we are used to its sound. We don’t have forced air heat in our home, but the radiant heat units make the sound of expanding metal when they are turned on. I hear cars passing on the road behind our home. One of my favorite nighttime noises is the wind in the pine trees. I grew up next to the river and I love that sound at night, but here we are too far from running water. The wind in the pine trees, however, is a wonderful sound and I miss it when the cold of winter forces us to close the windows or when we travel to places that are not in the forest.

I seem to have no need for the ability to close my ears, but I’m grateful for the ability to close my eyes. I think I can hear better when I do.

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!

People watching

I like to watch people. It is something that I have enjoyed for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was amazed and occasionally embarrassed by my dad’s ability to talk to strangers. I’ve developed a few of his skills, including the ability to embarrass my kids, but most of the time I’m just as comfortable with watching other people, without feeling a need to talk to everyone.

During our recent trip to Japan, we had a lot of opportunities to watch other people. We had time in the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia as we waited for our plane to depart, time in Tokyo waiting for trains and our return flight and many other opportunities to watch people.

Often, when I am watching, I like to imagine the stories of the people I am watching. Of course I often watch people whose stories I don’t know and might never learn. That doesn’t stop me from imagining. I may be imagining scenarios that aren’t accurate, but I suspect that I get some things right. Fore example a pair of grandparents saying good bye to their grandchildren at the train station are pretty easy to spot. A mother traveling with three children is likely heading either towards or away from a family visit. Sometimes, however, it is a challenge just to imagine what the relationships are. Is that a couple of business partners or are they somehow part of the same family? Do those people look that way because they are tired, or are they grieving? Are the crutches being used temporarily as that person recovers from an injury or does that person live with a permanent disability?

I am fascinated by people. There are a lot of stories of people’s lives that I know because of my job or my volunteer activities. I’ve been with people in some of the best and hardest moments of their lives. I’ve walked journeys of grief and adventures of celebration with many different people. Still, I enjoy thinking about other people.

Yesterday I arrived a bit early for a farewell meeting for a colleague at a local restaurant. My timing gave me a few minutes to sit and watch the people who were coming and going from the establishment. A couple came in. They were both completely bald, with no visible hair on either head. They seemed to be having an enjoyable outing, laughing and talking animatedly with each other. There are a lot of possible stories that could be behind their appearance. One could have shaved a head to match the other’s appearance. They could both have lost their hair to medical treatments. One could be undergoing treatment and the other naturally bald. One or both could have shaved their heads for convenience of care. Because of the time of day, it is possible that they were having a meal on their way to or from the hospital or a clinic for treatments. Whatever the story, it seemed obvious to me that this was a moment in their lives that they were enjoying. If one of them was experiencing cancer or another life-threatening illness, they were making the most of the time that they had. It was a treat and a joy to them to be together on that particular day. I saw a couple of other folks giving them a second look, as I am sure I did, but that wasn’t bothering them.

I am frequently challenged with knowing how to respond to extensive tattoos. I want to ask about them. It seems to me that tattoos are public art, in a way, applied to places where they are clearly visible. The person with the tattoos must have been intentional about choosing their appearance. In a way it seems fair to ask the story behind the symbols. On the other hand, I don’t want to be rude. I don’t think that a tattoo is the whole story of a person’s life. Perhaps it would be best to get to know the person better before asking about their body art. I have some friends whom I’ve known for a long time who have been very open and eager to talk about their tattoos, but what is the appropriate response to a clerk in a store or another stranger? Should I ignore tattoos and piercings and pretend that I don’t notice? That doesn’t seem quite right. The person seems to want to have them noticed. Sometimes I’m bold and ask a question, trying to be polite. Sometimes I say nothing. When I say nothing, I tend to make up a story in my own mind. Perhaps a tattoo is a sign of rebellion against an authoritarian parent. Perhaps it is an attempt to draw attention by someone who feels like they are ignored. Perhaps a tattoo is a symbol of a cause that is very important to the individual.

The bottom line is that I often catch myself making up stories about people without any way of knowing whether or not those stories are even close to reality. It could, I suppose, color my thinking about people whom I haven’t gotten to know. I don’t want to become judgmental or prejudiced based on what I see. I’ve been with enough people in enough situations to know that their lives are generally more complex and more interesting than first appearances. There is almost always more to the story than initial impressions.

I’ve concluded that there is little harm in watching other people. The stories I make up are a simple form of fiction. I’m not a novelist and it seems unlikely that I will ever publish any of these stories, though they entertain me. Sometimes, when I am with another person, we will have a brief conversation about the folks around us and I’ll share some of my speculations.

For the most part, I feel very fortunate and grateful to live in a place with such interesting people. The infinite variety of human beings is fascinating and entertaining. Who needs television when there are so many real stories worth observing?

When my colleague arrives, a bit late for our meeting, he apologized. I thought that no apology was needed. I enjoyed the brief time of waiting and watching.

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!

Crossing borders

At the time our daughter came into our lives, I was serving as the chair of the Church and Ministry Committee of the North Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ and we were working with a new congregation forming in Winnipeg, Canada. The congregation was meeting in the church building of an existing, but aging congregation and the host church was preparing to transfer ownership to the new congregation at the occasion of the signing of the charter of the new congregation. We had worked with these two congregations for some time and the celebrations were all set. As part of those celebrations, I was committed to going to Canada and our plan was for our family to all go along on the trip. The timing of the arrival of our daughter meant that we had custody of her but the adoption process was not yet complete. Before heading to Canada, we made sure that we had all of the paperwork we needed to be able to prove at the border that we had legal permission to take her temporarily out of the United States and return with her. It turned out that there were no problems at the border crossing in either direction. No questions were asked about our daughter at all. Looking back, it seems strange to me that our attention had been so exclusively focused on getting the paperwork for our daughter in order. I don’t think we had any documentation for our 2 1/2 year old son who was also on the trip with us. The only identification we had for ourselves were our drivers licenses.

Those were different days. Crossing the border to Canada was a different matter. Our children applied for and received their passports when they were high school students in preparation for exchange trips to Japan. Our new grandson received his passport when he was four weeks old. He also received his official citizenship papers attesting that he is a US citizen. He was born in Japan, but there is no question of his citizenship as his parents are both US citizens and he was born in a US military hospital. But getting the paperwork, including a passport so he can travel with his parents, was an important step in the process of becoming parents for our daughter and son in law.

Our other grandchildren all have passports as well. Living just 50 miles from the Canadian Border they cross the international boundary to take their kids to the zoo or to take us to and from the airport in Vancouver.

Except for four years of graduate school when I lived in Chicago, I have always lived in states that border Canada. As a child we made several trips to Canada as a part of our family life. We had cousins who lived in Canada. Border crossings were no big deal. I didn’t have a passport until I was preparing for a trip to Europe when I was 25 years old.

From my earliest years my family has hosted people from other countries in our home. Both my grandfather and my father served as members of the Board of Trustees of Rocky Mountain College and international students were frequently invited into our home. We hosted missionaries and other guests from other countries. My parents belonged to a travel organization that matched international travelers with hosts. We had a stream of guests from other countries, many of whom became friends.

Growing up as I did, I never developed a fear of those from other countries. I have a difficult time understanding the fear, anger and passion that some express over immigration. I was proud of my immigrant forebears. I thought immigration was a part of what made our country great. I really don’t understand why this has become such a potent political issue in our country today. I’ve lived next to an international boundary. I’ve flown across it in private airplanes. I know how long and large the edges of our country are. The thought of a border wall boggles my mind. The President of the United States being so obsessed with a physical barrier that he is willing to encourage wall builders to ignore the law and promises pardons to those who subvert due process seems bizarre to me. How could a man who occupies what is arguably the most powerful office in the world be so blatantly afraid? How can prominent members of his political party stand by and silently tolerate such behavior?

I’ve read the editorials. I know the arguments. I understand that the changing demographics of our nation don’t bode well for maintaining current political power. There are more and more states where Republican majorities can only be maintained through voter suppression. Abandoning democratic principles in order to maintain power, however, seems contrary to the values of our country.

I guess it is possible that our country is so vast and so diverse that there are no longer any values that we share, but I shudder at the thought. Can’t we agree that we share humanity with people who were born in other places? Can’t we agree that separating children from their families is wrong? Can’t we agree that traveling across borders and meeting people in other countries is a valuable experience?

All of this turmoil is causing me a bit of anxiety about the future. When you combine that with our current administration’s constant and consistent actions to degrade environmental protections and ignore the science of global warming there are legitimate causes for concern about the world our grandchildren will inherit. But there is a difference between fears based on real threats and fear that exists when there is no threat.

I’ve worked hard to avoid making political comments in my journal and in the worship of our congregation. There have been times when I have been silent when I have felt the call to speak out. We may have reached the point where silence is no longer an option.

I will not give into the fear mongers who proclaim that those not born in our country are somehow a threat. Wall or no wall immigrants will continue to come to our country. And the Bible is very clear in its instructions on how we are treat widows, orphans and immigrants. I’m no prophet, but I can hear the prophets’ words.

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!

I don't understand

I had a conversation with a Sheriff’s investigator yesterday. He has had a long career and has occupied several important positions within the sheriff’s organization. He has been a coroner for several years. South Dakota uses the coroner system for investigating unattended deaths. That means that coroners see a lot of dead bodies and they look at a lot of pictures of dead bodies. They see those who have died in accidents, those who are the victims of crimes and those who died of natural causes when there were no witnesses. They see the bodies of person who have died by suicide. Suicide was the topic of part of our discussion. We don’t have the statistics for the year in Rapid City yet, but we started the year with a cluster of suicides that seemed to subside by early summer. Recently, however, there has been a rise in suicides, with most of the recent victims being young men under the age of 30. It is a confusing and troubling statistic.

My work as a volunteer with our county’s LOSS team means that I have had significant exposure to those who have died by suicide and because of this I have had many conversations with this investigator over the past few years that have to do with specific cases and strategies to support family members. Sometimes a family will ask for information that I don’t have but which the coroner might know, so I will ask the coroner to give additional information to the family. Sometimes, I’m just checking the spelling of a name or the age of a person to make sure that my reports are accurate. At any rate, we’ve had quite a few conversations that have to do with situations of tragic and traumatic death.

Yesterday I once again heard a comment that I’ve heard several times before. “I just don’t understand how a person could take their own life.” He went on to tell me of a couple of times in his life when he faced particular challenges and was particularly troubled, but quickly told me that even in those dark times he couldn’t have imagined doing such a thing. I agree with him. I also cannot imagine the place where a person who dies by suicide has gone. It doesn’t make sense to me. What that means, and both of us know it, is that we haven’t experienced the kind of depression that some people have known. We haven’t experienced the mental anguish that leads someone to be willing to die to make it end.

There are a lot of things in this life that I don’t understand. I have a fair degree of empathy and I am a good listener. I make connection with people who come to me for pastoral counseling and I capture the stories of persons whose funerals I conduct. Like the investigator, I have dedicated my life to serving other people and I’ve gained a degree of proficiency at what I do. But there are a lot of things that I don’t understand.

When another friend, who is a professor of physics, begins to explain complex mathematical computations and formulas, I don’t always understand them. I have learned to accept that he is a superb mathematician and that he works in an environment where his calculations are continually checked and challenged by other talented mathematicians. I can accept that his calculations are correct even if I don’t understand how he did them.

I know some basics of computer language and theory, but I don’t understand how my smart phone works. I use it as a tool, but there are very few things that could go wrong with it that I am capable of fixing. I accept the simple fact that there are tools we use in everyday life that we don’t really understand.

I recently received an invitation to attend a fund-raising event for an organization for which I have no inclination to support. Their work has caused a lot of problems in my opinion and their leaders have been associated with attacks on people whom I respect. The person issuing the invitation assumed that I was supportive of the organization. Even though we’ve had many conversations and know each other quite a bit, I was surprised at the invitation. I don’t understand how he could be raising money for that organization. I suspect that he was surprised that I declined his invitation. He probably doesn’t understand my position either. We will continue to have regular conversations. We will continue to work together on other projects. But we don’t really understand each other.

While I seek understanding and am continually learning, I have come to the conclusion that there are all kinds of things in this life that you don’t have to understand in order to accept them. I have friends who have gone through multiple marriages. In more than one case I could not understand why a particular person was seeking a divorce when it seemed that they had been fortunate in marrying that partner. I have accepted their decisions without understanding them.

Certainly this world needs more understanding and it is fortunate that we continue to make inquiries and seek understanding. I have, however, reached an age and a stage in my life where I know that there is much that I will never understand. I also know that there is much that I can accept and even celebrate that I can’t understand.

So we continue to work with those who have lost loved ones to suicide. We walk with them through their journeys of incredible grief. We help them find counseling and support. We facilitate support groups. We continue to get up in the middle of the night and rush to provide support to those who have just received the worst news of their lives. We support investigators who are diligent in their tasks of trying to discover as much as possible about the timing, means, method and circumstances of death. We don’t understand. We may never understand.

The lack of understanding doesn’t prevent us from being a community where we care for one another.

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!

Look on the bright side

I read a couple of articles on the BBC website this morning that got a tune from Monty Python caught in my head:

“Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best

“And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the light side of life”

The first article was a report on a study that analyzed data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Veteran’s Health Study. Data on levels of optimism as well as overall health were analyzed along with information about how much participants smoked and drank alcohol. The study revealed that optimistic people have an 11 - 15% longer lifespan. Those with a positive outlook were significantly more likely to love to 85 than the least optimistic group.

A positive attitude makes a measurable difference in the length of one’s life.

Always look on the bright side of life.

The second article contained a short video clip of an interview with Nobel economist Sir Angus Deaton who reports that while most of the world’s population can look forward to living longer, white people in the United States without a college degree are living shorter lives. Life expectancy in the United States has gone down for three years in a row, which is unprecedented. We used to accept that advances in modern medicine and the treatment of diseases meant that people would live longer lives. Around the globe this is mostly true. Societies are aging and it is the result of better health and longer lives. We were especially aware of that fact during our recent trip to Japan, where there are a lot of older people who are active and engaged in the workforce. In the BBC article, Sir Deaton says that the decrease in life expectancy is directly related to an epidemic of drug abuse and alcoholism. He calls these “deaths of despair” and says that they are driven by inequality. The US financial system has definite winners. For people who don’t have a college degree in the US, wages have been falling for half a century.

While the richest members of our communities are seeing huge gains in wealth, working class people have been enduring lower and lower incomes. The result is that families and communities are destroyed by the lack of resources.

To the problems of addiction, which are very real, I see, from my life and work, an epidemic of suicide. People are dying as the result of choices they have made when they feel that they have no choices left. They feel that causing their own death is the only way out of the pain they are experiencing. I must be clear that we really don’t know the mindset of a person who dies by suicide. That evidence is lost at the moment of their death. There are studies of those who have attempted suicide but not died. There are also psychological autopsies and other inquiries into the state of mind of those who die by suicide, but definite knowledge of what those who die by suicide are thinking does not exist. It is also important to note that suicide affects all economic classes. However, one factor in suicide is a sudden change in economic condition such as a bankruptcy, loss of job, or other event.

One of the reasons why life expectancy in the US is going down while this is not the case in other countries around the world is the continuing dismantling of the safety net for those who have need. As the GDP of the US continues to rise, almost all of that growth has gone to a relatively small number of persons. At the same time, the ability of poor people to access health care is declining. Sir Deaton is leading a study in Great Britain to assess the effects of increasing opioid and alcohol addiction in Britain. He suspects that the results being observed in the US will be affecting Britain soon with changes in the British economy.

