December 2019

The Year is Complete

2019 has been completed and this journal now contains all of my entries. If you are a regular reader and want to check out my 2020 journal, you can do so by going directly to that page. If you read daily and have bookmarked my 2019 journal, now is the time to bookmark my 2020 journal. You can find it by clicking on the menu at the upper right hand corner of any page in my web site and selecting Journal 2020 or by following this link.

New Year's Eve

Here we are on the last day of the year, the last day of the decade. The celebration of the new year comes in the midst of the celebration of Christmas . New Year’s Eve is the seventh day of Christmas. It seems appropriate to look back and to look forward as the year makes its transition. Somehow reaching the third decade of the 21st Century seems like an amazing thing to me. It is not that I didn’t expect to live this long. I did. I expect that I’ll see more decades ahead. Perhaps there is something in the fact that my parents were born in the twenties of the last century. Neither of them lived that long, but the centennial of their births seems like a significant time.

The 2010’s were a significant decade for our family. It was the decade of the deaths of my mother and Susan’s father. It was the decade of the births of all of our grandchildren. It was the first decade of our daughter’s marriage. The list of things that happened int he last decade is significant for us personally. Perhaps, however, that is true of every decade. When I look back, I can name significant events that have been a part of each decade of my life.

In some ways for me reaching the 20’s of the century is a kind of realization that the century is mature. In the early years of the 2000’s it seemed a bit like a novelty. We weren’t used to writing the year beginning with a 2. We thought of ourselves as 20th century folk and it took a while to think in 21st century terms. And when I think of my own life, the decade of my twenties was significant. In my twenties I married, completed my college and graduate degrees, became a father, and launched my career. A lot happened in my life in those years.

It is traditional to make resolutions at this time of the year. To look back and discover the areas of life where change is desired and to make plans to create the change that is required. I’ve never been much for resolutions, though I respect the process of evaluating oneself honestly and daring to make changes. In a way this particular year doesn’t seem to need resolutions. Big changes are coming for me personally and I know that flexibility and adaptation will be required just to survive. We have enjoyed changes in the past and we’ve always found a certain joy in encountering the unknown, so there is an eagerness to our anticipation that feels right.

There is also anxiety about the future. There is enough uncertainty that it is hard to imagine how I will feel when I sit down to write my final journal entry of 2020. Right now it seems like there will be a significant journey before that day comes. I suspect that I’ll be sitting at the same desk, but that desk will have been moved to a new home. My relationship with my career will have changed significantly. I continue to struggle with the concept of retirement, and I know that there is plenty of meaningful work that doesn’t involve the exchange for a paycheck, but that idea is so different from the way I have lived, that I wonder a bit how things will work out.

So I guess you could describe me as a bit nervous about the year that is to come. I guess, however, that I should save that nervousness for tomorrow. Today is the last day of the year and it is a good day to look back and reflect on the year that is ending. The writer Dave Berry’s year-end reflection, published in the Washington Post, isn’t that positive. “Impeachment. Brexit. Greenland. Can we say anything good about his year? Nah.” He’s a humor writer and he writes to create and impact and a reaction, but I have to disagree with him. 2019 was the year of the birth of our youngest grandson. For that reason alone, I cannot say it was a year to forget. 2019 was the year of a major health scare in our family that ended with very good results. We are enjoying a new commitment to fitness and exercise and start every day with a renewed sense of gratitude for life and health and each other. 2019 was a year of emerging leadership in the church. Some of the tasks that I have done myself for decades have been assumed by others. A few new leaders have emerged.

Each year is unique with its own challenges and opportunities. Each has its own grief and its own celebrations. It seems quite natural that the season of Christmas should surround the ending of one year and the start of another. The occasions fit together in my mind.

Monday is my usual day for grocery shopping, so I went yesterday. The stores weren’t as crowded as they had been the week before. People were not buying as many groceries. They seemed to be a bit less hassled by the lines and the general crowdedness of the store. Still, you could tell that people were shopping for another week of celebration. There were plenty of smiles and a bit of understanding when someone else was in the way. Several of us were wandering around the store with a bit of confusion, looking for items that aren’t on our regular lists. For me it was cranberry sauce. We don’t buy it that often, and we didn’t need it for our Christmas dinner as it was provided by someone else, but we’ve got a turkey for New Year’s and cranberries seem like a good touch. I finally found them, wondering if the store makes a practice of changing the location every year just to keep us wandering - perhaps we’ll make an impulse purchase if we walk around the store long enough. Cranberries are too insignificant to make the store’s directory of items. But I found them. And our pantry is restocked with the supplies we need for this week.

I won’t be staying up until midnight tonight. I trust the new year to come in without my assistance. We’ll probably celebrate on Eastern Standard Time and then go to bed. I hope your celebrations are joyful and your reflections meaningful. Happy New Year’s Eve!

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!

Thinking about time

The artificial separation of science and religion is a relatively new phenomenon. For most of recorded history, religious leaders have also been leaders in the observation of nature and the study of the sciences. Academia and scholarship have been supported by religious institutions. Most of the great universities of the world have their roots in religious institutions and the desire of religious leaders to teach and learn.

One of the keys to the study of science is an understanding of the nature of time. It is a conundrum that has puzzled scholars since the beginning. People observed that the separation of day and night varied depending on one’s location in the world and the season of the year. They also observed the regularity of seasons. Combining those observations with observations of the movement of objects in the night sky, an understanding of the solar system and the movement of planets began to develop. All of this resulted in the division of the day/night cycle into 24 hours, which in turn were divided into 60 minutes and minutes into 60 seconds. the development of precision mechanical timepieces allowed for the measurement of location upon the surface of the planet and long distance navigation.

Because the understanding of the nature of time took many generations, there were human errors in the measurements. The development of more accurate tools of observation resulted in more precise ways of talking about time. It is important to be aware of this when we consider ancient texts. In terms of contemporary scientific measurement, the Bible is not precise when talking about time. Because people observed that wisdom develops with age and the passage of time, it was often assumed that wise people were older than was the case. Famous figures in the stories of our people were often reported to have had very long lives and remarkable physical stamina and vigor. Among the ancient stores of our people is the story of Abraham and Sarah. According to the Biblical record Sarah was 90 or 91 when Isaac was born and she died at the age of 127. Abraham is reported to be 100 years old at the birth of Isaac. It strains the imagination to come up with a theory of how this could be if we assume that the measurement of a year was precisely the same of our contemporary measurement.

The measurement of time and even the passage of seasons has changed throughout history. Trying to reconcile ancient texts with modern measurements results in some interesting discussions. Literalists try to measure everything by contemporary standards. Serious biblical scholars note that the Bible itself comments on the flexibility of time. Notably the 90th psalm compares a thousand years from a human perspective to a single day from the perspective of God. Since the development of the theory of relativity contemporary scientists have know that perspective makes a difference when measuring time.

All of this is background to a discussion, or perhaps even an argument, that I have had with a few of my friends recently. The conversation is about whether or not the end of 2019 marks the end of the decade. On the surface, it makes sense to use the even number 2020 to mark the beginning of the new decade. It is ten years from 2010 and 20 years from 2000. It will be ten years until 2030 arrives. From one point of view it is quite simple. However, there are those who argue that since there was no year 0, the years that end in 10 are the tenth years and therefore the new decade doesn’t begin until the year 2021. You can see how such an argument could be sustained for a long time.

It is true that neither the Julian nor the Gregorian calendars have a year zero. In both, the year 1 AD immediately follows the year 1 BC. The negative numbers are followed by positive numbers without a zero year. The argument might make sense if there was a precise measurement of the year where the division takes place. In reality, both calendars are based on estimates of the date of Jesus birth and it is likely that the estimates are inaccurate. At least it is fair to say that the most accurate we can come is within three or four years. Add to that the confusion that was caused by the fact that a year is not technically 365 days, but rather 365.2422 days. We deal with that by adding a day every fourth year, which we call a “leap” year. that gets us a bit closer to a measurement of the passage of time. However, our calendars with leap years are based on 365.25 days, not 365.2422 days, so we would get off were it not for the fact that our calendar omits a leap year every 100 years. That is more precise, but not completely so (365.2425 vs 365.2422). Additional adjustments need to be made every 400 and 4000 years to keep our calendar from moving around the seasons and remaining in sync with the movement of our planet in the solar system. It is fairly confusing, but the difference can become significant as is demonstrated by the differences between the Julian Calendar (without leap years) and our current Gregorian Calendar.

The development of the calendar we use was a religious project adopted in 1582 by an official decree of Pope Gregory XIII. The calendar retained the irregular lengths of months (varying from 28 to 31 days) of the Julian calendar. The irregular months were the result of political decisions. Mixing politics and religion always ends up with a certain degree of confusion.

So, for the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that it is reasonable to think of tomorrow as the last day of a decade and Wednesday and the beginning of a new decade. I’m aware that this isn’t completely precise, but sometimes you have to make an arbitrary designation for the sake of the story. And I suspect that in my personal life and in the life of the church the next decade will be at least as significant as the one that is ending.

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!

Continuing celebration

When our children were very young, we served a congregation where we had services on Christmas Day. The Christmas worship fit well into our family’s schedule, allowing us to have some separation in all of the gift giving. Our children would check out their Christmas stockings and receive one or two of their gifts early on Christmas morning. Then we’d take a break and they’d get dressed up for church. After church there would be dinner and more presents. It was at that time, with our own children being little and the church being a bit short of volunteers because of the holiday that we started inviting the children to come into the chancel and just play during the service. The service was fairly informal, with a lot of Christmas carols and the children were always well behaved.

Time passed. We moved to a congregation that does not have a tradition of Christmas day services. Our children grew up. We still follow the practice of inviting the children to come up to the front of the church and play during the service. This congregation has a number of nativity creche sets designed for children’s play. We put them out and the children let their imaginations wander with the telling of the Christmas story and the characters in the nativity sets. The children are always well behaved and there is seldom any disagreement or need for adults to intervene. When there is a need for an adult, there are plenty of adults ready to provide guidance.

I know that some parents prefer to have an attended nursery during worship and our congregation provides that service. They enjoy being able to worship and have a few quiet moments knowing that their young children are receiving attention. They find that having the children with them in worship is a distraction from their need for quiet meditation. We have also found that the majority of the parents of school-age children in our congregation prefer to have an overlap between worship and church school. Children begin worship with the congregation and leave for church school part way through the service. That way they get to experience part of communal worship, learn the responses and the practices of worship, but they also receive the specific instructions of church school all within a relatively short amount of time. It means a bit less time for church school and lessons have to be carefully planned to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.

Despite the preferences and the choices of the congregation, I prefer to have children in worship. I know that they can sometimes be a distraction. I can remember being upset when one of our children was crying as we were trying to worship. Worship, however, is the gathering of the community and the community is incomplete without our children. I think that the presence of children would force us to change our style of worship a bit. There would probably be less talk and more music. There would be more opportunities for movement. Children are often a bit fussy when restrained. If the community can provide opportunities for them to be safe within the sanctuary while still allowing them to move about the room, they can be part of the worship even when they don’t understand all of the words or know all of the traditions.

So I look forward to the 1st Sunday after Christmas. We get to sing familiar carols and enjoy the presence of children in our entire worship service. I don’t feel a need to water down my sermon for the children, but I do remain aware of their presence. I won’t be going on too long with my preaching and I hope to have enough flexibility to engage the children as much as practical.

The season of Christmas allows the congregation to be just a little bit counter-cultural. We continue our celebrations while much of the rest of the world is quickly moving on beyond Christmas. We are, of course, influenced by the wider culture. Church members have already asked me, “How was your Christmas?” as if it were already past. Our Department of Hospitality is hosting a potluck brunch today and the notice in the church bulletin refers to the event as a New Year’s celebration. Of course new years’ comes in the midst of Christmas, so the reference is completely appropriate, but we know we have to work a little bit to hang on to Christmas while the rest of the culture is quick to move on to other things. You won’t find Christmas references anywhere in the headline news. I’ve seen people taking down Christmas decorations and I suspect that the lots where the city collects Christmas trees for recycling are already filling up with discarded trees. We still have another week to celebrate.

We’ve been following two families related to our congregation this holiday. One is a couple in which the father grew up in our church and moved away to attend college then continues to live in another city pursuing his career. Another is a young man who was part of our congregation in his teenage years, but is not active at this stage of his life. Parents of both of the young men are active in our church, so we keep track of their stories. One family has a brand-new daughter, born this Christmas and the other family is expecting a birth day day now. I know that the Christmas season will always be a rich time for both families, filled with memories and love. I grew up in a family with a brother whose birthday is Christmas Eve. Our father’s birthday was December 28. One day is not sufficient to celebrate the birth of a new baby. It takes some time to adjust to an event that changes your life forever. These two families will always carry a sense of Christmas lasting beyond a single day. There will be birthday celebrations and family times marking the season.

So as we worship today, I’m hanging on to the spirit of Christmas. There is no rush for the celebrations to end.

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!

Christmas continues

Talking with friends on Christmas Eve the topic somehow turned to close encounters with animals while driving. We all had experienced encounters with deer. There ere a lot of deer in our area and collisions between car and deer are fairly common. The experts all say that it is safest to slow down as much as you can without swerving. Hitting the deer directly will cause less damage and be less dangerous than going out of control and perhaps running off of the road or rolling the car. My experiences with deer have all occurred so quickly that there was no time for conscious thought about what to do. I simply reacted the best that I was able. Then one of the people present told us a story of another encounter. She was driving north from Hot Springs to Custer late at night and rounded a corner while going over a rise to see a huge dark beast in the middle of the road. She slammed on the brakes and stopped just short of hitting a buffalo standing in the middle of the road. While she steadied herself and stopped shaking, the animal calmly turned to look at her, but made no attempt to move. She finally backed up her car and made her way around the backside of the animal and continued her journey.

There aren’t a lot of buffalo around here, but the herds at Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park where she was driving are significant. There are also buffalo being raised on private ranches in South Dakota as well as those owned and managed by the Intertribal Bison Council.

Before going farther, I should note that I know that North American Bison are not true buffalo. There are only two living examples of buffalo in the world: African Cape and Asian Water buffalo. And there are two living Bison species: North American Bison and the European Bison. When European explorers first came to the North American continent, they encountered a lot of species of animals that they had never before seen. The journals of Lewis and Clark refer to North American Pronghorn Antelope as “goats.” American bison looked somewhat like Asian water buffalo and they were given that name by the explorers. Of course they already had a name in the indigenous languages. The Lakota name for the animals is Tatanka. Over 60 million of them once roamed the plains of North America. By the close of the 19th century it has been estimated that fewer than 1,000 survived.

We livd in southwestern North Dakota for seven years, in the area were the last large buffalo hunts took place in a process that can hardly be called hunting. The slaughter of the buffalo was part of a wider attempt to destroy the culture of indigenous American people as settlers took the land and forced natives out of their homelands and attempted to eliminate them all together. Living in North Dakota for seven years, I also became aware that for fans of the North Dakota State University at Fargo the animals are bison (and don’t you ever forget that!).

The Bison football team dominated Montana State University in the FCS semifinals 42-14. They will play in the national championship in Texas on January 11. A Bison win would mean an unprecedented eighth national title in one decade. They know how to play the game.

But I grew up calling the animals buffalo. There has been a herd in Yellowstone National Park all along. The group, tiny when compared to the massive herds that once roamed the plains, is easy to show to visitors. We often would take guests to the park knowing that we would be able to see antelope, big horn sheep, elk, deer and buffalo. We often could also show them moose, bears and an occasional coyote. I’m from South Dakota now and here we pronounce that name of that animal a silent e at the end. I guess our coyotes don’t speak Spanish.

All of this is a rather long set up to the simple fact that for our celebration of the third day of Christmas yesterday, we had a really fine dinner of buffalo sirloin, hassle back potatoes and chopped salad. It was a lovely meal. Bison is naturally low in fat and a small steak is a good source of protein. Eating responsibly is a challenge anywhere one lives. One of the challenges for those of us who live on the northern plains is that so much of what is available in the stores is trucked long distances from the places it is grown. I’v been told that our carbon footprint is more influenced by the choices we make about what food we eat than the choices we make about what vehicle to drive. When we buy meat from Wild Idea Buffalo Co. her in Rapid City, we know we are getting meat that is grass fed, local and ranch raised. The meat is sustainably produced and hasn’t had to travel long distances to get to our table. It is the meat that sustained people in this part of the world for centuries before modern ways displaced the indigenous way of life. Buffalo meat is a good choice for protein from a heal perspective, too. Reasonable portions can be part of a heart-healthy diet. The real splurge in terms of fat and calories in our dinner last night was the butter on the potatoes. And I don’t skimp on butter when making hassle back potatoes. We try to be responsible in our food choices.

I try to think of something special for each of the twelve days of Christmas. We don’t center our Christmas celebrations on gifts, but we do eat a few special meals during the season. Some meals are celebrated with friends as our Christmas day feast. Some are a bit more intimate as our dinner last night. All are ways of recognizing and setting aside this unique and special time of the year. We enjoy prolonging the celebration.

There is fresh snow this morning to keep the world outside looking just right for the season. May the celebrations continue.

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 Christmas walk

With Christmas landing on a Wednesday, we planned reduced hours for our office on Thursday and Friday to give a bit of extra time for Christmas celebrations. That meant that we had time for a nice walk on our city’s greenbelt system yesterday. We walked a couple of miles and got in a bit of exercise, just right for the day after having eaten a big celebration meal. The walk also gave us some time to talk and to do a bit of people watching. The people watching wasn’t very dramatic, because with the cold temperature and a few snowflakes in the air, the parks weren’t very busy yesterday. A few hearty hikers and bicyclers were out, but we had plenty of space to ourselves.

In just a few days we will begin a new decade. In some ways it seems surprising to me that I’m thinking about 2020. That seemed so distant when I was a child growing up. The turn of the century seemed like something that was far off. Then it arrived and Y2K was a bit of a computer programming problem, but not the huge disaster than some predicted. We didn’t experience any disruption in our lives caused by computers programmed over two digit date numbers.

I was thinking about changes and the end of the second decade of the century as we walked yesterday. At the beginning of our walk we met two people who were our riding electric scooters. One was on a two-wheeled “hover board” style device and the other on a more traditionally shaped scooter. We could hear the whine of their electric motors as they passed us. I’m pretty sure we wee walking faster than their scooters were transporting them.

I’ve never understood the appeal of electric scooters. I need the exercise of walking and I find it to be very pleasant to walk. When I want to enter a building or get in my car, there is no worry about how to store or transport a scooter. I can understand the appeal of a traditional scooter, which can enable one to go faster and provides a bit of fun and excitement to the journey, but the electric scooters seem to me to be sort of inefficient and not very useful as transportation devices.

There was a lot of hype nearly a couple of decades ago, in 2001 when Dean Kamen introduced the Segway scooter. The release of the device was shrouded in secrecy and there was a lot of build up. When we found out that the technological wonder was just a scooter, it seemed like quite a let down. Why purchase a vehicle for going places where you can easily walk? I guess there might be some people who have disabilities who could benefit from such a device, but it really doesn’t work for most types of mobility disorders. The inventor, Kamen, has made some truly innovative and wonderful wheelchairs and his contribution to mobility for those who might otherwise be dependent on others is wonderful. But the Segway, though promoted as self-balancing, is a challenge for first-time riders and takes a bit of learning to use. Its speed, 12 mph is just fast enough to be a problem on public walkways. That’s roughly three times a brisk walking pace, and perhaps four times as fast as those out for a leisurely stroll. Too fast for the walkway, the device is definitely too slow for streets where cars operate. The scooter has found a small niche market among meter readers and few other professions, but isn’t practical for letter carriers or package delivery services. At $400 and up, the device is a bit speedy for a toy.

The thing is that I like to walk. I like the way it makes me feel. Walking has a physical benefit and a psychological benefit as well. I remember a few years ago that the American Heart Association chose the figure of 10,000 steps as a good daily amount for heart health. Humans have evolved as creatures that are so well adapted to walking that when we don’t walk, there are definite health consequences. For those who are able daily walking can do a lot to help stem cardiovascular disease. Of course the 10,000 steps is an arbitrary number, but it is easy to remember and seems to have stuck. I have had a number of pedometers designed to count steps, but they suffered a variety of fates. A couple came to their demise when the belt clips broke. One made a trip through the lawn mower and another was spread across the lawn by the snowblower. I stopped wearing them after a number of failed attempts to keep the devices on my belt. However, in recent years my cell phone counts my steps and that has proven to be a useful measurement for me. 10,000 steps seems to be fairly close to my average daily walk. I’m not sure how accurate a device carried in my pocket is at counting steps. Since my wife has a similar phone we sometimes compare steps when we are doing the same thing together all day. When we travel, for example our days are very similar in terms of the amount of walking. Our phones never agree exactly on how far we have walked, however. So it is only a general guideline. From the perspective of that guideline, I’ve done pretty good this week. I recorded 14,200 steps on Monday. Tuesday was Christmas Eve - a long and busy day for me. I recorded 17,446 steps. Christmas day was 10,556 and yesterday was 10,888. Each person has a different pace, but 10,000 steps is about 4 1/2 miles for me. I try to get in about 5 miles of walking each day, which isn’t a problem. The hallways at the church are long and I can affect the number of steps by choosing to park farther from my intended destination and walking a bit. In downtown Rapid City, you can almost always find free parking within in a two-block walk. Our city is laid out just shy of eight block per mile, so you can get a quarter mile and save a dime by parking just off of Main Street.

So, I won’t be shopping for a scooter any time soon. I do give thanks that I am able to walk. It is a great way to get around.

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

The Feast of Stephen

A couple of carols come to my mind as I begin this day:

Good King Wenceslas looked out On the feast of Stephen When the snow lay round about Deep and crisp and even Brightly shone the moon that night Though the frost was cruel When a poor man came in sight Gath'ring winter fuel

and
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

They are both a bit of silliness, but they serve to remind faithful people that the celebration of Christmas is a season and not just a single day. Most of our community will be going back to work today as if Christmas is over. Retail stores will put their Christmas items on closeout and start decorating for the next holiday, probably Valentine’s Day. St. Stephen’s Day isn’t a big holiday around here.

The carol about Good King Wenceslas was written in 1853 to a tune that dates back another 300 years and probably has its roots in Finland. The story was already a legend long before the carol was written. Wenceslaus I was duke of Bohemia and lived from around 907 to 935. I don’t know much about his story aside from the story told by the carol. The name Wenceslaus appears to be a Latinized version of the old Czech name “Venceslav” or “Vaclav.” Wenceslaus lived a short life, dying before he was 30 years old. He was murdered by his brother and a group of supporters who wanted his brother to assume power. He was named a Roman Catholic saint after he was martyred. Key to his being named a saint is the story of his braving a harsh winter storm to make a gift to a poor peasant. The event was said to have occurred on the Feast of St. Stephen, which is December 26.

Saint’s feast days are recognized on the date of their death. Wenceslas’ feast day is September 28.

The story was handed down for many generations by oral tradition and the details are a bit unclear. Stephen, reported to be the first Christian saint to be martyred for his faith, has his story reported int he book of Acts. The Bible, however, doesn’t give us the date of his death. I don’t know how the church settled on December 26 as the date to celebrate Stephen, but the traditions of Christmas, rising in the 4th and 5th centuries, were carefully coordinated to have selected stories and readings to educate newly-converted Christians in the stories of the faith. Telling Stephen’s story in conjunction with the birth narrative of Jesus was probably part of a carefully planned set of sessions that were designed to teach both the cost and the joys of discipleship.

The traditions included four weeks of prayer and fasting and preparation with a single feast day. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudet Sunday, a day of joy and feasting in the midst of the somber season of preparation. Originally Advent was six weeks long and Gaudet Sunday marked the middle of the fast. Many of those traditions have fallen by the wayside.

The tradition of feasting on Christmas, however, has remained. We had an extravagant meal yesterday. A total of seven of us gathered at the home of dear friends. We all brought food, and there was such an abundance that we all were taking food home with us at the end of the meal. It was the first Christmas for our hosts when none of their adult daughters were able to be home for the holiday. It seems to be a bit of a South Dakota tradition to raise our children here and then watch as they go off into the world to pursue their careers and lives in other places. They have three daughters. Two are in Tennessee and one in Minnesota. They will be together on the holiday again soon, but this year was a year for the daughters to be elsewhere.

We did share a delightful phone conversation with their twin daughters during our dinner. A speaker phone gave us all a chance to enjoy their delightful humor and sense their loving presence. They had us all laughing. Like Garrison Keillor, I have told my share of jokes about midwestern Lutherans, and our host family fits the stereotype quite nicely. At least if you hold that kind of stereotype in your mind, a discussion of Pineapple Casserole fits right into your image. Personally, I don’t have an opinion on the dish, except that it doesn’t seem like anything I would cook. Pineapple, butter, flour, and sugar are not ingredients that seem to invite the addition of sharp cheddar cheese, but then, I’m not from Wisconsin. Then there is the topping. Crushed Ritz crackers add a crunch, I’m sure, especially when they are mixed with melted butter and baked as a topping. The result is a sort of cobbler, I guess. I felt no need to get the exact recipe. I don’t plan on making it. But I was amazed that we could be so thoroughly entertained by a pair of twins discussing the relative merits of different versions of the dessert. Indeed it was an appropriate discussion for a feast day.

Today’s celebration won’t involve too much feasting at our house. Health dictates that we be conscious of how many calories we consume and we’ll have more energy for the other tasks of our lives if we eat in a more sensible manner. Unlike folks of earlier centuries who lived in northern climates, we don’t really fear running out of food during the winter. We won’t face famine if we over consume at the solstice. The risk of a Christmas celebration escapes us. We don’t take much of a risk by having a good celebration meal for Christmas.

I do, however, enjoy stretching out the celebration. I have no intention of allowing Christmas to be “over” just yet. The Christmas decorations in the church and in our home will remain in place. At the church, we’ll recognize Epiphany a day early this year, on January 5, because of the convenience of a Sunday celebration. We may take down some of the Christmas decorations that afternoon. But at our home, we’ll keep the tree up and decorations spread out for the full twelve days.

By then, most readers of my journal will be tired of my constant ramblings about Christmas and ready to move on to the season of light.

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!

Christmas 2019

I try to start each day by writing an essay which I published as my journal. I find that making it the first priority of the day, instead of focusing on the news, or doing chores, allows my creativity to come forward and helps me keep a discipline that has been a part of my life for a dozen years now. But this morning I did a couple of other things first. Christmas, it seems to me, is a good day for changing one’s routines and doing things in a slightly different order. I’m not making any really big changes. Most readers of my journal won’t notice anything different. As they say, when a guy whose hair is as short as mine lets down his hair, it isn’t a dramatic event.

It its good for our home o feel like Christmas. The lights on the tree are lit, there are presents under the tree. Bread is rising in the kitchen and in the refrigerator vegetables are marinating to be roasted later this morning. Our home is full of cookies and other special treats. There’s a bit of pie in the refrigerator. We have a bit of snow left from previous storms and the forecast calls for snow this afternoon and evening. There was a hint of fog in the air as we drove home from the church around 1 am. It feels like Christmas and Christmas feels good.

We’ve gone through several generations of Christmas traditions since our children became adults and moved into their own homes. Both of our children have lived quite a way from home in their married lives. At first, when they were young adults, they would come home. In some ways there were more pressures for us to observe the Christmas traditions when they were young adults than at other phases of their lives. When they were younger, we were forming our traditions and there was a sense of flexibility. When they were coming home for Christmas, there was an expectation that we’d remember traditions of years past. Somewhere in that phase our parents moved near to us and we assumed increasing responsibilities for their care. Our Christmas observances shifted in those years. Sometimes our children didn’t come home for Christmas, celebrating with other parts of the family. After our parents passed away we started traveling at Christmas. That had been our tradition when we were first married up through the years when our children started school. We always took off on Christmas Day to be with family and spend a bit of time unwinding after the intensity of the holidays.

in recent years we have often traveled on Christmas Day and have been blessed to spend it with our family. We’ve had Christmas in the homes of both of our children. Now that they have children of their own, they are forming their own traditions and while we are most welcome to join them, it seemed like this was a good year for staying at home. Susan’s recovery has been wonderful and she could certainly travel, but we didn’t know how that would feel when looking at it from the perspective of a couple of months ago, when it is best to make plans and purchase tickets. Our children both came to visit us in October, so it hasn’t been too long.

Today we’ll have a wonderful feast with friends, each of us contributing a favorite food to the dinner. We’ll have time for a walk and perhaps a nap. We’ll talk with our children by Skype or FaceTime. We’ll open a few presents and we’ll get to see our grandchildren open the gifts we have selected for them. Technology is a great gift to us that allows us to witness the celebrations of our children and grandchildren even when we are in different places.

It is a year for a bit of nostalgia for us. We know that 2020 will bring big changes into our lives. We still don’t fully know what it will be like to back off from the routine of daily work and to develop new activities and adventures. We suspect that we’ll travel a bit more. We hope to change the pace of our travels as well, not always having to rush to get back home for the work that lies ahead. Of course retiring doesn’t mean that there will be no work to be done. We’ll still have a home to maintain and things to do. We will be active in our church, thought we don’t know exactly how that will work out with a new church in a new place and our role in the church very different than it has been for all of these years.

The celebration of Christmas is, in part, a celebration of God’s continuing creativity. There is newness in the world. God works in the world through miracles such as the birth of a baby. Each child opens up incalculable possibility for all humans. Each new life holds the capacity to change the world.

Each Christmas we hear world leaders pray for peace. The Pope traditionally issues a “Urbi et Orbi” (to the City and the World) statement on Christmas Day. This year he participated with other religious leaders in issuing a statement calling for peace in South Sudan before making his traditional Christmas declaration. In his declaration he appealed to God to soften “our often stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of His love.” He prayed for those who are impoverished and those who suffer violence. He appealed for us to take down walls of indifference being put up to people fleeing hardship. And he prayed for victims of natural disasters.

We are invited to share in these prayers in many ways. They inspire us to work for peace and justice. They invite us to respond with compassion for those who are in need. Beyond that, however, they also hold the possibility for us to really believe in peace not only as a promise for the future, but also as a present reality.

As we celebrate this day, may we open our hearts to the new things that God is doing.

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!

Christmas Eve 2019

Today is sometimes called “The Nativity of the Lord,” and celebrations are underway around the globe. One of the joys of this age of Internet and instant news is that one can get news from another time zone and see how things are going in a place where the day is advanced beyond our time zone. It is nearly 11 pm in Australia, where we have friends. It is almost 9 pm in Japan where our daughter lives. We have a whole day ahead of us before it is that time here.

It isn’t just that we are participating in a celebration that is recognized around the world, it is also that we are celebrating an event that our people have been celebrating for millennia. There are deep layers of meaning that stretch back for generations and generations. As is true with much that we do in the church, we have and a tendency to simplify our interpretations in order to teach others. But Christmas is complex.

December 25 isn’t the actual birth day of Jesus of Nazareth. No one knows the exact day. The celebration of his birth wasn’t a part of the early years of Christianity. His death and resurrection were the focus of the most intense observances for hundreds of years. The choice of the December date and the rise of the celebration of Christmas was a product of many complex factors.

After Christianity became an accepted religion in Rome in 313 the church began to grow rapidly. Within ten years it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. People rushed to join churches. This rush brought about a shortage of priests and bishops and left people literally standing in line and waiting to join the church. The prior process of a six week period of education and preparation, offered during the season of Lent with only one day in the year when new members were officially made members of the church (Easter) was inefficient and didn’t allow for the influx of new members. A new holiday was needed, at a different time of the year with an appropriate period of penance and preparation.

Christianity was moving into new geography and encountering new cultural traditions. At first the Christian calendar followed the Jewish calendar exclusively. In the very earliest days of the church, some Christians considered making the religion exclusive to Jews. The admission of non Jews into the faith was controversial at first. Now, with official recognition from Rome, Christianity was expanding rapidly throughout Europe and being celebrated in northern European locations. There the faith encountered a variety of solstice celebrations that had been a part of the secular culture and the culture of other religions for centuries. These celebrations were deeply ingrained in the culture and traditions of the people. At some point, church leaders made the decision that simply banning the holidays that came from outside the church would not be accepted by the members. Instead, they decided to celebrate Christmas at the time of the winter solstice in order to capitalize on the celebrations already being observed.

There are other anomalies about the date, including shifts in the date caused by the change from one calendar system to another, most notably when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in 1582. The new calendar, based on more precise observation of the movement of the the planets around the sun, introduced leap years and shifted dates. Christmas ended up on December 25 with the solstice landing on December 21. This shift was embraced at the time as a way of further separating Christian observances from secular celebrations.