The interview with Sir Deaton was, frankly, a bit depressing. We live in a country where the gap between the rich and the poor is rapidly expanding. It is clearly visible in our community and in communities throughout our country. At the same time as the number of people who are homeless in our community is increasing the number of high end homes is increasing. Minimum wage won’t cover the cost of rent and groceries in our city, while builders of custom homes are experiencing a boom in sales.

The Monty Python song has a catchy little tune that is whistled. The whistling occurs in the song with each chorus as a response to the line, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Towards the end of the song come these words:

“I mean, what have you got to lose
You know, you come from nothing, you're going back to nothing
What have you lost? Nothing!”

I had to look up the lyrics once I got the tune in my head this morning. It is a song that really sticks with you. It reminded me of a line from the animated film, Prince of Egypt: “When all you’ve got is nothing, there’s a lot to go around!”

Of course addressing economic injustice takes more than just a simple song. It takes hard work, visionary leadership and courage - three things that seem to be severely lacking in the halls of US government these days. Perhaps studies like those by Sir Deaton will help to bring awareness to political leaders and decision makers, though I have my doubts simply because those leaders all are firmly entrenched in the elite class in our country. They often deny their wealth and the existence of classes in American society.

“Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best

“And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the light side of 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!

Making changes

I tried something different during our recent vacation. I adjusted the settings on my phone so that it wasn’t giving me notifications of meetings and events that were scheduled, but in which I would not be taking part because I was on vacation. As I have done in previous years, I also turned off my daily alarm. I would rise at whatever point I woke, write my journal and then go back to bed and sleep - sometimes for two or more hours. Because we traveled to Japan, my schedule was somewhat disrupted, but I continued to be able to be awake during the day. Caring for an infant affords opportunities to doze while rocking the baby and I would sneak short naps into my day, but for the most part slept at night and was awake during the day.

Upon our return, I turned on all of the notifications and the alarm. Even though today is a week from our flight home from Japan, my body still isn’t quite synchronized with the clock yet. I’ve been walking up several times during the night. I know from experience that my system will soon catch up and I’ll be back into the routine of daily life here at home.

What was interesting to me about the process of using various features of my phone was the calendar display. I’m sure that there are other ways to turn off notifications, but the technique I used was to turn off the synchronization of various different calendars that I have in my phone. This resulted in the calendar on my phone not displaying the events in calendars that I turned off. Normally, I have the building use calendar for our church turned on and events in the building display. I have a separate calendar for meetings in the church and a different one for meetings in the community, etc. Temporarily turning off the calendars left me with a display on my phone that was empty. Whereas I am normally used to a day showing multiple events and many overlapping events, I would launch the calendar on my phone and took at a day and it would be empty.

Now that I am back, I’ve turned on all of the calendars and multiple events are displayed. I’ve even managed to give myself duplicate events from multiple calendars. I’m sure it is a minor adjustment in my settings, but at the moment, my daily calendars are filled with events and activities. Looking ahead a couple of weeks, there are some days that are really full. It is a big change from the vacation days that displayed “no events scheduled.”

Of course the technology is just a device that helps me keep track of activities. It isn’t the events themselves. On vacation, even thought there were “no events scheduled” our lives were filled with all kinds of wonderful events. Trains in Japan run on precise schedules. We had to be at the station and on the right platform at exactly the right time. We did not rent a car during our visit so our daughter or son in law had to pick us up and drop us off. We set times for meeting and kept to our schedule. We visited museums that have regular hours. We attended events that had starting and ending times. We set our watches and referred to them from time to time.

The big difference between vacation time and work time in terms of schedule is that during our vacation we didn’t schedule overlapping events. We planned our time so that we did one thing at a time. This gave us the freedom of not having to structure each minute. We could be flexible because we were shifting only one thing in our lives. When I need to do that in my regular schedule, it creates a chain reaction. Moving one thing means needing to adjust another. Most of the time I do this intuitively without much conscious thought, but there are times when i find myself pulled two directions at the same time. We all have to make priority decisions and choose between conflicting events.

Today, starting a new week, I’m a bit nostalgic for those vacation days with no events scheduled. This week is going to be busy and I will need to be alert to keep all of the appointments and events in mind so that I am at the right place at the right time.

One of my goals for the year to come is to simplify my schedule. I’m a bit overcommitted. There are some boards and committees on which I serve that need to discover new leadership. There are things where I’ve exerted control where I don’t need to be in charge. There are events that will occur perfectly without my participation. This is one of the lessons of a vacation. The world doesn’t revolve around me and my schedule. Other people can take responsibility for activities and events. Part of genuine leadership is learning to step aside and allow other leaders to emerge. There are a lot of areas in the life of the church where I have fallen into the role of enabling. That isn’t a bad thing. It has allowed the church to have a host of different programs and ministries and to expand its reach into the community. The time has come, however, for the church to begin imagining its life and ministries beyond the span of the time when I am the pastor.

Right now, as I am in the process of getting up to speed with the busy routines of work life, a a simplified schedule seems attractive. I accomplish more when I focus on one task at a time. I can’t really imagine a time when I would have nothing to do or when I would be looking for events to fill my day. Just cutting back a bit has a great deal of appeal.

Making real changes is more than adjusting the settings on my phone. As we go forward, I will need to adjust my attitude along with the ways I use my calendar.

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!

Return from Vacation

While we were in Japan we had dinner with our exchange daughter. Masami lived with our family for a full year as part of a sister cities exchange. We had the opportunity to do a lot of things with her because of the full year visit. Among the adventures we pursued was a family vacation. In those days we had a pop-up camper that we pulled behind our car. With three teenagers in our family, our 5 passenger car was full. We had a cargo pod and a canoe on the roof and our little camper behind. We visited family in Montana. We camped at Craters of the Moon National Monument, with five of us in that little tent camper. We visited the church we had served in Boise and attended the wedding of one of the young people we had known during our pastorate there. We went to Portland, Oregon and visited family, and drove up the coast to Seattle and onto Whidbey Island where we camped. We went up the Space Needle and drove back to Rapid City across Montana.

As we sat at dinner in a restaurant in Ueno, Japan, we recalled that trip. We noted that our trip to Japan came as part of a driving trip to Mount Vernon, Washington, very near to the places we had visited with her when she was in the United States. We asked her about her vacation plans. She excitedly reported that she and her husband were going to a small Island in the Okinawa Prefecture in japan in September. We asked her what they planned to do on their vacation and she said, “Nothing. There isn’t anything to do on the island.” Their plan is to go to the island and simply relax.

In general, most Japanese people view vacations differently than we do. I suspect that we view vacations a bit differently from other Americans. Pastors generally have a bit more vacation time than the general population. The rationale for this is that because we work every vacation and generally never get two days off in a row during our regular work cycle, a longer vacation gives more time for renewal and refocusing. As a result, we have been able to go a bit farther and do a bit more on vacations than some of our peers who have other careers. This is enhanced by the fact that Susan and I have always worked for the same congregation, so our vacations can be coordinated with a minimum of negotiation. The churches we have served have understood our need for vacation and we have combined rest and relaxation with some pretty high mileage adventures over the years.

I used to wrestle a bit with vacation guilt. I would apologize for my need for vacations and would be hesitant to report much about vacations to the people at home. Over the years, I’ve learned to quit apologizing for the time we take away from the congregations we serve. I’ve discovered that taking the time away helps to give us an important perspective that is critical to the work that we do. We are simply better pastors because we have taken time away.

There is, however, the reality that the work of the church needs to be accomplished and it goes on when we are gone. A great deal of work is done in preparation for and follow up after a vacation. I wrote the liturgies and prepared the first drafts of all of the worship bulletins for the time we would be gone before I left on this most recent trip. I return to a significant amount of messages and requests and things that must be done. I spent more than an hour yesterday just dealing with things that had piled up during my absence.

The break in the rhythm has the positive effect of giving us an opportunity to reexamine priorities and shift schedules. The work of a pastor is much bigger than any one person. I am constantly leaving the office in the evening knowing that there are undone tasks. There are always more visits that could be made, more planning and study that could be done, more administrative tasks that could be accomplished. Part of being a pastor is learning to live with the reality that we are not able to do all that we can imagine. A vacation and taking time away from the routine gives the option of establishing new routines and new priorities for our work.

This year will be a process of shifting priorities and devising other ways to accomplish tasks. As we prepare for the end of our call to this particular congregation, we are focusing on developing ways for the ministries to continue without our active participation. The church will, of course, hire a new minister to assume leadership and a new minister will do things in a new way. Still, there are many tasks associated with the church that I have been doing for so long that we don’t think of them much except when they are not done. Coming back from the vacation, I’m taking special notes of the things that didn’t happen in my absence to add them to the list of places where we need to develop new leadership in the church. The transition in leadership will reach beyond the office of the pastor. It will affect the roles of volunteers and others in the life of the church.

So we take the plunge back into the work life of the congregation seriously. I am so eager for worship today. It is one thing that I really miss when I travel. It isn’t that I don’t worship when I am on vacation, but rather the churches we visit are not our home. Today I worship in the congregation I have grown to love over a long time. I will see adults whom I baptized as babies and couples whose marriages I attended with their families. I will visit with elders whom I’ve known for a quarter of a century. It is good to be home. It is good to be back at work.

I pray that I can keep the freshness and eagerness of this day all year long!

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!

Jiggety-jig!

To maket, to market to buy a fat pig;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.

It is an old nursery rhyme that I can remember my mother saying as she bounced a child on her knee and I’ve used it as well when I’m playing with grandchildren and others. The spell checker on my computer things it should be “jiggery-jig” and “jiggery-jog,” but that is not the way I learned the nursery rhyme. I never learned the other verses, either. I found them on allnurseryrhymes.com:

The article says the origins of the rhyme are at least 300 years before its first publication in 1805 in the “Songs for the Nursery” collection.

To market, to market, to buy a plum cake;
Home again, home again, market is late.
To market, to market, to buy a plum bun;
Home again, home again, market is done.

To market, to market, a gallop a trot,
To buy some meat to put in the pot;
Three pence a quarter, a groat a side,
If it hadn’t been killed it must have died.

Reading the last verse, I’m pretty sure why I didn’t memorize that one, though I think I will try to remember the second verse for the next time a grandchild wants to bounce on my knees.

At any rate, we are home. We’ve been traveling for six weeks, which is a long time for us. We’ve had other occasions in our lives when we’ve taken longer trips, most often in sabbatical years, but six weeks is a long trip. And this trip covered a lot of territory and a lot of emotions. We left earlier than our original plan in order to make it to the memorial service for my cousin. That meant that we had to leave the morning after Vacation Bible School finished, which meant staying up pretty late just picking up all of the classrooms after VBS. The original purpose of the trip was to be with our daughter at the birth of her first child, but he came early, on the day we were set to leave. Being born in Japan, however, meant that it was still Thursday night when he was born. He was born early, there were some initial health concerns and he spent his first weekend in the pediatric intensive care unit in Hachinohe. So we left the next morning, full of concern and worry and drove a long day towards our family homestead in northern Montana for my cousin’s service. The news improved with regular updates from our daughter and son in law. As it turned out, mom and son were doing well enough that we decided not to change our plane tickets, purchased long before we knew about my cousin’s memorial service, or that the baby would come early.

We had a good visit with our other grandchildren in Washington before boarding the plane and having a wonderful tine in Japan getting to know our new grandson and helping his parents with the adjustment of sleepless nights and frequent waking for feedings and all of the other things that are a normal part of a new baby in the house.

Having shifted our vacation, however, meant that on our return from Japan, we had to quickly drive back across the northwestern US to get home in time to be at work today. So it feels like a whirlwind of travel and activity for the past week, which it has been.

But we are home. We may be a bit tired, but we aren’t doing too bad and it will be good to get back to work. Last night, as we had a simple supper together, we got the giggles over the simple statements we heard each other make.

“I miss eating rice for breakfast.”
“It seems really dark outside for this time of night.”
“I miss hearing people speaking Japanese.”
“I wish people in the United States would mean it when they say, ‘Excuse me.’ It has a meaning of asking for forgiveness in Japan and in Canada, but here in the US it means, ‘Get out of my way!’”

The bottom line is that we really enjoy traveling and we feel deeply grateful for the opportunities we have had to go on wonderful adventures. And we like to travel together. As a team, we do a pretty good job of managing all of the tasks of travel and having a really good time. We do a pretty good job of sleeping in strange beds and experiencing strange restrooms. (There is probably a whole journal entry that could be written about Japanese toilets, but I’ll save that for another time.) And among the richest treasures of a long and happy marriage are the joys of being grandparents together. We love spending time with our grandchildren. And we already miss them very much.

All the same, there is something nice about sleeping in our own bed. There is something nice about returning to some of our routines. There is something deeply meaningful about the work we do and the church that has been our home for nearly a quarter of a century. We like the house where we live and it has been the place of so many memories. This is the place our children lived during their teenage years. It is the place my mother lived in the final years of her life. It is the place of many family gatherings and visits. And it is home.

the give and take of going and coming are part of the rhythm of life. Both leaving and returning are exciting and momentous. Being home means a few days of sorting and cleaning and doing laundry and getting the camper ready to go into storage. It also means picking up the responsibilities of bills to pay and chores to perform. Among the mail that accumulated during our absence is a juror summons, so I’ll have some extra duties during November, though it probably won’t amount to much of a disruption of my life.

So here we are as a new adventure begins. “Jiggety-jig!”

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!

Water resistant

We’ve been driving in the rain quite a bit in the last couple of days. In Mount Vernon, Washington, we had to hitch up to our camper and leave in the rain. Our overnight in Coeur d’Alene was rainy and we were in and out of showers all day yesterday as we drove across Montana. The forecast calls for us to drive out of the rain a bit today, though there is a good chance of thunderstorms in Rapid City tomorrow. I’m fond of saying that I’m waterproof. It isn’t quite the case, but I’ve been wet a lot of times. I’ve fallen into lakes, gone swimming intentionally, and been splashed by heavy rains. Once, when we were in Costa Rica, I was wearing a mostly waterproof rain jacket. I didn’t have the hood up. It was hanging down the back of the jacket. It was raining hard and I was trying to escort some others to a dry place. I paused for a moment to put up my hood and, you’ve got it, it was full of water. I was soaked to my underwear. I felt a bit like that on Wednesday when I prepared to leave Washington. I had been working outdoors, packing up the various things we use when our camper is parked long term in a location, rolling up and stowing hoses, electrical cords and the like. I discovered that what I thought was a good rain coat isn’t as waterproof as I had thought. I ended up needing to change all of my clothes before we started driving. Luckily I had a good dry place to change into dry clothing. Later that day, we stopped at a boat inspection station as we entered Idaho. The inspector apologized for the bit of rain that fell on my elbow as we talked through the open window of my truck. I gave my “It’s OK, I’m waterproof,” comment.

I’ve decided that I need to revise the comment. I guess I’m not truly waterproof, just water resistant. That’s what the manufacturer says about my rain jacket. It repels most water, but will become saturated if immersed in water. Apparently a heavy rain constitutes immersion. I can swim, but I’m not able to breathe under water.

It is a cause for reflection for me because we have lived most of our lives in pretty dry places. The average annual rainfall in my birth town is 15 inches. It is about the same in the town where we lived in North Dakota. It’s a bit dryer in Boise, Idaho, with about 13 inches. Rapid City is a bit wetter, with 18 inches. Compare those numbers with the US average, which is 38 inches of precipitation per year. I’ve lived most of my life in a place with less than half the normal precipitation. I really don’t know what it is like to live in a wet climate. All the same, I like to visit places where it rains a lot. I’m especially drawn to the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. When we visited there during the years we had small children in our family, I used to point out the trees that were over 100 feet tall and say to our kids, “See, that’s what happens when a tree gets watered.”

Our son lived for several years in Olympia, Washington, where the average annual rainfall is 50 inches. I learned that having a good rain jacket was a good idea in those years and I even learned to carry an umbrella in my car. Now he and his family have moved to Mount Vernon, which is in an area Washingtonians call a “rain shadow.” Their annual precipitation is right at the national average of 38 inches per year. What I notice most about our visits to their home is how much more successful they are at gardening than we. They have a nearly unlimited supply of strawberries in the summer. Their freezer fills up with the delicious berries and their children are allowed to pick all they want to eat. There are cabbages that are bigger than my head in their garden and they pick cherry tomatoes by the basketful each day. They do water their garden in the evenings during summer days, but mostly do so by hand. They hardly ever need to set up a sprinkler and let it run for an hour or more, something that is just a normal part of gardening in our part of the country. As I did my chores before leaving their home, I noticed that among the other effects of the overnight rain, their rain barrels were completely full and running out the top. They won’t need to water their garden this week.

Today we return home to our relatively dry place. We’ll be able to set out some of the things that have gotten wet over the last few days. If they get wet in an evening thundershower, chances are they’ll dry out before noon the next day. That’s the way it is where we live. I don’t know the status of my lawn, but most Augusts I allow the grass to go dormant and wait until the next spring to be surrounded by green grass. That’s the thing about having been away for a long time, I don’t know exactly what to expect upon my return. I’m sure there will be no shortage of chores that need to be accomplished. I am, however, eager to get home and back to a place that is familiar to me. I love traveling and having the luxury of two trips to Japan in as many years is something that we will always remember. But I also love coming home. Rain or shine, we are looking forward to being back in South Dakota. We have been blessed with cool days for travel, which is pretty nice compared to some August trips that we have made in other years.

Being only water resistant, it will be good to dry out a bit.

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!

Over the mountains

Interstate 90 crosses Northern Idaho in about 80 miles. Idaho isn’t that wide up in the panhandle. The trip is spectacularly beautiful, with mountain passes, high mountain lakes, historic mining cities, old mission churches and more. It is country where you will see deer and elk and might see a moose or a bear. When I was a child, it is how I thought of Idaho. This wonderful Rocky Mountain space. Idaho is a short drive with a couple of gorgeous mountain passes that one crosses on the way to Spokane. Before Interstate 90 was completed (and the last piece of that Interstate to be finished was the stretch over and around Wallace, Idaho) there were three US highways, highway 2, highway 10 and highway 12 that crossed the panhandle. Highway 2 was a rugged pass, from Libby to Priest River, near the Canada border. Highway 10 was roughly the same route as Interstate 90, over Lookout Pass by Wallace and Kellogg to lake Coeur d’Alene. Highway 12 was longer, over Lolo Pass out of Missoula, Montana over to Lewiston. At various times, we drove all three, though US 2 was not a common trip for us.

As a result, I grew up thinking that all of Idaho was like the panhandle. Not too big of a state (especially after driving across Montana), filled with mountains and lakes and wildlife.

When I was in my mid thirties, we received a call to become pastors at Wright Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Boise, Idaho. We flew into Boise from Denver for our interview and again for our introduction to the congregation and the congregational vote. Boise is a beautiful little city, with lots of amenities, a large face of mountains to the north of town with skiing within a few miles, and a mild climate. I was impressed with the city, the church and the people, and glad to accept the call. After a few months to finish our service in North Dakota, we loaded up the U-Haul and headed west. We drove across Montana and down to West Yellowstone to enter Idaho. From there, we swung down to Pocatello and across the southern part of the state, through Twin Falls, and on to Boise. It was the middle of the summer and it was hot. The U-Haul truck didn’t have air conditioning. The speed limit was 55 mph. The going was slow.

I got an entirely different picture of Idaho from that trip. Idaho, it seemed had a stretch of real desert across the bottom and it was much bigger than the mountains at the top. This new vision wasn’t quite accurate, either, for the middle section of Idaho is true wilderness with steep canyons, beautiful rivers and lots and lots of mountains.

This morning we are camped near the eastern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene. After breakfast we’ll make the short drive into Montana and get a big part of that state behind us before dinner time. We’ll be following the Interstate all day. We don’t go as fast as the speed limit pulling our camper, but the fact that we don’t have to slow down for towns will mean we’ll make a lot of miles today.

As is the case with every trip across Idaho, it is a time and a place for me to reset my attitude and align myself to a new reality. Symbolic of this change is the time change. As we pass from Idaho to Montana, we pass from Pacific to Mountain time. It is our last time zone change of this trip and it is only an hour, much smaller than the trip across the Pacific Ocean, but it is a return to the time zone where we have lived most of our lives. Southern Idaho, including Boise, is on Mountain Time. In fact our two moves, from Hettinger, North Dakota to Boise and from Boise to Rapid City were about as far as one can go from east to west or west to east and still be in the same time zone. The difference in daylight between those locations is more than an hour. The whole time we lived in Boise we tended to get up later in the morning and stay up later at night.

It is more than the time zone, however. Today we’ll be coming down from the mountains. We’ve got 4 big mountain passes to cross, 4th of July, Lookout, Pipestone and Bozeman, but by the time we go to bed tonight we’ll be on the east slope of the Rockies - the dry side and the windy side. At least the prevailing winds are tail winds for us and we’ll be headed generally downhill. The fuel economy is always better driving from west to east across Montana. The country is very familiar to me, having driven this way many times in my life.

We are still adjusting to the time zone change of flying from Japan so our sleep isn’t quite regular yet. In addition, we will be moving from vacation mode to work mode very suddenly this week. I need to be in the office as usual on Saturday morning. There will be a mountain of office work to tackle and I will facilitate a support group in the late morning. At home there will be a mountain of laundry to tackle and mail to sort and a household to equip with groceries after a long absence. The list of things to do is long. We often return from vacation a bit tired, but this particular trip, the dates of which were shifted after we bought our airplane tickets to allow for attending my cousin’s memorial service, means that we have to dive right in as soon as we get home.

But it is good to return to work. I’m looking forward to worship on Sunday and seeing the people who have worked hard in our absence. Many people did a lot of things to make it possible for us to take this wonderful trip. We’ll be saying, “thank you” a lot as we return to work.

Today, however, we drive. Onward!

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!

Resetting our clocks

I’ve been known for excessively long stories, especially those that are the set up for a pun or other joke. My family always groans appropriately when I tell such stories and it usually is sufficient encouragement for me to think of other stories. So, for today’s journal entry, There is a story behind the main story. Here is that story. It is not made up. It is a report of the way it actually was when we were in Japan.

In Japan, the higurashi are a family of insects of the genus Tanna. The insects can be found all throughout East Asia and is most common in Japan. This year, there was a particularly large and an uncommonly early hatch of the insects. Normally, they are at the height of their population during the late summer and early fall, but they were abundant and apparent in all of the rural areas we visited during our Early August visit this year. Their kanji name is derived from the character for Miscanthus, a type of reed that can be found in Japan. The insects are also known as kanakana because of the noise they make. The males are larger and more noisy than the females. In English, we call them cicadas. They thrive in cypress, cedar and hardwood forests from the mountains to the plains throughout Japan.

Whenever we went for a walk in rural areas, including my nearly daily walks with our daughter’s dog, the song of the cicadas was constant. When we first arrived, I was really aware of the sound and of how loud it was wherever there were trees. Our daughter complained about the sound several times during the visit, saying it was especially loud this year. After being in Japan for a few days, I got used to the sound and even enjoyed it as I walked near and in the woods. It was a kind of background to the natural beauty I was seeing. I would hike to the top of a hill that overlooks a lake in the foreground with high mountains in the background and take pictures as I listened to the constant singing of the insects.

Now, back in Washington, I notice the absence of cicada song. It just isn’t something that we can hear, even though we are surrounded by lots of trees.

Our adjustment to the change from Japan to Washington has gone quickly. Last night was just our second night back and we made it through the day yesterday without taking naps and having slept mostly normally the night before. Last night we were even better, going to bed at our usual time. This adjustment to the change in time zones is critical for us because in order to get back home and back to work on schedule we need to drive about 450 miles today and each of the next two days to arrive in Rapid City on Friday and be in the office on Saturday and the pulpit on Sunday. It is a challenge, but we’ve got a reliable truck and good tires and wheel bearings and are up to the challenge. We know, from last year’s experiences that we can experience a delay in travel, but are confident that we can keep our schedule this year even though we only have one day of flexibility in our travel.

It helped that our flight from Japan was in the evening. As a result the first meal on the plane was dinner to us. We slept for the mid part of the flight, waking for the last couple of hours, during which another meal was served, which we treated as breakfast. We had lunch with our son and his children as soon as we arrived. Going to a Tim Hortons is part of most trips to Canada for our family and there was a Tim Hortons in the airport. Then we had a somewhat normal afternoon, dinner and bedtime. Our clocks quickly adjusted to match the daylight hours. We were able to have a good day yesterday. Our son took the day off from work and we spent much of the day framing a new wood shed that he is building, so i had good physical labor to keep me engaged.

Travel experts have all kinds of tips for resetting one’s clock and overcoming jet lag. All living things have what is known as a circadian rhythm. A circadian rhythm is a roughly 24 hour cycle in the physiological processes of living beings, including plants, animals, fungi and cyanobacteria. In a strict sense, circadian rhythms are endogenously generated, although they can be modulated by external cues such as sunlight and temperature. Circadian rhythms are important in determining the sleeping and feeding patterns of all animals, including human beings. There are clear patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities linked to this daily cycle. A big trip, which covers multiple time zones, and in our case, crossing the International Date Line, requires a resetting of the our circadian clocks. We need to sleep, eat, and carry out other functions at different times than our bodies sense our need. Usually it takes a couple of days to get everything reset, but on this particular trip, because we changed the dates of being gone after we had purchased our plane tickets in order to make the memorial service for my cousin at the beginning of the trip, we didn’t allow as much time for the resetting of our circadian rhythms at the end of our trip.

So we found that we had to quickly adjust to changes in our circadian and our cicadian rhythms all at once. OK, I know it is a lame pun, with too much of a set up. It may even be the product of being just a little bit tired. I’m writing this journal entry in the middle of the night, something which is not uncommon for me, but it also may be a sign that my sleep cycle isn’t quite adjusted.

Human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures and we’re making the change without distress. So I’ll probably catch a few more winks before getting up for good and preparing the camper for a day of driving. Life is good and we are among the world’s most fortunate of people. We’re heading home and ready to get back to our work and life in South Dakota.

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!

Thankful

A few days ago, I was holding our youngest grandson as he slept. He was lying on my shoulder as I reclined in a chair at our daughter’s house. She saw us together and said to me, “Isn’t that just the best feeling in the world?” I had to agree. It is among the sweetest of life’s pleasures to hold a sleeping infant. The moment was emotionally charged for many reasons. We had waited for her to come into our lives. We had waited for our grandson to come into our lives. At the time she was making the comment, she was short on sleep and being short on sleep always brings the emotions closer to the surface.

What I didn’t tell her at the time was something that I don’t really need to tell her. She will learn it on her own in the due course of time. That is that there are other moments of incredible pleasure in the journey of being a parent. Another of those deep pleasures was ours yesterday after we arrived at Vancouver International Airport. We had experienced an exceptionally long day, leaving Tokyo after 6 pm and flying into Vancouver a bit before noon the same day. As soon as we were off the plane, we began a process of waling through the airport and standing in lines as we entered Canada as foreign nationals, with USA passports. We had to clear immigration and customs, retrieve our luggage and be processed into the country along with several thousand others who were arriving on some of the many international flights arriving from around the globe. We’ve been through customs in Canada several other times and are familiar with the process. One difference between customs in Canada and the USA is the attitude of the customs authorities. In the USA, customs and border authorities are all business. You learn not to say more than is required to answer their questions. You follow instructions and don’t make any problems. In Canada, as we waited in line, customs officials would come by periodically and apologize for the long lines and assure us that more agents were being assigned to speed up the process.

Then we were through the process and we made our way across Canada’s third busiest International airport to the place were our son and his two eldest children were waiting to give us a ride back into the USA. Since leaving our daughter’s home on Sunday, we had ridden on trains, experienced the intensity of Tokyo, been processed out of Japan, flown across an ocean and the International Date line, landed and cleared Canadian customs with thousands of other people. We had seen tens of thousands of people in that time and all of them were strangers. From the time we said good bye to our daughter’s family at the train station in Misawa, Japan to the time we greed our son’s family in Vancouver, British Columbia, we had not seen anyone who was not a stranger to us. Even though we still had to make the journey across the border to our son’s home, we felt like we were at home as our grandson and granddaughter ran to greet us. It is one of life’s exquisite pleasures, equal to that of holding a sleeping baby, to be greeted by your grandchildren.

Another of those incredible pleasures comes from the process of witnessing our children as they engage in the process of being parents themselves. Life in a family requires patience and understanding and putting the needs of others ahead of your own. It involves balancing work and home and living in a complex system of relationships. Our children are both really great parents and it is a true joy to watch them living and working with their families.

Of course there are plenty of trials ahead for our daughter as she raises her son. She is already experiencing a week of hard work and little sleep. Her husband is working 12-hour shifts this week. She is caring for the baby at night so he can get his sleep and all day long while he works. We were there to help last week, but now she doesn’t have our help. She is tired and will get even more tired as the week unfolds. Her patience will be tried by her baby and the circumstances of her life. There will be many more weeks like this in her life as a mother. She already knows that although we love her deeply and do what we are able to support her, there are times when she is on her own with big responsibilities in life.

We know also that the joys of our family life are not something that we have somehow “earned.” There are good parents who experience all kinds of trials and problems that we have never had to face. We have been blessed to have a family that has been free from some of the world’s worst diseases and illnesses. We did nothing to earn this wonderful gift. There are lots of good people who have experienced terrible things through no fault of their own.

Last evening, as we sat at the dinner table with our son’s family, enjoying huge salads with rich bounty from their garden and reveling in the joy of being together, we shared a ritual that is part of every evening’s dinner in their home. Each person at the table said a few things for which we are thankful. One of our granddaughters was thankful for the gifts and souvenirs we brought them from Japan. Our son was grateful for our safe travel and for the ease of the process of their going two and from Canada without problems. My wife spoke of the joy of being greeted by family after a long day of many strangers. I spoke of the joy of watching our children in their role as parents. The process is a slight variation of the thanksgiving prayers we said at our dinner table when our children were young and at home, but the meaning is the same.

One of our prayers is this:

We thank you God for happy hearts
For rain and sunny weather
We thank you God for this our food
And that we are together.

How thankful we are for the many blessings of this 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!