In contemporary times, Christians often understand the birth of Christ in a couple of different ways. They think of the story as a kind of origin story for our faith, focusing on the short birth narrative exclusive to Luke’s Gospel. They imagine the events of long ago and far away when the child was placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn. They think of the angel’s announcement of the shepherds and the shepherds visit to the place of Jesus birth. When we think of Christmas that way, we tend to make a separation between ourselves and the lives we live and the story of our faith. Jesus was born to people who have long since died. It is a story of our past.

A second way that contemporary Christians understand the holiday is a deeply personal and often individualistic sense that Christ dwells in each of us and that we have experiences of coming to know Jesus as our personal Lord and savior. Like the stories of our past, this interpretation is genuine and an important theological concept.

Christmas, however, is also the understanding of the theological concept of incarnation. Incarnation is God coming to humans in a human body. Incarnation is more than a personal spiritual experience. It is a reality that is true for the entire community. Theologians remind believers that the practice of Christianity is the practice of community. From this perspective, Christianity is not something that can be fully celebrated alone. The incarnation occurs to a community of people and is an ongoing phenomenon. Christ is not only born long ago during a Roman census. God becomes human in the gathering of people. To fully experience this presence, Christians need to gather together. Ours is not only a private faith, but a coming together.

The special services we hold tonight are an expression of that faith. We gather to celebrate, and in doing so we honor ancient traditions. We remember the long ago and far away stories of our faith. We gather for individuals to experience a personal connection with God’s presence in the world. And we gather to receive the invitation for us to transform our communities through the power of God’s love. We gather to be reminded that feeding hungry people, healing the sick, comforting the grieving and welcoming strangers continues to be the work of Christ.

May our celebrations be as genuine as the love of God expressed in the miracle of incarnation.

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!

Looking forward to Christmas Eve

I confess that I have struggled with Christmas Eve worship for all of my career. There is so much pressure on one service. There will be a church full of visitors. There are a large number of people who come with expectations based on former times. It is a season of nostalgia that has to be respected. When you become pastor of a church, one of the wise questions to ask is, “how do you celebrate Christmas?” because it isn’t just a matter of doing thing the way the pastor wants. There are huge expectations about Christmas services. Many of those expectations come from people who don’t come to church very often. All churches want their guests to have a good experience, and are willing to do some things just to make guests feel at home, but figuring out what that is on Christmas Eve is a challenge.

Some of the guests will be people who are visiting the church for the first time. They bring with them expectations that are based on other experiences in other churches. No small number of them are people who don’t go to church very much at all. Some of them are attending to please a parent or a sibling, or just coming because that is what their host family does on Christmas Eve. Some of the guests will be people who grew up in the church and are returning home to celebrate the holidays. They remember the way things were, but they don’t have any experience of how things have changed.

Just recreating the way things were is not possible. We don’t have the same volunteer base. We don’t have the same kind of parents. We don’t have the same consistency of attendance of the children in our programs. We can’t alter sociology. We can’t stop change. When we try to just do things the way we used to, we always will fall short. We can’t do it the way it was. We will always be disappointed. More importantly those who come to church expecting things to be the way they used to be will always be disappointed, no matter what we do. There is no way to roll back the clock.

A few years ago, the Department of Worship was discussing the Christmas Eve service. We had made a kind of a list of comments we had heard. One member didn’t like passing the plate for the offering and wanted us to only have a donation box at the back of the sanctuary. Another member wanted us to have the children’s pageant on Christmas Eve. Another wanted the living nativity, with actors and animals to be the focus of the service. Many listed the ceremony of passing the flame from candle to candle.

We discussed the reality of our situation. Everyone holding gives a pleasant glow to the service and involves the people. However, it excludes those who use oxygen. We had experienced an elder, who lived in a nursing home who was all prepared to come to a service and when the staff inquired about the candle lighting ceremony was told that she couldn’t attend such a service. Our congregation reacted by purchasing electric candles to be used by worshipers. It doesn’t have the same feel, but it offers the possibility of participating with less danger for those who are there. We talked about the simple fact that attendance by families with children goes down on Christmas Eve. It isn’t that we have fewer children. It is that the children of our church are with families who live elsewhere and the children who come to our church are not regular participants. We don’t have critical mass to have a children’s pageant. And, if we schedule the children’s program after school breaks for the holiday, a lot of the children we have in our program do not participate. We experienced that again this Christmas when we held our children’s worship yesterday after the schools had let out for the holiday. We barely had enough children to fill the critical roles in the pageant. We have had plenty of Sundays with a lot more children than we had yesterday.

There is a similar effect with the choir. This year is a reasonable example. We had 33 choristers for the performance of the Messiah a week ago. We had 13 in choir yesterday and it looks like the choir might even be smaller tomorrow night. Our own regular worshipers travel at Christmas.

The Department of Worship came up with some good ideas for celebrating Christmas Eve. A new set was designed and built for our worship service. New lighting was designed. We moved a bit away from the live pageant into a careful telling of the story. Surprising to me was the request for a Christmas sermon. The people didn’t wan’t a 20 minute diatribe, but rather a short, pithy 5 to 7 minute meditation, well prepared, well preached. They said that preaching was one of the things about our church that they wanted to show off to guests. Like many planning sessions, we came up with a few too many ideas to cram into one service. Designing the actual service to follow that conversation was a real challenge. But the conversation had given fresh energy to the project. I worked hard on my meditation. We crated new worship bulletins. We had what seemed to be a meaningful service and we got a lot of good comments.

We also got a few complaints. It isn’t possible to have such a visible service without complaints.

The next year we tried to take the complaints seriously. We returned some live actors. We kept the sermon. Each year we try to adapt.

So it is the day before Christmas Eve and I am full of jitters. I want this celebration to be a “best ever” kind of event for participants. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be up for the occasion. I worry about the actors. I worry about the choir. I worry about a lot of things.

The good news is that after that service, there is one more. At 11:30 pm we gather for midnight communion. It is a very simple service, with a small congregation. There will be less than 50. We’ll share some simple jazz, and hear singer with a couple of songs. We’ll tell the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. We’ll share communion. We’ll toll the church bell at midnight. It will be worshipful and meaningful and the pressure will be gone.

There is much to look forward to this Christmas.

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!

Christmas gifts

We’re running a bit late with our Christmas packages this year. We are still doing a bit or organizing and one more package will be put in the mail on Monday. That means that the Christmas presents for our children and grandchildren might not all arrive on Christmas day. Our daughter lives in Japan and that is a long way from here and it takes time for the packages to arrive. But they will arrive and there will be plenty of packages on Christmas day for our family, even if a few trickle in over the 12 days of Christmas. We enjoy thinking about, talking about and shopping for gifts for our children and grandchildren. It is fun to think of them, recall where they are in their lives and selecting toys and clothing that are appropriate. In the case of our adult children, we try to think of things that are meaningful and have some lasting value. We don’t want to add to collections of useless items or to clutter in their homes, so we try to be thoughtful and creative when selecting gifts.

On Friday I was with a group of people giving thought to some gifts for teens. The gifts were planned to be nearly identical with a girls’ version and a boys’ version. Other than that, they were all the same. There was a tube of toothpaste, and a small tube of skin cream. There was a bottle of brand name body wash. The girls got shampoo and conditioner. The boys got shampoo and a container of foot powder. There was a small container of deodorant. Each package also had a couple of candy canes, a chocolate bar and a small stuffed animal. The boxes were identical, so the gifts all looked the same, with the only distinction being a small table indicating girl or boy.

These gifts will be the only gifts that these youth, aged 11 to 20, will receive on Christmas Day. They are detainees in a juvenile incarceration facility. Their families are not allowed to bring gifts into the facility. Everything that comes in has to be inspected carefully. A simple thing, like a pencil, can be used to create a permanent tattoo. A piece of wire reinforcing a tail or ear on a stuffed animal can become a needle or a weapon. The amount of calories consumed by the youth is carefully monitored by a professional dietician. It is a place where everyone is treated the same and there are no favors or special treatments.

This weekend, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have special activities planned. There will be a time for making gingerbread houses, or at least graham cracker houses. There will be a movie night with soda. There is going to be a pizza party. On Christmas Day there will be a special dinner, hot chocolate with marshmallows and the presents. A nacho party is being planned for New Year’s Day.

When you’ve been using generic toothpaste, generic shampoo and other personal care products, having a few products that are yours and that you can keep in your room is a real luxury. The youth are looking forward to their gifts. Some of them have been incarcerated at Christmas before and have an idea of what to expect. Some are unsure of how the holiday will go, but are aware that there is no school. The school in he facility runs the same schedule as the public schools in our town and takes the same vacations.

For some of those youth things in the facility are better than at home. They get regular meals. They have a clean place to sleep. They are warm enough. They get regular time in the gym to exercise. They have school with individualized education plans and small teacher to student ratios. They are protected from violence and abuse. And they will have some special activities and even a gift to mark Christmas. Some of the youth don’t have those things when they are not incarcerated. The staff who work in the facility have stories of youth who tried to stay in the facility for the holiday.

Make no mistake about it. It is no fun to be locked inside of a secure facility and to have no freedom to leave. Although parts of juvenile corrections are a bit less harsh than adult facilities, these kids are in a place that has direct and severe consequences for the decisions the youth have made. Their conversations with others are monitored. They have privacy only when they are in their individual rooms, which are reserved for sleeping and a few personal care activities. They have restricted access to things that most teens take for granted, like television, video games, and other activities. They don’t have cell phones. They are constantly being watched.

But Christmas and other holidays are special days in their schedules. And there will be a present to open, with a few treats and a bit of a surprise inside. There will be a few extra calories and a bit of sweet for them. It won’t look like a party to much of the rest of the folks in our society, but then many people have no idea what goes on inside of the facility. A lot of the members of our community don’t even know where it is located or how many youth there are detained within its walls.

Our children and grandchildren are having an abundance of gifts, especially when we think of all of the children and youth whose Christmases will be much more austere. While we reserve the right, as grandparents, to spoil our grandchildren a bit, we also understand that it is important that we are aware of and in line with the values their parents are teaching. And we want them to grow up knowing that there are others in the world, some of whom are less fortunate than they are.

BBC has a picture of the royal family stirring Christmas pudding for charity. Obviously the photos were staged. The royals are all dressed up and there are no aprons in view. The queen has her handbag on her wrist. But I hope they did get a moment to think of others in this holiday season.

The youth at Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center won’t be getting any Christmas pudding, but I’ll be thinking of them opening their packages on Christmas Day.

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!

Adjusting to change

Yesterday in a conversation with a friend, I learned that a common friend of ours is facing unemployment. After a successful career, his employers have decided that they want to go in a different direction and have informed him that they will no longer need his services next season. He works in a volatile field where this kind of thing is fairly common. I hadn’t learned about his situation earlier because he was very close to getting a job in our town where I know some of the people who are involved in decision making. In fact, when they narrowed the search down to two candidates, he was still one of them. Then, when the choice was announced it was the other candidate.

My friend will find a new job before the end of the existing one. He is bright, capable, experienced and has an excellent record. When he makes the change, as is common in his field, several of his staff members will go with him. The result will be a new direction, new possibilities, and perhaps it will even look like a promotion to outsiders. But it will also mean disruption, moving not only his family, but probably several families, and lots and lots of changes.

It isn’t quite as dramatic in the ministry. Usually when a minister moves, it is just one family. Moves can be for very good reasons. A pastor may end one call and take another in order to serve a larger or more complex ministry. A move might bring a pastor to a location that is closer to family. Pastors and congregations have personalities and while a good match is a treasure, a mismatch can be hard on both the pastor and the congregation. Sometimes it is just a good idea to move on and find a better place to serve. Jesus’ advice to the 72 in Luke’s Gospel is often quoted by pastors as they seek a better match with a congregation: “. . . whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.’” Sometimes it is the best thing to wipe off the dust and move on.

I’ve never experienced unemployment. When I was a full-time student, I knew what my next summer’s job would be. When I was nearing the end of my education, I received a call to ministry before I graduated. Across the span of my career, I have only made two moves. Both times, I received the call to the new ministry before I announced the end of the ministry I was leaving. Both times there was a bit of reluctance to leave the good people I was serving, but the folks who were calling me offered compelling reasons to allow my ministry to be led in a new direction.

In that aspect, I am very different from many people. I have several friends who have experienced unemployment. One was likely the victim of age discrimination. He occupied a senior position in a large corporation and was laid off in a corporate restructuring. The company proceeded to hire a younger (and less expensive) employee to serve in essentially the same position. Another friend has been unemployed twice. The first time it took seven months for him to find a new job. Research shows that most employees are offered only minimal raises in pay and benefits when they stay in the same job. The most dramatic increases in pay and benefits come from changing jobs. Those who change jobs frequently often find themselves in positions of higher pay than those who are loyal to employers. There is even a term for the way most employees are treaded by long term employers. Breadcrumbing is when an employer offers small pieces of encouragement, tiny raises, and other incentives, but isn’t serious about making real changes in compensation or benefits.

The labor market is constantly changing. When I began my career there were no personal computers. We used typewriters and mimeograph machines to produce worship bulletins. Photocopiers existed, but were, for the most part, too expensive for churches. Today a pastor who isn’t competent in the use and management of computers is not likely to appeal to a congregation. Congregations want social media skills and even computer networking skills. They expect well-managed web pages and instant communications. That is just a small example. There are people who pursued an education to earn a job that no longer exists. It is estimated that one of the largest shifts in the US labor market is just on the horizon. The expansion of driverless cars and trucks could lead to an end to the jobs that employ the largest number of US males. It will not only be the over-the-road semis and taxi cabs that no longer need drivers. Our packages will be delivered by drones and robots. Our mail will no longer require a postal delivery person.

We can bemoan these changes, but they will come whether or not we like them. Learning to adapt is a survival skill. Young people entering today’s job market will probably see multiple dramatic career changes in their life. The jobs for which they are currently training are not likely to be lifelong pursuits. I know a former corrections officer who is now a baker, a former self-employed entrepreneur who is now an office manager, a former banker who sells insurance, and a former politician who is in the tourist industry. These people have only had a couple of careers in their adult lives. Todays youth are likely to have a half dozen or more. The way to survive in the midst of fast paced change is to adapt.

I’m pretty sure the friend with whom this journal entry began is not surprised to find himself in this position. He knows the nature of his work. He understands the ways in which change can come suddenly and unexpectedly. He knew the risks when he chose his profession. It is all just part of the job he has chosen.

It is a challenge, however, for me to offer pastoral support to one whose experience is so different from mine. You can add that to the long list of skills needed by people preparing to enter our profession.

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!

Active listening

Our seminary experience literally began with lessons in active listening. Our first classes were intensives in Christian Nurture, Pastoral Care and Social Transformation. Each of those intensive experiences involved direct practice of listening. We learned theory and techniques for active listening. We practiced on each other. We were taught that the practical side of the ministry involved learning to listen and to receive not only the ideas, but the complete thoughts, ideas, intentions and emotions of the other into our scope of understanding. I took a number of counseling courses in seminary and I interned for two years as a pastoral counselor. But the experience of my graduate school years that taught me the most about active listening was the time I spend with Martha Snyder in the Chicago Theological Seminary Laboratory Preschool. I know of no seminary that continues to have a lab school, but when we were students several theological seminaries maintained lab schools as places of nurture for children and places for graduate students to learn hands-on the meaning and techniques of effective Christian Education. The textbooks about early Christian Education were literally written by the professors in our school. We worked directly with Phoebe Anderson, author of “3’s in the Christian Community.” I provided research and photographs for “The Young Child as Person” by Martha Snyder. The first paper I had published in a professional journal was the result of research done in the seminary lab school.

Martha Snyder taught us to get down on the same level with a child, to make eye contact, and to listen not just to words but also to the meanings behind the words of young children. She taught us how to speak what we had heard back to the child and read the child’s face and body language to judge the accuracy of what we were saying.

I’ve used the things I learned about listening throughout my career and I firmly believe that listening is one of the greatest skills required of anyone engaging in pastoral ministry. I don’t know how often I’ve been told by families that I really captured the essence of their loved one in a funeral service. What makes that possible is spending one or two sessions with grieving families and really carefully listening to what they are saying about the one they have lost. I tell families that they are the ones who provided the material for the funeral service. And they recognize their words and the feelings they have expressed. But they also recognize that the kind of listening that is required is not a common commodity in our culture.

We aren’t very good at listening to one another. Our culture often does not support effective listening.