Japan farewell

busyuneostreet
Today is our marathon day. We are in Ueno, a northern suburb of Tokyo. Actually, it doesn’t feel suburban at all. It feels very much a part of the urban density and intensity of Tokyo. At any rate, we’ll go out and get some breakfast and we have all morning and part of the afternoon for sightseeing. We plan to visit a couple of close-by shrines and museums and catch lunch at a cafe or perhaps purchase some items from the many vendors who set up around the temples. At about 3 pm, we’ll board our train to Narita Airport. After checking in, we’ll have some time to wander around the airport before boarding our plane, which leaves at 6:25 pm. The flight is a little more than 9 hours, so they will try to simulate an overnight experience, serving dinner, then turning down the lights for sleep and turning up the lights and serving breakfast before we land. Hopefully we will be able to sleep a little bit on the airplane. We land in Vancouver, British Columbia at 11:45 in the morning on the same day. It is hard to understand how flying across the International Date Line means that we land before we take off in terms of local time, but the way we think of it is that we have this REALLY long day. After clearing Canadian Customs, we’ll meet our son for the hour and a half drive to his home, which includes a few minutes to clear USA customs at the border. We’ll try to stay awake though the afternoon, playing with our grandchildren and setting up our camper. I’ll probably make a little grocery run for supplies for our trip back to South Dakota and we’ll try to stay awake as long as we are able to make our bed time somewhere near normal for Pacific Time Zone USA.

So, in anticipation of a long day, and perhaps a skipped journal entry tomorrow, depending on what time I’m awake and how much energy I have, here are a few random parting thoughts about our visit to Japan.

breakfastrouteinn
Yesterday, we stayed at a hotel in Misawa that served a continental breakfast, which made us wonder what continent they were referring to, given that Japan is an Island. Is the continent Asia? When we visited our children in England, also an island, we decided that the continent in continental breakfast was Europe, since the breakfast didn’t seem to be a North American Breakfast, with cold cuts and pastries, so if England, which is part of Europe has a European Continental Breakfast, does Japan have an Asian Continental Breakfast. On the buffet were sausages, tempura, fried potatoes, breads and croissants, noodles with cabbage, rice with a lot of different sauces, including a good curry, several different soups, fried fish, juice, tea and coffee, and a few other things I’ve failed to mention. It was a good breakfast, and many Japanese people really eat big breakfasts compared with the choices we make. We are not, however, likely to cook rice for breakfast very often when we get home.

For lunch we had bento boxes on the train. Shops in the train stations sell lunch boxes made up with all kinds of fancy foods. You can get sushi, rice, noodles, fish, fried foods and more. It is kind of fun to have a fancy box with your lunch in little compartments as you speed down the rails at 180 miles per hour on a very smooth riding Shinkansen train.

bentendotemplewalk
For supper we at food offered by various vendors on the walkway leading up to the Bentendo Temple. The temple is dedicated to the goddess of fortune. We’re not sure if the goddess brings good or bad fortune or if it is a goddess of fortune as in wealth. The temple is fairly well maintained, but it has no particular appearance of being wealthy. It does appear to have been in this place for a very long time. Looking down the rows of vendors made me think that perhaps that is one way to raise money for religious institutions. Allow vendors to rent space for their stalls on the grounds of the religious institution and cater to tourists who come to see the building and have their pictures taken in front of it. We had crab and corn roasted over an open fire and a few little panda-shaped donuts for dessert. I know that the members of our church back home are very tired after a week of preparing for the rummage sale. Maybe just charging rent to vendors who are selling things to make their own living is another way to tackle the problem. (I’m just joking with this idea, it was just a silly thought that I had as I walked between the various vendors, listening to them calling out to customers as I smelled the incense of the temple and thought about the religious practices that are important to some of the faithful people who visit.

ueneolotispond
All around the temple are ponds filled with lotus flowers. The lotus is a special symbol of Japan. It has a similar meaning in both Buddhist and Hindu religions, where it is a sign of spiritual enlightenment. The Lotus starts underwater, often in mirky and dirty water. It has to overcome the depths and make its way to the surface. Then the flower bud needs to break through the heavy foliage into the sunlight where it can bloom. It represents the human will to survive dark and hard times and to emerge into enlightenment. We enjoyed looking at the lotus blossoms and enjoying our last night in Japan. Looking at the beautiful pink blossoms, I was reminded once again of how important nature is to the various religious traditions of Japan. The human spirit is nurtured by contact with nature, whether it be the ocean, the forest or the formal gardens. Caring for plants is seen as a spiritual discipline. It gives me a new appreciation for those who care for the plants that are in and around the church. A faithful volunteer waters the indoor plants and several different volunteers trim grass, care for shrubs and trees and provide for the natural space that surrounds the church. Our camp, Placerville is another reminder of how important nature is to our life together.

tokyoevening
The peaceful gardens are in the midst of a very busy and vibrant city and not far from rushing crowds, speeding trains and traffic clogged streets. Perhaps those who live in such intense urban surroundings are especially needy of the peace that the lotus flowers give to all who take the time to ponder their beauty.

It will be a long day for us and a skip in journal entries for my regular readers. Before long, I’ll be back to my usual schedule and returning to my home time zone.

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!

Love transcends

When you hold an infant in your arms, you have a sense of holding the future. This tiny person will grow into an adult who will likely outlive you, who will go places you will never go, do things you have never done, and see things you have never seen. Holding an infant is a reminder that we are all finite. We have limits. We do not go on forever. We can’t do it all. We can’t have it all. And somehow, holding an infant makes that reality acceptable. It seems right that this tiny person will reach beyond our limits.

I remember holding our children when they were babies and wondering what kinds of lives they might lead. Their great grandparents saw the world change from horse and buggy to humans traveling in space. They witnessed a revolution in transportation. The first practical automobiles came after they were born and they lived to themselves travel on jet airplanes. As I held our children, it seemed to me quite possible that they would live to travel into space and beyond. What I couldn’t imagine at the time was what a revolution in information technology and communications would come in their lifetimes. They are not yet out of their thirties and so much has changed in their lifetimes. Our children are the first generation to not remember life before personal computers. Our family got our first personal computer after they were born, but when they were so young that they don’t remember the event. Now we all carry complex computers in our pockets in the form of cell phones. I didn’t see that particular change coming as quickly as it did.

Now I hold our grandchildren in my arms and try to imagine the world they will see. I know that my imagination is insufficient to predict the wonders of their world.

We raised our children to be independent. We taught them to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. We encouraged them to go places and do things that we had never done. As high school students, both of our children traveled to Japan as parts of sister city exchanged. We stayed at home and didn’t make the grand trips with them, but felt the trips as investments in their futures and an extension of our family beyond its normal limits. We hosted an exchange student in our home for a year as a way of reaching out and extending family relationships beyond the limits of our own travels. I was not able to imagine, in those days, that one of our children would live in Japan for part of her life. I did not imagine that we might make trips to Japan two years in a row.

And now, here we are, nearing the end of our second trip to Japan in as many years. We have a grandson who was born in Japan and to whom global travel is just a way of life. He is five weeks old and he already has his own passport. It has a really cute picture of him, too. All of our grandchildren have their own passports.

I grew up not too far from the Canadian border in the days when no passport was required to travel between the two countries. I didn’t take a trip that required a passport until I was 25 years old. Our children got their first passports when they were teenagers. Our grandchildren got them as infants. That revolution in transportation that our grandparents witnessed is continuing. Global travel is an option for many people.

Of course there is a downside to having such independent children. We encouraged them to choose their own paths in life and those paths are exciting to us. They also take our children and our grandchildren far from the place we call home. We have the luxury of travel for only a brief period of our lives. As we age, health and finances will limit our ability to travel. We won’t be able to take trips across oceans every year of our lives. We will have to figure out other ways to remain close and to nurture our connections as a family.

Yesterday, as we were talking with our daughter about our trip home, she told us that she was concerned about the long drive we will make after the big flight to the U.S. She knows how tired flying long distances and changing so many time zones can make a person and she is concerned that we will be driving. Her advice about taking care of each other and making sure that we don’t drive when we are tired was an echo of similar concerns that we have expressed to her when she has traveled. Our children grow up to be adults who give us parental advice. Then she added that if we were to have a need she would hop on a plane with her son and come to help us. I have no doubt that she would. I know that her brother would do whatever he was able as well. Of course, we want to take great care so that we don’t make the kind of mistake that requires our children to rush to our rescue. Still, it is great to know that they will be there for us when we need them.

Sending our children off on big adventures when they were young was difficult. It wasn’t easy to say good bye. Even though we chose programs and adventures with care, we knew that they were traveling beyond our reach. We knew that they were spreading their wings beyond our scope of experience. We worried when they traveled and we were delighted when they returned home. Now both of them call places that are very distant home. We have had the great luxury of travel to visit them in their homes, but for now we cannot linger. This year we go back to South Dakota and to our work and to our lives in different places. Our love and our family has to be bigger than any one place. Our grandchildren will continue to grow beyond our reach.

Transcendence is no longer an academic term for me - an idea that is fun to study and discern. It is a reality. Love is bigger than the distances that separate us. As hard as it is to say good bye, it is the right thing to do. We will remain connected despite the distances.

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!

Change is coming

Today in Japan, which is tomorrow at home, is my sister’s birthday. It is also the anniversary of the first earthquake that I ever felt. We had all gone to bed after a day of celebrating my sister’s birthday. She was eight that summer. The earthquake was big enough to wake us up. It turned out that it was a really big earthquake. The 7.2 earthquake caused what may have been the biggest landslide in the recorded history of the United States. The history of the quake reports that the shake lasted for 30 to 40 seconds, which either was long enough for me to get out of bed and make it down the stairs, or I felt an aftershock after I got downstairs. I was only 6 at the time and my memory is mixed up with stories that others have told. At any rate, the time after the quake was a busy time for our father. He flew a reconnaissance flight over the quake area at first light the next morning, taking pictures with his polaroid camera. What he saw was that the entire flow of the Madison River had been blocked by a gigantic landslide. He saw Hebgen Lake was rising rapidly with the flow cut off. A new lake was forming behind what turned out to be 50 million cubic tons of mud, rock and debris that had slid into the valley with such force that it created hurricane force winds - winds strong enough to have blown a car with 5 people in it off of the road. He saw broken and damaged roads. Old Faithful Inn had been evacuated due to damage to the structure.

A subsequent flight with a professional photographer and engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers produced large 8 x 10 black and white photographs of the damage. Over the next week, more flights were taken and the Corps made a plan to cut a spillway for the new lake. It took until September 10 for the emergency spillway to allow water to flow into the Madison once again and until the end of October for the new spillway to be completed.

At least 28 people were killed by the immediate effects of the quake, which was felt strong enough to cause damage in Idaho.

Those memories are reinforced by being in Japan where we’ve felt three strong earthquakes since we arrived, two of them in the last week.

So happy birthday, dear sister. You always knew how to shake things up!

It is also the day before we depart from Misawa and begin our journey back home. Our trip has been so wonderful on so many levels that it is hard to see it coming to a close. We have now been here for more than half of our new grandson’s life. We’ve seen him grow and we’ve watched our daughter gain confidence as a mother. We’ve held the tiny one as much as possible so that we will have memories to reinforce our regular video chats over the next few months until they are able to visit us in April next year. We have one more day to soak up baby cuddles and have conversations with our daughter and son in law. We have two more days to be immersed in Japanese culture and language and to enjoy what to us seems like an exotic destination.

Meanwhile, back at home, folks are in the midst of a big rummage sale at the church. The efforts of many people have combined for what is one of the biggest events of the year to raise funds for the Women’s Fellowship, who turn the dollars into mission and outreach into our community, supporting a variety of important projects and ministries. If we were at home, we would be doing what we are able to help with the sale and enjoying the fellowship of the workers.

Sunday will be the last of six weeks of being out of the pulpit. Three capable substitute ministers have each led two worship services in our absence. Before we left, I created drafts of the liturgies and worship bulletins for each of those services and so I have a sense of what is has been happening in the worship life of the congregation even though I haven’t been present in worship. I’m excited and ready to be back in the pulpit and sharing with the congregation on August 25.

It is always the nature of our trips away from the congregation, whether the purpose of the trip be sabbatical or vacation. I miss the congregation. I miss our particular style of worship. I miss the people. A lot happens in a congregation in a few weeks time. An important funeral occurred in our absence. The life of the congregation has gone on. Things have changed.

We have changed, too. We have learned more about Japanese culture, religious observances and festivals and traditions. We have been changed by spending quality time with our daughter and son and their families. We have been reminded that love transcends distances - even the distances of half of the globe. We have once again been reminded that we are not the center of the community. Life goes on in our absence. These are all important lessons that we understand in theory, but the living of them is important for the health of our congregation and the community we call home.

Our return will be a busy time. There is much to be done. A newsletter needs to come out. A church school rally needs to come off. The fall is a busy time of programs gearing up. Our congregation hosts the community Thanksgiving service this year and there are meetings to arrange and a service to plan. It won’t be long before we are in the midst of Advent and all of the special preparations for Christmas. Thinking of our return gives me a bit of anxiety about all of the things that need to be accomplished. Thinking of our return begins the process of preparing me for the plunge into the life of the community and the church that is important for the ministries of the year to come.

Like the earthquake of my childhood, we don’t know what all of the changes such a major event will cause. We do know that it is momentous. May we, like those who responded to the earthquake 60 year ago, give our energy to responding to the call.

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 shaking

Yesterday we were waiting for our daughter to come pick us up at our hotel. We were standing on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and I had a bag of laundry in my arms. My wife noted that I was rocking the laundry back and forth. The notion gave us the giggles. I wasn’t holding the baby, but there was something in me that had me treating a small bag of laundry as if it were a baby. A few minutes later I was rocking back and forth once again. Even after my motion was brought to my conscious attention, I kept up with the rocking. We’ve noticed that motion in other settings as well. Somehow, from the time that our first child was born, we both developed a bit of a sway when we are holding something that is about the size or weight of a baby.

I remember making a trip during the time that Susan was pregnant. Being in a city larger than the small town where we were living, we went shopping for a rocking chair. We finally found a chair that we liked and could afford at an unfinished furniture store. We carefully loaded the chair into our car, which took a bit of thinking and arranging. When we got home I set to work, applying stain and sealer to the chair. That chair is still a very prominent piece of furniture in our living room and we both love to sit and rock. It was an important piece of furniture in our family story and both of our children were rocked for many hours in that chair.

A big wooden rocking chair is not a piece of furniture that either of our children have ever owned. When they had infants, however, both families have had an elaborate device that cradles the infant. The machine has a motor that can move the device in a variety of different patterns with adjustable speed. There is also a feature of the machine that makes different sounds. The device has been carefully researched and designed to mimic some of the motion that a baby experiences inside of the mother before it is born. We’ve learned to set our grandchildren into the device where they sleep peacefully as the machine gently rocks the baby.

Of course when we visit, we prefer to hold the baby. Adding two additional adults to a family gives more time for holding the infant and so we pick up the baby and rock it in our arms. There is absolutely nothing that feels as good as having a sleeping infant held against your chest. We’ve been soaking up the feeling as much as we can during this visit, knowing that we soon will be far away from our new grandson and not available to pick him up until our next visit.

Yesterday, the gigantic movements of tectonic plates deep beneath the surface of the earth provided us with another type of rocking. We felt two earthquakes. We later learned that the first was 5.4 in magnitude and that we were only about 15 miles from the epicenter of the shake. It was the biggest earthquake either of us had experienced. Susan was holding the baby at the time and we both were sitting in chairs, so there was no danger of falling. A pair of pots fell from a rack in the kitchen, which made quite a clatter and a canister of breakfast cereal fell from the top of the refrigerator scattering Cheereos across the kitchen floor. A few spices in the cabinet fell from their appointed shelves and some plastic bottles of baby lotion toppled from a dresser. There was no damage other than the cereal canister, which was broken in the fall. Our daughter had been napping and was awakened by the shake. She reported that it was the biggest quake she had ever experienced as well. About a half hour later a second quake, measured at 4.7 and just a couple of miles farther away than the first one, gave us another rocking.