On the same day that I started out by writing in my journal about legislators who lack the basic listening skills developed by high school debaters, I attended a public forum in our community. The organizers of the forum are community-minded people who have contributed much to our city. The guest speaker is a highly recognized and well qualified expert in his field. I was eager to hear what he had to say. The event was billed as a community conversation and the person who introduced the speaker opened the gathering by saying that the format would be dialogue. The guest had not been invited to lecture, but rather to participate in a give and take. That same person then proceeded to ask a series of questions that were recorded on index cards. There was no opportunity for members of the audience to do anything but sit and listen. The questions were all pre-written, so nothing that was said by the speaker received any response whatsoever. Question. Answer. Another question. Another answer.

It was a worthwhile hour of my time to sit and listen. I learned a lot. I was grateful for the opportunity to hear the speaker. But what happened wasn’t a dialogue. It wasn’t a conversation. The interviewer wasn’t even as skilled as a public radio personality at the fine art of interviewing. I left the room feeling that there was no advantage to being there in person. Since the recordings of the sessions are available online, I think that it might be easier for me to just visit the web site and listen to the speakers. That realization makes me a little bit sad. The group’s statement of purpose says in part, “We believe open dialogue, and an exchange of ideas, can make communities greater. So, we created a platform for conversation . . . at 7 am every month. Join us.” I guess the organizers believe that sitting in a chair and listening is a form of “dialogue, and an exchange of ideas.” It didn’t feel that way to me. None of the questions asked of the speaker were in any way a response to the things that had been said. I left the meeting full of questions that I wished had been asked of the speaker, and had not way to get them asked.

Our social media and hyper partisan ways of organizing people have resulted in people believing that just having a civil conversation without people resorting to shouting at one another is a victory. And it is. The morning was pleasantly free of heated rhetoric and angry accusations. At the same time it was a long way from genuine dialogue. Most of us who attended have ideas that are worthy of exchange, but there was no forum for us to offer our ideas.

I have no reason to attack those who worked so hard to create the monthly events. I celebrate the thoughtful speakers they bring to our community. I will continue to visit their web site and gain ideas from the speakers they have welcomed. I will listen to the programs on the Internet. But I doubt that I will become a regular attender of the events.

Yesterday was a good day for me to practice my skills as a listener. And I know I wasn’t the only one who was being a good listener. That is no small success. For that we can be grateful.

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

The power of art

moore chicago sculpture
On the University of Chicago campus, the block that once held Stagg Field is now mostly filled with the magnificent Regenstein Library. The library was one of my favorite places when we lived in Chicago. It is probably one of the top five libraries in the world. The rare books collection alone encompasses 265,000 volumes. As a graduate student, having access to that library was an incredible experience.

On the northwest corner of the lot on which the library is located is a large bronze sculpture by Henry Moore. It was installed in 1967, so when we arrived in Chicago in 1974 it was relatively new. The sculpture invites viewers to walk around it and look at it from all angles, and I spent some time contemplating it during the years we lived there. The installation took place on the 25th anniversary of an event that took place in an underground laboratory on that site. On December 2, 1942, a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi set the world’s first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in motion. That event was a significant step toward the creation of the age of atomic energy. It also was key to the production of the atomic bomb, which was used twice at the end of World War II. The sculpture, which is titled Nuclear Energy, was unveiled as a memorial to the accomplishments of Fermi and his fellow physicists.

It is big - 12 feet tall. One is struck by the mass of the bronze creation. Moore wanted to create a monument that was both a celebration of the power of human achievement and also a warning against the dangers of such incredible physical power. The artists’s statement says, in part, “Like anything that is powerful, it has a power for good and evil . . . the lower part [of the sculpture] is more architectural and in my mind has the kind of interior of a cathedral with sort of a hopefulness for mankind.”

Moore also spoke of his attempt to create a visual object that always brought two images to mind. The term that has been associated with this style of sculpture is “double vision.” From any angle the sculpture appears to be both a mushroom cloud and also a human scull. The photograph doesn’t do justice to the power of the three dimensional work, but when you are standing next to it, you are drawn to circling the piece and looking and looking at it over and over agin. The two images constantly come to mind.

It is not like a “hidden image” picture in which you have to look at it in a particular way to see the second image. It is not like the internet memes in which some people see one color and others see another. It is bold and obvious and impossible to ignore and impossible to forget.

The image of that sculpture came to my mind yesterday as I listened to snippets of the impeachment debate in the US House of Representatives. It was impossible to think of that display as a debate. The speakers made almost no reference to or response to what had been previously been said. Instead they read carefully prepared scripts with a nearly constant repetition of the talking points that had been hammered out in committees and behind the scenes. Two points of view were in the room, and the alternating of those points of view made even the most casual listener (and I was one of those, listening only when driving my car) constantly aware of division. There was no suspense in the room. The conclusion had been reached before the debate started. No one made up her or his mind as a result of what was said.No one even entertained the thought of changing his or her mind. They all came into the chamber of deliberation, not to deliberate, but with their minds made up. Were I judging the performances as a high-school debate, the scores would have been very low. There were no persuasive arguments. The speeches were full of violations of the basic rules of logic. The appeal to emotions consistently fell short.

In a culture of division, it seems that we have decided that you cannot simultaneously see two truths. In an either/or argument, you are supposed to take up one side or the other. From a philosophical ethical point of view the definitions of good and evil spoken in the room were inadequate. Good and evil are not well defined when the definition of “good” is “agrees with me,” and the definition of evil is “disagrees with me.”

Henry Moore’s powerful sculpture stands in stark contrast to that kind of over simplification of human endeavors. He has struck an amazing balance of good and evil in the same object. Both are powerful, permanent, and infused with humanity. I am struck at how he could take bronze, with no capacity for biological life and turn it into a symbol that evokes life and death so boldly.

It seems that the future of our culture and our nation depends on developing our capacity to engage in double vision - our ability to see more than one truth at the same time. To have two truths equally present in our minds as we engage in conversation with one another. If we have given up on persuasion, if we hold no hope of changing the minds of others or having our minds changed, there is no real debate.

In policy debate, high school students go into the debate room not knowing which side of the argument they will draw. They know the resolution, but they do not know if they will be arguing “for” or “against” until the debate is ready to start. They must demonstrate a complete understanding of both sides of the argument. it is a valuable life skill and one not often witnessed in arenas beyond high school. University level debates have evolved into fast talk and shouting.

Maybe we all need to spend more time with powerful works of art. Perhaps the poets are the ones who will teach us what we need to know. I may have become a cynic, but I don’t expect to be enlightened by legislative debate. It seems more valuable to spend my time contemplating a piece of sculpture that is truly unforgettable.

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!

Understanding our bodies

The human body is amazingly complex. Sometimes, when we try to understand how our bodies work, we think in terms of a series of systems. We have a skeleton, which provides structural strength so we can stand, walk and engage in various forms of work. We have a muscular system that binds the bones together and provides the ability to move. Muscles are very specialized tissues that can contract and expand in response to electrical signals that are delivered through a very complex system of nerves. We have specialized muscles such as the heart and the diaphragm which operate without our conscious thought. We also have muscles that respond to our thoughts and desires. But we are more than a collection of systems. Our bodies have ways of communicating and coordinating actions and reactions within a complete system. It has taken millennia of careful observation to come to a certain level of understanding of how the human body works, and it will take many more generations to come to an even more complete understanding.

In literature, you can find evidence in the evolution of human thinking and understanding of how our bodies work. The ancients observed that living beings breathe in and out. Those who have died do not breathe. That distinction led to the observation that breathing was very important. In the ancient forms of the languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, the word for spirit and breath are the same. It was believed that the spirit that animates life was literally inhaled and exhaled. We see remnants of those linguistic references in modern English. We are “inspired” - literally filled with spirit. We describe the process of inhaling a foreign substance as aspiration, again with the base of the word spirit incorporated into the term. When someone does, we sometimes say that the person expired.

As people learned more about our bodies, we became fascinated with our circulatory system. We learned to feel our heartbeat and to detect it through the pulsing of blood in arteries located in several locations in our bodies. We understood that an accident that severed an artery or caused excessive bleeding could be fatal. Physicians developed tools, such as a stethoscope to enable them to listen more precisely to the heart. The presence or absence of a heartbeat became a way of determining life and death.

As physicians developed systems to assist the body with breathing and heart function, they discovered that just breathing and having a heart beat did not make a person capable of full life. The process of measuring brain function became an important factor in understanding a person’s capability of recovering from trauma.

Recently, when my wife was undergoing treatment for an abnormal heart rhythm, two specialists explained their part of her treatment in rather simple terms. The cardiologist described himself as a plumber, who studied and treated issues relating to the movement of fluid, arteries and veins and possible obstructions and problems. The electrophysiologist described his as the work of an electrician. He prescribed and practiced the parts of medicine that seek to understand and adjust the electrical signals of the heart. What we discovered is that these simplifications are helpful in understanding, but tell only part of the story. Both specialists are also chemists, who use medicines to affect desired outcomes. And, as we discovered, the chemical side of the equation is incredibly complex and some of it is discovered by trial and error on each patient. The practice of medicine is an interdisciplinary endeavor and although various physicians develop specialties, the body is an interconnected system and it does no good to treat only part of the body.

Heart rhythm and its irregularities have been the focus of many studies and the development of many modalities of treatment. The natural system for regulating the rhythm of the heart’s contractions functions both as an electrical system, with a network of servers sending electrical signals and a chemical system with various chemicals communicating messages throughout the body.

In the early years of cardiology, physicians were limited mostly to chemical tools to treat irregular rhythm. A category of drugs, called beta-blockers was discovered that, when administered in appropriate doses, could affect the regularity of the rhythm of the heart. It took many years for doctors to understand that irregular rhythm had many causes, so treatment of the chemical causes and chemical signals took years to develop. Not all drugs had the same results with all patients. A life-saving drug for one patient might cause an adverse reaction in another. Through trial and error, physicians became more skilled in chemical treatments.

Then, in 1958, the first implantable electric pacemaker was installed in a patient. The tiny box emitted regular electrical signals that signaled the heart to contract. Because the device was sending regular shocks to the muscle, the muscle responded by beating in a steady rhythm. Ince that first implantation, pacemakers have become smaller and more reliable. These days about 1.25 million pacemakers are fitted each year. New devices are far more sophisticated than the early ones. Rather than simply jolting the heart tissue into action when it fails to beat by itself, implantable devices now monitor and report on heart conditions and communicate through telephone communications with health care professionals. Although current models of pacemakers tap directly into the heart, doctors believe that in the future devices will be able to tap directly into nerves that surround the heart enhancing and reporting natural electrical functions. The technology of the wires and probes used is rapidly advancing, providing more reliable and longer-lasting devices. Battery technology means that newer devices last longer and require less intervention by physicians.

We are, however, only at the beginning of our understanding of how our hearts function. Although we have treatments that can restore quality of life and extend the lives of people, the potential of implantable bioelectric devices to take into account and respond to natural changes in our bodies is significant.

There is much that remains to be discovered and all things human will be affected by our discoveries. Our language will shift and we will develop new ways of speaking of life and death, health an illness.

I can imagine the day when going to the doctor is much less a process of receiving a prescription and taking a medicine than one of downloading and algorithm and exchanging data. Our world is changing and we are learning to understand more of it.

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

Philosophy and gifts

Bill Hughes was a scientist and an engineer. He served as the dean of an engineering school and long after he had retired formally he served as a consultant on engineering projects all over the world. I used to visit him in his home. Upstairs he had a study with an entire wall of whiteboards upon which were complex mathematical formulas. Sometimes I would have him explain a bit of what was there to me. He would always add a story about the person who was trying to solve the problem. Once, in the midst of a discussion about alternate sources of energy to avoid using so much fossil fuels, I said to him, I wish someone had written an introductory book about the nature of energy, a sort of “Energy 101” for lay people. He went into a closet and came out with a copy of a book he had written that was literally titled, “Energy 101.”

In addition to his curiosity and pursuit of science and mathematics and engineering, Bill was interested in spirituality. He wrote several booklets under the nom de plume, Lewis Chase. The name was chosen in honor of his grandfathers. He was quite knowledgeable about his ancestors and his genealogy. At one point in his life he had developed an interest in Erasmus studies and had read a significant number of books by and about the 15th century Dutch philosopher and Christian humanist. Erasmus wasn’t he center of any disciplined study that I had done, but I read a couple of his writings and, after Bill’s death, received several Erasmus books from Bill’s widow. I enjoyed reading them especially because they had penciled notes by Bill in the margins.

There are a lot of famous quotes of Erasmus that have become popular. “Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.” “the most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.” Erasmus, however, remains in the background of my thought. I know a little bit about him and his thought and reading him provides a connection with a friend who I still miss years after his death.

Yesterday we did some shopping in downtown Rapid City. We parked our car by the federal courthouse, where there are some two-hour parking places without meters. From there we walked to Main Street Square and went to the bookstore and the toy store. We checked out a tea and spice shop and made a few Christmas gift purchases. When we got back to our car, we had walked almost a mile, a bit short of our usual daily stroll. We probably walked less than if we had gone to the mall or to another popular shopping area in our city. Still, people will complain about downtown parking. I fail to see the problem. There are always lots of meters available and at $1 per hour parking isn’t that expensive. And, if you don’t mind walking, you don’t have to pay for the parking.

Anyway, we were looking through the bookstore for a few gifts for our grandchildren and other family members and I spotted a book bag with an Erasmus quote on it. The quote was, “Your library is your paradise.” I was tempted to purchase the bag as a gift for our son, who is a librarian. However, the price of nearly $20 slowed me. I have a couple of similar-sized bags that promote the Friends of the Mount Vernon Library - the library where our son is the director. I purchased them for $5 each. Somehow, it seemed wrong to me to spend that amount of money for a book bag, when I could support the library with the purchase of one that cost a lot less. Also, it should be noted, that I don’t remember our son using book bags very much. He has a messenger-style bag that he uses to carry his computer to and from work, and he uses shopping bags when he is out and about, but I’m thinking that the bag with the quote was something that was more attractive to me than it would be for him.

I often have a bit of a problem when shopping for gifts for others. I see something that I would like and assume that the other person might like the same thing. It is a bigger challenge to try to get into the mind of the other person and come up with a gift that is something that the other person would like for themself. That kind of thinking about the other is one of the gifts of Christmas for me. In a way it is easy for our grandchildren. They will often directly tell us what they think they want. Their parents are good at giving us clues as well. And children always need clothes. They grow quickly and the things that fit them last year don’t fit them this year. We try to purchase toys that have some lasting value and that can be played with in many different ways to encourage the natural creativity and curiosity of our grandchildren. I remember when purchasing gifts for our own children was equally easy. Now that our children have become adults, with significant ability to purchase things for themselves, gift buying is a bit of a challenge. They aren’t just younger versions of their parents. The things that we wanted when we were their age may not be what they want.

A bit of philosophy seems to be in order when thinking about gifts for others. Philosophers invite us to slow down and think of meaning that is deeper than just the mood of the present. The Erasmus quote about libraries is very popular these days. You can purchase t shirts and other items with the same quote. Perhaps I’ll find just the right item for our son if I look carefully enough.

In the meantime, I myself received a gift just from the process of shopping. I came home and thought about my friend Bill and all of the things he taught me. I’m still learning. And I know the greatest gifts aren’t items. They are ideas.

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 sometimes sad season

A small group of us were talking yesterday and the topic of celebrating Christmas came up. Within he group and the circle of immediate acquaintances of those who were there, there were lots of stories of sadness and even depression in the season. A professional commented on how much grief seems to surround the holidays for so many people. Counseling centers see in increase in clients at this time of the year and many of those clients are struggling with sadness and depression due to grief. They feel that they are out of sync with those around them who are filled with holiday spirit. Another participant in our conversation is a Hospice chaplain and spoke of the services that the organization holds at this time of the year to support those who are grieving and to offer opportunities to share memories of loved ones who have died. I shared a few statistics about the rise in suicides at this time of the year.

The consensus in our group is that part of the problem for many folks is that popular culture portrays a very narrow and shallow interpretation of the holiday. Of course much of the news and advertising is focused on purchases. Such an emphasis on buying immediately divides people into two groups: those who have discretionary money and those who do not. The notion that a meaningful holiday is a commodity that can be purchased can seduce some people into spending above their means. Credit card debt rises during this time of the year. Landlords know that more people fall behind in their rent during the holidays than at other times of the year. People can literally spend themselves into a financial crisis in search of something that will make them feel good about themselves during the holidays.

The result is that those who are depressed or who are experiencing grief which is a normal and natural part of life sometimes end up feeling like they are out of step with mainstream society.