The baby slept through both quakes. The baby is used to motion while he sleeps. A little rocking in his world is completely normal for him.

Later, as I walked the dog through the neighborhood, I looked to see if I could discern any damage, but found none. The trees kept all of their branches. The birds were doing their normal activities. The houses seemed to all be in normal states of repair. There were no cracks in the ground. I wondered what the quake felt like to those who were in taller buildings. Our daughter’s home is on the first floor of a two-story apartment building, but there are some apartment towers a few blocks away. I suspect the motion was a bit more intense on the 10th floor.

Japan is an area where earthquakes are frequent and the Japanese people have learned to take the shaking in stride. From time to time there is a really big quake, most recently the one in April of 2011 near Fukushima that caused a huge tsunami and resulted in the deaths of more than 15,000 people and the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. There are mudslides and huge damage to buildings. More than 250,000 people were forced to flee their homes with many still being out of their homes four or five years later. That quake was the largest ever recorded in Japan at 9.0.

As a result the Japanese have developed engineering techniques for making buildings resistant. The famous seven-tiered pagodas are constructed in such a manner to withstand the motion of earthquakes and techniques based on that style of engineering have been employed in constructing office and apartment towers in the cities.

Having lived most of my life in a place where earthquakes are much less frequent, I doubt if I will ever get used to the motion. I’ve suffered no harm from the ones i’ve experienced, but doubt that I’ll ever get used to it. Our grandson, on the other hand, took no note at all. He’s used to the gentle rocking of his world.

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!

Another festival

festivalparadefloat
Misawa is about 15 miles from a larger town, Hachinohe. Hachinohe is on the Shinkansen or bullet train line that goes from Tokyo to Aomori. Misawa is served by the Aomori train line. You can ride the Aomori line to Misawa for about $6. That same train goes on to the city of Aomori. If you ride the Shinkansen past Hachinohe it will go directly to Aomori. The train then goes through a tunnel under the ocean to the island of Hokkaido. Folks who live in Misawa make trips to Hachinohe for shopping, medical care and a host of other reasons. They travel by train or by car, depending on the circumstances of the trip. We came by train from Tokyo to Hachinohe and then took the Aomori line to Misawa. We’ll return the same way. Yesterday we went to Hachinohe to make our Shinkansen reservations for our return to Tokyo for our flight home. While we were there, we took time to learn a bit about the city of Hachinohe.

When we came through Hachinohe on our way to Misawa, we arrived during the Sansha Taisai Festival. The Festival is celebrated between July 31 and August 4 each year and is one of many Japanese festivals that have been recognized by the United Nations as a World Natural and Cultural Heritage site. Like other festivals in Japan, the Sansha Taisai festival is marked by lanterns and parades with drums and flutes and elaborate floats. Unique to the Hachinohe festival, however, is a display of an ancient martial arts performed on horseback. Kagami-style Kiba Dakyu is held at the Chojasan Shinra Shrine as part of the festival. Kiba Dakyu is a form of traditional martial arts performed on horseback which has only three forms left in Japan. The Kagami-style Kiba Dakyu of Hachinohe is designated as an Aomori Prefectural Intangible Folk Cultural Property. Kiba Dakyu is similar to polo, two teams (red and white) with four riders each compete to score against the other team. Riders use sticks with a net on one end to hurl a ball in their goal to score.

While the big celebration and displays are held in Hachinohe, towns from around the area have riders who participate in the sport. In Misawa, we visited a place where some of the horses are kept. There are also small ponies kept in the same place. It was unclear to us whether or not the ponies are used as training animals for children to learn the sport.

parade model
The Sansha Taisai Festival dates back to 1721, when bad weather threatened the crops and livelihood of the region. Special prayers were offered at the Horyosan Ogami Shrine and a sacred procession of portable shrines, called mikoshi, was held. Over the years of annual observance, more people joined the procession and merchants began to create floats with decorative dolls. Somewhere along the line the tiger dance (toramai) was added to the parade. A pair of dancers wear a tiger costume and participate in the procession. The purpose of the festival is to pray for good health and successful crops as well as to express gratitude for the current harvest. In the late 19th Century Shinra Shrine and Shinmeigu Shrine joined in the procession, creating the contemporary Sansha Taisai festival of three shrines.

Japan is often described as a secular culture, but people give reverence to festivals and shrines and celebrate their spirituality as well as their cultural traditions with great care and joy.

Because the focus of this trip to Japan has been our new grandson, we haven’t done many of the tourist activities and adventures that we might otherwise have experienced, but just being in Japan is an experience of a different culture. Although many Japanese people speak English, just riding on the train is an immersion into the Japanese language. We strain to pick out a few words from the train announcements and to recognize the names of the stations as we ride the train.

Each visit to a cultural site or display gives us an opportunity to learn more about the place we are visiting. Last year we spent an hour or so touring the Hachinohe fish market. Situated right on the coast, Hachinohe is home to a significant fishing fleet and the market is part of the distribution network of fresh fish. There are so many varieties of fish and ocean creatures that are sold in the market that we were amazed at the size and variety of the trade. Hachinohe also is a place of manufacturing of metal goods. Among the locally famous products are musical instruments including trumpets and other brass instruments. The region is also well known for fruit production and apples are especially well known local produce.

We have learned, through our experiences of travel, that it is impossible to get a full sense of the lives of other people from a short visit. There are many things to see and do that we miss, and spending a large part of our time on a US Air Force base means that we are never far from the culture, products and traditions of our home country. However, we are far enough from home to have a sense of visiting another country. Because we are especially interested in religion, the religious and cultural festivals capture our attention and give us insight into the lives of the people.

dollwith flute
Because we did not see the horseback displays during this visit, other details struck us. We were especially interested in the many dolls that decorate the Sansha Taisai Festival floats. Each tiny figure has a unique expression on its face and care is taken to replicate the costumes and hats worn by festival participants. The bright colors and decorative lights add to the impact of the display.

Our time in Japan is growing short. Our day trip yesterday reminded us that we soon need to be packing for the long trip home. Each experience in Japan is an opportunity to increase our understanding and appreciation of the people who live in this beautiful and interesting land. We are collecting memories that will last us for the rest of our lives. How grateful we are for being able to make this journey.

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!

Obon

dragonmisawapond
We have a tendency to try to interpret the cultures, traditions and celebrations of other people in our own terms. We compare them to ourselves. This isn’t always a negative process, because understanding can come through comparisons. However, it is easy to impose bias when we make such comparisons. Many of the articles I have read about the Japanese festival Obon make a comparison to the holiday Halloween that is observed in the United States. I’m suspicious of such comparisons, however, because of a completely different cultural comparison that is common.

Around the world there are many traditions and cultural observances that have some element of honoring the connection between those of us who are living and those who have died. We not only mourn the loss of those who have died, we sense some form of ongoing connection with them. Over the years I have frequently heard the comparison between Halloween and the Mexican observance Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead. This comparison is in part due to the layering of Roman Catholic Christian traditions on the holiday. In modern times it is observed on November 2, immediately following All Saints Day which follows All Hallows Eve or Halloween. Día de los Muertos, however is not the same as Halloween. It has its roots in much more ancient pre-Hispanic traditions. A thousand years ago, before colonization, indigenous people understood that death was a normal part of life and believed that those who had died continue to have connection with those who are living. Their spirits visited the living and this connection was to be celebrated with special ceremony and tradition. This ancient observance continues in the modern tradition even though the language and religion of the colonial powers has been superimposed upon the indigenous traditions. Knowing this, I think it might be a mistake to assume that Obon is a Japanese “Halloween.”

Obon, rather, is an ancient Japanese tradition that honors the spirits of the ancestors. Japan’s Shinto traditions are filled with observances of spirits and among the spirits that are a part of everyday life are the spirits of those who have gone before. Recognizing their presence and honoring them is the spirit of the holiday.

Before we realized that this is the week of Obon in Japan, we noticed that the hotel where we are staying was occupied by more children than had been the case in previous weeks. We are sharing our breakfast with families and children instead of a majority of business and military travelers. The change was dramatic enough that we began to look into the reason. Many Japanese people take vacation between August 13 and 15 to observe the festival. In modern Japan, travel is often part of the observances as people go back to their ancestral homes to join in the observances.

The first day of Obon focuses on preparation for a visit of the spirits of those who have died. Homes are cleaned and special foods are prepared. Gifts of fruit, rice, green tea, sake and some special lotus shaped sweets are prepared. Paper lanterns are put out to guide the spirits to the homes they occupied when the ancestors were living. After three days of observance, it is time for those who have died to return to their graves. Graveyards and gravestones are cleaned and decorated. Paper lanterns are lit to guide the spirits back to their resting places.

Obon is not a national holiday in Japan, but continues to be an important time and a time that many Japanese take time away from work to observe ancient traditions.

It might be more accurate to compare Obon to Memorial Day observances than to Halloween observances because of the emphasis on cleaning and decorating of graves. The truth, however, is that Obon is neither. It isn’t a version of any western tradition, but rather its own holiday.

Obon festivities include special regional dances and songs. Each part of Japan has a special song and dance that is offered as part of the traditional festivities. Flutes, drums and stringed instruments called shamisen are played. The song and dance is called bondori. It is a dance to welcome and honor the dead. Dancers move in a circle. In some communities a raised platform is constructed where musicians play their instruments. In other communities the dance is performed in the middle of the street.

In our family there is a connection between the deaths of loved ones and the birth of a new generation. My father died in the fall. The following spring our son was born. My mother died in the winter. The next month our first grandson was born. The births of new members of our family always brings to mind those who have died and the love that we shared when they were living. Since we are in Japan to greet a new grandson, it has been natural for us to speak of family members who have died. We feel the presence of their spirits in our celebrations of this new life. We remember their love and generosity and seek to honor them by loving and caring for this new gift of life in our midst. We know that the traditions of our family are passed from generation to generation and feel the presence of those who have died when we turn our attention to new life in our midst. It is natural for me to think how much my father enjoyed being a grandfather and meeting the grandchildren that he did meet. It is natural for me to think of my mother when we hand down the hand-knitted sweaters she made for other children to the newest child in our family. We feel their presence as we celebrate this new life.

Even though we don’t know the culture and traditions of Japan, we can understand a special time each year that is set aside for families, including children and elders, to gather and remember those who have died. Their spirits indeed are still present in our lives. Obon is a Japanese way of honoring that presence.

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!

How much sleep?

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental organization with 36 member countries that promotes world trade. According to the OECD, Japan has the shortest average sleep of its member countries with 442 minutes per day averaged over the entire year. This compares with the US and China, Britain, France and Spain, all of which average over 500 minutes per day. In terms more common for US citizens, 500 minutes is 8.3 hours per night. Japanese workers are well known for putting in long days with few days off. They have a term, “inemuri” which refers to the practice of falling asleep in public places. The place where we have noticed it is on trains. Those lucky enough to get a place to sit on a busy commuter train will often close their eyes and nod off. It is also common in coffee shops in the cities.

The Japanese are aware that this is a problem for productivity and the health of workers. A new law limits legal overtime to 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year and some companies are adding nap rooms to the workplace to encourage workers to take short naps during the work day.

It is an interesting phenomenon from my perspective because I have only visited Japan as a part of vacation. Like most people, I suspect, I sleep more during my vacation time than I do during a regular work week. I turn off my alarm and awake when my body and the daylight tell me it is time to get up. So I’m at one of the points in the year when I have the longest sleeps each night while I’m observing a culture of long work days and short nights.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of articles that tell readers how much sleep is needed. I’m not sure that there is some absolute standard that should be applied in every case. I know, from my own experience, that there are a lot of different factors that affect the amount of sleep one gets and the amount one needs. I’ve never been one who needs the most amount of sleep. I know relatives and colleagues who have a hard time functioning when they aren’t getting enough sleep. I, on the other hand, seem to be able to get up in the middle of the night to respond to a need and get through the next work day without a problem.

Our youngest grandson is just one month old and his parents frequently look pretty tired. In fact one of the roles we have assumed in the days of our visit is to look after the young one while his parents catch a nap. I’ve told our daughter that it is completely normal to feel sleep deprived when one has a tiny baby in the home. I remember the first weeks of our children’s lives as the time in my life when I was the most short on sleep. It seems to me like I was constantly tired and always in need of a nap during that period of time. Even with the sleep interruptions that are a part of my work and life these days, I don’t think I’m as short of sleep as I was at that time in my life. Our son in law is back at work after a leave at the time of the birth of his son. His job has a fair amount of overtime so he notices that the baby is waking him multiple times during the night. Our daughter has not yet returned to work, so is taking the lead with nighttime care duties and is learning to sleep when the baby sleeps regardless of what time of day it is. We visit each day and help with care during the day, but head off to our room at night and sleep uninterrupted by the baby.

From my perspective, the time of having infants in our household went by very quickly. Although there were times when we were in the midst of caring for tiny children when it seemed like a long stretch, as a percentage of our lives, it was small. For a few years we got up in the night and had our sleep interrupted. Then our children grew up and moved on with their lives. What seemed to dominate our consciousness now seems like a little thing in the span of a lifetime.

So I really don’t know how much sleep is really required to be happy and healthy. I think that for the most part I’ve been lucky to have figured out how to get the sleep I need. I’ve always been quick to wake from sleep and so have learned to take a nap when I need a little extra sleep and can nod off without having it disrupt my lifestyle. I’ve not been plagued with falling asleep at important times when I should be paying attention.

Achieving balance in life is far more complex than counting the number of hours one sleeps. A human body needs sleep in order to maintain health, but we also need relationships with others, family and community. We need meaningful work and a way to earn our living. There are many demands of our time and part of being an adult is making choices about how we will invest our time. Last evening I held our grandson for more than an hour. I’m not sure about how much time it was because I felt no need to look at my watch while i was so engaged. Our son in law was doing a bit of work on his computer. Our daughter and her mother were sorting and organizing in another room of their house. Our grandson had been fed and changed and had nodded off in my arms. His fingers were grasping my thumb and I was just watching him sleep. The rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed, the look of his tiny hand wrapped around mine, the feel of him resting on my chest - all of these sensations were so pleasant and wonderful that I wasn’t paying attention to how much time passed. I submit that the time I held him was more restorative than an equal amount of time spent sleeping. If I had to make a choice, I’d take holding a baby over sleeping as a recreational activity.

So while the Japanese study work habits and big corporations add “hirune” rooms where employees are encouraged to nap, I’ll hold the baby. I’m thinking that a few babies would be better for the workers health than the rows of cots and lavender scented air.

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!

Baptism

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Last week I watched a video about Aomori’s Nebuta Festival that contained an interview with one of the designers of the big floats that are featured in the parades. Float designers work full time all year around on their creations, starting with sketches and proposals that are done as soon as the festival is finished each year. Throughout the winter there can be as many as 80 people working on the details of the floats, pasting paper over wire and wooden frames, painting the rice paper, wiring the lights and working on a variety of details. The float designer becomes a coordinator of the work. The interview was in Japanese with English subtitles in the video. One of the things the designer was saying is that for him it was a huge responsibility to be a designer because the ancient practices of the festival are being handed forward in each generation. He has inherited the traditions of previous generations and it becomes his responsibility to pass them on to future generations intact. He said, “For me Nebuta is life. It is my life. It is life that I pass on.”