I shared with the group my observation about the shifting holiday. It seems to me like public Christmas celebrations are getting earlier and earlier each year. One example I frequently use is the Salvation Army bell ringers. They used to show up around the first of December and be present until Christmas Day. These days they not only start ringing before Thanksgiving, but they also will finish their work before Christmas Eve. If the trend continues, before long they’ll be ringing between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I don’t expect this to really happen, but the public “celebration” of Christmas all seems to occur before Christmas actually arrives.

In the church, Christmas starts on December 25 and is celebrated through January 6. It is a season. Advent, the season preceding Christmas is a more somber time for reflection and repentance. It is a time of preparation. Our institution is by nature and by choice countercultural. We do many things that can be seen in contrast with the wider society. In our congregation, we haven’t broken out the Christmas Carols, yet. We’ve been singing advent songs and carols. There will be Christmas carols in next Sunday’s service, but we are waiting just a bit. Interestingly, I haven’t heard any of the usual comments, but when I do, I usually respond by commenting on people’s love of Christmas carols. Wanting them is a sign of Advent. People long for the blessings of Christmas.

It is possible, however, that people aren’t asking for more Christmas carols is that they are already saturated with them. I went to the dentist’s office to get my teeth cleaned on December 5 and had to listen to Christmas carols on the sound system in the dentist’s office for the entire time I was there. I’m not a fan of background music in any setting, but it seems to be particularly unnecessary in a dentist’s office. I have to sit still and not speak because work is being done in my mouth. The hygienist and the dentist talk up a storm and even ask questions of me. I’d prefer to have the background silent, but I guess that there are enough patients who like the music for it to be worth the money that the office spends on an elaborate sound system.

Christmas songs are being played in almost every place in town that has a sound system. They seem to be forming the soundtrack for our community right now.

Chances are reasonable that I will receive a comment, as I do most years, that comes in the form of a question. “Why are we still singing Christmas carols after Christmas is over?” It is an opportunity to teach people that Christmas doesn’t get over in the church as quickly as it does in the outside world. In retail, Valentine’s Day begins on December 26. All the Christmas items are put into discount bins and the candy displays fill the aisle that was full of Christmas items. In the church, the celebration lingers. We tell the stories of the early part of Jesus’ life for 12 days. Epiphany, on January 6 is the real celebration day, with a time of thanksgiving for the gift of light, a tradition that clearly started in the northern hemisphere. We also celebrate the spread of Christianity beyond the Jewish religion and culture where it began. Between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent, we take a whirlwind trip through the stories of Jesus life, his baptism, his calling of disciples, his healing of those who are ill, his miracles of feeding. All of that, however, lies in our future. Right now, we are trying to be faithful to the process of preparing ourselves for the joy that lies head. Advent isn’t a season for only one kind of emotion. There is plenty of room in the season for sadness and grief and memory. Joy will come. A great light lies ahead for those who have dwelt in the land of darkness.

For those who are feeling sad at this time of the year, I hope you will learn that even if you don’t feel like you fit into the glitter and tinsel of the season, there is a place for you in the church - just as you are.

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!

Christmas deer

Deer were a part of our lives when we were kids. Our father was a John Deere dealer. His shop had a lighted, two-sided John Deere sign on the roof. The sign was small, especially compared with the Purina Chow sign that covered the entire front of the feed warehouse. But that sign had a big impact on our insurance premiums. At least once a year, someone would shoot a hole in that deer on the sign. It is possible that it was occasionally a local, but we suspected out of town hunters who spent more time at that Timber Bar than out in the field. I used to joke that I was 25 years old before I owned a jacket that didn’t have a John Deere Logo on it. Other kids had jackets of all colors. We wore green and yellow.

I’m not sure what year it was, but I can remember Christmases before this happened, so perhaps I was six or eight when one year, before Christmas we woke to find plastic deer at the base of our Christmas tree. They had been designed as lawn ornaments, but weren’t the size of real deer. There was fake snow sprinkled on their backs. My dad wouldn’t say who put them there, although we all knew it was him. He just said that the deer liked the tree. The deer became a part of our Christmas traditions. They would show up a couple of days after we put up the Christmas tree. When it was time to take down the tree, they’d disappear into storage for another year. We liked having a family tradition that was different from other families.

I hadn’t thought of those deer for a long time.

Then, yesterday, after I got up, I turned on the lights on our Christmas tree and opened the blinds to reveal a frosty wonderland outside. All of the trees in the neighborhood were covered in white frost. It was foggy and cold and the result was a beautiful scene. And in the backyard there were four or five deer sitting on the lawn, where they had been resting. It made me think the deer that came to visit my childhood home.

We are having a bid more modest Christmas than some years. We have a smaller tree with fewer branches, so didn’t hang all of our ornaments. Some of the beloved Christmas decorations that we have collected over the years will remain in their boxes. But he process of decorating is a good opportunity for us to do some sorting, so we have been going through the boxes of Christmas decorations as part of our preparation for Christmas. In that process we ran across the nativity set that was a part of my family when I was growing up. We had a tradition of reading the Christmas story on Christmas eve and putting the figures into the nativity sets we sang a few carols around the piano. I have a brother whose birthday is Christmas Eve, so Christmas celebrations were held off until after his birthday dinner. After we had had dinner and cake and he had opened his presents on Christmas Eve, we would gather in the living room, hear the Christmas story, put out the nativity set and sing a few carols. Then each child was allowed to open one Christmas present before we went to bed. The next day there would be Christmas stockings and more presents and a big dinner.

I was recalling those traditions as we unwrapped the figures of that old nativity set from the tissue paper in which they remain wrapped for most of the year. The set isn’t even all one type, having been collected over the years. Some of the figures are cheap plastic. Others are ceramic, hand painted by someone, perhaps our mother. The Mary figure is ceramic with a base that had broken in storage. I got out the glue and repaired it. Then, among the figures we found two deer. The deer were made of wax and had wicks on their heads. I recognized them as being similar to some Thanksgiving candles we used to put out when I was a kid. I somehow had forgotten that somewhere along the way my family had established the tradition of having a couple of deer at the nativity scene on the top of the piano. Seeing the candles reminded me. We didn’t have all of the animals that are sometimes a part of nativity sets. There is no donkey, even though my family had real donkeys in the pasture. We didn’t have a camel in our set or a cow. There were several sheep and two deer.

Growing up with the story being read every year, I eventually memorized it. I know now as I knew at a fairly early age that the birth of Jesus probably wasn’t attended by a cow. I know that the line, “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn” was not a reference to the child being born in a barn full of animals. The guest room of their relatives’ home was full, so the baby was born in the lower room, where animals sometimes were brought inside and where there was a feed trough, which was coopted as a temporary crib. The animals show up in the next paragraph, because they were out in the fields with the shepherds that night. Jesus wasn’t born into a rich family. I know there weren’t any deer in attendance.

Still, I feel grateful for the deer that sleep in our yard and look up when I open the door to step out onto the deck. They remind me that in this world we are all connected. It is clear from the words of the story that those who witnessed the tiny baby had an incredible experience, but his life affected all of us, including those of us who weren’t original eye witnesses. Christmas is a reminder of the many ways we are all connected. We’re all in this together - even the deer.

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 National Mental Health Crissis Line

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission took the first steps toward approval of a three-digit dial code for a national suicide prevention hotline. When the hotline is set up, people will be able to call 988 from any phone in the United States to obtain help with a potential suicide. We have worked long and hard and written letters in support of this number. We do currently have a national suicide prevention hotline. It can be reached by dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also a crisis text line that can be reached by texting “Hello” or “Start” to 741-741. These lines are staffed 24/7 by mental health professionals with specialized suicide prevention training. The lines exist for people who are thinking about suicide and for their loved ones who are seeking help for them. Immediate help is also available online. If you or someone you love is experiencing thoughts of suicide, click on this link: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/

If approved, the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, organized by SAMSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is actually a network of 163 crisis centers spread across the United States. Last year alone, the lifeline responded to more than 2.2million calls and more than 100,000 online chats.

While the lifeline is important and undoubtedly has prevented suicides, it is only one part of a much more widely needed network of services for those who are suffering from mental illness. I have commented frequently in my journal about the lack of adequate health care for those who suffer from mental illness. Regular readers of my journal know it is a repeated topic and perhaps my become a bit bored with my repetition.

But situation is serious. And it is serious right here, friends. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US and it has increased by more than 33% in the past 20 years. Our state, South Dakota, is one of the most dangerous states for those suffering from mental illness. In the past 20 years, suicides have increase more than 40 percent in South Dakota and our county, Pennington, has led the state in death by suicide. Suicide can affect any age and any profession, but it is notable that it is now the leading cause of death among youth in our community and the leading cause of death among members of our military.

The national hotline for mental health issues will help. The vote at the FCC was unanimous. It deserves our support. The comment period is still open and you can express support by writing to the FCC at 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20544. Comments can also be sent by email to Michelle.Sclater@fcc.gov. or Marilyn.Jones@fcc.gov. If you choose to comment, please urge the FCC to expand the proposed three digit number to accept text messaging. With suicide as a leading cause of death of teens and teens being most likely to communicate by text rather than voice, it is essential that they have immediate and easy access to mental health services. Although SAMSA will continue to operate its text line at 741-741, it would be most convenient if there were a single number to call.

Of course, for the system to work, it will take more than just a new phone number approved by the FCC. It took more than a decade of constant public education campaigns for the nation to learn and become comfortable with the 911 emergency call number. It will take time for our nation to learn the meaning of 988 and develop the trust to call. The network will need to be expanded to handle the call volume if the proposed change goes into effect. 911 calls are handled by more than 100,000 dispatchers working in 911 call centers. SAMSA has only 163 call centers operating at present. It will take years for the system to expand to cover the anticipated increase in calls. A proposal to combine the call centers with existing 911 call centers by increasing staffing and training for 911 dispatch centers is not currently feasible. 911 call centers are experiencing enormous volume, a shortage of workers, and are not in a position to take the additional call volume. Exactly how the SAMSA hotline will absorb the anticipated additional call volume of a 988 system is unclear, but it seems likely that the network needs to grow quickly.

The 988 number is, however, an important step and the FCC is to be congratulated for its approval of the number. For survivors of suicide and for suicide prevention workers, there aren’t too many days for celebration. The approval of the 988 system is a step worthy of recognition and celebration.

Those suffering from mental illness suffer in the midst of stigma and often are unaware that there is help available. Because obtaining mental health services is much more difficult that obtaining help with physical ailments, people sometimes assume that there is no help available and that their only option is to self-treat. Often this self-treatment involves abuse of addictive substances. Treatment of mental health and addiction go hand in hand, but not all of those who suffer from mental illnesses have addictions to substances.

As we work towards improving services for those who suffer, we can all help by being a bit more careful about how we speak of mental illness and suicide. People do not commit suicide in the sense that crimes are committed. That language comes from the days when suicide was a crime. I’ve stopped using the word commit when speaking about suicide. A person dies by suicide. A person dies of mental illness. One who dies by suicide doesn’t choose to die any more than a person who dives out of the window to escape a fire chooses to die by falling. A person who dies of suicide dies as the result of a fatal illness.

We’ve a long ways to go in this struggle. Learning 988 is an important step.

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!

Thinking about holiday giving

Its that time of the year. Now that Giving Tuesday has passed, many non profits are turning to the US mail to make their appeals for end of the year donations. It is a custom that I presume started back in the days when many of us could use donations to lower our tax burden. Those deductions have gone away for most of us now, but the concept of making year end gifts persists. Perhaps there is a connection with the holidays that inspire a spirit of giving. Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” warns of the dangers of being too selfish and stingy.

Many appeals come our way from institutions and groups that are doing good work and whose work we would like to support. One the one hand we have practiced disciplines of giving and probably give away a larger percentage of our income that many of our peers. On the other hand, we are not wealthy people by some standards. At least our capacity to give is not unlimited. So, like so many other areas of our lives, we have to make decisions and choose which areas of giving are most important. Those choices are not based solely upon the worthiness of the recipients. There are many worthy causes that we choose not to support. By planning our giving and combining our gifts we find ways to have some small impact with the donations that we make.

As one who is often the fund-raiser and frequently asks others to consider donations, I have learned to respect the decisions of others. Despite the fact that we think we know others, they might have financial circumstances that are less visible. Past debts, dependent children, unseen health challenges and a host of other factors can radically alter a family’s finances. I have found that the best way to raise funds, whether it be for the church or an area arts agency is to be completely honest about what you are going to do with the money, keep your promises, and trust donors to make their own decisions.

I know that in the church donations are not evenly spread among the members. Some give very little, others give large amounts. I make it a practice not to see the checks from church members and not to access the information about who has given what amount. I feel that such information might tempt a pastor to be less than fair in the distribution of time. I never want the church to be a place where influence can be bought and sold. However, I read financial statements closely and study trends and have noticed unexpected changes in income following funerals and other significant life events. Being a cash business, our congregation is not in danger of getting in trouble. We try to live graciously with what our members offer and not to live beyond our means.

All of this information and experience, however, does not give me a ready answer to the letters that are coming into our household at this time of year. Last night there was a heartfelt appeal that included a hand-written note from one of the leaders of the organization who we’ve known since our high school days. The note was genuine and honest. The need was clearly outlined in the letter. I have a high level of confidence that the donations will be used exactly as the letter outlines. The organization has an all volunteer board and there is virtually no overhead. It is likely that someone donated the envelopes and stamps used to send out the letters. Money invested in the cause is unlikely to be wasted. On the other hand, I know that the amount I can afford to give is insufficient to meet the need. I know how gifts combine to bring about miracles. I know the value of small gifts in all fund-raising efforts. I don’t mean to discount my capacity to make a gift. Still I paused. I set the letter aside for an opportunity to think and to consider how I am going to respond. The person who wrote the note and the board from whom the letter came deserve my consideration.

There are appeals that make a quick trip to the recycling bin in our house. Causes that were important to my mother continue to appeal to her even though she died eight years ago. Since our home was her last address, we receive appeals from institutions she supported. A few have become causes to which I donate. Others continue to send their appeals simply because I haven’t even bothered to inform them that she is no longer living.

It strikes me that many appeals are seeking impulse donations. Like the scouts in the entryway of the grocery store or the bell ringer out front, they are after small amounts of discretionary money. A letter that comes to our home probably is not expecting a thousand dollar response. They are seeking the amount of money that can be given by reaching into one’s pocket or checkbook for a small amount. I am not enamored with the concept of the red kettle fund raising of the Salvation Army. It is too close to begging for me and the institution doesn’t need to beg. It raises millions of dollars through other means. Furthermore our church never stands on the street corner and asks other people to fund our mission. Still, I’ll toss a few coins in the kettle from time to time. The group does good work with the money they have.

Wednesday morning, I was speaking to a man who was carrying all of his possessions. He probably slept in a shelter or perhaps on the street the previous night. He asked me if I had any spare change I could give him. I reached into my pocket and had none. It is more likely that the previous day’s change was in a dish on the headboard of my bed than in the Salvation Army kettle, but I responded honestly that I didn’t have any change. I could have reached into another pocket and pulled out a bill. I didn’t. I was on my way to meet a friend at a coffee shop. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee if he would come inside with me. He declined. The conversation was cordial and friendly. Later I sat sipping my tea and facing the window looking at the street where the conversation had occurred and wondered if I had failed to help a person in need.

I’m trying to be deliberative in my responses to appeals for funds this year. They may contain opportunities to help - opportunities that I don’t want to pass up.

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 thoughts of boats

Recently there have been several articles and reports about the dating of cave art in Indonesia. The cave paintings are at least 43,900 years old. They depict humanoid figures with animal-like features. Archaeologists are speculating that the paintings may have had religious significance and the mythical beings depicted could be signs of religious imagination at work. Of course much about the paintings is speculation. there is more that we do not know than what we do know. But there is significant sophistication about dating such images and their discovery could signal that more discoveries are possible, perhaps even human-created symbols that are even older.

Unless they find a picture of a boat, however, we will continue to know very little of the origins of watercraft. Virtually all early vessels were made out of materials that readily decomposed, returning to the earth the elements from which they were made. So we are left to speculate.

There is significant evidence that humans have lived near significant bodies of water for as long as we have evidence of human activity. The discovery of the cave paintings in Indonesia is a sure sign of human activity in the area of many islands. It seems conceivable that humans had been traveling over water for some time before the paintings appeared.

The first watercraft were probably little more than logs or branches to which people hung in order to increase their flotation and cross some body of water. Most likely they held onto the flotation device with their arms and kicked with their feet to propel themselves. We do have evidence that at some point, hollowed out logs were used. Perhaps the first one had been naturally hollowed by decay or insects. At some point people used both fire and tools such as the adze to remove the unwanted portion of wood from the tree. Then, through trial and error, most likely, the outside of the log was shaped to make the craft more stable. Bows and sterns were crafted to make the craft more efficient. Paddles were probably at first just branches, but later shaped to increase their effectiveness. Dugout canoes were in use well into the 19th century and replicas of earlier dugout canoes are still made today.