As I watched the video, I was touched by how similar his passion for Nebuta is to my passion about the Christian Faith. I was raised in a family of faith, with traditions that stretch back longer than our memories. The stories that inform my life and have been the core of my studies have been handed down by our people for generations. Somehow, in my time, I have been called to not just keep those traditions, but to tell their stories in ways that are relevant to a particular time and place. The stories of the people I serve are informed by and provide a new chapter in the stories of our tradition. It is my life’s calling to immerse myself in those stories and not just tell them, but to live them in ways that are meaningful. It is my life’s calling to pass them on to future generations of our people.

One of the places where I am most deeply aware of those traditions and of my role in them is when I officiate at the sacraments of the church. In our part of the tradition, we recognize and observe two sacraments: baptism and communion. Every time I officiate, I assume the role of keeper of the traditions of the church. I have studied the history and traditions of the church. I can recite the details of church agreements and disagreements over the understanding of the sacraments. I understand the history of the words we say - the liturgies that we read - the public expressions we use.

It is no small thing that I was invited by our daughter and son in law to travel half way around the globe for the purpose of participating in the baptism of our grandson. He is our fourth grand child and Susan and I have been officiants at the baptisms of all four. Our first grandchild was baptized on the day after our daughter’s wedding and the baptism was witnessed by the extended family gathered for the wedding. There was an awesome sense of responsibility on our shoulders at that time, because it was the same year that my mother died and the same year that Susan’s father died. We had just come to the realization that we were now the elders of our family. The mantle of the generations had been passed. Although our grandson was born before the death of his great grandfather on my wife’s side and a great grandmother and great grandfather on his mother’s side continue to live, his birth was symbolic of the passing of generations in our family.

Yesterday’s celebration of the sacrament of baptism was powerfully emotional for me. The fact that we had been invited to participate is a powerful expression of the faith that we have passed on to our children and the commitments to that faith that they have taken up in their generation. I will continue to have the honor of teaching the stories of our people to our grandchildren for many years to come, but I know that even when I am not around to do so, those stories will live on in the legacy of love that they are inheriting from their parents.

Our scriptures teach simply that God is love. Our grandchildren know the God of our ancestors through the love they experience in their everyday lives. But there are moments of sacrament in the lives of our people when we reach beyond ourselves and experience the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

As I poured the water of baptism and recited the prayers of our people and held my infant grandson, I was aware of how small I am in the vastness of Creation. I am just a brief moment in the story of our people. That moment, however, is rich with meaning and purpose.

Over the years I have had the honor and privilege of officiating at the baptisms of many children. I’ve held other people’s grandchildren and recited the prayers and poured the water. I’ve witnessed the power of the miracle of the gift of children in the life of our community. I’ve known the presence of the holy in the power of love shared. I’ve also had the privilege of watching those children grow into adulthood. It isn’t just the children of our immediate family whose lives I have known from their baptism to the baptism of their own children. I’ve been privileged to watch many of the infants in our community grow into adults with children of their own. I’ve witnessed the passing of generations and the power of our church family.

Our faith not only transcends time and the passing of generations, but it also transcends space. Our grandparents Abraham and Sarah discovered that when they left the home of their parents and ancestors, God traveled with them. Our children continue to live that same truth. Here in Japan we celebrate the presence of the God of all of the universe. Here we share the miracle of the water of life. Here we understand love that has no limits. How fortunate we are to witness the great power of love!

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!

In a quiet place

Yesterday when we looked out of the window of the hotel where we are staying there was a police investigation going on. Two officers had parked their car, with red lights flashing, and were interviewing some people in front of the hotel. We had a pretty good view from our fourth floor room. After a few minutes, one of the officers put his notebook in the back seat of the police car, went to the trunk of the car, and got out a broom. He began to sweep the sidewalk, which had some dirt on it that we hadn’t previously noticed. Then he was joined by two staff members from the hotel who had another broom. There was a lot of very careful sweeping and a two garbage bags were produced and placed one inside of the other to make a double bag, into which the dirt was scooped. Attention was given to making sure that the dirt was completely cleaned up. Then there was a lot of bowing and the two police officers got into their car and left.

We looked around when we got onto the street to see if there had been a broken flower pot or some other clue as to what the incident was about. We found none. Everything looked normal. And, I suspect, we might not have noticed the dirt had it been left there. We’re used to a bit of dirt on the ground.

So far, that is the most serious incident we have witnessed in Japan. The crime rate here is very low. Police officers don’t carry handguns on their belts. There is a famous story of bored police officers who set out a case of beer as bait to see if they could catch a thief. Someone finally did come along and take some beer and they promptly responded, but later they got into big trouble for what they had done. The police aren’t very busy in Japan.

We’ve visited in Tokyo, a huge city where life goes on 24 hours a day. There is always traffic. There are always people walking on the streets. And even there we see unaccompanied children making their way on the trains and walking on the streets. Japan is a very safe place with very little crime. And when a major incident does occur, it gets a lot of attention and there is a lot of soul searching to figure out why the event occurred and how to prevent a future event.

As we read the stories about more mass shootings in the United States and see the video clips of anguished people grieving the tragic events we feel as if we are very far away. We are in a very quiet part of Japan. Outside of the noise of the jets operating from the Air Base, there aren’t many loud sounds here. Each day I walk the dog to the songs of birds and the sounds of nature. I feel very safe and feel like my grandson is being raised in a very safe place.

Of course having a one-month-old baby has changed our daughter and son in law’s sleeping patterns. One day last week our daughter made a comment about wondering when things returned to normal. We assured her that they don’t. When a baby is born into your family, everything changes. You learn to sleep when you can and you learn to get by with less sleep. The little one rarely sleeps for more than three or four hours without needing care and attention and it isn’t uncommon for a parent to have to be up with the baby three or four times in a night. Both parents are a bit sleep deprived. As grandparents, we sleep through the night uninterrupted, but we can remember the days when we had babies in our home.

I’ve never been the best of sleepers. I often rise in the night to write my journal or read a bit before returning to bed. When we had babies in our home, I took my turn at rising and changing the little ones. I knew how to warm a bottle and feed a baby with my eyes half open. I think that those days were the time in my life when I was the most tired. I learned to fall asleep at the drop of a hat whenever there was quiet. I’m still a good napper.

In recent years I have read several books by authors who intentionally came to Japan for quiet and reflection. They learned to meditate and to live in quiet places. The quiet gave them an opportunity to reflect on their lives and to make changes that allowed them to take a bit of the change of pace back to their homes. They wrote books which others like me bought in order to figure out changes in our own lives. Our two trips to Japan have focused on family. We came here because our daughter and exchange daughter live here. But it does seem appropriate to me that I have been given the gift of this particular trip at this phase of my career. I will return to nine months of intense work before ending my call to the church I now serve. My future does involve a change of pace as I move on from the role of senior pastor. I don’t know for sure what the future holds, but my life will be less defined by work when I begin to collect my annuity and live a less public life. I know that being in Japan is teaching me lessons.

We’re a bit ahead of the folks back home, but it is very early on Sunday morning here. It is the day of our grandson’s baptism and I have been invited to officiate at that sacrament, so I have a bit of a role as a worship leader. I am not, however, in charge of an entire worship service. My mind goes to those who will be leading worship at home. It is always a bit strange for me to think of our congregation worshiping without me. But I don’t have to do anything. Care and planning have been done. The church will get along without me. I can worship without being in charge.

And I am in a very quiet place to get some sleep. At a bare minimum, I can return home rested from this adventure.

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!

Less Connected

I was an early adopter of email. I was active in an email network nearly 30 years ago, back in the days when we used a 300 baud telephone modem. I used to do all of my email work off line. I would have the computer upload the messages I had written during the day and download any new messages received at night while I slept. The process was slow. This was before the term “instant messaging” had emerged. Over the years I have had a number of different email accounts and have switched from paid servers to ones that are free. I still pay for Internet services and have email accounts that are paid, but I also have a “free” gmail account.

About a week ago I discovered that I was not able to receive email on my home account. This is an uncommon occurrence, and when it happens I usually just wait an hour or so and services resume. However, the services did not return. I checked passwords, just to make sure and checked with my wife to see if her account was operational. It was not. The usual route around such a problem is to go online through the web site of the service provider. That provider offers web mail services, so I can access my email that way. However, the web site of the provider won’t load on our computers either. I’m suspicious of a major problem with the carrier, but I am traveling in Japan and I don’t want to go through the hassle and expense of trying a phone call to the carrier. I’ve decided to wait until we get home to resolve the problem.

Most of my important email comes through church accounts and through other email accounts, so we are not out of touch with the world. However, there are correspondents, including personal friends, who primarily use my home account and I’m used to checkin it daily. Along with the spam and junk mail, that account sees over a hundred messages a day and a delay of a week or more means that there will be hundreds and hundreds of messages that have to be sorted when I finally make contact.

That mountain of messages will have to wait until we get settled, as our return to the United States will be followed by a 1300 mile road trip. Getting home and back into the swing of work will be a major effort. Adding the hassle of sorting out the email wasn’t in my plans, but when one travels, one learns to adapt.

I have to admit that there is a bit of joy in being less connected. I’m not following all of the things that are going on with a couple of nonprofits where I serve. They have to get along without me in a similar fashion to what would have happened years ago when people who made international trips were out of touch for a while. It hasn’t been that long when international travel didn’t involve cell phones and email and other instant communications. My attention has been our our daughter and grandson during this trip and having less email to deal with is a distinct joy, even though I know that there will be some work involved in sorting things out when I return.

I am sure that there are other things going on at home of which I am either unaware or to which I am less connected. A pilgrimage involves leaving one’s home behind, trusting others with leadership in your absence, and focusing on the journey. Later, after the journey is complete, there is a process of reconnection. This pilgrimage results in spiritual growth for the traveler and for those who stay at home. The absence is part of the development of a new level of relationship. People of faith have been taking pilgrimages for the purpose of spiritual growth for millennia. The process of constant connection has changed the nature of pilgrimage in our time. There is less leaving behind the day to day and more taking it with the traveler. It would be expensive, but possible for us to have our cell phones turned on every day of our trip. That wouldn’t solve the glitch in our email system, but it would provide access to a number of messages that we are not receiving. It also would be a distraction from the things we are doing here.

In recent years I have been wrestling with achieving a balance between being available and being able to focus on the matter at hand. The distinction between working and leisure is blurred when a cell phone makes you constantly available. I have had to train people to use the voice mail system because I do not interrupt a conversation to answer my phone. I have plenty of meetings and hospital calls and funeral planning sessions and other parts of my work life that mean that phone calls must wait. I say to people, “I’m not answering my phone while I am talking to you, so you have got to be prepared to leave me a message when I am taking to others.” Even so, I check phone messages frequently and respond in a timely fashion. It is part of serving others. There is an expectation that we stay in touch.

A number of years ago, someone was hurt and offended that I didn’t respond to an email message when I was on sabbatical. I was aware of the message and I knew that it was being appropriately handled by other members of the church staff, so I didn’t make a personal response. After I returned from the sabbatical trip, I had to invest a significant amount of time and energy into healing the relationship with that person. It would have taken less time and effort to have responded to the message in the middle of the trip. I believed, however, that the separation was part of the learning of the trip. So I worry about missed messages with this current email issue.

There are, however, things that I cannot control and issues that I cannot solve long distance. There are things that have to wait. It appears that this particular issue is one of those things. I have to lay aside my frustration and be present in the moment. And that, my friends, is not a bad thing.

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!

Grandpas

My brother, who is about 2 1/2 years younger than I, has had a life journey that is quite different from mine. We’ve always been similar in appearance. People tell us that we look a lot alike. I think that there are many parts of our personalities that are similar as well. We are both passionate about ideas and for many of our adult lives we’ve been capable of fiery arguments, though the arguing has toned down quite a bit as we have grown older. But our lives have taken very different directions. Still, we have much in common.

One thing that we have in common is that each of us has one daughter. Those two daughters each became mothers this summer. The due dates for the babies were very close to each other, but our daughter’s baby was born about three weeks early on July 12. My niece’s baby was born on August 3. Both of our daughters live a big distance from their fathers. Our daughter is living in Japan while we live in South Dakota. My brother’s daughter lives in New York City while he lives in western Washington.

Despite the similarities, there are some big differences. One of those differences is that we have the good fortune of being able to travel to be with our daughter and her family. A three-week trip to Japan is a big undertaking and a big expense and we have decided that it is a family priority worth dipping into our savings. I’ve no regrets about the cost, but I realize that it is a luxury that not everyone can afford. There are very few jobs where one can take this much vacation and remain employed. Part of the ability to take this trip is the result of being near the end of a long career. I’ve serve for 41 years as an ordained minister and i’ve been the pastor of the congregation we now serve for 24. Over those years I have built relationships and formed trust that have enabled me to have the luxury of being able to take this trip.

My brother is not able to travel this summer to visit his new granddaughter. I don’t know all of the dynamics of his situation and it isn’t fair for me to speculate, but knowing that he isn’t able to make the trip seems a bit sad to me. I wish my brother could experience the joy of holding a tiny grandchild in his arms. Much of what we have done on this trip is very simple and basic living. We have held our new grandson. We have watched him grow. We have studied his face and his features. We have helped our daughter and son in law with ordinary tasks such as grocery shopping and preparing meals, doing laundry and cleaning. Mostly we have spent time together as a family, reveling in the joy of new life in our midst and marveling at the miracle that a baby is. I wish my brother was able to have similar experiences.

From the time we were teenagers our lives have taken quite different journeys. I pursued my academic education early in my life. He pursued education through experience, traveling and working in a wide variety of settings. I have had a single career, working as a pastor for all of the years since I completed my education. He has had many different jobs and has earned his living from a wide variety of employers and sources. I married young and found the love of my life and am still blessed to be married to the same woman 46 years later. He also married young, but was divorced young. He’s had four marriages, two of them with the same woman. He has also experienced times of being single and being a partner in other relationships.

There was a time, when we were younger, when I thought that I should be offering advice to my brother on his life. I’ve learned that such advice was not welcome and that offering such advice isn’t the best way to be a good brother. I’m not sure that I have ever figured out exactly how to be a good brother. I’ve maintained a very close relationship with my sister than I have with either of my brothers. We had a large family and not all of our siblings are still alive, but I have two brothers and I’m not as close to either of them as I am to many other people in my life.

Still, I feel a bit of sadness about my brother and wish that he could be able to spend some time with his new granddaughter.

Many years ago, maybe even before I became a father, I commented to my wife that I thought that I would one day make a good grandfather. It seems silly to me now, but being a grandfather is something that I anticipated and looked forward to all of my life and when I became a grandfather, I was not disappointed. It has been better and more wonderful than I could have imagined. I feel so fortunate to have four grandchildren who are growing up in strong and stable families. I feel so fortunate to be able to visit our grandchildren. I’m well aware that there are families where the grandchildren and grandparents live in the same town while our “near” grandchildren are 1300 miles away and our “distant” grandson lives on another continent. Still, we have the luxury of being able to travel and we live in the era of video chats over the computer. I can read stories to my grandchildren over the computer and I can watch some of their adventures as they occur even when we aren’t in the same town.

To the little ones, I say, welcome to this world! I know that you will find your own path in this life. I hope that it is filled with love and the joys of family. I hope that you grow up experiencing people of many different ages who love and care for you. And I hope that one day you will experience the joy of being a grandparent. It really is one of life’s sweetest pleasures.

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!

Believing and Belonging

I’ve had a few conversations about baptism lately. It is appropriate as we prepare for the baptism of our grandson on Sunday. The base chapel is a great place to think and talk about faith in the midst of life. The chapel stands in a long tradition of military chaplains serving people of all faiths. Chaplains are trained in sensitivity to the different beliefs that are held by those who serve and the techniques of serving those whose faith may differ from the faith of the chaplain. Stories abound of a protestant chaplain assisting a catholic soldier or a Jewish chaplain providing for the spiritual needs of a Christian. There is no greater honor in life than serving those who serve and military chaplains live out that call to service every day. As a pastor of the United Church of Christ, I feel quite at home in the base chapel, where the two strains of Christian baptism are practiced side by side.

The traditions of Christian baptism received a great deal of attention and stirred much controversy and dissension during the Protestant reformation. Some Christians felt that the baptism of infants and children was inappropriate because they were too young to understand the meaning of the sacrament. They suggested that only believers should be baptized and that a conscious decision made by the candidate for baptism him or herself should be required for baptism to take place. The split within Christianity was more deep than a simple disagreement and baptism was only one of the topics around which dissension took place. The anabaptist tradition within Christianity arose as a part of the protest of the Reformation, but it did not arise in all of the churches of the Reformed tradition. In the case of the United Church of Christ, our historic roots lie primarily in churches that embraced the traditional sacrament of a one time baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with flowing water. Those churches were critical of the practice, in some other parts of Christianity, of repeating the sacrament and also of the view that total immersion was required. Their response was in part a display of a more ancient argument within the church where the question of the worthiness of the officiant has been raised. The mainstream response to that controversy was that the sacrament stood independent of the officiant. It wasn’t the officiant who made the sacrament, but rather the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, which transcended any failings of the officiant. As such, setting any test of the sacrament was deemed inappropriate.

The arguments persist to this day. In the United Church of Christ, however, a series of unions between different Christian communions has resulted in a church that embraces both infant and believer’s baptism and while maintaining its commitment to a single baptism and seeing no reason for a repeat in the life of the believer, continues to offer baptism of infants and of older persons as well as baptism by immersion and also by sprinkling or pouring water. The sacrament is present in a variety of different forms. The base chapel is designed with a space for immersion of adults as well as a font for baptism of infants, children and adults.

Baptism is about believing and belonging. In the ancient form, where people of all ages are baptized, there is another rite, confirmation, which is a declaration of faith, focused on belief. It has been argued that confirmation, unlike baptism, is a repeatable rite.

In the midst of these conversations, I find it impossible to take sides or to say that there is any possibility of separating believing from belonging. Both are important and both are present. When an infant is baptized the family of the one baptized acknowledge that raising a child is beyond any individual and a part of the community. Recognizing that the promises of God are not only to us, but to our children as well, we present them to the community and acknowledge their full membership in the family of faith. Later there will be opportunities to affirm baptism and to make statements of faith in the midst of the community. But baptism of infants is not just about belonging, it is also about believing. We believe that all children are gifts of God. We believe that all humans belong to God regardless of outward professions of faith.

At a deeper level, we acknowledge that believing is more than simple intellectual assent. It is not a matter of embracing or giving assent to a specific set of ideas or thoughts. Believing does not require that one has a particular mental image of God or a specific set of statements to which they will agree. In our corner of the Christian tradition, we use creeds and statements of faith as testaments of faith, but never as tests of faith. We have no set of words or of ideas that must be embraced for the individual to claim membership in the community. We are serious about our slogan: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Our children are full members of the family of faith. There is no requirement that they pass some test of mental acuity or make a specific declaration of faith.

One of the joys of preparing for this particular baptism is the joy of being a grandfather. It is a unique and wonderful role. Another joy has been working with the base chaplains. Our primary contact has been the Roman Catholic chaplain, whose welcome and genuine hospitality is deeply appreciated. He embodies the sense of embracing all people of faith without compromising his own beliefs and faith in any way. His genuine warmth and care of our daughter and her family is deeply appreciated. I will always remember his kindness and care for them.

There has been a bit of talk about what the infant will wear to the baptism. The christening gown that has been a part of our family in which our children were dressed is not here in Japan, let at home in part out of respect for the other side of the family. The dress outfit chosen before the baby’s birth is simply too large for the tiny one. He’ll get to wear it in a few months, but right now it is just too large. Of course it doesn’t matter what he wears, and his father and mother and grandmother will make sure that he is well dressed for the family pictures. The external elements will all come together and at the moment of the sacrament, we will all be bound together in both believing and belonging.

I’m just glad the church long ago resolved the issue of the worthiness of the officiant. As the one who will officiate, it is good to know that the sacrament is far beyond my power. I place our grandson in God's 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!

Arriving in a new place

Last evening I walked through the lobby of the Navy Gateway Inn and Suites here in Misawa. There was a group of six or eight young men waiting to register at the front desk. They looked pretty tired. I recognized the look and the feeling. It is disorienting to travel a long ways to a place where the time zone is so different than home. They got up in the morning, excited about a big trip, went through the normal morning adventures, boarded a plane and traveled for about 10 hours to reach Japan, where it was the next day and a couple of hours later than when they had departed. After clearing customs and immigration they took a bus from one airport to another and that took a couple of hours. By that time, they didn’t really know what time of day it was. Then they boarded another airplane for an hour’s ride to their new duty station where it was already dark. At this point, they had been up for at least 24 hours with a little dozing on the airplane. They were met at the airport by someone who gave them a ride to the hotel. They didn’t know where anything on base was located and they couldn’t see much during their brief drive to the hotel because it was dark outside. It was hot and muggy and they needed sleep. All they had to do now was to get registered, find their rooms and get some sleep.

I headed towards the vending room, where I purchased a bottle of sparkling juice. Most transactions on the base are done in US dollars and it is easy to know what you are getting. There are plenty of US brands and there are the normal fast food chains that we recognize. Vending, however, is all in Japanese. There might be a recognizable cola among the choices, but there will also be several cold teas and some sparkling waters and juices that we are not used to seeing. And everything is written in Japanese, so for those of us who don’t read the language, there is a guessing game based on the pictures on the labels, which often don’t give much a clue as to what you are getting. A green bottle might be green tea, but it also might be a very sweet beverage that doesn’t refresh. And the vending machines take yen, so a typical price will be 130 with no provisions on the machine to take bills. You have to understand the coins to use the machines. There are coins in up to 500 yen which is a little bit less than $5.

I wondered how the tired young men, just arrived at their new duty station, might react to the vending machines. Imagine being tired and ready for sleep, but just wanting a cool drink before retiring. You’ve just been assigned a room that is hot because it has been shut up all day long and has no air conditioning. You open the windows and turn on the fans, but it seems like it will take a while before things cool enough to sleep. You decide to look for a vending machine to get a cool drink and encounter a machine that is different from any you have ever seen. You might have a few Japanese coins in your pocket, but you have to figure out how many and which ones to insert and then you have to make a choice and none of the items looks familiar.

These are bright young people and within a few days they’ll adjust to the time change and find their way around the base. They’ll figure out where to get a car and where permanent housing is located and they’ll learn about the money and figure out how to live with two monetary systems. The ATM machines on base all give the two different currencies and work with USA bank cards. The BX and Commissary have the brands and items they need.

Our son in law has greeted four new airmen this week. They are all fresh out of tech school, which means they have completed basic training and then a specialized school in airframe and engine repair. Then they are assigned to this air base. They are staring a new job with new responsibilities in a new country with a new culture and many of them are facing their first time of living away from home for an extended period of time. It can be a rough adjustment for some of them. “Where am I going to live?” and “Where can I get a car?” seem to be the most common concerns as they arrive on base. Air Force bases are big places and having a car to get around can be pretty important. In the case of Misawa, they are still in another country with different rules for driving. They drive on the left side of the road here and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. We’ve been entertained watching those new to the base as they approach their cars in the parking lot, instinctively going up and unlocking the wrong side of the car, then having to walk around to the correct side before driving.

Humans are remarkably adaptive creatures. We’ve just been in Japan for a week and we have already adjusted our internal clocks, figured out which side of the car to sit, and learned which way to look before crossing the street. (Both ways, of course, but the pattern is right, left, right instead of left, right, left.) Figuring out which side of the sidewalk to walk is a bit of a challenge because crowds in Japan are not consistent about that particular pattern. Sometimes they’ll walk on the left, like they drive, but if we try to use that pattern all the time, we find ourselves working against prevailing traffic sometimes.

The new arrivals will adjust to their new circumstances. Some will be adventurous and have a lot of cross cultural experiences as they explore Japan. Others will stay on base and have a less multi-cultural experience. All will learn and grow through the experience, just as we have. It’s a big world and getting out into it is a great experience.

For now, however, I just hope that the new arrivals were able to get some sleep.

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!

Nebuta

festival parade 1
The Nebuta Festival has been going on for so long that no one knows for sure its origins. Some say that it may have connections to the ancient Chinese Tanabata festival. The traditions of Aomori have been blended with even more ancient traditions for a festival with lanterns at the center.

Here is one story: Shinto traditions tell of the Kami. Kami are spirits who exert a direct effect on humans. Some spirits give energy. Some give food. Some provide music. Some play tricks. A Kami can be both good and bad at the same time. All things are influenced by spirits and spirts are everywhere. Aomori is a region where the land meets the sea. The fishermen go out to catch food for the people and the farmers produce food from the land. Both sources of food are important to the local economy and to the health and well being of the people. Both involve long hours and hard work. The sleep Kami were causing a problem with the farmers. Farmers need to rise early and work long days, but the Kami were making the farmers sleepy and they weren’t getting their work done. After much consideration it was decided that if the people lit many lanterns as the sun went down and played loud music, especially lots of drum music with the biggest drums available, they might be able to chase away the sleep Kami and the farmers could get the harvest completed. So a festival was declared and the people marched in the streets with lanterns and drums.

This has evolved into a week-long festival held the first week of August each year. Since we come from a place where we celebrate motorcycles and the people who ride them with a festival during the first week of August each year, we decided that we should take in the Aomori Nebuta Festival. Aomori is an hour and half by train from Misawa and we got on the little Misawa train and headed north to the seacoast town of Aomori. By the time we arrived the train was brimming with over a hundred people in each car, most of whom were standing. We got off the train and followed the crowd.

We knew a little bit about the festival because we visited Aomori last year and toured the Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum. We heard a performance by drummers and flute players and we saw some of the floats from the previous year’s festival and a host of masks.

Master Craftsperson create Nebuta artists. They begin designing the floats as soon as the festival ends and spend an entire year crafting a new float for the next year’s festival.

nebutafestival 2
The parade is spectacular! Tens of thousands of people line the parade route. There are some seats which can be reserved. Others put mats down on the ground. The rest stand. Each float is preceded by a band. The band has several large taiko drums with drummers who beat in rhythm. They are followed by flute players providing the melody and rows of musicians with hand cymbals. Then come the dancers. A float may have as many as 200 or more dancers, chanting as they follow along. Anyone can dance in the festival as long as they have a traditional costume. Costumes can be purchased or rented at several locations around the city.

The floats themselves range from large rickshaws to enormous lighted floats. All floats are moved down the street by human power, with teams of strong persons lifting and pulling on the wooden beams that support the floats. The teams who pull the floats are directed by conductors who indicate when and where to turn and set the pace for the float to move down the street.

festival 2019 3
Moving in and out of the crowds of dancers and musicians and floats are the jokers of the festival - baketo in Japanese - who amuse the crowds with bright costumes and masks. We saw animal masks such as elephants and giraffes as well as masks of warriors and other traditional Japanese characters. Some baketo wore makeup.

The dancers and musicians and baketo wear large hats covered with all kinds of flowers and birds and brightly colored ornaments. Bells are worn by the dancers to add even more sound to the parade.

The parade course goes around a rectangle in the center of the city and fills up the entire route so that once the parade starts it goes for two hours or more with continual floats and bands and dancers.

Standing there watching the parade, immersed in the loud rhythms of the drums and the tunes of the flutes it was easy to know that we are in a culture that is very different from our home. We have parades, and we even have lighted parades held after dark, but nothing like the Nebuta Festival. I’m sure that the people who attend the festival each year would be equally amazed at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Each culture has its own special events and activities.

Among the surprises of the festival for us was the large number of infants and children, all dressed in traditional costumes, participating in the parade. Entire families, some with strollers, some carrying their young children, danced along with the festival floats and bands.

The hard work of playing, dancing, and moving the huge floats requires a lot of water. Special carts with barrels of water and dippers follow each of the floats and runners take water to those who are participating. Baketo drummers get regular breaks during which they go back to the water carts and are refreshed before returning to replace other drummers. The music never takes a break, but individual players get a moment for refreshment.

My initial reaction is that I’m just glad I was there to see it. Having previously seen the floats and read about the festival, even heard some of the drums and flutes, was a bit of a foretaste, but the actual festival was much grander, brighter, louder and amazing than I expected. They do this every night for a week and the last night is ended with a huge fireworks display.

How fortunate we are to be able to witness such a celebration.

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!

Earthquake

One of the Japanese words that we use in English is Tsunami. There is no singular English word with exactly the same meaning. It is no mystery why the word comes from the Japanese language. The Japanese archipelago is located in an area where several continental and oceanic plates meet. Japan is one of the world’s most seismically active areas. About 20 per cent of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater can be felt in Japan. The seismic activity is the source of the many volcanoes and hot springs around the country. The islands that make up Japan are the result of seismic activity.

Our experience with earthquakes is very limited. I have memories associated with the Yellowstone Park earthquake that occurred when I was 6 years old. That measured 7.2 and resulted in 28 fatalities. A huge landslide took the side off of a mountain and created a lake where there had not been one. We were about 50 miles from the epicenter of that shake, which occurred in the night. I remember much of what followed, but don’t know whether I have actual memories of the shaking itself. I have since felt earthquakes in the places I have lived and once experienced an earthquake when visiting in Costa Rica, but I’m pretty used to the earth feeling pretty firm and secure under me.

Folks who live in earthquake prone areas, however, get used to the shaking. Most of the time it isn’t very violent and life simply goes on. Last night’s 6.2 shake came at 7:23. We were all seated, having just finished supper and our daughter was feeding our grandson. The dog was the first to respond. He got up and came over to the rest of us. Then we felt it. Our son in law announced, “earthquake.” We all felt it. I was amazed at how calm everyone was. There were no sirens, no car alarms going off, no one rushing out into the street. Nothing fell off of shelves. The buildings here on the Air Force Base are very earthquake resistant and safe places to be in a quake. The biggest visual clue of the quake in the room where we were was the gentle swaying of the ceiling fan.

The quake was centered off the coast of Fukushima at a depth of about 50 km, according to news reports available this morning. The location is enough to get my attention. It is not far from the center of the massive 2011 earthquake that hit 9.0 and caused a huge tsunami. That quake resulted in a nuclear disaster that was the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. At least 15,000 people were killed by that earthquake and the resulting tsunami.

Last night’s quake was felt as far away as Tokyo. Misawa, where we are, is quite a bit closer to the epicenter and the shaking was enough to get our attention. No damage has been reported from the quake so far.