At some point, perhaps inspired by a lack of trees in more northern climates, people began to stretch animal skins over wooden frames to make their craft. Some covered the deck with skins to make the craft warmer and able to tackle larger waves. In places where wood was more plentiful, the practice of making bark canoes became prevalent. These lightweight craft were quick, strong, and light enough to portage, enabling people to travel great distances. When Beverly damaged, they could be left behind and a new canoe made of available materials.

Paddles became oars for balanced propulsion. Craft became larger with multiple people at the paddles or oars. Somewhere someone held a paddle blade to the wind and discovered its power to propel the craft. Animal skins held up on poles followed and the age of sail began. For the largest part of recorded human history travel by sail was the predominant way for people and goods to be transported long distance.

For some of us, the shape and design of a simple bark or skin on frame canoe represents a pinnacle of boat design. Its efficiency, stability, ease of use and other features make it an ideal boat for our use. Those of us who paddle canoes don’t have to bother with motors or complex trailers or special launching ramps. We have no need of elaborate infrastructure to support our sport. We can carry our boats to the water, launch virtually anywhere and take ourselves where we want to go on the flat water of lakes, the moving water of rivers and even around the edges of inland seas and the oceans themselves. To us our craft represent the height of sophistication and elegance.

Of course many of us decide that if one canoe is good, more would be better. My first canoe is a tandem craft, which can easily carry three people or a couple of people with a significant amount of cargo. Next I built a small one-person boat with not much rocker and not too much freeboard. It will handle two in a pinch, but is most capable when paddled solo with little or no cargo. Just me, a camera and perhaps a lunch and I can explore small bodies of water wherever I find them. Then I thought I could improve on that first canoe and built one that is just a bit better. It handles beautifully with one or two paddlers. I can make it dance when I paddle solo from near the center of the boat. Then I decided I needed a decked boat for paddling in bigger waves on the ocean and certain rivers. Then I wanted a whitewater boat that could turn on a dime and pivot on its own center of gravity. You get the picture. Before long I had enough boats that I bought a trailer so I could haul them all at once.

Like the earliest of seafarers, however, the truth is that I can only paddle one boat at a time. Although I plan to continue to make more boats and perhaps will increase the pace of my building in years to come, I am aware that I am at a point where collecting more is not a practical idea at all. One of my boats is already in the basement of my son’s home. It is particularly well suited to children and beginning paddlers. They live next to a lake. It makes sense. Other boats will be seeking new homes as well. An historic canoe that I restored a few years ago needs to remain near its roots and will become property of the Whitney Preserve, named for the boat’s first owner. Other boats are still seeking just the right place for their next adventure. Eventually, some will be allowed to fall apart and the wood in them will rot and go back to the earth. I hope to transfer the stories along with the boats when they pass from my ownership.

Who knows? Perhaps hundreds of years from now, someone will look at one of the boats and speculate about its origins. I hope they are creative and make up good stories.

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!

Electric flight

I grew up with an ear for a particular airplane engine. Although my father had hours and hours of flight behind much smaller engines, such as the Continental C90 flat-four or a Lycoming 150 in Piper Super Cubs, the engines that made music in my ears were the two Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior engines in our Beech C45. That twin beech was the airplane of my dreams when I was a kid. It also was the airplane in which my father flew on longer trips that took him away from home for several days. When I heard the sound of those engines low over town, I knew that dad was home. I even learned to note the sound of the engines as he synchronized them after take off.

There are still a few old airplanes flying around with Pratt 985s. There were a few Stearman. The old biplane trainers originally came with a Continental radial and a few were retrofitted with Jacobs engines, but the ultimate upgrade was to the 450 hp R-985. The R-985 also was the standard engine on the DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver.

A few years ago we were in Vancouver, British Columbia, watching the float planes taking off and landing from the harbor. One of the big operators of sightseeing flights was Harbor Air. They had a fleet that, at the time, was mostly De Havilland Beavers and Otters that had been re-engined with Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprop engines. The jet engines have a high pitched whine that just doesn’t sound the way I think a Beaver ought to sound. The new engines, however, are extending the life of these venerable old airplanes. Float plane work is hard on engines and airframes and Harbor Air has a lot of high-hour airplanes. They also have the capacity to completely rebuild a De Havilland Beaver from the ground up to make it as good as a new airplane. They put shiny paint jobs on their airplanes to encourage the tourists.

At the time, I said to myself, when I have the time and the money, I’m going to go for a ride on one of those Beavers, but I want to make sure that it is behind a R-985. I want to hear the roar of that old radial piston engine a few more times in this lifetime.

I guess I’d better hurry if I want to do that. The world is changing.

Yesterday, in what they claim is the first such commercial flight, Harbor made the first seaplane flight from their Vancouver base in a Beaver that was outfitted with a 750-horsepower magni500 electric propulsion system. The mother, manufactured by Australian company magnet is roughly the same horsepower as the turboprop engines that were dominating the Harbor Air fleet. It will take a while for the airplane and engine combination to become fully certified by Canadian officials, but it was an historic flight.

There are a few compromises with the electric propulsion system. The lithium ion batteries used are heavy, reducing the amount of weight that the plane can fly. the plane, however, does not have to carry any liquid jet fuel, so that weight is saved. And the range of the plane, with reserves, is only about 100 miles, quite a bit less than with either of the other engines. Battery technology is rapidly evolving, producing lighter weight and more capable batteries. Officials of the company hope to have a 250 mile version that carries 6 passengers within a few months.

Harbor Air said that they plan to electrify their entire fleet by 2022. If they achieve their goal, or even come close to it they will have made a huge advance in commercial aviation. Until very recently, electric propulsion has not been seen as viable in commercial aviation applications. Finding a way to make air travel less polluting seemed to be a challenging conundrum. Harbor Air and magniX believe that they have found a clean and efficient way to power their airplanes.

The aviation sector is a significant contributor to the release of greenhouse gases into the environment. Although the bulk of that pollution comes from much larger aircraft such as the transcontinental and transoceanic jets that are used by airlines, general aviation and small commercial operators have not been known for fuel efficiency or a lack of pollution. If you’ve ever watched a R-985 start up, you know that all of that smoke can’t be good for people or animals to breathe. If you are around those planes, as I was when I was younger, you learn where to stand and where not to stand when they are conducting ground operations.

So the Harbor Air seaplane with the electric motor is a huge step forward toward a sustainable commercial flight operation.

Aviation has always been a place of innovation and new ideas. A century ago, any airplane that could reliably and safely fly 100 miles was an impressive piece of technology. There are a lot of carriers that started out with a barnstormer and a WWI surplus airplane that was held together by the creativity and courage of the entrepreneur pilot. Their safety record was none too good. Even by the time my father was starting his business after WWII, he couldn’t obtain life insurance from conventional carriers because of his occupation. A relatively high-priced Lloyds of London policy was the only way he could insure his family and business would have a future if something happened to him.

I’m sure that there will be some historic and nostalgic airplanes, with the old engines around for many years to come. Harbor Air may continue to maintain a couple of their R-985 powered Beavers just for a few old coots and aviation buffs like me. I might yet get that ride behind the rumble. On the other hand, perhaps instead I will be among the first to take a ride behind the first of their electric fleet.

I know my father, given the choice, would choose to be the first to fly behind the new motor not the last to fly behind the old technology.

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!

Getting a Christmas Tree

Here in the United States almost everyone knows the storyline of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The animated television special first aired in 1965 and has been shown every Christmas since. There are several themes to the special. Charlie Brown is a bit ambivalent about Christmas. Lucy advises him to direct the annual Christmas pageant. Everyone makes fun of the short spindly tree that he brings until the true meaning of Christmas works its magic on all of the characters in the story.

I’m not sure that the special actually grasps the totality of the true meaning of Christmas, but it does help people to see through some of the glitter and hype of the season. The cartoon special is genuinely fun to watch with some great animations, including Snoopy playing “crack the whip” with Linus’ blanket.

What has emerged is the designation of a “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.” Whenever there is a tree with a crooked trunk or a lack of needles, or a huge bare spot, we refer to it as a “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.”

We’ve had several Charlie Brown trees over the years. For the first few years of our marriage we didn’t have a Christmas tree of our own. We were students and took a break from our studies to return to our parents’ homes to celebrate. When we moved to North Dakota we started our family tradition of a tree. Because I had grown up near the mountains and our family went up to the mountains to cut our own Christmas tree each year, that was what I expected one should do. The problem is that the corner of North Dakota where we moved isn’t exactly covered in evergreen trees. The solution was a trip of about 50 miles one way to the Slim Buttes in South Dakota, where there are some pretty good stands of Ponderosa Pine. The Slim Buttes are also home to a good bit of gumbo if you catch them at the right time. We didn’t own a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but we had tire chains and that was good enough for the adventure. A couple of years during that time we put together a small group of people and went on a “Gathering of the Greens” expedition to secure Christmas trees for the congregations we served and for the homes of the participants. We’d pack a hearty lunch, fill our thermoses with hot coffee and head out.

The Slim Buttes is a good destination for Charlie Brown Christmas trees. Ponderosa pine are beautiful, long-needled trees, but they don’t have an excess of branches and they tend not to be shaped like a traditional Christmas Tree with a well-rounded, conical set of branches. We learned to set the Christmas tree in a corner so that the best side could be exposed and decorated.

The television special does get that part right. The quality of the celebration isn’t dependent upon the shape of the tree.

The Boise National Forest in Idaho gave us a few more options in terms of tree cutting and we were able to access forested sites a bit closer to our home. Getting the tree was still a major excursion and took a bit of planning. Some of the years that we lived in Boise we purchased a noble fir or a spruce tree from one of the vendors selling trees just for the convenience of being able to obtain the tree in town. It isn’t the same and commercially raised Christmas trees are cut weeks before you take them home, so aren’t as fresh as the ones you cut yourself.

Moving to the Black Hills brought the adventure of going for our Christmas Tree to a new level. We live right next to the national forest. The Black Hills have both Ponderosa Pine and Black Hills Spruce trees in abundance. A tree permit from the forest service allows you to go on a grand adventure and seek just the right tree for your home. In addition, the house we bought in Rapid City has an entryway with the ceiling reaching up to the second story. We had a place for a really big Christmas tree and I went a bit overboard the first year we lived here. The tree was not only so tall that we were standing on the stairs to decorate it, it also was so wide that it pretty much blocked the passage from the living room to the kitchen.

In subsequent years we’ve been happy with a tree that will fit under the 8’ ceiling in our living room. We have had some grand adventures seeking our Christmas tree in the hills, including one December when we went out in below zero temperatures with my mother who was past the age of 80. We ended up cutting a tree that could be seen from the road, something we rarely do, and rushing back to the car because it simply was too cold for my mother to get out and hike. Another year, Susan and I went to get the tree and had the starter in the truck fail 8 miles from the nearest house. We ended up spending the night in the truck before hiking out the next morning and raising the concern of our daughter and several members of our congregation.

We have never been really big on lots of Christmas decorating. We get our our nativity sets and we decorate our tree with lights and our favorite ornaments, collected over years of being married, but we don’t go in for big outdoor displays. We like the lights put up by our neighbors, but Christmas is a busy time for us and we’ve tended to make our family celebrations a bit more low key and private. So when our children grew up and began to spend Christmas away from our home, we downsized even a bit more. Some years we’d get a 6’ tree,

Yesterday was a delightful day for us. We went out and got our Charlie Brown tree. We didn’t go as far from home as some years, and selected a small Ponderosa pine that was growing too close to its neighbors to become a healthy full-sized tree. But the walk in the woods was just right to renew our spirits and remind us of what a wonderful place we live. We’ll decorate our tree and its fresh smell and long needles will keep that memory fresh all season 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!

A Wider Perspective

In addition to reading the online versions of US newspapers, I read the home page of BBC news each day. I often also read other International newspapers online. Interestingly, because of paywalls and article limits, which exist on US news sites, I tend to read more articles on BBC and NPR than on other sites. I suspect that this gives me a bit of a bias in my news reading, but I try to maintain some balance and at least keep up with sources that offer perspectives that are different from my own. I try to at least be aware of what the people I serve are watching and choosing for news sources. I do not, however, watch television very much at all, so I don’t have the died of 24/7 news repetition that plays in the homes of some of the members of my congregation. I’m pretty sure that I have some sense of what our folks watch, but I don’t immerse myself in all of it.

I was struck by the contrast between US and international sources this morning.

The New York Times first five stories have these headlines:
How Giuliani Led Trump to the Brink of Impeachment
What to Watch at Today’s Impeachment Hearing
Saudi Gunman Had Clashed With Instructor at Florida Base
Barr Dives Into the Culture Wars, and Social Conservatives Rejoice
Despite Warnings, Trump Moves to Expand Migrant Family Detention

NPR’s first five stories are:
Biden Rejects Calls For Impeachment Testimony As A Trump Ploy to ‘Divert Attention’
Democrats’ Impeachment Process to Resume Monday - As Will Battles with GOP
FBI Is Investigating Pensacola Shooting as Terrorism
Justice Department Watchdog Report On Russia Investigation Due Monday
Caroll Spinney, Who Played Big Bird And Oscar On ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies At 85

Over at BBC the first five are:
New Zealand volcano eruption kills at least five
Russia banned from global sports for four years
Finnish minister, 34 to be world’s youngest PM
French far-left leader sentenced for intimidation
Saudi Arabia ends restaurant segregation

Outside of the BBCs use of normal sentence structure instead of the US news sources using headline capitalization, there is a very notable difference. It appears that the US news sources are focusing solely on what is happening in our country. If one goes only to US news sources, one might get the impression that the drama in Washington DC and the after effects of a mass shooting were what the whole world is focused upon. Go outside of the US for news coverage, however, and one is quick to discover that there is a lot going on in the world beyond our borders. The contrast is even more striking when you notes that none of the top five stories on BBC are about events in England. In fact all of the 14 top news stories on the BBC home page are about events that occurred outside of England. The site does have a US & Canada tab and a UK tab at the top of the page, where you can access geographically sorted news stories, but the site is designed to bring news of the world to those who visit it regularly.

When you assume that you are the center of the universe, you get a very different view of what is important than when you pay attention to the wider world. The narcissism that is so evident in American politics today seems to be influencing our culture in so many ways. We are losing the ability to see ourselves as the rest of the world looks at us. Although news sources in other countries pay attention to the US and keep a large contingent of reporters here to cover the news in our country, they do not see every whim of every politician to be news.

And if you pay attention to US news sources over time, you get the impression that their attention span is incredibly short. Personally, I am very interested in US immigration policy and stories about what is happening at our borders. I find that many days it is hard to get fresh news on that topic. It is almost as if that is “old news.” Our short attention span is on impeachment hearings this week, but there is some indication that the House of Representatives is planning to finish up its work on that topic before Christmas. We’ll soon be on to something else. Meanwhile, there are some alarming things going on with Immigration. The New York Times does have a story about the Trump administration’s attempts to expand the detention of families and children at US border crossings. Family incarceration always brings to mind images of WWII German concentration camps and US Japanese detention centers. The world does not have a pleasant memory of times when governments have attempted to lock up entire families. There is a definite paranoia in detaining people who pose no threat. Even if the economic threat perceived by some were real, it is a pretty selfish perspective to think that families seeking safety should be incarcerated or sent into the hands of kidnappers just so that they can’t compete for jobs. Our selfishness as a nation, however, is rarely the topic of a news story.

There is a lot going on in the world. And the world is filled with people who are caught up in dramatic events. A cruise ship side tour to a volcano can turn deadly in a matter of minutes. the Olympics can be transformed by a major competitor being banned because of doping. Peace talks aimed at ending the war in the Ukraine are beginning. India is struggling with the definition of citizenship, the democracy protests in Hong Kong continue after six months. There is a lot going on and we aren’t the center of every story.

I plan to continue to read stories from news sources outside of the US. I hope that others will do so as well. Although my calling is to serve a particular people in a particular place, we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves. And God, Creator of the Universe, loves all of the people of this 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!

Soulmate

A friend asked me if my wife is my soulmate. It is not the kind of language we use when talking about our relationship, so I paused a moment before answering. We are very close. We have a wonderful relationship. We have more than 46 years of being married and so many shared experiences. We have similar tastes. We enjoy being together. I know that I am very lucky in love. I met and married the right person. But I am not sure what the term soulmate means.