According to Earthquake Track, Misawa has experienced two earthquakes in the last 24 hours, the strongest being the one we felt. An earlier quake measured 4.6 and was a bit closer to our location. A total of 3 earthquakes have occurred in the last week, 5 in the last month, and 56 in the last year. Earthquakes are common in this part of the world.

Having a lot of experience with earthquakes and tsunamis has resulted in a lot of precautions around Japan. Japan has led the world with the development of earthquake resistant building design and construction techniques. Tsunami evacuation routes are clearly identified in all coastal areas. There are signs in most public buildings with instructions on what to do in an earthquake. There is an acceptance of the simple fact that there are forces in this world that are well beyond the capacity of humans to control.

I’m curious about whether or not I would have been aware of the earthquake had it occurred during the night when I was sleeping. I don’t think that that amount of movement would have awakened me. The 4.6 earthquake of the previous evening occurred when I was awake, but I didn’t feel it. We weren’t in the same room with the dog for that shake. He seems to be very sensitive to the motion.

In Japan authorities know it is not a matter of if, but rather of when a major quake exceeding 7.0 will occur. It has been nearly a century since a massive earthquake has centered near Tokyo, the nation’s largest city. Estimates vary, but some predict that a quake capable of producing tens of thousands of casualties is likely within the next 50 years. While scientists have become very adept at monitoring earthquakes and recording their force and location, prediction is not yet an accurate science. The best minds in the field don’t know when the next quake will occur.

Meanwhile life goes on. The trains all have contingency plans in case of earthquakes, but for the most part they run uninterrupted. Certainly they are closer to schedule than public transportation in the United States. People are used to them arriving and leaving at exactly the time scheduled. People pause during an earthquake, but their routines and schedules remain the same. Last night’s shake is not big news in Japan today. Internet news sources note that the quake occurred and that no tsunami warning was issued, but other stories are garnering more attention and longer articles. A 6.2 earthquake that does little or no damage and causes no tsunami just isn’t big news.

As far as I know there have been no aftershocks from this quake and quite a bit of time has passed since the initial shake. We’ve no change in our plans for the day. For us, who are unused to earthquakes it is a momentarily interesting phenomenon, worth noting, but not at all disruptive of our lives. This is the place where our daughter and her family live. It doesn’t seem to be inherently more dangerous that other places in the world. Quite frankly it seems safer her than in many US cities, including Dayton and El Paso, where real danger disrupted the lives of so many in the last 24 hours.

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 trip to Daiso

Each day we plan at least one outing that gets our new grandson and his mother out of the house. It might be as simple as a walk around the neighborhood or a bigger adventure. As our daughter heals from the effects of having given birth through surgery and our grandson grows and strengthens, the size of the adventures grows. Yesterday we decided to make a trip to a store that has become a tradition for many visitors to Japan: Daiso. Sometimes called the 100 yen store, it is roughly equivalent to the various dollar stores that are all across the United States. There is a lot of merchandise available at low prices. Some of the merchandise isn’t the highest quality and there are certainly many items that can’t be found in such a store, but it is a good place to shop for a few gifts and souvenirs.

Among the items we like to bring home from Japan are chopsticks, fans and origami paper. Daiso is a good place to pick up all of these items. There are more expensive and higher quality versions of all of those products, but the less expensive ones make fine reminders of a trip to Japan and good gifts for those who are at home. For example there are expensive hand painted rice papers that can be used for origami, but paper to teach and learn the basic folds of the ancient art can be virtually any piece of paper that is square. The paper cranes made famous by the historical novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes were folded from medicine wrappers. Paper, along with most other items, was in short supply following the Second World War in Japan. Sadako used what was available. The cranes which are displayed in the Hiroshima museum are tiny, though most of the cranes at memorials and other locations are folded form paper that is a bit larger and therefore a bit easier from which to make the shape.

For those of us who fold a few figures from memorized steps or from a craft class a few sheets of simple paper are just right. Packages of sheets of paper fill most of an aisle at the Daiso store and can be bought for 100 yen each. Because we have access to the military APO postal system through our daughter, it is simple to mail home a small box with items from the store, so a trip to Japan is a good time to stock up on origami paper for ourselves and some to share with friends at home.

It is the same with chopsticks and paper fans. There are fancy and expensive versions of both products available, but for everyday use and for gifts to family and friends, less expensive versions are completely adequate.

Like the dollar stores at home, Daiso seems to be very popular among the Japanese people. On each visit we see people of all ages making their purchases in the large and well-lit stores.

A trip to Daiso was a fun outing for our family yesterday - just the right size for the amount of energy we had. The weather continues hot and humid here and it doesn’t take too much time outside to be feeling hot and tired and ready to return to the comfort of our daughter’s air conditioned home.

Being with our grandson is a reminder of how our life became more complex when we became parents. Each outing is a logistical challenge. If it were just adults, we’d grab our purses and wallets and head out the door. The baby, however, required a car seat and a diaper bag and perhaps a stroller or at least a special pack to carry the infant. It brought a smile to my face to see the back of our daughter’s car filled with all kinds of baby items. It made me remember the checklists of items we had to take along for each outing when she was a baby. We had to have the right special toys and the right extra clothing and a number of other items. It is no wonder that our son and daughter in law, who have three children, both drive mini vans. Space to haul things is part of being a parent.

A trip to Daiso isn’t the same kind of cultural immersion as say, a visit to the Hachinohe fish market. Daiso bears a lot of similarities with stores that can be found in the US. The fish market, on the other hand is so uniquely Japanese that at least here in Japan a google search turns up websites that are entirely written in Japanese.

One of the fun things about being here in Japan is that when we have location services turned on with our computers, Google searches often do not result in English language web sites. Sometimes I turn off the location services so that I can more easily find web sites in a language that I can read. Still, being immersed in Japanese, even when I cannot read or understand the language, is part of being in Japan and I don’t want to avoid the language entirely. That is another fun thing about a visit to Daiso. The clerks who assist customers use Japanese as their primary language. While most hotels and many restaurants employ people who are fluent in English, such skills aren’t required to work at Daiso. English language classes are part of public school in Japan and most people have a good basic understanding of the language, but opportunities to practice and become fluent come primarily from travel and not everyone has the luxury of international travel. We are not fluent in Japanese and are dependent upon those who are able to speak English. However, we enjoy going to places that are distinctly Japanese where we are immersed in the language and culture and surrounded by those who are not speaking English. Daiso works well for us. We understand enough to make simple purchases and even when we can’t read all of the signs we can make simple purchases knowing the price range of items in the store.

All in all, our trip to Daiso was just the right size adventure for a Saturday afternoon.

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!

Lost in translation

There is a member of our congregation who is a professional translator. She worked for law enforcement agencies during her career and served as a translator for quite a few different languages. Her training as a translator didn’t come from a formal school, though there are several official schools for translators, largely to support the demand of the field of international diplomacy. She was born to parents from Japan who had emigrated to Brazil where the official language is Portuguese. The family spoke only Japanese at home, but since she went to school and learned Portuguese in school, she became the family translator. As she grew up she discovered that she had a gift for languages and before long was fluent in Spanish and English, other minority languages in Brazil.

The experience of two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century resulted in a high demand for those who could translate from one language to another. At first, during the actual combat experiences, translators were needed for the process of collecting intelligence on the enemy. Later, after the hostilities ceases, the process of occupation demanded those who could translate from one language to another. In Europe the various languages all had connections to Latin and there were many people who were fluent in more than one European language. The Second World War, however, produced a need for many translators who could navigate the complexities of Japanese, a language with two distinct writing systems, neither of which use the alphabet that is used for English and several European languages. It should surprise no one that the majority of translators from Japanese to English have come from Japan, where in addition to formal schools teaching the Japanese language, many school children learn English. For those wanting to become professional or diplomatic translators from Japanese to English, there really is no substitute for the formal immersion programs for language translators offered in Japan.

There are two ways to translate a sentence between English and Japanese. One is chokuyaku. Chokuyaku refers to the direct translation of the actual words. This method of translation has value for legal documents and other communications that require literal accuracy. The other way to translate is called iyaku. Iyaku refers to contextual translation where the central meaning is translated, taking into consideration the context and purpose of the sentence as well as the literal meaning of individual words. One might expect chokuyaku to be a more accurate translation, but when you remove words from their context, you miss a great deal of the meaning. We are often aware of this as we travel as many signs and instructions that are posted in both English and Japanese are based on chokuyaku translations. The sentences are awkward and although you generally can grasp the intended meaning, the words do not read smoothly and sound distinctly awkward in English. Many people have experienced this kind of translation when purchasing products manufactured in Japan, Korea, Vietnam or China, where the languages have similar challenges for translators.

For the purposes of conversation, Iyaku translation is preferable. It makes the sentences flow in a much more conversational fashion. However, there is a challenge to this type of translation as well because the number of words it takes to convey a particular concept in one language might not be the same number required in another language. Most of us who have traveled to places where the common language is different from our native language have experienced the translation where the initial speaker goes on for several paragraphs followed by the translator stating something in a few concise sentences. The opposite can also be true. The phrase is short in the original language, but takes a lot of words to be explained in translation. We often use the phrase, “something was lost in translation,” to express the challenge of trying to convey complex concepts in a different language.

Languages convey more than mere words. They are ways of communicating culture. The first generations of missionaries, who traveled from one place to another with the purpose of sharing faith and theological concepts experienced the challenges of translation. In the case of Christianity, the experiences of Jesus and his disciples, who spoke conversational Aramaic, were soon translated into Greek, the common language of the region. Not long afterword, those same stories were told in Latin. Over the years some of the original Greek texts were lost or damaged and the translated versions became the tools for communicating faith. For more than half of the history of the Christian faith the dominant language for speaking of faith was Latin, even though neither Jesus or any of his first generation of disciples used Latin as their conversational language. As the Protestant Reformation began to spread, the demand for the scriptures and other stories of faith to be told in common languages arose. Those who first translated into common languages usually were translating from the Latin. Conveying meaning was essential and so literal word-for-word translation was less employed and a system of translating the meaning of concepts and ideas was used. In today’s world there are many different versions of the scriptures of Christianity and some of them convey cultural biases and carry values that are different from the original versions of the texts. While we claim that there is only one Bible, the truth is that there are many versions of that one book and the different versions convey different meanings to different people.

The bottom line is that there is no perfect way of translating from one language and one culture to another. There is always something “lost in translation” and often something added in the process.

Spending time in Japan is a reminder for me of how intensely difficult it is to translate. There are times when I wish that I could learn Japanese so that translations would not be necessary. It seems like there are things that hold deep meaning for Japanese people that simply cannot be said in English. I’m sure that there are ideas and concepts that don’t easily flow in the other direction as well.

We have to accept less than perfect translation and the simple fact that there are some ideas and concepts that cannot be translated. The more time one spends in another language setting the more one simply adopts a few key words and phrases from the other language.

Our communication isn’t perfect, but it is good enough that we are able to travel, to obtain food and lodging and experience the great hospitality of the people of Japan. And once in a while we make genuine connections that transcend the limits of language.

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!

Visiting an Air Force Base

Several people we have met since arriving in Japan on this trip have commented that we arrived just in time for summer. The weather had been more cool prior to our arrival, but it has turned hot and humid, with high temperatures nearing 90 and above and the relative humidity in the high 80’s. The heat index is rising above 100 degrees every day. It don’t know if it helps to think in Celsius, as most Japanese people do, but the numbers are smaller. The forecast is for the temperature to reach 31 degrees with the humidity around 86% today. However you describe it the weather is warm enough to raise a sweat, and I’m doing a pretty good job of sweating each day. Up until last night we have been staying in off-base commercial hotels all of which have air conditioning, but yesterday we moved to the Navy Inn and Suites, located on Misawa Air Base. To our surprise, the modern hotel with very spacious and comfortable rooms, lacks air conditioning. We rounded up all the fans we could find at our daughter’s home and by midnight, we have it down to a bearable temperature in our room. It is still humid, but you can sleep if there is a fan blowing directly on you. We’ll try to manage the temperature with fans and by pulling the drapes and closing up the room during the heat of the day and hopefully it will be a bit easier to cool our sleeping room tonight. The forecast calls for lowering temperatures this weekend, so we are hoping that things will be a bit more comfortable as the time passes.

A little discomfort is always a part of travel and enjoying traveling involves learning to make the best of each situation. I can’t imagine, however, how the rooms on the upper floors of this hotel feel. We’re on the ground level of a four-story hotel. It has got to be pretty hot in the rooms above us. This hotel is primarily for US Navy personnel who are here on temporary assignment and for those who are in the midst of a permanent change of station and need temporary housing while their permanent housing is being arranged. It has to be a challenge for those who are beginning new jobs and adjusting to a new time zone to also have to deal with the heat. I’m sure that most of the year air conditioning isn’t an issue in this place known for winter snows and cold weather. But right now it is definitely a problem with this particular building.

United States military personnel are known for serving around the world in every climate and enduring whatever is necessary to get the job done. Certainly those who fought in the Pacific theater of World War II endured high heat and humidity and didn’t have the luxury of air conditioning. Remembering their sacrifices and service is a bit humbling when I complain about a warm evening and the lack of air conditioning in our temporary housing.

Although my father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, that service was before I was born and I definitely did not grow up in military culture. I’ve had to learn a bit about how the military works as we have visited our daughter and son in law in their various places of assignment during his military career. All of the bases we have visited have had the basic services we expect: a base exchange for general department store shopping, a commissary grocery store and a U.S. Post Office where the same rates that are used for mailing within the US apply for letters and packages from the remote location back to the United States. But modern military bases also have a few amenities that give them a US flavor, such as Burger King and Taco Bell fast food restaurants, mini-mart style convenience stores and cafes and coffee houses.

The result is enough security and familiarity to make it work for family members to live and work abroad. Those who enjoy overseas service the most, however, learn to get off of the base and explore the culture and people of the place where they are serving. Our daughter and son in law have been very good about this in each of their overseas assignments. When we visited last year we went to several local attractions that they had previously discovered as they took time to show us the place where they are living. Although none of us speak Japanese, we have found the Japanese people to be very welcoming and helpful and many of them speak English very well, so communication isn’t a big problem. The few confusions of language that we have encountered have provided fun stories to tell about our travels.

One way to reach across cultural differences is to go places with the baby. Of course he is new born and outings are limited in the warm weather. However, wherever we go, his cuteness opens doors and attracts friendly people. We get questions about his age and comments about his small size and plenty of oos and aws as people look into his stroller or car seat. There is something completely cross cultural about a baby and the care of an infant that garners support wherever we go.

One of the high points of this visit will be the baptism of our new grandson, which is set for Sunday, August 11 at the base chapel. The chaplains, both protestant and catholic have been very supportive of our family during the pregnancy and birth. Our daughter works at the base chapel and it was fun to visit there yesterday and meet the staff. They were welcoming of us and have arranged it so we will be able to officiate at the baptism as we have for other other grandchildren. We will have a video recording of the celebration made for his other grandparents who are in Virginia and not able to be present.

Planning worship reminds me of the congregation back home and the colleagues who are leading worship there to enable this special trip for us. I will return with many stories to tell and there will be stories of what is going on at home during our absence. We’ll be missing the Sturgis motorcycle rally and the church rummage sale as well as the worship services of our church.

A pilgrimage is a journey into the unfamiliar for the purpose of the spiritual growth of the community back at home. May this pilgrimage develop into a meaningful connection for our church which serves in an Air Force Base community. I know I’m learning some things that will help our ministries grow.

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!