If you google “soulmate” you’ll get page after page of online dating services. Apparently there are some people who believe that computers are very good at matching people. I know people who met through online dating services and who are pleased with their relationships, so I don’t want to discount the value of such services, but what does a computer know of someone’s soul? What questions could a computer questionnaire ask that would help match the parts of a human being that cannot be seen or measured?

In a book that is older than our marriage, Howard and Charlotte Clinebell explored the multi-faceted nature of intimacy. They wrote of recreational intimacy and work intimacy and a whole list of different ways in which a couple could draw close to one another. Their theory was that some couples are naturally intimate in some ways and less close in other ways. Awareness and counseling can help couples draw closer to one another. The book made sense to me when I first read it and I have used the principles in the book when working with couples who come to me for help with their relationships.

As a seminarian I did an internship at the Wholistic Health Care Center, where my focus was on pastoral counseling. I did a lot of individual counseling, some couples counseling and a bit of family counseling. Most of the couples counseling that I did in that setting was focused on divorce. Couples who came to the center seeking counseling usually had one member who had decided to divorce. It was nearly impossible to dissuade that person from that decision. They had made the decision before coming in to the center. I found the work to be frustrating and a bit sad. I knew that my success rate in that kind of work would be small.

As a pastor, I have tried to engage couples in thinking about their relationship at the beginning, to help them consider questions about their relationship before marriage. That has not met with great success. We were extremely careful with pre-marriage counseling with the first couple whose weeding we officiated, and that relationship didn’t last a year before a divorce. These days the marriage ceremony is generally several years after the beginning of a relationship. Couples who come to the church to be married often have lived together for a long time and have established a lot of their relationship before deciding to marry.

After years of experience as a pastor and after years of being married, I really don’t know if I am much of an authority on marital happiness. I’m tempted to say that part of what makes for a successful marriage is luck. I can’t explain why I met the right person so early in my life and others do not. It feels like extraordinary good fortune that Susan and I found each other when we were young. Having spoken with a lot of people and observed a lot of couples, it seems to me that it is relatively rare for a young person to find the right mate right off the bat. I did.

Beyond that, I guess that it would be fair to say that a couple has to both work at a relationship, though I hesitate to use the term “work.” We have focused a lot of time and attention on our marriage. We have invested a lot of energy in doing things together and sharing our experiences. But it hasn’t seemed like work. I don’t remember every not wanting to be married. I don’t ever remember not wanting to do what I could to make our marriage work.

I don’t use the word soul much. I am a pastor and I understand the concept of spirit and I speak of the spirit regularly, but I am not sure that my theology of spirit encompasses a sense of the soul. Webster defines soul as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life” and adds “the spiritual principle embodied in all human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe.” I think that most people use the term soul to refer to a part of their individual identity that continues on beyond death, and perhaps existed before birth. I have no expertise or experience about what happens before birth or after death, but It seems to me that the essence of all beings is God and I do not know whether or not we can exist apart from God. In the resurrection, it seems to me, we are with God. The love that never dies is the the love of God. I could go on and on trying to wrestle with the concept of soul, but for the purposes of this journal entry, I simply prefer the term spirit to soul.

So I’m not sure if I’ve found my soulmate. I’m not sure that such a thing exists. I have found a person whose spirit animates my spirit, and with whom I have been able to share my life. I have no doubt that I have found the right person and that every day I try to be the right person for her. In her I have found someone so fascinating and so appealing that a lifetime is all too short to explore our relationship.

And I’m less confident than I once was about my ability to help others with their marriages. I now what has worked for us, but that might not be the right thing for others. I do hope, however, that others can find the love and joy and wonder we have found and that they can enjoy it for many years.

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!

Ministry and Community

There are some exciting conversations about theology going on these days. Most of them aren’t happening in the church. Increasingly as I strive to serve a congregation, I find that I need to be aware of the conversations that are occurring outside of the congregation. Part of the reason is that no one can honestly serve a Christian congregation in the United State these days without giving serious thought to the people who aren’t in the room. Whether the congregation is large or small, urban or rural, growing or declining - we all share the reality that our congregations do not reflect the diversity of the communities in which they are located. There are people who are not participating in the church, and that group of people is, according to several Pew studies, the fastest growing category when it comes to religion in America.

So I pay attention to a lot of conversations that don’t take place in the church. I do it enough that some of the members of the congregation I serve have noticed. I’ve had several conversations over the years with congregants who wish I would spend more time visiting in nursing homes and reaching out to elders in our congregation. They are sure that I could make more time for these tasks if I would only spend less time volunteering in community nonprofits and service agencies. They are right that I should be spending more time visiting. They are also right that I could make more time available for visitation by focusing my attention on those people who are members of the congregation and not worrying so much about those who are not members. I try to look for the truth in that kind of conversation and adjust my life in response to the truth I discover. I have adjusted my schedule. I cannot, however, faithfully serve this congregation if I am not serving those who are outside of the membership. And, I am convinced that it is critical that our congregation pay special attention to those who are not attending church if it is to find its future areas of service and ministry.

Outside of the church there are many people who have been injured by the institution. There are folks who have been hurt by church policies, people who have been turned off by dogmatism, those who disagree with church politics, folks who see no future in institutional religion, victims of clergy abuse, and lots of other folks who have no interest in the institution of the church. They may have given up on religion, but they have not stopped thinking about God. They continue to engage in theological thought. And they continue to engage in theological discussion - its just that they don’t do it in front of church folks that often.

It is interesting to me that there are even a lot of academic theological discussions going on in places other than the church. The public radio program and podcast On Being with host Krista Tippett, frequently engages serious academic theologians and discusses topics of God and the relationship of spirituality to every day life. There are several other podcasts to which I listen from time to time that engage academic theology, but are hosted by and engage mostly people who are not church leaders per se.

I have a couple of friends who have degrees in academic theology, biblical studies and other areas of religion who are not active in a local congregation of the church. Some days, when I am frustrated, it seems as if there are parts of our church’s Conference and National settings that are terribly far removed from the everyday life of local congregations. I once asked, at a meeting of national leaders of our denomination, “Do any of you actually go to church anymore?” It was a rhetorical question and unfair of me, but there was a grain of truth in the sense of distance between denominational leaders and the local church.

Serene Jones, who is a minister and who is active in the church, and who recently was interviewed by Krista Tippett on On Being, is the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She makes a big point in her writing and lecturing about the distinction between religion and theology. She may be right that there is plenty going on in religious institutions that is less than thoughtful and less than studied about God and the relationship of God to the people.

She is, like many young theologians, a bit too individualistic for my tastes. I am so firmly rooted in the traditions of discipleship as a communal adventure that I don’t understand the contemporary popularity of one-off individual religion, practiced with a certain purity and consistency of thought, but without the presence of a community. Still, her thought is often brilliant. Her particular theology is deeply rooted in place, somewhat different from many Old Testament writers.

She does, however, redeem herself in my eyes by inviting that all good theology must be public theology. She asks, “What is theology, if it’s not talking about our collective lives and the meaning and purpose of our lives and how we’re supposed to live together and who God is, in ways that are part of our conversation together?”

It is clear that my own theology continues to grow and develop and that I need to keep talking with people outside of the congregation I serve in able to be able to talk in a meaningful way to the people I am called to serve.

It comes down to a basic theological conviction. I really believe that God loves everybody and the world. I really believe that God forgives in mercy everybody and not just a select group of people who agree with me. If God loves and forgives every body, then I am called to take seriously both the congregation that has called me to be its pastor and the community in which it is located.

Advent is a perfect season to remember the “both/and” nature of our calling. The announcement of the Christ child didn’t occur within the walls of established religion. The announcement was made to those who were outside of the immediate faith community. The Good News is for the whole world and not just the folks who are most familiar to us.

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!

Consultants

My sister lives in the town where we grew up. She hasn’t lived there continuously. She has lived in many places since she graduated from high school, but now that she is semi-retired, it works for her to serve as the caretaker of a family property and to live in our old home town. Since she has moved back there, she keeps me informed about the happenings in our town. Many years ago, the high school we attended was abandoned. The building had simply become too much of a liability, Dealing with all of the needed health and safety upgrades would only be part of the expense. The building was filled with stairways and most classrooms and bathrooms were not at all accessible to those who use wheelchairs or walkers. The time had come for a new high school. With the promise of tax payments and an increase in population from a mine in the mountains south of town, the community passed a bond issue and built a new high school.

The old high school remained mostly abandoned, except for the gymnasium, which was repurposed as a community center and continues to be used for community functions.

A few years ago the main part of the old high school caught on fire and burned. The structure was brick, but there was plenty of tinder dry framing lumber in the building to make a spectacular fire. For a while the rubble remained, with a hastily-erected chain link fence around it. Community-minded people chipped in to start the clean up. Some items were salvaged and auctioned to offset part of the cost of clean-up. Some people donated the use of equipment. Others volunteered their time and labor.

As the community worked together to clean up the site, some folks began to dream about what might be done with the site. The block where the high school was located now contained the gymnasium-become-community-center, the public library, the old phone company building which is now a community museum, and the empty lot where the school used to be. The idea of a community park became popular among the folk. Some of the people had visited Rapid City’s Main Street Square and wondered if something like that would work in our home town. More talk continued and a committee was formed to do some research.

Yesterday, I happened to be exchanging text messages with my sister as she was attending a community meeting about the proposed community plaza. It is a concept with which she is familiar, having lived in Portland, Oregon, with its Pioneer Courthouse Square and often visited Rapid City with our Main Street Square. The presenter, however, was making a big sales pitch for community squares. She supposed that there were some people who were less familiar with the concept who needed to be convinced. After a few text exchanges, I began to recognize the “pitch” being made by the presenter at the meeting. The more she wrote to me about him, the more familiar he seemed. I ended up guessing his name. He is from our town and was a big promoter of Main Street Square and several other projects around town.

Later she told me she had left the meeting without being sure what he was trying to sell. I know him and I know the answer. He was selling himself. He believes that he would be a good consultant on the project in my home town. He has hired out as a consultant before and earned some respectable money by doing so.

I have no idea whether or not hiring a consultant for such a project is a good idea, but something strikes me as not quite right about the idea.

Rapid City has a population of 74,421, and a history of steady growth over the past 20 or more years. My home town has a population of 1,674, very nearly the same population as 20 years ago. The ups and downs in population in my home town are directly related to the price of the metals taken from the mine. When the price is low, the mine shuts down. When the price is high it goes back into production. Boom and bust is the cycle of many mining towns.

But that isn’t the only difference between the two towns. There are plenty of other reasons why simply copying an idea from Rapid City won’t work in Big Timber.

I haven’t lived in that town since I was 17, nearly 50 years ago. I don’t know the community, and the members of the community I do know are all old timers. I suspect, however, that the people who live there are intelligent and creative and filled with good ideas. They have a wonderful city park and a lot of other attractions. I’m pretty sure that they are capable of deciding what to do with an empty lot in the center of the town without the need to hire outside consultants, even very good ones who have lots of experience.

The spirit that cleared the lot - volunteers and generous folk - will go a lot farther towards bring about the future the community needs than a desire to behave like a much larger community by hiring consultants.

We somehow keep convincing ourselves that there is great benefit in hiring folks who are not from here to help us, however. Back in South Dakota, our governor decided that we needed to hire an out-of-state advertising firm to design a drug awareness campaign. They did come up with a slogan that I’m pretty sure would not have come from any South Dakota advertising firm. I still don’t know if the ad agency folks are among the large number of Minnesotans who are laughing at South Dakota’s “Meth. We’re on it.” ad campaign. What if the whole thing is just a big South Dakota joke that they tell in other states.

Communities are strongest when they work among themselves to solve their own problems.

I’ve decided that my home town doesn’t need my advice about whether or not to hire a consultant for their project. I won’t be weighing in on the decision one way or another. They’re good folks. They’ll make a good decision.

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!

Paperless?

I came into adulthood in the era when utilities, companies that provided services, and those that extended credit used the U.S. Mail to send an invoice. In most cases the invoices came at the end of the month and it was expected that you paid them within ten days or so. The method of payment was to write a check and use the enclosed envelope to return the payment by mail. I don’t remember the postage rate exactly, but it was probably somewhere between ten and fifteen cents when we began our married life. Large companies had access to lower postage rates by presorting the invoices.

I’m not unhappy that business is making a transition from that system. It is very convenient for me to pay bills electronically by using the computer and the Internet to transfer money from my checking account to the businesses with whom I do business. I like the convenience of automatic payments that are set up in advance and allow for important bills such as our mortgage, insurance and utilities to be paid on time without every experiencing a delay. Having things like that set up also makes it much easier to travel. I don’t have to worry about checking the mail in order to keep up with payments that need to be made.

More and more businesses are getting into electronic and paperless billing systems. Usually it works fairly flawlessly, but occasionally there are small glitches. I’ve been paying attention to the glitches in the area of medical bills lately. We’ve been more aware of medical expenses since my wife’s hospitalization this fall.

We are covered by medicare and we have a very good supplementary insurance to cover other medical expenses. Although we don’t fully understand the system, we are aware that the process begins with the health care provider sending bills to Medicare and to our supplementary carrier. Medicare is the primary insurance, so they respond first. They send the provider a check, but they don’t just pay the bill. They discount the amount billed to another figure. This not only decreases the medicare portion of the payment, but also the amount remaining to be paid by the other carrier. The bill is then processed by the supplementary insurance company which also applies discounts. We receive explanation of benefits statements from Medicare and from the insurance company which, if carefully studied, eventually tell us what portion of the bill we are supposed to pay. A bill that starts out at $1,500, for example may result in a total payment to the provider of perhaps $800, with the portion that we pay being $20. It takes a couple of months or more for all of the paperwork exchanges to be made before we finally know what we are supposed to pay. Although we have signed up for “paperless” billing, we will receive multiple invoices, explanation of benefits sheets, and other pieces of paper in the mail from the insurance company and from the health care providers.

A week ago, I received notice from a health care provider that the process on one bill had been completed and it was time for me to make a payment. The amount was small, less than $30. I immediately used the provider’s online payment method to make a transfer from my checking account and pay my portion of the bill. I was pleased with how well the process went and how easy it was to make a payment. The amount I paid was exactly the amount the explanation of benefits report from the insurance company said I should pay. Then, yesterday, I received a paper statement from the provider in the mail for the amount that I paid electronically. Since I have already paid the bill, I filed the statement together with the explanation of benefits and a hand-written note to myself with the date of the electronic payment. I know that the provider will catch up with the payment eventually.

I’m a bit annoyed with the simple fact that “paperless” doesn’t mean “without paper.” There is still a lot of paper involved in the process. With many providers it doesn’t even mean less paper. But I am more deeply troubled by the huge inefficiency of the system. I know that with the costs of paper, envelopes, mail and especially the costs of people to operate the computers, it cost the provider way more than $30 to collect the fee from me. I don’t know what portion of medical costs is wrapped up in the inefficiencies of the billing and payment system, but I know it is a lot. Our local hospital, for example, sends statements from Denver, which means that they have contracted with an independent business just for the process of billing and collections. Those services are not inexpensive.

It is virtually impossible to determine how much this inefficiency costs consumers in part because there is no one in the system who can explain the amounts that are billed. It appears that initial statements are simply huge numbers created in order to make income from receiving a partial payment. As valuable as my wife’s trip to the hospital was, it probably never had a fair market value of over $100,000 which was the number for just the hospitalization that appeared on the first statement. The process doesn’t begin with real numbers, just fantasy numbers. No one can say why that number was chosen, as opposed to one that might vary as much as 50 or 60 percent. I’m guessing that the hospital spends more than 10% of its operating budget on the costs of negotiation and billing. That would be more than $10,000 on a single hospitalization. It is, of course, only a guess because there is no one who actually knows the real numbers. Hospitals don’t operate in the arena of real numbers.

So we have a very thick file of paper to document our encounters with the medical providers. Thank goodness we’ve gone paperless. I can’t imagine what it would be like if we weren’t using their “paperless” electronic billing system. We’d need a separate filing cabinet just for two weeks over the end of September.

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!

Too many deaths

At a board meeting yesterday, we were discussing the statistics for our community for the preceding month. Four deaths by suicide isn’t high enough to make us think it is unusual any more. In fact, our average is slightly higher than that number. After our conversation, as I was driving home, I felt increasingly alarmed at our attitude during our discussion. We may be becoming callous about the deaths of our neighbors. Death by suicide is so common that those of us who pay attention to our statistics have lost our sense of outrage. I don’t want to get to the point where I am no longer shocked by unnecessary death. I’m not saying that every death by suicide is preventable. I don’t think we possess the knowledge and resources to prevent every suicide death. But we ought to be able to make a difference and decrease the number of deaths.

I still run into people who believe that the United States has the world’s longest life expectancy. For those who haven’t looked at the data, it is easy to assume that our country is Number 1 on everything. But that simply isn’t true. For decades U.S. life expectancy has been below that of other advanced countries. And that gap is increasing dramatically. The widening “death gap” is the result in increased mortality among working-age American, largely due to what has been deemed “deaths of despair”: drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol. As the number of deaths from these causes rises, overall life expectancy for Americans has fallen every year for decades.

These deaths are not evenly distributed throughout the United States, however. A 2018 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association provided information on state by state changes in health and life expectancy. The divergence among states is striking. In 1990, Texas and Florida had higher life expectancy than New York and about the same as California. Today those two states are far behind. Life expectancy in New York and California continues to rise while it is falling in Texas and Florida. Our state, South Dakota, parallels Texas and Florida. Our health statistics were behind more populated regions of the country already and we have continued to see dramatic increases in deaths of working-age adults.

It is difficult to explain the divergence in the various states. Public policy is part of the picture. States that have expanded Medicaid and have taken action to decrease the number of uninsured people have seen increases in overall health. Our state has not taken any action to address those without insurance and remains near the top of states when it comes to the percentage of our population who are without insurance.

Being without insurance is not simply a matter of having less contact with health care providers, which is definitely true. It also means that we lead the nation in bankruptcies as a result of unpaid medical bills. The financial devastation of families due to the inability to pay for health care could be a factor in the increase in despair and a subsequent increase in death by addiction and suicide. Those connections, however, are largely speculative. Little or no solid research has been conducted into the reasons behind the disparity in states when it comes to increasing mortality.

Conservative leaders have argued that the rise in mortality is caused by the lack of traditional values. Attorney General William Barr has blamed what he calls “militant secularists.” He says that secularists attack traditional values and that is what lies behind soaring suicide rates, rising violence and a deadly drug epidemic. The statistics, however, don’t back him up, however. European nations, which are far more secularist than the United States have not see a comparable rise in deaths of despair and a decrease in life expectancy that the United States has experienced. And within the United States, the states that appear to be more urban and secular have better statistics than those with more traditional values. South Dakota is a conservative state. We are about as conservative politically as a state can get. Our legislature and our people have resisted attempts to increase secularism. Last year our state legislature mandated that every public school in the state display the national motto, “In God We Trust.” The law specifies the size of the letters and the locations where the motto is to be displayed. It is too soon to have comprehensive statistics, but so far there is no evidence that the displays have had any effect on rising teen suicide and drug-related deaths. South Dakota leads the nation in methamphetamine addiction among youth 12 to 17 years of age. We remain near the top when it comes to teen suicide.

Much attention has been given to South Dakota over state spending on an advertising campaign aimed at raising awareness of meth addiction. I’ve already focused on the campaign in a previous journal entry. Despite the lack of educational theory behind the slogan, “Meth. We’re on it.” and despite the lack of evidence that advertising has any impact on addition rates or treatment options, there is a grain of truth in the intended double meaning of the slogan. Addiction affects all of the citizens of our state, not just those who are using the drugs.

What frightens me about the spending of so much money on the advertising campaign is that I believe it is based in an inaccurate analysis of the case of the problem. It encourages people to continue in the belief that addiction, mental illness and suicide are somehow the result of a lack of moral education. These evils are rampant in our society and deeply seated in our state. They are not, however, signs of moral weakness or of a lack of religious training.

Our legislature has consistently taken actions that have not had any impact on the life expectancy of our people. They may be aware that we have a problem, but their analysis and response to that problem has been misguided at the least.

At the worst, it has been dead wrong.

Unfortunately, we’ve gotten all too used to the deaths.

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 defense of wordiness

In a month I will be writing my annual report to the congregation. It will be the 42nd annual report to a congregation that I have written in my career. Not long ago I read an article on the design of annual reports for the corporate world and the article suggested that a report should consist of about 150 words. The rationale was that people rarely will stay focused and read a report that is longer than 150 words. I was dismayed at that thought. I don’t know for sure but I guess that my average report to the congregation I serve is in the neighborhood of a thousand words. I have a good feel for what 1000 words feels like because that is the rough length of my journal essays. I came up with the idea of writing a 1000 word personal essay every day a dozen years ago. I wanted to teach myself more about writing, feeling that I was at a point in my life where making a transition from being a contract writer to writing my own material was in order. Previously, I had done quite a bit of professional writing on contract. Publishers hire writers to produce material and specify the length of the content. I wrote educational resources to contract for years The idea of a 1000 word goal for my personal essays came from the proverb, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When I started my journal, I would post a single picture and a 1,000 word essay each day. I enjoy photography, but haven’t been as disciplined about my photography as I have about my writing. As a result, I often do not publish a picture with my essay.

A customer service representative of the company that hosts my web site was amazed at the amount of data in my journal. A dozen years of 1,000 word essays every day adds up to quite a bit of data. That representative said that most people make blog posts in the 100-word range. I decided to stop calling my journal a blog and have been referring to it as a journal since that conversation. I don’t want to mislead people who aren’t interested in reading that much.

I do, however, want to defend my use of words.

I think that one of the problems with the lack of civility in our society these days is that we don’t take time to really understand other people. We want short identifiers that will quickly allow us to categorize others. Is this person with us or against us, friend or foe? Of course there are lots of other options. The world does not consist of only two categories. We can have allies with whom we disagree on many subjects. Human beings are complex. When we reduce others to simple categories, we fail to understand them. Conversation looses nuance and subtlety. I think we need to teach people to use language more fully.

When I was a student, the common assignment was a 10-page paper. A ten page paper contains around 5,000 words. Of course you can get by with fewer words by using longer words and more than a few college students expanded their vocabulary in order to fill the assigned pages. Ten pages gives enough space to explore a topic. It allows for consideration of opposing viewpoints and discussion of small differences. A ten page paper allows enough room to demonstrate that research has been conducted and the field of literature on a topic has been explored.

Ten page papers may still exist, but they are nowhere near as common in college work as once was the case. I recently spoke to a professor in a college of education who said, “I’m lucky to get two or three pages out of my students. If I assign more, it will just be a jumble of things cut and pasted from the Internet. I don’t have students who are capable of writing 10 pages of original content.” The students to whom he was referring are the future teachers in our public schools. It is a depressing thought.

Social media seems to be redefining not only the way we speak to one another, but the way that we think. Most famous is twitter, which began its service by allowing only 140 characters. The character limit was based on the limit for a text message at that time. It isn’t possible to communicate a complex thought in 140 characters. The limit produced a strange adaptation of language. According to the company, when the limit was 140 characters, the average tweet was only 34 characters. People developed abbreviations, known as “text speak.” “u r” replaced you are; “b4” replaced before; “sry” replaced sorry. Of course the last one wasn’t used very much because manners and politeness went out the window with the lack of characters. People didn’t use tweets to apologize. They didn’t waste characters on please or thank you, either.

When the limit on the number of characters in a text message, Twitter doubled the allowable number of characters in a tweet. The current limit is 280 characters. Most messages sent, however, are much shorter than the limit. In fact, the company says that the average character count has gone down to 33 characters since the new limit was announced.

Very little communication can be accomplished in 33 characters. (That sentence would read: “Very little communication can be ac” in 33 characters).

If we are to maintain civil society and civil conversations, we need more than aphorisms and tweets. Human beings are complex and we are capable of complex thought. We can make subtle distinctions, given the opportunity. So far, I have only used my Twitter account to point towards more substantive ideas. I will continue to defend longer and more complex modes of writing. I will continue to read books and other long forms of writing. And you can count on my annual report to be even a bit longer than usual this year.

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!

My wanderlust

“Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures.” (Lovelle Drachman)

Our language has a lot of words borrowed and adapted from other languages. That’s how we got the word, “wanderlust.” In its original German it means a love of hiking. In its contemporary usage in our language it is the desire to travel far and wide. I seem to be affected by it. From as early as I can remember, I loved going on trips. With pilots for parents, there were frequent opportunities. Whether it was a routine check of Yellowstone National Park or a charter to Oregon, my father kept the airplanes ready and when the weather cooperated we took some really grand adventures. Our whole family flew from our home in Montana to Indianapolis, Washington DC, Chicago, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle among other destinations closer to home. When we graduated from seminary, we spent six weeks traveling with my parents and sister and her husband in Europe, driving around in a rented van and visiting friends, many of whom had visited our home.

I come by the wanderlust naturally. My parents loved to travel. They visited Japan and Taiwan and New Zealand and Australia. They took trips to the Bahamas and Bermuda. They wandered around Hong Kong. After my father died, my mother toured China, the Philippines and Sri Lanka on her bicycle. She also took cycling trips around Montana and did a New England tour as well. Later she went on several cruises and traveled with her brass choir to Germany. She had a list of possible future destinations that she kept with her and talked about for all of her life. Had her health permitted, she would have traveled even more.

I am constantly thinking of and planning trips. Some of them are only dreams. They involve destinations and modes of travel that I cannot afford and are trips that I probably will never take. All the same, we have been fortunate enough to travel to Costa Rica several times and we had a wonderful trip to Australia with our adult children in 2006. We’ve been to England and made two trips to Japan. And we enjoy hitching up our trailer and exploring the northwest. One of the kayaks I built has been in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Bay of Fundy and the Salish Sea. It has been paddled in Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron as well as the Yellowstone and the Missouri and countless little lakes and ponds one the way.

Not long ago I read a piece published on the BBC website that reminded me that this desire to explore and travel is not universal. While some of us find travel and adventure to be a huge part of our lives, there are others who focus their energy and attention on staying at home. They may travel, but their true joy is in remaining where they are rooted.

Scientific research has discovered a variant of the DRD4 gene, the gene that affects sensitivity to the near sensor dopamine, a chemical that is involved in the perception of pleasure. Dopamine research has produced significant progress in treating illnesses as varied as Parkinson’s and bipolar disorder. It isn’t as simple as having the 7R variation of the DRD4 gene means that one has a craving for travel. People with that variation, however, are less sensitive to some of the simple pleasures that give others satisfaction. While one person might feel intense pleasure with a taste of chocolate, a walk in the park, lingering with the newspaper or a favorite coffee, another person might be able to recognize the value of those things, but not feel the deep pleasure experienced by the first person. Those with the 7R variation seem to need more dramatic stimulation in order to experience the same level of pleasure. Those with the 7R variation are more likely to be risk taker and thrill seekers. Those people will go farther than others in order to get those increased dopamine levels.

I have never had genetic testing. I don’t know whether or not I have the 7R variation. I don’t seem to be attracted to the most extreme forms of risk taking. I’ve never had the desire to parachute, an experience both my son and my brother have had. I’ve never been attracted to bungie jumping. I got great pleasure from staying home with our children. I enjoy paddling in the same lake over and over again. I never tire of the sunrise view from my home.

We know that genes don’t determine one’s personality. All sorts of different factors play into the personalities we have. Relationships can affect the amount of travel and the amount of staying at home one experiences. One’s career can have a big impact on the opportunities for travel. Furthermore, the 7R variation has been linked to addiction, a short temper, and delinquent behavior. I don’t think I’m especially prone to any of those things. Of course all humans have addictions, but my primary addiction is to my family and perhaps to some of the gadgets in my life. I drink perhaps a half dozen glasses of wine a year. I gave up caffeine without a big problem. I did have a rather short temper when I was younger, but I’ve learned to control that without problems and I don’t think people would describe me as having a short fuse these days. I haven’t been one to get in trouble with authority, where inside of the church or in my life in the community.

If I do have the 7R variation, the desire to travel and explore seems like a much better expression of that variation than struggling with addiction or destroying relationships with a violent temper.

I suspect that my urge to travel may be more psychological than genetic, however. With the Internet and other forms of instant communication, I am constantly aware of what others are doing. Most of our recent travel adventures have been to visit family who are in distant places. I am inspired by the lives of my colleagues, who live in many different places around the globe. The church is a world-wide fellowship and I am continually aware of ministries and missions taking place in countries and on continents I have never visited. I only have to open up YouTube to view another camping trip or canoe trip or a trek to a very remote part of the globe. My mind wanders even when I am at home.

Jack Kerouac wrote, “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that damn mountain.”

I think I may have a few more mountains in my system before I really settle down for good.

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

Snow go or no go

About 30 years ago we were in Portland, Oregon. My sister lived there at the time and her home was on a hill. Portland experienced an ice storm. The freezing rain stuck to everything and coated the roads. I put tire chains on our family van and pulled it out of my sister’s driveway. I could get some momentum, but I couldn’t steer the van. I got it stopped without hitting anything and got out some cable chains and put on the front tires. So-equipped I loaded my family into the van and headed out for the 400+ mile drive home. Within 30 miles we had the chains off of the van and encountered no further problems.

As we drove I told our children the story of another time, years before, when we were living in Chicago and a blizzard shut down the city. I had tire chains, put them on my car and was able to get to a motel where my sister was staying. The next morning we proceeded to show her the city. It was amazing the way people had abandoned cars in the middle of the highways. There were plenty of drifts, but we were able to get around without big problems.

I’ve always had pretty good equipment for getting around when inclement weather occurs and I haven’t been held back much. However, there is a need for a bit of common sense to go with the equipment we have.

Perhaps as a result of my experiences, I am very reluctant to cancel events when the weather turns harsh. Today is another morning when I’m facing a decision. I could have made the decision last night. A lot of churches in our community did. There are plenty of cancellation notices already posted. But I knew that the winds would go down overnight. I was right. It isn’t as bad this morning as it was last night. I have the snow cleared from my driveway except for a bit that blew in overnight. I have chains on all four wheels of my pickup, which has pretty high clearance and four wheel drive. We could get to the church.

The snow plow has just made its first run up Sheridan Lake Road and it will be cleared soon.

On the other hand, there is a Whispering Pines rescue truck stuck in the ditch across the road from our home. The car they were trying to pull out of the ditch when they slid in is also still there. It is going to take several hours for our city to dig out after a full day of snow and blowing. The drifts in our yard are the biggest I can remember in 25 years of living here.

I used to say that we trust people to make their own decisions. If I can get to the church, I’ll go there and we’ll have worship for whoever shows up. This morning as I contemplate the right thing to do, I am questioning that approach. Technically, there is still a “no travel advised” order for the city. It is likely that will be lifted before the 9:30 start time for worship. On the other hand, when I think of who might come to worship, I wonder if I want to take responsibility for those who might not have the right equipment to venture out.

We’ve already made the decision to cancel our bus service. The driver doesn’t think he will be able to get the bus out in time. Our choir director lives out in the country and his equipment probably isn’t heavy enough to conquer the drifts. It is unlikely that he can make it. We aren’t likely to have enough people to have a choir anyway.

Yet, when I think of it, I know that the church parking lot is likely to have been plowed well before worship. The plowing bill will be big. It seems a bit of a shame to go to all of that work for a cancellation.

It is easy for me to argue both sides of the issue.

This is likely to be the last winter that I’m the one calling the shots on this type of decision. On the other hand, it is early for us to be contemplating closings to winter storms. There could be a lot more decisions that need to be made before summer comes. We have had to cancel worship in May due to a spring blizzard once before.

Within an hour or so, I will suck it up, make a decision and we’ll get busy getting the word out. I can change the outgoing message on the church phone. I can send an email “blast” to church members who have subscribed. We can post on social media. We can call the various church leaders who have responsibilities. We have already been in touch with the family who have a baptism scheduled for this morning and know what the alternate dates are if we cancel.

If we do cancel, I know that by 9:30, I’ll be a bit antsy. The weather is supposed to be sunny. We’ll be dug out. The snow plow will have made a trip up our street. There will be nothing that really prevents me from getting out.

If we do decide to go forward, I know that attendance at church will be light. 9:30 is just too early to get dug out if you don’t start digging until 8 or so. We probably won’t have a choir. We might not have an organist. I have a clear memory of a day when we proceeded with worship because of a scheduled baptism. The family of the baptized were almost the only ones who showed up. I picked up the organist and give her a ride to church and back home afterward. We didn’t have a choir. It was not one of our grander or most glorious worship experiences. On the other hand the family of the baptized will never forget it.

Either way, I’ll be second guessing the decision that I make. Making decisions is part of my job. It goes with the territory. But it is one area of my work life where experience doesn’t seem to help. These decisions don’t get any easier.

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!